This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series: ‘The Sin of Certainty’ (Enns)
In chapter 8 (‘Cultivating a habit of trust’), Peter Enns bares his heart. We learn that in his forties, he went through a bad time. His daughter had developed an anxiety disorder so severe that she had to be sent away to a boarding school far from home. A seemingly co-incidental and almost trivial incident struck him as a ‘God-moment’ that helped him to see that we do not have to know and understand before we commit to God in faith.
Enns then relates his version of the controversy provoked by his book ‘Inspiration and Incarnation’ (published in 2005, and leading to his departure from Westminster Theological Seminary three years later).
The book merely reproduced, more or less, what he had been teaching in class for 12 years. His very presence in the faculty was viewed with suspicion and resentment by many. Didn’t they realise that the poor man was also going through a hard time at home? Why did the board vote to suspend him when it was already know that he intended to resign? How could they treat him so badly, when the majority of the faculty supported him?
That Enns left Westminster, and his daughter’s graduation took place, on exactly the same day struck him as another deeply meaningful providence.
I have to say that if all this marks a low point in Enns’ life, it is also a low point in ‘The Sin of Certainty’. Enns presents himself as the innocent party. Completely. In his own eyes. I cannot comment on really comment on the way he was treated at Westminster, except to say that such experiences are bound to be painfully bruising. But the truth is that what he teaches in ‘Inspiration and Incarnation’ is not consistent with what Westminster Theological Seminary teaches. Even if his teaching about biblical inspiration is right, and theirs is wrong, they are still incompatible. The only surprise would be that it all came to a head so late.
But consider the following time line:- in 2000 Enns’ commentary on Exodus is published. In 2005 ‘Inspiration and Incarnation’ is published. Now, Enns claims that he had been teaching in class the substance of this latter book for the previous 12 years (i.e. since roughly 1993). Yet I can find little sign in the earlier book of the positions he would taken in the latter one. Perhaps he wasn’t being completely honest, in the commentary, about his true beliefs. If so, that was probably someone else’s fault too.
I detect in Enns’ published work a clear trajectory away from evangelical orthodoxy. Why doesn’t he just say: ‘I gradually moved away from the sorts of beliefs about the Bible that Westminster stands for. So the time came for us to part. It was painful, but inevitable.’ Instead, he paints himself as the innocent victim. Not his best moment.
Anyway, what Enns infers from his experiences at this difficult time is our ‘God-moments’ matter. His daughter learned from her time away from home that she is of eternal worth (a message that Enns says that neither she nor he ‘had ever heard…throughout our years of church life’. Amazing.)
For Enns, this was all a part of reconstructing what it means to be a Christian. And this involves relinquishing control and realising that it’s about journey and mystery. Old patterns of belief disintegrated. For a while, God himself seemed far away. But at least the knowledge-based, inauthentic, Christianity of former years had been left behind. Its place was taken by a contemplative faith, in which faith involved ‘letting go of the need to know, of the need to be certain.’
The community in which this new-found trust could be expressed and nurtured was the Episcopal church. Here his needs could be met: the need for less emphasis on word and more on sacrament; the need for a transrational centring on the Christian mysteries of incarnation and resurrection (what about the Cross, Pete?); a need to rest in the words of a tried-and-tested prayer book and liturgy; a need for a place where God can be trusted even when he is not understood.
It’s the Old Testament books of Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Job (what about the others, Pete?) that we find comparable expressions of a faith that includes doubt and confusion. The New Testament is different: it was written over a much shorter period, and therefore does not reflect the ‘long haul’. Moreover, the return of Jesus was thought to be imminent (Enns cites Mt 24:33f; 1 Thess 1:9f; 1 Cor 7:29,31; Rev 22:20): we face the problem that Jesus hasn’t yet returned, and so we connect less with the New Testament’s sense of urgency and more with the Old Testament’s lengthy wanderings.
What we do get from the New Testament is an invitation to mystical faith that is summed up in Paul’s expression ‘in Christ’. And if a big part of this is experiencing the power of Christ’s resurrection, another big part is suffering with Christ (Col 1:24; Rom 8:17; Phil 3:10f). When with think of suffering as Christians, we think of torture and imprisonment. But we should also think of the emotional and intellectual suffering that we find in the laments of the Old Testament. When we experience doubt and despair we are ‘suffering with Christ’: ‘we are more like Christ in these moments than we might realise.’ And it is ‘only by laying down the need to understand and by accepting the mystery of faith can any of truly make any “sense”.’
I realise that my attempt to precis Enns has become rather sarcastic it times. I do agree that Scripture makes room for expressions of doubt and even despair among God’s children. I agree too that today’s Christians need to be given room express similar feeling without fear of reprisal. But all this is a long way from the kind of celebration of doubt that Enns would have us indulge in. Scripture does not encourage doubt, but belief. Read 1 John, for example, with its repeated affirmations: ‘We know…we know…we know.’