Sunday, January 27, 2008

The structure of Pete Enns' doctrinal revolution

In 2006 I exchanged some emails with Paul Helm regarding my book. He explained to me that he had serious misgivings about a "difficulties first" approach to constructing a doctrine of scripture. At first I thought this was the old contest between deductive and inductive approaches to scripture, but I think the dispute touches upon something more fundamental than that. It's not so much that I am imprudently opting for a problems first approach. It seems to me more helpful to say that I have bought into inerrantism as the dominant paradigm for understanding scripture for as long as I can remember and I have gradually and inevitably been driven to a state of crisis:

"Let us then assume that crises are a necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories and ask next how scientists respond to their existence. Part of the answer, as obvious as it is important, can be discovered by noting first what scientists never do when confronted by even severe and prolonged anomalies. Though they may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis. They do not, that is, treat anomalies as counterinstances, though in the vocabulary of philosophy of science that is what they are...[O]nce it has achieved the status of paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place...The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other...

The reasons for doubt sketched above were purely factual; they were, that is, themselves counterinstances to a prevalent epistemological theory. As such, if my present point is correct, they can at best help to create a crisis or, more accurately, to reinforce one that is already very much in existence. By themselves they cannot and will not falsify that philosophical theory, for its defenders will do what we have already seen scientists doing when confronted by anomaly. They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict...If, therefore, these epistemological counterinstances are to constitute more than a minor irritant, that will be because they help to permit the emergence of a new and different analysis of science within which they are no longer a source of trouble." Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 77-78, italics in original.

I am not starting with problems (and neither is Enns for that matter, whose book Helm has reviewed online in two installments). [I ultimately speak for myself here, but maybe, just maybe, what I say will apply to Enns' book as well.] I am starting with the received inerrantist tradition. A series of anomalies has driven me to various stages of crisis. Now I am in the process of searching for an alternative. I have already gone the route of defending the reigning paradigm, but I think there is a better alternative to be found. There is no problem of method here: this is a perfectly natural development for believers studying scripture within the context of a "normal" paradigm.

The stage in which I find myself now [and maybe Enns does, too] I think can be described as follows: " anomaly comes to seem more than just another puzzle of normal science, the transition to crisis and to extraordinary science has begun. The anomaly itself now comes to be more generally recognized as such by the profession. More and more attention is devoted to it by more and more of the field's most eminent men. If it still continues to resist, as it usually does not, many of them may come to view its resolution as the subject matter of their discipline. For them the field will no longer look quite the same as it had earlier." Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 82-83, italics in original.

[Pete Enns is one of the most eminent men in his field. It is nothing less than a disgrace that he has to suffer the ignominy that his colleagues are currently putting him through.]

Helm writes: "The (consistently Christian) answer to these questions should be obvious. We formulate our doctrine from attending (no doubt fallibly) only to Scripture’s own explicit statements on the matter, returning time and again to check and modify our first thoughts by the data of Scripture in a never-ending iterative process. And then we wrestle with the problems in the light of our understanding of these statements. In the mercy of God, the doctrine (along with other doctrines) will illuminate the problems; the problems never control the doctrine." (

This is precisely what I think Enns has done. I think Kuhn again explains well what is happening:
"Debates over theory-choice cannot be cast in a form that fully resembles logical or mathematical proof. In the latter, premises and rules of inference are stipulated from the start. If there is disagreement about conclusions, the parties to the ensuing debate can retrace their steps one by one, checking each against prior stipulation. At the end of that process one or the other must concede that he has made a mistake, violated a previously accepted rule. After that concession he has no recourse, and his opponent's proof is then compelling. Only if the two discover instead that they differ about the meaning or application of stipulated rules, that their prior agreement provides no sufficient basis for proof, does the debate continue in the form it inevitably takes during scientific revolutions. That debate is about premises, and its recourse is to persuasion as a prelude to the possibility of proof." Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 199.

In the present context, problems are illuminating the doctrine of inerrancy, not controlling it. One facet of the Enns predicament that Kuhn's study seems to describe quite well is this: "That process is persuasion, but it presents a deeper problem. Two men who perceive the same situation differently but nevertheless employ the same vocabulary in its discussion must be using words differently. They speak, that is, from what I have called incommensurable viewpoints." (p. 200)

OT specialists, NT specialists, theology specialists, philosophy specialists, trying to talk to each other. What a mess! I think Helm has every right to chime in on the debate, being a professional philosopher of exceptional caliber. WTS theologists also have a right, as do other NT specialists. That said, Enns' theorizing takes place in the OT specialist world and there is some distance to bridge to get to his work and "translate" it for someone who concedes he's "not an OT anything" (Helm's self-description, which would also describe the bulk of Enns' intended audience). The trick is to mediate the distance that separates the disciplines without imperialistic effects, for Enns appears to be doing some extraordinary science. So, yes, philosophy might profitably help lead the way toward a meaningful discussion (although the Helm-Enns exchange seems to question this), but if Kuhn is correct and ultimately the exchange is one of persuasion, it becomes much easier to understand why some at WTS feel compelled to use force to try to ensure that they eventually win the day.