Terry Fretheim and the Renewal of Creation Theology

One of my favorite Old Testament scholars, Terence Fretheim, died yesterday (November 16, 2020).

Terry was both a wonderful person and a brilliant biblical scholar. He excelled both in detailed exegesis of the Old Testament and in his reflections on the theological and ethical meaning of of this ancient text.

The first book of his that I read was The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (1984), which was a short but profound study of how God is affected by us. Although the book focuses on the Old Testament, it helpfully lays the foundation for understanding the coherence of both Testaments, since the same God who allowed himself to be affected by humanity at the flood (God’s heart was grieved by human evil) and by Israel’s unfaithfulness (see the prophet Jeremiah), ultimately became incarnate and went to the cross for our sake.

I found some similarity between Fretheim’s interest in reading the Old testament theologically and the work of Walter Brueggemann. In Nijay Gupta’s recent interview with me, I cited Brueggemann as the first Old Testament scholar whose work deeply impacted me, especially on the relevance of the Old Testament for its claims on our lives today.

I read Terry Fretheim a bit later and he impacted me in a similar way. But what was distinctive about Fretheim was that he grounded his understanding of the Old Testament in a creation theology, a topic I was coming to see as crucial.

After The Suffering of God, I read numerous journal articles by Fretheim, many of which were spin-offs from his wonderful commentary on Exodus (1991) and were incorporated into his magnum opus, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (2005).

The latter book is so good that I view it as one of the best works of biblical theology I have ever read. On almost every page, as Fretheim works through Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature, there are reams of exegetical insights that could serve as a sourcebook for years of sermons on the Old Testament. And it is all exegetically rigorous and theologically thoughtful.

Fretheim was a Lutheran and the Lutheran tradition has been notoriously weak historically on the doctrine of creation (with a few exceptions, like Gustav Wingren). So I have often thought that Fretheim was addressing this lack in his own tradition by mining the Scriptures for their teaching about creation and the God-creation relationship.

An example of the difference between Brueggemann and Fretheim can be seen in their respective commentaries on Jeremiah. Brueggemann’s Jeremiah commentary (which is immensely helpful) focuses on the radical (almost Barthian-like) challenge the prophet brought to Israel back then and that he brings to us today. Fretheim’s commentary, however, focuses on God’s complex relationship to Israel and to the created order, showing much more of divine compassion in the midst of judgment. Indeed, Fretheim often takes Brueggemann to task (gently) in the commentary about his glossing over aspects of the text.

My own early interaction with Brueggemann took the form of a critique of his creation theology, first given at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in 1992 and then published a couple of years later as “Is Creation Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann.”

Brueggemann graciously accepted my critique, both in his unplanned response to my paper (the person presenting after me was absent and the chair asked him if he had anything to say), then, after I published the paper, in a more formal print response.

Interestingly, although my first interaction with Fretheim was at the SBL (in 1995), it wasn’t a critique, but rather encouragement. I had just given a paper on a rhetorical reading Genesis 1, in a session on the ethical reading of Scripture, which was followed by a respondent who was somewhat negative towards my paper.

Just as the floor was opened for questions, Fretheim came up to me, introduced himself, and told me he had to leave for an appointment. But he wanted me to know that I was onto something important in my reading of the text and that I should not be fazed by the response I got. He handed me his business card and told me to be in touch.

So, when I published the paper in 2000, called “Creation Founded in Love,” I sent him a copy. I received a wonderful Christmas card from him, dated December 15, 2000, with this encouragement:

“Thanks for the offprint of your article—an important piece of work! Thanks, too, for your kind reference to my own work. We can hope with some confidence, I believe, that a more open understanding of creation, and the God of creation, will become more prominent in both church and academy.”

For his astute biblical scholarship and for his winsome personality, I will miss Terry Fretheim.

RIP until the resurrection!

What Happens between Death and Resurrection? A Symposium on the Intermediate State

This post was updated April 2019.

On January 17, 2019 I participated in a Symposium on the “intermediate state.” This Symposium explored the question of how best to think about what happens to a Christian between death and resurrection.

Symposium on the Intermediate State: J. P. Moreland and J. Richard Middleton

The Symposium was sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

My dialogue partner was philosopher J. P. Moreland, a famous supporter of “substance dualism” (the view that a person is composed of an immaterial soul and a body). He argued for the traditional view that our souls go to be with God (in heaven), awaiting the resurrection.

As a biblical scholar, I presented my position that the Bible doesn’t teach substance dualism, but rather a holistic view of the person, and that Scripture doesn’t clearly explain what happens between death and resurrection. I am therefore agnostic about the intermediate state.

My presentation focused on biblical exposition of these themes, with attention to 2 Corinthians 5:6–8 (absent from the body, present with the Lord) and Luke 23:39–43 (the thief on the cross). These two biblical texts are often taken as teaching an intermediate state. My exegesis of these texts attempted to show that they both address the final resurrection, not an intermediate state.

In the end, I don’t believe that we need to have an explanation of what happens between death and resurrection. It is sufficient to trust that God, who is faithful, will bring those who are in Christ to the resurrection.

The raw video feed of the Symposium is found here.

  • Tom McCall (head of the Henry Center) opens the event at around the 16 minute mark.
  • Steve Matthewson (a local pastor) introduces the topic and the speakers at about the 17 ½ minute mark.
  • J. P. Moreland begins to speak just before the 21 minute mark.
  • My presentation begins at the 43 ½ minute mark. I had slides with some visuals and lots of biblical texts. However, you will see that the projection system wasn’t working properly.
  • The Q&A begins at the 1 hour and 11 ½ minute mark.

Our Focus Should be on the New Creation

My main point was that the intermediate state shouldn’t be the focus of our faith at all. Rather, biblical hope is for embodied resurrection life in the new heavens and new earth.

This is a point I made in my book on eschatology, A new Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014). In one of the chapters I included an excursus on the intermediate state (it was not central to the book’s argument), and I intended it merely as an exploration of the biblical evidence, not as an argument for a particular viewpoint.

Yet it is interesting that some reviews of my book brought up this excursus, often claiming to disagree with my position, even though my point was simply that there isn’t enough clear biblical evidence for me to affirm an intermediate state. Sometimes I wish  hadn’t put that excursus in at all, since it seemed to sidetrack some readers. But other readers have told me it was important for them.

The Henry Center’s Exploration of Theological Anthropology

I was invited to participate in this Symposium on the intermediate state not primarily because of my work on eschatology, but due to my prior involvement in the Henry Center’s three-year Creation Project.

Each summer the Center has had a conference (the Dabar Conference) on some aspect of the theme of Creation, and I have been involved every year.

In the first two years I was a paper respondent, in 2016 to Old Testament scholar C. John (“Jack”) Collins and in 2017 to philosopher-theologian William (“Billy”) Abraham, two very wonderful scholars, both of whom I was delighted to get to know.

This year I wrote a keynote paper for the Dabar Conference (June 2018), entitled “Death, Immortality, and the Curse: Interpreting Genesis 2–3 in the Context of the Biblical Worldview,” with two respondents (one a biblical scholar, the other a theologian).

The theme of the Creation Project (and thus of the Dabar Conference) this year (2018-19) is Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science.  But the Project extends beyond the Dabar conferences, and involves numerous other events.

It was because of my analysis of human mortality expressed in the Dabar paper (and a shorter version called “Humans Created Mortal, with the Possibility of Eternal Life,” which was published on the Henry Center website) that I was invited to present my views at the upcoming Symposium.

This is the description of the Symposium (along with presenter bios) on the Henry Center website:

The resurrection of the body is one of the central doctrinal claims of the Christian faith. It is also the source of Christian hope when faced with the death of a loved one.

But what happens between now and then? When a child asks their parent where a departed loved one is “now,” how should Christians respond?

Do the souls of those who have died in faith go to be with the Lord now, awaiting to be reunited with their resurrected bodies?

Or are traditional Christian beliefs in an immaterial soul that is separable from the body misplaced—an unscriptural incursion of Platonic metaphysics that has misshaped our expectations of the afterlife?

The discussion will be followed by a pastoral response and extended audience Q&A on the theological and pastoral implications of the different views.

J. P. Moreland (PhD University of Southern California) is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It MattersThe Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism, and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.

J. Richard Middleton (PhD Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary. He is the author of A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

Date Thursday, January 17, 2019
Time 11am — 12:30pm CST
Location Main Campus

Hinkson Hall

This event was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton Religion Trust

What Happens between Death and Resurrection? A Symposium on the Intermediate State

This post was updated April 2019.

On January 17, 2019 I participated in a Symposium on the “intermediate state.” This Symposium explored the question of how best to think about what happens to a Christian between death and resurrection.

Symposium on the Intermediate State: J. P. Moreland and J. Richard Middleton

The Symposium was sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

My dialogue partner was philosopher J. P. Moreland, a famous supporter of “substance dualism” (the view that a person is composed of an immaterial soul and a body). He argued for the traditional view that our souls go to be with God (in heaven), awaiting the resurrection.

As a biblical scholar, I presented my position that the Bible doesn’t teach substance dualism, but rather a holistic view of the person, and that Scripture doesn’t clearly explain what happens between death and resurrection. I am therefore agnostic about the intermediate state.

My presentation focused on biblical exposition of these themes, with attention to 2 Corinthians 5:6–8 (absent from the body, present with the Lord) and Luke 23:39–43 (the thief on the cross). These two biblical texts are often taken as teaching an intermediate state. My exegesis of these texts attempted to show that they both address the final resurrection, not an intermediate state.

In the end, I don’t believe that we need to have an explanation of what happens between death and resurrection. It is sufficient to trust that God, who is faithful, will bring those who are in Christ to the resurrection.

The raw video feed of the Symposium is found here.

  • Tom McCall (head of the Henry Center) opens the event at around the 16 minute mark.
  • Steve Matthewson (a local pastor) introduces the topic and the speakers at about the 17 ½ minute mark.
  • J. P. Moreland begins to speak just before the 21 minute mark.
  • My presentation begins at the 43 ½ minute mark. I had slides with some visuals and lots of biblical texts. However, you will see that the projection system wasn’t working properly.
  • The Q&A begins at the 1 hour and 11 ½ minute mark.

Our Focus Should be on the New Creation

My main point was that the intermediate state shouldn’t be the focus of our faith at all. Rather, biblical hope is for embodied resurrection life in the new heavens and new earth.

This is a point I made in my book on eschatology, A new Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014). In one of the chapters I included an excursus on the intermediate state (it was not central to the book’s argument), and I intended it merely as an exploration of the biblical evidence, not as an argument for a particular viewpoint.

Yet it is interesting that some reviews of my book brought up this excursus, often claiming to disagree with my position, even though my point was simply that there isn’t enough clear biblical evidence for me to affirm an intermediate state. Sometimes I wish  hadn’t put that excursus in at all, since it seemed to sidetrack some readers. But other readers have told me it was important for them.

The Henry Center’s Exploration of Theological Anthropology

I was invited to participate in this Symposium on the intermediate state not primarily because of my work on eschatology, but due to my prior involvement in the Henry Center’s three-year Creation Project.

Each summer the Center has had a conference (the Dabar Conference) on some aspect of the theme of Creation, and I have been involved every year.

In the first two years I was a paper respondent, in 2016 to Old Testament scholar C. John (“Jack”) Collins and in 2017 to philosopher-theologian William (“Billy”) Abraham, two very wonderful scholars, both of whom I was delighted to get to know.

This year I wrote a keynote paper for the Dabar Conference (June 2018), entitled “Death, Immortality, and the Curse: Interpreting Genesis 2–3 in the Context of the Biblical Worldview,” with two respondents (one a biblical scholar, the other a theologian).

The theme of the Creation Project (and thus of the Dabar Conference) this year (2018-19) is Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science.  But the Project extends beyond the Dabar conferences, and involves numerous other events.

It was because of my analysis of human mortality expressed in the Dabar paper (and a shorter version called “Humans Created Mortal, with the Possibility of Eternal Life,” which was published on the Henry Center website) that I was invited to present my views at the upcoming Symposium.

This is the description of the Symposium (along with presenter bios) on the Henry Center website:

The resurrection of the body is one of the central doctrinal claims of the Christian faith. It is also the source of Christian hope when faced with the death of a loved one.

But what happens between now and then? When a child asks their parent where a departed loved one is “now,” how should Christians respond?

Do the souls of those who have died in faith go to be with the Lord now, awaiting to be reunited with their resurrected bodies?

Or are traditional Christian beliefs in an immaterial soul that is separable from the body misplaced—an unscriptural incursion of Platonic metaphysics that has misshaped our expectations of the afterlife?

The discussion will be followed by a pastoral response and extended audience Q&A on the theological and pastoral implications of the different views.

J. P. Moreland (PhD University of Southern California) is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It MattersThe Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism, and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.

J. Richard Middleton (PhD Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary. He is the author of A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

Date Thursday, January 17, 2019
Time 11am — 12:30pm CST
Location Main Campus

Hinkson Hall

This event was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton Religion Trust