Welcome to Part II of my Bible comparison series! In Part I, I examined a common evangelical approach to reading Scripture. Today, I tackle Peter Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So, which represents a progressive-leaning – and dare I say Jewish – approach to reading, and interpreting, the Bible.
As previously mentioned, Enns is not Jewish, but he writes about Jewish studying techniques in a way that I find beneficial and, above all, respectful of Judaism as a whole. Unlike other Christian authors, who treat Judaism as an outdated launching pad for Christianity that no longer serves a purpose, Enns writes honestly about what Christians can learn from the Jews about the Bible – and how their faith will be better for it.
Of course, those who fall in the inerrant camp of Bible literacy won’t appreciate where Enns is coming from. But did you know that biblical inerrancy is a relatively new phenomenon in Christian history? It is a Protestant invention; a completely foreign concept to Christians prior to the 18th century. It didn’t become an official Protestant stance until late in the 20th century — during the period when my parents were picking out China patterns for their wedding registry.
But inerrancy is different from infallibility. The former teaches that the Bible is perfect, without error whatsoever. The latter means that the Bible is wholly useful for teaching what is true, just, and holy. In other words, the Bible doesn’t have to be literally true in every aspect in order for it to be sacred: there is truth communicated through all kinds of literary constructs. That is the mindset Enns works with, and one that still persists within Judaism today.
In Part I, I mentioned that Enns’ book can be loosely summarized as Context, context, context! An additional summary could also be, God is bigger than the Bible. God is not contained within the pages of a single book, or period in history. Therefore, it is possible for two Christians to read the same verses, using every reliable commentary and lexicon available; with perfect understanding of ancient Hebrew and Greek; with prayer to be cleansed of any hint of personal agenda…and still end up with different interpretations and/or ideas of what a spiritual practice can look like on a practical level.
This is where Wilkin’s advice to read with guidance from the Holy Spirit gets a little murky. It’s perfectly fine advice, so long as there’s a caveat that one person’s prodding from the Spirit may look different from their neighbor’s.
In short, creative handling of the Bible is not quite the heresy we might think it is.
To help explain this point, Enns uses the example of America’s “binding” Constitution, which is pretty much considered an inerrant document to some. Remaining true to the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – looks quite different in the era of automatic weapons than it did back in the 1700s. This is where the concept of retaining the spirit of the law comes into play. The Second Amendment is binding for our country, but our changing world does not allow for it to be observed exactly the same way it was for its original audience.
“Creative handling” is how we have rabbis today who teach different things as far as how to observe the Sabbath. Some advise staying away from all forms of electricity, as this is akin to lighting a fire, which is considered a form of “work.” Others believe some uses of electricity are fine so long as they facilitate rest, such as relaxing music (but not watching an action film). Same spirit, different manifestations. And both groups of thought contain adherents of equal devotion to God.
Enns explains the importance of keeping ancient Jewish practice in mind when trying to understand Jesus:
…watching Jesus interpret his Bible, in his day and age, in his Jewish way, reinforces what I’ve been saying all along in this book: the Bible is an ancient book and makes sense if we look at it in ancient ways.
If we read the Bible expecting it to act any other way, we will make a mess of it and, whether we intend to or not, we will show disrespect for the Bible and the God we believe, in his wisdom, gave us the Bible we have.
I mean, if we try to explain Jesus’ handling of His Bible in terms of how many Christians today feel the Bible “ought” to be read, Jesus will look like one of my college Bible students, playing free association with the Bible. Or worse, we may try to find some way of taking Jesus out of his ancient Jewish world and making him look more like a suburban Protestant, an urban hipster, s tea party spokesman, and so on.
In my experience, the latter happens far too often in Christian circles. And it’s always a bad move to invent a Jesus who agrees with us rather than challenges us. –Page 187
I just love that last part: It’s always a bad move to invent a Jesus who agrees with us rather than challenges us.
Contrary to what many evangelicals think about progressives (not a label I use for myself, but I understand why I come across that way), the honest ones won’t make the Bible say whatever they want – a tendency that occurs on both ends of the spiritual spectrum. But where certainty is impossible, wisdom becomes our teacher, based on what we know of Jesus’ character.
Wisdom is how I decided – begrudgingly, I might add – that I disagreed with the restaurant owner who refused to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week. I believe that treating her like any other customer is part of what Jesus meant by “love your enemies” – even though part of me did smugly rejoice when I first read that story.
I don’t always know what Jesus would do in any situation, but because of what I know from Scripture, I can apply that wisdom in my daily life. And chances are, what Jesus would do is usually the opposite of what I want to do.
Many people look at the thousands of Christian denominations as evidence that there is nothing holy behind it at all. If Jesus were real, they argue, then why can’t Christians agree on the most basic stuff? I share that frustration, and this little study reinforced it at times. But sometimes, diversity can be beautiful – maybe it’s something God wanted to let happen, out of respect for our unique human stories.