What’s Wrong with Theological Exegesis

… or, what’s right with it, depending on who you are.

This week, James K. A. Smith posted a review of Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam at The Colossian Forum. Although Enns is a friend, I am not an apologist for this particular book, which is amenable to, perhaps significant, critique from a number of angles.

However, I am an apologist for people wrestling with the critical issues about what the Bible is, what it actually communicates, and what the impact of this might be for Christian theology.

And this is precisely the sort of challenge that Smith’s critique of the book seeks to circumvent. Smith’s critique of Enns’ methodology (it’s not a book review in the typical sense) is an almost stereotypical move by a theologian to keep the church from having to wrestle with what the Bible actually is, what it actually says, and how this might challenge what we think we know about ourselves and God.

You’ll notice I said “actually.” And here, no doubt, I can hear Smith jumping up and down and screaming, “‘Actually’ is precisely the point! Enns tries to define ‘actually’ as what the human authors meant, but that’s never been the full extent of what the church has believed.”

I know this. And so does Enns–more so than Smith gives him credit for.

Smith wrongly critiques Enns on two points.

First, he says that Enns’ paradigm is one in which the true meaning lies “behind” the text. This is a mischaracterization. For Enns, as for most scholars who turn to historical context to understand the text, the world “behind” the text does not determine what the text means, but helps us understand with greater plausibility the particular connotations this text would have had to a first audience.

This is not getting behind the text, it’s better understanding the text we actually have.

Second, for some reason Smith thinks that Richard B. Hays is his ally while Enns is dubious company. But both Hays and Enns argue that Paul reads the OT with a revisionist hermeneutic in light of the person and work of Christ (Enns) or the formation of the church in Christ (Hays).

This is where Smith’s critique was peculiar, to say the least. After chastising Enns for claiming an ultimate meaning in Genesis and not allowing a reframing of it in canonical context, he quotes Enns as saying:

what Genesis says about Adam and the consequences of his actions does not seem to line up with the universal picture that Paul paints in Romans and 1 Corinthians […]. I do not think the gospel stands on whether we can read Paul’s Adam in the pages of Genesis.

That sounds a lot like Enns is arguing for a revisionist reading of Genesis in light of the Christ event–a canonical reassessment that says, “How Paul reads Adam is not determined by the Ancient Near Eastern context.”

If Smith were in the mood to give Enns’ book a charitable reading, he might even say that Enns has demonstrated that these later meanings unfolded “in front of the text.”

But the real crux is that Smith wants to iron out all the wrinkles through an appeal to divine authorship. The problem, of course, is that this convenient appeal is so powerful that it can substantiate every claim while proving none.

Such appeals to divine intention have too long disallowed careful investigation into the plausibility of evolution and what the impact might be for how Christians read the Bible and understand human origins.

While I disagree with Enns on numerous points, his book is more valuable than Smith’s critique for two reasons: (1) It owns up to the Bible we actually have rather than the Bible Smith seems to wish God had given us. (No, appeals to God cannot make the critical issues of the Bible go away.) But perhaps more importantly, (2) It moves Christianity in the right direction by freeing evangelicals to wrestle with the questions of evolution and theology with integrity rather than calling us back again to the comfort of divine approbation for our closed-eyed denial of the problems facing our theological tradition.

Peter Enns

Smith closes his critique by suggest we return to ask the unasked foundational questions. This is a red herring. We can keep retreating to our theological reading rooms and having comfortable conversations about how important it is that God wrote the Bible. Or, we can continue the conversation that Enns has helped move along by (a) wrestling with the meaning of the Bible we actually have as both a historical and a theological document–God, if God be author, actually authored this and not some other book!–and (b) figuring out what we’re going to say about human origins now that we know humanity came to be in a much different way than we’d think from a literal reading of Genesis 1 or even the almost opposite way we’d think from a literal reading of Genesis 2.

Theological interpretation is at its best when it is drawing on what we know historically about the contexts of scripture to enrich and challenge the theology of the church. It is at its worst when it strives to use the power of God to keep us from recognizing either the Bible we actually have or the world we actually live in. Smith’s review is guilty of both of the latter.

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