Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

A Tribute to Walter Wink (1935-2012): New Testament Theologian of Nonviolence and Power

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.

May 25, 2012 Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, biographical entries, biographies, church history, Fellowship of Reconciliation, heroes, Methodists, nonviolence, obituary, peace, peacemakers, theologians | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Chuck Colson (16 October 1931-21 April 2012)

Seven days ago, former Nixon aide-turned-Evangelical-pundit Chuck Colson died.  Because my feelings about Colson are mixed, I waited this week before writing anything about him.  Especially through Prison Fellowship, the ministry he founded, Colson did some real good and I hope that influence lives on. But my overall assessment is that, even post-conversion, he was a negative force in both church and society and I hope his passing allows a fresh start.  That’s my thesis, now let me argue for it.

Charles Wendell “Chuck” Colson was born in Boston, MA to an upper-middle class Republican family that hated the New Deal and raised him to oppose almost all progressive social reforms.  He went to an elite private high school (The Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, MA), graduating in 1949.  He then earned a B.A. in political science, cum laude, from Brown University in 1953.  From there, Colson went on to earn his law degree, again with honors, from the law school of George Washington University in 1959.  From 1953 to 1955 Colson served in the U.S. Marine Corps, earning the rank of captain.  He founded his own law firm and worked on Republican political campaigns.    His first marriage (to Nancy Billings) lasted from 1953 to 1964 before ending in divorce. They had 3 children. He then married Patricia Ann Hughes in 1964 and this marriage lasted until Colson’s death.

Colson first came to national attention in 1968 when he joined the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. He was assigned to the “Special Issues Committee” informally known as the “Dirty Tricks Group.” Colson proved to be especially good at dirty tricks. He would hire Young Republican college students to volunteer for various Democratic campaigns and spy for Nixon, sabatouging the campaigns, and planting evidence in other campaigns.  After Nixon was elected, Colson was appointed as Special Counsel to the President–and soon became admired by friends and feared by enemies as Nixon’s “hatchet man.”  Colson himself has written that he was “useful” to the president because he was willing to be ruthless to get things done. (See Colson, Born Again, chap. 5.) He was considered the “evil genius” of an evil administration–the Lee Atwater or Karl Rove of his generation.

As such, Colson was implicated in the Watergate Scandal. Synopsis for a generation too young to remember. In the 1972 presidential campaign, the Committee to Reelect the President [CREEP], which, in an age before ANY campaign finance reform, had whole suitcases of cash to use in various schemes, hired some inept burglars to steal campaign plans and secrets from the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. They were caught and eventually (after the election), the authorization of this burglary was traced to the White House. It is unknown whether or not Nixon or Colson knew of the original burglary, but both were heavily involved in the illegal cover-up.  Colson was also involved in the burglary of the private files of Daniel Ellsberg, the decorated Marine and Pentagon consultant who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press (proving that several presidents in both parties lied to the American people repeatedly concerning the Vietnam War). Colson’s plan was to derail criticism of both Watergate and the Vietnam War by getting the news to cover Ellsberg’s psychiatric counseling. (This backfired.  Ellsberg was charged with illegally releasing secret information–even though, unlike the United Kingdom, the U.S. has nothing like an “Official Secrets Act.” The burglary and leak of Ellsberg’s psychiatric files led the judge to throw out the case.) In 1974, Colson was sentenced to prison for his role in the Watergate coverup, as were dozens of other officials in the Nixon administration.

While Colson was facing arrest, a friend gave him a copy of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and introduced him to a prayer and Bible study group. Colson was converted and became an evangelical Christian. When the press learned of this, most were extremely skeptical, believing that Colson was simply trying for a reduced sentence. (Many of his fellow Watergate convicts thought the same thing.) It may be that Colson or someone close to him did release the conversion story with that in mind, but I think his conversion was genuine.  I have not doubted the sincerity of his faith, but rather the terrible shallowness of his theology. Colson reveals the huge weakness of evangelical Christianity in cultivating genuine discipleship and a Christian identity that is trans-national and with loyalties that resist the Powers and Authorities and stand with the poor and marginalized. Although 19th C. American evangelicalism displayed these characteristics, they have been mostly missing in 20th and 21st C. evangelicalism and Colson exemplifies this weakness. But there is no need to claim that his conversion was faked. It appears genuine.

Colson’s prison sentence opened his eyes to the huge problems of the U.S. “justice” system and especially the prison system.  Upon release from prison, Colson could no longer practice law or vote as a convicted felon. (In 2000, Colson, then a resident of Florida, had his voting rights restored by FL Gov. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush (R).) He published his spiritual memoir, Born Again, which became a bestseller. It fit with the times. After the secular ’60s (including the notorious “Death of God” movement at the end of the decade), there were several national revivals in the 1970s:  It witnessed the birth of Jesus People, USA (an intentional community of ex-hippies); it saw several campus radicals become Christians (many retaining their liberal politics in the birth of the “Evangelical Left” of the 1960s), even the conversion of a few Black Panthers and former gang members. It saw the highly successful “I Found It!” campaign, the birth of “Jesus Rock” (later watered-down and commercialized as “Contemporary Christian Music”), the height of popularity for evangelist Billy Graham, and much more. Even the flourishing of many cults and new religions in the 1970s reflected a nation that was exhausted by political protests and social change movements turning inward to seek spiritual grounding–in both familiar paths to American Christians and in movements and ideas that, however ancient elsewhere in the world, were novel and strange on U.S. soil.  In that context, Colson’s redemption narrative–a form of spiritual memoir at least as old as St. Augustine’s Confessions–was eagerly read by many.

I’m sure that Colson used money from the book sales to pay his many legal bills, but I don’t conclude that his sole motivation was monetary.  I think that, at one level, he was seeking to give testimony, to learn to share his faith evangelistically.  I think the book was popular for at least one other reason:  Many conservative Christians, including the like of Billy Graham, felt horribly betrayed by the Nixon administration. Graham had endorsed Nixon as a person of faith and the conservatives turned to him in reaction to the Chicago riots at the ’68 Democratic National Convention and the secular spirit that (it seemed to many) had dominated the movements for social change of the ’60s. (This despite the numerous clergy, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, who had major leadership positions in both the Civil Rights and Peace Movements.) Watergate had made many feel like they had been duped and that their faith had been made a laughingstock before the world. Colson’s Born Again reassured many of these people that they hadn’t been completely wrong.  They treated him not as a notorious sinner who had been saved but needed intense discipleship before he could be trusted with any form of leadership, but as a prodigal son returning to the fold.  Unlike the ex-hippie radicals in the Sojourners Community or Open Door or Jesus People, USA, etc., Colson’s conversion was to a form of Christianity and church life that looked “safe” and familiar.

But he did do one challenging thing after his release from prison that didn’t fit the comfortable conservative Christian mold:  He created Prison Fellowship.  It was and is an outreach ministry to prisoners.  Now, Christians have been reaching out to the imprisoned since Jesus commanded it in Matt. 25.  In the 19th C. in the USA, evangelical Protestant Christians had literally hundreds of prison ministries. They also led the nation in prison reform efforts, including movements to abolish the death penalty.  But, by the early 20th C., this had mostly disappeared. Most denominations still produced a few ministers who would become prison chaplains, but, with the exception of Catholics and the Black Church, few members of local churches ever visited prisoners or tried to help them find employment after prison, much less did anything toward prison reform.  Colson’s Prison Fellowship soon became the largest para-church prison ministry in the nation and it was very successful in many ways.  In that way, it reconnected American evangelicals to a phase of their more radical history.  But, despite Colson’s own opposition to the death penalty (until the arrest of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing), he and Prison Fellowship did very little to actually reform prison conditions or the penal code. They did evangelistic outreach and some (limited) post-prison support.  But it was a very important ministry that changed the lives of many–and did not easily fit the cynical meme that “Colson just went from conservative politics to conservative religion with no real changes in basic outlook.” At least in this area, he did change.

[Correction from a reader’s comments:  I did not know that Colson was an early supporter of for-profit prisons, an incredibly unjust industry that has exploded in popularity since the 1980s. It’s very un-Christian and Colson’s support undermines one of the few areas of respect I had for him.  It may be the process I describe below that corrupted even Prison Fellowship.]

At this point, American evangelicalism did something that hurt Colson as a Christian:  Instead of insisting he stay out of the headlines for a time (as even the converted Apostle Paul did for 3 years) and learn. including unlearning all his habits as a political operative, they gave him a soapbox. In the late 1970s, Colson was given a regular column in Christianity Today, the most popular Christian magazine in the country, with a HUGE circulation that dwarfs all competitors.  From this post, he became a pundit and a leader–and this did much harm to his own spirituality and to the life of both the church and the nation.  From his position at Christianity Today, Colson helped to launch the movement known as “The Religious Right.” Thus, he went back into the game of politics, conservative politics, where he had been tempted to have no ethics and few scruples. He was soon hob-nobbing with those who still had no scruples: Richard Vigurie, Adolph Coors, Grover Norquist, and many others. And, while some of the leaders of the Religious Right later regretted the way they were co-opted by the Republican Party for its own uses (most notably, Frank Schaeffer, who broke with the movement in the 198os and became an Orthodox Christian, but also others), Colson never expressed any doubts about his use of many of the same tactics that led to his imprisonment to push the Religious Right agenda: outlawing abortion, pushing state-sponsored prayer in public schools, art censorship, anti-science campaigns (first against evolutionary biology and later against human-caused catastrophic climate change), restrictions of civil liberties, eroding the social safety net in ways that please big business and hurt  organized labor, promotion of huge military budgets and an overly militarized foreign policy, and, especially, an all-out crusade against GLBT persons and against women’s equality.  This agenda is hardly Christian and shows an inability to separate loyalty to the church universal from what should be lesser loyalties to particular nations, races, classes, genders, sexual orientations, etc. For Colson, and the Religious Right he helped to create, Christian faith was/is inseparable from the Republican Culture Wars.

For much of his post-Watergate life there was a notable exception to this:  Colson’s opposition to capital punishment. In 1960, polls showed that a majority of Americans wanted to abolish the death penalty.  By the early 1970s, this was no longer the case, which made for an incredible backlash when the Supreme Court temporarily ruled against the death penalty in 1972. (By 1976, they had okayed it, again!) From the mid-1970s until the late 1990s, the popularity of the death penalty grew every year in the USA. Only the advent of DNA testing (about 800 people have now been released from death rows by DNA evidence proving they could not have been guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted) changed that trajectory.  As a longtime death penalty opponent, I can testify to how lonely one could feel in America at that time. But Colson swam against the stream and argued against the death penalty during its rising popularity. Until the Oklahoma City bombing. He returned to a pro-death penalty stance just at a time when many other conservative white, evangelicals, including the likes of Pat Robertson, were questioning their support.  Colson ceased to be a prophetic voice, on the only issue in which he was one, just as that voice was needed most.

Even more than this, however, Colson helped twist U.S. evangelicalism by the promotion of “worldview theory.” Now, the term “worldview” for a coherent philosophy or outlook, is not new.  And Colson did not invent the outlook I’m about to describe: It was proposed first (I think) by the 19th C. Dutch Christian statesman, Abraham Kuyper.  Colson probably got it not from Kuyper, but from Francis Schaeffer, another early leader of the Religious Right.  The idea is that people carry around coherent, airtight, “worldviews” that are more than just doctrines or ethical behaviors, but entire, self-contained perspectives on the world.  And these various worldviews are in mortal combat. One cannot hold “THE” Christian Worldview and dialogue with someone who has an Enlightenment Worldview or a Hindu Worldview, or a Muslim Worldview. One can only defeat the rival worlview through superior logic or conversion or by some form of coercion or force.  Now, this is a problem on many levels:  It fails to understand that worldviews are NOT air-tight and coherent. The search for a pure “biblical worldview” is as elusive as finding someone who is of “pure race.” Go back far enough and we’re all mix-breeds, folks. The Bible itself contains elements from dozens of other cultures–sometimes in conflict and sometimes not.  The Enlightenment has elements in tension with Christianity, but is itself a product of Christianity.  Colson and other “worldview” types look back to the Middle Ages in nostalgia for when Christianity dominated the education of the universities–but this is only part of the story. The Western Medieval university itself was an idea borrowed from Muslims from North Africa–who also brought the concept of zero, calculus, Arabic numerals (which they borrowed from India even earlier), astronomy, and advances in architecture. They also led the Medievals to recover many of the Greek classics, including Aristotle. The thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, which synthesized the theology of St. Augustine with the philosophy of Aristotle, would not have been possible without the work of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known as Averröes.  This is just one example of many as to the way that cultural influences mix and mingle.  The “worldview” idea distorts all that.

Colson’s promotion of “worldview” ideas also makes responsible citizenship in a pluralistic democracy all but impossible. It encourages total defeat of all who disagree as not only “the enemy,” but even as GOD’S enemy.  “Compromise” and “dialogue” are turned into swearwords. No one is able to learn anything from anyone not already viewed as an insider because “worldviews” can only clash, never dialogue, never learn from one another.

More than any particular campaign against gays or feminists, or Muslims, etc., the concept of “worldview” Colson promoted has led to our dysfunctional civic life.

For all these reasons, I believe that the majority of Chuck Colson’s influence has been negative. I mourn the passing of all persons, but I hope Colson’s passing allows for fresh winds to blow in American Christian life.

April 29, 2012 Posted by | biographical entries, biographies, church history, obituaries | 6 Comments

Passing the Torch: Theologians Who Died 2000-2010

This is a revised, more complete, list of the teachers and leaders in theology (and related fields) that the Church universal has lost in this first decade of the 21st C.  It is clear that many, if not most, of those who shaped the landscape of theological studies for the last half-century or more, are now passing from the scene.  The new landscape is being shaped by newer voices. In many cases I find that comforting–some of the younger voices in church leadership or theological education are vital and fresh (and some blog) and theological education is more global, more ecumenical (Eastern and Western Christianity, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, evangelical and liberal [and postliberal and postconservative!] ), more diverse in race, ethnicity, gender and language group, and more engaged in interfaith dialogue than ever before. It’s an exciting time for church and theology, full of creativity and potential.

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

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


  • Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). I initially missed this one.  One of the most important American philosophers, the 103 year old Hartshorne took the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and, at the University of Chicago Divinity School, began forging what would become process theology.
  • Eberhard Bethge (1910-2000). German Lutheran pastor and theologian. Student and close friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who married Bonhoeffer’s niece and became his major biographer.
  • George Hunston Williams (1914-2000).  Unitarian theologian and historian of the radical reformation at Harvard University.  This was another one that I originally missed and had to add later.
  • Richard A. McCormick, S. J. (1922-2000).  Raised in the “immigrant church” pre-Vatican II Catholicism, McCormick joined the Society of Jesus in 1940 and was trained in the old “manualist” tradition of Catholic moral theology.  The Second Vatican Council changed his view of the Church and of his calling as a priest and scholar.  He became one of the most respected (and contraversial ) voices in Christian medical ethics.
  • George R. Beasley-Murray (1916-2000). British Baptist New Testament scholar. Twice Principal of Spurgeon’s College, London, and briefly teaching at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland (after the fall of Iron Curtain, moved to Prague, Czech Republic), Beasley-Murray spent most of his career as James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. Most famous for Baptism in the New Testament and The Kingdom of God in Jesus’ Teaching, Beasley-Murray also wrote many commentaries and translated Bultmann’s massive commentary on John’s Gospel into English.
  • James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000). Pioneering Baptist narrative theologian. One of the earliest white theologians to take Martin Luther King, Jr. seriously as a theologian (not just as a “civil rights leader”), McClendon was strongly influenced by Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Alasdair MacIntyre, and his longtime friend, Stanley Hauerwas. McClendon attempted to convey a radical Anabaptist theology in a way that those educated in the mainstream (liberal-Niebuhrian) tradition could hear and understand it.
  • Thomas A. Langford (1930-2000).  This is one I missed until readers called attention to it. Langford, a United Methodist minister, John Wesley scholar, and theologian was a former dean of Duke University Divinity School.  (They’ve renamed the main divinity school building after Langford.) I was shocked that I missed Langford’s death since he was such a huge influence on my father (a retired Methodist minister) and my father’s love for Wesley–despite the fact that Papa was a Candler (Emory) grad and not a “Dukie.” Langford played almost as strong a role in my father’s thought as Albert Outler, and that’s saying something!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


  • Thomas Berry (1915-2008).  U.S. Roman Catholic priest and pioneer in ecological theology.
  • Avery Cardinal Dulles (1918-2008).  Major voice in the conservative wing of U.S. Catholic theology.
  • Henry O. Chadwick (1920-2008). Anglican priest and church historian.
  • Krister Stendahl (1921-2008). Swedish Lutheran New Testament scholar who laid the groundwork for the reappropriation of the Apostle Paul as a thoroughly Jewish figure, a groundwork that later flourished into the so-called “new perspective” on Paul.  Taught for decades at Harvard Divinity School, serving as dean during the turbulent ’60s, until elected and consecrated (Lutheran) Bishop of Stockholm in 1984.
  • Hugo Assmann (1933-2008).  Brazilian Catholic priest and one of the pioneers of Latin American liberation theology.
  • Ann W. Carr (1934-2008).  U.S. Catholic nun and pioneer Catholic feminist theologian.
  • Rosemary Skinner Keller (1934-2008).  A permanent deacon in the United Methodist Church, Keller was a feminist church historian, concentrating on the neglected experiences and contributions of women in church history, especially North American church history.
  • Jean-Marc Ela (1936-2008). Cameroon-born Catholic priest and African liberation theologian.  Africa’s first liberation theologian of note outside South Africa.
  • William C. Placher (1948-2008).  Presbyterian minister and theologian in the “narrative” and “postliberal” schools.


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


  • Vernon M. Grounds (1914-2010).  This is an addition from the comments.  Grounds, the Emeritus President of Denver Seminary, passed away on 12 September at the age of 96.  A Conservative Baptist, Grounds taught theology and Christian ethics. He was an ambassador for the best of American evangelicalism; always a voice for the poor and for peacemaking.
  • Edward Schillebeeckxx (1915-2010) Dominican priest and theologian who was hugely influential in Vatican II and was one of the progressive Catholic leaders after the Council. He was especially strong in incorporating critical biblical scholarship into his work as a systematic theologian.
  • John M. Swomley (1915-2010).  Moderately liberal United Methodist theological ethicist.  A pacifist, Swomley was a conscientious objector to WWII, a leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and a behind the scenes player in the Civil Rights movement.  He taught Christian social ethics at St. Paul School of Theology, St. Louis, MO.
  • Raimon Pannikar (1919-2010).  Spanish Catholic theologian and “apostle of interfaith dialogue.”
  • George R.  Edwards (1920-2010).  Presbyterian New Testament scholar and longtime pacifist and peace activist, especially through the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  Teaching for decades at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Edwards was known not only for an amazing classroom presence (and prayerful gentleness), but for two major monographs, Jesus and the Politics of Violence (1972) and Gay/Lesbian Liberation:  A Biblical Perspective (1984).
  • E. Earle Ellis (1926-2010) Southern Baptist New Testament scholar with a scholarly conservative bent. Worked especially on the use of the Old Testament by New Testament writers.
  • Donald G. Bloesch (1928-2010) Evangelical systematic theologian who stayed with the mostly-liberal United Church of Christ and taught at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. An evangelical interpreter of Karl Barth (and, to lesser extents, Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr), Bloesch had a two-fold mission: to bring back more orthodoxy into mainline Protestant theology and to get evangelicals to read more widely, think more self-critically, with more openess to the entire global church, and to persuade the entire church of the centrality of prayer and piety to both theology and the life of the church.
  • Bruce L. Shelly (1929-2010) Evangelical Baptist church historian in the Conservative Baptist Association. Taught for decades at Denver Seminary. 
  • Ralph McInerny (1929-2010).  American Catholic priest, philosopher, and professor at University of Notre Dame.  Also author of the best-selling mystery novels of Father Downing.
  • Clark Pinnock (1937-2010).  Canadian evangelical Baptist who moved from a Carl Henry-style evangelical rationalism to embracing the Charismatic movement, Arminianism, interfaith dialogue, and “Open Theism.”
  • Moishe Rosen (1932-2010). American Baptist minister and controversial founder of Jews for Jesus, an evangelistic ministry to members of the Jewish faith.
  • Arthur Gish (1939-2010). Amish-born conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Gish was a minister in the Church of the Brethren, a popular pacifist author and peace activist. He worked especially on peacemaking in Israel-Palestine through Christian Peacemaker Teams.

I’ve probably missed some and the year is far from over.

September 14, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, church history, obituaries, theologians | 20 Comments

Honoring the Legacy of Obadiah Holmes

On 06 September 1651 , 359 years ago tomorrow, Obadiah Holmes, a Baptist layperson who’d been arrested for preaching without a license, was given 30 lashes with a bullwhip in public.  During the beating, Holmes was so enraptured with God’s love that he swore he was being “struck by roses.”  His witness not only helped undermine the theocratic laws of Massachussetts Bay Colony, it also led to the founding of First Baptist Church of Boston. Holmes’ witness also led to the conversion of Henry Dunster, first president of Harvard College, to Baptist views (which led to his forced resignation when he refused to have his infant son baptized).

Nonviolent witness to the truth of one’s convictions can lead to greater religious liberty for all, but it is shameful that today many Baptists are working to deny Muslims the religious liberty for which they once suffered and struggled.  (In Holmes’ day, Baptists argued for religious liberty even for “Turks” which was the common term for Muslims in that day.)

September 5, 2010 Posted by | Baptists, biographical entries, church history, religious liberty | Leave a comment

Jonathan Marlowe & Methodist/Wesleyan Theology

Taking up my challenge in the comments after the Wesley post, Jonathan Marlowe, UMC minister who blogs at The Ivy Bush, will write a series of posts profiling those he decides are the Ten (10) Most Important Methodist Theologians Since the Wesleys. [update: He will do 20! 1st installment up today!]  He has 16 candidates so far. 🙂 Especially (but not only) if you hail from the Methodist or Wesleyan tradition, check out his list and upcoming series.  Discuss/debate with his choices.  I have too often heard non-Wesleyans and non-Methodists (especially Lutherans and the Reformed) claim that the movement is long on organization and short on theological depth.  I don’t think that is true and I hope this series displays some of the theological depth in this form of global Christianity.  I have also challenged Jonathan to follow the series with a list of “New Voices” in the tradition from around the world.

Here’s Jonathan’s current list of 16 which he hopes to whittle to 10:

Contemporary with John and Charles Wesley in the 18th C.:

John Fletcher (first “systematic” Methodist theologian), Thomas Coke, and the Calvinistic Methodist, George Whitefield.

Since that era (in no particular order). Those marked with an asterisk * are not known to me:

Albert Outler

Georgia Harkness

Edwin Lewis *

Borden Parker Bowne

Edgar Sheffield (E.S.) Brightman

Thomas C. Oden

John Cobb

Nathan Bangs*

William Cannon*

Geoffrey Wainwright

Stanley Hauerwas (recently become an Episcopalian)

E. Stanley Jones

William Willimon

Richard Allen

Richard B. Hays

James Cone.

Because I want discussion to move to Jonathan’s blog, I will close comments on this post–not my usual practice.

March 5, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, church history, ecumenism, Methodists, theologians, theology | Leave a comment

A Tribute to the Wesley Family

On my old blog,  I wrote a tribute to the Niebuhr family. Now, as a Christian pacifist heavily influenced by some strands of the Anabaptist tradition, I have tensions and disagreements with Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, as would be expected. But I am still impressed with the way God used the incredibly talented Niebuhr family for the sake of the church.  In this blog, I decided that I would pay tribute to other families that have made incredible contributions to the life and faith of the Church, not just as individuals, but precisely as extended families. I will probably reprint that tribute to the Niebuhrs from my former blog, but I want to begin with this tribute to the Wesley family in Anglican and Methodist history.  I do this as someone who is neither Anglican nor Methodist. I WAS raised in the United Methodist Church, and some of those influences remain, but I could not be considered Wesleyan for many years.  So, this is a tribute from an appreciative outsider.

The preeminent Wesleys, of course, were brothers John and Charles, founders of the 18th C. evangelical renewal movement known as “Methodism,” which became a separate Christian denomination.  But there were non-conformist (i.e., non-Anglican) ministers on both sides of the family, although John and Charles’ parents were strongly Anglican.  We begin with those non-conformist ancestors.

Bartholomew Westley (c. 1596-1680).   Son of Sir Herbert Westley of Westleigh, Devon.  His mother was Elizabeth Wellesley of Dangan.  We know little of his early life, but he studied both medicine and theology at Oxford University.  At some point, Bartholomew was ordained a priest in the Church of England and became rector of Allington, a suburb of Bridgport.  He also preached at Catherston.  At some point, he became influenced by Puritanism and when Charles II ejected Puritans from the Anglican ministry after the Restoration of 1660, Bartholomew lost his parish.  He continued to preach as a Nonconformist minister.  He lived in Charmouth for some time, supporting himself by practicing medicine while preaching in Nonconformist chapels in the West Dorset area.  In 1665, Parliament enacted the Five Mile Act whereby no clergyman could live within 5 milies (8 km.) of a parish from which they had been ejected unless they swore an oath never to resist the king, nor to attempt to alter the government of Church or State.  Bartholomew fell afoul of this act and had to leave Charmouth.  His plain speech in sermons and lack of tact led him to be known as a fanatic. Because of his short stature, he was also nicknamed the “puny parson.”  His last years were spent in seclusion at Lime Regis, where he was buried in 1680 at about age 85.

John Westley (c. 1636-1770).  Bartholomew had married Ann Colley, daughter of Sir Henry Colley of Carbery Castle, Kildare. They had one son, John.  John was a very pious schoolboy who kept a diary or spiritual journal–all trace of which has disappeared so it is not possible to compare it to the journals of his famous grandson of the same name.  As a student at New Inn Hall, Oxford, John was a serious and devout student–much like his illustrious grandson.  He did exceptionally well in Oriental Languages and came to the views of Dr. Owen, the Vice-Chancellor, concerning Church Government. (Thus, though Puritanism is far more associated with Cambridge, it was apparently not unknown at Oxford, despite the Anglo-Catholicism of the later “Oxford Movement.”)  Instead of seeking ordination as an Anglican priest, he left Oxford at the end of 1657 or beginning of 1658 and sought a “gathered church” at Weymouth where he first exercised his gifts as a preacher.  He ministered to fishermen and his preaching found favor among “judicious Christians and able ministers” and led to many conversions.  When the Vicar of Winterborn-Whitchurch died, the people of that parish chose John Westley as their pastor.  Since this was now the period of the Interregnum, John went before the Triers, Cromwell’s Board of Commissioners, who examined every candidate for holy orders, and he was at once approved.  Though he was pastor to a community of about 500 people, his annual salary was only £30 and though an increase of £100 was promised, shifting politics prevented that promise from being fulfilled.  He married a “Miss White,” daughter of the patriarch of Dorchester, in 1659.  After the Restoration, he  was ejected from his church and forced to wander from place to place ministering to Dissenters, sometimes in secret.  This led to constant poverty and his early death at the age of 42.

Samuel Annesley (c. 1620-1696) was the maternal grandfather of the famed generation of Wesleys.  Related to the first Earl of Anglesey.  Born at Kenningworth near Warwick.  He earned both a B.A. and M.A. from Queen’s College, Oxford. He was ordained an Anglican priest, but on 18 Dec. 1844 he was one of 7 Anglican priests who recommended the Westminster Standards and he resigned his Anglican ordination and was re-ordained as a Presbyterian minister.  He became chaplain to Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, admiral of the Parliamentary fleet.  On 26 July 1648 he preached a sermon before Parliament and was then awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity.  In 1657, Oliver Cromwell nominated Dr. Annesley to be lecturer at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  In 1658, he became Vicar of St. Giles, Cripplegate where he served until 1662.  Unable to sign the Act of Uniformity in 1662 after the Restoration, he was ejected from St. Giles.  After this, Annesley was forced to preach semi-privately, but his goods were confiscated  for keeping a “conventicle” (underground, illegal church) in Little St. Helen’s.  He was an author of several biographical works and his sermons were published in various collections as “Morning Exercises.”  He was the father of 25 children (!), including Susannah Wesley, the  “Mother of Methodism.”

Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), the son and grandson of dissenting ministers became an orthodox Anglican priest and a famous poet.  Born the year of the Act of Uniformity, Samuel (after grammar school) was sent away to a series of Dissenting/Nonconformist academies to prepare for the ministry, since non-Anglicans were barred from the great English universities until the 19th C.  At the last of these, Newington Gate, Samuel’s fellow student was Daniel Defoe, later author of Robinson Crusoe, and Moll Flanders.  Around 1680, Samuel converted to the Church of England, resigned his annual Dissenting scholarship, and walked to Oxford where he enrolled at Exeter College as a “poor scholar,” meaning that he paid his way by being a “servitor” to more wealthy students.  During his time at Oxford, he dropped the “t” in his family name of “Westley,” claiming that “Wesley” was the original spelling. In truth, the alteration was probably to keep his Nonconformist roots from drawing too much attention.

In 1688, he married Susannah Anneseley, and together they had 19 children, 9 of which died in infancy. Three boys and 7 girls survived to adulthood.  Because 2 of those three boys were John and Charles Wesley, from the perspective of the church historian, Samuel’s roles as husband and father are the most important things he did.

In 1693, Samuel published a poem known as “Life of Christ,” which he dedicated to Queen Mary, leading her to appoint him as Vicar of Epworth, the parsonage where the founders of Methodism were raised.  But Samuel’s high church liturgies, academic and poetic proclivities, and loyalist Tory politics were a complete mismatch for his illiterate parishioners.  As they said then, “Mr. Wesley was not well received,” an expression that would also have been understood in the Old (U.S.) South only a generation or so before me.  Despite numerous volumes of published poetry and the Queen’s support, the Wesley household was soon in debt and Samuel Wesley spent the rest of his life trying to make ends meet.  In 1709, his parsonage was destroyed by fire, and his son John was barely rescued in time.

Susannah Annesley Wesley (1669-1742).  The “Mother of Methodism” was the daughter of a Dissenting or Nonconformist minister and on both sides the granddaughter of same.  She was the youngest of 25 children born to Dr. Samuel Annesley and Mary White.  Susannah apparently had a mind of her own in matters of religion for at age 13, she stopped attending her father’s church and was received into the official Church of England.  At 19, she met Samuel Wesley and they were married on 11 November 1688.  Together, they had 19 children, of whom 9 survived infancy and 8 of whom were still living at the time of Susannah’s death.

Susannah’s life was one of hardship.  Formal education was not available to girls and women in 17th C. England, but her father was a scholar and he taught her to read and think for herself and she systematically studied her father’s library, which prepared her well for her future as the “Mother of Methodism,” but also led to her conversion to the Church of England.   She and her husband were separate for over a year because of a dispute and twice he spent time in debtor’s prison, leaving the full burden of the family upon her.  Twice the parsonage was burned down in fire and once her son John had to be rescued from a second story window.  After the second fire, Susannah was forced temporarily to split up her children and have them stay in several different homes–and was horrified to find that they played more and studied less in these fostering contexts.

She was the primary source of her children’s education. Unable to afford to send them to grammar school, Susannah led in what, today, in the States would be called “homeschooling.” Classes began for each child the day after their fifth birthdays. All but three (whom she judged “slow”) memorized the English alphabet the first day of class.   Each child, girls as well as boys, were instructed in both Latin and Greek.  They were well tutored in the classics.  The family schedule was rigid and began at 5 a.m., explaining the orderly “methodical” habits of sons John and Charles.  Susannah devoted one night each day of the week to conversation with each child as a way of helping them to grow spiritually.  John preferred that she write him letters. She wrote numerous letters to every child on spiritual and biblical subjects, including what were, in effect, biblical commentaries.  She also wrote extended commentaries on The Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments, and the Apostle’s Creed.  All these were intended only for her own use and that of her children, and many were destroyed in one of the rectory fires, but many survived.  Many of the surviving letters and manuscripts were published after her death by her son, Charles. 

She also emphasized music in her children’s education, an influence that was especially strong on Charles, composer of thousands of hymns.

Susannah’s education of her daughters was so thorough that, had they been living in a later age, all would certainly have been admitted to university and, at least one, Mehetabel (“Hetty”), would probably have become a scholar in her own right;–she did become a published poet. (Hetty also fell in love with a suitor who was not approved by her parents. She ran away and lived out of wedlock with him–far more scandalous then than now–and returned still unwed and pregnant.  The child died early.  Her father, Samuel, never forgave her, not even on his deathbed.) All 7 daughters, Emilia, Susannah, Mary, Mehetabel, Anne, Martha, and Kezia had lives that were marked by loneliness and unhappiness.

Susannah’s educational preparation of her sons was strong enough that all 3 earned both B.A. and M.A. degrees at Oxford University. The oldest of the boys, Samuel Jr., would today probably be diagnosed as bi-polar.  After teaching in London’s Westminster School and being appointed Headmaster of Blundell’s School in Tiverton, he converted to Catholicism and married a minor daughter of the gentry.  He then had an affair with his housekeeper which ended that marriage and he was forced to marry the pregnant housekeeper.  His life finished in poverty and disgrace.  The other two boys turned out rather better.

For more on Susannah and the Wesley household that produced John and Charles, see:

Edwards, Maldwyn Loyd, Family Circle:  A Study of the Epworth Household in Relation to John and Charles Wesley.  London, 1949.

Maser, Frederick E., The Story of John Wesley’s Sisters; or, Seven Sisters in Search of Love.  Rutland, VT, 1988.

Newton, John A., Susannah Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism.  London, 2002.

Wallace, Jr., Charles, ed., Susannah Wesley:  The Complete Writings.  New York, 1997.

John Wesley (1703-1791), Anglican priest & Christian theologian and reformer.  Primary mover of the 18th C.  transatlantic revival known in the UK as the “Evangelical Revival” and in North America as “The Great Awakening.”  Primary founder of the renewal movement known as “Methodism,” which, first in the U.S. and then in the UK, became a separate denominational tradition from the Church of England, though Wesley himself never left the Anglican priesthood. 

Born in Epworth as the 15th child and 2nd son of Samuel and Susannah Wesley, at the age of 5 he had to be rescued from a second story window as the rectory burned to the ground.  This strongly influenced the developing spirituality of the precocious child as he began to consider himself saved from death by God for the purposes of God’s Kingdom, a “branch plucked from the burning” in his own words.

Young John had other deep personal religious experiences as a young boy and, combined with the strict and pious education by his mother, early led him to live a strict and regimented life of piety.  However, at age 11, he was sent to Charterhouse School in London.  At this boarding school, he began as a pious and studious boy, but soon began backsliding into sinful habits–at least such as would be considered so by the pious of the day.  He was a victim of unmerciful hazing by other students–in ways that traumatized him forever after. 

In 1720, John matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, earning his M.A. in 1927.  During this time he was influenced by several devotional classics, including Thomas a Kempis’ Practice of the Presence of Christ and William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.  He was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1725 and elected a Fellow of Lincoln College (Oxon.) in 1726.  He served his father’s parish as curate for two years before returning to take up his duties at Oxford. 

Many people date the beginnings of Methodism to John’s return to Oxford in 1729, but I am with those who still consider this part of the prehistory. The real beginnings of Methodism come later.  However, it is true that in 1729, John and Charles founded a “Holy Club” at Oxford, composed of students and faculty who strove to live devout lives dedicated to prayer, study of the Scriptures and devotional literature, abstention from alcohol and other stimulants and abstention from “worldly amusements and frivolities,” such as dancing, card-playing, gambling, cockfighting, dogfighting, horseracing, foxhunts, etc.  They were also to lead honest lives without gossip or cruelty to others.  The members of this “Holy Club,” were mocked as “methodists,” because of their highly organized and methodical approach to devotional practices–the roots of which undoubtedly lie in the organized home life that their mother, Susannah (a de facto single parent for much of the time), used to manage her large household.

In 1735, Governor Oglethorpe, governor of the Crown Colony of Georgia in North America, asked for a clergyman as a missionary to the Native Americans of Georgia. He wanted no pampered court clergyman, but someone “inured to the contempt of the ornaments and conveniences of life, [given] to bodily austerities, and to serious thoughts.” John Wesley responded to this “want ad” that seemed to be written with him directly in mind as a personal call from God.  He remained in the Georgia Colony two years, returning to England in 1738, deeming himself a complete failure and greatly depressed over it.  At least two factors enter into this sense of personal failure:  (a) Wesley completely failed to convert a single Native American.  This was deemed a failure not only by himself, but by the colonists and Gov. Oglethorpe.  (b) On board ship to America, Wesley met one Sophia Hopkey, and they became romantically involved–though it is unclear whether this romance involved any sexual relationship.  On the advice of a Moravian minister with whom Wesley confided, he broke off the relationship with Miss Hopkey.  The spurned Sophia publicly denounced him, claiming that he had promised to marry her and broken his sworn word.  She proceeded to marry another, one William Williamson, and when the feud led Wesley to refuse to serve her the Eucharist (Holy Communion), the Williamsons sued Wesley in court.  The proceedings ended in mistrial, but John Wesley’s reputation was in tatters, and he returned to England out of realization that there was nothing he could do further for God in Georgia. (Though the 18th C. testimony is circumspect in description, the strengthn of Hopkey’s anger at her rejection, and the speed with which she married another, leads me to believe that the romance with John Wesley HAD been sexual. That would also explain the Moravian minister’s advice to break off the affair and Hopkey’s loud complaints about Wesley’s broken word over a promise to marry.  A “deflowered and rejected” young woman of the time would have felt greatly wronged–and had justice on her side.  The evidence is inconclusive, but very suggestive.)

On John’s trip to Georgia, he encountered members of the Herrnhuter Brudergemeine, the “Unity of Brethren,” a pre-Luther Protestant Church known in English-speaking lands as The Moravian Church.  Moravians are Pietists, emphasizing “warm-hearted” spirituality and underlying Christian unity, as well as upright living.  At their origins in the 14th C., they were a peace church with pacifist convictions, though this is downplayed today and several branches of the Moravians/Unity of Brethren commission military chaplains.  (It is unclear whether the Moravians whom Wesley encountered would have been pacifists or not.) When the ship encountered a terrible storm that threatened to capsize it, Wesley was terrified, but the Moravians remained calm and this convinced Wesley that they had a strength and maturity in spiritual matters that he lacked.  Upon returning to England in 1738, completely depressed by the disaster of his mission to Georgia, he turned to the Moravians for guidance.  On 24 May 1738, he went to a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate, London and heard a reading of the preface of Martin Luther’s Epistle to the Romans.  At that reading, Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed,” became convinced that Christ’s atoning death was for him, personally, trusted in it’s salvific power, and dated his personal new birth in Christ to this experience.  He briefly joined the Moravians (though never surrendering his Anglican priesthood), even traveling to Herrnhut, Germany (then the Moravian headquarters) to study for two years. 

Upon his return to London we can date the real beginnings of Methodism.  Wesley began organizing laypeople into “bands,” and “circles” of disciplined study and prayer.  He wrote hymns for them.  He stressed the need for personal faith for salvation, but, in contrast to Luther, he stressed that justification was to be followed by a transformed life of sanctification–which could even lead to a form of Christian perfection, a “perfection of love.”

Wesley preached with new power and empowered the laity, including lay preachers. The Church of England reacted negatively to this lay preaching and in 1739 closed pulpits to Wesley. So, following the example of the more Calvinistic Methodist, George Whitefield, Wesley declared “the world is my parish!” and began open air preaching.  Wesley did not clash with Anglicanism over doctrine, but over what he perceived as the failure to call sinners to repentance and personal faith.  He traveled thousands of miles on horseback preaching all over Britain and his Methodist movement grew.  He soon ordained Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke to take the Methodist movement to the American colonies. They did and Methodism grew even faster on this side of the Atlantic. 

Unlike George Whitefield, the other superstar evangelist of the Great Awakening, John Wesley was not a Calvinist.  His soteriology was Arminian. That is, like the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, Wesley claimed that Christ’s atonement was (potentially) for everyone–no one was elected to damnation.  Because of God’s prevenient grace, humans could respond to the offer of saving grace freely–and even though given assurance of salvation, they could just as freely later commit apostasy and reject their former salvation.  The Church of England contained both Calvinist and Arminian strands, but Wesley opted strongly for the Arminian, drawing past the Reformation to the early church, even Eastern Orthodox sources. (The similarities between Wesley’s “entire sanctification,” and the “salvation as divination” view of the Eastern Fathers has been noted by many.)

Like Martin Luther, his theology, though having a logical structure, was not systematic, but pastoral, contained in thousands of published sermons, letters, tracts, and journals.  He was one of the earliest English theologians to speak out against slavery.  He also championed the poor and called war the chief example of original sin.  Wesley was not QUITE a pacifist, but his reservation seems less because of a theological endorsement of Just War Theory and more because of his Royalist politics.  He never wanted Methodists to become a separate church or denomination. Yet, the American Revolution sparked this development in North America and, at his death, British Methodism also separated formally from the Church of England–though earlier this year it agreed to reunion. (Other Methodist branches have not made that agreement.)

The Works of John Wesley come in several editions. The number of volumes and publishers varies, along with how much editing and commentary. They range from 7 volumes to 24 volumes. 

John Wesley, The Sermons of John Wesley:  An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler (Abingdon Press, 1991).

Selected secondary works:

Stephen Tompkins, John Wesley: A Biography(Eerdmans, 2003).

Richard P. Heizenratter, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Abingdon Press, 1995).

Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley:  Holy Love and the Shape of Grace(Abingdon Press, 2007).

Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace:  John Wesley’s Practical Theology(Kingswood Books, 1994).

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) , 18th child and 3rd son of Samuel and Susannah Wesley.  Susannah’s education gave Charles an independent spirit.  When the parsonage burned down, Charles was sent to live with his much older brother, Samuel, and there became a somewhat rebellious spirit.  When he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford in 1726, he initially wasted much energy looking for a good time.  However, he had settled down and decided to take his spiritual life seriously by the time his brother John returned to Oxford as a Fellow of Lincoln College.  Together they formed the Oxford “Holy Club” for the purpose of Bible study, serious devotions, and daily reception of the Eucharist (Holy Communion).  The regimented structure of the “Holy Club” soon led others to mock its members as “Methodists.”

In 1733, Charles earned an M.A.(Classical Languages and Literature) from Oxford, having become especially scholarly in Latin.  In 1735, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England.  Charles accompanied John to the Georgia Colony, becoming secretary to Gov. James Oglethorpe.  However, he failed to adjust to the climate and returned to England a year later.

In the Spring of 1738 Charles experienced his own profound religious awakening.  He became more convinced than ever of the New Testament message of salvation by faith alone and of the power of faith in Jesus Christ to dramatically transform lives.  For the next 50 years he joined John’s work in spreading this message to as many as possible, working especially in the poor slums of London. 

Charles was an excellent preacher and theologian, but he had neither the raw preaching power of George Whitefield, nor the logical clarity and organizational genius of his brother, John.  Charles’ great strength was as a hymn writer.  He spread the Methodist message through song, often taking well-known tunes (even drinking songs) and changing their lyrics.  He wrote literally thousands of hymns during his lifetime.  Many of his better known hymns (e.g., Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!; O! For a Thousand Tongues to Sing!) are sung in churches around the world to this day–and as much outside as inside Methodist circles.

An independent mind, Charles did not always agree with his more famous brother, John.  He, too, was an Arminian, but he rejected John’s doctrine that one could be “entirely sanctified” in an abrupt, even instantaneous process.  For Charles, sanctification was a gradual and progressive process, the work of the Spirit over a lifetime.  Further, he did not think that sanctification could result in any form of perfection (not even a “perfection in love”) this side of death. Perfection awaits the after-death experience of glorification.  (My friend, Jonathan Marlow, UMC minister, thinks I overplay their differences over sanctification, but says that the differences over the Church of England’s claim to “Apostolic succession” in ordination was larger than I have said.)

Charles was also more adamant than John in retaining his loyalty to the Church of England.  He did not join in the open-air preaching, but remained in his London parish.  He refused to go along with the ordination of Methodist ministers.  And, at the time of his death, he reminded Anglican leaders of his loyalty to the Church of England and demanded to be buried in the Anglican graveyard.  Both Charles’ son and grandson were also famous hymn writers and church musicians.

Charles Wesley, Charles Wesley:  A Reader , ed. John R. Tyson (Oxford University Press, 2000).

John R. Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim:  The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley(Eerdmans, 2008).

Gareth Lloyd, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity(Oxford University Press, 2007).

Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. Praising the God of Grace:  The Theology of Charles Wesley’s Hymns. (Abingdon Press, 2005).

Truly an amazing family.  A multigenerational gift of God to the Church universal.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, biographies, church history | 12 Comments

Book Review: Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation

William C. Placher, ed., Callings:  Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).

We’ve all asked it of ourselves, others, and (often) of God:  “What should I do with my life?  What do I want to be when I grow up?  How should I do God’s will and earn a living for myself (and, possibly, a family)?”  Sometimes others ask these questions of us.  Sometimes we don’t finish asking such questions in adolescence.  Sometimes we ask them again at other points in our lives–or we are still asking them at mid-life or even in retirement. (In the latter two cases, the question often becomes, “What should I do with the rest of my life?”) 

If we are Christians, the questions take a particular shape.  We don’t just ask what we’d enjoy doing, what brings us joy, what skills do we have or can obtain that are marketable and would be useful to society–although we may ask all those things too.  But as Christians, we know that we are disciples, followers of Jesus, and that “our religion”  isn’t just something to fit into our spare time. So, we want to be able to line up our lives and life work with God’s will, God’s purposes of grace, with the work of the Kingdom. (This may also be true for persons of other faiths, but, if so, I shall let them speak for themselves.)   So we ask about our calling or vocation  from God.  We seek to discern such a call and, while some find such to be blindingly obvious–a sense of purpose so overwhelming as to be like a very Voice from the Heavens or a blinding Vision to pursue–others find discernment of vocation more difficult.  In either case, we may seek advice from others, including the voice(s) of our faith tradition whether through the person of a pastor or spiritual director or mentor, of by searching the written records of  the thoughts of those who have gone before us.

William C. Placher has edited a collection of such written wisdom from the early church to contemporary Christian thinkers in Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation.  After an introduction to the theme and a prologue reviewing some of the biblical passages most consulted about vocation/calling, Placher organizes the excerpts from Christian witnesses chronologically, in four sections. The divisions correspond to major shifts in context which led to large, basic, changes in the way the Church largely understood the very concept of vocation. 

Section I. Callings to a Christian Life: Vocations in the Early Church, 100-500 begins in the Second Century, when Christianity was still very much a minority religion, often illegal within the Roman Empire, and sometimes subject to persecution.  In such a context, the call was to become a Christian–a break from the world and life one knew.  This concept, that one’s vocation was to BE A CHRISTIAN (however one earned one’s daily bread) survived the legalization of Christianity under Constantine and continued on even to the point where Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire–for a time.  In this section, we hear about calling and vocation from Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, the anonymous author of The Martyrdom of Perpetua, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Palladius, the anonymously written Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and Augustine of Hippo whose Confessions invented the autobiography and the spiritual memoir.

Monasticism in Christianity had already begun in the early centuries after Constantine, whereby one might pursue a calling to a “religious life” apart from everyday “secular” life in the world–a “religious calling” that might be pursued alone as a hermit or in a community of other “vowed religious,” i.e., of monks or nuns.  In the second period/division vocation is almost entirely understood as a call to such a separate religious life.  Thus, section II. is titled, Called to Religious Life:  Vocations in the Middle Ages, 500-1500.  Those “in the world,” whether as married laypeople or as “secular clergy” not part of a monastery or convent, were generally not thought to have any calling or vocation all.  In this section, Placher lets us hear the voices of John Cassian, Sulpicius Severas, St. Benedict, Bernard of Clairveaux, John de Joinville (one of the most detailed chroniclers of the Crusades), St. Bonaventure, the great female mystical theologian Metchild of Magdeburg, St. Thomas Aquinas, Christine de Pisan, the anonymous author of The Mission of Joan of Arc, and Thomas á Kempis.  I would have liked to hear more Eastern voices in this section and some selections from reformers cast out as heretics (whether or not we today would still consider them heretical), such as Peter Waldo or Jan Hus.  Still, I am grateful Placher included several female witnesses in this section, often left out in our mental pictures of “Medieval Christianity.”  And the selections by de Joinville (his account of St. Louis’ supposed calling to lead a military crusade) and on Joan of Arc do show exceptions to the Medieval norm that vocation was automatically a monastic vocation.

The third section takes us from the Reformation to the edge of the 19th C.  The Reformation introduced or reintroduced (or, at the least, gave new emphasis to) the concept of all honest work as a calling from God.  Thus, section III. Every Work a Calling:  Vocations After the Reformation: 1500–1800.  As expected, we hear from Luther (5 selections!), Stadler, Calvin, St.  Ignatius of Loyala, St. Teresa of Avila, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, William Perkins, George Herbert (2 selections), Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, George Fox, Gerrard Winstanley (a welcome surprise!), William Law, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley (3 selections).  The Luther’s outsized representation is easily explained:  No other representative of classic Christianity wrote as much about the nature of vocation as Martin Luther.

The final section, IV.  Christian Callings in a Post-Christian World, 1800-Present has no uniting concept, and the writings are the most varied yet.  We hear from Søren Kierkegaard, John Cardinal Henry Newman, Feodor Dostoyevsky, Horace Bushnell, Pope Leo XIII, Max Weber, Walter Rauschenbusch, Howard Thurman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Karl Barth.  At least since 1800 (if not before) Christianity has become a truly global religion. Therefore, despite Placher’s undeniable achievement in this volume, it was genuinely disappointing to see no selections at all from Asia, Africa, or Latin America.  Are we to gather that there is no Christian wisdom on vocation and calling from these quarters?  This is quite the oversight–the more glaring because Placher has gone beyond the “usual suspects” in much of the book.

Nevertheless, this book is a treasure, both because of the witnesses contained and because of Placher’s own introductory comments.  This is theological reflection rooted in and connected to the practices of the church, in this case the practice of discerning one’s calling or vocation.  Unfortunately, it is unlikely that any suggestions for revision will be undertaken in a second edition since the editor, who taught at Wabash College in Indiana, unexpectedly passed away in late 2008.  That, in itself, is a tragic loss for the contemporary life of the church and we are blessed that this project was finished and published as a final gift of Placher’s own vocation as a theological educator.

February 24, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, biographies, book reviews, church history, spirituality, testimony, theology | 1 Comment

Dr. Bruce L. Shelly Dies

Dr. Bruce L. Shelley, longtime Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Denver Seminary, an evangelical seminary founded by the Conservative Baptist Association, died this weekend after having been ill.  I am neither an alumnus of Denver, nor have any other connection, except that I have a longtime friend who teaches there and a more recent friend who is an alumnus.  Shelly wrote several books including Church History in Plain Language which went through 3 editions and was especially useful to students–especially those without much background in the history of the church.  I have used it with laypeople in churches. 

Dr. Shelley was a graduate of Columbia Bible College, Fuller Theological Seminary, and earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa.  He joined the faculty of Denver Seminary in 1957 and taught there ever since.  He was on the board of Christian History and Heritage . He tried most of all to share the fruits of scholarship in a way that empowered the life of churches. 

A notice from Denver Seminary’s website is here and it includes funeral times and a link for those who wish to donate to the Bruce L. Shelley Endowed Scholarship Fund in lieu of flowers.  It also allows those who knew Dr. Shelley to share remembrances.

Rest from your labors servant of the One Servant.

February 22, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, church history, obituaries | Leave a comment

Neglected Theologian: Georgia Harkness

Georgia Elma Harkness (1891-1974), first woman to teach theology in an American seminary, was once a household name, but few today know who she is–and all of her writings are out of print.  We need to recover the work of this neglected theologian for the life of the church today.

Born 21 April 1891, Harkness was the youngest of four children born to Joseph Warren Harkness and Lillie Merrill Harkness.  She was born in Harkness, NY, a town in the Adirondacks named for her grandfather.  A Methodist, she was personally converted in a revival as a teenager, and sensed a calling to serve the church.  Her family was upper middle class and progressive, thereby giving her opportunities for education beyond what was available to most girls and women of her era.  Avoiding the women’s colleges, she earned a B.A. (philosophy) from Cornell University in 1912.

In a later age, Harkness would probably have gone straight to a seminary and training for the ministry, but seminaries did not admit women as regular, degree-seeking, students and ordained women were very rare.  Harkness intended to volunteer for overseas mission work after her graduation from Cornell, but family problems prevented this. She taught high school for six (6) years, but was restless.  She wanted to do more to serve the church and she wanted to pursue studies in theology.  So, she went to Boston University (related to the Methodists).  Denied entrance because of her sex to BU’s School of Theology, she matriculated in the Department of Religion of the Graduate School  and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion in 1923 with a dissertation entitled, ” The Relations Between Philosophy of Religion and Ethics in the Thought of Thomas Hill Green.”  (Green (1836-1882), was a liberal   British Idealist philosopher and social reformer who died 10 years before Harkness’ birth. )

 For the next 15 years, Harkness taught courses in religion and philosophy at Elmira College in Elmira, NY–at the time a women’s college, but now co-educational. During summers and sabbatical leaves, Harkness continued her theological education by attending Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, and Union Theological Seminary (NY) always with the status of “special” (non-degree) student.  In 1926, she was ordained by the Methodist Church (later part of the United Methodist Church), but, along with all other women, she was not admitted to any Conference (and, thus, could not function as a minister) until 1956. 

From 1937 to 1940, Harkness was Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachussetts and from 1940-1949, she was Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett Biblical Institute near Chicago, IL.  Garrett Biblical Institute, now known as Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, is a post-baccalaureate Methodist theological seminary whose main mission is the preparation of divinity students for ordained ministry.  Harkness was the first woman hired to teach theology at any seminary in the U.S.  Today, the Chair of Applied Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is known as the Georgia Harkness Chair of Applied Theology.  Harkness ended her active teaching ministry at The Pacific School of Religion, an ecumenical seminary related to the United Church of Christ outside of San Francisco,CA.  She was Professor of Applied Theology at PSR from 1949 until her retirement in 1960. 

Her early interests in global missions and in global and ecumenical Christianity never left Harkness.  Unable to be a missionary herself, Harkness did support work for Methodist global missions, including writing materials for them, especially the Methodist Board of World Peace and and the Board of Social and Economic Relations.  After World War II, Harkness also did much to support the global ecumenical work of the World Council of Churches, serving on both the Faith and Order and Church and World Commissions. Her hymn, “The Hope of the World,” was chosen by the Hymn Society of America  (now the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada) for the Second global meeting of the World Council of Churches which was held in Evanston, IL in 1954 and had as it’s theme, “Christ, the Hope of the World.”  Harkness had previously played key roles in the Life and Work conference at Oxford (1937), and at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, 1948.   In the 1957-1958 school year, Harkness served as Visiting Professor at both the International Christian University in Japan and the ecumenical Union Theological Seminary, Manila, the Philippines.

This pioneer for women in ministry and early feminist theologian usually was irenic and balanced in her approach to such matters.  Living in a very patriarchal and sexist era, she knew the dangers of appearing to male-dominated structures as “shrill,” or “strident,” in her advocacy of equality, and so was quick to praise opening or partial steps even while continuing to push for full gender equality in home, church, and society.  Typical of Harkness’ approach on these matters, she advocated equal ordination and ministry for decades, but when the 1956 Methodist meeting in Minneapolis opened the door for full pastoral ministry for women, Harkness let younger female colleagues take the lead in advocating for the motion on the floor.  However, her caution did not mean timidity, for at the World Council of Churches in 1948, Harkness openly confronted Karl Barth himself on his theology of female subordination!  Though Barth’s influence intimidated many, Harkness refuted him point-by-point in open debate and the great man’s startled reaction showed that he was completely unused to confronting strong, independent women! (A year later, when someone mentioned the event to him, Barth replied, “Remember me not of that woman!”)

Harkness wrote over 30 books in her lifetime.  She dealt with numerous theological subjects: Christian ethics, social concern in global contexts, equality of the sexes, racial equality and integration (though she was not an active participant in the Civil Rights struggle, she openly supported its goals and there was much personal correspondence between Harkness and  African America leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and Howard Thurman), the nature of the church, a study from her own Wesleyan Methodist perspective of Calvin’s ethics, prayer and the life of devotion, mysticism, the Holy Spirit, eschatology (partially anticipating themes later made more prominent by Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann), the relation of religion to philosophy and to science, secularism (which she saw as more of a challenge than a reason to celebrate, contrasting with the early work of Harvey Cox), and apologetics.  Concerned to be understood by a wide audience, Harkness wrote with clarity and a refusal to cloak her thought in academic obscurantism (which led her critics to charge her with a lack of depth or profundity), but always a wide awareness of the history of Christian thought and of current trends on the global scene. 

She characterized her theological perspective as that of a “chastened liberalism.” She had been raised in the optimism of the late 19th C., been educated in the traditions of Idealism and Borden Parker Bowne’s “Boston Personalism,” as well as the Social Gospel. Even after World War I and into the Great Depression, Harkness could declare her faith in human moral progress, her strong pacifism, and rejoice that belief in Original Sin was disappearing. “The faster it goes, the better,” she remarked to The Christian Century.  Yet she interacted with the rise of Neoorthodoxy in the perspectives of Barth, Brunner, Suzanne de Dietrich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich.  On the eve of the Second World War, Harkness called on liberal Protestantism to recall the meaning of the cross and the power of the resurrection.  Not surrendering her pacifism, she stated that although she remained committed to liberalism, “it was a chastened and deepened liberalism.” Human moral progress was possible, but did not follow an evolutionary certainty, and was dependant always on the grace of God.  She still considered traditional formulations of original sin to be problematic, but recognized anew the power of sin in both individuals and social structures.

Harkness’ books are entirely out of print and the influence she once had is largely eclipsed, even among contemporary feminist theologians.  Yet the Chair of Applied Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary is named for her and so is a scholarship for women ministry students over 30 at Pacific School of Religion.   The church historian Rosemary Skinner Keller wrote a secondary study of Harkness, Georgia Harkness:  For Such a Time as This (Abingdon Press, 1992) and in the Doctrine volume of his 3-part Systematic Theology, James Wm. McClendon lists Harkness (along with Walter Rauschenbusch, E.Y. Mullins, D.C. MacIntosh, W.T. Conner, and Dale Moody) as among the guiding forerunners of his approach.  Rebekah Miles, Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, has just edited a reader of Harkness’ early essays, Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010).  Miles had previously written a biographical and theological sketch of Harkness as a chapter in Makers of Christian Theology in America, ed., Mark Toulouse and James Duke (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997).   So, the groundwork is set for a recovery of this neglected pioneer feminist theologian.  In my view, such a recovery cannot come too soon. We need Harkness’ voice as a conversation partner for our 21st C. context.

February 20, 2010 Posted by | biographical entries, ecumenism, history of theology, Methodists, theologians | 12 Comments