Friday, June 30, 2006

Victory in Jesus?

Here's a poignant statement about the weakness of sinners who Christ came to save. Being a minister myself, it's hard not to read the story discussed there and be deeply disturbed.

Christian culture encourages us to actively hide our foolishness because we’re the ones that are supposed to have all the answers. It makes us experts at covering up our own weaknesses so that other Christians will think we’re strong and unbelievers will know that we’re not sinners, like they are. And that, my friends, is an affront to the cross. When we do everything possible to convince both ourselves and others that we’re really decent, prudent, mature Christians who’ve basically got it all together, the inevitable result is that we not only not only reject God's Holy Spirit, but we deny our ongoing need as sinners for atonement, forgiveness and mediation. When our attempts to be thought strong, wise and noble become habitual, and we've successfully convinced ourselves of our maturity, the eventual result is a marginalizing and ostracizing those who are actually openly weak among us. We create a culture of fear so that openly admitting our weaknesses and foolishness becomes the scariest thing imaginable and appearing impenetrable is a desirable standard of holiness. And maybe our motives are good – we want unbelievers to see that Jesus really has changed us and we want other Christians to know that we really are saved and that we really do know God. But God is brutally honest about the fruit of wanting to be considered wise, strong and noble by others; and that fruit is precisely the mess we read about in stories like the one linked above. May He have mercy on us while we struggle to come to terms with the depth of our sin and the lying standards of perfection which so often nullify God's grace in Jesus.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


UPDATE (6/22): Apparently Brandon Witherow, a Ph.D candidate at Westminster Seminary has been following the accusations of lubricious heresy hunters surrounding Enns' book. Both his reactions to the exchange chronicled below as well the links to previous discussions of the book are worth checking out.

UPDATE (6/18):
Steve has since posted a few new comments which both persist in missing my point and ironically label me as "angry" - I'd be happy to respond in more detail to anyone who's interested - just post a comment here; but judging from the level of vitriol gushing from his responses, and an apparent preference for "sniping" rather than talking, responding any further seems pointless. iMonk has posted some reactions to the venom which, in Steve's zeal, splashed onto him from the response to me.

That's one of the noises one makes when gurgling in his own blood, which was a metaphorical posture I took while reading Steve Hays eviscerate a few of my last posts. Steve kindly refers to me as talented, for which I'm genuinely flattered. It gets a bit ugly from there, though, as I'm subsequently referred to as cocky, juvenile and immature (which, of course, I am from time to time). Most of what motivates the (dare I say) overly harsh critique, it seems, were my comments about Don Carson (which, at second glance did come off as far snootier than I had intended). In any case, it clearly pricked a nerve, and I'm sorry.

But I hadn't intended anything like what Steve fears I meant - namely that Carson is somehow "out of touch". The point I was making, in fact, depends very much on the opposite evaluation. That point, again, is that many students within conservative evangelical circles have been nurtured on the very over-simplifications, glib harmonizations and anachronisms that Enns is addressing. Carson may take much of what Enns says as "obvious" and "unnecessary" and "less than ground-breaking", pointing to nuances that many scholars commonly accept when it comes to issues like ANE parallels and cultural situatedness in Scripture - but this book wasn't written for them. That's why the bibliographies offered by Steve in his vigorous response to my comments are helpful, but completely irrelevant.

The helpfulness of the book is its honest presentation of the challenges presented by the Old Testament - a presentation that may linger irritatingly for OT scholars to whom the issues are old hat (and to a more educated audience like Steve, who are anxious to rush to their preferred answers to long-known questions). But for new students who are newly coming to grips with these glaringly terrestrial marks of Scripture, it is an exceedingly wise introduction because it takes their context seriously - namely that of the raging Bible wars between liberals and conservatives, marked by a posture of defense in conservative evangelical churches. The "doceticism" described by Enns in relation to the Bible is, in my judgment, a wise strategy for acknowledging the popular emphasis on Scripture's heavenly origin over against marks of its human composition. That - not an attempt to present a comprehensive theological (or hermeneutical) model for understanding Scripture - is the goal of this book. That's also why Carson's desire for a more detailed exposition of the incarnation analogy misses the point. Again, my criticism wasn't that Carson is an idiot - it's the opposite. He's an impressively credentialed biblical scholar. But this book wasn't written to whet his academic appetite, it was written to deal with what can be a crisis for students who have consistently heard only one side of the story.

It's important to point out that this was really my main criticism of both Carson and Helm. You'll see that at the end of my comments I noted that I felt both of their criticisms, cautions and suggestions weren't inappropriate. Neither my review, nor the book, implies that there haven't been real attempts to solve the kind of universally acknowledged theological and hermeneutical difficulties which Enns discusses, that Enns is somehow dealing with issues no one has ever dealt with before, or that conservatives have somehow "locked away evidence". You'll not find any of those sentiments in my review, and Steve's recitation of well-known books and authors don't refute claims that I never made. Neither did I claim that these men were oblivious to the various debates and difficulties in the OT, or that Enns was particularly ground-breaking in his approach to the difficulties. What I did say, and am still saying, is that Enns is to be commended for knowing his audience - he's not a Tubingen liberal speaking to an academic audience. He's a Reformed, conservative evangelical speaking to conservative evangelical students. He realizes (in a way that I think Carson didn't take into account) that he's not talking to "Arians", but to many who have been gorged to excess on apologetic discourses on the timeless, enduring, and heavenly qualities of the Bible and, when confronted with its cultural moorings, are coming to a point of crisis. Characterizing such a demographic as "angry young men" both illustrates and exacerbates the problem Enns is trying to address.

There's more to say, especially about Steve's suggestions about apostolic exegesis (and perhaps about Enns repeated assertions that demonstrate his unwillingness to admit of "errors"), and perhaps I'll do that later. But I should probably end my explanation with a reminder about the mode of communication being utilized here. Blogs, for me, anyway, are somewhere in between an email and an essay, both in their manner of expression and their content. Like an email they are often informal codifications of a person's thoughts, and aren't meant to be taken with the precision of a serious publication. So while they bear certain marks of an essay, with argumentation, critical reflection and even a certain polemical edge, they shouldn't be taken as final pronouncements as much as an invitation for discussion. More importantly, like email, they're not very good reflections of what a person is really like. Steve seems to take me for an unfortunate blend of talent and egomania. I fear that this appraisal may come from taking me even more seriously than he's convinced I take myself. His apparent distaste for my presence at the Boar's Head Tavern, for instance, seems to assume that its very much like a denominational association of some kind rather than an attempt to meet new people, make new friends, and talk about areas of interest. After feeling thoroughly clobbered by his comments it did me some good to remember the potential for distortion refracted by what bloggers write during a few minutes of distraction from the rest of their busy lives.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Who Knew . . .

You scored as Karl Barth. The daddy of 20th Century theology. You perceive liberal theology to be a disaster and so you insist that the revelation of Christ, not human experience, should be the starting point for all theology.

Karl Barth


John Calvin


Friedrich Schleiermacher






Paul Tillich


Charles Finney




Jonathan Edwards


Martin Luther


Which theologian are you?
created with

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"Enns-piration" pt. 2

Last week I gave a brief plug for Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, saying that it provided an essential dimension to the doctrine of inerrancy. His basic thesis is that Biblical revelation comes in the form of enculturated human expression, and that affirming the humanity of Scripture doesn’t negate it’s divine origin – it actually affirms it, because it follows the pattern of Jesus’ own divinity as the incarnate God.

Enns isn’t the first to suggest the incarnation as a theoretical model in which to understand Scripture, but his articulation of it does put him at odds with certain sectors of his own tradition. The book has drawn some criticism, in part from those who remain puzzled that more people aren’t aware of Gleason Archer’s definitive resolution of these issues years ago. Others simply dismiss it on the grounds that the Westminster confession never envisioned the proposal. But it’s also drawn criticism from more notable evangelical stalwarts. In his review, Paul Helm, Emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of London, called the book a superficial theological and epistemological “failure”. Don Carson, in a tripartite review, criticized the book for giving more space to fighting the “docetist” (i.e. the over-emphasis on the divine) than to fighting the Arian (i.e. the over-emphasis on the human). In the end he finds Enns to be decidedly “non-pastoral”. Unfortunately (and ironically) the criticisms are more troubling than anything in the book, because they fail to take seriously both the audience and the pastoral problems which Enns is addressing.

I’m not sure which churches Don Carson has attended in his lifetime, but from the sound of it they are highly sophisticated, gingerly nuanced and impressively level-headed pulpits. Either this is a pleasantly uncanny experience or an intentionally blind optimism. In either case, with statements like “Most of us glory in the fact that God has disclosed himself to us in space-time history, in real words, to real people, in real languages” and “[ANE parallels] should cause no surprise among those who fully recognize how much the biblical revelation is grounded in history” one wonders if Carson has ever been to an average conservative church meeting in his entire life. One of my Sunday school attendees was shocked and horrified at a remark that Jesus’ teaching sprung from His study of the Law and the Prophets, declaring that He didn’t need to “study” because He was God and His teaching was a “direct revelation from God”! A few families left a neighboring church because of their outrage at the preacher’s suggestion that Paul was in any way affected by his surrounding culture.

The fact is that evangelical pulpits typically ram an apologetic agenda through the text of the Old Testament to the degree that the text becomes a side-issue. Maybe I’m in the backwoods of conservative evangelicalism, but I’ve never heard a sermon in Genesis that didn’t comprise your basic “creation vs. evolution” seminar. I’ve never heard about ANE parallels and similarities to ANYTHING in the Law (much less the creation story) coming from the pulpit. Moreover, I’ve never, not once, heard the call to honor the Scripture’s diversity coming from my Sunday School class, and the models for resolving “apparent conflicts” which were held out to me have consistently been the voices of steam-rolling harmonization. What both Carson and Helm seem to miss is that this experience is much more typical than they’d like to admit, and the failure for evangelical scholars to admit it is one of the chief reasons doubt arises in the hearts of young students who have been nourished on the very over-simplifications and polarizations Enns is seeking to correct. In other words, where Carson wants scholarly nuance and fine-tuning in Enns’ characterizations are precisely the points at which most haven’t ever heard such nuance and fine-tuning. And that’s the point of this book. Many of those who would reject the tenents of this book would be equally queasy about the Longman book Carson recommends instead. Though Carson’s first criticism is that Enns doesn’t really understand his audience, the shoe appears to be on the other foot – it’s Carson who doesn’t seem to understand the dissatisfaction of disaffected students who are looking for evangelical scholars to recognize the polarized messages they’re actually hearing in their pulpits and classrooms (a longing he labels “the angry young man syndrome”).

Likewise Helm, who states in the opening lines of his review: “[Enns] writes about the identity and purpose of the Bible by concentrating on the difficulties of interpreting some Old Testament data. This should immediately arouse our suspicions.” Such a statement will provide little comfort for those who are tired of having theological glaze poured over what seem to be real difficulties in actually interpreting the text (the place where we’re supposed to get our theology) - in other words, the audience of this book. It’s no surprise, therefore, to hear these criticisms coming from two systematic theologians. Both Helm and Carson interpret the book as giving “priority” to the human marks of Scripture (which is really the source of Carson’s complaint that “too little time is given to the doctrine of incarnation”; i.e. too little time spent on the divinity side of the analogy) – but such a criticism demonstrates a studied blindness toward exactly where the pendulum actually is in conservative churches today. In their continued fight against encroaching liberalism conservative evangelicals aren't struggling with Arian tendencies – they’re struggling with docetic ones. Perhaps fighting rabid docetism isn’t best suited to the strategy of giving “equal time” to fighting Arianism. Regardless of such a judgment, though, neither Carson nor Helm ever present what an alternative to Enns’ proposal might actually mean. Surely the CONTENT of what is gained in the process of interpretation is the divine Word of God; and certainly the PROCESS of enscripturation is divinely ordered – but in what sense is the mode of expression “divine”? The authors were “born along by the Spirit”, but what “heavenly” qualities should we expect to find in the actual words of Scripture? For all the protest against Enns’ supposed “interpretive naiveté” in regard to Arianism, beyond giving attention to the cultural, historical, and linguistic temporalities of the text, I’m not sure what else is an interpreter is to do.

Enns book really seeks to stimulate the imagination as to how the Bible can be a product of human culture and still be the divine Word of God. His answers are meant to be suggestive, not comprehensive, and though Carson states his criticisms as not “to ask Enns to write an entirely different book”, that, in the end, are what his criticisms amount to. Helm’s review falters under a grosser failure, namely the refusal to reckon with the core of Enns’ vision, which will resonate in the minds of many students – namely that the actual phenomena of Scripture (not merely Scriptural affirmations of its reliability) should be at the bottom floor in formulating our understanding of how Scripture works. Instead, he simply states that “he starts at the wrong end”. That accusation misses the point not only because starting with the phenomena of Scripture IS HIS PROPOSAL, but also because of the degree to which apologetics has defined the agenda in conservative sectors of OT studies, and have fueled the very excesses the book seeks to curb. Both Carson and Helm glibly bypass the most difficult examples of diversity within the OT canon, Carson by offering his own potential harmonization of the less significant examples and Helm by skipping the actual data altogether (how Helm can accuse him of “fideism” and at the same time recommend “staring from dogma instead of difficulties” is beyond me). For these reasons, and a few more from which I will spare you, I believe Inspiration and Incarnation stands up under scrutiny; not because the criticisms are devoid of useful critiques, appropriate cautions or valid suggestions, but because Enns' words, like apples of gold in settings of silver, are provocatively delivered in exactly the right circumstances.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Evy said "No"

I just shaved recently and upon walking out of the watercloset Evy suddenly began violently gagging and swallowing. I can't imagine why.

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Monday, June 05, 2006


I recently finished Peter Enns’ brief introduction to the difficulties of an evangelical doctrine of Scripture presented by the Old Testament. The book is called Inspiration and Incarnation, and as has been pointed out by others, it’s an important read for inerrantists such as myself.

Enns’ basic thesis is that a doctrine of Scripture should arise from the Scriptures themselves. Well, duh. But as you might expect, that recommendation turns out to be much more controversial than it initially sounds, because Enns is concerned not only about conforming our doctrine of Scripture to the Biblical testimony of its authority but to the phenomena of Scripture itself – with all its cultural moorings, rich diversity and strange uses of previous texts. These three issues only become problems in need of creative explanation if one develops expectations of Scripture from outside Scripture – which is precisely Enns’ critique of modern notions of inspiration. The result of such modern formulations is that interpretation becomes an exercise in a rather shifty brand of apologetics – ANE parallels are completely ignored in order to make the Bible appear culturally timeless; texts with genuinely different perspectives are forcibly crammed into a homogenized goo in order to make the Bible appear seamlessly harmonized; the hopelessly unscientific method with which Scripture uses Scripture is either dressed up as historical-grammatical exegesis or unconvincingly privileged as a non-repeatable apostolic privilege – all from a desire to rid the Bible from any signs of being a genuinely human (as well as divine) production.

The answer to such distortion, says Enns, is to see the written Word of God functioning according to the same nature as the incarnate Word of God – a perfect symbiosis of humanity and divinity. Jesus perfectly revealed the Father not as a hovering wraith or Docetic illusion, but as a genuine 1st C. Jewish man. He spoke the language, lived and participated within ancient Palestinian culture, and displayed all of the creaturely dependence requisite to humanity. He wasn’t a god just pretending to be a man, as so many seem to believe (and then wonder why they’re not moved by the stories of suffering and crucifixion in the Gospels). He was God anchored in time, culture and finite dependence upon the Father. The written Word of God should be understood as revealing the Father in the same way. As evangelicals continue to thrash about over theories of inspiration, some are drowning and others are barely treading water while the actual content of the Bible – in all of its varied and richly enculturated glory – circles the drain. In the next week or so, as I have time, I’ll be posting an evaluation of some of the criticisms I’ve read (from the likes of such Reformed luminaries as Paul Helm). In the meantime, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament is required reading.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Blue Raja at the BHT

I'll probably still make the odd post here, too.

I know. Shut up.