Saturday, October 1, 2011


A question wasposed by Herb Davis o the Confessing Christ listserv on how the holiness folks identify Holy or Holiness.

My intial response was as follows:

I don't speak for any movement, but keep in mind that in God Almighty Donald Bloesch identifies holiness and love as the two primary attributes of God. If I had to venture a definition I would call it a movement toward a continuous consecration to the indwelling voice of God in our actions, attitudes, relationships with others, as guided by our fallible illumination of the Holy Spirit in conformity with the revealed word of God. Consecration is sometimes linked to the term "sanctification." which is sometimes contrasted to the term "justification." I see the relationship between these two dynamics of faith in a much more fluid relationship. While there is a finished element to justification (Romans 3:21-31; 5), which itself requires an action on our part--faith, there is also the outworking of this through adoption and repentance, to draw on classical biblical doctrine, in which it is possible to grieve the holy spirit. Thus in the broadest sense there are past, present, and future connotations to salvation to which any understanding of election needs to be so grasped. Sanctification would be the progressive working out of our New Adam calling in which Christ is being formed within us While in the present a good deal of the Old Man remains, the trajectory of our faith--our calling is still toward the formation of New Adam. Holiness, then, would be the aspiration with radical intent of striving to having Christ formed within us (Philippians 2:12-13) as the incarnational image of God grafted into our reality. While there is much in our own lives and in the world that militates against this, our calling is still toward this aspiration which in the fullest sense of the term would be New Jerusalem. The extent to which this is realizable in our current vale of tears is an ongoing debate between the Calvinist and Wesleyan strands within contemporary Protestantism.

What is your view?


Herb responded with the following:
Dear George, As always your responses are thoughtful and clear. I think this sentence reflects your position, “Holiness, then, would be the aspiration with radical intent of striving to having Christ formed within us (Philippians 2:12-13) as the incarnational image of God grafted into our reality.” As you must know by now I have a great deal of trouble with striving on my part. I think I would emphasis v. 13, more than 12. I have a fear that I could convince myself that my striving has paid off and the image of God in Christ is grafted into my reality and assume authority and power and righteousness that belongs only to the Holy One, and none are Holy and Good but God. I agree that love and holiness are of God.

You asked me what I think and you can take a shot at me. I believe our holiness is our relationship to the Holy. As adopted sons and daughters of God in Christ we are holy. Although we are not worthy that God should come under our roof, when he does we are holy. Our holiness is not the result of our striving, “grapsing to be like God” Phil 2:6 but of “God who is at work in us” phil 2:13. In Holy Communion there is a mystical union between the believer and God in Christ, for Calvin we are lifted up into the holy of holies, where only holiness is present. So holiness for me is being in Christ Jesus, second person of the Trinity. I became holy when I was baptized and the holiness grows as I receive the body and blood of Christ,hear his word preached, share in the life of the elect. It is all gift no grasping.

Maybe there is two ways of being holy, one striving, another let it happen, believing that it is happening.

So I never strive to be holy, I do try to listen to God’s word in the Law and the Prophets and Word made flesh. To obey that word, the one Word.

Always enjoy your presence. You push me from I place I seldom go. Thanks. Herb

I offered the following:

Thanks Herb

You caught the essence of what I meant by holiness in terms of our relation to it. Of course I agree with you that God is most holy, infinitely more so than we have the capacity to appreciate which means that he has a sense of humor, too, undoubtedly more so than do we. In terms of the quoted sentence, “Holiness, then, would be the aspiration with radical intent of striving to having Christ formed within us (Philippians 2:12-13) as the incarnational image of God grafted into our reality,” I would simply add that such aspiration is futile without the prompting of the Spirit of God. With that clear recognition and with both vs 12 & 13 of Philippians 2 in mind, let us consider James, "show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." (2:18). I don't believe James was saying that one is saved by works and neither is Paul in Philippians. Rather, and I think this is the critical point, "faith" is a verb and a very active one at that, including that of believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. That is, such faith believing is a decisive act of the will, whether or not accompanied by corresponding emotions.

Agreed that one simply cannot choose to believe; there is the blowing of the breath of the Spirit there without which we would only but be working out of our own energy sources. Thus we cannot make ourselves righteous before God, however steadfast we may enjoin any such effort On this, Watchman Nee in The Normal Christian Life is very clear. Yet, within the faith calling, the human striving is an essential aspect in the full coming into salvation in any comprehensive sense in which creation itself "groans" (active verb) in "quest of eager longing for the revealing sons of God." Then again, Paul warns us not to grieve the Holy Spirit, which obviously means we have the capacity to do so. Then we have al those active verbs of doing something or refraining from doing something in Romans 12, Colossians 3, Galatians 5, Ephesians 6 We are also told in various places to "put on." Put on tender mercies, put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Then there's so much in the gospel parables that has to do with what we do and what our attitude orientation is. Clearly some of this; a great deal in fact, has to do with the condition of our innate disposition "where your treasure is there your heart will be." But there is also a great deal that calls us to turn toward something, to change, to beware, etc. No doubt much of this has to do with repentance, which in my understanding neither Paul nor 1 John radically separates from salvation even as justification and repentance have different theological definitions.

I think part of the problem may be that of linking justification alone and salvation too closely together, particularly when salvation needs to be grasped comprehensively (Romans 8:18-30) as pertaining to the entire creation and past, present and future in which some degree of openness (not necessarily "openness theology") needs to be taken into account.

Finally, I think the difference between the Calvinist and Wesleyan strain within Protestantism is at least partially related to particular gifts and callings, which might help to explain some of the differences between you and I on this topic. However, I think we're both thinking comprehensively even as you and I may emphasize he different strains within Protestant theology.


I expect this is a discussion that could go on for a long time. I'm wondering what others are thinking?

Monday, August 29, 2011

1940-1965: In Search of a Religious Consesus in Protestant America

The following piece was stimulated by a discusion on the Confessing Christ listserv on the beakdown of a consesus political and religios vision grounded in the "civil religon" of the 1950s The followning decades wewre marked by sharp polariies between the radical left and radical right in wich the latter has been in the clear ascendency since the 1980s.


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.

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 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.

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.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bonhoeffer's Wordly Christianity Pt I

In a recent CS-SPANN 2 program Christian historian Martin Marty included a discussion of how Bonhoeffer's theology was interpreted by both the "death of God" theologians of the 1960s and the 1970s and a certain segment of the current evangelical theological sector. This provoked me to post my writings on Bonhoeffer desiugned for a chapter on the significance of the neo-orthodox mvement for contemporary trinitarian orthodox Protestant theology. While there is clearly a worldly component to DB's thelogy, I draw primarily on his text Ethics to highlight something of wha the meant by worldly which for him remained deeply integrated within a theocentric vision, sometimes characterized by his phrase "Christ the center.


There is a substantial difference in emphasis between Barth and Bonhoeffer underlying a common perspective. Both highlighted the centrality of Christ as revealed in the Word and the necessity of a living faith in its embodiment in the church and the world. In this respect they were both dogmatic dialecticians seeking to make sense of the reality of God’s revelation in Christ within the context of the first several decades of the 20th century as played out by the “crisis” theology that hovered over Europe and the United States. The fundamental difference was Barth’s concentration on the centrality of dogma as revealed by and through the Word and Bonhoeffer’s accentuation on the significance of the revelation for right action and thought in the midst of the contingency of living history.

It was on this account that the “secular” theologians of the 1960s drew on Bonhoeffer’s “religionless” Christianity to articulate what they considered as a more viable vision of Christianity when the traditional “three-story” theistic God could no longer hold sway in the light of liberal post World war II thought, culture, and geo-politics. As in Bonhoeffer’s original expression, so it was even more so in the 1960s that the search for a new language beyond religion was a kairotic desire for an authentic revelation in an era where traditional pieties and orthodoxies became viewed, at least in certain quarters, in the most scandalous sense as idolatrous, when not downright incredulous. That the view of such a God described by the secular and death of God theologians was a caricature, which nonetheless contained important elements of truth, is a point of interest worthy of much pondering.

That Bonhoeffer wrote at the boundary lines of faith in the midst of the most searing of perplexities cannot be doubted, particularly in light of his Letters and Papers from Prison. Yet it was this same Bonhoeffer in this same text who spoke of the God who resided at the center more so than at the boundary, “not in weakness” of faith, “but in strength;” the strength of authentic proclamation in the midst of life. Rather than the God “beyond our cognitive facilities,” Bonhoeffer emphasized the “God…beyond in the midst of our life.” The “secular” Bonhoeffer is an important figure in the imagination of 20th century theology particularly as an alter ego to that of Barth in a quest for a post-war theology beyond neo-orthodoxy. The Bonhoeffer that I draw out here is based primarily on The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics. This, too, is a worldly, but also more churchly Bonhoeffer, grounding the basis for a living faith of the indwelling Christ in the midst of any and every given historical setting. This Bonhoeffer is not set in antithesis against the neo-orthodox Barth, but one in sync with this legacy, while bringing out important themes that remained more tangential in his mentor’s work. As Bonhoeffer put it in his critique of the secular/religious polarities that provoked and stimulated Reinhold Niebuhr and Tillich:

There are not two spheres, standing side by side, competing with each other and attacking each others frontiers. If that were so, this frontier dispute would always be the decisive problem of history. But the whole reality of the world is already drawn into Christ and bound together in Him, and the movement of history consists solely in divergence and convergence in relation to this centre.

Bonhoeffer as well as Barth sought to move beyond any sterile orthodoxy to the extent that doctrine acted as an impediment to the free flowing wind of the Holy Spirit. At the same time he remained fully committed to the centrality of the Bible as the primary vehicle of revelation, including the scriptural emphasis on the majesty of the God of Judeo-Christian theism in his capacity to speak within any context and idiom that he so desired. The extremities of Bonhoeffer’s own situation in the bowels of a Nazi prison camp pushed him at times to the boundaries of a “religionless” Christianity. Yet, in taking his work as a whole, including his prison ministry, he remained focused on the centrality of the Bible, the church, and faith in the God who is here, as both immanent within time and place and transcendent of the deep contextuality of the very human history of the early 20th century through which he wrote and lived.

It is this more Barthian Bonhoeffer who gave shape to a worldly sensitive Christianity as reflected in his key text, Ethics that has a great deal for the contemporary church to draw upon in any hermeneutical retrieval of the ethos of the Reformation in an early 21st century context.

In his Christ the center “worldly” Christianity Bonhoeffer notes that “the essence of the gospel does not lie in the solution of human problems.” Rather, it is in radical obedience to Christ himself in each and every situation. In following the Jamesian pathway (Jas 2:20-26), for Bonhoeffer, the most radical and essential step is “not a confession of faith in Jesus.” What radical commitment to faith necessitates is nothing less than unswerving and immediate obedience to the very call to surrender all as the inescapable price for the privilege of following Christ for the entire course of one’s life. Anything less on his account is a holding back; some adherence to the idolatry of the self or culture that can only contradict the will of God in some fundamental way. Such obedience is not the Lutheran concern against works. Rather, it is the very essence of faith; costly faith even in the midst of our fallen state where nothing we can do can right our relationship with the living God in which we are nonetheless called into radical obedience in faith (Rom 3:31; 6:15-19).

It is this same ethos of radical commitment to Christ and to Christ only through which Bonhoeffer grounds the most elemental obligation of the church in relation to the world. As he states it:

The Church’s word to the world can be no other than God’s word to the world. The word is Jesus Christ. This word is Jesus Christ and salvation in His name. It is in Jesus Christ that God’s relation to the world is defined. We know of no relation of God to the world other than through Jesus Christ. For the Church too, therefore, there is no relation to the world other than through Jesus Christ. In other words, the proper relation of the Church to the world cannot be deduced from natural law or rational law or from universal rights, but only from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is an evident Barthian influence of the most radical sort. At the same time Bonhoeffer does not deny, as neither would Barth, that the church has something to say to the world on the problems faced by humankind, including something akin on its own terms, yet always through the perspective of Christ revealed as the Incarnation of the living God.

On this assumption the church has a great deal to say about the broad range of human ethics in the most penultimate sense since the spirit of Christ is revealed within the midst and through the signs of our material existence. Thus, with Barth, even as the reality transcends the symbols which enclose the signs of God’s revealing, Bonhoeffer agreed also that God could only be known analogically in and through the signs that his Spirit opens up to human perception. Such signs flow forth within the context of any given time and place throughout all of the spheres of the “secular” realm in various hidden and revealing forms. In terms of the problems of humankind, the quest for the ultimate Word embedded within the penultimate will lead to specific courses of action in given situations in accord with the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This is the case on Bonhoeffer’ even as the gap between divine revelation and human perception within any given context invariably persists.

However plausible or even compelling such a course of action may be in the revealing of the spirit of God within a given context (as discernable through an inherently flawed sensibility), such revelation in time does not translate into a universal application in a manner that transcends time. The kairos of Christ’s spirit breaks into history wherever and whenever it will in whatever forms it so chooses in which the Christian vocation is defined as close to possible adherence to the small still prompting of its authentic voice. This is true pietism in the most Bonhoefferian sense. It is the essence of Bonhoeffer’s worldly Christianity which remained constant throughout his short career, notwithstanding different points of emphases as embodied in his key texts. The dialectical dynamic in his theology is between world and church, rather than the secular or religious per se as the pivot points of accent for the manifestation of Christ’s spirit; the underlying constant in the midst of each and every historical experience.

To provide an example of such contextualization, even such a central problem as the abolition of slavery in the United States in the 19th century could not absorb the authority of ultimacy in Christian ethics, however penultimately significant of an issue it was. The fact that many northern U.S. clergy opposed the expansion of slavery and slavery itself in the 1850s, while having rejected abolitionism spoke as much to the complexity of the issue as to the charge of moral hypocrisy. Thus, to the accusation sometimes posited against the church for not firmly standing up against the obvious blight of slavery; from the vantage point of the 1850s some form of gradualism as argued by Horace Bushnell and other prominent anti-slavery leaning clergy may have been viewed as at least as plausible from God’s eye as immediate abolitionism. For some, especially of various Calvinistic persuasions, gradualism may have been viewed as even more akin to proximately meeting God’s will within the context of a fallen world in the midst of historical complexity in a society and political culture wherein slavery had been institutionalized for almost two centuries.

That slavery was sin of a most egregious social and moral sort was widely accepted at least amongst the clergy in the North by the 1850s. In this respect a certain convergence was coming together between the ultimate and penultimate over this hovering issue that raised the most searing concerns in the realm of political ideology as well as a moral sensibility on the overarching need for national redemption. The ethics in how to resolve the dilemma of slavery was driven by anything but consensus, a problem which came to a certain critical threshold through the kairos of the Civil War. The actual coming of the Civil War profoundly changed the focus of the moral debate. It also unleashed a broad array of emblematic problems over the enduring legacy of racism that carried on for over a century beyond the war.

To put this in Bonhoeffer’s terms God may have acted through the crisis of the Civil War. Yet the result was anything but a clear resolution in a restoration of America as New Israel redeemed through the cleansing blood that the war was imaginatively sought to have unleashed in the northern clerical mindset of 19th century evangelicalism. To put it again in Bonhoeffer’s terms, whatever sense of God’s ultimacy was unleashed through the Civil War became imperceptibly merged into the penultimacy of the ongoing flow of historical experience in which the spirit of Christ needed to be perceived and acted upon ever freshly anew even in the midst of the most searing ambiguity. One of the critical differences between Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr on this score is that the former kept his focus on the centrality of Christ as the critical point in the church/world dialectic, while the latter dwelt more on the paradox of the ambiguity of history as such in the tension between moral man and immoral society.

Bonhoeffer obviously did not deny that God acts in history, sometimes in very decisive ways. The life and death issues that he faced in the 1930s and 1940s give vivid testimony to the kairotic energies that were operating in Europe at that time in response to the most unimaginable evil. The challenge as Bonhoeffer posited is the central quest to discern the will of God in every concrete situation. In his expression, “Jesus Christ is the law of all earthly institutions.” Such a revelation is masked within the immediacy of the historical, which requires the most critical of theo-political discernment, which at best remains only partially revealing. Bonhoeffer’s plunge into the vortex of history, grounded in the ultimacy of God’s revelation of Christ as he understood it was the central strength of his project. From this theocentric vantage point he added a great deal to Barth’s grounding insights in fleshing out a critical theo-praxis only very partially developed in his Swiss mentor’s work.

Bonhoeffer’s testing ground was nothing less than the most devastating war that Europe had ever experienced in the midst of the most barbaric evil that the continent had ever experienced. The cost for Bonhoeffer was nothing less than his life in the need to surrender all for the following of God’s will as he understood it into the very bowels of hell if that is where it brought him. It is no small matter that in the process the extremities and the centralities of his theological probing expanded even in his always focused Christ the center vision as embodied within the church and within the world. What is critical for our purposes is not so much the crisis theology of the 1930s and 1940s, although that remains instructive. What is enduring is the force of Bonhoeffer’s praxeology of pressing the word of God to speak to the concrete historical situation in things great and small in bringing together the “secular” and the “religious” within a common interpretation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bonhoeffer's "Worldly Christianity," Part Two

Bonhoeffer’s testing ground was nothing less than the most devastating war that Europe had ever experienced in the midst of the most barbaric evil that the continent had ever experienced. The cost for Bonhoeffer was nothing less than his life in the need to surrender all for the following of God’s will as he understood it into the very bowels of hell if that is where it brought him. It is no small matter that in the process the extremities and the centralities of his theological probing expanded even in his always focused Christ the center vision as embodied within the church and within the world.

What is critical for our purposes is not so much the crisis theology of the 1930s and 1940s, although that remains instructive. What is enduring is the force of Bonhoeffer’s praxeology of pressing the word of God to speak to the concrete historical situation in things great and small in bringing together the “secular” and the “religious” within a common interpretation.

The relevance of Bonhoeffer’s “worldly” Christianity for our current setting may be further discerned by taking note of the four principle areas of application that he emphasized in Ethics: “labor, marriage, government, and the Church.” In all of these realms which continue to have an obvious contemporary ring, Bonhoeffer’s underlying theological principle remains constant. Whatever courses of action or attitudinal formation that may emerge in the many plausible contexts that give shape to vocation in and through these key institutions, the pivotal point is that “each in its own way shall be through Christ, directed toward Christ, and in Christ.” In this, Bonhoeffer dismissed any characterization of the first three mandates as “secular” in contrast to the last one only as being particularly “religious.”

Thus, Bonhoeffer fused what he meant by worldly and what he meant by Christian within a coherent theological vision that has a powerful current mediating potential in deconstructing tendencies toward world/church dualisms between critical mainline and evangelical sensibilities. The critical point is less the specifics of Bonhoeffer’s 1940s review of the theological underpinning of these sectors. The more fundamental matter is the core principle that God becomes self revealing through signs within the concrete settings to which human beings are called within the world and within the church for the purpose of attending to nothing less and nothing more than the small still promoting of Christ’s holy mandate within them.
Bonhoeffer’s core concept in his vocational theology is “deputyship” which we might interpret as stewardship, to give this a more contemporary ring.

In this, Bonhoeffer (1995) emphasized social role identity as the basis for theological construction and rejected any authentic Christian identity based on an ethos of radical individualism. Even those called to a more solitary life are so called for the purpose of servitude to Christ for the betterment in some respect for “mankind as a whole.”

This is in contrast to any merely self-fulfilling purposes, which Bonhoeffer viewed as vacuous in the most fundamental sense. In allegiance to Christ, the deputy works against two temptations; “set[ting] up one’s ego as an absolute” in drawing upon individual consciousness per se as the criteria for setting the pathway for one’s direction, or “set[ting] up the other man as an absolute” in the simple surrender of the self to the will of the other.

Such oscillating tendencies are compelling when the grounding for identity formation is culturally based without remainder. The synthesis, however imperfectly achieved, only comes through the deputyship of Jesus, “the incarnate Son of God” who “was not the individual desiring to achieve a perfection of his own, but…lived only as the one who has taken up into Himself and who bears within Himself the selves of all men.” In this respect, Christ “is the responsible person par excellence” the image through which the very notion of deputyship is to be formed among those who would like to be able to call themselves, if not his disciples, at least his ardent followers.

How one applies this to the specific realms of contemporary life can only be discerned within the complexities and the immediacies of specific events and circumstances. From such inevitable vantage points our task so often is not so much that of “turn[ing] the world upside-down, but to do what is necessary” through the prompting of Christ’s still small voice “at the given place” and time through which the mandate comes, and “with a due consideration of reality” in the discernment of right action. This bears, for example, on a decision at work on how a manager will mentor an insecure, but competent employee or on how parents of a child who has broken with them will respond or at least keep open to the possibility of reconciliation even if the prospect of healing is not likely to be achieved. It also bears on the political process, not only on which candidate and which sets of issues to support, but also in the discernment of the terms of engagement including that of one’s attitude toward one’s political opponent even when the stakes are seemingly large. Such examples, great and small which require a multitude of discerning moments that can only be enacted upon in the immediacy of time and place, can be multiplied a thousand fold and more.

The critical issue remains the same; that of discerning God speaking in the immediacy of the situation, and then acting according to the prompting of the small still voice. Attendance to the immediacy of the situation also requires a close discernment to the voice of the world. This necessitates rejection of any semblance of parody sometimes accompanying an evangelical caricature of liberal theology or secular culture. It also requires close listening for the voice of God first and foremost through a discerning reading of Scripture via the mediation of the Holy Spirit. This, in turn, requires among other things rejection of any caricature of fundamentalist anti-intellectualism or too easy charges of theological obscurantism. In both cases there may be grounds for such criticism, for which admonitions as well as affirmations are clearly called. Yet, in taking a tack from Bonhoeffer, such criticism, if need to be issued should come in a somewhat reluctant vein rather than as first impulse, seeking first, the voice of God speaking through one’s alter Christian identity.

The role of the church then becomes in the final analysis, the place and the body that gives specific articulation to God’s reconciling the world through Christ whether through preaching, teaching, liturgical practice, or theological explication. In short, the church in its foremost vocation is the called institution whereby God’s “word is repeatedly spoken, expounded, interpreted and disseminated until the end of the world” (p. 288). Given the importance of the lived experience of faith in the midst of an inescapably worldly setting, the church on Bonhoeffer’s reading plays an extremely important role. Specifically, it gives voice to the reality that shapes the identity and world view of those called to the various vocations where God places them in both confirming and conforming them to their most fundamental role as living members of the body of Christ.

In sum, Bonhoeffer calls Christians to be in the world but not of it. This is a mandate that as potential, yet never this side of the eschaton fully realized, has much to offer in bringing greater concord to the discordant sectors in American Protestantism that keep the fundamentalist-modernist divide so indelibly intact. It also holds the prospect of lending clarity to a common Protestant identity rooted in the priesthood of the laity through a theology of vocation grounded in the original vision of the Reformation. Bonhoeffer’s stance has the added benefit as serving as a mediating link between the ontological radicalism of Barth’s unequivocal embrace of biblical revelation and the pragmatic Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reading Calvin Through the Prism of History and Faith

In my reading I am moving backward from the English Puritans to Calvin's Institutes. I read two abridged versions of the Institutes (about 250 pages each) and thought it was time to tackle the entire work whole for which I am planning several months. I'm working with the Henry Beveridge translated which is amiable in one volume from Eerdman's

Perhaps the following might be of some interest from Book One, Ch 14 where previously Calvin had been wearily taking on various heterodox positions challenging his understanding of the orthodox position on the mystery and revelation of the Trinity. Throughout the Institutes, Calvin seems quick to point out the gap between our knowledge and the unfathomable depth of God's awesome reality in which even the most professedly faithful catch only a glimpse or two. He says, "For though our eyes, in whatsoever direction they turn, are forced to behold the works of God, we see how fleeting our attention is, and how quickly pious thoughts, if any arise, vanish away." One might think that a holy God who made man and woman in his own image would have embedded human consciousness with the power to remain intimately connected to himself. If so that would make the gap twe all experience in our allegience to God through our flawed First Adamic fallen identity "as inconsistent with the power of God." Thus the conceit of human consciousness when it seeks to unravel the mystery of God's revelation on its own terms.

Such curiosity which seeks to move beyond what biblical revelatiion illuminates is not only vein,on Calvin's interpretation, but causes us needless suffering in the quest to seek fulfillment on our own terms rather than on God's. That is, as Calvin put it,"until human reason is subdued to the obedience of faith, and learns to welcome the alm quiescence to which the sanctification of the seventh day invites us" (p. 142).

One of the things Calvin is getting at throughout the Institutes is the sufficiency of Scripture for the knowledge we need to live in fidelity to the calling that God has gifted us with in which "his eternal Wisdom and Spirit are also set before us, in order that we may not dream or any other God than Him who desires to be recognized in that express image" (p. 143). To this I would add the significance of Deuteronomy 29:29 to the effect hat the secret things belong to God but the things that have been revealed are forever available to us.

Obviously one could critique Calvin from our 21st century vantage point in perhaps unnecessarily repressing the quest for knowledge particularly as manifest in the European Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, ad the ongoing quest of western secular intellectual thought, and this historical awareness is one factor that, in my view should be brought to the table in our own understanding of the faith once for all delivered to the saints and in our dialogue with those outside of the orthodox pathway. Yet, along with that historical conditioning in seeking to come to terms with Calvin's theology, I think it's equally, if not ultimately of more importance to seek to grasp something of what we perceive the Holy Spirit was conveying to Calvin throughout the various issues he was confronting in the Institutes and what that same Spirit,that same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and bestowed upon us (Romans 8:11) is seeking to convey to us some almost 500 years later.

Without at all seeking to support an anti-intellectual position, the message I do pick up from these passages is (a) the importance of placing one's intellectual curiosity under the authority and protection of God's guidance so as not to create a false idol of the mind; (b)the realization that in faith we have been, are, and will be given the insight we need to move forward in our own journeys through the Promised Land.

That does not necessarily close off any intellectual pursuits, including critical biblical scholarship, but I think it does put a perspective on the matter that a reading of Calvin through both the prism of historical and scientific awareness and faith as illuminated through our very fallible grasp of the Holy Spirit as mediated through the ages in which God, while the creator of human history is greater than human history, which in our age has become an idol of the mind and spirit.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Same Spirit that Raised Christ Raises Us to New Life

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you (Romans 8:11).

I grappled with several related verses of the Holy Spirit breaking through to our spirit before settling in on Paul’s astounding epiphany in Romans 8:11. If Paul’s journey is any indication of ours we experience considerable struggle in fully coming to an appreciation of the audacious claims of this amazing verse. As Paul testifies and perhaps so do we, the undeniable reality of the persisting power of our first Adam identity in old life is all too alive and present in our own circumstances and self-perception in which “I do not do the good that I want” (Rom 7:16). Despite the best of intentions, at least for me, the old man of despair, skepticism, fear, and sense of inability to change in any profound sustainable way keeps on breaking into my life in thought, attitude and action. That is, the first Adam is present, despite the profusion of promises of the gospel hope of new resurrection in this life as well as in the life to come to which I cling with all my heart, mind, strength, and soul in the seemingly more perceptive moments of my life.

In Romans 7 Paul goes on to say that, “it is no longer I” who embodies this first Adam identity, “but sin that dwells within me” (Rom 7:17). For me, the very struggle for this “I” is a core component of my faith walk in which daily dying to self is the essential precondition “to putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” in which the real “I” begins to surface. The new creation reality to which Christ calls us is the central focus of Romans 8.

By contrast, the old man within me seeks a settled world where nothing substantially new breaks in. It is comfortable in a sense, but it does not lead to new life which requires a going beyond oneself, whether or not of a distinctively religious context. For me the most recent breakthrough of this type is the open door my wife and I took which led us last year from Connecticut to San Diego. However bold the move may have been, the self-reinvention remains limited in that I am holding back on old CT identity in the “safety” of my more isolated moments even as I have stepped out into new CA identity in small steps. The holding back takes many subtle and not so subtle forms; simply put, do I, in faith, take risks of new, but costly ventures, or not—costly in terms of time, in terms of risk of rejection or failure, in terms of fear of closing old doors, however little they are open in any event? Unlike Abraham in moving from the land to which he was called to the Promised Land, I have far from fully let go of my homeland of Ur.

When Paul talks about the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, he is referring to the totality of life in which the hoped for resurrection entails a cross in matters large and small. It is with this totality of the struggle in mind that I draw upon in working through the first 11 verses of Ch 8 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and from that pivot point, through the entirety of this central chapter toward the final crescendo in verse 38 in which “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

As we prepare ourselves through this Lenten season to deepen our walk with God, let us take every opportunity, large or small, to strive to make “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Let us dare to put the first Adam to the test of our faith of God reconciling the world in Christ to himself. Let us be willing to lay low the First Adam through the small still voice of the Holy Spirit and embrace new creation through the same power given to us that God, through the Spirit, bestowed upon Christ in raising him from the dead. Christ, who sticks to us closer than a brother, knows us better than we know ourselves. On that Friday he took on the risk of death and utter abandonment by his Father to be our pioneer, leading us to new life in God. He knows our pain. He knows our weaknesses. He empathizes with our struggles. In suffering with us he knows how to support us throughout the many moments of life, large and small, through thick and thin.


We know that the work of your Spirit is ongoing in which you are ever calling us from mortality to immortality in this life as well as in the next. Your Son’s life, teaching, sacrificial death, and resurrection have opened the door to us to you. In our perpetual journey from Old Adam to New Adam let us come to an ever fuller realization of the power and utter gift of that same Spirit which raised your Son from the dead has been given to us to embrace new life in you to the fullest. In this season, Lord, help us rise up to the level of faithful and glorious living to come into the full realization that the very Spirit that raised your Son from the dead is in us too; that same Spirit, calling us to new life in your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

J.I. Packer Jesus the Lord: Part II


In this post I will concentrate on Packer's in-depth discussion of the New Testament claims on the significance of Jesus as pre-existent Lord of creation and its importance in the lives of those seek identification and profess allegience to Christ as so depicted. This includes what Packer identifies as four primary propositions which in their cumulative significance provide a compelling set of reasons to take the core NT claims with the utmost seriousness in the shaping of contemporary belief in the life of the church and in formal Christological studies.

With this foundation lain Packer adds five crucial claims and seeks to respond to three compelling problems in the perception of God that he identifies with classical Trinitiarian Christology. For these enduring problems, which on their face seem contradictory, he offers plausible expanations while honoring the mystery of the entire Christian revelation, which by its very nature is infinitely beyond exhaustive understanding in which we see but in part.

What folows is both a summary and commentary on Packer's claims, including his assessment on their importance for the integrity of a vital Christian faith for our time and place. It is only by grasping something of their significance to the integrity a thoroughly orthodox Trinitarian theology and religious culture that one can appreciate the motives underlying Packer's critique. For this work Packer offers largely a constructive theology that includes a contrast to a view of Christianity that he argues moves beyond the orbit of a classical Christianity that includes embrace of a pre-Incarnate Christ as reflected in John and in some of the New Testament letters (e.g. Ephesans, Colossians.

Primary Propositions

The first is the claim that Jesus is God's promised Christ

Thursday, January 27, 2011

J.I. Packer's Jesus Christ the Lord Part One

I would encourage those who are interested in serious evangelical theology to obtain The J.I. Packer Collection, edited and introduced by one of Packer's biographer's and foremost champions, Alister McGrath

The collection includes a selection of some of Packer's finest essays from 1954-1998 and demonstrates something of the combination of cogency and pietistic verve underlying Packer's rationalist theological reflections on a broad array of topics in Anglo-American Protestant religious culture over the second half of the 20th century. Uppermost among Packer's themes are the centrality of a deeply orthodox, firmly scriptural based Trinitarian theology, a fleshing out of a distinctively evangelical theology that Packer distinguishes from both fundamentalism, to which he is obviously closer, and Protestant liberalism. These essays also include an apologetic impetus in what he depicts as the various dimensions of contemporary idolatry both within and outside the church, and in-depth commentary on important Protestant writers as distinct as the largely unknown James Orr (1844-1913), J.I Robinson, author of the best-seller Honest to God, and the irrepressible C.S. Lewis. In this post I concentrate on Packer's 1977 essay, "Jesus Christ the Lord," originally published in John Stott's Obeying Christ in a Changing World. As time allows I will comment on other essays in this fine collection of Packer's essays as I believe his work provides an important pathway to serious faithful evangelical renewal.

Jesus Christ the Lord Overview

"A generation ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer posed for query the theme, 'Who really is Christ for us today.' Since his time Christology has become a matter of new debate, and of fresh tension too. Tielhard de Chardin, in maximizing Christ's cosmic significance, has appeared to depersonalize him. And Protestant theologians, in stressing Jesus' humanness and historicality, have appeared to dissolve away the substance of the godhead. Should such Cristologies be taken as the last word, the faith-relationship with Jesus which we spoke [below] would not be 'on.' And merely by existing they make that relationship harder to hold on to, just as do current 'secular' pictures of Jesus as a troubles hysteric (e.g., Dennis Potter, Son of Man) and as a pleasant song-and-dance man (e.g. Godspell; Jesus Christ Superstar). Fresh clarification is called for, urgently! (p. 154).

The centerpiece of this article is the critical contrast Packer makes in juxtaposing a high Trinitarian vision of Christ as God fully embodied in human flesh against a more this wordly grounded humanitarian Christology focusing on Jesus' sterling character and his exemplification of God's spirit throughout his life. On this latter perspective, a follower can obtain a closer walk with God by imitating Christ's spirit and his example as the selfless man in service for others.

Packer acknowledges the value in the latter understanding, although he views it is egregiously incomplete, and thereby, in the most radical sense, heretical. Specifically, it falls far short of any claim of Christ as God including any appreciation of the Son in his pre-incarnate manifestation as the second person in the Trinity as commonly understood in traditional orthodox theology and embodied most fully in the new Testament in the Gospel of John. Neither does this humanistic perspective account in any profound sense for the clear NT vision of Christ as high priest whose sacrificial death was an apt substitute for the collective sins of humankind.

Packer focuses the brunt of his essay on his explanation of the core orthodox belief in an incaranational God "who is there," who has come into our world from his pre-incarnate presence, which is based, hr maintains, on a view of Jesus best aligned with Scripture in which any Jesus outside of the NT context is both unknowable in any meaningful way, which, in any event, would be some other religion than that characterized as orthodox Christianity in the full Trinitarian, incarnational, and canonically-based scriptural sense. "That the only real Jesus is the Christ of the New Testament history and theology, and that by parting company with the New Testament [in its comprehensive depiction of Christ] we do not find him, is a truth that cannot be too often emphasized today" (p. 155) When that is given up in quest of a more humanitarian interpretation in what is commonly viewed as Christ "from below," a great deal, indeed, is sacrificed, and not merely doctrine, but the very power of Christ in God as the means of reconciling the world to God, and all of the claims that are made, for example, in the first two chapters of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, the first chapter of Colossians, the prologue in the Gospel of John, and virtually the entire tenor of The Letter to the Hebrews.

Opening Argument

"The Christian consensus has been that as Scripture is the proper source from which theology should flow, so Christology is the true hub round which the wheel round theology revolves, and to which its central spokes must each be correctly anchored if the wheel is not to get bent" (p. 151).

Packer draws on Scripture in the full canonical sense through the hermeneutical principle in which that which is clear and central in the Bible becomes the basis for interpreting that within Scripture which is more opaque in which Deuteronomy 29:29 might serve as an underlying interpretive principle. In the words of Puritan theologian John Robinson, new light often does break through in God's word as reflective even in the formation, of both the OT and NT canon, in which whatever new insights that do emerge are congruent with the core plotline and doctrinal claims as reflective foremost throughout the entire NT text. It is the entire NT narrative in turn, that forms the basis for the full Trinitarian and Incarnational theology in which Jesus of Nazareth is both son of man and son of God and who existed before the foundation of the world.

Any equivocation on this, however vast the gap between our understanding and the claim driven by faith in search of increasing knowledge, a distance of which Packer knows quite well, is to put into jeopardy the entire foundation of what John Stott refers to as basic and C.S. Lewis as mere Christianity. What is central, Packer insists, is the core claim that Jesus was not merely a holy person whose entire life embodied the spirit of God, but that he was and is divine and became flesh when the pre-existing son of God was incarnated into the world. In this Packer ascribes to the key claim made by Jesus as written in the Gospel of John, Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). It is this foundational statement that possesses unfathomable kergymatic and ontological power, however much the mystery of this revelation remains well beyond the human capacity to grasp in anything remotely resembling a complete sense. More than anything else, perhaps, the scandalous nature of this proclanmation is something, on Packer’s studied interpretation, that humanitarian Christology categorically rejects on its face.

Building on this core Trinitarian assumption, Packer insists on a God who is there, "actively and objectively" in the world, "in the place of power." It is the claim of faith that his existence is true irrespective of whether it "is acknowledged or not" This ontological statement is meant as a direct barb against any perception of the resurrected Christ as merely living in "his followers' memories and imagination" (p. 152) as a great deal of liberal or humanitarian Christology, as claimed in a great deal of liberal and humanitarian Christology and the consequent neglect of the divine Christ as the pre-existent Son, viewed as an antiquarian residue of an outdated historical mindset. The critique would equally apply to Rudolph Bultmann's existential interpretation of Christ in his quest to demythologize the text (Scripture) in order to remythologize its essence in a perspective not too different from the anti-theistic theology of Bishop John Spong.

This belief in an incarnational God "who is there," who has come into our world from his pre-incarnate presence, argues Packer, is based on a view of Jesus best aligned with Scripture in which any Jesus outside of the NT context is both unknowable in any meaning sense, some other religion than that characterized as orthodox Christianity, and in the most fundamental sense, heretical. In Packer’s words, “the only real Jesus is the Christ of the New Testament history and theology, and that by parting company with the New Testament we do not find him, is a truth that cannot be too often emphasized today" (p. 155). When that is given up in quest of a Christ "from below" perspective, a great deal, indeed, is sacrificed. It is not merely primary doctrine that is at risk, which is important in itself to preserve but belief in the very power of Christ in God as the primary and ultimately only means of reconciling the world to God, which is the basis for evoking the commitment to it. At risk also, are the entirety of the claims that are made, for example, in the first two chapters of the Letter to the Ephesians and Colossians, the prologue in the Gospel of John, and virtually the entire tenor of The Letter to the Hebrews in which the underlying message expressed in various ways is that in Christ “the whole fullness of God dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

Final Points for Part One

In clearing the air for his broader argument, which I will review in succeeding posts, Packer makes three preliminary points on whether and the extent "we find the real Jesus in the New Testament" (p.155).

The first is Packer's argument that the NT in its varying books and genres exhibits an underlying unity much deeper than any differences. Thus, in their different ways, the synoptic gospel writers, Paul, and John have focused their central attention on the integrating fabric of Christ's life, teaching, core mission leading to Jerusalem, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, all of which presupposes the core message of the NT of "God who through Christ reconciled us to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19) through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

In this Packer is reacting against a 100+ year scholarly tradition which has pitted the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith with the corresponding claim popularized in the contention that Paul in emphasizing the risen Christ was the inventor of Christianity as a distinctive religion beyond Judaism. It is this sharp difference in the scholarly literature between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith that was also echoed in a different way in the Gospel of John written toward the end of the 1st century. There is little doubt that Paul's work was instrumental in creating a more inclusive movement in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise as well as the vision of Isaiah of bringing in the gentiles to the household of God's kingdom through the galvanizing presence of the spirit of Christ. In that sense new light broke through.

Nonetheless, Paul's core belief, which formed very early (in the late 30s or early 40s) on the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal the risen Christ speaks volumes against any radical polarization between the theology of Paul and the writers of the synoptic gospels. When one considers, too, that Mark and Luke were very much immersed in the mission of Paul in which their gospels were written later than Paul's letters, then, even though their narrative focus is on the life and crucifixion of Jesus, with Luke addressing the post-resurrection sightings, then it is not a stretch to view at least their gospels as post-Pauline texts. In this respect, the synoptics provided narrative structure to core Christological claims made initially by the earliest reported followers of the Christian way and exemplified more thoroughly in Paul’s various letters.

A hint may be found in the opening statement of Mark, commonly viewed as the first gospel and the one most congruent with the "historical Jesus." Thus, "in the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God" (Mk 1:1), in which the entirety of the text that follows is commentary. Keeping both Mark and Paul in mind, one might plausibly surmise that Paul was in touch with close to the earliest versions of the resurrection tradition, embraced its core tenets which shaped its entire ministry. Mark, in turn, who was influenced by Paul's teaching of the crucified and resurrected Christ, was also close to Peter of whom he obtained first hand testimony in which the writing of the gospel itself was likely sanctioned, if not commissioned by the early church, and obviously viewed congruent with its teachings.

With these points and others in mind, Packer seeks to deconstruct a pervasive liberal bias in contemporary biblical scholarship, with its exaggerated emphasis on the importance of the historical evolution of the Bible and the diversity of literary genres while ignoring countervailing evidence. One of the chief problems, posits Packer is in its tendency to allow different emphases within the text to override the NT's underlying unity in its central Trinitarian keygmatic claim beyond myth in any superficial sense, though not beyond mystery as well acknowledged in the NT itself (Ephesians 3:4-10, I Corinthians 2: 6-16).

In wrapping up this portion of the review of Packer’s essay, Packer makes a couple of additional related points. This includes the somewhat contestable claim that the bulk of the NT texts, certainly the most important of them, which ultimately formed the canon, were written before 70, which included significant testimony from primary witnesses. Packer’s point here is that the memory of primary witnesses would have been sharp enough to accurately recall the basic events, including states of mind of primary actors, though I wouldn’t want to dismiss some authorial innovation in constructing synoptic texts as well as Acts based on a looking back from the perspective of Jesus as the risen Christ. Given that, Packer’s main claim still holds that the core gospel story of the resurrected Christ bestowing his presence on his first followers through the power of the Holy Spirit emerged very early, logically sometime before Paul’s conversion. It is this historical rebuttal which is the primary evangelical response that Packer makes in response to the thesis of a great divide between the historical Jesus and the Christian faith as emerging only decades after the event through the cumulative influence say of Paul and John and the distinctive communities that both spawned and were influenced by their work.

With the gauntlet laid down, Packer then proceeds to his more substantive constructive arguments on the biblical nature of Christ as described in the New Testament and to more extensive pointed critiques against a pervasive liberal theological interpretation characteristic of the dominant seminaries in both the U.K. and the U.S. A discussion of these matters will follow in additional posts.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

J.I.. Packer's Theology of Scripture

The Bible as the Decisive Word of God

In his various texts Packer lays out a strong case for the centrality of the Bible in its full canonical depth as the primary source for interpretating the role of the church as well as the relationship between Christ and culture in any given context. As a prelude he reviews both the concept of authority as reflective in Roman Catholic theology and the individual as authority as posited by cultural commentators in the secular as well as in the liberal theological realm. To these two, both of which he accepts as important, he offers the Bible as primary authority to which church and culture are subordinate. Thus, Packer is not suggesting that these three primary soureces of authority never coincide or that two of them have no authority at all. His point is not sola scriptura, but the placing of Scripture in the magisterial role in the determination of where ultimate authority lies. In practice there is often a great deal of blending among these three sources even as ther issue of where ultimate authoritativeness remains.

Packer is aware that the concept of authoritativeness is both inescapable and frought with danger. Properly grasped, however, biblical authoritativeness as he understands it, is synonymous with human freedom in the sense in that it best reveals humankind's primary vocation made in the image of God. In the following passage I by-pass Packer's discussion of church as authority and only briefly alludeto his discussion of self as authority in order to give primary attention to his central focus.

The Bible as Authority

Packer identification of the Bible as the ultimate source of authority is based in the most fundamental sense on the grounds that Christianity is a revealed religion and that revelation is most fully encapsulated in the Bible. This revelation comes from “the inward voice of the Holy Spirit.” which illuminates the words of the Bible without which personal experience of God cannot be perceived. The Holy Spirit is not only the indispensable guide for the receptions of its truths. It is the vehicle that God used to convey his thoughts to the writers of the various books without denying one iota their humanity and autonomy. This personal perception is not only the basis for the timeless truths expounded in the Bible which, however time bound they were in their human expression, are “self-interpreting” within the hermeneutical framework of the Bible as the unified, and for human beings, sufficient Word of God.

This authoritative center is an essential basis for a vitally grounded belief, which, without some illumination by the Holy Spirit belief itself becomes suspect or at the least extremely wooden. In the most fundamental sense there is no getting beyond the circularity of these assumptions even as the possibility of exposition is potentially infinite-like in its richness and depth, the exploration of which is the continuing work of the called church and all individuals who seek to take the Bible with radical seriousness.

Thus, on Packer’s view the full flourishing of the immense riches latent within the Bible require a reception of its revelatory meaning and application via the Holy Spirit through grace. This in turn both stimulates and is stimulated by the activation of faith through, as humanly possible, the ultimate and continuous commitment of one’s time and resources to live out of the calling through which God addresses each individual. For Packer, the Bible is the primary source in illuminating the character of God and also in laying out the required human responses. In addition it provides many sources of help and direction that a close and regular prayerful and expectant reading of the text provides. Thus, on Packer’s reading, faith illuminated by grace, is based ultimately on persuasion that it is the Lord our God who speaks in and through this text in a uniquely disclosive manner. More fully, the Bible is

"…a record and explanation of divine revelation which is both complete (sufficient) and comprehensible (perspicacious); that is to say, it contains all that the Church needs to know in this world for guidance in the way of salvation and service, and it contains the principles for its own interpretation within itself. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit, who caused it to be written, has been given to the Church to cause believers to recognize it for the Word that it is, and to enable them to interpret it rightly and understand its meaning…Christians must therefore seek to be helped and taught by the Spirit when they study the Scripture, and must regard all their understanding of it, no less than the book itself, a the gift of God."

Any other reading, according to Packer, is a misreading and a denial of what the Bible was and is meant to convey. “We are to bow to…[its] authority at every point, confessing that here we have both truth and wisdom.” This… way of true discipleship” is based on a circular argument. The proof is less the logic of its apologetic, which may not ultimately convince even as it seeks to demonstrate the reasonableness of faith, than the power of its claims and its “harmonistic” integration as attested in the final analysis by the Holy Spirit as conveyed from believer to believer. In short the truth of Packer’s third option is based ultimately on nothing less than self-disclosive revelation that to accept or reject has consequences of the profoundest sort even as, on Packer’s account, exegetical and expositional problems persist in biblical interpretation and application since full disclosure remains perpetually beyond the human capacity to grasp. As Packer summarizes his biblical hermeneutics:

"Will any model do to give knowledge of the living God? Historically, Christians have not thought so. Their characteristic theological method, whether practiced clumsily or skillfully, consistently or inconsistently, has been to take biblical models as their God-given staring point, to base their belief-system on what biblical writers use these models to say, and to let these models operate as ‘controls’, both suggesting and delimiting what further, secondary models may be developed in order to explicate these which are primary. As models in physics are hypotheses formed under the suggestive control of empirical evidence to correlate and predict phenomenon, so Christian theological models are explanatory constructs formed to help us know, understand and deal with God, the ultimate reality. From this standpoint, the whole study of Christian theology, biblical, historical and systematic, is the exploring of a three-tier hierarchy of models: first, the ‘control’ models given in Scripture…; next, dogmatic models which the Church crystallized out to defend and define the faith,” first and foremost, the Trinity; finally, interpretive models lying between Scripture and defined dogma with particular theologians and theological schools developed for stating faith to contemporaries."

The critical factor is not only the starting point, but the layering order of Scripture, axiomatic doctrines, and only then historically grounded interpretation in service as much to apologetics as to dogmatic exfoliation. To confuse this order is to confuse a great deal and to misconstrue the nature of biblical interpretation.

It is this evangelical challenge to 20th century Protestant liberalism in the quest to re-capture the intellectual and pietistic vitality of the biblical revelation that Packer posits as “true Christianity.” On his account the hermeneutics that he lays out represents the surest approximation to it that he believes a rigorous and up-to-date Reformed-based evangelical scholarship linked to a corresponding pietism grounded on its own founding premises, forever subject to enhanced light, can provide. It is this that Packer argues as do I, that is needed as a counter-balance to the cultural captivity of so much of mainline Protestantism by the persuasive powers of contemporary secular thought and culture which has set the terms of academic based critical biblical research for well over 100 years. In short, there is much to be gained by a careful analysis of Packer’s theology of Scripture even if one takes issue with critical aspects of his interpretation.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Reading the Bible for Spiritual and Theological Intent

An issue that has come up in one of our Bible studies is that of interpreting the meaning and significance of the Old Testment

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unpacking Packer's Theology Part Two

Biblical Centrality and Turning Modern Culural Paradigmatic Assumptions on their Head

Packer’s overarching claim is “that Scripture sets before us the factual and moral nature of things” about the human condition. “God’s law,” in the most complete sense corresponds to “created human nature, so that in fulfilling his requirements we fulfill ourselves.” There is, according to Packer, “not a touch of authoritarianism [that] enters into his exercise of authority over us.”

That is because in fulfilling our relationship with God we attain the very purpose of life, which to miss is to miss a great deal. There is no surer pathway to this realization, however failing our efforts may be, Packer argues, than through a full and comprehensive appreciation and application of the Bible as the place where God most thoroughly and unequivocally speaks. The precepts of faith as disclosed in and through the Bible “are not in themselves unreasonable, but they are above reason; they terminate in mysteries which the human mind can express only as paradoxes.” As he further explains:

"Reasoning may prepare the mind for faith in these truths [as revealed], by showing their meaning and biblical basis, their congruity with the total biblical outlook and the known facts of life, and the weaknesses of objectives made to them; but reasoning alone cannot produce faith, for faith goes further than reason could take it. Reasoning at best could only suggest probability, but the nature of faith is to be certain. Any measure of doubt or uncertainty [even in my unbelief] is not a degree of faith, but an assault upon it. Faith, therefore, must rest on something more sure than an inference of probability."

That something more is trust through faith, ultimately via the agency of grace that the truth of God is revealed in and through the Bible. The validity of such faith cannot “be demonstratively proved; for such proof is only possible in principle on the basis of an exhaustive understanding of its object.”

The negative corollary is that once:

"You give up the New Testament view of biblical inspiration—there is no limit on how far you will go in rejecting or relativizing biblical assertions. [That is because] there is no limit apart from your own arbitrary will. Protestantism’s current confusion is largely due to the way its teachers have fanned out at this point producing as many sub-biblical theologies as there have been thinkers to devise them."

Packer’s major concern is that once the Bible is surrendered as anything less than the disclosive word of God, every single tenet of faith, including God’s very being as a theocentric reality is open to radical revision, deconstruction, and re-mythologization. The Bible is far from exhaustive in its revelation of God. Nonetheless, Packer argues that it is the most substantial bulwark available in maintaining a foundational Christian stance based on its own revelatory cogency against the many intruding forces when “sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:3) is replaced with other teachings.

The quest for complete knowledge, which, as God’s creatures we neither need nor can expect to have, would be to be like God, the fundamental sin of Adam and Eve. Packer’s point is that Scripture is absolutely reliable for that which it is relevant, in the final analysis, the salvation of our souls and the reconciliation of the world even while shedding only partial knowledge of God’s revelation. For:

Scripture tells us what we need to know for faith and godliness. But at no point do we dare imagine that the thoughts about God that Scripture teaches us takes the full measure of his reality. The fact that God condescends and accommodates himself to us in his revelation certainly makes possible clarity and sureness of understanding. Equally certain, however, it involves limitation in the revelation itself. If we fail to acknowledge God’s incomprehensibility beyond the limits of what he has revealed, we shrink him in thought down in our size….It is certainly proper to stress that scriptural revelation is rational [a point missed in many mainline congregations]. But the most thoroughgoing Bible believers are sometimes like Job, to go on adoring God when we do not specifically understand what he is doing and why he is doing it.

As it has always been with the Bible, faith precedes knowledge and that which God does provide is often viewed as foolishness to the world (1 Cor. 1:27). There is no getting around the circularity and even scandal of this claim as the depths of “sound doctrine” are ever unfathomable in the riches of “the mystery which has been hidden from the ages and from the generations, but now has been revealed to His [highly flawed] saints” (Col. 1:26). It is this gospel and this gospel only to which we are to “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim: 4:2) to preach. This is the core and substance of Packer’s highly nuanced and very much orthodox theology of Scripture. Among much else his theology of Scripture has the capacity of serving as one critical resource among others in helping to refashion both evangelical and mainline Protestantism along the critical axis of its Reformation-based roots as the hermeneutical basis for a viable reconstruction in the current setting.

Unpacking the Evangelical Theology of J.I. Packer Part One

Along with C.S. Lewis and John Stott,the Bristish born pietist theologian, J.I. Packer, has had a very strong influence in contemporary U.S. evenaglical circles. This prolific author has written some very popular books such as Knowing God (1973)as well as more specialized works on the 17th century English Puritans and other Protestant theologians throughout the centuries. Throughout his writings he has always sought to merge the pietistic longing for just a closer walk witn God with the many specialized issues of systematic and historical theology in which for Packer as well as his primary mentors, the great Puritan Divines, especially John Owen, there is no divide.

I discovered Packer some 5-6 years ago and have been enthralled by his work ever since. I encourage all those interested in bringing pietism and formal theological discourse into closer proximity to take a closer look at Packer, including those who would dismiss him as a narrow fundamehtalist, of which he is clearly not.

Unpacking Packer’s Theology of Scripture Part One

Packer’s theology of Scripture represents a fundamental challenge to the precepts of modern intellectual life and culture, particularly against the Enlightenment interpretation of freedom which he seeks to turn on its head in what he refers to as “God’s Freedom Trail.” Freedom, liberty, and authority are the key topics Packer addresses in the first chapter of Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life. His objective is to demonstrate that a substantial grounding in the biblical revelation through Word and Spirit is the surest basis available for the realization of these values in contrast to the Enlightenment’s pathway of secular humanism, ultimately “in dreams of the perfectability of man.” Such dreams, Packer maintains, were transformed in the 19th and early 20th centuries into an unrelenting pursuit of progress through the elusive quest for the gradual control and organization of nature, society, and the self, which Packer views as nothing short of a disaster for humankind.

The matter of authority is unavoidable, argues Packer, the only question is upon whom or upon what that is placed. For advocates of the precepts of the Enlightenment, ultimate authority is placed on human reason, which Packer accepts as a penultimate good bestowed by the Creator, and essential when governed by the direction of the Holy Spirit upon solid biblical precepts. One of Packer’s chief apologetic objectives is to illuminate both the biases and insufficiencies of modern secular thought and culture, particularly its influence on liberal theology which he discusses in some depth in Fundamentalism and the Word of God. His critique of liberalism is made in broad strokes, which would benefit from more refined analysis that took into more subtle account the many complex array of historical circumstances that have resulted in its unfolding. Packer’s primary strength remains deep biblical exposition and ability to communicate to a broad, predominantly evangelical audience. As stated, a key objective of this chapter is to expand the reach of Packer’s audience to a greater segment of the mainline clergy and laity.

According to Packer, in the Enlightenment perspective a great deal of authority is placed on the infinitely seeming capacity of human reason, particularly through science, to resolve the fundamental problems of the day in whatever spheres they may reside, both in terms of the academic disciplines and practical application. This overly optimistic view of gradual progress in which the deistic god takes on the passive role of clockmaker has been challenged in the 20th century through various postmodern scenarios of non-foundational deconstructionism and trends within philosophical pragmatism that focus on irony and the persistence of evil. What remains in modern/postmodern secular perception is the ineradicable belief both in human consciousness and the social construction of reality as the predominant philosophical precepts of contemporary western thought and culture. On this interpretation religious faith is viewed as a subset of a variety of humanly constructed forces, which at most provides for some under-defined remainder for the transcendent within culture.

20th century western liberal theology has largely accepted these major premises, and has sought to correlate “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude vs. 3b) within the overarching framework of contemporary thought and culture. Rudolph Bultmannm, Paul Tillich, Langdon Gilkey, and Rosemary Ruether could be considered representative theologians of this broad school of thought whose collective work has spawned much contemporary reflection which has been highly influential in the seminary and in mainline Protestant denominations. Along with the United Church of Christ theologians Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackre, who exhibit a powerful affinity with evangelical theology within a Barthian framework, Packer has labored diligently to counter this tendency through the development of a highly cogent Reformed-based evangelical biblical perspective. The objective of these theologians is that of providing an effective counter-response in the realm of formal theology at the seminary level and within the congregational setting among clergy and laity. This they do by referencing first the Bible as the interpretive grid for examining the culture and then that of theology and to an almost 2000 year church tradition as a primary resource for stabilizing and strengthening a distinctive Christian identity within the self and within the body of Christ.

For Christians, argues Packer, “[t]heology must function as the queen of the sciences showing us how to approach, interpret, and use all our knowledge in such a way that the secular order is sanctified to the glory of God.” This they must do in order to uphold the integrity of orthodox Christianity, even if the result is further distancing of Protestantism theology and practice within the context of mainstream western culture and the secular academy. This eroding tendency is a cumulative trajectory of at least the past 50 years, with roots extending back several centuries of sociological and cultural trends of an ever growing secularization combined with a highly influential fundamentalist resurgence, and ever increasing religious and cultural pluralism. The explosion of such centrifugal forces in contemporary western society and culture has rendered any claims of “no other name than Jesus” a most dubious proposition subject to much scorn and contempt when not utterly ignored as simply irrelevant.

In the given climate mainline Protestantism would do well to embrace its increasing marginality as a gift of God, and in the process articulate its message in a much more unequivocal, albeit thoughtful way than is evident in at least many quarters. Packer’s text, Fundamentalism and the Word of God is designed both to repudiate claims of “obscurantism” when historical evangelical theology becomes too uncritically associated with 20th century fundamentalism and to provide a cogent statement of basic evangelical principles, which, in theory, can be embraced in mainline congregations as well. Written 50 years ago the book remains timely in the current setting. It is the basis for all that Packer has since written. While their styles and sensibilities are clearly different, Packer’s concerns are very much analogous to those of Douglas J. Hall, as the latter presented them some 40 years later. As Hall writes:

(1) The Christian community must be occupied with the biblical and doctrinal substance of its faith because this is its window on the world, the intellectual-spiritual perspective from which it “discerns the signs of the times” (Luke 12:56). (2) This professional contemplation of the word when it is serious (and therefore not just “professional”) thrusts the discipline community into active engagement with the world; that is, far from providing a once-remove from history, the right profession of the faith already serves, on the contrary, to push the no doubt reluctant church ever more insistently into the actual life of the world. (3) In particular such contemplation creates in the discipline community a vigilance for whatever threatens its world’s life (italics in original).

In these critical points, Hall and Packer share a close affinity from their rather different theological sensibilities and historical theaters of influence.

I focus on Packer as highly representative of the American evangelical tradition notwithstanding his British roots, and one whose views are least likely to be closely studied (if at all) within mainline seminaries and congregations even as Packer, in his more expansive moments seeks critical dialogue with these two sectors of contemporary Protestantism. Any imaginative effort to exorcise the fundamentalist-modernist split within the psyche and cultural experience of 20th century American Protestantism needs to come to terms with the evangelical tradition in its full scholarly and pietistic force, particularly the centrality of the role of the Bible before turning to theologians like Bloesch and Fackre whose theological perspectives have been substantially influenced by the neo-orthodoxy of Barth, Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. While the full scope of contemporary evangelical scholarship is far from tackled in this effort, a concentrated focus on Packer opens up some important passageways which perhaps complement Fackre’s important work on the evangelical scholar Carl Henry.

In shifting the focus from fundamentalism to historical evangelicalism Packer notes that “the inerrancy debate about whether we should treat all Bible teaching as true and right is really about how far we can regard Scripture as authoritative.” As Packer puts it, neither the concept of infallibility nor inerrancy are “essential for stating the evangelical view” even as the underlying intent of such language in honoring and preserving a robust sense of the triune God of the Christian mode is indispensable. What Packer means by biblical infallibility is the Bible’s “wholly trustworthy and reliable” quality. Packer defines inerrancy as that which is “wholly true” for that for which Scripture is designed to address, “all things necessary to salvation” in the broadest sense.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Jesus as Lord

Jesus is Lord: Can This Title be used with Integrity?

Matters of inclusion and exclusion are critically important within the Christian religion. There is much contention within the camp over where those lines are drawn as well as the more subtle issue as to who is doing the drawing. I would rather see this broader matter examined with much depth and care rather that to spend overly much time on symbolic issues such as the centrality of the single word, “Lord.” Broader issues, of course, are embedded in this highly evocative matter. Still, to get at the level of discourse that is perhaps needed, an effort to push beyond the immediacy of this specific issue to concerns of a more underlying nature may be instructive in helping to establish the kind of mediating center in a firmly grounded Christian theology which is the hallmark of the Confessing Christ (CC) vision.

While linguistic subtleties abound, God and Lord would be along the same meaning, even as I acknowledge that connotation is everything. So would, to use the language of the psalms, in reference to the hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, “Take it to my Rock in prayer.” I wouldn’t want to eliminate any of these references to God, or the many others provided in the Bible, while at the same time I’m not sure I would want to insist on any as a litmus test given the partiality and time bound nature of our own limited knowledge. Moreover, at least in western democratic societies, contemporary usages for the term “Lord,” are archaic, which does not mean the word should be eliminated. Far from it, as far as I’m concerned. However, much subtle hermeneutical work would be needed if this term is going to be fruitfully appropriated at least among more than a few congregations.

Consequently, I would want to issue caution on insisting upon the term, particularly where there is considerable resistance against it, as long, however, as the issue revolving around this word usage can be discussed and respectfully argued about. I am opposed to the unequivocal removal of “Lord” in much of the worship service in UCC congregations and the New Century Hymnal (NCH). At the same time, if other language is available that refers to the sovereignty of God, I’m not sure what the insistence of the word “Lord” is all about, especially if that terminology becomes the basis for a separation or a reason that people, who may be on the margins of faith stop coming to church. What perhaps is missing in many congregations is critical and respectful dialogue where these difficult issues can be examined in a manner where no one feels repressed to mask his or her perspective, questions, or doubts.

There are social, cultural, and theological pressures of many sorts in virtually all congregations, and, I suppose we can all provide examples of “bias” across the ideological and theological landscape. The question for me is how to move forward in creating a constructive religious culture where the critical issues of mediating the faith once delivered to the saints in the midst of the secular city can take place and be examined.

The Viability and Challenge of God Talk

The Viability and Challenge of God Talk Within the Milieu of the Secular City

Given the current emphasis on the term (or title) "Lord," Avery Dulles’ reflections in The Assurance of Things Hoped For may be of relevance:

"Faith is a religious act. It involves an adoring submission of one’s whole self to God as supreme lord of all things. In faith I abandon the self-centeredness of my normal vision and consent to look at reality from God's perspective. I transfer my concern from narrow self-interest to the God on whom I depend and who is to be unconditionally esteemed, trusted, and loved for his own sake. The intrinsic motive of faith, the ‘authority’ of God, is God himself in his wisdom, truthfulness, holiness power, and fidelity. These divine attributes, though conceptually distinct, are all identical in God" (p. 275).

In the important work of coming to term with modernity many of the more liberal Protestant denominations and theologians sacrificed at least to some degree the clarity and power of this fundamental faith act. In reading through Dulles I get the impression that on the whole, Vatican I & II did a better job than Protestantism of grappling with the intellectual premises of modernity as well as that of inter-religious dialogue, while maintaining the radical particularity that in Christ the fullness of God’s revelation to humankind has been given once and for all even as there are always new insights to be gleaned from this core revelation.

To be sure this religious act is a matter of faith all the way down which cannot be proven by human reason, logic, or evidence. Nonetheless, these can, and need to be helpful, for without signs it would be very difficult to see, even in a glass darkly. Even still such faith viewed exclusively through secular channels might readily be viewed as absurd, or more charitably as obscurantist.

In seeking to come to terms with modernity, liberal Protestantism at its worst accepted too readily the underlying assumptions of secular intellectualism, particularly a diminishing of the radicality of God as transcendent Other over and above anything that can be conceived in the natural world or in the realms of our inner and social experiences. Thus, one might say that the notion of God was repressed from 20th century intellectual history and philosophy as a manifestation of a broader “death of God” phenomenon, particularly in Europe and less so in the US, notwithstanding persistent strains of fundamentalism as well as evangelical resurgences throughout the century.

At its best the effort to come to terms with modernity is indispensable, if there is going to be a credible apologetic aspect to the faith at all, not only in response to overt unbelief (and therefore to the culture at large), but in response to the multiplicity of identities among many who are overtly Christian (like many of us?) in their (our) various constructions of reality which are anything but purely Christian. Perhaps I might suggest that at least in Protestant circles that apologetic work has barely begun to take place outside the realms, say, of Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Langdon Gilkey. One might also place Walter Brueggemann in this apologetic category in his “funding” of postmodernity in the compelling breakthrough of the kairotc moment through the imaginative stimulus of the Holy Spirit. Such apologoteic theology is indispensable if such fundamental religious acts of claiming Christ as Lord and Savior are going to mediate in ways that are compelling.

As many here have pointed out, there is a broad range of problems linked to the liberal (post or otherwise) or neo-orthodox solution. Might we see as a next step a thick reformed-grounded evangelic apologetic that does not merely collapse into dogmatics, but confronts the intellectual premises of modernity and postmodernity on their own terms while maintaining a distinctively Christian perspective? Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackreand George Hunsinger, UCC centrist stalwarts, have done substantial work in this arena. I suppose one could argue that Barth’s turn to dogmatics was also a subtle form of apologetics by indirection, but a fuller apologetic effort may be needed, such as that as exhibited by Jurgen Moltmann if the religious act of faith is going to be viewed as credible by more than a remnant.

I don’t disagree that the more fundamental work may still be the need to sharpen a subtle dogmatic project right in the heartland of the UCC denomination and its supporting seminaries. In fact, I think it’s essential. Let that work go forth! On Bloesch, on Fackre, on Brueggemann, too! Still given the pervasive cultural and religious pluralism of our times along with a profound agnosticism in the heartland of the “thinking” middle class and contemporary intellectuals, perhaps there is a need to move beyond Karl Barth’s dogmatics (while drinking richly from his wells) and incorporate richer apologetic work in the very creation of a more subtle articulation of faith.

On that score, perhaps Dulles may have a point or two in Ch 11 in The Assurance of Things Hoped For, titled “Properties of Faith.” In that chapter, Dulles points to five key properties: “supernaturality, freedom, certitude and doubt, and obscurity.” For Dulles, faith is primary, but it is faith in search of knowledge amidst the dynamic tension of certitude and doubt within the context of the ultimate obscurity of the mystery of God, given the fathomless range of His Kingdom and the inherently limited and flawed nature of our own understanding and will. The gap between what we seek and what we possess is itself fathomless, though we press toward the mark in the midst of our groaning and travail, and in the process are occasionally given the light of the beautific vision of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of human history.