Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Bible and Ancient Tradition


In his review of Dr. Pete Enns' book Inspiration and Incarnation John Frame writes:


"In the first section, I have a hard time seeing where the problem lies. Enns’ point is that Old Testament Israel spoke languages and had institutions (temples, prophets, priests, kings, legal codes) that were in some ways like the other nations of its time. He admits that the fact that the OT uses human languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek “hardly poses a theological problem” (19), except for a few people who once thought that NT Greek was a special “Holy Spirit language.” Nor, certainly, is there anything particularly odd or challenging about the fact that nations other than Israel had temples, priests, etc. That these nations had such institutions is plain in the OT narrative. In fifty years of studying the issues of biblical authority, I have never once heard or read anybody who said that the existence of such parallel institutions was any kind of problem for the Bible’s inspiration or authority.

"I have heard and read a lot of reflection about the parallels between Israel’s laws and narratives to those outside Israel. Israel’s laws are somewhat like those of the Code of Hammurabi; non-Israelite nations have their own creation stories and flood stories, their own wisdom literatures, which are both like and unlike those in the Bible. Perhaps there have been some evangelicals who have found these parallels problematic, but I think not very many. The fact that non-Israelite traditions are different, even older, does not prove or even suggest that there are any defects in the biblical versions.

"God wanted his people to have a well-functioning legal system, geared to its life in its ancient environment. For this purpose, there was no need to re-invent the wheel. The Code of Hammurabi and other ancient codes addressed that same need, in similar cultures, and so it should be no surprise that God’s laws reflected the legal tradition of which Hammurabi’s Code was an instance. Moses, or some source he made use of, may well have found in a pre-existing set of laws, statutes that would fit Israel’s situation. The traditional doctrine of organic inspiration says that there is no contradiction between divine inspiration and human efforts to determine the right thing to say. The former often makes use of the latter.

"Similarly, God wanted Israel to know something about the creation and flood. If we assume that these events actually happened, it is not surprising that the literature of non-Israelite nations bear witness to them. And it is not surprising that God would inspire Moses to give Israel true accounts, or that these accounts are like the others in some respects. These accounts are similar, not only because they presuppose similar literary conventions, but also because they are describing the same event. Here too it would not be contrary to the doctrine of organic inspiration to believe that Moses depended on pre-existing sources from other nations.

"Enns asks, “if the Bible reflects these ancient customs and practices, in what sense can we speak of it as revelation?” (31) I reply, why not? It is revelation because it’s God’s word and therefore true. It’s like asking, “Luke and Josephus both speak of Jesus, so how can Luke be revelation?” Easy. Luke is an inspired apostle and Josephus is not. Is Enns attributing to some the view that a book cannot be revelation unless it reveals an entirely unique culture? I know nobody who says that, and such a view would be so implausible as to be undeserving of refutation. Maybe this is Enns’ own point, that a document can be God’s word even if it doesn’t reflect or establish a unique culture. But I can’t imagine why he thought this needed to be argued.

"We do often refer to Scripture as unique. But we don’t call it unique because it reflects a unique culture, rather because it is the written word of God and bears a unique witness to Christ."


You can read the rest of Dr. Frame's review HERE.

11 comments:

case.jess said...

Frame is one of my favs.

Todd Pruitt said...

He's solid. His still in progress systematic theology is outstanding.

Dave Rogel said...

"The traditional doctrine of organic inspiration says that there is no contradiction between divine inspiration and human efforts to determine the right thing to say. The former often makes use of the latter."

Beautifully put, indeed.

I do, however, wonder about Frame's use of the quote from Enns' book, ("if the Bible reflects these ancient customs and practices, in what sense can we speak of it as revelation?"), which seems to be taken out of context. Enns states his goal "to provide a theological paradigm for people who know instinctively that the Bible is God's word, but for whom reading the Bible has already become a serious theological problem--perhaps even a crisis." (15) Questions as might be posed by such individuals are peppered throughout the beginning of the book, and the answering of such questions is the entire point of the book. Thus, to lift one such question out of its context and treat it as a rhetorical assertion by Enns represents an unfortunate confusion between the questions Enns includes in the beginning of the book and his subsequent responses to these questions. Such misunderstandings are polarizing and unhelpful, especially in the case of Enns' book, the very point of which is that the uniqueness of the Bible is NOT compromised by similarities to other ANE texts (as Frame states so eloquently above).

From John Frame:

"Enns asks, 'if the Bible reflects these ancient customs and practices, in what sense can we speak of it as revelation?' (31) I reply, why not?

From Peter Enns, later in the same chapter as the above quote:

"What makes Genesis different from its ancient Near East couterparts is that it begins to make the point to Abraham and his seed that the God they are bound to, the God who called them into existence, is different from the gods around them.
...God
transformed the ancient myths so that Israel's story would come to focus on its God, the real one." (53-54)

Care should be taken in quoting preliminary questions from a book which are not written as questions the author is asking, but questions a skeptic might ask which are stated early on, then answered.

Dave Rogel said...

(A minor correction)

I wrote:

"Such misunderstandings are polarizing and unhelpful, especially in the case of Enns' book, the very point of which is that the uniqueness of the Bible is NOT compromised by similarities to other ANE texts."

Rather than 'the very point of which', I ought to have said, 'one point of which', as the uniqueness of the Bible is not the only major concern of the book, but rather one of three.

Harley A. said...

Dave, I believe you downplay and mischaracterize what these men are asserting. They aren’t simply champions of the human component of the authorship of scripture. We all believe that, except for a few on the fringe. But their version of the humanity of scripture is not the same as mine (or many others) as you know. Their research has led them to conclude, for example, that Exodus is historically and theologically inaccurate in places. And, that for us to understand scripture, we must understand it contextually based on our knowledge of history. So, where does that place the authority of scripture ? Clearly in the hands of the neo-church-fathers who have the background to rightly interpret this for us. How many of us make it a point to study ANE history and literature ?

I’m not trying to demonize these guys, but let’s be honest about what they are saying. And let’s be honest about what the orthodox understanding is – it DOES affirm the humanity of scripture in EXACTLY the same way that we affirm Christ’s humanity – human but without sin (error). The humanity of Christ analogy is a perfect analogy but Enn’s fumbles it…

Dave Rogel said...

Harley,

I was only speaking for Enns in my comment. I'm sure others go much farther than Enns did, and perhaps I would not agree with them at that point. What did you mean when you wrote that they consider parts of Exodus to be "theologically inaccurate"? Could you quote an example? (I do not ask this as a challenge, but as a genuine question from someone trying to better understand both sides of this issue, and specifically to understand who is saying what. So many books, so little time...)

Thanks for the great dialog, and thanks in advance for the clarification.

Todd Pruitt said...

For those of you that don't know Dave, he is a terrific guy. He is one of our tech gurus here at Church of the Saviour. He is also a phenominal musician.

I point this out because of his parenthetical reference in his last post. I can vouch for him. His questions are sincere.

I also know Harley. I had the privilege of being his pastor in Wichita.

So I am gratified that we have good men engaging in an important debate in a way that is gracious.

Good work men!

Todd Pruitt said...

Dave,

In answer to your question in your first comment in this thread, my reading of Enns is that he is asking the question. If the Old Testament writers were unknowingly recording myths rather than real history in what way can we consider what they wrote revelation from God?

Now, Dr. Enns seems to affirm that the Pre-monarchical "myths" are revelation. But considering the lengths to which he goes to attribute the events of Genesis and Exodus to myth one must wonder how that can be simultaneously considered divine revelation.

Kent Sparks said...

Hi Todd,

Got into this post a little late.

First, one of the points that I make in my guide to Near Eastern literature is that myths and science were the same sort of things for the ancients. Scholars trying to reconstruct the cosmos actually consulted myths as their source material.

Second, in the Near Eastern myth/science tradition as found in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, waters were above the heavens. This is reflected in texts (both mythical and "scientific") and in pictures.

Third, the author of Genesis fully participated in this Near Eastern viewpoint by saying that there were waters above the heavens. Even before we had the Near Eastern evidence, John Calvin realized that this was an ancient view and an accommodation (by God and Moses) to an ancient and errant view of the cosmos.

Pete and I would agree with Calvin on this matter. And because we are readers of Near Eastern texts unavailable to Calvin, the number of examples like this are far more than he imagined.

Todd Pruitt said...

Kent,

Welcome.

How would you answer the question posed by Dr. Enns? ("if the Bible reflects these ancient customs and practices, in what sense can we speak of it as revelation?")

Clearly the Bible reflects ancient customs and practices. But if the pre-monarchical writings are largely, if not wholly myth, is there any substantive way to call Genesis and Exodus "God's revelation"?

Harley A. said...

http://peterennsonline.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/exodus-and-the-problem-of-historiography-rr-new-version-final-dec-05.pdf

Link above is an example. The author never, if I remember, comes right out and says, "Hey, everybody, Exodus is really messed up theologically, and here's where." But he does clearly articulate that it is very questionable and implies that we can and will never really know if it can be seen as reliable historically and, by implication, theologically.

Read it for yourself and see if I'm misrepresenting it - maybe I am. And, for higher criticism, this is pretty mild and generous.