Three Recent Theses Completed at Northeastern Seminary

Three Master’s theses that I supervised were recently completed, two last year and one this summer. They are all substantial pieces of theological research, with clear implications for the life of the church.

  • 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)

Although my area of expertise is Old Testament, none of these theses were in that area. Meg Giordano’s thesis was in philosophy, while Calvin Smith’s and Matt Davis’s were in New Testament. So for the Giordano thesis I had to draw on my own M.A. in philosophy (my thesis addressed God language in Thomas Aquinas and Paul Tillich), and for the Smith and Davis theses, I could draw on my research for my recent book on eschatology, A New Heaven and a New Earth.

Meg Giordano’s thesis addresses the contemporary problem, particularly evident in Protestant churches in the evangelical tradition, of downplaying “works” (actions, good deeds) by emphasizing “faith” (this is often tied to the claim that “being” is more important than “doing”). Not only is this is a totally bogus distinction (we can’t simply “be” without “doing” anything; and faith without works is dead [James 2:14-26]), but she shows that the writings of Thomas Aquinas are helpful for exploring how action may be thought of as the core of being. Although there are tensions in Aquinas’s formulation (which Giordano explores), Aquinas drew on Aristotle, whose primary category of being was “energeia” or activity, a signal improvement over Plato’s more passive concept of Being (many Christian theologians have been more influenced by Plato).

Through this study, Giordanto aims to “reclaim the value of action in the life of the individual and in the relationships of community,” in such a manner that our action can be thought of as sacramental—living so that our ordinary lives “can be centers that activate in others grace, peace, and even connectedness to the presence of Christ, and to lay down our lives to ensure that they be so.”

Despite its clear philosophical character, this thesis resonated with me as a biblical scholar, since it is clear from both the Old and New Testaments that the goal of salvation is sanctification or transformation, which is manifested in a concrete life of discipleship and obedience to God.

Calvin Smith’s thesis addresses the interpretive question—which continues to surface in New Testament scholarship—of whether Paul’s references to “new creation” (Galatians 6:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17) speak primarily to the transformation of the individual or the community (the way the debate is often set up) or even to the entire cosmos (which is the primary reference of “new creation” in Second Temple Judaism).

His profound argument is that there is an interweaving of all three in Paul’s writings, and it is impossible to understand any of these emphases without the others.

As Smith aptly puts it: “There are two basic relationships to attend to: new creatures [individuals] making up the new community; and the new community as the signpost for the new cosmos. Altogether it is a cumulative relationship with the new community as the central link.” Smith likens the interweaving of these three motifs to a musical fugue. He writes: “This thesis is, in a way, an attempt to learn this fugue by separating the three parts and practicing each part before putting them all back together.”

Matt Davis’s thesis addresses the typical disjunction, both in contemporary theology and in the life of the church, between eschatology and ethics, with a focus on the resurrection. To overcome this disjunction, Davis focuses on two Pauline ways of speaking of resurrection life, signaled by Paul’s two-fold use of investiture language.

The first use of the investiture metaphor is Paul’s language of the resurrection as putting on a new body, in 1 Corinthians 15 and in 2 Corinthians 4–5, while the second is the more explicitly ethical language of putting on the new humanity, along with its practices, found in Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3. As Davis explains: “The eschatological foundation in 1 Cor 15 and 2 Cor 4–5 sets up Eph 4 and Col 3 as texts of profound ethical practices to follow. Paul stressed the community life and tied it to the transformation because of the Christ event.”

Davis wants to follow up by applying his research to the local church. He explains: “My plan is to create a church discipleship program from this labor of love, something that will help the church to practically and actively live out the resurrection life in the world.”

What They Are Doing Now

Meg Giordano has been adjunct professor of philosophy at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY for the past year; she has just begun a PhD in philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto.

Calvin Smith has been a pastor at Valley Chapel Free Methodist Church. Perry, NY for the past two years; he is currently exploring doctoral programs in New Testament and theology.

Matt Davis has been working in the Golisano Library at Roberts Wesleyan College for the last number of years, while also serving as adjunct professor in the religion department of the College. He has just begun a PhD in ministry studies at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, ON.

I’ve written before about Northeastern Seminary, where I teach, and what a special place I have found it to be.

The Times They Are a Changing (Institutions on the Move)

In a strange coincidence, I received notification today that two of the graduate schools I have studied at (and taught at) are selling their buildings. Both have been trying to sell their buildings for a while, and both have now found buyers.

I received both notifications by email today, with links that pointed to online postings from the day before.

Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School

First, I heard the news about Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (Rochester, NY).

I attended Colgate Rochester in the eighties as an M.A. student, while serving as Protestant Chaplain at the University of Rochester, and then I moved back to Rochester in the nineties for a tenure track faculty position in Old Testament.

It was as a student at Colgate Rochester that I was first introduced to the writings of Walter Brueggemann, whose vision of the relevance the the Old Testament has shaped my understanding of Scripture. And Brueggemann sent me a nice note of congratulation when I started teaching there.

I lived in the dorms for my first semester as a student at Colgate and then again for a semester when I began teaching (before my family had moved to Rochester).

But for a long time the beautiful buildings on the “Hill” have been underused, ever since the other theological partner schools that shared the campus (Bexley Hall and St. Bernard’s) moved to other locations, and the largely residential student population shifted to primarily commuting students.

So with all those empty buildings, including dorms and the large cafeteria, it makes sense that the Divinity School plans to move to a smaller facility in the city, sometime over the next two years. It would be a significant cost savings, while allowing them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

Institute for Christian Studies

Later in the day I heard the news about the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto).

I attended the ICS in the late seventies for my first graduate courses, before I transferred to the University of Guelph for my M.A. in philosophy. While studying at the ICS and during my time in Guelph I worked for the ICS teaching non-credit worldview courses on university campuses in southern Ontario.

It was at the ICS that I received an in-depth exposure to thinking about a Christian worldview, through the institution’s intellectual heritage that could be traced back to the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper.

During my studies at ICS my wife and I lived in a small apartment on the top floor (with roof access), which came with the position of being in charge of janitorial work for the entire building.

I later returned to the ICS in the nineties for my PhD, and taught many adjunct courses in Biblical Studies and Worldview Studies in the Master’s programs. At this point we didn’t live in Toronto, but I commuted to the ICS from St. Catharines a couple days per week.

It was during this time that I was introduced to the work of N. T. Wright, who spoke at the ICS on a number of occasions. Wright’s serious historical and theological interpretation of the New Testament has impacted my vision of the text, including its rootnedness in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism.

Between the two times I attended the ICS, the school moved from the fourth floor of the building (where I first had classes) to the second floor, and then to the first floor, having sold the greater share of the five-story building they owned in downtown Toronto to investors.

But now, with the investors going out of business, and the option to buy back the entire building being too much at this time (given the price of real estate in Toronto), it makes sense to sell the entire building (including their own share), while continuing to rent one floor. Just as with Colgate Rochester, this would allow them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

A Future Orientation

What do these two similar stories tell us about the state of Christian higher education today? What do they tell us about what is really important?

Yes, institutions need buildings with adequate space and facilities to pursue their mission. But these two stories point to the very real need to cut costs and become leaner and more efficient for the sake of the mission.

I have all sorts of fond memories of these two buildings (the beautiful stone towers of CRCDS and the old fourth floor of ICS). But it simply won’t do to focus nostalgically on the past. To be effective and faithful, institutions need to be aware of what serves the mission. So while being deeply grounded in tradition (never forgetting the past), faithful institutions need to be oriented to the present and to anticipate the future.

I am a grateful recipient of the formative intellectual traditions I inherited from both these graduate schools. And I am fully supportive of these ways in which each is preparing to meet future challenges.