Friday, February 13, 2009

Q & A with Peter Enns 2

Question 2: How would you respond to those who don’t think you’re a very good Calvinist?

It would all depend on the person’s intention. If the question came from a defensive or argumentative posture, I’ve seen enough to know that this will bear little fruit. Arguments about who is the better Calvinist tend to generate laser-like heat but precious little light.

If, however, the question is asked with a genuine interest in engaging me on how I see these things—with the understanding that both parties should be open to growth—then I am very interested in the conversation.

Just what it means to be Reformed has been a debated issue and the struggle continues to see who will win the right to define it. There are those who think of the Reformed faith—better, a particular articulation of the Reformed faith (19th century Princeton, for example)—as the only true expression not only of the Reformed faith but also of Christianity. Indeed, as some I know have put it, the Reformed faith (narrowly defined) is understood as “Christianity come into its own,” and that the Reformed “hold the truth in trust” for other traditions.

This is tragic, and if this is what it means to be Reformed, then I am not Reformed. If, however, one understands the Reformed faith as a particularly insightful and deep tradition that hits upon numerous biblical and theological issues with clarity and gospel-fidelity—even to the extent that other traditions will be richer for the interaction—BUT that is also, by virtue of its location in particular historical/cultural circumstances, as prone to sin and error as anything else under the sun, and is therefore in need of regular critical evaluation, then, yes, I am Reformed. The Reformed faith is for me, in other words, a means to Christian truth rather than the sum total of Christian truth.

The problem is that these two models of what it means to be Reformed are, for all practical purposes, incompatible, because parties on both sides hold tenaciously to their model. Still, I hope it is not too self-serving to point out that the latter model can incorporate a humble expression of the former and even benefit from it, but the former in principle does not seem poised to reciprocate. It cannot.

So, how would I respond? I would say I am a good Calvinist of the second sort. If the rejoinder is “Well, then you are no Calvinist” (speaking purely hypothetically of course J), I would likely nod, thank them for their time, and go on with my life.

It is an interesting conundrum. In my opinion, the Reformed faith is one of the richest Christian intellectual traditions (along with Roman Catholicism). I do not mean to take away from other Christian traditions, from which I have learned and continue to learn much, but the Reformed intellectual heritage has a rather impressive pedigree of working out theology with great precision. But, along with that, there is always the temptation to fixate on that past in unhealthy ways.

What is lost is the other side of the Reformed equation, that of rethinking and recasting past articulations according to Scripture. There is a tension—a healthy one, I think—between “always Reformed and reforming.” Of course, the question is always one of going ”too far” in either direction. A “good Calvinist” on my opinion is one who maintains that tension and works with charity and harmony with others in working toward that goal of employing the Reformed faith for the good of the gospel.

What is also very interesting to me, and directly related to this thought, is just how Scripture actually functions as being authoritative over the Reformed tradition. In Reformed theology, Scripture is the confessed standard by which all human articulations are judged, including the Reformed faith. “Exegesis is the lifeblood of theology” as some have put it.

The contemporary question, however, is “what exactly is exegesis?” which is to ask, to what extent does exegesis necessarily include interaction with new paradigms and information coming from the modern study of Scripture, and can in principle that type of exegesis rightly challenge pre-modern confessions (with all due respect to those confessions and in a conversational rather than adversarial tone)?

Simply put, one exegetes and therefore understands Genesis 1, for example, differently depending on whether he/she is seeing it in terms of ancient categories (i.e., historical setting) or in a more traditional manner (as part of an innerbiblical exercise of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture). I actually do not think the two approaches are mutually exclusive, for understanding a text’s background will, hopefully, bring greater depth to the text’s theology, and therefore yield a deeper innerbiblical (I would say, redemptive-historical, “Christotelic”) interaction. The problem, however, is that “Bible in context,” as is well known, can very quickly run up against transitional articulations of doctrine that were formulated before such matters of historical context were either known or appreciated.

I have clarified some of my own thoughts on this on my own webpage, if, for some reason, anyone would be interested. (“Some Reflections on I&I and the Reformed Tradition”) It is a bit of an in-house matter, but some might find it interesting or even applicable to analogous situations.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I personally think that any kind of universalization limits the individual expressions of faith, especially if it is dependent on a text that is "special" revelation.

Humans are special revleation, not texts. But, the individual's expression of that revelation is not totally contingent on the social environment. That can be understood by any two children, or twins who grow up in the same family with the same "rules". Individuals experience similiar situations differently....

As to the Reformed ,it is a means to theologize a special revelation in Scripture's testimony about a certain "historical" figure, Jesus of Nazareth. But, for one to take the account at face value is not believable in reason's terms. I really wonder of what benefit is faith apart from reason, as faith has no eyes apart from reason's...And the Church Fathers all disagreed as to how philosophy would address the "theological complexities" of their historical context....

Some think that unless one lives their life according to a particular intepretaion, then one is 'unconverted", undisicplined, "worldly", or other such "distinctive terminology'. I find that that kind of "separating oneself' according to a particular understanding of holiness is particularyly offensive, especially if those are the ones impoacting or influencing how and what is to be policy...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

BTW, in understanding the Christian tradition, a Christian Jew is what, compared to a Jewish Christian?

Are you saying that behavior is the model for the "christian" versus a "belief" system? I think I'd rather just be human...with all the fallabilities that that means, then I don't have to measure up to anyone else's standard, or understanding of "a Standard"!

james petticrew said...

I wonder if what Peter describes as a strength "a rather impressive pedigree of working out theology with great precision" is actually a weakness.
In Scotland the Presbyterian church has split and continues to split because theology has been worked out in great precision. One group decides the other group's stance doesn't fit to the very precise doctrinal standard and so a split occurs which generally speaking is acrimonious.
This is to me has had a terrible affect on the church's reputation which is associated not with love but with strife.

Jc_Freak: said...

To very quickly state my stance for the sake of context for my latter comments, I agree with Peter Enns hermeneutical statements so far. Additionally, I am a Reformed Arminian rather than a Calvinist, so I disagree with him there.

That said, I would actually like to address some of Angie's comments. I am not quite sure what you mean by universalization. I can only assume you refer to creedal statements, in which case I must say that I disagree.

Creeds are communal expressions, as is Holy Writ I might add. To some degree, the define a community, and in such a way divide those who are truly part of that community and those who are not. This has great value in my opinion because I believe that human being are primarily communal creatures, designed to shape our thoughts to the context of our society, as well and shaping our society through the need of human interaction.

In this context, individual religious expression is seen as the individual experiencing and interpreting the divine within that society. For some, this will mean conformity (indeed, I would say for most). However, for some, experiencing God and interacting with that society's creeds and symbols will bring in a reinterpretation of that community's identity. There is a tendency for societies to suppress these reinterpretations, since most tend to conform, and reinterpretations often demand change, which causes instability. But any community which refuses reinterpretations will eventually stagnate. But it is important to recognize that even those who are saying something "different" from tradition are still speaking out from that tradition, and interpreting reality through it to some degree.

Thus, to me, the concept of "individual expressions of faith" is somewhat of a misnomer, for all expressions of faith are shaped and understood in light of one's context of society. Though it is true that that one's expression is not totally contingent on the social environment, one's social environment is the foundation for one understanding a religious experience, as well as the provision of tools for expressing it.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Yes, I do believe that humans need social contexts, but all too often religious contexts are too "defining" to be healthy for some people.

A person is more than the social context, because if relationships are healthy, then there is a freedom for people to be, apart from any defining tradition, or religion. Tradition defined by behavioral standards may breed other of like kind, which only affirms a narrow view of life and thinking about life.

A person is much more than that. A human being is not a role or function of a religious tradition, a group or organization, or a system of any kind...

Burton Webb said...

I am curious how Enns would integrate our understanding of general revelation with the exegesis of scripture. Maybe you could ask him that question in a future blog.

Jc_Freak: said...

"A person is much more than that. A human being is not a role or function of a religious tradition, a group or organization, or a system of any kind..."

What I mostly disagree with with your view of tradition. Tradition does not need to be as limiting as you say. All things can be corrupted, and all things can be used for evil. Tradition in its exaggerated form, whether religous or not, is a means of control which limits self-expression, being used by the "keeper" of that tradition as a means of reshaping people into one's own image. But freedom can also be exaggerated and corrupted, being a means of licentiousness. The glorification of self-expressions can deprive a society of tools towards self-identification, something that we see in our own culture.

We cannot reject something based off its potential for bad, for then we are left with nothing. Instead, we need to be aware of both the good and the bad to reap the former and avoid the latter.

In terms of tradition, tradition is stabilizing. It provides foundations of societal interaction, moral conduct, and world-view. Without tradition, each persons becomes an island. And not a paradise island either, but a deserted island. We become cultural castaways, needed to reinvent a culture and worldview on our own, which will always result in something more primitive and self-gratifying.