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Understanding the Evangelical Theological Society

In the Nick of Time

The Evangelical Theological Society was founded in 1949. Fundamentalists have been involved from the beginning. Indeed, several ETS presidents were identified with fundamentalism: Charles Woodbridge, Alan MacRae, and R. Laird Harris are examples. Another fundamentalist, John R. Dunkin (who was president of both San Francisco Baptist Seminary and Los Angeles Baptist Seminary), once led the ETS Far West Section.

When did fundamentalists leave the ETS? The answer is that they never have. Professors from most of the colleges and seminaries in normal fundamentalism are still members of the society. In fact, unless someone rescues the Bible Faculty Summit, the ETS may be the only remaining venue at which fundamentalist scholars meet each other regularly.

The ETS is first and foremost a learned society. Such societies exist to promote particular academic disciplines and professions. For example, the American Academy of Religion promotes the academic study of religions—all of them. The Society of Biblical Literature exists to foster biblical scholarship. The American Society of Church History devotes itself (not surprisingly) to the study of church history. Such organizations are purely academic with no implication of Christian recognition or fellowship.

According to its constitution, the Evangelical Theological Society was founded “to foster conservative Biblical scholarship by providing a medium for the oral exchange and written expression of thought and research in the general field of the theological disciplines as centered in the Scriptures.” In other words, while it is an academic organization, the ETS also has a theological and Christian dimension. That dimension, however, is carefully bounded by its academic purpose.

Since the days of the apostles, Christian doctrine has been progressively defined with increasing degrees of specification. This process of definition and specification is still taking place, partly in the academy. As thinkers develop new and often experimental doctrinal constructs, they need venues in which to test their formulations. This testing involves presenting ideas, submitting them to criticism, and engaging in disputation. Some ideas survive, some are refined, and others are discarded. Those who disagree with the new proposals gain the opportunity to evaluate how serious the errors might be, and because they are informed they are in the best position to develop responses to them.

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Implications from Isaac Watts's Trinitarian Controversy

In other words, the Evangelical Theological Society exists so that scholars can have an opportunity to argue with one another. Given this purpose, it is hardly surprising that the ETS comprises what may be the most diverse group of individuals within American evangelicalism. It has always included Calvinists and Arminians, credobaptists and pedobaptists, cessationists and continuationists, dispensationalists, covenant theologians, and others who see the church as continuing or replacing Israel. From the beginning the ETS has aimed to be a fellowship of disputation.

The word fellowship has to be used pretty loosely here. The only real purpose of the ETS is disagreement (it has other uses, but disputation is its purpose). That is a very low level of fellowship, probably lower even than most personal, “coffee cup” fellowship between individual believers. If the one purpose in meeting is to argue, then the level of commonality only needs to be minimal.

Historically, this low level of agreement has been reflected in the very minimal doctrinal statement of the ETS. For decades the only provision in the statement was a belief in inerrancy. To be fair, greater agreement—agreement in the gospel—was assumed. But it was never formally articulated, probably because the founders thought that a belief in inerrancy would guarantee all other necessary points of agreement. Some years back the ETS added a second provision to its doctrinal basis: belief in the Trinity. It also elected to make the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy the official clarification of its commitment to inerrancy. Ironically, that makes the ETS one of the few evangelical organizations actually to strengthen its doctrinal standards in recent years.

Over the decades the ETS has seen its share of tiffs. Back in the 1980s there was debate over Murray Harris’s views on the state of Jesus’ resurrection body. About the same time, new hermeneutical approaches began to lead scholars into positions that used to be held only by those who denied inerrancy. One member, Robert Gundry, was forced to resign from the organization over his interpretation of Matthew—even though he continued to profess belief in inerrancy. On other occasions the organization has refused to take any formal action. When the executive committee recommended the removal of Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, the vote failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority (probably in reaction against what was widely perceived as the mishandling of the Gundry case).

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The concern with both Pinnock and Sanders was their Open Theism. Before the vote Pinnock reaffirmed his allegiance to the ETS doctrinal basis and submitted himself to correction. After the vote, Sanders stopped participating in ETS. These days, nobody at ETS is reading papers advocating Open Theism. As far as I know, no member of ETS advocates the denial of biblical inerrancy.

New issues have arisen, however. The next big controversy will likely be over the cluster of issues surrounding both homosexuality and sexual identity. One might anticipate that some evangelical scholars will find hermeneutical ways to capitulate to the prevailing social norms, even while continuing to profess belief in biblical inerrancy. Already, however, the ETS membership has placed itself on record by passing resolutions reaffirming the traditional Christian positions on these questions.

Is another round of controversy in the offing? Perhaps—but one thing has changed. Over the past decade or so the Southern Baptists have taken a far more active role in the ETS. Together, they constitute the largest single voting bloc in the organization. They stand on the conservative side of almost every issue. From the looks of the last ETS meeting, they are preparing to flex their organizational muscles. They were the ones who were responsible for the resolutions on sexuality.

For those of us on the conservative and separatist end of the spectrum, the Southern Baptist influence must be seen as a good thing. These are individuals who have already fought battles to reclaim their own institutions. They have actual experience in halting theological slippage. They are not afraid of a confrontation, though they will avoid it if they can. And they may just have the necessary numbers to carry votes on the floor of the society.

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The General Association of Regular Baptist Churches

Boundaries are necessary, even for an organization like the ETS. As new issues arise, those boundaries may need to be clarified and perhaps strengthened. The breadth of the organization is the result of its purpose as a fellowship of disputation, but that breadth can extend only so far. No thoughtful organization revises its core documents for every passing trend, and no one is sure whether the new sexual ethic is going to catch on among those who say they believe in inerrancy. If it does, the time will have come to add some definition.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Glory to the Almighty Father
William Hiley Bathurst (1796–1877)

Glory to the Almighty Father,
Fountain of eternal love,
Who, His wandering sheep to gather,
Sent a Savior from above.

To the Son all praise be given,
Who with love unknown before,
Left the bright abode of heaven,
And our sins and sorrows bore.

Equal strains of warm devotion
Let the Spirit’s praise employ,
Author of each holy motion,
Source of wisdom, peace, and joy.

Thus while our glad hearts ascending
Glory Jehovah’s name,
Heavenly songs with ours are blending,
There the theme is still the same.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

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