After Tom Wright—Speaking on the Lament Psalms in Aberdeen

This is a continuation blog post about my speaking tour in the UK.

After a great time with Tom and Maggie Wright, I left St. Andrews, heading north for Aberdeen, before I would need to head south from Scotland to England.

I arrived in Aberdeen at the start of the weekend and had some time to poke about the city and work on polishing some of the talks I would be giving over the next couple of weeks.

The Lament Psalms in Aberdeen

On Monday morning I was picked up by Grant Macaskill, the Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen. We drove to “Old Aberdeen,” where part of the university campus was located. There I spoke on the lament psalms (“Voices from the Ragged Edge: The Gritty Spirituality of the Psalms for a Broken World”) in the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy.

Lament was was one of the topics I had addressed in St. Andrews and it was the topic Grant specifically requested for my Aberdeen visit. Not only did this topic relate to the interests of many graduate students, but the lecture was attended by Brian Brock, Lecturer in Moral and Practical Theology, who has co-edited an important volume of essays called Evoking Lament: A Theological Discussion (T & T Clark International, 2009), in which he has a chapter on Augustine and lament.

I had a great discussion with students in a variety of fields, including biblical studies, systematic theology, and practical theology on the value of the lament psalms for the church’s processing of pain and suffering, in prayer to God.

Meeting Grant Macaskill in the Islands Group at SBL

I had originally met my host Grant Macaskill (who is an excellent New Testament scholar and ethicist) at the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) meetings a few years ago, in a session on Islands, Islanders, and the Bible. Although most of the presenters in these sessions were from either the Caribbean (like myself) or the Pacific islands, Grant did a beautiful paper called “Gaelic Psalmody and a Theology of Place in the Western Isles of Scotland.”

His paper and mine (which was called “Islands in the Sun: Overtures to a Caribbean Creation Theology”) were both published in Islands, Islanders, and the Bible: Ruminations (Semeia Studies 77; Society of Biblical Literature, 2015).

The Jamaica-Scotland Connection—Past and Future

Grant and I managed to carve out time for some preliminary talks about a possible doctoral program in theology that Aberdeen might co-sponsor with the Jamaica Theological Seminary and the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology.

Having been made aware of the possibility of a joint PhD with Aberdeen by my colleague Easu McCaulley, I had been deputized by these two schools to begin the conversation; Grant and I discussed some intriguing possibilities about how we might go about developing a workable doctoral program in theology between Jamaica and Scotland.

It is not well known, but Jamaica and Scotland have numerous historical ties, including our flags. It turns out that the Jamaican flag was modeled on the Scottish flag, due to the advice of Rev William McGhie, a Church of Scotland minister who was living in Jamaica at the time of independence. This has led to an organization called Flag Up Scotland Jamaica, that is dedicated to developing ties between the two countries.

When my lecture was over, Grant put me on the train to Durham, which was the start of a long, but leisurely trip, from Aberdeen through Edinburgh, then on into England.

What happened in Durham is the subject of my next post.

Heading to San Antonio for the Annual SBL and IBR Meetings

I’m getting ready to go to San Antonio to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (November 19-22) and also of the Institute for Biblical Research (November 18-20); the two meetings overlap a bit.

I’ll be presenting two papers at the SBL this year.

How the Prophet Samuel Abuses His Prophetic Office

The first paper is called “Orthodox Theology, Ulterior Motives in Samuel’s Farewell Speech? The Characterization of the Prophet in 1 Samuel 12.” This paper will be presented in (15 minute) summary form in the Contextual Biblical Interpretation Program Unit, on November 20, 2016 (click this link for further information).

This paper begins by by exploring how my Jamaican context, especially the folk tradition of Anansi (the trickster/spider), might impact my reading of 1 Samuel. The bulk of the paper is an attempt to understand the very convoluted (even contradictory) speech of Samuel in 1 Samuel 12, which comes right after the confirmation of Saul as king. I try to show (from a careful textual reading) that that the prophet is twisting the facts of Israel’s history and using underhanded rhetoric in order to portray himself as the “solution” to the problem of the monarchy, despite the fact that God has explicitly given permission for the monarchy and specifically designated Saul as the first king. The paper proposal can be accessed here and the full paper can be accessed here.

God’s Desire for Vigorous Prayer

The second paper is called “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Paradigm for Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible.” This paper will be presented in full (25 minutes) in the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures Program Unit, on November 21, 2016 (click this link for further information).

This paper explores the theology of the divine-human relationship underlying the sort of vigorous prayer found in the Bible (especially the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament), by looking first at the psalms of lament, then at prophetic intercession (with Moses as the model). The paper proposal can be accessed here.

Institute for Biblical Research

I won’t be presenting at the IBR this year, though I will be attending a number of sessions, including the annual lecture by Edith Humphrey, a fellow Canadian teaching in the USA. Her lecture (on the evening of November 18) is called “Reclaiming all Paul’s Rs: Apostolic Atonement by Way of the Eastern Fathers” and will be followed by two responses, one by Michael Gorman. You can find information about the lecture by scrolling down the IBR conference page.

Next year (November 2017) I’ll be giving an invited paper at IBR on Ecology and Eschatology in the Ecological Ethics and Biblical Studies research group (this year’s topic is on ecology and justice, and two of my friends, Brian Walsh and Steve Bouma-Prediger, are participating as paper respondents).

Esau McCauley, the new Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary, will be presenting in another IBR research group, devoted to Biblical Theology . His paper is entitled Exile, Restoration, and the Inheritance of the Son: Jesus as Servant and Messiah in Galatians 1:4.

The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 3

In two previous posts I began to examine Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

In the first post I introduced the book and summarized Osborn’s critique of narrow literalism in the way the biblical creation accounts are often read. In the second post I affirmed (and even strengthened) his case for understanding animal predation as part of the good world God made.

In this post I will summarize Osborn’s argument for God’s redemption of animal suffering, and raise some questions about it.

Osborn had early on mentioned “the central riddle of this book” (p. 13), which was the tension between the beauty and terror of animals in the wild.

In chapter 12 Osborn mounted a good case for viewing animal predation (and the suffering this naturally causes) as part of God’s good creation. As I noted in my previous post, I found his argument from the book of Job (supplemented with the perspective of various Psalms) convincing.

However, Osborn is not content with making this point.

In chap. 13 (“Creation & Kenosis”), Osborn explores the other side of his tension, namely that it does not seem satisfactory to simply affirm the goodness of animal mortality and predation, given the very real suffering evident in the animal world. He calls this a “deep scandal” (p. 157) and notes that “There are things under heaven and in earth that we should not be at peace with, and the jaws of Behemoth, I would submit, are one” (p. 157).

Osborn therefore turns to the theological notion of kenosis, in connection with the Patristic doctrine of theosis, to address this problem.

In the end, his claim is that Christ’s self-emptying and death was for the redemption of all suffering, even that which predates human evil.

Kenosis

The theological idea of kenosis is derived from Philippians 2, where Paul describes Christ’s self-humbling (verse 7).

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied [eknōsen] himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This is the first half of a poem or hymn that Paul quotes, the second half of which affirms Christ’s exaltation after death, and makes clear his deity (by using language from Isaiah that in its original context referred to YHWH’s uniqueness).

Traditionally, the idea of kenosis is associated with Christ giving up or letting go of his deity (or of his attributes of deity), suggesting that the incarnation involved a subtraction or lessening.

However, this misreads the text, which affirms instead that Christ (who legitimately has all the power of deity) did not use this for his own advantage, but (in humility) became a servant, even to death, to bring us salvation. This is the core of N. T. Wright’s argument in his chapter on Philippians 2 in The Climax of the Covenant.

The point is clear if we ask why Christ can be an example for us (verse 5).

He didn’t model becoming empty of deity (whatever that might mean); that wouldn’t be relevant to us. Rather, Christ modeled the compassionate use of power and privilege. If the one who is equal to the Father used his deity for our sakes, how much more should we use our God-given privileges to serve others in love.

It seems to me that Osborn tends towards using kenosis as an umbrella term to refer to Christ holding in abeyance his divine attributes, which led to his suffering (so he incorporates suffering under kenosis). This is why he can identify kenosis with open theism, which affirms God’s self-limitation in order to generously allow creatures space for genuine freedom. But one can be sympathetic with open theism (as I am) without affirming kenosis in Osborn’s sense.

 Theosis

Osborn pairs his notion of kenosis with theosis, also known as “deification” or “divinization.” Although I find some articulations of this doctrine problematic, since they seem to confuse the categories of creator and creation, I understand the impetus of theosis, both in the church fathers and today among authors like Michael Gorman.

The biblical warrant for using language of theosis is usually 2 Peter 1:4, which affirms that God has promised that we “may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.” Of course, this doesn’t mean becoming God, but godlike in our character.

But beyond the transformation into godlikeness, the theosis doctrine, especially in Irenaeus (second century church father), is also associated with a goal-oriented vision of salvation. That is, the transformation that redemption effects is not a return to primitive origins, but along with repairing what went wrong, brings humanity to its intended telos or goal, which sin impeded.

So this combination of kenosis and theosis allows Osborn to articulate a vision of God’s compassionate suffering in Christ, which serves to bring the cosmos, with its immense animal suffering, to God’s intended telos of perfection where all suffering is eradicated.

I have to admit that I am attracted to Osborn’s vision.

Indeed, it is similar to my own articulation of the telos of salvation in my book A New Heaven and a New Earth. Like Osborn, I would go beyond Irenaeus in applying this goal-oriented vision of salvation to the cosmos and not just to humanity.

As many biblical scholars are coming to recognize, the Bible envisions a movement from a garden in the context of God’s creation of heaven and earth, to a garden-city in the context of a new heaven and a new earth, where God is fully present.

So, the goodness of the original creation is not the same as the perfection God has in mind for the cosmos.

I also find Osborn’s affirmation of God working non-coercively in and through ordinary processes of nature and history compelling. He notes that God’s sovereignty does not predetermine everything in advance, but gives creatures freedom to develop (p. 161). This, he explains, is the basis both of the evolutionary process and of the animal suffering this process has engendered.

Why Does the Cosmos Need Redeeming?

A problem is evident, however, in chapter 13 when Osborn comes to evaluate the evolutionary process, with its resultant suffering.

Should we think of this suffering as “natural evil,” that is, something that is wrong in some fundamental sense, and so needs redeeming?

Or is the evolutionary process, along with the suffering this has caused over the eons, part of the good (though wild and unpredictable) creation God has made?

In chapter 12, on the book of Job, Osborn had argued for the natural death and suffering of animals in the evolutionary process as part of God’s good world. Yet in chapter 13, he argues that this world of animal death and suffering needs redeeming.

But why would animal mortality and suffering need redeeming? Two answers are possible.

First, they could need redeeming because they are the result, in some way, of human sin. But Osborn has already (rightly) rejected the idea that nature is “fallen” due to human sin. Rather, he views animal suffering as simply part of what a world of living organisms involves, especially an evolving world.

Alternately, nature could need redeeming because it is intrinsically deficient (here the deficiency would be precisely the animal suffering involved in the evolutionary process).

Did God Create a Deficient Cosmos?

I want to affirm the basic intuition I sense in Osborn here, that the world seems out of whack with how it should be. And he clearly has a sense of kinship with, and compassion for, animals that is laudable.

Nevertheless, Osborn comes perilously close to a theme that is gaining momentum among Christian writers who take evolution seriously, namely that the death of Christ atones not just for sin and its consequences (which I affirm), but for God’s inadequate or deficient creation of the cosmos. In a sense, God is atoning for his own sin in creating a deficient world.

I think that the issue comes down not to whether evolution should be accepted (I agree with Osborn that it makes more sense of the evidence than any alternative). Rather, the issue is whether we think of the chaotic wildness of the cosmos (of which evolution can be considered a part) as part a of a good creation or as “natural evil” which needs to be redeemed.

We cannot have it both ways. Either a good creator brought into being a good, though not “perfect,” world. Or God is not a good creator, and so cannot be trusted. And no amount of kenosis can atone for this.

The Need to Distinguish Creation from Fall and Redemption

According to Osborn, “God creates as he redeems and redeems as he creates” (p. 160). But I would want to maintain that God’s generous power evident in creation (which does not require God’s suffering) is distinct from God redemptive action to reverse the fall (which certainly requires God’s suffering).

I fully agree with Osborn that the kenosis of the cross (rightly understood) opens our eyes to see the realities of good and evil; but when he states that “When Christ cries ‘It is finished’ on Easter Friday the creation of the world is at last completed” (p. 165), I must dissent.

Otherwise creation and fall are indistinguishable, and God is not a good creator.

This means that we need to think carefully about the interconnection between God’s telos or goal for creation (which does not depend on the introduction of sin) and the need for redemption (which does). I myself haven’t fully sorted this issue out.

In the end, Osborn’s book is a strange tissue of great insights and contradictory proposals. Should we accept the testimony of Job (and the psalms) that God views animal predation as good? Or do we go with our instincts that this is all “natural evil” requiring redemption?

Perhaps Osborn will take some time to think through these issues and write some more on the topic. It is certainly an agenda for my own theological explorations.