Friday, February 27, 2009

Peter Enns Question 4: My Review of Your Book

Here is the fourth installment of our interview with Pete Enns. Immense thanks for the time he is taking to respond to my questions!

You can read the earlier ones at the links below:

#1 Who are you?
#2 A Good Calvinist?
#3 How about them Nazarenes?

Question 4: Some of us at Indiana Wesleyan read through your book, Inspiration and Incarnation, and I blogged through it. Are there any points of our review that you would like to clarify or correct?

Part 1
I enjoyed reading the interaction on your blog, Ken. You had three posts, and I’d like to go one at a time and make some comments. Hope it spurs further discussion.

On the January 12 post:

1. I would like to make one correction concerning my departure from WTS. I was not “forced” to resign from WTS. I was never asked to resign. Rather, I resigned of my own accord and on my own initiative because I could not support the theological direction the school was taking, which in my view represented a decisive shift away from how I was taught at WTS in the late 1980s and the theological climate of most of my years on the faculty. I also saw where the momentum was heading concerning my place on the faculty, and felt that some form of separation was inevitable. Now, that might be what you mean by “forced,” but there you have it.

2. I very much appreciate the discussion on your blog about the tone of the book. Striking the right tone is hard with a book like this. Thus far, now almost 4 years after I&I came out (summer 2005), I can say the comments I have received are almost exclusively positive on the tone, even if some disagree with content. That was important to me. Still, I am always appreciative when friends tell me where I could have done better.

I would not say, though, that I was “rubbing it into the noses of Westminster.” It is important to keep a couple of things in mind. First, I had been teaching with complete transparency more or less the general content of I&I for a decade before it became a problem. Toward the end of that period, the composition of the faculty and administration changed, and these changes were concurrent with how my views were perceived.

Second, as has been well publicized, there was a strong majority of the faculty supportive of me throughout this period of conflict. They clearly did not at all feel like their noses were being rubbed in anything. My thoughts expressed in I&I may not represent precisely what everyone thought, but that is hardly worth pointing out, as thinking people engaged in the world of ideas will naturally differ on matters.

3. I agree with you that I&I looks to reframe issues that have been mishandled over the past 150 years or so in the fundamentalist and evangelical worlds. Evangelical theology is (still) at an impasse because it did not handle well some true developments and advances in biblical scholarship early on. In some quarters of evangelicalism, these same patterns are being perpetuated.

What was needed in the 19th century when new data came to light was a discussion on the doctrine of Scripture that could account for these data in a theologically constructive way. In my view, an almost entirely defensive posture was adopted (despite some real positive kinds of articulations from Old Princeton).

It is clear that some critical scholars at the time were using these data to discredit the Bible, and this prompted a reaction to protect the faith. I certainly understand that dynamic, but the conservative reaction took a wrong turn when it sought to protect the Bible FROM the data rather than engaging in synthetic thinking. In my view, much of the struggle today is over whether evangelicalism should have a synthetic model of biblical scholarship or a “separatist” model.

What is particularly disappointing to me in all this is that the Reformed tradition has very deliberate, well thought out, theological categories in place to support a synthetic model, but these categories were not deliberately employed to specific issues in the 19th century as much as they were needed. This set up a conflict between different articulations, even within a very conservative Reformed faith, where one side emphasizes the separatist model and others the synthetic model, both claiming (with a certain degree of truth) a conservative Reformed pedigree.

In my opinion, a theological paradigm was in place—be it incarnational (Bavinck), concursis (Warfield), or accomodationist (Calvin). But this paradigm remained on the level of theory rather than being applied to the many pressing issues of the day (e.g., Genesis and ANE myth, etc., etc.). That is a shame, for the theological potential of Old Princeton in this regard was never realized, and now, among conservative confessional types, a wholly defensive posture is quite common. I and the faculty majority have written on these matters, explaining the dynamic and progressive element present in the Old Princeton and Westminster tradition. I have not yet seen critics of our position defend their views against these writings.

4. You mention your disagreement with my use of the term “evangelical” to refer to my “detractors at Westminster and elsewhere.” You make a good point, if anything because of the fluidity of the term “evangelical.” I do think, though, that the views I am contending against in I&I are represented by more than “Calvinist fundamentalists.” There are many in the evangelical world who are very supportive of the type of theological project represented in I&I (e.g., Wesleyan evangelicals), but there are many others who would claim the general designation “evangelical” who are neither self-consciously Wesleyan nor “Calvinist fundamentalists.” I am wondering just what to call all these people who have some connection to an evangelical faith at a time when identity markers are clearly shifting. My use of the terms was an attempt to be as inclusive as possible.

Having said all this, I understand how frustrating and/or annoying it must be to you to be lumped into the same category “evangelical” as some of my critics. I agree with your view that many of my critics espouse positions that are more fundamentalist than evangelical, and it is good to call it for what it is. I am open to different terminology to describe unabashed “evangelical-ish” theology that rejects outright fundamentalism, but I don’t know what that would be. Perhaps it would be better to describe the more progressive articulations of evangelicalism as “evangelical” (which I would prefer) and invent a new term for the mixture of evangelicalism and fundamentalism with which I am contending, e.g., “fundagelicals.”

I kid because I love, of course, but the matter of terminology is very important. Because the theological expectations of someone calling him/herself “evangelical” is not at all fully outlined, people will continue to use the term assuming the validity of their own self-definition. This is one way where the exchanges between me and Greg Beale have some value: Beale is defending his understanding of the proper parameters of evangelicalism, where things like ANE myth and “non-contextual” exegesis of the OT by NT authors are out of place.

I think Beale is quite wrong, but expressing himself as he does brings matters of definition to the surface. Contrary to Beale, I am saying that evangelical theology must adapt to what is, rather than resist what it is in an effort to maintain familiar identity markers. Beale has in my opinion either left the evangelical spirit to espouse a fundamentalist posture, or is reflecting the inherent and inextricable fundamentalism in evangelicalism that could not stay hidden for long. This could be an interesting discussion, indeed.

All of this illustrates the problems with using the term “evangelical” for anything, and in retrospect I might have tried to use a different designation in the subtitle of I&I. I could have used the term “fundamentlist,” but the problem with that is that many evangelicals who pride themselves on not being fundamentalists in name nevertheless espouse a fundamentalist theology in approaching such things as ANE background, theological diversity, and the NT/OT problem. I wanted to address a problem that moves beyond fundamentalism proper and so the term evangelical had to do.

5. You mention that I “underplay the possible uniqueness of revelation” in keeping with the goals of I&I. I just want to underscore that you are correct in goal driving presentation, and I am still not entirely clear why some of my critics seem reluctant to see this. I have addressed this matter elsewhere.

My perception is that trouble for evangelicals arises not from a failure to appreciate the revelatory character of Scripture, but in how a commitment to revelatory uniqueness can co-exist theologically with the Bible’s very “human” face. The tendency to minimize the theological importance of the latter sets evangelicals up for unnecessary challenges to their faith, where, in perhaps more hostile settings, the “humanity” of Scripture is paraded front and center as evidence of its non-revelatory character.

My goal in I&I is to emphasize how at home the Bible is in its historical contexts (such a truism should not even need to be mentioned), and how that very factor is a theological positive rather than a problem that needs explaining. Scripture’s revelatory content is not something we see when keeping the cultural setting at a safe distance. Rather, like the incarnation of Christ, we see Scripture’s glory by embracing the lowly, encultured manner in which God chose to speak.

6. You mention that “myth” is not a word that can be redeemed. Perhaps. I use it, though, to co-opt it from those (liberal or fundamentalist) who assume that ANE mythic categories are unbecoming of Scripture. People lose their faith over this sort of thing, so my decision to use the word was very deliberate, to say “EVEN HERE you can see God’s wisdom in how he speaks.” It is not God’s word because it somehow manages to extricate itself from its historical setting or ancient conventions of communication, by the skin of its teeth. We are in no position to declare what genres of literature the Spirit can or can’t use, and our theological comfort level is not a determining factor in how God elects to speak.

More to come!


Ken Schenck said...

I think I have gained some clarity in my mind on the question of the word myth in Old Testament studies. The real question this word is getting at is whether Genesis 1 and 2-3 are of the same basic genre as the Enuma Elish and even if so, in what ways Genesis 1-3 might be distinctive. Unfortunately, controversy over the word seems to cloud the actual issue.

John Mark said...

I have found this whole discussion fascinating, even though some of it has been beyond me. Which is, in part, why I read your blog: to be stretched.
I find myself wondering about implications for Wesleyans as "we" interact with current trends in scholarship, postmodernism and the emergent movement, etc. Have some of us been too reactionary in our attempts to preserve the "purity" of our belief system?
Is this where the consensus of a movement is vital? How do we handle sharp disagreements, such as we have seen in my denomination in the mid-seventies and beyond, where two camps insisted their reading of scripture was the correct one? Looking at my own past, it seems as though progressives, for lack of a better term, usually win as traditionalist (again, perhaps not the best term) just die off, or lose influence.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It seems obvious that Peter is using an altogether differnt approach to understand "truth". Truth is lived in life.

Those whose views hold to an "inerrant" text or religious community are prone to ostericize those who think differently, at least when it comes to a point of "threat".

Myth is a useful tool in literature of all kinds, theatre, and presentation to illustrate certain values, ideals or models that reflect "truth applied". This is natural revelation, as it is not about spiritualizing 'truth", or understanding truth that is beyond this world. It is lived in this world. Things like honesty, trustworthiness, integrity, humility, defference, hospitality, graciousness, but also critique, discernment, openness to change an opinion, etc. These are character traits in heart and mind.

Pizza Man said...

What does ANE refer to?

Ken Schenck said...

Ancient Near East

Anonymous said...


I appreciate your sincerity, but this is an incredible amount of brain damage to avoid the simple conclusion that the writings that came to be known as "the Bible" are just a bunch of writings made by different people at different times and reflect nothing more than the ideas of their time and place.

In other words, the bible is not inspired. If it was, it should make a whole lot more sense.

I think fundamentalists are much more wrong about interpretation, because they deny plain facts, but their defense of the bible is rooted in reality. If the stories and words are not literally true, then why take it more seriously today than, say, Greek myths? And not one of the systems created to answer that problem, even the one you propose, makes the slightest logical sense.

I agree that one must adapt one's theology to fit facts. But the more logical response to finding out that the bible isn't true isn't to some up with increasingly convoluted systems of belief to try and explain why it is nonetheless true in a different sense. It is to realize that it is a myth in the same sense as the Greek myths, that we rightly no longer believe.


An old buddy from Messiah (didn't Italy beat Germany again in the most recent World Cup?)

Peter Enns said...

Hi there old anonymous friend from Messiah--thanks for he transparent clue at the end of your post ;-)

You're making a big point but let me try to come at it from one or two angles.

I don't think the Bible is either myth or not. There are varied genres represented. Just because Gen 1-11, for example, has clear mythic content does not mean the same holds for the account of David, the return from Exile, Jesus' life, or the rise of the early church.It is a common mistake to think that what holds for some portion of Scripture holds for all (which is a mistake as common with fundamentalists as with anyone).

A lot of good biblical scholars (outside of evangelicalism) have done a lot of thinking on these issues, and they would not describe the OT (or BIble as a whole) as "myth" as you seem to. Maybe I'm not exactly clear what you mean by the term. Would you place things like legend, sage, epic in the same category as myth? Is myth anything that is ancient and non-literal?

I agree that the Bible was written by a bunch of people at different times, but it does not follow that this is somehow unbecoming of a text that is of divinely sanctioned sacred value. Of course, at this juncture we would have to discuss why we would go in such separate ways on the basis of the Bible's clear historical contextuality, but that won't happen here, I suspect.

I don't think fundamentalists are "rooted in reality." They are rooted in false assumptions about the nature of reality and in what they have the right to expect from a written text. They assume that a text authored ultimately by God would be understood literally (perhaps exhaustively?), and in no other way (as you seem to?)

Gee, I didn't think my position was convoluted. You want convoluted, talk to some fundamentalist systematic theologians I know. They'll make you dizzy with convolution.

As for the analogy with Greek myth, I actually think that is a discussion worth having with Gen 1-11, but not the rest of the OT, and not the NT.

Also not sure why you assume an inspired text should make "more sense" than what we have. Maybe you are suggesting that if it is God's word people wouldn't be working so hard to figure that out? You sound like a fundamentalist, my italian messiah friend.

Bob MacDonald said...

I was moved by Peter's last sentence - well done - and I thought of Terra Australis by James McAuley which I copied out here

Anonymous said...


First, I don't think everything in the Bible is myth. Surely a portion -- how much is open to debate -- is based on real events, however exaggerated.

Second, when I say the point is "convoluted," I am speaking from a lay person's point of view. This is something from your site I think quoting your book: "What is so helpful about the Incarnational Analogy is that it reorients us to see that the Bible’s “situatedness” is not a lamentable or embarrassing situation, but a positive: That the Bible, at every turn, shows how “connected” it is to its own world, is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself (20)."

Basically, what I mean is that it would be hard to understand what you are saying without a formal education. Don't take that the wrong way. I have been a writer in the financial industry for 12 years. I think that what I write is simplified, and it is compared to other publications, but I also understand that it is almost impossible for people outside the industry to understand my articles. In the same way, you are so steeped in the theological world that concepts that are extraordinarily complicated to most people seem simple to you.

And yes, if the Bible is inspired, I think it should be simple to understand -- why in the world not? Otherwise God would be employing a barrier to belief based on education and intelligence.

The reiterate the larger point, however, there is a much simpler way of thinking that eliminates the need for systems -- complicated or not -- in order for the reader to understand the text. And that is that there is no inspiration, no unifying principals that are embedded in the texts just waiting for for some brilliant theologian to uncover. Suddenly, it all makes sense and there is no need to come up with an explanation -- elaborate or not -- for all the discrepancies. Then the reasons for the discrepancies become obvious -- the books were written by people with different agendas. Period.

old buddy