Reframing Abraham’s Call in Genesis 12—Beyond Supersessionism

For a long time I have understood the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) as fundamentally missional or instrumental, in the sense that the ultimate purpose for which God calls this ancestor of Israel is to mediate the blessings of salvation to the nations.

I taught the book of Genesis with this orientation for many years. And this understanding of Genesis 12:1–3 has played an integral role in my framing of the canonical narrative of Scripture in books I have written, such as Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (1995) and A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (2014). It can be found also in a variety of essays written in the intervening years.

Three Challenges to My Interpretation of Abraham’s Call

However, my missional/vocational interpretation of Genesis 12:1–3, and thus my instrumental understanding of Israel’s election, was itself called into question—no less than three times.

Initially, I was challenged by two Christian scholars who had participated in Jewish-Christian dialogue—the Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum (who I met through the Canadian Theological Society) and the American Old Testament scholar Werner Lemke (who was my colleague at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School).

Both Baum (who had heard a paper I gave in 1995) and Lemke (who read my book Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be in 1996) challenged me to repent of my implicit Christian supersessionism towards my Jewish brothers and sisters. This was something I had not been conscious of in my thinking.

The third challenge, which helped me positively reframe the call of Abraham, was an email conversation in 2007 with the British Old Testament scholar Walter Moberly, as we discussed a chapter he was writing on the call of Abraham for his book The Theology of the Book of Genesis (2009).

These three challenges led me to take seriously the problematic approach to Judaism that I had inherited from the church, which assumed that once the messiah had come, Judaism had become irrelevant and could be safely discarded.

Of course, I would never have put things in quite so stark a way. But I see how my interpretation of Genesis 12 could be harnessed to support that idea.

The question I now had to grapple with was how I could be faithful to my Christian understanding of redemptive history (I am a Christian, not a Jew—even though my mother was Jewish), while respecting God’s desire to bless, not just the nations through Abraham, but Abraham himself—and his descendants, the people of Israel.

On the Way to a New Reading of Abraham’s Call

This required me to engage in a much more careful reading of Genesis 12 than I had previously done.

The result was that when I was composing my chapter on the plot of the biblical story for A New Heaven and a New Earth, I wrote a lengthy excursus on the call of Abraham that attempted to take into account Moberly’s analysis of the issues, while still maintaining (in the end) a missional reading of Abraham’s call.

Once I had completed the excursus, however, I judged that it was too much of a sidetrack from the flow of the chapter and so I ended up simply summarizing the fruits of my analysis in two brief sections—one about the call of Abraham (pp. 61–62), the other about the place of the exodus from Egypt in the larger biblical story (p. 63). Although I did not abandon a missional reading of the role of Abraham/Israel in the story of salvation, I did affirm God’s purposes for the flourishing of Abraham/Israel—on the way to this larger purpose.

Ever since writing this excursus, I intended to work it up into a published essay on the subject, but never got around to the task. I was, however, recently encouraged to do this by New Testament scholar Andy Johnson, who drew on my unpublished analysis for his chapter on the call of Abraham in Holiness and the Missio Dei (2016).

I was further motivated to work on this material by my participation in an ecumenical Jewish minyan in New York City called the Hadar Institute, through which my respect has been greatly enlarged for Jews seeking to respond in faithfulness to God’s covenant.

My connection to Hadar (formerly called Mechon Hadar) came through one of its founding Rabbis, Shai Held. Having had email correspondence and an initial phone call with Rabbi Held (in 2015), and then reading many of his writings. I have twice participated in the week-long Executive Seminar sponsored by Hadar (in 2016 and 2017). I blogged about my first experience of the Executive Seminar here.

At my request, Walter Moberly, along with other Christian Old Testament scholars, joined me in writing endorsements for Held’s recently published two-volume commentary on the Pentateuch, entitled The Heart of Torah. I then organized and chaired a panel discussion of The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2019. I blogged about this SBL panel here.

Beyond a Supersessionist Reading of Abraham’s Call

Most recently my engagement with Genesis 12 and the question of supersessionism led to an essay called “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei: Reframing the Purpose of Israel’s Election in Genesis 12:1–3.” In this essay, I tried to be faithful to the text of Genesis 12:1–3 (paying attention to its details), while understanding the role of this text in the larger biblical canon—in a way that honors both the Christian and Jewish traditions. At the end of my analysis, I interacted specifically with Martin Buber’s understanding of Israel’s election and the blessing of the nations.

The essay has now been published as chapter 4 in Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis: Essays in Tribute to Paul Livermore, ed. by Douglas R. Cullum and J. Richard Middleton (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2020), 44–64.

This is a volume of twenty-five essays that I co-edited with Doug Cullum, the Vice President and Dean of Northeastern Seminary. It is a Festschrift in honor of our retired faculty colleague Dr. Paul Livermore, one of the charter faculty members of the Seminary—indeed, the person who first came up with the vision to start Northeastern Seminary.

Although I have been moving towards a new reading of Genesis 12 for a while now, the decisive impetus to work on the essay “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei” was my participation in this Festschrift. I am delighted to offer the current essay in tribute to Paul Livermore, who has always been interested in how the New Testament and the early Christian tradition (articulated by the Church Fathers) are related to the Jewish context in which they were birthed.

I have written a follow-up blog with more details about the fascinating essays in the book, along with an introduction to the incomparable Paul Livermore, whose life of teaching generated these essays from faculty colleagues, church leaders, and past students.

What Happens between Death and Resurrection? A Symposium on the Intermediate State

This post was updated April 2019.

On January 17, 2019 I participated in a Symposium on the “intermediate state.” This Symposium explored the question of how best to think about what happens to a Christian between death and resurrection.

Symposium on the Intermediate State: J. P. Moreland and J. Richard Middleton

The Symposium was sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

My dialogue partner was philosopher J. P. Moreland, a famous supporter of “substance dualism” (the view that a person is composed of an immaterial soul and a body). He argued for the traditional view that our souls go to be with God (in heaven), awaiting the resurrection.

As a biblical scholar, I presented my position that the Bible doesn’t teach substance dualism, but rather a holistic view of the person, and that Scripture doesn’t clearly explain what happens between death and resurrection. I am therefore agnostic about the intermediate state.

My presentation focused on biblical exposition of these themes, with attention to 2 Corinthians 5:6–8 (absent from the body, present with the Lord) and Luke 23:39–43 (the thief on the cross). These two biblical texts are often taken as teaching an intermediate state. My exegesis of these texts attempted to show that they both address the final resurrection, not an intermediate state.

In the end, I don’t believe that we need to have an explanation of what happens between death and resurrection. It is sufficient to trust that God, who is faithful, will bring those who are in Christ to the resurrection.

The raw video feed of the Symposium is found here.

  • Tom McCall (head of the Henry Center) opens the event at around the 16 minute mark.
  • Steve Matthewson (a local pastor) introduces the topic and the speakers at about the 17 ½ minute mark.
  • J. P. Moreland begins to speak just before the 21 minute mark.
  • My presentation begins at the 43 ½ minute mark. I had slides with some visuals and lots of biblical texts. However, you will see that the projection system wasn’t working properly.
  • The Q&A begins at the 1 hour and 11 ½ minute mark.

Our Focus Should be on the New Creation

My main point was that the intermediate state shouldn’t be the focus of our faith at all. Rather, biblical hope is for embodied resurrection life in the new heavens and new earth.

This is a point I made in my book on eschatology, A new Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014). In one of the chapters I included an excursus on the intermediate state (it was not central to the book’s argument), and I intended it merely as an exploration of the biblical evidence, not as an argument for a particular viewpoint.

Yet it is interesting that some reviews of my book brought up this excursus, often claiming to disagree with my position, even though my point was simply that there isn’t enough clear biblical evidence for me to affirm an intermediate state. Sometimes I wish  hadn’t put that excursus in at all, since it seemed to sidetrack some readers. But other readers have told me it was important for them.

The Henry Center’s Exploration of Theological Anthropology

I was invited to participate in this Symposium on the intermediate state not primarily because of my work on eschatology, but due to my prior involvement in the Henry Center’s three-year Creation Project.

Each summer the Center has had a conference (the Dabar Conference) on some aspect of the theme of Creation, and I have been involved every year.

In the first two years I was a paper respondent, in 2016 to Old Testament scholar C. John (“Jack”) Collins and in 2017 to philosopher-theologian William (“Billy”) Abraham, two very wonderful scholars, both of whom I was delighted to get to know.

This year I wrote a keynote paper for the Dabar Conference (June 2018), entitled “Death, Immortality, and the Curse: Interpreting Genesis 2–3 in the Context of the Biblical Worldview,” with two respondents (one a biblical scholar, the other a theologian).

The theme of the Creation Project (and thus of the Dabar Conference) this year (2018-19) is Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science.  But the Project extends beyond the Dabar conferences, and involves numerous other events.

It was because of my analysis of human mortality expressed in the Dabar paper (and a shorter version called “Humans Created Mortal, with the Possibility of Eternal Life,” which was published on the Henry Center website) that I was invited to present my views at the upcoming Symposium.

This is the description of the Symposium (along with presenter bios) on the Henry Center website:

The resurrection of the body is one of the central doctrinal claims of the Christian faith. It is also the source of Christian hope when faced with the death of a loved one.

But what happens between now and then? When a child asks their parent where a departed loved one is “now,” how should Christians respond?

Do the souls of those who have died in faith go to be with the Lord now, awaiting to be reunited with their resurrected bodies?

Or are traditional Christian beliefs in an immaterial soul that is separable from the body misplaced—an unscriptural incursion of Platonic metaphysics that has misshaped our expectations of the afterlife?

The discussion will be followed by a pastoral response and extended audience Q&A on the theological and pastoral implications of the different views.

J. P. Moreland (PhD University of Southern California) is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It MattersThe Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism, and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.

J. Richard Middleton (PhD Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary. He is the author of A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

Date Thursday, January 17, 2019
Time 11am — 12:30pm CST
Location Main Campus

Hinkson Hall

This event was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton Religion Trust

What Happens between Death and Resurrection? A Symposium on the Intermediate State

This post was updated April 2019.

On January 17, 2019 I participated in a Symposium on the “intermediate state.” This Symposium explored the question of how best to think about what happens to a Christian between death and resurrection.

Symposium on the Intermediate State: J. P. Moreland and J. Richard Middleton

The Symposium was sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

My dialogue partner was philosopher J. P. Moreland, a famous supporter of “substance dualism” (the view that a person is composed of an immaterial soul and a body). He argued for the traditional view that our souls go to be with God (in heaven), awaiting the resurrection.

As a biblical scholar, I presented my position that the Bible doesn’t teach substance dualism, but rather a holistic view of the person, and that Scripture doesn’t clearly explain what happens between death and resurrection. I am therefore agnostic about the intermediate state.

My presentation focused on biblical exposition of these themes, with attention to 2 Corinthians 5:6–8 (absent from the body, present with the Lord) and Luke 23:39–43 (the thief on the cross). These two biblical texts are often taken as teaching an intermediate state. My exegesis of these texts attempted to show that they both address the final resurrection, not an intermediate state.

In the end, I don’t believe that we need to have an explanation of what happens between death and resurrection. It is sufficient to trust that God, who is faithful, will bring those who are in Christ to the resurrection.

The raw video feed of the Symposium is found here.

  • Tom McCall (head of the Henry Center) opens the event at around the 16 minute mark.
  • Steve Matthewson (a local pastor) introduces the topic and the speakers at about the 17 ½ minute mark.
  • J. P. Moreland begins to speak just before the 21 minute mark.
  • My presentation begins at the 43 ½ minute mark. I had slides with some visuals and lots of biblical texts. However, you will see that the projection system wasn’t working properly.
  • The Q&A begins at the 1 hour and 11 ½ minute mark.

Our Focus Should be on the New Creation

My main point was that the intermediate state shouldn’t be the focus of our faith at all. Rather, biblical hope is for embodied resurrection life in the new heavens and new earth.

This is a point I made in my book on eschatology, A new Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014). In one of the chapters I included an excursus on the intermediate state (it was not central to the book’s argument), and I intended it merely as an exploration of the biblical evidence, not as an argument for a particular viewpoint.

Yet it is interesting that some reviews of my book brought up this excursus, often claiming to disagree with my position, even though my point was simply that there isn’t enough clear biblical evidence for me to affirm an intermediate state. Sometimes I wish  hadn’t put that excursus in at all, since it seemed to sidetrack some readers. But other readers have told me it was important for them.

The Henry Center’s Exploration of Theological Anthropology

I was invited to participate in this Symposium on the intermediate state not primarily because of my work on eschatology, but due to my prior involvement in the Henry Center’s three-year Creation Project.

Each summer the Center has had a conference (the Dabar Conference) on some aspect of the theme of Creation, and I have been involved every year.

In the first two years I was a paper respondent, in 2016 to Old Testament scholar C. John (“Jack”) Collins and in 2017 to philosopher-theologian William (“Billy”) Abraham, two very wonderful scholars, both of whom I was delighted to get to know.

This year I wrote a keynote paper for the Dabar Conference (June 2018), entitled “Death, Immortality, and the Curse: Interpreting Genesis 2–3 in the Context of the Biblical Worldview,” with two respondents (one a biblical scholar, the other a theologian).

The theme of the Creation Project (and thus of the Dabar Conference) this year (2018-19) is Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science.  But the Project extends beyond the Dabar conferences, and involves numerous other events.

It was because of my analysis of human mortality expressed in the Dabar paper (and a shorter version called “Humans Created Mortal, with the Possibility of Eternal Life,” which was published on the Henry Center website) that I was invited to present my views at the upcoming Symposium.

This is the description of the Symposium (along with presenter bios) on the Henry Center website:

The resurrection of the body is one of the central doctrinal claims of the Christian faith. It is also the source of Christian hope when faced with the death of a loved one.

But what happens between now and then? When a child asks their parent where a departed loved one is “now,” how should Christians respond?

Do the souls of those who have died in faith go to be with the Lord now, awaiting to be reunited with their resurrected bodies?

Or are traditional Christian beliefs in an immaterial soul that is separable from the body misplaced—an unscriptural incursion of Platonic metaphysics that has misshaped our expectations of the afterlife?

The discussion will be followed by a pastoral response and extended audience Q&A on the theological and pastoral implications of the different views.

J. P. Moreland (PhD University of Southern California) is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It MattersThe Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism, and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.

J. Richard Middleton (PhD Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary. He is the author of A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

Date Thursday, January 17, 2019
Time 11am — 12:30pm CST
Location Main Campus

Hinkson Hall

This event was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton Religion Trust