January 23, 2021

Pete Enns: 4 thoughts about the Bible as a “human book”

Moses called the elders and presents Tablets of Law, Chagall

Moses called the elders and presents Tablets of Law, Chagall

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 milti-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, 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 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 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.

• • •

51fGjLhWR6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Note from CM: 

Thanks to Pete for letting us share this post. Pete continues to be one of my most reliable guides to thinking about how to approach and interpret the Bible. He blogs at Rethinking Biblical Christianity.

A revised 10th anniversary edition of his important book, Inspiration and Incarnation, will be coming out later this summer.


  1. I’ve never left a thank you to IM for introducing me to Enns work. I grew up with Ken Ham “hermeneutics” which on day one, my scientist and believer father slammed. Enns and Andrew Perriman have given me a lot to think about and work with as I sort out what reading the Bible means.

    So thank you! And to Dr. Enns, thanks for addressing the humanity of scripture and providing the interactional models which I found I’ve fallen into without knowing how to describe it.

  2. turnsalso says

    I hadn’t thought of humanity as a necessity of the Bible before. I’ve been willing to allow it as a coincidental fact and something unavoidable because of its human authorship, but as a necessity from the start, that’s something else. Just as Christ was fully human and fully God, something meant to reveal him and God the Father and God the Holy Spirit cannot help but be both as well.

    • “Just as Christ was fully human and fully God, something meant to reveal him and God the Father and God the Holy Spirit cannot help but be both as well.”


      On another note, I like Irenaeus’ conviction that the Incarnation was not an accident, or a “concession” to humanity, in response to the need for salvation from sin, but was part of the creational plan from the beginning; that God had eternally positioned the Incarnation in Adam’s future so that in the fullness of time Adam could be humanly accompanied by Godhood. If this is true, Adam was created in the actual IMAGE of God- the God who would eventually appear in Christ.

      Perhaps we should be thinking of the Bible and its human nature similarly- that it was not simply a response to sin to explain to us Fall and Redemption, but that it was always the plan to record the divine-human drama for future generations to read and know God as the creator who takes on flesh. The book that tells the human story of God (or the divine story of Man). Then with the Fall, God’s inspiring Word took on the additional task of relating humanity’s sinfulness and God’s plan, and of drawing humanity’s eyes towards the Word made flesh.

      Lots to think about…

  3. Christiane says

    has anyone ever noticed the DIFFERENCE in how the sacred Scriptures affect a Christian when they are a large part of that Christian’s liturgy and prayer life, as opposed to Christians who ‘study’ the Bible and ‘memorize’ it in order to use it in theological arguments ???

    the difference is one that is affected by the way a person has taken in what is sacred:

    through the mind
    through the heart

    and that difference may be something that has not been studied and evaluated enough, because some believe that the ‘encounter’ of a human person with ‘the Word’ in the form of sacred Scripture is a big part of Christian formation

    • Christiane, I’m hoping for more ongoing coverage and discussion of one of the new positive identifiers of the Monastery, that of contemplation. In my view, the most important for the church blossoming as we speak.

      If you see this, and while I have your attention, something I have wanted to ask for some time. How do you pronounce your name?

      • Christiane says

        Hi CHARLES,
        I look forward to more coverage and discussion of ‘contemplation’ on Imonk, yes! Good news, this. 🙂

        (my blogging name is pronounced ‘chris – chann’ (like charlie CHAN) 🙂 . . . my paternal family is French Canadian and it is a family name from way back . . . the accent is on the second syllable, Charles.)

        • Thanks! My name from way back is Fiennes, Norman French transplanted to England with William the Conqueror. British upper class still use the old spelling but pronounced to rhyme with vines, working class shortened like mine.

    • Rick Ro. says

      Good stuff, Christiane. Your post got me thinking that Jesus was well-read and familiar with the scriptures, but as I recall his USE of them, he used them primarily to:

      1) Resist the devil and temptation;
      2) Remind himself of His Father’s will and presence;
      3) Hold them up as a mirror to the teachers of the Law and scribes.

      Rarely, if ever, did he use them as theological arguments to the non-believing Gentile, as we tend to use them.

  4. Good observation, Christiane. You may have hit upon the core of the Law-Gospel divide. Grace to some, Works to others.

    • Christiane says

      Hi TED,
      when you think about it, before there was a ‘New Testament’, people used the sacred Scriptures in their liturgical worship all throughout the catholic world . . . as a matter of fact, one of the ‘tests’ for a Scripture to be included in the New Testament by the Councils was that it had been used universally, over time, and consistently in the Church for ‘the work of the people’ (ie. ‘the liturgy’) when the first half of the Mass was actually known as ‘the Service of the Word’

      in a sense, the practice of the liturgy informed the credibility of the New Testament scriptures, so the liturgy was mother to the NT

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