The Louisville memorial service for Glen Stassen will be held on 21 June 2014 (Saturday) at 2 pm (EDT) in the sanctuary of Crescent Hill Baptist Church where the Stassen family were members for 20 years. Especially if you were unable to attend his funeral in Pasadena and would like to attend or send tributes, I urge you to make plans, now.
In the days following Glen’s death at the end of last month, and at his funeral, I told several people that I felt as if conversations with him had been abruptly interrupted. I suppose part of my grieving process is in trying to continue these conversations as far as I can. So, this post will be one of a series of blog posts in which I try to mentally “map out” dimensions of my mentor’s life and thought. In the Festchrift I helped to edit for Glen, Ethics as if Jesus Mattered: Essays in Honor of Glen H. Stassen (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishers, Inc., 2014). I wrote a biographical chapter, “Glen Harold Stassen (1936-2014): Follower of a Thick Jesus.” I may expand that into a full theological biography–both because my chapter now strikes me as wholly inadequate and because Glen was considering writing a theological memoir before the aggressive nature of his cancer moved too rapidly to make any more writing projects possible. But these blog posts will just be initial fragments–and I invite feedback on them from Glen’s friends, colleagues, and other students.
Anyone who knew Glen Stassen to any degree at all knows that he was serious about his Christian identity–about following Jesus as faithfully as he knew how and teaching others to do the same. But was Glen Stassen an evangelical Christian? As with most important questions, the answer depends in large part upon one’s definition.
For many people in the USA since the 1980s, and, especially, it seems, for those involved in the U.S. mass media, the term “evangelical” has become synonymous with “member of the ‘Christian’ Right,” that is, a conservative Protestant who is fundamentalist in doctrine, legalist in ethics, and part of the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party. If THAT is what one means by “evangelical” then the term clearly does not apply to Stassen. Indeed, in one of his earliest published articles (“Faith of the Radical Right and Christian Faith,” Review and Expositor 65/3 (Summer 1968): 314-334.), Stassen anticipated the future political power of the Religious RIght (then a fringe movement) and opposed it strongly. While it is true that he was raised in a politically prominent Republican family, the Stassens were liberal Republicans–a breed now all-but-extinct. Glen Stassen himself became a registered Democrat. He opposed the semi-theocratic tendencies of the Religious Right–upholding the traditional Baptist view that the institutions of religion and government should be firmly separated. One’s faith informs one’s political values, but never in such a way as to make second class citizens of those with different faith commitments (or without religious faith) and never in such a way that would use or manipulate God or the faithful. Stassen’s values: justice for the poor, racial justice, equality of the sexes, taking transforming initiatives for peace and human rights, caring for the integrity of creation—these are diametrically opposed to the goals and priorities of the Religious Right.
But the Right hi-jacked the term “evangelical” and are not entitled to their current near-monopoly of the term. (Indeed, as Stassen pointed out, the Right has attempted to hi-jack Jesus and to label all who disagree with them as “not really Christian.” In several places, he called for non-fundamentalist Christians to “take Jesus back.”)
“Evangelical” at its most basic means “related to the evangel, to the gospel or good news.” Indeed, when I have taught at Catholic institutions, I have noticed many Catholics use the term “evangelical” where Protestants would say “evangelistic.” Stassen was certainly evangelical in THAT sense. In nearly everything he did he was concerned to bear witness to the Good News in Jesus and to invite people to follow Jesus seriously.
From the time of the Reformation, “evangelical” has often been a synonym for “Protestant,” as it is throughout parts of Europe and most of Latin America, still. Although he has expressed appreciation for some dimensions of Catholicism, Glen Stassen is definitely Protestant. Later “evangelical” meant that one had a personal conversion experience–whether shaped by the Puritan or revivalist experience. Glen Stassen describes his conversion in his autobiographical chapter in Peacemakers, ed. Jim Wallis (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).
But in the U.S., Protestantism became a “two party system” and “evangelical” came to mean both “doctrinally traditional” and “separate from” or even “in opposition to” “mainstream liberal” or “ecumenical Protestant.” We will return to “doctrinally traditional,” but it is clear that there are many ways in which Glen Stassen was NOT part of the “Evangelical subculture” of the U.S., despite teaching at one of its most prominent seminaries (Fuller Theological Seminary) for the last two decades of his life. He was clearly not a product of the educational institutions of the Evangelical subculture. His university years were not spent at Wheaton College or Westmont College or Calvin College, Gordon College, or denominational equivalents. Majoring in nuclear physics, Glen went to the University of Virginia, “Mr. Jefferson’s university,” the symbol of the American Enlightenment. True, the first seminary he attended was The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, but, although SBTS has become a symbol of CONSERVATIVE Evangelicalism since the beginning of the presidency of R. Albert Mohler, Jr. in the 1990s, this was not the case when Glen Stassen attended in the late ’50s–and he left after the the 1958 conflict between the faculty and president that resulted in the firing of 12 faculty members and the academic suspension of the seminary. Stassen transferred to (and earned his B.D. at) Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, THE flagship seminary of the liberal (and, later, the Neo-Orthodox and Liberation Theology) tradition in American Protestantism. The teachers that influenced Stassen were not evangelicals who somehow managed to get hired at Union in the 1950s, either. They were Reinhold Niebuhr, process theologian Daniel Day Williams, Old Testament scholar James Muilenberg, New Testament scholar W. D. Davies, and Robert McAfee Brown (who introduced Stassen to the theology of Karl Barth). Stassen’s Ph.D. was earned at Duke University. Again, today, Duke’s Divinity School and its Graduate School of Religion is known as a center of “Post-liberal” and “Generous Orthodox” thought where the conservative end of the “mainstream ecumenical” spectrum meets and overlaps the progressive end of the evangelical spectrum. But, once more, this was not the case in the 1960s when Stassen was a student there. In those days, Duke was firmly a part of the liberal tradition of Southern Methodism. His Ph.D. supervisor, Waldo Beach, was a student of H. Richard Niebuhr (the subject of Stassen’s dissertation), and, all of his 8 books were in the Protestant mainstream. Others who influenced Stassen at Duke were Hans Hillerbrand (a Lutheran church historian with a strong interest in 16th C. Anabaptism–probably triggered by his own undergraduate studies at Goshen College, a Mennonite school) and Frederick Herzog, a former student of Karl Barth and a champion of civil rights and liberation theology. Later, during sabbatical leaves, Stassen studied at Harvard University (with Ralph Potter), Columbia University, the University of Heidelberg (Germany), and Duke University, again. So, Stassen was educated completely outside the Evangelical subculture in the U.S.
Nor is there any evidence that he participated in any of the well-known evangelical “para-church” organizations of that subculture during his formative years. He was active in his local Baptist church, always. And, at the University of Virginia, he participated in the Baptist Student Union, the Baptist campus ministry. But he was not a part of Navigators or Young Life or Campus Crusade for Christ or Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, etc. However, when the Sojourners ministry began in the 1970s, Stassen, traveled to Washington, D.C. and spent time with this radical, progressive evangelical community serving the poor and was later a contributing editor to Sojourners magazine. He did join Evangelicals for Social Action (founded by Ronald Sider) and even served as a faculty advisor for some of its publications. As a teacher of Christian ethics, Stassen would assign works by evangelicals (as well as others) including (of my own knowledge) works by Arthur Holmes of Wheaton College, Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (though he was frustrated by the way the later editions “tamed” the suggestions for political action), Stephen C. Mott’s Biblical Ethics and Social Change, Lewis B. Smedes’ Mere Morality, and, of course, tons of works by John Howard Yoder (considered by many to be an evangelical, but not by others).
Many evangelicals are obsessed with defending “biblical inerrancy,” the concept that the Bible contains no errors at all (although many definitions of “inerrancy” have so many qualifications and/or loopholes that it is difficult to see what would qualify as an “error” when all the qualifications are made). Stassen was not interested in finding biblical errors, but neither did he have any patience with the inerrancy debate. Stassen was proficient in critical biblical studies from all points of the theological spectrum. He had a high view of biblical authority and this was displayed in his close study of the texts (to this date, he is the only known Christian ethicist to have published in a major journal of biblical scholarship. See “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-7:12),” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (Summer 2003): 267-308).
If one’s concept of an American Evangelical is that of Carl Henry, Cornelius van Til, Billy Graham, or Francis Schaeffer, then Glen Stassen does not fit–and never tried to fit. If one thinks an evangelical must always criticize the people and institutions of “liberalism,” Stassen does not fit. He loved his teachers at Union and Duke. In my hearing, he repeatedly defended Harvard’s Harvey Cox from the lazy and inaccurate way that conservative critics lumped him in with “Death of God” theologians because of sloppy readings of Cox’s book, The Secular City, or, worse, reviews by title alone. He was a lifelong scholar of the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although he published little to show this, he was greatly influenced by the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. (but see his “God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Journal of Religion 83/3 (July 2008): 416-418.).
But if one’s concept of “evangelical” is broad enough to include Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, evangelical liberation theologians like J. Daniel Kirk, Orlando Costas, Rene Padilla, and evangelical feminists like Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, then Glen Stassen is certainly an evangelical. He was comfortable with the term, though he did not flaunt it as a badge or weapon as did many. In later years, he worked with his student, David Gushee (more clearly an evangelical), in the formation of Evangelicals for Human Rights (an anti-torture group) and stayed with it when it broadened to become the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Update: [I left out a sentence.] Frustrated with the lack of serious attention to biblical materials, especially the teachings of Jesus, in textbooks of Christian ethics used in evangelical institutions, Glen set out to correct this. He co-wrote Kingdom Ethics with David Gushee–a major textbook in Christian ethics centered around the Sermon on the Mount, aimed primarily at an evangelical audience, and deliberately published by a major evangelical publisher, Intervarsity Press. Published in 2003, in 2004 it was selected as “Book of the Year” by Christianity Today, the influential popular journal of American evangelicalism. In 2010, the same periodical selected it as one of the 10 best books of the decade. As Stassen intended, it has been widely adopted as a textbook at evangelical institutions.
Update II: Returning to the “doctrinally traditional” dimension of the term “evangelical.” Stassen fits and does not fit. In many times and places, in both writing and speech, Glen Stassen specifically stated that he was not at all attracted to the obsession with avante garde trendiness in theology that is common about liberal Protestants. His faith is clearly Trinitarian and has a high Christology. He has a very high view of biblical authority. But Stassen has never felt himself bound by any traditional creedal formulae if he thought them in error–and he has always understood theology (including theological ethics) as a very human activity prone to mistakes. Many evangelicals are wedded to “penal substitution” theories of Christ’s atonement, for example. While not denying some elements of substitution in the biblical texts, Stassen more firmly identified with versions of the “Christus Victor” approach, especially as articulated by Bonhoeffer and reconfigured in a narrative and nonviolent direction by Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver. When Stassen was hired at Fuller Theological Seminary, he was asked to sign the faculty statement of faith. Instead of simply signing his name, Glen asked to write a commentary on the document showing the extent to which he could affirm the document. (He showed me this document. If it exists still among his papers, I’d like to obtain a copy.) The Fuller document committed signers to affirming Creatio ex Nihilo, the traditional doctrine that God created the world “out of nothing.” But Glen Stassen, with his degree in nuclear physics, had been strongly influenced by the process theology of his teacher, Daniel Day Williams. He believed that the Genesis creation stories taught only “creation out of chaos.” In his reply, Stassen argued for his view, citing biblical scholars on Genesis AND the openness to this view in the 1st and 2nd London Confessions of Faith–the earliest 17th C. confessions of the English Particular Baptists. Fuller hired him anyway. Innovation in theology for faddishness or shock value held no attraction for Glen Stassen–but he never allowed traditional formulae or code words to trump loyalty to the truth of the gospel as he saw it. (Incidentally, this is one of the few areas where we disagreed to the end. It’s true that Genesis teaches only “creation out of chaos,” but I contend that “creation out of nothing” is taught in Colossians and in the prologue to John’s Gospel. I also think that the doctrine matters for the Christian hope of resurrection. Glen disagreed and believed that “creation out of nothing” ultimately makes God responsible for evil–and he leveled this critique even at major influences such as H. Richard Niebuhr.)
Glen Stassen’s primary identity was always “Christian.” He was deeply committed to being “Baptist,” though, as he sometimes pointed out, he had been 6 different types of Baptist. He was not the type of evangelical who was afraid of either “ecumenical liberal” Christians or of interfaith dialogue. He was part of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches, he served on the board of the Councils of the Societies for the Scientific Study of Religion, and was an active member of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. But Glen Stassen was an evangelical Christian and worked hard to get the movement to mature and be more authentically Christian. (See “Incarnating Ethics: We are Called to Faithful Discipleship, Not Credal Rigidity,” Sojourners (March-April 1999): 14.) As David Gushee said, I want to be Glen Stassen’s type of Christian, Glen Stassen’s type of Baptist, and Glen Stassen’s type of evangelical.
In preparing for an extended defense of gospel nonviolence, I first reminded readers of basic principles of Just War Theory, the major ethic of Western civilization on war and peace issues for the last 16 centuries. I then pointed to internal weaknesses of JWT as noticed by proponents of the tradition themselves. Those weaknesses were noticed by several church groups during the 1980s and 1990s who called for a “positive ethic of peace.” We need an ethic, many voices said, that not only tells when it is permissable to go to war and under what conditions wars may be fought justly, but tells us how to make peace without appeasement, how to pursue peace justly. Pacifists agreed. So, with my mentor, Glen Stassen, taking the lead, a group of theologians, biblical scholars, international relations experts, and people with much experience in peacemaking, developed a new ethic, “just peacemaking,” whose practices are catching on because they combine moral seriousness with pragmatic realism. The new tradition is spreading despite the setbacks of global terrorism and preemptive war doctrines in the 21st C.
One note: Although Just Peacemaking has been uniting pacifists and those in the just war tradition in active work for peace, it cannot replace either of those older ethics. The best efforts of peacemakers sometimes fail and wars break out. When that happens, the pacifist will refuse to fight or support the war and the just war theorist will evaluate the particular war before deciding to support or not. Both can, of course, continue to work on peacemaking efforts during the war. Just Peacemaking, then, should be seen as a complimentary ethic, rather than a replacement for either pacifism or Just War Theory.
The 10 Practices of Just Peacemaking:
- Support nonviolent direct action. First coming to global attention in the campaigns of Gandhi and King, this practice has spread globally in many contexts. Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and injustifce and often produces healing without the resort to war. Boycotts, strikes, citizen embargoes, marches, mass civil disobedience, shunnings or (by contrast), actively fraternizing with enemy soldiers, accompaniment, are just some of the nearly 200 methods so far catalogued in the menu of interventions and defensive strategies being developed by nonviolent direct action campaigns. Support for such campaigns, studying when they work and when they fail and finding ways to make them stronger naturally reduces the numbers of wars and violent revolutions.
- Take independent initiatives to reduce threats. In situations of conflict, an arms buildup or any form of escalation can lead to or expand a war. But so can unilateral disarmaments or appeasements. What is needed is a series of surprising, independent initiatives that reduce threat levels and act as “confidence building measures” that often open up new possibilities of peacemaking. It is important that such actions are public, visible, happen at the times announced, and invite reciprocation.
- Talk with the adversary using proven methods of cooperative conflict resolution. Some politicians have refused to negotiate, claiming that speaking with party x should be a reward for good behavior. This is ridiculous. Strong leaders are not afraid to talk. One has to talk to make peace. Conflict resolution methods have developed which enable smart negotiators to be tough on the problem, rather than tough on the people involved. In every field, from business to foreign policy, principled negotiation techniques are making proven headway. Ignoring these practices for ultimatums or, by contrast, appeasements, is foolish.
- Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness. Seldom is all the blame for a war or conflict only on one side. Acknowledge the wrongs your side has done and repent and seek forgiveness. This invites reciprocation and healing. It used to be believed that only individuals can repent or forgive; groups and nations could not, nor ever acknowledge any wrongdoing without appearing weak. To the contrary, such repentance has often led to healing and failure to do so has led to resentments and future wars. The experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee greatly strengthened this practice and many nations are using it as a model.
- Advance Democracy, Human Rights, and Religious Liberty. It should go without saying, but recent years have proven otherwise: One cannot and should not try to “advance democracy” by means of military invasion or coercion. Democratic movements must arise indigenously. Established democracies seldom go to war with other democracies and, not needing to fear uprisings from repressed peoples, can spend much less on military budgets. (The U.S. is a glaring exception here, but is thereby becoming less democratic; more a plutocratic oligarchy.) As Roger Williams, Richard Overton and others knew long ago, the lack of human rights and religious liberty is a major cause of war. Protecting and spreading these norms works for just and lasting peace.
- Foster Just and Sustainable Economic Development. Patterns of economic hardship and exploitation can lead to “resource wars,” and poor people become desperate and are thus vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist fanatics (or power-mad government demagogues) offering cheap and easy solutions through violence. Fair trade, development that works with rather than against healthy eco-systems, these things are not only just in themselves, but win “hearts and minds” that can otherwise be seduced into violence.
- Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system. Everything which works to connect nations makes wars more difficult. Actions which weaken international institutions and cooperative forces make wars more frequent and more likely.
- Strengthen the United Nations and International Efforts for Cooperation and Human Rights. Goes with # 7. The UN is far from perfect. It needs internal reform. But its efforts to promote global health, end poverty, spread human rights norms, and make peace have, despite all this often proven successful in its 50 year existence. Those efforts, and similar developments such as the International Criminal Court, need to be strengthened. “Lone wolf” foreign policies which undermine the UN and the international system are perceived by others as imperial and sow the seeds for future wars.
- Reduce offensive weapons and the weapons trade. Okay, to a pacifist like myself, all weapons are “offensive,” but this refers to weapons whose nature makes them more useful for attack than defense. Work to eliminate “weapons of mass destruction,” (chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons) are vital–and no nation can simultaneously work to prevent the spread of these weapons, and insist on its own right to possess them and develop more. Further, some “conventional” weapons are, by nature, more offensive, such as cluster bombs which do much more damage to civilians than combat troops and landmines which, long after wars are over, continue to kill and maim civilian populations. Efforts to ban these weapons, often supported by prominent military figures, must be supported. The same goes for the weapons trade. The more people one sells weapons to, the more likely one is fomenting war. The U.S. is the largest dealer of arms–leading to its troops often facing weapons “made in the U.S.A.”
- Encourage Grassroots Peacemaking Groups and Voluntary Associations. Many of the above practices must become common among diplomats and policy elites, but some, such as nonviolent direct action, can be done by anyone. Also, peacemaking cannot be left to elites and experts. Grassroots groups can often take independent actions for peace before governments and they can and must pressure governments to make their own efforts for peace.
People often ask me as a pacifist, “If you are against war, what are you for?” It’s a fair question and the above practices are a large part of my answer. They also help Just War folk. After all, if war is to be a “last resort,” then one needs concrete ideas of what “resorts” can and must be tried first. One can explore these practices specifically regarding struggles against terrorism here.
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.
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.
I am reprinting a series of brief posts on the nature of theology from my old blog Levellers. After I reprint each post, I’ll make an index page and put the series up on my page of “popular posts and series.” (The series was popular on my old blog, anyway, and I’m trying to make sure that former readers can still find material they liked on this blog, Pilgrim Pathways.)
What IS ‘theology?”
Different definitions of theology lead to different methods/approaches of “doing theology.” I propose the definition given by the late Baptist theologian of the “[b]aptist Vision,” i.e., the constitutive vision of the Believers’ Churches, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000). Theology, McClendon said, is “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.” He intended this definition to be broad enough to encompass the theologies of other world religions and of philosophical substitutes for religion, such as Marxism, socio-biology, etc. If the “convictional community” in question is the Christian Church, then theology is the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of the Christian Church, including the discovery and critical revision of disciples’ relation(s) to one another, to the Triune GOD, and to the rest of Creation.” (My adaptation.)
Certain things follow from such a definition: i. Theology is pluralistic; done in different, even rival, camps. There is struggle in theology–the struggle for truth. This sometimes involves struggle against the perceived errors of others. Because Christ prayed that the Church would enjoy the same unity that he enjoys with the Father, striving for ecumenical reconciliation in the fractured Church is mandatory. But all the ecumenical good will in the world cannot disguise the fact that theologians (and churches) disagree and that some of these disagreements are sharp and deep. Another way to say this is that theology is contextual –related to differing church traditions (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, “baptist,” etc.), differing eras, differing cultural contexts.
ii. Theology is narrative based, construing the lived experience of the convictional community by means of Scripture. There are, of course, different readings of Scripture: A 12th C. Franciscan “take” on the biblical narrative differs from a 17th C. Jesuit take on the same narrative–but they are both much closer than either is to the “take” of a 16th C. Dutch Mennonite, of 19th C. antebellum African-American Christians in the U.S. South, of a WWI-era Pentecostal, of a Peruvian “base community” in the 1970s, of a Reformed “take” in South Africa during the “Boer War” resistance to British rule, of an African Christian response to both the British and Afrikaaner readings, etc.
iii. Theology is rational. Some (Schleiermacher, Barth) have called theology a “science,” and in the broadest sense of the term, this is true. But because in English “science” is understood after the model of the natural sciences, McClendon suggests (and I agree) that it is less confusing to call theology a discipline that is to display the rationality appropriate to its metier, just as the disciplines of art, law, and medicine display their own particular rationalities. Thus, like these other cases, theology is a practice, a craft, that is rooted in the other practices (e.g., mission, evangelism, worship, communal prayer, preaching, hospitality to the poor and the stranger, life together in the Body, nonviolent service to the neighbor, nonviolent encounter/witness with the enemy, etc.) of the Church. The theologian must likewise be rooted in these practices, in a particular Christian community, even if s/he is employed by a secular or pluralist university.
iv. This leads us to the fact that theology is self-involving. Possibly in rare circumstances a Christian theologian could write a Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist theology (Hans Küng has attempted this regarding Judaism and Islam) or some non-Christian could undertake to write a Christian theology. But these would be exceptions that prove the rule. In convictional work, self-involvement is the rule, exceptions must be explained case-by-case. (This is NOT to say that Christian theologians should not be in dialogue with non-Christian movements. The missionary nature of the Church means that, in each context, theologians will dialogue with major forces and thought-forms in their cultural context. But the theologian does not attempt to adopt a “neutral” or “detached” observer frame. S/he is not an anthropologist.)
I. Is this a good way to understand theology? Why or why not?
II. What does the practice of theology look like when understood this way?