I Couldn’t Have Said It Better Myself

While I’ve noted the debates surrounding Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament and the subsequent termination of his employment at Westminster Theological Seminary, I confess that I haven’t followed them particularly closely.  After discovering Enns’ blog, however, I’ve followed with interest a recent series of posts in which he responds to the earlier comments of Bruce Waltke, including the contention that his primary hermeneutical model often destabilizes the faith of his students.  His replies include a number of especially salient observations regarding the failure of the church to adequately respond to scholarly and scientific developments (which I believe likely apply to many Christian denominations, not just evangelicals).  These are worthy of being quoted at length:

As I have said in other contexts and to Waltke several years ago, I understand people’s faith can be shaken by what I am advocating (as they can by things Waltke advocates about Isaiah, evolution, etc.). But I am as concerned about people whose faith has already been shaken because of bad answers they have gotten to good and necessary questions.

I have a folder (electronic and paper) of people who used to be Christians but are now atheists, or were evangelical and now don’t know what they are, not because of people like me, but because the only options open to them when they encountered the world of modern biblical scholarship was “you either believe the Bible or you believe the critics.” This is an absurd dichotomy. To those knowledgeable about the very real and difficult challenges presented by biblical scholarship, and who are presented with these two options, there is no contest: the critics win. The question is whether these are the only two options available.

Both Waltke and I would agree that there are other options open to us that move beyond this dichotomy. We disagree on the best path to take. My main point in all of this is that the challenges we face in the present moment—and have been facing for generations—will not be settled without rethinking how persuasive past approaches have been.

It is regularly observed that the kinds of issues being raised by me and others are issues that have “already been settled” in evangelical scholarship, and so need no reexamination. Rather, what is required is to get in line. Yet, the same issues keep coming up regularly among evangelicals on both the popular and academic levels. The question is why. I realize that will be answered differently by different people, but the question is valid, even urgent. Neither “side” is going away, and unless the matter is addressed constructively, divisions will be exacerbated. For those of us who recognize the value of true dialogue, this would be a sad development.

This excerpt from his final post addresses the same theme:

I have said this on other occasions and it bears repeating: the tensions in conservative American Christianity that began in earnest in the 19th century were not so much “caused” by higher-critical scholarship, but by the clash of some very legitimate newer insights into the Bible (e.g., pentateuchal authorship, the ANE background to Genesis, etc., etc., etc.) with older theological paradigms that were not suited to address these newer insights. I understand that the matter is a bit more complicated than I lay out here, but the general contours are clear to me. The resulting liberal/fundamentalist divide was perhaps an inevitable perfect storm, but neither option does justice to the rich possibilities before us.

If I may continue a rather reductionistic analysis (which is not accurate on the level of historical analysis, but is alive and well, nonetheless—indeed, perpetuated—in some popular circles): liberals looked at our developing knowledge of the ancient world of the Bible and said “A ha, I told you. The Bible is nothing special. Israelite religion is just like any other ancient faith. You conservatives need to get over yourselves.” The fundamentalist response was (fingers firmly planted in ears) “La la la la la la, I do not hear you. There may be a millimeter of insight in some of what you are saying, but if what you are saying is true, our theology—which is the sure truth of Scripture, handed down through the ages—is false, and that is unthinkable.”

Battle lines were drawn rather than theological and hermeneutical principles reassessed.

I am drawing out this point somewhat because I am hoping that this exchange with Waltke can be seen, on both our parts, as a conscious attempt not to repeat past mistakes of drawing lines in the sand prematurely and so encourage yet another “battle for the Bible.” It may be time, as my teen-age daughter tells me, to “seriously chill” (I need to remind her of what an oxymoron is) and ask afresh, with now several generations of mountains of data and reflection behind us, “What is our Bible, anyway? What is it here for? What do we do with it? What is it prepared to say? What does it mean to handle it properly?”

Even in my home church, a relatively progressive United Methodist congregation composed primarily of white-collar, college-educated individuals, I find people who view biblical scholarship as a potentially dangerous entity which has little or nothing to offer to their faith.  At best, they are deprived of the additional richness which historical and other critical insights may bring to their encounters with the scriptures; at worst, unable to address the “real and difficult questions presented by biblical scholarship,” they eventually leave the church.  Sensitive, engaging education and dialogue are the keys to overcoming the false dichotomy which places the Bible on one side and critical judgment on the other.  As Enns and others have shown, it is quite possible to approach scholarly issues from a perspective of faith.  It is often a difficult process, but it can be a singularly rewarding one.

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June 2009


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

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