J. Todd Billings’s Critique of Tom Wright’s “New View of Heaven”

J. Todd Billings’s has a short article that recently appeared in Christianity Today called “The New View of Heaven Is Too Small.” In it Billings critiques what he calls “the new view of heaven,” citing both Tom Wright’s and my own writings on eschatology.

Billings is, first of all, appreciative of the new emphasis among evangelicals on the renewal of earthly creation as the eschatological hope (a view Tom Wright and I both espouse). But he thinks that Wright’s emphasis on our righteous “works” or “deeds” (in the sense of our cultural activity) enduring into the new creation is wrong-headed.

Instead, Billings thinks that Wright (and, by implication, Middleton) should focus instead on our worship and glorification of God as the true telos of the new creation.

Four Views on Heaven

Interestingly, I have just agreed to write a chapter in a new Zondervan book tentatively called Four Views on Heaven, in which one of the chapters would be precisely on the view that Billings advocates.

Whereas my chapter would focus on the new earth, arguing that we will engage in ordinary human activities (without sin), one chapter would develop the view of a new earth in which life will be focused on the worship of God. A third chapter would be on the classic Protestant view of a heavenly destiny discontinuous with earth, and a fourth would be on the traditional Catholic/Thomistic view of the beatific vision.

How to respond to Billings? First of all, it is important to say that I greatly respect Todd Billings for his theological contribution to the contemporary church. And I specifically affirm his point that the glorification of God is of supreme importance in a Christian vision (applicable to both life today and to the eschaton).

What Does It Mean to Glorify God?

The problem comes with what it means to glorify God. I take it that it is faithfulness to God (in all of life) that truly brings God glory. However, in popular parlance glorifying God often refers to verbal or hymnic exaltation of God. That is, it is basically identified with what we today call “worship.”

I have been involved in worship renewal, in this sense, for many years, and think this is an important part of the Christian life. Such worship and glorification of God (which can, however, involve supplication, confession, and lament; it does not have to all be “praise”) is crucial to the Christian life. Whether practiced in private devotion or in communal contexts, such worship focuses our allegiance to the true Lord of heaven and earth, which then spills over (or ought to spill over) into our daily walk of discipleship.

So “worship” is important; but not when it is separated from the rest of life. Indeed, Paul describes the transformation of the mind and our doing the will of God as true worship (Rom 12:1–2).

Ethics is Lived Eschatology

Billings actually makes good points in his critique of what I would consider some offhand comments Wright makes about the results of our work lasting into the new creation. Billings asks why some work would last into eternity (a Bach concerto, which Wright mentions) and not others (the work of a mechanic, for example). I agree that it certainly should not be based on whether the work consists of high art of merely a trade.

However, this does not lead me to dismiss the idea that we will be engaged in ordinary activities in the new creation. Indeed, I think we should take seriously Paul’s idea that while some of our works will be burned up in the judgment, some would be purified and withstand judgment into the age to come (1 Cor 3:12–15).

At the same time, I find that trying to know too many details about the afterlife presses eschatological language too far, since such language is largely metaphorical or symbolic and evokes that which currently lies beyond human experience. The primary point of such language is not to satisfy our curiosity about the world to come, but to motivate us in the present to be faithful to God in all that we do. As I have been saying of late, ethics is lived eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth, p. 24).

This implies that whatever is our  true telos or goal in the eschaton should also be the focus of our lives today. However, I can find no biblical warrant for the idea that worship (in the specific sense of private devotion or communal praise) should be the exclusive (or primary) focus of our lives today.

The Biblical Emphasis on Human Works or Deeds

Both the Old and New Testaments make the claim that allegiance to God must be expressed in obedience or deeds that stem from this allegiance; thus Jesus quotes the Shema (love the Lord your God) and pairs it with the injunction to love our neighbor as the two great commandments (Matt 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28).

In the Old Testament, allegiance to God is not equivalent to worship and is not evidenced primarily by worship. Indeed, the Old Testament contains a powerful prophetic critique of what we would today call “worship” (sacrifices, sabbaths, fasting, prayer, sacred festivals) if this is not accompanied by justice and righteousness, which is what is really important (Isa 1:10–20; 58:1–14; Jer 7:1–15; Amos 5:1–25; Micah 6:1–8).

Jesus himself critiques actions typically regarded as expressing devotion or worship (such as tithing) as of less importance than justice, mercy, and faithfulness, which he calls “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23–24).

The Old Testament emphasis on faithfulness to the covenant as proof of allegiance to YHWH is matched by the New Testament claim that although we are saved by faith, we are judged by our works. This may be paradoxical, but it is a pervasive theme, showing up in Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31–46), in various statements by the apostle Paul (Rom 2:6–8; 2 Cor 5:10), and in the emphasis of James that faith without works is dead (James 2:14–26).

Both the Old and New Testaments (along with Second Temple Judaism) stress the importance of “works” or “deeds” (mitzvot) as the proof of faith or commitment to God.

A Theological Lens for Reading Scripture

Another way to get at what is going on in Billings’s article is to suggest his vision of the eschaton is filtered through a later theological lens.

Of course, we all read the Bible through a particular lens. The question is, which lens?

Billings’s lens seems to be that of Reformed theology, of a sort that tends to downplay human action in order to elevate God’s glory as the telos of human life.

I fully affirm the biblical emphasis on living our lives to the glory of God, but as a Kuyperian-Wesleyan I see no contradiction in principle between God’s glory and human action.

As a Kuyperian (in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper), I have been influenced by that branch of the Reformed tradition that emphasizes Christian involvement in cultural life to the glory of God. As a Wesleyan (in the tradition of John Wesley), I have been impressed by the need for human effort in the process of sanctification.

Here it might be helpful to note that Wesley was an Anglican—as is Tom Wright.

Even Paul, the chief proponent of justification by faith saw no contradiction between faith and good works, affirming that we are saved by faith yet created for good works (Eph 2:8–9), and enjoining us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)—a motif that fits well with the Kuyperian emphasis on cultural action and the Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification.

So I fully affirm that the goal of life is (and will be, in the new creation) the glory of God. But rather than reducing this to what we today call worship, we should understand that God is glorified when creation—human and non-human—functions as it was intended to, in harmony with God’s will for flourishing.

And if this is our vision of the new creation, it should affect how we live now.

As Paul affirms in 2 Cor 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ—new creation! The old has passed away, the new has come.”

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Serious Contextual Theology in Jamaica

Last September I traveled to Jamaica, where I attended what may well be the first in a series of theology conferences held at Jamaica Theological Seminary (my alma mater). The conference topic was “Biblical Interpretation for Caribbean Renewal” and I was one of the organizers.

The event began with the Zenas Gerig Memorial Lecture on Friday, September 8, 2017, and continued the next day (Saturday, September 9) with a series of papers given by professors, students, and alumni of the Jamaica Theological Seminary (JTS) and the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (CGST), including some overseas presenters (such as myself).

The Friday keynote lecture was delivered by Steed Davidson, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, with a response by Garnett Roper, the president of JTS. Since this conference was in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Davidson addressed “The Hazards and Opportunities of Sola Scriptura for Caribbean Biblical Interpretation.”

Sola Scriptura as a Positive Value

Davidson emphasized the value of Luther’s protest against a corrupt and authoritarian papal church, and how Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone) functioned to ground his protest. Beyond Luther’s appeal to what the Bible teaches (in contrast to the accretions of tradition), was the importance of the Bible being translated into the various European vernaculars (including Luther’s German and the later King James Version).

Davidson further noted that the positive effect of having the Bible in the vernacular of one’s own culture (instead of Latin, which had been understood only by a small elite) was that each culture was able to hear God’s word in their own language.

But no changes are purely innocent.

The Reformation’s Unintended Consequences?

Although translating the Bible into the vernacular may have been intended to open up the Bible to the ordinary believer, most people were not literate enough to read it even in their own language. So while power did shift from the Pope, instead of being transferred to the ordinary people, it was Protestant pastors who became the authoritative interpreters of the Bible; and secular princes filled the vacuum of papal authority (and both were often just as elitist and authoritarian as the Catholic hierarchy had been).

Further, one of the effects of hearing God word in the cadences of one’s language is that when the various European Protestant nations began to exercise colonial power in the “New World,” they understood God as underwriting their colonizing campaigns. Thus “Christianization” and colonization went hand-in-hand.

So it was never really Sola Scriptura in Reformation times. But rather the Bible and its authoritative interpreters, and (even more problematically) the Bible as part of a package of empire, colonization, and oppression.

Neither is it (or should it be) Sola Scriptura today. Rather, we all interpret the Bible through our cultural lenses. Paradoxically, many Christians in the Caribbean downplay their own experience and treat the Bible as a magical book in which to find guidance for making ordinary decisions (this is itself a cultural lens). But since oral tradition and experience are an integral part of Caribbean culture, many Caribbean Christians end up denying part of their identity and heritage in the way they treat the Bible.

Davidson therefore encouraged Caribbean people to consciously and intentionally read Scripture in light of their Caribbean culture and experience, both their historical heritage and their contemporary experience of the world. This involves not only bringing their culture and experience to Scripture, but allowing Scripture to speak to their culture and experience.

(There was more to Davidson’s lecture that this brief summary; but it suffices to highlight some of his emphases.)

After Davidson’s stimulating presentation, Garnett Roper (the president of JTS) gave a response. Roper agreed with much of Davidson’s argument, but raised the question of whether the imperial and colonial use of the Bible was as integrally related to the Reformers’ actions as Davidson portrayed, or was more in the vein of unintended consequences. The presentation by Davidson (originally from Tobago) and Roper (a Jamaican) generated a great deal of stimulating discussion from the audience.

A Variety of Papers on Scripture, Theology, Identity, and Culture in the Caribbean

Although we had nine papers lined up during the day on Saturday, one presenter who was coming from Philadelphia could not make his flight connection from Florida because of Hurricane Irma (and had to return home).

The paper topics varied quite widely; they included analysis of the Bible (both in whole and in part, addressing both familiar/comforting and troubling texts from the Old and New Testaments); priorities for biblical interpretation in the Caribbean church; the use of systems theory to understand a case study in Jamaican church conflict; the sort of “productive hermeneutics” of the Bible exemplified by Rastafarian discourse; a psychological / anthropological analysis of possession in Haitian voodoo; and how Caribbean people who have been shaped by the experience of slavery might grapple with God’s sovereignty in the process of history.

Since I previously gave the titles of papers to be presented (in an earlier blog post about the conference) I won’t repeat the list here. But you can see the full conference schedule at a glance.

Essay Award for Excellence in Bible and Theology

I have been involved with organizing theology conferences for a number of years (since 2012) and at many of these I have offered an essay prize to stimulate the intersection of the Bible and theology. This prize is awarded in honor of my parents, Jack and Phyllis Middleton. Jack Middleton was a Christian who served as a police officer in the Jamaica Constabulary Force from the end of World War II until his retirement in 1973. Beginning as an Inspector, stationed in Sav-la-Mar (in the parish of Westmoreland), he rose through the ranks to become the head of Special Branch and then Commissioner of Police (the first non-expatriate to hold the office).

At this conference, The Jack and Phyllis Middleton Memorial Award for Excellence in Bible and Theology was given to Erica Campbell ( Head of the Department of Humanities and Lecturer in Humanities, Theology, and Biblical Studies at JTS) for her paper “The Parable of the Good Samaritan: A Political Reading from a Caribbean Perspective.” This paper (like the previous five papers that have received this award) is to be published in the Canadian-American Theological Review, the journal sponsored by the Canadian-American Theological Association (of which I was president from 2011-2014).

The Importance of This Theology Conference

Instead of commenting on specific points of note in particular papers, let me mention a couple of general observations, two things that struck me as important about the conference as a whole.

First, I saw students and recent alums of JTS and CGST (who were often also pastors), as well as current and past professors, articulate their theological claims in papers presented publicly for an academic audience. I don’t think we can underestimate the value of this both for the presenters (whose proposals were taken seriously and engaged) and the model of academic integrity and boldness that they modeled for the attendees. Grounded in faith, we may engage in serious intellectual grappling with important issues; and faith is enlarged, rather than diminished, even when there is honest disagreement.

This is crucial, because in the Caribbean faith is often separated from scholarship, and the latter is denigrated. The appropriate response is not simply to become “intellectual,” as if this is somehow better than simple faith. Rather, what we need (and what this conference showed) is that not only can faith ground serious intellectual grappling with important issues, but that faith is thereby enriched by such grappling.

Second, I was struck by the significant degree of engagement from audience members (composed primarily of pastors and students, with at least half being women). Some of those in the audience boldly jumped right into the discussion at the start of the day, raising questions and voicing their opinions; others only found their voice as the day progressed.

Although discussion was always charitable and respectful, it was also vigorousindeed, so vigorous that I had a hard time (as conference chair) keeping the sessions to the prescribed time limits. But I look at that as a positive feature.

In this cordial, yet vigorous exchange of views between people of deep faith who value theological reflection for the sake of the church, I saw the beginnings of a genuine academic community of Caribbean theologians and practitioners reaching toward the goal of serious scholarly discourse in the service of faith. This bodes well for the intellectual health of the Caribbean churchif such discourse can be further stimulated and extended.

With that in mind, JTS is considering making a theology conference like this an annual (or possibly biennial) event. So stay tuned for an announcement in the near future. As these conferences become more regular we hope to invigorate the conversation about the Bible and theology for the sake of the Caribbean church and wider society.

A Publication Coming from the Conference

We are also planning to publish selected papers from the conference in a theme issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review. These papers would join Erica Campbell’s award-winning paper in a special issue of the journal devoted to the conference theme, “Biblical Interpretation for Caribbean Renewal.” The issue will be made available both in hard copy and as a PDF file.

The Canadian-American Theological Review has previously published articles by theologians and scholars from parts of the world beyond Canada and the USA—including Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.

A recent issue of the journal (2016) contained two articles by Caribbean authors. One was by Las Newman (president emeritus of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology), entitled “Theology on the Move: Discerning Global Shifts in Theological Thinking in the Global South.” The other was my own paper, entitled “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Paradigm for Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible.”

I now look forward to an entire issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review devoted to Caribbean theology.

Just a reminder: The journal is always open for new submissions of articles and book reviews, and that certainly includes submissions from Caribbean authors. Click here to see the guidelines for articles and book reviews. You are invited to participate in a global theological discussion.

In a follow-up post you can read about what some of us did after the conference, visiting two Rastafarian cultural heritage sites.

 

 

Biblical Interpretation for Caribbean Renewal—Theology Conference in Kingston, Jamaica (September 8-9, 2017)

The Jamaica theology conference that I’ve been helping to plan is coming up in just over a month (I had posted a final Call for papers a while back).

KEYNOTE SPEAKER – DR. STEED DAVIDSON

The keynote speaker is Dr. Steed Davidson, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Dr. Davidson, who is originally from Tobago, will kick off the conference with a programmatic lecture on Friday evening (September 8) entitled “The Hazards and Opportunities of Sola Scriptura for Caribbean Biblical Interpretation.” Then on Saturday (September 9) there will be papers on a variety of topics related to the conference theme: “Biblical Interpretation for Caribbean Renewal.”

PAPER TOPICS FOR SATURDAY

We have papers lined up from a variety of theological disciplines and perspectives, especially focused on the Bible and Caribbean renewal. Here are some of the paper titles:

  • The Parable of the Good Samaritan: A Political Reading from a Caribbean Perspective
  • The Inclusive Vision of Isaiah 56 and Contested Ethical Practices in Scripture and the Church: Toward a Canonical Hermeneutic of Discernment
  • Food for Thought: The Work of the Spirit and the Dynamics of Disgust in Acts 10
  • Word, Sound, and Power: The Religious Imagination of Rastafari Hermeneutics
  • Chiastic Contours, Caribbean Hermeneutic, and the Book of Acts
  • Black Identity in Light of Slavery, God’s Sovereignty, and Scripture
  • Pastoral Priorities for Biblical Interpretation in the Caribbean
  • Contextual Interpretation and the Canonical Narrative: Toward a Holistic Understanding of the Bible
  • The Anatomy of a Church Healing
  • The Biblical Interpretation of Demonic Possession and Voodoo-Like Possession as the Identity of Evil In Haiti

You may register on the conference page at the Jamaica Theological Seminary website by clicking on the form at the bottom of the page (discounted registration is available up to August 15). Questions about registration can be directed to Dr. Winston Thompson, Vice-president of JTS. The registration page will be updated with detailed information about the conference schedule as soon as it is available.

CONFERENCE CO-SPONSORSHIP

The theology conference is sponsored by the Jamaica Theological Seminary and will be held on their campus, at 14-20 West Ave., Kingston 8, Jamaica, W.I..

The conference is co-sponsored by the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology and the United Theological College of the West Indies.

This interdisciplinary theology conference celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.