Review: “How The Bible Actually Works” by Peter Enns

I was drawn to the Bible years ago because, well, monsters. There are so many monsters in the Bible! For example: “Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon.” (Revelation 13:11) Spoke like a dragon?! Like Smaug?! What’s not to like about a book with talking dragons?

After the dragons (and leviathans, and flaming sword-bearing angels, and seraphim), it was the Bible’s unabashed ambiguity and comfort with paradox that attracted me. Suffer a fool/ don’t suffer a fool, rest/ pick grain, stone prostitutes to death/ let a prostitute anoint the messiah’s feet with oil. Isn’t it glorious?! What does it all mean? Ask one person, and you’ll get one answer. Ask a second person, and you’ll get a completely different answer.

You know what that means?


And cookies!

Maybe some scones.*

All beside a warm fire encircled with comfortable chairs and piles of books where you and your two friends talk and debate and laugh and question and read and share and think. It’s an ingenious way to build a community, don’t you think?

Do you know what else all this paradox and ambiguity creates? Wisdom.

That’s what Peter Enns argues in his new book, “How The Bible Actually Works: In Which An Ancient, Ambiguous, And Diverse Book Leads Us To Wisdom Rather Than Answers – And Why That’s Great News.” As Dr. Enns puts it:

Through 14 conversational chapters**, Dr. Enns sits with us and the thoughts and questions we’ve had about some of the Bible’s “sticky bits” and nods and says, “Yeah. Me too.” He then moves beyond empathy to share some of the knowledge and wisdom he has collected through years of personal and academic study to give us insight into how (and maybe even why) the Bible is structured the way that it is and how that leads us to wisdom as individual believers and as the historical Church.

Dr. Enns discusses topics I have seen covered in other books about the Bible: acknowledging and honoring the types of writing (history, law, prophesy, letters) collected into the Bible, providing the history behind when and why the history of Israel is given twice in the Old Testament with some glaring differences in the narrative (1 & 2 Kings vs 1 & 2 Chronicles), and explaining how Jews at the time of the New Testament would likely have understood Jesus’ messianic claims and the apostles’ interpretations of his ministry. But what I appreciated most in this book was Dr. Enns’ highlighting of the fact that the Bible doesn’t just present an image of God, it presents many images of God:

“The Bible does not leave us with one consistent portrait of God, but a collection of ancient and diverse portraits of how the various biblical writers understood God for their times.”

-Peter Enns, How The Bible Actually Works

Dr. Enns refers to this as “imagining and reimagining God.” It is a foreign concept for many of us. After all, the Bible itself states very clearly in Malachi 3:6a, “For I, the LORD, do not change.” (NRSV) God may not change, but our perception of him changes throughout our lives and ever-changing circumstances. And this has been true for God’s people as well – across time and history. Even within the pages of the Bible itself, we see God’s people adjusting their understanding of God as their circumstances and history allow them to see God more fully and experience him in relationship in their “here and now” and not someone else’s “then and there.”

This is why wisdom is so important. As Dr. Enns states:

“Wisdom heals us to see God as God is.

“Wisdom also frees us to hold our thoughts about God, life, and the universe with an open hand rather than [a] clenched fist, to face our questions and fears with the focus of a seasoned explorer facing the unknown. We are human, after all, and will always have thoughts about God and the life of faith. And when the Bible is seen as a source of wisdom rather than an instruction manual of universally clear and consistent ‘teachings,’ we will learn to be comfortable with the provisional nature of how we think about God and therefore not shy away from interrogating our own faith with ruthless candor.”

-Peter Enns, How The Bible Actually Works

What a gift is wisdom.

*Yum! Scones!

** “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” (Matthew 1:17, NRSV); Coincidence? I think not.

I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book for the purpose of review from HarperOne.

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