Ten Things We Should all Understand About the Bible

For several years, Peter Enns has been hosting a conversation on “rethinking biblical Christianity.” In books such as Incarnation and Inspiration and The Evolution of Adam, he articulates methods of Bible interpretation that are in conflict but, he argues, in better keeping with historical Christianity.

We asked Enns to list ten things he wishes everyone understood about the Bible. Here is his answer: 

1. The Bible doesn’t answer all — or even most — of our questions.

Many of our questions, even some of the more pressing questions we face daily, aren’t answered in the Bible. The Christian Bible isn’t an answer book but a story of how Jesus answers for us the biggest question of all: what God is like.

2. The Bible isn’t like God’s version of Apple’s “Terms and Conditions” agreement.

The Bible doesn’t lay out before us God’s terms and conditions, where failure to adhere to one clause in the middle of page 87 will cause a breach of contract and banishment from God’s graces. The Bible is more like a grand narrative that reorders our imaginations and holds out for us an alternate way of seeing reality — with God at the heart of it rather than ourselves.

3. The Bible isn’t a sourcebook for fighting culture wars.

The Bible isn’t a club we use to gain political power or a way of forcing secular culture to obey our rules. America is not God’s country and the Bible isn’t its constitution. Stop it.

4. The Bible doesn’t guarantee “success in life.”

Don’t listen to those T.V. preachers. The Bible isn’t a step-by-step guide to success, as if buried there are deep secrets for being happy, healthy, and rich. It is a book that shows what dying to self and surrendering to God are about. The Bible crushes our egos.

5. The Bible is open to multiple interpretations, not just one meaning.

The Bible is ancient and obscure, and its stories are “gapped” and flexible, which allows—even demands—readers to interpret the Bible legitimately in various ways. This is exactly what has been happening among Jews and Christians for over 2,000 years.

6. The Bible invites debate.

An extremely important lesson for Christians to learn from Judaism is that the Bible invites debate. In fact, it can’t avoid it, given how open it is to multiple interpretations. Winning Bible feuds with others, getting to the right answer, isn’t the end goal. The back-and forth with the Bible, and with God, is where deeper faith is found.

7. The Bible doesn’t “record” history objectively but interprets it.

The biblical writers didn’t try to get history “right” in the same sense an author of an academic textbook does. Instead, they interpreted the past in their place and time, for their own communities, to answer their own questions of faith. That’s why the Bible contains two very different “histories” of Israel and the four Gospels that recount Jesus’ life differently.

8. The Bible was written by Jews (and at least one Gentile in the New Testament) in ancient times.

This may sound too obvious to say, but it’s not. The biblical writers were ancient writers expressing their faith in God using the vocabulary and concepts of their ancient cultures. When we transpose our language and concepts onto biblical writers, even if we are trying to understand the Bible, we will actually distort it.

9. The Bible isn’t the center of the Christian faith.

Some form of the Bible has always been a part of the life of the church, but the Bible isn’t the center of our faith. God is — or, for Christians, what God has done in and through Jesus. The Bible doesn’t draw attention to itself, but to God.

10. The Bible doesn’t give us permission to speak for God.

At least not without a lot of wisdom and humility behind it. Knowing the Bible is vital for Christian growth, but it can also become intoxicating. We don’t always see as clearly as we might think, and what we learn of God in the Bible should always be first and foremost directed inward rather than aimed at others.

A faith that demands uncompromising fealty to a literal reading of its myth and metaphor seems to me a perilously brittle faith.
— William James

The King James Version of The Bible

I was bandying with an atheist the other day about translating Hebrew. He was complaining about the use of the word "unicorn" in Psalm 22:21. This, of course, is a holdover from the King James Version, which was published about 400 years ago. Aside from suffering from a dearth of scholarship compared to today, it also has a lot of words which have simply changed meaning over the centuries.

The point of telling you this is not that we now know the Hebrew word re'em actually refers to a buffalo—but rather, how incredibly resilient the KJV is. In fact, it struck me as I was talking with this fellow: in my experience, nearly everyone who doesn't know much about the Bible quotes from the KJV. Even though it's 400 years old and by most standards a far less accurate translation than any modern English Bible you can find.

Why is that?

Well, I think it's because it uses language in a way that is both distinctively unique, and also especially apt to its subject matter. I'm not a biblical scholar on the KJV, but to my understanding, the translators actually invented a kind of regal-sounding dialect of English because they felt that the "normal" English of the time didn't have sufficient gravitas. They wanted it to really sound good when you read it. People back then didn't actually speak the way the KJV reads. Its language was deliberately embellished.

In some ways, that makes the KJV an inferior translation (translators these days are much more concerned with using English words and expressions that we're familiar with, for simplicity of language) but in a very important way, the King James Version is a pure translation.

It has something modern translations do not attempt:



I mean, you have to figure out—when you read something and you want to read it respectfully—you have to figure out what it is you’re reading. Is it poetry or is it prose? If you read poetry and think it’s prose, you will make the most astonishing mistakes.
— John Polkinghorne