A Response to Paul Helm

The following review of Inspiration and Incarnation (I&I) is by Paul Helm and appeared first on Reformation 21 (www.reformation21.org), “the online web magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals,” in April 2006. I do not like responding to reviews in such an untimely fashion, if at all, but there was no available venue for me to respond to at the time. As one can see from reading my responses in red below, I do not find Helm’s review to be very helpful; at times I find it bewildering.

For that very reason I thought long and hard about what purpose a response to this review would have. At the end of the day I decided it is worthwhile responding, (1) because I have fielded questions about it from both supporters and non-supporters of the review, and (2) because I find the review so flawed that some response was required, given the prominence of the author.

I include below the introductory note written by Reformation 21 editor Derek Thomas

Editor’s Note: As one of the church’s most highly respected philosophers, Paul Helm is uniquely qualified to review this book on issues of Old Testament canon [I&I is not about “Old Testament canon”], for as his review shows, Enns has written less as an Old Testament scholar and more as a (mistaken) philosopher. [I do not accept the observation as valid. I am trying to draw some long-needed lines of conversation between theology (not philosophy!) and modern biblical studies. I am most certainly not writing as a philosopher, mistaken or otherwise, and the editor’s claim seems little more than an unfortunate attempt to place my book in the arena of philosophy to give Helm’s review more credibility than it deserves. The review would have been much more helpful had the editor introduced it as offering a particular philosophical perspective (and for Helm to follow through with a review that matched that tone) rather than presenting Helm’s limited experience as the final court of arbitration over difficult biblical matters. As we shall see, Helm seems to be unfamiliar with the challenges of biblical scholarship and seems content to go no further than the restatement of prolegomena.] Helm’s recently re-published title, The Divine Revelation: Basic Issues (Regent), will provide the reader with further clarity on issues of revelation.

A book about the identity and purpose of the Bible must be of interest to any serious Christian. But at first glance Inspiration and Incarnation seems daunting. [This is puzzling given the clearly popular level at which the book is presented.] Peter Enns, a Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, is an Old Testament specialist who through his awareness of the ‘Problem of the Old Testament’ [The point of I&I is that the OT really isn’t a problem provided one approaches the data with an incarnational paradigm.] invites us to ask fundamental questions about the Bible. However, we shall see that the big picture can be separated fairly easily from the details.

He writes about the identity and purpose of the Bible by concentrating on the difficulties of interpreting some Old Testament data. This should immediately arouse our suspicions. [It is worth mentioning the rhetorical move Helm attempts here of assuming as “immediately” obvious what really needs to be demonstrated. This type of argumentative rhetoric is more suited to score points than achieve understanding and, unfortunately, characterizes the entire review.] Nearly fifty years ago in ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God J .I. Packer (following B.B. Warfield) had this to say

Christians are bound to receive the Bible as God’s Word written on the authority of Christ, not because they can prove it such by independent enquiry, but because as disciples they trust their divine Teacher. We have pointed out already that no article of Christian faith admits of full rational demonstration as, say, geometrical theorems do; all the great biblical doctrines -the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the work of the Spirit in man, the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the creation – are partly mysterious, and raise problems for our minds that are at present insoluble, The doctrine of Scripture is no exception to this rule.(108)

God, then, does not profess to answer in Scripture all the questions that we, in our boundless curiosity, would like to ask about Scripture. He tells us merely as much as He sees we need to know as a basis off or our life of faith. And He leaves unsolved some of the problems raised by what He tells us, in order to teach us a humble trust in His veracity…..Is it reasonable to take God’s word and believe that He has spoken the truth, even though I cannot full comprehend what he has said? The question carries its own answer. (109)

So Enns is beginning from the wrong end. Not from Christ’s and the apostles’ teaching regarding the nature of Scripture, but from ‘problems’, the difficulties identified by his own specialism, [sic] Old Testament scholarship. [I am truly searching for words for how to respond. This is a perplexing observation and seems to have missed the entire point of the book. The fact that Helm can cite Packer as if I were in some fundamental tension with Packer suggests, at the very least, that we are speaking past each other. It should be perfectly clear that I am not trying to “prove” the Bible is God’s Word by looking at external evidence (see Packer quote). I am doing the exact opposite: I am assuming Scripture’s divine origin and inspiration, and arguing that the external evidence, while needing to be taken into account, does not deter from that fact one bit, although it does and should affect how we articulate our understanding of Scripture. Helm has missed this. In fact, the Packer quote meshes entirely with the intention and content of I&I. This misunderstanding of my book, presented at the outset as a basis for the remainder of the review, puts the review on a track that can only set up a straw man and thus mislead Helm’s readers who themselves might not have read I&I. As the review progresses, it almost seems as if Helm is determined to read the book through the prism of his own discipline while also disregarding the plain statements I make re: the divine origin of Scripture and my interaction with data from which no philosopher can afford to be isolated. I am writing so that thinking Christians can pool their resources and address difficult matters of biblical scholarship, whether or not Helm is aware of them or feels they are worthy of serious attention.]

So though Inspiration and Incarnation could be a deeply unsettling book for the orthodox Christian, it ought not to be, and need not be. Strangely perhaps, this fact has nothing to do with any of the claims made in the book about the language and literature of the Old Testament, or with what is said about the relationship between the two Testaments, on which Enns lavishes a great deal of attention. But it has everything to do with the weakness of the method that Enns has adopted.

In justification of his approach the author offers an ‘’incarnational paradigm’ (or ‘parallel’ or ‘analogy’) for our understanding of Scripture. As the Word of God was incarnated at a particular time and in a particular cultural matrix, so the Bible was brought to us through a variety of cultural situations. ‘The encultured qualities of the Bible, therefore, are not extra elements that we can discard to get to the real point, the timeless truths…..Christ’s Incarnation is analogous to Scripture’s ‘incarnation’ ”. (17-8) We must therefore give priority to the human marks of Scripture. [How this comment can follow the quote before it is bewildeirng to me. The level of distortion of my words leaves me doubtful as to whether Helm will or can give the book a fair hearing. Is the human dimension of Scripture so unfamiliar to Helm that its introduction poses such a threat? The incarnational analogy should alert Helm immediately to the fact that humanity of Scripture is not given “priority” any more than Christ’s incontestable humanity has “priority” over his divinity. Helm is setting up a dichotomy I am intent on avoiding.] It is only by attending to these phenomena, and especially to the successive contexts in which the various parts of the Bible came to be written, Enns believes, including the styles and methods of literary composition that they reveal, that we shall be able to understand the Bible’s diverse nature and so not approach it with closed minds that shut down the interpretative options. But having in mind the diverse phenomena of Scripture is nothing new. [This is another example of a poor reading of I&I. The first sentence in the book should have alerted Helm that I, being a biblical scholar and seminary trained individual, am fully aware that the information in the book is not new: “The purpose of this book is not novelty, but synthesis” (preface). Even if he disagrees strongly with me, Helm should have assumed that I am not quite so incompetent as he suggests. This recognition might have moved the review in a much more positive direction. Every Bible reader, especially trained ones, know that there is theological diversity in Scripture and that its meaning is tied in with its historical context. The point of my book is certainly not to point that out, but to show struggling evangelicals that the human element of Scripture is in no way a hindrance to a full embrace of its inspiration. Too many evangelicals have fallen by the wayside because they have not been exposed to a theological model for holding both the divine and human elements of Scripture together. I present such a model, which itself is hardly new. What is new, if anything, is my directness in stating the obvious and by bringing a lot of evidence together under one cover. Helm does not seem to be aware of the great difficulties encountered in modern biblical studies and that Christians need places to turn to help incorporate them theologically.]

As Packer noted

The Word of God is an exceedingly complex unity. The different items and the various kinds of material which make it up – laws, promises, liturgies, genealogies, arguments, narratives, meditations, visions, aphorisms, homilies, parables and the rest – do not stand in Scripture in isolated fragments, but as parts of a whole. The exposition of them, therefore, involves exhibiting them in right relation both to the whole and to each other. God’s Word is not presented in Scripture in the form of a theological system, but it admits of being stated in that form, and indeed, requires to be so stated before we can properly grasp it – grasp it, that is, as a whole. (101)

However what is new, disturbingly new, is the claim that Enns makes about this cultural embeddedness. We discover that the Bible itself is far from unique: [Perhaps we shall below see how a philosopher handles the nuts and bolts of biblical interpretation that shows a working knowledge of our growing understanding of the cultural setting of the inspired authors of Scripture. Might it be that Helm is bothered by a Scripture that is so much a part of its historical contexts? The Bible is not a book for philosophers, but for the common people. Part of what I&I is about is to help readers understand the “commonness” of the Bible in its original settings] it’s a diverse, culturally-biased product, which we can only ever hope to understand provisionally. [The provisionality of our understanding of Scripture is not a function of its human element but of its divine origin. It is precisely because the Bible is God’s Word that we will always have adequate yet provisional knowledge of it.]

It’ll be best to assess the book by considering a set of answers from Enns to three questions: Is our interpretation of the Bible provisional? Is the Bible unique? And finally, and most importantly, Is the Bible objective? These are among the central questions the author himself raises. My argument in this review is that in his answers to such questions Professor Enns has not gone too far – as he occasionally fears, perhaps – but that he has not gone far enough. The book is troubling not because of the profundity of the treatment but rather because of its superficiality. [I never claimed to be profound, but rather stating the obvious.] We shall find that Enns’s answers to each of these questions take him farther and farther away from being able to maintain an orthodox doctrine of Scripture [As long as Helm’s own cultural blind spots are allowed to determine what orthodoxy is, yes, then I am (quite happily) “moving away” from such an understanding of a Scripture where its historical location is evidently such a problem.].

Is our interpretation of the Bible provisional?

Enns claims that our interpretation of the entire Bible is provisional. [I fear Helm is equating “provisional” with wholly baseless, or completely unsettled. Helm is continuing his peculiar reading of my book.]

But if even the Bible is a cultural phenomenon through and through, we should not be surprised to see that our own theological thinking is wrapped in cultural clothing as well. This is why every generation of Christians in every cultural context must seek to see how God is speaking to them in and though Scripture. (67)

To hear that ‘Our interpretation of the Bible is provisional’ is potentially unsettling and destabilising to any sincere believer. [Only to those wedded to a modernist framework. It is a great comfort to those to whom the book is directed. As the history of the church shows, biblical interpretation is developing—not the gospel, but biblical interpretation. And I am a bit confused as to how Helm can quibble with me for saying “every generation of Christians in every cultural context must seek to see how God is speaking to them in and though Scripture"!?] For it seems that if our interpretation of Scripture is provisional it may be replaced, like a provisional driving licence [sic] is replaced by the permanent version. The teaching we have presently distilled from it is merely a first go. Of course this is monstrous. [A first go?! Does Helm really think I am saying this?! This is bordering on willful distortion. It is at least incendiary rhetoric.] If we think of the Bible on the analogy of a spider’s web, then naturally there are many problems of interpretation on its periphery, and that fact is of some importance. Nevertheless, on the central matters, the heart of the web, the teaching of the Bible is clear. On the deity of Christ, say, or the Trinity, or the penal character of Christ’s death, or election and predestination, or salvation by grace through faith, it is just madness to suppose that ‘our confession of the Bible has a provisional quality to it’. (168) [We are clearly talking past each other. Does Helm honestly think that I think that my book calls into the question the fundamental truths of the gospel!? Is he resorting here to the divisive rhetoric, or has Helm’s philosophical expertise so shielded him from Scripture that he cannot see how an honest assessment of the evidence renders his comments empty and even irresponsible?]

Enns says that if we understand the biases of Scripture, for example, the fact that the Old Testament has an ancient Near Eastern setting, this in itself will raise the question of the normativity of the Old Testament. (67) [No. What I am saying is that the ANE setting of Israel’s law, for example, DOES raise the issue of normatively for many readers of Scripture. That setting is beyond question and more than just window dressing, but it does NOT mean that the OT is “non-normative.”] While one appreciates that, as an Old Testament specialist, Enns gives its study pride of place, surely this suggestion is inept. For the Christian what raises – and should settle – the question of the normativity of the Old Testament is the New Testament. [This skirts the difficult hermeneutical issue of how the NT uses the OT, but my suspicion is that Helm and I will disagree there as well and for the same reasons he has raised thus far.] The New Testament treats it as the Word of God, and shows at the same time that many though not all of its provisions are superseded in Christ. [Again, does Helm actually believe I am denying this?! I am not following the logic of Helm’s point.]

What is maddening about Enns’s free use of such terms as ‘provisional’, ‘unique’, ‘bias’, and ‘objectivity’ is that each of them has multiple meanings, and the author does little to separate these from each other. Thus there is another sense of ‘provisional’, meaning ‘incomplete’, in which it is obvious that the teaching of the Bible is provisional. It tells us so itself: there are many things that at present we cannot ‘bear’, one day we shall know even as we are known’ for at present we ‘know in part’, and so on. Because this incompleteness is clearly upheld by Scripture it is much less unsettling, indeed not unsettling at all, but rather to be expected. But the author’s use of ‘provisional’ makes the stronger claim, and should be rejected. Enns seems be totally unaware of such ambiguities. He certainly does not identify them and so does nothing to clear up sources of possible confusion. To put the point mildly, this is somewhat irresponsible. [It is at this point where I question Helm’s or the editor’s decision to publish this review. I have no problem at all with Helm or anyone disagreeing with me, but I&I, as much as it is aimed at lay readers, seems to be outside of Helm’s area of familiarity. Moreover, certainly ALL words have “multiple meanings,” including the very unhelpful wording of much of Helm’s review, e.g., “normativity” in the previous paragraph. Helm seems “totally unaware” of the ambiguities of the notion of biblical normativity. Does he mean legal, narratival, sapiential, etc.? Appealing to the NT certainly settles the matter of the normativity of the OT, for Helm as well as for me, but what it does not do is tell the reader how the OT is normative. Addressing that issue is one of the hermeneutical and theological issues I am addressing, but that Helm seems consistently to miss.]

Is the Bible unique?

A similar ambiguity afflicts this question to the one just discussed. The author both denies and claims that Scripture is unique. [We agree. Scripture is unique because it is of divine origin. It is not unique because it is somehow isolated from the particulars of history. That is the point of the incarnational analogy I use.] He draws out parallels between parts of the Old Testament with ancient Near Eastern documents, and emphasises [sic] the common cultural settings of both. In these respects the uniqueness of the Old Testament is diminished. But there is nothing new here, except the emphasis that Enns gives to these facts, and his failure to tell us what he means by uniqueness. Is the Eiffel Tower unique? There is Blackpool Tower, and there was the Tower of Babel. So the Eiffel Tower cannot be unique in being a tower, for there are and have been many towers. But it is unique in being the Eiffel Tower, for it has features, important and significant features, such as its design and location, which it alone has, perhaps which it alone could have. You get the point. [Actually, I don’t.] To deny or affirm the uniqueness of something is to make a very weak claim, until we are clear in what precise respect it is claimed to be unique. It could then amount to a very radical claim.

Is Scripture unique? Is it ‘absolutely unique’(56)? The Christian answer is that it is in certain important respects unique: in one all-important respect absolutely so. It is fair to say that Professor Enns wishes to make a distinction between these two senses. Yet what makes for uniqueness? He says, for example, ‘Exodus 21.2 is the preamble to the Ten Commandments and lays out the reason why should be faithful to God….God acted in history to bring the Israelites out of Egypt .’(57, Enns’s emphasis) The uniqueness of the Decalogue is not its ethical content, which can be replicated from ancient Near Eastern sources (though one might think to doubt this in the case of the first two commandments [Good point. I agree.]), but rather that it expressed the moral demands of God to the newly-freed nation. Much more than that, presumably, given the dominical and apostolic teaching about the law. Later Enns makes the stronger claim that Scripture’s ‘uniqueness is seen not in holding human cultures at arm’s length, but in the belief that Scripture is the only book in which God speaks incarnately’.(168) But can we be sure what God says? [I am not at all sure what conclusion Helm is coming to in this paragraph, but I am making much more than a “claim” out of thin air. I am dealing with data. It would have been refreshing to see Helm do likewise.].

Is the Bible objective?

So far we have noted that for Enns interpretations are always ‘provisional’ and yet the Bible is unique, in being the only place where God speaks to us. In addition Enns takes pains to highlight the presence of bias in the Bible. Does the Bible consist of facts only, or of facts and interpretations of those facts? Suppose that it does consists of facts and interpretations. [It seems that Helm is denying the multiple interpretations of the same historical events such as we find in the OT and NT synoptic texts. ] Which raises the question, If the Bible states facts and provides interpretations of them, are these statements and interpretations objectively true? Objectivity, according to Enns, is complete freedom from bias. Good historiography is necessarily biased since it shapes ‘the facts’, it changes their shape, giving them shape from a particular standpoint where before they had none.

In fact – and this is getting to the heart of the matter – in the strict sense of the word there really is no such thing as objective historiography. Rather, all attempts to communicate the significance of historical events are shaped according to the historian’s purpose. (66)

However, what according to Enns counts as bias is based on criteria which are themselves far from obvious. [Not clear what Helm means here, and he doesn’t explain this.] Further, while he fleetingly claims that a statement can be true though not objective, he appears to think that having an axe to grind necessarily implies falsity. This wholly neglects both the possibility that the ‘bias’ may be the true bias and that in any case the account provided by the axe-grinder may nevertheless be true. [I say the opposite of what Helm says I say (i.e., I agree the biblical portrait of God and reality, although varied, is nevertheless true while also being “biased.”). I wonder how Helm explains the synoptic problem.] If we suppose that the human authors of Scripture are the voice of God, that he speaks to us through them, then the ‘bias’ is not only their ‘bias’, it is His as well. [Absolutely. I agree.] And if among the biases of Scripture is the teaching that God is unwaveringly truthful, and if we accept that bias, then we are led to reject the following woeful argument [Does Helm think I am making the following argument?!?]

(i) Everything, including the text of Scripture, is written from a biased standpoint

(ii) Whatever is written from a biased standpoint is false, or only true in part,

(iii) Therefore, the texts of Scripture are false, or only true in part. [Defining “false” and “true” would be helpful. Moreover, this is Helm’s synopsis of my argument, not mine. I find it distracting and irrelevant.]

But in the case of Scripture it is better to avoid the language of ‘bias’ altogether, even if we carefully qualify it, since it is so patently misleading. It is a fact that a man hung on a cross. But the significance of what was going on when he hung there – that God was in Christ reconciling the world, shall we say – is an interpretation. [Why the easy example? How about Chronicles and Kings (which I patiently lay out in I&I)? Or the theological “agenda” of Genesis 1 in its ANE context? Unfiortunately, Helm’s reasoning process here supports the need for books like I&I.] Since Christians confess that this is a God-given interpretation it is utterly free from bias, utterly objective, since God himself is utterly without bias. [What an odd thing to say, seeing that the Word that God himself inspired records varied interpretations of events. Is Helm indirectly denying the inspiration of Scripture by saying that God is “utterly free from bias” when we see the biases of biblical authors through and through? Helm’s only recourse, given this unbiblical philosophical starting point, is to argue (which he in this review at least neglects to do) that the biblical authors cannot exhibit bias—i.e., cannot be human—that their humanity is somehow bypassed in the inspirational process.] But by his appeal to the universal presence of axe-grinding bias Enns has painted himself into a corner, as we shall now see.

Fideism?

At frequent intervals throughout Inspiration and Incarnation Enns makes an appeal to Christ and to inspired Scripture in order to ground his allegiance to the status of the Bible as the Word of God. ‘Jesus is – must be – both God and human’. (17) ‘The founder of the Christian community was “God with us”, worker of miracles and sin’s atonement, whom God vindicated by raising from the dead’. (152) ‘It is God’s word because it is. To be able to confess that the Bible is God’s Word is the gift of faith’. (66) ‘Many evangelical instincts are correct and should be maintained, for example, the conviction that the Bible is ultimately from God and that it is God’s gift to the church’. (13-4)

Is Enns here echoing Packer and Warfield? Unfortunately not. [I wasn’t really trying to.] For given the terms of his argument it is far from clear that such claims are able to ground anything. The claims cannot be satisfactorily based on evidence, [Evidence? What does this mean?] because (by his own arguments) all evidence is biased and provisional. So at the best the claims that Enns makes for Scripture are provisional. According to the argument presented in Inspiration and Incarnation our interpretation of Christ, [What does this mean?] orthodox or otherwise, is subject to the partiality and provisionality that afflicts all our interpretations of Scripture. If the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus is culturally clothed so as to be biased, and our interpretation of that portrayal is also culturally clothed, and so biased, partial and provisional, how can we be sure that we ever gain access to the data to provide evidence to make such confident Christian claims as Enns makes? The very idea of objective evidence on which the Church’s conviction that Scripture is the Word of God is based vanishes into thin air. [What is missing in all this rhetoric? The work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church in all truth even if it progresses in its understanding of that truth. Perhaps a tidy philosophical system has no room for the active work of the HS in the church’s ongoing theological task.]

The conclusion to which one is driven is that Enns’s Christian ‘intuitions’ are only possible by willing them to be true, not only without any evidence to support them but in the face of what Enns takes to be the evidence against them. By a leap of faith we fight ourselves free of the cultural bias that otherwise envelopes us. We see now that Enns’s problems have little or nothing to do with the discoveries and claims of Old Testament scholarship. Instead, they are due to two basic failures. A failure in theological method, that of starting from difficulties instead of from dogma. [I thought dogma was derived from reading Scripture. But again, I am not in any way denying the dogmatic heart Helm is so energized to protect: the inspiration of Scripture.] And a failure in epistemology, a commitment to the idea of universal cultural bias that makes objectivity and finality about our faith impossible.

Let me say in closing that I respect Helm as a philosopher, but I do not think he was a good choice to review I&I. Apart from some of the unfortunate rhetoric of the review (which will not further discussion), Helm seems to be quite unfamiliar with biblical scholarship and the challenges that stem from it. He, therefore, is limited in his perspective and so assesses I&I on the basis of categories that are neither helpful nor relevant. I will repeat, however, that a philosophical perspective (while also being well-informed of issues of biblical studies) would be an extremely helpful dimension in working through perennial issues. Unfortunately, however, reviews like this one will not contribute toward that end and will only exacerbate misunderstanding.


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