Congratulations, Dr. Esau McCaulley!

Esau McCaulley, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary, successfully defended his PhD thesis on Monday, April 3, at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (his supervisor was N. T. Wright, pictured below with Esau, after the defense).

The full title of Dr. McCaulley’s dissertation is: Sharing in the Son’s Inheritance: Davidic Messianism and Paul’s Worldwide Interpretation of the Abrahamic Land Promise in Galatians.”

Northeastern Seminary is proud of you, Esau, and we are delighted that you are part of our faculty. Congratulations!

For more on Northeastern Seminary, see my earlier blog post, “Northeastern Seminary—A Hidden Gem.

Let’s Put Herod Back into Christmas (A Meditation on Matthew 2:1-23)

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matthew 2:16)

_______________________________________________________________________________

As long as I can remember, I’ve heard Christians bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, the mad rush to buy gifts, the annual spending frenzy. “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” was their recurring refrain. Although I’m sympathetic with the genuine concern here, I think it’s misplaced.

The commercialization of Christmas doesn’t actually exclude Christ. He’s there in the manger scenes we know and love, even in department stores and shopping malls. The Christ-child lies blissfully in a decorative, gilt-edged manger lit by neon and flashing colored lights, while the muzak drones, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” The problem is not that the commercialization of Christmas has displaced Christ. The problem is that this Christ doesn’t match the biblical portrayal. According to Matthew, Jesus did not sleep in heavenly peace. On the contrary he slept—if at all—in the midst of great danger and death. It’s difficult to sleep when you’re a refugee, fleeing for your life. It’s difficult to sleep with Herod around.

Unfortunately, the Christ that many Christians want to put back into Christmas tends to be a sentimentalized figure, strangely removed from the world of Herod—the real world of pain and brokenness. And so this Christ is largely irrelevant. A baby sleeping in heavenly peace is irrelevant to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one, to anyone who’s been sexually abused, to anyone living in a war zone. He’s irrelevant to the unemployed and the underemployed, to those struggling with doubt and disappointment. He’s certainly irrelevant to anyone sleeping downtown on a heating grate this winter. Tear-jerking manger scenes and soothing Christmas carols just don’t cut it in a world that’s full of the reality of Herod.

This is not to deny the traditional picture of the Christ-child lying vulnerable in Bethlehem with the wise men bringing gifts. But it’s important not to miss the point Matthew makes (quoting Micah) that the Messiah was born in small-town Bethlehem (no-place, Judah) because God bypassed glorious Jerusalem, the great city, where Herod ruled. And God bypassed Herod, king of the Jews, and chose to work through a poor peasant couple and a child of questionable birth-status.

And who comes to worship the child? Not Herod, nor any orthodox religious leaders, but pagan astrologers. This baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem was perceived rightly by these “wise” pagans to be the true king of the Jews, whose birth had such cosmic significance that there was a new star in the heavens. Herod himself rightly perceived this baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem to be a threat to his pretensions of power. So threatening, indeed, as to justify the frenzied slaughter of innocent babies.

This doesn’t mean we should never enjoy manger scenes or get teary-eyed when we sing carols or watch the kids acting out the nativity story. But let’s never forget why God showered his unfathomable love upon us at Christmas two thousand years ago: because he cared so much for our wounds, and for this suffering world, that he personally entered the fray, this bloodbath we call history, to redeem us—and history—from the bloodbath.

So, although I can appreciate the desire to “put Christ back into Christmas” in order to counter the commercialization of this sacred holiday, I want to suggest that we put Herod back into Christmas, and so counter the sentimentalized glitz with which the season has been papered over.

The fact is that Herod is integral to Christmas, because Herod places the birth of Jesus squarely in history. At one level that’s literally true. We date Jesus’ birth between 6 and 4 B.C. because Herod died in 4 B.C. and he ordered the slaughter of children under two. Herod places Jesus chronologically in history. But Herod also places Jesus in the harsh reality of history. Jesus didn’t come into some mythical, storybook, never-never land. He came into the world of Herod. The world we know only too well.

And he came to take Herod out. That’s what Christmas is all about: the decisive blow God dealt to evil, injustice, and suffering at the cross. But it started in Bethlehem, when a baby lying vulnerable in a manger threatened a tyrant. Can we, like the wise men, discern the cosmic significance of that this Christmas?

_____________________________________________

This article by J. Richard Middleton first appeared in The Catalyst (Toronto), vol. 16, nos. 8-9 (November-December 1993) and received an award in 1994 for best “Theological Reflection—Inspirational” from the Canadian Church Press.

Northeastern Seminary—A Hidden Gem

Note: This post has been updated April 2017.

I started teaching biblical studies at Northeastern Seminary in 2011, having previously taught for ten years at Roberts Wesleyan College and for six years before that at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (all in Rochester, NY).

Northeastern Seminary was founded in 1998 by faculty from the religion, philosophy, and history departments at Roberts Wesleyan College (in consultation with Wesleyan theologian Tom Oden from Drew University). This was the fruition of a multi-year exploration of the possibility of a graduate-level theological institution on the Roberts campus.

Although Northeastern Seminary is, in effect, a graduate school of Roberts Wesleyan College, it is institutionally and legally separate, with its own charter and accreditation.

 My Teaching at Northeastern Seminary

I learned about Northeastern back in January 2002 when I began teaching Old Testament and Hebrew to undergraduate students at Roberts. My faculty position at the College included a part-time appointment at the Seminary, to teach one or two courses per year, plus serve as guest lecturer in various faculty’s courses as needed. After teaching a couple of Master’s-level elective courses at Northeastern, I settled into teaching a “Scriptural Foundations” course for the fledgling D.Min. program, which began in my second year at Roberts.

My teaching at Northeastern currently includes a Core course called “Biblical Worldview: Story, Theology, Ethics” and an introduction to Biblical Exegesis (both courses are taken by all Masters students in their first semester), plus a number of advanced courses in Biblical Exegesis, which have variable content (I have taught sections of Genesis, 1 and 2 Samuel, the Psalms and Job, and case studies in the New Testament use of the Old Testament).

My goal in these courses is to introduce students to the comprehensive, holistic, life-giving vision of the Scriptures (“Biblical Worldview”) and to hands-on, detailed, close reading of biblical texts (“Biblical Exegesis”). Both sorts of courses are intended to help students become responsible interpreters of Scripture for teaching and preaching in the church.

A Unique Tradition and Perspective

Northeastern Seminary continues the tradition of Roberts Wesleyan College, which was founded by B. T. Roberts in 1866. Roberts was an advocate of Wesleyan “social holiness,” so his Christian faith led him to oppose slavery and oppression of the poor, and to support women’s right to vote and even ordination (his book Ordaining Women was published in 1891). Along with a number of others, he founded the Free Methodist Church in 1860.

https://i1.wp.com/media.salemwebnetwork.com/Christianity/HistoryTimeline/20725.jpg

While the Seminary derives from the Free Methodist tradition and is nourished by the vision of B. T. Roberts, it is ecumenical in scope, with students from over thirty denominations, including Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, independent/ non-denominational, United Church of Christ, Anglican/ Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and various Wesleyan traditions (Free Methodist, United Methodist, Nazarene, Wesleyan, AME, AME Zion, CME).

The student body currently numbers 165 and includes about one-third African-Americans. The average age is 42 (though students range from those just out of college to those in their sixties or seventies).

The Seminary curriculum was developed to cater to working people (both ordained and lay), so courses are offered in the evenings, and students from distance locations in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany are linked by video conferencing. Since it opened its doors in 1998 Northeastern Seminary has graduated about 400 students, serving in widely different forms of ministry in North America and throughout the world.

The Seminary is committed to grounding students in the classic tradition of theological orthodoxy (reaching back through the ecumenical creeds to the Bible) with relevance to the current needs of church and society in a postmodern age.

The Core Curriculum at Northeastern

Northeastern Seminary has an unusual Core curriculum, which includes a sequence of four semesters of comprehensive, interdisciplinary, foundational courses (labeled BHT for Bible/History/Theology). Each course is organized around a different historical period:

Semester 1: Biblical Worldview: Story, Theology, Ethics (taught by Dr. J. Richard Middleton).

Semester 2: The Formative Era: From Synagogue to Cathedral – Growth and Change in the Early and Medieval Church (taught by Dr. Rebecca Letterman).

Semester 3: The Protestant Era: Reformation and Revival in the Church (taught by Dr. Josef Sykora).

Semester 4: The Modern and Postmodern Era: The Church in an Age of Science, Technology, and Secularization (taught by Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt).

These four interdisciplinary courses are each combined with an accompanying Core course in Biblical Exegesis: Introduction to exegesis the first semester, then case studies in various texts of the Old and New Testaments in the following three semesters.

These courses are accompanied by four semesters of an intentional spiritual formation component, which includes retreats, chapel services, and faith sharing groups directed by trained spiritual facilitators, each of whom mentors a group of 6-10 students.

There are also a variety of post-Core courses in Bible, theology, ethics, history, ministry, pastoral/ spiritual formation, and field education that students take (the particular combination depends on which degree program a student is enrolled in).

The curriculum exposes adult learners to serious study of Scripture and to the ecumenical church in its complex development throughout history, while equipping them with practical courses in ministry. This rigorous academic approach is intertwined with spiritual formation so that students integrate their biblical and theological learning with their growing faith.

Programs of Study at Northeastern Seminary

The seminary currently offers five degrees, all of which are fully accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (professional), the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (regional), and the New York Board of Regents (state).

Four are Master’s degree programs:

  • M.A (Theological Studies)
  • M.Div.
  • M.A. in Theology and Social Justice
  • M.A. in Transformational Leadership

The fifth is a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree.

While the first M.A. is the degree of choice for those desiring an academic grounding in theological studies (with the possibility of a thesis), the others are explicitly professional degrees, meant to prepare students for various forms of ministry in the church and the world.

The D.Min. is an advanced professional development degree for those with a minimum of three years ministry experience after the M.Div. (it requires a major research project or dissertation).

Northeastern Seminary has worked out an arrangement with the graduate department of Social Work at Roberts Wesleyan College to allow interested students to complete either the M.Div. or the M.A. (Theological Studies) in tandem with an M.S.W., with less time than it would take to do both degrees separately (due to course overlap).

The Seminary has also entered into an agreement with the religion and philosophy department at Roberts, which, when NY State approval is received, will allow religion students to enter the Seminary after three years of undergraduate study instead of four (students would jointly receive their B.A along with their Seminary degree).

Northeastern Seminary Faculty

The Seminary has seven regular faculty, who teach the Core courses and electives; some faculty are also involved in administration and supervise Field Education.

  • Dr. Douglas R. Cullum (Ph.D., Drew University), Vice President and Dean; Professor of Historical and Pastoral Theology
  • Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt (Th.D., Boston University School of Theology), Professor of Theology and Social Ethics.
  • Dr. Nelson J. Grimm (Ph.D., University at Buffalo), Director of Field Education and Professor of Applied Theology.
  • Dr. Rebecca S. Letterman (Ph.D., Cornell University), Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation.
  • Dr. J. Richard Middleton (Ph.D., Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam), Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis.
  • Dr. Esau McCaulley (Ph.D., University of St. Andrews), Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity.
  • Dr. Josef Sykora (Ph.D., Durham University), Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program; Assistant Professor of Biblical Interpretation.

There are also faculty members at Roberts Wesleyan College who hold special appointments as part-time faculty at the Seminary .

  • Dr. David Basinger (Ph.D., University of Nebraska at Lincoln), Professor of Philosophy and Ethics.
  • Dr. Scott Brenon Caton (Ph.D., University of Rochester), Professor of History and Culture.

The Seminary also has numerous adjunct faculty from the College and the community who teach a variety of elective courses on different topics (some are pastors, others teach in other institutions).

D.Min. Dissertations and M.A. Theses that I’ve Supervised

Although Northeastern Seminary has as its goal the preparation of women and men for various forms of ministry in the contemporary church and world, the curriculum allows for those who desire to pursue academic research in a variety of areas.

Since I began teaching full-time at Northeastern in 2011, I’ve supervised quite a variety of D.Min. dissertations and M.A. theses. Some of these have addressed topics at the interface of theology and biblical studies, while others have explored theological issues in connection with philosophy, ethics, liturgy, and cultural studies. You can get a good sense of the interdisciplinary nature of the Seminary from the titles of the dissertations and theses I’ve supervised:

  • Reclaiming the Biblical Message: A Caribbean Theological Perspective (Ajilon Ferdinand)
  • The Open Vocation of Humanity as Established in the Genesis Cosmogonies and Its Implication on Scripture (Traci Birge)
  • Indwelling the Biblical Story: The Liturgical Grounding of the Church’s Identity and Mission (Jonathan Poag)
  • Living Sacramentally: The Problem of Being and Doing with Special Reference to Thomas Aquinas (Margaret Giordano)
  • The New Creation Fugue: The Interweaving of Individual, Community, and Cosmos in Paul’s Theology of New Creation (Calvin Smith)
  • Two Pauline Ways to Describe the Ethics of the Resurrection Life (Matthew Davis)
  • Introducing the Incarnate Christ: How John’s Logos Theology Sets the Stage for the Narrative Development of Jesus’s Identity (Christopher Cordell Sullivan)

An Open and Ecumenical Orthodoxy

Northeastern Seminary combines the best of classical theological orthodoxy with a generous openness to a variety of viewpoints from many ecumenical traditions. The Wesleyan theological roots that nourish the Seminary are characterized by fidelity to Scripture and the ecumenical creeds of the church, while the contemporary plant puts out shoots in multiple directions and flowers into an open-ended exploration of how the faith (once for all delivered to the saints) relates to the contemporary world, with its often difficult questions and issues.

Northeastern Seminary could therefore be characterized (as I myself was once described, when being introduced as a retreat speaker) as being “more conservative than the conservatives and more liberal than the liberals.” Without wanting to claim that every faculty member is just like me (they are certainly not), I think this paradoxical summary gets at my experience of the Seminary as transcending the typical “culture wars” approach to life found in many theological traditions.

In classes, faculty and students engage in guided investigation of Scripture, tradition, and the world around us, grounded in our commitment to the triune God revealed in the incarnate Christ, yet without narrow assumptions that prejudge important questions in advance.

Our full- and part-time faculty come from Methodist, Lutheran, Charismatic, Episcopal/Anglican, Brethren, and Roman Catholic traditions, and most have been shaped by complex denominational experiences beyond their current church membership (including Presbyterian, American Baptist, Primitive Baptist, and Missionary Church).

While each faculty member has their own theological orientation and disciplinary specialization, we all respect each other and honor both our common faith in Christ and the diversity and expertise we bring to the table. One important clue to the atmosphere of the Seminary is that faculty meetings are often characterized by laughter—we really like each other!

Northeastern Seminary—A Hidden Gem

In short, Northeastern Seminary is a hidden gem. I’m delighted to be teaching at this unique theological school.

If you’re interested in learning more about Northeastern Seminary, you can can find answers to many of your questions on the FAQ page. Further inquires can be directed to the relevant admission staff members.