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State of the Society

Acting president of Evangelical Theological Society talks about 'momentary crisis,' previews annual meeting.

With the Evangelical Theological Society meeting November 14-16 in San Diego, I corresponded with ETS acting president Hassell Bullock of Wheaton College on what to expect. His answers touch on current theological debates such as justification and former president Francis Beckwith's Catholic conversion.

What are you most eagerly anticipating about this year's meeting?

I am most eagerly anticipating the four plenary addresses by renowned scholars, each to be followed by a theme session in which the topic will be further explored and discussed by other members of the society with the plenary speaker participating. This is a new feature of the plenary program.

What would a layperson find interesting about the ETS annual meeting?

Through the years the ETS has successfully appealed to pastors as well as scholars, and even to a good number of laypersons. The appeal, I think, has been the general concern in the society with the Bible and biblical theology, and how the teachings of Scripture are to be lived out in the world. This year, for one example, we will have several sessions on Christian formation. Further, the Near East Archaeological Society also meets parallel to ETS and offers interesting discussions of current archaeological developments, an area that has a strong lay appeal. Anyone registered for ETS may attend the meetings of NEAS.

What makes this year's theme, "Teaching Them to Obey," especially relevant to contemporary theological discourse?

The theme, "Teaching Them to Obey," taken from the Great Commission of Matthew 28, taps into the ethical content of the Great Commission and reaches back into the Old Testament as well as forward to the kingdom of God inaugurated by Christ. Our plenary speakers will explore this dimension, breaking the theme down into four component parts: the NT perspective (Douglas Moo, Wheaton College), the OT perspective (Christopher J. H. Wright, Langham Partnership International), the world perspective (Philip Jenkins, Penn State University), and the Christian formation perspective (David Wells, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). We are trying to turn this dimension of the Great Commission facet by facet, so that we can see its multi-dimensions for faith and life as they are explored by scholars from four different disciplines.

Which papers do you expect will stir the most discussion?

I think such papers as R. Chisholm, "Did Chemosh Defeat Yahweh? Israel's Retreat and the 'Failure' of Prophecy in 2 Kings 3"; J. P. Moreland, "Teaching Them to Obey: How Evangelicals Became Overcommitted to the Bible and What We Should Do About It"; Alan G. Padgett, "Biblical Inerrancy for a Postmodern Age: A Reply to

Raschke and a Proposal"; the Christopher Wright follow-up session with Walter Kaiser; and the Richard Bauckham session with discussion of his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

Is there any merit to suggestions for changing the ETS doctrinal basis?

The recent return of Francis Beckwith, the ETS president, to the Catholic faith of his childhood, has obviously and understandably created questions within the society about the adequacy of our theological basis, which is quite brief: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory."

The society was founded upon a simple theological basis rather than a statement of faith, with the intention of providing a broad evangelical basis for academic discussion, thus allowing and encouraging diversity within unity. While the proposed amendment will not change that basis, it will expand the statement quite significantly, and, while solving one problem, may create others.

However the society decides this issue, I hope ETS will continue to see itself as a wide space for discussing biblical-theological and related issues within the bounds of an unshakable commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture.

What do you hope will come of renewed debates about the doctrine of justification?

I believe there is a need for discussing the basic doctrines of our faith over and over again, not with the intent of discovering a new doctrine, but discovering new dimensions of old doctrines.

Since the doctrine of justification was the "watchword" of the Reformation, and thus the one doctrine, perhaps above all others, by which Protestantism distinguishes itself from its Catholic and Orthodox communions, it is only wise that we should talk about it and try to understand why our understanding distinguishes us from other Christian brothers and sisters. In so doing, I hope we shall come to a better understanding of the theological dilemma we have and do face, and find that behind the doctrine of justification stands our common Lord.

From my point of view, this is not likely to erase the reformers' understanding of justification, but hopefully will bring us to a better understanding of each other, and that can only be a touch of God's grace.

Is there further need for ETS to discuss the resignation of president Francis Beckwith?

The executive committee issued a statement that we considered to be honest and balanced. We wanted to respect Professor Beckwith, a brother in Christ, while lamenting his loss to our society and to Protestantism more generally. Some think we said too much, and others too little, and some, the executive committee included, just enough.

But for sure, our statement is not and ought not be the last word on the theological issues that divide Protestants and Roman Catholics. We only spoke out of our specific context, one that took us by surprise and created a momentary crisis in the society, while raising an issue of importance far beyond the bounds of ETS.

While the society itself is not continuing the discussion in this year's meeting—the program theme had been planned several years ago—the Evangelical Philosophical Society, that meets alongside ETS, will hold a discussion on "Evangelicals and Catholics in Dialogue," hearing representatives from both theological traditions.

In addition to this, the society is sponsoring a discussion of Francis Beckwith's book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion, at which Professor Beckwith will be a participant. Speaking only for myself, not for the society, I would welcome a more focused discussion of this issue, particularly the topic of justification, at a later annual meeting of the society.

Quick Takes
  • Writing in Evangelical Missions Quarterly (print only), Rick Brown addresses Muslim objections to the term "Son of God." In doing so he also explains theological objections to some Bible translators who opt for different phrasing, such as "God's Beloved Christ," "the Christ whom God loves as a Father loves his Son," or "the Prince of God."

  • "Lament in the Bible speaks of betrayal and abandonment, disappointment with God, injustice and enemy attacks, illness and death. It is both personal and corporate. Lament psalms are the most common type of psalms, which indicates that lament was voiced regularly," write Brian Webster and David Beach in Bibliotheca Sacra (online only for paid subscribers). They lament, "But a survey of most hymnals shows a startling lack of hymns that express lament, a gap also noted in contemporary Christian music." Webster and Beach use Jesus as the prime example of godly lament.

  • Carl Trueman "baldly goes" where few have gone before. His theology of balding frames a serious question: "What is it with ministers and Christian leaders who seem to feel a compulsive need to talk about youth culture all the time and to adopt the styles of self-obsessed teenagers in order to demonstrate how `relevant' their ministries are and how hidebound everybody else's are?" His charge? "As to my brothers who are follicle-challenged but who faithfully study, pray, and preach the gospel week by week, Be bald, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you."

Verses for the Fortnight

"And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'"

Matthew 28:18-20

Collin Hansen is a CT editor-at-large.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns include:

The Crisis of Modern Fundamentalism | Defections threaten a proud movement. (October 26, 2007)
Itchy Ears and Tongues of Fire | Gay-rights group employs Scripture. Also: Pentecostal success invites new challenges. (October 12, 2007)
Immersed in a Baptism Brouhaha | Changes of heart renew centuries-old divisions. (September 28, 2007)
What's Not Coming to a Bookstore Near You | How competition to publish celebrity Christians crowds out theology. (September 14, 2007)
From the Seminaries to the Pews | The 'new perspective on Paul' gets the popular treatment. (August 31, 2007)

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