Optional page text here. The Beast's Lair: The Peter Enns Controversy

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Peter Enns Controversy

Peter Enns is a professor of OT and Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. In 2005 he wrote a book titled "Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament." As soon as the book hit the shelves, conversations ensued about the potential controversy that could arise from Enns' conclusions. Those conversations proved to be true. On March 27, the Board of Trustees at Westminster Theological Seminary announced that professor Peter Enns would be suspended from teaching at the conclusion of this school year.

I have not yet read the book (I still have plenty to read for this semester of classes, not to mention the 5 parenting books that are on my list for the summer) but I have kept myself somewhat up to date on the responses to the book's claims. In short, from what I have understood, the book asks questions that are not new to the issue of Scripture. Questions such as how the OT uses myth as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins in the form of stories.” Critics have wondered if Enns allows for the historicity of the OT accounts. He also asserts that the Bible's portrayal of Jesus and other events were "culturally clothed" in the time which they were written. Again, we have heard these things before.

The somewhat unique flavor that Enns brings to the discussion is his parallel of the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of Scripture. Apparently, Enns makes the point that we as 21st century Christians tend to de-emphasize the humanity of Christ and lean heavily on his deity. I don't disagree with him on that point. Since, then, we understand Christ to be both fully human and fully divine, he concludes that Christians should have a similar view of Scripture, that it is conceived through an equal outpouring of the divine and humanity. With a proper understanding of the impact this human emphasis places on Scripture, Enns argues we can better understand the way it is wrapped in 2nd century culture and would have been interpreted through the lens a 2nd temple literature hemeneutical style. Therefore, when the gospel writers apparently make blatant "mistakes" in their use of OT Scripture, we understand that through the human, cultural lens.

Keeping my response to a minimum since I do not have a full reading of Enn's argument, it seems that the foundation of his thesis, that the inspiration and the incarnation should be understood together, places too strong of a distinction between the humanity and deity of Christ. Yes, we affirm the full humanity and full deity of Christ, but we affirm them in the one person of Christ. The reader should remember that if we make such a parallel between the humanity of Jesus and the humanity of the biblical authors, the fruit of Jesus' human life was perfect, he was without sin. That was, of course, possible through his humanity and deity being in the one person of Christ, not separate persons, a reminder of the Nestorius heresy. So, if we take seriously the Chalcedonian definition of Christology as we make the parallel Enns suggests, his argument should actually cause reflection on how the bible has come to us in a perfected form, not how we can understand it's strange and culturally clothed imperfections.

Regardless, the issue of inspiration remains vital for the church. I am currently dealing with a long time Christian who just simply does not believe parts of the bible that are difficult to grasp, such as why God would ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. That, she said, was misunderstood by whoever wrote Genesis. God would never do that. Well, perhaps she would find comfort in a potential reading of Enn's approach - the story of Abraham and Isaac needs to be understood from the human authorial perspective which can help us understand its mythological approach, shortcoming, or what have you. The problem is that once you start down that road, how do we know what parts of the bible should be viewed through human side of authorship or divine side? How do we know the resurrection was not just another "impossibility" of God that was used to be interpreted by the 2nd century methods? This is what continues to worry me about any position other than inerrancy. Once you establish that any one part of the bible might be in error, you then must have a set of criteria to establish the error from the truth. Unfortunately, no one has that definitive set of criteria because it doesn't exist. I do want to note here that after some criticism of Enn's approach surfaced, he did express regret for not emphasizing the divine source of Scripture enough in his book.

We can have full confidence in Scripture for the very fact that man was never acting alone in its writing. Scripture is "God breathed" and the men were "carried along" by the Holy Spirit as they wrote. Although we get to enjoy the human personalities and writing style for each author of the bible, we never experience those authors completely on their own terms. Rather, they are always united with the purposes of God's intended revelation and His guiding inspiration. Such, we hope, is the case for each of us. That we as followers of Christ have ceased to live on our own terms, but have crucified our flesh for the gain of being united with Christ. Blessings to you today!


Blogger Mike Ruffin said...


Your last paragraph is very insightful.

I have not read the book myself.

I do wonder, though, if the parallel drawn between the Incarnation and biblical inspiration is misguided.

Such reasoning is circular, I know, but I reckon that we are stuck with what the Bible says about the Bible. So...does the Bible ever teach that we should view biblical inspiration as anything approaching the incarnation event? I think not.

The Bible says that in Christ "the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." It says that "the Word became flesh and dwelled among us." It says no such thing about Scripture.

It does say, as you note, that Scripture is "God-breathed." What else does the Bible describe that way? Humankind. God breathed the breath of life into the man, Genesis says.

So...it seems to me that a better parallel is between Scripture which is "God-breathed" and humanity into whom God breathes the breath of life.

I'm not sure how to flesh that out (no pun intended) but that's what I thought about when I read your post.

April 19, 2008 8:08 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home