Excerpt from “The Living Word of God”: Ben Witherington’s Critique of Peter Enns’ View of Scripture

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In light of the previous review of Peter Enns’ book, “The Bible Tells Me So” I wanted to share some thoughts from Dr. Ben Witherington critiquing Enns’ view of scripture and myth from his book “The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible.” I appreciate Dr. Witherington and Baylor University Press allowing us to reprint this here. – Matt

Sometimes analogies can be stretched too far. For example, the author of Hebrews is sometimes quoted as saying that Jesus was like us in all respects, save without sin. In LivingWordOfGod-BWIIIthe first place that’s not what Hebrews says or suggests. The text in question, Hebrews 4:15, actually reads, “He was tempted in every way like us, save without sin.” That is a different matter. There are ever so many ways that Jesus was not like us. For example, he had an unfallen human nature and also a divine nature. It is always a dodgy and even dangerous thing to draw analogies with a unique being like the Son of God, all the more if the analogy is between a thing, namely the Bible, and a person, namely the Son of God.


The incarnational principle is the rubric that Peter Enns uses to explain the character and nature of the Bible. In fact he is willing to put it this way: “The long-standing identification between Christ the word and Scripture the word is central to how I think through the issues raised in this book. How does Scripture’s full humanity and full divinity affect what we should expect from Scripture?” “Identification” is much too strong a word here; “analogy” would be better. Furthermore, books do not have either humanity or divinity. We can talk about the books of the Bible being divinely inspired but not about their divinity, or for that matter about their humanity. All of the Son of God is not “fully human”; only his human nature is. Nor is all the Son of God fully divine; only his divine nature is. According to the classical Chalcedonian formulation, the two natures should not be fused or confused. This is very different from the nature of the Bible.

If I understand 2 Timothy 3:16 correctly, the whole Bible is suffused with both divine inspiration and human words. Some of it is more directly the word of God (e.g., the oracles), some of it more indirectly, but it is always the word of God in human words whether it involves oracles where God speaks directly or some more indirect means of communication.

What Enns wants to argue most vociferously about, however, is the “humanness” of Scripture. Put another way, he wants to insist on the historical givenness of Scripture—that it is written in a particular language in a particular cultural setting, reflecting particular cultural customs and conventions and ways of thinking in order to be a word on target for the original intended audiences. “The Bible, at every turn, shows how ‘connected’ it is to its own world [which] is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself.… It is essential to the very nature of revelation that the Bible is not unique to its environment. The human dimension of Scripture is essential to its being Scripture.” Missing entirely is any discussion about how this human givenness of Scripture may or may not affect the truth claims of the book. Are we being told that incarnation requires a full participation in wide-ranging human ignorance, errors of various sorts, misjudgments, misrepresentations, mishandling of scriptural texts, and the like?

“To err is human,” as Alexander Pope reminded us, but do we need to turn that equation around and say “To be human, one must err”? If one says that, one has a rather large theological problem. To say that incarnation involves certain limitations of time and space manifested in historical particularity is one thing. It is quite another to suggest that incarnation involves participating in human fallenness, including in its fallen understanding of things. Revelation or
even revelation incarnate does not in the first instance mean historical givenness, though Enns puts it that way. Revelation means God’s truth expressed in particular ways that humans can understand.

But let us allow Enns to flesh out what he wants to claim. In his discussion of “myth,” particularly in regard to ancient Near East parallels to the creation and flood stories in Genesis, Enns settles for a definition of myth as follows: “It is an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” This definition is problematic. In the first place, it is not what the term mythos means in the NT (cf., e.g., 1 Tim 4:4), where it is a pejorative term referring to something that is not true. In the second place, even where the term “myth” was used in a positive way in antiquity, it meant something like a story about a god or the supernatural. On this definition, lots of the Bible is myth as it recounts the mighty salvific acts of God, but that tells us nothing about whether it records historical events or not, unless you believe that there can’t be any kind of supernatural incursion into the realm of the natural. Isn’t it ironic that Enns spends so much time in his study arguing for the historical givenness of these ancient texts, but he wants to define terms in a wholly modern way that the biblical audience would not recognize or grant? What’s wrong with this picture?

Yet Enns, rightly in my judgment, asks, should the Bible be judged on the basis of modern standards of historical inquiry and scientific precision? Surely the answer is no. But these texts should be judged on the basis of ancient standards of historical inquiry and truth telling. Let us suppose the author of Genesis is making historical claims of an ancient nature. They are more general and less precise than we perhaps would want to make today, but nonetheless, historical claims are being made. Taking the nature of ancient historiography into account, we must still assess the resulting historical truth claims. Is the author of Genesis claiming there was a historical Noah and a historical flood of great magnitude during his era? Surely the answer to this question is yes, and even more tellingly NT writers—and Jesus—also thought the answer to this question was yes (cf. Matt 24:37–39; 1 Pet 3:20). Revelation, as it turns out, doesn’t just mean incarnational speech. It means truth telling in incarnational speech.

To claim that the Bible is God’s word implies always and everywhere that it is making various sorts of truth claims—indeed, claims on us. And we do no service to the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life if we do not wrestle with the question “What is truth?” whenever we deal with the biblical text.

From The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible by Ben Witherington III. Copyright © 2009 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.

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