Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The theological basis of Peter Enns' suspension

Westminster Theological Seminary has now released the official documentation relating to the recent suspension of Peter Enns. Included are the theological and hermeneutical Reports, prepared by Enns’ colleagues, which outline the objections to his book on Inspiration and Incarnation. It makes for unpleasant reading.

The “Historical and Theological Field Committee Report” is especially depressing. The Report makes it clear that Enns’ heterodoxy was already a settled issue for these colleagues; there is no real engagement with his book, no reflection on the theological questions, and certainly not even a glimmer of self-critical humility. Every question is settled in advance; the authors are invincibly persuaded of their own rightness.

The explicit purpose of Enns’ book was to generate discussion about the doctrine of scripture in light of current historical research on the biblical texts and their contexts. He was specifically trying to generate new discussion and new reflection among conservative evangelicals. But his colleagues at Westminster – somehow still entrenched in the old modernist controversies of a century ago – react with a defensiveness that is painful to witness.

They counter Enns’ whole approach by asserting that “Scripture’s author is God, who uses ‘actuaries’ or ‘tabularies’ to write His words,” so that “what men write down is as much God’s own words as if He had written it down without human mediation.” (Am I dreaming? Did a committee of theologians really produce that statement?) You can see why Enns felt it was necessary to write a book like this. You can see why a bit of fresh doctrinal reflection might be in order. But these colleagues will have none of it: they simply retreat back to the safety of another century, insisting that “there is no mention of the human authors of Scripture” in the Westminster Confession (their emphasis). Or they remark that “it is difficult to see” how Enns’ approach “can be made compatible” with the position of B. B. Warfield. No reflection on what Enns is saying. No engagement with his proposal. Not even a pretence at actually listening to him. Just a series of assertions about the self-evidently unacceptable nature of Enns’ book.

But the Report only gets worse. It’s sadly revealing to see the way objections against Enns are simply piled up, willy-nilly, without any modesty or sense of proportion. On a number of occasions, the authors complain that Enns’ book is “unclear.” For example, they complain that his description of scripture as “ultimately from God” and “God’s gift to the church” is “fuzzy at best in that it can accrue to an almost infinite number of things. In that sense, it is not an affirmation of the church’s historic understanding of inspiration.” Fuzzy? Theologians can now be suspended for fuzziness? In any case, the sheer irrelevance of such complaints is precisely the point: when you’ve already made up your mind in advance, any old criticism will do.

In the same way, a large proportion of this theological report is devoted to establishing Enns’ guilt by association. His views smack of “a neo-orthodox construal of revelation.” He “seems to display basic affinity with a Barthian view of Scripture.” There “seems to us to be a connection between the Post-Conservative Evangelical method [i.e. of Grenz and Franke] and the doctrine of Scripture set forth in Inspiration and Incarnation.” None of this is theological argument. None of it demonstrates why Enns’ approach is wrong. None of it has any relevance for the doctrinal question which the Committee is ostensibly addressing. On the contrary, the Committee simply relies on the invocation of cheap slogans – “post-conservative!” “neo-orthodox!” – in order to produce guilt by association.

Unfortunately, that’s the flavour of this “Theological Field Committee Report.” It would be irritating if such a report had been written by mindless bureaucrats who don’t know any better. But the fact that it was written by professional theologians – by Peter Enns’ own colleagues – is simply depressing.

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