Some Reflections on the Los Angeles Theology Conference 2017
This Year’s Event and Theme
The Fifth Annual Los Angeles Theology Conference (LATC) took place this week at Biola University. Fred Sanders and Oliver Crisp (together in a joint effort with Biola University, Fuller Seminary, and Zondervan Academic) deserve credit for the inception and continuing vitality of the conference. Out-of-town guests expecting the inviting sunshine of sunny Southern California this year were greeted instead with the hardest rainfall the area has seen in recent memory.
While in previous years, the conference covered doctrinal themes like the atonement or the Trinity, this year’s conference turned its focus inwards on the discipline itself by looking at the task of dogmatics and its relation to theology. What is Dogmatics? My impression was that there was a loosely held agreement among the conference’s plenary participants that “dogmatics” refers to those beliefs that have been long-affirmed by the church. It is hard to ignore, however, the reformed theological hue of the discussion concerning dogmatics throughout the event. This year’s plenary speakers included Kevin Vanhoozer, Katherine Sonderegger, Henry Blocher, Scott Swain and Michael Allen.
A Profound Shadow and an Emerging Legacy
The conference as a whole was dedicated to the memory and legacy of the late John Webster, whose absence continues to be painfully felt by many both in the Academy and the Church. Webster himself was scheduled to participate in the conference before his untimely passing in May 2016. The growing recognition that Webster’s legacy will continue to be taken up in the work of future theologians was indicated in Kevin Vanhoozer’s opening address on the mission of dogmatics.
Highlight: Sonderegger Steals the Show
Worth the price of admission alone was the address given by Katherine Sonderegger on Holy Scripture. Presented with wonderful clarity and verve, Sonderegger’s primary thesis was that the radical uniqueness of Scripture is a form of divine nearness that demands a class all its own. Consequently, Scripture can not be approached merely in the mode of other ancient texts under the canons of critical interpretation, nor could it be held up against other models of approaching Scripture (e.g., Scripture as historical, progressive revelation; Scripture as inspired and inerrant revelation; Scripture as human-divine in the mode of Christological incarnation). While not expressly rejecting any of these and other categories, she believes that Scripture’s utter singularity means that it is not informed by these models. Rather, in “reaching behind” these, she regards Scripture as the “universal donor” that itself informs all other attempts at classification and conception. She emphasizes repeatedly that Holy Scripture is that place where it may be said, “we encounter God there.” This means, perhaps quite controversially, that people can disagree (even quite seriously) as to the content and meaning of Scripture, but both may yet be said to have true and valid encounters with God therein.
I was inspired by Kevin Vanhoozer’s remarks that dogmatics requires the church’s full expression in “embodied witness.” That the demons “believe that God is one” can be itself a true and valid dogmatic statement, but cannot count as valid dogma, Vanhoozer insists. What counts, rather, is an embodied witness, church confession that is both spoken and lived — discourse and gesture working together in pointing to God himself.
The conference was fairly tough on Christological incarnation as a model or analogy for important theological doctrines. Sonderegger’s plenary address emphatically sought to distance the human and divine quality of Scripture from the incarnation of Christ — seeing such approaches as not only robbing Scripture of its own uniqueness, but also working damaging injustice to Christ’s own uniqueness as the only begotten son. Likewise, Henri Blocher expressed similar concerns when applying Christ’s incarnation to the task of communicating truth across varying cultures. Blocher criticizes this well-meaning impulse as a trivializing of the impossible uniqueness of the incarnation, an impossibility adhering to Christ alone. The task of holding to and communicating truth across divergent cultures, while difficult, is never impossible in the same way. Humanity may be deeply rooted in its own cultural contexts, but never imprisoned by them. Rather, as Blocher avers, God is the rock, unchangeable through time and culture and, by his own will and power, remains ever communicable.
For my part, I was happy to see a Neutestamentler, Chris Tilling, participating in the conference with his contribution on 1 Corinthians 8: “Knowledge Puffs Up but Love Builds Up.” In a recent podcast (On Script), Tilling commented on a felt need for greater theological awareness in biblical studies and his participation in this year’s event seems to me to clearly put his own money where his mouth is.
Doug Harink’s engaging presentation on the “Abiding Power of Romans for Dogmatics” impressed me once again to some of the problems of a “forward reading of Romans,” while all the while raising my pre-existing worries that a thoroughgoing “apocalyptic” approach to Paul leads unavoidably to Christian universalism in one of its leading forms. I leave it to Harink (among others) in his future writing to confirm, allay, or defeat such concerns.
At no point did the issue of homosexuality and church membership arise in any of the plenary sessions and Q/A afterwards. The reasons can, of course, be well-meaning and unintended (i.e., some may view homosexuality as a dogmatic concern of secondary or tertiary order and thus outside the bounds of the theme at hand). Nevertheless, whenever theologians are gathered in one place discussing “theology in and for the church,” I see few needs more demanding than pressing our best and brightest theologians into the service of helping the church navigate through the fast-changing landscape of sexual ethics and its relationship to church membership, fellowship, and practice. The collective silence of the conference concerning this matter can only be regarded in my estimation as a sorely missed opportunity.
Missed opportunities aside, this year’s conference should be applauded for its immensely helpful and engaging discussions. The real merit of this year’s LATC is not only the world-class quality of its contributors, but the conference’s unique setting in providing generous time, intimacy, and opportunity for those attending to interact with all of the participating scholars, ministers, and theologians (and yes, even some Old and New Testament scholars). *May God hasten the day we can stop using this tired joke on the divide of “real Bible scholars” and systematic theologians.
Full video of the plenary presentations will likely be hosted on the latheology.com website in short order. If the past is any indication, the remaining contributions may also be published in print at a later date by Zondervan Academic. LATC’s conference next year will be hosted by Fuller Seminary with its theme focusing on a personal interest of mine: the highly-discussed theme of Theological Anthropology. Primary speakers include Marc Cortez, Megan DeFranza, Hans Madueme, Ian McFarland, and Frances Young.