How To Tell An Honest-To-Goodness Scholar (In One Easy Lesson)

Honest-to-goodness scholars are people who think, analyze, teach, and write in good faith. Honest-to-goodness scholars are, by virtue of their own expertise, acutely aware of their limitations. Bono is absolutely right when he and U2 sings:

"The more you learn the less you know / the less you find out as you go / I knew much more then than I do now."

The deeper one gets into a subject, the more one learns, the more difficult and mysterious the subject matter seems. This is because we are finite creatures trying to get a grip on a vast universe built by an infinite God. We "see through a glass darkly," as St. Paul so aptly put it. I often like to say that when I was 20 I was omniscient; it has been a long, downhill slide from there. Learning is a funny thing: we do accumulate knowledge; yet, at the same time, the amount of things to know, as well as the complexities of how our knowledge interrelates to other things, vastly increases.

This means that an honest-to-goodness scholar is, above all, humble. They are quick to acknowledge their shortcomings. They have an attitude that welcomes correction. They do not pretend that all their views are beyond challenge. This also means that honest-to-goodness scholars are in short supply.

I have all this in mind, sadly, because of this person.

Peter Enns and I are well-acquainted. I sat under his teaching during my graduate years. He is very bright. He is highly credentialed. He is personally very likeable. He is a scholar. But he is not what I am calling an honest-to-goodness scholar.

And here is how one can tell, in one easy lesson.

Pete has purposely published extremely controversial and inflammatory books and journal articles over the past decade or so. These books have caused untold mayhem, not only in the institution that ultimately dismissed him, but in the evangelical world far beyond that. A multitude of scholars have found his formulations wanting, his evidence selective, and his arguments fallacious. Tons of ink has been spilled trying to engage him and challenge him. Just in the past two days, Peter Leithart has written this and this, both fairly devastating, I find.

Now, in the midst of the tens of thousands of words written, Peter Enns has, to my knowledge, not once written anything remotely along the lines of: "[So and so] makes a good point." Or: "So and so is right to criticize [X]." Or: "I hastily made the conclusion, but after further thought..."

As far as I can tell, and the evidence continues to mount, Peter Enns is completely and utterly beyond correction. He does not write, analyze, formulate, and teach in good faith. Ask yourself: how likely is it that of the myriad of scholars to take to the written page to interact with Peter Enns, folks like D.A. Carson, Bruce Waltke, and many, many others, not one of them ever landed a glove on anything Enns has written? Really? Not one of them ever made a valid point? Not one of them ever made Pete stop to rethink something? When somebody is absolutely immune from criticism, that somebody has stopped being an honest-to-goodness scholar. As we know from state-run TV outlets in totalitarian regimes, that which is above criticism is nothing more than a propaganda outlet. The same goes for scholars immune from critique: they become nothing but propagandists.

An honest-to-goodness scholar is quick to correct, even retract. No less than the great St. Augustine himself wrote a book called Retractions, where he went through his entire life's work and corrected things that needed correcting. My very own book didn't even get into print before I was made aware that I had misunderstood something Cornelius Van Til had written. I didn't get a chance to fix it at that stage, but I was only too eager to thank the person who had brought it up, and thank him for enriching my own knowledge.

Those who exhibit no ability to learn from or be corrected by peers has left the world of honest-to-goodness scholarship.

And I am grieved to see the departure of my old professor.

Brian Mattson