Of Myth and Metaphor: How Do We Know Where It Enns?

I would like a reasoned explanation from someone who agrees with Peter Enns with regard to myth and metaphor in Scripture.  Exactly how do we discern the concrete facts and historical events of the Bible from the ever-expanding list of merely theological points which have no basis in time and space (i.e. reality)?

Jerry Coyne, a militant atheist, appears to be more perceptive than some Christians, sadly.  Consider his insights here and let me know what you think.

C.M. Granger

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8 thoughts on “Of Myth and Metaphor: How Do We Know Where It Enns?

  1. It is not surprising that Coyne understands the bible the same way that innerantists do. Both have a similar foundationalist epistemology (with differing foundations obviously) and both are guided by modern conceptions of history and truth that have little to no relationship to either pre-modern or post-modern understandings of those subjects. Coyne is, in other words, equally as fundamentalist as innerantists are.

    The gap in communication and understanding between innerantist Christians (with Coyne) and progressives like Enns with regard to your specific question has to so with philosophy and hermeneutics. I am not sure how Enns would answer your question, but I can give you my own (blog length) answer.

    Everyone has a philosophical lens or framework through which they read the bible. This framework is either recognized or unrecognized, but it is there whether we know it and admit it or not. People like Enns are working within an entirely different framework than innerantists are. This makes communication between the two parties difficult.

    Your question, which is clearly very important to you (and fundamentalist atheists like Coyne) within your framework, is not of much concern to someone like me (and I can only speculate, but I would guess that the same would be true of someone like Enns). This is because I work with totally different conceptions of history and truth, which I understand to at all times be both contextual and political.

    As a result of my prior convictions, I believe that the bible, and also my own understanding of the bible, must be read critically and thus continuously re-evaluated in light of interpretive tradition, advancements in reason, and current and future experiences. Likewise, these things must be critically and continuously re-evaluated in light of the bible and also each other, so that all four remain in constant conversation.

    They all work as like a system of checks and balances which are meant to correct faulty interpretations bought about by both individual and corporate sin, bias and finitude.

    Ultimately, what appears to be picking and choosing to you (which it certainly is to some extent) is, as far as I am concerned, the results of sound interpretation from within my own philisophical and hermeneutic framework. Still, however, my own conclusions must be re-evaluated moment by moment in light of my own fallibility.

    Additionally, what you perceive to be more or less universally sound interpretation is, from my perspective, also a form of picking and choosing and the result of your own (possibly unacknowledged) philosophical framework which (whether confessed or not) is inescapably affected by your own tradition, reason and experience. Perhaps this is not as visible (even though it is present) in relation to your current question, but it is very evident (to me and someone like Enns) with regard to which commandments you choose to follow today, and furthermore where you land with reference to the Calvinist/Arminian debate.

    To sum up, I think that Enns has set out to critique the philosophical and hermeneutic framework of innerantists. Innerantists, on the other hand, desire to critique Enns’ conclusions, which are the result of his philosphical and hermeneutic framework. Both sides are thus having different conversations, which accounts for so much of the talking past one another. In my opinion, this is because innerantists have not yet understood what the conversation is about.

    Perhaps this is because they are, for the most part and at this time, unable to recognize the fact that they are not reading the bible “objectively”, nor are they (or anyone else for that matter) able to. It seems to me that they are unable or at least unwilling to acknowledge that they even have a philosophical and hermeneutic lens, and until they do, they will have a difficult time understanding, let alone joining, the conversation that Enns is participating in.

  2. Hi Brian,

    Welcome to the blog.

    Whether the Scriptures are interpreted within a particular framework is not in question. I readily admit that they are. However, I don’t argue for the framework I hold primarily on philosophical grounds. The Lord Jesus asserted the Scriptures could not be broken, that man cannot live on bread alone, but by every word that falls from the mouth of God. He quoted the OT Scriptures as an inerrantist. If you would like to contend otherwise, upon what Scriptural basis do you make such a claim? Was Jesus a proponent of pre- or post-modern views of history and truth?

    Words have meaning. The writers of the sacred text had intention behind what they wrote. Certainly, none of us get everything correct in our interpretations. We are influenced by our own context, hermeneutical methods, etc. Be that as it may, it does not follow that discerning the meaning of the text is a vain endeavor, nor one in which all interpretations are on the table.

    Scripture is not a wax nose which can simply be molded by whatever philosphical notions seem best to the interpreter. Our interpretive framework must be deduced from the text itself.

    The errantist, for lack of a better term, has the immensely difficult position of telling us which parts of the Bible are true, factual, real. He has to explain how it is that we even know there was a historical Jesus at all. Why should I believe in the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension? It seems to me the errantist cannot really make any assertion about truth whatsoever, for then the listener can ask “How do you know that?” Such subjectivity is problematic on many levels, but it also carries no intellectual weight. Coyne admits as much.

    However, back to your main point….

    If the Bible cannot be read “objectively” to some degree, why sit we here?

  3. I actually agree with most of what you say in your first three paragraphs; with the exception being that Jesus (or any of the apostles for that matter)read the OT as an inerrantist. You are correct that “our interpretive framework must be deduced from the text itself”. It is just that I am not persuaded that inerrancy (a modern construct based upon modern conceptions of history and truth and formulated in response to the objections of modern criticism) was the interpretive framework of the pre-modern, first-century, Jewish man Jesus, or his disciples who penned the NT.

    As to your final paragraph…

    To say that there is “no such thing as objectivity” is not the same thing as saying that “there is no such thing as truth”. It just means that the truth is harder to come by than the typical modern-minded (wo)man has assumed. To acknowledge the subjective element that was present in the writing of, and is present in every person’s reading of, the biblical text is not to deem the search for truth a futile pursuit. On the contrary, it should stir up with in us a greater humility, and move us to be much more careful and thorough with regard to our search for the truth.

    In my opinion (and Enns’ would make this point too) inerrancy, because of the fact that it ignores the subjective element in interpretation altogether (both at the level of writing and reading), is epistemologically arrogant and thus intellectually unsatisfying. I was not suggesting (nor would Enns’) that there is no such thing as truth.

    This is just a blog post, so I am not going to attempt to exegete the relevant texts to show why I believe that the verses which you have paraphrased do not neccessitate an inerrantist hermeneutic, or to more thoroughly lay out deep theological and philosophical arguments showing why I believe that the inerrantist hermeneutic is sub-biblical. That would be a waste of your time and mine. If you are interested in getting answers on this topic, I would reccomend (of course) Pete Enns. Additionally, Kenton Sparks has written some helpful books on this topic, as has N.T. Wright.

    If you would like something that would be quicker to wade through than a number of books, I would recommend this podcast…

    http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2012/07/05/nerd-out-preaching-power-pannenberg-pastor-pops/

    I currently find the positions expositied in this podcast to be satisfying, biblically, theologically and philosophically. If you have time, you should check it out.

  4. Thanks Brian,

    In light of your above comments, how do you derive the interpretive framework you espouse *from the text*, namely:

    interpretive tradition

    advancements in reason (I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this, do you mean advancement in knowledge?)

    current and future experiences

    Where is this framework deduced from Scripture? I agree that each of these plays a part in our interpretation, however I fail to see this framework deduced from the text.

    And would you care to elaborate further regarding how a pre-modern, first century Jewish man would understand history and truth?

    Re: your second and third paragraphs…

    I’m not sure I understand your demarcation between truth and objectivity. Digging a little harder to get at truth doesn’t alter the need for objectivity in arriving at it. The subjective element is primarily (although not exclusively) found in the reading and assimilation of the text. Is God’s revelation primarily objective or subjective? I agree that greater humility is needed in handling the Scriptures, but I don’t agree that it is produced by rejecting inerrancy. In fact, such rejection in essense is a rejection of all truth claims. You will disagree, no doubt, but could you explain how you can be dogmatic at any point, even with regard to the gospel itself?

    I reject the assertion that inerrancy ignores the subjective element of interpretation all together. In making such a statement, you have mischaracterized the position. It is not “epistemologically arrogant” to have a confident, yet humble, apprehension of the gospel or any other essential element of the faith that is based on the sacred text. What is sub biblical and intellectually unsatisfying is a hermeneutic which makes the interpreter the final arbiter of truth. I have more trust in the truth claims of the text than the truth judgments of any interpreter.

    Thanks for the resources. However, I have found the work of Enns, Sparks, Christian Smith and others to be uncompelling. I will try to give the podcase a listen as time allows….

  5. I did mean knowledge (meaning that as knowledge increases, it increases our ability to reason more faithfully in God’s world).

    I see scripture as a narrative, progressive revelation, containing diverse theologies that can not be reduced completely into one inerrant system. I believe that Jesus was fully man, that He Himself grew in wisdom, and I do not believe that the bible presents to us an impassible, omniscient God, but one who also grows as a result of His relationship to humanity. I also believe that my own growth in knowledge and experience can help and/or hinder me in my own interpretation of the scriptures. The same is true of the church corporately.

    Additionally, I believe that the church can and should reject ungodly assumptions (such as slavery and patriarchy) held by the biblical authors as a result of being born into and existing within their own, limited and fallible historical context; not to be unfaithful Christ or the scriptures, but in rejection of a wooden literalism and in order to be faithful to the narrative trajectory and intention of the scriptures, and more importantly, to the Christ who is still progressively revealing himself to humanity in our now post-modern cultural context.

    I understand that we probably disagree on much (if not all) of this, but I do think that these things can be drawn out of the text. That said, I also recognize that they are assumptions I am bringing to the text, and that they are a lens through which I am reading it. However, you also come to the text with previous commitments (I think that you could admit that?). If you begin with and impassible, omniscient God, and with a belief that the scriptures do not contain diverse and often conflicting theologies, that will inevitably effect your reading of the text.

    All in all, you too must prove the validity of your hermeneutic; and proof texting or paraphrasing a couple of verses will not do (as I’m sure you realize). As I said before, neither of us has time to exegete all of the relevant passages of scripture, nor should we take that time in a blog post.

    A pre-modern, Jewish man would not have utilized the scientific method as a criterion for truth, and would have been much more comfortable with the categories of myth and story with relation to authority than the modern woman or man often is.

    Jewish Rabbis used Midrash (a method also applied by Jesus and the authors of the NT) in order to interpret the OT in innovative and creative ways which the “enlightened mind” would typically be uncomfortable with; especially when conversing about topics such as truth, history, science and authority.

    The metaphysics of the ancient Jews were not the same as the Aristotelian substance metaphysics employed at later times in the history of the church.

    These are a few examples of what I mean when speaking of Jesus as a pre-modern, Jewish man.

    • The Scriptures contain one theology revealed in diverse manners at sundry times. Every orthodox christian believes that Jesus was fully man and fully God, and in HIs humiliation He took on flesh and grew in wisdom (just as we would expect a man to do). As to God’s impassibility, I will not now fall dogmatically one way or the other. However, God’s omniscience is so pervasive in Scripture that one hardly knows where to begin. To suggest that the God who created the unfathomable depths of the universe down to the intricate and complex microsystems unseen with the naked eye, “grows” as a result of His relationship to humanity is irreconcilable with the God who has revealed Himself in the Bible. God has no deficiencies that He should grow in the sense that we understand the concept.

      Certainly the church should reject ungodly assumptions like slavery, but I don’t consider theologically supported and asserted gender roles to be an ungodly assumption. But then I’m not completely sure what you mean by patriarchy, unless you mean a social construct whicht denegrates women (like Islam) rather than honoring and elevating them? Loving leadership and familial headship are biblical concepts with their source in theology and are not simply cultural in nature. But that is beyond the dictates of this discussion…

      The concept of “narrative trajectory” is often used to justify actually departing from the text. A wooden literalism, as deficient as it is, is no worse than an errant trajectory. Both miss the intended aim of Scripture, in my opinion.

      I think we already agree that we bring precommitments to the text. This brings us back to arguing for the biblical basis and validity of our hermeneutic. The passages that I mentioned briefly were not meant as simply proof-texts, but are part of building the biblical case for my position (whole other posts, as you know, would be required to fulfill this purpose). I am suggesting that the position I hold makes sense of the truth claims of Scripture, yours does not. In fact, you have yet to touch the question I posed to you, namely, how can you be consistent with your position and assert any truth claims at all? .

  6. You would think that once you have admitted that interpretation is involved at all in the process of revelation (which you have claimed to) you would confess that the reader is always the arbiter of truth. Of course, I am not claiming that humans can override God, or in any real sense transform God’s truth into non-truth. Rather, I want to say that no human being has infallible access to God’s objective truth, therefore we all must decide for ourselves what is or is not in accordance with God’s truth based upon the evidence revealed by God in both special and general revelation. The correct understanding will not be unveiled fully until the eschaton. In this sense, all people sit in judgment over the bible. Inerrantists are not somehow immune to this charge, even if they refuse to admit it.

    This is why I said that inerrantists ignore the subjective element in interpretation altogether. I did not mean to mischaracterize the position. Perhaps it would have been more accurate if I said that they apply their acknowledgement of the subjective element in interpretation inconsistently. They employ a double standard wherein they are willing to acknowledge the subjective element in interpretation in relation to their opponents, in order to discredit them, and yet while they will acknowledge this element in relation to themselves, they will only do so in conjunction with a strong doctrine of illumination, wherein the Holy Spirit more or less supersedes the subjectivity of the inerrantist interpreter, allowing her/him to arrive at objective truth. For all practical purposes, the inerrantist assumes that her/his exegesis is barely (if at all) affected by her/his subjectivity (at least, not to the point where they would feel obligated to question their own hermeneutic or interpretation).

    It is this double standard that so many people find to be epistemologically arrogant with regard to the inerrancy position, and it is this inconsistency which leads people to be suspicious of the dogmatic assertions of inerrantists…and rightly so I believe.

    Its been real…

    • I would confess that the reader is always the arbiter of truth, if I interpreted Scripture in a vacuum.

      I appreciate the discussion. If you do not intend to continue (based on your final words, “it’s been real…”), thanks for the interaction.

      Best to you and Roxanne,

      CMG

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