N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (1)

I am back from the NT Wright conference at Wheaton College in Illinois: “Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Dialogue with N.T. Wright.” I plan to offer my reflections in three parts: general, Friday (Jesus), and Saturday (Paul).

To begin, here are some general and rather random thoughts about the conference as a whole.

First of all, it was simply big, impressively big: lots of books, lots of people, lots of interesting people, both on stage and off. There were 1,100 people registered, plus some Wheaton students and faculty and, in the evenings, the general public watching in the gym on big screens. I have no official count, but it would not surprise me if there were 2,000 people in attendance Friday evening. The crowd was fascinating. Though mostly white, there was some racial and ethnic diversity, but there was definitely a wide span of ages. Lots of younger folks of course—college and seminary students, the newly ordained, etc.—but also people my age and older. The crowd was also denominationally diverse, with some Catholics, Orthodox, and even a Jewish rabbi sprinkled among the Anglicans and Protestants and post-Protestants of various stripes. I kept bumping into both younger and established biblical scholars and theologians, including some rather legendary figures like Kenneth Bailey and René Padilla. I spent some time with Nijay Gupta of Ashland (and soon Seattle Pacific), Woody Anderson of Nashotah House, Rodrigo Morales of Marquette, and Andy Rowell of Duke’s ThD program. I also saw Todd Billings of Western Seminary and met numerous other professors from various fields and places.

Second, it was stimulating: lots of good presentations, lots of interesting and even important conversations. I was particularly happy to get to interact with a few younger students who are preparing for ministry and/or considering doctoral work. I always relish those opportunities at SBL and elsewhere, but there were far more students here than at SBL.

Third, it was well organized and executed. Nick Perrin (NTW’s onetime research assistant) and Jeff Greenman, both of Wheaton’s faculty, did an excellent job, and the many orange-shirted student volunteers giving directions, etc. could not have been more helpful.

Fourth, it was doxological, which is what theology should be. Each session included sacred music by gifted instrumentalists, prayer, and congregational singing (chiefly Taizé and Iona pieces). Grant LeMarquand of Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh (and NTW’s former student) led the prayer and worship, ably assisted by musicians who were also from Trinity.

Fifth, the conference basically lived up to its subtitle: a dialogue. At one level, this was a laudatory event, a love-fest for Bishop Tom, if you will, or at least a profound expression of appreciation. But even the most appreciative papers offered critique, or at least suggestions for improvement or new directions. There was time for feedback from the Bishop to the papers, time for interaction between him and the presenters, and questions from the attendees. That said, however, there probably should have been more time and space allotted to interaction between the panelists and NTW. These were major figures giving substantive engagements with his work about important issues, yet he only had about 5 minutes max to respond to each paper (15-20 minutes to respond to four papers, though he took a bit more time). His responses were therefore necessarily—for the most part—brief and even rushed, with some papers getting lots of attention and some a lot less. The actual give-and-take dialogue, though good at points, was not extensive.

It was unfortunate that Richard Hays, one of the conference organizers and the co-editor of the conference volume that will appear, had to leave (to preach as this father-in-law’s funeral) after giving the first address.

Sixth, the conversation was rather comprehensive: Jesus in relation to history and story/theology, Jesus and John (since NTW has focused on the synoptics), Jesus and economic justice today, Jesus and ethics in light of his eschatology; justification and union with Christ in Paul, NTW’s emergent-friendly ecclesiology, Paul’s individual eschatology, and righteousness in Paul.

Lastly, Bishop Tom was at his rhetorical best in his chapel address and in his two evening lectures. Not a lot of new ground, but vintage Wright on God’s mission and the church, Jesus, and Paul.

On a personal note, I was glad that my student Susan was able to attend the conference–and speak briefly with Bishop Tom—since she is doing an independent study on NTW and Paul this term. I was also glad that I could meet up with Fuller student Angela, who went to Greece and Turkey with me in February.

On a different note, presenter Markus Bockmuehl had a terrible and expensive time getting from Oxford to Chicago for the NTW conference—via trains to Paris and Zurich—and was fearing he may have to return via Africa! I am anxious to hear what happened to him.

More to come. Meanwhile, check out the initial reactions from Nijay Gupta and Andy Rowell (also here), who also has posted links to audio and video of the conference.

17 Responses to “N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (1)”

  1. Marcus says:

    Hi Dr. Gorman,

    Thanks for your compliments. It was great to meet you too. I very much appreciated the time we had to talk. Your graciousness was a blessing. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your thoughts on the conference!

  2. [...] Maryland, attended the N.T. Wright conference at Wheaton College last week. He has posted his initial thoughts on the first day on his blog (Cross Talk ~ crux probat omnia). He will write a couple more posts on [...]

  3. Dm says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    I am one of the 1,000 or so that attended the conference. Wright certainly was rhetorically adept; just amazing the way he can think on his feet! And the same can be said about Vanhoozer. Remixing Mikhail Bakhtin and the biblical prophetic canon, I am persuaded by Vanhoozer’s exhortation for the “beating our diatribic swords back into dialogic plowshares.” Good stuff.

    – That said, I am afraid I disagree with you about the conference living up to its subtitle, which suggested the form of ‘dialogue.’ There were definitely elements of dialogue. Overall, however, the panel discussion didn’t manifest or flesh out a real and authentic discussion. That is, aside from the first day, where Wright and Walsh/Keesmaat had a pretty substantive panel discussion, I thought the dialogue sort of dissipated thereafter.

    I think the reason for the latter is this: Walsh and Keesmaat refused to let Wright dictate the discussion with his majestic style of rhetoric, which Wright ended up doing for the rest of the conference (and he got away with it). Wright is amazingly eloquent; but sometimes it doesn’t add up to much meaning and practicality for the listening laity. And we are stunned by his presence and flow of thought. Unless you are a scholar steeped into and continually surrounded by specialized terms of discourse in New Testament criticism, then engagement was glancing; it was hard to stay up, so to speak (and Keesmaat called out Wright on this point in a BRILLIANT fashion during the first panel, when she contextualized the Luke 19 parable in chapters Luke 12-15).

    A lot of the times I found myself scratching my head; I just didn’t get it. But I can really begin to see why you had thought it was tremendously fruitful, being a NT scholar and all.

    (It woud have been really awesome if prior to the conference, everybody who had bought a ticket got a copy of all the scholar’s different papers that we submitted; or at least a concise outline of their main points. If Wright was struggling to understand some of these papers with the papers right before him, then how was the laity to understand with only their sense of hearing?)

  4. Dr. Gorman,

    Thanks for your time at the conference. I gave you a hearty hello over at my blog and I’d welcome your comments whenever you have the time to give them. I’m not nearly as prolific as you, so keeping up won’t be difficult. I’ll be posting some comments on the sessions and I’ve developed a paper idea I’ll be sending your way for critique.

    Dm,

    I appreciate your comments, but I don’t think it was the panelists fault for not responding to Wright. It would have been nice to have more discussion time, and Wright was given the lion’s share of the microphone but the scholars were each given lengthy paper presentations to offer their critiques. The panel time was Wright’s opportunity to respond. You might be interpreting his “dodging” as explanation for the reasons why he did the things he did while recognizing the value of the critiques leveled against him.

    Keesmaat and Walsh’s interpretation of Luke 19 was interesting, I’d like to hear your thoughts Dr. Gorman on their interpretation.

    Everyone needs to hear how kind Dr. Gorman was here:
    http://ahabhuman.blogspot.com/2010/04/celebrated-scholar-pastor-nt-wright_19.html

  5. MJG says:

    Michael,

    Sorry I missed meeting you. I think the typical Wheaton conference does not focus on the work of one individual, and it may be that the normal structure (which this program looked like, to me) did not quite fit. That is why I said “basically” lived up to its subtitle. There was dialogue, but not enough. But I quite agree that Kevin Vanhoozer was about as eloquent and witty as a non-Brit can be, and Sylvia and Brian were quite incisive.

    Tyler,

    It was great to meet the three of you; the pleasure was all mine. Thanks for the links, etc.

    I need to re-listen to the part on Luke 19. I zoned out a bit. Richard Hays is among those (as am I) who don’t find NTW’s reading of Luke 19 persuasive, so I should have paid more attention!

  6. Dm says:

    MJG,

    Yes, it would have been nice if we could have met. I guess I just didn’t see much dialogue at all; even when they did do some back-and-forth, it was largely unengaging (but I do have a tendency to be overly skeptical :)

    Vanhoozer made quite a impression on me. I ended up getting his book Trinity In a Pluralistic Age.

    Tyler,

    Should Wright have been given the lion’s share of the microphone? — After all, the critiques were responding to his massive literature, and so Wright had had ample opportunity to give his side things in that sense…

  7. MJG says:

    And I, on the other hand, as a frequent conference participant, attendee, and organizer, tend to see the glass half full. Life is not perfect; a B+ is darn good work in the real world.

  8. Dm says:

    Though doubt and pessimism does have its value; otherwise faith would be void of meaning.. ;)

    – And launching from our different viewpoints ought to be taken into account.

  9. Dm,

    Like you I would have enjoyed a little more interaction from the other panelists. The loudest silence of the conference was Wright’s non-response to Vanhoozer’s question about what the biblical scholar has to say to systematic theologian. I really wish Vanhoozer would have been able to hold Wright’s feet to the fire there. I’m a huge fan of Wright’s work so I’m probably prone to celebrating the conference more than critiquing. Could it have been better? Yes, but that would require a longer conference in an already packed schedule.

    MJG-
    Upon initial hearing I thought Keesmaat and Walsh’s reading was quite impressive. But, looking at the synoptic parallel in Matthew 25.14-30 I don’t think their argument holds. In Matthew, the parable is told as a picture of what the Kingdom is like (25.14), the emphasis does not fall on windfall profits in a short amount of time but rather the master is gone “a long time” (25.19) and eschatological judgment falls on the wicked and lazy servant (25.30). I need to re-familiarize myself with Wright’s reading of Luke 19, but I know my most significant critique of JVG is the over-reading of the parables.

  10. Casey Taylor says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    It was good to bump into you again after meeting at North Park last fall. The theology conference at North Park Seminary was the first I have attended since graduating divinity school in 2008, and what I appreciated about that conference was the fact that EVERY participant had a copy of the papers being presented. LISTEN UP, Wheaton! That would have been most helpful (in fact, I know from experience that they have done exactly that at their annual philosophy conferences).

    I, too, would like to have heard more “dialogue,” along with more incisive questions from the floor. I have the sneaking suspicion that someone in charge was sliding in their own questions over against those from the crowd…but I digress.

    Overall, a good conference and great to see NTW in person.

  11. MJG says:

    Tyler—

    You are right about the neglect of Vanhoozer; he was all but written out of the conversation.

    Casey—

    Having papers in advance is always good, but—trust me—some really good people will not agree to this. Do you think NTW had a manuscript? Think again! I know that one of the presenters finished writing the paper 6 hours before giving it. Welcome to the academic life! (I know what you are thinking—if that group can do it, so can this one.)

    I had similar suspicions about some of the questions.

  12. MJG says:

    Casey—

    I forgot to add that I’ll be back at North Park in September to deliver the NT Lund Lectures and then do a paper at the theological interpretation symposium on atonement. Maybe see you again!

  13. [...] Michael Gorman is blogging on the Wheaton NT Wright conference. [...]

  14. Josh Rowley says:

    Michael, what dates will you be speaking in Chicago?

  15. MJG says:

    Here are approximate dates:

    September 22 or 23: North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL; Lund Lectures (New Testament)

    September 23-25: North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL; 26th Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, on the topic of atonement (presenter)

  16. Charles E. Miller, BA, MAR says:

    I have a question for you, and I hope you are willing to respond. Are their postmillennial theologians in Wheaton College.

    God bless you,

    Charles Miller

  17. MJG says:

    I really don’t know, Charles. Sorry.

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