Saturday, March 07, 2009

Peter Enns Question 5: Our Review of I & I, Part 2

Here is the fifth installment of our interview with Pete Enns--over and above the call of leisure. I didn't expect him to respond this week! I remain immensely grateful for his willingness to do this.

You can read the earlier ones at the links below:

#1 Who are you?
#2 A Good Calvinist?
#3 How about them Nazarenes?
#4 What'd you think of our review of your book, part 1

Post #5: Your reaction to our review of Inspiration and Incarnation, Part 2.

Here are some of my thoughts concerning the second post you did on chapter 3 of I&I (January 19).

1. As for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, I can understand how you might have gotten the impression that I treat “Exodus as written by Moses at the time of the Exodus and Deuteronomy as written by Moses some 40 years later before Israel entered Canaan.” But, for a direct treatment of that specific issue, see the introduction to my NIVAC Exodus commentary, written several years before I&I, and my article on W. H. Green and the authorship of the Pentateuch [1]

At least in those places I am clear that Moses is in no way responsible for the Pentateuch we have. To what degree he may have written, or his influence or personality came to be codified at a later time, or whatever other theory of Pentateuchal composition one may argue for, the Pentateuch we have is not a Mosaic composition.

Regarding my comment in I&I, I do not directly address what Moses did or did not write, but I do adopt the most conservative position in that particular rhetorical moment in order to demonstrate that, even there, we have an issue of “change over time.” Of course, I do not lay out this strategy, lest the rhetorical force be completely lost. I also wanted to bring along as many readers as I could on the specific topic at hand: development and change over time.

In my opinion, the two major shifts in OT scholarship over the last 150 years or so have been the developmental nature of biblical literature (written and oral traditions changing over time) and ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context. Both of these shifts are very important for understanding Scripture, and both have been in serious tension with evangelical theology—hence the problem.

2. You mention here, too, how you don’t understand how I got “fired” for all this. I commented on that in my previous response. Still your incredulity at what happened at Westminster is, I assure you, dwarfed by my own and that of many others.

3. Now, Ken, as for me doing self-therapy in I&I, let’s discuss that, shall we? I probably do need therapy, and, as the old saying goes, anyone who has had parents probably needs therapy, too, but I do not recognize myself in your comment. In I&I I am simply using personal illustrations to make a point. I like using personal illustrations. People listen better. That works in preaching, too. I know some textbooks say never to do this, but I think they are wrong. Personal illustrations break down barriers between speaker/writer and audience/reader.

So, you’ll just have to trust me on this one, I did not write I&I to do “therapy on my past.” I did it to bring some very basic and widely accepted issues into conversation with a theological paradigm in order to help the many, many evangelicals out there who only have a fundamentalist or liberal paradigm to choose from.

Therefore, neither did I write I&I to “fix people” and so do a “frontal assault.” Without question, there are people who desperately need fixing, so to speak, but I chose to be very upfront and deliberate in I&I not to annoy or hack people off, but because being clear and truthful is something I value. Reactions to I&I have born out how many people appreciate this approach. Rather than dancing around things, or making a really, really, good point in a footnote in an otherwise unreadable (for laypeople) publication, I pretty much just went for it.

The people most positively affected by I&I are actually thankful that I did not mince words, because the alternate positions they hear (fundamentalist or liberal) don’t mince words either.

Still, it is a tough call. Do you lead gently by the hand those who are on the precipice of unbelief because over the startling nature of what biblical scholars do—or—do you march right in for the benefit of those who are on the precipice of unbelief because of the absence of plain talk about these same issues by evangelical scholars. Clearly, I chose the latter.

As one conservative OT scholar friend of mine “You have to be careful not to lead people astray with books like I&I.” I responded, “I&I was written to help people who have already been lead astray because you haven’t written books like I&I.” I know that may sound a bit self-congratulatory, but it is how I feel. People move to unbelief because basic issues of biblical scholarship have not been synthesized with an evangelical spirit.

4. As for God presenting himself in the OT as someone who changes his mind, can be persuaded, etc., I think you represented well what I am trying to get across. We are also of the very same mind when you suggest that this can "irk some fundamentalist Calvinists," and it has, for whom Scripture should be read through the Westminster Standards. As I have said on numerous occasions, ironically, this most conservative expression of a Reformed posture is actually least Reformed, and I reject it.

To be Reformed (Wesleyan, whatever) means to be in conversation with a tradition rather than accept past articulations of that tradition without question. This conversational approach is what was modeled to me as an MDiv student at WTS and the ideal I continue to uphold.

5. As for unity in Scripture being Christological, I do suppose I could have fleshed that out more in I&I. In brief, let me say here that I do not use the word “unity” but “coherence” to describe how the Bible “hangs together.”

Coherence is a narratival word, and so not only allows for but accepts starts and stutters in plot, tension, movement, development, etc. In other words, it is a very good model for synthesizing modern biblical scholarship and evangelical theology. It is also a good model to describe the climactic and often surprising way in which Jesus is the end (telos) of Israel’s story (which is why I really like the concept “Christotelic”).

Scripture is not a “unity” in the sense that all parts agree in a “let’s compare verses” sense. Showing the impossibility of such a position was really the point of chapter 3 of I&I. Rather, Scripture coheres as any grand narrative coheres—in how it ends. So, in Christ, Scripture finds its coherence. Scripture’s coherence is a biblical theological, redemptive historical, Christotelic, eschatological coherence. Those four descriptors are not necessarily identical but they are mutually defining.

A truly Christian reading of the OT, therefore, will not feel obligated to “solve Bible difficulties,” but allow the story to be told and unfold as it will. The coherence of the Bible, which is truly but not exhaustively represented by in the NT, is seen in how the NT authors bring the OT into the climax of the grand narrative.

This is, as far as I am concerned, a basic tension between a biblical-theological, narratival reading of Scripture and a systematic theological, abstractionist reading of Scripture. That tension can be a healthy one, as long as both parties realize that they are both in conversation together rather than vying for control. As a former colleague of mine put it once, both are members of the same team, passing the ball back and forth, heading toward the basket, rather than opponents trying to stop the other from scoring. This “team chemistry” is largely lost amid the academic fear that characterizes a fair degree of evangelicalism.

Having advocated such a team approach, however, I would be remiss not to be upfront about something. I am of the opinion that a biblical theological reading of Scripture is one that is most faithful to the nature of Scripture itself and therefore has priority, and systematic theological formulations must be regulated by it. A systematic theology that cannot or does not account for the redemptive historical particularities of biblical utterances is not good systematic theology. (Ironically, I learned this as an MDiv student at WTS.)

With respect to I&I, this can be illustrated by how the “God changing his mind” issue is addressed. To suggest, as has been done to me all too often, that the narratival portrayal of God where he is presented as changing his mind, regretting his actions, or finding things out must be “corrected” or “balanced” by “the more clear teaching of Scripture,” is unconvincing to me. Those types of passages where God changes his mind, etc, are clear. The issue is not clarity but a perceived unacceptable tension with certain theological models that are deemed too finalized to be open to adjustment and correction.

My point is that theological models must bow to Scripture’s behavior. My detractors respond that, no, theological models of Scripture are founded on the clear teaching of Scripture about itself, and we move from there. In a manner of speaking, that is where the evangelical debate over the doctrine of Scripture can be located, and I find the latter position to be far too problematic to warrant intellectual assent because it limits Scripture’s self-witness to a very few alleged foundational passages.

[1] “William Henry Green and the Authorship of the Pentateuch: Some Historical Considerations,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45/3 (September 2002): 385-403.


Anonymous said...


You say: "Scripture’s coherence is a biblical theological, redemptive historical, Christotelic, eschatological coherence. Those four descriptors are not necessarily identical but they are mutually defining.

"A truly Christian reading of the OT, therefore, will not feel obligated to “solve Bible difficulties,” but allow the story to be told and unfold as it will. The coherence of the Bible, which is truly but not exhaustively represented by in the NT, is seen in how the NT authors bring the OT into the climax of the grand narrative."

In a comment on the last post in this series, I used the word "convoluted" -- certainly that describes these words. Basically, there is no coherence between the Hebrew Bible and NT unless people make up systems. And the systems only work when you predetermine the outcome.

There isn't a scintilla of logic behind any of those systems unless you start with an evangelical premise and work backwards. And the systems become an intellectual way of denying the obvious, simple logical truth.

But I must say it was an accomplishment to write such a landmark book. Westminster was privileged to have someone with your mind on its staff.

Messiah buddy (thanks for the rides!)

Peter Enns said...

Anonymous, sorry I did not respond yet to your post on the previous thread. I had to be out of town for a few days, and then was hit with all sorts of stuff when I came back.

I know some of the language in my post can certainly be convoluted for some, but it is an academic/theological articulation (appropriate for Ken's blog) of how I and others think about Scripture.

The relationship between the OT and NT is not by any means a straightforward one. It is fraught with all sorts of hermeneutical challenges. Actually, in some conversations with evangelicals, I take a goading sort of role similar to yours here. I challenge others not to allow convoluted systems to force Scripture into a certain mold.

So, let me put it this way:

The coherence of Scripture is centered on the resurrection of Christ. The latter provides for the former. I believe that because I am a Christian.

Is that unconvoluted enough for you? :-)

Thomas said...


Yeah, that last statement was not convoluted, but intellectually debateable. I'm sure all of the writers of the Hebrew Bible (and some who wrote the NT) would vehemently disagree.

But it once again illustrates the principal of working backwards. Nobody reading the OT by itself would ever think it points to a Trinitarian God who sends a part of himself to die for our sins. But if you start with Orthodox christianity, and work backwards, you have to come up with some explanation from the OT to make it work. You read things into the text that just aren't there.

Heck the NT authors do that, as I'm sure you know better than me.

me again

Ken Schenck said...

Thomas and/or Anonymous, you are hitting on something that I have concluded now for several years. Liberalism is a direct consequence of the Protestant principle of Scripture only. Unless a person develops a sense of development that is bigger than even the Bible itself, the person who pursues these issues will inevitably find themselves either retreating into an irrational fundamentalism or losing anything like a traditional faith. Many people at this point become Roman Catholic or Orthodox. But, in general, a simple sense of God slowly and patiently moving the world toward a better understanding of Him, with the death and resurrection of Christ as the beginning of the denouement, does the trick.

Anonymous said...


That all sounds nice, and it is where I used to be.

But where does "a simple sense of God slowly and patiently moving the world toward a better understanding of Him" come from? It comes from Scripture. But if you no longer believe that Scripture was "inspired," then what?

Why would God work through the writings of people whose understanding of him changed so much? Does that mean it doesn't matter what you believe?

Let's assume that God's plan intentionally involves the medium of human writings from pre-scientific people. Why then believe in the Bible as opposed to any other piece of literature?

The only way the answers work out to anything resembling Christianity is when you start with the Christian premise and work backwards. If you think it through without the filter (baggage?) of childhood faith, then it all begins to appear not in the realm of reality.

What Christianity does to the Hebrew Bible is exactly what the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses did to the NT. They twisted it around to fit into the teachings of a new leader and claimed it as their own, when it reality they have completely misinterpreted the original text.

(Thomas is my son, apparently he was signed on when I was at the computer).

Peter Enns said...

Good to know Anonymous and Thomas are the same person.

I am not sure on what basis you suggest that the writers of Scripture would find my last sentence debatable. They might, I'm just not sure on what basis you say they do.

In my opinion, what I see happening in the NT is a hermeneutical commitment to the centrality of the resurrection for understanding all of Scripture (i.e., what we call the OT). That forms the central proclamation for the NT writers, and the Scripture is then understood in light of that reality.

Accepting the hermeneutical priority of the death and resurrection of Christ is important for understanding why the NT handles the OT the way it does. The resurrection specifically is not argued for or "proven" in the NT but is the basis upon which Israel's story is now to be re-understood.

You might say that the primary Christian authority is the risen the Christ, and Scripture (i.e., Israel's story) is now subservient to that central event.

Yes, the NT authors spend a considerable amount of energy (theological and hermeneutical) to demonstrate that reality, and they handle Scripture in what that modern people would not, but there it is.

Ken, I agree with your connection between Liberalism and sola Scriptura. Another angle to take on that is to observe that the same country that gave us the Reformation also gave us higher criticism. Now, that is a rather facile connection to make without some qualification, but the point has been observed often enough by others for quite some time..

Anonymous said...

You guys have to stop with all this hermeneutic stuff, or I'm going to start talking about securitization.

Seriously, hermeneutic is a way of trying to hide the fact that something doesn't make sense.

My point about the Hebrew Bible authors is this -- they had a point of view largely along these lines: YHWH was Israel's house God. If they worshiped him, he would make sure they prospered and defeat their enemies.

That's the core of it. I would bet that the authors that predated the exile in 586 BC were polytheistic, they believed YHWH was the best god, not the only one.

Certainly no Jew ever got the Godhead or pre-existence or saviors dying for the sins of the people out of the OT. It wasn't there and who would know better than the people who wrote the books? I think the intentions of the authors have to mean something.

Christians on the other hand see the books as some type of magic puzzle by which God hid the "truth" from the people who wrote them and used them to worship. In other words, what the Jews thought about their own books is irrelevant because we know better today.

Same holds true with the NT. The first Christians led by James met in the temple. They could not have done that had they brooked "Christian" ideas about God.

Messiah pal

Ken Schenck said...

I agree with the data you are bringing up, Anon, and I think those who deny it are hiding their head in the sand and causing people like you to lose their faith. But it is possible, I believe, to look at the same data and take a "glass is half full" perspective rather than your "glass is half empty." Look where God was leading them all, I say. Look what God wasn't telling them yet, you say.

But I don't think it would be that big deal of a deal if the evangelicals/fundamentalists of the previous generation had not been people with their hands over their ears saying loudly in class, "LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA."