Recent Challenges to the Doctrine of Inerrancy: Peter Enns and ‘Myth’ in Genesis 1

In the final analysis, what is driving Enns’s denial of the historicity and literality of Genesis 1 in favor of a figurative ancient Near Eastern worldview is his agenda to promote “theistic evolution.” Enns knows that in order to circumvent the clear teaching of creation and the fall of Adam, he needs to discount the literality and historicity of these very significant and divinely-inspired texts. But this is something he has not proven nor accomplished, only asserted.

In his book, Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), Peter Enns maintains that the author of Genesis 1 was influenced by the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cosmogonic myths of his day. Enns defines “myth” as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins, and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” (40, 50; italics are from Enns).

Accordingly, Enns provocatively asks: “If the ancient Near Eastern stories are myth (defined in this way as prescientific stories of origins), and since the biblical stories are similar enough to these stories to invite comparison, does this indicate that myth is the proper category for understanding Genesis?” (41). Enns affirmatively answers: “the opening chapters of Genesis participate in a worldview that the earliest Israelites shared with their Mesopotamian neighbors” (55).

Consequently, Enns questions the Bible’s uniqueness among the literature of the ANE: “Is the Old Testament really that unique? Does it not just reflect the ancient world in which it was produced? If the Bible is the word of God, why does it fit so nicely in the ancient world?” (15-16). Enns’s main objective in writing his book is clear. Because the Bible bears the marks of its “humanity” by participating so thoroughly within the ANE cultures and conventions in which it was written, Enns believes that the Bible should be interpreted like any other book.

By contrast, the traditional view of the Bible as sui generis (Latin phrase meaning “of its own kind”)is nowhere found in Enns’s understanding of Scripture.

The “Incarnational Analogy” and “Subjective Historiography”

Following his mentor, Raymond Dillard (see his 2 Chronicles, Word Biblical Commentary [Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987]), Enns employs the long-established concept of the “incarnational analogy” that Scripture is both human and divine, just as Jesus was and is both fully divine and fully human. But Enns intentionally overemphasizes the Bible’s “humanity” in order to promote his programmatic agenda for reading Scripture.

This is most evident when he accuses Christians who appropriately accentuate the divine authorship of Scripture as being guilty of the heresy of Docetism (i.e., the heterodox belief that Jesus was solely divine and only appeared human) in relation to the doctrine of Scripture.

Although it is certainly true that the Bible is both the product of divine and human authorship, the Scriptures clearly teach that its human authors were “guided” by the Holy Spirit, i.e., “inspired,” during the process of inscripturation. Enns fails to deal with the conventional biblical texts related to the doctrine of inspiration such as 2 Timothy 3:16 (note that on p. 107 of his book, Enns duly cites 2 Tim. 3:16, but, interestingly, he only includes the following portion of text: “All Scripture is… profitable,” but omits “inspired”), and 2 Peter 1:20-21 (which Enns completely ignores).

Second Peter 1:20-21 is a vitally significant text because it unmistakably supports the primacy of God’s inspiration in the authorship of Scripture: “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (ESV). Therefore, it is proper to speak of God, the Holy Spirit, as Scripture’s Primary Author, while its human authors—with their faculties and personalities fully intact—as secondary agents.

Lane Tipton helpfully clarifies, “The incarnational analogy ought to yield both a theology of Scripture and a hermeneutic that take into account the primarily theological and hermeneutical significance of the Holy Spirit’s agency, on the one hand, and the subordinate theological and hermeneutical significance of human agency, on the other hand. The primacy of the divine in pneumatology finds a clear analogue in the primacy of the eternal person of the Son of God” (Lane G. Tipton, “Incarnation, Inspiration, and Pneumatology: A Reformed Incarnational Analogy,” Ordained Servant Online, accessed January 7, 2012, http://www.opc.org/os.html? article_id=109; emphasis mine).

Therefore, an obvious criticism of Enns’s perspective of the “incarnational analogy” is that he assumes that the Bible’s human authors were on a par with the Holy Spirit in their role of inscripturation. To neglect clear passages such as 2 Peter 1:20-21 in order to draw attention to the human authors’ cultural influences and their alleged inclusion of apparent contradictions and divergent theologies into the pages of Scripture is to not allow the Bible to speak on its own terms regarding the primacy of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.

This is evident in Enns’s assumption that the Bible is merely “subjective historiography.” Enns asserts,

All historiography is a literary product, which means it is about people writing down (or transmitting orally) their version of that history. In other words, historiography is by definition an interpretive exercise. There might not be much that is interpretive about saying “David lived,” but when you give an account of David’s life—what he did, when, with, whom, why, what the implications were—you are most certainly engaged in interpreting these events. How so? Anyone who communicates historical events must be very selective about what is communicated. You simply can’t say everything, nor would you want to. You say only those things that are important to the point you want to get across. Also, you will say those things in such a way that will drive your point home. In other words, this presentation, this literary product, looks the way it does because the author has a purpose in mind for why those events should be reported. The presentation is not divorced from the events, but it is a purposeful representation of those events.” (Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 61-62; italics original to Enns)

Enns continues,

“What is true of all historiography is also true of biblical historiography—it is not objective. In fact—and this is getting more to the heart of the matter—in the strict sense of the word, there really is no such thing as objective historiography. Rather, all attempts to communicate the significance of historical events are shaped according to the historian’s purpose…. What makes biblical historiography the word of God is not that it is somehow immune from such things. It is God’s word because it is—and this is how God did it. To able to confess that the Bible is God’s word is the gift of faith” (Ibid., 66).

Take note that Enns overemphasizes the “humanness” of biblical historiography. It is what “people [are] writing down (or transmitting orally) [regarding] their version of that history” and “the significance of historical events [that] are shaped according to the historian’s purpose” (Ibid., emphasis mine).

While it is true that conventional historiography (the variety that is not divinely inspired) is utterly and unavoidably “subjective,” is it correct to say that biblical historiography is “not objective” and to conclude that “there really is no such thing as objective historiography”? Enns, as well as those evangelical scholars who agree with him (note that both Tremper Longman and Raymond Dillard, his Old Testament professors at Westminster Theological Seminary, PA, also held the same view, see their Introduction to the Old Testament [Second Edition; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006],19) have a reductionistic and inadequate view of the Bible’s inspiration.

The Bible self-attests (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; see also Deut. 18:18) that it was not merely authored by humans, but by the Holy Spirit of God who inspired the words and concepts that its human agents infallibly recorded. While Enns would certainly not deny the divine inspiration of Scripture, it is more than apparent, however, that he ardently desires his readers to regard the historiography of the Holy Scriptures from an emphatically subjective and human perspective. But, as he accuses evangelicals of being guilty of Docetism (i.e., denying the human marks of Scripture), Enns’s version of biblical historiography may be charged with the Christological heresy of Ebionitism which historically denied Christ’s divinity and underscored his humanity.

In effect, Enns’s view of biblical historiography sets up a bifurcation between the biblical events (i.e., “mighty acts of God”) and the divinely-inspired interpretations of those events. If the human authors were strictly interpreting God’s redemptive acts without the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, then the estimation that biblical historiography is “subjective” would certainly ring true. However, the Bible is clear that God inspired the interpretation of the “acts of God” and the history of redemption that is infallibly recorded in the pages of Scripture. It is evident; therefore, that Enns’s mere “confession” that “the Bible is God’s word” is inadequate, because he does not seriously take into consideration God, the Holy Spirit’s role in inspiring the human authors of Scripture.

In contradistinction, Geerhardus Vos, a prominent figure within the Old Princeton-Westminster tradition, held that biblical historiography was “objective.” In his important inaugural address as Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1894, Vos asserted his views on the objective nature of Scripture:

The first of these is the objective character of revelation. Biblical Theology must insist upon claiming for its object not the thoughts and reflections and speculations of man, but the oracles of God. Whosoever weakens or subjectivizes this fundamental idea of revelation, strikes a blow at the very heart of Theology and Supernatural Christianity, nay, of Theism itself…. [If] God be conscious and personal, the inference is that in His self-disclosure He will assert and maintain His personality, so as to place His divine thoughts before us with the stamp of divinity upon them, in a truly objective manner. (Geerhardus Vos, Inauguration of the Rev. Geerhardus Vos as Professor of Biblical Theology: [inaugural address by Geerhardus Vos, Princeton Theological Seminary, May 8, 1894, [New York: A.D.F. Randolph, 1894, 30-31]; emphasis mine)

Moreover, D.A. Carson, in opposition to Enns’s notion of “subjective historiography,” avers:

The notion of “objective historiography” which Enns dismisses so confidently, deserves more thoughtful treatment. If by “objective historiography” Enns is holding out for an ideal in which historical events are portrayed in absolute comprehensiveness and perfect proportion, then it is a mere truism that there is no such thing as “objective historiography”: the bar has been raised so high that objective historiography is open only to Omniscience …. The problem is that to ordinary readers whom Enns wants to help, the disavowal of objective historiography will sound, rather, like the disavowal of historiography that tells the truth, which is quite a different thing …. And if we are going to maintain the incarnation as a useful analogy for our understanding of Scripture, doesn’t the “humanness” of Scripture’s approach to reportage have to be tied, somehow, to the evidence these words are also God’s words, duly accommodated?” (D.A. Carson, Collected Writings on Scripture [Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2010], 274)

Genesis 1 as ANE Myth

Consistent with his human-centered perspective of Scripture, Enns maintains that the Bible is a culturally-conditioned work. While Enns recognizes that the Genesis account of creation is “different” in that it is not written from the perspective of polytheism of the ANE context (Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 55), his perspective that the Genesis account is merely a mythic one divorced from historical reality is unacceptable and untrue.

In fact, Enns draws the similarity between the creation account of Genesis 1 and the ANE myths so tightly that he presupposes that the ANE worldview of the “the world as a flat disk with a [solid] dome above” are the same in both cosmogonies. He states,

“Below the earth were the waters threatening to gush up, and above the dome are the waters threatening to drop down (see Gen. 7:11). The biblical worldview described in Genesis is an ancient Near Eastern one” (54).

While it is not debated that at the time Moses wrote the Pentateuch, he was a man of extraordinary learning and knowledge; it is debatable, however, as to the amount of influence the ANE culture had on him during the process of inscripturation. After all, God spoke (directly and at other times through Moses) telling His people to forsake and destroy all idols because He alone was to be worshiped.
· “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exod. 20:3-6; NASB).
· “You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds; but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their sacred pillars in pieces” (Exod. 23:24; NASB).
· “But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:5-6; NASB).
· “The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, or you will be snared by it, for it is an abomination to the LORD your God. You shall not bring an abomination into your house, and like it come under the ban; you shall utterly detest it and you shall utterly abhor it, for it is something banned” (Deut. 7:25-26; NASB).
· “It shall come about if you ever forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you will surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so you shall perish; because you would not listen to the voice of the LORD your God” (Deut. 8:19-20; NASB).
· “Beware that your hearts are not deceived, and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them” (Deut. 11:16; NASB).
· “But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it” (Deu 30:17-18; NASB).

A relevant question that all these verses demand is: Why would Moses employ the worldview of the ANE since it would stand to reason that God not only strictly prohibited the gods from being worshiped, but also the very ANE worldview that the gods inhabited and manipulated for their own evil purposes? In other words, the ANE worldview was inherently faulty because it belonged to the myths in which the gods were worshipped and promulgated throughout their nation(s).

By contrast, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. levels a devastating critique against the notion that Genesis 1 reflects the ANE mythic worldview:

R. Laird Harris has shown that each step in this allegedly biblical diagram depends more on the ingenuity of the modern scholars than it does on the assertions of the original writers of Scripture.

To begin with, nowhere does the Hebrew text state or imply that the raqia’ (often translated “firmament,” but better translated as “expanse”) is solid or firm. It is simply an “extended surface” or an “expanse.” The idea of “firmness” or “solidity” came more from the Latin Vulgate translation of “firmamentum” and the Greek Septuagint translation sterōma than it did from any Hebrew conceptualizations. The “expanse” of the heavens did not imply or call for a sort of astro dome like structure. Raqia’ is used both in Genesis 1 and in Ezekiel 1 and 10. Certainly in Ezekiel it also means an extended platform, or an expanse on which the throne of God is situated.

Attempts to translate the Hebrew terms as a “strip of metal” are as fruitless as those that have attempted to like some sort of hardness to raqia’ in order to match this Hebrew concept with the upper half of Tiamat’s body that became the sky in Babylonian mythology. On the contrary, if one needs a concrete picture of the heavens, what about the poetic reference to the heavens being rolled up like a scroll (Is. 34:4; 40:22)? …Neither is the case for a flat earth all that convincing—at least no more convincing than when modern newscasters claim that their news bureau has gone to the “four corners of the earth” to gather their news.

Rarely do moderns shout at their TV sets, “Copernicus!” These are legitimate literary conventions to designate in most cases the four points of the compass. Other passages speak just as openly of the “circle of the earth” (e.g., Is 40:22). The subterranean features, including the pillars that allegedly support the earth, sheol and the “waters under the earth,” on close examination also fail to uphold the “triple-decked” or “three-storied” concept of the universe. The “waters under the earth” easily qualify as the waters below the shoreline where the fish dwell, for no sinkers exist to send fishing lines down to hell (Deut 4:18). “Sheol” is merely the poetic word for the “grave” in all sixty-five of its appearances.

Some passages, it is true, do refer to the “foundations” of the earth as resting on “pillars,” but both terms are used metaphorically as we continue to do to this day. And what shall we say about Job 26:7 that has the earth resting on nothing? The so-called primitive view of cosmology in the Bible turns out to be a contrived view that cannot bear up under examination. (Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001], 76-77; see also R. Laird Harris, “Bible and Cosmology,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 5.1 [March1962]:11-17).

What is conspicuous about Genesis 1 in comparison to the Babylonian account of creation in Enuma Elish is that there are no “mythic” elements contained in it. In fact, the following differences are readily noted in Genesis 1 that are distinct from Enuma Elish: 1) monotheistic worldview is presumed in the account; 2) there are no gods that are birthed into existence; 3) there is no pantheon or hierarchy among the gods; 4) there is no sign of struggle or combat (where the older gods war against the younger gods because they could not sleep due to the noise of the younger gods); 5) there is no reference claiming that humanity was created by the blood of a slain god; and, 6) humanity was not compelled to work and toil so that the gods could be freed from the curse of labor.

As you read the ANE myths, what becomes very apparent is that these so-called gods are nothing more than humans who have been projected as deities in myths like Enuma Elish. Moreover, central biblical concepts such as monotheism, holiness, and sovereignty are conspicuously foreign to the ANE myths (For a more thorough and comprehensive treatment of the differences between the worldview of Genesis 1 and the ANE myths including Enuma Elish, see John N. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009], 47-107).

The differences are so profound that John Oswalt forthrightly avows, “What is striking is not what is similar in the biblical creation account to the other stories of origins found in Israel’s world; rather it is what is different. Thus Wolfram von Soden can write: ‘Direct influences of thee Babylonian creation epic on the Biblical account of creation cannot be discerned’” (Ibid., 103; cited from W. von Soden, The Ancient Orient [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994], 213). Jeffrey Niehaus also notes: “A use of the comparative method that places biblical narratives among the mythological or legendary donations of the world is flawed, because it assumes that biblical data are capable of such classifications. It ignores (or rejects the Bible’s claims about its own historicity” (Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008], 15).

The foremost literary difference between the Bible and Enuma Elish is that Genesis 1 belongs to the genre of “historical narrative.” The mythic world of the ANE is at odds with the historical and literal account of Genesis 1. The notion that Genesis 1 is “semi-poetic” and figurative cannot be substantiated from a literary standpoint. Mark Futato notes the following differences between Genesis 1 consists of the following differences from Psalm 104, a poetic text on creation (Mark Futato, Interpreting the Psalms [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007], 26):

Genesis 1 Psalm 104

Waw-relative imperfect: 50 1
Direct object marker: 26 2
Relative pronoun: 9 2
Definite article: 79 27

Note that the grammatical and syntactical differences between narrative/prose and poetry are obvious. Genesis 1 has all the features of “historical narrative,” including the “waw-relative imperfect” which serves to express a chain of sequential actions in the past and functions as the “main-action line” of the story; Psalm 104, by contrast, is clearly the poetic account.

Additionally, practically everything we encounter in Genesis 1-3 can be found within the present created order (e.g., sun, moon, stars, sea, land, animals, man, etc.) or the eschatological New Earth as presented in Revelation 21-22 (e.g., the supernatural light of God’s presence; the Tree of Life). The flood narrative of Genesis 6-9 (cf. Genesis 6:19-20) also repeats the same created elements of Genesis 1 (cf. Gen. 1:24). But if Genesis 1 is “myth,” are we not forced to identify Genesis 6-9 as “myth” as well? In Mark 10:6-9, Jesus appeals to the reality of creation and to the origin of Adam and Eve in order to defend the divine design of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman. But if Genesis 1 is “myth,” why would Jesus appeal to the historicity of creation and of “Adam and Eve” as found in Genesis 1 in order to establish the marriage covenant? Robert Stein helpfully guides us through this apparent dilemma by citing the differences between “historical narrative” and “myth”:

The main problem with the mythical approach to biblical narrative is that it confuses historical issues and literary genre. If we leave aside the question of the facticity of the miracle stories in the Bible [including creation], the whole question of whether these stories are myths becomes extremely easy to answer. The biblical narratives are not myths. They do not possess a mythical literary form. The stories in the Bible are best described as “realistic narrative” in that they are straightforward and use the language of ordinary events. The biblical stories take for granted the world as we tend to experience it…There is no difference between biblical narrative and history with respect to literary genre. (Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible [Second Edition; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011], 86)

In one of Enns’s blog entries for BioLogos entitled “Adam is Israel,” Enns takes his view of Genesis 1 even farther. Enns asserts:

For the past few posts we’ve been looking at creation in the Old Testament as a cosmic battle, and we’ve spent a lot of time seeing how that idea works itself out in the book of Exodus. There is much more to Exodus and creation in the Old Testament than cosmic battle. I am not trying to say that cosmic battle is some magic key to unlock the mysteries of the Bible. But it does open a new window to seeing the “ancient ways” in which the Israelites thought of creation. It also helps us look at the Adam story from an angle that might be new to some readers here: Adam is the beginning of Israel, not humanity. I imagine this may require some explanation.

Israel’s history as a nation can be broken down as follows:

· Israel is “created” by God at the exodus through a cosmic battle (gods are defeated and the Red Sea is “divided”);
· The Israelites are given Canaan to inhabit, a lush land flowing with milk and honey;
· They remain in the land as long as they obey the Mosaic law;
· They persist in a pattern of disobedience and are exiled to Babylon.

Israel’s history parallels Adam’s drama in Genesis:

· Adam is created in Genesis 2 after the taming of chaos in Genesis 1;
· Adam is placed in a lush garden;
· Law (not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) is given as a stipulation for remaining in the garden;
· Adam and Eve disobey and are exiled.

There are two ways of looking at this parallel. You could say that the Adam story came first and then the Israelites just followed that pattern. But there is another way. Maybe Israel’s history happened first, and the Adam story was written to reflect that history. In other words, the Adam story is really an Israel story placed in primeval time. It is not a story of human origins but of Israel’s origins. Everyone has to decide for themselves which of these readings of Genesis has more “explanatory power.” I (and other biblical scholars) come down on the second option for a number of reasons, some having to do with Genesis itself while others concern other issues in the Bible (Peter Enns, “Adam is Israel,” March 2, 2010, http://biologos.org/blog/adam-is-israel, accessed January 17, 2012).

Evidently, Enns believes that Genesis 1-3 is nothing more than the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea and the history of Israel up to the exile simply retrojected into the primordial past. As reflections of the true historical kernel found in the history of Israel, the creation story and the fall of Adam are merely considered “myths” like the other stories of the ANE. This is certainly what Enns intends when he states, “the Adam story is really an Israel story placed in primeval time.” The truth of Enns’s view of Genesis 1 as “myth,” then is that the creation story never happened because “Israel’s history happened first, and the Adam story was written to reflect that history.”

Enns includes the account of creation in Genesis 1 as “the taming of chaos” which is in direct correspondence with the creation of Israel by God at the exodus through the defeat of the gods after the Red Sea is divided. Thus, the separation of the waters and the creation of the people of God in Genesis 1 mirror the parting of the Red Sea and the creation of Israel, the people of God. Although the typological parallels between the covenant of works in Adam and Israel are widely recognized, Enns’s view of Genesis 1-3 as “myths” that have been retrojected back in time falls out of the bounds of orthodoxy and an evangelical view of Scripture.

In reality, Enns’s view of Genesis 1 is closer to the liberal understanding of biblical narrative as “historicized fiction.” In the final analysis, what is driving Enns’s denial of the historicity and literality of Genesis 1 in favor of a figurative ANE worldview is his agenda to promote “theistic evolution.” Enns knows that in order to circumvent the clear teaching of creation and the fall of Adam, he needs to discount the literality and historicity of these very significant and divinely-inspired texts. But this is something he has not proven nor accomplished, only asserted.

This article is a revised summary of a seminar presentation given by Dr. John J. Yeo, Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary Atlanta, which was delivered at the PCA Presbytery Stated Clerks Conference on December 3, 2011 at PCA Headquarters in Lawrenceville, GA.