Category Archives: News

Sprunt Lectures highlight modern urgency of Paul’s ancient letter to Romans

The Letter to the Romans gives voice to the apostle Paul’s conviction that “something has happened”—God has done something that changes things, freeing all humankind and the whole universe from potent anti-God forces and welcoming all people into God’s family. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, the 2016 Sprunt Lecturer, accented the timeliness of Paul’s message for our day in three lectures delivered to an enthusiastic audience of several hundred people gathered on the Richmond campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary May 9–11. Dr. Gaventa, Distinguished Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Baylor University and former Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, is a prolific author and serves this year as president of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Dr. Gaventa, Distinguished Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Baylor University, spoke on Paul’s letter to the Romans.

In her first lecture, Gaventa presented a challenge to read Romans with a sense of urgency, alert for the twists and turns in his argument, attentive to the way he leads his listeners to reconsider basic assumptions. We need to be confronted and challenged by the message of Romans.

A provocative second lecture claimed that “faith is not the answer,” because the problem is far larger than belief can “fix.” For Paul, sin and death are powerful “toxic twins” that enslave humanity. Inviting us to hear Romans alongside a first-century slave woman (such as Tryphena, perhaps), Gaventa suggested that she would “get” Paul’s emphasis on powers that dominate and enslave, from which God has freed us. And this is the audacious claim of the letter: God has acted in Christ to reclaim the world, setting humankind free from its enslavement (to sin and death) and giving us new identity as members of God’s family. This gift does not come to those who are worthy, or to persons with intellectual capacity, but to all. It is not about us or what we can do, but about God.

The concluding lecture named a persistent problem in human relations: we are prone to “other” people, depriving them of the dignity and worth we ascribe to “us.” Attention to Paul’s use of pronouns in Romans, however, prods readers to move from “them” to “us,” to embrace a unity-in-Christ that accepts difference—difference, though, that does not divide us from one another. With Paul’s help, we realize that we are “other” to God because of sin, yet God has restored us as members of God’s own beloved family. So we may take our place in a community that includes all. For all of us have been welcomed by divine grace: a message, indeed, that urgently needs attentive listeners in our day!

In keeping with Gaventa’s focus on the apostle Paul’s writing, the three-day series also included worship services with sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans by Union Alumnus Gary W. Charles (D.Min.’80), pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

Union Alumnus Gary W. Charles (D.Min.’80), pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, led worship throughout the lecture series.

A portrait of the late Professor Samuel K. Roberts was unveiled in a special ceremony in the William Smith Morton Library atrium.

And Visiting Assistant Professor of Church History Bill Sweetser (M.Div.‘89; Th.M.‘90; Ph.D.‘00) delivered a talk on his new book “A Copious Foundation,” which chronicles the 200-year history of the seminary.

See more pictures.

Watch the lectures and book talk.

John Carroll is the Harriet Robertson Fitts Memorial Professor of New Testament.

Food and Faith

In celebration of Earth Day, participants of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s first Ecotheology Conference were challenged to think of the implications and relationship between food and faith.

From left to right, panelists Dawn DeVries, John Newton Thomas Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Toby Vernon of the Community Food Collaborative, Duron Chavis of Renew Richmond, and Sequoia Ross of Tricycle Gardens.

“If we’re interested in spirituality and relationship with God as a daily part of life, what better point to begin than in our eating?” asked Dawn DeVries, professor of theology.

Sponsored by the seminary’s Black Caucus, the panel featured representatives from the community, including DeVries, Toby Vernon of the Community Food Collaborative, Duron Chavis of Renew Richmond, and Sequoia Ross of Tricycle Gardens. DeVries is the John Newton Thomas Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Vernon asked the audience to think of food as a unifier and a divider, encouraging movement from an attitude that “moves from sustainable and towards regenerative.”

The event addressed a growing longing for practical response to the needs of creation.

“My generation is trying to figure out how to address systemic poverty in a way that is systemic and regenerative” said Chavis. “I believe that the Bible teaches us that we should live in abundance and I do believe that it is our birthright to live abundantly and to not be in a struggle. So urban agriculture and farming has been that space to try to entice youth and adults alike that control over food is something you can have.”

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Duron Chavis responds to a question posed by the audience during the Q&A portion of the event.

Anthropology, Astrobiology, and the Bible

“Do I view the cosmos with a certain sense of terror? I’m glad you asked that question,” asked William P. Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary’s William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament. With the audience at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Howie Lectures in anticipation after this question, Brown continued to address the wonder that is discovered when theology, art, and science interact and overlap.

“Wonder is whatever takes your breath away and then restores your breath,” Brown said. “We learn to breath anew, gasp and then intake.”

William P. Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary’s William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament, smiles after sharing a photo that features three stars and hundreds of galaxies.

Brown offered a seminar and conversation on the topic “From Ardi to Adam: How Anthropology Rewrites Genesis.” Grounded in Genesis creation narratives, groundbreaking scientific theories, and even a video of a starling murmuring, Brown ushered the participants into an understanding of the wonder of all of creation, which he called a “tangentially overlapping magisteria.”

The notion of collaboration between theologians and scientists “assumes that conflict and caricature are not an option,” said Brown. “Instead, it suggests that both the theologian and the scientist proceed from a common point of departure:  wonder. Wonder is what drives science as much as it lies at the heart of theological inquiry.”

Later,  Brown delivered a lecture entitled “From Ash Heap to Asteroids: How Astrobiology Rewrites Job.” He asked the audience “How do we read life that we are not familiar with?” and offered a response “consider alternative pathways to life a kind of ‘biological thought experiment.’”

“I’d like to look at the bible through one more lens, astrobiology,” said Brown. “God the creator of all is cosmic, Christ which all things are made is cosmic, the spirit which hovered over the deep is cosmic. We might even be able to talk about God’s preferential option for life itself.”

Through this cosmic lens, Brown offered an interpretation of Job that considered Job’s comfort in the interconnectedness between Job and all of God’s created order. “God is inviting Job to reimagine himself for just a moment… to see life, to see creation through the eyes of the wild – to receive something of the wisdom of the wild,” said Brown.


Brown led the audience in an exercise that immersed participants in the interconnectedness to creation through a poetic midrash that highlighted the creatures of the deep waters. In a way, the crowd seated comfortably in Watts Chapel experienced first hand what Brown called “Job’s baptism into nature.”

“Job’s comfort lies in a world that is cosmically queer and seductively divine that is made with him.”

You may access a recorded copy of Brown’s lecture here.

The Carl Howie Center for Science, Art, and Theology sponsors presentations through which church leaders, including seminarians, recognize and engage the insights and implications of the interplay of science, art, and theology for theological expression and the practice of ministry. The center generously provides funding for lectures, seminars, and displays at Union Presbyterian Seminary once or twice a year, featuring artists, scientists, and/or theologians in conversation about a particular topic.