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.
I support Meg Giordano’s thesis of action being as important as faith in living out the Christian life. Too often, evangelical churches are remiss in their involvement with their communities and cloister themselves within their walls. Perhaps they could learn something from the Catholic churches which are always seeking to demonstrate the love of Christ in practical ways such as feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and helping the poor.
Thanks, Deanne. Good to hear from you.
Do you know David Pearson’s article on Jesus’s healing of the paralytic and the relationship of faith to ethical action in the Jamaican church? It addresses exactly the issue you have stressed. It is published as chapter 7 in the volume of essays that I edited with Garnett Roper, called A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology (http://wipfandstock.com/a-kairos-moment-for-caribbean-theology.html).
David Pearson is Academic Dean and Lecturer in Theology at Jamaica Theological Seminary (http://www.jts.edu.jm/index.php/about-jts/97-faculty-staff/168-david-pearson). It is encouraging that the Seminary you and I attended is addressing these issues.