Several years ago, a number of my friends confessed to me that they no longer identified with the Messianic Jewish movement. Each of them highlighted their encounter with modern biblical criticism as a significant factor in their decision. The pre-scientific features of the Bible’s origins stories, the presence of human agendas in biblical histories are just a few observations that had gradually unraveled their belief in the Bible as inspired divine revelation. I found myself nodding in familiar agreement as we discussed various insights from modern critical scholarship. However, when it came to their either-or dichotomy between modern biblical criticism and belief in Scripture’s divine origin, I found myself desiring a different path.

In Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, biblical scholar Peter Enns claims to chart just such a path. While evangelicals like Enns have engaged the claims of modern critical Bible scholarship before his 2005 book, Enns characterizes these responses as overly defensive and neglectful of the broader doctrinal implications. Enns claims that in attempting to defend the Bible’s historical and scientific accuracy via modernism’s standards, evangelicals actually colluded with some of the Bible’s harsher critics in enshrining certain presuppositions about how God must necessarily have communicated – presuppositions which have created the subtitular “problem of the Old Testament” for evangelicals. Enns subdivides this “problem” into three categories: the Old Testament’s similarity to other ancient literature, its theological diversity, and the way it is handled by New Testament authors. Arguing that evangelicals must allow the Bible itself to dictate the form taken by divine revelation, Enns appeals to what he calls the incarnational parallel – “as Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible”1 – with the hope that this analogy’s roots in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation will encourage evangelicals to take a more open stance towards critical scholarship while retaining “a vibrant and reverent doctrine of Scripture.”2

In the first section of the book, Enns shows how historical texts from the ancient Near East undermine past beliefs about the Bible’s uniqueness and then explains how this need not be an impediment to faith in divine inspiration. In the past, interpreters inferred remarkable scientific prescience in the Bible’s origins stories and ascribed unmatched moral superiority to the laws of the Pentateuch. But creation myths such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish, flood stories like that of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh, wisdom sayings like the Instruction of Amenemope, and other ancient historiographies and law codes show that the Old Testament is very much a part of the ancient world. According to Enns, rather than face these similarities head-on, evangelicals have in many cases responded to this evidence by magnifying the uniqueness of the Bible’s stories and laws while failing to adequately account for similarities. Citing the incarnational parallel, he calls for evangelicals to stop leveraging modern standards of scientific accuracy and objectivity on the Bible and accept that the God who took on time-bound human flesh also spoke in ways ancient peoples could understand.

In the second section of the book, Enns tackles the topic of diversity in the Old Testament.3 He begins by asking why evangelicals are disturbed by the idea of such diversity, since “with all [its] variety in historical context, purpose, and genre, variety in content should be one of the first things we expect to see in the Old Testament.” Enns shows that this is indeed the case, rehearsing examples from wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Chronicles), laws (the wording of the Ten Commandments; laws concerning sacrifice, slaves, and Gentiles), and theological perspectives (“One God or Many Gods?,” “Does God Change His Mind?”). For Enns, the reason for evangelical discomfort with diversity is best articulated in a saying from one of his former professors: “For Jews, the Bible is a problem to be solved. For Christians, it is a message to be proclaimed.”4 Enns argues that Christians need to move away from seeing the Bible as an evangelistic tract designed to convince unbelievers and towards seeing the Bible as first and foremost a book for the family of God. Since diversity is an inherent feature of this book and not something imposed upon it by outsiders, Enns recommends that evangelicals see this diversity as “bearing witness to God’s revelation” by learning to find Scripture’s unity not in “the surface content of passages taken in isolation” but “in Christ himself, the living word” who becomes “the starting point from which to view and respect these tensions.”5

In the third section of the book, Enns reviews how the New Testament authors handle Old Testament passages in a way which seems to disregard the original context and authorial intent.6 This phenomenon causes evangelicals discomfort because undermining the objective meaning of a given text opens the door to a variety of (potentially fanciful) interpretations. Evangelicals have typically responded in one of three ways: (1) arguing that the apostles really are being faithful to the context of the text being cited; (2) claiming that the apostles were not trying to “interpret” the text, only to “apply it”; or (3) claiming that since the apostles were inspired, they had the freedom to interpret in whatever ways they felt led. Enns finds these arguments unconvincing, arguing instead that (a) the New Testament authors did not feel bound to interpret texts consistently with their original authorial intent, (b) that they were nevertheless making claims about what the texts meant, and (c) that we can and should follow their example today.

To substantiate the first two parts of his claim, Enns surveys literature from the Second Temple Period,7 illustrating that the hermeneutical methods employed in Second Temple literature are the same ones used by the authors of the New Testament. Surveying apostolic references to extra-biblical interpretative traditions,8 Enns claims that these texts “represent the biblical authors’ own understanding of these Old Testament episodes,”9 and he presents evidence that this too is consistent with Second Temple biblical interpretation.

As for the claim that we should follow the apostolic example today: Enns believes that restricting ourselves from using apostolic methods would be tantamount to rejecting apostolic influence over one of the most fundamental tasks in the life of the church. The solution, according to Enns, is to recognize that the apostles did not begin with methodology and arrive at Messiah. Rather, the revelation of Messiah opened their eyes to new ways of reading Scripture. For the apostles, “the methods exist to serve the goal.”10 Enns advocates following the apostles’ way of reading Messiah into the text by adopting their hermeneutical goal – the death and resurrection of Messiah – while exchanging “a worked-out, conscious application of rules and steps to arrive at a proper understanding of a text” for “an intuitive, Spirit-led engagement of Scripture, with the anchor being not what the Old Testament author intended but how Messiah gives the Old Testament its final coherence.”11 Enns calls this the christotelic dimension of apostolic hermeneutics. Readings of passages whicih highlight the Christian church in the story of the Old Testament he calls ecclesiotelic.12

Enns concludes Inspiration and Incarnation by admitting that the answers he puts forward are provisional and need further working out. However, he maintains that “[t]he evidence we have at our disposal [concerning these biblical texts] transcends such labels as liberal and conservative,”13 and, as such, evangelicals cannot continue to ignore their weightier implications. Reminding his readers that “fear cannot drive theology,” Enns ends with a call to evangelicals to replace a culture of suspicion with an atmosphere of humility, patience, and love.

Despite Enns’s optimism, Inspiration and Incarnation had a very controversial reception among evangelicals. Some concluded that Enns’s thesis undermined Reformed views of Scripture,14 and, after several years of dialogue,15 Enns reached a mutual agreement with the board of Westminster Theological Seminary to leave his position there. Others criticized Enns for overemphasizing the human dimension of both the incarnation and the Bible. According to Enns, some of these criticisms relied heavily on presuppositions about what the Bible must be, evidencing an ironic failure to engage certain key parts of Enns’s argument.16

I found Inspiration and Incarnation to be an approachable overview of the challenge modern critical scholarship of the Bible poses to evangelical faith. It could be a great help to the broader Messianic Jewish movement which is just beginning to grapple with these issues and whose moorings are still largely within evangelicalism. Because Enns covers a lot of ground in a relatively small volume, those who are more skeptical about his particular claims will likely be unconvinced. Enns anticipates this challenge and provides a “Further Reading” section at the end of each chapter recommending additional resources to consult on the topics at hand.

Readers sensitive to Jewish-Christian relations may be dissatisfied with Enns’s appeal to the incarnational analogy, however. If Christians must reason backward from the incarnation of Messiah to justify their belief in the inspiration of Scripture, where does that leave Jews wrestling with the similar moral and ethical problems in the biblical text?

Enns clearly does not intend to undermine Jewish readings of Scripture. In several places he holds up the Jewish interpretative tradition as a model for his evangelical readers, praising it for its inclusion of diverse perspectives on interpretative issues.17 Enns also calls evangelicals to embrace the communal nature of biblical interpretation in a way which parallels Judaism’s trans-historical interpretative tradition.18 These appeals should resonate with Messianic Jewish readers.

But Enns’s proposed christotelic and ecclesiotelic readings may raise concerns from those following the emerging post-supersessionist paradigm of New Testament interpretation. Messianic Jews regularly appeal to inconsistencies between what Christians traditionally suppose the New Testament to be saying about the Old Testament versus more literal (i.e. “Jewish”) readings whose viability has been bolstered by growing insight into the apostles’ continued social context in Second Temple Judaism. Calls for mutual understanding notwithstanding, Enns’s assumption that Messiah is the goal of Scripture could easily be commandeered to reinforce a supersessionist hermeneutic within evangelical circles. Similarly, fostering a tendency to deploy the christological revelation as a hermeneutical get-out-of-jail-free card comes at a cost, driving Christian and Jewish readers of the Tanakh further apart and implying that Jews who read the Hebrew Bible without the theological lens of the New Testament will be unable to offer valid interpretations to Christians on some of its most difficult interpretative issues.

A more favorable Messianic Jewish response to Enns’s christotelic and ecclesiotelic readings might look at these hermeneutics through the lens of Judaism’s interpretative tradition. Unlike the early Christian tendency to pit spiritual interpretations over against literal ones, Jewish tradition has maintained that higher interpretations cannot override the simple meaning of the text. Treating Enns’s christotelic and ecclesiotelic readings as higher-level interpretations in this way underscores their effectiveness for the apostles and validity for us while still restricting their deployment in supersessionist interpretations that override the plain meaning of other sections of Scripture.19

Furthermore, just as communal assumptions about Scripture are drawn from beliefs about God, so christotelic and ecclesiotelic readings are similarly conditioned on communal convictions about the nature of Messiah and of the ekklesia. How might the affirmation that Messiah observed the ritual dimensions of the law (and expected his Jewish followers to do the same) impact Enns’s christotelic reading of the Old Testament? If the ekklesia is bilateral in nature – a Messianic community in which the significance of ethnic identities like “Israel” and “the nations” persists theologically and communally – then might the relevance of post-biblical Jewish interpretation of Scripture (e.g. halakha, midrash) for the ekklesia’s Jewish followers legitimize Jewish tradition as another source of ecclesiotelic readings of Scripture?

While Enns’s incarnational parallel may encourage evangelicals to reflect theologically on the more challenging features of the Old Testament, the book’s focus and thesis also masks the degree to which the same problems of diversity and interpretation also apply to the New Testament. In this sense, Christians and Jews are in fact in the same boat. Appeals to the doctrine of the incarnation (which is itself taken as a given in Enns’s book) will not satisfy a more rigorous inquiry since this doctrine also developed over centuries of Christian theological reflection. In keeping with Enns’s challenge to address overlooked doctrinal implications of the Bible’s challenging features, we also need to counter the stereotypical understanding of the Biblical texts as “a type of human stenography responding to heavenly dictation” by recognizing the role of community and tradition in the production, transmission, and reception of Scripture.”20

As I reflected on my friends’ decisions to leave Messianic Judaism, I wondered whether a book like Inspiration and Incarnation might have helped them to hold on to their faith and their questions about the Bible, without letting go of both. Enns’s conviction that “honesty is a central component to spiritual growth . . . [that] God honors our honest questions” (10) is vital to such a path. Learning to engage constructively with insights such as those Enns raises from critical biblical scholarship may not eliminate the difficulties raised along the interpretative journey. However, living with an openness to honest inquiry transforms the titular “problems of the Old Testament” into our problems – just another part of the Torah we turn over and over again.21

1 Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 17.

2 Ibid., 13.

3 Ibid., 109.

4 Ibid., 71.

5 Ibid., 110-111.

6 As examples, Enns cites Matthew 2:15’s use of Hosea 11:1; 2 Corinthians 6:2’s citation of Isaiah 49:8; the references to Abraham’s “seed” in Galatians 3:16, 29; Romans 11:26-27’s use of Isaiah 59:20; and Hebrews 3:7-11’s use of Psalm 95:9-10.

7 Enns begins with late books from the Old Testament such as Chronicles and Daniel (the earliest strata of Second Temple literature) and continuing through the Dead Sea Scrolls, Wisdom of Solomon, the Book of Biblical Antiquities, Jubilees, and other works.

8 Enns’s examples include the moveable well which followed the Israelites in the desert (1 Cor. 10:4), the Egyptian magicians Jannes and Jambres (2 Timothy 3:8), Noah as a “preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5), and the angelic dispute over the body of Moses (Jude 9).

9 Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 142.

10 Ibid., 160.

11 Ibid.

12 As an example of the latter, Enns cites Paul’s reference to Abraham’s “seed” in Galatians 3: “The story of Abraham has its telos in the church (we are Abraham’s seed; Gal. 3:29) only because Christ completes the story first (he is Abraham’s seed; Gal. 3:16).” Ibid., 155.

13 Ibid., 171.

14 For a summary of the controversy, see http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2008/03/29/the-peter-enns-controversy/.

15 See Peter Enns, “a time to tear down A Time To Build Up,” http://peterennsonline.com/.

16 See the critiques and authorial rejoinders documented at http://peterennsonline.com/ii, particularly Enns’s response to Bruce Waltke.

17 Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 71-73.

18 Ibid., 162.

19 To return to Enns’s prior example (see footnote 12): the Pauline wordplay in Galatians 3 concerning Abraham’s singular “seed” can function as an explanation of how Gentiles become heirs of the promises to Abraham without negating the physical sonship and heirship of Isaac affirmed elsewhere in Scripture.

20 Mark S. Kinzer, “Scripture as Inspired, Canonical Tradition” (paper presented at the annual Hashivenu Forum, Pasadena, CA, February 5, 2001), http://www.mjstudies.com/storage/2001_Hermeneutics_Kinzer.pdf.

21 C.f., M. Pirkei Avot 5.26.

* Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnations: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2015).