Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Taking the Passed Torch: Theologians Who Died 2000-2010 as Challenge for We Who Tarry

In September, I wrote a column on the theologians who have died this first decade of the 21st Century.  I missed a few and some more have passed since then. I reprint the column below as a challenge for those of us left here to keep what was best about the work of those now gone, excise what falls short of the gospels demands and the demands of our age and forge new paths–faithful to the gospel and faithful to the challenges we will face.  MLW-W

  It is clear that many, if not most, of those who shaped the landscape of theological studies for the last half-century or more, are now passing from the scene.  The new landscape is being shaped by newer voices. In many cases I find that comforting–some of the younger voices in church leadership or theological education are vital and fresh (and some blog) and theological education is more global, more ecumenical (Eastern and Western Christianity, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, evangelical and liberal [and postliberal and postconservative!] ), more diverse in race, ethnicity, gender and language group, and more engaged in interfaith dialogue than ever before. It’s an exciting time for church and theology, full of creativity and potential.

In other cases, I find reasons for concern.  The resurgence of sterile liberalisms (especially through the takeover of theological faculties by “religious studies”) and of militant-imperialist fundamentalisms is extremely worrying.  More worrying is the belief of many ministry students that serious biblical study (including in original languages), study of church history, and serious theological engagement are “boring and unnecessary.” They substitute psycho-babble or business management and marketing techniques or lead in the dominant idolatries of materialist-consumerist-capitalism, imperialist-nationalist-militarism, or hedonism. It is a dangerous time for church and theology, full of temptations and idolatries

Perhaps every era of the church is so poised between life and death this side of the eschaton.  But the passing of the torch shown by this decade of theological funerals  makes the starkness of the choices abundantly clear–even if the shape of the landscape replacing the ones we’ve known is still very unclear.  Of course, a theologian’s death does not mean necessarily the end of her or his influence–sometimes it presages greater influence. (I think the recent spate of posthumous publications and secondary studies concerning John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), who died just before the decade under review, is a hopeful sign that the forces which continued to try to marginalize his thought during his life, are in retreat.) Still, every one dies with work unfinished and must trust that others will take up the tasks.  This review is made as a challenge for those of us who remain, to take up the torch and lead in helping equip the church for faithful witness.


  • Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000).  One of the most important American philosophers, the 103 year old Hartshorne took the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and, at the University of Chicago Divinity School, began forging what would become process theology.  All process theologians build on Hartshorne’s work.
  • Eberhard Bethge (1910-2000). German Lutheran pastor and theologian. Student and close friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who married Bonhoeffer’s niece and became his major biographer.
  • George Huntston Williams (1914-2000).  Unitarian theologian and historian of the radical reformation at Harvard University. One of the very few Unitarians in the 20th C. to interact with and influence more mainstream Christian theologians, including some evangelicals like Timothy George.  An ordained Unitarian who believed in the Trinity, Williams was also a sacramental Protestant. A pacifist who spoke out against McCarthyism and who burned draft cards as a sacrament during the Vietnam War, Williams was a complex person who also spoke of elective abortion as sinful and believed that elective abortions should at least be legally restricted if not banned altogether.  He was also a major voice in studies of the Radical Reformation.
  • Richard A. McCormick, S. J. (1922-2000).  Raised in the “immigrant church” pre-Vatican II Catholicism, McCormick joined the Society of Jesus in 1940 and was trained in the old “manualist” tradition of Catholic moral theology.  The Second Vatican Council changed his view of the Church and of his calling as a priest and scholar.  He became one of the most respected (and contraversial ) voices in Christian medical ethics, the “hero of humane healthcare” as one obituary put it.
  • George R. Beasley-Murray (1916-2000). British Baptist New Testament scholar. Twice Principal of Spurgeon’s College, London, and briefly teaching at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, Beasley-Murray spent most of his career as James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. Most famous for Baptism in the New Testament and The Kingdom of God in Jesus’ Teaching, Beasley-Murray also wrote many commentaries and translated Bultmann’s massive commentary on John’s Gospel into English.
  • James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000). Pioneering Baptist narrative theologian. One of the earliest white theologians to take Martin Luther King, Jr. seriously as a theologian (not just as a “civil rights leader”), McClendon was strongly influenced by Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Alasdair MacIntyre, and his longtime friend, Stanley Hauerwas. McClendon attempted to convey a radical Anabaptist theology in a way that those educated in the mainstream (liberal-Niebuhrian) tradition could hear and understand it.


  • Frank Stagg (1911-2001). Southern Baptist New Testament scholar and theologian.  Pacifist, activist for racial justice, and early advocate for full equality of women and men in society and church. Had Stagg chosen to publish more of his work outside Broadman Press (the official Southern Baptist publisher), he’d have been far more influential in ecumenical circles.
  • Gerhard Ebeling (1912-2001). German Lutheran New Testament scholar and theologian.  A student of Rudolf Bultmann’s, Ebeling was prominent in the “New (2nd) Quest for the Historical Jesus,” and, later, of “The New Hermeneutic.”  He was also a major interpreter of the work of Martin Luther.
  • Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001). Presbyterian minister and systematic theologian.  Raised an old-style, liberal pacifist, Brown studied with Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Seminary during WWII and became convinced that he could not work for the reconstruction of Europe after the war while sitting it out. 1945-1946, Presbyterian chaplain, U.S. Navy.  Missionary relief worker in Japan and Germany in late ’40s.  Won a Fulbright to Oxford and studied with Barth at Basel before returning to finish his Ph.D. at Columbia in 1952.  Early U.S. interpreter of Barth and Bonhoeffer.  Civil rights and peace activist.  Later early (white, male, established) interpreter of liberation theologies in U.S.–especially the Latin American liberation theology of Gustavo Gutierrez.
  • Heiko A. Oberman (1930-2001).  Dutch historical theologian who specialized in the Reformation.  Taught at Harvard Divinity School, then Eberhard-Karls Universität, Tübingen (where he was Director, Institute for Late Middle Ages and Reformation Research), and, finally, University of Arizona (where he founded the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies).


  • Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002). Hugely influential philosopher who concentrated on philosophical hermeneutics, influencing much Christian theology.
  • John F. Walvoord (1910-2002). Longtime president and professor of theology at Dallas Theological Seminary and advocate/interpreter of Dispensational Theology (a view I dislike strongly).
  • Daniel Jenkins (1914-2002). British Congregationalist theologian and ecumenical leader.
  • Kenneth Kantzer (1917-2002).  Minister in the Evangelical Free Church in America.  Longtime Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL), later President of Trinity College (now Trinity International University) and longtime Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today. (This entry is an addition I originally missed–added thanks to a commenter.) 
  • John H. Leith (1919-2002). Presbyterian minister and theologian who taught for decades at Union Theological Seminary of Virginia (now Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education).
  • Lewis B. Smedes (1921-2002). The child of Dutch immigrants to the United States, Smedes was a theologian and ethicist in the Christian Reformed Church. He taught theology, ethics, and pastoral counseling at Fuller Theological Seminary and was regularly a Visiting Professor at the Free University of Amsterdam (where he’d done his own Th.D.). After retiring from Fuller in the 1990s, Smedes served several congregations in the CRC. There is now a Lewis B. Smedes Chair in Christian Ethics at Fuller Seminary.
  • Philip F. Berrigan (1923-2002). Former Catholic priest and leader in nonviolent movements for justice and peace. Drafted into World War II, the violence of war and racism of army life changed him. Upon exiting the army, Berrigan became a priest in the Order of St. Joseph, working with the poor and for racial justice. He then became a leader in the peace movement (along with his older brother, Daniel, a Jesuit priest and theologian). He left the priesthood and married a former nun, Elizabeth McAlister. They raised 3 children in an intentional community (Jonah House, Baltimore, MD) while continuing their work for justice and peace.
  • Elizabeth Achtemeier (1926-2002).  Presbyterian minister, Old Testament scholar, and homiletician.  Heavily influenced by Barth and the “Biblical theology” movement.  Strong opponent of much feminist theology as a “new paganism.”
  • Neville Clark (1927-2002). British Baptist theologian.
  • William L. Hendricks (1929-2002). Southern Baptist theologian who taught at Golden Gate Seminary (San Francisco), Southwestern Seminary (Ft. Worth, TX), and The Southern Seminary (Louisville, KY) before finishing his teaching career as “Director of Baptist Studies” for Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University (Ft. Worth). B.A., Oklahoma Baptist University; M.Div., Th.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; M.A., Ph.D., University of Chicago.  He wrote mostly for laity, including for both the aging and children and, during his time at Southern (the mother seminary), created a Ph.D. program in theology and the arts. 


  • Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003).  Raised in a secular family, this newspaper reporter experienced an adult conversion and baptism and then became a major leader of post-WWII American Evangelical theology.  Henry combined a mild baptistic Calvinism with a rationalism informed by Scottish realist philosophy, leading to a lifelong obsession with a rational defense of biblical inerrancy.  B.A., M.A., Wheaton College; Th.D., Northern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Boston University.  After a period teaching at his alma mater (NBTS), Henry was part of the founding faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, and, later still, founding editor of Christianity Today. 
  • Edward A. Dowey (1918-2003).  Renowned Presbyterian historical theologian and Calvin scholar.  A student of Emil Brunner, Dowey taught at Columbia and McCormick before spending the bulk of his career at Princeton Theological Seminary. His “The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology” is still considered to be one of the best introductions to Calvin’s thought.
  • James B. Torrance (1923-2003).  Brother to the more-famous  Thomas Torrance (see below); Professor of Systematic Theology at University of Aberdeen (1977-1989); revisionist Calvin scholar (and defender of Calvin against Calvinists!); Chair of the Church of Scotland’s panel on doctrine; chair, joint Church of Scotland-Roman Catholic Commission on Doctrine.
  • Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003). Pioneering and controversial German feminist theologian.  Denied a teaching post in Germany, she taught briefly at Basel and had a regular Visiting Professorship at Union Theological Seminary of New York.
  • Colin Gunton (1941-2003). British theologian of the United Reformed Church who died too young at 62.  Professor, dean of faculty, and head of the department at King’s College, University of London.  One of the founders of the International Journal of Systematic Theology.  In 1999, I was briefly a colleague of Gunton’s as we were both summer Visiting Professors at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA and shared the same guest quarters.  I had not previously encountered his work, but found him to be a great dialogue partner.
  • Donald H. Juel (1942-2003).  Lutheran New Testament scholar.  Taught at Indiana University, then Princeton Theological Seminary, and Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary for 17 years before returning to Princeton. 


  • Henlee H. Barnette (1914-2004).  Longtime Professor of Christian Ethics at the (pre-Mohler) Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.  Earned a Ph.D. at SBTS and a Th.D. at Harvard Divinity School (under James Luther Adams). A participant in the Civil Rights movement (in fact, he persuaded the trustees to offer Martin Luther King, Jr. a professorship in Christian Ethics at SBTS in 1961, which King declined), Barnette was also a major founder of the Society of Christian Ethics and played a behind-the-scenes role in thawing the Cold War, by getting Kruschev and Kennedy to agree student exchanges. Barnette’s tradition and vocation was defined by 3 portraits in his office:  Walter Rauschenbusch, Clarence Jordan, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • (Christian Frederick) Beyers Naudé (1919-2004). White leader in South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church, Beyers Naudé was one of the few Afrikaaners who outspokingly opposed apartheid.  His opposition led him to resign his ordination in the white Dutch Reformed Church and become a minister in the Black Reformed Church and to serve as a minister in black congregations.  His life was continuously threatened by the government during the apartheid years.
  • Langdon B. Gilkey (1919-2004).  Moved from a Neo-orthodox to a Neo-liberal position.  His Out of the Whirlwind:  The Renewal of God-language in Theology linguistically destroyed the “Death of God” fad.  Played a bit role in the Civil Rights movement.  He spent the rest of his career at the University of Chicago Divinity School, serving most of the time as Shailer Matthews Professor of Systematic Theology. Gilkey also played a major role in the interface of science and theology, including testifying for the ACLU in a major court case against “Creation Science.”
  • Jan Milic Lochman (1922-2004).  Born in the former Czechoslovakia, Lochman studied during WWII and after at Prague, St. Andrews (Scotland), and Basel and was ordained a minister of the Evangelical Czech Brethren.  He taught at Union Seminary in New York, and at the University of Basel (becoming Rector/President). From 1970 to 1982, Lochman was chair of the Department of Theology for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and drafted the WARC statement on universal human rights.  He was also prominently involved in the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.
  • Shirley C. Guthrie (1927-2004). Presbyterian theologian who taught for decades at Columbia Theological Seminary, Atlanta, GA. Guthrie wrote several major works in ecumenical theology and tried to heal the “evangelical-liberal” divide in U.S. Christianity.  His best known book was his introductory handbook, Christian Doctrine.


  • Paul Ricoeur (1914-2005). Devout Christian in the French Reformed Church, pacifist, and one of the 2-3 most important philosophers of the 20th C., especially in philosophical hermeneutics.  Conflicts in the 1960s with the student movement, the French government (over Ricoeur’s vocal opposition to the French wars to retain their colonies in Algeria and Vietnam), and with the then-confining nature of French academic life, led Ricouer to decades of teaching at the University of Chicago in both the philosophy department and the Divinity School. This led him to become one of the few Continental Philosophers to also engage the Anglo-American analytic tradition in philosophy.
  • Brother Roger of Taíze (1915-2005). Founder of the Taize community, a Protestant intentional community which began the “new monastic” movement in post-WWII Protestantism.
  • Karol Józef Wojtyla, a.k.a., Pope John Paul II (1920-2005).  The only Polish or Slavic pope and the first non-Italian pope since the Dutch Adrian VI died in 1522, John Paul II had one of the longest papacies ever at 26 1/2 years! The most globe-trotting pope ever, he was conservative in many areas (the veneration of Mary; opposition to contraception and the ordination of women; opposition to increased lay ministries; suspicion of most liberation theologies as Marxist–viewed through his experience in Communist-occupied Poland), but a strong defender of religious liberty, human rights, and peacemaking.  Criticized heavily for allowing the local cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse, especially of children, he nevertheless was one of the most beloved of modern popes.  A huge influence on the 20th C. both in and out of Catholic circles.
  • Maurice F. Wiles (1923-2005). Major liberal voice in Anglican theology.
  • Gerhard O. Forde (1928-2005).  Famed Lutheran theologian. Heavily involved in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.  A major contemporary interpreter of Martin Luther.
  • Robert W. Funk (1929-2005). Liberal U.S. Protestant New Testament scholar.  Early career marked as a pioneer in “The New Hermeneutic.”  Later, a founder and initial head of “The Jesus Seminar” and publisher of the Jesus Seminar’s “color coded” Gospels which attempt to show laity how likely or unlikely specific sayings attributed to Jesus by the Gospel writers are to have actually been said by Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Monica Hellwig (1929-2005).  Catholic feminist theologian and former nun. After leaving her order, adopted children and raised them as a single mother.  Pioneering feminist theologian who attended the Second Vatican Council.  Later strongly defended progressive Catholic intellectuals against an increasingly conservative Vatican.
  • Stanley Grenz (1950-2005).  Canadian Baptist evangelical and postconservative theologian who died far too soon and unexpectedly.  An expert in the later theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, Grenz was also a positive interpreter of postmodernism to evangelicals as more opportunity than peril.  B.A., University of Colorado @ Boulder; M.Div., Denver Seminary; D.Theol. (magna cum laude ) University at Munich with Pannenberg (on the thought of Colonial-era Baptist Isaac Backus). He taught briefly at North American Baptist Seminary (Sioux Falls, SD)  before moving to Vancouver, Canada to teach theology and ethics at both Regent College and Carey Theological Seminary.


  • Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006).  Church historian and historical theologian who spent most of his career teaching at Yale Divinity School. Pelikan was raised and ordained a Lutheran, but late in life became a layperson in the Orthodox Church of America.  He was one of the most influential interpreters of the Christian tradition in the 20th C.
  • William Sloan Coffin (1924-2006). United Church of Christ minister and social justice activist.  As chaplain of Yale University during much of the 1960s, Coffin helped rally students and faculty against the Vietnam War (to the fury of conservative students like George W. Bush). Later, as Senior Minister of Riverside Church, NYC, Coffin continued to be a leader in peace movements, especially against nuclear weapons.
  • Arthur R. Peacocke (1924-2006).  Initially trained as a biochemist, Peacocke became an Anglican priest (eventually Canon of Christ Church, Oxford) and worked in the interface of science and theology.  He has been one of the most influential voices in the science/theology interface.
  • James Barr (1924-2006).   British Old Testament scholar and theologian.  Barr’s career came in several stages:  1st, as a linguistic and hermeneutical critic of the “Biblical Theology Movement;” 2nd, as a major critic of fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, especially the doctrine of inerrancy and the hermeneutical moves fostered by inerrancy doctrines; 3rd, as a critic of Brevard Childs’ “canonical approach” to biblical interpretation; finally, as a proponent of a revised form of “natural theology,” (taking the side of Emil Brunner vs. that of Karl Barth).


  • Paul S. Minear (1906-2007).  Famed New Testament theologian at Yale Divinity School. Died just after his 101st birthday!
  • Charles Frances Digby (C. F. D.) Moule (1908-2007).  Anglican priest and New Testament scholar, for 25 years Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University (1951-1976).  Born in China to missionaries, he was President of the International Society of New Testament Studies, a major translator for the New English Bible, and a huge influence on generations of British Neutestamentlers.
  • Herman N. Ridderbos (1909-2007).  Dutch Reformed New Testament scholar, famous especially for his work on the theology of the Apostle Paul.
  • Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007).  Both one of the major interpreters of the theology of Karl Barth (1886-1968) and a creative theologian in his own right.  Torrance has been called the greatest Scottish theologian since the Reformer John Knox and the greatest British theologian of the 20th Century. 
  • Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007).  Presbyterian minister and New Testament scholar.  A leader for decades in textual criticism (ascertaining, as far as possible, the original text of the NT writings), Metzger was the chair of the continuing committee for the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible.  Taught for decades at Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • Bernhard W. Anderson (1916-2007).  Famed Old Testament scholar who taught first at Drew University Divinity School and then at Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • John Macquarrie (1919-2007). Scottish-born philosopher and theologian. Began as a minister in the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) and later became an Anglican priest.  An interpreter of existentialist philosophy, Macquarrie also attempted to forge the views of New Testament theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) into a systematic theology.  He was for years Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary (NYC) before becoming Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford University and Canon Residentiary, Christ Church, Oxford (1970-1986).
  • Brevard Childs (1923-2007).  Stirling Professor of Divinity at Yale Divinity School until his retirement in 1999, Childs was an iconic figure in Old Testament theology.  He began as part of the “biblical theology” movement, then became one of its critics. Eventually proposing and defending a “canonical approach” to biblical interpretation, in which one could investigate thoroughly and critically the pre-history of the texts, but in which the final “canonical form” of the text, including it’s placement in the canon, controlled the normative interpretation for the church.
  • Vernard Eller (1927-2007). American theologian, pacifist, Christian anarchist, and minister in the Church of the Brethren.  A major interpreter of Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, the Blumhardts and Jacques Ellul, Eller had a folksy way of speaking and writing that led some to underestimate the seriousness of his theological writing.  He was a major critic of much feminist theology, especially the use of feminine imagery for God, which Eller believed led to a lapse into Canaanite fertility religion.  He was also a strong critic of materialism and nationalism in Christian churches, advocating for simplicity, reducing possessions, radical sharing of wealth, political independence and nonviolence. Eller was  critical of sacramental views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (which he believed would rob them of their ethical content).
  • Letty M. Russell (1928-2007).  One of the earliest women ordained in American Presbyterian circles, Letty Russell became a major voice in feminist theology, albeit, one who accepted and reinterpreted more of the mainstream Christian tradition than she rejected. 
  • Harold O. J. Brown (1933-2007). American conservative evangelical theologian.  Educated with multiple degrees at Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School, Brown was an ordained minister in the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (the strand of American Congregationalists which did NOT become part of the United Church of Christ in 1957).  His principle teaching posts were at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL) and Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte, NC). In 1975, two years after the Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, Brown formed the Christian Action Council (now CareNet) to oppose legal abortions, thus helping to launch the anti-abortion or pro-life movement and, more broadly, the Religious Right (though it is not clear that Brown was pleased with all of the directions the Religious Right took on other issues than opposition to abortion).
  • Robert E. Webber (1933-2007).  American evangelical theologian who revitalizd North American evangelical interest in the early church Fathers, in worship and liturgy, and in the promotion of “Ancient-Future faith” (a varient on the “Paleoorthodox” movement). 


  • Thomas Berry (1915-2008).  U.S. Roman Catholic priest and pioneer in ecological theology.
  • Avery Cardinal Dulles (1918-2008).  Major voice in the conservative wing of U.S. Catholic theology.
  • Henry O. Chadwick (1920-2008). Anglican priest and church historian.
  • Krister Stendahl (1921-2008). Swedish Lutheran New Testament scholar who laid the groundwork for the reappropriation of the Apostle Paul as a thoroughly Jewish figure, a groundwork that later flourished into the so-called “new perspective” on Paul.  Taught for decades at Harvard Divinity School, serving as dean during the turbulent ’60s, until elected and consecrated (Lutheran) Bishop of Stockholm in 1984.
  • Thomas A. Langford (1930-2008).  Langford, a United Methodist minister, John Wesley scholar, and theologian was a former dean of Duke University Divinity School.  (They’ve renamed the main divinity school building after Langford.) I was shocked that I initially missed Langford’s death since he was such a huge influence on my father (a retired Methodist minister) and my father’s love for Wesley–despite the fact that Papa was a Candler (Emory) grad and not a “Dukie.” Langford played almost as strong a role in my father’s thought as Albert Outler, and that’s saying something! 
  • Hugo Assmann (1933-2008).  Brazilian Catholic priest and one of the pioneers of Latin American liberation theology.
  • Ann W. Carr (1934-2008).  U.S. Catholic nun and pioneer Catholic feminist theologian.
  • Rosemary Skinner Keller (1934-2008).  A permanent deacon in the United Methodist Church, Keller was a feminist church historian, concentrating on the neglected experiences and contributions of women in church history, especially North American church history.
  • Jean-Marc Ela (1936-2008). Cameroon-born Catholic priest and African liberation theologian.  Africa’s first liberation theologian of note outside South Africa.
  • William C. Placher (1948-2008).  Presbyterian minister and theologian in the “narrative” and “postliberal” schools.


  • Geoffrey W. Bromiley (1915-2009).  Anglican priest and evangelical historical theologian.  Known primarily as a translator into English of major German theological texts (including Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, plus works by Ernst Käsemann, Helmut Thielicke, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Bromiley also wrote several books of his own in historical theology and contemporary theology.  After serving pastorates in the U.K., he spent most of his career as Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.
  • Robert T. Handy (1918-2009) American Baptist church historian specializing in the history of religion in the U.S. Taught at Union Theological Seminary of New York and wrote the official history of the seminary.
  • Ray Anderson (1925-2009).Minister in the Evangelical Free Church and systematic and pastoral theologian, Anderson taught at Fuller Theological Seminary.  He was a student of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a tradition that blended Reformed and Pietist strands.
  • Oliver Clément (1929-2009).  Influential Eastern Orthodox theologian in heavily Catholic France.
  • Graham Stanton (1940-2009).New Zealand born Anglican priest and New Testament scholar.   Moule’s successor as Lady Margaret Professor at Cambridge.


  • Vernon M. Grounds (1914-2010).   Grounds, the Emeritus President of Denver Seminary, passed away on 12 September at the age of 96.  A Conservative Baptist, Grounds taught theology and Christian ethics. He was an ambassador for the best of American evangelicalism; always a voice for the poor and for peacemaking.
  • Edward Schillebeeckxx (1915-2010) Dominican priest and theologian who was hugely influential in Vatican II and was one of the progressive Catholic leaders after the Council. He was especially strong in incorporating critical biblical scholarship into his work as a systematic theologian.
  • John M. Swomley (1915-2010).  Moderately liberal United Methodist theological ethicist.  A pacifist, Swomley was a conscientious objector to WWII, a leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and a behind the scenes player in the Civil Rights movement.  He taught Christian social ethics at St. Paul School of Theology, St. Louis, MO.
  • Roger Nicole (1915-2010).  On 11 December, the ultra-conservative Baptist theologian Roger Nicole died. One of the founders of the Evangelical Theological Society, Nicole brought heresy charges at ETS against Canadian Baptist theologian Clark Pinnock, but Pinnock was cleared. Both men ended up dying the same year. (This is an update from comments).
  • Raimon Pannikar (1919-2010).  Spanish Catholic theologian and “apostle of interfaith dialogue.”
  • George R.  Edwards (1920-2010).  Presbyterian New Testament scholar and longtime pacifist and peace activist, especially through the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  Teaching for decades at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Edwards was known not only for an amazing classroom presence (and prayerful gentleness), but for two major monographs, Jesus and the Politics of Violence (1972) and Gay/Lesbian Liberation:  A Biblical Perspective (1984). 
  • Robert Bratcher (1920-2010). Baptist missionary and Bible translator for the American Bible Society and the United Bible Societies. Bratcher was the major translator of Good News for Modern Man  which became the New Testament section of The Good News Bible, at one time the most popular English translation sold in the United States.  This established the “dynamic equivalence” approach to biblical translation.
  • W. Morgan Patterson (1925-2010).  Southern Baptist church historian who taught at 4 different Baptist seminaries and was president of Georgetown College (Georgetown, KY). Patterson was most famous for his strong critique of “Baptist successionism,” the erroneous view (still popular in some circles) that Baptists are not Protestants but the “true church” traced in unbroken succession from Jesus’s baptism by John in the River Jordan through dissenting groups throughout the centuries .
  • Gerald F. Hawthorne (1925-2010). I missed this one, but my former teacher, Craig Blomberg, called it to my attention. In August, Wheaton College New Testament professor Gerald Hawthorne died.
  • E. Earle Ellis (1926-2010) Southern Baptist New Testament scholar with a scholarly conservative bent. Worked especially on the use of the Old Testament by New Testament writers.
  • Donald G. Bloesch (1928-2010) Evangelical systematic theologian who stayed with the mostly-liberal United Church of Christ and taught at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. An evangelical interpreter of Karl Barth (and, to lesser extents, Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr), Bloesch had a two-fold mission: to bring back more orthodoxy into mainline Protestant theology and to get evangelicals to read more widely, think more self-critically, with more openess to the entire global church, and to persuade the entire church of the centrality of prayer and piety to both theology and the life of the church.
  • Bruce L. Shelley (1929-2010) Evangelical Baptist church historian in the Conservative Baptist Association. Taught for decades at Denver Seminary. 
  • Ralph McInerny (1929-2010).  American Catholic philosopher, and professor at University of Notre Dame.  Also author of the best-selling mystery novels of Father Downing.
  • Mary Daly (1929-2010).  In January the former Catholic feminist theologian who became a radical “post-Christian” feminist philosopher died.  Daly was a very provocative and controversial figure whose work inspired more mainstream Christian feminists even when they couldn’t follow all of Daly’s paths. She was also controversial among secular (and some Christian) feminists for her opposition to transsexuals and sex-reasignment surgery for transgendered persons.
  • David Livingstone Mueller (1930-2010).  Baptist theologian and pastor who was a major interpreter of the work of Karl Barth.  Mueller was one of my teachers and although others made more of an impact on the content of my thought, Mueller did the most in helping me to think theologically. After retiring from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994, Mueller taught for another decade at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, TX.
  • Moishe Rosen (1932-2010). American Baptist minister and controversial founder of Jews for Jesus, an evangelistic ministry to members of the Jewish faith.
  • Clark Pinnock (1937-2010).  Canadian evangelical Baptist who moved from a Carl Henry-style evangelical rationalism to embracing the Charismatic movement, Arminianism, interfaith dialogue, and “Open Theism.”
  • Arthur Gish (1939-2010). Amish-born conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Gish was a minister in the Church of the Brethren, a popular pacifist author and peace activist. He worked especially on peacemaking in Israel-Palestine through Christian Peacemaker Teams.
  • Andrew D. Lester (1940-2010).  Baptist minister and longtime professor of psychology of religion and pastoral care and counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY) during the 1970s and 1980s. With the fundamentalist takeover, Lester moved to Texas and finished his teaching career at Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University.
  • Susan Nelson (1947-2010).  Former American Baptist turned Presbyterian minister and feminist theologian. Taught for many years at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary before becoming Dean of Claremont Theological Seminary.

December 30, 2010 Posted by | biographies, obituaries, theologians | 19 Comments

Justice for the Poor and Peace on Earth: Luke’s Christmas Message

I have argued that the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth causes problems for one of Luke’s major themes: his emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. But Luke is creative and addresses this problem by using his Infancy Narrative to stress other major emphases that will be repeated throughout his Gospel: Jesus and the in-breaking Kingdom of God will mean justice for the poor (we might call this the Jubilee theme) and peace on earth (inaugurated in the nonviolence of Jesus and his followers).

Luke really tells us of two miracle births: John the Baptizer’s and Jesus’. The two are compared which may indicate that Luke is also tackling a Baptizer movement (the author indicates in Acts that such a movement existed) by arguing that, great as John was, his mission was only to prepare the way for Jesus. The Annunciation to Zechariah (John’s father) says that Elizabeth, like Sarai/Sarah, will conceive though both parents are past the usual age for children. John will be a Nazarite (no strong drink or wine) and will be like Elijah in popular Jewish piety–preparing the way of the Lord. The Annunciation to Mary is modeled more on that to Hannah (Samuel’s mother) and Mary’s Magnificat echoes Hannah’s song at Samuel’s birth.

Compare and contrast: Because old age birth miracles have precedent, Zechariah’s skepticism is met as a sign of lack of faith and he is struck dumb. But Mary’s question (“How can this be, since I have never known a man?” I.e., Mary is a virgin. Ancient people did not have our biological knowledge, but they knew enough to know that sex was a necessary precursor to pregnancy!) is logical and not taken as a lack of faith–there is no punishment, but Elizabeth’s pregnancy is offered as a sign. John will have the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb,” but the Holy Spirit is the very agent of Jesus’ conception. John will be like Elijah, but Jesus will be given “the throne of his father David,” i.e., will be the Messiah.

In the Magnificat, Mary breaks forth out of the role of popular Christian piety over the centuries of a mild, beatific and humble woman to speak revolutionary words that would do justice to the Maccabees. God’s mercy on those who fear God; the proud are scattered, the mighty toppled from their thrones; those “of low degree” (including Mary) are exalted; the hungry are fed and the rich sent away empty. Liberation! Similar themes are given in Zechariah’s song (the Benedictus): About Jesus, Zechariah says: Horn of salvation (rescue, freedom from enemies) from the “House of his servant David.” Of John, Zechariah says, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” Salavation is described in both terms of freedom of oppression and in terms of “forgiveness of their sins.” Zechariah also believes John (and Jesus?) will “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

In the Christmas story itself, the setting is that of imperial oppression. A forced census to aid in greater collection of tribute to imperial masters. Occupation. A forced journey in late pregnancy. Hospitality denied (no room at the inn)–a vulnerable birth in a stable with an animal’s feeding trough as a first cradle.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (low caste, representing the anawim, the “pious poor” of the land) is filled with these themes: Good News for ALL people (not just the elites), city of David (instant overtones of Messianic hope), Savior/Liberator, Messiah the Lord.

Modern translations have the hymn of the heavenly host as “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom God is pleased.” This is grammatically possible and based on ancient manuscript evidence. But Brad Young argues persuasively in Jesus the Jewish Theologian for the alternative reading, “and on earth peace, good will among men/people.” The promise of universal peace was too much a part of the Jewish messianic hope. Restricting that to a peace for the favored fits too much the watered down pietism of modern evangelicalism, not the Jewish hope that Luke saw Jesus fulfilling.

Luke’s visitation is not from wealthy foreign astrologers (the Magi), but from the Shepherds–the poor and outcast who then become the first evangelists, spreading the good news that they heard from the angels and saw in the stable.

Justice for the poor; peace on earth. No matter what our views on the historicity (or not) of the Virgin Birth, the true Christmas message in Luke is that God’s Revolution (“Kingdom of God”) has broken into history in Jesus and it will be radical good news for the poor and marginalized and oppressed and lead to universal peace. (It also includes repentance and forgiveness; we need to break from the world’s patterns of domination, violence, and greed–accept forgiveness and follow Jesus in a new path.) That’s a message we need today–and it is far too absent in many contemporary churches.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Matthew’s Birth & Infancy Narrative: Birth of the Anointed Deliverer!

The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are, in my view, interwoven mixtures of historical accounts (“history remembered” in Marcus Borg’s terms) and mythical or metaphorical interpretations of those events. The Virgin Birth aside, it is not easy to separate out historical fact from what we might, with Robert Gundry, call the Evangelists’ midrash on these events. The visit of the Magi seems very unlikely historically, for instance, but King Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents (all boy children two and under in Bethlehem) is completely in character: he killed several of his own sons and Bethlehem was small enough that such a slaughter could have totalled 10-15 kids, small enough to keep from imperial records. But if the slaughter of the innocents is “history remembered,” it needs a motivator and the visit of of the Magi is the only option given in our sources.

Or take Luke’s narrative: Empires, ancient and modern, conduct censuses of their occupied territories in order to more efficiently tax and oppress them. But, as E. P. Sanders points out, a census in which each man was sent back to his ancestral home town would disrupt the entire empire and surely be a source of controversy–and therefore likely to have been mentioned in secular histories of the day. But there is no such census mentioned, throwing doubt on the historical accuracy of Luke’s account. Further, why would Mary, so late in her pregnancy, accompany Joseph back to Bethlehem? Wouldn’t staying in Nazareth with relatives and midwives while Joseph took care of the census have made more sense? Yet, as Richard Cassidy, S.J. writes in his Jesus, Politics and Society, Luke’s knowledge of “Empire history” is extensive. He gives dates and times that he expects his, largely Gentile, audience to know and if his narrative were wildly inaccurate or implausible, it would undermine his apologetic/evangelistic purposes. A modern historian who is open to the miraculous, but is not pre-committed to historical inerrancy, must make difficult judgment calls–hemmed about with many a “maybe.”\

Fortunately, our task is easier. The strong theological themes of these stories are much easier to detect–and these themes are where the Evangelists themselves place their emphases.

Matthew’s Account (Chaps. 1-2): Written to a largely Jewish-Christian audience (perhaps in Syria?), throughout the Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes–now amazingly open to Gentiles, too. The book of the genealogy of Jesus Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham (1:1). More than any other New Testament writing, Matthew refers to Jesus as “Son of David,” a Messianic claim–and specifically a claim that Jesus is a King-Messiah and not the “priestly Messiah” of some Jewish hopes. Although Matthew’s account will re-define “Messiah” in ways that are nonviolent rather than military, there is no escaping the challenge in such claims to Roman rule–or the rule of client kings like the Herods. The opening line is revolutionary. (The Gospel will also present Jesus as a “new Moses” giving new Torah. Matthew’s narrative, as almost all commentaries mention, is structured around 5 major teaching blocks, paralleling the 5 Books of Moses.)
Next, Matthew uses a carefully crafted genealogy to prove his opening claim. Using some “fuzzy math,” Matthew concludes in 1:16-17, And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to the Messiah fourteen generations. 14–twice the holy number 7, shows completeness–even if Matthew has to skip some people and move others to get his numbers right. The point is that Jesus was born with the right lineage and just the right time to be the Messiah.
Now, anyone who has spent any time reading biblical genealogies knows that they seldom mention women. In that very patriarchal society women were seldom mentioned at all–men were seen as the actors in society and history. But Matthew’s genealogy includes 4 women (in addition to Jesus’ mother, Mary) who each played pivotal roles in Israel’s history. Why are these women named? There have been 4 major reasons given in church history and each has something to recommend it, in my view.

  1. The women were notorious sinners and foreshadowed Jesus’ role as savior of sinners. This was proposed as early as St. Jerome’s commentary on Matthew. Some have even seen this as a rebuttal to the ancient Jewish anti-Christian polemic that claimed Mary was an adulteress and Jesus her bastard son. But although this cannot be ruled out, I am not certain Matthew’s readers would have instantly understood these women as sinners: Tamar seduces her father-in-law as a pretended prostitute, but this is because her father-in-law refuses to follow the levirate marriage custom of giving her to another of his sons. Genesis portrays her actions as acts of faith that perpetuated her deceased husband’s lineage. Rahab had been a prostitute, but the book of Joshua understands her as a convert whose actions in hiding the Jewish spies in Jericho–though treasonous from the viewpoint of Jericho–are considered righteous. Ruth, Moabite convert to Judaism and grandmother to King David, certainly seems to have acted irregularly in “uncovering Boaz’ feet” in the fields, but this led him to become kinsman redeemer for Ruth and Naomi. So, once more, Matt.’s readers likely would NOT have seen Ruth as a sinner. Even Bathsheba, whom Matthew refers to as “the wife of Uriah the Hittite,” was not always condemned in rabbinic literature since her adulterous actions led to the birth of Solomon. (Of course, from our contemporary standpoint, Bathsheba would be seen as David’s rape victim–refusing the king was a death sentence!–rather than a seductress at all!) So, while this first reason for the women’s inclusion cannot be entirely dismissed (as Raymond Brown seems to), I don’t think this is the major reason.
  2. The women represented foreigners, thus foreshadowing the gospel mission to the Gentiles. This view was first popularized by Martin Luther. The Bible does identify Rahab as a Canaanite and seems to imply this about Tamar as well. Ruth is a Moabite and Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, even if her own nationality is never mentioned. Thus, Matthew not only indicates that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, has Gentiles in his ancestry, but shows that Gentiles are involved in the heart of Israel’s redemptive history.
  3. There was something unusual, even scandalous, involving each woman’s pregnancy. Tamar’s pregnancy by Judah was certainly scandalous, though Judah pronounces her “more righteous” than he was in securing her dead husband’s lineage.We are not told the circumstances of Rahab’s marriage to Salmon, but the fact that she was a former Canaanite prostitute makes that marriage and subsequent pregnancy scandalous. We have already noted the irregularity behind Ruth’s union with Boaz and Bathsheba’s pregnancy by David (and the subsequent royal murder of Uriah) was more than scandalous for the prophet Nathan and the authors/editors of 2 Samuel. It is therefore quite probable that Matthew is preparing his readers for the scandal that Joseph is not Jesus’ father. However, Jane Schaberg’s contention that Matthew is thereby hinting that Jesus is illegitimate and that the Virigin Birth story should not be understood literally, doesn’t really work. Why would Matthew try to subvert his own narrative?
  4. Each of these women took an active role in furthering redemptive history and was thus seen as an agent of the Holy Spirit. This has much to recommend it: Tamar schemed to get the offspring for her deceased husband that Judah owed her under levirate marriage. Rahab’s bold initiative in hiding the Israelite spies in Jericho enabled Israel to enter the Promised Land. Ruth’s initiatives kept Naomi from starving, led Boaz to become their “kinsman redeemer,” and secured the emergence of the Davidic line. Bathsheba’s manipulations at the time of David’s death led to the succession by Solomon–a move not seen as positive by all biblical writers, but seen as God-blessed by the dominant Jewish piety of Matthew’s era. However, the problem with this proposal is that Mary’s role in redemptive history in agreeing to birth the Messiah is related not by Matthew but by Luke! Mary is entirely passive in Matthew’s account–and the heroic role goes to Joseph for agreeing (after a dream) to wed Mary and bear the shame of the scandal that she was pregnant before their wedding (but not before their betrothal–binding as marriage in Jewish law).

In the previous post, I already focused on the theological motifs of Messiahship in the angelic dream visitation to Joseph and in Matthew’s reworking of Isaiah’s prophecy. Originally the prophecy in Isaiah 7 was a sign to King Ahaz that he would soon not have to fear Assyrian invasion. Thus, the sign could not be the miracle birth of a far future Messiah. A young woman shall conceive and bear a son, named Immanuel, and before the kid is old enough to know right from wrong, he will “eat curds and honey” (i.e., have prosperity) because Assyria will be deserted. The young woman was most likely either Isaiah’s wife or the king’s. But Matthew deliberately uses the LXX Greek version of this story to make this a prediction of a future Virgin Birth. We would call this prooftexting. More generously, Matthew had a wider understanding of prophetic “fulfillment” than moderns and constantly saw Jesus’ life as mirroring previous patterns in Israel’s history.

For this same reason, Jesus must recreate Israel’s captivity in Egypt and subsequent Exodus. (“Out of Egypt have I called my son,” Hos. 11:1 was originally a reference to God’s calling of Israel from Egyptian captivity.) The Visit of the Magi doesn’t just set up this refugee flight, however, but also signals a major Matthean theme: Jesus the Jewish Messiah is recognized by Gentiles and rejected by many Jews. It is also not sentimental: The salvation Jesus brings is a threat to empire (including client kings like Herod) and they resist it with violence–including the brutal slaughter of the innocents. (Which, once again, Matthew sees echoed in biblical literature–Jeremiah’s lament over Babylon’s treatment of Ramah in Jer. 31:5.)

This is long enough for today’s post. In Matthew’s perspective, the major point of Christmas is not the Virgin Birth, though he indicates that Mary was a virgin and even “creatively reworks” a prophecy of Isaiah to justify it. But the emphases in Matthew are Jesus’ as the rightful Davidid Messiah, and fulfillment of Israel’s story and hopes–with surprising recognition by Gentiles and violent opposition by empire–Jewish and Gentile. The scandalous nature of Jesus’ birth is foreshadowed by other births in his ancestry (and Israel’s history) as is the Gentile mission. Next, we’ll see Luke’s even more revolutionary themes.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Historical-Critical Affirmation of the Virginal Conception of Jesus

With minor changes, this is reprinted from a blog column I wrote for my old blog, Levellers, in 2006.  I will follow this post with 2 more on the theological emphases of the Gospel birth and infancy narratives: 1 for Matthew and1 for Luke.

 Today, Christmas Eve in my part of the globe (Louisville, KY), I want to affirm my belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus as an actual historical event and to give a historical critical argument in its favor–an argument that might prove persuasive to those, myself included, who do not hold to biblical “inerrancy.” I don’t think the focus of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke is on this point, so, I will alsoblog on the wider themes that I think ARE stressed in the Gospel accounts.

First, some things I DON’T BELIEVE:

  1. I don’t believe in these Christmas card depictions of Mary having apparently the easiest birth ever in history–no pain, no blood, no sweat, with a smile that seems to say, “Well, that was easy.”
  2. I don’t believe that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Of course, he cried! If he hadn’t, his parents would have wondered if something was wrong. Jesus was fully human and behaved like any other infant. The docetic heresy that he only seemed human is very popular in our churches.
  3. I don’t believe Jesus glowed or had a halo. (The punch line of an old Doonesbury had a children’s Christmas pageant in which “the part of baby Jesus is played by a 100 watt light bulb!”)
  4. I don’t believe in the “swingshift Trinity” of the Modalist heresy which has Jesus keeping the planets in orbit from his crib!
  5. I don’t believe in shepherds and Magi both showing up on the same night. Matthew clearly has the Magi arrive 2 years after Jesus was born with the Holy Family now living in a house in Bethlehem.
  6. I don’t believe the Virgin Birth is a “fundamental of the faith.” Nonsense. It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament except for Matthew and Luke. [There are hints in Mark and John that the rumor that Jesus was a bastard was widespread.]Paul does not seem to have heard of it and, in the First Century, it was probably possible to be converted, live a Christian life, and die without ever hearing about, never mind believing in, the Virgin Birth. It is not necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth in order to believe in the Incarnation or Christ’s pre-existence. John’s Gospel and some hymns in Paul’s letters indicate Christ’s pre-existence without ever mentioning a virgin birth. We get our very WORD “incarnation” from the prologue to John’s Gospel without ever a mention of the Virgin Birth. Although some later theologians say the Virgin Birth guarantees Jesus’ sinlessness, the New Testament never makes that connection–and doesn’t promote a belief in the biological transmission of sin.
  7. Karl Barth said that the Virgin Birth was a necessary doctrine because it was the sign of the Incarnation in the way that the empty tomb was the sign of the Resurrection. But sign to whom? Unlike the empty tomb accounts, no one saw the Virginal conception of Mary. We have her word for it. I am not doubting Mary’s virginity as we will see, but since this is not a public event, it cannot be a sign of the incarnation. Had God chosen to do so, God could have used ordinary biological means for Incarnating the Son. However, Barth is onto something. I do believe that we have these birth narratives to indicate to those of us who already believe in the Incarnation that God initiated everything–that Jesus did not become the Son of God, but that in him God became human!
  8. As the Catholic New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, points out in his massive, The Birth of the Messiah, the term “Virgin Birth” is shorthand. What we really affirm is that the Jewish maiden, Miriam (“Mary”), conceived Jesus without sexual intercourse–that she did not experience sexual intercourse until after Jesus’ birth. This affirmation of her Virginal Conception of Jesus is in contrast to Medieval doctrines of Mary’s perpetual virginity (claiming that her hymen remained unbroken before, after, and DURING, delivery!!!) or the strange Christology promoted by the Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman (and, to the great embarrassment of modern Mennonites, eventually accepted by Menno Simons) that Jesus did not receive any physical characteristics from Mary, passing through her body “like water through a pipe!” I don’t believe any of that!

If it turns out that I am wrong, that, as some ancient documents hold, Jesus was the product of Mary’s rape by a Roman soldier (Jesus ben Pantera) or, alternatively, that Joseph and Mary “jumped the gun” on the wedding ceremony (Jewish betrothals were considered to be already legally binding marriages), nothing central to my faith will have been touched. I may have to make some adjustments in my view of how much of Scripture is historical narrative, but that’s all. If the birth narratives in the Gospels are purely symbolic, as many hold, I can live with it. But, as a matter of fact, that is not MY view: I believe the virgin birth to be literal, historical fact. Because I believe the Resurrection is literal, historical, fact, I believe in a God whose relation to the world allows for miracles. So, nothing in my worldview prevents belief in the Virgin Birth. A God that created this cosmos (yes, using evolutionary and other natural processes, but STILL) and can raise the dead would have no trouble with a pathenogenetic conception in a species (Homo sapiens) where that is usually impossible.

But if the Virgin Birth is neither theologically necessary, nor impossible, what case can be made for its historical truth? A fairly strong one, I think, if one is open to the possibility in the first place.

Notice that the Virgin Birth causes problems for the theologies of both Matthew and Luke. Matthew wants to present Jesus as the Jewish Messiah: A Davidic figure. His genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) is designed to prove (a) that Jesus is a direct descendant of David (as well as Abraham) and (b ()using  some fuzzy math) show that God has prepared exactly the time for Jesus to appear as Messiah. But there is a problem. For Matthew’s genealogical point to work perfectly, it should conclude, ” and Jacob begat Joseph, and Joseph begat Jesus.” But it doesn’t! It says, “Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah.” But that undermines Matthew’s entire case. Why would Matthew create problems for himself and his theological point? With Mark as a guide, he could have skipped even having a birth narrative. There is no compelling reason for Matthew to include a virgin birth apologetically and every reason for him to leave it out. But he doesn’t. The tradition of such a birth must be firmly entrenched in the sources (other than Mark and “Q,” the hypothetical source of much of Jesus’ sayings) that Matthew is using. He MUST include it even though it hurts the case he is trying to make for Jesus as Davidic Messiah.

So, Matthew makes the best of things: He includes women in his genealogy who all have scandal attached to them to prepare readers for the scandal that Joseph is not the father of Jesus. He relates the Virgin Birth indirectly through the angelic dream to Joseph and connects it with Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14) about a young woman (Hebrew almah, “a young woman of marriageable age”) already pregnant. (Originally, the sign was probably a reference to the prophet’s wife or the king’s since Isaiah said that before the child would know right from wrong, the Assyrian threat would be removed.) Matthew does “creative exegesis” to turn this into a prediction of the Messiah’s Virgin Birth. Then, he makes sure that the readers know that Joseph has gone through the Jewish form of adoption (“and he called his name ‘Jesus’”) in order, once more, to validate his genealogical case for Jesus’ messiahship.

Luke also has theological problems because of the Virgin Birth. Of all the canonical Gospels, Luke is most at pains to stress Jesus’ full humanity–e.g., 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humans.” That is, Jesus developed normally–intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially. Luke’s Jesus, even more than Mark’s or Matthew’s (and FAR more than John’s), gets tired, hungry, careworn, etc. Luke isn’t denying Jesus’ divinity (he uses the label “Son of God” more than the other Synoptics), but stressing that this divinity is only shown through the very real humanity of Jesus. So, why would Luke start his Gospel with a Virgin Birth–something that points out Jesus’ difference from other humans? Again, it is very unlikely that Luke would create such problems for himself. He could only include this if it was indelibly part of the sources he was using–he had to be convinced it was true. Again, Luke uses this for his own purposes: comparing Jesus’ birth with John the Baptizer’s; emphasizing liberation themes and peacemaking themes, and Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and marginalized. (More on this in the posts that follow.) But, surely, it would have helped Luke’s theological stress on Jesus’ complete humanity if he could have ignored the Virgin Birth.

The principle of the “harder reading,” in text criticism is that copyists do not change things to make matters more difficult. So, deciding between different variants otherwise well attested, textual critics tend to go with the “harder reading.” Similarly, authors do not introduce elements that weaken their very purposes for writing–unless they have no choice. I argue that Matthew and Luke HAD to include the Virgin Birth because their sources were absolutely convinced of its truth–and so were they.

The two accounts are very different and not wholly harmonizable: Luke’s narrative, which has the Holy Family returning to Nazareth after Jesus’ circumcision and dedication in the Temple (Jerusalem is very close to Bethlehem when there aren’t roadblocks between the two as there are currently!) eight days after birth, doesn’t seem to have room for Matthew’s narrative in which the Holy Family is still living in Bethlehem two years later when the Magi come and they need to escape to Egypt. One account is of forced travel by a Roman census, birth in a stable, visitation by shepherds (the lowest of the low; like contemporary migrant workers in status), angelic announcements and evangelizing shepherds; the other is of visitation by wealthy foreign astrologers, mysterious dreams and stars, death squads sent out by Herod, and a refugee flight to the Jewish colony in Egypt. Nor are the 2 genealogies easily harmonized. Nevertheless, as Raymond Brown notes, there are 11 points of commonality between these two different traditions:

  1. Both Infancy Narratives indicate that the parents are to be Mary and Joseph, legally betrothed, but who have not yet begun to live together or have sexual relations (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1: 27, 34).
  2. Joseph is a descendant of King David (Matt. 1:16, 20; Luke 1:27, 32; 2:4).
  3. There is an angelic announcement of the future miracle birth ( Matt. 1: 20-23; Luke 1:30-35).
  4. Mary’s conception of Jesus is not through human intercourse (Matt. 1:20, 23, 25; Luke 1:34).
  5. The conception is a result of the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1: 18,20; Luke 1:35).
  6. The angel commands the child to be named “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).
  7. An angel states that Jesus is to be “savior” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:11).
  8. The birth (not the conception) of the child takes place after the parents have come to live together(Matt. 1:24-25; Luke 2:5-6).
  9. The birthplace is Bethlehem (although Matthew gives no explanation for why the couple is there–and they appear to have moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem!) (Matt. 2:1; Luke 2:4-6).
  10. The birth is chronologically related to the reign of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1; Luke 1:5).
  11. The child is reared at Nazareth (Matt. 2:23; Luke 2:39).

That’s an impressive list of commonalities for two such divergent narratives and argues strongly for a historical core.

Does this “prove” the Virgin Birth? No.  In the nature of the case, it CAN’T be proven.  And, as I said, I do not believe this is a core or “fundamental” doctrine and I do believe that the focus of the Gospels is elsewhere. But these considerations, coupled with my firm belief that God is quite capable of such a miracle, lead me to affirm that, in all probability, the virgin birth of Jesus is historically true.

Next: the deeper meaning of the Gospel Infancy Narratives.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | Christology, theology, virgin birth | 5 Comments

Better Christmas Carols “The Rebel Jesus” by Jackson Browne

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by ‘the Prince of Peace’
And they call him by ‘the Savior’
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

December 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Better Carols # 3 “Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?” by Willie Nelson

Written by Willie Nelson on 30 December 2003 as a protest against the invasion of Iraq.

There’s so many things going on in the world
Babies dying
Mothers crying
How much oil is one human life worth
And what ever happened to peace on earth

We believe everything that they tell us
They’re gonna’ kill us
So we gotta’ kill them first
But I remember a commandment
Thou shall not kill
How much is that soldier’s life worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar’s word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

So I guess it’s just
Do unto others before they do it to you
Let’s just kill em’ all and let God sort em’ out
Is this what God wants us to do

(Repeat Bridge)
And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar’s word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

Now you probably won’t hear this on your radio
Probably not on your local TV
But if there’s a time, and if you’re ever so inclined
You can always hear it from me
How much is one picker’s word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

But don’t confuse caring for weakness
You can’t put that label on me
The truth is my weapon of mass protection
And I believe truth sets you free

And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar’s word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Better Christmas Carols #2 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” by Ken Sehested

As readers of this blog know, I already think that this traditional carol is one of the best Advent/Christmas carols around. The lyrics are already subversive of our rich, complacent, self-satisfied status quo. But when we sing the same lyrics year after year, we can cease to notice their power.  Rev. Ken Sehested, radical Baptist preacher, formerly the founding Executive Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, currently co-pastor of Circle of Mercy congregation in Asheville, NC has done us a great favor by writing new lyrics for this hymn that bring out anew its utter radicality.

O come, thou fount of Mercy, come

And light the path of journey home

From Pharaoh’s chains grant liberty

From Herod’s rage, confirm thy guarantee

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Watchful Keeper, bestow

Glad heart, warm home to creatures below

Give cloud by day and fire by night

Guide feet in peace with heaven’s delight

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

Secure the lamb, the wolf no longer preys

Secure the child, no fear displays

The vow of vengeance bound evermore

God’s holy mountain safe and adored

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

Arise, you fear-confounded, attest

With Insurrection’s voice confess

Though death’s confine and terror’s darkest threat

Now govern earth’s refrain…and yet

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O spring, from Jesse’s root, the ransom flower

From Mary’s womb, annunciating power

Bend low you hills, arise you prostrate plain

All flesh shall see, all lips join in refrain:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, announce the Blessed Manger’s reach

All Herod-hearted, murd’rous plans impeach

Abolish every proud and cruel throne

Fill hungry hearts, guide every exile home.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Advent, composers, hymns, liturgy, worship | Leave a comment

Better Christmas Carols #1 “Cry of a Tiny Babe” by Bruce Cockburn

Mary grows a child without the help of a man
Joseph get upset because he don’t understand
Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream
Says “God did this and you’re part of the scheme!”
Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand
Says “forgive me I thought you’d been with some other man.”
She says “what if I had been – but I wasn’t anyway and guess what
I felt the baby kick today”

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

The child is born in the fullness of time
Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything
‘Cause the governing body of the Holy Land
Is that of Herod, a paranoid man
Who when he hears there’s a baby born King of the Jews
Sends death squads to kill all male children under two
But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream
And they head out for the border and get away clean

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
And the message is clear if you’ve got  ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear
It’s a Christmas gift [that] you don’t have to buy
There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Advent, composers, liturgy, worship | Leave a comment

The Magnificat: Song of Mary-the-Social-Revolutionary

In Christian art, she is usually depicted as a meek maiden and a passive figure.  This taming, this domestication of Jesus’ Mother, Miriam (whose name we Anglicize as “Mary”) falsifies her.  I think in most of Church History, the bigwigs have been afraid of Mary.  Her song of praise (the Magnificat) after the angel’s announcement is almost always sung in Latin–to keep ordinary people from realizing just how revolutionary her words are.  Now Mary doubtless sang in Aramaic and we don’t have the Aramaic original.  Luke’s Greek text (given below) may have been informed by a Christian community in which Mary was a member or even a leader, but in its present form was clearly modelled on Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2:1-10).  Mary expects her Son’s birth to lead to a “Great Reversal,” the scattering of the proud, the putting low of the rich and powerful, and the lifting of the poor and filling of the hungry.  This is no meek maiden nor anyconservative defender of the status quo: Mary is a prophet of social justice who would be called “Commie” by Fox News and the Religious Right! Bring it on, Sister Mary!

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν Κύριον
καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ Θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αυτοῦ.
ἰδού γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί,
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός,
καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ,
καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς
τοῖς φοβουμένοις αυτόν.
Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ,
διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν·
καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων
καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς,
πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν
καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ,
μνησθῆναι ἐλέους,
καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν
τῷ Αβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,
The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Advent, Bible, liturgy | 2 Comments

Education Myth #2: “All the Best U.S. Colleges/Universities Are in the Northeast”

This second myth also deserves a short reply:  Nonsense.

Longer answer:  Yes, there is a good concentration of excellent schools and universities in the Northeast–many founded prior to the Revolution and the formation of the republic.  This is due to a few simple facts:  Of the 13 original colonies, those in New England and the Middle Colonies (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware) became prosperous most quickly and needed higher education for the development of a professional class.  The Puritan influence on New England, with its emphasis on an educated ministry, also played a major part in the early development of colleges:  Harvard (Puritan-Congregationalist; later Unitarian), Yale (Congregationalists & Presbyterians), Columbia (Episcopalians), Princeton (Presbyterians), and Brown (Baptists) were all founded largely for the education of ministers.  The economy of the Southern colonies was based on farming (and slave labor) and the landed gentry needed fewer colleges for their offspring (William and Mary; Charleston; Salem; Washington & Lee; & Hampden-Sydney are the only pre-revolutionary colleges in the South).  The religion that flourished in the South and the frontier was more revivalist and less-dependent on education. 

But everywhere that Euro-Americans settled formerly Native American territories, they built schools. Today, in every region of this large nation, there are excellent colleges and universities, both public and private. In the Southeast, top-ranked public universities include: The College of William & Mary (VA); University of Virginia (Charlottesville); Virginia Polytechtic Institute; University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill); University of Geogia; Georgia Tech; University of Florida (it pained me to write that one)–all consistently ranked as “public Ivies.”  Among top ranked private universities in the Southeast one thinks quickly of:  Emory (Atlanta, GA), Duke (Durham, NC), University of Miami (FL), Vanderbilt (Nashville, TN), Tulane (New Orleans, LA) & Xavier of Louisiana (New Orleans). 

In the Midwest, top ranked public universities include: Miami of Ohio (Oxford, OH), Indiana University (Bloomington), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Michigan State University (East Lansing), Ohio State University (Columbus), University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), University of Iowa (Iowa City), University of Minnesota (Minneapolis-St. Paul), University of Wisconsin (Madison).  Midwest top-ranked private universities include Creighton University (Omaha, NE), University of Notre Dame du Lac (South Bend, IN), College of Wooster (Wooster, OH), Drake University (Des Moine, IA), Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI), Xavier University of OH (Cincinnati, OH) to name a few. 

The Southwest’s top public universities include at least 4 of the 10 schools in the University of California system (UC-Berkeley, UCLA, UC-Irvine, and UC-San Diego), the University of Texas (Austin), University of Colorado (Boulder, CO) and University of Arizona (Tucson).  The Southwest’s major private universities include: Stanford University (Stanford, CA),  Rice University (Houston, TX), Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX–despite building the Bush library), Baylor University (Waco, TX),  Texas Christian University (Fort Worth, TX), University of Southern California (Los Angeles), Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles).

There are fewer top-ranked universities in the Northwest (where the population is still relatively low in comparison), but among public universities there is still the University of Washington (Seattle) and the University of Portland (Portland, OR) and the University of Hawai’i  and with private universities, there is at least, Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), Pacific Lutheran University (Tacoma, WA), and Seattle Pacific University.

In each of these regions, I have not been exhaustive and if I included liberal arts colleges, the list would run on for pages.  Additionally, some colleges and universities may not be top ranked, but have particular programs are top ranked.

In fact, although the college rankings are not completely useless, the various rankings (e.g., U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, Washington Monthly, The Times of London, Forbes.com, etc.) use such different and complex methodologies that they should only be viewed as a very rough rule of thumb.  It is far more important (I can’t emphasize this too much) to make sure that the student and the school are the right “fit.”  Some very bright students that could get into Harvard or Princeton, etc. would not do well there for various reasons.  Focusing on the rankings exclusively, makes students overlook schools where they would do well –and be better prepared for success after college.

And finding “the right fit” in the U.S. situation can be done in all regions of the country. (Nor should students rule out applying to international universities–or, at the very least, studying abroad for a semester.)  Most students will go to college or university within their own region–that is, the region in which they grew up in their parents’ home.  Maybe they’ll choose a school far enough away from home that parents can’t “hover,” (the so-called “helicopter parents”), but close enough that they visit home several times a year.  A Southern California student who enrolls at Yale or a Florida student enrolling at the University of Seattle are not going to make it home more than twice a year–and even with today’s electronic communications, such distances are often uncomfortable. Homesick students underperform academically and are more likely to get into trouble in a campus drinking or drug scene or in other ways.  On the other hand, very independent students who are mature and used to fending for themselves, may thrive in schools that are further away from home.

Every student is different and if we shatter these education myths and look to fit the right school to the right student, both the academic institution and the student will be better off.

December 13, 2010 Posted by | education | 1 Comment