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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Recent Book Reviews of A New Heaven and a New Earth

In the past couple of weeks I’ve become aware of some recent reviews of A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

Matthew Forrest Lowe On-line Review

The first review is by Matthew Forrest Lowe, which is posted both on NetGalley and on his own website, Lonely Vocations.

The review begins by saying:

I’m always impressed by Richard Middleton’s work, and this book is no exception. It’s a difficult trick to write about eschatology without losing sight of the larger narrative of biblical theology, but Middleton pulls it off! He begins by showing how the book’s concern fits within his story, noting his concern “to make the Bible’s vision for the redemption of creation available to a wide audience” (16) — many of whom might struggle with some of the same questions that he’s wrestled with throughout his theological life.

While Matt largely agrees with the emphasis of the book (and he includes an excellent summary if its argument), he raises two important questions. The first concerns my understanding of sin throughout the book (which he would like more clarity on); the second concerns my interpretation of the intermediate state in 2 Corinthians 5:1-9 (he cites Walter Grundmann’s alternative interpretation in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).

These are legitimate questions and I look forward to addressing them (and much more) when Matt presents his extended version of this review in Ottawa in a few weeks.

Book Review Panel at the CETA Meeting on May 31, 2015

Matt is on the executive committee of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA) and he will be presenting his review as part of a book review panel on A New Heaven and a New Earth, at the annual meeting of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association on May 31, 2015.

While the formal CETA meeting will be held during the day (8:30 AM — 4:30 PM) at the University of Ottawa as part of the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the panel discussion will take place at Sunnyside Wesleyan Church at 7:00 PM.

In fact, Matt is organizing the review panel. Besides Matt, there will be reviews by Brian Walsh (with whom I’ve written two books) and Janet Warren (whose review will appear in the Canadian Theological Review, the journal sponsored by CETA). I will respond to the three reviews and we will have a time of open discussion with the audience.

If you are around, I hope you can join us.

Midwest Book Review

The second review of A New Heaven and a New Earth is a short note in the Midwest Book Review. My publisher, Baker Academic, posted the following excerpt from the review on their website:

Enhanced with the inclusion of an informative introduction, figures and tables, an appendix (Whatever Happened to the New Earth?); a thirty page Subject Index; and a fifteen page Scripture Index, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology is a model of Biblical scholarship making it very instructive reading and highly recommended for personal, seminary, community and academic library Christian Studies collections.

You can read the entire review here in the Midwest Book Review, listed under “Christian Studies.” 

James Howell in the Christian Century

The third recent review is a longer piece by James C. Howell in the Christian Century. This is the excerpt Baker Academic posted on their website:

A thoughtful, thorough, and well-written book on biblical eschatology. . . . Middleton’s message concerns, secondarily, Christians’ fixation on the rapture and, primarily, virtually all of Christian preaching and teaching that eviscerates the richness of the Bible’s eschatology, offering nothing more than the chance to go to heaven after we die and this world has ended. . . . Middleton eloquently lifts up what is entirely plain if you pay attention: ‘the Bible consistently anticipates the redemption of the entire created order.’ Guiding us on a dazzling tour through the broad range of relevant texts, he makes clear the Bible’s emphasis on the material order–on culture, bodies, and buildings–and shows that the Creator’s purpose isn’t for creation to be swept away, but for it to be entirely redeemed.

This one is a somewhat strange review. It is mostly positive, but the reviewer raises all sorts of questions about things in the book, some of which are actually answered in the book (did he read it carefully?) and some of which are on minor points that I didn’t stress, but that he somehow thought were important. And once or twice he just plain misinterpreted what I was saying (like on the nature of final judgment or on taking eschatological imagery literally).

But, that’s par for the course as far as book reviews go (there have been much greater misreadings of things I wrote in reviews of my earlier books). And, as they say, any publicity is good publicity! (And the Christian Century is a widely read periodical.)

Rodney Clapp in the Christian Century

Interestingly, Rodney Clapp, the editor who originally contracted me for the eschatology book (but now works for a different publisher), wrote an earlier piece for the Christian Century on trends in holisitic eschatology (entitled “Life after Life after Death”), in which he mentioned the book I was working on a couple of years before it was published.

At one point in the article, he addresses recent books on the subject:

Premier among them is N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Rob Bell’s bestseller Love Wins follows Wright in putting the post-mortem emphasis on resurrected bodies in the context of a new heaven and a new earth. More recently Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett, in Salvation Means Creation Healed, make an extended argument that salvation focuses not just on souls and not just on people, but presents the hope of a transformed and new earth. Meanwhile, biblical scholar Richard Middleton is at work on a book that will closely examine the major biblical texts and argue for the eschatological hope of a new heaven and a new earth.

You can read the entire article here.

Rodney Clapp on the Running Heads Website

A few months ago Rodney followed this up with a more extended online review of A New Heaven and a New Earth; he posted it on the editorial website for Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications, called “Running Heads” (Rodney is chief editor for Cascade Books).

These are the opening and closing sections of the review:

Some years ago, when I was an editor with Brazos/Baker Academic, I acquired a project that has just now come to fruition. That book is J. Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic). Richard’s work is a sweeping—and exegetically detailed—survey of the argument that the earth is not to be left behind at the end of history as we know it. Instead, God will transform the “old” heavens (which are a creation of God themselves) and earth, because all creation is a part of God’s salvific work through Israel and Jesus Christ.

. . . . . . .

Of course, it remains to be seen if the holistic eschatological perspective will spread through the entire church and become dominant. I hope it will. If it does, Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth will surely be seen as a key text in that shift.

At the end of the reivew, Howard Snyder (one of the authors Rodney mentioned in his earlier article) posted a comment in response, saying that he was using my book in one of his courses at Asbury Seminary.

You can read the entire review (and the response comment) here.

The Meaning of “Paradise” in the Bible

My fourth and final blog post in the weekly series “Beyond the Book” was just posted by Baker Academic. Each of my four posts during March have focused on some point of interest that I learned about eschatology while working on A New Heaven and a New Earth. The latest post, called The Meaning of “Paradise” in the Bible, explains that this term is not equivalent to “heaven,” contrary to the assumption of many Christians.

Baker is giving away three copies of A New Heaven and a New Earth. You can sign up for a copy here, until midnight tonight (March 30, 2015).

If you want to read the four posts in order, here are the other three:

My first post, Preparation in Heaven for Revelation on Earth – The “Apocalyptic” Pattern, focused on the underlying pattern I came to discern in many “heaven” passages in the New Testament that seem to be associated with the Christian hope.

My second post, The Meaning of “Heaven” in the Bible, explained that “heaven” is not thought of in the Bible as an immaterial, uncreated realm, but rather as the cosmos beyond the earth, which can stand symbolically for the realm inhabited by God and the angelic host (and angels are often identified with stars in the Bible).

My third post, The Stars Will Fall From Heaven, discusses the origin of this image in extra-biblical literature and its meaning, which has to do with judgment on corrupt angelic powers and not the literal destruction of the cosmos.