Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Sin of Certainty

I was asked to comment on this very sympathetic review of a book Peter Enns published last year:

In the 19th century, Enns says, Christian orthodoxy absorbed four body blows, or “uh-oh moments,” within the span of 30 years.

To begin with, challenges to the Christian faith antedate the 19C. Take Isaac Newton's defense of Biblical chronology:

The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (London: 1728)

Consider 17-18C defenses of the Noah's flood:

William Whiston, A New Theory of the Earth (1696)

Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1690):

Edmund Halley, "Some Considerations about the Cause of the Universal Deluge":

I have a fat volume on Genesis by Cotton Mather (Biblia Americana: Volume 1: Genesis. Reiner Smolinski, Ed. Baker Academic, 2010) which engages the intellectual crosswinds of the day. 

Consider patristic-era attacks on the historicity of Scripture by Celsus and Porphyry, as well as medieval Muslim attacks on the historicity of Scripture (e.g. Ibn Hazm).

Is Enns really that ignorant of church history? It's not though it was smooth sailing for Christianity until the 19C. There's been fierce intellectual opposition at various times in church history. The Christian faith is a battle-hardened faith. 

First came On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, a thesis that called in question the biblical account of human origins. 

It's true that evolution poses a challenge to the Christian faith. However, the theory of evolution is scientifically controversial. Even within the evolutionary guild, there are skeptics regarding the standard mechanisms. 

In addition, evolutionary scientists typically espouse methodological atheism. It's not just the scientific evidence, but a philosophical filter.  

At the same time, scientists were discovering that the universe is infinitely older and more expansive than the biblical narrative would have us believe.

i) That wasn't at the same time. The New Geology antedated Darwin. 

ii) In what respect is the universe "more expansive" than the biblical narrative would have us believe? Of course, the Bible was originally addressed to an audience with no knowledge of modern astronomy. They didn't and couldn't have our sense of scale. But how is that a challenge to the Christian faith?

iii) It's true that mainstream science presents a challenge to traditional views regarding the age of the universe. One response, championed by Philip Henry Gosse, as well as young-earth creationists, is to defend the traditional interpretation. Another response is to concede mainstream dating and question the traditional interpretation. 

There's nothing 19C about the idea of challenging traditional interpretations. The Protestant Reformation challenged medieval interpretations of the Bible. Indeed, challenged the medieval hermeneutic. 

Then archaeologists discovered documents from cultures older than the Bible and concluded that biblical narratives from Noah and the flood to the shape of biblical law were borrowed and adapted from Israel’s neighbors. This speculation called the direct inspiration of the Old Testament into question.

i) That there was an independent flood account was already known to Josephus, church fathers, and later Greek historians via Berosus (c. 239 BC). So there was nothing essentially revolutionary about unearthing the Gilgamesh Epic. Moreover, why not view that as corroborative evidence for the Biblical account?

ii) I presume Enns is alluding to the Code of Hammurabi. That raises several issues:

Even if we grant that the Mosaic law is to some degree indebted to the Code of Hammurabi, that's not the same thing as uncritical borrowing. For instance, David Wright argues for the literary dependence of the Mosaic Law on the Code of Hammurabi: Inventing God's Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi (Oxford, 2009). However, there's a catch. He considers the Mosaic law to be a polemical response to Hammurabi's code and a replacement for Hammurabi's code. As another scholar notes, the laws of Hammurabi "preserve the status quo and favor those who have wealth and power. This is contrary to the equality described in many of the biblical laws and to the priority given to the poor and vulnerable" R. Hess, The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction (Baker 2016), 69.

Conversely, there are scholars who are very skeptical regarding arguments for the alleged literary dependence of the Mosaic law on the laws of Hammurabi. For instance:

iii) Moreover, Enns completely disregards ongoing archeological confirmation for the OT and the NT. 

Then German academics started digging around in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). These documents, they concluded, were clearly the work of several authors and were probably cut and pasted into their present form during the Babylonian captivity.

That's armchair speculation rather than evidence. Moreover, it's ridiculous. For instance:

I was trained simultaneously in higher criticism and biblical archaeology without at first realizing that the two points of view were mutually exclusive…In the eleventh tablet I could not  help noting that the Babylonian account [Gilgamesh Epic] of the construction of the Ark contains the specifications in deter much like the Hebrew account of Noah's Ark. At the same time, I recalled that the Genesis description is ascribe to P of Second Temple date, because facts and figures such as those pertaining to the Ark are characteristic of the hypothetical Priestly author. What occurred to me was that if the Genesis account of the Ark belonged to P on such grounds, the Gilgamesh Epic account of the Ark belonged to P on the same grounds–which is absurd. Cyrus Gordon, "Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit." Christianity Today 4 (1959 November 23), 131.

Gordon was a secular Jew rather than a "fundamentalist". 

Then, in America at least, the plain reading of scripture failed to answer the slavery question. With abolitionists and pro-slavery preachers using holy writ to bolster their positions it became difficult to argue that God’s word spoke with one voice.

Surely he's kidding. On the one hand there've always been disputes over the interpretation of Scripture, stretching back to Second Temple Judaism. On the other hand, mere existence of disagreement doesn't imply that both sides have equally good arguments.

According to Enns, 19th-century Christians doubled down on certainty, because they were children of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation that replaced the authority of the Church with the authority of Scripture.

That's a gross oversimplification. There is no single school of Protestant epistemology. To take a few examples, you have figures like Locke and Butler who stress probability. You have Scottish Common Sense Realism (e.g. Thomas Reid). You have the dispute between Warfield and Bavinck on the nature of apologetics. For instance:

Once again, is Enns that ignorant of church history?

Professor Enns is the product of a very conservative corner of American evangelicalism and therefore he managed to avoid any serious encounter with agnosticism, atheism, non-Christian religions or the physical sciences until he did doctoral work at Harvard in the early 1990s. He was surprised to learn that most of the non-Christians he encountered were genuinely nice people. He also discovered that his Jewish professors in biblical Hebrew didn’t read the ancient texts like the Adam and Eve narratives in Genesis the way Enns had learned to read them.

That might explain his reaction. But everyone is not as naive as he was. 

Returning to Westminster Theological Seminary (his alma mater) as a professor, Enns attempted, gingerly at first, to loosen things up a bit. Everything was fine at first, but when the professor drafted a peace treaty between Charles Darwin and Christian orthodoxy things got ugly fast. 

To my knowledge, that's highly inaccurate. It's a combination of things that got him into hot water. Student complaints. The editorial direction in which he took the WTJ. And his Inspiration and Incarnation.  

His fellow professors were supportive, but the administration tightened the screws until Enns had no choice to resign.

That's inaccurate. He was given tenure by a split vote: 12-8. 

“These experiences have drawn me out of my safe haven of certainty and onto a path of trusting God — not trusting God that my thinking is correct or soon would be, but trusting God regardless of how certain I might feel.”

i) The basic problem with his position is that trust requires a foundation of knowledge. Trust is a combination of knowledge and ignorance. You exercise rational trust when you rely on a source of information for claims you can't directly verify. Because you have evidence that your source of information is reliable, you view it as a trustworthy source of information concerning claims for which you otherwise lack direct evidence. 

What God does Enns trust in? What's his source of information? Clearly not biblical theism. From what I can tell, he regards the OT as pious fiction. He rejects the inerrancy of the Gospels. And he rejects the inerrancy of Jesus. By his lights, the Gospels are inerrant records about an errant Christ. 

ii) In addition, he only regards certainty as a sin when certainty is vested in biblical revelation. He's certain the Bible is fundamentally mistaken on many issues. He's certain the theory of evolution is true. 

“The idea that the Creator of heaven and Earth, with all their beauty, wonder, and mystery, was at the same time a supersized Bible thumping preacher, obsessed with whether our thoughts were all in place and ready to condemn us to eternity to hell if they weren’t, made no sense—even though that was my operating (though unexamined) assumption as long as I could remember.”

It's feeblemindedness that some people find this comparison plausible. God is too big to be interested in the details of his creation. How does the conclusion follow from the premise? The bigger the God, the greater his mastery of detail. 

I'll finish my quoting two Bible commentators, one from the 17C, another from the 18C, to illustrate how Christian intellectuals before the 19C grappled with "scientific" objections to Noah's flood.

Matthew Poole (17C):

1. That the differing kinds of beasts and birds, which unlearned men fancy to be innumerable, are observed by the learned, who have particularly searched into them, and written of them, to be little above three hundred, whereof the far greatest part are but small; and many of these which now are thought to differ in kind, in their first original were but of one sort, though now they be so greatly altered in their shape and qualifies, which might easily arise from the diversity of their climate and food, and other circumstances, and from the promiscuous conjunctions of those lawless creatures. 

2. That the brute creatures, when they were enclosed in the ark, where they were idle, and constantly under a kind of horror and amazement, would be contented with far less provisions, and those of another sort than they were accustomed to, and such as might lie in less room, as hay, and the fruits of the earth. God also, who altered their natures, and made the savage creatures mild and gentle, might by the same powerful providence moderate their appetites, or, if he pleased, have increased their provision whilst they did eat it, as afterwards Christ did by the loaves. So vain and idle are the cavils of wanton wits concerning the incapacity of the ark for the food of so many beasts. 

3. That supposing the ravenous creatures did feed upon flesh, here is also space enough and to spare for a sufficient number of sheep, for their food for a whole year, as upon computation will easily appear; there being not two thousand sheep necessary for them, and the ark containing no less than four hundred and fifty thousand cubits in it.

The fountains of the great deep, i.e. of the sea, called the deep, Job 38:16, Job 38:30,Job 41:31, Psalm 106:9; and also of that great abyss, or sea of waters, which is contained in the bowels of the earth. For that there are vast quantities of waters there, is implied both here and in other scriptures, as Psalm 33:7 2 Peter 3:5; and is affirmed by Plato in his Phaedrus, and by Seneca in his Natural Questions, 3.19, and is evident from springs and rivers which have their rise from thence; and some of them have no other place into which they issue themselves, as appears from the Caspian Sea, into which divers rivers do empty themselves, and especially that great river Volga, in such abundance, that it would certainly drown all those parts of the earth, if there were not a vent for them under ground; for other vent above ground out of that great lake or sea they have none. Out of this 

deep therefore, and out of the sea together, it was very easy for God to bring such a quantity of waters, as might overwhelm the earth without any production of new waters, which yet he with one word could have created. So vain are the cavils of atheistical antiscripturists in this.

Profane wits pretend this to be impossible, because of the vast height of divers mountains. But, 

1. This cannot be thought impossible by any man that believeth a God; to whom it was as easy to bring forth a sufficiency of water, for this end, as to speak a word. And if we acknowledge a miracle of the Divine power and providence here, it is no more than even heathens have confessed in other cases. 

2. Peradventure this flood might not be simply universal over the whole earth, but only over all the habitable world, where either men or beasts lived; which was as much as either the meritorious cause of the flood, men’s sins, or the end of it, the destruction of all men and beasts, required. And the or that whole heaven may be understood of that which was over all the habitable parts of it. And whereas our modern heathens, that miscall themselves Christians, laugh at the history of this flood upon this and the like occasions, as if it were an idle romance; they may please to note, that their predecessors, the ancient and wiser heathens, have divers of them acknowledged the truth of it, though they also mixed it with their fables, which was neither strange nor unusual for them to do. Lactantius appeals to the heathens of his age concerning it. Nay, there is not only mention of the flood in general, but also of the dove sent out of the ark, in Plutarch, and Berosus, and Abydenus. And the memory of this general flood is preserved to this day among the poor ignorant Indians, who asked the Christians who invaded their land, whether they ever heard of such a thing, and whether another flood was to be expected? And the Chinese writers relate, that but one person, whom they call Puoncuus, with his family, were saved in the flood, and all the rest perished.

John Gill (18C):

That there was such a flood of waters brought upon the earth, is confirmed by the testimonies of Heathen writers of all nations; only instead of Noah they put some person of great antiquity in their nation, as the Chaldeans, Sisithrus or Xisuthrus; the Grecians and Romans, Prometheus or Deucalion, or Ogyges. Josephus F26 says, all the writers of the Barbarian or Heathen history make mention of the flood and of the ark; and he produces the authorities of Berosus the Chaldean, and Hieronymus the Egyptian, who wrote the Phoenician antiquities, and Mnaseas, and many others, and Nicolaus of Damascus: and there are others that Eusebius F1 makes mention of, as Melo, who wrote against the Jews, yet speaks of the deluge, at which a man with his sons escaped; and Abydenus the Assyrian, whose account agrees with this of Moses that follows in many things; as do also what Lucian F2 and Ovid F3 have wrote concerning it, excepting in the name of the person in whose time it was: and not only the Egyptians had knowledge of the universal deluge, as appears from the testimony of Plato, who says F4, that an Egyptian priest related to Solon, out of their sacred books, the history of it; and from various circumstances in the story of Osiris and Typhon, which name they give to the sea, and in the Chaldee language signifies a deluge; and here the Targum of Onkelos renders the word by "Tuphana"; and the Arabs to this day call the flood "Al-tufan"; but the Chinese also frequently speak of the delugeF5; and even it is said the Americans of Mexico and Peru had a tradition of it F6; and the Bramines also F7, who say that 21,000 years ago the sea overwhelmed and drowned the whole earth, excepting one great hill, far to the northward, called "Biudd"; and that there fled thither one woman and seven men (whose names they give, see ( Genesis 7:13 ) ) those understanding out of their books that such a flood would come, and was then actually coming, prepared against the same, and repaired thither; to which place also went two of all sorts of creatures (see ( Genesis 6:19 ) ) herbs, trees, and grass, and of everything that had life, to the number in all of 1,800,000 living souls: this flood, they say, lasted one hundred and twenty years (see ( Genesis 6:3 ) ) five months and five days; after which time all these creatures that were thus preserved descended down again, and replenished the earth; but as for the seven men and woman, only one of them came down with her, and dwelt at the foot of the mountain.

according to the Chaldean account by Berosus F24, it was predicted that mankind would be destroyed by a flood on the fifteenth of the month Daesius, the second month from the vernal equinox: it is very remarkable what Plutarch F25 relates, that Osiris went into the ark the seventeenth of Athyr, which month is the second after the autumnal equinox, and entirely agrees with the account of Moses concerning Noah.

 ``there are large lakes, (as Seneca observes F26,) which we see not, much of the sea that lies hidden, and many rivers that slide in secret:''
so that those vast quantities of water in the bowels of the earth being pressed upwards, by the falling down of the earth, or by some other cause unknown to us, as Bishop Patrick observes, gushed out violently in several parts of the earth, where holes and gaps were made, and where they either found or made a vent, which, with the forty days' rain, might well make such a flood as here described: it is observed {a}, there are seas which have so many rivers running into them, which must be emptied in an unknown manner, by some subterraneous passages, as the Euxine sea; and particularly it is remarked of the Caspian sea, reckoned in length to be above one hundred and twenty German leagues, and in breadth from east to west about ninety, that it has no visible way for the water to run out, and yet it receives into its bosom near one hundred rivers, and particularly the great river Volga, which is of itself like a sea for largeness, and is supposed to empty so much water into it in a year's time, as might suffice to cover the whole earth, and yet it is never increased nor diminished, nor is it observed to ebb or flow: so that if, says my author, the fountains of the great deep, or these subterraneous passages, were continued to be let loose, without any reflux into them, as Moses supposes, during the time of the rain of forty days and forty nights; and the waters ascended but a quarter of a mile in an hour; yet in forty days it would drain all the waters for two hundred and forty miles deep; which would, no doubt, be sufficient to cover the earth above four miles high: and by the former, "the windows" or flood gates of heaven, or the "cataracts", as the Septuagint version, may be meant the clouds, as Sir Walter Raleigh F2 interprets them; Moses using the word, he says, to express the violence of the rains, and pouring down of waters; for whosoever, adds he, hath seen those fallings of water which sometimes happen in the Indies, which are called "the spouts", where clouds do not break into drops, but fall with a resistless violence in one body, may properly use that manner of speech which Moses did, that the windows or flood gates of heaven were opened, or that the waters fell contrary to custom, and that order which we call natural; God then loosened the power retentive in the uppermost air, and the waters fell in abundance: and another writer upon this observes F3, that thick air is easily turned into water; and that round the earth there is a thicker air, which we call the "atmosphere"; which, the further it is distant from the earth, the thinner it is, and so it grows thinner in proportion, until it loseth all its watery quality: how far this may extend cannot be determined; it may reach as far as the orb of the moon, for aught we know to the contrary; now when this retentive quality of waters was withdrawn, Moses tells us, that "the rain was upon the earth forty days" and "forty nights": and therefore some of it might come so far as to be forty days in falling; and if we allow the rain a little more than ten miles in an hour, or two hundred and fifty miles in a day, then all the watery particles, which were 10,000 miles high, might descend upon the earth; and this alone might be more than sufficient to cover the highest mountains.

even it may be allowed fifteen cubits high; nor will this furnish out so considerable an objection to the history of the flood as may be thought at first sight, since the highest mountains are not near so high as they are by some calculated. Sir Walter Raleigh allows thirty miles for the height of the mountains, yet the highest in the world will not be found to be above six direct miles in height. Olympus, whose height is so extolled by the poets, does not exceed a mile and a half perpendicular, and about seventy paces. Mount Athos, said to cast its shade into the isle of Lemnos (according to, Pliny eighty seven miles) is not above two miles in height, nor Caucasus much more; nay, the Peak of Teneriff, reputed the highest mountain in the world, may be ascended in three days (according to the proportion of eight furlongs to a day's journey), which makes about the height of a German mile perpendicular; and the Spaniards affirm, that the Andes, those lofty mountains of Peru, in comparison of which they say the Alps are but cottages, may be ascended in four days' compass.


  1. //He was surprised to learn that most of the non-Christians he encountered were genuinely nice people.//

    I was reading Ron Dreher's blog the other day and some ex-Christian left a comment to this effect. He went to work in the secular world after college (I presume a Christian college) and the gay folks were nicer than the Christians from his church. So the doctrine of original sin or the fallenness of man must be wrong or something.

    It was a passing comment but it struck me as noteworthy and I'm seeing this again.

    I have nothing against my YEC brethren, and if they're correct that would be cool (I'm OEC myself) but it seems that complete inflexibility on this issue hurts people who see the evidence for an older earth. I'm not sure why they go and reject everything instead of pondering maybe their YEC interpretation was faulty and not the Bible itself.

    On another note, WTS seems to have confirmed their decision pretty well.

    1. "I'm not sure why..."

      Well, why not go and find out why? There's mountains of responsible, serious YEC literature out there explaining the reasoning in detail.

    2. I'm not sure what you are saying here. Everyone is aware there are YEC defenses for their positions. Does a YEC person believe that any other interpretation of Genesis 1 is so wacky that any contrary evidence to the age of the Earth means the Bible is fallible?

      I guess so. My point is contrary evidence should rather lead someone to think "hey, maybe my interpretation is faulty. Not the entire Bible."

    3. I think the YEC is the most exegetical; but you are right in that I wish Ken Ham and others were not so strident and dogmatic against the Old Earth Creationist view and Intelligent Design. I think we should use the best arguments from all three views against Naturalistic Darwinian Evolution. (and Biblical & Theological arguments against Theistic Evolution that denies Adam and Eve are historical) I wish that Ken Ham would use the arguments from Design, irreducible complexity, and the moral arguments rather than starting from the age of the earth and the meaning of "day" in Genesis 1. (though I believe that). (which he should have done in debate vs. Bill Nye, and save the age of earth and meaning of "day" for later, or not at all.

      Most of the scholars that I was exposed to in seminary were the old earth/ Days as Epochs view and Framework view of Genesis 1.

      I am reading the 4 views of the Historical Adam (Zondervan, 2013) now; and Denis Lamoureux's "Evolutionary Creation" (another term for Theistic Evolution) - it is interesting. The introduction by Matthew Barrett and Ardel Caneday was an excellent overview.

      I did not think very many Evangelicals who hold to inerrancy exist - who held to Theistic Evolution.
      I wonder if there is a study of how big this group (like BioLogos / Theistic Evolution) is within denominations like the PCUSA.

      Don't PCA and other conservative groups require either YEC or OEC or Gap theory or Sailhamer's view?

  2. Did Enns not interact with unbelievers before he went to Harvard in the 90's? I know a lot of nice unbelievers who are in spiritual darkness. Pete clearly had little knowledge of his own heart if his previously held theology fell apart because he met some genuinely nice non-Christuans.

    WTS did the right thing

  3. Enns himself has really "evolved" a lot, it seems to me. He is much more strident and "liberal" since he left Westminster Seminary.

    This is off the subject, and I may have asked this before, but does Genesis 6 and 7 "every beast alive on the face of the earth" and "everything that creeps on the ground", etc. - Does that require Dinosaurs to be on the ark? Ken Ham seems to teach that it is required.

    It does seem that the creatures mentioned in Job 38-41 are large dinosaurs. (tail like a cedar tree, underbelly of armor, bones of iron and bronze, no sword or spear can harm them, etc.)

    Some have said one of them is about a Hippopotamus, but the Hippo's tail is little and thin.

    But it seems to me that most of the dinosaurs died out before and in the flood, and that a few were kept alive were young, small, for the ark.

    I had never heard of "hominids" until around 1988-1996 when I read about them in Hugh Ross' books during those years.

    Ross calls them "souless hominids"

    Who came up with that and why?

    Are all the scientific forms of dating the age of something, like Carbon 14 discredited, as YEC's say?

    Are there any good articles on that, from a Christian Worldivew?

  4. It is probably important to note that if one corrects his view of the Bible with his experience then he never actually held a higher view of the Bible that would trump experience. In this regard, he was always a liberal cloaked by the secondary views of his Christian upbringing.