Westminster Seminary and Pete Enns: Ten Observations

It behooves us to take an opening stance on the volcano currently bubbling and smoking at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. It looks as though Prof. Peter Enns is going to be fired because of the firestorm in the right-wing reactionary Reformed world let loose by the publication of his book, Inspiration and Incarnation. In due time, I will, as a member of the extreme fringe of that world, review the book itself with a view to the theological issues taken up by it. Here, I mainly limit myself to a commentary on the organically connected “big picture” — the theologico-socio-political situation if you will. Readers not familiar with the basic situation can bring themselves up to date with a google search on the key names just mentioned.

None of what follows should be taken personally. I love Dr. Enns as a man that is respectful of opposing viewpoints, affable, and easy to talk to. I would love to have him as a friend, a neighbor, and someone to watch operas with (if he liked opera, which he doesn’t). On the other side, I count at least one of the “movers and shakers” on the right as a friend, and I love and respect many in the right wing, regarding them as my superiors both as Christians and scholars. None of what follows changes any of that.

1. The left wing, as always, is particularly noisy. There are dark rumors of threats that “the students” might go on strike and so forth. This is of course nonsense. Most students, under any circumstances, just want to finish their course requirements and move on, and besides that, many students share the concerns about the teaching of the Bible department at Westminster. Nixon was right about the “silent majority” in 1972, and the same reality holds in 2008. That inertial mass is a source of social stability, but it is also frustrating to those seeking reform, whether on the left or right. Regardless of which “wing” we belong to, those of us that bring arguments for positions different from the mainstream — or different from what seems like the mainstream while the current is propelling our little boat — are frustrated chiefly, not by the rebuttals, but by the yawning “who gives a $&!#?” that is the normal response to the arguments.

2. Leaving aside the pigeon-holes of left or right for a moment, it must be said that the majority of students that stepped up to the microphone at the April 1 meeting formulated very valid questions. They may be summarized along these lines: if it is heterodoxy, why does no one in authority step forward and say so? Why are the issues not debated publicly? Why is everything being done behind closed doors, in whispers and furtive glances?

One of the things I love about the OPC is that heresy trials must be open to the public. No discretion is permitted to the courts here. There is to be no star chamber.

But this is a necessary principle, if the Protestant view of the holy catholic church is correct. The idea that robes should just be trusted implicitly is sacerdotalism.

3. In his short statement on April 1, the Speaker for the Board appealed to the many constituencies of the Seminary besides that of the student body — notably, some Presbyteries that have voiced concern, and some major donors. Notably absent was any reference to a fiduciary obligation to the foundational purpose of the institution as expressed by Machen and his associates. The “major donors” reference particularly sticks in the craw. Donors should be encouraged to be generous because they agree with and wish to further that which the institution stands for. It is putting the cart before the horse to make reference to the wishes of the donors, as if the institution exists to carry out their wishes.

4. All the statements I have heard from cognizant authorities, numbering three independent lines so far, make reference primarily if not exclusively to Prof. Enns’ book. But the content of the book has been the theme of the required course of OT Intro for many years prior to the appearance of the book. Other courses go even farther. It does not take very much reading between the lines to realize that nothing is done about what is taught in the classroom, as long as the world does not know through some embarrassing medium like a published book.

The lesson for the astute is obvious: don’t publish controversial ideas. Teach what you want, but limit your publications to boring academic monographs on how to decode Sumerian steles or what not.

5. The nub of the issue bearing on continued employment by the Seminary is Confessional subscription. The “honesty” of someone’s subscription is hinted at. And at times, this aspect can indeed be questioned. I heard a WTS professor claim that he subscribes to the Confession “when read according to the historia salutis.” But the meat at the center of the Westminster sandwich is clearly ordo salutis! (If you are fortunate enough not to know what those terms refer to, that’s okay. Keep reading.) That kind of qualification goes beyond a mere quibble: it is playing with words.

But in general, the “honesty” question is barking up the wrong tree. We should assume that a Christian man’s claim of subscription is honest. That is not the question. The right question is, is his actual system of beliefs consistent with the Confession?

In the next breath, as if sensing the weakness, the attack is altered to refer to the “historical understanding” of the Confession. This is getting closer to the real issue, but it is still subject to misapprehension. As such, the “historical understanding” is a question for the church history department. Unless the Seminary is a museum, it is still not the whole of the matter. Putting the matter that way reduces the matter to an academic curiosity, an abstraction.

Confessionalism is an organic concept: it refers to men that ex animo embrace the body of truth expressed in a document and are formed into a corporate body that lives and breathes and marches forward in actions that exemplify that shared understanding. When one departs from that understanding, he must be ejected, not because his honesty is impugned, and not because some historian has determined that some men four hundred years ago did not think like that, but because he has departed from what we believe, today.

It is a fine boundary line, but it is a chasm. The historical question plays an important role as self-definition, in terms of continuity. The Confession is not to be a procrustean bed, reinterpreted to fit every man’s idiosyncratic views. But at issue is that “we” believe these things, not that “they” did.

The matter is not to be settled by summoning a Council of church historians. The body confesses these things today. If someone is to be ejected, the ejectors should be able to say, “we believe these things, the same things that the organization has believed for centuries, and you depart from us in these specifics: A, B, and C.” An antecedent question, then, is “what is the relevant living body?”

6. The logic of the matter presses us, I submit, to suggest that the body that stands organically together around a shared confession should be the church. Westminster Seminary is not, however, an institution under ecclesiastical control. We must conclude that Machen, the Magnificent in so many ways, erred here. A mere group of professors can hardly stand de jure upon a shared Confession in any meaningful way other than as an academic abstraction, an object of detached historical inquiry.

A possibly-adequate remedy to this situation would be to insist that the professors must be ordained as teaching elders in their respective Presbyteries. In this way, the organic meaning of Confessionalism could be rescued.

The original faculty as good churchmen did this instinctively. But they failed, apparently, to see that it must be explicitly required.

Then the question is, “ordained in which churches?”

Given Westminster’s history, the only possible answers that make sense are either (1) like the original faculty, the OPC, or (2) a broader assembly, namely NAPARC (North American Reformed and Presbyterian Churches), which captures the Reformed principle of the holy catholic church in light of our particular situation and history.

If Westminster were located in Stuttgart, it would not make sense to speak of NAPARC. But in Philadelphia, with its OPC origins, NAPARC is the only body that makes sense in view of option (2).

7. Apart from the ecclesiastical problem, there is the basic question of Right.

On the one hand, we must surely insist that an educational institution has the right to hire and fire according to its own purposes. The notion of “tenure” as securing some divine right to do whatever one wants to is surely a self-serving idea fostered by the insiders for their own benefit. (I am speaking of our culture, not WTS specifically.) As if gaining a Professorship is like a lifetime prize, distinguishing its recipient as a Very Important Thinker, for whose every pearl of wisdom dropped from an unassailable pedestal the world now waits with bated breath.

This is a much bigger problem than WTS. It is a national, nay international problem. It has created a self-propagating guild. What is the difference between a “mainstream” and “revisionist” historian? Answer: if the historian has been groomed by the guild in the tenure-track, he is “mainstream.” Or, if he falls in line and sucks up to that point of view, he gets the title vicariously.

8. On the other hand, there are legitimate expectations that one forms while employed. Commitments are made, choices are made, and the time invested cannot be recovered. If libertarianism means that the venerable old man can be dropped in favor of some attention-grabbing upstart, then we must stop being libertarians.

Prof. Enns, as well as his even more radical colleague, were inducted into the guild very recently — during the past two or three years. I am not aware of any conspiracy to keep their views secret during the process.

Westminster must face the fact that there is something very wrong with how they have proceeded in the past that led to this situation. Was it a lust for academic prestige, for PhD’s, especially from prestigious universities? John Murray redivivus need not apply to teach at WTS today. His resume would not get past the first ring.

There is an evil here, a wrong that has been done not only to the community and the church it serves, but to the men in question. The solution is not to continue with the status quo, that grace might abound; but it is an evil nonetheless, and it must be confessed and remedied.

9. On the Confessional question itself, the Right Wing at Westminster is in disarray also. To be sure, the doctrine of Scripture which is in question in the case of Prof. Enns is foundational in a way that the subsequent chapters are not. Nevertheless, the Confession is the Confession. I admit to painting with a broad brush here, and do not want to imply that the remarks apply to all: they do not. But from the ranks of the Right Wing, I have seen the Sabbath mocked by exuberant pre-class discussions of NFL team exploits. The one faculty member still famous for his confessional view of the Sabbath politely declines to bring the subject up publicly. I attended a service presided over by another member of the Right Wing a few years back where the worship service was given over to a drama by the high school kids: so much for Chapter 21. And in a class I audited, arguments for the “Framework View” of creation were pressed that self-consciously ignored a fatal counter-argument that Calvin already made five hundred years ago!

I do not mention names, because I am not trying to embarrass anyone, at least in this forum; nor am I suggesting that a tit for tat housecleaning should take place. Instead, I am hoping that those men will also ponder carefully and reconsider some of their own positions.

10. Having cleared a great deal of rubbish off the table, it remains to address the doctrinal problem of Prof Enns. The protracted discussions suggest that it is a rather difficult matter to show that Prof. Enns’ book (and more importantly: his teaching) is contrary to the Confession. WCF chapter 1, on Scripture, is mentioned as the point of conflict

On the contrary, I don’t believe it is difficult to show the inconsistency of Prof Enns’ view with the Confession. What has made it difficult is erroneously focussing on chapter 1. But Chapter 1 is not the only, or even the most important issue raised by the book. In some ways, chapter 1 would be the easiest for Prof Enns to defend himself in terms of.

He would do so by appealing to the sovereignty of God even in the use of human error, and that he is explaining the “how” not the “that.”

The real problem with Prof Enns’ hermeneutic is that, once triumphant, you can no longer deduce chapters 2-33. Chapters 2-33 would become mere velleities of a certain subculture of Christendom. But if they are not drawn from Scripture, they are worthless as a church confession. Even the “sovereignty of God,” necessary to rescue an effective Word in the midst of error, would have to be secured either by a deliverance of natural theology, or a mere assertion of will.

One could “believe” and “confess” the propositions outlined in chapters 1-33 while holding Prof Enns’ view of revelation, by a sheer act of will. But that is a different kind of belief and confession than what is intended by confessional presbyterians. The latter intend their confession to be based on what the Confession itself states as the nub of the matter in Chap. 14: “a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein.”

Try it from another angle. Professor Enns believes his outlook is rescued and vouchsafed as orthodox by two apodictic principles: the sovereignty of God and the empty tomb. How can God call a church together around a Word that is error-prone and self-contradictory? He can because he is sovereign. How do we know the Pharisees and Saducees weren’t right? Because of the empty tomb.

But the sovereignty of God in the full-orbed sense could not be deduced from Scripture from a radical accomodationist stance. Thus, Prof Enns must borrow from the world view of the earlier Westminster. It can be symbolized like this:

(traditional exegesis) –> (sovereignty of God established)
(sovereignty of God) –> (Prof Enn’s exegesis vouchsafed)

(Prof Enn’s exegesis) –> NOT (sovereignty of God established)

His system is therefore inconsistent with the Westminster standards.

A similar line of attack can be pursued with the “empty tomb” basis. On his view of the Bible, the “empty tomb” will soon be deconstructed, and has been by his precursors.

And if these two pillars cannot stand, how much less the Sabbath Day, the Regulative Principle of Worship, and the golden chain of salvation?

Christianity is a system of truth, van Til observed. Take away a particular understanding of what it means for God to speak to his creatures, and all is lost — not only the specific content of the Westminster Confession, but indeed all knowledge whatsoever.

More will need to be said on these matters.

7 thoughts on “Westminster Seminary and Pete Enns: Ten Observations

  1. A final comment is needed to finish the picture as it currently stands. It is often stated that the faculty supported Enns by a 12-8 vote. That is true, but by itself rather misleading. Of the core departments of Systematics, Apologetics, History, and Bible, the first three are unanimous against Enns, and the last is split, though tilted in Enns’ favor. The rest of the “faculty,” including most of the 12, are preaching coaches, counselors, and other assorted adjuncts not part of the academic core. (The counselor types may have concerns like “the way it is being done” more so than the substantive issue, and so forth.)

    Should the rules be changed, perhaps to have an upper and lower house or something?

    Of course, another day it might be the adjuncts that are defending the institution against the academic core. Probably it has usually been that way historically.

  2. Thanks Tim, for your preliminary observations on Peter Enns and the sad division that has arisen at Westminster Seminary. I graduated from Westminister in 1981, having spent three years there (’76, and ’80-’81). The intervening three years I spent at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS during the time of the theonomy controversy. When I returned to Westminster, the “justification controversy, centering around Norman Shepherd’s views on justification and the covenant, was gaining prominence. I found this quite dismaying! In these controversies, the level of communication between the parties fell below what I consider to be the Biblical standard. Their interaction was too adversarial in nature, one consequence being a lack of concerted effort to clearly articulate views so as to advance our understanding of how to practically apply God’s Word. This problem may have been due to a failure of the parties to rely on the Power of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit alone in voicing their views. The very academization of theology as it is taught in seminaries is a part of this problem. John Frame sees this problem and is seeking to overcome it in his teaching and writing. I’ve not yet read Enns’ book, but as you describe his approach to exegesis, its seems he is making a very fundamental mistake.

  3. Don — if you could read the book, or perhaps otherwise become familiar with the thesis perhaps through book reviews, it would be interesting to hear you compare and contrast the situation at WTS back in ’80. I assume you had Dillard for OT?

  4. Tim – I’m sorry I did not have the opportunity to take a class with Dillard. My OT classes were taught for the most part by Gerard Van Groenigen at RTS and Palmer Robertson at WTS. While at Westminster, in addition to taking a full schedule of required classes, I held several jobs and tape recorded some Th.M. classes (which conflicted with my required classes). I enjoyed taking Frame’s Authority of Scripture class. It was a very hectic but exciting time. I just assumed almost everyone held to “traditional” exegesis and understood that Scripture is (and has to be!) self-attesting. The three professors who most attracted me to WTS were Van Til, John Frame and Norman Shepherd. I can’t think of any profs I disliked, though obviously I benefitted more from some than others. I felt very humbled to be in the presence of Godly men, both fellow students and profs, who had a better grasp of the reformed faith than I did. Not having been raised on reformed doctrine, I had quite a bit of catching-up to do!

    I will plan to read Enns’ book and book reviews and familiarize myself with his thesis. The Bible has lessons to teach us on communication we have yet to learn. Academic scholars tend to speak as “so-called ‘individuals…'” They forget that, in the words of Eugen Rosenstock Huessy, “(w)e are holding office whenever we speak honestly and truthfully. We do not speak to express our thoughts. We speak as members, as passers-on, as communicants, as listeners or or we speak as exploiters, beligerents, liars and devils.” We should speak as organs of the Body of Christ, both locally and world-wide. In ways most don’t understand, we are still children of the Enlightenment who have some growing-up to do!

  5. TJH,
    It’s my first time commenting here, though we’ve met (we had some classes together at WTS). Thank you for this piece. While we probably disagree on many aspects of this whole Enns situation, I’ll admit that you’ve brought up some insights here that i’ve seen nowhere else. Your points 2-5 are especially well put.
    A quick correction/clarification to comment #1 below the post (that comment was written by you as well, right?): the faculty documents that were released last week reveal that the Apologetics department is no longer “unanimous” in an anti-Enns stance. Dr. Edgar of the Apologetics department has changed his view, and has dissociated himself w/ the views expressed in the “Historical Theology Field Committee” document. In addition, Edgar was acting as faculty moderator during the “12-8 in favor of Enns” vote, so he was not allowed to vote except in case of a tie. He has let it be known (i think) that he would have voted with the 12, which would have made it 13.
    As for some of the 12 being “adjuncts,” well, not really. The vote was only among “voting faculty,” which excludes some of the counseling instructors and preaching coaches. I believe Tim Lane and Ed Welch were included in the pro-Enns side of the vote…both of those guys, especially Welch, are “core” instructors if you’re doing an MDiv counseling or an MA Counseling degree, and both are respected instructors in the fields of pastoral theology and biblical counseling (though not necessarily classified as systematicians or biblical specialists, I’ll grant you). Moreover, the anti-Enns vote includes Sandy Finlayson, the library director and a professor of bibliography. While he is part of the voting faculty, he is not really a member of the “core faculty” if you’re using the same standards that would exclude counseling instructors. Most WTS students haven’t taken classes from him. Certainly far fewer than have taken classes from Welch, Lane, or Dr. Leonard.
    I hope that makes sense and helps to clarify the picture. Again, thank you for your reflections on this.

  6. Justin — yes I remember our too-few discussions with fond memory.

    Interesting. I guess I set myself up for that kind of rebuttal. However, what I would find far more interesting than the roll call would be for each player to give a speech pertaining to the issue. Let the anti’s explain exactly what their beef is; on the other hand, let each of the pro-side explain how one can derive the WCF from Enns’ hermeneutic. The moderator could fish topics out of a hat — let one deduce the bi-covenantal scheme, another the eternal Sabbath, a third the Regulative Principle, etc etc.

    That series of speeches would be worth taking a day off of work for!


  7. “But this is a necessary principle, if the Protestant view of the holy catholic church is correct. The idea that robes should just be trusted implicitly is sacerdotalism.”

    Please, don’t lump authentic Orthodoxy with Roman Catholi-‘schism.’ A gentle reading of the era of Bloody Mary makes even a former catholic (i.e., romanist) cringe with the clear unbiblicalness of it all….

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