Making All Things New—Faith and Work 2014 Conference

In about a week I will be speaking at what looks to be a very exciting conference in New York City.

The conference is called “Making All Things New—Imagination & Innovation Required,” sponsored by the Center for Faith and Work, which is affiliated with Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

This is how the website describes the conference:

“The Faith and Work Conference is a two day gathering of industry leaders, cultural commentators, and leading theologians to reflect on the vital, inevitable intersection of our work and faith. Through keynote talks, exhibitions, workshops, and cultural outings, we’ll explore the role of imagination and innovation as expressions of God’s grace in our world. Artists and educators, designers and technicians, homemakers, engineers, managers, entrepreneurs, doctors, and everyone in between are invited to help us celebrate the remarkable reality that work matters.”

The conference begins Friday evening, November 7, and continues all day Saturday, November 8.

Timothy Keller (founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church) will give a keynote talk on Friday evening, framing the conference in terms a Christian imagination.

My own keynote, entitled “A Sacred Calling for Sacred Work,” will be on Saturday morning.

Other speakers include David Brooks (columnist for the New York Times), on a social imagination, as well as Dave Evans, Nancy Ortberg, and Margaret Newman.

The afternoon has an “Imagination and Innovation Expo,” with “workshops, tastings, conversations, screenings, demos and more.”

The conference ends with theologian and poet Christian Wiman leading participants through an imaginative exercise to envision the future together.

Bios for all the presenters are listed here.

The Bible’s Best Kept Secret

I remember once, on a climbing trip to Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point on the island of Jamaica, watching a breathtaking sunrise at seven and a half thousand feet above sea level. After some minutes of silence, my friend Junior commented wistfully, “This is so beautiful; it’s such a shame that it will all be destroyed some day.” I still remember the dawning awareness: I don’t think it will be. It did not make sense to me that the beauty and wonder of earthly life, which I was coming to embrace joyfully as part of my growing Christian faith, could be disconnected from God’s ultimate purposes of salvation.

Tracking a Worldview Shift

This basic intuition or theological insight was confirmed by my study of Scripture during my undergraduate studies at Jamaica Theological Seminary.

Most contemporary Christians tend to live with an unresolved tension between a belief in the resurrection of the body and an immaterial heaven as final destiny. Many also have in the back of their minds the idea of the new heaven and new earth (from the book of Revelation), though they aren’t quite sure what to do with it.

I myself started my theological studies with this very confusion. But as I took courses in both Old and New Testaments, and tried to understand the nature of God’s salvation as portrayed in the various biblical writings, it became increasingly clear that the God who created the world “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and who became incarnate in Jesus Christ as a real human being, had affirmed by these very acts the value of the material universe and the validity of ordinary, earthly life.

More than that, I came to realize that the Scriptures explicitly teach that God is committed to reclaiming creation (human and non-human) in order to bring it to its authentic and glorious destiny, a destiny that human sin had blocked.

It was especially the writings of New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd who most helpfully clarified for me the interconnectedness of what the Bible taught on the redemption of creation, and he explicitly contrasted this teaching with the unbiblical idea of being taken out of this world to heaven. Ladd’s work on biblical theology prompted me to do my own investigation of the theme of the kingdom of God in the Bible in relation to what we euphemistically call the “afterlife,” to see what role there was for heaven and/or earth in God’s ultimate purposes.

As a result of this investigation, while still an undergraduate student, I came to the startling realization that the Bible nowhere claims that “heaven” is the final home of the redeemed. While there are many New Testament texts that Christians often read as if they teach a heavenly destiny, the texts do not actually say this. Rather, the Bible consistently anticipates the redemption of the entire created order, a motif that fits very well with the Christian hope of the resurrection—which Paul calls “the redemption of the body” (Romans 8:23).

It was after this startling realization that I first challenged an adult Sunday School class I was teaching at Grace Missionary Church (my home church in Jamaica) to find even one passage in the New Testament that clearly said that Christians would live in heaven forever or that heaven was the final home of the righteous. I even offered a monetary reward if anyone could find such a text. I have been making this offer now for my entire adult life to church and campus ministry study groups and in many of the courses I have taught (in Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica); I am happy to report that I still have all my money. No one has ever produced such a text, because there simply aren’t any in the Bible.

 The Bible’s Vision of Cosmic Redemption

Central to the way the New Testament conceives the final destiny of the world is Jesus’ prediction (in Matthew 19:28) of a “regeneration” (KJV, NIV) that is coming; Matthew here uses the Greek word palingenesia, which both TNIV and NRSV translate as “the renewal of all things,” correctly getting at the sense of cosmic expectation in Jesus’ prediction.

Likewise, we have Peter’s explicit proclamation of the “restoration [apokatástasis] of all things” (in Acts 3:21), which does in fact contain the Greek for “all things.”

When we turn to the epistles, we find God’s intent to reconcile “all things” to himself through Christ articulated in Colossians 1:20, while Ephesians 1:20 speaks of God’s desire to unify or bring together “all things” in Christ. In these two Pauline texts, the phrase “all things” (tà pánta) is immediately specified as things in heaven and things on earth. Since “heaven and earth” is precisely how Genesis 1:1 describes the world God created, this New Testament language designates a vision of cosmic redemption.

This cosmic vision underlies the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” found in both Revelation 21:1 and 2 Peter 3:13. The specific origin of the phrase, however, is the prophetic oracle of Isaiah 65:17 (and 66:22), which envisions a healed world with a redeemed community in rebuilt Jerusalem, where life is restored to flourishing and shalom after the devastation of the Babylonian exile. The this-worldly prophetic expectation in Isaiah is universalized to the entire cosmos and human society generally in late Second Temple Judaism and in the New Testament.

This holistic vision of God’s intent to renew or redeem creation is perhaps the Bible’s best-kept secret, typically unknown to most church members and even to many clergy, no matter what their theological stripe.

The Logic of Redemption in the Bible

While this is not the place for a full exposition of the biblical teaching about the redemption of the cosmos, some clarification may be in order. It is particularly helpful to trace the roots of the New Testament vision in the Old Testament, in order to understand the inner logic of the idea.

A good starting point is that the Old Testament does not place any substantial hope in the afterlife; the dead do not have access to God in the grave or Sheol. Rather, God’s purposes for blessing and shalom are expected for the faithful in this life, in the midst of history. This perspective is grounded, theologically, in the biblical teaching about the goodness of creation, including earthly existence. God pronounced all creation (including materiality) good—indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31)—and gave humanity the task to rule and develop this world as stewards made in the divine image (Genesis 1:26-28; Genesis 2:15; Psalm 8:5-8).

The affirmation of earthly life is further articulated in the central and paradigmatic act of God’s salvation in the Old Testament, the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Not only does Israel’s memory of this event testify to a God who intervenes in history in response to injustice and suffering, but the exodus is manifestly a case of sociopolitical deliverance, whose fulfillment is attained when the redeemed are settled in a bountiful land and are restored to wholeness and flourishing as a community living according to God’s Torah.

Indeed, the entire Old Testament reveals an interest in mundane matters such as the development of languages and cultures, the fertility of land and crops, the birth of children and stable family life, justice among neighbors, and peace in international relations. The Old Testament does not spiritualize salvation but understands it as God’s deliverance of people and land from all that destroys life and the consequent restoration of people and land to flourishing. And while God’s salvific purpose narrows for a while to one elect nation in their own land, this “initially exclusive move” is, as Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim puts it, in the service of “a maximally inclusive end,” the redemption of all nations and ultimately the entire created order.

Although the Old Testament initially did not envision any sort of positive afterlife, things begin to shift in some late texts. Thus in Ezekiel’s famous vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) the restoration of Israel is portrayed using the metaphor of resurrection, after the “death” they suffered in Babylonian exile. But this is arguably still a metaphor, not an expectation of what we would call resurrection.

Then, a proto-apocalyptic text like Isaiah 25:6-8 envisions the literal conquest of death itself at the messianic banquet on Mt. Zion (where God will serve the redeemed the best meat and the most aged wines); this text anticipates the day when YHWH will “swallow up death forever” (cited in 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54) and “wipe away all tears” (echoed in Revelation 21:4).

But the most explicit Old Testament text on the topic of resurrection is the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 12:2-3, which promises that faithful martyrs will awaken from the dust of the earth (to which we all return at death, according to Genesis 3:19) to attain “eternal life.”

It is important to note that this developing vision of the afterlife has nothing to do with “heaven hereafter”; the expectation is manifestly this-worldly, meant to guarantee for the faithful the earthly promises of shalom that death had cut short.

The Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 3 is particularly helpful here. This text (which is in the Septuagint, though not in the Protestant canon) specifically associates “immortality” with reigning on earth (Wisdom 3:1-9, esp. 7-8); that is, resurrection is a reversal of the earthly situation of oppression (the domination of the righteous martyrs by the wicked, which led to their death) and thus is the fulfillment of the original human dignity and status in Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8:4-8, where humans are granted rule of the earth.

These ancient Jewish expectations provide a coherent theological background for Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which he construed as “good news” for the poor and release for captives (Luke 4), and which he embodied in healings, exorcisms, and the forgiveness of sins (all ways in which the distortion of life was being reversed).

These expectations also make sense of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that the meek would “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) and later in Matthew that “at the renewal of all things” the disciples would reign and judge with him on thrones (Matthew 19:27-30).

Paul’s description of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead as the “firstfruits” of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20) signifies that the harvest of new creation has begun, the expected reversal of sin and death is inaugurated. This reversal would be consummated when Christ returns in glory climactically to defeat evil and all that opposes God’s intent for life and shalom on earth (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). Then, in the words of Revelation 11, “the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Revelation 11:15). At that time, explains Paul, creation itself, which has been groaning in its bondage to decay, will be liberated from this bondage into the same glory God’s children will experience (Romans 8:19-22).

The inner logic of this vision of holistic salvation is that the creator has not given up on creation, but is working to salvage and restore the world (human and non-human) to the fullness of shalom and flourishing intended from the beginning. And redeemed human beings, renewed in God’s image, are to work towards and embody this vision in their daily lives.

In a follow-up post (“Singing Lies in Church”) I examine how the hymns of the church have contributed to an other-worldly hope.

Walter Brueggemann on A New Heaven and a New Earth

The writings of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann have had a profound impact on my thinking over the years.

Back when I was a theology graduate student, I read Brueggemann’s The  Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Augsburg, 1984). This book introduced me to the importance of human experience embedded in the Psalter, especially the value of lament psalms in processing pain and helping us move towards newness of life. The Message of the Psalms was life-altering and spoke directly to where I was in my faith journey. Brueggemann’s insights into lament, both in this book and in his famous article on the “costly loss of lament,” greatly influenced my own argument about the inadequacy of classical theodicy in “Why the ‘Greater Good’ Isn’t a Defense.”

Then I read The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress, 1978; 2nd ed. 2000), which crystallized the contrast between the impulse to autonomy and control in Pharaoh’s Egypt and the Israelite monarchy, on the one hand, and the challenge to this autonomy in the exodus and in the Yahwistic faith in the prophets, on the other. This book, published a few years before the Psalms book, articulated the move in the prophetic literature from embracing pain (here Brueggemann focused on Jeremiah) to being energized by hope (here he focused on Deutero-Isaiah). It was The Prophetic Imagination, more than any other resource, that opened my eyes to the sociopolitical implications of the gospel. Brueggemann was helpful in providing a paradigm for interpreting both the Old Testament and the New; his chapters on the cross and resurrection of Jesus in terms of the prophetic pattern of the Old Testament were illuminating.

However, I began to see certain limitations in Brueggemann’s analysis of patterns in the Bible. His take on Scripture was very helpful in addressing suffering and injustice and in prodding us towards a redemptive vision. But his suspicious interpretation of creation texts in the Old Testament did not match my experience of these texts as liberating and empowering. In fact, Israel’s Praise (Fortress, 1988), his second book on the Psalms (he has since written more), was even more suspicious of creation texts, interpreting them, along with the enthronement psalms, as nothing more than royal legitimation for the status quo. It was my high respect for Brueggemann, combined with my perception of a different reading of creation in the Old Testament, that led me to publish a critical review of the topic, titled “Is Creation Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann” (1994).

Prior to publication, I presented this paper at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in 1992. Since the conference organizers had put my paper right after a panel discussion that Brueggemann participated in, he was there to hear my paper. It also turned out that the person who was to present after me had pulled out of the conference, so there was a gap of half-an-hour. The conference chair asked Brueggemann if he would say a few words in response, since we had some time. I actually have no recollection what Brueggemann specifically said, since I was sick as a dog. I had laryngitis the night before and wasn’t even sure I would be able to deliver the paper. As it was, I had to speak in almost a whisper (I told the audience that I came to them in the weakness of the flesh).

All I remember is that Brueggemann was very gracious; he was basically affirming and appreciative. And then when my paper was published, he wrote a very positive response, locating my paper among various recent approaches to Old Testament creation theology. I found out later that even before my SBL presentation Brueggemann had already begun to come to a more positive view of the topic of creation, evident in his oral presentations (I later listened to some recordings). Some of his more positive views found their way into his Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Fortress, 1993), and later into his magnum opus, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress, 1997).

I’ve had many contacts with Walter Brueggemann over the years, from responding to a paper he gave at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto (in 1997) to hearing him give papers at SBL and attending many of his speaking engagements in Rochester.

He wrote a great blub for the back cover of Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith for a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995), which I co-authored with Brian Walsh, and he even sent me a nice card congratulating me when I got a full-time teaching appointment at Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1996. Later, he wrote a very positive endorsement of my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005).

More recently, Brueggemann has written an endorsement for A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014):

“Richard Middleton plunges boldly into a most-treasured misreading of the Bible. He shows the way in which ‘other-worldly’ hope of ‘going to heaven’ is a total misread of gospel faith. In a demanding, sure-footed way he walks the reader through a rich deposit of biblical texts to make clear that the gospel concerns the transformation of the earth and not escape from it. Middleton summons us to repentance for such a mistaken understanding that has had disastrous practical implications. This is a repentance that he himself avows. When his book catches on, it will have an immense impact on the way in which we think and act about our common future in the gospel, a common future with important socio-economic, political derivatives. The reader will be rewarded by Middleton’s boldness.”

Actually, it is I who have been rewarded by Brueggemann’s boldness—I’ve been rewarded again and again.