I arrived in Providence, RI for my first ETS in a post-PhD funk. I wondered why I did all that work, whether it will amount to anything, and whether the labors of scholarship add any vitality to churches. A scholar-pastor often feels like he stands at a cold crossroads guarding two sputtering flames, knowledge and godliness, in case someone stops.
To top it off, I hate traveling without my family, walking out the door leaving Dylan and Malcolm in their beds, and then kissing Bridget goodbye at the airport. The desolation of a hotel room is the only thing that awaits.
In my case, the hotel silence was unbroken by the TV. There was no remote, and a power button was installed on the TV merely to look reassuring. Also, my room got progressively colder. The heater went through the ritual of cycling on, but yielded no perceptible warmth and finally switched on the air conditioning.
Toward midnight, I rounded the corner to the front desk (because the in-room phone did not work), and beheld my dissertation supervisor, Mark Coppenger. He told me amusing stories before he was dispatched to another hotel — because his heating unit had broken. The management professed anxiety that he might be electrocuted.
As he departed, Coppenger pointed to me and said to the concierge, “Take very good care of this young man. He’s a celebrity.”
After watching a nice man fiddle with the unit in my room ineffectually, I slept in my sweats.
Wednesday, November 15
The brisk trot from my bed to the shower was brief, and the hot water was hot. There was hope.
I spent the morning in a session called, “An Interdisciplinary Critique of Theistic Evolution.” It was a three-hour tour de force chaired by Wayne Grudem, who sits so still, and whose face is so unreadable, that his thoughts are only revealed by the faint glow of a smile when he hears a point he likes.
The question here was, “Shouldn’t we just give up on divine creation? The smart people uniformly despise the idea. Let’s just say human origins came about as naturalistic evolution describes, but add that God started it.”
The panel argued first that Darwinian evolution has always been, and continues to be, a theory in trouble. Specifically, they said that methodological naturalism routinely assumes what it is trying to prove. Stephen Meyer, for example, said that evolutionary biology explained the action of DNA without explaining the origin of DNA’s information. J. P. Moreland itemized the over-claiming of prominent scientists who want to launch into philosophy without knowing the field. When Stephen Hawking claims that the universe came from “nothing,” for example, he does not mean what philosophers mean: genuine nothing. He means a vacuum, which philosophers describe as “something.”
No point fearing a theory that has always been an elaborate bluff.
The panel then argued that theistic evolution (TE) is incompatible with biblical teaching. The key was the panel’s definition of TE: God created matter, but did not intervene in the process of evolution. Grudem stipulated several points. The panel took no position on what the Bible teaches about the age of the earth, for instance, and was not charging that TE proponents were not Christians.
Grudem then specified 12 events in biblical history that TE denied, among them the fall of Adam, leaving TE without an explanation of the origin of evil. John Currid cited Egyptian texts as examples of ancient creation stories not merely concerned with the function of the world’s parts — which is how some TE advocates often want to describe Genesis 1 and 2 — but equally concerned with the world’s origins. My former professor Gregg Allison documented that TE denies core statements of the earliest creeds, the church fathers, medieval theologians, and both Protestant and Roman Catholic authorities.
Then Allison read a statement from Fred Zaspel, who has smashed an old chestnut about conservative Princetonian B. B. Warfield. We have been told that Warfield believed in TE, based on his early statements. Zaspel documented that Warfield repudiated each of the specific points of TE, often scornfully, and only allowed the possibility that TE might be true if natural selection could be proven.
A series of presentations like these placed a banana peal under overconfident evangelicals my age and younger, who are sure that none of this creation stuff matters. (None of this atonement stuff matters. None of this eschatology stuff matters. None of this inerrancy stuff matters. On and on, until we’ve dismissed . . . Christianity.) Once you analyze the actual positions on the table, generational hauteur vanishes. One has to stop the ironic bluffing and make a case.
I was interested whether the panel’s definition of TE would be challenged as a straw man. Sure enough, TE advocates (primarily from Biologos) protested that they did not believe in a deistic God who merely created matter and then walked away. They said the panel’s charges were unfair. But Grudem repeated that his enumeration of the doctrines denied by TE had been documented with quotations from the Biologos website. Meyer added, focusing on the definition of TE itself, that during a break minutes before he had spoken with a leader at Biologos. She had affirmed that TE advocates believe in God’s sustaining power, but not his creative activity. The point of contention here was indeed God’s acts of creation beyond giving matter existence and sustaining it.
These exchanges were pointed but not angry. This is what argumentation looks like. Meyer left an invitation on the table: the panel wanted to hear more formulations from TE advocates on these questions. Debate is tiring, but healthy, and ultimately refreshing.
The panel’s book, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, more or less instantly sold out at Crossway’s booth.
In the afternoon, I went to presentations on the inerrancy of Scripture, the doctrine that the Scriptures do not teach any falsehoods. Osvaldo Padilla gave a bracing reaffirmation that all the evidential confirmation in the world will not replace the testimony of the Holy Spirit that “God spoke all these words.”
The indispensable John Woodbridge expounded the role of inerrancy in controversies during and after the Reformation. When I bumped into him at the airport after the conference, he genially referred to himself as being around “since before the flood.” Those very qualities — age with happiness generously stirred in — were what made his confidence during his presentation so encouraging. He has been teaching the doctrine of inerrancy for decades, has heard all the objections, and has watched men cave to social pressure in denying it. Yet he’s still proclaiming, as he said on Wednesday afternoon, that Jesus loves him — “the Bible tells me so.”
My favorite presentation at ETS was given by Matthew Barrett — assigned the unenviable task of following Woodbridge at the unforgiving hour of 4:30 p.m. Barrett’s thesis was that inerrancy is grounded in Christ himself, a thesis closely argued, exegetically detailed, and theologically profound. He seemed motivated by an urgency that this crucial doctrine be taught the same way the Bible frames it: Jesus said, “I tell you the truth.”
I ate dinner with my former classmate Jared Longshore and his senior colleague Tom Ascol, both of Founders. We swapped ministry stories in one of apparently hundreds of Irish pubs in Providence. Jared, his resonant baritone carrying easily over the clamor, asked the owner if we could pray for anything on his behalf. First answer in an accent that seemed to wed Ireland and Rhode Island: “That I would win the Powerball.” Second answer: health. His name: Patrick.
Back at the hotel, I settled into a new room, which boasted heat, clean surfaces, and a TV remote.
Thursday, November 16
8:30 a.m. is awfully early for three hours of theological aesthetics, even for those of us who love it. But it was the final session of a study group that had been meeting for five years, and everybody seemed a bit wistful.
My former professor Steve Halla took us into the writings of Albrecht Durer. A man who is regarded by some as a self-promoting hack is revealed to be deeply committed to the theology of Martin Luther, writing down prayers for Luther’s safety and the advancement of his teachings. Halla also gave insights into Durer’s woodcuts, a medium that Halla himself is known for. A print artist today will often destroy his blocks after a limited run to increase the value of his work. But in Durer’s day, the value of the blocks was in how large a number of prints they could produce. Frequently the blocks would be worn out.
Coppenger, his life saved from electrocution, gave a presentation on icons. The spiritual use of images has been a Protestant flashpoint from the start, when Karlstadt earned Luther’s rebuke for destroying images in the churches of Wittenberg. Coppenger argued that many in the Reformed tradition, even the Westminster Confession, applied the second commandment too strictly. He described the spiritual power of Orthodox worship spaces, while also questioning whether icons were as necessary for spiritual life as some proponents claim. Theologically, he was calling for a more open dialogue on these issues.
Where this talk broke new ground was with Coppenger’s invention, karpology. From the Greek word for “fruit,” karpology is the assessment of the cultural results of an idea or practice. With icons, Coppenger says that the culture of Orthodox Christianity is fair game for assessment— a contention that is guaranteed to stand people’s hair on end.
The politically incorrect bravura of karpology is, I think, bait for those who want to dismiss ideas or thinkers for being “insensitive.” But it’s unwise to take that bait. Coppenger admires the toughness of Orthodox priests in often hostile territory, but criticizes them for persecuting others if they happen to be in charge. He is able to describe the deficiencies of American evangelical culture too. In fact, karpology is something that everyone tries to do, but few do without special pleading.
After lunch, Timothy George gave a plenary address notable for its focus on the devil. Luther had a personal relationship with Satan — or perhaps a personal antagonism. George argued that wherever Christians have a robust doctrine of the devil, Christianity grows. But in America, where we’re eager to prove how mature we are, we evangelicals seem not to realize who we’re dealing with. Christianity is faltering badly. It was a much-needed corrective from an evangelical statesman.
I was delighted to see Michael McClymond on the schedule talking about Jonathan Edwards. I had read his work and referred to it in my dissertation. My delight was even greater when I found that McClymond was to discuss Edwards’s notion of equality or proportion in the universe as a way of understanding God — the argument that the diversity of creatures is an expression of God’s being. McClymond himself was as refreshing as his look at this “neglected theme in Jonathan Edwards.” He spoke with the ease and friendliness of someone who loves his subject. And when Edwards is the subject, love is deeply fitting.
Ideas and debates like these infuriate most people. Why spend time and energy on such apparently insoluble questions? People settle these matters in their own minds without dialogue, and carry on happily. But that’s the whole problem. Settling big issues to my own satisfaction is easy. To discuss them and give an account of my beliefs to others is far more difficult.
I know many smart people who never push themselves to dialogue with those who disagree. They become smaller people as a result.
Here at ETS, no one got to talk about other people’s positions as if they were not in the room. They were in the room, and they spoke up. When these debates are conducted respectfully, people become larger. Civility does that.
When I arrived, I wondered why I am doing this scholarly work. By participating in the community of scholars, I remembered why. I am completing my piece. Others are completing their own. We can only contribute to the growth of knowledge together. If we do that work faithfully, we become bigger, more capacious souls.