Three weeks ago when I posted my thoughts on Peter Enns’ incarnational analogy, I had no idea that serious trouble was brewing for Enns at Westminister Theological Seminary (WTS), the Presbyterian seminary at which he teaches. Well last week the WTS board voted to suspend Enns from his position at the seminary. It also indicated that the seminary personnel committee would provide a recommendation to the board in May as to whether Enns, author of the contentious book Inspiration and Incarnation (I&I), should be fired outright. As reported in Christianity Today, the suspension was the climax in a long running theological furor over I&I within the WTS community.
For those of us outside of the WTS community, it is tempting to pontificate on the situation. In fact, there appears to be quite a lot of pontification – on both sides – particularly from people neither familiar with WTS, Enns, or I&I. Hopefully my own remarks will not be similarly dogmatic and uninformed. What I would like to do is provide some brief thoughts on the historical context of this situation, some guidance to my readers who wish to understand the current conflict, and a few recommendations for further reading on the ideas in I&I.
Brief Thoughts on the Historical Context
If Enns' primary goal was to sell more I&I books, he could not have orchestrated a better marketing ploy. I suspect his suspension will be a boon for I&I sales for some time. More importantly, future historical analysis may look back on this event as somewhat of a watershed moment for Evangelicalism. Although WTS is a small reformed seminary, I&I has demonstrated a much broader appeal than in just the reformed wing of Evangelicalism. The reason for this is that the book directly addresses how Evangelicals think of scripture, THE most sensitive topic within our community (much more sensitive than evolution). The bible is the Word of God, but what exactly does that mean?
I believe I&I presents a fresh, positive approach to scripture that has connected with a wide variety of thinking Evangelicals who want to maintain an orthodox Christian faith. Although I think the book itself is very good, the credit for its success is also due to good timing. As Enns himself points out:
Diverse reactions to the book may tell us at least as much about the current state of evangelical thinking as it does about the book itself. (Response to Beale, page 10)Unfortunately, we may be facing yet another war over what inerrancy means. Enns specifically calls for the prevention of this war:
Such polarization needs to be avoided. We must commit ourselves to finding other ways to address what is in fact of central importance for all sides.I’m not all that confident that this polarization can be avoided.
My speculation is that Enns will begin to encounter opposition within the Evangelical Theological Society as well over his views. He is an executive member of this group whose statement of faith asserts that “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs”. Several years ago Clark Pinnock and John Sanders were accused of denying the spirit, if not the letter, of this statement with their support of Open Theology and were almost kicked out of the society; I wouldn’t be surprised to see Enns face the same grilling.
It is ironic that an event at WTS may become the flashpoint for a new Evangelical crisis. WTS was formed out of the ashes of the fundamentalist / modernist controversy in the early 20th century when John Gresham Machen took the conservative wing of Presbyterianism out of Princeton Seminary and the Northern Presbyterian Church, and started the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both sides in the current WTS debate believe they are following the road taken by Machen and the 19th century Old Princetonians (Hodge and Warfield) who articulated the modern doctrine of inerrancy. Both sides believe the future of WTS is at stake. Both believe their road is the one that leads to salvation.
For an excellent look at the competing visions for WTS, see “Can Westminster Seminary put the Genie back in the Bottle” by former WTS Dean of academic affairs and history professor Daryl Hart, and also “The Significance of Westminster Theological Seminary Today” by retired WTS history professor Clair Davies (This is a long article but definitely worth the read).
Information on the Current Crisis
It is sometimes tough to separate the wheat from the chaff with hot news stories like the suspension of Enns at WTS. If you are relatively new to the issue, here are my suggestions for familiarizing yourself with the crisis:
1. Read the Christianity Today article “Westminster Theological Suspension”
2. Read the WTS release announcing the action against Enns
3. Listen to the 40 minute Q&A session WTS executives had with the students to discuss the Enns decision. This is highly recommended. In fact, if you are planning on sharing your opinion on the situation, don’t – at least not until you have listened to this audio.
4. Read the note from the dissenting board members who disagreed with the majority decision to suspend Enns.
5. Check out the “Save our Seminary” site started by various members of the WTS community. I ran into this the day after my original post (ie. prior to the confirmation of WTS actions against Enns). There are some very moving testimonies in support of Enns.
6. For the most comprehensive set of links on the story (and all things I&I), see: http://www.digitalbrandon.com/?p=194
Becoming Familiar with the ideas in I&I
I am constantly amazed at the number of people that are willing to trash I&I without ever having read the book. This may seem obvious, but please, read the book before you respond to its claims. It is not a difficult read, you do not need a background in ANE history, biblical Hebrew, or theology to understand what Enns is saying.
Next, I would review the exchanges between Enns and his critics. I already mentioned the Enns / Helms dialogue in my last post. Even better is the Beale / Enns dialogue: read Beale’s criticism first and then Enns response. Finally, note that I&I is only initiating the conversation. Enns admits that there are many aspects and implications with respect to the Incarnational Analogy that need to be worked out. Read his article “Preliminary Observations on an Incarnational Model of Scripture” for some further clarification and developments on his ideas.
Some Parting Thoughts
The WTS president has acknowledged that:
We have students who have read [I&I] and say it has liberated them. We have other students that say [I&I] is crushing their faith and removing them from their hope.On the latter, I would like to ask “What faith is being crushed?” Is it a faith that cannot withstand the evidence of modern history, science, and biblical criticism? If this is the case, is not I&I doing these seminary students (and all of us!) a huge favour? Isn’t it better to have a crisis of faith in a seminary, a place where one assumes the student would receive excellent support? This certainly seems to be less damaging than a crisis of faith out in “the real world” of church leadership where support will be decidedly less. More importantly, don’t we want our pastors to have examined these issues prior to leading congregations? Would it not be nice if they had some experience with these issues and some theological resources to address the layity’s concerns in these areas?
Seminaries have responsibilities not only to the students they graduate, but also to the churches where these graduates ultimately serve. We need leaders whose faith has been tested and tried, not one’s who are at risk of joining groups like Debunking Christianity.