Thinking Out Loud

February 21, 2019

Peter Enns: A Fresh Lens for Approaching the Bible

Filed under: bible, Christianity, doctrine, reviews, theology — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:42 am

For most of us, hearing about a book which purports to teach us “How to” read the Bible usually presents two possibilities:

  • a basic introduction to the organization of the Christian scriptures, such as a Bible handbook; the type of thing we might give to a new believer; or
  • an introduction to the idea of Biblical interpretation, or what is called hermeneutics.

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 Peter Enns takes a rather different approach; showing us how the scriptures themselves have developed — a word preferred over evolved — different ideas which are commonplace in Christian thought, including the idea of an enemy (satan) or the idea of the resurrection of the physical body.

Or here’s another way of looking at the book: Many of you were aware of a controversy a few months ago when Andy Stanley said that the Church needs to jettison itself from the Old Testament. (It was that j-word that got him hot water.) I would suggest it’s not a stretch that Peter Enns would say that successive Old Testament writers were themselves trying to jettison themselves from earlier Old Testament writers; that this is a process which has been ongoing. (See Chapter 10, the section headed “Exhibit A.”) Follow this line of thinking, and you might find yourself believing that the Bible is a living book.

Or similarly, it’s as though one Gospel writer might bristle at the the way another writer has framed a particular episode in the life of Jesus. But of course, each is writing for a different audience. Peter Enns captures these anomalies, but sees them as part of his delight in reading scripture, not as a problem to be solved.

While his scholarship is evident, his approach in this book has a remarkably common touch. In one section makes it clear that “open theology” is above his pay grade. Furthermore, one can only take on so much in a more general treatment of Bible interpretation. The book doesn’t try to be all things for all people.

Some readers may be disturbed at Enns’ gratuitous use of writings from the Apocrypha to substantiate certain arguments. As an Evangelical, I accept the historical value of those books, but am often unaccustomed to seeing them quoted in the books I review. (Keep in mind however that this books is published by HarperOne, not the Zondervan or Nelson divisions of HarperCollins.)

Still others may have a knee-jerk reaction to the books subtitle, especially “…an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book…” Ambiguous? Yes. For Enns, that’s part of the Bible’s basic equation; and that’s exactly where the “wisdom” in the other half of the extra-long subtitle comes into play.

Reading this following Stanley’s Irresistible made for an interesting pairing. In terms of our understanding of the book of books, something is clearly afoot, and Peter Enns doesn’t want you to miss it!

Thanks to Dave Knox at HarperCollins Christian Publishing Canada for the opportunity to read How the Bible Actually Works. It went on sale on Tuesday in hardcover wherever you buy fine books.

Previously at Thinking Out Loud: A November, 2016 review of Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty, in which, coincidentally, Andy Stanley’s name also was mentioned!

Postscript: Books like this one, and Andy Stanley’s (mentioned above) and Rob Bell’s What is the Bible? are part of a fresh genre of books which, while not Bible handbooks in the traditional sense, serve much the same purpose. For a more conservative approach books like Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth continues to fill the void between handbook and general guide to hermeneutics.


  1. As a Catholic convert from Evangelicalism, I have to say that allowing myself to see scripture as a developed message has allowed me to understand the difficult parts of the Bible (not just the Old Testament…God revealed more and more depth even as the early Church developed).. I no longer have to defend the words of ancient writers whose God is not the one I know and whose writings fly in the face of the words of Christ. Jesus Himself said “You have heard it said…but I say”. I do not have to go “Rob Bell” and erase hell, but I can welcome the development of thought without feeling like I need to throw out everything I do not understand. I was afraid in the beginning, that allowing myself to pull a loose thread would unravel the whole binding of the Book. It did not. Actually the Apocrypha, the writings of the Early Church Fathers and the Old and New Testaments, widen the lens through which I see God.

    Comment by Cynthia — February 21, 2019 @ 10:41 am

    • Well stated. Thanks for this comment.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 21, 2019 @ 12:22 pm

    • “You have heard it said. . .” expressed our L-RD YeshuaJesus’s distain for the way in which the religious establishment misinterpreted the scripture, not that the scripture itself was wrong.

      L-RD Bless, Keep, Shine, and reveal Truth to your heart. . .

      Comment by jonahzsong — February 24, 2019 @ 8:54 am

  2. The title of Mr. Enns’s book displays his sin of arrogance. I don’t need to read his self-deluded opinions to know the book will go downhill from there. As for other “Christian” authors mentioned, well, they’ve slide off the slope already.

    When we come to the scriptures, and really want to know how it all works, it is not easy, for we must humble ourselves before a mighty G-D, and accept the enlightenment of His Spirit.

    Oh, of course, we must first accept G-D, through His Son YeshuaJesus–a prerequisite!

    L-RD Bless, Keep, Shine upon you Paul, as you seek G-D with your entire being. . .

    Comment by jonahzsong — February 24, 2019 @ 9:06 am

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