Thursday, October 05, 2017

The pure original

Last week, the theologian Peter Enns tweeted this:
 Now, I have a lot of issues with Enns.  He is pretty much the embodiment of the slippery slope argument which prevents many evangelicals from engaging creatively with the doctrine of Scripture, and that's a shame.  In many ways this particular tweet captures the nature of most of my concerns with him: at one level, he is so obviously right, but where is he going with it?

In what sense is this tweet obviously true?  Well, it is true that the history of Christianity (I feel unqualified to speak to Judaism) is a history of theological adjustment.  Doctrine develops, course corrections are made, different emphases are brought to the forefront at different times.  And I think it is also (more or less) true that Christianity would cease to exist if this process ceased.  I don't mean that Christianity as a world religion would roll up and disappear - and I suspect Enns doesn't mean that either.  I mean that Christianity would cease to be a vital force.  At the very least, different cultures and philosophies mean that the core gospel message has to be expressed and re-expressed.  Theological concepts which were an adequate sign-post to the gospel at one time may communicate falsehood after a couple of centuries.  So, yes, theological adjustment is vital to the existence of Christianity.

It's the last bit, though, that is troubling.  Again, to some extent it's true.  There is no point in history where the theological consensus of the church could be held up as the perfection of theology - no, not even the immediate post-apostolic period.  After all, you'd rather have an explicit Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, wouldn't you?  I would.

But the direction of travel causes me anxiety.  The last clause - the absence of a pure original - makes me ask: what, then, controls the 'adjustments' that must be made to theology over time?  What should drive and motivate those adjustments?  How will we know if the right adjustments are being made?

There is a danger here that we fall into a fully post-modern theology.  Post-modernism makes truth an eschatological thing, but with an indefinitely postponed eschaton.  Truth is always in the future.  At best we are always inclining toward truth, but we never reach it.  In a sense, truth could be defined as that which has a future, which remains open to the future.  Now, I accept that there is an eschatological element to truth.  I accept that theology is always, or ought always to be, theologia viatorum, theology on the way.  We never have the finished product.


The last word, the eschatological Word, has actually been spoken.  There is a pure original.  His name is Jesus Christ, and we know him through his commissioned witnesses, the prophets and apostles.  This does not preclude the constant adjustment; in fact, it necessitates it.  The final Word having been spoken, we have to continually ask whether we have heard it, and whether what we are saying conforms to it.  Yes, there is an openness to the future here: to future correction, to the ultimate future of the eschaton.  But that ultimate future is none other than Jesus Christ - the one who will be is the one who was (and who is).  Adjustment to our theology must therefore come from him.  Maybe that's what Enns meant.  But I fear not.


  1. Greetings and thanks, Daniel. Helpful thoughts. Enns often leaves me feeling just as you've described: "Yes, I think I'm happy to go in this direction for a bit, but where does this train terminate?"
    On a different note, or as some of your own poets have said: "Now for something completely different..." I had to pass this little post on about Barth that a theologian I've met here in the States wrote. I hate to say, its not altogether complementary of Karl Barth. But it was something I had never encountered. For you, being the Barthian scholar that you are, this may be old hat. But I never caught even a whisper of this:

    Let me know when you are headed over for a visit. I'd love to play host. Our classmate Matt Waldock from Manchester visited back in April and preached for us here at Wheatland Pres. in Lancaster. You've got the same standing invitation... Grace and Peace!

    1. Hi Luke, thanks for your comment. Yes, I've seen the stuff about Barth - which is confirmation of a rumour that's been doing the rounds all along. I think I'd always assumed it was true, although it was still unpleasant reading the paper with all its detail. I might write something about it in the next few days. It is sad that someone who had helped so many to follow Jesus should harbour such an obvious moral failing. But still, as I said to someone else who asked about it, I can still follow the finger even if the person doing the pointing is not so great.

      Hope you're well - have seen your recent news on the Facebook. Will pray for tomorrow.


    2. Just read your post on the Barth stuff. Excellent and truly helpful. And thanks for your prayers.

  2. Anonymous5:53 pm

    I know very little about Enns apart from his ousting from Westminster. Is Enns actually moving truth more in an 'eschatological direction' or in a more classically liberal 'human consensus' direction - the tweet seems ambiguous?
    Greg Bannister

    1. I'm not honestly sure - that's part of the problem! Some of the results seem quite interesting, theologically, but sometimes (as here in this tweet) I think he sounds like a 19th century German liberal.

  3. From what I've read, Enns is most definitely in the 'progressive evangelical' camp - as you've said, 19th c liberalism in new clothes. A sad slide indeed, but one that I predict will be the story of mainstream (i.e. non-conservative identifying) evangelicalism over the next 10 years. The challenge will be for conservatives to appropriate some of Enns's insights re: the nature of Scripture's infallibility/inerrancy without going down his route. A re-discovery (or just plain discovery!) of something like Brevard Childs's approach might help - not that Childs had all the answers.

    Have you read Machen's excellent 'Christianity and Liberalism,' from 1932 btw? Things really haven't changed.

    In terms of the Barth article, I have to say I agree with the author. I've increasingly felt that, despite certain great insights, this confirms that Barth was a deeply establishment figure, his theology in its own bubble of cleverness which, confessing church aside, could only capitulate to modernity in praxis. I say that as someone who's only read most of the shorter works and only a few pages of the CD, so I may well be speaking out of ignorance. But would be interested on any reflections from you on the theology/life dislocation... and whether that has roots in the theology itself.