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 naivetĂ©” 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.


Even So... said...

The truth is that, in all such "debates" as these, we tend to jutify our polemic with the "well if you do that, then this" slippery slope deal. But the truth is the truth, no matter the consequences, and no, the whole house does not need to come tumbling down. It just means we have to get to work, refining or even redefining our positions, instead of just parroting others.

Perhaps if we weren't so uptight, we might find that these type of things could lead to a more, not less harmonious view on other important doctrines, but sadly, this will not be the case, I'm afraid.

In such cases we need to be pilgrims, not parrots.

Tethered to orthodoxy, yes, but not so much that it becomes the hangman's noose.

Prof. David Opderbeck said...

Great review -- Enns' book, I believe, is exactly what we need just now -- particularly, as you note, those of us in "typical" evangelical conservative churches.

TheBlueRaja said...

Even So . . .,

I think the issue is that people don't like to hear one side of the story to the exclusion of the other UNLESS it's the part THEY'RE most excited about. No one seems to complain about an over-emphasis on the divinity of Scripture when equal time isn't given to its humanity (unless of course someone complains of the over-emphasis on its divinity; then some cursory "of course, but . . ." statements are in order).

Prof. Opderbeck,

Thanks! As I said before, I think Carson's cautions and recommendations were in some instances very helpful - but what struck me about his review was that he didn't seem to be describing the "typical" evangelical church.