Saturday, April 26, 2008

Theological grifters

Now is a good time to take stock of the latest skirmish in the perennial “battle for the Bible,” with special reference to Peter Enns and his defenders.

1. One charge is that conservative Christians are ducking the tough questions. What’s ironic about this allegation is that it’s wrong on both counts. First of all, when I read a book like I&I, my immediate impression is one of deja vu.

You know the adage that something is so old it’s new. There’s a tendency on the part of many students to assume that if something is new to them, it’s new. And unscrupulous professors will exploit that reaction.

But there’s nothing new about comparative semitics. E. J. Young, the founding OT professor at Westminster was a master of comparative semitics. A number of the faculty at Old Princeton, like Allis, Wilson, and Davis were trained in comparative semitics.

The Enuma elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh were published in the 19C. Isaac Newton’s Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended was published in 1728. Josephus and the church fathers were aware of a Babylonian flood tradition via Berossus. The church fathers also had to contend with attacks on Scripture by pagans like Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate.

There were also scientific challenges to the faith. John Philoponus had to rebut
Aristotelian physics. We tend to forget about this because the science is long forgotten. But today’s scientific objections may be just as obsolete a century from now.

2.Moreover, men like Paul Seely and Peter Enns don’t solve any problems. Rather, they identify certain problems, then capitulate. They take the easy way out.

If they identify an error in Scripture, they attribute that to the “humanity” of Scripture or divine accommodation. But that’s no solution. Rather, that’s an intellectual shortcut.

3.Furthermore, it’s deeply deceptive to suggest that Christians used to believe in Biblical inerrancy because they didn’t know any better, but with mounting evidence to the contrary, we need to revise our traditional dogma.

The truth is just the opposite: thanks to Biblical archaeology, we have far more corroborative evidence for the Bible than earlier Christians enjoyed.

4. Men like Paul Seely and Peter Enns fail to appreciate a Christian’s basic duty to believe whatever God tells him. Not to mention the duty of a seminary professor to defend the word of God.

Someone might object that this begs the question. But remember that this is a debate between professing believers. A debate within the church. Faith in Scripture is a Christian essential. We’re not begging the question as long as this is cast in terms of an intramural debate between fellow Christians.

If, in fact, one side admits that we can no longer take that for granted, then the discussion has shifted to a debate between believers and unbelievers.

Mind you, unbelievers must beg some questions of their own when they attack the Bible.

5.When I speak of Christian duty, I don’t mean to suggest that a Christian perceives the Bible in the same vein as James Barr (to take one example), but act out to act as if those problems don’t exist.

If a Christian sees the same problems, the same way, then his hermeneutical approach is fundamentally flawed.

6.Apropos (5), the number of problems we find in a text depends, to a great extent, on whether we read it with a sympathetic or unsympathetic eye. If you are hostile to the text, if you approach the text searching for errors, then you’ll probably find what you’re looking for.

But that’s largely generated by the reader, not the writing. By a willfully sceptical and antagonistic interpretation of the text.

And this can feed on itself. Men like Seely and Enns don’t find certain parts of Scripture credible. They don’t think these statements are true. They can’t bring themselves to believe it.

Yet they still want to be Christians. So they feel the need to justify their disbelief. In order to justify their disbelief, they must make a case for the errancy of Scripture. They must go out of their way to find errors in Scripture. When given a choice between a sympathetic or unsympathetic reading, they must opt for the least sympathetic reading to prove their point.

I’m not saying that every document is entitled to a sympathetic ear. When we read Mein Kampf or The Protocols of Zion, there’s every reason to read that document in the worst possible light. But that’s a limiting case.

So they pursue a two-step strategy: First, inflict as much damage as they can on the traditional position to make room for their own. Second, introduce their own position as way to solve the problem they created.

It’s like a business partnership between an arsonist and fire insurance salesman. The arsonist drums up business for the insurance salesman. He then gets kickbacks for his support services. Paul Seely and Peter Enns are theological grifters.

I don’t mean they’re insincere. But by convincing themselves that Scripture is errant, they now have a vested interest to protect. Ironically, they have a stake in Scriptural errancy. That’s a paradoxical position for a professing believer to back himself into. But it happens.

It’s morbidly fascinating to see how determined they are to find something wrong with Scripture. Something they can’t believe in. It’s as if their life depended on it.

Their theory of inspiration isn’t regulated by the self-witness of Scripture. Rather, it’s regulated by the sliding scale of what they’re prepared to believe—or disbelieve, as they case may be. They adjust Scripture to their faith, rather than adjusting their faith to Scripture. The rule of faith becomes a sliderule.

And they want to make recruits. That contributes to their sense of self-justification.

It’s like watching a castaway bore a hole in the bottom of his lifeboat. If it doesn’t leak, he’ll make it leak. As the sharks are circling, he’s busy drilling a hole in the lifeboat. He then invites everyone to hop into his sinking lifeboat. Thanks, but no thanks!

There’s a fundamental difference between asking questions because you want an answer which will enable you to better understand and trust the Scriptures—a difference between that and questioning the Bible because you want a reason to disbelieve the Scriptures.

The word of life is a very precious thing. Hundreds of millions of men and women have lived and died without the word of life to guide them here-below or guide them into the hereafter. They lived and died in darkness, and they passed into outer darkness. They lived like animals—looking ahead, but never above. They never knew what hit them. Sleepwalking through life, to wake up in hell.

The word of life is a priceless gift, to be treasured and cherished. Without this map we are doomed to wander in circles until we drop and die and gather flies.

7.Finally, I’m going to repost some remarks I made in answer to a supporter of Enns. He initiated a discussion, but he apparently broke it off. So I’ll rescue my remarks from the combox and post them here.



“Or, do you mean 'narrative compression' in a way that you still hold that inerrancy requires, historically, both Jesus and the crowd answered the question during this interaction---and Mark and Matthew each chose to write about only one of them answering the question?”

I don’t think an ancient reader expected a historian to reproduce verbatim everything that was said, by whom and to whom. I think an ancient reader understood that a historian will frequently speak in his own voice even when he’s speaking on behalf of others.

A narrator often assumes that role. And in the gospels, that role can operate at more than one level. There is the writer of the gospel, who is the narrator for his own audience. And he, in turn, will sometimes relay what other speakers said to their audience.

In telling a parable (Mt 21; Mk 12), Jesus assumes the role of a narrator. He’s a storyteller. As such, he’s a spokesman for other parties. An ancient reader would understand that convention. And Matthew is a narrator of the other narrators whom his narrative includes.

His representation would only be erroneous if he claimed to be quoting someone verbatim, or if the point he was making was to identify who said what when and where.

“It appears as though you adopt a fairly standard position on this, Matthew altered his source (Mark) for theological reasons.”

That oversimplifies my explanation. I’m not driving a wedge between theology and historicity. It’s not as if Mark has a low Christology while Mathew has a high Christology, and Matthew is trying to promote the Christ of faith at the expense of the Jesus of history.

There are no isolated facts. Taking a fact out of context can be just as misleading as an outright falsehood.

That’s what slick lawyers do. Ask the witness a skewed question, then arbitrarily limit how much information the witness is allowed to furnish.

The answer may be narrowly correct, but because the answer was taken out of context, it might as well be a lie.

The gospels writers knew more than their audience. In addition, the gospel writers also had to be selective in what they said. They couldn’t write down everything they knew. It’s therefore incumbent on the gospel writers to contextualize certain events or statements.

That isn’t a departure from factuality. Rather, that’s presenting a fact in its proper context, so that a reader, who wasn’t there to see and hear the “uncut version,” won't form a misimpression of what a speaker meant. That’s why Mark translates Jewish terms for his Roman audience. That’s why John punctuates his gospel with editorial asides. That’s why Luke may substitute a dynamic equivalent which is more intelligible to his Gentile audience.

It would be inaccurate to report raw, isolated facts—for the words and events weren’t discrete words and events, but meaningful words and events—the significance of which lies in their continuity with other words and events.

Historical reality is a continuum. But a historian can’t reproduce the entire continuum. He must excerpt the continuum. And, when he does so, he needs to supply enough context so that his excerpt ought not foster a false impression. He needs to give his reader the sense of the sense data.

“Or, does this mean that you see everything recorded between Mark and Matthew as having been said and that Matthew chose to relay different parts of that historical exchange than Mark.”

Depends on what you mean by “having been said.” I don’t think gospel writers make up statements whole cloth. But they summarize and paraphrase.

I’m not a positivist. I’m not Harold Lindsell—although I respect his exposé.

As to Stonehouse and E.J. Young, this isn’t necessarily a different theory of what inerrancy allows or disallows. Rather, the difference may simply be due to the fact that Stonehouse was a NT scholar who specialized in the Synoptic Gospels while Young was an OT scholar commenting on a passage in the NT.

I’d add that I’m not really interested in casting this debate in terms of Reformed tradition. Because the faculty at WTS are sworn to uphold the WCF, disciplinary action will be framed in those terms.

But I’m not interested in exegeting the WCF or debating the hermeneutical continuities and discontinuities in the history of WTS. That’s a necessary discussion for purposes of disciplinary action at WTS. For it’s a contractual question. Is Enns in breach of contract, by violating a condition of employment?

I don’t have to adjudicate that essentially legal issue. And I don’t care about tradition for tradition’s sake, even if it’s Reformed tradition. The correct formulation of inerrancy doesn’t turn on that institutional dispute.



“I am suspicious that you bring up these points simply to guard inerrancy.”

If you suspect my motives, then I’m the wrong person to ask about my motives.

“You can use your understanding of how ancient authors worked to make it just about impossible to find an error.”

Is it your objective of find an error in Scripture?

“But, will you use consistently apply your understandings of ancient genres and writing-conventions to all of the Bible, even the parts that do not seem to have issues in them?”

If my motive is to safeguard inerrancy, then how would my understanding of ancient literary genres and literary conventions be threatened by parts of Scripture that don’t even pose an apparent challenge to inerrancy?

“Also, if you read EJ Young and then Ned Stonehouse on the issue in question carefully, they do very much seem to come with differing understandings of what inerrancy does or does not allow.”

i) I’m not especially interested in that frame of reference. I think it’s introduced into the discussion, in large part, because it goes to the tactical and intramural debate over whether Enns is a true heir to Machen and Old Princeton, &c.

While that’s a natural frame of reference in the current debate over the future direction of the seminary, it’s too parochial to interest me. Tradition is not my frame of reference.

ii) I do think it’s quite possible that Stonehouse was a more sensitive exegete than Young. Young was a tremendous scholar, but not the most insightful interpreter.

“You seem to assume that the Bible being God’s Word means inerrancy.”

I think that’s a valid inference. The identity of the Bible with the Word of God implicates the inerrancy of Scripture inasmuch as whatever God says is truthful and trustworthy.

However, that’s not the only argument for inerrancy. There’s the self-witness of Scripture, and its bearing on the truthfulness of Scripture.

“If it is possible to explain or to understand parts of the Bible in ways that line up with a nuanced inerrancy point of view, by definition such an explanation is to be preferred to an understanding that does not so understand said part of the Bible.”

That’s correct, but that definition also flows from the self-understanding of Scripture.

“But I do not think that the Bible being God’s word means that it must be inerrant in the more traditional sense.”

I haven’t seen you define what you mean by inerrancy in the “traditional” sense—although you may have done so elsewhere.

“The point at issue is if the Bible being God’s Word means that it is inerrant in the traditional sense or if the Bible being God’s Word means it might look different.”

You’re assuming that if Scripture is inerrant, it would look inerrant. I don’t share that assumption. It’s quite possible for Scripture to appear errant even though it’s inerrant.

An author leaves many things unsaid. He takes for granted a shared understanding between himself and his audience. The audience is expected to fill in the gaps based on common knowledge.

But what was common knowledge to the original audience isn’t common knowledge to a modern reader. So some things may appear errant to a modern reader that wouldn’t appear errant to the original reader, with his background knowledge.

“This makes inerrancy a hermeneutical guide for you.”

That objection cuts both ways. If a commenter thinks the Bible is inerrant, but the Bible is really errant, then that will skew his interpretation at certain points.

If, however, a commentator thinks the Bible is errant, but the Bible is really inerrant, then that, too, will skew his interpretation at certain points.

So your errantist grid creates its own hermeneutical circle.

“Since I do not think the Bible being God’s Word means it must be inerrant in the traditional sense, then I find the hermeneutical principle associated with it unhelpful. It automatically orients our approach to Scripture with a set of assumptions and questions that, from my point of view, are extra-textual and un-Scriptural.”

Once again, that cuts both ways. It’s not just a conservative thing. You’ll remember Bultmann’s admonition that there’s no such thing as exegesis shorn of presuppositions.

I approach the Bible as a Christian. To be a Christian is to have certain theological commitments, not least of which involve a Christian view of Scripture.

I don’t regard that precommitment as an intellectual vice. It would only be a vice if the Christian faith is false.

“If one assumes that all the propositional teachings of Scripture must cohere in a logically systematic way or that no texts can be understood in a way that makes them not harmonizable, then one defines ahead of time what the Bible is allowed to say.”

i) If that’s what you mean by a hermeneutical guide, then you’re characterization of my position is mistaken. I don’t assume that one text must be harmonizable with another.

We only have access to the end-product of the process. We don’t know what a Bible writer brought *to* the process. We know what he left in, but not what he left out.

Since we lack independent access to the totality, we lack a larger frame of reference for harmonizing one text with a parallel text. Although we can make an educated guess, there may well be occasions when we can’t abstract a common sequence from text A and text B, then drop the unique elements of text A and text B into the empty slots.

The narratives of Scripture weren’t put together to be taken apart. It’s not as though the narrator left empty spaces waiting to be penciled in by a modern literary critic.

So there may well be occasions when, in principle as well as practice, we can’t harmonize two texts with each other. In that sense, I don’t bring a harmonistic agenda to the interpretation of scripture.

ii) However, I do believe that, in principle, it is possible two harmonize two parallels texts with the underlying event which they narrate. At that level, harmonization must be possible if the text is a truthful representation of the event.

iii) Mind you, this doesn’t mean that a Bible writer is like a court stenographer who transcribes everything a speaker said, or a security camera that registers everything that fell within the viewfinder.

For example, a Bible writer, in reporting a later event, will sometimes use literary allusions in his description which trigger associations with an earlier event, reported in Scripture. He will do that to draw attention to historical parallels.

iv) When, however, you deny that Biblical propositions always cohere in a logically systematic way, that’s a a euphemistic way of saying they contradict each other.

v) As to not allowing the Bible to speak for itself, this objection is self-delusive. Generally, modern readers deny inerrancy because they are approaching the sacred text with a modernistic set of assumptions. For example, if they think that scripture is errant because it contradicts science, that value-judgment is extra-textual. It mirrors the cultural conditioning of a modern, Western reader.

So they are not hearing the text with the ears of the original author and his target audience. It doesn’t speak to them (the modern audience) the way it was intended to be heard.

It’s not as if a Bible writer prefaces his “thus saith the Lord” with a disclaimer to the effect that what he is saying may not be true. A Bible writer intends to speak the truth.

If, in your judgment, he spoke falsely, then your judgment runs counter to his self-understanding. You’re the one who is not allowing him to speak truthfully. He meant one thing, but you construe his meaning to be at variance with the facts. That’s the way it looks to you, but that’s not the way looks to him.

Therefore, you are unconsciously superimposing an appearance on Scripture which is not how Scripture appears to itself.

“Again, if a traditional conception of inerrancy is un-Scriptural, then this hermeneutical position inhibits our reading of the Bible.”

No, what inhibits our reading of Scripture is if we’re unable to identify with the viewpoint of Scripture.

“In many ways your ‘more nuanced’ approach (see your comment on how you are not like Harold Lindsel) functions to make it more difficult to challenge your views on inerrancy.”

You betray a schizophrenic attitude towards Lindsell and Young. On the one hand, you fault them for their stilted view of Scripture. On the other hand, you fault me for my more “nuanced” view of Scripture.

So you seem to think that the “traditional” theory of inspiration is, in fact, the correct theory. The problem is that it’s been applied to the wrong book.

If the Bible were inerrant, then it would “behave” the way the “traditional” theory predicts. Since it doesn’t behave that way, the traditional theory is still (hypothetically) correct, but misapplied, since the Bible is actually errant—which is why there is a mismatch between theory and praxis.

“On the one hand this allows you to explain away possible ‘errors’ in the Bible.”

Once again, you see the problem in the same way that Lindsell and Young saw it. Where you differ is not in how you perceive the problem, but in how you perceive the solution. Right theory, wrong book.

I have a different solution because I don’t see a problem where you do. I don’t expect the Bible to “behave” the way you do if it were inerrant.

“So, even in view of your more nuanced takes on how ancient authors worked and their freedom to shape their accounts, you still come with certain assumptions about how the Bible is allowed to behave and thus what it is allowed to say—assumptions that go beyond general historical-hermeneutics methodologies.”

No, grammatico-historical exegesis makes allowance for the self-understanding of a document. The methodology is neutral on the claims of the document.

To interpret Dante, you must identify with his viewpoint—even if you disagree with his viewpoint. You must interpret Dante in light of Thomism, Aristotelian physics, and Ptolemaic astronomy—even though you don’t share that outlook.

That’s what we mean by critical sympathy. You’re confounding hermeneutics with doxastics.

Where Scripture is concerned, the primary difference emerges at the tail-end of the exegetical process: do we believe what we exegete? For a Christian, the answer ought to be yes. That goes beyond critical sympathy.

“For example, any type of serious theological diversity seems to be unacceptable to you. But, what if Luke’s take on Jesus’ death diverges sharply from Mark’s, even to the point of Luke consciously writing his Gospel in such a way that it stands against Mark’s view?”

i) It’s euphemistic for you to cling to plenary inspiration (“I fully believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, through and through”) if you’re also going to say that Luke presents his theological interpretation as a self-conscious competitor and corrective to Mark’s theological interpretation.

ii) At the same time, when you say this you’re taking every bit as much interest in how two texts relate to each other as an evangelical harmonist. You’re not leaving these texts in splendid isolation. To broaden the point, a redaction critic is just as interested in how the synoptic gospels are interrelated as an evangelical harmonist. Indeed, that’s why a guy like Craig Blomberg finds redaction criticism useful in harmonizing the gospels.

iii) Finally, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that your view of Scripture is correct. Where does that leave us? What’s so great about a true interpretation of a false statement?

Suppose that Peter Enns and E. J. Young are both fans of Babylon 5. Young believes that Straczynski is inerrant. His commitment to inerrancy becomes a hermeneutical guide. In his effort to harmonize the story arcs, he flattens out the narrative depth and diversity of the story arcs. He defines ahead of time what Straczynski is allowed to say.

By contrast, Enns doesn’t bring a harmonistic agenda to Babylon 5. He makes no effort to harmonize the story arcs in a logically systematic way. As a result, his reading of Babylon 5 captures the depth and diversity of the story arcs.

The problem, though, is that even if Enns’ interpretation is more accurate, it’s an accurate interpretation of a fictitious narrative.

I lose interest in John’s theological interpretation of the Cross if his narrative is fictitious. Unless his interpretation of the event corresponds to a real event in time and space, why should I care what he thought? Likewise, Luke’s interpretation can’t be opposed to Mark’s interpretation and both be equally true—although both could be equally false.

Keep in mind that we’re now discussing the central event in the Christian faith. If we don’t even have a true and trustworthy account of what Jesus accomplished on the Cross, then we can forget about Genesis or Chronicles.

There was a lot of theological diversity in Babylon 5. But I really don’t care about the theological significance of Foundationism, because it’s a fictitious religion.

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