Peter Enns VS Ken Ham: Let’s be Christians About This

I just came across a little online tit for tat between Peter Enns and Ken Ham. If you care to read it all, it begins with Enns’ post titled “Reading Genesis: Let’s be Adult about this, Shall We.”, which Ham responded to with “Peter Enns Wants Children to Reject Genesis.”, which Enns responded to with “‘Ken Ham Clubs Baby Seals’ (or, it may be time for him to rethink his ministry strategy)”. The titles themselves tell quite a bit of the story.

Enns wants to challenge American Evangelical leaders to finally step up and deal with modern critical biblical scholarship, and to give their followers ways of reading the Bible which may turn out to be more faithful, and will not set them up for a crisis of faith when what they know of the Bible inevitably meets the facts of the modern world. This will mean that some of the Old Testament stories can no longer be read as literal history, but we should not feel that we are losing something when this happens.

Ham, in response, affirms that Enns is compromising on the Bible. According to Ham, Genesis cannot be a mythical account. “If that were the case, Christians would not be able to trust any of God’s Word because God would be a liar.” He doesn’t like the way Enns refers to the literal reading as childish, and claims that he’s engaging in mudslinging.

Enns retorts by calling out Ham on his general strategy for “settling differences with Christians [which] seems to be: attack first, and ask questions, well, never.”

Ok, so you have the idea of what’s going on here.

First of all, as far as how to read the Bible is concerned, I line up more with Enns. I think he put it really well when he said: “Because of a failure in leadership to help their people process the kinds of data Gunkel is talking about, a lot of Christians over the last century or so have struggled in needless and unhealthy ways with their faith.” This is a problem we need to deal with and I’m glad he is calling people to rise to the occasion. Better late than never.

Ham’s understanding of the Bible does strike me as rather naive. His claim that if Genesis was not literal history God would be a liar is silly. If someone were to come along and tell you that there never was an actual race between a tortoise and a hare, you  probably wouldn’t conclude that Aesop was a deceiving scoundrel. And I don’t feel like it is important for there to have been a particular Adam and a particular Eve in a literal garden with a snake and fruit and so on for Genesis 3 to be true. In fact, Reinhold Niebuhr noted that “the docrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” You can see that it is true every day in the news. Genesis 3 is no lie. Nor is this a slippery slope to denying Jesus. Recognizing the genre of one text tells you nothing about how you ought to read the other 65 (depending on how you count) documents which were gradually collected and eventually bound together some time around the fourth century to form our Bible.

That being said, I think Enns’ rhetoric is a bit more provocative than is helpful. I get that the childish reading thing comes from Gunkel and the title is based off of that, but as one who used to be a firm biblical literalist (I was even a subscriber to Answers in Genesis magazine), I know how this sounds from that side. “Let’s be adult about this, shall we,” certainly isn’t reassuring, and sounds kind of bluntly patronizing. He should be wary of playing into the fundamentalist expectation that liberals with horns and superiority complexes are eagerly laying in wait to tear down their faith around every corner of the web.

It would do more to tear down walls of hostility and prepare the way for fruitful and authentic dialogue in which Evangelical leaders could actually hear the valuable concerns and suggestions Enns has, if he were to began by acknowledging the deep concern for the Bible as sacred text, and for the faith of those who believe in it, which he shares in common with them. And to make it clear that it is this very passion which drives his insistence that Evangelicals deal seriously with critical scholarship, I think would go a long way. And although the beliefs that he is challenging may be unhelpful and even injurious to the health of the Church, a bit more compassion for the centrality of those beliefs in the worldviews of so many of those he is trying to appeal to would really strengthen his appeal.

And although it may be somewhat wanting in compassion, Enns says a number of things in his retort that Ham needs to listen to. Humility is key. Ham needs to realize that he does not speak for God. William Abraham said:

“‎We must recognize that it is one thing to be loyal to Christ but it is another thing to be loyal to someone’s interpretation of loyalty to Christ. We should resist coercion at the latter level. We must in turn be aware of harsh, judgmental criticism that would equate loyalty to our beliefs with loyalty to Christ. Evangelicals especially need to attend to this.”

As part of this humility Ham needs to have some respect for the fact that he has a bachelors degree in Applied Science and is passing judgement on top biblical scholars (Enns has an M.Div from Westminster Seminary and a Ph.D from Harvard in Ancient Near Eastern languages and civilizations), claiming them to have compromised in their readings of the Bible. He should bear in mind the words of Alexander Pope that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”

I am concerned for our readings of the Bible, so I am glad to see these discussions taking place. But I am also concerned for the unity and witness of the Church in the world, and so I think we need to do better on the attitudes and tones we take with each other. The gravity of what is at stake warrents passion. Yet the gravity of what is at stake (our unity and witness) demands that we go about it with humility, compassion, patience, and love.

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8 Responses to Peter Enns VS Ken Ham: Let’s be Christians About This

  1. N/A

    True faith is something that doesn’t require belief to be justified by facts – this is the essence of faith. The idea that the way in which one reads Genesis would either cause one to have a crisis of faith later in adulthood (Enns) or doubt the legitimacy of the promise of salvation (Ham) is a concept that would only impact those who lack faith or have an improper understanding of it. The Bible is under no obligation to be scientifically accurate or logically correct; it is something to be accepted by faith as truth or rejected as a lie. The framework of faith is something that is outside of the constraints of logic or fact the same as God is outside of the physical laws of the universe he created.

    To the true believer it should make no difference if Genesis is fact or fable; in faith Genesis exists as truth and nothing more. Someone who seeks proof in order to believe lacks the faith necessary to do so.

    Mark 10:15
    Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.

    Mark 8:11-14
    The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”

  2. PW

    I fail to understand what you mean by, in your opinion, ” I don’t feel like it is important for there to have been a particular Adam and a particular Eve in a literal garden with a snake and fruit and so on…”

    If Adam is not Adam, what is the alternative from what the Bible says? When I read references throughout the Bible like Romans 8:14 …”death reigned from Adam to Moses”, does this mean that Moses was not necessarily real in the sense of one unique human being with that name, that God worked through? If you remove support that Adam is real, you can take it straight down the line to Jesus and use the same logic to whether there really is a Son of God too. And I would hope that you would believe in the necessity of Christs role in our atonement and redemption.

    “Recognizing the genre of one text tells you nothing about how you ought to read the other 65 (depending on how you count) documents which were gradually collected and eventually bound together some time around the fourth century to form our Bible”

    I would be curious to see your categorization of the “genres” of the rest of the Bible, and how you contend they should be read. The Penetetauch has always been categorized as our history, which history cannot be ambiguous.

    • alexdemarco

      Great question! I didn’t really go into depth with this in the post because I more concerned to address how the discussion was taking place than with contributing content to the discussion. But to address the question of how I would read the Adam and Eve story, I think I would begin by noting that for most of the cultures represented in the Bible, genealogy is identity. You can see this when people are introduced as: “X, the son of Y.” Ancient writers were very literarily sophisticated (often quite a bit more than we are actually). So if I was an ancient Israelite and I wanted to convey to my fellow Israelites for generations to come that at the root, the very core, of who each and every one of us is (and humanity as a collective), we are sinners who seek to usurp God’s place and that in doing so we estrange ourselves from our creator, a very good way of doing that would be to tell a story of our first parents Adam (which in Hebrew means “man”) and Eve (which is Hebrew means “woman”) reaching in disobedience for a fruit that would, as the deceiver claimed, make them “like God.” We are Adam (“Man”); we are Eve (“woman”); and we have sought to be God to ourselves and to others, and we continue to do so still.

      Concrete stories with characters and drama tend to stick in the mind much more vividly and permanently than abstractions left hanging in thin air (especially as they are passed along in an oral culture). Darkness reigned from Adam (the beginning) until Moses, I would venture to suppose, because it was not until Moses that God gave his law and attempted to dwell once more with the human community, to bridge the estrangement. That’s a pretty off the cuff shot at that so I wouldn’t put too much weight on it, but these are the kind of readings I would expect to come away with.

      As far as understanding biblical genre, that really is a difficult thing to do. We certainly didn’t find these texts on categorized bookshelves in a library somewhere which gave us hints. We have to look at the texts quite closely to see what kind of texts they are in order to gain a better understanding of how to read them most faithfully. This really is a job for textual scholars, and we have many of them, brilliant devoted Christians, who have done and continue to do a wonderful job at this. What I wouldn’t want to do is come to a text with a category that I have pre-established and force it to fit into that. I want to let the text lead me.

      I think a very helpful work on the theology of Scripture that I would suggest is John Webster’s “Holy Scripture: a Dogmatic Sketch.” I like the approach he takes in tackling this really root question: what is Holy Scripture anyway?

      Hopefully that helps somewhat, at least to clarify where I am at the present with some of this stuff (not that my journey with it is anywhere near completed). I wish you the best on your journey, and God bless.

  3. Jon Beltz

    Well stated, Alex. This subject could indeed use better attitudes on both sides. On Biologos’ website there is an interesting essay written by Roger Nicole on “Polemic Theology”, or how Christians ought to deal with those with whom we disagree. I read it and thought that it laid out some good reminders for us anytime we disagree with anyone.

    Jon Beltz

  4. Alex,

    I love the tone you take here. Really. Regardless of what the argument is centered upon, I think we can all agree that you’ve provided a way forward that will set aside animosities in light of a greater good. Keep on with that ecumenical spirit. The church needs it.

    Nick

  5. Kevin Travers

    Alex,
    Christians like you give me hope for a religion that I have lost faith in. The squabbles, the mudslinging, the self righteousness and so on (especially, and worst of all, on the internet) have made me wearier and more distrustful than I already have been. I appreciate what you say here.
    Thanks,
    Kevin

  6. Beth

    Alex,
    I “happened” on your response to the interchange between Enns and Ham, having first read the interchange itself. Your words resonate profoundly with my mind and heart. I especially appreciate your thoughtful answer to the questions about a literal Adam and the genres of Scripture.
    You, indeed, give me (at least a glimmer) of hope for the possibility of a more elevated dialogue among Christians about issues of faith, Scripture and their intersection with postmodern scholarship (both biblical and scientific).
    God bless your journey.
    Beth

  7. A good article, Alex. Should you look up my comments under both of Enn’s articles regarding this matter, you will discern something new and remarkable. Ham & co.do not allow my comments.

    This debate is old hat. It is being perpetuated by Ham & co. for the same reasons that sects and cults perpetuate and repeat their hackneyed phrases. It would not exist if qualified Bible scholars such as Enns had done the basic research. Personally, it excites me as much as churning butter. Give Enns his due — he practises free speech. As for mythology and legend — unfortunate choice of words. My publications are at your disposal. That stuff from Hell! (Search under my full name plus, for example; Moon Capture; Questions Arising Species Origins; Three Questions Modern 24hr Day Creation Science should Answer; Tree of Life Species Origin; Evolution of Evolution; Climate Moderation Magnetic Field Interaction; Terrestrial Magnetic Field, Yea for Higgs’s Boson, etc. etc.) Regards, P.B.H..

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