Jesus Is Risen! So What?

As we enter Holy Week, culminating in Easter this coming Sunday, BioLogos is publishing a number of short online articles about the resurrection of Jesus under the general rubric of “Resurrection: Answering the Skeptics.”

Resurrection.” Giovanni Bellini (1479)

I have contributed a couple of these articles, both of which have been published today.

Why Is the Resurrection of Jesus Important?

The first one is called “Why Is the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Important for Christian Faith?

My approach is to view the resurrection as testimony to God’s valuation of the embodied nature of reality, which is evident in creation, the incarnation, and the new creation. In connection with the new creation, I draw on Paul’s notion of the resurrection of Jesus as the “firstfruits” of a harvest that is to come.

You can read the article here, including the discussion that ensued.

What Do We Do with the Multiple Accounts of Jesus’s Resurrection?

My second piece is called “Why Are There Multiple Accounts of Jesus’s Resurrection in the Bible?” Here I’ve tried to explain why the various accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels (which don’t quite harmonize with each other) isn’t a problem for me, but actually makes them more believable.

Facebook Live Discussion of the Resurrection

These two articles, along with others, are meant to lead up to the Facebook Live event this evening at 7:00 pm EST that BioLogos is hosting. As I explained in my blog posted last week, I will be joining three other Christians (one philosopher and two scientists) to answer questions about the significance of the resurrection.

You can join the discussion by going to the BioLogos Facebook page.

Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?

In preparation for this event, you might be interested in reading some of the other BioLogos articles on the resurrection.

Yesterday BioLogos posted a two-part article called “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?”

In Part 1 four scientists responded to the following question:

As a scientist, you are trained to be skeptical about extraordinary claims—and the Resurrection is definitely an extraordinary claim. On what basis do you accept this claim as true?

In Part 2 three scientists responded to a related question:

Is belief in the Resurrection unscientific? What would you say to someone who challenges your scientific credentials because you believe that a dead man walked out of the grave?

N. T. Wright on the Resurrection

On the topic of the resurrection, I especially recommend Jim Stump’s “Still Surprised by Easter,” in which he shares what he (the senior editor at BioLogos) learned from reading N. T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God over the Lenten season a few years ago.

I myself found Wright’s book extremely helpful when I was working on A New Heaven and a New Earth.

More on Science and the Resurrection

If you want to read a bit more, there is an excellent article on the BioLogos website called “Does Modern Science Make Miracles Impossible?” The author clearly shows that it is entirely coherent to accept that God usually works through natural processes and yet sometimes (as a sign of the coming Kingdom) brings about events that cannot be explained by natural processes.

The implication is that David Hume’s famous argument against the possibility of miracles is not really an argument, but simply a disposition.

This is precisely the thrust of an older, but illuminating article on the BioLogos website by historian Rick Kennedy called “Did David Hume ‘Banish’ Miracles?” I highly recommend this article for anyone (not just philosophers) interested in the topic.

And BioLogos just reprinted a helpful piece from the Huffinton Post called “Does the Resurrection Contradict Science?

I wish you good reading.

And I look forward to interacting with anyone interested tonight on Facebook Live.

 

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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.”

Coming Full Circle to Bristol—Twice!

This is the ninth (and final) post about my UK speaking tour.

After giving eleven talks in the previous two weeks in Scotland and England, I traveled to Bristol to speak at Trinity College—my last stop before returning home via Heathrow airport.

Coming Full Circle 1—Jamie Davies and Tom Wright

My contact at Trinity College was Jamie Davies, Tutor in New Testament.

Jamie is the author of Paul Among the Apocalypses? An Evaluation of the “Apocalyptic Paul” in the Context of Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature; Library of New Testament Studies (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).

He also wrote a sympathetic review of my book A New Heaven and a New Earth (2014) for the Review of Biblical Literature (published last year).

I first met Jamie at the 2014 Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Diego. At the time he was a doctoral student at St. Andrews, studying with Grant Macaskill; but I met him because he was Tom Wright’s research assistant and the three of us had lunch together.

Jamie worked with Tom on PFG, the acronym they both use for Tom’s massive (1700 pages) two-volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013); Jamie worked on copy-editing and often had to track down missing footnotes and other references.

So there was a Tom Wright connection both at the start of my UK visit and at the end—full circle 1.

Presentations on Job and Eschatology

I did two presentations at Trinity College.

The first was an afternoon Research Seminar for faculty and postgraduate students, which focused on God’s second speech to Job from the whirlwind. My paper addressed what God was trying to communicate by reference to the monsters Behemoth and Leviathan; the paper is being published in the current issue of St. Mark’s Review (an Australian journal).

At the Seminar I met John Bimson, formally retired from being Tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, but who still teaches a course on Job; he was a great dialogue partner and later shared with me one of his published papers on the monsters in Job, which articulated an interpretation very close to my own.

Later that evening I gave a public lecture on biblical eschatology, in essence summarizing the argument of A New Heaven and a New Earth. You can listen to the lecture here.

At least half the evening attendees came at the urging of Richard Russell (yellow shirt, above). I first encountered Richard by reading his MA thesis from Bristol University (called “The Growing Crisis of the Evangelical Worldview and Its Resolutions”) when I was doing my initial graduate studies at the Institute for Christian Studies in the nineteen-seventies.  Over the years Richard has been an Anglican priest, a philosophy teacher, and a bookseller; he brought an array of relevant books for sale during the evening event.

Coming Full Circle 2—J. Alec Motyer

I first heard of Trinity College in Bristol when I was an undergraduate student at Jamaica Theological Seminary. During my B.Th. degree I attended a Keswick Convention in Kingston, Jamaica when J. Alec Motyer, then Principal and professor of Old Testament at Trinity, was the preacher.

It turns out that Motyer’s first speaking engagement outside of the UK was at a Jamaican Keswick Convention in 1964. I’m not sure how many times he spoke in Jamaica, but I heard him in the mid-seventies.

He did a series of expositions on Ezekiel 1–3 throughout the week of Keswick meetings, and these expositions were so inspiring that I have always credited them as one of the primary impetuses behind my growing desire to study and teach the Old Testament.

Beyond that, in my first year at JTS all the students were given a free copy of The New Bible Commentary: Revised (IVP, 1970), a one-volume Bible commentary edited by Motyer (along with three other biblical scholars). Although it has since been revised (there is a 21st Century Edition published in 1994), and is a somewhat predictable evangelical commentary, I found it to be a very helpful first reference work as a new undergraduate student.

When I first came to the UK to speak in 1997 at the invitation of David Hanson, I mentioned the importance of Motyer’s influence on me and David immediately phoned him up and put me on the line. I was able to thank Alec Motyer in person for his impact on my life and my sense of calling to Old Testament studies.

J. Alec Motyer (1924-2016) passed away the August before my second visit to the UK. His funeral was held September 2016 and Trinity College had a memorial service for him not long after I headed back to the States.

 

Perhaps the book Motyer was most proud of writing was A Commentary on Isaiah (IVP 1993), which he published in his retirement (he published some fourteen books after retiring!). As is typical of old-school evangelical scholars, he held firmly to the compositional “unity” of Isaiah, arguing that the entire book comes from the hand of the 8th century Isaiah of Jerusalem.

Almost all contemporary OT scholars (including evangelicals like myself) think it makes more sense to think that the oracles in chaps. 1-39 (with the exception of chaps. 24-27) are from the 8th century Isaiah; that chaps. 40-55 come from a prophet of the Babylonian exile who took up Isaiah’s mantle; and that chaps. 56-66 (and probably 24-27) are oracles from the post-exilic period, when Israel had returned to the land.

Beyond the three “Isaiahs,” there is clearly editing discernible throughout that weaves the entire book together. Despite its complexity, deriving from different historical periods, it is still the word of God, and constitutes a complex theological unity that speaks powerfully to our day.

At Motyer’s funeral, a story he sometimes told was recounted. He is reported to have said that when we get to heaven if you notice three men beating him up over in a corner, not to worry; their names are all “Isaiah” and he deserved it.

So, from hearing Alec Motyer speak as an undergraduate student in Jamaica, which fanned my love of the Old Testament, to myself speaking at Trinity College, where he used to teach—full circle 2.

Well, it was quite a trip; I got to speak to lots of different groups and I met old friends and made new ones. But I was very glad to get home, and even take a vacation!