27 April 2008

follow-up on westminster theological seminary

Following up from earlier posts, I wanted to provide an update concerning Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS).

Responding to a request from the Chairman of its Board, WTS has made a collection of documents available on its website, pertaining to the recent controversy surrounding Old Testament professor Peter Enns and giving background to his impending suspension.

According to a statement from the Board's chair, these documents are provided "in interest of theological clarity, educational growth and institutional transparency." Some blogs note that WTS students also received copies of these documents just prior to their appearance online.

Included among the documents are:
[1] A "Historical and Theological Field Committee Report" (HTFC), an elaboration on five points of concern about and in response to Enns's book Inspiration and Incarnation, prepared by members of the systematics, historical, and apologetics faculties of WTS. It dates from 4 April 2006.

[2] A "Hermeneutics Field Committee's Reply to the HTFC" (HFC), a detailed response to the previous report, taking on its arguments against and approach to Enns's book Inspiration and Incarnation, prepared by members of the biblical faculties. It is undated, though I understand it was presented to the faculty in March 2007.

[3] The "Edgar-Kelly Motion," which is a series of proposed statements affirming, in part, that Enns's book remains within the confessional stance of WTS. In a faculty vote on 6 December 2007, 12 members of the faculty voted to adopt these motions, while 8 voted to reject them.

[4] A "Minority Report" from the 8 faculty who rejected the Edgar-Kelly motion, explaining their reasoning. This document also functions, in some respects, as a re-assertion of the main features of the HTFC report, against the HFC reply. I assume that it dates from after the 12-8 vote, but prior to the final item in the set of documents.

[5] A report entitled "'The Infallible Rule of Interpretation of Scripture': The Hermeneutical Crisis and the Westminster Standards," written by Peter Lillback, current President of WTS. It dates from 26 February 2008. Reports online state that members of the Board received a 200-page document from Lillback prior to its March meeting and decision to suspend Enns. Presumably then, Lillback's essay was an important part of the documents the Board received prior to its meeting.
There are also brief, new prefaces at the beginning of both the HTFC report and HFC reply, providing some context. Be warned that these items are all assembled as a single document, so the PDF file is large (146 pages).

Having spent some time wading through this material, perhaps a few observations are in order, though it is difficult even to know where to begin. My observations do not concern so much the substance of the issues at WTS represented by Enns's book, but rather what seems apparent or probable concerning institutional dynamics as witnessed to by these documents.

First, I'm grateful that WTS has made these documents public. President Lillback had said in his interaction with students at the 1 April 2008 chapel meeting:
...the theological work that has been developed behind the scenes by your faculty will begin to be disclosed...And so I want to assure you, you've not heard from the faculty. You've not heard from either the majority or the minority, but at some time, and at some point, you will. (a PDF of the transcript can be found here)
These documents allow those of us who remain concerned about WTS and its future to begin to "hear from the faculty." As such they provide a much needed perspective from the standpoint of the faculty involved, especially insofar as the issue has been framed in terms of "the disunity of the faculty." Here we finally begin to see the nature of that disunity and how it has played out.

The documents also help alleviate the growing sense that the process thus far has lacked transparency and that the concerns of important institutional stakeholders have been neglected in the process.

In all these ways, then, the availability of these documents is welcome.

Second, reading through the documents themselves, I think one cannot help but recognize that Enns's book, Inspiration and Incarnation is not so much the issue as it is a symptom of a deep fissure within the institutional character, trajectory, identity of WTS.

These documents, Lillback, and the Board, however, have focussed upon Enns, his book, and the disunity over them as the defining issue. Lillback, for instance, stated at the 1 April 2008 chapel, "the disunity [among faculty] constantly revolves around the specific book" and that the WTS "crisis emerges from a single primary source," referring to Enns.

Nonetheless, the evidence made available in these documents strongly indicates that the Enns book was merely a catalyst in bringing to the foreground already existing differences among faculty and departments. These differences, moreover, go back some years and are rooted in the history of WTS itself, particularly decades of development within its biblical departments.

This point raises the question whether the current crisis within the faculty, seemingly occasioned by the trajectory of its biblical departments, represents the growth of an already existing, but profound rift, or whether it represents the formation of a largely new rift, occasioned perhaps by other factors within the life of WTS.

The content of the HFC reply by the biblical faculties demonstrates that they at least perceive themselves as forming their scholarly identity in an already existing trajectory of development that has long been in place not only at WTS, but also as situated within the wider trajectory of Old Princeton and Old Amsterdam. If this is correct, then this suggests, whatever role developments within the biblical faculty may have played, the current difficulties are not unilateral in nature, nor simply the result of novel moves within biblical studies or on the part of Enns.

Perhaps, then, the current crisis bears witness to a larger breakdown in communication between departments and faculties, a failure of collegiality and inter-dependence between biblical studies on one side and systematic and historical studies on the other. Indeed, one wonders whether Enns might have written a better book had faculty collegiality and the inter-disciplinary environment been healthier.

In this context, one might also note various staffing and leadership changes that have occurred at WTS in recent years with various faculty moving on, retiring, or dying, and a variety of newer hires joining the faculty. Such staffing changes will inevitably affect an institution's sense of identity, continuity, and internal culture.

Third, given the interchange among faculty witnessed to in these reports, it is very difficult to see how Enns's suspension will do anything to alleviate matters. Indeed, it might well exacerbate them.

On one side, the "Minority Report" in response to the "Edgar-Kelly Motion" appears to add nothing of substance to the concerns expressed by the original HTFC report criticizing Enns's book. Nor does it take up any of the extensively argued responses to the HTFC report on the part of the biblical faculties in their HFC reply, though the new preface to the HTFC report does acknowledge having misquoted Enns.

On the other side, the newly added preface to the HFC reply by the biblical faculties states:
We also believe we have demonstrated that the approach of I&I and the signatories of HFC is not only in continuity with the Westminster-Old Princeton tradition of biblical investigation, but also provides a theologically sound, hermeneutically conscious, and culturally sensitive path for the church to continue to speak the unchanging Word of God into the changing worlds in which we live.
From this statement, it seems that the signers of the HFC reply would align themselves closely with Enns's book, referring to "the approach of I&I and the signatories of HFC" (emphasis mine). Moreover, they would see this approach as one that remains in fundamental continuity with Westminster-Old Princeton, whatever differences in emphasis the current cultural and scholarly context might require and whatever specific differences they might have among themselves.

This point, however, is not new with the preface. Indeed, the original introduction to the HFC reply by the biblical faculties notes that the report "will close with a sketch of our positive vision for biblical studies at WTS that is faithful to the Westminster Confession, submissive to the ultimate authority of Scripture, and sensitive to its actual character and teaching." Unfortunately, it appears that this "positive vision" would be found in "Appendix One," which is not included among the published materials. One can surmise, however, from the vigorous defense of Enns in the HFC reply - and various points raised and explored along the way within that defense - that such a "positive vision" would have significant continuities with how the HFC reply understands biblical studies at WTS in the tradition of Stonehouse, Young, Kline, Dillard, Longman, Groves, and others.

If my sense of the scholarly landscape here is accurate, then it seems difficult to see how the suspension of Enns serves the purpose of bringing unity to the faculty, except insofar as it removes one individual on one side of a much larger and seemingly intransigent divide. Perhaps the underlying issue is that one portion of the faculty, along with the President and majority of the Board, have a very different positive vision for biblical studies at WTS from that embraced by the current biblical faculty.

If that is so, then honesty and integrity suggest that this profound difference be acknowledged and brought to the center of debate. Otherwise, whatever controversy Enns might have occasioned by his book, the Board's treatment of Enns can too easily take on the appearance of scapegoating an individual for what are much larger and deeper institutional difficulties.

This issue was raised indirectly by students at the 1 April 2008 chapel meeting, where a student asked, given that it is unlikely that "the suspension or even the termination of one faculty member is going to end that divide or bring actual unity," whether the President or Board "have any intentions to pursue other faculty members along similar lines."

At that point President Lillback responded, "What the board may intend or not intend to do would remain in their prerogative. But at this point they have only specified Professor Enns," a response that the Board Chair repeated. By not ruling out an immediate intention to pursue further suspensions or terminations, the President and Board seemed to recognize that the rift among the faculty runs more deeply than simply Enns's book and that Enns's suspension might not be sufficient in resolving the difficulties.

Fourth, turning to President Lillback: among the various items included in the WTS documents, Lillback's paper is unique in that it expresses the viewpoint of a single individual, rather than a committee. Moreover, as WTS President, Lillback has a responsibility to the Board and various stakeholders to assure the integrity of any internal processes and, in his calling to make recommendations to the Board, Lillback has the power to shape enormously how the Board interfaces with Enns and the wider faculty.

At the 1 April 2008 chapel, Lillback situated the Board's action with reference to Enns in this way: "I wrote the massive amount of material I did to share with the Board so that they might know the facts as I could understand them and where the epicenter of the problem was." Given that Lillback's essay is the only document we have from his own hand, that it dates from no later than 26 Febrauary 2008 (a month before the Board meeting), and that it is obviously known to Board (and thus the Board chair asked that it be included in this set of documents), we can only assume that it is representative of the tone and character of Lillback's overall presentation and recommendation to the Board.

On one hand, Lillback seems ready to take full responsibility for his role in making a recommendation and shaping the Board's thinking on this subject. He said at the 1 April 2008 chapel:
As I understand these issues I think it is a very serious matter that we have to raise and I felt it was right for the school to raise that and I'm prepared to be held accountable for doing that. I do not flinch one little bit from the criticisms that come for me for making the recommendation.
I am glad to see Lillback acknowledge his role and commend him for it.

On the other hand, while rightly noting that the Board "bears final responsibility for the well-being of our school before the Lord and the public" (undated "Letter to Students" from March 2008, prior to the Board meeting), Lillback also seems to want to minimize his role and to suggest a greater degree of distance in the process than seems apparent from his essay.

He noted in the 1 April 2008 chapel that the Board's actual decision went further than his recommendation, including language of "termination" rather than merely "suspension." Lillback stated:
...the ultimate motion that was one that the Board entirely crafted and is not my motion. My motion did not use the word "termination," theirs does...Theirs is much stronger, and it was their vote, and not mine.
All of this, of course, is perfectly true.

Nonetheless, the climactic passage of Lillback's own essay poses the possibilities as an either/or crossroads for WTS that forces a stark choice: either sola scriptura or Enns, either "the evangelical doctrine of scripture" or Enns, either "Luther" or Enns, either "standing on God's word" or Enns. While Lillback's formal recommendation may have stopped short of suggesting termination, it seems clear to me that the burden of his essay pushed for more decisive action.

Concerning the essay itself, it is a peculiar piece. The footnotes, overall, are more extensive than the main text and contain a great deal of the essay's argument, a method into which academics like me can too easily slip, but which is considered poor form (I've seen it referred to as "footnote disease" by the style manuals).

Further, the method of argumentation seems somewhat scatter shot. While the main theme is the Westminster Confession's statement that "the only infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself," the actual argument ranges over a vast host of topics.

The essay strikes me as an attempt to grab and deploy any and every possible tool against Enns's book, drawing upon negative reviews, repeating various aspects of the HTFC report, and amassing various lists of quotations from Inspiration and Incarnation (often isolated phrases, taken out of context), hoping that among these various tools, something makes a dent. Strangely, the essay doesn't seem even to acknowledge the HFC reply to the HTFC report from nearly a year earlier, but rather makes a number of the same, already-criticized moves that the HTFC report did, without any real revision or acknowledgment of their problematic character.

Rhetorically, as noted above, the essay appears designed to provoke a response and sets out options in the starkest terms, an approach that would prima facie seem able to gain traction only with those already disposed to its conclusions.

Frankly, I think the essay is an embarrassment. I realize that presidents of academic institutions are often selected more for their vision or administrative skills (or even willingness to take on an unforgiving job) than necessarily their scholarship or academic rigor. Still, in my opinion, Lillback's essay is a disservice to the integrity and reputation of WTS.

Finally, then, for those of you interested in the ongoing difficulties at WTS, I would commend reading through all these materials. The two reports prepared by the faculty are, ultimately, edifying wherever one might come down in terms of the issues. Moreover, they provide a helpful window into the situation and, more generally, the kinds of internal struggles that religious institutions of learning inevitably face when they try to hold together both confessional boundaries and academic freedom.