There and Back Again—My Visit to “Oxbridge”

This is the sixth installment about my speaking in the UK.

After spending the weekend in Leeds, giving talks on eschatology and lament for the Thinking Faith Network, we headed for “Oxbridge,” where I would speak three times on the topic of biblical eschatology (“A New Heaven and a New Earth”).  For those who don’t know the term, “Oxbridge” refers the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest universities in England.

Although bound together by prestige and history, the two universities are in different cities; and they not connected by any clear, straightforward route—either by road or by rail (as I found out, when I traveled between them, twice).

Oxford

My first stop was Oxford, to speak at the Monday evening meeting of the Graduate Christian Forum, held upstairs in The Mitre pub. A small but collegial group of Oxford students, professors, and friends gathered for the lecture; and we had continued conversation for about an hour afterwards, interspersed with drinks and snacks.

I don’t know if C. S. Lewis and the Inklings ever met in The Mitre (I know they met in a variety of Oxford pubs), but I did see their most famous meeting place, the Eagle and Child (fondly known as the Bird and Baby).

So I’ve mentioned C. S. Lewis, and the title of this post alludes to J. R. R. Tolkein (the subtitle of The Hobbit), but it was Francis Schaeffer’s presence that I felt at The Mitre.

This was because I met Joe Martin, a retired American engineer, who had spent time as a young man with Schaeffer at Swiss L’Abri, the Christian study center that Francis and Edith Schaeffer founded in 1955.

Francis Schaeffer’s writings greatly impacted me as a young theology student, as I noted in the introduction to my book A New Heaven and a New Earth:

I was therefore delighted to meet Joe Martin, who functions as a pastor to Oxford students, nurturing their consciousness of a biblical worldview and its impact on all of life.

Joe gave me a theme issue of an Oxbridge journal that was devoted the topic of Jerusalem in history and theology. His article on the “New Jerusalem” made many of the same points that I addressed in my eschatology lecture (in his case, I was clearly preaching to the choir).

Cambridge

The next morning we headed for Cambridge, where I would speak twice—first at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (which I’ll report on in my next post), and then at the Jubilee Centre (on eschatology).

The Jubilee Centre is a sort of Christian think tank and outreach ministry that (according to their web site) “offers a biblical perspective on contemporary issues and underlying trends in society, of relevance to the general public.”

Among their forms of outreach, they publish a series of papers that bring incisive Christian analysis to a range of topics of concern to a wide audience in the UK and Europe.

My lecture at the Jubilee Centre was co-sponsored by the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), which exists under the umbrella of Tyndale House at the University of Cambridge.

My initial connection with the Jubilee Centre came through Jonathan Chaplin (about to retire from being the director of KLICE), who was a fellow graduate student with me at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, before he returned to his native England to do PhD work.

It was great reconnecting with Jonathan Chaplin and meeting the staff at the Jubilee Centre, including Jonathan Tame, director of the Centre, who introduced my talk (above).

Oxford

The next morning we headed back to Oxford, so I could speak at Wycliffe Hall, an evangelical school of theology in the University of Oxford. Although this stop was added only at the last minute (in fact, I only found out about it when I was about to leave my home in Rochester for the airport), it was a worthwhile addition to the speaking tour.

I gave my eschatology talk to a group of faculty and students and after a brief Q&A, I gathered with a smaller group for more in-depth discussion of issues raised in the lecture.

I was glad to reconnect with Ben Johnson, tutor in Biblical Interpretation at Wycliffe Hall, who I had previously met at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in 2016 (we both gave papers in the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures section). Ben is a friend of my colleague Josef Sykora, both having studied Old Testament with Walter Moberly at Durham University.

Ben Johnson is currently co-editing, along with my long-time friend Keith Bodner, two volumes of essays on Characters and Characterization in Samuel-Kings; I will be contributing an essay on the prophet Samuel.

In my next post I’ll talk about my time at the Faraday Institute in Cambridge.

 

 

The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job—Exploring Genesis 22 in Mirfield

This is the fourth installment about my journey through the UK.

After leaving Durham, I visited friends (David and Ruth Hanson) in Leeds overnight, then David drove me to the College of the Resurrection in nearby Mirfield to speak on the same topic I had presented on in Durham—Genesis 22.

The College of the Resurrection is an Anglo-Catholic seminary attached to a monastery in Mirfield. There I was hosted by Dorothea Bertschmann, tutorial fellow in New Testament at the College.

Those organizing the event decided to give my talk on Genesis 22 the same title as the book I am currently working on, “The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job,” even though most of the talk was focused on Abraham, with only a bit on Job at the end.

I met some great people at the College of the Resurrection. Besides Prof. Bertschmann, I had a good chat with Steffan Mathais, a senior student (who already had a PhD in Old Testament) currently studying for the pastoral ministry.

Below is Steffan’s account of my talk on Genesis 22 (written for the community’s newsletter). He starts with a Rabbinic quote about how to study Scripture, and why it is worth studying.


Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it. – Rabbi Bag Ben Bag, Pirke Avos, 5:22

One of the great ironies of biblical scholarship is that often those who have given their lives to study of the bible are at best bored, and at worst irritated, by the texts they spend their days with. By contrast there was an infectiousness of Prof J. Richard Middleton’s excitement and playfulness, in his lecture The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job, delivered to the college on the 27th April, in conjunction with SIIBS, the Mirfield Centre, and St Hild’s College.

Prof Middleton is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary, New York State. The body of his lecture focused around the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. While central in the imagination of Judaism and Christianity – and Islam – Middleton initially explored some of the ethical ambiguities of the narrative, before pointing out some of the interesting quirks of the story, notably the breakdown of relationship between Abraham, Isaac and Sarah, who henceforth in Genesis are said to live in different parts of the land.

Middleton asked if, perhaps, the text is more complex than our traditional reading, that Abraham was tested to see if he was willing to kill his son to submit to God. Through a close reading of the Hebrew (and without giving any surprises away to those who wish to read his next book on the subject!) Middleton read the story as a test of a very different kind: that God required Abraham to argue back, to say no, to be so sure of the mercy of God that he could wrestle with him. And in the end Abraham failed the test, remaining silent where those such as Job could not, but God’s faithfulness to his covenant carried them through.

Middleton’s reading was surprisingly compelling for one so provocative, but even more compelling was a reading of an old text which brought it alive again; which rather than ironing over the difficulties understood the creative tensions at play – the gaps, the lacunae, the ambiguities – and saw the scriptures as something to be enjoyed, to be wrestled with and poured over, not to be compartmentalised and ‘solved.’ Through his reading Middleton – partly through his study of Jewish exegesis – embraced the advice of Rabbis of old to always make the scriptures always new: ‘turn it and turn it again, for all is in it.’

~Steffan Mathais


I shared three meals with faculty and students at the College of the Resurrection, as well as gathering for coffee, drinks, and conversation. I also participated in a eucharistic liturgy led by the principal of the College, Fr Peter Allan.

All in all, it was quite wonderful to share worship, meals, camaraderie, and theological reflection with the members of this unique community of ecclesial learning.

My next post recounts my time in Leeds, with the Thinking Faith Network.

Visiting Tom Wright—A Good Start in Scotland

I drove from Rochester to Toronto on Wednesday and took the overnight flight to Glasgow to begin my two weeks of talks in the UK. I arrived at the Glasgow airport on Thursday morning (9:00 am), with almost no sleep, and was picked up by Tom Wright.

From Glasgow we drove to the Wrights’ home (named the “Hilton Cottage”) just outside of the small town of St. Andrews. It was a bright sunny day and the scenery on the drive was glorious.

Great Conversations with Tom and Maggie

The conversation on the drive was pretty good too!

In fact, one of the highlights of the trip so far (besides my interaction with students and faculty at the University of St. Andrews) was getting to know Tom and Maggie.

Although Tom and I have had lots of sporadic contact over the years (we first met in the mid nineteen-eighties), and we each have found the other’s writings helpful for our own scholarship, this was the first time I was able to have extended conversations with Tom, both about theology and biblical interpretation and about our lives and families.

It was also a delight getting to know Maggie, who is a brilliant amateur photographer—and who, in an amazing coincidence, uses the exact same make and model of camera that I do (a Panasonic Lumix).

Talks at the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology

I gave two talks at the University of St. Andrews (one on biblical eschatology, the other on the theology of lament psalms). Both were well attended by faculty and students, many of whom were in the doctoral program of the Logos Institute. This is an innovative institute with an interdisciplinary doctoral program that tries to integrate analytic theology/philosophy with in-depth biblical studies.

The problem (as many in academia know) is that theologians and biblical scholars often speak what seem to be totally different languages (or discourses), with very little overlap. They often talk past each other.

Biblical scholars often focus on the minutiae of textual and linguistic (or historical) issues to the detriment of thinking about the big theological and ethical claims of Scripture. Theologians, likewise, often engage in the analysis of ideas that are at a far remove from biblical exegesis.

This was a problem I highlighted in the introductory chapter of my book The Liberating Image in relation to the interpretation of the imago Dei. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Pretty much all my publications over the years have tried to address this problem by modeling an approach to Scripture that is both exegetically detailed and concerned for theological coherence.

The Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology was founded to tackle this problem head on. It is a bold enterprise that seeks to help theological students, especially those trained in the analytic tradition of philosophy, to indwell the particularity of biblical texts and learn to ground their theological analysis in serious, in-depth biblical exegesis.

Although it hadn’t been planned this way, I was perfectly suited to addressing this audience. My training in philosophy at the graduate level (with an MA thesis on the nature of religious language), followed by my subsequent move to Old Testament studies, allowed me to interact with many of the Logos students, taking their concerns seriously.

Although my talks were on what I would describe as biblical theology, I managed in my second talk (having taken the pulse of the audience) to weave in some philosophical analysis (concerning the problem of evil) in relationship to the topic I was speaking on (the lament psalms).

The question time (along with the reception afterward) was very valuable, as I was able to engage students philosophically where they were, while showing the fruitfulness of grounding theology in the careful study of Scripture.

Of Eggs and Chicken Pie

To top it off, I was fed very well by Maggie and Tom, both in local eateries and by their own cooking.

Maggie baked an amazing chicken and leek pie for our supper on Thursday (she nicknamed it her “resurrection pie,” since she hadn’t made it in so long, and also because we had been discussing the meaning of the resurrection); the pie was so amazing that I asked for the recipe.

And Tom cooked us bacon and eggs for a late night snack on Friday—he quipped that not many people could produce a photograph like the one below.

All in all, I am grateful to God for the experience so far (including the fact that I managed to get three solid nights’ sleep after the overnight trans-Atlantic flight).

And I am looking forward to heading to the University of Aberdeen with Grant Macaskill tomorrow morning for my lecture there. While there, Grant and I will begin informal talks about a possible doctoral program in theology co-sponsored by Aberdeen and two Jamaican graduate schools that I am affiliated with.

You can read about my trip to Aberdeen here.