Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

In Memorium: Donald G. Bloesch (1928-2010)

This August has been a hard month on evangelical theologians–or, rather, on those left in this exile as they pass to homecoming.  As I noted earlier, Canadian Baptist theologian Clark Pinnock (1927-2010) died of advanced Alzheimer’s disease on 15 August.  Well, this past Tues., 24 August, Donald G. Bloesch, evangelical theologian of renewal in the United Church of Christ, died as well.

I have read some nasty tributes that have praised Bloesch by running down his denomination, portrayed as a sinkhole of “rank liberalism.”  That is not the way that Bloesch saw his part of the Body of Christ and that has not been my experience of the UCC. Sure, the UCC contains process theologians (Daniel Day Williams, a process theologian first at the University of Chicago and then at Union Theological Seminary of New York, was one of the pioneers of those who used the process metaphysics pioneered by philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charlese Hartshorne in the service of Christian theology) and many other classic liberal or neo-liberal thinkers.  But the UCC is congregational in polity and each congregation varies greatly in theology.  The UCC’s theological giants also contain the Niebuhr brothers, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, the 19th C. historical theologians Philip Schaff (who founded the American Society of Church History) and John Williamson Nevin (founder of the American Theologica Society), minister and civil rights leader Andrew Young (later mayor of Atlanta, GA and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter), public theologian Max Stackhouse, Gabriel Fackre, Enoch Oglesby, and many others who could not be classified as “blindly liberal” in theology.  So I don’t see the need for evangelical theologians in other traditions to try to build the late Dr. Bloesch up by running down his denomination.

Bloesch was raised in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a German immigrant denomination strongest in the Midwest that was one of the small denominations which merged in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ. (The E & R was itself a merger of two German-speaking immigrant denominations in the 19th C., one more Lutheran (Evangelische) and the other more Calvinist or Reformed, but both using the Heidelberg Catechism–which had tried to bridge the gap between the Lutherans and the Calvinists. ) He went to the major E & R college, Elmhurst College in Illinois (B.A.) and one of its seminaries, Chicago Theological Seminary (B.D.) before earning his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago Divinity School, an ecumenical (usually liberal) divinity school historically connected to the Northern/American Baptists. 

I encountered Bloesch as a young college student trying to find a middle ground between fundamentalism (either in its rationalist/empiricist form espoused by Carl F. H. Henry, or its rigid Calvinist presuppositionalist form championed by the likes of Cornelius van Till) and the liberal modernisms that seemed like watered-down faith.  Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology included the entire evangelical tradition, including Wesleyanism, Pentecostalism, Anabaptism, and Pietism– all branches that Calvinist, Lutheran, and Calvinistic-Baptist evangelicals regularly ignored, disparaged, or gave second-rate status as “evangelical stepchildren.”  Bloesch himself was a blend of Reformed and Pietist thought.  He also firmly placed Karl Barth in the evangelical tradition (unlike van Till, or Henry, or, more recently Al Mohler) and saw Emil Brunner and the Niebuhr brothers as having at least one foot in the evangelical tradition.  Thus, his work was firmly evangelical, but also ecumenical and in dialogue with wider figures than most evangelicals in the U.S.  (He later expanded his dialogue to include Catholic and Orthodox voices.) My developing Anabaptist influence found Bloesch too stubbornly Reformed, but I loved the tone and spirit of his writing and his non-separatist ecclesiology.

He spent his life teaching at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa, which is formally connected to the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., but also has historic ties to the UCC and to several small evangelical denominations.  That lifelong commitment to one institution is also rare in this era of careerism. 

In 1985, Bloesch wrote The Battle for the Trinity (ironically, just before a major wave of renewal in trinitarian theology from widely divergent sectors of the Church universal).  Here, Bloesch, a supporter or the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, saw the primary danger as being feminist theology and especially feminist critiques of the use of only masculine imagery for God.  Then and now I saw Bloesch as having the right battle (as opposed to the endless “battles for the Bible” that mostly involved people talking past one another and confused real threats–and some exist–with mere shadows), but the wrong battle lines.  There are feminine images for God in Scripture and in the early Christian tradition! And, the exclusive use of masculine imagery, even by theologians who are well aware that God is NOT male and that men and women BOTH bear the image and likeness of God, does seem to make men more directly in God’s image and to make women only indirectly or less clearly bear the divine image.  So, while we want to avoid goddess language and be careful to let Scripture the way we speak of God, we cannot repudiate all feminine imagery for God–even in worship.  This was one of my major disagreements with Bloesch and with those influenced by his work–work which now includes a seven volume systematic, Christian Foundations.

I also disagreed with his approach to political theology.  Bloesch clearly repudiated the Religious Right, standing up for church-state separation, and a pluralistic democracy with a strong welfare state.  He also was far more outspoken about racial justice than most evangelicals.  But his political thought was controlled by his early doctoral work on Reinhold Niebuhr.  He never learned from either the pacifist witness of Anabaptist theologians such as John Howard Yoder or any form of liberation theology–in which he saw only the threat of Marxism (which he read through the Cold War lenses of Stalin and Mao). In this, he was quite at odds with many in his denomination.

But Bloesch’s approach to the arts and to Christian witness in a secular culture was refreshingly open in an era dominated by the likes of Francis A. Schaeffer.  His push to reclaim prayer and worship at the center of theological life and his openess to the charismatic movement were all major challenges from an evangelical Reformed theologian.  So was his insistence that if the church were to retain a term like “inerrancy” to describe Scripture, it must be only in the sacramental sense of the Word conveying the Spirit and not in rationalist-empiricist forms.

He helped introduce me to the work of Karl Barth (and, to a lesser extent, that of Emil Brunner).  So, though my Anabaptist-Liberationist influences moved my theology into a different orbit, I remain grateful for early helpf from Donald Bloesch. More, I appreciate his humble and pietist tone–which is all too lacking in theologians from many traditions.  The church is poorer without his witness.

August 30, 2010 - Posted by | obituary, theologians

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