Book Review: From Nature to Creation

After a long holiday season, I am delighted once again to be immersed in reading and thinking. In four short months, Lord willing, I will be graduating from Duke Divinity School. In order to graduate, however, I must complete a thesis project. I have the great privilege to craft my thesis under the guidance of professor Norman Wirzba. Professor Wirzba is well known for his work in the field of theology, ecology, and agrarian studies. From Nature to Creation (Baker, 2015) is his latest addition to that field of writing.

The cover of From Nature to Creation by Norm Wirzba.In From Nature to Creation, Wirzba invites the reader to develop “an imagination for the world as created, sustained, and daily loved by God” (3). Few Christians would argue that we ought not to have such an imagination — nearly all Christians confess such a belief. So, the problem is, then, living as if that is true. In each chapter, Wirzba reviews certain characteristics of modern culture that make it difficult for Christians in the west to live as if God created, sustains, and daily loves the world and all in it. Once Wirzba has described the characteristics and their theoretical underpinnings, he presents a Christian theological response to the problem. These responses are founded upon biblical exegesis, theological traditions, and Christian disciplines. In all, Wirzba confronts five problematic characteristics of modernity.

First, Wirzba draws attention to Nietzsche’s now famous assertion that “God is dead.” What God’s death implies is not that God actually ceased to exist, but that God has been replaced by or, perhaps, misplaced into other things. Modernity is characterized by an infatuation with “scientific reductionism, the autonomous self, instrumental reasoning, unencumbered individualism, technophilia, and the dis-embedding of communities” (8). Such infatuation reduces things that were once meaningful, because God gave them meaning, into amoral, material elements. We no longer have reason to see nature as creation or people as creatures and thus intimately related to God. All things are, then, the result of meaningless, random events. In turn, it becomes difficult to see that we have certain innate, moral responsibilities related to creation and other creatures. Christian grammar, however, provides a powerful alternative to this description of the world. Instead of being random, meaningless, and amoral, Christian grammar teaches us that all that exists is created by God and imbued with God’s self-offering love. Drawing from Scripture (namely the Christ hymn in Colossians 1) and early Christian theologians, Wirzba concludes that Christians must name the world and all in it as Creation. Doing so will enable us to recognize that Christ’s participation in creating and redeeming the world gives all things inestimable value. Nothing is amoral and nothing is random; all is God’s beloved creation. Continue reading

TF welcomes new contributor

It is exciting for me to welcome Zen Hess as a new contributor to Theology Forum! Zen was a student of mine at Huntington University and is now ZenProfileSmallercompleting graduate studies in theology at Duke Divinity School (read more about Zen here). Welcome Zen!

Over the years I have had many great students, some even exemplary, but Zen stands out as one of the best. He has also become a treasured friend, which is the best sort of telos for the professor/student relationship. This all makes it exceptionally satisfying for me to welcome him to our little band of theologians.

We have been blogging at TF since 2006, and I have come to realize that being theologians in the blogosphere is a unique sort of thing. Interaction in virtual spaces – even spaces that explicitly set out to be Christian – is so often vitriolic, combative, and impatient. None of which witnesses well to the church of Jesus Christ or her servants (theologians). It will be fun to see how Zen carries forward our modest aim to do theology in a joyful, irenic, and thoroughly  “churchly” way.

Time and Scripture

Guest post: Zen Hess

The freedom to read what I want as my semester at Duke winds down is a welcome relief! I have been mulling over Robert Jenson’s essay in The Art of Reading Scripture (2003). His argument explicitly raises questions about time, Christology and biblical interpretation. But it also had me asking questions about worship and Advent. Here is what I mean.

Jenson poses the question, “Is it not absurd to think of the Word as in any sense incarnate before the flesh existed, before Jesus was born?” The answer to this question has serious implications for how we interpret Scripture, specifically the Old Testament. One answer, supposed to be the right one Theotokosby many interpreters in modernity, is that it is, in fact, absurd. Supposing we might “find Jesus in the Old Testament” is to superimpose a foreign element onto the historical text. We are, however, in good company if we think that such a statement is not entirely true.

Believing that the Word preexists the Incarnation means that we may rightly find Christ’s voice in the Pentateuchal, the Poetic, and the Prophetic writings that are the Old Testament. “If the Word of the Lord,” Jenson writes, “came to Second Isaiah and made him a prophet was Jesus Christ, then the vision of Christ that the Church has derived from this prophet, of a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,’ is not a mere allowable trope but is in fact a product of Christ’s own testimony to his own character, given by the prophet.”

Jenson’s proposal requires us to reimagine how we understand time. Continue reading

On Receiving Strange Texts in the Classroom

I attended one of my favorite gatherings over the weekend, the biannual Prince Conference Centerconference of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning (held at the Prince Conference Center, Calvin College). As an educator, my guild meetings don’t hold a candle to the value-added this conference offers. There is also – and maybe I value this most, even if its hard to put my finger on – an entirely different ethos at Kuyer’s conferences than I find at guild meetings. This is probably why I find excuses to attend and present my work at the Kuyer’s gatherings.

At the guild meetings there is quite a lot of chest-thumping and comparison, and I haven’t walked away from  them feeling all that good about myself. Certainly the fault sits with me for falling prey to it, but guild meetings are rife with status comparison. The temptation to present oneself as successful, productive and on top of one’s game presses hard on me. Frankly, I haven’t seen the best version of myself in that setting.

The good folks at the Kuyer’s Institute create an entirely different environment. Scholars from every academic discipline gather from around the world to pursue together a more robust expression of the Christian imagination in teaching and learning. Attendees and presenters are united by their commitment to teach “Christianly” – and to explore all that it means to say that for our pedagogy, course planning, evaluation, etc. The collaborative atmosphere is refreshing. This year’s conference was no exception. If you have the opportunity to attend – or want an excuse to skip your guild meetings in two years – the next meeting will the first or second week of October, 2017.

I presented a paper on developing empathy for culturally diverse expressions of Christian faith in the classroom. The dialogue which followed was rich and helpful for me as I continue refining my teaching in this area. Here are my final remarks from the paper:

C.S. Lewis suggested that we read in order to see as others see. We read because “We want to see with other eyes” he wrote, “to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with their hearts, as well as with our own…Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (An Experiment in Criticism, 137, 41). I challenge my students, Try and receive this portrait of Jesus by seeing Jesus through their eyes. Don’t merely consider the possibility that someone might actually see Jesus that way; attempt to see him that way yourself. The person and their communities who fashioned this portrait look upon the same Jesus as you. Receptivity enabled you to look into their face; hospitality enabled you to receive them into your company; empathy will enable you to see as they see.

Thoughts?

On Grace: Week’s End Lecture

I gave this brief lecture at the end of class today in my course, The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Honestly, I don’t lecture veryRembrandt.The Prodigal Son often, and when I do only briefly. But there are times for it. Like today when I needed to grab hold of the “threads” from the week and suggest how to pull them together.

The week began with readings from Luke 15—the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son—then into excerpts from Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, and today into Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Henri Nouwen’s excellent book of the same name was our guide into the world of the painting. What follows below is my attempt to draw these threads together as they relate to the doctrine of grace (the central “thread” of the course). As always, I welcome your interaction.

Our week began with three parables told by Jesus to a mixed audience: his disciples, the crowd that generally followed, and the religious leaders (Luke 15:1-32). As Luke records it, Jesus is on the long climb to Jerusalem. All along the way conflicts crop up with religious leaders. In some cases Jesus heals when he isn’t supposed to: on the Sabbath. In other cases he doesn’t wash as he is supposed to: his hands in the ceremonial fashion before eating. And in other cases, like this one, he hangs about with the wrong people: tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, the diseased, the unclean, sinners all around. This delights the crowd but offends most but not all of the religious leaders for various reasons.

Disobeying God is what got Israel into their messy exile in Babylon in the first place. “Doesn’t Jesus know that obedience (cleanness) will pave the way for the Kingdom of God? Hasn’t he read Deut. 30?” the Pharisees wondered.

Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, 10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach (vv. 9-11, 16).

“Come-on Jesus, get with the program! Stop hanging about with those on the outside,” they grumble.

So Jesus tells three parables. Three things are lost, then found. Three celebrations. The point seems direct enough:

Continue reading

Opening Week Routines – What Works?

Impress Teacher ImageThis is the opening week of class at my university. My kids have been in school for a week now (Canterbury School in Fort Wayne), and public schools in Indiana have been going strong for longer than that. I even hear that Ohio public schools begin the second week of August. Yikes!

Anyway, while putting the finishing touches on my syllabi and preparing all the odds and ends wrapped up in launching the semester, I started wondering: what do other professors and students do in their first week that really works? Not the mundane stuff, I am curious about those special touches – big or small – that makes the first week of class something special.

So please let us know what you have experienced. If you teach at the University or graduate school level, what do you do that gets the semester off on the right foot? What is distinctive to you and your approach to the classroom (don’t underestimate the little things)? Or if you are a student, what have you experienced in the first week that left an impression? When have you said, “Wow, that was a great first week in that class! I wish every professor would start that way!”?

The Ecumenical Edwards

I’m excited to say that my new edited volume, The Ecumenical Edwards: Jonathan Edwards and the Theologians (Ashgate) was Ecumenical Edwardsjust released. This is my attempt to address the idea, now ubiquitous in Edwards studies, that Edwards can be utilized as an Ecumenical theologian. It is, of course, hard to know what that might mean. Up until this point, the focus has been on how Edwards’s unique development of a variety of doctrines seems, at least at first glance, to mirror or overlap with Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic developments. My own focus is a bit different. I suggest, in the introduction, that Edwards’s ecumenical potential lies in two features of his thought: First, his greatness, and second, his distinctively Reformed greatness. In other words, Edwards should be utilized ecumenically because he is great in his own tradition (similarly to how Barth is often employed).

Following these same notions, I am convinced that the disciples of a given thinker cannot claim his or her worth. In other words, it is not surprising that Edwards scholars would be making bold claims about Edwards’s potential. Rather, to really justify these claims, the Church catholic must weigh in. Therefore, I assembled a contributor list of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and a wide-variety of Protestant thinkers to engage Edwards with their own expertise. Seven out of the thirteen chapters were written by non-Edwards scholars, and what came out was truly beautiful. Notice that along with my own contribution, Theology Forum’s own Kent Eilers adds an excellent chapter on prayer utilizing Edwards and Pannenberg. See the Table of Contents below: Continue reading