2005 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference

On the 2005 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference:
A Reflective Review


Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.


I just returned from the Auburn Ave Pastor's conference (Monroe, LA) where I heard two speakers: Rev. Dr. NT Wright ([Anglican] Bishop of Durham, in the UK) and Rev. Dr. Richard Gaffin (Professor a Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia). They spoke in 13 sessions over the course of Monday evening-Wednesday (January 3-5), including three Question/Answer sessions with good dialogues between the two speakers.

[ABOUT THE SPEAKERS - Tom Wright http://www.ntwrightpage.com has been a leading proponent of what is known as the “New Perspective on Paul.” (http://www.thepaulpage.com/ see here for some related articles and intros.) He represents the right wing (orthodox, more evangelical) side of this view, but has nevertheless been the target of much criticism by Reformed thinkers. Dr. Richard Gaffin (http://www.wts.edu/faculty/faculty-htstudies.html#st) is an Orthodox Presbyterian Church minister (OPC). He serves as Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) where he has taught since 1965. He stands in the tradition of the Westminster Confession and the Biblical Theology movement.]

As you will know this conference (AAPC) in 2002 caused some waves in the Reformed world. Then, Steve Schlissel, Doug Wilson, Steve Wilkins, and (filling in for Norman Shepherd) John Barach sought bring the objective aspects of the covenant to bear on pastoral issues such as assurance, dealing the children of Christians, participation in communion, and the relationship of faith and works. The views they argued for have been dubbed, “The Federal Vision” because federal is another term covenant.

This year there was a record turn-out of about 500 and an incredibly positive response, e.g., a standing ovation at the end of the conference. It was reported that several professors from Westminster and Covenant seminary (PCA) and Orlando (RTS) who attended really appreciated the conference and were encouraged toward unity and like-mindedness through it. The attendance included previous Auburn Avenue speakers (like Doug Wilson, Steve Schlissel, [Norman Shepherd], etc.). Many pastors in the CRE were present, as well as hosts of PCA, OPC, URC, and other Reformed churches leaders.

The conference, because of the large turn-out, had to be held in a larger facility than Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA). So, the Anglican Bishop and Presbyterian Professor lectured in a Southern Baptist Church, complete with its theater-look, rock-n-roll band backdrop, and of course a baptistry ascending over the pulpit in central view (!). We all have our part in the body of Christ — Anglican liturgy, Presbyterian theology, Baptist buildings . . .There were many funny moments throughout, but the funniest was when Dr. Wright was passionately explaining his convictions on infant baptism. In the middle of his clear and compelling defense it hit him that he was saying all of this in a Baptist church. (Hello!) It was a great moment of comic relief. Equally amusing was to walk up to the Biblical Horizons table and see James Jordan wearing the name tag, “John Robbins.” (The inside joke is that Robbins is the most senseless, rabid slanderer of Doug Wilson, and anything remotely associated with the Federal Vision. Of course, since Robbins believes that C.S. Lewis is in hell and that Cornelius Van Til was a great heretic, the A-Team is in good company.)

The back story of the location is interesting too. The facility of this large Baptist church was made available precisely because the pastor of First Baptist West Monroe insisted. In doing a Ph.D. in New Testament, he regarded NT Wright as a hero in battling liberals at the highest scholarly level. And indeed he is.

The theme of the conference was the theology of Paul. By dealing with Paul, the speakers addressed many of the issues of integral to the Federal Vision, such as covenant, justification, imputation, election, sacraments, etc. The speakers were both highly qualified and coming from two different vantage points in unpacking Paul. They interacted in a manner that is highly commendable and model, with graciousness, humor, and conviction.

While both speakers qualify as top-shelf experts in the area. But their effect on the audience was markedly different. Bishop Wright strategically provided a refreshing review of the Solas of the Reformation, especially identifying himself as committed to Sola Scriptura. He used the words of William Tyndale in confessing his commitment that “No Syllable be Changed” of God’s Word. This allayed the fears of Reformed men wondering about this Anglican. Then in nothing short of a master piece of exposition and with a dazzling mastery of the Greek text of Paul’s letters, he proceeded to demonstrate his views flowed from every syllable. While not disparaging the fruit of Reformed theology, he made it clear that many of traditional interpretations of Paul, do not in fact, make sense of every syllable. Wright’s subsequent lectures opened vistas of clarity and depth in to the first century Roman world and drew water deeply from Jewish thought to show crisply what St. Paul really said. He lifted each argument of Paul out of the realm of so many routine words into a vivid, three-dimensional picture.

Dr. Gaffin is a careful scholar and faithful Reformed churchman. He provided a solid footing for his views which resonate within a traditional Reformed reading of Paul. In no way am I seeking to be unkind to the Professor in saying that it is a good thing the conference was not a debate. Dr. Gaffin’s began slowly as B-52 gaining speed toward lift-off. He made careful scholarly observations which situated him firmly into traditional Reformed categories. This was probably not necessarily the liveliest approach to take since he began about 8:30 p.m. Dr. Gaffin demarcated his boundaries for the first lecture. He picked up speed very slowly. He qualified that he was not talking to his academic peers, but . . .one wonders how he would have sounded if he was. This is not to say he was mono-toned. Not at all, he spoke with appropriate emphases and with conviction. In the choice of terms and language, though, he failed to be illuminating. Perhaps an illustration. In one of the best challenges to Bishop Wrights views, Dr. Gaffin argued that Jew/Gentile unity was “ecclesiological epiphenomenon of a soteriological core.” But this particular image (?) was lost on about two thirds of the listeners. All of this was striking in contrast with Wright. Wright was passionate and “all there.” He knew exactly to whom he was speaking and was speaking to them. His sonorous British accent didn’t hurt the presentation either.

Now some of this is just a stylistic comparison. But it is not limited to style. I am thankful for the careful professors that serve the Lord and for charasmatic bishops. Wright has also held prestigious academic positions at Oxford, Cambridge, McGill and other universities. The contrast really rests in how Wright presented careful arguments which were powerfully conveyed and vividly argued, leading to conclusions that were hard to dispute. He did so from literally every syllable of Paul, making sense of heretofore foggy patches in Paul. Dr. Gaffin while truly seeking to argue from the text found himself frequently invoking the Westminster Standards and providing slim argumentation from the thought of St. Paul and more basis from rather intellectual constructs within Paul’s terms. Even though Gaffin must have said, “redemptive historical” fifty times, he did not concern himself with the historical setting of Paul at all. Therefore, his persuasion was limited to the inner logic of the relations of ideas like “union with Christ,” “indicative-imperative,” “justification and sanctification,” “already-not yet,” “tethered application,” “historius salutus,” “ordo salutus,” etc. Another irony was that while Gaffin identified himself as doing biblical theology (as opposed to a systematic theology), the sound of his ideas came across as a systematic methodology.

In the end, I think that it is fair to say that on the specific areas they addressed, there was very little theological inconsistency between them. By this I mean that while they held to different formal definitions of justification, the net result of a declared righteous standing now by faith was common to both. Or while the imputation of Christ’s righteousness was a matter of hand-to-hand combat in their discussion periods, Wright nonetheless affirmed that we receive on the basis of Christ’s work the righteousness standing from His penal substitution on the cross and renewed through the resurrection.

The real division between Gaffin and Wright was not thoroughly discussed. There was formal agreement on the sacraments and the Church and the kingdom, as the topics arose. Wright believes that baptism is the event which unites us to Christ and there is no biblical ground for the Enlightenment distinction between the act and its reality. Wright asserts without qualification that we are united to Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism (Rom. 6:3-4). Evangelicals cannot face this without dying the death of a thousand qualifications. But taking seriously the text without constantly invoking our theological tradition, it is clear that this is central to Paul and stated by almost all other New Testament writers (Mark 1:8, Matt. 3:11, Luke 3:16, John 1:33, Acts 2:38, 1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:27, Eph. 4:5, Col. 2:12, Titus 3:5, Pet. 3:21, Heb. 10:22).

I know very well the shock of merely reading these verses (above) and having a good Calvinist say, “but that can’t be right.” Really — I have done this on several occasions. Or, reading the Westminster Confession, 28:6, “...by the right use of this ordinance [baptism], the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost...” and having a TR Presbyterian say, “if that’s what the Confession teaches, then the Confession is wrong.” Or even in the 2003 AAPC conference I got dumb-founded looks when I asked what does “confer” here mean — from the very respondents who were calling the A-Team heretical on Confessional grounds.

Wright argued that Romans 6 is Paul’s new covenant Exodus where Israel was baptized in the cloud and the sea (1 Cor. 10). Now God has made a new humanity of those that are baptized, there is a place for the Church and her covenant sacraments to affect the world. We are to pray Thy kingdom come and will be done on earth. Bishop Wright truly hit the bulls eye when he said with a prophetic tone, “North American Christianity is filled with gnosticism.”