Dr. Robert W. Yarbrough, professor of New Testament, served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) for 2013. He talked with us recently about his time as president, the importance of the organization for the scholarly evangelical community, and some of the significant issues confronting evangelical theologians today. Here is part one of our two-part interview.
Read Dr. Yarbrough’s presidential address from the 2013 ETS Annual Meeting.
Read part two of this interview.
Q: First of all, what is ETS and how did it come to be?
A: ETS is the Evangelical Theological Society, founded in the late 1940s by evangelical scholars of various denominations because the mainline Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) was increasingly dominated by liberal theologians and liberal biblical scholars. The evangelicals didn’t mind being part of that fellowship, but they found themselves being squeezed out ideologically. They wanted a place where they could present scholarly papers from viewpoints that wouldn’t always be disputed by others who maybe didn’t even believe in God. The SBL emphasized the purely human nature and origin of the Bible; they saw it as just literature. To the evangelical scholars, it wasn’t just literature; it was the Word of God, and they wanted to study it as the Word of God. So ETS is an academic society, but it is also evangelical.
Q: What is the importance of ETS for scholars in the church?
A: ETS is important because it provides a venue for fellowship and encouragement for people doing Christian scholarship in or for the church. It provides a place of common meeting so they can benefit in a face-to-face way from relationships with other scholars as well as pastoral leaders. There’s a lot of collaboration that goes on in publishing, in speaking, and in missions. You can make common cause with people all over the world, especially today, and the Society gives people a chance to sit down together, talk together, hear each other’s papers, and promote each other’s good ideas. It also encourages the kinds of bonds and friendships that nurture meaningful prayer.
You also have to remember that the work of the Kingdom is transgenerational, so at a given ETS meeting you might see someone like Walt Kaiser, the renowned Old Testament scholar who taught for many years at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. I think he’s in his eighties now. And then you’ll also see seminary students in their twenties. They’re at the beginning of a new generation and Kaiser is three or four generations down the line, but everybody is connected. People are drawing on or reporting on what they’re discovering in their research, addressing various groups across demographic lines. That kind of connection is vital, and it’s hard to have that with just electronic means. Also, often when scholars get together, it’s in their own denominational settings. ETS helps to broaden your perspective; it’s very healthily interdenominational. it is also increasingly international, which is very important in this age of global church growth.
Q: What has it meant for you to be president of ETS this past year?
A: Well, it has meant a little extra time expenditure and bearing some of the concerns of the Society that normally would be on somebody else’s plate. It’s actually part of a seven-year commitment. To be president means you’re in your third year on the executive board. It’s really just another year of executive board service, but in your third year you become the person who makes the presidential speech, chairs the business meetings that go on, and acts as a go-to person for the executive director, who is a full-time employee who actually runs the Society. The executive director is the one who books the hotels and makes other arrangements for our meetings four or five or six years out, he deals with the finances and the legalities and the details of running the Society. There’s a lot of money to manage, and we have more than four thousand members, so there’s something going on every day in terms of membership and various questions about policies and things like that. The executive director and his employees work on these matters. So to be president means you’re part of an advisory board and you have some administrative responsibilities, you get to speak at the national meeting, and there are some other meetings and duties throughout the year.
Q: How did you become president? Were you nominated? Did you have an opponent? How does that process work?
A: Yes, you’re nominated by people in the Society and then there’s an election at the national meeting. Typically, there’s just one nomination. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a head-to-head election where there were opponents. This year Daniel Wallace was nominated and elected. He’s a New Testament scholar in Dallas and a world expert on ancient New Testament manuscripts.
If you look at the list of past presidents, they’re normally people who end up having some amount of name recognition for some reason, and they have connections to attract attention in such a way that they’re asked to be on this board. It probably also has something to do with their being perceived to be supportive of the mission and the doctrinal statement of the Society, which basically is about inerrancy and God as a Trinity.
Those are the two articles of the Evangelical Theological Society. It’s not that the rest is not important—we all know we’re evangelicals, we all know we believe in Christ, we believe in the resurrection, we believe in the ascension, we affirm evangelical theology—but in terms of this Society, we wanted to come together assuming the full truth of the Scriptures. Then in the 1990s we felt it was wise to be a little more specific about whose Word we’re talking about—the Word of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—because, of course, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses affirm inerrancy too, but not the Trinity, so we decided to add into our constitution this additional theological definer.
Q: How would you counsel a young seminary student who came to your office and wants to go on to do a PhD with the goal of teaching in the church? What would you encourage that person toward now?
A: Well, I would certainly encourage them to become a student member of ETS. For one thing, you get an excellent journal four times a year; it’s only $15 for a student membership. The journal itself is worth a whole lot more than that. In our circles, joining ETS would be kind of like coming under care of Presbytery. You meet people who are doing what you think you might like to be doing down the line and you get an inside perspective on the workings of academic teaching or pastoring that is both academically informed and engaged with the culture.
A lot of pastors go to ETS to meet friends—in fact there are groups of pastors who meet there every year as part of their professional development and enrichment. It’s just fun to be together. One thing about being in the pastorate is that you can get tunnel vision. You can get ground down and all you see is the weeks ahead and the worship planning and the counseling; you get buried under the debris of local life, and you start to suffocate without even knowing it. But then you go to a meeting like this, and you see friends and you hear some really good papers, and it renews your sense of the largeness of the world, the largeness of God, and the fact that God is doing many things in many places. It can renew the thrill of the quest for growth in grace and knowledge. So there’s a lot of renewal that goes on: renewing acquaintances, renewing commitments, renewing understanding. I don’t know what the percentage is, but I’m going to guess at least a fifth of the people at the ETS national meeting are pastors.
So, for a student to come and be part of that—to see people like D.A. Carson and John Frame and sit there and listen to them talk and then discuss it all with buddies afterward—it’s a seminary student’s dream come true. No matter what seminary you go to, you’re usually only able to hear a few of the people who are in the news, people whose names you recognize—like maybe our own Jack Collins or Dan Doriani. But you go to ETS and there are 2,000 biblical scholars in one place! You can go to their sessions. You may not be able to go to all of them because there are lots of parallel sessions, but you can hear some of them, and that’s a great opportunity you might not otherwise have.
Q: Are there any encouraging stories from this year’s meeting?
A: I think maybe one of the most encouraging stories is basically our theme, which was: “Evangelicalism, Inerrancy, and the Evangelical Theological Society: Retrospect and Prospect.” Inerrancy is a topic that can provide an occasion for disputation, rancor, disagreement, and so forth, but I think that, without avoiding any of the issues, this was an irenic conference. It was positive. I think it was future looking. I don’t think it was narrow or sectarian.
The backstory here is that there were a lot of concerns that this would not be a fruitful but rather a contentious national meeting. But God in his grace had favor on the Society and didn’t allow those fears to be realized. And actually, I think a lot of good vibes came from the people who were there. I think people felt recommitted and renewed in their affirmation of what one of my former students called “the old, conservative view of Scripture.” She said, “I was greatly encouraged in my holding to the old, conservative view of Scripture.” She’s a New Testament scholar in an environment where not many of her peers share her commitment to the Word of God. In that situation, you can start to lose your own sense of sanity and think, “Is this really necessary? Why am I doing this to myself?” Because in the broader academic guild you’re really in the minority and you’re made to pay for it.
Q: How so?
A: Discrimination. Bullying. Implicit or explicit insults. Your work is just blown off. Jesus tells us it’s a blessing when we’re reviled and spoken ill of for his sake, but nobody in their right mind should sit around patting themselves on the back because they’re spoken ill of. But it’s one of the facts of life in evangelical scholarship. Mainline scholars pretty much systematically discriminate against it and, at times, polemicize against it.
I’ve got a couple of examples in my speech. That wasn’t the main point of it, but I do cite in a couple of places where very insulting things were said about people who believe in the Bible. That’s just a given out there in the world. So if you’re a scholar who is publishing and interacting in the world of ideas and you have evangelical convictions, you labor under some significant disadvantages. And that even goes to the level of your livelihood, because an evangelical scholar is never going to get a job offer from any of these places. A scholar like D.A. Carson is never going to get a job offer from any number of universities and seminaries around the world. Now, in one sense, that’s understandable. If you’re an Arminian, for example, you’re never going to get invited to teach at a Reformed school. If you’re not a Baptist you’re not going to get invited to teach at most Baptist schools. So we do have the right of association and all that, but this goes beyond that. Your views might not get a fair hearing, even though you might have better science or better scholarship on your side or whatever. If you’re on the wrong side of the fence ideologically it doesn’t really matter what your arguments or evidence are.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview coming June 17.