Christian Theological Trends in 2017

AAR&SBL-logoLast Saturday through Monday, I attended the joint Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. This year, it was held at the downtown Hyde Convention Center in Boston. The location for this event rotates throughout the years between about ten, large, North American cities. The main qualification is that they must have a large convention center that can accommodate. Both SBL and AAR have about 9,000 members each, and perhaps half of them attend the Annual Meeting. A large majority of SBL members are professors with PhDs.

Even though I’m not a professor and don’t have a PhD, my close friend Professor Scot McKnight convinced me to join SBL in 1999 because I write theological books. I’ve only missed one Annual Meeting since then. This event is usually a highlight of my year. This year was no different except I didn’t see quite as many friends as usual.

This annual conference, which is for members only, consists mostly of two parts: (1) each of the hundreds of member groups hold perhaps two or three sessions lasting 2.5 hours in which scholars/professors read papers they researched and wrote, and (2) members scour the book exhibit located in a huge hall in which religious publishers have booths where they offer their books for sale as about half off their retail prices.

One of the multiple reasons I attend this gathering is to stay informed of what is going on in the academic arena regarding Christian theology and biblical studies. (The academy distinguishes these two genres.) And what is that?

When I first joined SBL, the subject that was head-and-shoulders above all else–and closely watched and reported by the media–was what is called “the quest for the historical Jesus.” One reason for that was the emergence of the liberal Jesus Seminar during the 1990s. And SBL had a section/group called The Historical Jesus. (This section was closely associated with SBL’s Christian Origins section.) It consisted of a panel of about eight scholars who were leading Jesus researchers. At that time the panel members included N. T. (Tom) Wright, James (Jimmy) D. G. Dunn, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and my friend Scot McKnight. E. P. Sanders had been a panel member previously. (Borg and Crossan also were Jesus Seminar members.) Panel members remained for about seven years and then others took their places.

It was really exciting for me to attend those historical Jesus sessions during the early 2000s and listen to those scholars deliver papers and hold Q&A with the audience. Sometimes, attendees numbered 400-500 or more. A highlight session for me was when my friend Jimmy Dunn read his paper on orality as a prime basis for the origin of the New Testament gospels. That was because when I researched and wrote my first book, The Gospels Interwoven (1987), I kept saying the most popular theory about the origin of at least the synoptic gospels–the Two Source Hypothesis which involves the Gospel of Mark and Q, a hypothetical and early Jesus saying source–just couldn’t be completely right. What Dunn was saying, I thought, provided evidence that I was right.

Well, The Historical Jesus section of SBL has since declined immensely in popularity in the last ten years, but you could say the study of orality and memory regarding the origin of the New Testament gospels has taken its place. I think it is the preeminent subject in biblical studies now. Werner H. Kelber is a pioneer in these studies. Dunn has followed him and written extensively now on this subject. It means that the earliest Christians who knew and/or heard and saw Jesus during his itinerant ministry–people who generally were illiterate and as ancients were rather skilled in oral memory–created oral tradition of the sayings and deeds of Jesus as they remembered them. This oral tradition was passed down from generation to generation even though much it was eventually written down and thereby became a primary source of the synoptic gospels. In my opinion, this understanding of Christian Origins makes Christian Faith more historical reliable and thus trustworthy than an exclusively literary dependency such as the Two Source Hypothesis or Four Source Hypothesis put forward by B. H. Streeter.

So, what else is trending in theological academia? You may already know that many books are being written about Islam. It is not only because of radical, professing Muslims committing so many atrocities in recent years throughout much of the world, which includes suicidal bombings. It is also because Islam has been the fastest growing religion in the world in recent decades. However, this increased terrorism is giving Islam a bad name in much of the world, and books are being written about that, too. Also, some Middle East Muslims are questioning their religious roots and how to stop this terrorism. (See recent post, “Religious Freedom Is Coming to the Middle East.”)

A growing trend in New Testament studies is The New Perspective on Paul. Jimmy Dunn, an authority on the Apostle Paul, coined this label several years ago. It is a revised viewpoint on divine justification that centers on the proper meaning of Paul’s phrase “the works of the law” (Romans 3.20, 28; Galatians 2.16; 3.2, 5, 10). Proponents of this viewpoint, such as Dunn and Tom Wright, believe it refers exclusively to certain physical characteristics of ancient Judaism such as male circumcision, dietary laws, and holy days, thus not the moral imperatives of the Law of Moses, which preceded it. Although I haven’t read a lot on this viewpoint, so far I am convinced of it. This New Perspective on Paul represents a somewhat revised viewpoint of divine justification as was taught by Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

Another trend that continues in Christianity, but also in Judaism and Islam, is the question of the proper role of women in relationship to men and the involvement of women in Christian ministry. In Christianity, this question is known as the debate between Complementarians and Egalitarians. From the divine perspective, are women totally equal to men or are women equal only in dignity but limited to certain roles in society and in religious ministry in which men supersede them in both?

These are some of recent theological trends in Christianity. I noticed them especially by perusing books at the book exhibit hall at the SBL/AAR Annual Meeting–Boston last week.

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