Tuesday, February 10, 2009

To Affinity, and beyond!

I went to the Affinity Study Conference last week - the first such conference I've ever attended. It was on 'The End of the Law' - any serious Bible student knows that the Christian’s relationship to God’s law is not an easy relationship to tie down, and that the Scriptures contain many statements on this that are hard to hold together: ‘Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven,’ (Matthew 5:19) and ‘But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law,’ (Gal. 5:18) to name but two.

The format of the conference was as follows: six papers were distributed in advance so that all conferees could be well primed. Then, at the conference itself, the authors of the various papers had twenty minutes or so (usually ‘or so’!) to introduce their papers. Questions could be asked for clarification, and then the conference broke into small groups for discussion. After half an hour, the whole conference came together for plenary discussion. Papers included Bob Letham on the history of covenant theology, philosopher Paul Helm on the use of the Mosaic law in society today, Iain D Campbell on the three-fold division of the law, and Douglas Moo on ‘The Covenants and the Mosaic Law: the view from Galatians.’ Some other bloggers were present: this one and this one and this one are the ones I know about.

It was particularly the presence of Moo that attracted me – that and the fact that FIEC were prepared to pay. Moo is a vocal (and gracious, humble) representative of ‘New Covenant Theology’, but so far I’ve failed to understand what he (and they) are saying: I hoped this conference might help. In some ways, it did.

There were many good points about the conference: the papers themselves, though complex, were helpful and provocative. The debates were conducted with grace (although one Presbyterian brother who seemed to want civil sanctions on any who wouldn’t follow Jesus left a couple of us Baptists remembering that Presbyterians used to advocate drowning as a suitable punishment for us!). And who would have imagined that a philosopher could be funny?

Less helpful points included the standard of the plenary debates. Some people seem to love theology for its own sake, and at times they left me wondering if it would be more profitable to ask how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. It will surprise my gentle readers, no doubt, that I was not only unable to keep completely quiet but also unable to raise the standard of debate much by my own contributions. (‘Surely not!’ I hear you cry; but alas! It’s true.) It would, I think, have been more helpful if the speakers themselves had debated among themselves, and allowed us to listen in. For example, Campbell’s paper presented the best argument for the three-fold division of the law that I have seen, but Moo’s paper seemed to rely almost completely on the repeated assertion that the three-fold division is not valid. Yet at no point (unless in the last session, which I had to miss) did he deal with Campbell’s arguments.

And when pushed, the two main New Covenant advocates (Moo, and Chris Bennett) said things such as ‘of course the Mosaic law is not irrelevant for the Christian, but it has to be seen from this side of Calvary, through the lens of Christ.’ Well, yes – but whoever doubted it? I was left asking ‘Is that all that the fuss is about?’

And the Sabbath, of course. In practical terms it’s about the Sabbath, said Moo; New Covenant theology leaves us with nine (or nine and a half) commandments. In fact New Covenant theology seemed to be little more than an attempt to justify theologically what used to be called ‘the Continental Sunday’ and should now, perhaps, be called ‘the American Sunday.’ And as justification, it seemed (at least to this mild-mannered moderate Sabbatarian) to be rather thin, rather sloppy.

One brother present complained to me that the whole conference was too cerebral. That can hardly be a valid criticism of something billed as a ‘theological study conference’. But to attempt to close on a constructive point, I come back to what I said earlier: some people seem to love theology for its own sake. They love to debate the relative merits of Bavinck and Hoeksema. Frankly, I could hardly care less: the point of theology is to glorify God by building up saints and reaching sinners – isn’t it? So, some more practical emphasis – even in a study conference – could be helpful.


Anonymous said...

Nice to meet up. Your contributions were erudite, thought provoking etc etc. I mean, Oxen!

It raises some interesting points about how we come to issues - you were wanting Moo to explain why he rejected a three fold division (which you think he failed to do) - I was wanting Campbell to explain why he believed in one (which I think he failed to do).

It must be good to tackle these sorts of issues - it just raises questions about how best to go about it.

Stanton said...

Hi Gary,

Great to see you have a blog. Hope you are well.

I think I take the Moo line myself, but always keen to read more. Are there any audio recordings available?

Gary Benfold said...

Surprised to read you take the Moo line, Stanton. Too much Kelly influence, I guess.
No, there are no recordings available; they wouldn't be worthwhile. The papers are sent in full in advance, but never 'read' at the conference.