Just a few quick observations after returning from attending the Evangelical Theological Society Conference in Atlanta:
Among the many conversations, sessions and memories, I am left appreciating:
The many levels at which gifted scholars are working to show the reliability of the Bible and the unparalleled supremacy of Christ.
The overwhelming case that can be made for the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
The value of hearing ideas explained, challenged, and clarified.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Justification by Faith”.
Over 100 academic papers were read in various sessions looking at the subject from many theological and historical perspectives.
The primary concern was to weigh something called “The New Perspective on Paul” which (ironically) has for 30 years been challenging the Lutheran and Reformed view of Justification.
At the heart of the current debate are views of Anglican Theologian N.T. (Tom) Wright who has been one of our generation’s most able defenders of the resurrection of Christ and the historical integrity of the Bible.
Many, however, have wondered whether Wright’s advocacy of “The New Perspective on Paul” meant that he departs from Orthodoxy on the nature of “justification” a central point of the Gospel. All week long, many raised and developed questions about whether Wright was, on the issue of justification, a friend or foe to the way Protestants have understood Paul’s words regarding “justification,” and that “the just shall live by faith.”
Only with Wright’s scheduled appearance on Friday morning, and a chance for other scholars to personally challenge him on the issues, did much of the fog clear. While some questions and “fine points” of interpretation and theology remained unanswered even after the morning long “discussion,” I found the process both electrifying and clarifying.
Hearing Wright explain what he had actually said and meant–in the presence of those who feared he was saying something else– reminded me of what happened when an ancient delegation of Israel avoided a civil war by personally confronting brothers who were rumored to have fallen into idolatry (Joshua 22:10-31).
So why all of the concern and questions about what he was saying? Wright’s message to the conference was titled, “Justification, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” He explained that just as we all affirm that there are three tenses to our salvation in Christ (past, present, and future—from the penalty, power, and presence of sin), so justification has different tenses (and dimensions) as well. His concern is that many have failed to see the bigger picture in both “justification” and “the Gospel” by not giving careful enough attention to the different points Paul makes at different places in his letters. Wright maintains that what we usually mean by “justification by faith” is one important element of the whole good news of what God has done through the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah to bring both Jews and gentiles into a covenant relationship with himself.
While this may raise questions as to how I’m describing this, or what all of the fuss was about, my main point now is to recognize how helpful and important it was to see scholars “around” the same table—clarifying and agreeing about what is most important and foundational to the Gospel while graciously agreeing to disagree on some finer points of interpretation.
Reminds me how many bitter conflicts and lingering resentments could be resolved by getting our facts straight—before going to war—at all levels of our own lives.