Reflections on 2010 ETS

Article by   December 2010
I felt like a kid in a candy store at this year's Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) annual meeting held in Atlanta, GA.  Deeply discounted commentaries, well-known biblical scholars, bible college friends, and discussion about justification--what more could a bible nerd ask for?  Although I could go on about dinner with RTS professors, late night theological talks with dear friends, or the amazing deal I got on Carl Trueman's new book on history and fallacies (thanks Crossway!), I'll only mention a few  observations that struck me during this year's ETS annual meeting.

1. ETS, similar to evangelicalism as a whole, should probably be understood as Michael Horton puts it, more like a courtyard than an ecclesiastical organism (i.e., a church).  This courtyard mentality is evidenced by the theological diversity found among the various participants at the conference, ranging from Seventh - day Adventist to Dispensational to confessionally-Reformed Christians and everything in-between.  The conference does little to hide the theological diversity present at the conference.  This diversity I perceive as being both a strength and a weakness.  However, what are the strong theological boundaries?  If a member can deny justification by faith alone (which, by the way, was not the theme of the conference--it was "justification by faith"; and who gets to define what "alone" means anyways?), can one legitimately be termed an "evangelical"?  There seems to be little oversight on who gets in and who gets a say on all sorts of important theological matters.  Just another reason why the Church, not ETS, is my mother.

2. Thomas Schreiner brought his "A" game.  Schreiner began the plenary sessions with a respectful, honest, but forceful review and critique of N.T. Wright's doctrine of justification.  What most impressed me was that Schreiner both gave Wright credit where credit was due while at the same time strongly opposed those aspects of his doctrine of justification which appear, to me at least, unhelpful if not unbiblical.  Schreiner's lecture modeled how theology, even polemical theology, can and ought to be done; an example which every theological student should imitate.  Schreiner's expounding of the doctrine of justification, his exposition of the Scriptures, and his expressing imputation in terms of the believer's mystical union with Christ was outstanding, although not surprising considering his other writings dealing with the subject.  

3. N.T. Wright is an engaging speaker.  Of course I expected Wright, British accent and all, to come across as witty, engaging, and "cool," but I didn't realize how easily his deliverance could overshadow the substance of what he actually had to say, which was rather objectionable.  In the plenary session that he gave Friday morning to a packed crowd at the Hilton, Wright spent the first half of the lecture clarifying how his interpreters had misunderstood him so critically (a not-so-surprising claim to those familiar with Wright).  In the second half of the lecture, reiterating many points which can be found in previous books and lectures, Wright reminded his listeners that although he is willing to speak of God's verdict of "righteous" given to Jesus at his resurrection as reckoned to the sinner, he is unwilling to speak of Christ's righteousness as being imputed to the sinner.  He then remarked, concerning his latter objection, that he was objecting to the classic protestant view of imputation.  Would that Protestants not only recognize Wright's own objection to the standard protestant doctrine of imputation and justification by faith alone for what it is (i.e. a denial of the ground of justification), but also stand up against Wright's unbiblical formulation of the doctrine of justification.  To deny imputation is to undermine the foundation of the Christian's hope in justification--that is why, as he was dying, J. Gresham Machen said concerning Christ's righteousness imputed to the sinner, "no hope without it."

Although many of the lectures I attended sounded more like a rant than an argument, there were highlights that should not go without recognition.  James Anderson's lecture on the law of non-contradiction as an argument for the existence of God was superb.  The discussion concerning justification, imputation, and sanctification between Wesleyan theologians and the respondent Mike Horton illuminated the significant differences between Wesleyan and Reformed theology with respect to justification.  The latter discussion continued to remind me just how influential pastoral concerns (antinomianism or legalism) can be on one's own theological convictions.  Accordingly, some Reformed formulations of justification and its relationship to other ordo salutis benefits can sometimes leave little place for the third use of the law, and Wesleyan theologians, being so concerned with antinomianism, seem to gut justification of all its freeness by importing the renovation of the sinner into justification--neither approaches to justification biblical, and both pastorally damaging.

It may sound as if I didn't enjoy this year's ETS meeting--however, nothing could be further from the truth.  Almost every session I attended was intellectually stimulating, and I can honestly say I learned some things.  I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with those I attended the conference with and look forward to attending the ETS annual meeting in the future.   In summary, the conference experience is surely grounded upon thought-provoking lectures, but is enriched when spent with dear friends and professors, all making ETS a great experience for the theological student.

Michael Lynch is a MDiv student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. 

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