The Best Book for Bible Doubters

A new book invites Christians to reconsider the Bible, warts and all.

Someday I’d like to buy a crate of books to hand out to Christians who are experiencing acute and painful doubt — who, if my personal experience and network are any indication, are legion. The point of the reading will not be to convince them that Christianity is true, but to offer a companion for the journey. If I had to pick only one recent book for that crate, it would be Christian Wiman’s A Bright Abyss. But if I got to pick two, I’d include Peter Enns’ latest book, The Bible Tells Me So. And if I had to pick the perfect book for Christians who hail from an evangelical culture and whose doubts are driven primarily by their experience of reading the Bible, Enns’ book would fill the whole case.

The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It is now the best contemporary book for that troubled class of evangelicals who are raised on scripture verses and who, inevitably it seems, encounter serious doubts when they begin to examine the Bible closely. I spent my angst-ridden twenties looking for a book just like this one, and it didn’t exist. ENNS_BibleTellsMe_HCSure, scores of books address hard questions about the Bible’s veracity and reliability. But the most useful ones are in your neighborhood School of Theology library — which, come to think of it, you probably don’t have. And if you do, you probably don’t want to read the books inside it. For readability and relatability — for a book you can share with most anyone questioning why the Bible doesn’t seem to behave as a pervasive Christian Bible culture tells us it will behave — Enns’ book is the place to go.

I’ll spare you another account of the Bible’s oddities here; suffice it to say that many is the believer who has turned to the Good Book for comfort, wisdom, and inspiration, and found it to be an inconsistent delivery system. They are told the Bible is One Thing — a clear and timeless account of God’s love — and when it turns out to be Something Else Entirely — an ancient text filled with curiosities and disturbances — the experience can be searing, even life-changing.

Early in The Bible Tells Me So, Enns tells his story of making a discovery of these issues for the first time. He was a Bible college graduate and passionate reader of the text who was studying for a doctorate in religion at Harvard. One day while listening to a professor recount a surprising connection between a certain Old Testament story and a New Testament passage, Enns experiences a kind of epiphany: The Bible is an ancient artifact. Perhaps the Bible is sacred, even divine, but the text is also replete with signs of its age, its original culture(s), its experience of being manhandled. Immersed for years in Bible-believing cultures, Enns had been confident that he understood the Bible. Suddenly, the scriptures were made strange.

Enns says he saw two doors of possibility: Door #1 was pushing the questions aside in favor of blind acceptance, and Door #2 was boning up on conservative defenses of the Bible against all opposition. Both are live options, and most Christians know people who have walked through one or the other. But Enns also saw a Door #3: “I could face what I just saw, accept the challenge, and start thinking differently about the Bible.”

Hm. Lucky him. In my experience, Door #3 does not appear so easily for all Christians who have a wtf-is-up-with-the-Bible experience. It certainly did not appear for me back when I was a young evangelical encountering Bible-inspired doubt. I could only see Doors 1 and 2, and neither of them looked appealing. I had to beat my way to Door 3 through years of intellectual weeds — slowly, in my spare time, with fits and starts, reading the likes of the Jesus Seminar scholars and then John Piper and Darrell Bock and then James Kugel and, eventually, the Fortress Press version of N.T. Wright. I had to turn myself into a Bible nerd to find Door #3. But how many people who face these questions have time or inclination to do that?

Someone (I’d like to think it was an editor, because editors are The Best) had the notion to separate Enns’ chapters into small sections that read like mini-chapters. That design choice keeps the book moving at a good clip, which fits Enns’ style and is the culmination of his experience as a blogger for the religion website Patheos. His tone has touches of flippancy here and there, and he is not shy about using groaners, but that’s all in keeping with the bloggerific approach. And I think it works really well overall — a blend of scholarship, personal reflection, and short bursts of quippy writing.

I said the book was readable and relatable, and there’s one more r-word to describe The Bible Tells Me So: reverent. Surprisingly so. Enns’ book has come in for criticism from some reviewers who find that he plays fast and loose with the Bible, but egads, people — among books pitched to a wide audience, you are not going to find a more reverent non-fundamentalist reading of the Bible’s troubling features. Enns can be frank when describing the dark edges of God’s character and God-ordained acts of violence in the Bible. But he signals his deep love and respect for the Bible, too, calling on readers to “keep reading and wrestling with the Bible” and pledging that they’ll meet God in its pages.

All in all, Enns models a way for modern believers to see the Bible for what it is, warts and all, yet stay open to the possibility that it’s a book of ultimate and urgent truth, even Truth. The Bible Tells Me So is not a defense of scripture, and neither is it a takedown. It’s an invitation to let go of fear and give the Bible an honest reading. It’s about what it’s like to take Door #3, and a promise that if you walk through it, you won’t find yourself alone.

Patton Dodd
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  • Jesus & Dawkins

    Great post! I really like your line about the book’s accessibility: “For readability and relatability — for a book you can share with most anyone questioning why the Bible doesn’t seem to behave as a pervasive Christian Bible culture tells us it will behave — Enns’ book is the place to go.”

  • bullet1986

    An excellent post. Coming out of a fundamentalist background, I became what I call a Biblical theologian while in college and seminary due to two professors who taught me to approach scripture in a different way and be willing to wrestle with it. I would quibble about one word used though. Instead of “meeting” God in scripture, I would say a person would “see” God in scripture: His nature and character; His intentions; how He has done things and is now doing them. Just like I wouldn’t say that I would “meet” a person by reading something s/he has written, even an autobiography, I can “see” who s/he is by reading what has been put down on paper. The “meeting” comes on a personal level as two people come together. I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the downfalls of the typical approach to scripture. God and scripture are almost seen as synonymous, almost like a “deification” of scripture. I harken to Jesus’ words to the Jews from John 5:37ff: “And the Father who sent Me, He has testified concerning Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor have you seen His form, and you do not have His word abiding in you, for Him whom He sent, this One you do not believe. You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that testify concerning Me. Yet you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.”

    • cken

      Very interesting approach. Question- Do we actually see God in the Bible or do we see man imbuing an ineffable God with human characteristics? Perhaps it makes no difference but it’s an interesting question, or maybe it’s a conundrum.

  • http://christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

    Thanks for this. Truly. Thanks.

  • David Naas

    The problem is particularly acute for those who ever thought the Bible is the “inerrant, infallible, verbal plenary inspired word of God.” Those who attend liturgical churches have less problems. For them, it is a case of, “Well, it ain’t perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got,” and go on trying to be Christians as best they know how.

  • David Naas

    The problem is particularly acute for those who ever thought the Bible is the “inerrant, infallible, verbal plenary inspired word of God.” Those who attend liturgical churches have less problems. For them, it is a case of, “Well, it ain’t perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got,” and go on trying to be Christians as best they know how.

  • stefanstackhouse

    The problem isn’t so much with the Bible itself, but rather with what people have been told they are supposed to think it says. It is when people finally get around (amazing how many “Bible-believers” actually are not all that familiar with their Bibles) to looking at what the Bible actually says as opposed to what they thought it says that the crisis comes.

    It is not just that “the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, verbal plenary inspired word of God”; it is also inerrant only in the original autographs (which we no longer have), and “in all that it affirms”. That last phrase need not constitute “weasel words”, but it does mean that one must make a good effort to properly interpret the Bible in context (including the context of the whole in relation to the part, and the context of the social background when it was written), and with due regard for literary style. So many of people’s problems with the Bible actually come down to problems with misinterpretations of the Bible. As for the bit about the original autographs, it just needs to be emphasized that our English language translations are not themselves inerrant, and caution is required in interpreting the Bible if one is not an expert in the original languages. So many people make controversial assertions that cannot even be supported by the text in the original language.

    The Bible is what it is and says what it says. We need to approach it with an open mind and an open heart, but we need to approach it in terms of what it actually says.

    • bullet1986

      First, let me state that I am able to read and translate the original language of the New Testament – Koine Greek. As you correctly stated the stated position of the inerrancy of Scripture is that “the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, verbal plenary inspired word of God in the original autographs.” A particular verse upon which this is based is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” Paul uses the word “graphe” which literally means “the Writings” and is also the word Paul uses to refer to what we know as the Old Testament. When Paul quotes texts from the Old Testament, he typically uses a phrase like “it is written” to introduce his quote. So, when Paul uses this particular word, he is referring to what we know as the Old Testament. I don’t find anywhere in his letters to indicate that Paul considered himself to be writing new Scripture. He definitely considered that what he was writing was authoritative, though. These texts weren’t considered to be Scripture until later.

      So, that raises an interesting question, at least it does in my mind. If Paul wasn’t referring to what is now known as the New Testament, but the Old Testament, when he said, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” is it legitimate, after the fact, to take what he said and apply it to his own writings and the rest of the New Testament even though he didn’t intend it?

  • Mike D’Virgilio

    Patton, I am not a fan of Enn’s, at all, but I don’t in a blog comment want to debate his assertions, or yours, about the Bible. But you make a very curious statement that is categorically false. You state that the Bible is a “clear and timeless account of God’s love.” Actually what the Bible is, is a not always so clear and bound in time account of the history of redemption. Rule number one when we speak about the doctrine of God is not to take one aspect of his character as revealed in the Bible and focus on it to the exclusion of his other attributes. God is also holy, and he is a just judge of the sins of mankind. The wages of sin, Paul tells us, is death, the most ugly thing we can experience in this life. No wonder the Bible is not full of luvy duvy cream puff religion. It’s about the wages of sin! It’s about death, and God’s plan to overcome it.

    If someone doesn’t want to fall into Enn’s trap of eviscerating the Bible, I’d suggest Paul Copan’s excellent book, “Is God a Moral Monster?” You might find there are other plausible explanations for what we find in the OT, rather than agreeing with the likes of Richard Dawkins.

    • KentonS

      Eviscerating the bible??? Did you read Enns’ book?

      • Mike D’Virgilio

        Kenton, that is a fair question, and I have not. There is a lot of background to that statement. I actually attended Westminster Seminary with Enns, and I know of his history. I’ve read a lot of his work on the web, which honestly never encouraged me to dig into this books. When he got to the point of declaring that Adam and Eve were not real historical persons, the gig was up, at least for me. Once you give up the history, then why trust any of it. If stories are made up of whole cloth to make a point, then I say you destroy the integrity of the entire thing. I know his intention is certainly not to eviscerate Scripture, but I’m afraid as you head down the road he’s on you inevitably get to that place.

        • bakabomb

          Well, I’m a little surprised to find a commenter who avows that Adam and Eve were real people. Is it also your belief that Adam lived for 930 years (Genesis 5:4 says “800 years after begetting Seth”). Seriously, I’m curious because I can’t reconcile a 900+ year lifespan with a statement that he was a real person.

          • Mike D’Virgilio

            Well, I guess I’m just not as sophisticated as you. You assume everything in the past is just as it is today, and I’m afraid that’s an assumption you simply cannot prove.

          • Mike D’Virgilio

            Thanks, Kenton. I’m not sure I would characterize my position as” hard literal.” Maybe it is, but the Enns of the world seem to think their approach has no problems of its own, or at least I don’t sense they think so. I get the impression that we “hard literalists” if that is what we are, are seen as benighted in some way, that we insist on avoiding the obvious because we fear our faith is too fragile for the truth. In that way, I find the Enns’ approach condescending and elitist. These debates have been going on for well over 200 years, and if history tells us anything it tells us that those who “pick and choose” end up eventually doing what I said in my original comment, eviscerating the faith. If past is prologue, I fear evangelicals on this tack today will end up like the liberal Christians of J. Gresham Machen’s day. Beware of unexamined assumptions that creep into argument and assertion. Something we humans are all too susceptible to.

            Grace to you too.

          • KentonS

            Well, I’ve seen enough in comment threads on blogs to say the condescension and elitist street can go both ways.

            I think we all “pick and choose” when it comes to scripture. Some of us are just a little more willing to admit it. :)

          • Mike D’Virgilio

            Fair enough. We’re all sinners. But to say we all “pick and choose” is simply not accurate. So called liberal Christianity since 19th Century German high criticism has held that the Bible cannot be trusted as an historical document. Even before, President Jefferson was famous, or infamous, for excising the supernatural out of the Gospels in his version. Those who believe the Bible is more human than divine have every incentive to sit in judgment on what part is really divine. But I’m curious exactly what we who have a B.B. Warfield high view of Scripture supposedly “pick and choose”?

          • bakabomb

            “You assume everything in the past is just as it is today,” No, actually I assume that lifespans were shorter in the early days of humanity because throughout recorded history, human lifespans have slowly increased and I see no logical reason why early humankind would have a lifespan ten times as long as modern man. Seems to me you’re the one who’s got the burden of proof.

          • Mike D’Virgilio

            Actually, you’re wrong. Your assumption has no more basis in fact than mine. You assume, with no proof, that God could not have created an unfallen world that fell and as such the implications of decay worked themselves out over the centuries. Your confidence is misplaced.

          • bakabomb

            You say “I’m wrong”, but you likewise have no proof of your contention. You didn’t specifically answer the question, but I have to assume that you do, in fact, believe that Adam lived to age 930 years. Do you also think this happened 6000 years ago per Bishop Ussher’s calculations? Or do you accept scientific methods such as radioisotope dating? Hominids go back well over a million years. And forensic archeologists can use scientific methods to determine the approximate ages at death of those skeletons. “Approximate” in this case doesn’t mean “give or take 800 years”.

            When it comes to the factuality of the first part of Genesis, I’ll choose science and ordinary horse sense over unprovable mythology any day. I attend church every Sunday and love God, but there’s nothing impious or sinful about using the mind that God gave me. Insisting to take every Bible story literally and factually is like eating not just the egg, but the eggshell too; not just the chicken, but the beak too. Yum! Crunch!

        • KentonS

          I see. I guess like bakabomb, I find the hard literal approach to the bible untenable. Finding other approaches (in the same line as Enns) has been helpful to me. I hosted a discussion on the book at my house this week and others said the book was helpful too. (It was also disturbing for those in the hard literal camp).

          Grace to you, Mike.

          • Tom from North Carolina

            I have a way in which you can reconcile the literal with the interpreted. It starts by recognizing that the bible was written by unknown authors who scribed stories passed along from person to person. There are no original texts to be found and no way to reconcile differences found between the various scraps of manuscripts. Even these scraps vary because each recopying by hand introduced variation and errors.

            The bottom line, no one knows who said what. All the variations in understanding as to what the bible says and what it means as illustrated in the comments above indicate that if anything, the bible is not clearly written. Now couple that fact with the obvious fact that in 2,000 years god has not definitively set the record straight. Maybe because there is no one or nothing to set the record straight. And so religions will go on arguing about whether eating shrimp is really a sin when mankind should have tossed Christian myths right alongside of those involving Jupiter and Hercules.

          • KentonS

            Yeah, I don’t think Peter Enns wrote this book with you in mind.

    • cken

      Paul was obviously being metaphorical, but more than that, should we take Paul’s opinions written in letters to churches as being inviolably sacred?

    • Larryinchicago

      Mike ,so you are clearly opting for option #2 which is the normal response of most conservative Christians but the book and the article are about a 3rd option. Without it many with honest and legitimate questions would leave the Faith all together.

      • Mike D’Virgilio

        Hi Larryinchicago! I’m Mikeinchicagoarea. I’m been thinking about your statements throughout the day, and in my mind the third option is not legitimate even if it keeps people in the faith. But of course, I could be wrong. This brings up a conundrum. Every honest person should have questions about a book, or collection of books, that is so complex and compelling and that makes absolute claims on our lives. If someone doesn’t have questions, they simply are not thinking. The issue I think comes when we get answers we do not like. Do we reject the answers simply because we do not like them? Are the answers that Enns and others like him proffer actually The Truth? This is not a one way street; all apparent problems are not de facto problems or unsolvable. Much we cannot understand, but we just in the character of the Living God.

        For instance I’m readying through the Bible and am currently in Deuteronomy. It so happens that this morning I was reading chapter 7, where God through Moses tells the Israelites to destroy the peoples currently inhabiting the promised land; they are to have no mercy, take no pity. Because of such commands Dawkins and friends call the God of the OT a homicidal, genocidal maniac. Enns thinks they have a point, so he obviously feels he need to defend this notion of God these ancient people obviously made up (not God himself, but how these people portrayed him in their writings).

        But God doesn’t need defending. God was perfectly justified in condemning those seven nations to death. The wages of sin is death, after all, and that he allows any of us to live is all his mercy and grace. God is holy, and his wrath, as Paul says, is revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Wrath, God’s wrath specifically, it a terribly unpalatable concept to 21st Century westerners. They don’t mind a God of love, but they don’t go for this judgment and sin stuff. So called liberal Christians have always focused on the former while either denying or ignoring the latter.

        This is impossible to do justice to in a blog comment. If you’d like to have a cup of coffee some time in Chicagoland, as they call it, I’d love to sit down and have a conversation. Best, Mike

        • Larryinchicago

          Mike

          First of all, thank you for a very diplomatic and thoughtful response.I am fairly sure that I understand your points because I was a conservative Christian for many years and got my bachelors degree in a Bible College.I eventually left that belief system after continuously finding inerrancy untenable.

          I studied this at the graduate level at a very evengelical Trinity Divinity School and l sadly concluded but the Bible was no longer trustworthy. Not as an inerrant book. I dropped out of seminary, thought I had left the faith, but many years later realized I had only left my conservative belief system. That was 25 years ago.

          I have since gotten my masters in theology at Memphis Theological which is a very progressive seminary. Got that in 2008. So I have had the privilege of studyIng both sides, not only from within their respective theological circles, but while I also held to the same beliefs.

          In my previous comment, I did not mean to imply that not believing innerrancy keeps some people in the faith, and because of that fact it is acceptable or usable. I said it because many other people like myself believe it to be the truth. I haven’t read Enn’s book. But if he sets out his ideasclearly and convincingly and is not put your active toward those who disagree… Then I’m for it. And here my relativity will show through because I am all for inerrantists doing the same thing if they are not pejorative and sanctimonious.

          Very sadly I no longer live in Chicago and haven’t for many years or else I would gladly get together over coffee. I love discussing theology as long as it does not get argumentative.

          Please Check out my blog called. ..Homeless Christians: Evangelicals and Liberals Falling Through the Cracks…LarryMeza.blogspot.com.

          The posts are fairly brief and I think it would be a good and provocative discussion for us both. I would really like to continue the conversation.

          Peace of Christ to you,

          Larry

          • Mike D’Virgilio

            Larry, too bad you no longer are a Chicagoan. I think we could have enjoyable conversations.

            Believe it or not, one of my favorite verses in the Bible, even as the right-wing conservative that I am, is I Cor. 8:2: “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” I am uncomfortable with anyone, regardless of what they believe, who is ardently dogmatic. As finite creatures, if we are not humble in what we affirm, we are deluded. I think Enns falls into this trap. I get a sense of condescension that is a turn off. Again, I could be wrong because I haven’t read him extensively.

            I think one problem progressives have is that they throw around the word “inerrancy” as if there was only one definition, the most negative, dogmatic, narrow one, and that every “conservative” believes just that. I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Many who hold such views end up like Bart Ehrman; once an inerrantist fundamentalist, they become just another kind of fundamentalist, for him the agnostic kind. J.I. Packer in Knowing God said we’d be surprised how often a person’s theological persuasion is more determined by his personality than anything else.

            The bottom line is that the Bible is not what we worship, but the risen Christ. THE Word of God itself. Those who confuse the two, whatever camp they claim, I’m afraid miss the boat.

          • Larryinchicago

            I love B Erhman and ave never sensed the slightest bit of condescension to conservatives or to his students in the lectures I have heard by him. All he tells his students is that if you believe something then you must know why you believe it.I have met many progressives who are anti-conservative but he is not one of them.

            I had a professor in a very fundamentalist seminary I went to who said that 80 to 90 percent of theology is temperament. I have never forgotten that and in large part I agree.

            Once again from experience, it would be very difficult to say who had the most condescension towards the other…progressives or conservatives.some of the progressives that I am acquainted with on Facebook can be completely brutal toward conservative Christian thinking. I have said on the site that there are also “fundamentalist progressives” to me fundamentalism.. as a term is basically an attitude and posture of absolutism…meaning I am absolutely right. Conservatism often says you MUST believe what I believe and progressives often say you MUST be open like I am open.

            If progressives are in danger of not relying enough upon Christ conservatives are in danger of relying way too much on the Bible. Jesus spoke of this very thing in John 5:39. Interesting that Jesus did not say you search the Scriptures because in them you think you will find eternal life. He said because in them you think you have eternal life. Biblolitry.

            Yes there are a few different types of inerrancy and the Reformed brand such as Westminster often has no problems with minor discrepancies. My experience however is that the Reformed understanding is a very small part of Evangelicalism.

        • Larryinchicago

          Also Mike…of course I agree that it can be an issue and is wrong if someone twists theology simply in order to match their morality. But that is neither limited to progressives or conservatives. Progressives would claim that that is exactly what conservatives do. They often promote an extremely personal and cultural morality while ignoring the much deeper moral issues of society and institutions.

  • cken

    I haven’t read either book yet but I would say that of the 5 to 10% of Christians who read the Bible few know how to really read and understand. None who can read and understand would ever say the Bible is the inerrant Holy Word of God. I also think the defense of Christianity, commonly know as Apologetetics, over the last 5 decades has become the playground of the devil, in as much as the impassioned defense obfuscates the essence of the truth.