Friday, August 20, 2010

Concluding Remarks on the Barthian Turn

I would like to wrap up this set of posts by presenting the concluding remarks of my chapter esssay. Radical Historicism and the Disclosive Word of God, which also brings to conclusion the six pereceding chapters in a book project on contemporary Protestant biblical theology that remains in search of a publisher. To the extent taht time allows (and time is tight at this point) I will attempt shorter posts. I wanted this concluding statement to stand in full on its own terms

GD
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Concluding Remarks on the Barthian Turn to the "Strange New World of the Bible"

At this point what I can offer is a summative statement. At the core of the argument is the persisting nature of the great divide at the heart of 20th century American Protestantism as reflected symbolically in its evangelical and mainline camps, on whether one starts with the Bible or the culture as the primary source of faith in God revealed through Christ. As evident even in the mediating theologies of Hall and Lints, there is something enduring about this split along the fault line of contemporary Protestantism. The divide exists at the congregational level as well as throughout the fabric of formal theological discourse, exemplified, for example by which authors are read or ignored in particular seminary or congregational settings. The result is that a great many Protestant ministers, educated lay persons, and even theologians do not have a substantial understanding of the nature of scriptural exegesis, theological argumentation, or even basic biblical understanding of those whose positions substantially differ from their own within the camp of Protestant discourse. The consequential impact is an all-too-quick resort to clich├ęs, stereotypical thinking, or downright dismissal of even highly cogent alternative depictions of self-identified Christian scholarship and approaches to worship, preaching, and teaching at the congregational level.

In covering the ground from J.I. Packer to Jurgen Moltmann I have sought to imaginatively traverse some of the distance within 20th century Protestantism within a broad-based orthodoxy, in which its different streams need to be placed in critical dialogue for any even imaginative healing of the great divide to take hold. This schema of placing these five theologians and biblical scholars in the sequencing that I have is based on a rough ordering from conservative to liberal within the context of an overarching generous orthodoxy. Both singularly and collectively the studied biblical theology of these five offers an abundance of riches in the ongoing work of contemporary Protestant theological construction. My strategy was to juxtapose core concepts of these authors in a predominantly irenic manner in order to draw out all that I could of the immense value of their insights even as I raise critical issues with certain aspects of all of these authors’ works. The value of their many reflections is enhanced by the fact that each has taken a mediating approach in the effort of reconciling a broad swathe of theological insight within a given sphere of their respective theaters of influence. In this respect, the five represent a very broad range of theological insight that a close focus on their work enables me to address, if not exhaustively, at least in some substantive manner. Additional study is obviously needed. Even still, I have attempted to cover the basic ground in relation to the specific issues I am addressing, first and foremost the role of the theology of Scripture in contemporary Protestant discourse.

I have taken the position throughout this book that any substantial revitalization of a Reformed-based renewal within mainline and evangelical sectors will require some substantial embrace of the Barthian turn toward the strange new world within the Bible. To this I add the proviso that apologetics take on a supportive, supplemental role beyond what Barth addressed in his massive Church Dogmatics particularly within the faith community where cogent reasons to believe require solid articulation. This is especially the case in our secular era where convincing reasons to believe are anything but self-evident, given the compelling force of other metanarrative construals among large sectors of the contemporary faith community. This is so not only on the impact of such secular narratives among the mainline sector, but also with large segments of evangelical laity and clergy.

Thus, a rigorously nuanced apologetics is extremely important work. However, it is not the focus of this book. Nor, do I think, is it the most pressing issue in terms of faith identity facing the contemporary Protestant community at this time. That, I believe, particularly in this era of mainline, and according to Wells, serious evangelical diaspora, is the press of the onslaught of an engulfing secularization on the impact of Christian consciousness, which is the focus of this book. The challenge of secularization I would posit in the broadest of senses as roughly analogous to the influence of Hellenistic culture on the first few centuries of the emergence of the early church. On this analogy, secularization holds attendant dangers and possibilities for theological reconstruction on grounds that could enhance foundational kergmatic claims even if such work would require different epistemological bases from other constructions of faith as historically conditioned in previous eras, as allusively suggested, for example, by Moltmann.

On this analogy, as imprecise as it may be, critical dialogue, including the prospect of some mediation between faith and culture is quite warranted. That mediation will take place is inescapable in any event. The more important issue is the conscious intentionality through which such reflection would be undertaken on the relationship between faith and culture in any given context and where ultimate theological priorities are placed. With Hall and Wells, I discern the primary challenge in contemporary Protestant identity at this very time as the painful need for a radical coming to terms with the persisting reality of its diaspora context in contemporary U.S. culture. This is clearly cultural work and simultaneously profoundly theological. The implications of this realization will require, among other things, the delineation of a sharply defined, sophisticated, and comprehensible countercultural identity based on the core precepts of its most fundamental and foundational kerygma in sharp juxtaposition to the secular metanarrative. Without this, I fear the press of the secular trajectory of the past two centuries maintains such a persuasive pull that it can only further engulf the prospect of any flourishing of a sophisticated, sharply defined, and comprehensible theological identity within contemporary Protestant congregational life based on its core biblical metanarrative claims. It is this, I argue, that is perilously at risk in our secular age in which a broad array of countercultural resources are most urgently needed for even the maintenance of a viable Protestant identity in our time.

The important dialogue between postliberal and critical evangelical perspectives at the academic and congregational levels provides one of the more important resources for the building up of the Protestant body on its own foundational terms. So does a strengthening of the local church and the denominational structure at the ecclesial and theological levels, pivotal areas that I have not been able to tackle in this book, which Fackre, for example, whose work I am in broad sympathy, has done so much to address throughout his career as a pastor, theologian, and ecumenical churchman. My work has been more directly focused on the theological, particularly the role of Scripture on the Bible/culture axis. It is this pivotal question on whether the Bible will be the basis for interpreting the culture or whether culture will be the basis for interpreting the Bible that requires some dramatic resolution, complexity notwithstanding for Protestant identity to emerge with any semblance of coherency in our time. It is the outcome of this pivotal challenge, the kerygmatic claim of God revealed in Christ as attested to in the New Testament through the mighty clouds of apostolic witness, which, I posit, will determine the viability of ecclesial and congregational renewal of contemporary Protestantism stemming from any sustainable reformation of the faith grounded in its most fundamental principles.

I do not presume that one cannot be Christian without making this metaphorical Barthian turn. I can only encourage those who take the position to the contrary to continue to make their own case and to acknowledge, too that theirs is a faith-based position, however compellingly riveting it may seem. The predominance of culture over Scripture in the broad sense of Brueggemann’s funding postmodernity one verse, one miracle, one revelation at a time remains a shadow voice in my own faith walk. I presume that this cannot but be so given its preeminence through a significant period of my life, which I, nonetheless have not at this point given nor choose to give a great deal of emphasis to on warranting more attention than I believe that it deserves as discussed in Chapter Five. The more important need is the persisting challenge of deconstructing any sense of absolutism that historicism may hold on my own faith-based identity and as a persisting stranglehold in contemporary Protestant theology.

Given the press of my broader argument, this struggle for a sharply demarcated and theological rich Christian identity based on the fundamental presuppositions of a biblically inspired faith is far from mine alone. In making the Barthian turn there has been some deliberate intentionality in my deciding that one construction of reality, the theological, is more substantial than the philosophical, especially, on my construction through the pragmatic reflections of John Dewey, who has had a preeminent influence in my academic work in adult literacy education. Such a paradigmatic shift has been born through much struggle extending over a three decade period in which coming to a new resolution has been anything but easy or self-evident. Writ large, Dewey’s pragmatism is a subset of the philosophy of naturalism which underlies a very broad set of presuppositions reinforcing the engulfment of the secular turn in our time.

One might plausibly ague that I have been operating out of a modern/postmodern identity based on the mythology of a self that has the capacity to act in such an apparently intentional manner in deciding whether one would embrace a distinctively religious or secular identity, with all complexity again, well noted of what such a formation entails. In faith, I assume it has not been solely “me” deciding, but Christ within the very fabric of my identity pulling me toward this construction of reality through the various means discussed in this book, via the instrumentality in more recent times of H.R. Niebuhr’s concept of “centers of value.” This Niebuhran turn toward an imaginative Bathian identity has included increasing awareness of the inescapability of making absolute claims through whatever sets of value upon which one places one’s ultimate concern. It was this insight that resonated at a particular place and time that provided an imaginative resource to loosen the hold of the overwhelming presence of a postmodern identity embedded within the inescapability of radical historicism. Not that I have completely escaped historical constructivism or even desire to do so, though I do believe that historicism as an absolute is one of the primary centers of value of the past 150 years, and, to use biblical imagery, a potent form of idolatry which speaks very compellingly to the citizens of the secular city. A deeper appreciation of this reality, which Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture helped to crystallize, was one pivotal factor, from below, so to speak.

The other is the enduring press of Jesus’ critical challenge to Nicodemus on the necessity of entering into the faith that Christ proclaimed by being born again, in which, to simply state it, nothing else will do (Jn 3:3-20). To put it otherwise, at some time and place, if one is going to walk within the precepts of a New Testament-based faith in any coherent and sustained way at all, persisting questioning, searching, doubting, and grappling with the complexities of the self in its varied subtle cultural formations, needs to come to some dramatic and imaginative resolution in “new creation.” Life in its complex and diverse richness, tragic depths, intellectual searching, and aesthetic wonderment still pertains, even more so, arguably in the abundant new life that a reasonably consistent walk within the Christian pathway opens up. As with all constructions of reality there are boundaries, in our case defined by the life, teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Christ in which the challenge becomes the placing of all other narratives within this wide expanse; one that has edges as well, which one may transgress, but not without consequences, sometimes extremely painful ones that can extend to the very breaking point of faith.

The capacity to expand the Barthian project as an ongoing theological work is an issue of the most critical magnitude given the foundational status of the Bible as the classical Protestant magisterium. The persisting reality of the cultural divide between fundamentalism and modernism permeates all sectors of U.S. Protestantism to its core, which compounds the challenge of embracing Scripture as the primary narrative of faith in its complex relationship to church tradition and the broader cultural matrix. An imaginative coming to terms with the implications of this chasm in which critical theological issues are probed represents a crucial baseline for any viable Protestant renewal even within the context of its culturally marginalized diaspora setting. As argued throughout this book, any such reform within Protestantism will not come easy and will be ultimately limited in any event, although to what extent, one of course, cannot say. The point is there is a viable basis for some fruitful enhancement of centrist ground as exemplified for example in the critical dialogue between evangelical and postliberal theology and in the reclamation of the neo-orthodox legacy, both of which have the capacity to speak to searchingly attuned sensibilities underlying the confessing Christ movements within the mainline denominations and to critically articulated evangelical perspectives.

The challenge, I believe, is to lay out a sharply clarified baseline on the essentials and to allow for and even encourage (but not romanticize) latitude in things where liberty can pertain. Through such critical and faithful dialogue new light may break forth, indeed. Yet any new insights that emerge need to resonate with the apostolic faith once for all delivered to the saints. This can only be the standard for any hermeneutical renewal that seeks to be faithful to both the context and the text, however difficult and invariably flawed the process of discernment may be and the attendant disagreements that remain even of the most substantial penultimate points of contention.

However problematic the Barthian turn may be, I maintain that the alternative of positing some aspect of culture in the more privileged position than the Bible as anything less than the Protestant magisterium is even more so. That is the case because it undercuts the potential depth of what a theologically sophisticated and ecumenically grounded faith commitment could come to mean and be for a contemporary Protestant identity that seeks to be faithful to the core keygma in a manner that also has the capacity to be profoundly culturally relevant, which I view as an important secondary concern.

On this I have made the comparable argument that dialectics needs to be subsumed within dogmatics and cannot stand as the final arbiter of faith. To make it such is to situate paradox and doubt as positive theological values in their own right as independent centers of value rather than as essential experiences along the pathway of faith in “work[ing] out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). I contend that in all periods and situations believing “with no doubting” (Jas 1:6) is the biblical norm even in the acknowledgment that we see in a mirror, dimly and cannot practically avoid a degree of hopefully healthy skepticism at least in terms of our capacity to grasp what we seek to attain, in any event. Even in this acknowledgement, believing faith as the substance of our identity rather than doubt in itself is the critical biblical norm, which is one of the main countercultural outcomes of any imaginative embrace of the Barthian turn, one that comes to terms with the gap between what we can know and can hope for through the vision of faith. It is this radical scandal, which speaks to a central tenet of 20th century epistemology.

Such a faith, in its ecumenical and kegymatic fullness is a radical rejoinder to the most fundamental precepts of the secular paradigm. It is a faith stance that needs to be embraced with both humility and boldness within the contemporary Protestant sector for any even plausible effort, however incomplete, of overcoming some of the more pernicious, all-engulfing, and subtle idolatrous forces of the secular era. The case may be overstated in that the relationship between the Bible and the culture in any given context, including the current one is infinitely more complex than one can hope to describe through the symbolism of words. Yet, the matter of ultimate identification is an inescapable one, however partial our knowledge can only possibly be. In this respect there is something enduringly pressing in the typology described in Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, notwithstanding the limitations and provisos as earlier discussed.

The critical issue in our context for Protestant life and identity formation remains the basic one on whether the culture in all that that implies becomes the source for interpreting the Bible or whether Scripture, in all that that implies, becomes the basis for interpreting the culture, with attendant implications for theology, congregational life, denominational polity, and personal piety. Thus, for all of the complexity and nuance in the relationship between modernity/postmodernity and contemporary theological discourse (lay and academic), the issue of placing centers of value somewhere cannot be avoided. It is this realization and the identification of radical monotheism as the ultimate center of value underpinning all of creation as an uncompromising ontological assumption that requires sustaining epistemological assent in the embrace in faith of whatever grace is given that is the enduring legacy of H.R. Niebuhr and a pivotal underpinning of this book. It is the acceptance of this realization at least for those for whom the Bible has been made problematic that opens the biblical text as the most singular viable entry point to the strange new world of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, who in faith, is “the expressed image of his [very] Person” (Heb 1:3).

On the substance of this incarnational epiphany, I contend that the very identity of Christianity stands or falls in this era and in every age. It is this faith claim about the nature of reality which grounds the search for a continuously greater understanding of its many manifestations within and through its various embodiments in the time in which we live. In this era we live in a time of unaccustomed diaspora in all that that implies for identity reconstruction. In the more fundamental sense our residence is between the first and final coming of Christ’s appearance in all that that implies for grappling with the ineradicable tension between that which we are called to believe and that to which we can know by sight. Faith is the substance that mediates the difference.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Exploring the Interface between Neo-Orthodox, Post-Liberal, and Serious Evangelical Discourse on the Christ-Culture Relationship in Our Era

The following is a conversation between Herb Davis and myself on the potential grounds for constructive dialogue between post-liberal, neo-orthodox and serious evangelical discourse on the critical issues relating to the faith/culture nexus in contemporary Protestant thought and culltural practices. The discussion took place on the Confessing Christ listserv posted on August 4th.
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Herb: Dear George, You amaze me with your broad, generous, gentle reading of the theological landscape of the last 80 plus years. I think you are right to see the critical divide between Christianity that is defined primarily by "the strange, new world within the Bible" and Christianity that is defined primarily by culture, or some defining signs of God in the culture, such as "feeling of absolute dependence" (religious experience) or building the Kingdom or divisively, multiculturalism, etc. I think we both agree that no church is free of Bible or culture, it is where and how we lean on these sources.

George: Agreed on all this. The only thing I would add (my hypothesis) is that the divide is exacerbated by the enduring and in many ways, unconscious culture lag based on the foundational issues that shaped the modernist/fundamentalist polarity of the early 20th century in coming to terms with academic biblical criticism, science, professional historical studies, and the significance of the social gospel. Thus while the acute early 20th century crisis has been attenuated both by many theologically informed evangelicals and ecumenists, the cultural and psychological force of that split remains pressing, often exhibited on a most instinctive basis. part of what I am up to in this project is to "imaginatively exorcize" this conflict; I say imaginatively because I don't think it's very likely, but I maintain that the effort to do so needs to be enacted with the motivational impulse that it is so possible and that it is essential to do so nonetheless.

Herb: You see the major theological moves of the 20th century being suspicion of culture or historicism as defining the faith. Barth is most stark in his refusal to allow any natural theology or any clear signs of the God expect in Jesus Christ. Tillich is pushing to relativize all culture and talks about "the God above all gods," Bultman is trying to find a way to make "the strange, new world of the Bible" meaningful in the modern, scientific world (Barth you claim shares Bultman's hope), Bonheoffer is trying to find a way to be Christian without "being salve to individual consciousness or experience or being slave to the other, the winners or the victims or the culture icons." The Niebuhrs also distrust the culture and both raise deep questions about the values of nationalism, racism, or even love as being identified with God. What you call neo - orthodox, that movement that had some credence in the liberal church in 1940- 60's, remember Douglas Horton, leader in formation of UCC, translated Barth's "Word of God and Word of Man", which contains the essay on "The Strange New World in the Bible". You claim the future of Protestant rest on the renewal of this theology in the mainline/liberal church making a bridge to the evangelical theological that are beginning to see Barth in a new light. I think you may be right but I wonder if the liberal church can recapture neo-orthodox.

George: To take your last phrase on the liberal church reclaiming neo-orthodoxy; there are some serious efforts by Hall, Dorrien, Robin Lovin, Larry Rassumussen, and Gabe, to name a few. Thus, there may be a bridge between theological liberalism and post-liberalism as exhibited also in the work of Brueggemann, though I'm not too sure how far the theological liberals are willing or able to go or if those like Dorrien and Hall in particular are willing to merge their dialectical empathies with a willingness to embrace direct truth claims even as a regulative ideal with very strong intent moving into the realm of coming to terms with the particularity of the faith once for all delivered to the Saints. I also do not know to what extent the post-liberal theologians/biblical scholars are willing to engage in serious dialogue with evangelicals such as Richard Lints, Mark Noll, George Marsden, David Wells, and J.I. Packer, but I do think such a probing is also very critical on both sides of this divide. At the least this would require, in my view, a rigorous embrace of the Barthian vision of the reality and desirability of placing the strange new world of the Bible first and some giving up of a rigid doctrine of inerrancy in the midst of adhering firmly to the Bible as the revealed Word of God which can only even begun to be grasped through the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

Herb: Fackre was a pioneer in this effort as you continually note. Years ago at Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) he tried to move the school to a closer relationship with Gordon Cornwell Theological School. He helped hire a Pentecostal theologian who believe that Pentecostals need the mainline church and the mainline church needed Pentecostals. He help hire a Latino evangelical liberation theologian who became Dean. He shared your vision. Recently ANTS has moved away from building bridges to the evangelical community to a tight relationship with a religious society deeply defined by culture, granted the best and finest of our culture. What you would hope for would be a deeper relationship in the UCC seminaries with evangelical seminary such as PSR with Fuller Seminary, ANTS with Gordon. This doesn't seem possible but it would be thinking outside the box.

George: I think that's essential and I thought there was potential between ANTS and Gordon; apparently not so much at this time

Herb: I have your hope. I think you are right about the "strange new world of the Bible" vs.. the culture. I see some glimmer of this in the UCC Vitality Resources but.....where do you see signs of possibility that the "strange new world of the Bible" might be emerging? You seem to suggest the Confessing Christ movements but I think many of these may be move culturally motivated than theological? Is there any other places?

George: Perhaps there's more theology here than you seem to note. last time I checked the United Methodist Church has a type of Confessing Christ movement, and let's do play up the potential significance of this movement within the UCC, which, at its best, I believe, will remain a solid dialogue partner. I think some of the work by Marva Dawn has some value. Also, there may be some value in re-visiting some of the UCC breakaway churches. The one I attended last year broke from the CT UCC Conference some years ago for what they viewed as the broader purposes of drawing in and drawing on the more deeply rooted legacy of British and American congregationalism. The religious literacy of the laity of that church is stunning, including lay led book clubs and Bible study. The monthly book club has read the likes of Augustine, Bonhoeffer, Chesterton, Lewis and many others and those who participate in the Bible studies have a solid grasp of the text and the capacity to relate it to the complexities of everyday life. Moreover, the political philosophy of the membership ranges from liberal to conservative and I saw Obama stickers on cars parked there for Sunday morning services.

In short, I think there are places, movements and texts to draw. Even though I do not think the center holds, I do believe that its radical pursuits at least on the precepts that I have attempted to lay out is more than worthy of the effort. That's me, though.

Herb: Tomorrow comments on Hall, Dorrien and Lints which might be the hopeful signs. Herb

George: Looking forward to it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The demise of Neo-Orthodoxy and the Biblical Theology Movement

In a recent Confessing Christ listserv posting Herb Davis posited the following:

"What you call neo - orthodox, that movement that had some credence in the liberal church in 1940- 60's, remember Douglas Horton, leader in formation of UCC, translated Barth's "Word of God and Word of Man", which contains the essay on "The Strange New World in the Bible". You claim the future of Protestant rest on the renewal of this theology in the mainline/liberal church making a bridge to the evangelical theological that are beginning to see Barth in a new light. I think you maybe right but I wonder if the liberal church can recapture neo-orthodox."

In terms of Herb's last sentence, my short response is not likely. For a longer response I post a section from the first chapter of my book where I discuss historical trends in US Protestantism from 1940-1965. The short of it is that theoretically and theologically ne-orthodoxy has potential of doing such work, which both Doulass Hall and Gary Dorrien from the post-liberal camp have been working on as have Gabriel Fackre and Donald Bloesch from more centrist theological perspectives. However, I think the cultural tensions in contemporary Protestantism are currently much too wide for any new theological consensus to emerge. Even if not, the effort in working toward it has much intrinsic significance whch opens up a theater of work to which some of us may fine and hone our calling.
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The Hope


Neo-orthodox realism and the biblical theology movement detailing the “mighty acts” of God, both of which were pervasive in the period between 1940 and 1960, sought to bridge the gap through an embrace of the Reformed tradition that in principle could incorporate the major precepts of critical liberal scholarship. Much exciting work in theology and biblical studies emerged in this mid-century period in Europe and the United States that re-legitimized the biblical notion of God’s transcendence and the broad-based unity of the Bible in a manner, which, in principle, if not always in practice could be reconciled with higher biblical criticism. The neo-orthodox and biblical theology movements, which gained substantial adherence at the seminary and denominational levels, played a major role in diminishing the dominance of theological liberalism and its impact in the broader religious culture of the nation during this two-decade period. Notwithstanding this mediating resurgence, the forces unleashed in the early 20th century which fueled the modernist/ fundamentalist divide, were still operative and needed but little force to break out into open conflagration in the post WWII period.

The great divide was held in bay to some degree in this “consensus” period of U.S. history as depicted in such key texts as Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition and Age of Reform, and Louis Hartz’s often referenced, The Liberal Tradition in America. Yet, the enduring fissures between the biblicalism of even the neo-orthodox variety and modernism re-exploded in the latter decades of the 20th century as this consensus period broke down in the “culture wars” unleashed by world-wide protest over the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. The result was that the most fundamental issues on the nature of Christian faith within the context of the modern world became encased in a highly contentious polemic, notwithstanding mediating work to the contrary.

The Demise

A critical factor in the breakdown of any budding neo-orthodox synthesis was the emergence of a diffusive civil religion within the mainline churches in the early post-World War II period. This muted “civil” theology stood in stark juxtaposition to a rigorous biblicalism in the increasing merger of certain strands of fundamentalism and evangelicalism at the theological level, as reflected in the formation of Fuller Seminary in 1947 and the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s. In this maelstrom the theological insights of the neo-orthodox theologians became viewed with increasing irrelevance within the Protestant mainline while Karl Barth’s interpretation of biblical narratives as “sagas” and Reinhold Niehbuhr’s reconstruction of biblical orthodoxy as “myth” were rejected by a broad swath of scholarly evangelicals, which brooked no compromise with biblical inerrancy.

Prospects of any broad-based conversion within Protestant theology; that is any consequent healing of the modernist-fundamental divide was further eroded by directions taken on both sides of the great divide from the 1960s to the present. Evangelicalism in its many variants grew exponentially through charismatic and Pentecostal revivals, the explosive growth of the “megachurch,” and the political flourishing of the religious right with the onset of the Reagan presidency. There were many fissures, disputes, and disagreements within the evangelical sector of American Protestantism, including a progressive minority component as reflected in the work of Jim Wallis and the formation of the weekly magazine, Sojourners. Despite the differences and exceptions, common enough positions on abortion, gay rights, the role of women in society and in the church, and the toxic impact of the 60s on the traditional American values, helped to establish an evangelical distinctiveness sharply differentiated from mainline Protestantism. A somewhat literal and inerrant reading of the Bible undergirded a conservative social polity based on a vision articulated by the Christian Coalition of bringing America back to God. The religious right has been a major source of conservative political power in the United States for the past 30 years. Additional discussion of evangelical theology and religious culture, including my own relationship to it is interspersed throughout this book beginning with the last two sections of this chapter.

For the remainder of this historical survey I focus on a few of the ways in which mainline and liberal theology was infused by a wide stream of fresh thinking broadly influenced by Harvey Cox’s The Secular City. In this key text, which became a byword of an era, the ethos of modern urbanity became the context in which Christianity, if it were to have force in the modern world, would have to find its voice. More radical were the writings of the “death of God” theologians who argued that the traditional notion of a supernatural, transcendent God was no longer a viable concept at least for the residents of the secular city. Any rebirth of Christianity could only emerge through an embrace of the faith’s core symbol, the cross, in the death of traditional religious categories through which the spirit (or at least the “essence”) of Christ could re-emerge, but only within the context of secular experience. Traditional notions of “God talk” were dismissed as irrelevant and obscurantist to their core. Fundamentalists and evangelicals who rejected the entire thrust of the secularization argument roundly repudiated this position.

The Influence of Harvey Cox's Death of God Theology

The death of God movement did not have a large following even within the mainline denominations. It did, however, represent the culmination of a half-century of existential theology extending from Rudolph Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and certain tendencies within Dietrich Bonhoeffer, although the latter remained an uncompromising theist through the course of his short and heroic life. As a major proponent of “process theology” Langdon Gilkey integrated both existentialism and neo-orthodoxy in his search for the articulation of God’s immanence within the very fabric of “secular” history. The searching and living out of this ineffable presence was viewed as the fundamental basis for any reconstruction of theological, biblical and religious language in which any vestige of spatial notions of God in heaven and man on earth impeded rather than facilitated the emergence of the spirit’s indwelling in the modern period.

Notwithstanding its secularist appeal, the rarefied terminology of death of God and process theologians was too esoteric for direct appropriation in the mainline denominations. Through seminary training these influences indelibly played into the religious formation of at least certain clergy who would generally find it exceedingly difficult to translate such insights into inspiring pulpit sermons that could speak in any convincing idiom of a new theology of practice in the secular city. Given the theological abstruseness of such work, to say nothing of the radical nature of their implications for traditional understanding of the Christian faith, the gap between the seminary and the pew more often than not led to clerical avoidance rather than to rigorous embrace. Consequently, the hard work of theological exposition needed for any appropriation of its core insights at the congregational level was largely left waning for the religiously inclined laity hovering around the boundaries of the secular city.

One result was that mainline congregants typically lacked substantial reasons at the level of clear articulation for hard won religious beliefs even though rigorous thinking in the professional life of the middle class required a direct analysis of facts and operative constructs at the level of where it counted in practical application. Thus a dichotomous view of the relationship between the church and the world was all too characteristic of mainline experience in which neither the implications of existential nor traditional-based theologies held full sway. For adult male members of the mid-1960s of mainline denominations in particular, a widening experiential gap between the reality-based perception of the world of work and a Sunday church experience could not be papered over by building projects and stewardship campaigns.

Concluding Thoughts on the Demise of any Neo-Orthodox/Biblical Movement Consensus

These various modes of existentialist theology spoke to broad currents in the post-1960 mainline religious culture. While certain key phrases about the need for “relevance” were appropriated into congregational life, little systematic work was accomplished in integrating these schools of theology within the context of the institutional life of the church. A more dynamic relationship between the seminary and the pew emerged in the 1970s in an appropriation of the “identity politics” of black and feminist theologies. This was a double-edged sword. Those who embraced these more recent streams of religious thought were better able to translate theology into practical action than the advocates of the death of God and process theology. Yet, this came only at the price of very sharp conflict between the advocates of the new political theologies and others of more modest inclination who remained less convinced, as well as among the more outright skeptical and overtly critical even within the mainline denominations.

Thus, as the 1970s began, the broad-based consensus of the early cold war era gave way to a polarizing tendency in U.S. culture between conservative and progressive forces, fueled by radically conflicting stances on the Vietnamese War. These countervailing world views had sharply-defined gender, race, class, and theological components, which melded into conflicting ideological constructions, symbolized most fully in competing perspectives on interpretations of the “countercultural” decade of the 1960s. While the following discussion focuses on the two central issues of race and gender, the broad themes that have given shape to theological liberalism from the late 19th century are subsumed and radicalized in these two critical areas.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Response

Thank you Herb for your cogent summary and more fundamentally for your interest in reading the text and providing the commentary that you have.

The project started with an examination of what I posited as the evangelical/liberal split in 20th century US Protestantism which I linked to the Bible/Culture fissure in terms of where interpretive privilege resides (and as I would have it) should reside if any Reformed based polity and theology were ever to come to terms with its own foundations in the Protestant Reformation, to be sure in 20th-21st century garb. I linked this split in turn, to the enduring iconographical significance of the Scopes Trial and the continuous residue that has emerged from that as an unconscious culture lag, however much both serious evangelical and mainline Protestant circles have gravitated from the explicit force of that confict. In the process what has not been resolved, and little likelihood that it will, are some clear delineations on how the Bible/culture axis should be worked through.

To be sure, both Bloesch and Fackre in UCC circles have made substantial efforts, particularly Fackre in laying out a truly centrist perspective and in the process of bringing much light to solid evangelical and various liberal perspectives. His capacity for affirmation and admonition has worked as a substantial interpretative filter through which to creatively grapple with a great deal of the political/theological trajectory of contemporary Protestant thought including his placing of classical feminist theology in the intriguing role of critic as resident. His work has exhibited much bold thinking in his creative project of designing a comprehensive centrist vision, one which has the real potential of holding.

I personally do not think the center does hold, though I do believe it contains unfathomable heuristic capacity in opening up fresh space, particularly in enhancing various confessing movements in the mainline denominations with the hope and expectation, in turn of increasing broader influence within the mainline denominations. At the same time there is something enduringly persistent about the mainline vision with its subtle and at times not so subtle emphasis of placing culture first on the Christ/culture axis. This enduring reality speaks to the much explicit and implici; and sometimes unconscious manifestations.

This influential strain at the epicenter of mainline Protestantism is evident at the level of the pew and far from from missing with the ordained clergy as well. The need, in my view, is less that of absolute resolution, an impossible, and many would argue, a dangerous standard, than very sharp clarity on an assessment and analysis of the issues that do divide as well as potential near term resolutions in a manner that comes to terms with complexity without resort to caricature. These were the key assumptions that I had when I began the project in 2006 in which I viewed the Barthian turn to the strange new world of the Bible as highly compatible with serious evangelical theology and one which had potential pull in mainline circles as well as evident by Bloesch and Fackre's long term embrace of Barth.

I began to refine the argument as less a dialogue between evangelicalism and liberalism than a tighter probing between various post-liberal and serious evangelical perspectives. I hesitate to say post-evangelicalism because of a too readily reliance on "open theology" and the "emergent church, though I am much opposed to uncritical evangelical theology which refuses to take contemporary biblical scholarship seriously and one which is overly dependent on the doctrine of inerrancy which is only essential if one associates a serious turn to the Bible with the claim that it is historically reliable in all of its main particulars. Frankly, I don't think that necessity is essential. Its insistence, moreover, can have serious unintended negative consequences requiring either an uncritical, and in some way unreal embrace on the one hand, or an outright rejection of the core foundations of faith on the other hand.

Neither of these is necessary with an acceptance of 2 Corinthians 5: 19 as a theological stance grounded in "God in Christ reconciling the world" can, in principle, substantially resolve these dilemmas which underlie the apprehensions of those claiming biblical inerrancy, while being utterly biblical in the process. And with that, having the capacity and desire to embrace an utterly biblical theology and all the pietististic and ecclesial implications of what this implies. Some such resolution of this Christ/culture tension, is in my view, absolutely indispensable if a serious and comprehensive Reformed vision is ever to attain a widespread acceptance within contemporary Protestantism.

Thus, in refining my argument I turned to Timothy .R. Philips & Dennis L. Okholm (Eds.), The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation Essays by George Lindbeck, Alister McGrath, George Hunsinger, Gabriel Fackre and Others (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996) as a better organizing synthesis to my book. With this construction I was able to place Packer, Bloesch and Fackre in the evangelical camps; clearly the later as an evangelical, broadly and Jurgen Moltmann as representative a post-liberal perspective.

Throughout this book I drew on Karl Barth as metaphor or signifier, particularly his emphasis on the centrality of the biblical turn and its significance for 20th century theology. I had a vague sense that something was still missing. It was not, however, until encountering Douglas J. Hall's short gem, Remembered Voices: Reclaiming the Legacy of “Neo-Orthodoxy” (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) that a fresh idea began to gel in which my own reclamation of the neo-orthodox legacy was the essential third voice for that turn.

In this final chapter I appropriated both something of Hall's and Gary Dorrien's dialectical post-liberal theology and sifted it through my own evangelical prism in arguing that the ontological claims of truth (John 14:6) need to be embraced in faith, without equivocation, in which dialectics, while important, would need to be, in the final analysis, subordinate. That chapter, the one under review here, contains a good deal of discussion on Barth, especially his critical dialogues with Bultmann and Tillich, which I attempt to both lay out fairly, as well as providing a very strong Barthian rejoinder. It is only after all that that I begin to discuss Bonhoeffer and the Niebuhr brothers, teasing out something of the implications of their central arguments, and in the process putting my own "serious" evangelical spin on the interpretation.

The chapter largely closes in bringing up the argument to date through a comparison/contrast between Hall's dialectical theology and Richard Lints' effort to expand evangelical theology almost, in his words, to the breaking point while holding firm to his own identity in evangelical theology. Throughout the entire book, I seek to develop a dynamic encounter between key evangelical, post-liberal and neo-orthodox perspectives in allowing various perspectives to arise that typically do not have much visible contact with each other.

In a nutshell this would be some of my response to your question on why I think this approach is critical. That is, there needs to be some rigorous delineations of these matters, particularly of the biblical and theological issues that do divide, especially over the underlying Christ/culture tensions,as part of the very process of exploring various convergences among these three critical schools of thought; evangelical, post-liberal, and neo-orthodox. I maintain that this is essential work as a basis ultimately of widening the theological circle if the latter ever does become more feasible, but even if not in weaving a thick orthodox strand within some of the core epicenters of contemporary Protestant theology.

For the project I have not sought to go beyond a Protestant construction even as I embrace aspects of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sensibilities in my own life, of which, over time I would like to be open to in a more enriching way. Rigor first, however, that is what I am sensing in listening to the small still voice of faith in our times--the kairos on my most fallible and heart-felt interpretation through what is intended as a richly constructed Protestant orthodox position grounded firmly in the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Bible.

I realize my reach extends a great deal further than my grasp. The attempt itself, so I maintain is an essential aspect of working through the issues which contains its own power in opening up new space that which would have existed without the effort.

Comments Made and Question Posed

Dear Confessors, George a member of this CC list, a lay person has written a book. In response to Jane's idea of discussing papers, books, sermons of those on this list I agreed to discuss George's work with him. Many of you will not be interested in joining the discussion but you might be interested in the dialogue. For those who wish to join us we are discussing the last chapter which is posted below if you would like to read it. If something interest you jump into the discussion

The focus of George's book or maybe his vision is that the vitalization of Reformed Protestant Church (which is primarily the old mainline churches and the evangelical church and I would include the Pentecostal church) would be through a reapportion by liberal and evangelical of a Barthian,Word/Spirit dogmatic theology nuanced by Bonheoffer's worldly Christianity and R. Niebuhr's "Impossibility Possibility" paradoxical faith. This is in part the old neo-orthodoxy of the 1940's-50's or what Rich calls "a generous orthodoxy. I have not read the whole book but the three chapters I have read are deep and wide dealing with the thorny issues of the past 100 years that divided the Protestant Church and drained a great deal of her vitality and life. The vision of some reconciliation of Liberal,mainline and Evangelical/fundamentalist may be repugnant to some but George makes an interesting case. In the next week or so I would like to offer some quotes and raise some questions and just chat a little about the writing.

My question: At the present time there are a number of efforts to revitalize the protestant church, such as the emerging church project, Mega churches, Progressive Church, Sponge's Living the Questions, Why do you think that as you state, "I aspire to establish a more open-ended dialogue between certain strands in Protestant mainline and evangelical theology through the legacy of neo-orthodoxy than is often indicative in a great deal of polemics characteristic of both theological traditions. Whatever the difficulties and ultimate partiality in reclaiming this legacy for both dialectical post liberalism and a more dogmatic evangelical theology, any flourishing of Protestant orthodoxy even within the Diaspora depends, I am sensing, a great deal on the viability of this effort. What follows is an exploration of the enduring value of this heritage through my own selective reading focusing on Barth's illuminated word-based theology, Bonheoffer's worldly Christianity" and Reinhold Niebuhr's paradoxical theology in dynamic tension resident b between the penultimacy of history and the ultimacy of God's revelation which extends "beyond history" even with it many manifestations within the stream of time." quote p. 280-281. Why do you think this approach is critical? Herb

Comments Made and Question Posed

Dear Confessors, George a member of this CC list, a lay person has written a book. In response to Jane's idea of discussing papers, books, sermons of those on this list I agreed to discuss George's work with him. Many of you will not be interested in joining the discussion but you might be interested in the dialogue. For those who wish to join us we are discussing the last chapter which is posted below if you would like to read it. If something interest you jump into the discussion

The focus of George's book or maybe his vision is that the vitalization of Reformed Protestant Church (which is primarily the old mainline churches and the evangelical church and I would include the Pentecostal church) would be through a reapportion by liberal and evangelical of a Barthian,Word/Spirit dogmatic theology nuanced by Bonheoffer's worldly Christianity and R. Niebuhr's "Impossibility Possibility" paradoxical faith. This is in part the old neo-orthodoxy of the 1940's-50's or what Rich calls "a generous orthodoxy. I have not read the whole book but the three chapters I have read are deep and wide dealing with the thorny issues of the past 100 years that divided the Protestant Church and drained a great deal of her vitality and life. The vision of some reconciliation of Liberal,mainline and Evangelical/fundamentalist may be repugnant to some but George makes an interesting case. In the next week or so I would like to offer some quotes and raise some questions and just chat a little about the writing.

My question: At the present time there are a number of efforts to revitalize the protestant church, such as the emerging church project, Mega churches, Progressive Church, Sponge's Living the Questions, Why do you think that as you state, "I aspire to establish a more open-ended dialogue between certain strands in Protestant mainline and evangelical theology through the legacy of neo-orthodoxy than is often indicative in a great deal of polemics characteristic of both theological traditions. Whatever the difficulties and ultimate partiality in reclaiming this legacy for both dialectical post liberalism and a more dogmatic evangelical theology, any flourishing of Protestant orthodoxy even within the Diaspora depends, I am sensing, a great deal on the viability of this effort. What follows is an exploration of the enduring value of this heritage through my own selective reading focusing on Barth's illuminated word-based theology, Bonheoffer's worldly Christianity" and Reinhold Niebuhr's paradoxical theology in dynamic tension resident b between the penultimacy of history and the ultimacy of God's revelation which extends "beyond history" even with it many manifestations within the stream of time." quote p. 280-281. Why do you think this approach is critical? Herb