Coming Full Circle to Bristol—Twice!

This is the ninth (and final) post about my UK speaking tour.

After giving eleven talks in the previous two weeks in Scotland and England, I traveled to Bristol to speak at Trinity College—my last stop before returning home via Heathrow airport.

Coming Full Circle 1—Jamie Davies and Tom Wright

My contact at Trinity College was Jamie Davies, Tutor in New Testament.

Jamie is the author of Paul Among the Apocalypses? An Evaluation of the “Apocalyptic Paul” in the Context of Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature; Library of New Testament Studies (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).

He also wrote a sympathetic review of my book A New Heaven and a New Earth (2014) for the Review of Biblical Literature (published last year).

I first met Jamie at the 2014 Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Diego. At the time he was a doctoral student at St. Andrews, studying with Grant Macaskill; but I met him because he was Tom Wright’s research assistant and the three of us had lunch together.

Jamie worked with Tom on PFG, the acronym they both use for Tom’s massive (1700 pages) two-volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013); Jamie worked on copy-editing and often had to track down missing footnotes and other references.

So there was a Tom Wright connection both at the start of my UK visit and at the end—full circle 1.

Presentations on Job and Eschatology

I did two presentations at Trinity College.

The first was an afternoon Research Seminar for faculty and postgraduate students, which focused on God’s second speech to Job from the whirlwind. My paper addressed what God was trying to communicate by reference to the monsters Behemoth and Leviathan; the paper is being published in the current issue of St. Mark’s Review (an Australian journal).

At the Seminar I met John Bimson, formally retired from being Tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, but who still teaches a course on Job; he was a great dialogue partner and later shared with me one of his published papers on the monsters in Job, which articulated an interpretation very close to my own.

Later that evening I gave a public lecture on biblical eschatology, in essence summarizing the argument of A New Heaven and a New Earth.

At least half the evening attendees came at the urging of Richard Russell (yellow shirt, above). I first encountered Richard by reading his MA thesis from Bristol University (called “The Growing Crisis of the Evangelical Worldview and Its Resolutions”) when I was doing my initial graduate studies at the Institute for Christian Studies in the nineteen-seventies.  Over the years Richard has been an Anglican priest, a philosophy teacher, and a bookseller; he brought an array of relevant books for sale during the evening event.

Coming Full Circle 2—J. Alec Motyer

I first heard of Trinity College in Bristol when I was an undergraduate student at Jamaica Theological Seminary. During my B.Th. degree I attended a Keswick Convention in Kingston, Jamaica when J. Alec Motyer, then Principal and professor of Old Testament at Trinity, was the preacher.

It turns out that Motyer’s first speaking engagement outside of the UK was at a Jamaican Keswick Convention in 1964. I’m not sure how many times he spoke in Jamaica, but I heard him in the mid-seventies.

He did a series of expositions on Ezekiel 1–3 throughout the week of Keswick meetings, and these expositions were so inspiring that I have always credited them as one of the primary impetuses behind my growing desire to study and teach the Old Testament.

Beyond that, in my first year at JTS all the students were given a free copy of The New Bible Commentary: Revised (IVP, 1970), a one-volume Bible commentary edited by Motyer (along with three other biblical scholars). Although it has since been revised (there is a 21st Century Edition published in 1994), and is a somewhat predictable evangelical commentary, I found it to be a very helpful first reference work as a new undergraduate student.

When I first came to the UK to speak in 1997 at the invitation of David Hanson, I mentioned the importance of Motyer’s influence on me and David immediately phoned him up and put me on the line. I was able to thank Alec Motyer in person for his impact on my life and my sense of calling to Old Testament studies.

J. Alec Motyer (1924-2016) passed away the August before my second visit to the UK. His funeral was held September 2016 and Trinity College had a memorial service for him not long after I headed back to the States.

 

Perhaps the book Motyer was most proud of writing was A Commentary on Isaiah (IVP 1993), which he published in his retirement (he published some fourteen books after retiring!). As is typical of old-school evangelical scholars, he held firmly to the compositional “unity” of Isaiah, arguing that the entire book comes from the hand of the 8th century Isaiah of Jerusalem.

Almost all contemporary OT scholars (including evangelicals like myself) think it makes more sense to think that the oracles in chaps. 1-39 (with the exception of chaps. 24-27) are from the 8th century Isaiah; that chaps. 40-55 come from a prophet of the Babylonian exile who took up Isaiah’s mantle; and that chaps. 56-66 (and probably 24-27) are oracles from the post-exilic period, when Israel had returned to the land.

Beyond the three “Isaiahs,” there is clearly editing discernible throughout that weaves the entire book together. Despite its complexity, deriving from different historical periods, it is still the word of God, and constitutes a complex theological unity that speaks powerfully to our day.

At Motyer’s funeral, a story he sometimes told was recounted. He is reported to have said that when we get to heaven if you notice three men beating him up over in a corner, not to worry; their names are all “Isaiah” and he deserved it.

So, from hearing Alec Motyer speak as an undergraduate student in Jamaica, which fanned my love of the Old Testament, to myself speaking at Trinity College, where he used to teach—full circle 2.

Well, it was quite a trip; I got to speak to lots of different groups and I met old friends and made new ones. But I was very glad to get home, and even take a vacation!

No Need to Fear Evolution

An excellent blogger on science and religion issues, who goes by the handle RJS, has just posted an introduction to my first BioLogos blog (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) on the website Musings on Science and Theology. RJS’s posts are then re-posted on the Jesus Creed website, where comments are allowed (Jesus Creed is a blog run by New Testament scholar Scot McKnight; it is hosted by Patheos, which hosts a variety of religion blogs).

The post by RJS is called No Need to Fear and it goes beyond introducing my BioLogos blog. It goes on to explain (very well) my argument about Genesis 1 and what it means to be made in God’s image from my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

But then RJS has blogged about The Liberating Image before in no less than nine posts! And I did an invited follow-up post on how my thinking about the imago Dei has developed since the book. RJS also did a nine-part series on my more recent book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. (For anyone who doesn’t have time to read either book, these blogs give a pretty accurate portrayal of my argument).

Having done my introductory BioLogos post on my approach to evolution (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) and then a second post on cosmic creation (The Ancient Universe and the Cosmic Temple), my next post will be on what it means to be created in God’s image according to the Scriptures and how that might intersect with what science is telling us about human evolution.

Interestingly, the blog by RJS (No Need to Fear) introduces some of the themes I will touch on in my third BioLogos post. So you can check it out if you want an advance taste of what I might say on that topic.

My Ambiguous Relationship with Carl F. H. Henry (Heading to the Dabar Conference on Genesis and Science)

I’m about to head off to a four-day conference (June 8-11, 2016) that will address the topic of “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science.” This is the kick-off conference of a three-year “Creation Project,” sponsored by the Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

The Dabar Conference

The conference is known as the Dabar Conference (this is the Hebrew term for “word,” pronounced davar). The name evokes Scripture as God’s Word and the biblical theme that God creates by the word (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6-9; Psalm 119:89-91; John 1:1-3).

Although the Creation Project involves more than the annual Dabar Conference (it involves research fellowships and smaller meetings throughout the year), the Conference is meant to gather “evangelicals together from different disciplines, denominations, and institutions with the goal of orienting evangelical theologians to the relevant recent work in the natural sciences and promote scholarship in the field of the doctrine of creation.”

The Creation Project’s topics for the next two years are “Affirming the Doctrine of Creation in an Age of Science” (2017) and “Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science” (2018).

This Year’s Conference Topic

This year’s emphasis on “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science” is meant to address a number of questions, the core of which is the following:

“How are the opening chapters of Genesis and other origin texts throughout the Christian Scriptures related to the claims of modern scientific advance?”

Although it is not stated explicitly, evolution (of the cosmos and of humanity) is an important aspect of the science that will be addressed.

You can see the full 2016 Dabar Conference schedule here.

My Contribution to the Conference

The Dabar Conference is billed as a “working” conference, where position papers are presented, followed by respondents (of which I am one), and then open discussion.

I was invited to participate likely because of my work in Old Testament (especially Genesis) and also because of my connection to BioLogos.

I’ve been asked to bring my philosophical and biblical studies backgrounds to bear as a respondent to C. John (“Jack”) Collins’s paper, entitled “Reading Genesis 1-11 in Biblical and Social Context.” Although I’m mostly on board with his reading, I’ll be exploring some of the implications of Collins’s framing of matters, wondering out loud about how we might better articulate some of his points in light of important issues in contemporary science.

Charitable Disagreement among Christians

There is no guarantee that everyone at the conference will agree (in fact, we are likely to disagree), but we are coming together as Christian sisters and brothers to explore the questions in an atmosphere of critical and charitable inquiry.

I’m glad that the stated intent for the conference is to cultivate “clarity, humility, and mere orthodoxy, all of which are important for developing innovative future research projects and in providing public guidance to the church.”

Carl F. H. Henry vis-a-vis Middleton and Walsh

I’m particularly glad for this stated intent since, paradoxically, my own work on postmodernity and biblical faith back in the mid-nineties was summarily dismissed by none other than Carl F. H. Henry (after whom the Henry Center is named).

Carl Henry heard a paper that Brian Walsh and I delivered at the Wheaton Theology Conference back in 1994 (based on our book, Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, which was published by IVP the following year). He wrote a single-page scathing critique (in World magazine) of the conference and of our book, which he had not actually read. Instead, he based his critique on lines he quoted from a phone interview that IVP did with us about the book .

While there were undoubtedly legitimate differences of opinion between Henry’s point of view and our own position, the tragedy is that his critique (in the article) was based primarily on out-of-context quotations from the phone interview, which omitted important clarifications of what we meant.

For example, Henry quoted me as saying: “Even the truth of the gospel . . . is a human construction.” And he took this to mean that I denied the reality of revelation from God (something no-one who knows me would ever think).

Here it is important to note that something crucial was left out of the quote (signified by the ellipsis dots).

Brian had just commented about truth as both given from God (revelation) and our responsibility to formulate it in human language in order to communicate it.

Then comes the full sentence in which I followed up on Brian’s comment: “Yes, because even the truth of the gospel—which we constantly articulate in the church, in liturgy and proclamation and evangelism—is a human construction. I mean, the Four Spiritual Laws is a human construction in response to the truth of Jesus.”

I first read Carl Henry’s works when I was an undergraduate theology student in Jamaica and found that he was someone I could respect. So I was quite disappointed by this dismissive misreading.

Even though Carl Henry is no longer alive (he passed away in 2003), perhaps my participation in this conference (sponsored by the Henry Center) will serve to bring a certain reconciliation.