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.