(From November 19th-21st, the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society was held in Baltimore, Maryland. Although I did not present this year [the deadline for submissions was right in the middle of the “final stretch” of my dissertation work!], I greatly benefited both from other presentations and from hanging out with friends. Also, please note that there were plenty of non-PhDs there as well, including many pastors; you don’t need to be a professional academic to benefit from it!)
The annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) can, at its worst, be a confusing maelstrom of harried and exhausted 500-meter dashes to various conference rooms, overspending on massive tomes of arcane theology (but hey, they’re half off!), and needless amounts of pedantic bickering and debating. But all-in-all, the three annual meetings I have attended have “done me good,” and I would wish to discuss why and how one can benefit from attending.
But first of all, there’s been plenty of blog posts about attending ETS, etc., and I just want to point you to a few. Mike Bird, as Australian evangelical NT scholar, has posted his thoughts here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2013/11/reflections-on-ets-and-the-conference-theme-of-inerrancy/ Though I disagree with him on inerrancy, Michael Bird is always one of the most enjoyable reads you will find.
On the far other end of the spectrum, Mark Snoeberger, from one of the more scholarly independent Baptist/fundamentalist schools (no, “scholarly” and “fundamentalist” is not an oxymoron) posts his thoughts here: http://dbts.edu/blog/some-random-thoughts-about-ets/ I especially appreciated his comment that “I have made peace with the fact that the ETS doctrinal standards are not denominational subscription standards or ‘fundamentals’”; yet nevertheless Snoeberger states that he “come[s] back each year thoroughly refreshed, with new books to read, new ideas for teaching/research, and a generally renewed resolve or ‘vision’ for what I can accomplish for the cause of Christ and of God.” It’s worth pointing out that at this year’s ETS there were attendees from at least 4 (and probably more) self-professed independent Baptist/fundamentalist institutions, an encouraging sign!
And once again, back to Michael Bird for a little bit of his humor in a post entitled “If you’re going to ETS and SBL, remember to . . .” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2013/11/if-youre-going-to-ets-and-sbl-remember-to/ (warning! Some of his lines require a knowledge of contemporary theological trends in order to get the humor!)
So anyways, here’s the reasons I go to ETS:
1. First of all, ETS annual meetings represent cutting edge evangelical scholarship that is well-engaged with broader academic scholarship. This is the place to hone your own skills, pick up leads for further research ideas, and gain an understanding of which books you should read next. An individual presentation may or may not be profitable, but at the least it should introduce you to a few keys sources and the current trends within scholarship. Also, all the major theological issues will be addressed in some form or the other, and generally the annual meetings focus on one key topic to discuss (e.g., this year focused on inerrancy; past years have focused on justification, Open Theism, the Christian and the environment, etc.)
2. Secondly, the ETS meeting is a great time for fellowship. I drove up with my friend Chuck, both of us stayed at my friend Aaron’s house in southern PA, and we enjoyed great theological (and other) dialogue between the three of us. In addition, I saw plenty of former professors and former fellow class mates, and I had a great lunch and conversation with the outside reader of my dissertation.
3. Thirdly, ETS is a great opportunity to hear the “heavy hitters” of conservative theology and academia. Now hero worship is always a danger, of course (and I can lapse into it occasionally), but the meeting’s most prominent speakers, as well as those giving the key note addresses, are popular for a reason: they’re great teachers, writers, expositors, theologians, and they challenge your thinking better than most!. This past meeting at Baltimore featured D. A. Carson, John Frame, and Ben Witherington, who collectively have done for evangelical scholarship what the Miami Heat have done for the NBA (and, to continue the analogy, each of them can be just as polarizing! I could call D. A. Carson the “LeBron James of conservative scholarship” and just leave it up to the reader as to whether or not that’s a compliment!)
4. Finally, the ETS annual meeting does not just showcase the academic side of scholars but occasionally their spiritual side as well. My first annual meeting in Valley Forge, PA, I was as lost as a sheep in a blizzard, and a Canadian professor, whom I didn’t know from Adam, out of the blue invited me to eat lunch with him. At the recent meeting in Baltimore, I was privileged to share a lunch with and receive encouragement from the Wheaton scholar who had acted as the outside reader for my dissertation. Furthermore, in the midst of all the bickering and some academic posturing, occasionally you see glimpses of genuine humility. Once again at my first national ETS in Valley Forge, I sat in on a presentation on the role of Elihu (Positive? Negative?) in the book of Job. This was done by an older professor in front of a decent-sized crowd (possibly about 30), including a significant number of his own students. The QA session at the end was surprisingly . . . “robust” (as in, “there was a rather dominant sentiment of disagreement with the presenter’s position, expressed rather more strongly than you would expect for such a minor issue”). The presenter, however, handled it perfectly, respectfully fielding his audience’s questions (“comments,” in some cases) while noting the wonderful freedom evangelicals have to disagree on relatively minor issues such as Elihu’s role in the book of Job while still remaining on the same side. This professor (don’t remember who; I think he taught in a school in California, though) became a role model for me in that instance. Someday in the future, when I’ve been teaching for decades and my position is strongly criticized by others (and right in front of my own students!), will I be able to keep my composure and answer respectfully and fairly as this gentleman did?
Now a couple of observations on how best to enjoy ETS:
1. You get a lot more out of the sessions if you’re well-rested! This wasn’t really my fault, since I drove up all evening/early morning before ETS started, but I struggled staying awake during the presentations I attended on Tuesday and even during John Frame’s interesting address! Wednesday was much more profitable for me since I slept fantastically Tuesday evening (and a good thing, too, since I was privileged to be granted a job interview Wednesday afternoon).
2. Try to go with friends. Fellowship is key; it’s not fun being by yourself at such a large conference (and I was privileged to be with friends for most of this trip). Also, it’s much easier to share a hotel room, gas money, and toll money than pay for it all yourself.
3. Once in a while, go to a session completely unrelated to your main field of study. It’s good to know more about theology and Biblical studies in general, especially as it might pertain to counseling and practical theology. Although I may focus on New Testament studies, I realize the value of the Old Testament and theology in general, as well as the need for me to be knowledgeable about more issues in practical theology.
So, for what it’s worth, there’s some info and thoughts on the annual Evangelical Theological Society meetings. It’s not the only outlet for evangelical scholarship (e.g., the Institute of Biblical Research is worth its weight in gold), but it may be the largest. Next year’s meeting will be in San Diego, CA. I may not make that one, but I’m definitely looking forward to 2015’s meeting in Atlanta, GA (been there once, sort of know my way around). The theme for 2014 in San Diego is “Ecclesiology” while the theme for 2015 in Atlanta is “Marriage and Family.”