Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Pastoral Theology

Reports From My Annual Pilgrimage


For a few brief days every November, I step into a world of scholars. I sometimes feel a bit like a fish out of water. Out of a pastoral world of broken marriages and prayer requests (like a family sharing their fears that their daughter will be evicted or a cancer will continue to spread), I get on a plane and walk into a world that feels a bit foreign. I am in a fancy hotel with 2600 hundred theological educators.

It is almost guaranteed that I will experience a wide mix of emotions. I will sit in a three-hour session with theologians debating the subordination of the Son to the Father, and if this was temporal or eternal. This is a big deal. Hundreds are listening as scholars duke it out. But I am wondering—would the people I minister to really care if Jesus is still under the authority of the Father, and the Spirit is under the Son?

Before all of this, one of the first things you do is sit down and peruse the schedule.  There will be around 750 papers presented. This will be hard. Even if I ran from one presentation to the next, I will only make about twenty-five over the course of three days. I can choose to go to “Life in the Body: An Americanist Considers the Impossibility and Necessity of Evangelical Monastic Ressourcement” or “The Exegesis of Maximus the Confessor’s Ecclesiology in the Mystagogia.” The choices are agonizingly hard. So many opportunities—so little time. In the end, I decided to go hear “What is the Future for the Christian Past?”

One day I went to hear a lecture on the challenge of inequality. Okay, I admit that I chose this because there was a free lunch. But honestly, I had no idea what this economist and responding theologian were talking about. It was like entering into a conversation that had started long ago. Like others, I nodded my head at various points until I began to nod off. Thank God for Zippfizz. I went through five tubes.

One of the annual highlights is the Presidential Address. Part of the rush of it all is the banquet meal of chicken and green beans. Like every year, the ballroom is packed with theologians, and the newly elected ETS President again speaks words of inspiration. This year, the address was again edge of the seat stuff—“Medieval Manuscripts and Modern Evangelicals: Lessons from the Past, Guidance for the Future.” The speaker is a noted scholar, and he has devoted his life to studying ancient manuscripts. Stands to reason this would drive his presentation. And actually, if anyone could make this topic interesting, it was this man.

One of the things that amazes me is the effort given to how these scintillating, brilliant, and fascinating papers are presented. Given these are educators with PhD’s, you might assume their pedagogical skills are borderline supernatural. But it seems like every effort is made to make these presentations as absolutely dull as possible. Most speakers read their papers in a monotonic way, rarely looking up, and drone on for 30 minutes. There are exceptions, but this seems to be standard fare. Maybe this is why I like coming to present a paper. It’s the one time I can give my full attention to what I am going to read, without thinking about the audience (sort of the opposite in the pastoral world, where one is tempted to give full attention to how one comes across to his audience and little attention to the substance of what he is saying).

In fairness, there are exceptions. Every year, I find one or two papers that make the trip worth it. Some of these scholars are truly amazing. The mind is a gift of God, and some use their skills to take me to another world. Which is perhaps why I wish the Presidential address amounted to a call to action. The hope of the world is the church, and the hope of the church is its future leaders. And these leaders must know how to think. Too much is on the line. Too few pastors are thinkers these days. But sadly, all too few theologians are relevant. But those who are—are truly astounding gifts of God.




Leave a Reply