My Recent Participation in the Science-Faith Dialogue

I recently participated in two separate events of science-faith dialogue. Both were sponsored by evangelical organizations with Trinity in the name. And both had a significant BioLogos presence.

EVENT #1: The Dabar Conference on “Affirming the Doctrine of Creation in an Age of Science” (June 14–17, 2017)

Two weeks ago I participated in the Dabar conference of the Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, near Chicago (Dabar is Hebrew for “word”).

This was the second Dabar conference that I attended. These conferences are part of a three-year research project on creation that I’ve been involved in. The Creation Project aims to help the evangelical church develop a robust creation theology that can interact fruitfully with contemporary scientific understandings of the world.

Last year (2016) the topic was interpreting Genesis; this year (2017) the focus has been on the doctrine of creation; and next year (2018) it will be on what it means to be human.

The Dabar conference is held each June as the highlight of the year’s theme, and is attended by about 80100 theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers, scientists, and pastors.

The keynote papers weren’t read at this year’s conference, but were circulated to the participants in advance and we were expected to have read them all and to come with our questions.

The author of each keynote paper gave a five minute summary of their paper, which was followed by two short response papers, then by the author’s reply. After that it was open to the audience for Q&A. To see the list of speakers and topics, click here.

Each afternoon, we met in small groups to discuss the ideas raised in the papers and to see what the range of our opinion was on matters of creation theology and the science of origins.

There was a lot of very engaging discussion.

This year two of the main speakers (Deb Haarsma and Jeff Schloss) and two the respondents (Jim Stump and myself) were associated with BioLogos. Deb Haarsma is president of BioLogos, and Jim Stump is senior editor at BioLogos. Jeff Schloss and I are part of BioLogos Voices (the BioLogos speakers bureau).

There were lots of other BioLogos folks at the conference, who often raised excellent questions in the discussions.

This is the second year that I presented a response to one of the keynote papers.

My response this year was to philosopher William (Billy) Abraham‘s paper on “God as an Agent.” I was able to draw on my background in philosophy and my expertise in Old Testament to address the topic of how the Bible speaks of God.

For those interested, you can read my response to Billy Abraham here.

EVENT #2: An Evening Conversation on “Genes, Self, and Soul” (June 26, 2017)

Just a few days ago I was one of two speakers at an evening event in Washington, DC on science and faith, sponsored by the Trinity Forum.

The Trinity Forum was founded by Os Guinness (who had been an associate of Francis Schaeffer), along with others interested in fostering significant dialogue between Christianity and major intellectual issues of our time.

By a strange coincidence, I actually quoted Os Guinness (from his first book, The Dust of Death) in my response paper at the Dabar conference.

The June 26 event, on the topic of “Genes, Self, and Soul,” was the second in a series of four Evening Conversations on “Discovery and Doxology” that the Trinity Forum is currently co-sponsoring with BioLogos.

According to the Trinity Forum website, this series “features renowned scientists, philosophers, and theologians in conversation on the ways that scientific discovery and spiritual knowledge are complementary and together contribute to a greater sense of wonder and worship.”

Both speakers on June 26 (geneticist Praveen Sethupathy and myself) were members of BioLogos Voices.

Praveen, who is is also on the Board of Directors for BioLogos, is associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University. For his presentation he drew on his perspective as a Christian who does genome research, to suggest what science can and can’t tell us about what makes us human.

Then it was my turn, as a biblical scholar, to explore how the Bible might contribute to an understanding of our biological nature, which we share with other animals, and to our distinctive human calling or vocation to image God .

Given the topic for the evening (“Genes, Self, and Soul”), both Praveen and I made the same distinction between 1) our biological composition (which includes our genetic makeup) and 2) our human calling as the image of God (which distinguishes us from other creatures). This distinction between biology and the image of God was an attempt to address the words  “genes” and “self” in the title of the event.

But what about “soul”?

While “soul” is often a synonym for “self” in modern discussions, I suggested that what the Bible means by “soul” (Hebrew nephesh; Greek psyche) has to do with what we have in common with other animals, rather than anything distinctive to human beings. Here I drew on the use of “soul” in the early chapters of Genesis and how the apostle Paul uses the term.

I told the audience that if they expected the Bible to mean by what we mean by “soul” they should “get used to disappointment.”

For those in the know, I was quoting the Man in Black (Westley a.k.a the dread pirate Roberts) in The Princess Bride.

As is often the case, here the Bible challenges our received wisdom.

The entire Evening Conversation can be viewed by clicking on this link.  The video includes a brief introduction by Deb Haarsma (the president of BioLogos) and then by Cherie Harder (the president of The Trinity Forum), followed by the presentations by Praveen and myself, and the discussion afterwards.

Event #3: Possible Joint-Lecture at Brown University by Sethupathy and Middleton (Fall 2017)

Praveen and I may be speaking together again in the Fall on the topic of evolution and Christian faith at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Our joint- talk, sponsored by a campus ministry organization called Christian Union, would explore evolution from the points of view of a scientist and a theologian; it would be geared to interested students and faculty, both Christian and secular.

Although the details still have to be worked out (including the date), I am looking forward to this possibility since I have a lot of respect both for Praveen and for the Christian Union; I got to know this campus ministry organization when I gave a talk five years ago for them at Columbia University (in NYC) on what it means to be made in the image of God.

 

 

 

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!

Evangelical Theology—Challenges and Opportunities

Many theologians, pastors, and lay people who have used the term “Evangelical” to describe themselves recently have become quite wary of the designation.

This is largely due to the way the media has hijacked the term to describe a certain segment of the American population who are typically identified with a narrow range of political and ideological views.

But “Evangelical” was not always a term with such a narrow meaning.

On October 20-21, 2017 (Friday evening, all-day Saturday) Northeastern Seminary will host a theology conference to explore the full-orbed meaning of “Evangelical.” This conference will be co-sponsored with the Canadian-American Theological Association.

Our keynote speaker will be Dr. Richard Mouw, Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary (where he previously served as President for twenty years).

Dr. Mouw is the author of numerous books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (rev. ed. IVP, 2010), Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Eerdmans, 2014), and his autobiography, Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground (Brazos, 2016).

Dr. Mouw’s will give two lectures on the theme of the conference: Evangelical Theology: New Challenges, New Opportunities.

These lectures will explore the continuing value of the term “Evangelical” in the twenty-first century, while tracing the history of its meaning and usage over the past hundred years.

  1. A public lecture on Friday evening, October 20: New Challenges for Evangelical Theology
  2. The keynote lecture for the conference on Saturday, October 21: New Opportunities for Evangelical Theology

Besides Dr. Mouw’s lectures, we are expecting to have a wide range of papers related to the conference theme.

Our first such conference in 2013, on New Creation, had 65 papers presented; and our more recent conference in 2016, on Participation in God’s Mission, had 45 papers.

Interested scholars, pastors, and students are invited to propose papers for the conference. You may download the call for papers here. The deadline for proposals is June 1, 2017.

Once the conference program is decided, further information will be made available on the dedicated Northeastern Seminary website for the conference. The site will include online registration as we get closer to the conference.

Graduate students, post-docs, and pre-tenured faculty are invited to submit finished papers by September 15 for the Jack and Phyllis Middleton Memorial Award for Excellence in Bible and Theology.

In a follow-up post, I will describe something of the history and mission of the conference co-sponsor, the Canadian-American Theological Association, which began in 1990 (under the name the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association) specifically as an alternative to the narrowness of the way “Evangelical” was being used in the USA.