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Christians confess the Bible as “God’s word,” which means (among other things) that God had something to do with the production of it–though, the honest person will admit, we don’t really know nor can we adequately articulate what that “something” is, and calling it “inspiration” or “revelation” is simply assigning a multi-syllable word to that unknown process.

Be that as it may, the history of Christian theology hasn’t been at all shy about providing various models of biblical inspiration and the Bible as God’s revelation.

But the Bible was also–and this is self-evidently true–written by people, real people, with personalities, histories, questions, perceptions, worries, fears, etc.

That brings us to a struggle a lot of Christians have with the Bible: thinking of the Bible, God’s word, as a human book?

To which I would like to offer 4 points.

1. Change “as” to “is.” The Bible is a human book, meaning there is nothing in the Bible that does not fully reflect the human drama and that cannot be explained on the basis of its “humanity.”

In other words, there is nothing in the Bible to which one can point and say, “Ah, here is something that is divine and NOT human.” “As” falsely suggests distance between the Bible’s thoroughgoing humanness.

2. Though the Bible is not merely a human book, it is nevertheless a thoroughly human book. That is a paradox, and confessed by faith.

The evangelical challenge concerning scripture can be summarized as the need to work through a true synthesis where the “humanity” of scripture is truly respected.

In other words, the Bible reflects various and sundry (not one) ancient (not modern Christian) ways of thinking about God and the life of faith, and these factors need to be thoroughly integrated into any discussion of the “nature of scripture.”

3. The evangelical system has not always done a good job of pulling off this synthesis. The thoroughgoing humanness of the Bible is often doctrinally uncomfortable, and so is adjusted, ignored, or neutered to protect theological statements about the nature of scripture.

Another way of articulating the challenge: true dialogue is needed between the Bible as a means of deep spiritual formation and “taking seriously” Scripture’s thoroughgoing humanity.

Of course, just what “taking seriously” means is the money question, and too often in evangelical formulations, at the end of the day, the diverse and ancient nature of Scripture is either tolerated or tamed rather than allowed truly to inform Scripture’s role in spiritual formation.

4. I offer three interrelated models for Bible readers today for engaging the Bible with greater attention to the Bible’s own character as a means toward, rather than an impediment for, spiritual formation.

A dialogical model: Taking a page from the history of Judaism and much of premodern Christianity, the Bible is a book where God is met through dialogue rather than primarily as a source of doctrinal formulations.

Reading the Bible well means being open and honest about what we see there rather than feeling doctrinally pressed to corral all parts of Scripture into a logically coherent system. The dialogical model is woven into the Bible itself, e.g., Job, Ecclesiastes, and lament Psalms, which challenge the status quo.

A journey model: Rather than a depository of theological statements disguised as a narrative, the Bible models our spiritual journey by letting us in on the spiritual journey of the ancient Israelites and first followers of Jesus.

This model allows the theological and historical tensions and contradictions to stand as statements of faith at various stages of that journey rather than problems to be overcome in preserving a “system” or “owner’s manual” approach to Scripture. (I focus on the journey model in The Bible Tells Me So.)

An incarnational model: I continue to think that an incarnational model of Scripture provides needed theological flexibility for addressing the realities of a Bible that is both located squarely and unambiguously located in antiquity and continues to be sacred scripture.

This post was published in June 2015 and is adapted from an earlier post from January 2014.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

58 Comments

  • mhelbert says:

    And, point 5?

  • James says:

    “ancient historiography versus modern notions of accuracy.” The statistical term “margin of error” comes to mind as particularly modern. Yes, claiming inerrancy is also modern, as is the opposite tenancy to make scripture so human as to find errors in it. This is not a good approach to ancient historiography. Perhaps your three models offer positive steps forward in valuing the full scope of scripture–human and divine. Professor Kevin Van Hoozer gets good mileage from the term “Theo-drama.”

    • peteenns says:

      “Yes, claiming inerrancy is also modern, as is the opposite tenancy to make scripture so human as to find errors in it.”

      face palm, smh, for heaven’s sake, and are you kidding me?

      • James says:

        The thought came to me that since “error” and it’s awkward negation “inerrant” are so laden with modern scientific notions of accuracy, reliability and therefore truth, we should look for more suitable words to describe biblical history and literature. Even terms like myth, midrash, redactor (editor), etc. need careful explanation lest they undermine the truth beauty of the text. It is hard for us to break out of our narrow frame of reference.

  • James M says:

    The Bible has been described as “the Word of God in the words of men” – IMO, an excellent summary of many complex issues.

    FWIW, I do not see that it follows from its being plenarily inspired by God, that it must be – because it cannot avoid being – totally inerrant. I do not believe in the omniscience & infallibility of Christ while He was on earth either. To be man, inspired or not, God-man or not, is to be limited and to be capable of being in error, AFAICS. What is wonderful is not that the Bible is flawless – it has several flaws – but that the flaws and sins in it can be turned to good and holy purposes by God. Joshua 10 is inspired, not because its horrendous Nazi-like brutality has the authority of God to support & bless it, but because God can make even grossly immoral chapters like that a part of His witness to Himself in the life of His People. One consequence of this is that the moral deformity in the Bible does not have the last word – Christ does. Christ saves from the bad stuff in the Bible, and makes the Bible safe for us. Left to itself, it can be very destructive. Of course that is nowhere near a balanced assessment of the whole of its action and function.

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