Friday, February 25, 2011

David Bolton's doctoral defense

On 14 February 2011, David Bolton defended his dissertation, Justifying Paul Among Jews and Christians? A Critical Investigation of the New Perspective on Paul in Light of Jewish-Christian Dialogue, for the Doctor's degree in Theology at K.U.Leuven. The dissertation was the culmination of four years’ fruitful work and engagement as a doctoral researcher in an interdisciplinary research project, directed by Prof. Dr. Didier Pollefeyt and Prof. Dr. Reimund Bieringer entitled, “New Perspectives on Paul and the Jews,” which investigated the role of Pauline theology in the process of Christian self-definition with respect to the Judaism of its time. As an exemplary work in interdisciplinarity, David’s dissertation brought together two domains of theological study into his work: (1) Pauline studies and the evaluation of a particular paradigm within that – the New Perspective on Paul; and (2) the study of present-day Jewish-Christian dialogue, particularly the place (if any) that Paul and his theology might have within that. The examining jury reflected the interdisciplinary nature of David’s dissertation. These were represented by (1) Prof. Dr. Philip Cunningham (2) Prof. Dr. Peter Schmidt,and (3) Dr. Marianne Moyaert.
Everyone acknowledged the excellent quality of David’s work. Perhaps because of this, the jury felt it their duty to ask some very searching questions, which made for a most interesting debate, all the while civil and entertaining. Space constraints make it impossible to list all the questions that were asked by the jury, but here is a short paraphrase:
(1)Prof. Cunningham felt that David had presented Paul’s covenant theology a little too linearly in terms of salvation history, perhaps brought on by David’s use of the analogy of Russian nested dolls. David had argued in his thesis that the image of Russian nested dolls aptly captured how in Paul’s thinking each preceding covenant (Adamic, Noahide, Mosaic, Davidic) was transcended and included by each successive covenant. [Just as an aside: Prof. Cunningham actually produced little Russian nested dolls to illustrate his point and this made for very entertaining viewing.]
(2) Prof. Schmidt felt that David took the concept of covenant too literally and asked what relevance the notion of covenant had in today’s world, when the image of “cutting” a covenant and walking between two broken pieces was completely alien to us, and when no one any longer believed in the real historical existence of Adam or Noah.
(3) Dr. Moyaert asked perhaps the most provoking question: if, as David argued, Paul was indeed a ‘soft supersessionist’ (i.e., that the covenant in Christ now superseded previous covenants by ‘transcending and including’ all previous covenants), and if, (as it seemed to Dr. Moyaert) David approved of Paul’s reading of covenant theology, then did this not imply that the Church had a duty to continue Paul’s mission of proclamation and evangelization to Jews today?

No one in the audience was left in any doubt that here was a candidate who had to defend his thesis to the letter. The Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Prof. Dr. Lieven Boeve, who chaired the defense, on subsequently awarding Dr. David Bolton his degree, remarked quite aptly, “This was truly a defense and we all witnessed how you ably defended yourself today.” After that, as was befitting the occasion, the champagne was popped and the new Doctor of Theology was warmly congratulated by all in attendance.

Emmanuel Nathan

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