W. Jackson Watts
In past posts on this blog I have highlighted the increased involvement of Free Will Baptists with the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). According to their website, ETS is a professional academic society of biblical and theological scholars, pastors, and students. As part of the society’s work in fostering Christian scholarship, they hold regular meetings (both regionally and a national one), and they also produce a quarterly journal known as JETS.
ETS dates back to 1949, and so they have been in existence long enough to exert a fair amount of influence on the shape of evangelical scholarship, both in America and abroad. In many ways ETS is very conservative due to its massive numbers of members who are Southern Baptist and Presbyterian (PCA), for example. On the other hand, the organization has a fairly “big-tent” approach to evangelical identity. I happen to be a full member in the society, and each year the statement I must sign to continue with my membership is limited to two affirmations. First, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” Second, “God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”
Beyond these affirmations, there is quite a breadth of views represented among the society’s members. However, as the organization is an academic society and not a church or denomination, this is to be expected.
I think that the Free Will Baptist presence in ETS is notable for several reasons. First, for papers to be accepted onto the program they usually have to clear some hurdles in the review process that typically ensures they are of a certain quality. Like anything else, the range of papers presented across a program with hundreds of papers includes some which are more or less convincing, more or less cogent, more or less academic. Still, simply to be on the program is a positive sign as we assess the state of Free Will Baptist scholarship.
Second, the annual ETS meeting usually gives some indication of trends in the broader Protestant and evangelical world. To be a participant in the meeting gives one access to the discussions that are shaping not just the academy, but also the church. Being plugged into these discussions, and trying to influence them in one direction or another, is a way to promote and preserve theological integrity. As one of the Theological Commission’s stated purposes is “to alert our people of theological trends that could threaten our theological integrity as a denomination,” being a participant in ETS helps us be keenly aware of those trends, at least as they arise from academic circles.
Third, participating in ETS allows our scholars, whether they be younger graduate students, pastors, or professors, to meet and network with people doing meaningful, Christian scholarship in other parts of the country and the world. We all know that we learn best in the context of community. Similarly, such relationships are vital for the cultivation of our own ability to think, write, and minister well.
One fact that should encourage many of our readers is how often a person will attend the presentation of one of our Free Will Baptist presenters, and during the Q&A time or after the session we learn of people interested in Classical (or Reformed) Arminianism. Or we encounter people from other denominations who affirm our view of apostasy, and are looking for dialogue partners in better articulating that theology. I can think of a number of occasions when I have either witnessed or personally experienced this. Such interactions not only give credibility to Free Will Baptist identity and theology, but they remind us of the progress we are making. They also remind us of the work we have ahead of us in raising up the next generation of leaders who will preach, teach, publish, and persuade.
Part two of this post will appear next week.