Summary of My First ETS Annual Conference

Last week I drove to San Antonio to attend the annual national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.  It’s the first time I’ve been to a national meeting; the other time I went to an ETS conference, it was a regional one.  I initially wasn’t going to go, but my professors encouraged me to make the trip in order to meet people and listen to contemporary evangelical scholarship.  I came back early from it in order to teach class on Thursday and Friday for my professor, so I was only there Tuesday and Wednesday, but it was nonetheless a great experience of learning.

For those who don’t know what it is, ETS is an academic society for evangelical scholars.  It has its own journal and has regional and national meetings where scholars present their research in a short session and are then questioned and critiqued by their colleagues in the room.  The topics are very wide ranging: There are papers presented about philosophy, systematic theology, hermeneutics, Greek verbs, history, social issues, pastoral issues, Asian-American theology, etc.  Pretty much any topic under the sun remotely connected to theology.  Even within a particular subject like philosophy, there can be topics as diverse as discussing Berkleyan idealism to leveraging superhero movies to discuss biblical morals (yeah… I’m not kidding).  The bad part is that there are literally dozens of sessions one can choose from, so it was sometimes hard to make a choice; still, at least there was always a lot of options.

To prevent this from being too long, I’ll just stick to talking about some of the presentations I went to that were more notable.  There are several sessions that I simply have a hard time remembering well or didn’t get too much out of, so I won’t talk much about them.  Hopefully, this will still be a decent picture of what I got to listen to.  For the most part, I stuck to philosophy presentations, though I made a point to go to a few others that were of other disciplines.

The Free Will Defense as Inadequate for Compatibilists: Dr. Paul Franks presented an argument that while compatibilists might be able to use Plantinga’s Free Will Defense in a “narrow” way (in a way that grants the truth or possibility of libertarian free will), it is not convincing and perhaps dialectically useless because they do not actually believe in libertarian free will.  Some of them don’t even believe that libertarian free will is possible.  If so, there is something deeply dissatisfying about them using the Free Will Defense, and instead, Franks argued that when people make arguments, they should try to include more doctrines that they actually believe.  This he called a “broad” defense and one that would be much more genuine and effective.

I thought it was pretty cool that I had basically argued the same thing several years ago in a paper that I wrote for seminary (I’ve reproduced parts of it here and here).  It was also kind of funny that my roommate, Dr. Steve Cowan, was critiqued by Franks as a compatibilist who advocated the use of FWD in the past as an apologetic tool.  I got to ask Dr. Cowan later about it, and he actually agreed that compatibilists should look for another solution for the problem of evil, though in the past he may have seen the use of FWD as a general apologetic tool for someone who already assumed libertarian free will (he wasn’t going to spend his time trying to convince such a person that compatibilism is better when he’s trying to get to the gospel, which makes sense).  That said, he actually no longer believes that the FWD even works, but that’s a post for another time.

I think Franks’ point shouldn’t be that controversial.  It’s not one all Calvinists like hearing because then they find themselves with a unique problem that other Christians don’t have, but the more consistent Calvinists realize this and look for other solutions.

Christocentric Hermeneutics Allegedly Undermines OT Authority: Controversial heading?  Yeah, well, that is similar to the actual title of the session: “Too much ‘Jesus’? The Christocentric Hermenuetic and the Undermining of OT Authority,” by Richard Schultz of Wheaton College.  Such a provocative title drew a crowd, so I unfortunately had to stand outside the door and strain to hear what he was saying.

Obviously, Schulz is a Christian and wasn’t saying that we should jettison Jesus completely from the OT, but he objected to reading Jesus into many OT texts that may not have actually say anything about Christ.  He targeted two very different groups who share this tendency: Progressive Christians and Neo-Calvinists.  Progressive Christians use Jesus as their hermeneutical key and then tend to reject interpretations of the OT that they feel contradict the character of God revealed in Christ, such as teachings of the severity of God’s wrath.  Neo-Calvinists often criticize preachers who don’t make every passage about Jesus for “moralizing” the text and not being Gospel-centered (Schulz specifically mentioned figures like Al Mohler and Daniel Akin).  However, Schulz argued that the correct position is to read the OT faithfully in its context and allow it to teach the full measure of God’s truth, including moral instruction and descriptions of God’s character.  To do otherwise is to miss out on important teachings and doctrines of the OT, so both camps are simply not reading the OT well.

I think his basic point is sound, and it’s a similar criticism I have made against popular Reformed preachers like Chandler and Driscoll and the whole “preach Jesus in every text” movement.  However, I think we have to wrestle with how the NT writers actually used the OT as well, which was clearly in a way that pointed to Christ even if the immediate context of their references does not make that obvious.  I’m pretty sure this came up too in his lecture, but I cannot remember what he said about it (in my defense, I could barely hear from outside).

Should Dogma Inform Hermeneutics?  I wrote about this particular session in my previous post, so check that out.

Another Delusion in Dawkins’ The God DelusionWait, another one?  There are so many bad arguments in there that it’s hard to keep count.  Margaret Turnbull of Boston College identified another problem that isn’t about theology or philosophy of religion but about Dawkins’ view of science.  Dawkins presents a view of science in that book that sounds a lot like a modernist fantasy of scientific investigation where people are irresistibly led to truth on just the evidence alone.  However, Turnbull rightly pointed out that a great deal of scientific theories, if not the vast majority of them, are beset with the problem of underdetermination, which is the situation where there is just not enough evidence to determine that one theory is more correct than another.  Her main example was the plates on the back of the stegosaurus, where palentologiest are divided on their primary function despite having access to the same evidence.  In fact, many base their conclusions on prior commitments or values, such as simplicity of explanation or consistency with the Darwinist narrative of natural selection.

I think her presentation made a salient point and shows how many scientists, especially those of the kind of Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, unfortunately remain so ignorant of the philosophy behind their discipline.  Dawkins’ view of science simply does not hold water when it comes to how science is actually practiced.  One astute audience member even stated that perhaps it would be better if scientists came out and said what their biases were and what their values were when they introduced their studies and conclusions, but then at that point, “they would sound a lot like us philosophers.” Such a realization might make such scientists blow a fuse.

The Coherence of Penal-Substitutionary Atonement: William Lane Craig presented here and predictably drew a huge crowd.  There’s a reason for this beyond just celebrity: The guy knows how to present his position clearly.

Craig’s title was somewhat vague: “Philosophical Issues in the Doctrine of the Atonement.”  I wasn’t sure what direction he would take, but that became clear early on: He was going to focus on objections on not the atonement in general but on penal-substitution, the particular Protestant idea of the atonement.  In addition, he wasn’t going to concern himself about the moral objections to penal-substitution (such as it being divine child abuse), which are the more typical objections to that doctrine, but more about its coherence.

According to one theory of punishment (regrettably, I can’t remember the name Craig used, though it was not one of the common terms such as “retributivism”), punishment includes a few distinct aspects such as harm done directly to someone and/or the deprivation of rights, proportionality to the misdeed, and the idea of censure or disapproval of the person.  This makes it distinct from “penalty,” because a penalty, such as a speeding ticket or a ten yard penalty for holding, does not seem to carry with it the idea of censure.  Therefore, according to this theory of punishment, penal-substitutionary atonement is incoherent.  Since it makes no sense for Christ to receive censure from God (he was perfect), he could not have been “punished” for someone else’s sins.

Craig responded to this in several ways.  First, he noted that there are ways to formulate penal-substitution to talk about Christ receiving the penalty of sin rather than punishment, so one can grant the above definition of punishment and still hold to penal-substitution.  One such person is the late John Stott, who cautioned against saying that Christ was punished himself because that implies that God disapproved of Christ.

Second, Craig disputed this definition of punishment.  The distinction between a penalty and punishment are not always clear; to return to the football example, players can receive an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for 15 yards, which seems to be both a penalty yet a punishment because it clearly censures the behavior.  In addition, we seem to be able to grasp that sometimes innocent people can be “punished,” but if that’s the case, then the argument from incoherence doesn’t seem to work.

Craig then went on to talk about how we can make sense of imputation, drawing from several legal examples where guilt can be imputed on someone who didn’t do anything, such as an employer being found guilty and having to suffer costs for the misconduct of his employee.  He made the interesting distinction that imputation does not mean that guilt or innocence is transferred, but rather than they are replicated in someone else.  We are not declared righteous because our guilt is simply transferred to Christ such that our guilt disappears; rather, our guilt is replicated in Christ so that when he died, the punishment that was required for our sin was delivered and that is what sets us free.

I’m not doing justice to Craig’s presentation and this is one session that I wish I took notes, but it was one of the more carefully thought out defenses of the atonement I’ve heard.  Some theologians don’t like philosophy, but Craig ably showed how philosophers can aid in clarifying and defending doctrines.

Until Next Time

I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to ETS again if it is out of state, but I think it’s a great place to go to learn about your faith, engage in scholarship, and be opened to new ideas.  It cost me some money, but I don’t regret it at all.  And I don’t even care that much about networking, which of course is something available at conferences like this.  I’d recommend it to even pastors and lay people who are willing to be challenged and stretched.


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