21 November 2010

Conference Reflections

Just back from ETS, IBR, and the first bit of SBL. A few random reflections:

1. A wonderful opportunity to be at these events. It is a quite incomparable convergence of biblical and theological thinkers.

2. Reminded of what a privilege it is to be part of the Crossway team. In years past Crossway has always been my favorite publisher to visit. To have a small part in helping this company move forward in its strategic mission is a privilege, and lots of fun. I could not respect Lane Dennis more than I do.

3. Every year I go to fewer papers. The real value of these conferences is not the data I take in but the old friends I see and the people I meet.

4. There's something about these conferences I just loathe. The preening and parading of self, the snubbing of 'nobodies' and the glad-handing of 'somebodies.' Yuck. I want to continue to kill such impulses in my own heart.

5. The book exhibit is both exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating to see all the good books available. Depressing to see all the good books I will never have time to read. (One of the truly heavenly dimensions to the new earth will be the elimination of the tyranny of time. No more late or early, no more hurriedness, no more deadlines, no more concern of how best to spend my short little life. We'll have all the time in the world.)

6. I don't think we made much progress on justification (the theme of the conference). Wright said he has never said final judgment is on the basis of works, which isn't quite true, as Schreiner pointed out a few moments later. But this 'nuance' (Wright's word) is a step forward nonetheless. (See Denny Burk's good thoughts, to which Wright responds in the comments.) Thielman and Schreiner were both a bit more positive toward reading the NT with the understanding that first-century Jews considered themselves still in exile. Beyond this, the three pretty much agreed to disagree.

7. Schreiner was magnificent: clear, courageous, courteous. Thielman was his usual gracious, articulate self. Wright was interesting and instructive but once again felt the need to be sure everyone was aware of all the false things he has been 'accused' of, which got a bit wearisome. But I was helped much by all three. Each is a gift to the church.

8. One point that I wish had been made more clearly by either Schreiner or Thielman was that the deepest, truest impetus toward the unity Wright centralizes is the understanding of justification that sees the main human problem to be a vile sinner's rightful condemnation by a holy and just God, and that sees the main solution to be the moral one of forensic acquittal.

By making justification itself mainly about unity, Wright does not simply emphasize one (horizontal) blessing instead of another (vertical) one. He loses both. The vertical ignites the horizontal. Try to reverse the direction and you lose both.

9. A particularly telling moment was when the three men were asked the very basic question of how one becomes a Christian. I invite correction here if I am misrepresenting Wright; I didn't write it down at the time. But his answer was something like: 'By the Spirit, acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord of the universe, and, by the Spirit, realize that he is making all things new, and cast your lot in with him.'

What struck me in that moment was that there was nothing in his response about sin. What Wright said is true but insufficient. If an unbeliever lay dying and this was what was said to him, would the unbeliever hear the gospel? Becoming a Christian isn't centrally about picking the right team to be on but contritely confessing you've been on the wrong team all along.

I don't become a Christian by yielding loyalty to Christ any more than I become a Chicago Bear by yielding loyalty to Lovie Smith. In each case one must first qualify--in the latter case by athletic ability, in the former by sin-confessing, self-divesting faith.


Garrett said...


Expanding on your 9th point, here was Collin Hansen's summary of Wright's answer:

Wright appeared especially troubled by the charge that he wouldn’t know what to say to someone dying who asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Wright said, “The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and Lord of the world. That’s good news.” He would encourage someone dying to find eternal life by confessing the name of Jesus, the crucified and risen One, in whom we find healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, and hope.

To me, Wright's responses here have a different "flavor" to them than the NT does when it answers the questions of "What is the gospel?" (1 Cor. 15:1-4) and "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 2:36-38, 16:29-31)

I'm sure he probably fills his answers out in his books, but I haven't read enough of him to know. However, just going by his statements at the ETS meetings, something doesn't sit right . . .

Mike said...


Your paper on Bavinck really made me want to read more by him! I have RD but haven't been able to get to into it. Great job!

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks for this Garrett. Collin gave us an excellent summary. On the specific question, Wright gave a longer answer and one that emphasized the Spirit, so I think Collin was summarizing, as I was. Good thoughts brother.

Thanks Mike!

Jared said...

I don't become a Christian by yielding loyalty to Christ any more than I become a Chicago Bear by yielding loyalty to Lovie Smith. In each case one must first qualify...

This is so good, Dane.

Phil said...

Thanks for sharing your reflections. Quick question - I'm not asking this as a defender of Wright, but I'm curious about your thoughts about his non-reference to sin. Can one truly "By the Spirit, acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord of the universe, and, by the Spirit, realize that he is making all things new" without understanding how sin operates in relation to the reason for Christ's crucifixion, resurrection, and renewal of all things?

Phil said...

One more question...do you remember how Schreiner and Thielman responded to the question of how one becomes a Christian?
Thanks again!

Dane Ortlund said...

Hi Phil. Thanks for the thoughts.

1. I think it indicates a lack of awareness of the depth and pervasiveness and ugliness and treachery of sin to describe it mainly as signing up for the right team.

2. Thielman focused on both the cosmic and the personal, the Christ as Lord and the Christ as Savior themes (incidentally, Wright said he agrees with everything Thielman said--it is not, to repeat, that Wright denies sin, of course, but it is so ignored and assumed that it necessarily becomes marginalized in an unhealthy and misleading way). Schreiner focused on Christ as Savior; we confess our sins and look in faith to Christ for forgiveness etc.

Eric said...

Dane, this is fascinating. Is there any way to hear/read Schreiner's paper?

Also, you read a paper? What? I gotta get my hands on that! Can you send it to me? (Insert puppy dog eyes.)

Dane Ortlund said...

E, the audio for Schreiner can be purchased, and his paper (I have heard) will wind up in JETS at some point, but unfortunately it isn't available anywhere right now for free as far as I know.

I did a paper on Jer 33 and one on Bavinck on justification...i'll pass them along...

Phil said...

Great points; I agree wholeheartedly. And thanks for the response!

Gavin Ortlund said...

Fascinating to read! I wish I could have been there. Would love to read your articles too!!

Anonymous said...


I was at the conference, and I think your summary of Wright's response to the question about how to be saved is accurate. I would only add that Wright included baptism. And this is not just in line with Acts 2.38, Acts 22.16, the Nicene Creed, but it also echoes John Calvin's Strasbourg Catechism for Young Children, in which Calvin wrote the following:

TEACHER: My child, are you a Christian in fact as well as in name?
CHILD: Yes, my father.
TEACHER: How is this known to you?
CHILD: Because I am baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it would have been nice if Wright had mentioned sin, but this requiring Wright (once again) to say everything all the time. I respectfully submit that your critique of NTW's answer, like so many critiques of NTW, is overly critical and not exegetically driven. For example, you comments would apply equally to Paul and Silas, who address the same question in Acts 16.30-31, with no reference to sin. The one time the Bible asks and answers the question that the three panelists were given, it doesn't mention sin.

I was glad NTW had an opportunity to tell the world that he does not believe justification is on the grounds of works. But that doesn't address the deeper problem, which is the widespread failure among able scholars to read Wright on his own terms. Nothing could be clearer than that Wright has talked about justification or judgment "on the basis of a life lived" a few times to mean what the Bible means when it talks about judgment or justification "in accordance with works," etc. It's disappointing that more fellow brothers in Christ, esp ones with so-called credentials, have not had the discernment and fortitude to reach this charitable conclusion before now -- and even more disappointing that many still won't.

I agree with you that Wright's tone got a little tiresome. Thielman and Schreiner were respectful and deferential at every turn, and I especially appreciated Schreiner's commitment to following the text. I'd like to see Schreiner and Wright discuss the Bible more; that could be helpful and fruitful, even as it was last week.

Peace of Christ,
Jeremy Sexton

A. B. Caneday said...


Your point #4 is exactly right.

There's something about these conferences I just loathe. The preening and parading of self, the snubbing of 'nobodies' and the glad-handing of 'somebodies.'

I observed these things when I first attended ETS/IBR/SBL more than 20 years ago. I take strong measures not to allow it to dishearten me. I also purposefully do everything possible in the opposite direction of preening, etc. I seize the opportunity to encourage and to mentor young scholars with a view to changing the culture patterned after the gospel.

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