Reviewing "The Living Word of God" -pt. 4
The Dangers of Analogy – Unity and Diversity in the Biblical Canon
This is the most challenging chapter of The Living Word of God that I’ve tried to review so far — mainly because the backstory is so challenging and inflammatory. Since Dr. Witherington published his book, the situation has become even deeper – even more of a cautionary tale for those who would reject the anti-creedal unity origins of the Restoration plea.
It seems that around Christmas 2005 Dr. Peter Enns, graduate professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, published a book entitled Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. In it, he seems to have challenged some sacred cows within Reformed circles, especially with their understanding of Biblical inerrancy. Challenged them enough, in fact, to have generated a serious rift within the school over his orthodoxy. The problem we in the Stone-Campbell tradition would have, and which many evangelicals and emergents are having, is that his orthodoxy is being tested, not according to Scripture, but rather according to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Indeed, in recent days he has been suspended from his tenured position at WTS by a vote of the trustees. While the faculty voted 12-8 that Dr. Enns’ published understanding is within orthodox interpretation of the creed in question, the seminary trustees voted 18-9 to suspend. Here is a link to an article in Christianity Today covering the painful proceedings.
Article IX of the WCF is the point at stake according to the seminary officials. IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. Dr. Enns has been accused of using extra-biblical sources “infelicitously,” undermining the inerrancy of Scripture (particularly the OT).
I do not believe Dr. Witherington would make such a claim. In fact, he believes much of Enns’ work to be posing important questions. Posing them irresponsibly, incompletely, and without attempting answers? Yes. Heterodox, denying the inerrancy of Scripture? No, but perhaps because Dr. Enns doesn’t provide enough information for the reader to actually determine his position on inerrancy.
Here is Enns’ theory in a nutshell: “The longstanding identification between Christ the word and Scripture the word is central to how I think through the issues raised in this book. How does Scripture’s full humanity and full divinity affect what we should expect from Scripture?” Right from the start, one will notice several problems with this way of stating things. Dr Witherington says 1) Identification is much too strong a word to denote that relationship; analogy is as strong as he would be willing to go. 2) A book can possess neither humanity nor divinity. It is a book.
“What Enns wants to argue most vociferously about, however, is the “humanness of Scripture. Put another way, he wants to insist on the historical givenness of Scripture — that it is written in a particular language in a particular cultural setting, reflecting particular cultural customs and conventions and ways of thinking in order to be a word on target for the original intended audiences. ‘The Bible, at every turn, shows how ‘connected’ it is to its own world [which] is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself… It is essential to the very nature of revelation that the Bible is not unique to its environment. The human dimension of Scripture is essential to its being Scripture.’ Missing entirely is any discussion about how this human givenness of Scripture may or may not affect the truth claims of the book. Are we being told that incarnation requires a full participation in wideranging human ignorance, errors of various sorts, misjudgments, misrepresentations, mishandling of scriptural texts, and the like?”
The last question above is the heart of Dr. Witherington’s critique of Inspiration and Incarnation. As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, he believes that God’s inspiration of Scripture (with the exception of prophetic oracles) always respects and takes advantage of the personality, education, and experiences of the human author. Further, he supports Enns in the following points: 1) Should the Bible be judged on the basis of modern standards of historical inquiry and scientific precision? No. (“But these texts should be judged on the basis of ancient standards of historical inquiry and truth-telling.”) 2) One must be cautious about blending a bunch of texts together, such as proverbs in Proverbs, in order to generate a unified teaching on wealth. 3) Ecclesiastes has as one of its purposes to point out that life is full of contradictions, and so it is a true word about the vicissitudes of life. 4) Inspiration looks like what we have in the text, however diverse.
“If we take the study of Peter Enns as a cautionary word against ignoring or trying to explain away the diversity of Scripture, then he has done us a service. Taking him as offering a warning against overly harmonistic ways of handling Scripture is also a fine approach…. If we take Enns to be reminding us that Christians should indeed see the climax of God’s people in Christ, then this too is helpful, and it reminds us that a christological use of the OT is a legitimate one, however carefully nuanced it needs to be.”
The greatest irony I find with the material I’ve encountered from Dr. Enns is that he does seem to violate the WCF by extension. He would elevate the cultural context (which is and will forever be murky) of the Hebrew Scriptures to a co-equal position (if not a higher position) than the text we have which, while challenging, is clearly right in front of us. Article IX above suggests that the clearer portions of revelation must be allowed to interpret the less clear portions. “The relatively less-known context should not be taken as more clear and certain than the relatively more well-known text itself.” We cannot always accurately reconstruct the socio-historical context that motivates the dynamic shift between, say, Exodus 20:8-10 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
As far as I can surmise through research and re-reading the text, I believe Dr Witherington’s critique of Inspiration and Incarnation to be balanced, fair, and probably accurate. I don’t agree with some of Dr. Witherington’s particular points, but none of the points with which I disagree weigh at all into his analysis of the Enns text. Here is his closing remark:
“But if we hear in Enns’s book a plea to give up on trying to discern the relationship of unity and diversity in the canon, the relationship of truth to error, or a plea to become agnostic about the importance of the historical substance of the text, then I hope that we have misheard the author and would ignore such a subtext or plea. To claim that the Bible is God’s Word implies always and everywhere that it is making various sorts of truth claims — indeed, claims on us. And we do no service to the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life if we do not wrestle with the question ‘What is truth?’ whenever we deal with the biblical text.”
in HIS love,
PS – The two points of personal contention with Dr Witherington in this chapter are:
1) The “classical Chalcedonian formulation” that the Son of God has two natures that “should not be fused or confused.” I’m probably delving where angels fear to tread in raising an eyebrow towards a NT historian about a creed, but I’ve just never bought the idea that the Son of God had two distinct natures; that he was neither “fully human” nor “fully divine”. Just as we do not have two natures, but are a complex psychosomatic unity, so too Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God is a psychosomatic (or maybe a pneumasomatic) unity.
2) “The books of the OT have a message, meaning, and truth quite apart from any christological use of the OT text. In fact, they still serve this function for practicing Jews today, as they should until the Lord returns.” I disagree here because I really don’t believe that Jewish scholars today have any better understanding of the sacred texts themselves (the texts that “soil the hands”) than Jewish scholars did 2000 years ago. They read the Scriptures then with a deep Messianic focus. Why should practicing Jews awaiting their Messiah today read with any less of a Messianic focus? Perhaps Dr. Witherington should have said “a use apart from Jesus of Nazareth”, which might be the case.