This past Friday and Saturday I had the privilege of attending the Midwest regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I made many new friends at the conference and attended a number of helpful and interesting sessions, several of which are summarized below.
The well-known eighty-three year old theologian Millard Erickson gave a presentation which reflected on the past eighty years of American evangelical theology. He calls the period from 1936 to 1947 “the period of consolidation,” after liberals had finally won out in all the major denominations and institutions, and evangelicals had been forced to start their own churches and institutions. Erickson labels the period from 1947 to 1983 as “the period of construction,” in which evangelical scholars made the case for evangelical theology, in opposition to liberal theology, by means of positive contributions. In spite of denominational differences, evangelicals largely presented a united front in their efforts. Erickson labels the period from 1983 to the present as “the period of controversy,” in which evangelical scholarship has fractured over many theological issues, and evangelicals have debated each other as much or more than the liberals. Erickson lists biblical inerrancy as the foremost debated issue in evangelicalism, followed by the issue of gender roles. With regard to the present day situation, Erickson noted that many major theologians have passed from the scene in recent years, especially on the evangelical left, and that so far there is no clear future leader on either side. He believes the discipline of theology has been weakened by the increasing specialization of academia, so that most scholars can only engage in one specific aspect of the overall discussion, and are not broadly competent across the entire discipline. Also, evangelicalism has become increasingly fractured; according to Erickson, scholars on the evangelical left often are exclusively interested in dialogue and partnership with liberal scholarship, to the exclusion of the evangelical right. Another aspect of the present day situation is the popularization of the discussion. Seminaries are closing or downsizing, resulting in fewer trained theologians, while the great rise in social media has led to much theologizing being done on blogs, Facebook, and other social media. Some popular evangelical blogs are written by people with little or no formal training, and as a result often contain glaring, amateurish errors. Erickson encouraged the scholars in the audience to engage more in social media. Finally, looking forward to the future of evangelical theology, Erickson noted that it appears evangelicals will increasingly have to fight merely to have a platform to communicate—in contrast to past generations, in which evangelical scholars simply argued for evangelical theological viewpoints against liberal theological viewpoints. He specifically flagged political correctness as a major problem for evangelicals, since political correctness attempts to restrict what is even allowed to be said or suggested before the case for it can be made. Erickson called for more unity among evangelicals, even as he described how his own church is likely going to split over the call of a female minister whom he is recommending to the congregation. Erickson’s final exhortation was to prepare to fight the next battle, not the last battle or even the current one. He thinks academia is shifting away from the current postmodernism back to a form of modernism.
Jacob Prahlow, a Ph.D. student at Saint Louis University, presented an interesting paper on the Christology of the book of Revelation. Whether one studies the Christological controversies of the early church, modern theology books, or even commentaries on Revelation, there is a surprising lack of attention to the Christology of the book of Revelation. In fact, Revelation is replete with strong affirmations of Jesus’ divinity (His humanity is also affirmed in 1:13; 5:9; 11:8; 14:14). Clear references to Jesus as “Lord” are found in 11:8, 17:14, 19:16, and 22:20-21, although John’s preferred term for Jesus is “the Lamb” (in accord with 5:6), and John frequently calls the Father “Lord” (κύριος) as the Greek representation of the Hebrew term “Yahweh.” The title “Alpha and Omega,” used of Jesus in 22:12-13, is given as a title for God alone in 1:8 and 21:6. Jesus’ title “The First and the Last” (1:17; 2:8; 22:13) parallels God’s title “The One who is and who was and who is to come” (1:8; cf. Isa 41:4; 44:6; 48:12). Revelation 19:13 calls Jesus “the Word of God,” a theologically loaded title which is an affirmation of divinity (cf. John 1:1). Jesus is twice called “King of kings and Lord of lords” (17:14; 19:16), which implies that He is sovereign over everything and everyone in all of creation. Revelation 19:10 and 22:8-9 explicitly prohibit worship of anyone but God alone, yet the book approves of worship of Jesus/the Lamb (5:8-13). Jesus determines which names are in the book of life (3:5; 13:18), which means that He controls the eternal destiny of all men—who enters the lake of fire (20:15), and who enters the New Jerusalem (3:12). In chs. 1–3, Jesus very clearly claims lordship over the churches, calls God His Father (2:27; 3:5, 21), calls Himself (among other titles) “the Son of God” (2:18), and issues extraordinary promises that only God could make. In ch. 5, the Lamb was the only One in all of heaven, earth, or the underworld who was found worthy to take the seven-sealed scroll out of the hand of God and break its seals. In ch. 19, it is Jesus (“The Word of God”) who returns to earth to execute God’s judgment on the beast, the false prophet, and all the wicked in the earth. The very first verse of Revelation affirms that Jesus Christ revealed the whole vision of the book to His servant John. The final scene in the vision shows “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” as the temple and the light source of the New Jerusalem (21:22-23). All in all, the book of Revelation is at least as strong as any other book of the New Testament in its affirmations of the divinity of Jesus.
Marcus Leman, a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave a very helpful presentation on the utility of the Masoretic accents in the Hebrew/Aramaic text of the Old Testament. The accents have three basic functions: to mark stressed syllables, to mark the melody to be sung for each word (when the text is cantillated), and to mark syntactical breaks in the verse. The latter function of the accents is similar to a modern system of punctuation, but is different in that each word is given its own “punctuation mark” (accent) in order to identify precise syntactic, clausal, and semantic units. Understanding the meaning of these accents not only aids reading comprehension, but also allows the exegete to pull ready-made structural outlines out of the Hebrew text by understanding which accents are subordinate to other accents in the verse. One Hebrew professor in attendance at the session said he wonders whether he has been teaching Hebrew wrong for the last forty years. Leman’s work was based on that of his professor Russell Fuller, whose book on Hebrew accents is due out later this year.
Tremper Longman III gave a presentation on Old Testament commentaries, especially the various commentary series that he has edited or otherwise been involved with. I must say that I have some significant theological and practical disagreements with Longman, such as his adherence to theistic evolution and his view that every book of the Bible except Nahum(?!) was redacted after it was originally written. Longman promoted the new Story of God commentary series he is editing for Zondervan, but what he said about it made me not want to buy the series. He bragged about how they had gone out of their way to find women to write commentaries in the series (just under half the commentaries are to be authored by women), and that they had also found a woman to be one of the series editors. He specifically said they wanted to have as few white male Americans as possible writing books in the series, though he evidently made an exception for himself. One positive observation Longman made was that modernist (i.e., post-Reformation) commentaries had the virtue of not accepting premodern interpretations of the text. Many allegorical interpretations of the biblical text that are found in the (generally later) church fathers are repeated over and over again in medieval commentaries. Many post-Reformation Protestant writers, by contrast, saw the text as their sole authority and interpreted it literally, discarding the junk of allegorical exegesis. I will say that I am seeing an increasing amount of allegorical interpretation at ETS meetings and in commentaries, though it is rarely called “allegorical.” Texts are often read in highly symbolic ways so as to convey something other than their face-value, literal meaning.
Michael Wittmer of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary gave an excellent presentation in which he argued (against books by David Platt, John Piper, and Joe Rigney) that Christians can serve Jesus with an ordinary profession, and that it is okay for Christians to enjoy non-sinful pleasures and the good things of this world. Rigney’s ongoing affirmation of panentheism is particularly troubling, but it is the natural theological outgrowth of what his side is recommending on a practical level.
Finally, Abraham Kuruvilla of Dallas Theological Seminary gave a very engaging presentation on the exegetical process by which a sermon should be formed. My main problem with Kuruvilla’s hermeneutical model is that it treats the literal meaning of the text as of secondary importance (as can be seen in his commentary on Genesis). Nevertheless, I expect Kuruvilla’s work to continue to gain recognition in the evangelical world.