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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My Intensive Week of Jewish Learning at Mechon Hadar

I am Jewish by birth (through my mother), although I was not raised in the Jewish tradition.

I became a Christian at a fairly young age and began attending church seriously as a teenager. I was particularly drawn to the study of the Bible and—despite my interest in visual art and poetry in high school—I embarked on an undergraduate degree in theology, primarily in order to explore my faith.

Along the way I fell in love with academics, and by the time I received my undergraduate degree (B.Th.) I had experienced a clear call to a teaching career. For me, however, I was only interested in teaching if academics could be integrally connected to the life of faith and the real needs of church and society. Indeed, I have never experienced academics as an ivory tower exercise.

I went on to study philosophy (M.A.), followed by graduate courses in biblical studies, and then a Ph.D. that integrated all of the above (a doctorate in philosophical theology, with a dissertation in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible).

My Jewish Heritage and Love for the Old Testament

I am unabashedly a Christian. Yet I can’t deny my Jewish heritage, a heritage that perhaps led to my love of the Old Testament—what Jews call Tanakh (an acronym for Torah [Pentateuch], Nevi’im [Prophets], and Ketuvim [Writings]).

I have always resisted jumping too quickly from the Old Testament to the New, since I have found that the Old Testament is a profound document in its own right, which has been formative for my spirituality. Rather than reading the Old Testament resolutely in terms of the New (finding Jesus under ever rock and tree—as one of my students put it), I have tried to read the New Testament in terms of the Old.

This way of reading the Bible undergirds all my teaching and led to (among other things) my recent book on biblical eschatology, A New Heaven and a New Earth, in which I tried to demonstrate the consistently this-worldly, earthy vision of “the age to come” (ha’olam haba in Hebrew). The eschatological vision of the New Testament builds on the foundation of the Old Testament, and does not—contrary to many Christian misreadings—“spiritualize” this foundation.

While I have no actual intention of converting to Judaism, I am interested in understanding my Jewish heritage—especially the ways in which Judaism has developed beyond the Bible.

And I have the utmost respect for Jews who take their faith seriously and seek to live out their commitment to God with integrity and compassion.

Mechon Hadar

I met a good number of such people this past week, as I immersed myself in the five-day Executive Seminar of an ecumenical institute of Jewish learning in New York City called Mechon Hadar.

Mechon Hadar (Institute of Honor/Glory/Splendor) was founded in 2006 by three brilliant young Rabbis—Shai Held, Elie Kaunfer, and Ethan Tucker, who continue to lead the institute, along with the addition of other top-notch faculty.

According to their website: “Mechon Hadar is an educational institution that empowers Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah learning, prayer, and service.”

Or, as it was articulated more simply during the Seminar, Mechon Hadar seeks to be characterized by “sophisticated yet accessible Jewish learning.” I found that to be an accurate description of my experience with this amazing, innovative institute.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker teaching in the Beit Midrash (House of Study)

Mechon Hadar offers a variety of programs, ranging from one-day seminars to summer intensives and year-long fellowships. While many of their programs cater to young people (especially those in college) who want an advanced course of Jewish studies (some even come from Israel for this), and other programs function as continuing education for Rabbis, the Executive Seminar that I participated in is geared to laypeople of varying levels of comfort and expertise with the Hebrew language and with Jewish texts and traditions.

Although I was the only Christian in the group of nearly forty adults attending this summer’s Executive Seminar, I was warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. Over the five days of intensive learning, I had many wonderful conversations with participants and even—by the end—found myself making a contribution to discussions.

Talmud Study—Clarification of Terminology

Three of the mornings were spent in intensive study of the Talmud (three hours each morning), where our focus was on the ramifications of a law concerning liability for injury in Exodus 21:18-19 and the divine and human roles in healing implied in God’s promises to Israel in Exodus 15:26.

For Christians unfamiliar with Jewish terminology, the Talmud (also called the Gemara) is a collection of Rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah, which is itself earlier Rabbinic commentary on the halakah, that is, the laws of the Torah (hālak means to walk, from which we get the phrase “walk the walk,” which refers to ethical action).

Since many of the commands enjoined upon Israel in the Torah raised questions in the minds of later readers, they discussed what these laws meant and how they might be applied, often suggesting difficult hypothetical cases or even counter examples to try and clarify the point of the laws.

This Rabbinic commentary was collected by Rabbi Yehuda (Judah) and published around 200 C.E. (= “Common Era,” equivalent to A.D. for Christians) as the Mishnah.

But the discussions of the various laws in the Mishnah in turn raised further questions, which led to debate and clarification by later Rabbis. The collection of this later commentary (from about 200 to 500 C.E.) on the Mishnah is sometimes called the Gemara, but more usually the Talmud (meaning “teaching,” from the verb lāmad, to learn).

The confusion is that there is a second, more expansive meaning of Talmud, which can refer to the combination of Mishnah and Gemara. There are two extant versions of the Talmud in this larger sense—the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) and the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli). The latter is more comprehensive and is the version usually studied.

My Knowledge of Hebrew

Since we were studying the train of interpretation concerning Exodus 21:18-19 and 25:26 in the Mishnah (and related contemporaneous literature called the Baraita) and in the Talmud (Gemara), with some excursions into later medieval and modern Jewish texts, we were put into groups based on our facility with Hebrew and Aramaic. Some Seminar participants were paired with advanced students who were at Hadar for the summer intensive (they studied texts in the primary language, usually Aramaic, and usually unpointed—that is, without vowels). I would have been out of my depth in this group.

I began the study of Biblical Hebrew in my thirties, unlike many of the Seminar participants who had been to Hebrew school as children and had participated in the Jewish liturgy (reciting the Siddur) for many years. Some had even been involved in advanced Hebrew learning, and a few were fluent in Modern Hebrew.

So, while I have taught introductory (and even intermediate) Hebrew in college and seminary up to five years ago (so I knew the grammar, and much biblical vocabulary), I never functioned in a context where Hebrew was spoken, and was unfamiliar with many Hebrew terms that named parts of the Jewish liturgy. I felt the force of Mr. Miyagi’s words to Daniel in The Karate Kid, when he sees Daniel reading. “You learn karate from book?” he asks incredulously. Change karate to Hebrew and you will understand my disadvantage.

So I was happy to be part of a group (made up of about half the Seminar participants) whose level of expertise required us to participate in Talmud study with a bilingual text (English and Hebrew/Aramaic).

Each morning this group was expertly introduced to the issues to be studied by Rabbi Alvan Kaunfer (father of Elie, one of the founding Rabbis). Then we broke up into pairs or small groups of three or four (I was paired with a wonderful man named Michael—one of three Michaels in the Seminar) and we would spend an hour and a half digging into the texts for the day, trying to figure out the arguments and the concerns of the various Rabbinic voices. Then we would re-gather with Rabbi Kaunfer to discuss what we had found and he would help us synthesize the learning for the morning.

With Michael, my Havruta (study parntner)

Studying Talmud was a new experience for me and initially I found it quite complex and even confusing; but by the end I had come to a profound respect for the wisdom and insight of these ancient interpreters of Scripture.

As a result of this morning Talmud study, combined with various afternoon lectures on important topics of Jewish theology, ethics, biblical interpretation, and liturgy (all of which were interspersed with references to Hebrew terms and texts), I found my facility with the language growing every day.

In a follow-up blog I will discuss some of these lectures (and the lecturers) and what I learned from them.

Discounted Registration for Michael Gorman Conference Extended for One More Week (till February 8)

This is an update to my previous posts about the theology conference at Northeastern Seminary with Michael Gorman (entitled Participation in God’s Mission).

Discounted registration has now been extended to February 8, with a further discount available to students.

More details about the conference can be found in my previous blog post here.

This is the registration link for the conference.

A full schedule of the conference (Friday evening March 18 and all-day Saturday March 19), including descriptions of Dr. Gorman’s keynote lectures (on “Paul, the Mission of God, and the Contemporary Church” and “John: The Nonsectarian, Missional Gospel“), can be found on the Northeastern Seminary theology conference page.

There will be about forty papers presented on various aspects of the conference theme in concurrent sessions.

I hope to see you there!