What is the purpose of a scholarly society? More specifically, what is the purpose of the Evangelical Theological Society? Every few years, ETS manages to mire itself in a regrettable incident. In my memory, these include (probably among others I have forgotten) the embarrassing episode regarding Robert Gundry’s membership, the odd debate over eternal damnation (settled, if I remember correctly, by appeals to authority), the unnecessary brouhaha over open theism (which has appeared to pretty much die out on its own), the tempest in a tea pot regarding Mike Licona, and now the passage of four resolutions at ETS’s last business session during the 2015 meeting in Atlanta. Stan Gundry, past President of ETS (1978), has written a timely letter to the entire society, rightly calling it to account on this last matter.
Many of us have been wondering for a number of years whether ETS—at least in its corridors of power (its committee, its publications, and the like)—has lost its way. The society takes on issues that it need not and troubles people that it should probably leave alone. Much of this is done in the name of “doctrinal purity,” but whose doctrine and whose standards of purity are being upheld? The same types of people, and in fact mostly the same people, continue to populate the positions of “authority” in ETS and make such decisions.
I know that it has been difficult over the last several years to convince some scholars—even though they are devoted and strong evangelical scholars—that it is worthwhile to attend and give papers at ETS meetings. This is especially so for women, who often believe that they are being marginalized by the Society.
I have only found the situation bearable by dividing the society into two notional parts. There is first the “old boys club” that seems to think that it has been entrusted with controlling the evangelical world, but second, there are also those of us who still believe that ETS is a valuable venue for serious scholarship and attempt to pursue that scholarship in the context of ETS. After all, the format of ETS is still far superior to the “paperettes” format of SBL, where opportunities for serious discussion are sometimes confined to a minute or two in passing between papers. Nevertheless, women scholars remain an embattled minority in the Society, and there is every appearance that this will continue if not increase.
Gundry, however, raises the question of whether there is a larger agenda at work in ETS. In the last few years, I have found it increasingly difficult to tolerate my bifurcated ETS existence, trying simply to ignore the “old boys club” as they continue to grasp more and more control, because there seem to be more and more of them occupying more and more space, thus making it increasingly difficult and uncomfortable for those who do not share their particular perspective—such as women scholars or those with viewpoints that do not “conform” to theirs.
Does anyone really doubt that there is an effort, as Gundry wonders out loud, to “ease out biblical egalitarians,” “exclude women” not just from leadership but in fact involvement, to make women scholars feel uncomfortable (some have had direct statements made to them to that effect), to pre-decide the acceptable range of positions on contentious issues, to control the structures of the society, and to call into question those who stray from what they have decided is the straight and narrow?
As a last comment, Gundry concludes with a rhetorical question: “What better forum is there for collegial discussion and debate of complementarianism and egalitarianism, open theism and classical theism and all points in between, eschatology, the ‘new perspective’ on Paul, and yes, even the question of whether same-sex ‘marriages’ can be defended biblically, than a forum where we have agreed to appeal to the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice, the Bible, God’s Word written?” I think that if we went back to the original purpose of ETS, of allowing it to be a “medium for the oral and written expressions of thought and research in the general field of the theological disciplines as centered in the Scriptures,” it would serve the church and academy much better, allowing for fruitful discussions on these important matters, instead of telling people what they should believe. Gundry is right—ETS is not a church, but it can be a place where biblical scholars can safely share thoughts and ideas, invoke questions and evaluations about the Bible within the confines of Scripture as God’s Word.
— Stanley E. Porter