Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Richard Gaffin responds to Peter Enns (2): WTS and Biblical Theology

The full document can be found here. Gaffin's critique of Enns continues:

A perception present among faculty supporters of I&I and others (for instance, many on the SOS website) is that opposition within the faculty to it and its major emphases is driven by an unduly restrictive and exegetically uninformed and disinterested confessionalism that signals, among other things, an abandonment of interest in biblical theology and the tradition of redemptive-historical interpretation that have been an important and distinctive part of the training provided by WTS over the years.

I disagree with this assessment. In fact, as someone who over the years in my teaching and writing has had no greater interest than biblical theology and its fructifying potential for systematic theology, I dispute it as vigorously as I can. The right of biblical theology as such is not at issue in the controversy over I&I. Not only does no one on the faculty with basic concerns about the book question that right, but we all, in differing degrees no doubt, cherish it and the continuance of biblical theology at WTS.

Rather, at stake are two contending understandings of biblical theology, the one for whom Geerhardus Vos can be said to be the father, the other a more recent and diverging conception reflected, for instance, in troublesome ways in views present in I&I. Why do I say this?

Consider the following quote from Vos, written in 1916 at the height of his career ("Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke" in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, pp. 232-33; bolding added):
In the fourth place the Reformed theology has with greater earnestness than any other type of Christian doctrine upheld the principles of the absoluteness and unchanging identity of truth. It is the most anti-pragmatic of all forms of Christian teaching. And this is all the more remarkable since it has from the beginning shown itself possessed of a true historic sense in the apprehension of the progressive character of the deliverance of truth. Its doctrine of the covenants on its historical side represents the first attempt at constructing a history of revelation and may justly be considered the precursor of what is at present called biblical theology. But the Reformed have always insisted upon it that at no point shall a recognition of the historical delivery and apprehension of truth be permitted to degenerate into a relativity of truth. The history remains a history of revelation. Its total product agrees absolutely in every respect with the sum of truth as it lies in the eternal mind and purpose of God. If already the religion of the Old and New Testament church was identical, while the process of supernatural revelation was still going on, how much more must the church, since God has spoken for the last time in His Son, uphold the ideal absoluteness of her faith as guaranteed by its agreement with the Word of God that abideth forever. It is an unchristian and an unbiblical procedure to make development superior to revelation instead of revelation superior to development, to accept belief and tendencies as true because they represent the spirit of the time and in a superficial optimism may be regarded as making for progress. Christian cognition is not an evolution of truth, but a fallible apprehension of truth which must at each point be tested by an accessible absolute norm of truth. To take one’s stand upon the infallibility of the Scriptures is an eminently religious act; it honors the supremacy of God in the sphere of truth in the same way as the author of Hebrews does by insisting upon it, notwithstanding all progress, that the Old and the New Testament are the same authoritative speech of God.(1)
In writing and lecturing over the years, I have occasionally cited what is bolded above, in the interests of affirming the continuity there is between confessional Reformed orthodoxy and the biblical theology advocated by Vos and others following him. Here, however, I want instead to direct attention to the nonbolded material, which I encourage you to go back and re-read, along with the footnote.

I am certainly not suggesting an exact correspondence between the outlook Vos was opposing and views present in I&I. But there is, I believe, an affinity, particularly on the fundamental and ever-crucial issue of the relationship between revelation and history and how that relationship is viewed. Vos stresses, specifically, that within Scripture the historical character of its truth, while integral, is subordinate to its revealed character. At every point revelation is superior to historical development.

In contrast, in the way I&I conceives of and utilizes the incarnational analogy, in what I&I both says as well as does not say, what Vos is so intent on affirming is at best unclear, especially for the Old Testament. In the approach of I&I, in a constitutive way as far as I can see, revelation is blurred by highlighting the “messiness” of history (e.g., 109, 110, 111, 161). With that blurring, meaningful divine authorship fades to a vanishing point by making the intention of each human author, with all the limitations of his historical situation and circumstances, determinative for the meaning of the text as it originated. With I&I’s resulting lack of clarity and uncertainty, Scripture, for Vos the “accessible absolute norm of truth” (“revealing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”) that we must have in our ever “fallible apprehension of truth,” is rendered obscure and uncertain.

Further, as Vos notes, “the religion of the Old and New Testament church [is] identical”; the way of salvation for both old and new covenants is the same. It is difficult to see how this truth, the unity of biblical religion - a central tenet of the Reformed faith (e.g., WCF, 7:5-6; 8:6; 11:6; WLC, 33-35) - is not being obscured, even compromised, by views in I&I and elsewhere (the article on “Faith” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, commented on below).

On his website, Dr. Enns has posted some comments on biblical theology (“What is Biblical Theology and Why Do I Like It So Much?” December 23, 2007). There (par. 10) he defines biblical theology as “an attempt to offer a coherent picture of Scripture, respecting the historical particularities of any portion while also understanding that portion as a part of a grand story whose conclusion is known to us.” As the “brief definition” he intends, this is helpful. But, then, as he spells out what this definition has in view, problems enter, particularly for how the Old Testament is viewed, problems akin to those already noted by many in I&I. For instance (par. 7 & 8), involved is “holding in tension two dimensions of the Bible’s own theological dynamic: (1) The theological contours of the OT, which is itself fluctuating, diverse, developing, and (2) observing how the NT writers ‘take captive’ the OT and bring it to bear on the reality of the crucified and risen Christ.” Needed as well, we are told, is “an adequate understanding of how the NT seizes the OT … enriched by understanding the hermeneutical world of the Second Temple period in which the NT writers wrote.”

Briefly, in response, in fact the NT does not “seize” the OT. If anything, if we choose to use such language, it is rather the NT writers who are “seized” by the OT; the OT, in its own all-encompassing and basically clear witness to Christ, “seizes” them. And it is hardly apt to speak of mastering perceived theological fluctuations (contradictions?) within the OT by “taking captive” the OT for Christ.

We are bound to judge otherwise in the light, for example, of what is said to be true about the pervasive Christ-centeredness of the OT in itself, in passages like Luke 24:44-45, John 5:39-47 and 1 Peter 1:10-11 - passages, unless I’ve missed something, about which Dr. Enns is silent in discussing the NT use of the OT in I&I and elsewhere, except for a brief treatment of Luke 24 in I&I as providing “a hermeneutical foundation for how the Old Testament is now to be understood by Christians” (119, italics added; cf. 129, 134).

In this regard, I accent here a point raised again below (in #5 on the NT use of the OT). In John 5:46-47 Jesus says to Jews who were rejecting him, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?" It seems reasonably clear that here Jesus affirms a relative overall clarity and independence of Moses (the OT), as a witness to himself, distinct from his own teaching (and so from the NT as well). So much is that the case (v. 45) that, in the just condemnation of those rejecting him, this OT witness to Christ serves as an adequate basis in itself and apart from his own self-witness. One does not get that impression of the OT from reading I&I.

I know that Dr. Enns sincerely believes that his work in biblical theology is on a trajectory that I, for one, as a former teacher, have helped to set. But, although I hope I have made responsible and peace-seeking efforts to be persuaded that I’m wrong, I’m left with the conclusion that we are not on the same trajectory in important ways. As I have tried to indicate here briefly, the biblical theology he advocates and that is reflected in I&I and elsewhere diverges from the Reformed and confessionally compatible biblical theology inaugurated by Vos. It does so in a way that blurs the fundamental difference there is between that biblical theology, founded, as it is, on a clear and biblically sound understanding of the Bible’s inspiration and final authority, on the one hand, and the historical-critical understanding of biblical theology, with its contrary presuppositions involving rational autonomy, on the other (one evidence of this methodological blurring is the perception, expressed repeatedly, that on the issues it raises I&I “move[s] beyond” (15) and “transcends” (171) the divide (“impasse ,“ 48) between liberal-modernist and evangelical-conservative-fundamentalist approaches, e.g., 14-15, 21, 41, 47, 49; see further the comments that follow in #3).

Dr. Enns captions his website, “a time to tear down | A Time to Build Up.” That is how he sees himself in his work. In the matter of biblical theology, for one, I fear that the effect (though not the intention) of that work is to tear down what WTS has stood for and to build up something that is proving to be alien.

So, as I contemplate all that has transpired and been brought to light by I&I and in the aftermath of its publication, including numerous colleagues who, with virtually no substantial reservations, have affirmed it, then, as he has asked toward the close of his “Reflections” (see above), I, for my part, am left wondering, with distress, “what has happened to Westminster?”


(1) Earlier in his 1894 inaugural address at Princeton Seminary, he wrote in a similar vein (“The Idea of Biblical Theology,” Redemptive History, p. 19):

The second point to be emphasized in our treatment of Biblical Theology is that the historical character of the truth is not in any way antithetical to, but throughout subordinated to, its revealed character. Scriptural truth is not absolute, notwithstanding its historic setting; but the historic setting has been employed by God for the very purpose of revealing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is not the duty of Biblical Theology to seek first the historic features of the Scriptural ideas, and to think that the absolute character of the truth as revealed of God is something secondary to be added thereunto. The reality of revelation should be the supreme factor by which the historic factor is kept under control. With the greatest variety of historical aspects, there can, nevertheless, be no inconsistencies or contradictions in the Word of God. The student of Biblical Theology is not to hunt for little systems in the Bible that shall be mutually exclusive, or to boast of his skill in detecting such as a mark of high scholarship.

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