Every year about this time we get a spate of blog posts from within fundamentalism and elsewhere about the viability of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in view of (1) its skimpy doctrinal basis, (2) its tendency to the speculative and esoteric in its workshop offerings, (3) its broad inclusion of members whose theological positions and/or papers might legitimately rise to the level of ecclesiastically disciplinable offenses, and (4) the misguided motives of specific attendees at the conference. My purpose is not to deny any of these four objections (they are in fact all true), but I would like to qualify each one and then offer several reasons why I intend to continue frequenting the ETS national conference for a good long time.
- That the ETS has a skimpy doctrinal basis is undeniable, requiring nothing more than a slightly nuanced belief in (1) inerrancy and (2) the Trinity. This doctrinal basis is woefully inadequate for a church, it is true, but that’s just the thing: the ETS is not a church. Its mission does not include things like worship, evangelism, or ordination; in terms of ecclesiastical concern, the personal holiness and orthodoxy of its members is no more nor less relevant than that of the authors of the books in my library. Please know that I am keenly interested in the purity of my church and that of the churches with which it cooperates in the fulfillment of her mission. I am also suspicious of parachurch units that assume ecclesiastical functions—frankly, one of my bigger tensions with ETS is the (typically poorly attended) ecumenical early morning worship sessions, which are simply out of place: No, I didn’t go to hear John Piper’s worship block, even though it came with a free breakfast, and yes, I will walk away from ETS if that kind of programming begins to dominate. I didn’t (and will not ever) go to ETS for church (I’ve got a much better venue for that right here in Allen Park); instead, I went for professional development.
- That the ETS has tended toward the speculative and esoteric is in part a matter of ideological drift (dabbling in novelty for novelty’s sake or simply to “get noticed,” or a complete disconnect of the academy from its biblical moorings). This is a problem to me, and if this trend grows to dominate the society meetings (like it does, say, at SBL) such that I cannot find a sufficient number of useful workshops, I will likely stop attending without fanfare. The tendency toward the speculative and esoteric, however, is also in part a byproduct of the ETS mission (breaking new ground and finding new models to solve theological problems, which sometimes involves raw ideas still in need of nuance, refinement, and chastening). This represents one of the bigger reasons I go to ETS. It is a forum for mutual chastening and refinement for the very most important topics in the world. I need that discipline from a circle of advisors with an array of expertise that is more diverse and expansive than the small coterie of scholars who people the offices clustered around mine here at DBTS.
- While some no doubt attend ETS with poor motives, it is an irresponsible bit of provincialism to impose those motives on all who attend ETS. This is this very kind of grenade-lobbing by those who don’t know what they don’t know that has pushed fundamentalism to the edge of inconsequence. Please note that I say all of this as one who is emphatically confessional and narrowly missional in my view of the church and its cooperative associations; indeed, I’ve even fought hard for a principled form of cultural foundationalism in the ecclesiastical context. Sadly, the italicized terms in my previous sentence have been sorely wanting in many corners of fundamentalist life, and the result has been a disturbingly short shelf life for the movement. And that is because an undefined exclusivist principle cannot help but fragment over time into islands of disparate (and even absurd) isolation.
What, then, were my motives, and what did I get out of ETS?
- Firstly I went to discover what I do not know, and to understand better what I thought I already knew—before I made a fool of myself by teaching or writing or blogging in ignorance. For instance, I was finally able to get a handle on the issues involved in the recent flap on subordination by attending two lectures by British Anglicans who made me aware that my conservative/complementarian views have undergone a subtle shift toward social Trinitarianism of which I was not aware and which was not anticipated by Nicaea. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m changing my view, but I know better this week than last that there’s more to this debate than a shouting match between feminists and chauvinists. It let me know that I’ve got some more reading to do.
- Secondly I went to ask questions. After a lecture on developments on the Kingdom since Ladd, I struck up a conversation with the presenter on dispensational views of the kingdom. I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of opinion on a view that I hold dear, and I got this and more. In fact, the speaker had some very sympathetic words about some Jewish sources that held promise for the dispensational cause. More reading.
- Thirdly I went to contribute to the conversation. I didn’t read a paper this year (though I have in the past), but those that I attended and participated in critiquing will be next year’s journal articles (one of them in the DBS Journal, incidentally), and the following year’s books. And I’d like to think that everyone who participated played a tiny part in making those publications better, more careful, and more useful to the pastors, scholars, and students who will read them.
- Fourthly I went to figure out ways that I could market my own research and that of my colleagues more broadly. While there is value, of course, in “talking to ourselves” in local venues, I’d like to think that we still have contributions to make beyond our own walls. To that end I chatted with publishers, floated potential projects, found sympathetic ears that I didn’t know were there, and got advice on how to shape my projects to reach a broader audience and win the nod of publishers.
- Fifthly I went to get together with a growing number of friends I have made over my career, to catch up over lunch, to encourage and be encouraged, and to become excited about doing more for the cause of Christ than I am doing right now. I always come back from ETS with a suitcase full of books, a zeal to read them, and new aspirations to research and write more. It is one of the more anticipated highlights of my year, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.