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.

 

 

A Visit with Walter Moberly and St. Cuthbert in Durham

This is part 3 of my journey through the UK.

Having left Aberdeen, I got on the train from Scotland to England, arriving in Durham around suppertime. I was welcomed at the station by Walter Moberly, professor of Old Testament at Durham University.

Walter Moberly is a brilliant scholar who cares immensely about reading Scripture theologically for the sake of the church. I have benefited greatly from his work over the years; indeed, my very first email contact with him (ten years ago), prodded me to significantly nuance my interpretation of a particular biblical text (Genesis 12:1-3).

Walter was also the doctoral supervisor of my colleague Josef Sykora, for which I am very grateful.

Abraham’s Response to God in Genesis 22

I came to Durham, at Walter’s invitation, to give a paper in the Old Testament research seminar for postgraduate students in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. My topic was “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.”

My interpretation of this famous story (known in Jewish tradition as the Aqedah or the binding of Isaac) deviated significantly Walter’s (he has written extensively on the topic). Whereas I was critical of Abraham’s silent response to God in Genesis 22, Walter has defended Abraham in numerous articles and thinks the story was meant to teach about the true attitude of the heart when Israel offers sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple.

I don’t doubt that the story came to have that use, but I wanted to understand what it could mean in the narrative world of the Abraham story itself.

Despite our disagreement, and the questions that he raised in the wake of my presentation, Walter was extremely gracious to me throughout my visit to Durham.

The Hospitality of Walter Moberly

He was, in fact, a wonderful host. I stayed with Walter and Jenny Moberly in their house near the university, the very house that Charles Kingsley Barrett (the famous New Testament scholar) used to live in.

Having lived and taught in Durham since 1989, Walter Moberly has become very knowledgeable about the history of the university and the cathedral (which are both on the same grounds).

He gave me a fascinating walking tour of Durham cathedral, which dates back almost to the Norman conquest (which took place in 1066). Construction began in the late eleventh century and was completed in the early twelfth century—which makes the cathedral about a thousand years old (that’s pretty impressive to someone from the New World).

St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

Among the historical details I learned was that St. Cuthbert (634–687), the monk who became bishop of Lindisfarne and who died there, was buried in Durham cathedral.

When it became evident that the island of Lindisfarne (off the east coast of Northumbria) would no longer be safe from invasion by enemies, the monks moved their order (along with the body of Cuthbert) to Durham and he was re-interred there. This was before the Cathedral was built.

Legend has it that when Cuthbert’s tomb was opened (first to move him to Durham, then to rebury him in the cathedral once it was built) his body was incorrupt. This magnified the fame of Cuthbert, who was a saint in his own right independently of this phenomenon.

Even when emissaries from Oliver Cromwell (the staunch Puritan) opened Cuthbert’s tomb in the seventeenth century, they were awed by the incorruption of his body, and re-buried him, despite Cromwell’s distaste for the veneration of saints.

I had the amazing experience of sitting where this picture was taken, looking at Cuthbert’s tomb (the dark rectangle set in the floor), overwhelmed by the depths of time (a twenty-first century man contemplating a seventh century monk buried in a twelfth century cathedral).

I prayed silently, offering thanks for the faithfulness of God from the beginning of creation, through all the ages of the world, including his revelation through Abraham, Israel, and Jesus, up through medieval England, and into all the lands of the world, right up to the present day—and on into the consummation of all things.

Thanks be to God, the Alpha and the Omega, the creator and redeemer of all times—including this brief epoch we call human history.

My next post takes us to the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield.

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.