The Case of Peter Enns

Peter Enns is an evangelical scholar of the Old Testament. Until recently he taught at Westminster Theological Seminary. Dr. Enns and the seminary recently reached an agreement for him to step down from his position. Westminster is a conservative theological seminary in the reformed tradition.

Why was it agreed that he would step down? (I use the passive voice here on purpose. The arrangements were done behind closed doors and no one really knows what settlement was reached, hence the passive seems safer). As near as I can make out this is what happened.

In 2005 Dr. Enns wrote a book entitled Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. The book centers around three main issues in dealing with the Old Testament from both a faithful and scholarly point of view. First, he discusses the problem of the stories of the Old Testament looking like and being modelled on stories from the ancient near east. If the Old Testament is a unique revelation to the Hebrews why does it look like it is copied from stories that other people are telling? Second, he discusses the fact that there are contradictory theologies in the Old Testament. If God revealed the Old Testament, why is God inconsistent? Third, he deals with how the New Testament uses the Old Testament. Put simply the New Testament often quotes and uses the Old Testament out of context and just does bad exegesis. Why did people in the New Testament get it so wrong?

Enns’ solution to the problem is to posit an incarnational model of scripture. By incarnational he is referring to the incarnation of Jesus Christ in orthodox Christianity. Christ in orthodox theology was 100% God and 100% man. Thus he was divine, but also got tired, angry. hungry, etc. Enns says the Bible is something similar, from God and also from man. Hence you can have a divine book that contradicts itself, borrows from its historical context, gets things wrong etc. The folks at Westminster decided that they didn’t like it, had some meetings behind closed doors, and Enns agreed to leave. Enns described the whole thing in a radio interview (the page has an mp3 of the complete interview).

While I think that it is sad that Enns left over the whole situation, and that the situation could/should have been avoided, several parts of the process stood out to me

  1. Enns’ peers gave him a 100% confidence vote and said that he was completely orthodox and qualified to teach at the seminary
  2. Enns was never branded as a heretic by his seminary
  3. No ecclesiastical action was taken against Enns
  4. The whole situation ended rather amicably. No one gave nasty interviews or said this was a repeat of Galileo and the Catholic Church
  5. Enns will most likely find another job, in the same field, rather easily

Anyway, now for the Mormon angle on all of this. When can our theological disagreements become this amicable? Can they become this amicable? Is this just a matter of time, when our church becomes more seasoned and mature will this kind of stuff will be normal? Are there structural impediments to our disagreements becoming this civilized? Specifically, Enns was in a much better bargaining position with regards to his seminary than an average BYU professor would be in regards to BYU. Enns could always go to another seminary, write books for a larger market, pastor at a church etc. Is this amicableness a product of economics?

Perhaps I am assuming too much. Should theological disagreements become this amicable? Is it desirable that in the future, incidents like those that happened to the September 6 and David P. Wright become a distant memory of a forgotten past? Or perhaps are incidents like these just the unfortunate by products of enforcing orthodoxy?

Per mogget’s request:

Satan Claims Responsibility for Westminster Decision by a critic of and graduate of Westminster
Old Testament Opening at Westminster Theological Seminary Another parody and ensuing discussion. The discussion presents both sides.
Blog with lots of links to all of the issues
Entry with lots of links to critiques of Enns

19 Replies to “The Case of Peter Enns”

  1. Sure, theological disagreements can…and should…be amicable. They are, after all, a matter of study and faith, despite (what I see as) the rather unfortunate tendency of Mormons to insist that they “know” rather than that they “believe” or “have faith that” their spiritual/religious positions are correct.

    I attended a very good Christian (Mennonite Brethren) university for my upper division work for my BA, and one of the most valuable things I learned there is that we can disagree, even on matters of faith and belief, without rancor.

  2. “Incidents such as those you refer to are the natural consequence of a hierarchical religion led by prophesy.”

    I’m not convinced that such is the inevitable result, but there’s certainly some tension there.

    I keep meaning to do a multipart review of Enns, Brettler, Kugel, and McKenzie…

  3. I don’t know Enns’s cultural world at all. Clearly there were at least a few people who felt strongly enough about the issues to want to disassociate from him, or at least his ideas. But is there a much wider audience with even greater passion than the board at Westminster? Would telling his story sell newspapers? Are there enough who care to stage candlelight vigils and news conferences?

    That’s where the less amicable features of Mormon theological disagreements come from, IMO. If matters were just between a professor and the BYU administration, or just between a scholar and her bishop or stake president — which seems to be the equivalent of what you say happened with Enns — then there would be no foment. It’s because Mormons live in such a polarized world, where large numbers of people who are not directly concerned like to be indignant on camera and in print and magnify the issue beyond its merits, that makes Mormon disagreements so disagreeable. It’s not just the church that needs to become more seasoned and mature; it’s the rabble camp followers, and sensational press that feeds off of them, that need to find better things to do.

  4. Ardis,

    But is there a much wider audience with even greater passion than the board at Westminster? Yes, I think there is. In the Christian/Evangelical blogosphere the case was widely discussed from all angles. I didn’t include links because I didn’t think it pertinent to Mormons nor very interesting to them.

    Would telling his story sell newspapers? Absolutely. Given the larger base of evangelical Christians and the general disdain they are held in by the media I think the story had the potential to be a bombshell. At the very least it could have been sold to more papers than Deseret News and the SL Trib. I think both the Westminster board and Enns saw this and successfully avoided it.

    Are there enough who care to stage candlelight vigils and news conferences? Given the greater numbers, I think yes. Again this was something they wanted to avoid and so both parties handled it in a low key manner.

  5. Thanks, David; I didn’t know. Then there really does seem to be something we ought to be learning from them on how to manage these disagreements … which I don’t see going away anytime soon.

  6. Stick the links in please, David, if you have time and the inclination, and especially if you can find the one that does the parody of The Screwtape Letters. I thought them quite interesting and enlightening and perhaps others will, as well.

    Another thing that makes a difference is that Enns’ conclusions are utterly mainstream. From the standpoint of Biblical scholarship there’s nothing to refute him. From the church viewpoint, he was not trying to move Evangelicals off their position about the high merits of scripture, but to get them to think deeply and without a defensive reaction about the evidence provided by the Bible. Had anybody made much of a fuss about his work, it would have blow up rather high and wide! I think that most Mormons would find his book very liberating.

    And FWIW, his approach is the official Catholic position, adopted 50 years ago. From Dei Verbum:

    For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.

  7. Thanks, David. The parody is in the first link. For a good look at the “repent, jerkface” approach to gospel discussions, see the comments associated with the second link.

    (PS “Repent jerkface” shows up in comment #51.)

  8. Yeah, it’s quite the read. Interesting because it has Alan Lenzi’s story of his struggle with Christianity, and interesting to see how others react to it. In that regard, the comment that all apostates are meglomaniacs is highly ironic, I think.


  9. It’s odd to bring up Wright in this context since I think his thesis was considerably stronger. The points you attribute to Enns are pretty standardly taught by the FARMS folks and appear to be pretty mainstream. Indeed they are often referenced in apologetics.

    I don’t see any figure in the so-called September 6 who really fits any analogous situation nor do I see Wright fitting. That’s not to say your larger point about “amicable theological disagreements” isn’t apt. I tend to think it is, to a point.

    I think that in an LDS context that point tends to be much more political rather than theological. (Well except to the degree theology and politics merge – such as in the notion of certain theologies of women and the priesthood or criticisms of the Church’s legal system)

    Are there theological lines where something has to be indicated?

  10. My point was not theological. What the September 6 and David P. Wright were advocating is not important to my thesis. My point is that in all 7 cases the politics of disagreement was handled poorly. In the case of Enns he and Westminster were sitting on a powder keg, yet none of them lit the match and the case was ended amicably. In all of the other 7 cases someone lit the match which resulted in excommunications, candle light vigils, accusations of abuse of power, etc. You didn’t see any of that with Enns, and that was my point.

    In any case David P. Wright is mainstream. He is a contributor to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, The Oxford Study Bible, and he studied under the world’s leading authority on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom. That’s why he is now teaching at Brandeis, because he is mainstream. Granted, he’s mainstream in a different way than Enns, but he’s not a kook.

  11. Right – but I don’t think whether Wright is mainstream matters. I mean, to be frank, think all us Mormons are odd and perhaps more than a little gullible is pretty mainstream too.

    I think the problem is that when things move from theology into the more political arena things change. We can, perhaps agree, that something like Toscano’s polemic against the Church court system is overtly political. But I think other works such as advocating praying to a heavenly mother are as well.

    The question is how to handle such cases. Note that I don’t have any answers. I just think it ends up being a tad more difficult to handle such cases than merely being amicable. It’s easy to be amicable when it’s merely an intellectual disagreement.

  12. You are correct, it doesn’t matter whether Wright is mainstream, I was simply coming to his defense as an aside.

    As to whether this is merely an intellectual disagreement, I think from a Mormon standpoint it is (AofF 8 and all), but from an Reformed standpoint this is serious stuff. Biblical inerrancy is a serious issue for Reformed Christians and it can land you in hot water real quick. The equivalent thing for a Mormon would be to attack prophetic authority, since for us authority descends from the priesthood hierarchy, just like for them authority is in some sense ultimately derived from the Bible (sola scriptura and all that). I don’t care how correct you are, if you go out an write a book about things the first presidency is doing wrong you will find yourself on the other end of a disciplinary council real quick.

    The point of all this rambling is that once you see how serious it was from a Reformed point of view they still handled it remarkably well. No one was called a heretic, no one was excommunicated, and everyone walked away without any nastiness, at least not that we saw publicly.

  13. I think though there is a bit of a difference since “heretic” applies to broader issues whereas as you note this was more of an issue for a point of view within a broader tradition. Now had he started saying the Trinity was false it might have taken a different turn. But merely questioning inerrancy seems a milder situation. I think the more analogous situation in an LDS context might have been questioning the nature of the Book of Abraham at BYU while accepting the basic historicity of the Book of Mormon.

  14. Actually now that I think about it even that’s not a great analogy. Perhaps the evolution issue in the 70’s is more analogous? I’m actually having a hard time coming up with a good analogy. I just don’t think denying the historicity of the Book of Mormon is terribly analogous.

  15. The Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham cases do work as analogies, but what’s at stake is different.

    In the reformed tradition the Bible is the authority, thus questioning the inerrancy of the Bible is a direct challenge to authority.

    In the Mormon tradition, questioning the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham is to challenge authority, but only indirectly. When it comes right down to it, if Mormons could divorce the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham from the authority of Joseph Smith my guess is no one would really care if they were somehow shown to be “false.” To challenge those books is to challenge Joseph Smith, which challenges the restoration and the current church leadership, and THAT is what gets people in trouble.

  16. David Clark: A couple of points.
    I have seen nothing indicating he received a 100% confidence vote. Instead, I find that he received two votes:
    The first positive vote was 12-8 that Enns philosphies were firmly rooted within the Westminster confession of faith. This, however, is not 100%.
    The second vote was not positive, 18-9 in favor of suspending Enns from teaching there. This is again, not 100%, rather it was a 2:1 ratio against him by his peers!
    I find it sad for him, I really enjoyed his book, but he didn’t have a 100% confidence (or at least I haven’t seen one!). I do hope he finds another job quickly.

    I’m not smart enough to add links silently, but here is a wiki link for my stats.

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