Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Interview with Dr. Peter Enns

Dr. Peter Enns is the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He's the author of the NIV Application Commentary on Exodus and contributed to the D.A. Carson edited Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism with his excellent essay on expansions of Scripture. I recently had an email exchange with Dr. Enns, whose most recent book Incarnation and Inspiration: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament I reviewed in three parts (which are available here, here and here). Actually, it might be more accurate to say that I responded to some other reviews - the book in question has raised no small amount of controversy in the Reformed world. Having recognized popularly prevailing gnostic notions of Biblical inspiration, Enns seeks to balance the equation with a robust explanation of Scripture's humanity - not with a view to canceling out it's divine nature, but in the hopes of deriving a nuanced analogy with the incarnate Word of God Himself. In our exchange he kindly agreed to be interviewed for the blog, which I promised my readers I'd reproduce here earlier this month.

Here it is!

Raja: Can you say a few words about the theological tradition that you currently inhabit and why it’s important to you?

Dr. Enns: As a young Christian I was introduced to the Reformed faith quite “accidentally” by stumbling into a PCA church in central Pennsylvania (New Covenant Fellowship in suburban Harrisburg). My fiancĂ©, now wife, Sue and I began attending a Bible Study led by the pastor on Revelation. He was a WTS grad by the name of John Woll who opened up the book for us in fresh and exciting ways (“You mean the locusts aren’t helicopters?!”). That was my introduction to the Reformed Faith: a serious and honest engagement with Scripture, to go where it leads, to see it as an unfolding drama culminating in Christ, and to see how relevant and exciting God’s word is to his people here and now. This remains very important to me as I continue to work toward reflecting Reformed convictions in my own work and everyday journey. Also, what is central to me in faith and life is the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty, his deep love and mercy, and my being given a new life in union with the crucified and risen Christ.

Raja: What are some conscious weaknesses of the tradition which inform your own work?

Dr. Enns: Well, any tradition has weaknesses, since we are all fallen creatures and articulate truth imperfectly. What I greatly admire about the Reformed faith in general is intellectual depth and breadth, which are of great service to the God’s people. But that strength has also been a weakness: when combined with spiritual immaturity it can lead to spiritual pride expressed in an uncharitable or even condescending tone toward other Christians who do not share those convictions or who do not hold them in the same sort of way. I think the Reformed faith needs to be extra careful to reflect Christ’s humility and think of its great tradition as a tool more than a weapon.

Raja: Is there a theological tradition outside your own that you particularly appeciate?

Dr. Enns: I appreciate different traditions for different reasons, and I feel that the various traditions all have things to learn from each other while also offering criticism when necessary. I wouldn’t say there is any one or two that make the top of my list; I try to maintain a posture of open-mindedness toward other Christians while also embracing the tradition to which I have committed myself. C. S. Lewis’s analogy in the preface to Mere Christianity has always struck me as a healthy, mature, Christian outlook. He speaks of Christianity is a grand hall out of which doors open into several rooms. We are not meant to live in the hall for long but to choose the door that we are convinced best reflects the truth. But, as Lewis continues, “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different door and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under order to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”

Raja: Do you think Christian academics are often insensitive to the needs of the Church, and if so, how do you address this in your own writings?

Dr. Enns: I think they certainly can be insensitive, but it may be a bit of a caricature to hold all of us guilty. Still, I had a conversation with Scot McKnight about this not too long ago and he reminded me that, in the not too distant past (before the 1970’s), evangelical academics wrote much more to lay audiences. It was seen as their duty to write books that people not of the academic guild could benefit from. For whatever reason, McKnight detects a shift in the 70’s where establishing oneself in the academy became more of a priority. It is very hard work to combine a life of rigorous academic work and service to the church at large (add to that how highly specialized the various disciplines have become), but we must try to make that happen (McKnight actually pulls this off very well). But to do so means, for most of us, making decisions about what to publish and where. I would also add that part of the insensitivity can stem from academics failing to remember that they are servants above all. Sometimes we think more of what it is we know and the urgency of bringing all of that at once to people who are not prepared to hear it. If we think first, however, of what will be of benefit to others, it may affect the questions we ask and how we go about answering them.

Raja: To what degree does the evangelical debate over modernism and postmodernism in theology enter your discussion of inspiration in Inspiration and Incarnation?

Dr. Enns: I’m not sure how well that distinction captures it, at least not in a strict academic/philosophical sense of the words, but it may be appropriate from a, let’s say, temperamental point of view. For example, I&I is clearly a missional book, and so lines can be drawn to the emerging movement. I would hope, however, that a missional mindset not be exclusively associated with any one movement. (While I was in seminary, I was encouraged to think along missional lines by my professor Harvie Conn, who was quite intentional about a missional hermeneutic throughout his nearly thirty years at Westminster Theological Seminary) Also, my thoughts on inspiration are deeply influenced by what I refer to in my book as an incarnational approach, which was always lurking in the background in my seminary education, and a desire (begun in seminary and augmented in graduate school) to account for how the Bible looks as a function of its historical contexts. It is a bit interesting to me that these two influences are anything but postmodern: Reformed orthodoxy and training in modern biblical studies. Simply studying the Bible is itself an introduction to a missional hermeneutic (Chris Wright’s recent IVP release The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative is a wonderful and timely summation of this notion.)

Raja: Where do you feel that critics have misunderstood you most? What would you say have been the best or most helpful criticisms?

Dr. Enns: I think where the criticism have been most helpful is in pointing out some ambiguities and imprecise (and therefore misleading) aspects of the book. For example, even though I feel I qualify the matter at junctures, I can also see how I can leave the impression that evangelicalism as a whole has been misguided and in need of sweeping correction. I actually say the opposite at the outset and the bibliographies include evangelical authors, but there are a few phrases in the book that fail to make that distinction and have led to understandable confusion. Similarly, the book is not calling for a complete overhaul of Christian doctrine, only a more deliberately positive accounting of its complex human dimension, and how that accounting can influence Christian doctrine. Where I think the book has been most misunderstood is in its missional dimension. I think some critics expect a book that deals with inspiration to have a certain look and use certain vocabulary, and so respond to a book that I actually had no intention to write. Another area where the criticism has been helpful is in helping me articulate more clearly in my own mind where the divide might be among evangelicals, and I think it may have to do with the role historical study plays in how we think about Scripture, or perhaps to what extent historical context will contribute to doctrinal formulations that were made before the serious influx of historical information over the past 150 years or so. That is an exceedingly complex matter to untangle, in my opinion, but it is a task waiting to be done.

Raja: Do you read Christian blogs, and do you see theological blogging as a worthwhile enterprise?

Dr. Enns: If done “right.” Blogs can be helpful if the rhetoric and posturing are toned down. I do not think, however, that the internet is a helpful venue for any sort of really serious theological debate but more of a place for musing and dialog. Debate requires a patience and distance that are not encouraged by the “tyranny of the urgent” inherent on the internet. When we have instant access to others—without the subtleties that accompany a face-to-face meeting—we are more prone to say things that upon further reflection we would likely not say (and email may even be worse). The internet is instant yet impersonal, even anonymous at times. That encourages posturing more than a true meeting of the minds.

Raja: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. Enns: I’m glad the Yankees got Pettitte back, although I hope his back problems are a thing of the past…. Although I will always owe a deep and inexpressible debt of gratitude to “The Simpsons,” it has been losing its edge for some time now, and so “The Office” has become my favorite TV comedy…. I am really hoping I can stick with my workout schedule for more than two months into the new year.


Jonathan Moorhead said...

Raja, thanks for hosting this interview. I think the "Diversity Day" of "The Office" is fitting here.

art said...

The Office is incredible.

Thanks for posting this interview.

Michael F. Bird said...

Great to have ya back posting mate!

J. B. Hood said...
is worth reading as well, free link from his WTJ article.

Even So... said...

Thank you...

the urgency of bringing all of that at once to people who are not prepared to hear it

Debate requires a patience and distance that are not encouraged by the “tyranny of the urgent” inherent on the internet.


Anthony J Stiff said...

Thanks for posting this interview. I was very helped by listening to Pete discuss how the missional nature of his book was missed by some of his readers. A missional book is indeed a different manner of genre than say an inhouse history of interpretations kind of book.

I wish more writers would include a missional quality to their work. Particularly as questions of the intertextual and transmissional aspects of our present text continue to come to the fore in both popular fiction and scholarly interaction. Often times we forget that OT or NT scholarship is a missions field in itself and many of the 'terrible liberals' are in fact people who need the good news of Christ. People who are friends and peers of Pete in the wider domain of OT studies & 2nd Temple studies, he probably shares 'sup' with them from time to time and his ability to witness to them through his publication is one dimension that we as readers miss.

Here's a question no one seems to be asking are critics, effective evangelists to unbelievers in their own guild? If not why? I think this is part of the messy relationship scholarship shares with the church, she must serve the church but she has her own missions field to be contextual unto. I pray that Pete's witness can have a hearing by both the church and the unbelieving scholarly community as well...

(Can you tell I'm a student of his)