Putting the Ecclesia in The Ecclesial Calvinist

Bill Evans comments on the ongoing fall out surrounding Pete Enns and Westminster Seminary. He sees it as an impasse between two ways of interpreting the Bible — the Christotelic (Enns) and the grammatico-historical (anti-Enns):

What are the characteristics of christotelic interpretation? First, there is a rejection of grammatical-historical interpretation as the only legitimate hermeneutical approach to Scripture. Yes, they say, it is important to understand the biblical text in its original linguistic and historical context, but we can’t stop there. Grammatical-historical interpretation is a creature of modernity, and earlier Christian interpreters were not tied to it—the NT writers sometimes interpret OT texts in ways that likely would not have occurred to Isaiah or Hosea. Also, grammatical-historical interpretation asks what the text would have meant to the original human author, but the Bible is also divinely inspired and our interpretation must take this divine origin and perspective into account as well.

Second, the larger meaning of the text resides in the text as it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and this meaning is then progressively grasped by the human audience over the course of redemptive history. Here there is particular focus on the Scriptural canon as a whole as the context within which christotelic interpretation takes place.

Finally, all this leads to a programmatic distinction between “first reading” and “second reading.” In the first reading we encounter the text without reference to the conclusion of the story, while in the second reading we see levels of meaning we did not see before precisely because we know how the story ends and how things fit together.

It is not entirely surprising that this approach would be controversial. Proponents of christotelic interpretation have sometimes overstated their case, suggesting that the Old Testament, when interpreted simply according to grammatical-historical method, is not a Christian book. One can understand why some would view this as a denial of the “organic connection” between the OT and the NT and as an example of creeping naturalism. In addition, evangelical Protestants have generally had a rather static view of the text and its meaning as inhering in the intent of the original human author, and grammatical-historical interpretation is often regarded as the normative method of interpretation. Finally, this approach also seems to engage questions of Protestant identity in that grammatical-historical interpretation is often regarded as a hallmark of Protestantism over against Catholic allegorical and sensus plenior approaches.

How, then, shall we characterize the opposing position? First, there is the affirmation of grammatical-historical interpretation as the normative method of biblical interpretation. Thus the meaning of the text resides in the author’s intention.

Second, the grammatical-historical method is redefined so as to remove the Enlightenment emphasis on human autonomy and the resulting exclusion of God from consideration. Thus it is expanded to include divine influence on the human authors’ psychology as legitimate considerations for interpretation. Along this line, grammatical-historical method is also recast to include biblical typology, which is seen as arising intrinsically out of the grammatical-historical meaning of the text.

The odd aspect of this analysis is the idea that Enns and others are somehow adopting an older, premodern understanding of the Bible compared to Enns’ critics who have embraced the Enlightenment. In point of fact, it was largely the theologians and historical theologians who opposed Enns’ views, while Enns and some of his supporters were academically trained at elite universities and thoroughly at home in the very modern and enlightened world of the Society of Biblical Literature.

So if the contrast between old and new academic methods doesn’t explain the controversy, what about the church? Here I’d argue that Enns was not thinking with the church about interpreting the Bible or how to conceive of Scripture while his critics were representing the confessional standards of Reformed churches. Furthermore, if Enns had been thinking with the OPC or the PCA, he likely wouldn’t have written his controversial book. Does that mean that Reformed churches put limits (in a very pre-modern way) on academic freedom? Heck yeah. Which also means that the Enlightenment/pre-modern assessment by Evans doesn’t go very far.

Evans concludes somewhat nostalgically about what this means for WTS:

The institution that I attended in the 1980s was one in which Ray Dillard and Dick Gaffin and Sinclair Ferguson and Harvie Conn and Tremper Longman and Vern Poythress and Philip Edgcumbe Hughes and Clair Davis and Robert Knudsen and Tim Keller and Moises Silva and Roger Greenway and Manny Ortiz and Rick Gamble could get along and work together despite their sometimes considerable differences. That institution is now apparently gone. Of course, nothing stays the same, and perhaps a new context and new challenges demand that lines be drawn more narrowly. It remains to be seen, however, whether a narrower institution can thrive in the current challenging seminary market environment. Furthermore, will it produce scholarship that is meaningful and useful to the broader Christian world rather than catering to the boundary preoccupations of the conservative Reformed subculture?

But Evans doesn’t consider that WTS 2.0 was not WTS 1.0 — the school of Van Til, Murray, Stonehouse, Young, and Kuiper, the school that was decidedly ecclesial in serving the OPC but also achieving an international reputation (at least among Protestants). I don’t think Harvard or Yale were paying much attention to WTS 1.0. But I’m not sure they did to 2.0 either.


42 thoughts on “Putting the Ecclesia in The Ecclesial Calvinist

  1. Given that he also thinks the confessions are optional, the Ecclesial Calvinist is anything but…


  2. The current issue is quite different to the one that ended in the departure of Enns. So the fact that historians were against Enns arguments means very little in this context.


  3. Did I misunderstand Evans’ article? I thought he was arguing that Green with his grammatico-historical approach is wrongly being associated with Enns’ Christotelic hermeneutic. Evans is arguing that with certain qualifications the grammatico-historical hermeneutic is at least tolerable; not of the same sort as Enns’ hermeneutic. The issue between WTS and Green (as with Dan McCartney) is between a redemptive-historical hermeneutic (e.g., Gaffin, Beale, Tipton) and a grammatico-historical hermeneutic (Green). Maybe the problem is that Evans doesn’t state the concern of the r-h guys regarding the g-h guys; either that or I am reading into Evans something he doesn’t intend, but I don’t think so.


  4. I hate to say it, because I must presuppose that Enns is wrong, but he (or at least Evans describing him) seems to make a good point. I can’t believe every OT author really, fully, consciously intended the NT import of what they wrote. I mean, take Moses as a simple case, since so much of his work was literally dictation. Did he really understand how the sacrificial system typified the coming messiah?


  5. @RubeRad

    The ultimate concern is, was Moses saved the same way as a NT believer, or are there 2 ways of salvation?

    Just as Joseph knew having his bones taken to Canaan (Hebrews 11) was not ultimate, Moses knew that sacrificing animals in and of itself did not save. Although there are important distinctions between the OT and the NT there is a vital connection.


  6. Yes, a vital connection but according to this description (maybe not accurate), Enns comports better with the surprising ways the NT itself interprets the OT. I mean Gal 3:16 seed vs seeds? Did Moses really understand what he was writing there?


  7. It would be best to read Enns himself, but I think the concern and claim was that he went beyond surprise. There was also the issue of using ANE literature (for example) to reinterpret Scripture & inerrancy.


  8. I think Moses knew that the shedding of blood was necessary for propitiation, and that the blood of bulls and goats whilst providing a temporary stay of execution, as it were, was not effectual to salvation and only had that power of staying execution because it represented the shedding of the blood of one who was to come and whose blood was effectual. I think he knew that and I think he has to have known that.


  9. After all that was Cain’s offence: that he did not offer a sacrifice of blood, as his father evidently had taught him (since Abel knew to offer that), as the Lord taught him (Adam).


  10. Mark G., It looks like Evans is associating Green with Enns all under the Christotelic approach:

    While Enns departed WTS in 2008 and now teaches at Eastern University, other present and former WTS faculty members were saying somewhat similar things about the NT writers’ use of the OT, and the tensions continued, albeit at a somewhat lower temperature. Among these have been Green (here and here) and current Redeemer Seminary NT Professor Dan McCartney (here).


  11. Rube, but what do you do when an OT professor continues to read the Bible as if ST is illegitimate — that is, trying to understand the whole of the Bible as opposed to the single perspective of an individual biblical author? If you ask me, that’s also part of what Enns was saying — ST is fundamentally flawed in the way it uses Scripture.


  12. The discussion moved on from whether ST is illegitimate to whether Moses knew what ST was and how much he knew. I bet too that the opponents of this view would disagree with each with regards to exactly what propositional truths Moses/Abraham/Prophets knew about ST.


  13. @ Alexander: “Systematic theology”

    @ Rube: I’m with Mark G. I think the OT authors wrote less than they knew.

    Three examples: We don’t find out until Hebrews that Abe believed Isaac would return from the dead. No-one seems to notice until Jesus points it out that David says that “The Lord said to my Lord…” And finally, we get this promise to Eve, and then nothing is made of it … Except that it drives the entire Messianic expectation.

    I don’t think you *can* take Moses on his own, because I’m not sure he said all that he knew.


  14. @DGH
    Yes, but I believe he is arguing that this guilt by association (christotelic/grammatical-historical; Enns/Green) is incorrect if the grammatical-historical hermeneutic / two-readings approach is qualified by such things as the work of the HS in authorial intent (a la Green). I understood Evans to be sympathetic to Green but not to Enns and to be concerned about WTS becoming too narrowly redemptive-historical (an unnamed opponent) in its approach. The Enns fallout should not have continued in his opinion. Also informative, consider the following: 1) Lane Tipton’s criticism of Dan McCartney’s grammatical-historical hermeneutic on Reformed Forum; followed by strong debate. 2) I’ve seen some guilt by association claims concerning Enns, Green and Kelley made on other websites. 3) The WTS standard Green took exception to during Enns case. 4) WTS hired Iain Duguid in May before dismissing Green. Duguid’s hermeneutic is redemptive historical, more in line with Vos, Beale, Gaffin, Tipton. Evans doesn’t bring all this out but I believe it is in the background. My read is that there is strong disagreement at WTS regarding the priority of author intent (anthropology) & divine revelation and making too much of a division (rather than appropriate distinctions) between the OT and the NT.


  15. @DGH

    What I am finding confusing about the Evans article is that he initially frames the hermeneutical disagreement in terms of Green and McCarney versus Tipton, Poytress and Beale. He then goes on to discuss christotelic (Enns) and grammatical-historical. I would have considered TPB to be redemptive-historical along the lines of Vos / Gaffin. However, Evans never mentions R-H hermeneutic in his article. If one of the characteristics of G-H is the primacy of author intent and a first-reading / second-reading method I don’t think this can be said of Tipton and Beale. I know Tipton’s concern is for the primacy of DIVINE revelation along the lines of Vos/Gaffin, not primacy of the human author (e.g., his Vos Group lectures on Reformed Forum). It seems that Evans is either missing R-H in his article or subsuming it under G-H. ??


  16. Jeff,

    You said,

    I think the OT authors wrote less than they knew…I don’t think you *can* take Moses on his own, because I’m not sure he said all that he knew.

    I think this is a potentially sound response, but I think it is actually the opposite–the writers of the OT wrote more than they knew in a very important sense. It very well could be that Moses knew about the significance of Abraham’s belief about Isaac but didn’t report on it, but even if he didn’t the Scriptures are the Word of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit. It could have been, for example, that Moses had a completely different intention (and a legitimate one at that) in including the story of Isaac, but that behind this also resides the movement of the Holy Spirit to point to a pre-figure Christ in ways that Moses was unable to understand or see because of his place in redemptive history.

    In other words, when exegeting the OT texts we need to realize that the authors wrote less than what they knew, but they also wrote significantly more than what they knew as well.


  17. @DGH
    I see from re-reading a Dan McCartney article that Evans is using “grammatical-historical” in a way I usually don’t. I would consider Tipton’s hermeneutic to be basically redemptive-historical along the lines of Vos and Gaffin. Evans seems to be saying though that Tipton, Poythress and Beale are G-H. With respect to Beale this would be consistent with the McCartney’s article. To G-H Beale adds on a typological hermeneutic. However, after reading “Temple and the Churches Mission” and “BT of the NT” I can’t say I got much of a sense of authorial intent and first-reading / second-reading being primary for Beale. He seemed much more concerned with interpreting the OT in light of the NT and typology.


  18. @DGH
    In short you are correct that Evans sees this at a conflict between Christocentric versus grammatical-historical.


  19. What would Matthew Henry’s view of Enns’ hermeneutic be? That will clear things up for me.


  20. Mark G., and my point is that none of what you say actually addresses where the church is or what it teaches in these discussions. And for a period at WTS, what the church said in her confessions was not a high priority. The confession had the sort of standing that could allow Enns and others to think that what they were doing was peachy. In that case, Enns was rightly surprised to see orthodoxy enforced, while orthodoxy had been troubled by the lack of attention.


  21. Mark G., thanks for all that background checking. I still think the big divide at WTS was biblical theology versus systematic theology. Redemptive historical matters overlay this division and sometimes may have made it less obvious. But at the end of the day, Enns touched the third rail of inerrancy, which is largely an ST matter that flows pretty naturally from the first chapter of the Confession of Faith.


  22. DGH: Do you think the changes at WTS may signal a move (return) toward a more ecclesial/confessional/orthodox position?

    The Stonehouse, Murray, Van Til era was before my awareness of Reformed churches. I appreciate their academic work but have no direct sense for how they related to the church on the ground.


  23. DGH-” If you ask me, that’s also part of what Enns was saying — ST is fundamentally flawed in the way it uses Scripture.”

    Without regard to the specifics of the Wesminster situation, of which I really have no knowledge, I think that statement is true, but only up to a point. I read Inspiration and Incarnation when it was relatively new, and one of the folks in the group I was reading it with predicted if would be controversial for this reason. But in the field of OT studies, as practiced at every American and European research University I know of, his basic view of the OT would be non-controversial. Where he went astray might well have been in proposing a model (incarnation) to integrate the OT and NT and making it modestly accessible. In other words, as the friend I referenced above said, ” The secret to running a happy Seminary is to keep the Old Testament department as far away from the Theology department as possible, and Enns was trying to freelance his own ST.

    (By the way, I think Enns book is worth a read, though I don’t think his “Incarnational” model is much of a way forward if you think integration of the OT and the NT is a problem)


  24. Mark G., I’ll be circumspect and say I’m not sure. But I’d say that WTS is now in a 3.0 version. Whether it will still work with WTS 1.0 is another question.


  25. Dan, I’m not sure it is merely OT scholarship that poses a problem for ST. NT scholars do their part and I believe the fundamental reason is that they don’t approach the Bible as the word of God — that is, one book of God’s revelation. I get it. How could they in an environment that looks at a claim like the Bible is the word of God like something from Joseph Smith or Mohammed. So the way to keep your niche in the academy is to treat an ancient and sacred book as if its a collection of human writings. Biblical theology tries to do justice to the particularity of human expressions and the whole of God’s word. But aside from a brief moment when guys like Brevard Childs was well regarded in SBL circles — thanks in part to the popularity and mainstream acceptance of neo-Orthodoxy and Reinhold Niebuhr on the cover of Time — BT is not a factor in biblical studies.

    Which means that Enns may be on the cutting edge of ETS, but Inspiration and Incarnation was not exactly turning heads at SBL or AAR.


  26. “In other words, when exegeting the OT texts we need to realize that the authors wrote less than what they knew, but they also wrote significantly more than what they knew as well.”

    So what did they actually know ? I ask because ‘whether they knew or not’ is becoming a marker for orthodoxy in some circles, and it helps to know what they are actually supposed to have known.


  27. DGH, I get what you are saying, but don’t you think this sort of thing is going to be a continuing issue as long as confessional/conservative seminaries seek out profs with CV’s that resemble Enns? Or measure, at least partially, their success by the number of their graduates that are able to get into PHD programs at Yale, Princeton, Duke, etc.? It seems to me almost inevitable that sooner or later seminaries lose ther focus on service to the Church.


  28. I think it is incorrect and somewhat simplistic to see a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, redemptive history, and the “Christotelic” focus of Scripture as somehow being antithetical. I would suggest that a grammatical-historical approach to Scripture yields redemptive history, and shows that Christ is the ultimate end/goal (telos) of all of Scripture. Likewise, I think it is simplistic to contrast Systematic Theology (ST) and Redemptive Historical Theology (RHT). If I may reverently misquote Scripture, “What God hath brought together, let no man put asunder.” The two should work together, and the one (ST) arises out of and is a systematization of the other (RHT).

    It is my understanding that Vos never denigrated ST, nor did he see his advocacy of biblical theology as being contrary to ST. Why should we see as enemies those things that ought to be friends?

    Is it not an unbalanced emphasis on one or the other, and not holding all of these things together in proper biblical, confessional balance, that produces erroneous views like those of Dr. Enns?

    Seems to me that we Reformed sometimes spend too much time trying to find things about which to debate, or trying to find differences and make sharp distinctions where such distinctions are unnecessary.


  29. Dan,

    But it is possible to go to grad school and still desire to serve the church. Hard but not impossible. Think of those Princetonians going off to Germany.

    But if the idea is to go to grad school to boost the cause of evangelical triumphalism, watch out.


  30. @DgH

    NT scholars do their part and I believe the fundamental reason is that they don’t approach the Bible as the word of God — that is, one book of God’s revelation. I get it. How could they in an environment that looks at a claim like the Bible is the word of God like something from Joseph Smith or Mohammed.

    I’m going to have to disagree with you DgH here. I’d say American mainstream biblical scholarship is still fundamentally Christian and seeks to treat the bible as a single unitary book. They don’t really treat it as skeptically as they do other ancient sources. If you compare mainstream scholarship to atheist scholarship you can see a rather stark difference. I see most mainstream scholarship as liberal Christian.


  31. CD, do you believe that our forgiveness of other sinners is conditional on their repentance? Do you believe that our forgiveness of other sinners is conditional on our having perfectly removed the big planks from our own eyes? Do you think this private personal forgiveness needs to wait for the due process of ecclesial discernment?

    I don’t have an agenda on these points. I ask because I think of you as the unitarian discipline guy…I assume that means you don’t think forgiveness depends on Christ’s satisfaction of divine law…correct me if I am wrong


  32. CD-H, maybe, but can you name one “mainstream” scholar who has yet to answer Robert Funk’s SBL presidential address about the arbitrariness of canon? Sure, SBL rests on the premise that these 66 books or so are in a single volume. But no one goes near defending that unity. They accept it as convention and so follow the church but they’ll be damned if they ever follow the church in its interpretation of the canon.


  33. @Mark —

    If you are asking what I actually believe I don’t believe in divinities at all. We have the ability to develop a social framework of forgiveness however we collectively choose. You can see cultures all over the planet and people all over the planet today. So for example in China holding grudges about trivial things that caused someone to lose face (embarrassed them) is considered acceptable. On the other hand public apologies are given more weight because being willing to lose face to preserve a relationship is important. Cultures like Landmark (EST) encourage people to start each interaction fresh and not hold baggage. They want their people to work towards treating everyone as much as possible as if their reactions are as situational as they see their own reactions as being. Arab culture has strong ideas about hospitality but often very positive attitudes toward revenge. American Christian culture tends to preach a very liberal doctrine of forgiveness in a country with one of the harshest, least therapeutic and most punitive prison systems in the world. In practice forgiveness in America tends to flow most freely from indifference.

    If you are asking what I believe the bible teaches regarding the doctrine of forgiveness, I think the bible (including the New Testament) has a variety of theologies that change within books, between books especially between authors and overtime. The bible spends an enormous amount of time on the importance of being good and righteous. It also spends a lot of time on the issue of forgiveness from which the sacrificial system arose. Finally there is a bunch of material about how to reinterpret that sacrificial system and the broader idea of sacrifice in a culture that no longer believes in a god who would be concerned with material animal sacrifice.

    If you are asking whether if I assume something like the normative Christian frame which is more consistent with scripture Arminian or Calvinistic doctrine well… I I think it really comes down to a question of methodology because of the inconsistency. If I have to pick which doctrine is closest to the majority of the text I’d come in with something like semi-Pelagianism (what Arminianism often is in practice) fully understanding there are some verses inconsistent with it. I think Reformd/Calvinism works very hard to systemize and does a very interesting job. Arguably the best job possible of trying to force consistency. But the biblical inconsistency gets absorbed into the doctrine itself creating tremendous internal inconsistencies. So in practice once you ask basic questions about the Calvinist framing of the doctrine of sin it simply makes no sense. IMHO Calvinist can’t believe in Calvinism because of the deep internal contradictions. Worse yet the Calvinist doctrine is simply inconsistent with our everyday experience of the world. So it becomes difficult to live the Reformed view of forgiveness. Instead the scope has to be continually reduced to so that effectively people can act as if they believed in semi-Pelagianism while still preaching Reformed theology.

    I don’t know if that answered your question.


  34. @DgH

    Let’s take it from the other direction. There have been some moves on the hard left fringe of Christianity to move away from the idea of canon entirely. To realize that it is arbitrary and that Christianity should move towards something like the Jewish concept that there aren’t clear dividing lines but rather books of greater and lesser importance. A fuzzy canon. There is almost no one in the SBL who adopts these views. And of course this is the atheist scholar view. Yes SBL is to the left of the right, they are liberal Christians. But no they aren’t actually acting as non-Christian as you were saying. You can verify this by looking at the way genuine non-Christians (or even more liberal Christians) do treat the question of canon.

    That’s my point. That SBL is fundamentally Christian. Liberal Christian but Christian none the less.


  35. cd—American Christian culture tends to preach a very liberal doctrine of forgiveness in a country with one of the harshest, least therapeutic and most punitive prison systems in the world. In practice forgiveness in America tends to flow most freely from indifference.

    mark–Instead of asking you if you think some of the Nazis were “Christian”, I want to agree with you about the confusion of tolerance and liberty, the mixing up of indifference and the giving which is forgiving. Even in churches, what I hear tends to be—I will cut you some slack, because I need you to cut me some slack.

    The model of Christ forgiving the soldiers who murdered Him and loving some of His enemies is not that much in the picture. And even less the justice of Christ’s substitution satisfaction of law….


  36. Stan Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe, p 136—“Justification by faith is made a truth to underwrite a neegneralized version of humility in order to make Christians trusted players in the liberal game of tolerance.”

    Sam Wells—“The chaplains retain the right to be present in rites of passage and suffering on the condition that they take for granted that Christ makes no difference.”


  37. CD-H, so SBL is the PCUSA at thought. AAR is the thought that PCUSA is squishy.

    That’s a good quip, I like that. And besides being well put, yeah that is what I was aiming for.


  38. “The greatest immorality of the contemporary ministry is its willingness to substitute socialization for
    belief in God. … As a result the church becomes a means of underwriting the dominant ethos of our culture, the social status of members, rather than being a people who think nothing is more important than the worship of God.” Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Clerical Character,’ Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living in Between (Labyrinth 1987) , p 147


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