Join us for a Conference on Scripture, Theology, and the Sciences on October 25–26 (Just Two Weeks Away)

You are invited to visit Northeastern Seminary on October 25–26 in Rochester, NY for an enriching time of discussion among theologians, biblical scholars, scientists, ecologists, pastors, students, and others.

Keynote Speaker—William Brown

Our keynote speaker is William P. Brown, professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary.

Brown’s expertise is in Old Testament theology, with a special emphasis on the ethical implication of creation themes. He has an abiding interest in the sciences and the science-theology conversation. He is the author of many books on biblical interpretation.

One of Brown’s best books, which is directly relevant to the theme of the conference, is The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010). In this book Brown examines seven different creation accounts in the Old Testament and imaginatively links them to his reflections on various aspects of the natural world that we have discovered through scientific exploration.

Brown’s Lectures at the Conference

Brown will give a public lecture in advance of the conference proper on Friday evening, October 25, on the topic of human evolution and the garden of Eden, entitled: “From Ardi to Adam: The Garden and Human Origins.”

The lecture begins at 7:30, but refreshments will be served from 7:00 pm.

The conference proper begins at 8:30 am on Saturday, October 26, with registration and a continental breakfast beginning at 8:00 am.

After an opening liturgy, Brown will present a lecture on God’s speeches to Job from the whirlwind, entitled “Job, Astrobiology, and the Science of Awe.”

Thirty Conference Papers

After Brown’s morning lecture, there will be thirty papers presented in concurrent sessions during the day.

Here are some of the paper topics:

  • Christ of the Neanderthals: Redefining the Imago Dei in Light of Modern Paleoanthropology
  • Why Have You Forsaken Me? Dying in Ecology and Theology
  • “When I Consider Your Heavens”: Cosmology and Worship in the Scientific Era
  • Language, Empathy, and Morality: Adam’s Evolutionary Journey to Maturity and Guilt
  • Experiments in Environmental Guerilla Journalism
  • God Saw that It Was Good, the Problem of Evil, and a Scientifically Informed Theodicy
  • The Chaotic Waters and the Womb: Pastoral Implications of Conceptual Metaphors surrounding Birth and Adoption in Science and Scripture
  • Technology, Time, and Living the Sabbath
  • God’s Agape/Multiple-Routes Design for the Universe
  • Alterations in Times, Seasons, and Biblical Text: The Impact of Horological Science on the Interpretation and Translation of Scripture
  • Servanthood and Service: The Challenges of Implementing Biblical Perspectives within Natural Resource Management

You can download the full schedule of papers here.

We hope you will join us for a time of engaging conversation with the keynote speaker, with paper presenters, and with other attendees.

There will be books by William Brown and some of the other conference speakers available for sale.

Registration and Accommodations

You can see the schedule for the day at the conference website, and here is the registration page.

There is a $20.00 registration discount available for members of the co-sponsoring organizations and for students and alumni of Northeastern Seminary.

Lunch is included in registration.

If you need to stay overnight in Rochester, here is a list of inexpensive accommodations nearby.

Co-Sponsorship of the Conference

This theology conference is one in a series of conferences co-sponsored by Northeastern Seminary and the Canadian-American Theological Association (CATA) over the last seven years.

Since this year’s conference will address the intersection of Scripture, theology, and the sciences, we are delighted to have three other co-sponsoring organizations, all of which address the the science-faith dialogue in helpful ways—the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation,  the American Scientific Affiliation, and BioLogos.

These organizations will have information tables at the conference.

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5 Common Misconceptions about Heaven and the Afterlife

A couple months back I was asked to write a guest blog for the Gospel Relevance website on the topic of five common misconceptions about heaven and the afterlife.

This is part of a series on “5 common misconceptions” on a variety of topics by guest authors.

The five misconceptions I addressed are as follows (these are five things that the Bible does not teach):

1. That Christians will live in heaven forever.

2. That the earth will be destroyed in the judgment when Jesus returns.

3. That the new heavens and new earth will be a replacement cosmos.

4. That the new heavens and new earth will consist of a never-ending worship service.

5. That the way we live now doesn’t affect the afterlife (and vice versa).

You can now read the blog post online here.

Or you can download a PDF of the post to read later.

Update: By March 2019 the post I wrote for the Gospel Relevance website had been shared over 1,000 times.

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 and Patristic 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.”