Ellis Lectures at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Ellis-LectureI had the privilege of delivering the Ellis Lectures at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, on 28 February and 1 March, 2019. These lectures, endowed by the late New Testament scholar Earle Ellis, whom I had the opportunity to meet for the first time when I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1980s, are named in honor of his parents and were endowed by him.

The three lectures that I delivered were entitled “Can Greek Linguistics Inform New Testament Theology?” In these lectures, I used the history of language study from the Enlightenment to the present as a means of assessing New Testament Greek language study and, especially, the history and development of New Testament theology. Some might at first think that this is an odd approach to the history and development of New Testament theology. Let me assure you it is not, as New Testament theology must be grounded in the text and language of the New Testament as its starting point—at least it should be! Not all examples are so grounded, as I soon found out in my research. I used the history of Greek language study, as part of the wider history of the development of study of language and linguistics, because this study traces some of the major trends in western intellectual thought and provides a suitable framework for further discussion of any text-based discipline.

My first lecture was delivered in Southwestern’s chapel, which holds 3,600 people. I was the main speaker for the chapel service. However, the day before I spoke, Southwestern appointed and installed a new President, who took office immediately, and so he also spoke in chapel. It was a day of major changes, and I could tell that there were many who were concerned with new directions at the seminary, especially if one knows the recent history of Southwestern. Nevertheless, my hosts in the New Testament department were excellent, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time. I met many new scholars and had several opportunities to meet with students and answer questions about a range of topics.

The first lecture, “The Origins of New Testament Theology and Greek Linguistics,” discussed the origins of recent language study in the Enlightenment and the characteristics of the rationalist and the comparative historical periods, the two major periods preceding the modern one. These orientations to language still have a major influence upon later intellectual thought, including New Testament studies of both Greek and theology. I was surprised while preparing this lecture to find out how many grammarians and even New Testament theologians still work within the rationalist and comparative-historical paradigms.

The second lecture, “The Present State of New Testament Theology and Greek Linguistics,” along with the third, was delivered in a beautiful conference room in Southwestern’s Riley Conference Center, which includes a two-story hotel. This lecture focused upon the rise of modern linguistics and the relatively few works of either New Testament Greek or of New Testament theology that reflect this major paradigm shift, first introduced in 1961 with James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language. In other words, no recent writer in either topic has an excuse for not being aware of modern linguistics since the work of Barr and others who have followed him. You would be surprised how little of this New Testament study seems to be aware of these developments. I have a book coming out in the next year or so on the impact (or lack of impact) James Barr has had since Semantics (stay tuned!).

The third lecture, “The Future of New Testament Theology and Greek Linguistics,” retraced some recent developments in New Testament theology. These include the Biblical Theology movement and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, discussed as a prelude to evaluating Dale Martin’s recent work, Biblical Truths, as a failed postfoundationalist attempt to do theology. I then discussed what a future for New Testament theology might entail, especially in light of the fact that so few recent New Testament theologies seem even to be aware that we have moved into a postmodern era (yes, we are there!). I believe that we can still learn much from the approach that Barr took, even if we need to expand further upon what he did.

I wish to thank my hosts at Southwestern, including Terry Wilder, Mark Taylor, Aaron Son, Paul Hoskins, and Jeffrey Bingham, for the invitation to give these lectures at Southwestern. They were of course in no way responsible for what I said, but I appreciated their willingness to engage the subject as I presented my lectures. I was honored to be asked and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to research and prepare the lectures—even though I think that New Testament theology still has much to learn if it is to utilize the best in linguistic thought and to speak to the contemporary world. I hope to publish these lectures in the not too distant future, where the details of my argument are made much more explicit and I name names regarding those who have and have not fulfilled our contemporary interpretive and hermeneutical mandate.

— Stanley E. Porter

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