Each month we post family updates, but this post is specifically an update on the start of my PhD in Old Testament (OT) studies
here at Gloucestershire University. I’m going to try and post semi regularly about this – maybe once a term or so. The pictures here are of the college where I am studying in Cheltenham (part of Gloucestershire University). The blue sky is somewhat exceptional – and had become rain by lunchtime!
Not only is the external site beautiful, I even get my own desk space inside – so I can pile up the stack of books and not worry about taking it home at the end of the day! My studies have officially started, and I have begun regular (fortnightly) meetings with my supervisor. At the moment my efforts are concentrated on refining the exact question(s) to be addressed by my thesis.
I guess the two main questions to answer about doing 3 further years of study are:
Why do a PhD in OT at all?
What exactly in the OT are you studying?
To answer the first question first. The purpose of doing the PhD is to prepare me for the next stage of ministry which, we think will be to do with teaching and training others to get to grips with God’s word – or rather to be gripped by, and become passionate about what God has said about God, and us, and how to live in response to that. Whether we do that in the UK or elsewhere is an open question right now – but for most education systems the PhD is the standard route into teaching in that environment. It should develop skills in analysis and research that will be important in teaching others to examine their faith and see what is good and true, and what has crept in from the world around unnoticed.
As to why OT – it is vital that we have Christian leaders and followers who have got to grips with the Old Testament.
Without the OT we cannot understand properly what Jesus and the NT authors said and wrote. Without a proper knowledge of the OT we will not be able to handle many attacks on the Christian faith from outside which have to do with misunderstandings of the OT, and without the OT we will not be able to resist so many misunderstandings of what God is like within the church as well.
Perhaps there is a series of blog posts there for the future (at some mythical point when more than 6 hours sleep is happening in a night, and days are not starting at 5 am).
Next there is the question of what exactly – and that is a large part of the start of a research project. I’m currently focusing on Exodus, in particular Israel at Sinai and the aftermath of the golden calf incident, although drawing in from the wider Exodus narrative.
The verses that particularly got me interested in this area were Exodus 33:1-34:9, and in particular 33:17 and onwards. The verses suggest that God’s glory, name and goodness are very closely tied together and supremely seen in God showing mercy and grace. At this moment of glorious revelation of God’s goodness, however, there is also a hiddenness. Moses does not get to see everything. He cannot see God’s face and live. And yet he has been described earlier in the chapter as speaking to God “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”.
This was a formative moment in Israel’s history, and is alluded to in many places in the OT. At the moment I’m doing a close study of Exodus 33:1-34:9 which will help to clarify the next stages, perhaps a particular focus on the relationship of God’s glory, God’s name and God’s presence works out in Israel’s history – especially in how those things help us to understand the mercy and judgement of God.
I love doing this kind of study, and I think the results will be useful for me, and for others, to help to lay the foundations for a biblically well founded view of God. The Bible is where we see what God has to say for himself, and if we don’t begin with the Bible to understand God we are going to go wrong very quickly. Often we are too quick to assume that we already know what God is like from what we have already been taught and do not allow the Bible to correct our understanding.
These chapters of Exodus contain much to ponder on the nature of God, especially in the way he relates to Moses in conversation. I think that both those who use these chapters as part of their framework that God does not know what the future holds until it happens, and those who say that there is at least part of God which is utterly concerned above all else with his own reputation are both wrong to greater or lesser degrees, and that there is a better way to talk about God than that.
I think the clue is that Moses request to see God’s glory is answered by a revelation of God’s goodness which he hears (rather than sees) as a proclamation of the name of Yahweh, and that the fundamental revelation at the heart of Yahweh’s name is that he is a God of grace and compassion. God’s glory is shown above all else in his mercy displayed to rebels. Which isn’t really a surprise when you think about Jesus walking to the cross to be “lifted up”, and isn’t really a surprise when you see that Yahweh is a Trinity, full of self giving love which spills out to all creation.
I’ll stop the sermon at that point. My PhD will not answer all those questions and issues I’ve raised, but will help to make sure that when I think and teach about such things it will be done in a way that has paid real attention to what the Bible actually says, rather than what I might just guess that it says. More updates to follow. I’d love to clarify anything that has been left unsaid or said confusingly. I’ve tried to be relatively jargon free, but that might have meant that I’ve oversimplified if you happen to be a speaker of the jargon…