Where Is It Written?

The Bible Tells Me So… Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It
Peter Enns
HarperOne, 288 pages

Reviewed by Conor Johnson | August 20, 2018

A number of years ago I overheard an interesting conversation at my local Starbucks. From what I could gather, it seemed that a sincere Christian was struggling to field questions from an ardent atheist: How can you take the Bible seriously when there are inconsistencies within it? How can you trust a God that would command genocide? Partly I was tempted to chime in, but truthfully, I didn’t have great answers to the questions myself.

Fast-forward a few years when I stumbled upon this snippet from Peter Enns’s book The Bible Tells Me So regarding the Israelite conquest of Canaan: “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed God told them to kill the Canaanites.”

Whoa. As a then twenty-something raised in the “where is it written” ways of the Covenant Church, I was alarmed by this assertion—yet my interest was piqued. A short Amazon one-click purchase later, Enns’s book was at the top of my reading list. Unfamiliar with his work, I sat down to read the book, half-wondering if he would go the way of Bart Ehrman, a biblical scholar whose difficulty reconciling problems in what he thought was inerrant text led him to agnosticism.

Hardly. While Enns takes on difficult questions that too often get swept under the rug in our churches and Bible studies, he is in no way a deconstructionist simply looking to ruin our favorite Sunday-school stories. Rather, it is evident throughout the book that he believes the best respect we can demonstrate for Scripture is to be willing to ask honest questions of it and the culture in which it sprang. As he says, “The Bible looks the way it does because God ‘lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.”

The Bible Tells Me So takes on a number of hermeneutically sticky biblical issues: Old Testament violence, the historicity of events as presented in Scripture, and inconsistencies between the gospel narratives. These topics are dealt with at a very accessible level and help to demonstrate a model of interpretation in which we, as readers, lower the red flags that sometimes (okay, often) go up when we feel the need to defend the sacred Book.

Through it all, Enns displays an easygoing, humorous writing style that works in his favor, given the touchy subject that is biblical inspiration and interpretation. One gets the sense that Enns, a baseball fan whose love of the sport is sprinkled throughout the book, would put up more of a fight over, say, the designated hitter rule than he would over how aligned you are with his thesis.

Anyone who takes Scripture seriously would benefit from this book, especially those who have perhaps felt the need to “defend” the Bible from attack, along with those who have difficult, unanswered questions about the text. You may have some of your views challenged, as this reviewer did, but you’ll never have so much fun doing so.

About the Author

Conor Johnson is a strength and conditioning coach in Tuscon, Arizona, where he attends Eastside Covenant Church. He once shut down a food truck in Morelia, Mexico, during his North Park study abroad experience by eating all their tacos.

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  1. Certainly the Bible does raise difficult issues that challenge our faith and just as certainly we will be disappointed in the bible if we come to it with “expectations it is not set up to bear.” I can also agree that biblical history is not “modern history” as we might think of modern-day historians writing it, that there are theological purposes in the recounting of events. However, Peter Enns leaves us with no inspired scripture at all. The bible, at best, is a late retrospective invention of stories and events that “often didn’t happen” (p. 25). “What most everyone is certain about however is that the bible’s version of events is not what happened…” It is all about how people experienced God. The stories are explanatory myths. In fact, according to Enns, we know God is actually not like the God of the Bible at all, that God is genocidal and unethical…rather reminiscent of Marcion’s writings in the second century.

    Enns insists that the Bible doesn’t provide history, consistent theology, or even ethics. Though most of his book is occupied with the Hebrew scriptures, he applies the same hermeneutic to the New Testament…Matthew invented the star over the manger and the massacre of the children. The virgin birth was more like an innovative story and so on. In the end, we cannot really trust the accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus either. Though Enns affirms this as truth, how can he really know?

    I would rather encourage the Companion readers to read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Scripture. For more critique on The Bible Tells Me So, I refer you to https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/the-bible-tells-me-so/

    1. Excellent response, Brad, and the review by Michael Kruger on the Gospel Coalition website is spot on. Thanks

  2. Pete Enns is fantastic! I have also greatly enjoyed his podcast, The Bible For Normal People, which he hosts with Jared Byas. Pete has a fantastic sense of humor that continues to grow on me. I enjoy his teaching/speaking style tremendously and his writing has been very informative to someone like me who has grown up in the church and knows the Bible well. Pete makes some of the sticky stories have vitality to them and in the end I see a God who loves each person on this Earth and a God who lets us have a choice. His book is at the top of my list as well but as usual, I am already reading five others I need to get through. 🙂

  3. The texts on holy war remain a vexing problem. There are several approaches to this problem. Roger Olson, who is a professor of theology at Truett Seminary at Baylor University, in his excellent blog, summarizes what he considers to be “Every Known Theistic Approach to Old Testament “Texts of Terror”. With the pros and cons of each of nine approaches. The book mentioned by Mr. Johnson fits in, I believe, with approach #6 in Dr. Olson’s list.


  4. Very timely article. After attending the ECC Gather ’18 where various scriptural interpretations were applied to current social issues, I became convinced that the Covenant Church should add a second qualifier to its longstanding “Where is it written” affirmation to include the following: “What is truth”. Whereas we are seeing many interpretations of scripture which are dividing us, there is only one Truth. Discerning who truly speaks biblical truth is a critical judgment we must make as individuals and a denomination.

  5. “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed God told them to kill the Canaanites?” What kind of answer is that?? It sounds like Conor Johnson needs to read the book “Did God Really Say?” by Steven Hudgik. It has the actual Biblical answers to the types of questions mentioned here — it answers EVERY accusation against the Bible on the American Humanist’s web site, in order.

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