Interview with Heath Thomas: “Great is Thy Faithfulness? Reading Lamentations as Sacred Scripture”

Here we go again. Southeastern prof Heath Thomas (Old Testament & Hebrew) has committed yet another act of Old Testament theology. This makes, umm, five publications in the past five weeks. Along with Robin Parry, Thomas is coeditor of Great is Thy Faithfulness? Reading Lamentations as Sacred Scripture (Pickwick). This work seeks an answer to the question: how is Lamentations Holy Scripture for the Church? In order to answer this question, I’ve provided a brief outline of the book, followed by an interview with the author of the book.

Great is Thy Faithfulness? thus aims at rigorous interpretation and application of Lamentations. As such, the main contents of the book fall in two main parts. Part 1 address issues in hermeneutics and in reading the text in its canonical context. Heath Thomas discusses the subject of reading Lamentations as “Holy Scripture” (ch. 1) and Paul R. House explores the theology of Lamentations (ch. 2). Part 2 discusses the application of Lamentations: coeditor Robin Parry addresses the use of Lamentations in Christian worship (ch. 3), and Ian Stackhouse provides pastoral thoughts on the work of Lamentations in shaping our church cultures (ch. 4). In between, Great is Thy Faithfulness? features essays on the Jewish, Messianic Jewish, Christian, and Artistic and Contemporary reception of Lamentations. Jacob Neusner (Bard College), Paul Joyce (Oxford University), David Hogg (Beeson Divinity School, Samford University), Richard Harvey (All Nations College) and many others contribute to these helpful sections.

1. Dr. Thomas, tell us a bit about yourself, your family, and your ministry.

First, thank you very much for this kind invitation. It is a delight to share a little bit of my story and I always enjoy talking about my family! My wife, Jill, grew up in Texas and that is where we met. I was working on my master’s degree in theology and she was working on her nursing degree. We met through a mutual friend, dated, and then married. Our children (Harrison, Isabelle, Simon & Sophia) are so much fun. We are always tired – four is a lot of work – but it is a very happy and satisfied kind of tired. I spent some time with my grandparents in the mountains of east Tennessee (where they live) a few weeks ago, and asked them how they managed to raise SIX children and still made out alive. My grandfather laughed and said that he couldn’t really remember…but he and my grandmother are still here…so that gives Jill and me hope!! My parents are from that region of the world as well, but now live in Texas. I grew up in a wonderful home. My father was a pastor for forty or so years and now mentors pastors and works as President of C3 Global, a network that provides community, training to pastors and leaders, and facilitates mission efforts, most recently in Haiti.

My academic training took me to Oklahoma, Texas, and then the United Kingdom. I had the privilege of working in the UK with fantastic scholars from the Universities of Gloucestershire and Oxford. My wife and I found that experience to be incredibly rewarding, as the Lord challenged and changed us. We lived and worked in a context far removed from the confines and familiarity of the USA. We saw a different world, serving two churches while there, one a city church and the other a village church. Both, however, were gifts of God. I had served in two churches prior to moving to the UK, one in Oklahoma and the other in Texas, and it was absolutely incredible to see the same God at work in his world-from the Midwest of the US to the Midlands of the UK. Christ calls all people and all nations to himself.

When the Lord moved us to Southeastern Seminary, needless to say it was a big change. We had never lived in this context, and there were so many new things to learn. I had to re-acclimate myself to a context so filled with Christians and churches. But ironically, this was a real challenge. When I lived and taught in the UK, there was not a kind of “cultural Christianity” that marks so much of the US, especially the southern-fried-religion so talked about in the South. I found this kind of “cultural Christianity” in North Carolina. And I also found that some Christians were blissfully unaware of the challenges of the Christian faith — how it really does present a different worldview than the culture in which we live. It has been a joy to see the authentic Christianity on display in the lives of the students in the Seminary, in my neighborhood, and in my home church. I am passionate about seeing the life of the church align with the radical message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is something very true when we say that Christ’s message confronts and invades the culture. It will not easily “mesh” with the culture of America without some serious distortion or compromise of the gospel.

2. What was the impetus for writing this book? And why did you feel the need to write it?

This book is the fruit of about six years of labor. It began when I was still living and working in England. I had a friend who was living up the road in Worcester, and he was writing a commentary on the book of Lamentations. We spoke fairly regularly and discovered separately and then together that this book…which of course is part of Holy Scripture…was virtually omitted from the life of our local churches. And when we began to reflect more deeply upon this, we discovered that it was not just our churches that had avoided or abandoned this portion of God’s Word, it was widespread in Evangelical churches. Well, this is, to say the least, a problem. If we embrace the Scriptures, in their totality, as God’s Word for the life of the church, then why have we played favorites? Why do we tend to lean on, say, Paul’s letters, the prophets, or the gospels to the neglect of other portions of Scripture? In this way, we discovered that the time was ripe to think deeply about hearing Lamentations as Sacred Scripture once again. When we read and preach this book, how do we do so? What do we need to hear from this book to hear the whispers of God’s Spirit in the ears of the church – rebuking her, directing her, or comforting her? We simply attempted to provide a way to access Lamentations so as to hear God’s address. We found that this is not an easy task.

The reason why such a book is important is because it takes seriously the role that the Scriptures -all the Scriptures – have in the life of the church. And it helps us think about how we understand the work and ministry of Christ in light of the testimony of the Old Testament. Personally, I found that this job could not be done by one person alone. So my coeditor and I began to think about how Lamentations has been heard through the centuries. We wanted to see what the church had to say about this book throughout the ages: in the patristic period, in the medieval period, in the Reformation, and in today’s church. We also wanted to see how others have read this book, including Jewish reception, its reception in the arts, worship, and music. We also wanted to make note of more recent trends as well. In so doing, we could zero in on the distinctive contributions of this book in history, and how it might make a distinctive contribution in today’s church.

3. What is the primary argument (thesis) of the book?

The primary argument is quite simple: Lamentations is a neglected book in the Scripture, but one that needs to be heard by the church for her life and ministry. The volume aims to demonstrate that by taking Lamentations as Holy Scripture and learning what it means within its own horizons, as a theological text, and in the life of the church. So, we have an introductory chapter discussing what it means to call Lamentations “Holy Scripture” followed by a chapter observing Lamentations within its Old Testament Horizons. The next major chapters include a theological interpretation of Lamentations and a pastoral reading of Lamentations from a Baptist pastor from Guilford, England. Interspersed between these major chapters are a series of “soundings” of Lamentations reception in history, including Lamentations’ reception in the Septuagint, in the Targum, in Rashi, in Jewish worship, in the patristic period, in the medieval period, in the Reformation, and in today’s church. There are other things addressed as well. The book concludes with new translations of the Targum Lamentations, the Septuagint of Lamentations. So there it is a kind of one-stop shop for what you need to know about this powerful little book.

4. What, above all, do you wish for readers to know and/or do because of the book?

Read the Bible…all of it!! Including the bits that are difficult to deal with like Lamentations. If we believe the Bible to be God’s Word, and a good word, that needs to be heard in the Church, then we must submit ourselves to all of its teaching. Lamentations has deep, vast, resources that will help and equip us for every good work in Christ Jesus. Second, I would say that it is very helpful to hear how others have received and read this book. Third, hopefully this book provides some helps on how Lamentations can be read and received in such a way to equip the Church in its service to Christ.

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