Belated ETS & SBL Reflections
I’m a bit behind most in the blogosphere who have already posted reflections on the recent annual gatherings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta. Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts:
1. This was the first year I attended ETS. I was struck by the charity and reverence throughout. You might be surprised to hear that I was struck in this way, ETS being a confessional professional society composed of people who are supposed to be, well, evangelical. Academic conferences are not always the most charitable gatherings with many eager to present their work and critique that of others. But this was different. There was a certain attitude about the place, a certain holiness; this was a gathering of people who typically seemed to love Christ and his church, a gathering of people who desire to serve Christ and his church. That would not be typical of academic conferences, even in theology.
2. As many have written, one of the best things about these conferences is the opportunity to gather with old friends and make new ones. I enjoyed catching up with many I’ve not seen since these conferences gathered last year. Catching up with classmates and professors at the Asbury reception is always a highlight.
3. Speaking of Asbury, let me say that I was quite glad to see a number of Asbury Seminary people at ETS. In the past, you might only find one or two Asbury profs present. I was happy to see several of Asbury’s doctoral students and hear a paper from Dr. John Oswalt, who is now in Wilmore once again. Asbury’s president, Dr. Tim Tennent, was slated to present as was Dr. Robert Coleman, who has also moved to Wilmore. I’m not sure if he’s teaching or not, though I imagine many would hope for it. This is significant because Asbury has had a reputation for a bit of a leftward shift in recent years. In light of that, I was very encouraged to see an increasing Asbury presence at ETS. Wilmore seems to have gotten an evangelical influx in the last couple of years, for that we can be thankful.
4. I thought the plenary discussions on “Justification by Faith” at ETS were especially helpful and served to move forward what has, at times, become a stale conversation. Thomas Schreiner’s presentation was very clear and kind. Frank Thielman’s proposal that dikaiosune theou (righteousness of God) is polyvalent and includes the concept of “God’s fairness” was highly stimulating, entirely fresh, well-argued, and carried significant potential for common ground in the justification debate, if, of course, he is right. I’m not ready to pronounce a verdict; his proposal needs time to simmer. I was a bit surprised at how close Thielman landed to Tom Wright, which brings me to his presentation. Wright surprised me as well. I somewhat expected him to dig his heels in and simply restate what he had said in the past; this, of course, is basically what he did in his last book on justification, which disappointed me. If one is going to take the time to write a book, then he ought to be sure to move the discussion forward. But Wright really answered some questions this time. Two particularly surprising moves were his statements (1) that final justification would be in accordance with works rather than on the basis of works and (2) that he might be comfortable with imputation language depending on how carefully it was defined. These are movements towards the middle of the debate for Wright. If you want more see the summary post by Andrew Cowan and a clarification post by Wright himself. To my Southern friends, let me apologize now, but it cracked me up when Wright suggested some neo-Catholicism lurking behind closed doors at Southern Seminary (UPDATE: more on Wright at ETS here).
5. Last and most likely least, my paper presentation at SBL was largely uneventful. It went smoothly, and no one challenged my thesis. No one said anything actually, which means either that the paper was not all that significant or that it was so clear and precise that everyone was stunned silent. I’ll opt for the latter. There was one senior scholar present who was nodding as I read the conclusion; so I’ll take that as encouragement and roll with it.