ETS memories

I just returned from Providence, and though I have more than I can share and not enough time to say it–as there is a stack of papers and writing projects to attend to, here are some personal highlights.

1. Papers–heard a very good one on the latent universalism in Brian McLaren and (I forget his first name) Young, the author of The Shack (the professor who gave the paper, James DeYoung from Western Seminary, said that he is personal friends with Young and so knows whereof he speaks).  DeYoung claims that the editors of The Shack attempted to scrub it clean of its universalist tendencies, though he asserts that they were not entirely successful. 

2. Friends–every year I make friends with more people, and though I won’t divulge our personal conversations, catching up with the successes and trials of colleagues in distant places is becoming a treat.  The highlight here was a Thursday evening meal with my fellow members of the Dead Theologians Society.  But I have already said too much.

3. My paper, entitled “Machen on McLaren:  A New Kind of Liberal?” was well attended.  The point of my paper was that while McLaren differed significantly from classical liberals, he is saying many of the same things that the liberals were saying in 1923.  The Q/A time that followed was interesting, as some conservatives wanted me to say that McLaren was going to hell, while some of his fans wanted me to say he was a saint.  I tried to side with Machen, who said that the liberals of his day were teaching something other than historic Christianity, yet they themselves may be genuine Christians (only God knows the heart).  Later I thought that I should have raised my hand like a barometer and invited each side to applaud for their view.  “Who thinks Brian is going to hell?  C’mon, let me hear you!  Who thinks Brian is a saint?  C’mon, move the needle!”

Afterward I had an interesting and too brief conversation with R. Scott Clark Smith, a professor at Biola, who said that he has found evidence of an emerging panentheism in Brian’s writings (and even more clearly in Pagitt).  If true, this would eliminate their belief in the supernatural, as panentheists do not believe that God is ontologically separate from his creation.  Scott’s paper on this topic went a long way toward proving his point.  I’m sure that if you contact him he would be more than happy to email you the paper.  

4. Friday after the conference my colleague John Duff and I walked to “The First Baptist Church in America” founded by Roger Williams.  Now I know why every Baptist church in any city must declare itself to be the first there.  We get it honestly.  

The church also posted a handwritten note describing the transfer of pew rights from one family to another.  The note was dated 1778, which means that even during a war Baptists were concerned about who sat where during church.  Again, not much has changed.

5. I also had a chance in Providence to speak briefly with John Witvliet.  If you have been following the comments of my Peter Rollins post, you know that John respectfully asked me to redact my paragraph on Rollins’ return visit to Calvin’s Worship Symposium.  I told him that I would be happy to do it, as I did not wish to cause trouble for him or Calvin.  He shared his concern that the repeated mention of Rollins’ visit to the Worship Symposium might cause people to get the wrong idea of what they were up to.  While I think the easiest way to not give people the wrong idea is to not do the thing that plants that idea, I understand that he is in a difficult position and am more than happy to not pile on.

6.  The ESV Study Bible booth had a large screen television with a running ad promoting the new Bible.  I was taken aback and then laughed when I saw that the “personality” on the screen was my new friend, Tullian Tchividian, complete with, (if Justin Taylor can be trusted on this delicate issue), a spray-on tan.  If the pastorate doesn’t pan out for Tullian, I suppose he can use his talents on QVC (which would be a sad waste of the Graham genes).

 There is lots more, but that is the stuff that sticks out that I am able to share.



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17 responses to “ETS memories”

  1. Jonathan Shelley


    Let me be the first to add to the kudos for your paper presentation on Machen and McLaren. Not only was your presentation engaging, lively, and informative, (oh, and balanced and honest) but you display such a high level of tact, restraint, and grace when dealing with some rather difficult questions. If only all of the sessions could have attained your level of scholarly acheivement and decorum. Your session was my favorite – including my own presentation – of the conference, and I’m not just saying that because I want your help getting a job. Well, it’s not the only reason I’m saying it.

  2. Denny

    Could you post that paper online for download?

  3. mikewittmer


    The guts of it are essentially my post, “What are the weaknesses of emergent?” I generally swapped out “postmodern innovator” for Brian McLaren, and I added support that Brian holds each of these views.

  4. Bryon Morgan

    Is your Dead Theologians Society in connection to the Inter-Vasity DTS, the Catholic DTS, or one of the other Societies?

  5. mikewittmer


    You know I can’t answer that. Though I am chagrined to hear that the Dead Theologians Society name has been franchised.

  6. Jason Myers

    Weird no one at SBL mentioned Brian McLaren…

  7. mikewittmer


    Snarkiness does not become you. You’re better than this.

  8. Jason Myers

    I dont know if “snarky” was my goal. Rather my intent was to show that in biblical studies no one pays any attention to Brian Mclaren. Which strikes me as odd with the celebrity status he has received in evangelical circles.

    At what point do we let people go where they may…and continue on our own trail. Realizing that they are where they are and thats that.

    I guess im just trying to keep focus on the important issues of Jesus, His Kingdom, and OUR role in that, rather than what other’s might have said.

  9. funny Dr. Wittmer: you didnt answer Jason. I think he along with I and others wonder why is McLaren even important, especially in a setting like ETS? Of all the things you could have talked about…McLaren? Come on.

    I think Jason’s point is that in the circles of biblical and theological studies McLaren doesn’t matter (hence his appropriate reference to SBL). It seems like there are way more constructive things to discuss and dialogue through than one mans attempt to follow Jesus well and chart a path through the liberal-conservative categorical malaise…


  10. mikewittmer

    Jeremy and Jason:

    Two years ago people were asking me why ETS members were too snobby to address the thought of Brian McLaren, when he was obviously so important among evangelical Christians. Now I read a paper on him, and you are asking why I’m wasting my time. Perhaps you can appreciate my frustration.

    I will say that my paper was well attended, so I seemed to have addressed a topic that many people are interested in. Just not you. That’s fine with me, but why do you feel the need to badger me about it?

  11. Godwin

    Jason and Jeremy –

    Ignoring Brian McLaren today is laughable in view of church history.

    What if…
    Athansius ignored Arius
    Augustine ignored Pelagius
    Luther ignored Catholic leadership and Emperor Charles V
    Edwards ignored Chauncey

    …because they were “focused on the important things…” and weren’t distracted by “one man’s attempt to follow Jesus” ??

    Y’all make it sound as if McLaren is living in some hole, having never written a book, spoken at a conference, or stirred up a hornets nest in the Church. He is more than just a follower of Jesus. He is an influential teacher in the wider Christian community. Ignoring him would be foolish.

    And would either of you have the audacity to challenge the ETS committee’s decision to allow Dr. Wittmer’s paper? Perhaps the committee and those who attended the reading are also distracted by “one man’s attempt to follow Jesus,” and instead, need to “focus on the important things” ??

    Or perhaps they are SO focused on “Jesus, the Kingdom, and our role” that they are compelled to engage the conversation that Dr. Wittmer’s paper contributes to.

  12. Godwin

    Interesting that the room topic for Wittmer’s presentation was “Issues in Contemporary Ecclesiology.” I would think that bringing biblical/historical/systematic scholarship to bear on contemporary church trends would fit the bill.


  13. Dr. Wittmer,

    Found your blog through some weird blog wormhole (I’m sure you know how that goes).

    Just to clarify, R. Scott Clark teaches at Westminster Seminary California (i know because he is my associate pastor).

    Did you mean someone else?


  14. R. Scott Clark is actually a professor at Westminster Seminary California. Unless there are two.

    Thanks for posting the paper on Brian McLaren. It’s excellent. Grace and peace!

  15. mikewittmer

    Danny and Stephen:

    Thanks for that. I actually meant R. Scott Smith, who teaches at Biola. I’ll be more careful next time.

  16. Mike – it was a good paper, and timely. Yes, it would be nice if McLaren was irrelevant at ETS, maybe soon he will be, and maybe publishers like Zondervan who claim to be Evangelical will stop publishing his books. I noted that in the ETS program, John Franke (one of McLaren’s mentors), was described as representing Biblical Theological Seminary AND Emergent Village, so the problem with ETS obviously goes beyond McLaren to people who are in ETS.

    Mike, if you remember in the Q & A time one of the questioners wanted you to say that McLaren is a heretic, that was Larry Dixon, a fellow alumnus of mine from Biblical Seminary, which was turned from conservative orthodox Christianity partly through McLaren, not to mention Franke and Dave Dunbar; Larry has know McLaren and Dunbar for decades, having grown up with them in the Plymouth Brethren. My point is some of us feel the treachery very personally, just to explain the emotion that you observed.

  17. mikewittmer


    Thank you for your helpful insight. That does explain the emotion–and I would probably feel the same as you if I was in your shoes. I do think that Brian is a genuine Christian, though I agree with you that his thought, while it may have helped some recovering fundamentalists, is also leading many away from the true faith.

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