Why I’m Not Using Susan Wise Bauer’s Curricula: A Review of Peter Enns’ Bible Curriculum

It’s that time of year again. Homeschool conferences are taking place all over the country this summer as homeschoolers gear up for a new school year. Last year, there was a big controversy over comments made by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis about Dr. Peter Enns and his theistic evolutionary views. As a result of that controversy I reviewed the Bible curriculum that Dr. Enns had written. Telling God’s Story is a multi-year Bible curriculum aimed at children of all ages. It is published by Susan Wise Bauer’s Olive Branch Books, a division of Peace Hill Press. Given all of the controversy over Dr. Enns and his well-published views on Scripture and evolution, it is Susan Wise Bauer’s defense and support of Dr. Enns that has convinced me that her curricula are not what I want to use. (The link is for a positive review that she wrote for Dr. Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation.)

What follows is the review that I wrote last year.

If you aren’t a homeschooling family, you may not be aware of the debate raging over a new Bible curriculum by Dr. Peter Enns. Here is a brief summary of the issues.

Dr. Peter Enns, formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary, has written a curriculum, Telling God’s Story, to help parents teach their children about the Bible. As part of the release of Telling God’s Story, Dr. Enns has been speaking at some of the homeschool conventions held around the country. At one convention, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis expressed his concern about Dr. Enns “compromising” views, especially as it relates to Genesis, an historical Adam, and an historical Fall. One convention decided to uninvite Ken Ham because they didn’t like the “divisive spirit” of his comments about Dr. Enns. Concern was raised within the homeschooling community over Dr. Enns connection with BioLogos, a foundation that promotes evolution. Further concern was raised over the fact that the publisher, Olive Branch Books, is part of Peace Hill Press which is directed by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. Susan Wise Bauer is well-known and well-respected within the homeschooling community for her history series, The Story of the World, and book, The Well-Trained Mind. Olive Branch Books has released a statement in which it begs parents to read the curriculum for themselves instead of relying on secondhand accounts.

So, that is what I’ve done. I received my copy of the parents’ guide to Telling God’s Story, and I have now finished reading it. I also read Dr. Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation, to help me understand his views.

According to the back cover:

Telling God’s Story: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching the Bible gives parents a grasp of what the Bible is (and is not), and helps them communicate its message to their children faithfully, powerfully, and with joy. In this accessible and engaging book, Peter Enns (author of the popular NIV Application Commentary on Exodus) provides parents and teachers with a straightforward and intelligent twelve-year plan for teaching the Bible. (Peter Enns, Telling God’s Story: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching the Bible, [Charles City: Olive Branch Books, 2010], back cover)

Unlike many other Bible curricula, Telling God’s Story does not start out with Genesis or other familiar Bible stories. Dr. Enns begins his curriculum with the story of Jesus. This is intentional on his part, as he believes that it is important for children to have an understanding of the “focal point of Christian Bible” (30). The problem, he says, with teaching children the Bible stories, such as creation, fall, flood, Babel, etc., first is that when they grow up they may associate those stories with other children’s stories they’ve outgrown. He believes that by starting (grades 1-4) with Jesus parents will provide a foundation that is “a vital base for a lifelong study of Scripture” (46).

For grades 5-8, the curriculum covers the history of Israel from Abraham to the post-exile prophets. This is designed to help children understand the larger context of the biblical story. Finally, in grades 9-12, the purpose of the curriculum is to understand the Bible in its settings. He says, “during these years, your task should be to prepare students to understand the Bible in a way that allows them to live in and interact with the world around us” (38).

The second half of the book lays out an overview of Scripture through “The Five Acts of the Bible:” Creation and Fall, Redemption: Abraham and Moses, David and the Problem of Kingship, The Return from Babylon, and Jesus: Scene One and Scene Two. This is where Dr. Enns discusses how he views the narrative pattern of the Bible.

Having read the parents’ guide, I can say that there are a few things on which I agree with Dr. Enns. I agree that it is very important to teach our children that the whole of the Bible is about Jesus. I agree that our children should learn from the very start who Jesus is and why the Bible is His story. I also agree that our children should be well-educated in the various challenges to the truth of the Bible that they are likely to face. My concerns, however, greatly outweigh these areas of agreement. The problems that I see with Telling God’s Story can be grouped into three basic topics: methodology, Biologos/evolution, and view of Scripture.

First, what do I mean by methodology? I am concerned about how Dr. Enns has laid out his curriculum. As I mentioned in the summary above, Dr. Enns believes that by starting with Jesus and avoiding the familiar Old Testament stories at first, children will not learn to associate Bible stories with childish stories that they have outgrown. My concern is, according to this logic, there is no reason to suppose that children will not do the same with the stories of Jesus. In fact, if you follow Dr. Enns approach and teach your teenagers that Genesis 1-11 is more symbolic than historical, what will keep your children from deciding that maybe Jesus is more allegory than history?

As for how to teach our children about sin, Dr. Enns writes:

What should not be emphasized is the child’s miserable state of sin and the need for a savior.

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe Jesus rescues us from our sin. But we cannot and should not expect adult comprehension of the depth of sin and the grace of God from our children.

I believe in God’s displeasure with sin. But to introduce children to the God of wrath right at the beginning of their lives, without the requisite biblical foundation and before the years of emotional maturity, can actually distort their view of God.(33-34, emphasis original)

Also disturbing is Dr. Enns belief that we, as parents, should not teach our children to defend the Bible.

The Bible is not a book that was written to be defended.

A defense of Scripture is only as good as what lies beneath it, which should be a mature understanding of the nature of the Bible. Too often, I see Christians defending positions that are based on a false understanding of the biblical story. These positions may temporarily convince young children of the Bible’s truth, but as children begin to think for themselves, free of their parents’ protection, the inadequacy of the arguments they have been taught becomes clear.

As we teach the Bible to our children, we should not be focused on defending a particular view of Genesis- or any other controversial issue. (53)

Second, I think it is important to consider who Dr. Enns is, what his relationship is with Biologos, and what he has written regarding the origins of life. According to BioLogos’ website, Dr. Peter Enns is a “Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation.” The BioLogos Foundation describes itself this way:

The BioLogos Foundation is a group of Christians, many of whom are professional scientists, biblical scholars, philosophers, theologians, pastors, and educators, who are concerned about the long history of disharmony between the findings of science and large sectors of the Christian faith. We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We also believe that evolution, properly understood, best describes God’s work of creation.

Here are a few excerpts from articles Dr. Enns has written for BioLogos on a variety of subjects. From an article on how to interpret Genesis:

One reason I and others do not accept a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is that the text itself points us in a symbolic direction. In fact, insisting on “total literalism” can cause big problems for readers of Genesis.

From an article about Adam and human origins:

The biblical depiction of human origins, if taken literally, presents Adam as the very first human being ever created. He was not the product of an evolutionary process, but a special creation of God a few thousand years before Jesus—roughly speaking, about 6000 years ago. Every single human being that has ever lived can trace his/her genetic history to that one person.

This is a problem because it is at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains.

From an article on the Flood:

To interpret the Genesis flood as a complete global catastrophe is a modern imposition onto an ancient story. Ancients simply did not think of the earth in that way. This is where “Flood Geology” gets off on the wrong foot. Apart from the well-documented scientific problems with this approach, it expects a worldview that Genesis is not prepared to deliver.

Clearly, Dr. Enns is at home within the BioLogos community.

While I am concerned about the methodology of the curriculum and the evolutionary beliefs of the author, my greatest concern with Telling God’s Story has to do with Dr. Enns view of Scripture. I believe that this really is at the heart of all the other issues. At the beginning of the parents’ guide to Telling God’s Story, Dr. Enns writes that we should first understand what the Bible is and what it is not.

Knowing something about what the Bible is designed to do, what its purpose is, will help us adjust our expectations about what it is we hope to find in the Bible. If our expectations are modern instead of ancient, we will get ourselves into a bind. Before we can ask the hard questions – for example, “Is Genesis 1 in harmony with scientific thought? Or does Genesis 1 trump scientific thought?” – we must ask a more fundamental question: What do we have the right to expect from God’s word as a book written in an ancient world? (Telling God’s Story, 18-19)

He describes an “incarnational” model of Scripture to help explain how we should view the Bible. This is the subject of his book, Inspiration and Incarnation. He compares the incarnation of Jesus with the Bible.

Now think of the Bible by drawing a parallel: In the same way that Jesus is both completely divine and human, the Bible also has divine and human dimensions.

Jesus is without sin: and in the same way, the Bible does not fall short of God’s purpose. (19)

This does not mean, however, that he believes that the Bible is inerrant or infallible in the traditional understanding of those terms. In his book, Inspiration and Incarnation, he explains it this way.

By faith, the church confesses that the Bible is God’s word. It is up to Christians of each generation, however, to work out what that means and what words work best to describe it. (Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005], 168)

What the diversity of the Bible tells us is that there is no superficial unity to the Bible. (108)

What is at work here is more an attempt to conform Scripture to predetermined ways of thinking than allowing Scripture to help shape how we think. (153)

In addition, Dr. Enns places a great deal of importance on extrabiblical evidence, to the point that he appears to view Scripture through the lens of what science and archeology can prove.

For example, it cam be unsettling to learn that Genesis 1 has elements in common with creation stories of the ancient world – and that those creations stories are older than the Bible. The same goes for the Flood story. (Telling God’s Story, 39)

Perhaps most important among these, as I have been hinting, are the opening chapters of Genesis. Generations of discoveries from the ancient Mesopotamian world have shed invaluable light on how these stories are meant to be understood. (41)

Most of us are familiar with the controversies surrounding Genesis and science. … These debates have come about because Christians have attempted to apply the Bible to current events and current discoveries that the Bible does not speak to. (52)

While he does acknowledge that others hold different views on the Bible and extrabiblical evidence, his explanation for why he does not agree is very telling.

If pressed, one could attempt to mount the argument that the Israelite stories were actually older than all the ancient Near Eastern stories but were only recorded later in Hebrew. Such a theory- for that is what it is, a theory- would need to assume that the biblical stories are the pristine originals and that all the other stories are parodies and perversions of the Israelite original, even though the available evidence would be very difficult to square with such a conclusion. But could it have happened this way? Yes, I suppose one could insist on such a thing, but it would be very difficult for someone holding such a view to have a meaningful conversation with linguists and historians of the ancient world. (52)

My question is, does Dr. Enns believe we should also have “meaningful conversation” with scientists and archeologists regarding the “available evidence” for other parts of the Bible as well? What about Elijah’s miracles, or the virgin birth, or the resurrection? Is there good extrabiblical evidence that supports those biblical claims? If not, should we adjust our beliefs on those issues?

In conclusion, I believe that there are sufficient reasons for parents to be genuinely concerned about Telling God’s Story. Given Dr. Enns’ affiliation with BioLogos and his view of Scripture, I would not recommend this curriculum to any family. I think Dr. Enns said it best in his introduction:

And I know too many people whose knowledge of Scriptures can make most people squirm, but whom I wouldn’t allow to feed my children, let alone teach them. (31)

22 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Using Susan Wise Bauer’s Curricula: A Review of Peter Enns’ Bible Curriculum

  1. CTC says:

    interesting, that you apparently don’t choose to post comments from people who disagree with you or find fault with your reasoning.

  2. Rachel Miller says:

    CTC~ actually I do generally post comments that disagree with me. What I don’t post are incomprehensible rants, especially from anonymous posters.

    Sorry if you don’t like my rules. My blog, my decisions.

  3. Keeli says:

    Thank you for this Rachel you have stated the facts very clearly without scorn which is very helpful in deed. I am looking for a world history curriculum that shows Gods plan and purpose throughout history. I had heard that a lot of people liked The Story of History by Susan Wise Bauer but while looking at her site I came across something she said in defence of criticisms from non believers who were using her curriculum, for her use of biblical stories of such as that as Moses from scripture. “Why did those Amazon reviewers (who are, unfortunately, representative of quite a few readers) react so strongly to my use of the Pentateuch and not even register a blip at my use of Sumerian myths?” and she makes some reference at another point about it which left me with the impression that she believes that these stories of the bible are just myths like the other religious stories. I cannot say this for sure but I thought that it deserved further investigation. Also I had presumed that the curriculum was biblically based and not something marketed to the secular world. But if she supports and promotes this mans beliefs then it sounds very much like this is not the curriculum I am looking for 😦

  4. Laura says:

    I am new to the homeschooling world and all of the apparent controversy, and came across this post when doing a search on Susan Wise Bauer. The title of your article and the subsequent review of Enn’s work left me slightly confused- you are not using Bauer’s curricula only because she has an association with someone with whom you disagree? Is there something wrong with the curricula that she herself authors?

    • Rachel Miller says:

      Hi Laura,

      I wrote a reply back when I first read your comment, but somehow it didn’t post. Sorry for the delay.

      To answer your question, my concern is that Susan Wise Bauer doesn’t simply endorse Peter Enns, but that her publishing house publishes his Bible curriculum. Also, because she agrees with Peter Enns’ approach to Scripture, as she’s written, I am concerned that her underlying philosophy of Scripture will influence how she writes about ancient history especially.

    • reformedsinger says:

      Susan Wise Bauer’s first volume of The Story of the World begins with nomadic peoples, not with Adam and Eve. In addition, she intertwines actual historical people and events with fictional ones. I also would neither use it nor recommend it.

      • Lou Jauregui says:

        I’m disappointed we as homeschooling parents didn’t catch that. Thank you for pointing it out. After all, should not the “History of the World” start at the beginning?

  5. KR says:

    This is so helpful as I am considering next year’s History. We are finishing up AIG’s History Revealed (Ancients) and LOVED it for my older ones but was wondering if there was a curriculum that might be a bit more geared toward my youngest children’s level. This confirms some concerns with SOTW. Now, AIG again, Mystery of History or MFW? Sigh. Thank you!

  6. Ron Henzel says:

    What disturbs me most about Peter Enns is that he signed a contract with Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia with the explicit understanding that the seminary held to the inerrancy of Scripture, and that it required its instructors to do the same, and then, while he was teaching there, he published statements that question inerrancy. I find that most disturbing.

  7. Anna says:

    Hi, I just came upon this blog and read this piece. Do you have any recommendations for history books for students? I have a first grader and I love the idea of The Story of The World, reading history as one long story as opposed to the fragmented way I learned growing up. Are there any history books like SOTW, but that reaffirm God’s Word as literal and infallible, and start with the creation story as the beginning?

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