Annual Meeting in Review: ETS 2014

Happy December! I have a long overdue ETS 2014 recap for you.

This year the annual meeting was held in San Diego—and by coincidence my wife Jenny decided this was the year she should tag along and see what all the fuss is about. The weather was gorgeous, and I never really got why people are so crazy about palm trees until now.

I’m ready to call SoCal home.

My habit at annual meetings is to have everything scheduled out, then chuck the schedule when opportunities for personal meetings arise. This year I was a little more careful to try to get more from the presentations since this was an expensive trip.

Philosophical Tensions

I attended a few philosophical papers, but they were less interesting to me than usual. Both presenters are world-class thinkers and dove into complex philosophical jargon that made it extremely difficult for lay people like myself to follow. One of my friends commented that it steeled his decision to pursue other subjects, and I have to admit this isn’t the kind of philosophy I’m interested in either. Maybe it’s because I don’t know enough. But as a theologian I want to be able to make use of philosophy, not specialize in it. I want to be able to follow the top-level arguments so I can translate them for normal church folks. It poses an interesting question for someone excited at the prospects of analytic theology.

Blaising’s Surprise Party

Usually I listen to one paper here, another there, but this is the first year I sat down for a couple of whole sections. The first was on God and the future—which turned out to be a surprise unveiling of a festschrift for Craig Blaising. I like to call Dr. Blaising my “Grand-Mentor” since he’s the mentor to so many of my mentors. The professors I’m most indebted to frequently cite him as one of their biggest influences, and it was neat to learn more about him as he was honored by so many. It was a privilege, really. I believe the book (which contains many of the papers presented) will be out next year.

My favorite of these papers was actually the one that wasn’t planned. Nathan Holsteen filled a last-minute vacancy and presented a paper on Calvin’s eschatology, which paid special attention to how Calvin’s doctrines interacted with each other. The basic idea is that changing one doctrine—justification by faith—in an otherwise Catholic setting, has ripple effects. No doctrine stands in a vacuum. I absolutely love the idea of mapping doctrine and showing their relationships, demonstrating cause and effect. I hope I can do more with this in the future.

Discovering Public Theology

I made my way to a number of historical papers on seemingly unrelated themes and subjects, but one idea kept popping up: public theology. This is the first time I’ve really been confronted with the name, but upon reflection I find it’s a topic I’ve been interested in all my life.

I suppose you could describe public theology as what Christians have to say to those outside the church. It’s less focused on evangelism (the other, more obvious message the church has for the world) and more on being a constructive prophetic voice in the public square. For example, as Christians we believe God has given us clear and binding instructions on right and wrong, so the response of the church is to better understand and obey them. But having received this knowledge we can also turn to those outside the church and communicate and advocate for these standards in society. It’s a different mission than salvation, but not unrelated and certainly an important ministry.

I’m thrilled that this is an official subject of study and that more is being done in this area. The papers I heard that touched on it included: 1) Al Mohler on the implications of Augustine’s eschatology for current cultural challenges; 2) Greg Thornbury on patristic interactions with non-Christians, specifically Athenagoras and St. Antony; 3) my friend Dan Roeber on the negative impact of Finney’s revivalism on the Burned-Over District; and 4) two papers on historiography, which I think is closely related to public theology since it deals at least in part with discerning God’s work in history (which is everyone’s business).

The Adam Panel

The second block section I sat in on was a panel discussion about the historicity of Adam. (Yes, THE Adam.) Apparently this was an encore of a panel conducted last year on the same topic with the same people—the four contributing authors of the “Four Views” book by Zondervan. I won’t rehash the whole thing since you can just buy or borrow the book and read for yourself, but I’ll venture a few observations.

1) As with any debate, if you don’t all agree to definitions, you’re not likely to reach a conclusion. I heard a whole lot of explanations of where each person is coming from and even clarifying their definitions of key terms. But what I didn’t hear was much argument for why you should commit to one definition over the other. 2) Lots of personal experience was included, and I especially recall this from Denis Lamoureux, the creation-scientist-turned-evolutionist. I appreciate this as a matter of understanding the authors and their journey, but frankly it doesn’t help me decide which of them is right. If you want to change my mind you have to guide me through the same experience you had. Show me why this convinced you and maybe I’ll be convinced! 3) This was a very amicable discussion with numerous attempts to find common ground, which I greatly appreciated coming into such a contentious subject. What I think the panel lacked in rigor it made up in spirit.

Of course I don’t know what they were going for. I was coming as a young-earth creationist (with antipathy for “creation science”) looking to understand the arguments and hoping to hear something persuasive. But arguments where people don’t carefully define terms and focus on personal experience over presenting a case—those just don’t do much for me. That’s a conversation. That’s learning to get along. That’s relationship building. It’s not much of a debate. I value those other things, but that’s not what I was hoping to hear from a panel of experts making contradicting claims about Scripture.

Theology as Calling

While the Adam panel fell short of my expectations, the last block section far exceeded them. The Acton Institute hosted a set of papers and panel discussion on how to live out one’s calling as a theologian.

This was worth the whole trip for me.

As someone with a very grounded, borderline pessimistic view of the academy and his future in it, I’ve been wrestling with what to do with my calling as a theologian. It’s the only thing I’m sure of, the thing I keep coming back to. So how do I feed a family while being faithful to this calling? There’s always “tent-making” I suppose, making your money one way and serving in your spare time. That’s probably my immediate future. But is that all there is?

Three papers were presented as a response to a paper Greg Thornbury wrote. The first of these was the theologian in the marketplace, second the theologian in the pastorate, and third the theologian in the academy. The main message I walked away with is everyone needs a theologian, but not everyone wants one and of those that do even fewer are willing to pay for them.

The one that got the most attention was the second paper, which is part of a larger effort to create a guild for the “pastoral theologian,” which is a pastor that does research like an academic theologian, but with the concerns and insights of a pastor and without the pressures of the academy. It harkens back to a time when the pastorate and the academy worked together more closely, and where pastors were expected to do top-tier theology. The bottom line is go be a faithful pastor and learn to carve out the extra time to do research. If you do your pastoring well, the congregation will give you permission to pursue your strange hobbies.

Paper #3 got the most laughs, probably because this is what we do with bleak news. I don’t think I heard anything new, but the frustration was palpable. There are very few jobs in this field, and far too much competition. The academy is in flux and schools need to become sleeker and more efficient if they’re going to survive. Ironically, this discussion gave me some hope. As someone who strongly considered pursuing a career in music, academia doesn’t look all that different. You work your tail off and hope for that big break. But most people don’t make it—and that’s part of the gamble. You go in full of confidence, believing you can achieve something miraculous, and when you fail you say “that’s how it goes.” Then you go get a “real” job. If I do go back to the academy, this is the mindset I’ll bring with me.

What was really lacking in the discussion was more on the first paper, on theology in the marketplace. The speaker talked about the opportunities online and the needs in the marketplace, but it was something of a tease. It’s not as though there are jobs out there waiting to be filled. This is really theologian as entrepreneur. You need to create your own job, market your own product, find a consumer base. There are definitely opportunities out there, but they’re for entrepreneurs. You can’t simply do theology; you have to be a businessman, an innovator. I wonder how accessible that is to the average theologian. It’s definitely something I’m going to keep pondering.

Like I said, the church NEEDS us, the academy NEEDS us, the marketplace NEEDS us. They just don’t always know it, and they can’t always afford it.

Closing Thoughts

Despite my best intentions, I missed all the plenary sessions. I did get to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s prospective students after-hours party (and got a nifty mug!). I didn’t buy any books because, 1) let’s face it, I bought a house instead; 2) I’ve got a ton of books I haven’t cracked already; and 3) I’m learning interest isn’t enough these days. I’ve got interests up the wazoo. Books should be serving my goals.

Next year’s ETS is back in Atlanta. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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