Saturday, March 27, 2004

Theological societies -- what are they good for?

Peter Leithart in First Things offers some perspectives from the recent Evangelical Theological Society meeting, where a couple of prominent theologians found themselves in the gnat-seat:
Given the structure of ETS—the minimalism of its doctrinal statement and the fact that it is not a church with disciplinary powers—there was little that the Executive Committee could do. I say this not to defend the final decision but merely to acknowledge that the fragility of the Society’s theological consensus entails the structural pressure toward gnat-straining. What will ETS do if faced with “biblical” docetists, who mouth the word “inerrancy” but argue that the Son only seemed to take on human flesh in the incarnation? What will ETS do with “inerrantist” defenses of sodomy? What about “biblical” denials that the Bible actually teaches a bodily resurrection?

Warning that ETS is “potentially facing a crisis of identity,” L. Russ Bush, Academic Dean of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and former ETS President, proposed that the Executive Committee “consider and recommend to the Society appropriate ways to clarify our Society’s understanding of our doctrinal basis.” That would be a salutary exercise, especially since Bush’s adverb “potentially” seems altogether too sanguine. Perhaps the Executive Committee will produce a thicker ETS doctrinal statement—say, the Nicene Creed or the Formula of Chalcedon for starters. But it is entirely imaginable that ETS will heroically retain its commitment to the accuracy of Scripture, while slowly conceding, one after another, evangelical and catholic commitments about what Scripture teaches.

Before the discussion of Pinnock at the November 2003 meeting, the chairman prayed that the Evangelical Theological Society would not act like Pharisees. I suspect that he was praying that God would preserve ETS from legalism, harshness, and rancor. In fact, his prayer turned out to be something of a cruel irony. Pharisees, after all, were not known only for their legalism. They were also known for their marvelous capacity to strain a gnat while swallowing a camel.
And then you have the Catholic Theological Society....[cough, cough].