Middleton Interview by Nijay Gupta (30 OT/HB Scholars to Read and Follow)

Nijay Gupta is a prolific and insightful New Testament scholar who teaches at Northern Seminary. His focus is primarily on Paul, but he knows just about everything. He’s written on Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the Lord’s prayer, plus introductions to the field of NT studies and a helpful book on doing a PhD in biblical studies.

A few years back Nijay was my faculty colleague at Northeastern Seminary (I know, the two Seminaries have very similar names). Besides being a brilliant scholar, he is a wonderful person. Northern Seminary is very lucky to have him.

Recently, Nijay interviewed me for his Crux Sola blog series called “30 OT/HB Scholars to Read and Follow.” The interview is hosted on the Patheos blog site here.

I have reproduced it in full below:

J. Richard Middleton, Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Why do you love teaching and researching about the OT/HB?

I find the Old Testament to be rich, complex, and textured—in its literature, its theology, and its earthy spirituality. The literature is so varied (from creation texts to prayers of lament, from wisdom treatises to narratives about the ancestors of Israel and the rise and fall of the monarchy), it’s impossible to get bored with it. One of the great challenges for those who teach the Old Testament is that it is impossible to “master” it. You develop various areas of expertise, but there is always so much more that you have to learn.

The earthiness of the Old Testament is also a great antidote to some of the otherworldly spirituality that has become embedded in the history of the church. Since the Old Testament was the Scripture of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, it was the story and symbolic world in terms of which they mapped their lives and God’s plan of redemption for the ages. This means that it is essential for us to understand the worldview of the Old Testament, since it shapes the New Testament in a fundamental way. So my study of the Old Testament has led me to become a better reader of the New Testament.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

I think I have two big ideas, or at least two emphases, that I hope I have been able to communicate in my teaching and writing. When I started teaching at Northeastern Seminary, the Dean suggested I take the title Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, since these were my twin emphases.

The first emphasis that I want to communicate is the big picture, the story of the Bible from creation to eschaton, which is the story that ought to make sense of our lives (the trouble is that many in the church have “lost the plot”). So the big picture can help reorient the church to its vocation (the missio Dei), how it is called to contribute to the unfolding of God’s purposes for the world God loves. For me, this has meant a focus (initially, at least) on creation texts, whether in Genesis, the Psalms, Job, or the prophetic literature. Creation is the founding moment of the biblical story and studying these texts helps us see God’s original intentions for humanity and the world, which have something to say about the telos or goal of salvation.

The other big idea that I want to communicate (and model) is that careful reading of the biblical text yields wonderful theological and ethical results. I’ve tried to show precisely that in exegesis courses that I teach on Genesis, Samuel, Job, and the Psalms. This means reading with an inquiring mind, wondering why the text says what it does, and why it says it in the way that it does. It means bringing the entirety of who we are to the study of the Bible, including our hopes, our doubts, our assumptions, our questions, and being willing to challenge the text—so long as we are willing to be challenged in response. The Bible is not a safe book; it can radically change us.

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

My first academic hero is Walter Brueggemann. Although I haven’t always agreed with Brueggemann (I’ve written an article critical of his creation theology, and he graciously accepted my critiques), his attempt to bridge the gap from the ancient biblical text to the contemporary world has inspired me to try and do the same. He particularly opened up to me the riches of the prophetic literature and the Psalms.

What books were formative for you when you were a student? Why were they so important and shaping?

When I was an undergraduate theological student, I was profoundly affected by George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth. In that book Ladd tried to sketch the Synoptic pattern, the Johannine pattern, the Pauline pattern, and also to address the Old Testament pattern that undergirded the New Testament. Whether or not I would fully agree with his analysis of the New Testament today, his attempt to show both diversity and coherence in the New Testament text was very helpful. But most helpful of all was Ladd’s chapter called “The Background of the Pattern: Greek or Hebrew?” where he did detailed textual study of Plato, Philo, and the Old Testament to address whether the Old Testament pattern was human ascent from the world to God or God’s descent from heaven to earthly existence.

When I was a graduate theological student, it was Brueggemann’s books that deeply impacted me—first The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, then The Prophetic Imagination. I still assign them in courses.

Read Middleton’s Work

The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1

A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology

Follow Middleton Online

Blog: https://jrichardmiddleton.wordpress.com/ 





If you ran into me at SBL, and you didn’t want to talk about OT/HB studies, what would you want to talk about?

I would probably talk about music—especially reggae (both from my home country and “world reggae”) and the music of Bruce Cockburn and Leonard Cohen.

What is a research/writing project you are working on right now that you are excited about?

I am now finishing the final chapter of a book on the Aqedah (Genesis 22) for Baker Academic. It’s called: Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. It’s a theology of prayer for a time of suffering, developed through interaction with biblical texts (the only way I know how to do theology).

Pre-release discount ordering can be found on the Baker Book House website

You’ll be hearing more about this book soon. Stay tuned.

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.