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Enns and Inerrancy

Peter Enns has an essay up at Patheos reporting that the ETS discussion of inerrancy was not the impassioned confrontation he suggests many expected. He seems to want us to be surprised; but what would really be surprising would be the appearance of any passion at all at any ETS panel discussion. He is correct, though—for the reason I just gave—in saying that the matter would probably be better discussed in a pub than in an ETS panel. As those who have followed the controversies surrounding Enns’ teachings will know, his leading theme is the denial of inerrancy justified through use (egregious misuse, in our view) of “incarnation” as a trope, and he takes his report as occasion to repeat himself on this point. A full consideration of that question is beyond the scope of this post, and we have treated aspects of the question is some detail elsewhere (see here and here).

But in this essay at Patheos, he lists a number of reasons why we shouldn’t think that God might write a book which is inerrant where it intends to report matters of fact as well as moral and spiritual truth, and I want to look more closely at one of them since I think it shows us something about Enns’ method:

To illustrate I referred to several of the passages in the Old Testament where Israel’s God Yahweh is referred to as one among a number of gods–e.g., Psalm 82, Psalm 95, Job 1-2 (Yahweh is chairman of a heavenly council of gods) Exodus 12:12 (Yahweh fights against others gods, here Egyptian gods), Deuteronomy 32:8 (where the high god Elyon assigns to Yahweh the people of Israel as his allotment–though English translations do not reflect this). My point here is how does an inerrant Bible, wherein God only speaks “truth,” fit with these descriptions of God? To restrict inerrancy to what the Bible explicitly “teaches or affirms,” as defenders of inerrancy typically do in these cases, does not help because these texts most certainly “affirm” something about God quite clearly.

My point is that these descriptions of God are ones that the Israelites believed to be the case, at least at some point in their history. They do not give us final, absolute, inerrant information about God but contextually expressed beliefs about God. Serious historical study of the Bible has helped us to understand the ancient, tribal world where these texts were produced. The New Testament helps us see that we are to move beyond the tribal thinking that portrays God in these ways.

Enns never gives us the principles which would explain why those descriptions of God are false; he simply assumes them to be false. What’s going on here seems to be this: Enns assumes that monotheism is plainly contradicted by these passages, but, since monotheism is true, the Biblical statement is therefore false. QED, and we just have to grow up, be rational, and deal with the fact of an errant Bible.

Now, if he had a passage that said, “In the beginning, before all things, born of themselves, were El and Moloch, equal in strength” he might have something. But he has nothing remotely like that on evidence here. Let’s look at these passages.

First, it’s worth noting that many of the ancient Fathers, and the mainstream Protestant tradition, have primarily regarded Yahweh as the name of the Son, especially in theophany to Israel. That El, the Father, is God of all was never in question; the Son, however, had a unique covenantal relation to Israel in the ancient economy of salvation. And I think it safe to say that the Fathers and the Reformers were closer in their frame of mind to the divine scribes of the Bible than many moderns are, whose conception of monotheism is a legacy of Kant, Harnack, and Schweitzer. This, I think, is a claim which could be supported by even an unbelieving historian. But Enns is taking his stand on what he thinks the Bible says, and I do not want to oppose him by an appeal to the tradition of the church, but rather, by letting the Bible speak. So let’s not read these passages as Harnack might, nor even as traditional believers do– let’s just read them as texts, and see what happens.

In Psalm 82, we have an exaltation of Yahweh among the gods; but that “gods” is an ancient literary convention for kings is a commonplace, and Enns must certainly know this, but he doesn’t share this knowledge with his readers. The gist of Psalm 82 is that the divine King of Israel, Yahweh, renders judgement among human kings despite their angelic pretensions. Nowhere here is any kind of polytheism– wherein the same essential divinity is genuinely shared between multiple separate beings– asserted.

In Psalm 95, we have the juxtaposition of the God Who made all things with the gods who, the rhetoric of the Psalm implies, were made.  Whether in Psalm 95 the Lord is speaking through David about simple idols, which are fictions, or actual human kings with pretensions to divinity, or actual demons, doesn’t make much of a difference here; He might well be speaking of all three. The point is that nowhere is any essential continuum of Yahweh and “gods” being asserted; they are clearly stated to be incommensurables by the Psalmist.

In Job 1-2, the Scripture is clearly speaking of of angels– “sons of God”– and why Enns would think it a metaphysical falsity that God speaks to angels, and they to Him, is beyond me– and in fact, beyond all classical Christian philosophers. But without the supposition that it is a falsity, Enns’ point does not stand. And again, no essential continuum is being asserted in this passage between God and His angels, since they are called God’s “sons,” not his “brothers.”

In Exodus 12:12, “gods” can mean either demonic powers lording it over Egypt, human nobles pretending to be incarnations of those in some way, or, likeliest of all, both. That the Son of God, Yahweh, in historic theophany, waged war against those, is indeed asserted by the Bible; that Yahweh and those gods are the same kind of thing is nowhere asserted. Scriptural monotheism is nowhere compromised here.

In Deuteronomy 32: 8, El Elyon gives Yahweh Israel as His allotment. This is no problem at all for classical Trinitarian and covenantal doctrine. The Father, in the economy of salvation, gives the manifest Son Israel as His allotment during the time of the ancient dispensation, until the Son would take flesh and make all mankind “Israel” in Himself. Enns might think a Trinitarian and economic reading of the passage tendentious, but he’d have to do some work to show why we ought to trust him on this point instead of the long tradition of Christian exegesis, which has many learned defenders even now. In any case, the passage does not stand as the clear contradiction of monotheism Enns presumes it to be.

In all these, Enns is equivocating on “god” in order to make his point, but no lexical, grammatical, or rhetorical aspect of the text supports him in any way. Yes, the texts do tell us what Israel believed, but Enns gives us no good textual reason, or any other kind of reason, to conclude that they do not also give us “final, absolute, inerrant information” about God, though “final” would have to be qualified, since the texts in question sometimes discuss divine interventions in time. The New Testament, so far from moving beyond ancient Hebrew “tribal” conceptions of God, instead presupposes the Old Testament revelation at every point and in every way.

Enns says his “incarnational model” would allow “an ancient Bible to look ancient rather than protect the Bible from how it behaves.”

But it is the thoroughly modern liberal-Protestant assumptions apparently held by Enns which want to protect the Bible from how it behaves, by ruling out, from the start, ancient truth as being simply ancient mistake. But our Book is wilder than that, and will not be put in such a cage.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.

4 replies on “Enns and Inerrancy”

Michael Heiser’s work on the divine council is interesting; his conclusions don’t all fall in line with yours but he would say that Enns is equivocating on ‘god’, and part of the problem is reading monotheism (in the modern sense you suggest) back into the bible.

Well said. I find it ironic that people like Enns claim they are just being “honest” with the text, when closer examination reveals them to be anything but.

I posted a comment on Enns’ blog about there being other divine beings in the Old Testament. I for one think that passages like Deut. 32 and Psalm 82 are referring to supernatural beings other than YHWH, but they are created beings. There are images of the divine council in the OT, and it seems but it seems to me that this does not effect the creator/creature distinction, because even the gods are not YHWH because he created them. In terms of ontology they are in the same category as us… creatures. Michael Heiser has some good work on this topic.

In other words these passages do not cause a problem for inerrancy. The only thing we may need to do is add one other type of being to our ontology. I am not 100% certain that these passages teach the Divine Council motif well known in the ANE, but if they do, then fine.

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