Tuesday 29 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.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Yeah, well I've thought for ages that Westminster had nothing whatsoever in any sense going for it. They've now proved that beyond a reasonable doubt.

Anonymous said...

There's always the mystic route.

Remember, even in the New Testament, the original Greek details how some of Christ's followers were calling Paul an "abortion." Gee, isn't it reassuring to know back then "Christians" really knew how to be nasty to one another?

"Theologians" who seek discussion and exploratory discourse seem to inevitably run into this problem that poor Enns ran into: any attempt to go beyond the superstructure of "interpretation" and the status quo will result in what you have here.

But beyond that, here's the real problem, and I am quoting this from a friend of mine, and I think it bears some weight:

"A mystic finds a condition, a situation, a life, not an object. The theologian attempts to objectify the condition; this is the root of all confusion, all insecurity. The condition is enough; objectification takes away its QUALITY. Our yearning is for the quality. How it is delivered is not the issue. The mystic merges the yearning with the quality and cares nothing for objectification. Rumi is a classic instance. A spiritual adept from childhood, a precocious manifestor of spiritual power, a child raised in the practice of spirituality, but who was disabused of spirituality and who became content and secure in yearning, in the play of all the senses (corporeal and incorporeal). [Isn't precocious a wonderful word: pre-cooked!!!! - prae coquere.] Rumi found the quality enough."

Jordan Barrett said...

Ben - perhaps I've missed your point, but I'm sure you can understand the "fuzziness" argument. If someone is expected to adhere to a doctrinal statement but no one can tell if they actually do (this is a simplified example of what may be going on here), then what should we do? "Oh, ok, I suppose you're close enough." If Enns' language and arguments lend him to positions that sound contrary to Westminster's statement of faith then I can understand why the "fuzziness" argument could be held. On the other hand, and I don't know enough about this situation, I would hope that they gave him the chance to clarify those points rather than drawing assumptions and moving forward from there.

::aaron g:: said...

Totally frightening. Utterly absurd.

::aaron g:: said...

And how cheeky of them was it to print the “Minority Report” sideways so I had to twist my neck half off just to read it.

Anonymous said...

Stuff like this makes me not only want to quit pursuing a career in theological studies, but also stirs in me a reluctance to be a Christian at times.

Not that i would ever leave the faith, but the depth of my frustration at such utter myopia is so hard for me to swallow. Since when did the documents that teach us about our Lord become so important as to give us the "right" to act in such an arrogant fashion? How can we be so short-sighted to want to "protect" the very scriptures that teach us not to treat people this way?


Anonymous said...

"...insisting that “there is no mention of the human authors of Scripture” in the Westminster Confession"

Wow. And they think that's, like, a good thing?

Anonymous said...

If I may venture a further pontification, allow me to say that I've always thought that the Westminster Confession is one of the most shoddy pieces of shit to ever be passed off as a test of orthodoxy.

Honestly we should have expected nonsense like this from an institution dedicated to upholding such a document.

Anonymous said...

Wow halden, tell us how you really feel!

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to the Reformed emphasis on God and the Bible standing over the Confessions? This is "confessionalism" at its worst, and it gives me a fresh appreciation for the anti-creedalism of the Baptists.

Anonymous said...

Maybe a true reformation will happen again as a result of this, and a new Westminster confession will be written??

There are many, many Christians who are reformed, but unfortunately are young, and feel highly suppressed in the reformed movement because of matters like this... something better ought to exist

Anonymous said...

Kevin D.: "Whatever happened to the Reformed emphasis on God and the Bible standing over the Confessions?"

Whatever happened to Calvin's analogy that when God speaks to humanity he speaks in baby-talk because that's all we can manage to understand?

David Mackinder said...

Any news about Prof. Enns himself? Has he found another position elsewhere?

Geoff Ziegler said...

Forgive my need to enter my own "minority report," but aren't we going a bit overboard here? Westminster is a confessional institution. You might not like the confession to which they adhere, but you certainly must acknowledge that it is entirely within their rights--even, perhaps, their responsibility to ensure that their faculty adheres to this confession. Or are you simply saying we should reject the idea of a confessional institution? Or perhaps any confessional institution that is more conservative than you think appropriate?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Geoff, and echo Jordan. I am not a confessionalist, and I am deeply disturbed by the "guilt-by-association" argumentation you describe. I have been attacked by that method myself. However, an institution has a right to define itself as confessional, and to require a measure of conformity to their chosen confession. The important question--and I take this to be the same question that arose when Greg Boyd ran afoul of ETS--is: Is it clear that Enns has now gone beyond the bounds of (or contradicted items in) whatever statements and agreements he signed when he hired on at Westminster? If not, then shame on the theologians who wrote the report. If so, then Enns had to know, in some sense, what was coming, though on a personal level I feel sympathy for him: I suspect he felt he HAD to write what he did in order to open up conversation; it can be suffocating to work within an institution where certain questions simply cannot be asked (I thank God that although my own institution is conservative in some ways, it is not closed to discussion).

Anonymous said...

I have to agree slightly with the last two comments. A seminary is a much different institution than a university, mainly in its close connection with a particular denomination or group. As a doctoral student in a seminary I am completely aware that all students must agree to a general statement of beliefs, the faculty must annually sign a statement adhering to a much more comprehensive statement.From what I have seen this professor departed from one of the core tenets of the seminary's firm convictions. Teaching at that level is not a right it is a privilege and perhaps he should have formulated his book in such a way that a charge of heterodoxy would have been harder to make. I guess I would expect that level of critical thought from a theologian.

Anonymous said...

But Christian, the point is, it seems that there is little the author could have done to avoid such critique. People who want to use shoddy arguments to criticize will use them no matter what the author says.

Anonymous said...

To be fair to Dr. Enns, I think what he is trying to accomplish with this book is a good thing. I also offer the same critique of those who authored the lengthy report against I&I. There are some gaping holes in some of their theological assertions that a responsible use of newer biblical and theological research could fill. However, Dr. Enns (as noted in the report) has corrected or restated some of the 'fuzziness' in the book. The only point I was trying to make was that if he had been more precise in his language and the logical expression of his position, he could have made it much more difficult for his critics to raise a complaint against him. If I am not mistaken preciseness of language is what the task of theology is about.

Anonymous said...

Please excuse an ignoramus chipping in. Is the real question as follows? :-

Would it have been possible for Dr Enns to have written a book in which he wanted to "generate discussion about the doctrine of scripture" (and which would have succeeded in this purpose) without stepping outside the boundaries permitted by the Westminster Confession, which are, after all, the boundaries in which a staff member of the Westminster Theological Seminary is supposed to operate?

The way I have always understood Lesslie Newbigin, the answer to this question is as follows: the essence of dialogue is that it is possible for one to be persuaded by the arguments of the other party. So in order to engage in meaningful dialogue with someone of another persuasion, one has to engage in a suspension of one's confessional position, at least temporarily - otherwise the dialogue is not a real dialogue. Not a suspension of the reasons for one's belief, but a real suspension of one's conviction that one's reasons are valid.

So any such book would be logically bound to lay its author open to this kind of discipline?

Or am I barking up completely the wrong tree?

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Doug said...

Seems to me they think that God wrote the Westminster confession.

Erin said...

a sad situation, indeed. I would love to know, after some time of course, how Enns comes to process said events in his own personal faith.

Anonymous said...


I think you make a valid point. The problem seems to be that Dr. Enns, a professor at WTS who affirms agreement to the Westminster Confession as prerequisite to his faculty position, wrote a book that on the surface seems to contradict that affirmation, or at least not affirm it as strongly as his critics on the faculty think he should.

Zac said...

The issue is, can the Westminster Confession of Faith be allowed to be "re-interpreted" or challenged in light of the ongoing reflections of those who have (at least previously) ascribed to those very confessions? It seems to me that the willingness of the church (or an organization which grounds its identity in a particular stream of the church) to be self critical is a sign of a healthy church.

I know that Williams' Arius has been quoted here a few times, but I think it is as relevant as ever in light of this event:

"Athanasius and the consistent Nicenes actually accept Arius' challenge, and agree with the need for conceptual innovation: for them the issue is whether new formulations can be found which do justice not only to the requirements of intellectual clarity but to the wholeness of the worshipping and reflecting experience of the Church." (pg. 235)

It seems to me that Westminster is not willing to accept Mr. Enns' challenge and take the risk of doing justice to both intellectual clarity and the worshipping experience of the Church...perhaps this is a sign of a more damaging heterodoxy....

Rachel said...

Westminster is crazy...my roommate's dad is losing his job there over the new paul thing.

Anne said...

As I recall, a majority of the faculty at Westminster supported, or at least, declined to condemn P Enns in a survey. Might this be just the action of a minority of well-placed elites?

JR said...

Enns is not a moron.

He’s no youth on his first prom date getting dissed. He knew exactly what he signed up for. He signed up for a confessional church (see what Geoff said).

He’s a big boy now. He signed up for a covenantal church run by adjudicatory boards set up in advance to show heretics the door.

He’s old enough to know a little history. He signed up for a church family generically (Reformed) that’s had enough splits since the Reformation by generating as much wind as the tempest that sank the Spanish Armada, an ongoing fireball of a Reformation capable of turning on you taking your career down the drain with it.

If he’s really stupid enough to write a book that sank his ship by total surprise, then he should quit writing.

And everyone here should quit blogging.

He knew the risks he took.

He took them.

He paid.

Get over it.

Enns will get another job at a moderate or liberal seminary.

He’ll be a hero. Here I stand. And all that.


Jordan Barrett said...

Mark & Anne - you're right. I completely forgot about that. And that being the case, Ben, I would recommend revising your statements. Otherwise you're also at fault for using a "guilty by association" argument in your statements about all WTS theologians rather than limiting your statements to the ones who initiated and are driving this process.

JR said...

A postscript on vague and sloppy (not careful) argumentation used against Enns in the judgment ...

Ben and d. w. horstkoetter hammered this. Rightfully so in this case. Fair riffs. This problem of vagary and sloppy non-responsive opinions in a judgment has a long pedigree in legal hermeneutics. Including in church adjudicatories. Without belaboring it here, there are counter-intuitive possibilities, namely, that the adjudicatory body uses vagary because it’s looking far past Enns and wants to throw a huge and wide blanket of warning to other rumbling dissenters, or contrariwise, sometimes this kind of vagary and non-responsiveness reflects deep grief of having to make a judgment - a form of equivocation. Even when a panel of distinguished and expert legal scholars re-wrote (for a book) the hotly contested American abortion case, Roe v. Wade, each of the scholars concurred in the final judgment (to uphold the case), but each disagreed on the reasons why: a plurality opinion. The net effect of plurality opinions looks sloppy even when motivated by the safeties of a moot court. Something to think about if you submit to any adjudicatory church with clergy-judges running the show as a panel.

For seminarians out there launching careers in ministry, if you want to stay in your denomination while publishing something on the edge, consider lobbying your administration for an early-stage peer review resulting in advance return opinions before you publish - or perish. Peer review is often pathetically lacking in the profession.



Anonymous said...

Yikes. I'm so glad I didn't go to Westminster.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Jordon: No, I'm not trying to paint all Westminster faculty with the same brush. I'm just talking about the authors of this specific report.

Honestly, if the seminary wants to make the documentation available to the public, then the authors of this Theological Field Committee Report ought to be publicly scorned for producing such a thoughtless and insubstantial hodgepodge of criticisms. (And let's not even mention the strangely disastrous essay by Peter Lillback which is included in the documentation — the fact that the seminary's President could write something of such low calibre almost beggars belief.)

Anyway, I'm really not interested in painting all WTS faculty with the same brush, or in criticising the institution as such. I'm just trying to raise a few questions about the kinds of theologians who were involved in engineering Enns' removal, and about the slipshod argumentation that was produced against him.

Anonymous said...

As a minister in the United Reformed Church I wasn't aware that the Westminster Confession is inerrant. Spin it any way you like, this is tradition fundamentalism of the worst kind, i.e. it is a betrayal of tradition. Did the inquisitors kiss Professor Enns goodbye?

Anonymous said...

This post actually prompted me to pick up the Westminster Confession and read it again. Westminster is an interesting document because it contains a disclaimer: "All synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith and practice, but to be used as a help in both."

So even if Westminster makes no mention of human authors of scripture, if Enns' (and I haven't read his book) notices evidence of cultural or individual conditioning of scripture passages, the first question ought not to be, "How can he square this with Westminster?" but "Has Westminster somehow erred in failing to take notice of this?"

And Westminster itself would seem to lend itself to that line of inquiry.

Not knowing any more about the controversy than what's written here, it seems as though the folks at Westminster are doing exactly what their own cherished creed tells them not to: treating it as the rule, and not as a guide to the rule.

I write this as a mainline Presbyterian in the USA, so of course my adherence to the creeds of Protestant orthodoxy is automatically suspect! :)

Anonymous said...

The deeper issue here isn't with Westminster alone, it's with Evangelicalism as a whole. Enns would be running into the same issues at plenty of Seminaries in North America.

I recently clicked on the statement of faith for the Seminary where I earned my M.Div. The very first item is "verbal and plenary inspiration." On the top of the list. That stuff about the Trinity and the incarnation? Somewhere in the middle.

The Evangelical establishment, if that term applies, is obsessed with maintaining an unquestioning adherence to a specific understanding of Scripture and will not engage in reflection. They fear that once a crack appears that they'll sink into the mire of liberalism. People like Enns are demonstrating that it's possible to hold to the historic Christian creeds and tenants, while engaging with more nuanced views of Scripture and its inspiration.

Anonymous said...


I think you've hit the root of the issue. Evangelicalism, in its more conservative American wings, have been in isolation mode since they backed down from the initial intellectual challenges that hit them in the 1800's. This has led them to be more concerned about what they're not (liberals) than about what they are supposed to be (humble, intellecutally honest, etc). It is sad.

Ben Myers said...

Marvin, that's a good point about the Westminster Confession. A basic problem is that the report treats the Confession like a set of timeless propositions, free of any historical context. Even though the Westminster Confession might appear unbearably narrow to a modern reader, in fact the authors of the Confession were trying to accommodate a very complex diversity of (Calvinist) viewpoints. It's not a "flat" document with a single viewpoint. But since the controversies that were prominent at the time are now obsolete, contemporary readers wrongly suppose that the Confession provides a calmly homogeneous system of timeless propositions.

Jordan Barrett said...

Jesse and Derek, you may consider reading Daniel Treier's chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelicalism. I think you'll realize that your assessments don't hold up for "all" evangelicals. I'm not denying that your position(s) aren't understandable, but again, I would hope that you would be more specific (name names if you must!) rather than lumping all evangelicals into a nice, neat box.

Pieter Pronk said...

I'd think that most christian universities or seminaries have a limit as to what their teachers should teach. And I'd say that almost all of those different limits get tested at one point or another. Even the most liberal of schools probably starts to complain when a teacher tests the limits as to what the school means when it calls itself christian.

A liberal school might tell a teacher to find another job, when he starts teaching about predestination and judgement too much. Or when, on the other side of the spectum, he teaches that Budha and Christ were the same.
The point being that every school has it's breaking point; the point where dialogue doesn't solve everything. the point where some sort of action has to be taken.

I wonder if the discussion here is about the validity of their breaking point: the authorship of Gods Word to be God. Or maybe it's about the how they acted after their breaking point had been reached? Or maybe some people feel that no christian seminary or university should have a breaking point at all, letting everybody teach whatever they feel or believe?

Vice Versa, it certainly seems on this blog and the comments, that the general sentiment is that the Westminster Seminary has gone too far with it's action and has reached a breaking point with what (people here believe) should be called christian.
It doesn't seem like those "colleagues of Enns" that sent him away, would have a very long career at "faith-theology", were this blog a Seminary. :)

Anonymous said...


i appreciate your request for specifics. I was speaking from a borader, historical perspective. I could go into detail about the revivalist, emotional fervor surrounding George Whitefield, Charles Finney, and the Layman's Prayer Revival, and how the in the 19th century two cults (Mormonism, Jehavoah's Witnesses) were formed in those areas due to the anti-intellectual climate surrounding American evangelicalism. As historian George Marsden notes "anti-intellectualism was a feature of American revivalism."

This anti-intellectualism in the revival movement paved the way for the evangelical disengagement from opponents to their beliefs which were popping up during this time, whranging from Hume and Kant philsophically, to the development of higher biblical criticism in Germany, to the emergence of Darwinian evolution. As JP Moreland writes "instead of responding to these attacks with a vigorous intellectual counterpunch, many believers grew suspicious of intellectual issues altogether."

There is more to be said here, particularly in the further movement to isolation found in fundamentalists setting up separate institutions of learning, but hopefully the point is clear. Historically there seems to be little doubt regarding the move towards isolation and anti-intellectualism in the American evangelical movement. It seems to me that from a historical point of view these aren't contested positions, they are pretty well established. Of course there are exceptions, there always are. However, it seems to me that when we look at the development of evangelicalism in America, such exceptions are anecdotal.

Anonymous said...

Jordan, I don't thing either of us are lumping all of evangelicalism into a single box (Evangelical is not an easy word to define, its undergone a lot of changes and is used by a lot of people) but the truth is that a big portion of the Evangelical world has a specific view of the Bible and its interpretation as a key, if not its defining feature. The question is whether that view of scripture is sustainable. Or, are we subjecting the Bible to a burden it cannot possibly bear (and that no text ever written could).

Westminster has every right to protect the orthodoxy of its teaching, even an obligation to do so. There are tough questions at play here about to what extent dialogue and dissension are permissible, and where a line needs to be drawn to protect the core doctrines of the faith.

My humble suggestion is that the doctrine of scripture Westminster is seeking to maintain, and which is common to many Evangelical communities, is problematic, but that it is possible to maintain the authority and veracity of the Bible without this specific teaching. Although I've not yet read the book it appears that Enns, like NT Wright and others, is showing us how this is possible.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, there is an excellent section in Kevin Phillips book, "American Theocracy", that deals with "evangelicals" and/or "fundamentalists" as they appear on the American political scene. Also noteworthy, the term "evangelical" has many different connotations in different geographic contexts. In North America, it usually refers to more conservative, fundamentalist types. In England, I have been told, evangelical has a much broader and even liberal minded usage. To push the point further, I know that "evangelical" missionaries in Latin America will not call themselves "evangelicals" because that is what the Mormon missionaries in those areas call themselves. Like I said, for what it's worth...


Anonymous said...

Hi Bryn,

No, in England - in the United Kingdom - while "evangelical" has a range of meanings it hardly has a "liberal minded usage", either theologically or ethically, though I would usually hesitate to use the word "fundamentalist" and card-carrying creationists are rare. You know an evangelical by their emphases on personal conversion and experience, often charismatic; biblical inerrancy, certainly in the pews, less so (or at least finely tuned) in the academy, where evangelical scholars are, by and large, responsible, creative, and at the cutting edge (e.g. Wright, Thiselton, McGrath); penal substitution; and traditional teaching on human sexuality. UK evangelicals are also much more to the left politically than their US counterparts - Jim Wallis rather than Pat Robertson (and there is the outstanding moral and political theologian Oliver O'Donovan) - and there is no Religious Right.

That's my reading of the situation anyway.

David Williamson said...

It certainly is horrible to see splits in any part of the church, and the ejection of Enns does seem quite ghastly.

But it does raise an interesting question about the responsibilities of an academic who is paid by a confessional seminary is he/she decides she/he can no longer propagate the teaching the institution was intended to promote and protect.

For example, if I was a dispensationalist in Dallas who decided NT Wright was right and the rapture was wrong, would I have a moral obligation to the students, faculty and funders to resign long before I got "found out"?

Anonymous said...

Following on from David's comment above: having agreed with the question about academics responsibility to their institutions isn't there also the question of these institutions responsibility to own up to the fact that they are not aiming to be places of free and honest intellectual enquiry and seeking after truth. Rather these institutions are places which exist to propagate their own peculiar teachings and promote and indoctrinate ("train")
people with their particular theological/denominational bent. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Just be upfront and very clear about it and don't promote yourself as a scholarly/academic institution pretending to be ultimately interested in academic/intellectual integrity and growth.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that (I'm a WTS student) that Lillback believes that the founding fathers were conservative Christians and that Trueman enjoys derailing the morality of the Reformers to shock his class and shake their ground.

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