On Monday the 20th of November (New Zealand Time) I got back from Washington DC, where I attended and spoke at the annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society. Firstly, Francis Beckwith did a stellar job putting together a jam packed program. I don’t envy his role. As far as the actual content of the papers presented is concerned, on the whole, it was a reflection of evangelical scholarship in general – some of it truly excellent, some pointless, some of it encouraging, some disheartening.
Some of the more outstanding parts of the conference that I was fortunate enough to see included:
Robert Larme, “Interpreting Hume on Miracles.” Dr Larme presented an excellent and tightly argued rebuttal of the attempts to rescue David Hume from himself, showing that Hume’s claim was as outrageous as it sounds, saying that it is impossible in principle to be justified in believing that a miracle has occurred, even if one has in fact occurred.
Francis Beckwith, “Faith, Reason, and the Christian University: What John Paul II Can Teach Evangelicals.” In spite of the title, the talk really wasn’t about John Paul II at all, although it did at one point refer to a comment he had made about the place of creeds. Beckwith’s engaging session addressed the anti-creedalism that he routinely encounters at his Baptist University, Baylor. He responded to such ridiculous platitudes as “aint nobody gonna tell me what to believe but Jesus,” and, in a nutshell, put anti-creedalism in its place.
J. Budziszewski, “True Tolerance and the Failure of Liberal Neutrality.” To be honest this one was a bit of a yawner for me personally, since I’ve just spent the past three years working on, among other things, the material that Dr Budzeszewski spoke about, namely the failure of Rawlsian liberalism to attain a genuinely neutral and tolerant perspective in political philosophy. But at the same time, I could see that what he said was right on the mark, and certainly worth hearing for those who had not heard it before – which is most evangelicals.
Next came my own talk, “Theo-Ethical Equilibrium?” It was on at 8:30am, which proved to be not such a good thing. On reflection, the title was also not terribly helpful to anyone who is not already familiar with the subject area. The audience was small, but what I had to say was well received (and besides, it will still be on the conference CD that a lot of people are buying). And trust me, it was a great talk!
Gary Habermas, “Historical Rivals of Jesus? An Evaluation of Apollonius of Tyana and Sabbatai Sevi.” Dr Habermas gave a great talk on two supposed historical parallels of “the Jesus myth,” namely myths that are said to have a lot in common with stories of the life of Jesus, and – especially by online atheists who are suitably qualified with degrees in chemistry and the like (because you know, they help) – are advanced as evidence that the “Jesus myth” was just copied and pasted from other messiah traditions. Habermas puts this hopelessly uninformed nonsense to bed for good, showing that not only do many modern sources of such claims fudge the historical evidence to make the comparison more “perfect,” but the evidence is such that either no such comparisons are reasonable at all, or if there is a parallel, it suggests that these rival traditions drew on the life of Jesus.
John Piper (The Crossway Lecture), “William Tyndale and the Vernacular Bible.” This wasn’t meant to be an academic lecture, and it certainly wasn’t. But it was really good. John Piper discussed the life and legacy of Bible translator and martyr William Tyndale. Piper also spoke about the theological issues that got Tyndale killed, and how today so many of us are cavalier about those things.
John Makujina (Central Seminary), “The Sins of Scripture by John Shelby Spong: A Critique.” As expected, critiquing the claims of John Shelby Spong is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Fish that are already dead, for that matter. But it sure is fun to hear!
There were plenty of other talks that were well worth the time to attend I’m sure, but with so many speakers and so little time, I didn’t attend a lot of talks that I would like to have listened to.
Then there was the “other side” of evangelical scholarship, also visible at the conference. I’m not sure that there’s a convenient way to sum up what that side represents in just a few words (perhaps and “unfair and partial partisan spirit” gets close), but examples of the kind of thing that it represents would include carelessness when representing those with whom one represents. John Warwick Mongomery, for example, well-know as an advocate of evidentialist apologetics and critic of presuppositional apologetics, engaged in the widely repeated misrepresentation of Cornelius Van Till, telling his audience that Van Til taught that the unbelieving man cannot really know anything. He is not alone, as the error is repeated by other apologists well known to evangelicalism, like James Kelly Clark. But it’s wrong (and obviously so, to anyone familiar with Van Til). Evangelical scholars ought to be better informed about the claims they make, especially when it comes to the way they portray their brethren. This wasn’t the only example of misrepresentation I encountered. In his talk, “Enlightenment Challenges to the Existence of God: The Inexcusability of Belief,” Owen Anderson claimed that Alvin Plantinga’s apologetic was weaker than a Christian apologetic ought to be because all it managed – and all it claimed – to do was “show that Christian belief can be as warranted as unbelief,” as though Plantinga only presumed to protect the faith from the charge of irrationality by showing that Christianity could climb up to the level of rationality that unbelief possesses! Anyone familiar with Plantinga’s arguments will immediately see the way this claim contrasts with the facts of what Plantinga actually does say about the relative rationality of atheism and theism.
I was also somewhat surprised when I perused the book stalls to see that a space had been rented by the International Preterist Association (IPA). This is the group that has employed the linguistic shift of calling “full preterism” or “hyper preterism” by the much more orthodox term “preterist,” and then by approaching evangelicals and trying to win them over to this view they call “preterism” which is really hyper-preterism, a heresy. In a nutshell, these guys claim that every prophecy of Scripture has been fulfilled, and they deny the historic creeds of the Christian faith by saying that there is no future return of Christ or resurrection of the dead. I was a little disturbed that they were allowed to even be there, but I guess that is one of the consequences of not having a statement of faith that affirms anything more than inerrancy and Trinitarianism. It’s a little ironic really – the Evangelical Theological Society is so conservative that belief in inerrancy is required for membership (something never affirmed in the ecumenical creeds), yet they are liberal enough to let people who deny the future resurrection and return of Christ – both of which have always been affirmed in the creeds of Christianity – peddle their wares at their annual conference! Without any stretch of language or overstatement at all, it was like having a Mormon Stall at a conference of Southern Baptists. I took one of the free books on offer from the IPA. I figured it’s one less book for them to give away to the unsuspecting.
So on the whole – am I glad I went? Yes, certainly. Some of the best that evangelical scholarship has to offer was there to be digested. Would I suggest any changes? Yes, certainly! For one, I’m inclined to think that papers for presentation at a conference like this should be subject to peer review or something similar – something, at any rate, to filter out some of the nonsense that people think counts as genuine Christian scholarship. There are a few examples that spring to mind, some involving correction of errors of fact so that papers could be brought up to a presentable standard, and some papers that simply did not deserve attention, like Stephen Parelli (from an organization called “Other Sheep”) who spoke on “How Baptist Doctrine May Obligate the Evangelical to View Same-Sex Union as Primarily a Civil Matter and a Matter of Individual Conscience.” In a nutshell, he argued that if you believe in separation of church and state then you should believe in state endorsement of homosexual marriage. So I think that a bit of forced careful preparation for some presenters and a tougher screening process on the part of ETS would have made a positive difference in spite of the extra time and effort. The trouble, of course is that this would require papers to be ready considerably further ahead of time and it would require the willingness of people to serve as reviewers (and a willingness to do so fairly), but then, my own take is that the payoff would be worth it.