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Bible professor suspended over teachings

Plagued by questions about the divine truth of the Bible, today's young Christians are doubting their faith as never before, says Peter Enns, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside.

Peter Enns, who was suspended by Westminster seminary.
Peter Enns, who was suspended by Westminster seminary.Read more

Plagued by questions about the divine truth of the Bible, today's young Christians are doubting their faith as never before, says Peter Enns, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside.

But when Enns wrote a book urging wobbly believers to embrace man's role in shaping the Bible, he plunged the famously conservative seminary into crisis.

Westminster's board of trustees suspended Enns, 47, from his teaching post in March, and has ordered a four-day hearing to determine if he should be dismissed "for the good of the seminary."

Some of his supporters are condemning the hearing, due to begin Aug. 25, as a "heresy trial."

They say the trustees want to harden the school's national reputation as a fortress of ultra-orthodox Calvinism, and purge perceived "liberals" from the faculty.

"At Westminster, you don't have to be very liberal to be viewed as 'left,' " said Daniel Kirk, a Westminster graduate now on the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

Not so fast, replies the seminary's leadership. The real issue, administrators say, is whether Enns violated the oath he took when he joined the faculty 14 years ago.

The oath requires all faculty members to pledge they will not "inculcate, teach or insinuate anything" contrary to the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, the core creed of the Presbyterian faith.

That lengthy creed begins by proclaiming the "infallible truth" and "entire perfection" of Holy Scripture, whose sole author is God.

Westminster was created in 1929 after Princeton Theological Seminary, the flagship of Presbyterian scholarship in the United States, took a liberal turn. Westminster (whose teachers are all male) adopted the faculty oath in 1936.

"Our main concern is maintaining the historic theological integrity of the institution," board chair John H. White said in an interview Friday.

A hearing is the fairest way to resolve the Enns controversy, according to White, who said the board hoped to decide by its December meeting whether to remove Enns, who has tenure.

Enns grew up in the New York suburbs and spent his undergraduate years at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., where he was a behavioral sciences major and star pitcher. He still holds the school record for the most strikeouts (12) in a nine-inning game, as well as for most walks (31) and wild pitches (10). He played semiprofessional baseball for a few years after graduation, and admits to having "one sports passion," the New York Yankees.

After earning a master of divinity degree from Westminster in 1989, Enns went on to Harvard, where he earned a master's and doctorate in Near Eastern languages and civilization. In 1994 he joined the faculty at Westminster, where he is described as a popular teacher who invites his students to "call me Pete," and who takes a personal interest in their lives. He and his wife, Sue, have a son and two daughters. Family vacations include four-wheeling in the western deserts.

Enns declined through his attorney to be interviewed, although he has written extensively on his situation on his blog,

The trustees' intervention has greatly provoked some on the faculty, which last year voted, 12-8, in favor of keeping Enns. The dispute has turned into a cause celebre among Bible students and scholars across the country.

"Humanly speaking, it's hard to imagine how the school will survive," said John Frame, a theology professor at Reform Theological Seminary in Orlando who taught at Westminster for 31 years.

"If Enns leaves, he will take with him a huge constituency," Frame wrote in an e-mail. "If he stays, another group will withdraw support."

Art Boulet, a Westminster student who has blogged extensively on the controversy, said the Enns affair had morphed into something "a lot deeper than theology."

"I know from professors that there are donors in certain presbyterates withholding millions [from the seminary] until Pete is fired," Boulet, 27, said in a telephone interview.

White acknowledged that whatever the board decided, it "may cause some supporters and students and possibly faculty to be less inclined to be supportive" of the seminary.

At issue is Enns' 2005 book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, written mainly for young Christians and Bible students wrestling with abundant modern scholarship showing apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, especially the Old Testament.

Instead of rationalizing and explaining away the evidence of human storytelling in Scripture, Inspiration and Incarnation begins by urging readers to understand the Bible in the same way they perceive Jesus.

"Christ is both God and human," Enns declares in the introduction. "So is the Bible."

Inspiration and Incarnation goes on to explore three major aspects of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, that he identifies as problematic for some nonfundamentalist Christians. Their questions, he writes, go like this:

Is the Old Testament unique? Why does the Bible in places look a lot like the literature of Israel's ancient neighbors?

Why do different parts of the Old Testament say different things about the same things? "It really seems as if there are contradictions."

New Testament authors use certain passages of the Old Testament to say the Old Testament predicts the coming of Jesus. But "it looks like they just take the Old Testament passages out of context."

Enns' answers to these questions and his call for a new "doctrinal" understanding of Scripture have won him praise from some Bible scholars. Not so from Westminster's president, Peter Lillback, who views Enns' approach as "fundamentally incoherent" with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

"Despite his initial claim that he is writing the book to comfort the disturbed," Lillback wrote in a long letter to the trustees, "the actual performance aims to disturb the comfortable."

Enns' defenders insist that the seminary needs a mix of progressive and conservative scholars.

On his blog, Kirk wondered if faith in the Bible means clinging to the Calvinist creed of 450 years ago, "or that the church continues to listen to the Bible afresh, as Enns has attempted to do."

Boulet, who chose Westminster over Yale Divinity School because of Enns, said "he saved my faith."

Board chairman White insists that Westminster continue - as its founders directed - to "shirk no difficult questions," but he said it had a duty to keep faith with its orthodox roots.

"The question is whether Dr. Enns has stepped over a cliff," White said. "When that happens, you've got to put up a fence."