Christian Doctrines, theology

Peter Enns on Definitions and Inerrancy

5vbi-counterpointNot long ago, I finished reading Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, a book in the Zondervan Counterpoints series which focused on the plausibility and meaning of inerrancy. Peter Enns was by far the most critical of the doctrine of inerrancy, and his essay largely put forward the position that we should not merely modify but simply get rid of the notion of biblical inerrancy. Here, I want to focus upon Enns’ methodology throughout the work.

We’ll look at Enns’ contributions to Five Views… a bit backwards, by focusing first upon his responses to the other authors. What I found was that time and time again, Enns demanded definitions for individual words from the authors he was responding to. Sometimes, these demands were warranted, but overall it seemed Enns would just call on the others to define their terms and say he didn’t know what they meant otherwise. Moreover, even where he did not demand definitions, he often put scare quotes around seemingly random words in his responses. This latter point is more a complaint about writing style than substance, but it was extremely distracting! On p. 61, for example, Enns put quotes around three words–“many,” “history,” and “accurate”–the latter two for seemingly no reason whatsoever.

However, what I want to focus on is Enns emphasis on the importance of definitions. Here are just some examples of Enns’ method in application:

“…’true,’ ‘error,’ ‘erroneously,’ and ‘falsehood’ are all left floating. I am not sure what Bird means by them–at least at this point” (Enns’ response to Bird, p. 182).

“For one thing, we have the perennial problem of what ‘affirm’ actually means, and Vanhoozer’s subsequent thoughts did not clear this up for me. Further, ‘eventually’ raises flags…” (Enns’ response to Vanhoozer, p. 245).

Now, as I noted, surely some of this is fair. It is true that it is important to wonder at the meaning of “truth,” as we know from the oft-quoted words of Pontius Pilate “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Thus, I am not saying that Enns has no point when he called for definitions throughout his critical engagement with his co-authors. Surely, definitions are extremely important. And it is because of the importance of definitions that I wonder why on earth Enns failed to even allow for different definitions of inerrancy in his own contribution to the book.

Think about this for a second: despite spending significant [what is meant by significant?] portions of his responses calling upon definitions from his co-authors, Enns himself titled his contribution: “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.”

Yes, that’s right, the man who called for definitions of individual words like truth, falsehood, error, affirm, and more himself eschews the hassle of defining inerrancy, the central topic of not just his chapter but the subject of the book! I’m astonished by this. How can someone who has demonstrated such concern for details himself just lump all inerrantists together and say that “well, however they define it, it doesn’t work”? Well, what does Enns mean by “inerrancy”? Enns does interact with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (hereafter CSBI) and apparently takes this for his norm regarding the meaning of inerrancy, but without any explicit definition of inerrancy, readers are left wondering whether Enns really is so concerned with definitions after all.

Enns, of course, brings up a number of interesting points and several challenges to inerrancy with which those who hold to the doctrine must interact. However, without any distinction between inerrantists, Enns is left doing that which he accuses others of: making statements which are hard to understand because he hasn’t defined terms. One obvious difficulty with Enns’ approach comes to the forefront when he assumes that inerrancy is necessarily committed to a literalistic hermeneutic: “The implication [of the CSBI on historical matters] is self-evident: inerrancy means, first of all, that literalism is the default hermeneutic of the CSBI… Taken at face value, this means that any comparison of Genesis with other ancient Near Eastern origins stories… is ruled out of bounds” (88). Enns qualified the last statement by noting that only those comparisons outside of CSBI conclusions are ruled out.

But of course the CSBI itself does allow for the comparison of genre, cultural contexts, and more in regards to interpretation of the text. Moreover, the CSBI allows for not just young earth creationism, but for other approaches to the text as well.

Thus, it seems to me that Enns’ lack of concern for possible nuance to definitions of inerrancy–his rejection of defining terms despite his insistence that others must do so–leads to great difficulties with his own critique. I have not here engaged in the core of Enns’ argument. As I said, many of his points are thoughtful and engaging. However, I think that his method seems a bit disingenuous: he demands that others define terms, but when it comes to the central topic of the entire book, refuses to acknowledge that any distinctions within the doctrine of inerrancy can combat his conclusion that the Bible is not inerrant.


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“Theological Colonialism”? On theological issues which are ‘only popular in America’– Here, I evaluate the claims made by Michael Bird in his essay in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. More particularly, I consider the notion that doctrines which are allegedly only popular in one place of the world are somehow restricted in importance.


Peter Enns, Responses and “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does not Describe What the Bible Does” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013).



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


6 thoughts on “Peter Enns on Definitions and Inerrancy

  1. I’ve only read the Hell and Creation & Evolution books in the Counterpoint series and haven’t been overly-impressed. Where would you place Inerrancy in relation to those, quality-wise?

    Posted by Timothy Henderson | March 26, 2014, 12:50 PM
    • I have both of those but I unfortunately have not read either so I can’t really compare them. I have read the following books in the series: Revelation; Apologetics; Law and Gospel; Women in Ministry; Inerrancy; Millenium and Beyond; Divine Providence; Baptism.

      I would say that at times the quality is uneven, and that’s often due to the length. The one on baptism, for example, is so short it’s virtually impossible to get a grasp on any view or response. The one on revelation is solid, but it doesn’t provide responses. Overall, I enjoy the series, but I would say you have to be aware some are better than others.

      Inerrancy, I would place on the top end of the spectrum. It’s definitely one of the better books in the series and has some very excellent engagement among the authors. I would recommend it.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 26, 2014, 1:15 PM
      • Thanks for your feedback! The series is a great concept – I just wish it was better implemented. I read The Genesis Debate right after the creation/evolution Counterpoint and realized how much potential this series had, and how it fell short in that topic. Hell was even worse, in my opinion…

        Posted by Tim Henderson | March 26, 2014, 5:40 PM
  2. I was debating on reading this book; good observation, your evaluation of Enns is something I feel is true in his discussion elsewhere as well

    Posted by SLIMJIM | March 27, 2014, 6:06 PM
    • It’s a really good read which I think is necessary for those of us who want to be engaged in this discussion. The responses to each view were particularly helpful and insightful. If you read the other article I linked here (on “Theological Colonialism”), it shows another area of critical engagement I had with the book. Overall I’d say it’s an excellent, thought-provoking (though at times aggravating) read.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 27, 2014, 6:27 PM

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