Nothing quite gets under Dr. Cherith Fee Nordling’s skin like hearing someone talk about when Jesus “was” human.
“Jesus didn’t cease to be human when He ascended into heaven,” explains Dr. Nordling. “He still is human. He’s the most human human there is!”
The question of what it means to be human has always been very important for Dr. Nordling, from her days working as a paralegal and involved in lay ministry at her church, to when she studied psychology and theology.
Dr. Norling is an Associate Professor of Theology at Northern Seminary in Chicago, and will be one of the plenary speakers at AMiA’s 2018 Winter Conference. We recently sat down with Dr. Nordling to learn more about her faith background and what the Lord is doing in her life.
Tell us a about your background.
I grew up in a Pentecostal heritage. My grandfathers were Assemblies of God pastors, as was my dad, Gordon Fee. When I was young, my dad started teaching and found himself in his sweet spot. He went back to school and became the first person in the Assemblies of God to get a PhD in New Testament studies.
My brothers and I grew up around students and the church, often hosting them in our home. We moved a lot of times, and so a deep part of my story is figuring out where is home and how do you find your home in the Triune God?
When I was a teenager we moved to New England so dad could teach at Gordon Conwell Seminary. Around this time the Pentecostal side of me dropped off, as there was no such church nearby. My parents wanted us in a good youth group and the church we went to was more in the evangelical tradition. We also met in our home on Sunday evenings for worship, which involved family, neighbors, students and others.
When it came time to go to college, I went to Wheaton, having met some students on a trip to Israel that my father led. There was a tremendous move of the Holy Spirit on Wheaton’s campus in the 70s. What was normative to my experience of God was new for so many who didn’t have that in their life, including my husband. I reconnected with the Pentecostal church, and my husband, who had grown up in a cessationist, non-denominational church, experienced that for the first time.
We got married after college and moved to Philadelphia for about 8 months, where I studied to be a paralegal.
Soon after we moved to San Francisco, where we lived for 15 years. I was a paralegal for the entire time we were there, though I also did do some nonprofit work, providing my legal expertise.
What took you from working as a paralegal to going back to school?
While I was a paralegal, my husband and I were a part of a charismatic Presbyterian church that really grew our faith and walk with God. My parents used to say it was their favorite Presby-costal church. The church had a deeply Trinitarian confessional life, anchored in the ancient creeds of the church. It was so rich to have a deep history that didn’t start at the beginning of the 20th century, and to be with people who grew up in this tradition and had come alive in the Spirit.
During that time I was learning how to pray in deep intercessory ways, mentored by some of the older women in the church (who would have never called it mentoring). I remember one day we met to pray with the elders and someone said “I think someone is going to have a heart attack today. I think we need to pray for them.” We did, and sure enough, one of our members had a heart attack that day. They rushed him to the hospital, and when the doctors performed surgery on him they found healed heart tissue.
About 10-12 years into our time at the church, we started noticing that one of the things God was doing was bringing people into the church that were suffering from the effects of involvement in serious satanic stuff.
I remember one such woman who came in who, having begun to work with a Christian counselor who told her to find a church and have people pray regularly with her. She found our church in the Yellow Pages, and came to our Sunday evening service of wholeness. She said “I think I have multiple personalities.” We prayed with her, and worked with her and her therapist to help her find healing, trying to discern what was psychological and what was demonic.
I started reading books, trying to become more wise in these areas. Our church had a counseling center, and even though there was a lot of good work happening there, some things struck me as odd. Our counseling center was very focused on individual healing and setting strong boundaries. Sometimes that made for a hard transition back into community, because the thought process was, “if I have strong enough boundaries, I won’t get hurt again.” I began to wonder what communal healing looked like, and what it meant to be whole as a people of the Triune God. About this time, we bought a house with a widow and began to practice a new dimension of life together as God’s people.
One night, I couldn’t sleep, mulling over details for my younger son’s upcoming fourth birthday party. I made a list of all the things that needed to be done, and finally slept.
The next morning, I reviewed my list:
-Pick up balloons
–Get your degree in marriage and family counseling
And on the list went.
I felt the Lord telling me: your whole family is in ministry, and you are trying to be out in the marketplace. But there are things you really want to do and are called to do in ministry. And I want you to start here.
After lots of prayer and discernment with my family and church, I enrolled in a Master’s program in Counseling Psychology at Notre Dame de Namur University.
What made you shift from Psychology to Theology?
While I was in school, I continued to wrestle with what I wanted to do with my degree. I was both fascinated and wrestling with psychology and the things I was studying, in terms of healing and wholeness. I was really trying to understand the things that shape what it means to be human.
I remember driving home during my second year of school and asking God, “what do YOU want me to do with this degree?”
I remember hearing as clear as a bell Him telling me: “It doesn’t exist yet. When it’s ready and you are ready, it’ll present itself. Just relax and get ready.”
After finishing my master’s, my husband got some time off of work and we went to be with my parents at Regent College in Vancouver. We got to take a class with Dr. Jeremy Begbie, “Christianity and the Arts in a Postmodern age.”
One day we invited him to come to a family outing with us. He stood with me in the parking lot and asked if I was thinking of doing a PhD in Psychology. He then said: “Can I suggest that your questions are more theological than psychological? Have you thought about doing a degree in Theology? That way you can ask the big questions and then relate them to healing and wholeness and being human.”
I thought, “I can do that? That would be the funnest thing in the whole world!”
We moved up to Washington after that and I started going to Regent in 1995. I got a second masters in Theology, and we moved to the UK after that to work on my PhD.
What was the PhD Process like?
I started in 1997 at King College in London, under Alan Torrance as my advisor. After I arrived, he went to Notre Dame for a year, and after that moved to St Andrews in Scotland. We stayed put as a family in our little town of Reigate, just south of London. I would travel to Scotland from time to time.
This made for a somewhat lonely PhD process, but I am thankful that we stayed where we were. It kept me in the daily life of my family, the neighborhood, and the church. And it kept me grounded in the conviction that what I was doing was not for the sake of the academy, but for the love of the church.
God provided for us in astonishing ways through our Anglican church family in Reigate. Among the incredible things that happened was having women who not only brought us meals when I was under a writing deadline and my husband was away, but who would type up long quotes from Barth’s dogmatics for me to use in my dissertation. I feel like our 1000 year-old Anglican church got that PhD with me!
After getting my degree we moved back to the US in 2002, where my husband and I both worked at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. I went on to teach at Wheaton for a year, and in 2012 we moved to Chicago, and I now teach Theology at Northern Seminary, just outside of Chicago.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Northern Seminary is a commuter school, so classes are typically in the afternoon or evening. Most of our students work or are involved in some kind of ministry as they work on their degree.
My husband and I live in Hyde Park, a neighborhood that is quite far from where I work, and we worship at St. Paul and the Redeemer Episcopal Church, our parish church down the street. We were very intentional about where we chose to live, wanting a day-to-day life in a neighborhood that keeps us in a multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural context. The world of the church and the academy aren’t always very diverse, and I want to stay grounded in what is the normal world for most people.
It’s vital to be with my friends who are non-Christians, and/or a different race or status than me. It doesn’t matter how much you shift your life, there is still a deep split on what being a human being looks like or feels like for different people. Even among my students, about a third to half of my class are nonwhite and women. I want to stay in tune with what life looks like for them.
I am also working on a book. This means both teaching and trying to write two to three days a week.
What is your book about?
My newest book is about learning what it means to be truly human – and Spirit-led – from Jesus, God’s true image-bearing Son. Jesus was not Clark Kent (God in disguise), nor is he now as our ascended, reigning, active Lord. The resurrected Jesus is still Incarnate, the firstborn of a new resurrected human race (Rom 8), who even now intercedes for us and mediates our present and future human life with the Father by the Spirit.
I remember growing up that my brothers and I would talk about going to heaven, but we didn’t really want to go. We didn’t want to stop being human. There were so many things we still wanted to do. We didn’t have an imagination that allowed for God restoring creation. When all things are made new and heaven and earth are reunited, which is the vision of both the Old and New Testament, we will finally get to be human without being screwed up. The gospel, in short, is about getting our human life back, forever. I get to be a restored Cherith, a child of the resurrection.
What are you looking forward to at Winter Conference?
For me, a big part of speaking at a conference is being able to listen, watch, and be with my Christian brothers and sisters. I’m excited to be with you and pray with you. My prayer is that my voice can be one of encouragement, affirmation, and challenge in the best possible way.
To learn more about Winter Conference, visit https://theamia.org/winter-conference-2018/
Registration deadline is December 1, 2017.