Peter Enns on Doctrinal Tensions

I came across this discussion in Peter Enns’ commentary on Exodus and found it to be enlightening, so I decided to quote it at length here. This kind of tension is something that I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, Jesus’ full humanity and full deity, the fact that we are sinners yet declared righteous, God’s love and His wrath, groaning inwardly (Romans 8) yet being content (Philippians 4), etc. The Christian life is one of balance and the process of living in this balance brings tension. Living in constant tension is tiring and in a desire to bring release we can find ourselves tipping the scales in favor of one emphasis over the other. I suspect that this is the cause of much of our debate and disunity in the body of Christ, and I think we would be better served by acknowledging and being satisfied with the tension rather than seeking to relieve it.

Anyway, enough of my rambling…



“Another element, touched on earlier but more prominent in the plague narrative, is the fact that God has complete control in the process of salvation. We should be careful not to try to fit these passages too neatly into our theological constructs, as if God’s sovereignty can be tamed (!). This goes for people of all theological stripes, whether Calvinist or Arminian. The almost playfulness with which God handles Pharaoh despite his apparent repentance, and the determination with which he brings Israel out of Egypt despite their less than full support, should give everyone reason to pause.

Who is this all-loving, merciful God who, rather than fanning Pharaoh’s nascent obedience into a flame, seems to direct him in a completely opposite direction? Who is this God who chooses a people for himself, through no merit of their own, and then determines to mold them into his own image despite their repeated shortcomings and rebellions? A proper reaction to reading this story is simply to sit back and shake our heads in disbelief. God is beyond our understanding.

A tension that all Christians deal with sooner or later is having an understanding of God while at the same time recognizing that he is always open to directions that we have not anticipated. We feel this tension acutely, for example, when we find ourselves coming to grips with an understanding of a doctrinal issue that at an earlier time we would have found problematic or unorthodox. This tension is often difficult to hold in balance, but it is one that all Christians must try to respect. Knowledge of God is a powerful commodity, which is why it is so susceptible to abuse. It is always a temptation to think that you “understand” who God is and how he works. God has revealed himself to us, to be sure, and most clearly in his Son, but too often the wonder of his revelation is reduced to a narrow dogmatism that has everything in its place. It is the kind of faith that favors heated theological debate rather than unity in love.

For some, it seems that all the mysteries of the gospel and life have been entrusted to them. This is not just a danger for famous Christian thinkers (or cult leaders!) who make their livelihood from expounding the deep mysteries of the gospel, but for everyone. We all know Christians like this and, if we are honest, we would admit to similar transgressions. Yet there are others for whom the Christian life is shrouded in mystery to the point that dogma is an intrusion. Although theological systems have been exploited to the detriment of the gospel, it is also true that eschewing any sort of theological system can be detrimental to one’s faith. Such a view emphasizes the mystery of the gospel so that its revelatory content is not taken seriously.

The lessons of the plague narrative are a merciful slap in the face to both these extremes. The plagues are revelation. They are not done in private, but for all the world to see. They tell us, in no uncertain terms, who God is and what he can do. But God’s dealings with Pharaoh are also beyond our understanding. They cannot be contained in a series of tidy propositions handed down like a math formula or grocery list. We have in the Bible at once the openness of God and his hiddenness. The paradox we see hinted at already in the plagues is fully embodied in Christ, for the fullness of God dwells in him (Col. 1:19), but he is also like us in every way (Heb. 2:17).

All those who “have come to share in Christ” (Heb. 3:14) share in this tension, and we would do well to keep this in mind as we journey toward a deeper knowledge of Almighty God. God is in our midst, yet he is beyond us. We should be humble in our knowledge, for we are dealing with a God of boundless depth, who has creation at his fingertips. But we must also be bold in our limited understanding, for the same God has gone to great lengths to make himself known to us.”

Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 238–239.

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