Roundup: British New Testament Conference #BNTC2014

I’ve recently had the pleasure of attending the 34th British New Testament Conference (BNTC) held this year at the University of Manchester. Our hosts at the University did a wonderful job putting on the conference and are to be commended. It’s always great fun to renew old friendships, make new ones, hear about new research, and participate in some stimulating conversations about all things New Testament. At many academic conferences you have the opportunity to move in and out of various sessions to catch the papers that interest you. One of my favorite things about BNTC is that everyone is encouraged to attend the same seminar group throughout the duration of the conference. The advantage is that seminar members have the opportunity to spend a couple of days reflecting together on a particular area of New Testament, which usually results in a more fruitful and less fragmented conference experience. 
I was in the Paul Seminar, which is one of the largest seminars at the conference and always has a number of world class scholars in attendance. The seminar chairs, Peter Oakes and Sarah Whittle, put together a very well-balanced combination of papers and group discussion in each of the sessions. The first session was of particular interest with a paper on divine wrath in Paul by Dorothea Bertschmann, which was followed by a panel discussion on divine wrath with Dorothea, Francis Watson, Simon Gathercole, and Michael Thompson. You won’t be surprised to learn that it got a bit energetic at points, and it was certainly refreshing to hear this discussion since the wrath of God is not a subject often broached by New Testament scholars. The second installment of the Paul seminar focused on various issues relating to the ever present pistis Christou (faith of Christ) debate. Jeanette Hagen introduced some helpful evidence from 2 Corinthians, which is not often brought into the discussion, and Jonathan Tallon gave a very interesting paper on the richness of pistis and cognates in the sermons of John Chrysostom. This was followed by another vigorous open discussion. I had the pleasure of participating in the third session of the Paul seminar along with David Harvey, who gave a paper on honor and ethics in Galatians. My own contribution was titled: “Embracing Resurrection: Temporal Aspects of Social Identity in 1 Corinthians 15.” I’m grateful for the substantive, constructive, and charitable engagement with my argument. We followed up with an open discussion on the place of social identity in Pauline studies.I was grateful for the opportunity to emphasize that social identity readings of Paul need not be pitted against theological readings, as is sometimes suggested.
In addition to the other seminar groups, there were three plenary sessions with invited papers.. The first was a lecture by Joan Taylor on “Mary Magdalene and the Case of the Missing Magdala.” She spent some time dismantling various misconceptions about Mary Magdalene’s background and argued that we cannot know with certainty where Mary was from. She also made the interesting suggestion that the name Magdalene should perhaps be read with a view to its meaning of “tower” and that it might even be a personal nickname that carried symbolic significance. As Peter was known as “Rock”, so Mary might have been “Tower.” The second plenary was from Judith Lieu on “Marcion and the Contradictions of the Gospel.” The third plenary from Simon Gathercole was called, “Jesus, the Apostolic Gospel, and the Gospels,” in which he argued that the canonical gospels shared certain theological characteristics in common that were not shared by most of the apocryphal gospels, and that those common characteristics derive from the earlier regula fidei. I found this discussion particularly interesting and helpful in emphasizing what the gospels hold in common. It was something of a courageous lecture given the current trend in the guild to elevate the differences between the four evangelists over what they hold in common.
All in all, it was a fine conference. I’m grateful to have had opportunity to attend and participate. And I look forward to my next opportunity to do so. Next year will be in Edinburgh, and, as was observed a few times, it could be the first international BNTC depending on a certain upcoming vote. 

Roundup: 2012 British New Testament Conference

I recently attended for the first time the British New Testament Conference (BNTC) held at King’s College London. Here are a few brief reflections on the experience.
 
1. One of the main reasons academics attend conferences is to renew old friendships and make new ones. This being my first trip to BNTC, I was engaged in much more of the latter than the former. I was excited to meet quite a few other Ph.D. candidates and hear about their research. It was also good to put a face to many who I’ve never met but whose books and articles I’ve read. One highlight was having coffee with N.T. Wright, whose work has been particularly influential on me. Our discussion focused more on the joys and challenges of living in both academic and ecclesiastic worlds.
 
2. On a related note, while BNTC has no confessional requirements, there were many present who are active in the church and see their work as service to the church. Given my own conviction that the divide between church and academy is unhelpful, it was very encouraging to meet not a few who are committed both to rigorous scholarship and love for the church.
 
3. Attendees at many academic conferences commonly hop in and out of seminars to catch individual papers that are of interest to them. BNTC was the first conference I’ve attended at which participants are encouraged to remain in the same seminar for the duration of the conference. It will be no surprise that I attended the Paul seminar. There were a number of good papers, and having the same group together in each session gave the conversation coherence and allowed opportunity for summary comments on what was learned and on what fruitful work might emerge from the discussion.
 
4. There were four plenary sessions, some of which I found helpful. I particularly appreciated that one of the plenaries was devoted to a panel session on the state and future of British New Testament studies. Not being resident at my University, this conversation helped me to gain some perspective on the discipline of which I’m a part.
 
All in all, I had a very good conference and look forward to future opportunities to attend and participate.

Wrap-up from the Wesleyan Theological Society

I’ve been a member of the Wesleyan Theological Society (WTS) for several years but only attended the annual meeting of the Society for the first time over the weekend. We met in Nashville on Friday and Saturday. I had a great time renewing old friendships and making new ones. I was also glad to meet in person several people with whom I’ve only had electronic or social media communication. It was a fun and memorable weekend. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Noble quotes – One person who made it a memorable meeting is Dr. Thomas Noble, who presented a very interesting paper in one of the Systematic Theology sessions. At the conclusion of the session, after a discussion on, among other things, whether God can truly desire something that he knows will never be, Dr. Noble stood up and admonished us all that these discussions of how God knows things, while interesting and valid as an academic interest, are entirely beside the point. “We simply do not know,” he said, and suggested that such speculation was not all that helpful in the ongoing all-important task of doing theology for the Church. His comments were well said and appreciated by many.
Dr. Noble was at it again in the plenary session later that morning. Dr. Amos Yong of Regent University presented a paper called, “A Heart Strangely Warmed on the Middle Way? The Wesleyan Witness in a Pluralistic World.” The paper was largely a comparison of the Wesleyan emphasis on Christian perfection with some strands of Buddhism. The paper fell in line with typical calls for inter-religious dialogue and listening and was not terribly impressive, not least in its misuse of the term “middle way.” The best part came in the Q & A time when Dr. Noble stood, walked to the microphone, and simply asked, “Did Elijah come on too strong on Mt. Carmel?” He was referring to Elijah’s mockery of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Laughter emerged from several sections of the room, and Dr. Yong appeared somewhat taken aback. He gathered himself and answered, “Yes.” Yong further said that the biblical and historical traditions often came on too strong. A telling answer, indeed. As an aside, I’d be very interested in hearing a paper sometime on the topic: “Elijah and the Prophets of Baal: A Biblical Model for Inter-religious Dialogue.” Sounds like a winner to me. What do you think?
2. Shelter from the storm – Another memorable moment came in the midst of a rather severe storm that ravaged the region. I am grateful that we were safe throughout. The tornado sirens sounded during the afternoon session on Friday while I was in a session listening to a fascinating paper by Mark Olson. When the sirens went off, we were instructed to move into a hallway for safety and shelter. After we gathered in the hall, having nothing else to do, Mark continued his paper and took questions on it afterwards; all right there in that hallway. I’ll not soon forget the experience.
3. Paper presentation – I delivered a paper in one of the sections on Biblical Studies entitled, “Did Paul Think he was Perfect? Christian Perfection and Its Eschatological Context in Philippians 3:15.” The paper was aimed at offering some exegetical grounding for the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian Perfection (or Entire Sanctification). I was pleased that the paper was well received. The Q & A time provided some fascinating conversation, and a few people even stayed around after the session to discuss the paper and its implications further.
4. A warm heart – Several times throughout the conference, I was struck by how many participants approached their work as a spiritual discipline and a service to the Church. Several of the papers that I heard and many of the conversations I had contained elements of this concern. Academic meetings don’t always have this feel. It warmed my heart and encouraged me deeply.

SBL Restricts Student Participation

Along with other student members of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), I recently received an email letter from John F. Kutsko, Executive Director of SBL, informing me of changes that have been made by the Council of SBL to the way in which student members may participate in the SBL Annual Meeting.  Here are those changes:
1. All students without a doctoral degree are required to submit to the Program Unit Chair the full text of the paper they will read. The paper will be submitted at the time of proposal. Student proposers will submit the paper they intend to read, not a full-length article intended for written distribution.
2. The number of sessions students can participate in will be limited to one. This policy pertains to participation as panelist, presenter, and respondent.
As a student member of SBL currently at work on my doctoral degree, I was extremely disappointed over these changes.  These restrictions put students at a disadvantage in the presentation proposal review process and, if maintained, will ultimately lead to reduced student participation in the Annual Meetings, a consequence of which will be less interaction with and feedback from other scholars which is so valuable to ongoing doctoral research.  Let me flesh a few of these points out in more detail.
  1. Student participation will be reduced.  If students are required to turn in their full paper at the time of proposal, then their time to conduct and complete their research is reduced by more than eight months.  Research that will not be presented until November is now due in February.  I finished the final draft of my 2010 paper presentation only days before the conference.  I had expected to get to work on some other ideas for 2011, submit them as proposals, and, if accepted, be able to conduct and finish the research over the course of the next year.  The idea of having all the research completed and written up by the first of March is crippling and near impossible given the responsibilities of my work and as a student.  This change in SBL policy is demoralizing and discourages me from attempting to put the work together in less than half the time to which I am accustomed.  This sadly means that it is unlikely that I will submit a proposal for next year.  From the looks of things circling on the blogs, my fellow student members feel the same way.  What is said to be an aid to students will ultimately strip us of previous opportunity and valuable experience.
  2. If student participation is reduced, students will have less opportunity to receive feedback on their work.  My first presentation at SBL was in 2008, while I was an M.Div. student at Asbury Theological Seminary.  It went very well, and I had some very interesting and helpful interaction during the Q & A time after my presentation.  Given the significantly increased difficulty in gaining acceptance at the Annual Meeting, I can kiss such feedback and interaction goodbye.  The SBL is supposed to be fostering biblical scholarship and the next generation of biblical scholars.  To implement restrictions that will inevitably decrease student participation is a contradiction to the stated mission and vision of the SBL. 
  3. In the past, the peer reviewers of the paper proposals did not know which proposals came from students and which came from senior scholars.  Now that students have to submit full manuscripts as opposed to titles and abstracts, it will be quite clear who the students are.  This will make it impossible to prevent biased decisions against student papers and in favor of those written by holders of the Ph.D. and places students at a distinct disadvantage in the review process.  This undermines the credibility of SBL as an unbiased organization that professes to value inclusiveness, collegiality, and scholarly integrity.
  4. These changes may qualify as a breach of contract.  I registered as a student member under the condition that I would “receive all the same benefits as a full member.”  Now that student members are not granted all the benefits of full membership (e.g. reduced appearances and increased proposal requirements), it would seem that the SBL has violated the terms of our membership agreement and may be legally liable for that infringement.  It doesn’t appear that they really thought this one through. 
For these reasons, the new restrictions to student involvement at SBL meetings are an insult to student members and a stain on the reputation of the Society of Biblical Literature. So much for fostering the future of biblical scholarship.

What About Imputation? More on N.T. Wright at ETS

In a recent post, I said that N.T. Wright’s presentation at ETS surprised me with regard to two areas: his clarification regarding final justification and the role of works and his comments on imputation.  Here are my reflections on the role of works.  Now on to the matter of imputation.

Wright has often suggested that the Reformed doctrine of imputation makes righteousness out to be a gas-like substance that can be passed across the divine courtroom from judge to defendant.  I thought this was an interesting and, perhaps, valid objection; that is, until I read some Reformed writings on imputation.  I then discovered that Wright’s portrayal of imputation was a caricature and that he was knocking down a straw man.  No serious Reformed thinker thinks of imputed righteousness as a substance that can be passed around like a gas.  It would seem that the debate was at an impasse.
I do think, though, that some of Wright’s comments at ETS may provide room for some progress in the debate.  If I recall correctly, at the end of his talk he indicated that through faith the believer is united to Christ and, as a result, that which is true of Jesus becomes true of the believer as well, which may very well include Christ’s righteousness, even though the Bible doesn’t really speak that way of Christ.  Wright said that you could call that imputation, but that this is not what the Reformers meant by the word.  Wright is concerned about the idea of merit being acquired by Christ and shifted to the believer.  He charged that those were medieval categories that the Reformers took on board but shouldn’t have, and that may or may not be the case.  I’m no historical theologian, so I’ll avoid saying too much about what the Reformers said. 
I would suggest, though, that the concept of faith-union with Christ as the way in which that which is true of Christ becomes true of those in Christ is a good place to start an attempt to move forward.  I think Wright and the Reformed camp could agree on this.  If Christ has indeed been justified, that is declared righteous, because of his perfect obedience, and if those who are in Christ share with him all that is his, then it is right to say that the verdict that came to Christ because of his obedience (merit?) is reckoned to the believer because they are joined to Christ by faith.  The imputation of Christ’s righteousness would be shorthand for that rather long sentence.  I think both sides could agree with this summary.  If not, someone out there help me out.

Belated ETS & SBL Reflections

I’m a bit behind most in the blogosphere who have already posted reflections on the recent annual gatherings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta.  Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts:
1. This was the first year I attended ETS.  I was struck by the charity and reverence throughout.  You might be surprised to hear that I was struck in this way, ETS being a confessional professional society composed of people who are supposed to be, well, evangelical.  Academic conferences are not always the most charitable gatherings with many eager to present their work and critique that of others.  But this was different.  There was a certain attitude about the place, a certain holiness; this was a gathering of people who typically seemed to love Christ and his church, a gathering of people who desire to serve Christ and his church.  That would not be typical of academic conferences, even in theology.
2. As many have written, one of the best things about these conferences is the opportunity to gather with old friends and make new ones.  I enjoyed catching up with many I’ve not seen since these conferences gathered last year.  Catching up with classmates and professors at the Asbury reception is always a highlight.
3. Speaking of Asbury, let me say that I was quite glad to see a number of Asbury Seminary people at ETS.  In the past, you might only find one or two Asbury profs present.  I was happy to see several of Asbury’s doctoral students and hear a paper from Dr. John Oswalt, who is now in Wilmore once again.  Asbury’s president, Dr. Tim Tennent, was slated to present as was Dr. Robert Coleman, who has also moved to Wilmore.  I’m not sure if he’s teaching or not, though I imagine many would hope for it.  This is significant because Asbury has had a reputation for a bit of a leftward shift in recent years.  In light of that, I was very encouraged to see an increasing Asbury presence at ETS.  Wilmore seems to have gotten an evangelical influx in the last couple of years, for that we can be thankful.
4. I thought the plenary discussions on “Justification by Faith” at ETS were especially helpful and served to move forward what has, at times, become a stale conversation.  Thomas Schreiner’s presentation was very clear and kind.  Frank Thielman’s proposal that dikaiosune theou (righteousness of God) is polyvalent and includes the concept of “God’s fairness” was highly stimulating, entirely fresh, well-argued, and carried significant potential for common ground in the justification debate, if, of course, he is right.  I’m not ready to pronounce a verdict; his proposal needs time to simmer.  I was a bit surprised at how close Thielman landed to Tom Wright, which brings me to his presentation.  Wright surprised me as well.  I somewhat expected him to dig his heels in and simply restate what he had said in the past; this, of course, is basically what he did in his last book on justification, which disappointed me.  If one is going to take the time to write a book, then he ought to be sure to move the discussion forward.  But Wright really answered some questions this time.  Two particularly surprising moves were his statements (1) that final justification would be in accordance with works rather than on the basis of works and (2) that he might be comfortable with imputation language depending on how carefully it was defined.  These are movements towards the middle of the debate for Wright.  If you want more see the summary post by Andrew Cowan and a clarification post by Wright himself.  To my Southern friends, let me apologize now, but it cracked me up when Wright suggested some neo-Catholicism lurking behind closed doors at Southern Seminary (UPDATE: more on Wright at ETS here). 
5. Last and most likely least, my paper presentation at SBL was largely uneventful.  It went smoothly, and no one challenged my thesis.  No one said anything actually, which means either that the paper was not all that significant or that it was so clear and precise that everyone was stunned silent.  I’ll opt for the latter.  There was one senior scholar present who was nodding as I read the conclusion; so I’ll take that as encouragement and roll with it. 

2010 SBL Paper

I recently got word that my paper proposal for the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature was accepted.  The title of the paper is: “Waiting for His Promised Coming: Eschatology and Ethics in Chain-link in 2 Peter 3.”  I’ll be reading it in the Letters of James, Peter, and Jude Program Unit.  Here’s the abstract:
The chain-link interlock is an ancient rhetorical transition device which, though long neglected in scholarship, has recently been identified by Bruce Longenecker. The chain-link transition involves two distinct textual units with overlapping material across the textual boundary which aims to effect a smooth rhetorical transition. This device is present in numerous New Testament texts and often effects how these texts should be interpreted and understood theologically. This paper will demonstrate that the transition in 2 Peter 3 from the argument of vv. 3:8-13 to the peroratio of vv. 14-18 is rhetorically structured by a chain-link interlock, and that this transition has been structured to link the author’s theology of the parousia with the ethical and moral development of the recipients’ character of life. The argument will progress by first presenting primary source evidence for the chain-link interlock from the ancient rhetorical handbooks. It will then be demonstrated that 2 Peter 3 fits the chain-link model and that the author intends this rhetorical feature to govern the way the peroratio is understood by the recipients of the letter. The paper will conclude by offering an interpretation of the peroratio in light of chain-link structure of the text.