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My last two books The Bible Tells and So and The Sin of Certainty deal a lot with (spoiler alert) interpreting the Bible—namely what I think the Bible says about certain topics and how I think the Bible should be read.

Of course, this has generated some questions, like:

“Pete, what exactly is your problem? No, seriously.”

“Did you take a hermeneutics course with Satan, because that’s the only explanation I can find for why you do on page …”

“Someone somewhere must have hurt you very badly and you carry those scars around in your writing.”

“How can we pray for you (besides praying that you break your hands and can’t type anymore)?”

I’ve also gotten some very nice and supportive questions from non-crazy people who are genuinely helped by what I am trying to do as they work through their own paradigm shifts on their journey of Christian faith.

So in an effort to clarify for both crazy and non-crazy readers alike, here are 5 words that summarize my approach to biblical interpretation, in no particular order.

Genre-Calibration

(That’s technically two words, but the hyphen makes it one.) The Bible, like anything that has ever been written, can be classified according to genre—many genres, in fact (letters, laws, wisdom, apocalyptic, prophecy, story, parable, etc.). Recognizing what genre you are in is key to sound biblical interpretation (i.e., don’t expect a parable to relay historical information; don’t read proverbs as if they were laws).

Recognizing the various ancient genres of our ancient Bible is greatly aided by our ability to compare and contrast the Bible with similar writings from the ancient world, i.e., by “calibrating” the Bible against ancient analogs and thus learning to adopt ancient expectations for interpreting biblical literature rather than imposing alien, modern conventions of reading.

So, Genesis 1-11 is best understood when compared to other ancient origins texts rather than expecting something along the lines of modern science; the Gospels are best understood alongside ancient Greco-Roman “biographies” rather than contemporary biographies or historical accounts.

That sort of thing.

Proper genre recognition is a key pillar of modern biblical scholarship, and for me is a non-negotiable element of reading the Bible well—though that does not mean this approach is all there is to do when reading the Bible, which brings me to …

Christotelic

By this, I mean that Christ is the telos of Israel’s story—from the Greek word meaning “end” or “goal.”

The Old Testament story does not come to a climax “naturally” in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Nor does the Old Testament “predict” Jesus of Nazareth in any conventional sense of the word “predict” (“Hey, Israel, gather round and let me tell you something that is going to happen 1000 years from now that you’ll never be able to verify and that will have no meaning for you—in case you’re wondering.”)

Rather, a crucified and risen messiah is a surprise ending to Israel’s story. The faith of the New Testament writers is seen in their conviction that Christ is deeply connected to Israel’s story while at the same time grappling with the surprise, counterintuitive development of the gospel.

To forge a connection between Jesus as a surprise ending and Jesus as nevertheless deeply connected to the Old Testament, the New Testament writers re-read, i.e., transposed, Israel’s story to account for the surprise ending.

In other words, they read the Old Testament creatively, not bound by what the ancient Israelite authors were trying to say for their time, but shaped by what they believed God was doing in the present time.

In other-other words, their faith that Jesus was the telos of Israel’s story was their starting point and governing principle for how they read their Bible.

This is why—as many Bible readers already know—New Testament writers, when quoting the Old Testament, typically “take it out of context,” meaning the context of the original utterance. The gospel requires creative re-framing of Israel’s story.

The tendency toward “creative” (i.e., midrashic) readings of Scripture in Judaism in general at the time is the proper hermeneutical backdrop for understanding this “Christotelic” hermeneutic (another instance of genre-calibration).

Incarnational

The incarnation is the grand mystery of the Christian faith and provides an apt and ancient analogy for understanding how the Bible can be embraced as God’s word while at the same time unequivocally displaying the mundane properties, cultural infusions, and simple human imitations of any text, ancient or modern.

As Jesus, the “God-man,” is fully part of the culture in which he lived, the Bible in every aspect reflects fully the varied cultural contexts in which it was written. In other words, the Bible is not a heavenly document dropped down by divine parachute, nor is it something kept at a safe distance from the messy world of the human drama.

An incarnational model of scripture accounts better for the Bible’s own properties than do various inerrantist models, which at some point all need to tame or corral biblical phenomena that do not sit well with certain doctrinal needs.

Ecumenical

I use this term in the broadest sense, meaning wisdom and insight for interpreting the Bible can and does come from anyone, not limited to Christians alone, or Protestants alone, and most definitely not to particular Protestant tribes.

Genuine and deep insight into the nature of the Bible and its interpretation comes from Judaism, the Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, from agnostics, atheists—even Calvinists.

Further, insights concerning the Bible come to us from all sorts of unexpected, less cerebral places, like the world around us—which is God’s world.

Pilgrimage

This ancient metaphor for describing the Christian faith as a whole is also apt for describing the interpretation of the Bible. Our understanding of the Bible always has a provisional dimension to it, and we should expect our views to change over time as we all change and grow as human beings.

I do not think now as I did half a lifetime ago when I started seminary. I had better not. Nor do I think that my current thoughts are now free from the need for future refinement, change, or even abandonment.

Pilgrimage is a metaphor for humility. Pilgrimage encourages us to let go of the need to have final certainty on how we understand the Bible and be less prone to put up walls of division because we are more willing to discuss, explore, and change rather than proclaim, conquer, and defend.

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.

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  • Lewis says:

    I know you won’t let this go to your head but that was brilliant.
    Cheers.

  • Lewis says:

    I know you won’t let this go to your head but that was brilliant.
    Cheers.

  • Lewis says:

    … I’ll forward it to Al Mohler.

  • Lewis says:

    … I’ll forward it to Al Mohler.

  • gingoro says:

    As I’m sure you know I often do not agree with where you end up, at least as I understand or misunderstand you. However, I agree with what you say above. I now see the Bible as the record of a peoples journey and struggle to understanding and relate to God. Overall, if you will, a trajectory coming to fulfillment in Christ. I used to see the Bible more as history in the modern sense and I used to take statements where God commands say genocide as coming from God as opposed to another human (mis)understanding of God or even propaganda… at times.

  • Gary says:

    The statement that “New Testament writers, when quoting the Old Testament, typically ‘take it out of context,’ meaning the context of the original utterance” caught my eye.

    One of the things I’ve found interesting to do is to build off such an idea and consider, not just the New Testament writers’ contexts and the original utterance’s context but other waypoints of contexts too.

    Sometimes, we can get the “backstory” and gain information on contexts prior to the “original” utterance. Sometimes the text is redacted. Sometimes the text has a broader cultural backstory and there’s something fascinating what’s before.

    And we’ve had a full 2,000 years of contexts since the New Testament writers. These contexts vary too not just by time but by geography and theological tribe. Perhaps, this is related to being “ecumenical.” Do I know how this text has sincerely been used to create meaning over time? By analogy, all meaning making seems to be done through generalization–consider the sentence “the spotted male dog was loyal.” Inevitably people over enough time would have created these meanings: Spotted dogs are loyal, male dogs are loyal, only spotted male dogs are loyal, female dogs aren’t loyal, and cats are evil.

    I find Christotelic to be one very interesting principle and I knew a few Christians who are greatly attracted to it, but I also know many who don’t really approach scripture with such a centering. One pastor I know uses it as his every-sermon magic and has such a wonderful Jesus that sometimes I wonder if he maps more to infomercial Teflon than an Incarnational God the Son.

    Anyhow, I personally find it theologically humble to peruse through all of these perspectives before aggressively coming into “what it means for us and me here today.”

    All of this I consider to be a genuinely “conservative” treatment of scripture. It’s slow and patient. It gives much deference to the past(s) with laborious effort to have knowledge of them. Personally, I find this kind of robust and respectful exegetical conservativism at odds with the simpleton’s naiveté of the idealization of “one clear meaning.”

    Honestly, I find what most “conservatives” to do with scripture in the real world to be very, very liberal. I find that project’s foundations made of compacted soil at best.

    Anyhow, might be good to get conservatives onto conservative exegesis. Will keep church-going with family less cringe-worthy for some of us at least.

  • Dre'as Sanchez says:

    You killed this Pete. Strong work.

  • Tim says:

    Great stuff. Also, I lol’ed at “Did you take a hermeneutics course with Satan, because that’s the only explanation I can find for why you do on page. . . .”

  • Occam Razor says:

    Pete: I agree 100% with what you say about the OT predictions. However, the standard way of looking at this is that we know our beliefs are true BECAUSE it was predicted in the OT and it happened the way it was predicted. That it wasn’t exactly predicted and we have to be creative to say it was creates a problem. It means that the argument that has been used as proof has to be changed to something less definitive.

    • Sheila Warner says:

      It’s sometimes referred to as the “sharpshooter” fallacy. Not understanding what happened to Jesus & why, the authors lifted OT passages in order to validate Jesus’ ministry, and promote what they believed about him. Those passages gave comfort to Jesus’ followers, for sure. The biographies of Jesus were written decades after he died. We get a peek into how the early Church was operating.

      • Pete E. says:

        I understand what you’re saying Sheila, but as an academic in need to add that the dynamic is somewhat more nuanced than what you’re laying out here.

        • Sheila Warner says:

          I’ve read TSOC, Genesis For Normal People, The Bible Tells Me So, & The Evolution of Adam. I don’t recall the nuanced dynamic in any of those. What have I missed? Am I missing a book you’ve written? Is this discussed in I&I? I love your insights.

  • Ken Nichols says:

    Very well written. A must share.

  • Andy Zach says:

    Genre-calibration – yes, we need to know what genre of literature we’re reading in scripture. But what if you error on your genre? For example, you compared Genesis 1-11 with other middle eastern creation stories, which I would classify as mythological/parabolic, whereas I would classify Genesis 1-11 as historical, from Moses’ perspective as he wrote them. This is a whole article, blog post, or book if you wish. I just wanted to point out the magnitude of error that genre error causes.

    • Pete E. says:

      I feel you, Andy, but genre-calibration is precisely what shows us that Gen 1-11, regardless of whatever the perspective of the author might or might not be, is not “history writing” but mythic (however defined and given al the standard caveats when trying to define “myth”).

  • VAvoter says:

    Those tricky mainline Presbyterians!

  • David Messieh says:

    Love the humour and some great guidelines there! I like to think that not every aspect of our knowledge of God and Jesus is provisional (even if much of it is and should be), though you might not be suggesting that.

  • Derek says:

    Peter Enns is my very most favorite person to disagree with.

  • Derek says:

    Peter Enns is my very most favorite person to disagree with.

  • Pete E. says:

    I feel you, Andy, but genre-calibration is precisely what shows us that Gen 1-11, regardless of whatever the perspective of the author might or might not be, is not “history writing” but mythic (however defined and given al the standard caveats when trying to define “myth”).

  • Rev. Rick says:

    Hello from one of those tricky mainline Presbyterians! So great to welcome Dr. Enns to the Flanders Presbyterian Church last weekend to introduce my congregation to Dr. Enns’ work. Sign us up for you to pay us a visit after each new book (no pressure!). Thanks, Pete, for a great weekend together! (Rev. Rick)

  • Rev. Rick says:

    Hello from one of those tricky mainline Presbyterians! So great to welcome Dr. Enns to the Flanders Presbyterian Church last weekend to introduce my congregation to Dr. Enns’ work. Sign us up for you to pay us a visit after each new book (no pressure!). Thanks, Pete, for a great weekend together! (Rev. Rick)

  • Sheila Warner says:

    As an atheist, I can get this. The Bible as literature with many genres is fascinating. Although no longer a believer, I still refer to my NRSV and the truly beautiful prose in the KJV. We get a good look at what people thousands of years ago thought about their deity, and also how these thoughts changed over time. The culture of ancient times is so interesting to explore. In the West, we are saturated with the ideas which come from Judaism and Christianity. There’s no denying it. It is wise, IMHO, to be Biblically “literate” in this nation. Even though I don’t believe in the supernatural any longer, I still love the poetry within books such as the Psalms, Proverbs, and other wisdom books. My 2 cents.

  • Sheila Warner says:

    It’s sometimes referred to as the “sharpshooter” fallacy. Not understanding what happened to Jesus & why, the authors lifted OT passages in order to validate Jesus’ ministry, and promote what they believed about him. Those passages gave comfort to Jesus’ followers, for sure. The biographies of Jesus were written decades after he died. We get a peek into how the early Church was operating.

    • Pete E. says:

      I understand what you’re saying Sheila, but as an academic in need to add that the dynamic is somewhat more nuanced than what you’re laying out here.

      • Sheila Warner says:

        I’ve read TSOC, Genesis For Normal People, The Bible Tells Me So, & The Evolution of Adam. I don’t recall the nuanced dynamic in any of those. What have I missed? Am I missing a book you’ve written? Is this discussed in I&I? I love your insights.

  • Ross Warnell says:

    I suspect that we have just scratched the surface of this “incarnation” thing. I am convinced that if we think of it as something that happened once 2000 years ago rather than as the ultimate revelation of the nature of reality, we are stuck heading the wrong direction down a theological blind alley.

  • Ross Warnell says:

    I suspect that we have just scratched the surface of this “incarnation” thing. I am convinced that if we think of it as something that happened once 2000 years ago rather than as the ultimate revelation of the nature of reality, we are stuck heading the wrong direction down a theological blind alley.

  • Ken Cooper says:

    Would it be fair to think of some of the events of Israel’s history to be inspired, rather than the scripture, causing the people to think through Who this God is, and to write about Him?

    • Pete E. says:

      What is an “inspired” event?

      • Ken Cooper says:

        I was thinking of events instigated by God for a purpose. However, sine I believe everything that happens is either caused directly by God or allowed by Him, I think an inspired event would be specific to God’s purposes of revelation to Israel.

  • Ken Cooper says:

    Would it be fair to think of some of the events of Israel’s history to be inspired, rather than the scripture, causing the people to think through Who this God is, and to write about Him?

    • Pete E. says:

      What is an “inspired” event?

      • Ken Cooper says:

        I was thinking of events instigated by God for a purpose. However, sine I believe everything that happens is either caused directly by God or allowed by Him, I think an inspired event would be specific to God’s purposes of revelation to Israel.

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