The Problem of the Old Testament

I just finished reading Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns, a book that was, in unequal measures, edifying and frustrating. First, the strengths. Enns does a superb job, on a number of issues, of raising questions that easily frustrate traditional Bible believers. This is because traditional Bible believers want (in the name of inerrancy) a Bible that exhibits no complexity, tension, or difficulty at all. This requires a superficial skating over the surface of the text, taking great care not to look too closely at what is happening under your feet. Enns does a good job raising questions from the text that cannot be resolved by means of the surface treatment.

The book covers the ancient Near Eastern context in which the Old Testament was written, the theological diversity within the Old Testament, and the apostolic handling of Old Testament texts. His questions are usually quite good, and very informative, but his suggested answers are frequently problematic. And even though his “resolutions” of these problems are not made in a dogmatic vein, their trajectory is troubling. Nevertheless, one strength of this book is that it raises a number of questions that inerrantists need to answer without smoke and mirrors.

One of the inadequate resolutions is to present the problem, and then conclude that God wanted us to learn to live with “tensions in the text.” This is a problem when Enns raises a fantastic question, and then fails to recognize the equally cool answer, right there in the text of Scripture. For example, in his chapter on OT theological diversity, he points out that the Old Testament frequently assumes or acknowledges the existence of other gods besides the Lord. “Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord, no deeds can compare with yours (Ps. 86:8). He goes on to cite a raft of other passages to the same effect (Ps. 95:3; 96:4; 97:9; 135:5; 136:2). He makes the point very clearly (pp. 98-99).

He argues that this language shows how God is accomodating Himself to the belief systems of these ancient peoples — rank polytheism to raw monotheism would have been too much of a lurch.

“We may not believe that multiple gods ever existed, but ancient Near Eastern people did. This is the religious world within which God called Israel to be his people. When God called Israel, he began leading them into a full knowledge of who he is, but he started where they were” (p 98).

“Again, remember that, standing as we are with the benefit of much subsequent revelation and reflection, we know that idols are not real” (p. 102).

The problem with this is that subsequent revelation teaches us nothing of the kind. Subsequent revelation teaches us that the Lord Jesus spent a great deal of His time casting out demons. The apostle Paul said that those who worshipped idols were actually worshipping demons. When Paul cast out the demon from the slave girl at Philippi, the original says that it was the “spirit of a python.” The python was sacred to the god Apollo, and this soothsaying girl was obviously a devotee of that god. In short, nothing is plainer in Scripture than that the gods of the pagan nations were not in the same class with the upper-case G God of Israel. But neither were they nullities, fictitious stories made up by superstitious pagans. The fact that they were not God did not mean that they were not gods. It is quite striking that Enns didn’t quote the apostle Paul’s resolution of the problem that he wanted to leave “in tension.”

As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him” (1 Cor. 8:4-6).

“No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor 10:20).

The sacrifices of pagans were not offered to a vacuum, but rather to demons, styling themselves to be gods. The strict monotheism of the Bible places the Creator/creature divide between God and everything and everyone else. Superstitions are on this side of the divide, and so are conceited demons. The strict monotheism of the Bible does not prevent a comparison of God to all the gods, who are, compared to Him, nothing. Sixties excesses notwithstanding, Clapton was not god, but this datum does not require me to deny Clapton’s existence. In fact, I am listening to him right now. In short, this is a place where Enns could easily have seen all the tension evaporate, and all he needed to do was affirm the existence of principalities, powers, thrones, dominations, angels, archangels, demons, and things that go bump in the night. As Paul put it, they are called gods. They are nothing compared to God. But they are there. There are gods many and lords many. But for us, there is only one God, the Father of all.

The last major section of the book was on the apostolic handling of Old Testament texts. Enns does a fantastic job here in showing how the apostles actually interpreted OT texts. No question that they did so in a manner that we moderns find “odd.” Again, Enns statement of the problem is very good. There is no getting around the fact that the apostles of our Lord Jesus would have flunked the hermeneutics course at virtually any modern seminary, especially the conservative ones. Noah’s flood represents Christian baptism? Hagar and Sarah are two covenants? The rock that followed Israel around in the wilderness was Christ? Come on.

But, to his credit, Enns knows that this apostolic exegesis is authoritative for us somehow. But he struggles in explaining exactly how it could be. He says that the apostles were so struck by the death and resurrection of Jesus that they (in essence) projected this eschatological event back onto the blank screen of the Old Testament. Enns admits that what they were doing was eisegesis, not exegesis, but he does not believe it was uncontrolled eisegesis. The control was the revelation of God in Christ. He says that we should do the same thing . . . to a certain extent.

The solution to this dilemma is found in the divine authorship of the Scriptures. Hosea might not have known that his statement about Israel coming up out of Egypt (11:1) was a reference to more than just the Exodus. Jesus was the new Israel, and there was going to be new Exodus. But whether Hosea knew this is not relevant. Hosea was not the only author. God establishes types in the text, and their fulfillment in the antitypes. When we discover these rightly, this is exegesis.

It is important to note that Jesus did not handle the texts this way because He had died and rose again. He went to His death willingly because He was sure that this is what the Scriptures foretold.

It appears (from this distance) that Enns is very concerned that he not fall into the trap of mindless fundamentalism (and the intellectual dishonesty that this sometimes entails). And that is just fine — good in fact. But there is a way of being a biblical absolutist without buying into modernity’s notions of truth being limited to science or math. There is a belief in Scripture that can ask every question that Enns raises in this book, and give an intellectually honest answer.

Superficial inerrancy wants the Bible to sit down in Mrs. Enlightenment’s class for an exam, and wants the Bible to get a perfect score. But biblical absolutism says it should go the other way; we want to get Mrs. Enlightenment to enroll in Scripture’s class, and take a few tests of her own. Maybe even flunk a few of them. When Scripture is studied as the absolute standard, a lot of these questions and tensions that Enns raises just disappear. But when Scripture is studied as one-which-takes-tests-administered-by-others, the defenders of the faith always wind up like the nerdy kid who got a 98 percent and is trying to haggle the teacher out of two extra points.

I recommend this book as a good guide to problems that typical inerrancy can’t solve. But I can’t recommend it as a guide to what we should do about it.

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