People may not know but the blogosphere has revealed that Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) is about to hold a decisive meeting of the board at which the fate of Pete Enns may well be decided. Enns, of course, is the author of the controversial book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. His critics argue that Ennsâ€™ views of Scripture are defective and that his proposal for the way to do theology is at best wobbly. His supporters contend that Enns is carrying on the seminaryâ€™s tradition of combining evangelical theology with up-to-date biblical scholarship. The best place to go for links to the various discussions is: http://connversation.wordpress.com/2008/03/15/wts-is-at-impasse-please-prayer-for-her-an-alumni-plea/
So alarmed are some of Ennsâ€™ supporters that they have called for a student demonstration on campus the day before the board convenes.
The problem for WTS is not simply the novelty of Ennsâ€™ views per se but that the school has lived for some time with a degree of theological latitude that is fundamentally unstable. Enns was indeed one of the first professors to come out of the closet and put in black and white the questions that some faculty have about the Reformed doctrine of Scripture. But he and other biblical faculty have been swimming in the pool of biblical theology and taking their cues from older BT sources for so long that they cannot understand why conservatives are upset. Because of the freedom unofficially granted to biblical scholars at WTS, Enns is right to be surprised that all of a sudden voicing questions about the Reformed tradition is beyond the pale.
A good illustration of the apparently valuable perspective that Enns represents comes from the testimonials at http://www.saveourseminary.com, a website started as a petition to show support for a professor admired as a funny and accessible loose canon. One recent graduate writes:
it was at Westminster where I learned the importance of the sufficiency of Scripture. It was at Westminster where I learned the importance of a redemptive-historical and Christo-telic hermeneutical understanding. It was at Westminster where I learned the importance of understanding the brokenness of our world and the corrupting influence of sin and idolatry. It was at Westminster that I learned the need to walk in another personâ€™s shoes first, so that I might understand his or her presuppositions and worldview in order to contextualize and incarnate the gospel. It was at Westminster where the biblical studies scholars applied this culturally sensitive, presuppositional approach to the Scriptures and taught me not only how to understand people but also how to understand the Bible. It was at Westminster, through both the words and deeds of the entire faculty, where I learned the nature of Godâ€™s providence and that Jesus is Lord.
Now thatâ€™s a lot to learn and it is generally to the good. But what is interesting about the many voices expressing support for Enns is how little those graduates learned about WTSâ€™ founding theological consensus as expressed by the likes of another biblical scholar, J. Gresham Machen. In 1929 at the seminaryâ€™s first convocation Machen elaborated the cause of the new school:
Westminster Seminary will endeavor . . . not on a foundation of equivocation and compromise but on an honest foundation of devotion to Godâ€™s Word, to maintain the same principles that old Princeton maintained. We believe, first, that the Christian religion, as it is set forth in the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian church, is true; we believe, second, that the Christian religion welcomes and is capable of scholarly defense; and we believe, third, that the Christian religion should be proclaimed without fear or favor, and in clear opposition to whatever opposes it, whether within or without the church, as the only way of salvation for lost mankind.
Machen also made clear that systematic theology, not biblical theology, was still the queen of theological studies at Westminster. â€œThere are those who think that systematic theology on the basis of the Bible is impossible,â€ he declared. â€œThere are those who think that the Bible contains a mere record of human seeking after God and that its teachings are a mass of contradiction which can never be resolved. But to that number of persons we do not belong. We believe for our part that God has spoken to us in his Word, and that he has given us not merely theology, but a system of theology, a great logically consistent body of truth.â€
That consistent body of truth, according to Machen, was Reformed orthodoxy as summarized in the Confession and catechisms of the Presbyterian Church. The system of theology found in the Bible, he explained , â€œis the Reformed faith, the faith commonly called Calvinistic.â€ â€œIt is sometimes referred to as a â€˜man-made creed.â€™ But we do not regard it as such. We regard it, in accordance with our ordination pledge as ministers in the Presbyterian church, as the creed which God has taught us in his Word. . . . We rejoice in the approximations to that body of truth which other systems of theology contain; we rejoice in our Christian fellowship with other systems of theology contain; . . . But we cannot consent to impoverish our message by setting forth less than what we find the Scriptures to contain; and we believe that we shall best serve our fellow Christians . . . if we set forth not some vague greatest common measure among various creeds, but that great historic faith that has come through Augustine and Calvin to our own Presbyterian church. Glorious is the heritage of the Reformed faith.â€
Now the interesting thing about the contrast between one of Ennsâ€™ supporters and the original vision for WTS is that Machen and the original faculty could actually support most of what the recent graduate of Westminster writes. Old WTS practiced a biblical theology that saw Christ everywhere revealed in Scripture, a form of apologetics that was philosophically savvy and culturally engaged, and advocated a ministry that took seriously human depravity. In other words, a student graduating from WTS in the 1940s might have written similar sentiments to those expressed over at saveourseminary. Yet, that 1940s graduate would have also recognized the value and importance of being narrowly and militantly Reformed, of the need to be part of a disciplined Reformed church, and that the church is always militant, always needing to be on guard for departures from the truth.
In sum, the 1940s student of WTS would have known how to join together Machen, Van Til, and Vos for ministry in the church and for maintaining and defending the Reformed faith. He would have recognized that theological breadth and tolerance were threats to the truth. And yet, he still would have seen the value of what Ennsâ€™ defender advocates. But recent grads of WTS who defend Enns do not know what to do with Van Til and Machen as contenders for the Reformed faith, as sticklers for Presbyterian polity, or as bystanders to any number of evangelical proposals for all Protestants â€œto just get along.â€ These seem like vulgarities from a polemical past that need to be excised for the generic evangelical-Reformed church to advance.
This is arguably the biggest dilemma facing the current faculty and administration at WTS â€“ how to restore the original consensus at the seminary that balanced the fruits of biblical theology with Reformed polemics and strict Presbyterian ecclesiology. The defenders of Enns do not see the need for Reformed polemics and Presbyterian ecclesiology. Machen, in contrast, recognized that biblical theology was a necessary and valuable partner in the cause of defending the Reformed faith and in maintaining a faithful Presbyterian ministry. How to get the proponents of biblical theology to see the need for polemics and ecclesiology is the $64,000 question of the hour.
What hurts the chances for such a restoration of Westminsterâ€™s original vision is the presence of other theological tendencies that may be more conservative than Ennsâ€™ proposal but are just as uncomfortable with a militant and ecclesiastically disciplined Reformed witness. New Life Presbyterianismâ€™s pietistic quest for relevance, Christian counselingâ€™s egalitarian leveling of the ministerâ€™s pulpit and the counselorâ€™s armchair, and neo-Calvinismâ€™s push for cultural transformation all clutter the path back to the original balance of biblical theology, Reformed orthodoxy, and committed Presbyterianism. The vote on Enns could be a step in the right direction. But depending on how much the board understands how far contemporary WTS is from its founding, the vote on Enns could end up only adding to the confusion at WTS.