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.

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Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution

A few months ago I posted briefly about my appointment as a theological fellow for BioLogos. In that post I explained a bit about the history of BioLogos and why they appointed three theology fellows this year (of which I am one).

My task as a theology fellow will be to write six or more blog posts on the topic of biblical faith and evolution—on topics ranging from cosmic creation and human distinctiveness to the origin of evil, divine providence, and eschatology.

The series is tentatively titled Biblical Faith and Evolution: Loving the Questions.

My first blog in the series, “Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution,”  appeared today on the BioLogos website.

You can read the whole post there and also post comments and questions in response.

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My next post in the series is called The Ancient Universe and the Cosmic Temple; it addresses the relationship of biblical creation accounts (especially Geneses 1) to what science tells us about the age and size of the universe.

Earth Day in the Bible

Today is Earth Day, when we attend to the health of our earthly environment. The first Earth Day was observed in 1970, when the environmental movement was born in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The Original Earth Day

But there’s a sense in which Earth Day goes back to Genesis 1, when God looked at what he made and saw that it was good. We could say that was God’s “observance” of Earth Day.

But then came human sin, which brought ruin to the world. We today can understand very well how human evil can taint our earthly environment. But it’s quite an achievement for the ancient author of Genesis to understand how inextricably humans are bound to the earth.

We see the human effect on the earth when we read on in Genesis.

Take the contrast between Genesis 1 and 6. Whereas God had looked at the initial world he made and saw that it was very good (Genesis 1:31), later we are told that when God looked he saw something quite different—that human evil was great on the earth (Genesis 6:5), and that the earth had as a consequence become become corrupted or ruined (Genesis 6:12).

Later, in the New Testament, Paul can talk about not just human beings, but creation itself, groaning in bondage to futility and yearning for liberation (Romans 8). This is something we today can understand with perhaps other levels of meaning than first-century Christians could—we who live in a world of global warming, melting icecaps, toxic waste, bleaching coral reefs, and rapid species extinction due to habitat erosion.

The Pain that Plagues Creation

Just yesterday I was listening to an old song (from the eighties) by Mark Heard, called “The Pain that Plagues Creation.” It’s very appropriate for Earth Day.

Mark Heard was what we might call an alternative Christian singer/songwriter, who was not quite in the mainstream. He died young, and Bruce Cockburn wrote and recorded a song about him called “The Strong Hand of Love” for a tribute album.

Here’s a recording of “The Pain that Plagues Creation,” and you can follow along with the lyrics below.

As this planet falls around the sun
Trapping us in the orbit
Creation groans in unison
Like a race of frightened orphans

The darkness of this raging storm
Is covering up our portals
But a yearning for the light is borne
In the heart of every mortal

Day to day we ache
With the pain that plagues creation
Night to night we lie awake
And await its restoration

Heaven knows our lonely ways
Heaven knows our sorrows
And Heaven knows things that we don’t know
And the joy of eternal tomorrows

But through this glass we dimly see
This world as it was made
Oh and the good we know must surely flow
From the heart of a kind Creator

Refrain

So hold on in this restless age
And do not fear your shadow
Your alternating tears and praise
Are prayers that surely will matter

Refrain

Mark Heard, “The Pain that Plagues Creation”
From the 1983 album Eye of the Storm
© 1983 Bug ’n Bear Music

New Earth Day

Yes, there is a pain that plagues creation—both human beings and the earth and its varied lifeforms. But the Bible envisions a great change coming, an end to pain when tears will be wiped away.

In the book of Revelation, John tells us: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). He sees the New Jerusalem (representing the renewed community of believers) descending from heaven, and he hears a voice from the throne declaring God’s permanent dwelling with us on earth, since the curse is removed.

Then comes the amazing announcement: “Behold, I am making all things new” (21:5).

For those (ancient or modern) who know the ruined earth, its hard to take this seriously; so the voice adds: “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Since I’m preaching this Sunday at Community of the Savior (my home church), I’m aware that Revelation 21:1-6 is one of the scheduled lectionary readings, along with Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, and John 13:31-35.

It isn’t exactly clear how all these texts fit together—and it isn’t every week that those who organized the lectionary intended all four assigned texts to mutually illumine each other.

But in this case I think the lectionary texts fit together remarkably well.

And that’s what I’m going to try and communicate in my sermon for this Fifth Sunday of Easter (a.k.a. Earth Day Sunday).

And for my Jewish readers this Friday afternoon, Shabbat Shalom!

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Click here for the audio of my sermon (“Enlarging Our Vision: God’s Plan for All Creation”), and click here for the written text.