Peter Enns, Jesus and Genesis
In the past few years, a handful of books from ostensibly conservative Christians have challenged the traditional interpretation that God created man from the dust of the ground. Instead, these authors have argued for some eclectic blend of creation and evolution when it comes to mankind’s origins.
An Old Error Given New Life
The danger of reinterpreting Genesis and the precedent it sets are many. If one desires to reinterpret (reject) certain parts of God’s Word because of man’s fallible opinions about the past that are based on anti-supernatural presuppositions, then at what point do we stop reinterpreting the Bible? If Genesis should be reinterpreted to accommodate billions of years and other evolutionary ideas proposed by the majority of scientists, should we not also reinterpret other sections of Scripture that are at odds with the majority of scientists, such as the virgin birth, Resurrection or ascension of Christ?
“Oh, come on, that will never happen,” some Christians might argue. The door of compromise has now been opened to such an extent that the gospel itself is under attack. In one of his most recent books, intended to provide a rational for rethinking Christianity in light of the claims of current evolutionary theories, Dr. Peter Enns promotes the idea that Adam and Eve were not real, historical people. To bolster this claim, Enns relies on the discredited documentary hypothesis to say that the first five books of the Bible were not written until after the Babylonian exile. According to this theory, Moses did not write them, but instead it was some scribe or group of scribes that compiled oral and written traditions and stuck them together. Despite a wealth of biblical and historical evidence to the contrary, Enns portrays this idea as a given, accepted by any scholar wroth his or her salt. In a footnote in his new book, Dr. Enns addressed one of the objections to this view—namely, that Jesus said that Moses wrote about Him:
“Although treating this issue fully would take us far afield, I should mention at least a common line of defense for Mosaic authorship: Jesus seems to attribute authorship of the Pentateuch to Moses (John 5:46-47). I do not think, however, that this presents a clear counterpoint, mainly because even the most argent defenders of Mosaic authorship today acknowledge that some of the Pentateuch reflects updating, but taken at face value this is not a position that Jesus seems to leave room for. But more important, I do not think that Jesus’s status as the incarnate Son of God requires that statements such as John 5:46-47 be understood as binding historical judgments of authorship. Rather, Jesus here reflects the tradition that he himself inherited as a first-century Jew and that his hearers assumed to be the case.”[i]
Before looking at the disastrous conclusions that follow from such a belief, let’s read the passage in question.
“Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:45-47)
Jesus did not just seem to attribute authorship of the Pentateuch to Moses, He clearly affirmed in this passage that Moses wrote it. Earlier in the confrontation, Jesus told the Jews that they searched the Scriptures because in them they thought they had eternal life, but Jesus said that the Scriptures testify of Him and that the people needed to come to Him for eternal life. Then He narrowed it down to a particular section of the Old Testament. The Jews divided their Scriptures into two (sometimes three) sections: the law and the Prophets (Luke 24:27). So by referring to Moses, Jesus was attributing Mosaic authorship to the first five books of the Bible.
Since Jesus said Moses wrote about Him, that settles the issue. Peter Enns responds, “Not so fast.” First, Enns stated that “even the most ardent defends of Mosaic authorship today acknowledge that some of the Pentateuch reflects updating but taken at face value this is not a position that Jesus seems to leave room for.” It is true that some portions of the Pentateuch reflect updating. For example, Deuteronomy 34 was almost certainly not written by Moses, since it is the account of his death. It may very well have been recorded by Moses, and it is certainly possible that God enabled Moses to prophetically write about his own death. Enns appeals to a straw man argument here in claiming that all who disagree with his view are hyper-literalists, when he states that Jesus did not leave room for any updating. Enns implies that when Jesus called Moses the author, it must be understood that every letter was penned by Moses himself or else Moses could not truly be called the author. This is simply an absurd contention. Authors today have editors who contribute to and revise their work, but this does not cause anyone to deny authorship to the person who wrote the majority of the text. The Apostle Paul had others write for him, but this does not mean Paul was not the author.
The Accommodation Theory
Enns acknowledges that this is not his strongest argument. His more important claim is that Jesus was not really making an authoritative historical statement about Mosaic authorship. He states, “Rather, Jesus here reflects the tradition that he himself inherited as a first-century Jew and that his hearers assumed to be the case.” According to Dr. Peter Enns, Jesus wrongly attributed the writing of the Pentateuch to Moses because He accepted an erroneous tradition of His day.
The idea advanced by Dr. Enns here is known as the accommodation theory and was first advanced in the 18th century by Johann Semler, the father of German rationalism. The accommodation theory is very popular among liberal theologians and basically asserts that Jesus accommodated (accepted and taught) the various ideas of His day, even if they were wrong. Allegedly, since Jesus was primarily concerned with spiritual matters, He did not bother to correct some of their false historical or scientific beliefs because doing so might have distracted from His real message.
There are many problems with this type of thinking. First, Jesus routinely rebuked people who held beliefs contrary to Scripture and corrected those who were in error. He specifically told the Sadducees, “But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29) is hardly accommodating someone’s errors. Furthermore, Jesus often reacted strongly to accepted practices that were contrary to the Word of God. He drove the money changers out of the temple (John 2:15-16) and excoriated the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:16-33). If Jesus simply accommodated the errors of His time, He never would have done these things.
Those who promote the accommodation theory emphasize that Jesus said even He didn’t know the time of His return: “”Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 24:36). However, one scholarly correctly pointed out, “Limits on understanding are different from misunderstanding. The fact that He did not know some things does not mean He was wrong in what He did know.”[ii] We can be certain when Jesus affirmed something to be true, He knew it was true, and He spoke with absolute authority. Jesus never accommodated the erroneous thinking of His day. He always spoke the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth.
So why does it matter whether Jesus accommodated the errors of His day? Well, if Jesus taught error, then He would have lied to His listeners, in which case He would have been a sinner. If He unwittingly taught error, then He would have misled His followers making Him a false teacher. Either option leaves us with a Jesus who is sinful and less than God. If Jesus had sinned, then He could not have been the spotless Lamb who appeased God’s wrath by His sacrificial death on the Cross, because He would have needed to die for His own sins. If Jesus did not die for our sins, then we are still in our sins and are headed for an eternity in the lake of fire.
Did Jesus really say Moses wrote about Him? Consider the following verses:
Matthew 19:8, “He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”
Luke 5:14, “And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
Luke 16:29, “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’”
Luke 20:37, “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
Luke 24:44, “Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
John 7:19-23, “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?” Jesus answered them, “I did one work, and you all marvel at it. Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?”
And just in case you are not convinced yet that the absolute truthfulness of Jesus is essential, think carefully about these words Jesus spoke to the Jews:
John 8:28-29, “So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”
Since Jesus only spoke the words the Father taught Him, to say that Jesus accommodated the errors of His day is to claim that God the Father made these same mistakes. It may sound unkind to say, but the accommodation view promoted by Dr. Enns is heresy. It charges our precious Savior with error and accuses the Father of instructing the Son to teach error.
In his book, Enns demonstrates a low view of Scripture, and that low view of Scripture leads to a low view of the Savior. In both Hebrews 6:18 and Titus 1:2 we are given a clear statement- God cannot lie! To assert that Jesus knowingly told His hearers falsehoods or affirmed something that He knew was false can only be called a lie. To rightly understand the nature of Scriptures and their inerrancy and infallibility, we must clearly connect these ideas with the character of God. Since God cannot lie, neither can His Scriptures. As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus would not mislead anyone, even though He was a first-century Jew. To suggest that Jesus would lie, even if it is called an “accommodation,” is to deny the deity of Christ.
This is not a side issue. This is not a “can’t we all just get along” dispute. This is false teaching that strikes right at the heart of the gospel, and it should never be accepted by those who claim to love Jesus Christ. This problem has been addressed by many writers since its introduction in the 18th century. To accept accomodationism is to accept that God is not able to use language in a way that perfectly communicates His meaning without embracing falsehoods. Wayne Grudem states succinctly that to embrace accommodation “essentially denies God’s effective lordship over human language.”[iii] Furthermore to say that God has communicated using a falsehood denies His moral character as described in Numbers 23:19, Titus 1:2, and Hebrews 6:18. All of these ideas are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture and deny the holiness of God.
Pray for Dr. Enns and others who hold this view that they will recognize the seriousness of their error and repent. The Church desperately needs to stop thinking they can innocuously incorporate secular philosophy with God’s Word (and even, wittingly or unwittingly, undermine the deity of Christ along the way). Christians need to take an absolute and uncompromising stand on the Word of God as the ultimate source for doctrine.
[i] Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012), p. 153).
[ii] Normal L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis, MNL Bethany House, 2002), p. 276)
[iii] Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 97.