This prayer can also be sung as a hymn. It works well with the tune of “The Servant Song” composed by Richard Gilliard copyright 1977 Maranatha Music.
Holy Spirit, come with power, breathe into our aching night.
We expect you this glad hour, waiting for Your strength and light.
We are fearful, we are ailing, we are weak and selfish too.
Break upon Your congregation, give us vigor, life anew.
Holy Spirit, come with fire, burn us with Your presence new.
Let us as one mighty choir sing our hymn of praise to You.
Burn away our wasted sadness and enflame us with Your love.
Burst upon Your congregation, give us gladness from above.
Holy Spirit, bring your message, burn and breathe each Word anew
deep into our tired living ’till we strive Your work to do.
Teach us love and trusting kindness, lend our hands to those who hurt.
Breathe upon Your congregation, and inspire us with Your Word.
Words and tune by Marty Haugen. Copyright 1989 by GLA Publications, Inc.
The refrain is to be sung before each verse and then once more in conclusion after all verses are completed.
Send Down the Fire
Send down the fire of Your justice,
Send down the rainse of Your love,
Come, send down the Spirit,
Breathe life in your people, and
We shall be people of God.
1. Call us to be Your compassion,
Teach us the song of Your love;
Give us hearts that sing,
Give us deeds that ring,
Make us ring with
the song of Your love.
2. Call us to learn of Your mercy,
Teach us the way of Yourpeace;
Give us hearts that feel,
Give us hands that heal,
Make us walk in
the way of Your peace.
3. Call us to answer oppression,
Teach us the fire of Your trugh;
Give us righteous souls,
‘Til Your justice rolls,
Make us burn with
the fire of Your love.
4. Call us to witness Your Kingdom,
Give us the presence of Christ;
May Your holy light
Keep us shining bright,
Ever shine with
the presence of Christ.
Words and tune from Marty Haugen. Copyright 1987 by GLA Publications, Inc.
Spirit Blowing Through Creation
1. Spirit blowing through creation,
Spirit burning in the skies,
Let the hope of your salvation
fill our eyes;
God of splendor, God of glory,
You who light the stars above,
All the heavens tell the story
of Your love. (To verse 2)
2. As You moved upon the waters,
As You ride upon the wind,
Move us all Your sons and daughters,
As You shaped the hills and mountains,
Formed the land and filled the deep,
Let your hand renew and waken
all who sleep. (To refrain).
3. Love that sends the rivers dancing,
Love that waters all that lives,
Love that heals and holds and rouses
You are food for all Your creatures,
You are hunger in the soul,
In Your hand the brokenhearted
are made whole. (To verse 4).
4. All the creatures You have fashioned,
All that live and breathe in You,
Find their hope in Your compassion,
strong and true;
You, O Spirit of salvation,
You alone, beneath, above,
Come, renew Your whole creation
in Your love. (To refrain).
Spirit renewing the earth,
renewing the hearts of all people;
Burn in the weary souls,
blow through the silent lips,
come now awake us,
Spirit of God.
On 10 May 2012, Rev. Dr. Walter Wink, passed away less than a week before what would have been his 77th birthday (23 May). He had, apparently, been suffering some form of dementia for several years. Dr. Wink was a huge influence on me through his writings, but I met him only once–in Washington, D.C. in 1989 when we were both arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience outside the White House–protesting the continued support of the Bush I administration for the apartheid-era government of South Africa. (The protests, called “Stand for Truth,” had been planned for months and were huge that Mother’s Day weekend in ’89, but the news was somewhat overshadowed because less than a week earlier, the Chinese government had massacred protesting students and other pro-democracy groups in Tienenmen Square. I met an amazing array of Christian peace and justice folk that weekend including Wink’s wife, June Keener-Wink, a young Jesuit priest named Fr. John Dear, S.J., who would soon make major contributions to peace and nonviolence theory, to theology, and to peace activism, but, who, that weekend before his fame was very quiet because his handcuffs were too tight and he was in great pain; Sister Joan Chittister, OSB; Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners; Joyce Hollyday; Rev. Eugene Rivers, an African-American Pentecostal whose work with the Boston 10 Point Coalition was greatly reducing violence in street gangs; many more. It was a life-changing weekend for me.)
Dr. Wink lived an amazing life of witness. He was born in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression. He was born and raised in Texas in the midst of Texas Methodism–coming to a very different form of Christian nonviolence than fellow Texas Methodist Stanley Hauerwas. He earned his B.A., magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University (Major: History; Double minor: Philosophy; English), but rather than pursue his theological education at SMU’s own Perkins School of Theology, Wink earned his Master of Divinity (1959) and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies (1963) from New York’s famed Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical seminary of great influence. There is some irony here: Union Theological Seminary is known as a center of non-pacifist liberal Christianity. True, there are a few pacifist voices associated with UTS: Harry Emerson Fosdick and James Forbes, both Senior Ministers at nearby Riverside Church, were pacifists who taught preaching at UTS. But “Union” has become almost synonymous with names like Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), proponent of “Christian Realism,” Paul Tillich (1889-1965), German-American proponent of Christian socialism and a neo-liberal theology, James H. Cone (b. 1938-), one of the founders of Black Liberation Theology, and Beverly Wildung Harrison (b. 1932–), foremother of Christian feminist ethics–and all of these voices represent strands of liberal Christianity that, while not militarist or “pro-violence,” are decidedly non-pacifist and endorse nonviolence only tactically and not out of principled conviction.
Wink was an ordained United Methodist Minister who spent time as a youth worker and a parish pastor before teaching at his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. From 1976 onward, he was Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NYC, a sister-institution to UTS in covenant with the Presbyterian Church, USA (and found on UTS’ campus). During his time as a youth worker at East Harlem Protestant Parish, Wink came under the influence of the lawyer and Episcopal lay-theologian, William Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s interpretation of the “Principalities and Powers” in the New Testament would profoundly influence Wink’s own work.
In 1973, Wink published a small book called, The Bible in Human Transformation that declared “the historical-critical method is bankrupt.” I have to confess that I was unable to follow Wink’s point when I first encountered it. I had come from a tradition of conservative evangelical Christianity and had found the historical-critical method to be liberating from biblicist literalism. But Wink was not wanting to repudiate the gains of the historical-critical method, but to add to them–using insights from psychology (and later from sociology).
He is best known for his 3 volume work on “The Powers,” i.e., on the biblical terminology for power, especially in the Pauline corpus, that uses terms like “Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, Angels, ” etc. For centuries, these terms were simply dismissed as speaking of demons–and demythologized by the likes of Bultmann and fetishized by some Pentecostals and some Fundamentalists. Hendrikus Berkhof, John Howard Yoder, and William Stringfellow began to see the importance of this language as pointing at once to political realities and to spiritual realities “behind” political institutions. Wink, with insights from process theology and depth psychology, gave a metaphysic for the Powers that attempted to be non-reductionistic while acknowledging that none of us on this side of the Enlightenment can simply adopt the pre-modern worldview of the New Testament. Wink also derived a theological ethic from his study of the Powers, especially in his third volume, Engaging the Powers. The Powers form a world-system Wink called “The Domination System,” and the inbreaking Kingdom of God is “God’s New Domination-Free Order.” The Powers are not simply evil for they were created by God to bring order out of chaos. But they are “fallen,” twisted from their created purpose and used to enslave and dominate humanity. They must be engaged–resisted and redeemed–by the followers of Jesus.
Wink also helped many reinterpret the Sermon on the Mount so that Matt. 5:9 is understood not as a call to nonresistance or passivity in the face of evil, but to a “Third Way” of Nonviolent Confrontation of Evil. In a lexical study of the verb αντισθηναι (“antisthenai”), usually translated “resist,” Wink finds that it actually means “stand against” as in armed rebellion or murder, so that Matt. 5:9 should be translated, “Do not violently resist evildoers.” Wink demonstrates that turning the other cheek when backhanded by a social superior , removng both garments in court when sued for one’s outer garment (thus stripping naked in protest), and going a second mile when a soldier of the occupying army compels you to carry his gear the required one mile are all nonviolent direct actions against acts of domination and oppression. He first published this is in a small book published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation for black churches in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle–churches that were seeking a way to be true to the gospel but resist the apartheid evil. (See Wink, Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa: Jesus Third Way [Fellowship, 1984]). He expanded and deepened his defense of this approach in several academic articles and book chapters aimed at changing the way New Testament scholars, especially translators and writers of commentaries on Matthew, understood the Sermon on the Mount. Finally, he reworked his original popular study for a larger audience–beyond the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. See Walter Wink, Jesus and Violence: A Third Way. Because of this “active nonviolence” interpretation, Wink did not like the term “pacifism,” (too easy to confuse with “passivity,” and refused to be called a pacifist even though his dedication to nonviolence was strong–and he was a critic of the way that Christian admiration for the life and testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer translated into justifications of violence. (The liberationist left often uses Bonhoeffer to justify violent insurrection against conservative governments and the rightwing uses it to justify bombings of abortion clinics.)
Wink was an early defender of full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons in the church. Eventually, he edited a collection of writings on the topic that did not simply include the “usual suspects,” but also the voices of pro-gay evangelicals like Peggy Campolo, Lewis Smedes, and Ken L. Sehested. See Wink, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches.
Wink also edited one of the best collections of writings on nonviolence by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation over a 50 year period. See Wink, Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It’s truly a remarkable collection.
Walter Wink seamlessly combined the roles of pastor, teacher, scholar, and nonviolent Christian activist. I give thanks for his life and witness hope that God continues to raise up prophetic voices like his.
Reprinted from Levellers in 2007.
In previous posts, I have spelled out some of my major dialogue partners among liberal theologians and among conservative evangelicals. But I have other influences, other dialogue partners, and some Jewish thinkers (theologians, philosophers, political theorists) are extremely important. Christianity has a different relationship with Judaism than with any other faith. Judaism is both our mother and older sister. We began as a messianic movement among 1st C. Jews–one far more open to Gentile inclusion. But soon we became a mostly Gentile religion and there was what James D. G. Dunn calls the “parting of the ways” between synagogue and church. With the destruction of the temple, the Sadducee movement was finished. With the final destruction of Jerusalem after Bar Kochba’s revolt, the Zealot movement, and violent nationalist strains of Judaism disappeared. The Pharisee movement became normative, rabbinic Judaism in the diaspora. But with the “parting of the ways,” and soon with Christian use of imperial power to persecute Jews, Christians lost sight of the Jewish nature of our faith–and much that developed since can only be considered pagan. Christian pastors and theologians need Jewish dialogue partners–perhaps more than they need us.
People will rightly notice the absence of the major Jewish “Holocaust Theologians”: Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, Irving Greenberg. I have, of course, learned things from these worthies. But I have become convinced by “post-Holocaust Jewish theologians” such as Ellis and Goldberg, listed below, that the WAY Wiesel & Co. have placed the Shoah at the center of Jewish life has distorted the central moral dimensions of Judaism and led to uncritical support of everything the modern State of Israel does. Some even contend that the gradual movement of many mainstream U.S. Jewish institutions from a center-left political stance to a center-right, or even neo-con, stance can be traced to these Holocaust theologians. I do not know. And I certainly think Wiesel, Greenberg, and Rubenstein have written important works that both Jews and Christians need to engage. But MY thought has been more shaped by those Jewish thinkers listed below.
- Martin Buber (1878-1965). I have been deeply influenced by Buber’s “communal existentialism,” especially his “I-Thou” dialogic principle. But I also have learned to appreciate Hasidism from Buber–and I confess that previous to reading some of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, I thought of the Hasidics as simply “Jewish fundamentalists” with little to teach modern people. Now, I see them as one effort to avoid assimilation–and contemporary Christians need desperately to find ways to avoid assimilation into the wider cultures of the world. If Zionism has any redeeming qualities, it would have to be something like Buber’s “cultural Zionism” in which he worked from the beginning for Arab and Jew to share the Land of Promise. Buber’s many writings can be found here.
- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the great “public intellectuals” of the 20th C. Born (in Warsaw, Poland) into a family in which both parents were descended from a long line of Orthodox rabbis, Heschel’s initial education was in a traditional Yeshiva, and was “ordained” a rabbi with an orthodox smicha. But Heschel felt himself compelled to interpret Judaism to the modern world and so earned a second ordination at a Reform seminary in Berlin while simultaneously earning a Ph.D. in philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Berlin. A Holocaust refugee (almost all the rest of Heschel’s family perished in the death camps), Heschel came to the U.S. and taught first at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnatti ( a Reform school) before finding a better “fit” at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City (a Conservative institution where one could be both a historical critic and take halakah seriously). At JTS, Heschel interacted with several Christian scholars at nearby Union Theological Seminary. He also became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement–once telling a group of Rabbis that if they wanted to hear the authentic voice of the Hebrew prophets in America, today, they would listen to Martin Luther King, Jr! It was Heschel’s two-volume work, The Prophets, which first blew me away. I still consult it today as one of the best interpretations to the biblical prophets available. Heschel captures well how the Hebrew prophets were both drunk with God and completely OUTRAGED over injustice. Heschel also taught me how to appreciate the Sabbath and the hallowing of time–whereas the Christianity I knew as a child taught that all Sabbath keeping was simply “legalism.” Like Buber, Heschel had a mystic view of God coupled with a profound compassion for all humanity. Daughter Susanna Heschel is a professor of religious studies and a pioneering Jewish feminist. Find many of Heschel’s works here.
- Geza Vermes (born 22 June 1924 in Hungary) Vermes and his parents were all baptized into the Catholic Church when he was seven, but whether that was social climbing assimilation on his parents’ part (common among Middle and Upper class European Jews of that era), or genuine conversion, I do not know. At any rate, it did not save his parents from dying in the Holocaust. Vermes became a Catholic priest and was one of the first scholars to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and he wrote the first translation into English. Something in his discoveries led him to leave the Catholic Church and reclaim his Jewish identity. He moved to Britain and eventually became the first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, a post he retained until his retirement in 1981. Vermes has also been at the forefront of contemporary Jewish reclaimations of Jesus, beginning with his groundbreaking Jesus the Jew in 1973. I don’t always agree with him, of course (I am a Christian, after all), but I greatly appreciate Vermes’ reconstructions of the Judaism(s) of the NT era and his placing of Jesus within such a context. Vermes’ books are here.
- Michael Walzer (b. 1935), who taught in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University, is one of the foremost political theorists in the U.S. Walzer is a just war theorist and I am a convinced pacifist. Walzer has some blind spots concerning Israel and, initially (until they went overboard even in Walzer’s view), supported some of the Bush administration’s actions in the “war on terror.” So, I obviously don’t just agree with all his views. But Walzer’s method of moral and political reasoning has greatly influenced me. Some have noticed that I stand between Alasdair MacIntyre and Jeffrey Stout as a self-declared “democratic communitarian.” I learned that alternative stance from Walzer, especially in Thick and Thin: Moral Reasoning At Home and Abroad, The Company of Critics, Interpretation and Social Criticism and On Toleration. I largely agree with his pluralistic account of “complex equality” in Spheres of Justice and share his commitment to a democratic socialism–in a nation without a viable democratic socialist party! Walzer began his career as a rather assimilated Jew, but his work on particularist identity and universalist commitments led to his reclaiming increasingly more of his Jewish identity–something which first became very apparent in his Exodus and Revolution which showed how the revolutionary politics of the biblical exodus has influenced so many other “reiterations” of the narrative. Now, Walzer is in the midst of editing a huge multi-volume work on “The Jewish Political Tradition”–a project that connects in spirit to my own identification with the radical free church democratic vision of the Levellers. Walzer’s writings (through 2011) are found in his c.v. here.
- Rabbi Arthur Waskow (b. 1933) is one of the leaders of the “Jewish Renewal Movement” in the U.S. which seeks to get beyond the way that U.S. Judaism has been divided into “denominations” (e.g., Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist) while losing ever more young people to assimilation or conversion. Waskow also began as a fairly assimilated Jew who was a historian and political activist throughout the 1960s. In the wake of the conservative backlash of the Nixon era, Waskow began to see that radical social reform took deep spiritual roots and began to forge institutions and practices of Jewish renewal (while also participating in interfaith work with Christians and Muslims). In 1995, this process led to Waskow’s rabbinic ordination with a beit din composed of one Orthodox rabbi with Hassidic roots, one Conservative rabbi, one Reform rabbi, and one Jewish feminist theologian. Waskow has been working for peace between Israel and the Palestinians since 1969 and is a former board member of Rabbis for Human Rights. Currently, he runs the Shalom Center and is a leading voice connecting worship to peacemaking. Waskow has influenced me mainly through his example–seeing that reconciliation with enemies or partnerships with alien traditions cannot take place through watering down one’s own particularism, but only through rediscovery and and deep transformation of one’s own tradition. See some of his major works here.
- Judith Plaskow of Manhattan College. Her Standing Again at Sinai was my introduction to Jewish feminism. Because of it, I resist versions of Christian feminism which try to blame everything patriarchal on the Hebrew Scriptures and, Marcion-like, see the New Testament as a repudiation of all that came before. (This Marcionite tendency is also prevalent among some forms of Christian pacifism and I resist THAT, too.)
- Rabbi Michael Lerner (b. 1943) is another former ’60s radical who combines spiritual depth and social passion. Lerner, who has one Ph.D. in psychology and another in Jewish philosophy, studied under Heschel at JTS–but found the rest of his teachers disappointing. He is the rabbi of Temple Beyt Tikkun in Berkely, CA, founder and editor of Tikkun magazine (a Jewish-inspired interfaith journal that is similar in political outlook to the Christian Sojourners), and founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives which seeks to renew a spiritual Left in the U.S. A strong defender of Israel’s right to exist, Lerner is also a strong defender of a Palestinian state, free and peacefully co-existing alongside Israel. He has worked to end the estrangement in the U.S. between African-Americans and Jews (once a firm coalition), working with Cornel West to uproot Jewish anti-black racism and African-American anti-Semitism. Unlike those listed above, I have met R. Lerner more than once and I always learn much from him–but not usually about Judaism, per se, I have to say. His writings (in addition to articles in Tikkun) are found here.
- Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (b. 1949) was one of the earliest women in America to be ordained a rabbi, finally becoming ordained in 1981, the first woman ordained in the Jewish Renewal Movement. Gottlieb is a co-founder of Congregation Nahalat Shalom in Albuquerque, NM, where she served for many years. She is a major peace and justice activist, serving on the boards of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Rabbis for Human Rights, and founding the Jewish-Muslim-Christian peace walks. She also is the founder and Exec. Director of Interfaith Inventions, a daycamp for children and youth. A master storyteller (Haggadah) who uses theatre arts in social transformation, Rabbi Gottlieb is also a leader in the recovery of the Hispanic Jewish heritage that came to the “New World” during the expulsions from Spain by Isabella and Ferdinand and a student of Sephardic Jewish culture. I met her first in 2002 at a meeting of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and got to know her better when she was a guest speaker at the 2006 meeting of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. There, R. Gottlieb so impressed my youngest daughter, Miriam, that she wanted to become a rabbi! (Miriam was 6 at the time!)
- Marc H. Ellis.(b. 1952), directs the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, Waco, TX. Baylor is closely related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and this is the first Center for Jewish Studies at a confessionally Christian university–at least in the U.S. Marc Ellis has been one of the strongest voices for Jewish-Palestinians reconciliation. Further, and more controversally, Ellis has contended in many books that the story of the Holocaust has been misused so that Jews see themselves as “eternal victims” and are unable to criticize an Israel that has power, even nuclear power. Ellis helped me to see that the modern State of Israel has often functioned to warp normative Jewish thinking in a way analogous to the establishment of political power for Christians with the Constantinian settlement. (Ellis does NOT argue, as he has been accused, that Israel should cease to exist. One cannot turn back the clock without more bloodshed. He simply seeks to recover the moral center of Judaism that uncritical defense of a nation-state has warped.) Ellis has also been the Jewish theologian who interacts most with Christian liberation theologians. Ellis’ many writings on Jewish and Christian topics are found here.
- Update: As noted in the comments section (of Levellers where this was first published), Jonathan Marlowe reminded me of another major dialogue partner: Rabbi Michael Goldberg, who is another “nondenominational” rabbi. After receiving his ordination, he completed a Ph.D. at The Graduate Theological Union under one of my mentors, the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. R. Goldberg has become a major contributor to the “narrative theology” genre. In his 1995 book, Why Should Jews Survive?, he echoes Marc Ellis’ contention that Holocaust-centered Judaism distorts the moral center of the faith. In his Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight, Goldberg draws some contrasts between the Jewish “master story” (the Exodus and the giving of the Law at Sinai) and the Christian “master story” (Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection) which I understand, but cannot agree with, because he strips the Exodus from the Christian story and claims that the Christ event is a fundamental misinterpretation of the Exodus-Covenant. This kind of interpretive disagreement may be irreconcilable–I cannot see how Goldberg could change his view without becoming a Christian and if I cannot see how any Christian could agree with his reading without abandoning Christian faith. But Goldberg doesn’t pull punches and makes explicitly clear the fundamental disagreement between Christians and Jews. Read Goldberg’s books.
- Michael Wyschogrod (b. 1928) is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston and one of the first Jewish thinkers to attempt a systematic theology. He is associated with the “Modern Orthodoxy” movement within Orthodox Judaism. He has been called a “Jewish Barthian,” a term which caused Barth himself some amusement. As a philosophy major at City College of New York (B.A., 1949), he encountered the Christian existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard and this began his fascination with Christian theology. Wyschogrod earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1953 with a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Heidegger. His books are listed here.
- Rabbi Pinchas Lapide (1922-1997), who died in the late ’90s, was a German Orthodox rabbi and also a scholar of the historical Jesus and a participant in Jewish-Christian dialogue. He argued that God really raised Jesus from the dead and he was contemptuous of so-called Christian theologians who attempted to demythologize Christ’s resurrection. However, even though Lapide agreed that the resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on Christ’s message, he did not agree that Jesus was the promised Messiah! (So much for some kinds of apologetics!) Lapide also entered into dialogue with Jürgen Moltmann concerning Jewish monotheism and Christian Trinitarianism. Lapide also wrote a major interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, showing its many roots and parallels in rabbinic thought. Yet, Lapide thought Jesus actually went beyond the rabbis in calling not just for good treatment of enemies, but for the love of enemies–this was the radically new element in Jesus’ thought! But, said R. Lapide, if this is true, then it is clear that from about the 3rd C. until today, more of Jesus’ physical brothers and sisters (i.e., Jews) had come close to loving enemies than Jesus’ spiritual brothers and sisters (i.e., Christians)! The truth of that observation is profoundly embarrassing. R. Lapide’s writings are here.
These Jewish thinkers in theology, biblical studies, philosophy, political activism, interfaith dialogue, and spiritual renewal have all been deep influences on my thought. I truly believe that all Christian theologians need to be in dialogue with specific Jewish thinkers–because in a Church that has been almost completely Gentile since before the end to of the 1st C., Jewish-Christian dialogue keeps us Gentile Christians from becoming pagan in our theology.
Reprinted from my previous blog,Levellers.
Previously, I posted a blog on “My Favorite Liberal Theologians” in which I listed the top 10 theological liberals whom I consider my “essential dialogue partners.” I promised a follow-up on evangelicals, but it has proven tougher because, broadly speaking, I am part of the evangelical tradition and because the parameters of “evangelical” are not all that clear. Liberals, who begin with human experience and intentionally adjust Christian doctrine to modern knowlege, are easier to define. Originally, the term “evangelical” meant “Protestant,” then “Lutheran,” (in some European countries, “Evangelical” [Lutheran] is still contrasted to “Reformed”), then referred to the 18th C. renewal movements which became Pietism in Germany, the Wesley-Whitefield revivals in Britain, and the “Great Awakening,” in the U.S. Beginning in the late 19th C., “evangelical” began to take on the meaning of “conservative Protestant,” but there were also “Evangelical Liberals.” Here, I have in mind that part of conservative Protestantism that essentially grew out of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies. Today, I list my essential dialogue partners among the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum. A follow up blog will list my dialogue partners among the wider evangelical spectrum. My continuing series’ on mentors and heroes will name/describe my theological “home,” whereas these posts, like my post on theological liberals, describe outside conversation partners. I think I will also do posts on essential dialogue partners among Catholics (liberal and conservative), Orthodox, Jewish thinkers, and (possibly) philosophical skeptics. Perhaps this is a sign that I am more eclectic than an original, creative thinker, but I find it impossible to do theology (even theological ethics, my specialization) except in conversation with others, including others who present strong challenges to my perspectives.
But no one can dialogue with everyone. Like others, I usually ignore voices that I don’t find helpful in some fashion. Thus, although the broadly Reformed tradition informs me (Baptists have both Puritan and Anabaptist roots; I draw more from the latter, but try not to ignore the former), I do not find its scholastic forms at all helpful: I have long since stopped reading anything from Kuyper or Dooyeweerd, nor the “Old Princeton school” of Hodge, Warfield, & Machen, nor their Baptist disciples: Boyce, Manley, John Piper, or Al Mohler. If you find them helpful, fine, but I cannot stomach them at all.
- Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) represents the best of the post WWII evangelical renewal in the U.S.–at least until the early ’80s. His The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) pushed his fellow conservatives out of their apolitical slumbers–although an Eisenhower Republicanism was the most social conscience he allowed. An adult convert and former newspaperman, Henry went on to earn 2 doctorates (Th.D., Northern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Boston University), and after teaching at his alma mater (NBTS), went on to help found Fuller Theological Seminary as an institution both ecumenical and evangelical (though it eventually defined the latter term more broadly than Henry desired) and then became founding editor of Christianity Today, so Henry’s influence cannot be underestimated. Henry represents what I call “evangelical rationalism,” a position whose strength is to push evangelicals away from a fear of reason, but whose weakness is a theology that has little place for mystery–either in a pentacostal or a sacramental direction. He also epitomizes evangelical obsession with epistemology–writing not a systematics or dogmatics, but 8 volumes defining and defending biblical inerrancy! I have read all of these volumes (indeed, when Henry came as a visiting prof. to SBTS–back when my alma mater was allegedly full of liberals!–, I had to nurse several conservative students through his God, Revelation, and Authority, who had gone to class expecting sermon outlines instead of serious apologetics), and they have many strengths, including more interaction with non-evangelical theologians than was common during the period Henry wrote. I have to say that I did not feel that Henry always understood his opponents–including Barth, Brunner, or even Pannenberg, try though he did. I find Henry’s overall approach sterile and lifeless, but his shadow is so large in American Christianity that I would be a fool not to read and interact with his work. But my biggest criticism of Henry is that he was a poor exegete. For me, that is a damning statement. No one who spends 8 volumes defending a particular view of biblical authority should be as inept at close readings of the biblical texts themselves! (This was true not only in his writings, but on the two occasions when I heard him preach.)
- F. F. Bruce (1910-1990), by contrast was a first rate exegete and set new standards for evangelical biblical scholarship. I do not agree with him always (his defense of the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, for instance, remains unconvincing), but his love for Scripture and for the gospel showed in his careful handling of texts. He is a great example of how an education in the classics can prepare one for a career in biblical studies. I also appreciate his commitment to teaching in religious studies departments in secular universities rather than in confessional seminaries. (This partly reflects his “Open Brethren” tradition which has no ordained or paid clergy, and whose congregations are led by scholarly laity. Bruce preached and taught in Brethren pulpits–and those of other Christian denominations–throughout his career.) Bruce’s generous spirit toward “liberal” Christians, including Rudolf Bultmann, was also rare for his day. He showed by precept and example that one could be orthodox without launching a war on believers from other traditions.
- Bernard Ramm(1916-1992) is another conservative evangelical whose works I greatly appreciate. His early writings included textbooks on the basics of biblical interpretation, studies on sin and soteriology, and attempts to reconcile science and theology, eventually adopting theistic evolution. His later works bear the impact of Karl Barth in a very healthy way. I also appreciate the way Ramm considered himself always a Baptist, but never wedded to any one Baptist convention. During his career, he taught at institutions related to the American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Baptist General Conference, Canadian Baptists, and Conservative Baptist Association–and did not see this as “switching denominations.” My only criticism is that Ramm saw Baptists as one branch of the Reformed tradition–period. Had he interacted with the Anabaptist dimensions of our heritage, would that have made changes to his theology–particularly his lifelong attempts to wed head, heart, and life? I think so and I think those changes would have been positive.
- The Australian Anglican, Leon Morris(1914-2006), was another sound exegete and one whose mild Calvinism tried to face seriously the challenges to that tradition from within it. I especially appreciate the way his later writings showed how he learned from criticisms of earlier work. For instance, early on Morris defended substitutionary atonement, and especially propitiation, as the only viable atonement theory. Later, while still insisting on the validity of these dimensions, Morris recognized that the cross event was bigger than any one atonement theory and attempted to incorporate other elements–relating each perspective to particular biblical texts.
- Craig L. Blomberg, Distinguished Prof. of New Testament at Denver Seminary, was my Greek and NT teacher and academic advisor at Palm Beach Atlantic College in South Florida during my undergraduate days. I learned huge amounts from Craig and became friends with both Craig & his wife, Fran. I had already begun learning Greek from my home pastor, but Craig added more, reinforced my love for close exegetical work, and introduced me to liberation theologies–evangelical and otherwise. I was one of the few students at this conservative Baptist college who was (even then) more liberal than Craig, not holding to inerrancy (not even his nuanced version–and I delighted in citing his own teacher, I. Howard Marshall, on my side!) and defending evangelical feminism against his own complementarianism. (Ironically, in practice, Craig & Fran’s marriage always looked perfectly egalitarian to me and these days Fran is on staff at an emerging church congregation and is earning a Ph.D. in Missiology from the International Baptist Theological Seminary at Prague.) But Craig never tried to make cookie cutter followers of his students; he wanted followers of Jesus Christ, instead. When I teach, much of my teaching methods come from Craig–including his habit of assigning pairs of textbooks, one more “liberal” than his view and one more “conservative” than the approach he was taking. How many evangelical scholars, especially in the U.S., have co-written a dialogue book with a Morman theologian? Craig Blomberg has–and that kind of “critical openess” pervades his work. He has chided fellow evangelicals for blanket condemnations of liberation theologies and of pacifism (though I have yet to convince him to become a pacifist). His recent work, Contagious Holiness, is an important corrective to Marcus Borg’s contention that Jesus’ meals with sinners show a lack of concern with holiness/purity, but that, instead, Jesus’ compassionate and inclusive table fellowship attempted to spread holiness.
- George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), who taught New Testament at Fuller Seminary, worked hard to bring North American evangelicals to an eschatology that did not involve dispensationalism. Ladd also sought to engage the “Biblical theology” movement and the challenges of the 2nd wave of the “quest for the historical Jesus.” He was unfairly attacked from both the right and the left.
- George R. Beasley-Murray(1916-2000), British Baptist New Testament scholar who taught at Spurgeon’s College (twice, including a stint as Principal), the Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland (now the International Baptist Theological Seminary and moved to Prague, Czech Republic), and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Like Ladd, Beasley-Murray also worked in New Testament eschatology, though, being British, he wasn’t constantly engaging Dispensationalism! Beasley-Murray, another of my teachers, was attacked by conservatives because his strong defense of Mark 13 as going back to the historical Jesus involved his concluding that Jesus was mistaken about how soon the End would come. He translated Bultmann’s commentary on John, although his own 2-volume commentary on the same book found far more historical material. A truly amazing exegete and biblical theologian. See an excellent tribute here. As with Blomberg above, I almost listed Beasley-Murray as a mentor, rather than a dialogue partner. It was a close call, but both scholars are so identified with “Evangelicalism,” that I could not omit them here.
- Donald Bloesch (1928-2010), a Reformed theologian from the conservative end of the Presbyterian Church, USA, attempts to reincorporate the pietist tradition into evangelical Reformed thought. Bloesch really sees the dangers to evangelical thought of Henry’s rationalism. Although he continues to use the term “inerrant,” for Scripture, he stretches that term considerably in his interaction with Barth and Brunner. See also here.
- G. C. Berkouwer(1903-1996), the Dutch Reformed theologian and conservative Barthian. Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture rescues its authority from liberal neglect and from Protestant scholasticism. His defense of perseverance of the saints almost convinced this born and raised Arminian. For years the leading theologian at the Free University of Amsterdam, Berkouwer led the Gereformeede Kerken in Nederland (“The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands,” a conservative splinter group from the Dutch Reformed Church) to join the World Council of Churches, becoming one of the first evangelical denominations to unite with the mainstream conciliar ecumenical movement. His 14 volume Studies in Dogmatics, map out a “middle orthodoxy” which is a firm middle ground between fundamentalist rationalism and liberal flights of fancy.
- Augustus H. Strong (1893-1921) may have been the most important evangelical Baptist theologian of the late 19th and early 20th C. President and Professor of Theology at Rochester Theological Seminary in upstate New York (now merged as Colgate Rochester Crozier Theological Seminary), Strong, converted as a college student under the preaching of Charles Finney, worked to reformulate Calvinist-Baptist thought for the modern era. He abandoned inerrancy as indefensible, and had a mild view of election. He came to embrace theistic evolution.
- James Leo Garrett, Jr., Emeritus Professor of Theology at Southwestern Theological Seminary also taught church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before returning to his native Texas. His new 2 volume Systematic Theology is an excellent, centrist, evangelical Baptist work–and notable for its historical interactions.
There are many others from the broader evangelical tradition and I will try to post on those dialogue partners in the near future.
My Favorite Liberal Theologians: A List of Theological Liberals I Find “Essential” as Dialogue Partners
This reprints a post I wrote on my old blog, Levellers, in October 2006. It started a well-received series on “theological dialogue partners.” I will reproduce and index the entire series–and perhaps extend it on this blog. I don’t find anything in this list I would change.
I must be a glutton for punishment. No sooner do I reassure many evangelical readers of this blog that I am “born again” with testimony of my conversion and faith in Christ, than I write about favorite liberals. What am I thinking? Actually, though, I had been working on this post for some time and, YES, I am planning a companion piece on essential dialogue partners among the Conservative Evangelicals (caps important).
First, let me make two things clear: 1) I do NOT use the term “liberal” in theology to refer to all people who reject biblical ‘inerrancy’ (a rejection I share). “Liberal” theologians, while they have many disagreements, are united in an anthropological starting point (i.e., they begin with some form of general human experience) and in some form of a “method of correlation” (Tillich) between theology and the Modern (Enlightenment and after) world. 2) I do not consider myself a “liberal” since I begin with God’s revelation in Christ through the biblical witness and since, at most, I believe only ad hoc correlations are possible.
The big influences on me theologically are neither “liberal,” nor “conservative.” Those influences: Yoder, Stassen, Marshall, Barth, Moltmann, McClendon, H.R. Niebuhr, Letty Russell, Rauschenbusch, M. L. King, Deotis Roberts, and some others have been or will be the subject of my ongoing series of blog postings on “mentors.” By contrast, the folks below are “dialogue partners,” as are those who will be listed in the companion piece on Conservative Evangelicals.
So, who are my liberal dialogue partners? First, from the Classic Liberal period 19th C.-mid-20th C.) :
F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), not only the “Father of Liberal Theology,” but the father of all modern and, yes, postmodern theology, too. The first to give theology a truly scientific and systematic shape beyond the summa or the handbook (Calvin’s Institutes clearly was simply a handbook). It is simply not possible to do serious theology since that time without building on Schleiermacher’s legacy, even when challenging or greatly revising it, as Karl Barth knew well. There is much in old Friedrich to deplore, including his anthropological starting point and his reductionism of Christian experience to a feeling of utter dependence, but his work is a huge attempt to relate the Pietist tradition to the modern world and that remains, in my view, a worthwhile project. Link: Schleiermacher Society.
Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), gave an irreducibly moral shape to modern theology and helped recapture the centrality of the concept of the Kingdom of God, which for centuries had just been understood as “heaven.” Ritschl’s view of the Kingdom is inadequate, as was Rauschenbusch’s who drew so much from Ritschl, but the recovery of its theological centrality is still of incalculable importance. Ritschl’s contention that Christianity is characterized by 2 foci, individual salvation and social ethics, still seems right on the money, to me. Further info. here.
William Newton Clarke (1841-1912), the first in North America (taught in both Canada & U.S.) to write a systematic theology from a Schleiermachian perspective. Theologians debate how much Clarke borrowed from Schleiermacher and how much he simply thought along similar lines. There were also connections to Ritschl and Hermann.
Douglas Clyde Macintosh (1877-1948), Canadian-born Baptist theologian at Yale attempted to make theology an empirical science. He was an enormous influence on the brothers Niebuhr and later Process Theology, but also on the postmodern (ana)Baptist theology of my mentor, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Recent study found here.
Adolf von Harnack(1851-1930), for his incredibly encyclopedic knowledge and display of the history of Christian doctrine. (But his reduction of the “essence of Christianity” to the “Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,” was incredibly weak–and patriarchal to boot.)
Top 10 Favorite Liberals: Contemporary and Recent Past
10. Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003), German feminist political theologian. See Sarah K. Pinnock, ed., The Theology of Dorothee Soelle.
9. Marjorie H. Schucocki (1933-), Feminist Process Theologian. Best 1 vol. systematic from a process perspective.
8. Gary Comstock, both for his early work on narrative theology (mapping out some of the varieties) and for his subsequent work on theology from an openly gay male perspective. Whatever one believes about “homosexuality” pro or con, one cannot ignore the theological challenge and Comstock is the best theologian among those proposing full inclusion. I do wish he would relate this to his earlier work on narrative theology so that one could judge the adequacy of connections.
7. Eric Rust, a British Baptist educated in both physics and theology, came to the U.S. after both pastorates and academic positions in the U.K. He taught for decades at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where he forged an “evolutionary theology” that was an early process theology not as fully dependent on the metaphysics of Hartshorne and Whitehead as most later versions. Rust helped many, many reconcile science and theology and was one of the first to see the challenge of the ecological crisis to theology. He related the covenant and salvation history themes of the Scriptures to evolutionary worldview in a very persuasive way.
6. Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004) Chicago’s giant from the early ’60s to the ’90s. Gilkey was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, but, unlike the latter, he forged a “theology of culture” that could actually be understood! Gilkey’s book Naming the Whirlwind essentially demolished the “Death of God” movement. For more info. see here and here.
5. Hans Küng (1928-), the brilliant star of the radical Catholics whose work both led to Vatican II and charted the path further. Sidelined in Catholic life for challenging papal infallibility, Küng’s works On Being a Christian, and Does God Exist? are major apologetic works for our time which take seriously Christianity’s skeptical critics (as conservative apologists seldom do) without capitulating to them. He also has helped pioneer Christian interfaith dialogue in ways that are not just the nonsense of “all roads lead up the same mountain.” Biblio-blogger Chris Tilling’s excellent reflections on Küng’s importance are found here.
4. Daniel Day Williams (1910-1973), was a pioneer process theologian who work was far more connected to the major Christian tradition and its symbols than most in the Whitehead/Hartshorne school. Unfortunately, Williams’ most important works, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope; The Spirit and the Forms of Love; and The Demonic and the Divine are all out of print.
3. Howard Thurman (1900-1981) African-American mystic whom I profiled earlier as a Baptist prophet. See the Howard Thurman Center at Boston University. There is also a Howard Thurman documentary film project here. Morehouse College houses the Howard Thurman papers. The interracial Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which Thurman founded in San Francisco, is still in existence. Thurman was a major influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. Harvey Cox(1929-) — American theologian most in touch with the currents of culture. Beginning with Barth & Bonhoeffer, Cox moved from celebrating “the secular city,” to being one of the first liberals to notice that secularism was dying. He rediscovered in a new way the centrality of Jesus in, of all places, his interfaith dialogue! Cox became one of the first mainline liberals to take Pentecostalism seriously, too. Never anything close to a systematician, Cox remains one of the most astute theologians of culture for North America. Currently the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University Divinity School.
1. Marcus J. Borg whose biblical work is among the strongest in the “Jesus Seminar,” but who also has sought to revitalize liberalism in ways that are easily communicable to laity. The Heart of Christianity renews the Pietist tradition of the heart in a radical post-modern world. Do I always agree? No. But it’s not your average liberal who advises congregations to have more Bible studies! More info. here and his books here.
Runners Up: Peter Gomes, John Cobb (for relating process theology to liberation thought and ecological theology); Clark Pinnock in “Open Theism” phase; L. Harold DeWolf & Walter G. Muelder for Boston Personalism; Rosemary Radford Ruether; Beverly Wildung Harrison; Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza; Carlyle Marney.
Following clues in the work of the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), I have been describing theology as a practical discipline, investigating, interpreting, and transforming the convictions of a convictional community (e.g., the Christian church or some branch of that Church). I have sought to spell out theology’s character as pluralistic (or contextual), narrative based, rational, and self-involving. I have tried to indicate briefly how academic theology is a secondary discipline and related to the primary theologizing the churches do through their practices (preaching, worship, hospitality to strangers, instruction of the young and of new Christians, evangelism, service, nonviolent witness and love of enemies, CreationCare, etc.). Whole books could be (and have been) written about each of those aspects. (Keeping these posts brief has not been easy!) It is time to say something about the “branches” of (Christian) theology.
Biblical theology. All Christian theology, of course, will seek to be informed by and normed by Holy Scripture. However, Biblical theology seeks to describe and interpret the theological dimensions of the Biblical texts themselves. (This is sometimes divided up further into Old Testament Theology and New Testament Theology.) In the ordinary life of the Church, this is done whenever a believer (or Sunday School class, congregation/parish, etc.) attempts to summarize the “message” of the canon as a whole, or some section of it. In academic circles, this task is usually done by people who have degrees in biblical studies, but not all biblical scholars are capable of biblical theology. Some biblical scholars are simply historians or archaeologists or literary critics. The biblical theologian will be informed by skill in Hebrew, Greek and cognate languages such as Aramaic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, etc., will consult archaeological findings, historians of ancient Palestine or of 1st C. Greco-Roman society, use linguistic analyses or sociological insights, etc. But the biblical theologian must go beyond all this and must seek to encounter these texts on a theological level–the only level in which the Church’s ancient confession that these writings are, in some sense, the “Word of God” makes any sense. It is a synthetic task–and not an easy one.
Historical theology studies what the Church (and churches) have taught throughout the ages–or in some particular time and setting. This is done not just for antiquarian interest, but because the historical theologian is convinced that voices from the past, witnesses to the churches’ life and thought elsewhen, may have significance for the church today. Some branches of Christianity are more influenced by certain periods of the past (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy focuses supremely on the Patristic writings and especially the work of the Ecumenical Councils of the not-yet-divided Church), or by certain theologians more than others (e.g., Roman Catholicism returns constantly to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas; Reformed Christians give special consideration to the thought of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin; Methodists are especially attentive to the writings of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley, etc.) It is a rare historical theologian who can convey most of the full sweep of the Church’s life and thought through the ages (the late Jaroslav Pelikan is the only one who comes quickly to mind).
Philosophical theology (called by some traditions “fundamental” or “foundational” theology, though I believe such a designation is a mistake) engages the major thought forms of the day in dialogue, or even debate. A wider theology of culture, engages not only the philosophical currents in one’s context, but the arts (visual, musical, etc.), sciences, political ideologies, other (rival?) religions, and much else. This branch of theology is closely related to the missionary practices of the church–for in all good mission work one listens and learns as much as one teaches.
Pastoral theology focuses closely on the pastoral tasks of the church and its members (not just on a the tasks of the pastor or pastoral team). This is sometimes called “practical theology,” but, again, I think this is a mistake. Properly understood, all Christian theology is rooted in the practices of the church and serves them and is thereby “practical.” “Impractical theology” would be theology cut off from church life and would, Christianly speaking, be useless.
The most daunting branch of theology is also its most normative: Systematic Theology is its most common name since it tries to bring all these tasks together and state, for this time and place, what the church must teach to be faithfully the church of Jesus Christ, and do so in a fairly orderly fashion. But the term “systematic theology” can give the impression of forcing the Word of God into a systemic straightjacket of human origins, reducing it to an ideology. So, some prefer the term Dogmatic Theology, but in North America “dogmatic” has come to mean “narrow minded,” so this term, too, is not without its problems. A recent term that many use is Constructive Theology. I have no preference between these terms and tend to use them interchangeably.
I must stress, however, that systematic or dogmatic or constructive theology is not just about doctrine, but also about ethics. Neither can do without the other and both are essential to the theological tasks of the church.
I want to get feedback from readers on the series so far before I attempt another post showing why ethics is as much a part of theology as is doctrine.
If theology is a “science of convictions,” then we need to say more about what convictions are. McClendon distinguishes them from opinions. [See James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Wipf & Stock, 2002)–a revision and expansion of McClendon and Smith, Understanding Religious Convictions (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).] Opinions are easily formed and easily changed. Forming them may require investigation or logical reasoning, but they do not involve much more than the intellect. We often know exactly how and when we formed opinion X and when it changed to opinion Y.
By contrast, convictions are deeply a part of us. We are very emotionally invested in them. They are not formed easily and they are not changed easily. They cannot be changed at all without the individual or the community holding them becoming a significantly different individual or community. In a sense, we are our convictions and, thus, changing them leads to our becoming someone new (or a different community).
Consider some examples. And here, just for fun, I will tease some prominent theology bloggers and bibliobloggers by using them in the examples. Imagine, if you will, a Jim West giving up a Zwinglian “pure memorial” understanding of the Lord’s Supper for a Lutheran belief in eucharistic “consubstantiation,” or some other “real presence” sacramental view. Such a change would not be simply an exegetical or theological change of mind, but a type of conversion and the results would give us a very different Jim West from the one we know (and love?)–but he’d probably still keep calling Chris Tilling “the devil.”
Or imagine D. W. Congdon rejecting universal salvation. Surely that would be a conversion! (Actually, considering that Congdon is a Wheaton alumnus come to Princeton, this would probably be a re-conversion to earlier convictions.) Or what would Guy Davies be like if he came to embrace Arminius’ or Wesley’s views on prevenient grace and free will?
Waxing more serious, I know that my rejection of the view that Christians could use lethal force and serve in national militaries, and my embrace of Christian pacifism (gospel nonviolence) was not a simple change of opinion, but a conversion. Since I was in the U.S. military at the time, it involved me refusing to don my uniform or pick up my rifle and applying for a conscientious objector discharge.
The same is true for communities: Consider those churches in the 16th C. that, under the influence of Zwingli or Luther or Calvin, embraced the Reformation–and were no longer Catholic but Protestant churches. Or consider those early followers of Zwingli–Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Georg Blaurock, etc. who followed the logic of Zwingli’s early teaching on baptism and then decided that Scripture had more authority than the Zurich city council and became the first Anabaptists. Convictions are not changed easily–and they cannot be changed at all without the individual or community holding those convictions becoming significantly different than before.
Therefore theology not only involves struggle for truth amidst error, but also the risk of conversion and change (not least from the theologian).
Now, all of us hold some beliefs, even some religious beliefs, at the opinion level rather than the convictional level. Perhaps one definition of “fundamentalism” (whether conservative or liberal in orientation) is that all or nearly all beliefs are at the convictional level–nothing is adiaphora or even of secondary importance, everything is life or death, nothing is not a “test of fellowship,” that separates out true believers from heretics.
Next time: The branches of theology and how this relates to the practices of the Church and churches and the task(s) of theologians.
I began these reflections with the definition of theology given by the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.” The particular convictional community we Christians are concerned with, of course, is the Christian Church, the universal Body of Christ, the People of God. The convictions we are dealing with, unlike some whose convictions are about “girls, guns, and gold,” (to use a traditional and sexist motto from the Old West), are convictions about the Triune God, about Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God, about the Holy Spirit, about creation, humanity, sin, and salvation, about discipleship, and the hope of new/re-newed heavens and earth.
The church’s primary instruction in these moral and doctrinal convictions we might call “primary theology” (unless some reader has a better term). This is what we find in hymns, confessions of faith (e.g., the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), church covenants, catechisms, sermons, evangelistic presentations of the gospel, Sunday School lessons, liturgies, etc. More formal or “academic” theology is a secondary practice of the Church–but just as necessary for that. In this practice, theologians investigate these primary theological (i.e., moral and doctrinal) teachings–”discovering, and interpreting” the convictions of the Church (or a part of it, e.g., Orthodoxy in post-Communist Ukraine, Pentecostalism in South America, post-apartheid Reformed faith in South Africa, etc.). But the (secondary/academic) theologian has a normative task, too. S/he tests these convictions in their current form: are they faithful? adequate? biblical? The theologian’s task, as McClendon puts it, is to hold up a mirror to the community in which the community recognizes itself not just as it is, but as it should be, must strive to be, in order to be what God is calling it to be.
We see the practical nature of theology: Rooted in basic Christian practices (worship, prayer–both individual and corporate, preaching, evangelism, the saints’ mutual service, hospitality to strangers and enemies, etc.), theology is also to serve those practices. A biblical example may be in order: When the apostle Paul writes to the church gathered at Corinth, they are celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, Holy Communion) with a full agape meal–but the rich are gorging themselves and the working poor, arriving later, are going hungry. Paul leads them to see that their practice of the Supper is distorted, not just morally, but doctrinally–in so mistreating the poor, the Corinthian Christians “failed to discern the Body of Christ” not just in the meal but gathered in Corinth. Their distorted liturgical practice was wrong morally and doctrinally–revealing flaws in the Corinthian Christians’ eucharistic doctrine, ecclesiology, soteriology, and even Christology. Paul’s instruction in liturgical reform (from now on, skip the full agape meal, eat at home, do nothing to dishonor the poor made in God’s image–who are also your sisters and brothers for whom Christ died) is also doctrinal correction. In terms of our definition, this is the transformation of the community’s convictions, displayed in their practice.
Next: More on convictions; branches of theology.