On May 31, David Moffitt was one of just 10 scholars from around the world to receive the prestigious Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise 2013. He’s an assistant professor of New Testament and Greek in the Campbell Divinity School.
As David Moffitt, assistant professor of New Testament and Greek in the Campbell Divinity School, worked through the application process for the Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise 2013, he thought, “Why am I putting so much time into this?”
The application process included writing essays that summarized his book, “Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” and addressed the ways it has contributed to the current theological conversation. He also had to ask several other Christian scholars to write letters of recommendations on his behalf. “Why am I doing this?” Moffitt thought. “I’m not going to win.”
So, he says, he was in “a bit of a shock” when he learned he was one of just 10 scholars from around the world to be named a recipient of the Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise 2013. The award, formerly known as the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise, honors the best doctoral or first post-doctoral work on the topic of “God and Spirituality” by scholars who are typically 35 or younger. Moffitt’s book grew out of the dissertation he completed for his Ph.D. in religion at Duke University, and was published by Brill in 2011.
He officially accepted the award and a $10,000 cash prize during a ceremony at the University of Heidelberg in Germany on May 31. “The book is a getting a lot of attention based on the award, and to have it considered at such a high level and among such company is a tremendous honor,” he says.
Moffitt spoke to Campbell.edu about his book, why he became a New Testament scholar, and how his research has affected his faith. The following is an edited transcript.
What led you to write "Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews"?
The consensus in modern scholarship on the book of Hebrews is that Jesus’s resurrection is not a significant element in the author’s argument in Hebrews. My book begins with the question of whether or not that is the case.
What did you discover?
That Jesus’s bodily resurrection is central to his atoning offering in Hebrews. In modern western Christianity, we view the cross as the location of Jesus’s offering, and the crucifixion as the event that redeems humanity and brings us back into relationship with God. But if you go back and look, Hebrews consistently puts the presentation of this offering in heaven and not on the cross. This made me go back and re-read Leviticus and rediscover that the slaughter of a sacrificial victim is never associated with atonement. If you just kill an animal, there is no atonement. You have to do something with the blood, and Leviticus 17:11 says very clearly that blood is life. It is the blood/life that makes atonement. Jesus offers his blood, his life, to God in heaven. This makes atonement. The challenge of these findings was to understand how could this all fit together.
How does it all fit?
If the author of Hebrews knows that Jesus rose bodily, as I argue in the book, then what does he have to offer to God in heaven? The answer is that he presents himself, his resurrected body, alive to God in heaven. It is the power of Jesus’ resurrected life which God accepts as the force that makes atonement. So the resurrection isn’t just there in Hebrews; it’s central to Hebrews. This doesn’t mean that the cross doesn’t matter. What it means is that we need to re-think sacrifice along biblical lines. In Leviticus, sacrifice is not a momentary event of slaughter; it is a process culminating in the offering of blood/life to God. Hebrews shows how the whole narrative about Jesus is a sacrifice that culminates in his entry into heaven to present himself there before the Father as something that pleases the Father. Recognizing this was a watershed moment for me.
In what ways was this discovery a watershed moment?
I began to see that the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for my sins, but that Jesus died for my sins and rose again on the third day. In my experience, there is a tendency, especially in Baptist churches today, to think that the crucifixion is the pinnacle of Christ’s redeeming work. But when we’re talking about what Jesus did to redeem us, the resurrection is as important as the crucifixion. It helped me to understand that we need to return to the resurrection as an element of the Gospel that’s proclaimed and as element of our preaching.
What's a specific example of how it can affect elements of preaching?
I think it should change the way we preach funerals. I think it should change the way we minister to people who are approaching death. I think it should change the way we think about the space we live in as warped and fallen, not the way it should be. Then we can look death in the eyes and recognize it for what it is -- how evil it is -- which should open up space for us to mourn properly, instead of plastering a smile on our face and saying “Well, he’s in a better space.” No, he died; and that is a way in which the fallen creation continues to suffer, but it’s not the end. We have hope in the resurrection.
And how can this influence the daily life of a Christian?
One way it can affect us is to not to think of God destroying this world or pitching it in favor of some spiritual bliss where we’re all sitting on a cloud with a harp and a halo. That’s not the vision of redemption that the New Testament gives us. This vision of redemption is a new heaven and a new earth. This means that what God has created, which he called in Genesis 1 very good, remains very good, even if it remains very warped. God intends to redeem it, to resurrect it, not pitch it. So how we treat our bodies, how we live, how we treat the earth, all of these things suddenly take on a deeper theological significance. The earth is no longer just something I’m passing through. The space we inhabit now is a space of waiting. It’s a space of patience. And that’s why the New Testament is shot through with language on perseverance. You wait. You treat creation differently, with a view to what it will be, but you don’t imagine it’s your job to save it. It’s Jesus’s job to save the world. It’s our job to witness and to wait.
What led you to become a New Testament scholar?
As many people who grow up in the church do, I grew up with a tepid faith. I believed, I didn’t doubt; but it was hard for me to think about how it really made a difference. I went to college vowing that the one place I would never go was seminary. There were a lot of reasons for that, but there was a real moment of renewal for me in college when I found myself outside the bounds of family and church, and I had to suddenly start making decisions. Along with that I read an essay that Sinclair Ferguson wrote, “Consider Your Calling.” He argues that a calling is not a feeling as much as a recognition of vocation based on which God has created and prepared you -- that God creates us with certain proclivities and with gifts, and that these gifts can be developed even further by being part of a church, where the spirit can distribute gifts. I looked at what I was interested in and realized that it wasn’t an accident that I liked theology, and it wasn’t an accident that people said I should go into theology. At that moment, the middle of my freshman year, in my dorm room, alone at the time, I got down on my knees and said “OK, God, I’ll go to seminary.” In that moment, my passion and my personality came together with that vocation.
Where did your passion for theology initially come from?
My dad is a very well-read lay person in theology and biblical studies, and I got an ad hoc education in theology growing up. I suppose a lot of it was his influence. He drove me around to lectures; and in high school, he was trying to get me to read folks like N.T. Wright, a famous New Testament professor. It was Wright who put resurrection on the radar for me and made me think, “Wait a minute, I don’t really take resurrection that seriously.”
What are you working on now?
A book on supersessionism in Hebrews. [Editor’s note: Supersessionism refers to the New Covenant people of God replacing the Old Covenant people.] The consensus is that Hebrews is the poster child for early Christian supersessionism and early Christian replacement theology -- that when you look at Hebrews you find somebody who is deeply critical of Judaism and who is all in favor of Christianity. There are a lot of problems with that. Through my work I discovered that Hebrews is more in touch with how sacrifice was functioning in the temple and that Hebrews is not as critical of the law in the Old Testament sacrifices as it is often read. That helped me to start thinking about this new book and thinking that we need to reconceive the way that Hebrews and early Christianity in general think about its self-identity in relation to its roots, especially vis-à-vis temple practice.
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Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator
Photos by Bennett Scarborough