This post is a report on the 2018 Midwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This year’s regional meeting was hosted by Grace Bible College, which is the flagship school of a small group of “dry” (i.e., anti-baptism), hyper-dispensational (a.k.a. mid-Acts dipsensational) churches. The college itself seemed to be doing well enough in terms of enrollment and finances. It has more of an ecumenical feel than might be expected, since most of the students are not from hyper-dispensational backgrounds. In fact, the college seemed like a typical contemporary small Christian college (about 300 on-campus students and 600 online students).
One of the things that struck me most about this conference, as well as with other recent ETS meetings, was the complete absence of a sense of battle, or of an “us” vs. “them” mentality. In the early days of the Evangelical Theological Society, much of its focus was on the struggle against theologically liberal Bible scholars and theologians. Papers stressed responses to critical attacks on the Bible and critical denials of biblical truth in archaeology, science, and theology. In today’s ETS, liberal Bible scholars are often referred to as if they are friends, though the reality is that they are enemies of the cross of Christ. This is both a result and a symptom of evangelical scholars adopting critical views of the Bible, and it includes both mainstream evangelical institutions and many traditionally fundamentalist institutions. To me, this is a great tragedy. First Corinthians 2:14 makes plain that unbelievers cannot understand the Bible correctly, because the Holy Spirit is needed to reveal spiritual truth. Furthermore, liberal-critical scholars are anti-Bible, anti-Christian, and anti-God. Commentaries, theology texts, and even lexicons and grammars that are written by the critics should be viewed with suspicion and used with caution; they should not be placed on the same level as books written by Bible-believers. There is also a general failure of fundamentalists to recognize and warn against the use of higher criticism in recent evangelical commentaries. I also find it disturbing when faculty from seminaries which do not allow women to teach the Bible to men on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 nevertheless use and recommend Bible commentaries written by women. The ETS is part of a general trend in evangelicalism to promote female seminary students, speakers, authors, and pastors; homosexuals will follow next. It appears to me that much of evangelical academia is sliding toward liberalism once again.
The main plenary speaker at the conference, Amos Yong of Fuller Theological Seminary, is an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God denomination. His topic was understanding the future of Pentecostal and evangelical theology, given the ongoing pentecostalization and charismatization of world Christianity. The number of charismatic Christians worldwide is higher than many may realize, since charismatics are not defined by a denominational label. For example, one-third of Roman Catholics consider themselves charismatics, or are practicing charismatics. It should be noted that “Pentecostal” and “charismatic” are labels which include both evangelical and non-evangelical groups.
Yong began by giving a brief overview of the origins and history of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Pentecostalism is comprised of three main historic streams:
- Classic Pentecostalism originated in the early twentieth century, drawing on nineteenth century holiness movements, revival movements, prophecy conferences, and other streams of influence. Yet it was not a continuation of those movements, but was something different, and was rejected by all established churches. The denominations of Classic Pentecostalism trace their roots to the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (1906-1915), although the origins of modern Pentecostalism go back to 1901. Classic Pentecostalism is largely a sociological category, as it includes both trinitarian and Oneness (unitarian) Pentecostals.
- The period from about 1960 to the early 1970s saw the rise of large Neo-Pentecostal and charismatic movements. These movements were different from Classic Pentecostalism in that they occurred within denominations that were not historically Pentecostal. The “charismatic renewal” movement encompassed churches that were Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and so forth. This movement was especially strong in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. But more conservative denominations rejected the charismatic movement.
- The “third wave” of the Pentecostal movement arose in the mid-to-late 1970s, gained steam in the 1980s, and has continued to the present day. This was the rise of independent or non-aligned Pentecostal churches, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. These churches were developed indigenously, not by missionaries, and they developed outside of denominational structures. They exhibit Pentecostal expressions, but often do not describe themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic. As independent churches, they vary widely, with many incorporating very aberrant doctrines and practices. The larger independent churches usually form a sort of denominational structure as they grow.
As for what the future holds, Yong thinks “Pent-evangelicalism” (the fusion of Pentecostalism with evangelicalism) is post-denominational and is heading toward a more individualistic spirituality, which is less institutionalized or label-based. Pentecostalism emphasizes an emotional “vibrancy” over “dead” orthodoxy. Pentecostalism has also had historic anti-intellectual tendencies, with its emphasis on mystical, spiritual encounter. However, the problem with Pentecostalism is that these are not merely different emphases, but are in fact different theologies which have developed in contradiction to biblical Christian belief. The detachment of Pentecostal practice from biblical orthodoxy can be expected to continue and even to go further in the future. Confessions and doctrinal statements have traditionally played less of a role in defining Pentecostal groups, which are mainly defined by relational associations and “apostolic” networks.
While I agree with Yong that the professing Christian church worldwide is dominated by Pentecostalizing and charismatizing influences, I am not sure the same is true among those who are actually saved. I expect a clearer distinction to develop in the future between left wing or mainstream evangelicalism and the right wing of evangelicalism. A more individualistic spirituality, disconnected from church tradition, will generally mean a departure from the gospel and from biblical truth—every man doing that which is right in his own eyes. Pentecostalism’s emphasis on the physical (e.g., healing) has led and will continue to lead to doctrinal perversions which view the church’s mission as bringing people health and wealth and happiness in this life, rather than bringing a message that will save men’s souls and guarantee them a future resurrection but does not promise physical comfort in this life.
Well-known theologian Millard Erickson presented a lecture on the future of evangelical theology. On the positive side, Erickson hopes that evangelicalism will develop a more robust theology of the ascension. Specifically, he is interested in the idea that the resurrection occurred in two stages—first, with Jesus’ body being resuscitated in some way for forty days, and then with this body being perfected and glorified (nail prints gone, overwhelming brightness) at the ascension.
On the negative side (from my perspective), there is a continuing weakening of the biblical doctrine of hell in evangelicalism (see the book I have written on this subject). Inclusivism is on the rise, as it has been since the 1990s; advocates include Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, J. I. Packer, and Billy Graham; and, from the nineteenth century, Augustus Hopkins Strong. Inclusivism is distinguished from universalism (the idea that everyone goes to heaven) and pluralism (the idea that all religions are valid), but it is close. This is the view that there are “moral pagans” who will go to heaven without ever believing the gospel (in contradiction of verses such as John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 10:42-43; Rom 10:9-15; 1 John 4:15). Inclusivism is not a new idea; many medieval theologians believed that Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle went to heaven, although they clearly did not worship the true God. Inclusivism gets pushed closer to universalism by theologians who are teaching the unbiblical doctrine of postmortem evangelism (see Heb 9:27). Other evangelical theologians are teaching annihilationism—the idea that unbelievers simply cease to exist when they die, rather than going to hell (in contradiction of passages which describe a judgment by works, degrees of punishment, and eternal torment). Some who do not follow inclusivism per se nevertheless argue that one has to believe very little about the gospel in order to be saved—thereby making virtually all professing Christians and many non-Christians saved, in contradiction of Jesus’ teaching about the way being narrow and few finding it (Matt 7:14). Among those who still believe that the Bible teaches eternal damnation in the lake of fire, many say that the pain of the lake of fire is merely or mainly emotional, not sensory. A denial of sensory torment contradicts every biblical description of the lake of fire and undermines the gospel, for then there would have been no need for Jesus to shed His blood to pay the price for sin—if the second death is merely emotional pain, Jesus did not have to die physically. Indeed, the reality of hell is a doctrine that goes to the heart of the Christian gospel, since the whole reason for the crucifixion was so that Christ would die for our sins in our place (1 Cor 15:3; 1 Pet 2:24). The gospel message is a call to accept Christ’s substitutionary death in order to be saved from God’s coming wrath (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10). If there is no literal, eternal hell, then the gospel message is false and Christianity makes no sense.
Timothy Miller of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary gave a presentation which compared three series of guides to the Greek New Testament. For my purposes, the SIL Exegetical Summaries are the most useful.
- The SIL Exegetical Summary Series is a reference tool designed for Bible translators. The NT volumes of this series are nearly complete, and two OT volumes have also been produced. This series is very helpful for summarizing information found in various standard lexicons, grammars, and commentaries. The authors make no evaluation of the different viewpoints, but merely present them. This series is best used in Accordance or Logos, which will link to the resources cited.
- The B&H Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (EGGNT) is designed mainly for pastors and Greek students. In some ways it is like a commentary that is focused on an analysis of the Greek text. This series is now available in Accordance.
- The Baylor Handbooks on the Greek New Testament (BHGNT) are designed for Greek students and scholars, as a “prequel” to writing a commentary. The BHGNT authors are committed to a specific “new” and controversial approach to Greek grammar which is opposed to the category of deponency, and also to some of the traditional categories of the aorist. Each volume is strictly a presentation of the author’s own views, often without citing any other views. Thus, the BHGNT is significantly more strident in tone than the other series, although it often gives helpful grammatical information. Logos is currently the only Bible software program that sells the BHGNT, although only half of the print volumes are available electronically.
Kyle Dunham of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary offered an analysis of the structure of Proverbs and suggested that the book was meant as an educational program for novice leaders in ancient Israel. Dunham’s paper was well-researched and insightful, although I think it relied too heavily on critical scholarship and became too technical at times for a book that was written more as art than science. For example, I objected to understanding the book as having seven divisions based on the seven pillars of wisdom, when chs. 25–29 were added by Hezekiah’s men well after the original composition of the book by Solomon.
Benjamin Espinoza presented the case that we need to start thinking about how evangelical theology will change as a result of the church becoming less white and less North American. This is indeed something that we should be thinking about, although many are not. From my view: (1) In some cases, new perspectives can be good, and may fix existing problems; in other cases, new perspectives represent an abandonment of truth. (2) Different cultural situations will call for different theological emphases, which is okay so long as the emphases do not become excesses. (3) It is overstating the case to assume that old-school white theologians will go extinct, or that the men they have trained in other cultures will abandon the foundation they were given.
Finally, Richard McLaughlin argued from both church history and biblical history that Christian spiritual renewal can still occur today. Over and over again, there have been great spiritual revivals which have seen many people saved and the church purified. The main precondition for revival is the awareness of God’s greatness and our sinfulness. Without this awareness, we do not see any need for revival. Revival is indeed sorely needed today, and I look forward to seeing how God will work in various places in future years to save and sanctify many.