Postures and trajectories of the Westminster Seminary debate

As much as I tried, I could not get away from reading and thinking about the documents that Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) posted on it’s website at the end of last week.

Here is my attempt to organize some of the fundamental raisons d’être and orientations that lie behind those disagreements.

As I see it, the disagreements at Westminster Seminary reflect a fundamental difference in way of being – an overall life orientation. At the core, one side fundamentally focuses on, “How did God speak through the Bible in its original contexts?” The other’s first question is, “Does what you say agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as interpreted by a select group of reformed interpreters?” These two foundational differences play out in their stances to Scripture, tradition, and discussion.

General Orientation and Focus (time, attention, energy, etc.):

  1. the Scripture in its original languages and cultural environment
  2. the Westminster Confession of Faith and historical interpretations of it

Both sides say they are committed to and respect both Scripture and the confession, but . . . the priorities and emphases (time, attention, energy, etc.) put them in radically different environements.

Orientation towards doctrines of the Bible

  1. Our ways of thinking about the Bible should arise out of the phenomena of how God revealed himself in the Scriptures.
  2. Our doctrines of the Bible should keep very closely to the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith and select traditional interpretations of this.

Orientation towards Bible study:

  1. Study of the Bible deepens, broadens, and nuances our understanding of God and his relationship with humans. How the NT authors interpreted the OT (Christotelically) is a key to this study. God spoke using human means.” We assume and build on the divine element emphasized in our tradition, but we also believe that the human dimension bears witness to how God operates. Part of our tradition accepted this human accommodation but did not always flesh this accomodation out in detail. God is bigger when we understand and respect the ways he chose to express himself in the Scripture.
  2. Study of the Bible generally focuses on key passages (mostly from Paul) with the aim at getting a more focused understanding of how our traditions interpreted them. Our traditional interpretations of these key texts in turn interpret other (less important?) or more difficult texts. God spoke. (full stop)” The written words in the Bible are divinely (as we have traditionally articulated God) decreed (dictated?) to the human authors in ways that are acceptable to our philosophical traditions. (“Dictation” is slightly more than we want to say, but we stay as close to it as possible.)

The issues of this debate are fleshed out and nuanced much better in Enn’s book Inspiration & Incarnation (only $12) and somewhat in some of the responses to reviews and the Westminster documents that attack or defend it (downloadable PDF). The debate is (or at least should be) largely over the nature (and articulation) of the divine-human expression found in Scripture. (Some of the critiques, however, seem off-point.)

Orientation towards Tradition

  1. How did our traditional heroes respond to the problems of their times, and how can we build on the spirit of that tradition in light of the new contexts, issues, and debates of today. (We look to our past traditions to build a dynamic and growing tradition.)
  2. What exactly did our traditional heroes say? (The issues of today are no different from the issues yesteryear.) We need to define carefully who is “orthodox” and who is “outside the pale of orthodoxy” in light of our past tradition. [Lillback’s essay – see next post – is the classic example of this.]

Hermeneutical Orientation:

  1. Biblical interpretations should shape our tradition.
  2. Our tradition limits our Biblical interpretation.

Speaking posture:

  1. discovery and dialogue
  2. defense and decree

These fundamental differences of orientation, trajectory and posture (way’s of being) are how I explain why the two sides are talking past (or against) each other. Some of these tensions have always existed at Westminster, but previous faculty agreed enough to publish a joint book about it – Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate (ed. Harvie Conn, 1988.). (BTW: Lillback’s appeal to Harvie Conn in the early pages of “The Infallible Rule . . .”undermines his entire case about Westminster Seminary’s traditional stance – see especially p. 6 [108] note 29. – my next less-measured post.) Whereas previous faculty met in the middle, today’s trajectories appear to be going in totally opposite directions.

Like all treatments and summaries, I cannot avoid some caricature here, but this description rings true to my experiences as a student at Westminster (MDiv 2001), and the divide has only gotten more profound since then. My caricature here obviously need more nuance or expansion, but people from other traditions might be able to substitute their own tradition (e.g. Lutheran, Baptist, Anabaptist, Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal, etc.) for “Westminster Confession of Faith” or “reformed” in their own debates.

For the record, I am firmly in the biblical studies camp. I loved what I learned in the OT department at Westminster. It’s focus on the studying Scripture in its original context and the insights from the New Testament interpretation of the Old significantly aided my own study. I think the militantly reformed proponents have it all backwards. I’ve done my best to be charitable here, and I have tried to avoid how those debates were carried out and the processes that led to the suspension of Peter Enns. For the record, it sounds to me (albeit an ocean away) like the debates were uncharitable and the process of suspending Enns was unjust to say the least. I’ll leave it at that for now, but I think this is where the real tragedy of the moment lies.

Feel free to disagree, add, clarify, nuance, and declare me as a heretic.

Blog Discussions (the few that I know of): Joel Garver!; Ben Myers, Art Boulet’s blog; Conn-versation, Between Two Worlds, and Evangelical Textual Criticism.

Other background documents: D. Clair Davis (retired): The Significance of Westminster Theological Seminary Today (long PDF) and Darryl Hart: Can Westminster Seminary Put the Genie Back in the Bottle? (An account of the competing visions)

Again – Brandon Withrow provides a one-stop-shop for almost all the links, reviews and documents related to the controversy around Inspiration & Incarnationhere.

For Westminster Alumni (questions about Poythress & Gaffin.)

Joel Garver has already discussed the impact of new hires at WTS on the dynamics of faculty disunity:

Among the eight Westminster signatories of the Edgar/Kelly minority report, I recognize that two names don’t fully fit my orientation stereotype above – Gaffin and Poythress. I wonder what their roles in this whole controversy have been?

If my recollection is correct, Gaffin started his career in the systematic theological then moved over to teach NT. The influence of focused biblical studies can be seen in the fact that he is quoted by both sides, but it looks like his traditional systematic orientation wins out in the end. His NT classes always focused a lot of attention on a few key reformed texts.

Poythress’s class on hermeneutics begins with “a theological framework for interpretation.” In the introduction, he notes that his approach is scientific rather than poetic (for teaching purposes) and focuses on techniques. Some gems from my hermeneutics class notes (of particular interest to this debate.):

  • “Supposed ‘defects’ (e.g. #s, historical selectivity, and NT hermeneutics) are not sloppiness, but God saying that it is okay to be human.”
  • Submit to the Bible’s Biblical Theological (Christocentric) organization
  • Submit to God’s choice of mode (this outline point is conspicuously blank in my notes. He must have covered it quickly.)
  • Preferring this [exegesis over theology; admitting “we don’t know”] gives us an opportunity to improve our theology. (Of course, we stand in danger of heresy if we take this principle to the extreme.)
  • Cultural exegesis is important; we need to understand the ancient context – lives of real people.
  • Meaning depends on the situation.

As you know, Poythress’s scientific background (his first PhD is in science from Harvard) has led to two particularly interesting phenomena in his teaching. His hermeneutical methods seemed strongly influenced by structuralism, which was popular when he studied linguistics with SIL. Structuralism sought to add a more scientific quantifiable element to language study.

Poythress’s scientific background has also led him to openly depart from the Westminster Confession of Faith when it comes to six-day creation (he supports a framework view). One of the myths(?) circulating in my student days was that Poythress had submitted 19(?) pages of concerns/exceptions the Westminster Standards when he came on as faculty. As such, I couldn’t help wondering how a significant amount of the rhetoric in Lillback’s essay attacking Enns rings equally true of Poythress (valuing certain scientific developments over the traditional interpretation.) Abandoning the WCF’s view of six-day creation is a lot more cut and dry than some of the nuancing (interpreting specific words of the confession) that Lillback was trying pin on Enns. Is it perhaps telling that certain details at that end of the HTFC complaint, namely Enns’s treatment of Genesis, never actually make it into print?

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6 thoughts on “Postures and trajectories of the Westminster Seminary debate

  1. […] attack on Enns (WTS) – a brief outline ;-/. As I related in my previous post, I’ve had trouble getting away from the recently released Westminster […]

  2. […] Precis) in the debate along with all the other formal documents they had released earlier (see my earlier blog post) for details. I liked the tone and emphasis of the “Statement on Scripture” (Appendix […]

  3. […] It is a very interesting post – especially in light of the Westminster controversy over Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation (Bovell is a Westminster grad) and other debates within evangelicalism. I was mostly drawn to his description of the “circularity” of the debate between theologians and biblical scholars. I wrote a bit about that here. […]

  4. […] Thu 8 Jan 2009 · No Comments Westminster Theological Seminary has just posted a 10 page document of ‘affirmations and denials’ (pdf). [For background go to postures and trajectories of the Westminster debate] […]

  5. […] (with other links) here, here, here, and here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Not your average day in the pastorate; the pastor […]

  6. […] now teaching at Redeemer Theological Seminary in Dallas.  This should make clear that recent debates at WTS were never exclusively about Enns and his book. The fact that Westminster recently hired Greg Beal […]

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