For me, this is perhaps one of the best books I have ever read—and I have read a LOT of books!
On page 4, Pete sets the stage by stating that the Bible is not a divine instruction manual or rule book and was not designed to provide unwavering certainty for our faith. Of course, this runs counter to those who believe the Bible is inerrant, though Pete doesn’t actually use the word ‘inerrancy’ anywhere in the book. But he says that we encounter problems in reading the Bible when we harbor a misguided expectation that the Bible is meant to give clear answers.
Pete goes on to list three conspicuous characteristics of the Bible—that it is ancient, ambiguous, and diverse (rather than holy, perfect, and clear). (page 5) This is a very important thought throughout the book.
He then makes a statement that: “The Bible was written by various writers who lived at different times, in different places, and under different circumstances and who wrote for different purposes.” and goes on to say that their “perceptions of God and their world were shaped by who they were and when they lived.” (9)
Pete finds the proper approach to the Bible in the word, ‘Wisdom’. And by this he does not mean that the Bible is a book of wisdom or a source of wisdom for us but that wisdom, not consistency, is key to the writing of the Bible and often leads to contradictory statements—like the two back-to-back ones from Proverbs 26:
Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly or they will be wise in their own eyes.
So which is it? Pete says that “the lesson we learn from these two little verses sums up not only how Proverbs works, but how the Bible as a whole works as a book of wisdom.” (29) “Both of these sayings are wise, and the one we act upon here and now, at this unscripted moment, depends on which fits the current situation best. Reading the situation—not simply the Bible—is what wisdom is about.” (31)
Pete concludes that “the life of faith is the pursuit of wisdom,” and that “What may appear to be the most biblical approach to the life of faith–“Do what the Bible says”–misses how the Bible actually works.” (46; 47)
The Changing Bible
Pete remarks that, “As odd as it might seem, most biblical laws really aren’t that clear.” (53) He then talks about how the laws changed throughout the Pentateuch. Biblical laws are also ancient, ambiguous, and diverse. He states that, “Already for the biblical writers, keeping the laws meant reengaging them when needed. And again, the genius of the laws IS their ambiguity, not their clarity, for their ambiguity is the very thing that allows them to gain new life.” (70)
I think Pete gives us two excellent statements that help us to better understand the nature of the Bible:
The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grapple with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition. (76)
The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time. (77)
There is no room here for the Bible as a rule book or as a collection of propositional truths delivered by God. No room for any theory of biblical inerrancy. The Bible is not like that—it is better than that. Pete asks, “if the ancient biblical writers themselves need to make adjustments about how they were hearing God speaking to them, whatever would make us think that we can escape the same process?” (79)
Pete finally makes the big point I was waiting for, “Someone might say, ‘Well, okay, sure they were human, obviously, but the biblical writers were also inspired, directed by God in what to write, and so not simply ordinary human writers.’” But Pete emphasizes that “Any explanation that needs to minimize, cover up, or push these self-evident biblical characteristics aside isn’t really an explanation; it’s propaganda.” (80)
The Tremendous Problem of the Exile Experience
Pete says, “Exile was the trauma of the Old Testament—and we dare not underestimate its impact” (98). The Israelites believed God had promised them their own land, their own king, and the temple. But in 586 BCE all of this was taken away by the Babylonians. One very significant response to this problem was the development of the Old Testament.
A casual reader of the Bible might assume the first five books (the books of Moses) were more or less written by Moses and are the oldest part of the Old Testament followed by the historical books that come just after them; but this is not correct. These books actually were written after the exile, incorporating some earlier material, to explain how the Jews felt about their history and to address the question, “After all this time, is God still with us?” (108)
What is God Like?
When I took systematic theology in Bible College, our textbook devoted considerable space to the ‘attributes of God’–as though we really know these things! It seemed so arrogant to me. Pete, on the other hand, asks what God is like and doesn’t have a conclusive answer—because there is none; he says the Bible sends conflicting messages about what God is like. I agree, just as I also agree when he says that God is ‘the one who sent Jesus’ (120).
He discusses the violence attributed to God in the Old Testament—saying, “Struggling with God’s violence is nothing new for people of faith…and I’m not sure if there is any part of the biblical story that puts the question ‘What is God like?’ before us today with more urgency and discomfort.” (147)
I think Pete delivers a lot of riches as he explores this theme.
There is Much More in this Book
Pete covers the development of the Old Testament and the beginnings of Christianity. I like his observation that some of the most important pieces of biblical literature are personal letters—written over two thousand years ago—by people Pete never met—to people he knew nothing about—in places with which he was not remotely familiar—in a culture he could not hope to grasp.
I particularly like Pete’s discussion of Wisdom at creation in Proverbs 8 and the New Testament (40; 203) and his treatment of Paul’s supposedly devastating condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1 beginning on page 266.
One more relevant quote: “Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.” (268)
This book was a real joy to read.
Who Will Like, or Dislike, this Book?
I think this book will be very useful for fundamentalists/evangelicals who question what they have been taught about the Bible, as well as those well along their journeys away from inerrancy. I suggest this as an excellent book to share with those who are questioning. It is wide-reaching but very connected, easy to read and understand, and represents excellent biblical scholarship.
There will certainly be other fundamentalists/evangelicals who will vehemently reject this book.
Jesus without Baggage exists to assist and support those questioning beliefs they have been taught in fundamentalist, traditional evangelical, and other groups. If you know someone who might find Jesus without Baggage helpful, feel free to send them the introductory page: About Jesus without Baggage.
Articles in this series:
Belief in Biblical Inerrancy Must be the Second Most Damaging, Misguided Christian Belief of All
Why Do Inerrantists Think the Bible is Inerrant Anyway?
How the Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns: a Book Review
Did Jesus Confirm the Inerrancy and Historicity of the Old Testament?
Books and Resources on Inerrancy