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Sunday, 6 April 2008

The Suspension of Peter Enns: Historical Context and Recommended Reading

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.


VanceH- said...

Steve thanks for the great set of links you have provided. I haven't been following Enns' work, but based on what I've read so far I agree this looks like a high profile event in Evangelical circles. I think a key challenge in this debate is for the non-traditional thinkers to come up with an effective methodology that blocks the slippery slope to anything-goes liberalism in scriptural interpretation. I haven't read Enns' book, perhaps he has already dealt with this. On the other hand this methodology might be a pipe dream of mine, maybe that tension is a required part of walking with the Lord.

Steve Martin said...

Hi vance,
I’m pretty comfortable that Enns’ methodology does not lead down the slippery slope. He does address this in his writing. The key, I think, is recognizing that the human marks in scripture do not minimize its divinity. As Enns says, we are discussing whether the bible is the Word of God, but how it is the Word of God.

That being said, I do understand the concern. Very much.

Jared Nelson said...

The first line says it all in Enns book: it is not novel, it is synthesis. The Incarnational model is in Warfield's work, yet this is not consistant with the Princeton tradition? If WTS isn't careful, it will be merely another fundamentalist seminary rather than the Reformed Confessional heir to the Princeton tradition that Machen wanted.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Nelson: please read Warfield carefully and completely. Warfield has written in "Biblical Authority and Inspiration" on why he thinks Incarnational Analogy is NOT a good idea to apply to the Bible and there are many lackings on the superficial similarities.

Also, you claimed WTS should be careful or it'll lose it's Confessional identity. The irony is Dr. Peter Enns refused to apply his "new paradigm" or "provisionary methodoloxy" within the Confession. Neither in his book nor in the replies he's given in numerous theological forums. It is up to him to show us how he's well-within the bounds of Confessions, especially when he's challenged by Confessionalists and not "fundamentalists."

As for Mr. Martin's assertion that Peter Enns methodoloxy won't lead a path of slippery slope. Do you really think his "provisionary" methodoxy prevents such an activity? I have already talked with many "Enns disciples" and they are free to say Adam is a myth, Noah is a myth, etc. with carefree attitude that they are being "honest to the humanity of the Bible." I just wonder what are some of the built-in features of provisionary methodoxoy that prevents ones from doing that, if any.

ReformedSinner (DC)

Steve Martin said...

First, I should correct my statement above to Vance – Blogger doesn’t let me edit past comments.

"We are discussing whether the bible is the Word of God, but how it is the Word of God.

Should read:

"We are NOT discussing whether the bible is the Word of God, but how it is the Word of God.”

Jared, ReformedSinner:
Welcome. I personally agree (with Jared) that Enns is following the trajectory of Warfield etc. – Enns and many of his supporters claim this as well. But others (ReformedSinner) would disagree. It is a fun debate but a difficult one to win (for either side). Who knows how Calvin, Hodge, Warfield etc. would react to today’s issues.

The issue I think is whether WTS will be part of the “Reformed and always Reforming” camp or just the “Reformed” camp. Even the confessions acknowledge that they do not have the final word.

Eg. WCF: “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" (Chap. I, Art X).

So the writers of WCF were open (I believe) to future generations rearticulating or expanding their confession through the leading of the Holy Spirit speaking through scripture. What I think WTS should be doing is:

1) Determine whether Enns’ ideas actually breach the WCF (I don’t believe this has been stated yet – there has been a lot about disunity in the staff but really there is serious disagreement whether his ideas are even out of bounds with the WCF)

2)(And I’ll duck before saying this but … ) Even if Enns’ ideas do breach the WCF, maybe the school should take a hard look at whether the WCF should be amended. I’m not saying this should be done lightly, but i should be prayfully considered whether there may be a better formulation for the confession. (See my recent post on Timid Theologians at: http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2008/03/polkinghorne-quotes-9-timid-theologians.html ).

On whether “Adam is a myth” … well that is not how I'd put it. Adam's historiciy is a way longer discussion, and one of the things I have grappled with as I personally examined the implications of evolution for my Evanglical faith. The grappling certainly was never (nor is it now) done with a carefree attitude.

Anonymous said...

Building a big hedge against the "slippery slope" has never been the primary concern of orthodox theologians.

For instance, many hearers of saint Paul took his teachings on grace, and twisted them to teach license instead.

That does not make saint Paul wrong.

Over-liberalization is a real problem in the church, but in the quest to combat it, churchmen sometimes get so worked up about God's honor that they forget about their own.

Anonymous said...

Admittedly, I don't understand the fear behind the slippery slope argument of biblical exegesis. The same thing that prevents us from reading the entire Bible literally is what prevents us from reading it entirely allegorically or mythologically. And that is the fact that the Bible was written in different contexts, by different people, using different literary styles, etc.
ReformedSinner asks what the "built-in features of provisionary methodoxoy" are that prevents us all from interpreting the Bible as all-myth. I would submit: the brain that God gave us.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jordan,

I'm so glad you have confidence in your brain. Of course being a Christian, I rather put my confidence in the self-attestatino of Scripture.

Notable "brainy Christians" in the past include Modernists, Liberals, Auburn Affirmation, and now Post-Conservative Evangelicals. They all claim that fundamentals are not "brainy" enough and can only repeat doctrines, and to make the Bible "credible" and "defensible" against academics, scholarship, and "brainiacs" we need big brain people like you and Peter Enns to teach us.

Thanks, I would rather submit my brain to Scripture, while you feel free to use your brain to judge Scripture.

ReformedSinner (DC)

Anonymous said...

You use your brain to judge Scripture, too, ReformedSinner (I hope). The words don't find their way into your head via osmosis. They are filtered all the many 21st century presumptions you yourself bring to the Bible. You act like using your God-given brain to interpret Scripture is a bad thing, yet I don't understand why. Isn't it something we all must do?