Steve passes his PhD viva!

ImageCongratulations to our very own Steve Duby for passing his PhD viva at St. Andrews (Dr. Duby)! We are all thrilled for you Steve. Enjoy the sweet relief of having the preparation and inevitable stress of the unknown behind you.

It is impossible to forget the moments immediately before my viva and those right after it – they are indelibly etched in my memory. There are no other experiences quite like it, nor is there any adequate way to explain or help someone prepare for it. Sure, you can brush up the argument your thesis puts forth, and all that, but no amount of pre-thinking or strategizing prepares you for the moment it actually begins. ImageAnd it is all compounded by the strange relationship you develop with your PhD thesis. For years you agonize over it, laboring on the argument, fussing over the formatting, laying in bed thinking about it when you wish it was the one thing you could stop thinking about. Then you have to send it off like a child leaving the house at 18 for your examiners to…well, you don’t entirely know what they will do with it. And suddenly its all over. You make a few corrections (Lord willing, only a few), then wonder what you are going to do next.

Here’s to you Steve, and whatever comes next!

Prayer for my students (and me) on the first week of classes

How are we already one month into the spring semester?  I prayed this prayer with my students at the conclusion of the first week of classes in a course on the doctrine of the Christian life.

Isaiah 8:21-9:1 – Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and Imagefearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness. Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

God of Grace, your coming to us always precedes our coming to you,

we come sometimes eagerly
other times stubbornly
but we always finding our true selves in coming.

Your “nevertheless” marks our way, for whatever way we find to you is one you charted already:

you made a way for there to be anything at all
you made a way for a barren couple to be your partners in blessing
you made a way for your blessed-to-be-a-blessing-people to exodus
you made a way, you made a way, you make a way

We have called these way-makings of yours

Creation
Covenant
Exodus
In short, faithfulness.

We gave different names to your way-making in flesh, calling it

Incarnation
Atonement
Reconciliation
Redemption
Sanctification
Restoration
Perfection
In short, grace.

As we give ourselves to considering the particular existence which arises from these actions – the Christian life – continue making your way to us and among us through it, and may there be for us no more gloom, only the light which dawned. Amen.

Advancing Trinitarian Theology

I just returned home after participating in the LA Theology Conference. La TheologyHere, I want to give some highlights, a general overview, and then pose a question I had after the conference was completed. First, the conference in general was fantastic. Fuller was a great venue, it was run incredibly well, and the event as a whole had a nice overall rhythm to it. In some conferences you feel like you are running around non-stop, but this was full without being overwhelming. It didn’t hurt, of course, that January in So Cal is gorgeous, so sitting outside having a coffee in between sessions was a nice way to decompress. Second, the plenary sessions were great. There was a nice variety, but they built off of each other well without simply patting each other on the back. The one obvious agreement among the plenary speakers was that social trinitarianism is something of a train wreck, but even that was handled in different ways. And finally, ending the conference with a panel discussion really helped tie it all together. It was here where the disagreements came to the surface. There was some question about apophaticism, and along with that, with analogical or univocal predication. There was a general dislike of the immanent/economic distinction, with different individuals accepting it as an imperfect but helpful distinction, and Lewis Ayres claiming it was too broken to salvage. Ultimately, it was all very interesting. Continue reading

Abiding with the Dying

ImageLike so many across the Midwest I am hunkered down watching massive amounts of snow fall outside my window. My kids have worn themselves out in the white stuff, and with a cup of coffee and plate of Christmas cookies I have a few moments to reflect on a recent visit to my parents and to my elderly grandmother.

My mother and father are the primary caregivers for my grandmother (97), who is now bedridden and rapidly loosing mental grasp of herself and her surroundings. Sitting with her is less now about conversation than holding her hand and reminding her that I am present. The tasks are without doubt more physically and emotionally arduous for my parents. Unlike them, I am not called upon to meet the daily challenges her care requires: scheduling nurses, carrying to the bathroom, monitoring health, anxiously waiting daily for the next sign of deterioration.

Being in the presence of the care my parents are offering confirmed something Ben Quash writes about in a lovely little book called Abiding. The dying ask three things of us above all else (quoting Dame Cicily Saunders): help me, listen to me, stay with me. Quash goes on:

The challenge of caring for a dying person is that the effectiveness of the usual tools and roles is relativized. The patients are not going to get better, and they do not need a ‘solution’ to something. What will often be most precious to them, instead, is people to undertake to ‘accompany’ them in what they are going through…The model of abiding that Jesus bequeaths to his disciples is not one in which the tick of the clock is accumulating units of expensive time, and the persons involved are either engaged in the targeted application of technical skill or professional know-how, but are attentively and mutually available to each other. They undertake ‘accompaniment.’

What I experienced first-hand with my grandmother, and strongly suspect my parents are as well, is the painful relativizing Quash describes. Our power to be effective, Continue reading

Christology: Ancient and Modern

As many of you know, I’m sure, the LA Theology Conference is coming up in the near future. For more info, see here. ImageThis year the conference will be held at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA and will be focusing on the doctrine of the Trinity. I will be reading a paper on beauty and the doctrine of God, utilizing a retrieval from Jonathan Edwards’s trinitarian aesthetics to ground a certain mode of theologizing. But more on that later. The LA Theology Conference has quickly positioned itself as one of the more interesting theology conferences in the country, pulling in great plenary speakers and providing a context for dogmatic theology on the west coast. But more recently, it has also proven it can turn its conferences into an incredibly useful theology text. 

Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Zondervan, 2013) has recently been released, and it is made up of the five plenary addresses from last years conference  as well as five of the nine other papers presented at the conference. As with any conference volume of this type, you can always trust that the chapters will be illuminating, but, in my experience, conference volumes are incredibly uneven (even more so than other edited volumes, which are often uneven at the best of times). While I wasn’t struck by this volume being uneven, it did have a range of emphases and approaches, some more philosophical than others, some more strictly dogmatic, others with a more historical or biblical focus. Overall, I am not only pleased by the breadth and depth of the essays, but I believe this could serve as a useful theology text. As with any text, the professor would want to narrate the broad issues prior to the students reading this kind of work, and would also want to “pull back the curtain” on some of the theological spats taking place (trying to explain, for instance, why Torrance would think it necessary to deny simplicity!).

Overall, if the LA Theology Conference can continue to put out volumes like this one, I think it will set itself apart among theology conferences. With the plenary speakers for the next LA Theology Conference (this January), one can assume that will happen.  

Theological Conversation

When studying for my PhD at the University of Aberdeen I walked home nearly every Imageafternoon with a fellow student and office mate who lived in the flat next door. Kyle, another contributor to this blog, became one of my closest friends. Those theological conversations while strolling back to our families were rich, and I credit them to helping me complete my thesis. Clarity often comes when we  articulate our thoughts. That insight left to rattle around in your head, the one you suppose to be brilliant, may sound silly when you put it in words – that revelation is a great gift!

One morning over the summer I was having a similar sort of theological conversation with a colleague at Huntington. He brewed a fine cup of coffee, we settled ourselves into his nice little office, and our conversation meandered from topic to topic: his work on Barth’s aesthetics, my research on Radical Orthodoxy, our common love of beauty, etc.

When parting, Bo reminded me of a beautiful little exchange between Anselm and his conversation partner Boso in Cur Deus Homo:

Anselm: What you ask from me is above me, and I am afraid to handle ‘the things that are too high for me.’ If someone thinks, or even sees, that I have not given him adequate proof, he may decide that there is no truth in what I have been saying, and not realize that in fact my understanding has been incapable of grasping it.

Boso: You should not fear this so much, but you should rather remember what often happens when we talk over some question. Continue reading

Paul T. Nimmo Joins Faculty at Aberdeen

I am happy to announce that Paul T. Nimmo will be taking the chair in Systematic Theology at Aberdeen in the Fall (the one recently vacated by John Webster). This is an important move for King’s College! Please see the press release below:

The University of Aberdeen’s highly regarded department of Divinity and Religious Studies has appointed a leading professor to strengthen its King's College Aberdeenposition as a premier centre for world class research in Christian Theology.

Dr Paul T. Nimmo will take up a chair in Systematic Theology in September. He joins the department from Edinburgh University having previously been an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. His own studies were undertaken in Cambridge, Edinburgh, Princeton, and Tübingen. Widely published in the fields of systematic and historical theology, his book Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth’s Ethical Vision earned him the Templeton Award for Theological Promise. He is widely acknowledged to be amongst the front-rank of researchers in the theology of Karl Barth, and his major study of Barth’s theology of the sacraments, Thinking the Eucharist After Barth, is forthcoming. He is an Editor of the International Journal of Systematic Theology. Together with David Fergusson, Dr. Nimmo is currently editing the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology.

Dr Nimmo has a broad range of research interests in systematic theology generally and in the Reformed tradition in particular. His work incorporates both historical and contemporary Christian doctrine, and he is centrally involved with a number of church projects in theology. He is a member of the Church of Scotland – Roman Catholic Joint Doctrine Commission, the Church of Scotland Working Group on Issues in Human Sexuality, and the inter-denominational ‘Why Believe?’ Group. He is a Treasurer of the Society for the Study of Theology and is a Fellow of the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. In high demand as a public speaker and lecturer, Dr. Nimmo has delivered the Kerr Lectures in Glasgow and a Block-Seminar on the Theology of Karl Barth at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.

The University’s Pro-Chancellor, former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and former President of Princeton Theological Seminary, The Very Reverend Professor Iain Torrance, said:

I am truly delighted by Paul Nimmo’s appointment. He is one of the most brilliant and most promising younger scholars in his field from anywhere in the world. At the University of Edinburgh he has been acclaimed by the student body as being also a great teacher. Aberdeen has a long tradition of outstanding theology in the Reformed tradition. In the case of Paul Nimmo, the Department could not have made a better appointment, and this is good news for Reformed scholars not only in Scotland but also in the US, Korea, Japan and Africa.

Divinity and Religious Studies is a leading research department within the University and home to one of its largest communities of international postgraduate research students. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) confirmed its status, rating 80 percent of its assessed research at 4* (world-leading) or 3* (internationally excellent). The department ranks first in Scotland and second in a field of thirty-eight departments in the UK in the Times Higher Education tables.

John Webster moving to University of St. Andrews

It is a sad day for Aberdeen, but John Webster is heading south to the University_Hall_01University of St. Andrews. Ivor Davidson, head of school at St. Mary’s, said the following in the press release (more here):

John Webster is widely recognized as one of the very best theologians in the world. He has a stellar reputation as a scholar, author, and communicator, and is an outstanding servant of both the academy and the church. His major current projects promise to be of immense significance for the shape of English-language theology in the years ahead. John has long had collaborative links with several colleagues in the School, and I am absolutely delighted that he will now be joining us at St Mary’s College, where his research, teaching, and supervision of graduate students will add considerably to our established strengths in several areas. Professor Webster’s appointment further reinforces the reputation of St Andrews as one of the world’s most dynamic centres for theological and biblical scholarship.

“Grace,” the Broadway Play

Grace.Broadway PosterI love teaching at a Christian liberal arts university! My reasons are many, but one of them is the opportunity for participating in events outside my normal teaching area. Last night, for instance, I was a respondent for our theater department’s Readers Theater. The play was the black comedy “Grace” by Craig Wright. Imagine the scene: listening to bright young actors read a compelling and revealing script then discussing its themes and characters with all in attendance. What fun!

The play is intelligently written and explores religiosity and faith, suffering and mystery, human relationships and longing (and more). The plot revolves around the slow unraveling of Steve, a highly religious Christian seeking to make it big in Florida, and the slow awakening of everyone around Steve. Even though Steve is a caricature of conservative, prosperity-Gospel Christianity, the play itself, in my mind, is not really about Christianity at all.

What does it mean to be human, together? What does belief entail? How are we certain about anything? In the midst of grief, confusion, and mystery, where can “grace” be found? For instance, there is a fascinating scene in which Sam, a scientist who doesn’t believe in God, tells Steve about space probes that gather and send data back to earth. Steve is ultra confident in God’s will for his financial prosperity, but as Steve’s life rapidly spins out of control his confidence wanes. Where is grace found? In the muck and mire of life what can he really know?

SAM: Space is a tremendous distance that you have to get information across in time. That’s the problem with space.

STEVE: Time.

SAM. Yes. How can we know what we need to know…in time – when what we need to know has to come from so far away.

STEVE: How can you?

SAM: You can’t. Ultimately. You can’t.

STEVE: Huh. That’s fascinating.

Steve is unsettled about Sam’s space probes because, for Steve, faith in God entails complete certainty about everything. For Steve, there simply is no mystery, nothing that remains inexplicable. Shortly later in the same scene:

STEVE: You talk about these distances you can never get across, “Oh poor us, space and time, its so far.” When you’re in the Lord, Sam, there is no space and time. Everyone knows everything.

Through a series of events which force Steve to “know” that he can’t “know” as suspected, Steve’s life quickly comes apart. As others awaken to mysterious “grace” in the midst of the tangible relationships around them, Steve refuses to listen or see what is happening at arms reach. What he can’t understand and can’t control he ultimately destroys.

I’m curious, if you saw the play on Broadway, what themes stood out to you? What was the overall sense of the play’s direction as you walked out of the theater? Did your view change after you mulled it over?

Punished Twice Over?

Having just characterized the two books For Calvinism and Against Calvinism as helpful introductions to the divergent perspectives on the doctrines of grace, I’ll add a caveat: one possible weakness in these volumes is that Horton is given more space for positive articulation and less for polemical jabs at Arminianism while Olson is given more space for polemical jabs and less for constructive exposition.

Perhaps, then, one more attempt to identify a problem in Olson’s case for Arminianism is permissible, this time with respect to the doctrine of the atonement.  Olson naturally opposes the notion of particular redemption and then argues that general redemption or ‘unlimited atonement’ is compatible with the penal, substitutionary dimension of Christ’s death.  He offers an illustration:

Just one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter…guaranteed a full pardon for all who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing from the US into Canada or other countries.  The moment he signed the executive order, every single draft exile was free to come home with the legal guarantee that he would not be prosecuted….Even though there was a blanket amnesty and pardon, however, many draft exiles chose to stay in Canada or other countries to which they fled.  Some died without ever availing themselves of the opportunity to be home with family and friends again.  The costly pardon did them no good because it had to be subjectively appropriated in order to be objectively enjoyed.  Put another way, although the pardon was objectively theirs, in order to benefit from it they had to subjectively accept it.  Many did not (Against Calvinism, p. 149).

Continue reading

Theology, Disability, and the People of God: Call for Papers

There is a call for papers for the Theology, Disability, and the People of God conference to be held at Carey Baptist Church, Auckland. The conference will be held from the 1ST-3RD JULY 2013

KEYNOTE SPEAKERS

Professor Amos Yong
J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology
Regent University

Professor John Swinton
Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies
University of Aberdeen

CONFERENCE

This conference dares to explore the question, “What difference does a theology of disability make?” The gospel compels us to embrace ways of being human together that will overcome false divisions and exclusions in search of flourishing vulnerable communities. In doing so, we seek to equip one another for participation in communities restored to God, one another and all creation.

PROPOSALS

We invite local and international participants to offer biblical, theological, ethical, and church perspectives on the theme ‘Theology, Disability, and the People of God’. To provide a rich exploration of this theme, the conference seeks a diversity of presentations from people with academic, professional, and/or lived experience.

Proposals should include the following details:
• Name
• Current position/relevant experience
• Contact information
• Title of proposed paper/presentation
• 200 word abstract for proposed paper

Proposals must be emailed to Andrew Picard, Lecturer in Applied Theology at Carey Baptist College: andrew.picard@carey.ac.nz
DEADLINE for proposals is March 1st, 2013.

Help for Teaching Church History

If you are like me, you spend as much time thinking of creative ways to engage your students as you spend on the content of the course itself. This is why I love it when publishers and authors do that for us (because it saves me so much time). My friend Norm is releasing a new help for teaching church history – the Theologian Trading Cards (for publisher page click here). Theologian trading cards are a set of flash cards covering a broad scope of church history and current thinkers. They are flash cards with a fun twist, taking the form of a baseball card. Norm created 288 of these cards and he even put them on 15 theological or historic “teams”. Check out some samples below:

Jonathan Edwards and Justification

With my recent move and my upcoming semester of teaching (which is all very new), I feel like all my posts have been updates about something I’ve published. Sorry about that, hopefully things will be more manageable soon. Until then, I would like to highlight a new book out on Edwards: Jonathan Edwards and Justification ed. Josh Moody (Crossway, 2012). In short, this book is a defense of the claim that Edwards held to a position on justification that can be regarded as Protestant and Reformed. If you are not familiar with the secondary literature on Edwards, this might seem pointless. If Edwards was anything he was Reformed right? Not necessarily so. On justification specifically, Edwards scholars have long questioned Edwards stance, even claiming that it is a key ecumenical bridge with Roman Catholicism.

To start the book, Josh Moody lays out the debated issues and defends Edwards’s Reformed heritage. Next, I lay out what I believe to be the crux of Edwards’s position. I argue that his position is often misunderstood because his doctrinal ordering is not followed carefully. Edwards grounds justification in participation and union, ordering soteriology around Christ and the Spirit. Ultimately, this has to do with Edwards’s account of theosis, but in general, it has more to do with his theocentric approach to doctrine. Every doctrine finds its orbit around Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Third, my friend Rhys Bezzant addresses Edwards’s broad social vision and its implication for his preaching on justification. Fourth, Samuel Logan analyses perhaps the biggest stumbling block in Edwards’s account of justification – evangelical obedience. My hope is that his chapter and mine really serve as two sides of the same argument. Once you follow the dogmatic moves in the first part of Edwards’s discourse on justification, his second part (dealing with evangelical obedience) can fall into place appropriately. Last, Doug Sweeney mines other material across Edwards’s corpus, published and not, to round out the picture of justification we present in this book.  Continue reading