Explore the Bible, Theology, and Spiritual Formation: Take a Course at Northeastern Seminary!

I’ve blogged before about Northeastern Seminary, in Rochester, NY, where I teach biblical worldview and exegesis.

In that blog I called Northeastern Seminary “a hidden gem,” because of its amazing grounding in Scripture, combined with its focus on the ecumenical traditions of the church and its openness to addressing the complex issues of our times.

Changes in the Curriculum at Northeastern Seminary

Since I wrote that blog post, the Seminary has embarked on a pretty significant revision of its curriculum, which will allow more flexibility for students to take courses full-time or part-time, either onsite or online, in whatever order makes sense to them.

In the Fall of 2018 I will be teaching one online course (an introduction to biblical exegesis) and two onsite courses (one on the biblical worldview and an exegesis course on 1 Samuel).

How do we approach theological education at Northeastern Seminary? Here are three faculty perspectives on biblical interpretation and spiritual formation.

Dr. Esau McCaulley—Being in the Word

Dr. Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary. He teaches an introduction to biblical study in the new curriculum called “Being in the Word,” as well as exegesis courses on particular New Testament books (such as Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Revelation).

In this short video clip (two and a half minutes) Dr. McCaulley shares his passion to help students read biblical texts carefully, beyond their untested assumptions, such that they might encounter the living God, who is the author of Scripture.

Dr. Rebecca Letterman—Being Human

Dr. Rebecca Letterman is Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Northeastern Seminary. She teaches a foundational course on formative spirituality in the new curriculum called “Being Human,” as well as other courses in pastoral and spiritual formation.

You can watch a two minute video here of Dr. Letterman speaking to the importance of personal and spiritual faith development for Christian authenticity.

Dr. J. Richard Middleton—Being in the Story

As Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary, I teach a course on the biblical worldview in the new curriculum called “Being in the Story,” plus an introduction to biblical exegesis for teaching and preaching, and exegesis courses on selected parts of the Old Testament (such as Genesis, 1 Samuel, Job, and the Psalms).

You can click here for a short (minute and a half) video of my discussion of why it is important to study Scripture holistically, for its worldview, with a focus on our response to God’s claim on our lives.

Visiting Students Can Sample a Graduate Course: What Are the Options?

Northeastern Seminary is currently offering a good deal to anyone who wants to explore theological education by taking a course, either onsite or online.

You can find out more here, including the low cost for visiting students to sample a course (for either credit or audit); and you can explore which courses are offered when, to see what might fit your schedule.


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, 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.”

Reading Genesis 1 Responsibly (Audio and Handout available)

Last week I gave a talk at the Nickel City Forum in Buffalo, NY on how to read the creation account in Genesis 1 (specifically Genesis 1:1—2:3) responsibly, for its authentic message, instead of reading it with modern assumptions. You can access my blog post about the talk here.

The Nickel City Forum has just posted an audio of the talk, for the benefit of anyone interested who couldn’t make it to the event.

At the event I gave out a four page handout with an outline of my talk with biblical references and a few visuals. You can download the handout here.

I’d be interested in follow-up discussion with anyone who attended or anyone who listens to the audio and wants to respond.