He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Odds and Enns

I've had a number of private correspondences over the last few months asking about Dr. Peter Enns, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. As many of you know already, the Board of Westminster Theological Seminary (PA) voted last week to "suspend" Professor Enns at the end of this current semester and then "consider whether Professor Enns should be terminated from his employment at the Seminary." The blogosphere has seen a blitzkrieg of discussion surrounding the events of these past couple of weeks. [Trevin Wax provides a helpful non-partisan summary of the issues at stake, if you are new to the discussion.]

Here are a few thoughts on the matter....

(1) Numerous complaints have been voiced about 'accountability' to academics teaching in the ivory tower of a seminary, especially one like Westminster that is not under any denominational approval.

I'm not sure anyone has figured out if the *best* way to run a Reformed seminary [or
any seminary for that matter] is under explicit denominational oversight (e.g. Covenant, RPTS, Calvin, etc.) OR under a separate board of governors (e.g. just about everyone else!). The fact that our current crop of schools favor the later is more of a byproduct of the last 100 years of Presbyterian/Reformed history, given that the ever-liberalizing mainline denominations left Machen and others no choice but to start their own 'independent' seminaries if theological training was to continue.

What has aided the Westminsters historically is the fact that their 'independence' enabled them (to a certain degree) to draw from the different Reformed streams of American Presbyterianism (Machen), Scottish Presbyterianism (Murray), and the Continental Reformed (Van Til). As one who was trained under that breadth of the Reformed faith, it has certainly proved fruitful and beneficial in all sorts of ways that I didn't even realize while I was going through it. One is able to compare and contrast the various ways each group's theology came to expression, particularly in the heat of doctrinal controversy.

Of course, the fear of some in this approach is that this sort of breadth opens oneself up to many streams of doing theology...and all of the
extra doctrinal controversy that entails. Too many streams, I suspect, in the minds of many. It's too difficult to control, they say! It becomes increasingly more complicated to recognize the matters that are absolutely essential to our Reformed system of doctrine, matters where good Reformed people have disagreed, matters where we aren't sure if theological language amounts to serious theological disagreement (i.e. 'faith and assurance" in the Presbytery vs. Continental traditions), or matters that compromise our system of Reformed doctrine but would still be regarded as evangelical or protestant. Reformed denominations in main might well have 'general agreement' as to where these 'matters' divide up. But if it were such an easy thing to 'agree', why do all the NAPARC churches still exist as separate bodies? No, denominations exist because they have distinctives that they believe are essential to their system of doctrine. The more streams you have converging in the middle, the harder it becomes to maintain distinctives.

However, an emphasis on distinctives can easily lead to narrowness, if not altogether blindness on an issue. You insist on a particular doctrinal formulation because that's how it's done
in our tradition. Well, traditions can err...and indeed have erred. And it seems to me that the Westminster model of trying to bring together (in some sense) the breadth of the Reformed faith helps honest, Scripture-seeking students think long and hard about particular doctrines and the best way to express them. Maybe there are some things we never come to an agreement on...but knowing the "lay of the land" helps us avoid retreating into ever-narrowing sects.

To sum up from a previous thread, the problems experienced at Westminster that involve Peter Enns is
not because of system subscription.

(2) What does 'academic freedom' mean for a seminary? That's a difficult question to ask in the abstract. Westminster has always been a 'confessional' seminary (as seen in its ordination vow)...but
what kind of 'confessionalism' are we talking about? That's part of the problem...because we still have different schools of thought on what it even means to 'subscribe' to the Westminster Standards. Some seem to want it tighter; others want it looser; it seems to me classic 'system subscription' gives you exactly what you want in providing avenues of 'academic freedom' without saying 'any and everything goes'! But too often we paint our options as only 'strict' and 'loose'....when there is a via media that rather nicely sums up what Old Princeton/Westminster has practiced all along.

I'm not sure how removing 'academic freedom' will benefit either the seminary or the church. For starters, Westminster Seminary (and even Old Princeton before that) has always sought to keep one foot in the church and one foot in the academy, and to change that (on either side!) would help no one. Geerhardus Vos wrote (best I can tell) the first real critique of Ewald, Graf, Wellhausen and others coming out the German higher-critical school in the late 1880's; Warfield was every bit up-to-date on the complexity of the data feeding Briggs; Machen heard modern theological liberalism first-hand when sitting under the likes of Hermann in Europe, saw what was at stake when he returned home, and thus wrote 'Christianity and Liberalism' as a result; Vos figured out where mainstream, anti-supernatural 'Biblical theology' would go long before it ever went there itself; and on we could go.

The problem is not 'innovation'
per se. Without innovation, we're probably still doing apologetics in the 'common sense rationalist' tradition of Warfield. Many (if not most of us now) in the PCA/OPC/URC would identify with some sort of 'presuppositional apologetics'. [NB: I don't think Warfield should be purged from the books, nor do I think this is an issue that we should ultimately divide over in the Reformed church.] And Van Til's legacy is that he challenged many long-standing assumptions made in the Reformed community, a challenge that I think has sharpened all of our minds as we wrestle with matters of theology and epistemology.

Innovation should certainly be encouraged...IF done in compliance with God's Word. In that sense, maybe we shouldn't call it innovation but rather a robust appreciation for sola scriptura. There are plenty of examples, like Van Til, in the last 100 years of Old Princeton/Westminster, where this has helped the church greatly. It's impossible to 'predict' how this will happen, and thus it's equally impossible to 'predict' where and how someone will try to push us beyond the bounds of the system of doctrine.

I read I&I for the first time in early 2006, after hearing about it from Bruce Waltke. Admittedly, it was a quick first read one evening, since I was busy with other readings and had time only to get Enns' basic thesis and method of argumentation. I saw him simply trying to address a number of the 'problem areas' of OT scholarship in the last 50-100 years, as well as the complexities of the NT quotations of the OT. I noted a few points where I found him quite confusing, a few points where I found him illuminating (for example: the term 'Christotelic'), but otherwise I thought it was 'average' book that I didn't ever expect to pick up again.

But then things started to change. Negative reviews from
Helm, Carson and Beale started to trickle out through publications. I distinctively remember discovering Helm's article online during a Th.M seminar at Regent, and the first thought that came to my mind was, "It's a strange day when a Regent professor is taking a Westminster professor to task for defective view of a Scripture!"

I'm not sure Helm made his case all that well, but Carson and Beale were more significant reviews. Carson's stood out because his review came along with two other recent books dealing with Scripture (John Webster and N.T. Wright); Carson critiques all three, and yet Enns' book is the only one of the three that he doesn't have really anything positive to commend in it. Beale (who's tone was more irenic on the whole) wrote not one but two article-length reviews in different journals.
Critical articles are nothing new, but these seemed to go beyond the norm.

In the middle of all of this came Richard Pratt's 2006 address, "Westminster and Contemporary Hermeneutics". I have been tempted to mention it before but became busy with other matters. I've heard numerous people mention over the years how the best chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith is its chapter on Scripture, and Pratt commends Chapter 1 of the WCF as still a relevant summary of our doctrine of Scripture, even in light of modern challenges leveled against it in recent decades.

It was Enns' response to Pratt's address that made it painfully clear that this was not going to go away quietly. It's one thing to exegete a text (or a book), come to a conclusion that maybe you disagree from a consensus position, and then submit it to your faculty/presbytery for review and discussion. But Enns seems to be going beyond that, and you can see it in the way he (for example) responds to Pratt's critique of him. I happen to think that some of what Enns has suggested in his book is worthy of additional consideration. But as Carson noted in his review, the whole trajectory of Enns' rhetoric seems to not be one of "converting the alarmed but rather alarming the converted"! In other words, it's not just that he holds to one or more than one minority or controversial views under the Reformed umbrella, but rather that he seems to believe that these things are
absolutely essential to a right reading and interpretation of Scripture within the Reformed faith.

I've talked to a number of his former students who span the entire spectrum of glowing approval to glaring disapproval. And the one thing they seem to all agree on is this --
these issues are absolutely fundamental to his methodology in approaching OT theology. So we're not just talking about individual 'hot button' issues like the composition of the Proverbs, the recording of Moses' death in Deuteronomy, how Job is canonical, the King/Chronicles synoptic problem, and other thorny OT questions. It's the method seeking to bring coherence to it all that seems to raise more questions than provide answers.

If it were simply the crusty Reformed curmudgeons ranting against Enns book because it sounds too post-16th and 17th century, that would be one thing. But what in the Carson, Beale, and Pratt corpus of writings would lead you to think they are interested in opposing someone for 'TR' reasons? [Part of me is curious what Carson and Beale think about the board's decision to suspend him!]

(4) Seminary divisions and terminations are always more than simply theological. I suspect that's because we are often good at preaching total depravity....and also equally good at practicing it as well. Even though Enns' book, articles, and teachings are the 'stated' reasons for his projected termination, I think most of us know there is *more* going on than simply this. Of course, none of us are privy to the inner sanctum of these seminary squabbles...so we may never know all of the details. Enns becomes the fall guy because he's at the center of the controversy. I do think he's part of the problem (as stated above)...but I have my doubts as to whether this can
all be laid at his doorstep.

(5) If you listen to the chapel recording (April 1st, 2008) now rapidly circulating, it's interesting to hear President Lillback say that he's been dealing with this issue since 'Day One' on the job, when they brought him in 3 years ago. Interesting that he also referenced the Shepherd controversy of 30 years ago, where the faculty may have even been in stronger support of Shepherd than the current faculty is with Enns. And yet, Lillback seems to recognize that when you have this kind of division on all fronts, there are no easy solutions. And if after 3 years years of discussing this, the faculty are still split 12-8 on this (not to mention the board 18-9)....
something had to happen. Even if you believe that Enns is the best thing going at Westminster Seminary right now, surely you'd have to agree that this kind of faculty split is not terribly conducive for him personally or the seminary. How would you feel working at an institution in which 66% of the board and 40% of the faculty thought your view was heterodox?

Disunity is never a good thing...but sometimes it's unavoidable (Acts 15:36ff). But to keep things together and act as if there is 'unity' when there is really no unity?? That seems to me to be even worse.

(6) The saga is far from over! It wouldn't shock me if there are a few more 'curve balls' that come out of this, and in fact I would almost expect it. One Christian college professor told me over the weekend that he's already been contacted by one *present* WTS faculty member about possible job openings. So a further shake up doesn't seem all that out of the question!

Things stayed remarkably in tact after the Shepherd controversy in the 80's. It remains to be seen whether that will happen here....or if more heads will roll.

(7) As strange as it sounds, I think the Reformed church will benefit from being made to think through these issues of 'inspiration' and 'incarnation'. If someone had asked me back in 2001, "Does the incarnation of Christ have something to contribute to our doctrine of Inspiration?", I'm not sure how I would have answered that question. As Lillback notes, the Confession doesn't go there when speaking about inspiration. So does that mean it's ok, adiaphora, or dangerous? Some might instantly say, "No, we can't go there because the Confession doesn't." Others seem to be saying, "This is THE way to swim in higher-critical scholarship!" I think the correct approach is neither of these. What is needed is (a) a careful examination what's being said and (b) a careful searching the Scriptures to see if this is being faithful to the Word of God.

That's what Old Princeton and Westminster have tried to do throughout its history. WCF 1.9-10 is not just there for window dressing, but as an encouragement to think through all things in light of the Word of God. Just because an OT professor comes along and seems to exalt historical-critical methodologies above the canon doesn't mean I'm going to abandon studying the canon OR tackling difficult questions that arise out of Biblical history. Abuses of sola scriptura surely cannot mean we abandon it for some 'higher' platform to argue from.

If Enns is wrong, then hopefully some of those opposed to him will eventually issue statements, explaining more than a simplistic "You're not Confessional!!!"...but rather
why his approach strikes at fundamental concerns to our doctrine of Scripture.


R. Scott Clark said...


I don't think the board voted to terminate Enns' contract. Didn't they vote to suspend him and consider their next step after a committee recommendation?

Matt Morgan said...

So noted and corrected, thanks. I confused the suspension with the later stipulation to consider termination.

Tim Black said...

In Enns' reply to Pratt, Enns indicates he is doing "constructive" theology--seeking to improve our methods and results in OT interpretation--and that Pratt isn't. I think you're right to notice that here constructive theology is being used to disturb the comfortable, and that a major concern is that Enns' interpretation is contrary not only to the Confession's doctrine of scripture, but conservative evangelicalism's as well. Since I think the Confession is very faithful to scripture, I think constructive theology should be done in general harmony with the Confession, rather than in purported tension with the Confession.

You call for explicit "statements, explaining...why his approach strikes at fundamental concerns to our doctrine of scripture." If I recall correctly, amidst discussing several examples of the NT's use of the OT, at one point Carson concluded that Second Temple allegory, spiritualization, or Messianic reinterpretation, and Enns' version of inspired apostolic Christotelic midrash, was in a word, "eisegesis." I won't be surprised if that is one route critical statements will continue to follow.

Ironically, I remember a different OT prof at WTS informing me that my (admittedly poorly) exegetical paper's conclusion that the Shorter Catechism was right was in itself eisegesis. I intended the paper's exegesis to serve as reason to believe the Standards were right, but the prof understood my use of the Standards to be an attempt at demonstrating my exegesis was right. I hope my exegesis has improved, and that the professor's opinion of using the Standards in a paper has as well.