I’m not a Methodist. I WAS raised Methodist and most of my family of origin are still Methodist, but I have been an Anabaptist-type Baptist for longer than I was Methodist. So, I present this as an “interested outsider,” rather than an insider. I offer these interpretations especially to Methodist friends and colleagues inviting feedback–agreement, disagreement, modification. alternative proposals, etc. The discussion should prove interesting.
1) Methodism as Modified Episcopalianism. In this perspective, Methodism is a variation on Anglo-Catholic Christianity. Neither John nor Charles Wesley left the Church of England. British Methodists have entered into a covenant with the Church of England. Methodism is an evangelical/pietist renewal (or internal critique) of Anglicanism. In the United Methodist Church, the bishops are the institutional home of this perspective–whether or not they think reunion with the Anglican Communion desirable. (This may also be true for the African Methodist Episcopal, AME Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal denominations, but I have never met a bishop in any of the forms of African Methodism, so I couldn’t say.) Had the Anglican hierarchy welcomed (not resisted) the Wesley’s Evangelical Renewal movement, it would have remained in the Church of England.
2) Santification as Key: Methodism as Holiness Movement. This view doesn’t see the 19th C. Holiness Movement, with dozens of new denominations spinning off from Methodism, as a new development, but as the original heart of Methodism itself. Had Methodism remained true to its Holiness heart, this view goes, there would never have arisen Free Methodists, Nazarenes, the Wesleyan Church, the Church of God (Anderson, IN-non-Pentecostal), etc. Wesley was influenced by Moravians, who were radical Pietists, and also by the “salvation as deification” theme of Eastern Orthodoxy. The essence of Methodism, in this view, is a Pietist-Holiness emphasis that includes both individual and social sanctification.
3) “Heart Religion”: Methodism as Doctrinal Pluralism. This is the theme of liberal Methodism. John Wesley had said that he didn’t want Methodists to be known “for their particular opinions.” Wesley’s conversion at Aldersgate was not an intellectual change of mind, but finding his heart “strangely warmed.” This interpretation allows for a wide diversity of doctrinal conviction, united by an inner salvation experience. Examples would include the Boston Personalists (e.g., A. C. Knudson, Bordon Parker Bowne, Georgia Harkness, & L. Harold DeWolf), the many Methodist Process Theologians (John B. Cobb, Marjorie Schuchocki, Randy L. Maddox, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Schubert M. Ogdon), some feminist and liberation theologians.
4)Methodism as Part of the Free Church/Believers’ Church Tradition. In this view, Methodism’s soteriology and ecclesiology places it among the Believers’ Church traditions that include the Hussites, Waldensians, Anabaptists, Friends/Quakers, Baptists, the Stone-Campbell movement, Pentecostals. The major difference is that Methodists retain infant baptism since Wesley hadn’t attempted to formulate an entire “systematic” theology and accepted the structures of the Church of England. (Anabaptists–and Nazarenes–would say that Methodists are confused about baptism. Infant baptism doesn’t fit their soteriology or ecclesiology.) The social sanctification, the many Methodist struggles for justice and numerous Methodist pacifists are all explained by this perspective say its proponents. Some in this perspective include the late Franklin H. Littel, Justo Gonzalez, James Lawson, James Farmer, Elsa Tamez, Theodore W. Jennings, Donald W. Dayton.
Obviously, these are not mutually exclusive categories. They are different ways to “slice” the same phenomenon. Do my Methodist friends find this helpful? I await your comments and dialogue with much anticipation.
David Swartz claims that one reason the “Evangelical Left” has failed as a popular movement (unlike the Evangelical Right which dominates an entire U.S. political party) is discomfort with the term “evangelical” itself. Is this surprising? When I was a teen in the 1970s, it was fairly easy to call myself “evangelical” and to identify with the Evangelical Left as it was then: Jim Wallis, Joyce Hollyday & the Sojourners Community; Tony Campolo; Ron Sider & Evangelicals for Social Action; Koinonia Partners in Americus, GA, founded in 1942 by Clarence & Florence Jordan & Martin & Mable England as an interracial Christian community–in the midst of segregation and racism; Jubilee Partners and The Other Side magazine (1965-2005); Virginia Ramey Mollenkott; Nancey Hardesty; Letha Dawson Scanzoni–Biblical feminism and the Evangelical Woman’s Conference (now the Evangelical and Ecumenical Woman’s Conference); the radical Black evangelism of Tom Skinner, John Perkins (and Voice of Calvary Ministries), and William E. Pannell–these and other people and organizations were the Left wing of American Evangelicalism, but clearly recognized as evangelical by their more moderate and even conservative sisters and brothers. (Scanzoni and Mollenkott, Rev. Troy Perry, & a few brave souls at The Other Side even dared–and it was VERY daring at the time–to call into questian the consensus blanket condemnation of “homosexuality.” At the time, I did not dare follow their conclusions, but I did think the conversation should be open and free from fear of knee-jerk cries of “HERESY!”)
After all, when Time magazine referred to 1976 as “Year of the Evangelical,” it focused on a Georgia governor and Sunday School teacher making an unlikely run for U.S. President–Jimmy Carter. With Carter and Billy Graham (then a much less hardline conservative figure) defining the Evangelical Center, those of us on the Evangelical Left had little difficulty with the term “Evangelical.” Even when Jerry Falwell founded The Moral Majority in 1978, he helped reinforce those of us in the Evangelical Left in identifying with the term “Evangelical” because Falwell & his ilk considered “Evangelical” to be a “mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy term,” and proudly proclaimed themselves “Fundamentalists,” intead. (The Moral Majority even published The Fundamentalist Journal which didn’t just lambast liberal Christian publications such as The Christian Century, and Christianity & Crisis–the latter now sadly defunct–or Evangelical Left publications like Sojourners, The Other Side, Radix, or Katallagete (of which, only Sojourners is still in circulation), but indicted such staid organs of the Evangelical establishment as His, Eternity, and even Christianity Today as heretical.) Thus, Falwell and other Religious Right figures helped the secular mainstream media distinguish between “Evangelicals” and “Fundamentalists.”
What changed? The fierce doctrinal debate over whether Scriptural authority should be understood by the term “inerrancy,” a debate which began first among Missouri Synod Lutherans (leading to a schism) and then moved into para-church Evangelicalism before dominating the Southern Baptist Convention (c. 1979–c.1990–and resulting in schism and fragmentation) was one factor. As some factions defined “inerrancy” every more strictly or insisted that one who rejected this term was no longer “evangelical,” many of us in the Evangelical Left became weary of that fight. (I wanted to spend less time debating the nature of biblical authority and more time learning to interpret Scripture carefully and to demonstrate loyalty to biblical authority by the way it shaped lives and communities of faithful disciples. )
But the success of the Religious Right as a political movement was another major factor: As the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and others gained more and more worldly political power, they gave up the term “Fundamentalist,” and embraced “Evangelical.” But the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons (and, later, the Mohlers, Rick Warrens, etc.) didn’t just say, “Yes, we are also part of the Evangelical heritage–this terms includes us.” No, they laid claim to SOLE OWNERSHIP of the label and denied that those of us in the Evangelical Left were “true Evangelicals.” They even began to deny that Jimmy Carter was evangelical! And the media followed suit with this. So, by the early 1990s, most people in America thought that “Evangelical” automatically meant all of the following: Conservative Republican who supports: teacher-led prayers and Bible readings in the public schools; the use of federal tax money to support private Christian schools; bannings or restrictions of pornography–and this could be defined to even include great works of art like the Venus de Milo sculpture (During the 1st term of the presidency of George W. Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft (R-MO), a member of the Religious Right, draped a cloth over the statue of Justice to hide the statue’s naked breast!); banning the teaching of biological evolution; uncritical support for a huge military budget and nationalist wars. It also meant one opposed: The Equal Rights Amendment; all or nearly all abortions (the one part of the Religious Right’s agenda which did have some legitimacy even though I disagreed with all their conclusions–the Left’s refusal to see any moral dimensions at all to abortion was sheer blindness); opposed women’s leadership roles in churches as well as society; wanted restrictions on the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual & transgendered persons and promoted fear and hatred of them in the churches. Opposed government aid to the poor. Opposed environmental stewardship–even when re-christened “Creation Care.” Demanded uncritical support for Latin American dictators who were “pro-American” and gave uncritical support for the apartheid government of South Africa for the same reason (and was surprised that this was called “racist.”) By the ’90s, the agenda included uncritical support for the government of Israel and opposition to ALL efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. (Jimmy Carter’s Middle East peacemaking, once heralded with pride by American evangelicals were now considered both heretical and treasonous.) By the Bush years, to be “Evangelical” in America meant to endorse a unilateral authority to declare war and invade anyone designated as even a possible future enemy and to approve torture.
I LIKE the term “evangelical.” It literally means “gospel centered” & I, like most Christians, want to be “gospel centered.” Historically, the term “Evangelical” referred to the Reformers of the 16th C. and, in much of Europe and Latin America today, “Evangelical” is simply a synonym for “Protestant.” Well, I am definitely a Protestant. Another use distinguishes “Evangelical” from “Reformed,” so that “Evangelical” means “Lutheran” rather than “Calvinist.” Well, I am neither of those, so I don’t have any investment in this definition of “Evangelical.” In the 18th C., the “Evangelical Revival” in the United Kingdom and North America was led by George Whitfield and the brothers Wesley. Well, I was raised United Methodist and retain enough Wesleyan influence to identify with that meaning of “Evangelical.” And since the days of Charles Finney, “Evangelical” has also meant “revivalist,” and I was “born again” at a revival, so, despite my criticisms of the shortcomings of the revivalist tradition, I am “evangelical” in that sense, too. I am NOT “evangelical” in the sense the word aquired after the Furndamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s and definitely not in the sense of the Religious Right. And my theology, while having many influences from the Evangelical tradition as described above, has other influences too: from the Anabaptist tradition and the Anabaptist strand of the Baptist faith, from the more Christocentric strands of Protestant liberalism, from some forms of Neorthodoxy and the post-WWII “Biblical Theology” movement, from Liberation theologies and theologies of Hope, etc. If one has to avoid all such influences to be genuinely “Evangelical, then I am NOT Evangelical. If one must be conservative politically, then I, a Green-leaning democratic socialist and registered Democrat, fail the test.
It gets tiring to have to respond to the question, “Are you an Evangelical?” with “It depends on your definition” and then sketch the history above. Is it any wonder that many of the Evangelical Left began to be ambivalent about identifying with the term “Evangelical?”
Scriptures (Read by different members of the congregation, beginning and ending with 1 John 4:7-8.):
Deut. 6:4; I John 4:7-8; John 1:1-5; Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; I Peter 1:2.
Trinity: The Heart of God is Love
At the heart of Christian faith is the Trinity, the Tri-unity of God, but preaching on the Trinity is one of the hardest tasks of any preacher. It is a mystery, not in the sense of a “Whodunit,” which one can solve by following the clues, but in the sense of a phenomenon that, the more you understand one or more aspects of it, the more you realize there are other aspects you don’t comprehend. So, today, I want you to hold onto one central concept if you remember nothing else: The Trinity is important because GOD IS LOVE. Love is relational. The word “Trinity” names the fact that God is already a community of giving and receiving love IN GOD’S SELF. Creation comes out of the overflow of that love; God does not just learn to love after God has become Creator. We’ll come back to this, but if nothing else makes sense about today’s sermon, please remember that “Trinity” is another way that Christians say God IS love.
How did this strange idea of Tri-unity in God come about? It doesn’t seem self-evident. My mother always complained about theology in general and the Trinity in particular as too complicated. She prided herself on having “simple faith” and wanted simple ideas about God to go along with it. Well, our faith may be simple in the sense of simple and pure trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior—which is what I think my mom meant. But wanting a simple theology is like wanting simple astrophysics—it can only be as simple or complex as the reality we seek to describe. We don’t have to be needlessly complicated for complexity’s own sake or to make it seem as if we are smarter than we are, but when we think about God and the gospel we should expect that sometimes it will be hard thinking, headache material.
Let’s start by saying that neither the word “Trinity,” nor any developed teaching or doctrine about it is found in the Bible itself. It took the church centuries to work out a teaching on the Trinity—with many fierce debates—and theologians still work on it, today. But the Scriptures we read today, and others, started the thinking and debating process that produced the concepts we call the Trinity.
It began with the fact that all the earliest Christians were Jews. We read today from Deut. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God is One Lord.” Jews call this “the Shema,” from the Hebrew word for “Hear.” It is the heart of Jewish faith—There is only one God, the Deliverer from slavery in Egypt who embraces Israel in covenant at Mount Sinai and whom the covenant people come to see is also the Creator of the entire universe. Israel’s constant temptations were the temptations of empire: to renounce the liberated Jubilee life God has shown them in the covenant to return to patterns of oppression and slavery like they had known in Egypt, and to abandon faith and loyalty in God for the many gods of empire. The Exile from the Land cures the latter problem. From the time of Israel’s return from Babylon and the other nations where they were scattered to the Land of Promise, several centuries before Jesus, they fiercely guarded against idolatry. (Oppression was a harder habit to break.)
So, what would make Jews, like the disciples and the earliest Christians, begin the process that would lead to our teaching about the Trinity? Some have claimed it was a mistake. That it resulted from the early split between synagogue and church and Christianity becoming a mostly Gentile religion. Had the Church stayed largely Jewish, they claim, no pagan, Greek philosophical ideas would have infected us with a semi-return to polytheism, the belief in many gods. Count me among those who disagree. The earliest Christians KNEW that God is ONE, but they also experienced Easter and Pentecost. They encountered God in Jesus and in the Spirit that Jesus had promised God would send. Jesus typically referred to God as “Father,” and taught his disciples to pray that way, too. (We’ll address feminine images for God later. For now, because we have enough on our plate, let’s stick with the traditional, admittedly patriarchal, language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”) Before long, Christians, mostly Jews, were using words for the risen Christ that were usually reserved for God. They even began to pray to Jesus and to the Spirit, although the usual New Testament and early Christian pattern was to pray TO the Father, in the NAME of Christ, and by the POWER of the Spirit.
Experiencing God in Jesus and in the Spirit got the ball rolling toward Trinitarian faith. Christians remained monotheists, believers in one God, but, unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, we are not SIMPLY monotheists. Count me among those who believe that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all worship the same God, the true and living God. But we understand God differently. For different reasons, Jews and Muslims both believe that Christians have compromised our monotheism in holding to the Trinity. We are tempted to minimize our differences in interfaith dialogue—and to build bridges of understanding, we SHOULD start with our common ground—One God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Ishmael, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam—and of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, priest of Midian, whose monotheistic faith bears many similarities to Islam. But, not even for the sake of solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers can we downplay the differences—in Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, we have met again the One God of Liberation and Covenant. And in the promised Spirit, named in Scripture as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus, we live, move, and have our very being IN God. Christian life is life in the Spirit. Christian life and worship is INEVITABLY Trinitarian in shape. The way the doctrine worked out was shaped by Greek philosophy because that is the culture in which the debates took place. Doubtless the terms and shape of our faith would look different today if the early Church had first flourished in India or China. (Much of it did flourish in Africa, but parts of Africa already influenced by Greek and Roman culture.) But I am convinced that, regardless, SOMETHING LIKE the Trinitarian teaching would have developed because of Easter and Pentecost.
Now, as I said, the details took centuries of debates to work out—and the arguments have never ended. We won’t go into them all here. To even cover the basics would take a long sermon SERIES on the Trinity. Today, I will just mention a few key points, some ancient, and some very contemporary.
1) The “persons” of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal. It’s not that the Father is REALLY God and Christ and the Spirit are secondary. Already in Col. 1:19, Paul states that in Christ, “ALL the FULLNESS of God was pleased to dwell.”
2) It’s not that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “masks” for God or roles that God plays. The church rejected this teaching as “modalism.” But many Christians are unknowingly Modalists. But this ends up with either denying the Incarnation—that God was fully in the human Jesus of Nazareth, or it ends with believing that the baby Jesus is guiding the stars and planets from his crib! Jesus wasn’t talking to himself when he prayed. Jesus doesn’t turn into the Spirit after death and resurrection. One form of Pentecostalism, the United Pentecostals, embrace this modalism, believing that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are merely “titles” for Jesus and baptizing only into Jesus’ name and not in the Trinitarian formula of Matt. 28:19 which we heard read. They have a kind of “Unitarianism of the 2nd Person.” No, each of the 3 persons is fully God.
3) We also see that our congregation’s doxology [which uses “Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost”], while fine as a doxology, does not say everything that needs to be said. No song can do that, nor sermon, nor book. But our doxology, BY ITSELF, can give the impression that only the Father is Creator, that only Jesus is Redeemer, and only the Spirit is Sustainer. Look at your bulletin cover. See the symbol there [see picture at bottom] and how the 3 points also connect and intersect? That very ancient Trinitarian symbol points to something called by the Greek word “perichoresis.” You don’t need to remember the word, but what it means, is that each person of the Trinity participates in the life and actions of the other. Remember our Scripture from the Gospel of John—in which the Word, Christ, is not only affirmed to be God, but is creating, too—without Whom nothing was made that is made. In Genesis 1, the Spirit hovers over the chaos waters as God begins to create. Likewise, Jesus Christ the Son is not the only agent in salvation. GOD was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s Self. And the sustaining and empowering and sanctifying work of the Spirit is also the work of Father and Son. Each participates fully in the work we primarily identify with another “Person” of the Tri-une God.
4) There is much, MUCH, more that could be said, but let me finish our reflections today with the question of how the Trinity relates to feminine images for God. My prayer life reflects my theology—among other things, no doubt. As a young Christian, I primarily addressed God in prayer as “Papa,” believing that this was the Southern cultural equivalent of Jesus’ “Abba.” When I began to realize the importance of the Trinity, I adopted the early Christian pattern, especially in public prayer, of praying to the Father, in the Name of Jesus the Son, and in the Power of the Spirit. Then, as a seminary student, I encountered the feminist critique of all-masculine God-language. Now, let it be said that it is NOT true that the ancient Christian theologians who formulated Trinitarian doctrine believed that God was literally male. Some modern TV preachers may believe that, but Athanasius, and Augustine, and the Cappadocians, specifically and repeatedly affirm that both male and female humans are made in the image and likeness of God, just as Genesis 1 says. But it is true that the constant use over centuries of Father, Son, and Spirit language, while ignoring feminine imagery for God in the Bible gives the impression that, to say the least, men are more in the image of God than women are. This false belief has fed sexist patterns of male supremacy in home, church, and society. So, I came to my teacher, Dr. Molly Marshall, and I asked her, “Is it possible to be a thorough Trinitarian and still embrace the feminist critique of all-masculine God language? Can one be a Trinitarian feminist?” She got that twinkle in her eye that we students came to associate with her sharp sense of humor, “Oh, yes, Mr. White,” she said (I was still single, then), “But you will forever after be condemned to using very complex sentences.” So it has proved.
God is not male. We are free to call God “Mother,” as well as “Father.” We can refer to God as “She.” In ancient Christian art, the Spirit was often depicted as feminine. The Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians often call the “Old Testament,” depicts the Wisdom of God as feminine (see Prov. 8)—and it is that Wisdom tradition that is the background for John’s calling Christ “the Word.”
Now some disagree on both sides. Some theologians, like Donald Bloesch and David Jenson, while acknowledging feminine imagery for God in Scripture insist that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are the way the New Testament teaches us to NAME God. So, we can’t call God “Mother” they say. I disagree. If that were so, the New Testament writers and other early Christians would have used ONLY “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” language for God and never any other images, but this is not the case. On the other side, feminist theologian Sallie McFague thinks the Trinity is a category mistake that comes when metaphors become hardened into idols. She wants to replace the metaphors of “Father, Son, and Spirit,” with “Mother, Lover, and Friend.” I have no trouble using any of her terms for God, but not as replacements. Two feminist theologians have worked hard to reaffirm the tradition while still incorporating the feminist critique of all-masculine God language. If you’re up for some DEEP reading, I highly recommend Catherine LaCugna’s God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life and Elizabeth A. Johnson’s, She Who Is: Feminist Theology and the Mystery of God.
We do have to insist that Jesus of Nazareth was biologically male. That is the scandal of particularity. He was also Jewish and spoke Aramaic. Incarnation is in the particular. But the pre-existent Word is also Wisdom and the risen Christ, though usually referred to as Son, can also be given feminine imagery. If humans, both male and female, are made in GOD’s image, then ALL of God, each member of the Trinity, embraces both feminine and masculine aspects—however difficult that is to say in a baptismal formula or doxology.
We have barely scratched the surface and our time is up. We end where we began. Trinity is another way of saying “God is LOVE.” “One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” “Mother, Child, and Holy Spirit,” a community of love in God’s Self and pouring out that love in Creation, in Sustaining and empowering the universe, and in salvation, liberation, redemption. In the words of Catherine LaCugna, Trinity means that God is GOD FOR US. Amen.
Following clues in the work of the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), I have been describing theology as a practical discipline, investigating, interpreting, and transforming the convictions of a convictional community (e.g., the Christian church or some branch of that Church). I have sought to spell out theology’s character as pluralistic (or contextual), narrative based, rational, and self-involving. I have tried to indicate briefly how academic theology is a secondary discipline and related to the primary theologizing the churches do through their practices (preaching, worship, hospitality to strangers, instruction of the young and of new Christians, evangelism, service, nonviolent witness and love of enemies, CreationCare, etc.). Whole books could be (and have been) written about each of those aspects. (Keeping these posts brief has not been easy!) It is time to say something about the “branches” of (Christian) theology.
Biblical theology. All Christian theology, of course, will seek to be informed by and normed by Holy Scripture. However, Biblical theology seeks to describe and interpret the theological dimensions of the Biblical texts themselves. (This is sometimes divided up further into Old Testament Theology and New Testament Theology.) In the ordinary life of the Church, this is done whenever a believer (or Sunday School class, congregation/parish, etc.) attempts to summarize the “message” of the canon as a whole, or some section of it. In academic circles, this task is usually done by people who have degrees in biblical studies, but not all biblical scholars are capable of biblical theology. Some biblical scholars are simply historians or archaeologists or literary critics. The biblical theologian will be informed by skill in Hebrew, Greek and cognate languages such as Aramaic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, etc., will consult archaeological findings, historians of ancient Palestine or of 1st C. Greco-Roman society, use linguistic analyses or sociological insights, etc. But the biblical theologian must go beyond all this and must seek to encounter these texts on a theological level–the only level in which the Church’s ancient confession that these writings are, in some sense, the “Word of God” makes any sense. It is a synthetic task–and not an easy one.
Historical theology studies what the Church (and churches) have taught throughout the ages–or in some particular time and setting. This is done not just for antiquarian interest, but because the historical theologian is convinced that voices from the past, witnesses to the churches’ life and thought elsewhen, may have significance for the church today. Some branches of Christianity are more influenced by certain periods of the past (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy focuses supremely on the Patristic writings and especially the work of the Ecumenical Councils of the not-yet-divided Church), or by certain theologians more than others (e.g., Roman Catholicism returns constantly to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas; Reformed Christians give special consideration to the thought of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin; Methodists are especially attentive to the writings of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley, etc.) It is a rare historical theologian who can convey most of the full sweep of the Church’s life and thought through the ages (the late Jaroslav Pelikan is the only one who comes quickly to mind).
Philosophical theology (called by some traditions “fundamental” or “foundational” theology, though I believe such a designation is a mistake) engages the major thought forms of the day in dialogue, or even debate. A wider theology of culture, engages not only the philosophical currents in one’s context, but the arts (visual, musical, etc.), sciences, political ideologies, other (rival?) religions, and much else. This branch of theology is closely related to the missionary practices of the church–for in all good mission work one listens and learns as much as one teaches.
Pastoral theology focuses closely on the pastoral tasks of the church and its members (not just on a the tasks of the pastor or pastoral team). This is sometimes called “practical theology,” but, again, I think this is a mistake. Properly understood, all Christian theology is rooted in the practices of the church and serves them and is thereby “practical.” “Impractical theology” would be theology cut off from church life and would, Christianly speaking, be useless.
The most daunting branch of theology is also its most normative: Systematic Theology is its most common name since it tries to bring all these tasks together and state, for this time and place, what the church must teach to be faithfully the church of Jesus Christ, and do so in a fairly orderly fashion. But the term “systematic theology” can give the impression of forcing the Word of God into a systemic straightjacket of human origins, reducing it to an ideology. So, some prefer the term Dogmatic Theology, but in North America “dogmatic” has come to mean “narrow minded,” so this term, too, is not without its problems. A recent term that many use is Constructive Theology. I have no preference between these terms and tend to use them interchangeably.
I must stress, however, that systematic or dogmatic or constructive theology is not just about doctrine, but also about ethics. Neither can do without the other and both are essential to the theological tasks of the church.
I want to get feedback from readers on the series so far before I attempt another post showing why ethics is as much a part of theology as is doctrine.
If theology is a “science of convictions,” then we need to say more about what convictions are. McClendon distinguishes them from opinions. [See James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Wipf & Stock, 2002)–a revision and expansion of McClendon and Smith, Understanding Religious Convictions (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).] Opinions are easily formed and easily changed. Forming them may require investigation or logical reasoning, but they do not involve much more than the intellect. We often know exactly how and when we formed opinion X and when it changed to opinion Y.
By contrast, convictions are deeply a part of us. We are very emotionally invested in them. They are not formed easily and they are not changed easily. They cannot be changed at all without the individual or the community holding them becoming a significantly different individual or community. In a sense, we are our convictions and, thus, changing them leads to our becoming someone new (or a different community).
Consider some examples. And here, just for fun, I will tease some prominent theology bloggers and bibliobloggers by using them in the examples. Imagine, if you will, a Jim West giving up a Zwinglian “pure memorial” understanding of the Lord’s Supper for a Lutheran belief in eucharistic “consubstantiation,” or some other “real presence” sacramental view. Such a change would not be simply an exegetical or theological change of mind, but a type of conversion and the results would give us a very different Jim West from the one we know (and love?)–but he’d probably still keep calling Chris Tilling “the devil.”
Or imagine D. W. Congdon rejecting universal salvation. Surely that would be a conversion! (Actually, considering that Congdon is a Wheaton alumnus come to Princeton, this would probably be a re-conversion to earlier convictions.) Or what would Guy Davies be like if he came to embrace Arminius’ or Wesley’s views on prevenient grace and free will?
Waxing more serious, I know that my rejection of the view that Christians could use lethal force and serve in national militaries, and my embrace of Christian pacifism (gospel nonviolence) was not a simple change of opinion, but a conversion. Since I was in the U.S. military at the time, it involved me refusing to don my uniform or pick up my rifle and applying for a conscientious objector discharge.
The same is true for communities: Consider those churches in the 16th C. that, under the influence of Zwingli or Luther or Calvin, embraced the Reformation–and were no longer Catholic but Protestant churches. Or consider those early followers of Zwingli–Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Georg Blaurock, etc. who followed the logic of Zwingli’s early teaching on baptism and then decided that Scripture had more authority than the Zurich city council and became the first Anabaptists. Convictions are not changed easily–and they cannot be changed at all without the individual or community holding those convictions becoming significantly different than before.
Therefore theology not only involves struggle for truth amidst error, but also the risk of conversion and change (not least from the theologian).
Now, all of us hold some beliefs, even some religious beliefs, at the opinion level rather than the convictional level. Perhaps one definition of “fundamentalism” (whether conservative or liberal in orientation) is that all or nearly all beliefs are at the convictional level–nothing is adiaphora or even of secondary importance, everything is life or death, nothing is not a “test of fellowship,” that separates out true believers from heretics.
Next time: The branches of theology and how this relates to the practices of the Church and churches and the task(s) of theologians.
I began these reflections with the definition of theology given by the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.” The particular convictional community we Christians are concerned with, of course, is the Christian Church, the universal Body of Christ, the People of God. The convictions we are dealing with, unlike some whose convictions are about “girls, guns, and gold,” (to use a traditional and sexist motto from the Old West), are convictions about the Triune God, about Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God, about the Holy Spirit, about creation, humanity, sin, and salvation, about discipleship, and the hope of new/re-newed heavens and earth.
The church’s primary instruction in these moral and doctrinal convictions we might call “primary theology” (unless some reader has a better term). This is what we find in hymns, confessions of faith (e.g., the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), church covenants, catechisms, sermons, evangelistic presentations of the gospel, Sunday School lessons, liturgies, etc. More formal or “academic” theology is a secondary practice of the Church–but just as necessary for that. In this practice, theologians investigate these primary theological (i.e., moral and doctrinal) teachings–”discovering, and interpreting” the convictions of the Church (or a part of it, e.g., Orthodoxy in post-Communist Ukraine, Pentecostalism in South America, post-apartheid Reformed faith in South Africa, etc.). But the (secondary/academic) theologian has a normative task, too. S/he tests these convictions in their current form: are they faithful? adequate? biblical? The theologian’s task, as McClendon puts it, is to hold up a mirror to the community in which the community recognizes itself not just as it is, but as it should be, must strive to be, in order to be what God is calling it to be.
We see the practical nature of theology: Rooted in basic Christian practices (worship, prayer–both individual and corporate, preaching, evangelism, the saints’ mutual service, hospitality to strangers and enemies, etc.), theology is also to serve those practices. A biblical example may be in order: When the apostle Paul writes to the church gathered at Corinth, they are celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, Holy Communion) with a full agape meal–but the rich are gorging themselves and the working poor, arriving later, are going hungry. Paul leads them to see that their practice of the Supper is distorted, not just morally, but doctrinally–in so mistreating the poor, the Corinthian Christians “failed to discern the Body of Christ” not just in the meal but gathered in Corinth. Their distorted liturgical practice was wrong morally and doctrinally–revealing flaws in the Corinthian Christians’ eucharistic doctrine, ecclesiology, soteriology, and even Christology. Paul’s instruction in liturgical reform (from now on, skip the full agape meal, eat at home, do nothing to dishonor the poor made in God’s image–who are also your sisters and brothers for whom Christ died) is also doctrinal correction. In terms of our definition, this is the transformation of the community’s convictions, displayed in their practice.
Next: More on convictions; branches of theology.
I am reprinting a series of brief posts on the nature of theology from my old blog Levellers. After I reprint each post, I’ll make an index page and put the series up on my page of “popular posts and series.” (The series was popular on my old blog, anyway, and I’m trying to make sure that former readers can still find material they liked on this blog, Pilgrim Pathways.)
What IS ‘theology?”
Different definitions of theology lead to different methods/approaches of “doing theology.” I propose the definition given by the late Baptist theologian of the “[b]aptist Vision,” i.e., the constitutive vision of the Believers’ Churches, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000). Theology, McClendon said, is “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.” He intended this definition to be broad enough to encompass the theologies of other world religions and of philosophical substitutes for religion, such as Marxism, socio-biology, etc. If the “convictional community” in question is the Christian Church, then theology is the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of the Christian Church, including the discovery and critical revision of disciples’ relation(s) to one another, to the Triune GOD, and to the rest of Creation.” (My adaptation.)
Certain things follow from such a definition: i. Theology is pluralistic; done in different, even rival, camps. There is struggle in theology–the struggle for truth. This sometimes involves struggle against the perceived errors of others. Because Christ prayed that the Church would enjoy the same unity that he enjoys with the Father, striving for ecumenical reconciliation in the fractured Church is mandatory. But all the ecumenical good will in the world cannot disguise the fact that theologians (and churches) disagree and that some of these disagreements are sharp and deep. Another way to say this is that theology is contextual –related to differing church traditions (e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, “baptist,” etc.), differing eras, differing cultural contexts.
ii. Theology is narrative based, construing the lived experience of the convictional community by means of Scripture. There are, of course, different readings of Scripture: A 12th C. Franciscan “take” on the biblical narrative differs from a 17th C. Jesuit take on the same narrative–but they are both much closer than either is to the “take” of a 16th C. Dutch Mennonite, of 19th C. antebellum African-American Christians in the U.S. South, of a WWI-era Pentecostal, of a Peruvian “base community” in the 1970s, of a Reformed “take” in South Africa during the “Boer War” resistance to British rule, of an African Christian response to both the British and Afrikaaner readings, etc.
iii. Theology is rational. Some (Schleiermacher, Barth) have called theology a “science,” and in the broadest sense of the term, this is true. But because in English “science” is understood after the model of the natural sciences, McClendon suggests (and I agree) that it is less confusing to call theology a discipline that is to display the rationality appropriate to its metier, just as the disciplines of art, law, and medicine display their own particular rationalities. Thus, like these other cases, theology is a practice, a craft, that is rooted in the other practices (e.g., mission, evangelism, worship, communal prayer, preaching, hospitality to the poor and the stranger, life together in the Body, nonviolent service to the neighbor, nonviolent encounter/witness with the enemy, etc.) of the Church. The theologian must likewise be rooted in these practices, in a particular Christian community, even if s/he is employed by a secular or pluralist university.
iv. This leads us to the fact that theology is self-involving. Possibly in rare circumstances a Christian theologian could write a Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist theology (Hans Küng has attempted this regarding Judaism and Islam) or some non-Christian could undertake to write a Christian theology. But these would be exceptions that prove the rule. In convictional work, self-involvement is the rule, exceptions must be explained case-by-case. (This is NOT to say that Christian theologians should not be in dialogue with non-Christian movements. The missionary nature of the Church means that, in each context, theologians will dialogue with major forces and thought-forms in their cultural context. But the theologian does not attempt to adopt a “neutral” or “detached” observer frame. S/he is not an anthropologist.)
I. Is this a good way to understand theology? Why or why not?
II. What does the practice of theology look like when understood this way?
This kind of a list is necessarily subjective, but I am trying to base my choices not on “my favorites,” but on the basis of influence–both on other theologians and on the faith and practice of the churches. After I post this list, my next posts will be a series of profiles of each of these ten. I do not think that either my choices or descriptions/evaluations are incontestable. I invite others to submit their own lists and reasons for them–either in the comments or on their own blogs with links in the comments. I also invite readers from other nations to list the most important theologians of their nations. Our mutual enrichment could be considered a form of globalized “continuing theological education.” I hope you enjoy this series and I look forward to your responses. My list is in chronological order.
- Roger Williams (1603-1683). Williams was a Cambridge educated English Puritan theologian who emigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony where his evolving views led to conflict with the colony’s religious establishment. He became a champion of religious liberty and church-state separation, as well as a friend and advocate for Native Americans. Banished (together with his wife) into “ye howling wilderness” by the Massachusetts Bay Colony authorities, Williams was saved by Native Americans of the Narragansett nation. He founded Providence and secured a royal charter for the Colony of Rhode Island. He founded the First Baptist Church in North America in Providence, but soon withdrew himself from membership (believing all churches to be impure) to await the rise of a new apostleship. He wrote a grammar of the Narangansett language for English speakers, founded Rhode Island as the first colony to ensure religious liberty, and wrote many theological tracts that were influential on others, especially later Baptists.
- Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Calvinist Congregationalist theologian of the Awakening, educated at Yale. Although
the stereotypes focus on his “hellfire and damnation” sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards was actually one of the foremost philosophical theologians of love. He helped create the discipline of sociology in order to accurately describe the phenomena of
the revivals. His work Freedom of the Will re-thought the doctrine of Predestination. Edwards reshaped Puritan theology to mold the Evangelicalism of the Great Awakening.
- Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Presbyterian theologian of the first generation of Princeton Theological Seminary, Hodge established the Calvinist orthodoxy of the central strand of American Evangelicalism. He also began the form of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy (refined by his son, A.A. Hodge and by B. B. Warfield) that became so important to most U.S. conservative Protestants after the rise of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.
- Walter Rauschenbush (1861-1918). American Baptist pastor, church historian, and THE theologian of the Social Gospel movement.
The son of an immigrant German Lutheran pastor (August Rauschenbusch) who converted to Baptist convictions. Educated at Rochester Theological Seminary and the University of Berlin, the largest theological impact on Rauschenbusch was his experience as a pastor of poor people in Hell’s Kitchen—one of the worst slums in NYC. Rauschenbusch’s theology centered around Jesus’ inauguration of the
Kingdom of God—in which both individual salvation and the struggle for social justice were incorporated.
- Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Minister in the Evangelical Synod of North America (and, after the merger, with the Evangelical and Reformed Church)—an immigrant denomination of Germans influenced by the Heidelberg Catechism which combined Lutheran and Calvinist influences. (This is one of the root denominations of today’s United Church of Christ.) Educated at Elmhurst
College, Eden Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and Yale University Graduate School (but his father’s death prevented him from finishing his Ph.D.). Greatly Iinfluenced by his time as pastor in Henry Ford’s Detroit. As Professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, Niebuhr reconfigured the Social Gospel of Rauschenbusch with influences from Luther and
Augustine—especially on the nature of sin. He called the result “Christian Realism,” and, for better or worse, it has dominated the American Christian approach to social ethics and political involvement ever since.
- H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962). Reinie’s younger brother and arguably the more brilliant, but less influential, thinker. Influenced more by Calvin than Luther, also Troeltsch and Karl Barth. Created the foundations of what became “narrative theology” and the post-liberal tradition.
- John Howard Yoder (1927-1997). American Mennonite theologian educated at Goshen College and the University of Basel. Influenced by traditional Anabaptist theology, Harold Bender, Karl Barth, Markus Barth, and Oscar Cullmann. Yoder took these
influences and forged a nonviolent theology of social concern that rejected the Constantinian synthesis of imperial Christianity that had dominated Christianity since the 4th C. He was probably the most influential Christian pacifist theologian since World War II and certainly the most Christocentric.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). African-American Baptist minister who took traditional Black Baptist pietism, the Social Gospel, Christian Realism, Boston Personalist philosophy & Gandhian nonviolence theory to forge the theology of the nonviolent Civil Rights movement. Educated at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, Harvard University, and Boston University, King repeatedly turned down academic posts in order to keep his commitments as a pastor and leader of the grassroots Civil Rights movement.
- Letty M. Russell (1929-2007). One ofthe pioneers in Christian feminist theology, one of the earliest women ordained
by Presbyterians, Russell incorporated feminism into a much more mainstream Christian tradition than did other early pioneers like Mary Daly (who became a self-described “post-Christian”) and Rosemary Radford Reuther.
- James Hal Cone (1938–). The most influential of the pioneers of Black Liberation Theology. A minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Cone was educated at Philander Smith College, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Northwestern University, Cone has spent most of his career teaching at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. Influenced by traditional Black Methodism, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Power Movement, Cone has sought to re-think Christian theology from the perspective of the oppressed and to articulate a theology of liberation focused on the African American context, but in dialogue with other liberation movements and cultural traditions around the globe.
Well, there’s my list. I am deeply aware that it is dominated by white males, but the tradition has been so dominated for most of U.S. history and I am trying to organize my list in terms of influence. I may believe (as I do) that Frederick Douglass should have been far more influential than Charles Hodge, but, at least at this point in U.S. history, it is not the case.
Even so, narrowing this list to 10 was not easy. The omissions are glaring–and I hope your responses will help to fill them.
Glen Harold Stassen (1936-) is my beloved teacher, mentor, occasional writing partner, and friend. Considering that he was the supervisor for my doctoral work in Christian ethics (my Doktorvater, as the Germans put it), some who know me well probably wondered why, if I were going to list mentors on this blog, I didn’t put Glen first. The answer is simple, if a bit embarrassing: I had to find a picture! Stassen is a Baptist ethicist and peace theologian who has lived and worked in several Baptist denominations, and taught on the faculties of Baptist, mainline Protestant, and evangelical institutions.
Born in Minnesota (the grandson of German immigrants) to Harold and Esther Stassen, Glen’s father became the youngest governor of Minnesota and the Stassens were part of the old ethnic German Baptist Convention (now called the North American Baptist Conference and using English in worship)–which had earlier produced Walter Rauschenbusch. Glen and his sister, Kathleen, grew up speaking German in the home and English outside. When WWII began, Harold Stassen resigned as governor of MN and joined the U.S. Navy. (Harold Stassen later wrote the first draft of the United Nations’ Charter, was a special envoy for peace in the Eisenhower administration, ruined his career in attempting to get Eisenhower to drop Nixon from the ticket for the second term, and repeatedly ran for president of the U.S. as a liberal Republican. His influence on Glen is enormous.) Glen, newly converted and baptized as a teen, saw the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a warning of judgment by God on a war-mad world. He went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia when his father was president of the University of Pennsylvania. There he met a teacher who had volunteered as a “human lab rat” for alternative service as a conscientious objector. This impressed Glen with the idea that military courage was not the only form courage took.
Initially educated at the University of Virginia in nuclear physics (B.A., 1957, cum laude), work for the Navy and Air Force in nuclear research soon convinced Glen that enough people were solving the mysteries of the atom–and not enough were working to keep the atom in check. He soon discerned a calling to the ministry. Up to this point, Stassen had been involved in North American Baptist and American Baptist circles, but he had met and married Dot Lively, a Southern Baptist, and, after investigating seminaries, decided to enroll at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. At SBTS, the teachers who influenced him were Henlee H. Barnette (Christian Ethics), and Eric C. Rust (Philosophical Theology). He also met the famed Clarence Jordan who came to Barnette’s ethics class and told the students that segregation was like a mortally wounded horse: it would kick and do much damage before it died. Unfortunately, Stassen arrived just after a clash between the faculty and seminary president had resulted in the firing of most of the professors with whom he had wanted to study. (13 professors were fired in this “Battle of Lexington Road,” and it took nearly 2 decades for the seminary to regain its former excellence and reputation. Now, since the presidency of Al Mohler began in ’94, that reputation is again in the toilet outside fundamentalist circles. ) Glen transferred to Union Theological Seminary of New York where his major influences were James Muilenberg (Old Testament), W.D. Davies (New Testament), the early Barth scholar Paul Lehmann (who, along with a young Robert McAfee Brown introduced Stassen to the thought of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), the Christocentric liberal process theologian Daniel Day Williams (who introduced him to the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr) , and, the Union giant of that day, the Christian Realist Reinhold Niebuhr (Christian ethics). R. Niebuhr’s Christian realism was reinforced at Union by Roger L. Shinn and John C. Bennett.
While at Union (B.D., 1963), Stassen continued involvement in the civil rights movement that he had begun in Virginia and Kentucky, travelling from NYC to Washington, D.C. for the 1963 March on Washington only to meet his father in the crowd when neither knew the other was coming.
Stassen earned his Ph.D. (Theological Ethics and History of Christian Thought) at Duke University (1967, magna cum laude), supervised by Waldo Beach, but most thoroughly influenced by theologian Frederick Herzog (a creative Barthian and one of the earliest white North Americans to interact with both Latin American and Black Liberation theologies), and Lutheran historian and Reformation scholar Hans Hillerbrand (who introduced Glen to the study of the Anabaptists).
Stassen’s dissertation, The Sovereignty of God in the Thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, has never been published.
Another strong influence was his fellow doctoral student, Lonnie Kliever. Stassen and Kliever were both Baptists who had gone to Union Seminary and now were doing doctoral work also outside Baptist circles–a rare phenomenon in those days–and both were involved in movements for social justice. (Kliever would eventually leave Baptist life and become a United Methodist.) He also continued his involvement in the civil rights movement and in the struggle against the Vietnam War. In both cases, he worked mostly as a strategist and organizer.
Other major influences include Menno Simons, Richard Overton, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Howard Yoder (they were friends and dialogue partners for decades), James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (another Baptist theologian influenced by Yoder and Anabaptists), the Jewish political philosopher Michael Walzer, Heinz-Eduard Toedt, and Juergen Moltmann (they co-authored a brief book). His ongoing friendship with Stanley Hauerwas includes much agreement, but also much continued debate. Recent dialogue partners include biblical scholars Ched Myers, Walter Wink, N. T. Wright, Bruce Chilton, Marcus Borg, Willard Swartley, the late Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, R. Michael Lerner, Cornel West, philosophers Nancey Murphy, and Rene Girard.
Stassen has done additional study at Harvard University, Columbia University, and the University of Heidelberg. He has taught at Duke University, Kentucky Southern College (now part of the University of Louisville), Berea College, Harvard University (Visiting Professor) The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1976-1996), and as Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary (1996-Present).
He has worked in or helped to found several organizations for peacemaking, worked behind the scenes to negotiate the removal of the short and middle range nuclear weapons from Europe, has testified at capital punishment cases and developed a strategy for defense attorneys in captital cases, founded and worked on advocacy for the mentally retarded (his youngest son was misdiagnosed as such during a time when almost no help for the mentally retarded existed in Kentucky) and assisted nonviolent human rights and peace movements in East Germany (Stassen was present when the Wall came down), Kazakstan, Central America, South Korea, Eastern Europe, and Southern Africa. He keeps up an amazing correspondence with students in each of these areas of the world, coming to lecture for them and connecting with church groups(usually Baptist or Mennonite) in all these places.
When I was his student, I argued that the implications of his theology and ethic of “just peacemaking,” led logically to pacifism, gospel nonviolence. In 2000, Glen finally began to call himself a Christian pacifist. The influence of Martin Luther King, John Howard Yoder, and the New Testament, had finally pushed beyond the influence of his father and of Reinhold Niebuhr (though he remains grateful to both).
Aside from friendship, I have learned the following from Glen Stassen:
- He reinforced my dedication to biblical scholarship–staying abreast of current work, but being unafraid to tackle one’s own exegesis and to buck professional consensuses in the cause of Christian ethics.
- I was already committed to nonviolence when I met Glen, but he gave me an approach to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount that made concrete, pragmatic sense. Just peacemaking, like Jesus and the biblical witness, is not primarily against something (war or violence or injustice), but for the in-breaking Rule of God including taking risks in transforming initiatives for justice and peace–just as God took a transforming initiative for human salvation in sending Jesus.
- Discipleship divorced from sound theology is rootless and leads to a “thin” ethics and even burnout. Doctrine divorced from concrete discipleship (nachfolge Christi) is irrelevant and leads to a docetic, disembodied Christ unrelated to the biblical Jesus.
- He deepened my appreciation for Bonhoeffer and Yoder and taught me to appreciate the Niebuhr brothers more than most pacifists ever do. Glen reinforced my historical bent by introducing me to HRN’s dictum, “History is the laboratory of ideas.” Any ethics or politics that only works in theory, under ideal conditions, is not of much use.
- Glen also reinforced my interest in the early history of Anabaptists and Baptists.
Throughout his early career, Glen published little, concentrating on classroom and church teaching and on social activism. But as he has neared retirement, his publishing output has increased, since his developing theology of “incarnational discipleship,” and ethic of “transforming initiatives” has been reaching a mature form. His writings are increasing and the numbers of his doctoral students who are also playing major constructive roles in church leadership grows constantly. He has been considered one of the Twentieth Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics and has been influential as well in mainline Protestant and evangelical circles. His “just peacemaking” practices have also begun to influence activists and peace studies academics, though they have not yet made much influence in public policy.
I predict that in the future there will be numerous doctoral dissertations done on Glen’s work and that his influence will continue to grow.
John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) is one of my mentors and heroes. In fact, of people with whom I never had the pleasure of studying directly, no one has been more influential on the shape of my theology, ecclesiology, and ethics than John Howard Yoder.
He was the most important Anabaptist theologian since Menno Simons(1496-1561). Educated at Goshen College and the University of Basel, Yoder taught at both the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and at the University of Notre Dame. Most famous for his work, The Politics of Jesus (1972), which destroyed the popular image of Jesus as an apolitical figure, and described Jesus’ mission as creating a new people whose nonviolence, mutual servanthood, and economic sharing, constituted a political threat to the Powers and Authorities. Although trained mainly as a historical theologian, Yoder wrote in several fields in ground-breaking ways: biblical studies; church history; theology; Christian ethics. Although “mainstream” Christians often read Yoder as representative of “the Mennonite view,” Yoder was often controversial in his own denomination, challenging it to renewal.
Yoder was influenced at Goshen College by Harold Bender, the first Mennonite to be elected president of the American Society of Church History. Bender successfully sought to renew North American Mennonite life through both ecumenical contact and renewed attention to the 16th C. “Anabaptist Vision.” Largely due to Bender’s influence, Mennonite scholarship in church history became well-known before contributions in other fields.
After college, Yoder, like so many Mennonites of his generation, volunteered for mission, relief, and development work in post-War Europe, aiding in renewal both in European Mennonite life and beyond. (Yoder met and married the French Mennonite schoolteacher, Anne Marie Guth, through this work.) During this work in Europe, Yoder simultaneously enrolled in doctoral studies at the University of Basel and engaged in the early post-War development of the ecumenical movement with the founding of the World Council of Churches, thereby presenting the Churches of the Reformation with their first sustained encounter with a representative of the Radical Reformation since the 16th C. The influence went both ways: Work for peace was placed on the WCC agenda from the beginning, and Yoder became deeply influenced by the work of both Karl Barth and, even more, by the growing “Biblical Theology Movement” of the era.
Those remained the dominant sources in Yoder’s creative synthesis: Bender and 16th C. Anabaptist sources; Karl Barth; the “Biblical Realism” of one major strand of critical biblical scholarship. Later influences included post-Vatican II Catholic thought (Yoder taught for years at the University of Notre Dame); the “Believers’ Church Conferences,” which brought representatives of many different Free Church or Believers’ Church traditions together and began a lifetime dialogue between Yoder and certain strands of Baptist thought; the nonviolent strand of the U.S. Black Freedom movement; a sustained and lengthy interaction (both approval and critique) with Latin American Liberation Theology; and post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian dialogue. A true polyglot with an incredible ear for languages, Yoder carried on these many dialogues in nine different languages.
Painfully shy but with a booming voice and glowering countenance, many believed Yoder to be aloof or arrogant, but it was rather that John had few “people skills.” As many will attest, it was difficult to be his friend. Yet, both personally and through his work, Yoder touched numerous lives. He encouraged my own work as the external reader of my dissertation and in an email a few days before his unexpected death. At his funeral, I met people from around the world, including a young white man from South Africa who, influenced by The Politics of Jesus, refused to be drafted into the apartheid-era South African army and served time in jail in response.
Suffice it to say that my intellectual and personal debts to “JHY,” as he was often called, are immense. I first read him just after I left the U. S. Army as a conscientious objector (1983) and The Politics of Jesus gave deeper biblical grounding to my nascent pacifism. I’ve worn out 4 copies of that classic, now–3 of the first edition and one of the 1994 expanded revision. (I ordered a new copy today.) In the last couple of years many of Yoder’s unpublished writings have been published posthumously. New secondary studies are shedding light and giving rise to different schools of “Yoderians,” just as their are rival interpretations of Karl Barth or Dietrich Bonhoeffer–and, yes, Yoder belongs in such exalted company though his humility would never let him admit that.
For those seeking an accurate basic introduction to his work (since reading Yoder takes practice!), I recommend highly Mark Thiessen Nation’s, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions. (Eerdmans, 2005). I’ll try to write another post giving a good basic Yoder bibliography. I also recommend Marko Funk’s helpful reading notes at Reading Yoder.