How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers–and Why That’s Great News, 2019

Rachel Held Evans credits Peter Enns with being her teacher. When I asked around for resources related to reading the Bible again, Matthew Vines also recommended Dr. Enns. Dr Enns is Hebrew scripture scholar, but writes in a very accessible way with a self-deprecating wit, which you can see even in his ridiculous subtitle.

In How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers–and Why That’s Great News by Peter Enns, we have a lovely introduction to the Bible as literature. Dr Enns emphasizes that the Bible is neither a modern self-help book nor a scientific text. It is wisdom literature, which is something modern Christian audiences are not well prepared for.

When we come to the Bible expecting it to be an instructional manual intended by God to give us unwavering, cement-hard certainty about our faith, we are actually creating problems for ourselves, because–as I’ve come to see–the Bible wasn’t designed to meet that expectation. In other words, the “problems” we encounter when reading the Bible are really problems we create for ourselves when we harbor the misguided expectation that the Bible is designed primarily to provide clear answers. Starting with these mistaken notions causes the whole Christian enterprise to go off course. It causes anxiety and stress about following the Bible’s fine print as if it were the “Terms and Conditions” for your latest Apple download, whereas Jesus promises rest to weary pilgrims. (Enns, page 4)

Like me in OtherWise Christian and Ms Evans in Inspired, Dr Enns points to the wisdom of Jewish readings of Mosaic Law, in contrast with the way Christians are prone to read the Bible (selectively) as a rule book. Enns makes an even finer point about wisdom literature in this regard:

Tying Law and wisdom together reflects what we’ve already seen: Law–however divine its origin and serious its requirements–is nevertheless ambiguous, and so “following the Law” and “seeking wisdom” are bound together for all time. … What a paradox. Even obedience to God is not scripted. Obedience is a wisdom exercise. Law without wisdom is incomplete. (Enns, page 62)

As an example, Dr. Enns explores the way biblical perspectives change, even within the Bible. He talks about how different parts of the Bible revisit and revise perspectives that were offered in earlier books (of the Bible).

Within the Bible itself we see writers both respecting the past and transposing it to the present–or better, they respect the past by transposing it, thus allowing the past to continue speaking. Transposing the past is an act of wisdom. It is not scripted. It can’t be predicted. It just has to happen as it happens, in real time, and by those seeking God’s presence for their time. (Enns, page 70)

Seeing the Bible as a book of wisdom, which doesn’t hand us answers but invites us to accept our journey of faith with courage and humility, is a new idea, I suspect, for some reading this book. … Like that of the biblical writers themselves, our sacred responsibility is to engage faithfully and seriously enough the story of the past in order to faithfully and seriously reimagine God in our present moment. The Bible doesn’t end that process of re-imagination. It promotes it. (Enns, pages 112-113)

Enns hammers this point over and over again as he moves through different areas of consideration.

Judaism has had a roughly three-thousand-year history, which is remarkable. I think God has something to do with this, but practically speaking Judaism survived because it has adapted its sacred tradition to its ever-changing environment while at the same time maintaining the tradition. Or maybe we can give that a little more punch: Judaism was faithful to its tradition by adapting that tradition so that it could survive. Not in a willy-nilly, let’s-throw-caution-to-the-wind sort of way, but Judaism adapted none the less–or risked letting the tradition die altogether. (Enns, page 166)

For the ancient tradition to survive, it had to transform– adapt to changing circumstances. To seek to remain as it always was would simply ensure its isolation, if not its death. The act of transformation is, therefore, a sacred responsibility on the part of people of faith in order to maintain that faith. And how a tradition is transformed is an act of wisdom. When we engage that process today, we are simply doing what the Bible itself as well as Jews in the centuries before the time of Jesus had already modeled. Our experiences, what life throws at us, drive us to think about what God is like here and now and consequently what it means to believe in this God. And without making these wise adaptations, however diverse and even conflicting they might have been and regardless of whether some lasted and others didn’t, Judaism would not have survived. And neither would have Christianity. (Enns, page 189)

Enns points in particular at Christianity and the New Testament as a prime example of this dynamic (at least, for Christians), drawing in ideas about resurrection and martyrdom that were already floating in the air at the time.

The death of the king redeems and atones for the sins of the world–a radical act of reimagining what God would do. If we miss the surprise of all this, we miss the drama of the Gospel. A new thing is happening, something that goes beyond the familiar language of old. God is being reimagined. New wineskins are needed. … The gospel is an act of re-imagining God in view of an unexpected and ground-shifting development–not exile to Babylon, as formative as that was for Judaism, but a Messiah who challenged central elements of Israel’s identity (Law, Temple, land), but who also died a shameful, dishonorable, criminal’s death and then was raised. The New Testament story is, in other words, one big act of wisdom— a response to God’s surprising presence here and now. (Enns, pages 249-250)

Dr. Enns makes some really interesting points about how Protestant Christians use the Pauline Letters:

It’s almost as if Paul’s letters have become the Protestant version of the Law. But that’s fine, as long as we remember that biblical laws are, as we saw, evasive and fidgety little buggers that don’t really tell you what to do. Reading Paul’s letters for clear Divine guidance is ironic, and has frustrated more than one Bible reader. No wonder Protestants have a long history of splinter groups hating each other over disagreements about what Paul means. As with the Law, wisdom is needed when reading Paul’s letters–perhaps more than with any other biblical writer because so much is expected of him. (Enns, page 257)

Dr Enns ends with this charge to each of us:

Whatever any of us think about the Bible as God’s inspired word, it should make us take a step back and reflect for a moment that scripture itself portrays the boundless God in culturally bound ways of thinking. … Whatever fear there might be, grace and peace are also to be found by taking the Bible seriously enough to accept the challenge of wisdom and truly own our faith here and now. That, as I’ve been saying, is our sacred responsibility, and by accepting that responsibility we will learn to let go of the youthful fear of the unfamiliar and move toward wisdom and maturity. That, I believe, is what God wants for us. (Enns, page 277)

May we, the OtherWise of today, claim this sacred responsibility as our own!

Dr Enns also has two other books, one of which I cited very briefly in OtherWise Christian. Check back for more reviews!

Preview: How the Bible Actually Works

Author website: (and podcast, The Bible for Normal People)

Podcast episodes with Rachel Held Evans and with Austen Hartke.

Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige in July 2019.

Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have corrections or are able to contribute further context or reflections.

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