Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, this year in Baltimore, MD. The ETS is a professional society made up of several thousand professors, students, academically-minded pastors, and other thrill seekers who submit to the meager but important doctrinal standards of (1) Trinitarianism and (2) biblical inerrancy. I’ve been a member for about fifteen years (with a year off in protest over the Pinnock/Sanders incident—more on that later), and thoroughly enjoy these annual trips. In fact, I think last week’s meeting was my favorite to date. Some thoughts I had:
- I have made peace with the fact that the ETS doctrinal standards are not denominational subscription standards or “fundamentals.” Early on, I thought that this was the case, and was aghast when Clark Pinnock retained his membership despite clear evidence that his idea of inerrancy was woefully deficient. I later realized that this society (despite its published standards) is really a “village green” where broad theological conversations can occur—even debates over the doctrinal standards themselves. This was especially evident with this year’s conference theme (inerrancy), which seemed to invite an inordinate percentage of papers detailing just how far the definition of inerrancy may be stretched and still be called “inerrancy.” Some will not feel comfortable with this kind of society, and I have sympathy with those so inclined. The content of the ETS standards and laxity toward subscription do not offer a good model for ecclesiastical fellowship, but then again, that’s not what ETS is—and there is need for a place where the conversations common at ETS may be conducted dispassionately in a professional, face-to-face venue.
- Since ETS is not really about expressing mutual agreement (like, say, a denominational fellowship meeting might be), why do I go? Three major reasons: I go (1) to encourage and be encouraged by comrades-in-arms, many of which I see only at this venue, (2) to make new connections for fellowship, publication, and other joint efforts, and (3) to be part of the conversation, participating interactively in solutions to contemporary problems in a community than is larger than the one with which I interact every day. This kind of conference is as invigorating to an academic as a denominational meeting or preaching conference is for an isolated pastor. I come back each year thoroughly refreshed, with new books to read, new ideas for teaching/research, and a generally renewed resolve or “vision” for what I can accomplish for the cause of Christ and of God.
I also spent a bit of time this year pondering the idea of being evangelical. To be evangelical has historically meant that primary emphasis is placed on taking the evangel to those who don’t have it. This fact has two important implications for the conference:
- Many ETS papers are dedicated to “answering the fool according to his folly” (Prov 26:5) and to being “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason for the hope that you have…with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). The topics are often clustered around the edges (where the evangel is not prominent), and the tone is almost always irenic, sometimes unduly so. It is a place where fundamentalists and confessionalists (among whose ranks I count myself) are in the minority—emphasis on exclusivity in the context of local churches is not prominent. Still, I am forced to admit that the evangelicals have been good at reminding me that my life is lived not only as a member of the church, but as a member of civil society, where life is often intellectually messy. Granted, many at ETS confuse the two spheres of ecclesiastical and civil society (after all, there are a LOT of Neo-Kuyperians who attend), but the reminder is helpful.
- Self-styled evangelicals tend to take greater theological risks for the sake of the Gospel than do their confessional and fundamentalist brothers. There is in evangelical quarters a pervasive tendency to overlook incidental differences for the sake of the Gospel. This is something I need to learn better. Still, there is also a tendency among evangelicals to overlook significant and even watershed differences for the sake of the Gospel. This remains a problem of serious import, and one that is never far from my mind when I am at ETS.
To summarize, I love going to ETS and I plan to go every year so long as I am able to do so. It is a refreshing and stimulating highlight of my year. I remain fully aware of the deficiencies of evangelicalism as an idea and as a movement, and suspect I will always be something of an outsider, but I still find this venue an immensely profitable one. ETS is not the church, and I was delighted to be back on Sunday morning worshipping in that far different and much more important venue. But ETS equips me, I think, to function more effectively in the church, and I recommend the ETS experience to others.