A great way to end another ETS conference

I got upgraded to first class on my way home from Atlanta. Sadly, I’m not home quite yet. But, I did get to fly in comfort all the way to Salt Lake City. What could be better than a comfortable place to sit, good music, good food, and uninterrupted time to reflect on lessons learned from ETS. Could there be a better way to end an conference?

Yes. First class from Salt Lake to Portland as well.

NT Wright at ETS (part 1)

I’m on my way back from Atlanta and probably won’t be able to offer a full summary of N.T. Wright’s paper, along with the responses by Schreiner and Thielman, until tomorrow. Nonetheless, I thought I’d offer a couple of quick impressions to get things started.

  1. Free advice: If you ever have the opportunity to debate N.T. Wright, don’t. He’s probably smarter than  you and he’s almost certainly funnier than you.
  2. The dialog was remarkably cordial and complimentary. Even Wright and Schreiner who remain the furthest apart of the three demonstrated a high degree of respect and charity. It would be great if every theological exchange manifested the same Christian virtues.
  3. It was nice to see all three panelists affirm how much common ground they share. More clearly that I’ve seen before, all three recognized that far more unites than separates them.
  4. I’m still frustrated by a lack of clarity and consistency in how some terms are used and defined. But it seems like we’re getting closer.
  5. I would have liked to see more direct interaction with specific biblical texts. They started to get there toward the end with some interesting exchanges on 2 Cor 5, Rom 4, and Rom 10. And, I thought these exchanges were the most helpful for really getting a sense of where they differ and why it matters.

An ETS ethical dilemma

Two baptists walk into a hotel room. (I realize that sounds like the beginning of a bad and highly inappropriate joke.) Since the hotel messed up their reservation the night before, they find waiting in the room a nice pile of goodies, including a bottle of wine. One of the two baptists is under contract with a school that does not allow the faculty to drink. The other baptist is under no such obligation. What do you do?

Now, I would hope that if you were the first baptist, you would refrain from drinking. Over the years I’ve known a few people who taught (or studied) at schools with requirements like this, and they felt perfectly free to violate the policy whenever they wanted because “It’s a stupid rule.” To be honest, I don’t really care if you think it’s a stupid rule. If you signed an agreement with a school in good faith, you have a responsibility to hold up your end of the bargain. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. (Having said that, I’ll also say that I really appreciate being a part of an institution with a very different ethos. Western Seminary does not ask its faculty to sign such policies, trusting us to understand what a biblical lifestyle should look like and to act accordingly.)

So, that takes care of the first guy. But, what if you’re the second guy? What do you do? Do you crack open the wine and drink away, preferably taunting your friend at every opportunity? Or, do you refrain and spend the evening grouchily reminding your friend that there are other schools around?

A truly challenging ethical dilemma indeed. This real-life situation transpired here at ETS this week. And, I have sad news to relate. The first baptist held true to his convictions and was prepared to give the bottle of wine away. The second baptist chose instead to drink said bottle of wine. The sad news is that the first baptist was planning on giving the wine to me! Stupid second baptist. He clearly failed the test and must proceed directly to ETS purgatory – attending yet another paper.

The sexual human: sexualizing the image of God

Megan DeFranza, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented an excellent paper yesterday titled, “Sex and the Image of God: Dangers in Evangelical and Roman Catholic Theologies.” Her paper discussed the recent trend toward understanding the human person and the imago Dei primarily through the lens of human sexuality. Although she thinks that there’s a lot to be appreciated about this approach, she also identified a number of concerns that she has with this development.

DeFranza began by explaining the historical process that led to the current situation. She points out that Christian thinkers have historically neglected gender and sexuality in understanding what it means to be fundamentally human. And, like many, she points to Barth as the key turning point. Barth identified the imago Dei with being created “male and female” and introduced the notion of gender-based relationality as fundamental for being human. To be fully human is to be in community.

This relationally-oriented anthropology, which DeFranza calls the relational imago, though, has developed even further in recent years. Unlike Barth, many contemporary theologians argue that it is not simply relationship that makes us human, but sexuality itself. And, this develop corresponds to developments in secular fields of study that also view human sexuality as fundamental to being fully human.  And, it’s this most recent set of developments that DeFranza is concerned about.

To explain this development further, DeFranza focuses on two representative figures: Stanley Grenz and John Paul II. According to DeFranza, Grenz sees the sexed nature of humanity as leaving human persons with a sense of their own incompleteness and a corresponding drive toward bonding with other(s), which finds its ultimate fulfillment in God himself. Thus, human sexuality isn’t fundamentally about procreation or even marriage, but about the innate yearning for completeness and bonding that grounds all human relationships and pushes toward God.

For John Paul II, sexuality is fundamentally about the human capacity to express love, an act in which the human person becomes gift, and thus realizes the ultimate purpose of being human. And, for John Paul II, this is best expressed and realized in marriage. In this approach, marriage itself becomes paradigmatic for true humanity, and even celibacy, which John Paul II still wants to affirm as a vital (and even higher) mode of human existence, is viewed through the lens of marital union.

So, for both Grenz and John Paul II, sex is now viewed as the lens through which we view all forms of human interaction. We discover our humanity through our sexuality.

DeFranza has no problem with the social imago and the emphasis on love, relationship, and community for understanding humanity. But, she’s quite concerned about the more recent move toward what she calls the “sexual imago” (Grenz) and the “spousal image” (John Paul II). And, she offers a number of reasons for this concern.

Uncovering hidden dangers:

  1. The conflation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She seemed particularly concerned with Grenz here. Although she recognizes that Grenz did not use terms like sexual and sexuality to refer to sexual intercourse, she still thought that his interchangeable use of these terms led to an ambiguous presentation that necessarily confused and conflated terms that are importantly different. DeFranza seemed perfectly willing to say that gender is fundamental for being human, but was concerned about extending that conclusion to sexuality in general.
  2. The sexualization of divine love. Although evangelicals and Catholics would certainly not refer to the divine love as sexual in the sense that there is actual intercourse among the divine persons, they are, nonetheless, willing to speak of the divine love as sexual in the sense that it involves different persons with a drive toward one another in bonding and love. But, since DeFranza thinks that using the language of sexuality to describe this love, their approach almost inevitably leads to the conclusion that sexual expression has now been given divine significance.
  3. The weakening of traditional sexual ethics. If human sexuality is grounded in divine “sexuality,” what parameters can we give for how this sexuality is properly expressed? While most evangelicals and Catholics want to continue affirming monogamous, heterosexual intercourse as the norm, others have not been so restrained. Why not homosexual love (since the Father and Son are both male) or sex with multiple partners (since there are three persons)? And, she’s also concerned that this approach is used to support adultery and divorce. What if you are in a sexually unfulfilling relationship? Would it not be better for one or both parties to find other partners with whom they can more fully express their humanity and experience the divine love?
  4. The undermining of celibacy. DeFranza routinely expressed concerns that the sexual imago and the social imago ultimately undermines the legitimacy of celibate lifestyles, particularly those who are involuntarily celibate. Such persons seem to be missing out on something fundamental for being human and an important experience of the divine love itself. She recognizes that both of the thinkers she reviews would reject this conclusion (John Paul II goes out of his way to affirm the importance of celibacy), but she still thinks that the concern is legitimate.
  5. Concern for the sexually dysfunctional. DeFranza is also concerned about what the sexualized imago will mean for those who experience significant sexual dysfunction. Once again, their essential humanity and their experience of God himself seems at risk.

So, DeFranza concludes that we should hold onto the positive aspects of the social imago, while avoiding the dangers that she thinks are inherent to the sexual/spousal imagos. She thinks we can do this by doing the following.

  1. Develop better readings of Genesis 1-2 that affirm the social nature of humanity without resorting to a sexualized notion of humanity.
  2. Clearly differentiate between the social and the sexual/spousal. The former does not entail the latter and should be an important part of any anthropology.
  3. Clearly differentiate between the sexual and the spousal. She thinks some of the dangers could be avoided if we recognized that spousal love involves far more than sexual love, so distinguishing them can help us appreciate the rich depths of spousal love. But, even with this distinction, she argues that we should not view spousal love as paradigmatic for all human relationships. It is one of many expressions of the social imago, not its essence.

I really enjoyed DeFranza’s paper. One particularly interesting element was when she addressed the ways in which the works of people like Grenz and John Paul II have filtered down to more popular level writings, and in ways that both thinkers would find highly inappropriate. I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression that many of the concerns she raised came from her interaction with these works. While some might argue that it is not entirely fair to criticize Grenz and John Paul II for the ways that other people use their ideas, especially when those people use the ideas in ways that these thinkers would have disapproved, it does raise the interesting question of how much responsibility thinkers have for the trajectory that their ideas take after them. At the very least, if a concept or idea consistently leads others to inappropriate conclusions, the concept or idea should be seriously re-evaluated.

And, that gets me to my one real criticism of the paper. I think the paper would have been considerably stronger if DeFranza had distinguished between what Grenz and John Paul II were clearly trying to do and the ramifications that she thinks their ideas have had or might have. For example, she routinely critiqued Grenz’s approach for making sexual intercourse essential to humanity. But, Grenz himself did no such thing. I think he is very clear in his writings that he was not talking about intercourse at all, but the sense of incompleteness that results in a drive toward bonding. Whenever Grenz used terms like “sexual” and “sexuality”, it was this broader notion that he had in mind and not actual intercourse. Even if DeFranza thinks that this is an unfortunate use of language that conflates gender with sexuality and necessarily misleads others into concluding that sexual expression is fundamental to humanity (which, again, is a legitimate critique), I would have liked to see a clearer explanation that this was not Grenz’s actual position.

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating paper. And, it has caused me to re-evaluate my own use of terminology. Like Grenz, I have had a tendency to use gender, sex, sexual, and sexuality rather interchangeably when talking about the human person (e.g.,“Sexuality: Theological Perspectives on Being Gendered”). While I know what I’m trying to say, I probably need to be more aware of how this language might be (mis)heard and (mis)used by others.

Frank Thielman on the “Righteousness of God” (ETS plenary)

Following Tom Schreiner’s critical interaction with N.T. Wright, Frank Thielman offered his own contribution to the justification discussion, “God’s Righteousness as God’s Fairness in Romans: The Oldest Perspective on Paul.” And, Thielman’s paper focused almost exclusively on the question of what the “righteousness of God” means in Romans 1:17. According to Thielman, we need to take another look at one of the oldest interpretations around – the idea that God’s “righteousness” refers to the fact that he offers salvation to everyone without impartiality.

Thielman began by arguing that “righteousness of God” (RoG through the rest of this post) is a polyvalent phrase – a phrase that is intended to be dense and not fully understood on a first hearing. Instead polyvalent phrases are loaded with meaning that the author unpacks through subsequent analysis. The rest of his argument unfolds as an attempt to defend this thesis and to contend that “impartiality” deserves an important place in the polyvalent meaning of the “righteousness of God.”

Thielman notes that RoG has historically been understood in three main ways:

  1. An attribute of God
  2. Gods saving activity
  3. the gift of God’s righteousness

Thielman spent a fair amount of time explaining the historical interpretation of RoG.

  1. The Church started out viewing RoG as an attribute of God (i.e. God’s perfect holiness as the standard against which he judges imperfect humans).
  2. A decided shift took place at the Reformation so that everyone came to see it as the gift of God’s grace to his people (despite continued disagreements as to how/why the gift is given). Luther was key here in recognizing the difficulties in seeing RoG as an attribute of God against which humans necessarily fail to measure up.
  3. Another shift happens in the 20th century with the rise of the idea that RoG refers to the saving power of God. People like Kasemann, Schlatter, and Fitzmeyer argued strongly that RoG needs to be understood against the OT background where God’s righteousness often refers to his faithful response to the needs of his people (e.g. Ps. 98:2-3; Isa 51:5).

So, as we reach the modern era, there are really only two options left for understanding RoG: a gift of God’s grace and the saving action of God, though many argue that we need to affirm both. But, Thielman argues that we need to consider again the first option as a viable aspect of RoG’s meaning for Paul.

Thielman argues that if we want to understand RoG, we need to consider how it would have been heard by the original readers of Paul’s letter. He fully acknowledges that Paul himself would have understood the phrase in its OT context. But, he also contends that Paul would have known his readers and the Greco-Roman background against which they would have heard a phrase like this. So, he argues that we need to pay close attention to this context if we are to hear this phrase properly. And, to set the stage for such a hearing, he points to two sources:

  1. Origen’s commentary on Romans is our oldest extant commentary on Paul’s epistle. So, Thielman contends that it should be an important source for understanding RoG. And, according to Thielman, Origen clearly views RoG in Romans 1:17 as referring to an attribute of God – his impartiality in dealing with humanity.  Looking at the broader context of Romans 1-3, Origen sees RoG as emphasizing that God deals with all people the same, regardless of ethnic or social background. So, according to Origen, righteousness = impartiality (at least in Romans 1:17).
  2. Thielman then provides supporting evidence for the idea that righteousness equals impartiality by showing how the two terms were used in close conjunction in the coinage of the day. Given that such coins would have been used broadly by the common person, they probably reflect the way that the average person would have thought about those terms. So, cultural data also suggests that righteousness = impartiality. And, he also argues that this should not be understood in the sense of “distributive justice” (i.e. everybody gets what they deserve, both positive and negative). Instead, he contends that the idea was primarily positive – i.e. a ruler is “righteous” in the sense that he distributes his gifts fairly to all people.

So, Thielman contends that the popular idiom of the day would have understood “righteousness” to mean the impartial or fair treatment of people. Given that this is how the average person would have naturally heard RoG, Thielman contends that this must serve as part of our interpretive matrix for understanding what Paul meant by it in Rom 1:17.

In the final part of the paper, Thielman returns to the notion that RoG is a polyvalent term. He is not trying to suggest that impartiality is the only appropriate way to understand RoG, only that it is an important part. His real argument is that RoG must be understood through from all three perspectives: an attribute of God (impartiality), a gift of God, and the saving act of God. He thinks that there is good evidence from the text supporting all three perspectives and that Paul could well have expected his readers to elicit all three meanings from this phrase. He recognizes that some will object to the notion that Paul would switch suddenly from one meaning of a term to another in the same context with little or no warning (i.e. righteousness as impartiality in 1:17 and righteousness and gift or saving action in 1:18), but he contends that Paul obviously does this very thing in Romans 3:26. And, he responds to the objection that Paul would not have tried to pack so much meaning into one, short phrase by contending that this was accepted practice in written material at the time. People expected to find polyvalent words and phrases with a depth of meaning that required careful unpacking.

So, at the end of the paper, Thielman argues that RoG in Romans 1:17 essentially means all three things. It is a complex expression that cannot be reduced to any one perspective.

From my perspective, Thielman’s paper was interesting, but not ground-breaking. It was interesting to reflect on the idea that impartiality might be essential to the definition of RoG itself. I have always seen impartiality as an important part of Rom 1-3 (how could you not?), but I had never considered it to be part of RoG’s actual meaning, viewing it instead as a description of how RoG is expressed. So, that aspect of the paper was fascinating.

The most disappointing part of the paper, though, was that I don’t think it is going to add much to the justification debate itself. Thielman’s perspective has the advantage of allowing people to see the sociological aspect of justification (God’s impartiality toward all people regardless of social and/or ethnic distinction has clear sociological implications). So, to that extent his proposal moves toward Wright’s perspective. But, his clear emphasis that justification also refers to a gift given (i.e. imputed) to us through Christ is clearly something that Wright would not affirm. And, Thielman does little to interact with this side of RoG’s meaning.

So, at the end of the paper, I was left with an interesting perspective on RoG I had not considered before, but not one that seemed to shed much new light on the nature of the justification debate itself.


Quote of the day from ETS

Overheard in the lobby: “ETS is not a good place to pick up chicks.”

What is theological interpretation of Scripture? (ETS paper)

One of the papers I attended yesterday was Gregg Allison’s “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Promises and Pitfalls for Evangelical Appropriation.” In the paper, Allison did an excellent job with his three main goals:

  1. Define theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS).
  2. Identify some benefits of TIS.
  3. Explain some potential weaknesses of TIS for evangelicals.

Allison begins his discussion of TIS in the same place that most people do, by noting that there is no commonly agreed on definition of TIS. He begins by summarizing Vanhoozer’s description of what TIS is not:

  1. It is not the imposition of a theological system on the biblical texts.
  2. It is not the imposition of a general theory of interpretation onto the biblical texts.
  3. It is not a merely historical, literary, or sociological approach to the text.

Allison then goes on to offer his own definition of TIS:

“TIS is a family of interpretive approaches that privileges theological readings of the Bible in due recognition of the theological nature of scripture, its ultimate theological message, and/or the theological interest of its readers.”

TIS, then, is a broad label for a number of different approaches to Scripture that share a number of important family resemblances. Allison notes three key elements that are all thematized differently by TIS proponents.

  1. The Text of Scripture (textual TIS): From this perspective, a proper interpretation of scripture must be guided by a correct understanding of Scripture as informed by a doctrine of Scripture.
  2. The Message of Scripture (message TIS): On this view, a proper interpretation must be guided by the “theological locution of Scripture” – i.e. the core theological message of Scripture that drives and orients everything in the text.
  3. The Reading of Scripture (interest TIS): This element emphasizes the theological concerns that the interpreter and his/her interpretive community bring to the text.

These elements are not exclusive and many will incorporate several in their approach to TIS. The differences among various TIS proponents, then, stem from the different ways in which they unpack each of these aspects (e.g. different doctrines of Scripture, different ways of understand Scripture’s core theological message, etc.) and the different combinations in which these three can be found.

In addition to these three key elements, Allison identified a number of other key characteristics of TIS.

  1. It is often advocated as over-against or as an advance beyond historical approaches.
  2. It is often advocated as rescuing the Bible from the academny.
  3. It is commonly oriented to a rule of faith.
  4. It is commonly slanted to recovering the past by imitating certain elements of pre-critical interpretation (e.g., unity of Scripture, typology, analogy of faith, etc.), but without espousing a simple return to pre-critical interpretation.

Having explained what he thinks TIS is, Allison goes on to offer several benefits of TIS.

  1. It clearly presents Scripture as the Word of God.
  2. It makes explicit what we do unconsciously anyway (i.e. read the Bible theologically).
  3. It may help bridge the gap between interpretation and theology , especially in academic settings.
  4. It clearly emphasizes the explicit telos of Scripture (i.e. the ultimate purpose for reading Scripture).

Then, Allison concludes with what he sees as the key weaknesses of TIS, particularly for evangelicals.

  1. The lack of a clear definition. It’s a new movement, so lack of definitional clarity is not surprising. Nonetheless, Allison argues that we need greater consensus if the approach is going to move forward.
  2. The lack of concrete results by which to evaluate the approach. The best way to evaluate any interpretive method is to analyze its results. And, since the movement is relatively new, such concrete results are limited.
  3. The generic theological orientation to which TIS may lead. Here Allison expressed concern with limiting the “rule” that guides interpretation merely to the early creeds and councils. As evangelicals, we are heirs to the Reformation and our own evangelical distinctives, which should also inform our reading of Scripture.
  4. The theological perspective of most TIS proponents. Allison recognizes that a major stumbling block for many evangelicals is the fact that most of the current TIS proponents hold views of Scripture that most evangelicals find inadequate. He doesn’t think this is necessary to TIS, but is something to be acknowledged.

Reflecting back on the paper, there were just a couple of things that I found less satisfying.

  1. I wish Allison had interacted directly with some of the “concrete results” that do exist. The Brazos and Two Horizons commentary series have been around for quite a while. And, many of the major books published on TIS include some examples of TIS at work. Yet, Allison only referenced was Vanhoozer’s Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. And, unsurprisingly, he found the short articles in that work to be unsatisfying. But, of course, that would be like assessing historical-grammatical interpretation by reading one of Zondervan’s Bible dictionaries. It seemed clear that Allison’s understanding of TIS is more theoretical than practical. A direct engagement with concrete results might have led to a more interesting set of benefits and weaknesses.
  2. I think I’d disagree that evangelicals need to bring a more robust theological framework to the task of TIS. I completely agree with his point that we all bring our entire theological framework with us when we read the text; this is unavoidable and should be done with as much full awareness as possible. But, the idea behind a “ruled” reading of Scripture (i.e. the Rule of Faith), is that you are saying this is the rule by which Scripture must be read if it is to be read properly. While I hold to my theological convictions sincerely and deeply, I would not want to say that my entire theological framework is a “rule” in this sense.

Tom Schreiner on NT Wright (ETS plenary)

Last night at the Evangelical Theological Society, Tom Schreiner presented the first plenary session address with a paper titled, “Justification: The Saving Righteousness of God in Christ,” in which Schreiner critically interacted with the position of N. T. Wright.

Like most such papers, Schreiner began with a few words of appreciation for Wright’s work. (I call this the “I’m going to say mean things about you later, but I still think you’re a nice person” part of the paper.) Specifically Schreiner noted:

  • his creative work on the historical Jesus
  • his strong emphasis on the unity of Scripture
  • the “exile” theme in Wright’s work
  • and some aspects even of his NPP and justification work (e.g. the significance of the Jew/Gentile issue in the NT, the need to keep the “big story” in mind and how easy it is to lose the thread, the clear presentation of forensic justification, and the idea that good works are necessary for justification and salvation (though he’ll go on to emphasize differences here as well).

But, the bulk of Schreiner’s paper focused on areas of concern that he has with Wright’s work. And, he started things off by arguing that he thinks Wright has a marked tendency to focus on the wrong things.  He likes the fact that Wright often tries to operate with both/and categories rather than either/or, but he thinks that Wright regularly emphasizes the wrong aspect of the both/and, making primary what is only secondary (though still important) in the NT itself. He then goes on to offer three such problematic polarities.

  1. Wright wrongly claims that justification is fundamentally about ecclesiology and not soteriology.
  2. Wright often introduces false polarity when referring to mission of Israel when saying that Israel’s fundamental problem was failure to bless the nations and not Israel’s inherent need for salvation.
  3. Wright Insists justification is a declaration of righteousness, but does not include the imputation of God’s righteousness.

Overall, Schreiner’s paper was well presented and charitable, while still clearly identifying several points of contention in Wright’s work. I particularly appreciated several of Schreiner’s arguments.

  1. The precise definitions of “faith of Christ” and “works of law” are secondary issues in this debate. They’re both important in that they express how justification does and does not work, but neither helps us understand the nature of justification itself.
  2. I liked his argument that Galatians 2 does deal with sociological and ecclesiological issues (in agreement with Wright), but that its location in Paul’s argument is primarily soteriological. (I think that’s because Paul would not exclude ecclesiology from soteriology.)
  3. Schreiner also did a good job responding to Wright’s contention that imputation is not a part of the law court background  of the justification language. Instead, he pointed out that the reality of God’s saving work transcends the law court analogy, as God transcends all analogies, and that the good news is precisely that God does more than our human experiences would lead us to expect.
  4. I thought Schreiner could have gone further here, but he also pointed out the importance of “union with Christ” for understanding justification properly. (Maybe someone who knows Wright better than I do can tell us what Wright does with the “in Christ” idea in the NT.)

There were several other things about Schreiner’s paper that I was less happy with.

  1. Unclear use of terms. This has driven me crazy through the entire debate. How hard can it be to define a term and then use it consistently with regard to that definition? Yet, most of the people involved in the debate seem to struggle with precisely this. The clearest example in Schreiner’s paper was with the term “salvation.” He made it very clear at the beginning of the paper that salvation was a broad term that encompassed more than just entering into salvation. But, when he used the term later in the paper to critique Wright, he consistently used it in this more limited sense. For example, he argued at one point that Paul routinely uses the term “justification” in close connection to the term “salvation” and other salvific ideas. Therefore, justification is about salvation. But, unless I’m missing something, no one disagrees with that. The question is which aspect of salvation does justification relate to?
  2. It sounded like Schreiner created his own false polarity in discussing Israel’s problem in the OT. He argued that idolatry/sinfulness was the real problem as opposed to Israel’s failure to bless the nations. But, I see those as nearly inseparable in the OT. The whole story begins with God creating human persons as his image bearers who would tend creation and manifest his glorious presence everywhere. Thus, the creational purpose was for the people to glorify God by being a blessing everywhere. They are inseparable. And, this inseparability is reinforced in the fall as human rebellion (idolatry) leads to curse for creation, in the Abrahamic promise (the reiteration of God’s plan to have  people who would be a blessing everywhere), and throughout the rest of the OT. These two themes simply cannot be separated if we’re going to understand the OT narrative adequately.
  3. Similarly, I think Schreiner missteps when he says that the main point of the Israel narrative is to convey the impossibility of law-keeping. While that is certainly part of the story, I see the main theme as God’s faithfulness to his plans, purposes, and people. This is probably a both/and, but one in which I think Schreiner has placed primary emphasis on the wrong aspect.

Overall, this was an interesting contribution to the NPP debate, but one that I think still demonstrated some of the unclarity and lack of precise definition that has haunted the debate from the beginning. And, although I appreciated a number of Schreiner’s arguments, there were a few that I thought could have been nuanced in importantly different ways. But, what do I know? I’m a theologian and everybody knows that we don’t really read our Bibles anyway.


Key characteristics of evangelical trinitarian theology

One of the papers that I attended at ETS today offered a helpful summary of Evangelical Trinitarian theology as it stands today. The last several decades have seen a significant resurgence of interest in Trinitarian theology among evangelicals. And, according to Jason Sexton, this resurgence is marked by a number of important characteristics.

  1. Patristic Attunement: Evangelicals have taken more interest in understanding the patristic sources. And, Sexton argues that this is somewhat unique in evangelical theology, since we are not currently demonstrating as much interest in other aspects of patristic thought.
  2. Residual Social Trinitarianism: Sexton notes that many prominent evangelical theologians have argued for a social model of the Trinity. But, he also points out that many have been sharply critical of this approach, and at least one, Stanley Grenz, began to move toward different models later in his life. So, he concludes that evangelical trinitarianism is still marked by social trinitarianism, but not to the same extent that it once was.
  3. Subordination Moratorium?: This was the part of his paper that seemed the least clear. I couldn’t tell if he was saying that there should be a moratorium on arguments regarding whether there is an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, or whether he thought that things had actually begun to move in that direction. Either way, he clearly argued that this would be a good development.
  4. Philosophical Interdisciplinarity: There has been more interest recently in philosophy, particularly analytic philosophy, as providing useful resources for developing and understanding the Trinity.
  5. Trinitarian biblical theology: Although evangelicals remain divided on whether the whole Bible should be read trinitarianly, there is growing support for the importance of developing a doctrine of the Trinity through biblical theology, and allowing our biblical theology to be guided by our understanding of the Trinity.
  6. Trinitarian theological interpretation of Scripture: I’m not entirely clear on how he was differentiating this one from the previous (partly because most people use the label “theological interpretation” ambiguously).
  7. Ecclesial Trinitarianism: Unfortunately he had to skip this part, but here is where he wanted to point out the importance of the Trinity for worship (including the sacraments), pastoral theology, and the mission of the church.
  8. Christ-centeredness: Evangelicals generally affirm that our understanding of the Trinity should be Christocentric, as long as this is not understood to be Christomonistic (i.e. everything reduced to Christology), and as long as our christocentrism is seen as serving rather than detracting from a robust appreciation of the Father and the Spirit as well.

Sexton concluded the paper by offering a couple of ways forward for evangelical theology:

  1. We must do a better job recognizing that understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is not an end in itself, but should serve the life and mission of the Church.
  2. Correspondingly, Trinitarian theology needs to be connected more clearly to pastoral theology. Sexton expressed concern in several places that we stop trying to move directly from the doctrine of the Trinity to specific issues in the human realm (e.g., women in ministry), but he does think that the Trinity can and must be intelligently and intentionally connected to such pastoral issues. “In short, the church needs a Trinitarian theology that moves toward being a public theology.”
  3. We need to be much more careful with the “heresy” label.

White Guys R Us

I like attending ETS, but I always feel like I’m walking into a White Guys R Us conference. It has gotten better over the last ten years, but diversity is still limited to the three major groups: (a) ties, (b) no ties (i.e. God’s true people), and (c) still wearing a suit because I’m probably a Southern Baptist.