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Highlights of the ETS 2010 Annual Meeting by Craig Blomberg

Categories Theology

Blombergc The theme of this year’s meeting was “Justification by Faith.”  Themes for annual meetings of the ETS determine the choices of topics and speakers at the plenary sessions, and inevitably a plurality of the papers for the smaller parallel sessions held in between will have something to do with that topic as well.  But with all the different study groups and specialized interests of the members, it Is certainly possible to select sessions to attend in between the plenaries during every single time slot on entirely unrelated topics.  Some years the plenary speakers have been so-so and the best papers have been some of the less highlighted ones.  This year, however, I suspect there would be widespread support for the belief that the three plenary speakers did indeed dominate the “highlight reel.”

Tom Schreiner, from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, kicked things off, with an excellent overview of the topic, reflecting on historic and recent approaches to the question and defending a fairly traditional Reformation-era, and more specifically Calvinist, interpretation, including the affirmation of Christ’s righteousness as something that is imputed to the believer, both passively and actively.  Frank Thielman, of Beeson Divinity School, was the second featured speaker.  In many ways he and Schreiner agreed, but Frank made the fascinating case for adding in God’s “fairness” as part of what “the righteousness of God” in key Pauline texts was communicating.  The papers were put in a nice sequence, building to the climax, with invited guest Tom Wright offering the final main session.  As good and clear as Schreiner and Thielman are, it really isn’t fair to put anybody up against Wright’s enormous command of large chunks of Scripture memorized, his incredible wit and repartee, and the speed of his often extemporaneous speech, including the insertion of numerous asides responding to specific detractors from past conferences, e-mails, blogs and the like! 

Wright did not disappoint.  Even though some of his critics deny it, Wright’s position has been evolving, even if at times just in nuancing, and he has certainly been phrasing it ever more clearly and consistently, as one compares, for example, early sketchy articulations in What Saint Paul Really Said to Paul: In Fresh Perspective and then to Justification.  Both in his presentation and in the follow-up panel discussion among all three main speakers, Wright made it clear that he does not deny the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, certainly not as one of the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but he is always concerned that we not read in pre-existing theological systems or necessary theological corollaries of other biblical texts into any given text we are exegeting at hand.  Whether or not one always agrees with his take on each text, he is always able to show how it appears eminently plausible in the narrative flow or larger context of that text.  For example, I remain unconvinced that most of the pistis Christou texts typically (though not always in the KJV!) rendered “faith in Christ” should actually be taken as “the faith of Christ” in the sense of Christ’s faithfulness to his mission.  But I understand the logic of the case that takes them that way; it is very much an intramural debate within evangelicalism and even within Reformed theology, as Tom repeatedly demonstrated.

ETS 10_Thielman 
(Picture of Thielman's plenary session on Thursday. Taken by Z Academic.)

The tone of all three speakers was exceedingly gracious to one another, which has not always been the case at ETS, and hence proved very welcome.  This year’s program chair and president-elect, Clint Arnold, set that tone with his warm introductions and gracious closing remarks, as is characteristic of everything Clint does.

An understanding of justification is of course only one part of the debate over the new perspective on Paul.  Wright emphasized several times that he disagrees significantly with both Ed Sanders and Jimmy Dunn on a number of key items, though the three are usually lumped together in definitions of the “new perspective.”  The more I study the issue, the more I become convinced the solution is a “both-and” one.  The Reformers were right to stress individual salvation by grace through faith against a medieval Catholicism riddled with works-righteousness, but the debate Paul had with first-century Judaism was not in all respects identical.  There was classic legalism in the latter, but not nearly as monolithically as Luther assumed and as most Protestants since have assumed.  There was covenantal nomism and ethnocentrism as well—that is to say, trying to stay saved rather than getting saved by works (thus Sanders) and particular badges of national righteousness that set up Jews for an inappropriate ethnic pride (thus Dunn).  As long as one remains within a first-century Jewish context, the new perspective has got justification right—it was not a means of entering the covenant but of denoting which among many claimants are truly in the covenant community of God’s people (thus Wright).  But once one moves to other settings, the proper applications of the key text do involve generalizing to other forms of works- righteousness as well (thus Schreiner and Thielman). 

But one scarcely has to pit one off against the other.  Church and parachurch groups that make sweeping prohibitions against their members imbibing anything of the new perspective at best simply don’t understand it and at worst are quenching the Spirit’s work in their midst.  In fact, the more likely danger for most evangelicals, especially those who most severely criticize the new perspective, is that they will miss the necessary applications of Paul’s warnings to their own proclivities to draw theological boundaries too narrowly between insiders and outsiders, to overly elevate their cultures, nationalities, and tribalisms to a place for inappropriate boasting, and to invoke mandates as to what people must do or believe to be insiders far beyond anything demonstrably biblical, and thus unwittingly mirror precisely a majority of first-century Palestinian Jews (and so-called Jewish Christians), whose views Paul in turn anathematizes!

Yes, this was a particularly good ETS, especially for stimulating follow-up thought.

Craig L. Blomberg is distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of fifteen books and more than eighty articles in journals or multi-author works. He is also co-author of James in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series. A recurring topic of interest in his writings is the historical reliability of the Scriptures. Craig and his wife Fran have two daughters and reside in Centennial, Colorado.

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