Sunday, June 17, 2012

Peter Singer's chaplain

I’ll comment on this post.

I’ve had far too many conversations over the last few years with trained, experienced, and practicing biblical scholars, young, middle aged, and near retirement, working in Evangelical institutions, trying to follow Jesus and use their brains and training to help students navigate the challenging world of biblical interpretation.

Men with brains automatically agree with Enns. Indeed, to agree with Enns is the litmus test of braininess. Only brainless men disagree with Enns.

That’s the way Hume talks about Christians. Only ignorant, barbarous folk believe in miracles. Not educated, enlightened men like Hume–or Enns.

And they are dying inside.

Just two weeks ago I had the latest in my list of long conversations with a well-known, published, respected biblical scholar, who is under inhuman stress trying to negotiate the line between institutional expectations and academic integrity.

You’d think they were drafted to serve against their will. As if they are forced conscripts who have no choice but to follow their marching orders lest they be shot.

His gifts are being squandered. He is questioning his vocation.

As well he should.

His family is suffering. He does not know where to turn.

Shouldn’t he have thought of that before he signed the statement of faith?

I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not.

I wish these stories could be told, but without the names attached, they are worthless. I wish I had kept a list, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have done anyone much good. I couldn’t have used it. Good people would lose their jobs.

I’m getting tired of hearing the same old story again and again. This is madness.

Actually, Enns is the one who sounds like a broken record. How many times has he played this golden oldie?

Folks, we have a real problem on our hands, and everyone has to bear some responsibility. Here’s the familiar scenario. The “best and brightest” students in Evangelical seminaries work hard and are encouraged and aided by their professors to pursue doctoral work.

That’s such a conceited statement. On the one hand, some of the best and brightest don’t pursue a doctorate. Rather, they choose to minister in faithful obscurity in rural or small-town pastorates. On the other hand, some of those in doctoral programs are hardly the brightest, much less the best.

Many wind up going to some of the best research universities in the world. This is a feather in everyone’s cap, and often they are hired back by their Evangelical school or elsewhere in the Evangelical system.

Notice how worldly Enns is. Should that be our ambition? To have a feather in our cap? Is that why Enns went to Harvard? To strut about the barnyard, fluffing his feathers?

Sooner or later, these professors find out that their degree may be valued but their education is not.

There is a problem here. When seminaries favor job applicants with Ivy League degrees, that’s worldly.

During graduate school they begin to see issues from a different perspective–after all, this is what an education does. An education does not confirm what we already know, but exposes us to new things in order to broaden our horizons.

Actually, it can narrow your horizons by constricting your intellectual horizon to the tunnel vision of secular academia.

Once they start teaching, they bring with them the excitement of learning new things, some synthesis of old and new for their students, because they feel such conversations are necessary for intellectual and spiritual health.

Or sometimes they’re just starstruck by the latest academic fad.

But Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening–or perhaps from getting out of hand. Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same intellectual and spiritual path. A strong response is inevitable.

Divinity schools like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale are hardly the gatekeepers of orthodoxy.

This leaves these scholars to ponder how to engage that conversation with their students carefully but with integrity–which is to consign themselves to a life of cognitive dissonance. Either that or they bury their academic and spiritual instincts for fear of losing their jobs.

They’d only fear losing their jobs if they hired themselves out under false pretenses.

This is what happens to the “best and brightest” Evangelicals.

Which is demonstrably false. There are smart liberals and smart conservatives. Smart believers and smart unbelievers. IQ doesn’t select for any particular theology or ideology.

In addition, who’s the best has nothing to do with who’s the brightest. High IQ is just a tool, like technology. It’s not good or bad in itself. Just a matter of how it’s used–for good or ill. High IQ is not a mark of holiness or rectitude. Unsanctified intelligence is not a moral or theological virtue. As Dennis Prager likes to say, most great men aren’t good men and most good men aren’t great men.

I regularly hear the counter-complaint that such cognitive dissonance is their own fault. If they had only towed the line and stuck with the system, they wouldn’t be under this stress.

If they don’t believe it, then they don’t belong there in the first place.

Had these scholars been more mature, more spiritually self-aware, they would not caved in to the unholy nonsense they were hearing in their doctoral programs.

Well put.

Had they been more capable of separating the chaff from the wheat, had they done a better job of plundering the Egyptians rather than imbibing their poison, they would have continued in the straight and narrow.

Well put.

I have heard this many times, but it is gatekeeper propaganda. It is false. The scenario is too common in the history of Evangelicalism to be dismissed like this. It is a cycle repeated generation after generation, but not because there is something deeply flawed about the students.

Of course, you have cycles of apostasy in Bible history. So, indeed, that’s nothing new.

However, the actual pattern is twofold. In every generation, some members lose their faith while others maintain their faith. Likewise, some move from faithfulness to faithlessness while others move from faithlessness to faithfulness. That’s the recurring pattern.

The problem lies, rather, in that the same apologetically driven, and inadequate, answers to perennially difficult questions keep being repeated in the classroom.

Once students leave the environment where such apologetics is valued, they find that the old answers are often inadequate, and in some cases glaringly so.

It’s true that some Christian colleges and seminaries fail to equip their students for the intellectual challenges that lie ahead. They are falling down on the job in that department. Likewise, some pastors think all you need to do is to catechize the youth group.

But having said all that, you can’t expect to learn everything you need to know in three years of seminary. You have to take the initiative. Do your own study. Be a lifelong student.

In addition, Christianity is more than arguments for Christianity. There’s living the Christian faith. Internalizing the Christian faith. You can’t make a steady diet of arguments. You must have a devotional life.

And some matters you just have to take on faith. You’re not going to have prepackaged arguments for everything you ought to believe. And that’s not confined to religion. That’s true for many elementary truths we necessarily take for granted.

Furthermore, challenges to Christian faith aren’t limited to intellectual objections. There’s the emotional wear and tear of life in a sinful world. The “root of bitterness” is a source of apostasy. Festering disappointments. We have hearts as well as heads.

When they return to an Evangelical context, they try to work toward some synthesis to bring old and new into conversation, but too often that very attempt, however gently put forward, is deemed out of bounds. And so, they either keep quiet or look for another job.

It’s no great mystery what the job expectations are going in. There’s usually a public statement of faith. In addition, the interview will also emphasize the institutional standards.

They often feel–and I’ve heard this many times–that they have been lied to by their teachers. I’d like to relay one anecdote. In one seminary I know a former student, now professor, felt ill-prepared by his seminary at the initial stages of his doctoral work. He had gotten straight As in seminary and done stellar work in his language classes. But he was lost in negotiating the new ideas he was encountering and had to do a lot of catching up.

He asked his former professor, now colleague, why he was sent to graduate school with so many gaps in his learning. The answer: “Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.”

I hardly think that’s representative. It’s my impression that many evangelical seminaries do expose their students to higher criticism.

This sad, recurring, generational cycle in Evangelical biblical scholarship is not an indication of the incompetence of the dissenting biblical scholars, too weak or stupid to know not to get too close to the flame, too eager to drink from the wine cellars of unbelieving presuppositions.

Actually, that’s an acute self-diagnosis of Peter Enns.

It is, rather, an indication of the inadequacy of the Evangelical system, where the best Evangelical minds trained in the best research institutions have to make believe they don’t know what they know.

He keeps using this “best and brightest” rubric. Enns is such a snob. He has such unconcealed contempt for ordinary people. Such contempt for folks of average or below average intelligence. Such contempt for the middle class and working class. He’s a theological eugenicist. The Peter Singer of OT scholars.

Finally, no one is preventing liberals from starting their own seminaries. The problem, though, is that liberal seminaries don’t have much to offer.

I mean, why pay a man to tell you that the Bible is unbelievable? Why take out a student loan, sweat a part-time or full-time job while you to go seminary–to listen to professors tell you that the Bible is unethical, unhistorical, unscientific bunk? I mean, you can read that for free by mousing over to many an atheist blog.

Likewise, why get a degree in a book that isn’t true? Why spend the next 50 years of your life preaching from a book you don’t believe? Why learn Greek and Hebrew verbs for a book you think is frequently immoral or absurd?

Why not get something useful like an MBA?

Compare Peter Enns’s self-important attitude with piety of the late Robert Leighton:


  1. Enns' comments about the best and brightest reminded me of a fella I met while I was at Southern Seminary in Louisville. This guy was one of the best and brightest in the MTh. program and was pursuing doctoral work at another school after graduation. However, the best and brightest are not always the most godly. I am not going to go into detail, but I couldn't believe that he had remained at the school.

    I also think, despite his intelligence, that he held ideas because they were considered "academic", and older ideas about theology and scripture were pushed aside as being wrong because they were not critical enough, but it never seemed he understood any of the reasons these older authors said what they did.

    The second point I think can be applied to Enns. In his dialogue with G.K. Beale he claimed to be a presuppositionalist. I about fell out of my chair when I read that, because it is obvious Enns has no idea what he is talking about, and if he can misrepresent Van Til that badly I must ask "what does he do with the bible?"

    Enns "problems" with scripture in the book are answerable, but even if some were not, I could live with not having an answer over becoming apostate. But I am just a common guy, with a common job, and I am not as close to God as biblical scholars.

  2. It sounds like Enns would've chastized Jesus for not having done more to join the Sanhedrin in order to be part of the intellectual elite of the day.

  3. I think Christians considering seminary might do well to read Letters Along the Way (pdf) by D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge.

    It made me wish I could go to seminary.

    Letters like #23, #27, and #28 talk about this notion of academic respectability too.

  4. "You must have a devotional life."

    What do you consider a "devotional life"?

    1. Make significant time each day to go somewhere to pray. Cultivate a habit of thanking God for things that happen in your life. And to do that you should cultivate a habit of being observant. Reflect on God's providence in your life. Use the Bible to interpret God's providence in your life. Mediate on how past events in your life, which may have seemed evil or insignificant that the time, have value in retrospect.