The Peter Enns Controversy at Westminster Seminary

In the past thirty years or so, various "evangelical" scholars and institutions have been moving away from traditional Christian doctrines concerning the nature of Scripture, and adopting views which are not essentially different from those espoused by liberal churchmen of the late nineteenth century. * One of the institutions where this leftward drift has been happening is Westminster Seminary at Philadelphia. Recently, however, the advance of liberalism there hit an obstacle after one of its faculty, Peter Enns, published a particularly offensive book, entitled Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005). This book presented a view of "inspiration" which was intolerable to most members of the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches served by Westminster Seminary, and to the few professors at Westminster who have continued to teach the old views of scripture set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The reaction to Enns' book was so strong that in 2008 he was finally compelled to leave the seminary, amid much controversy.

In his book, Enns did not present anything substantially new, beyond what he had picked up from liberal books, and from what he had maintained previously in journal articles and in his lectures to students at the seminary. The substance of it was, that in his opinion the traditional doctrine of inspiration is clearly wrong, because modern critical study has established beyond all reasonable doubt that the Bible contains mythological and legendary material borrowed from various Ancient Near Eastern traditions, that it is composed of parts which contradict one another in many ways, that the New Testament interpretations of the Old Testament are invalid and misleading, and so forth. These views he put forth in somewhat guarded language—e.g. using the words "tensions" and "diversity" when he meant "contradictions"—but the ideological tendency of his argument was unmistakably liberal, and he did not refrain from insinuating that those who hold to the old orthodox teachings about verbal and plenary inspiration were intellectually incompetent and dishonest.

Most of the professors at Westminster found nothing objectionable in all this, and tried to protect Enns from the criticism that he provoked. We will pass over their arguments in silence. But we reproduce here two reports authored by the conservative members of the Westminster faculty, in which they explain why Enns' views are in conflict with biblical and historic Christian teachings on the nature of Scripture. They are:

The most offensive aspect of Enns' work is his constant insinuation that all the illustrious Protestant scholars and theologians of past generations have not dealt intelligently with the subjects he raises in his book, and that "new discoveries" have somehow quite recently made anything formerly said on these subjects obsolete and worthless. The truth is, there has never been a time when Christian scholars were unaware of such things as the similarities between the flood story in Genesis and other flood stories of ancient times. To give only one example, John Calvin in the sixteenth century noticed the parallels in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and had this to say about them in his Commentary on Genesis:

Multis post saeculis, quia Dei iudicio et misericordiae caliginem induxerat impia hominum oblivio, ianua Satanae mendaciis aperta fuit: cuius artificio factum est ut profani poetae futiles adeoque noxias fabulas spargerent, quibus veritas operum Dei adulterata fuit. — Many ages afterwards, because the impious forgetfulness of men had made them insensible to the judgement and mercy of God, a door was opened for the lies of Satan, by whose artifice it came about that profane poets spread around futile and noxious fables, through which the truth about God's works was adulterated. (Commentary on Genesis, 10:1)

And again, he writes concerning pagan myths which resemble in some ways the story of Sodom's destruction:

Hic mirabile Dei iudicium refert Moses, quod uxor Lot fuerit in statuam salis conversa. Huius autem historiae praetextu Mosen subsannant nasuti et protervi homines: nam quum haec metamorphosis nihilo plus coloris habeat quam quas Ovidius confinxit, nihil fidei mereri iactant. Ego vero Satanae artificio factum esse potius arbitror, ut Ovidius fabuloso nugando, huic tam insigni divinae vindictae documento fidem oblique derogaverit. Sed quid profanis hominibus comminisci libuerit, nostra nihil refert. Tantum expendere operae pretium est, num absurdum quid vel incredibile contineat Mosis narratio. — Moses reports this miraculous judgment of God, in which Lot's wife is transformed into a statue of salt. But on account of this story, scornful and impudent men mock Moses; they boast that it is unworthy of belief, having no more semblance of truth than the metamorphoses invented by Ovid. Indeed I suppose this has come through the artifice of Satan, that by Ovid's foolish fable-mongering he would cast discredit upon such an outstanding example of divine vengeance. But whatever profane men might be pleased to invent is no concern of ours. The only important thing to be determined is whether the narrative of Moses contains anything absurd or incredible. (Commentary on Genesis, 19:26)

Recent discoveries have brought to light nothing more impressive than the parallels in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and have not changed the nature of this question. Modern scholars do not have any new information that would force an abandonment of Calvin's way of understanding these parallels. They certainly have no advantage over the ancient Fathers of the Christian Church in this regard. So the difference between Calvin and Enns is essentially theological, and Enns' opinion is well summarized by Calvin when he writes, Huius autem historiae praetextu Mosen subsannant nasuti et protervi homines: nam quum haec metamorphosis nihilo plus coloris habeat quam quas Ovidius confinxit.

One good thing to come out of this unedifying episode was some clarification of how the term "evangelical" is commonly used by scholars and seminary administrators today. In a joint statement issued by the WTS administration and Enns, announcing his departure in July 2008, we find that with regards to Enns "the administration wishes to acknowledge ... that his teaching and writings fall within the purview of Evangelical thought." If now the word "Evangelical" (with a capital "E") has become so debased that it must be applied even to such things as this, then the usefulness of the word has come to an end.

* Students will find that most of the features of modern liberal "evangelical" thought are derived with little alteration from such nineteenth-century liberal sources as Charles A. Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1899). Enns in particular resembles Briggs, not only in his ideas, but also in his manner of presenting and defending them.