A Pentecostal goes to some theological conferences: Tyndale Fellowship and EPTA 2018

CTS, where EPTA was held this year.

This last fortnight has been conference time for me, first with the Tyndale Fellowship Conference Christian Doctrine Group in Cambridge, and then the European Pentecostal Theological Association (EPTA) at Continental Theological Seminary (my old institution) in Brussels. This was my first trip to the Tyndale Fellowship Conference and my second to EPTA, and I recommend them both highly. So, I thought I’d tell you a bit about them. (I also gave papers at both conferences this year, so I’ll tell you a bit about that too.)

What did they have in common?

The most obvious commonality is that both are academic conferences. Yet, both are also academic conferences hosted by confessional associations, and so they’re largely (though not exclusively) evangelical affairs. Most attendees are practicing Christians, and so both conferences include daily prayers as well as the academic papers. Both also attract people working in academia as well as those working in church settings, and so, it’s a time of the academy serving the church, but also a time for those working in the academy to spend time talking with, learning from, and being challenged by those whose ministry takes place in local congregations as we talk over meals and coffee. So, for example, at Tyndale, I spent one evening with a Brethren New Testament scholar from the United States and an English Anglo-Catholic priest, from which I’ve come away with much to think about in terms of church ministry, including multi-cultural integration in church life, making disciples in contemporary western inner city environments with high levels of deprivation and functional illiteracy, and lovingly addressing problematic disruptions in church services. Over the last evening meal at EPTA, I learnt from the experience of Canadian and Scandinavian Pentecostals about the challenges facing Pentecostal congregations in their parts of the world in passing on Pentecostal distinctives, such as the place of the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit, to a new generation. So, while both conferences provided lots of intellectual stimulation, they also both helped me to think about issues in church life as well.

How were they different?

As I’ve said, at both conferences we prayed together, yet that was probably also one of the big differences as well. Tyndale began each morning with morning prayer. EPTA began and ended the conference, as well as beginning each day with times of worship, prayer, and reflection on Scripture, but prayer wasn’t confined to those times. The chairs prayed for each presenter before they gave their papers, and sometimes papers led to people huddled in a corner praying together afterwards. The last night, some friends and I sat on talking and praying together until midnight, in a large part due to what, in good Pentecostal language, I would describe as the anointing of the Holy Spirit on an academic paper. Perhaps that’s simply due to some cultural differences between Pentecostals and wider evangelicalism, but it just gave a different feel to each of the conferences. Tyndale felt like a scholarly gathering of Christians. EPTA felt like a Christian gathering of scholars. Both of those are good things: they’re just a bit different, that’s all.

EPTA also felt much more multi-cultural. While there were some scholars from other parts of the world, Tyndale seemed more dominated by the British and Americans. EPTA, on the other hand, had a good mixture of people from about 15 different countries (and at least 5 continents were represented).

The other big difference is that Tyndale is divided into different groups for the different sub-disciplines. The Christian Doctrine Group and New Testament Group were running in parallel, so I did meet some New Testament scholars in the evenings or over meals, but otherwise, we theologians were by ourselves for the most part. EPTA, on the other hand, is completely inter-disciplinary. So I mingled with Old Testament scholars, ecumenists, sociologists, church historians, theologians, and NT people. Many of the papers run in parallel at EPTA, so you have some choice in what to go and hear, but I still managed to attend Old Testament, New Testament, Systematic Theology, Pastoral Theology, Church History, and Theological Ethics papers, with some liturgics and sociology thrown in for good measure. (I want to emphasise this, as, I think some people don’t realise how much variety there is at EPTA. Another Pentecostal said to me at Tyndale, ‘I don’t go to EPTA, because I don’t do Pentecostal Studies.’ Yet EPTA is so much more than merely Pentecostal Studies.)

The Themes

Both conferences had particularly interesting themes this year. At Tyndale we were engaging with the work of Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen upon the completion of his 5 volume Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World. At EPTA, this year’s theme was ‘Holiness and Ethics in the 21st Century.’

(Next year, the Tyndale Doctrine Group is looking at ‘Theology and Science’, while EPTA will be thinking about ‘Pentecostalism in a Changing World.’)

My Papers

Hopefully I’ve persuaded you by now that going to a conference is about much, much more than giving a paper, but it is true that I happened to give a paper both at Tyndale and at EPTA this year. My Tyndale paper looked at Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s ideas about justification and theosis. Kärkkäinen has previously argued that an investigation of early Pentecostal sources could provide a finding that would support his concept of justification as theosis. So, I compared his views to early British Pentecostal accounts of theosis and justification, and concluded that they don’t really do what he would like them to have done. Yes please, they say, to theosis; but, only if they can hold onto a robust doctrine of the imputation of Christs’ righteousness, sola gratia, sola fide. Their ideas about theosis would, however, help with Kärkkäinen’s desire to see a robust engagement of the themes of Spirit baptism and charismatic empowerment in systematic theology.

As soon as the theme for EPTA this year was announced at last year’s conference, I knew I wanted to write a paper on Pentecostals, Holiness, and the Breaking of Bread. So, starting with the words ‘Holiness to the Lord’ (which are so often engraved upon British Pentecostal chalices and patens, embroidered on the cloth and veil for the Communion Table, and even sometimes engraved on the Table itself), I had a look at how holiness is both proclaimed and offered in the Breaking of Bread, through the encounter in the sacrament with the presence of the crucified and risen Saviour. It was strange, because I ended up giving the paper in the same room in which I had given my very first conference paper a decade ago, also on the Breaking of Bread.

An Invitation

Both the Tyndale Fellowship Conference and EPTA were stimulating, well-organised, and encouraging times. (And I’d really like to thank all those who put in so much work to organise them and keep things running smoothly.) I’m really looking forward to next year’s events, and, for anyone involved in academic theology, I’d really encourage you to think about it too.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to be a long-standing professor with billions of publications to enjoy these conferences. There were Master’s level students in attendance at both (and, in fact, one of the best papers I heard between the two conferences was delivered by a rather nervous Master’s student attending his first ever conference!) So, whether you’re a long-established scholar, a nervous new MA student, or a pastor who has been out of college for quite a while, but would like to reengage with some serious and critical thinking, why not come along next year to either Tyndale or EPTA?

(P.S. And for my Apostolic pastoral colleagues, I’d particularly encourage some of you to think about coming to EPTA next year, as it sounds like the theme will be particularly interesting for thinking Pentecostal pastors and those involved in missions in a changing world. Plus, it’s being held in our Bible college in Kolding in Denmark.)

(P.P.S. Oh, if you want to get a feel for what Tyndale is like, here's a write up of this year's conference from the perspective of someone who mostly went to the New Testament Group, but strayed up the stairs to join us in Doctrine a few times.)