Saturday, January 24, 2015

Reflections on the Relationship between Donald Bloesch’s Mediating Theology and His Underlying Pietistic Spirituality

In Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving and Evangelical Tradition, Roger Olson and Christian Collin Winn provide a succinct overview of the theological and spiritual odyssey of Donald Bloesch  Specifically, they depicting something of the relationship between his theology and his persisting quest for an intense spirituality grounded in the pietistic legacy of his early years—a legacy that remained a central touchstone throughout long and fruitful life (pp. 161-166).  As Olson puts it in one of his blog postings: “Bloesch’s approach to theology was basically pietistic with some neo-orthodox flavoring put in” (“Recommendation of Donald G. Bloesch’s Theology,”  Given the substantial influence of Karl Barth on Bloesch’s theology, the neo-orthodox influence on him may be more pronounced than that. In any event, Olson and Winn aptly describe Bloesch as a “mediating” theologian, in which he sought a centrist “via media, particularly between” “fundamentalism and liberalism” (p. 161).  Working through such tensions in the quest for a comprehensive Christian orthodox theology, drove Bloesch’s irenic vision, particularly in his most expansive work, his seven volume Christian Foundations series
The tensions are reflected in the relationship in Bloesch’s theological formation between—as someone nurtured in the pietistic tradition—the liberal Chicago Theological Seminary he attended as a graduate student (where he encountered the neo-orthodoxy of Barth, Tillich and Reinhoold Niebuhr, as well as professors who embraced the early roots of what became known as “process theology”) and the more theologically conservative “Presbyterian-related University of Dubuque Seminary in Iowa” (p. 162) where he taught during most of his career. This tension was also reflected in his membership in the United Church of Christ (UCC) (a leading candidate for the most liberal Christian denomination in the U.S.) and his founding role in the Biblical Witness Fellowship, a conservative confessing movement within the UCC sharply opposed to the denomination’s leadership liberal leanings.

As someone rooted in the pietism of “Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf, and Christoph Blumhardt” (cited in Olson’s blog), it would be instructive learn what drew Bloesch to Chicago and to the UCC, notwithstanding his rejection of their more liberalizing tendencies in biblical interpretation, theology, and ethics. Such knowledge may remain elusive until a full scale biography of Bloesch is written. Perhaps there was some intellectual gap in his pietistic upbringing propelled by an intrinsic curiosity that drew him to a broader range of theological insights and issues that could only open up by moving outside the horizons of the pietistic heritage. 

What one can reasonably conclude is that Bloesch’s extensive engagement with neo-orthodoxy and theological liberalism played a formative role in his understanding of some of the most fundamental issues that have shaped the contours of twentieth century European and U.S. theology.  When combined with the pulsating power of the pietistic impulse that reverberated through his being through the entirety of his life, once can reasonably surmise that such engagement provided a source of motivation and a set of resources to take on the hard work of developing what ultimately became his mediating theology in the critical areas of Scripture, Christ, God, the Church, the Holy Spirit and eschatology, as depicted in the various volumes of his Christian Foundations series.

A thorough discussion of the relationship between Bloesch’s theology and his pietism would take a good deal of work well beyond what can be explored here.  One can gain a sense of it in two of his central volumes: A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology and God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom Holiness, Love.  Consider a defining passage in the first volume:

We believe the gospel because the Spirit seals the truth of the gospel in our hearts, and the truth is self-authenticating. The church helps us understand this truth in the context of the fellowship of love, but it is not the source or origin of this truth (p. 188).

In the second text, Bloesch identifies “God’s love and holiness as constitute[ing] the inner nature of God.”  Bloesch continues this meditation on the quintessential nature of God in the following manner:

These two perfections coalesce in such a way that we may speak of the holy love of God…and of his merciful holiness.  In the depth of God’s love is revealed the beauty of his holiness.  In the glory of his holiness is revealed the depth of his love.  The apex of God’s holiness is his love. The apex of God’s love is the beauty of his holiness.  God’s love transcends his holiness even while he infuses and upholds it.  His holiness is adorned and crowned by the magnitude of his love” (God the Almighty, p. 141).

I had some knowledge of the spiritual depth underlying Bloesch’s theology, as reflected in these passages, even, as in my research, I have concentrated on the latter aspect of his work.  Olson and Winn have presented a persuasive overview of the formative pietistic influences on the totality of Bloesch’s Christian formation.  Given Bloesch’s quest to give shape to a vital centrist theology that is both irenic and mediating, a deeper appreciation of the pietistic impulse underlying his project could provide an important resource to better understand the range and depth of his formal theological studies. An in-depth probing into some of the specific ways in which Bloesch’s spiritual quest and theological reflections intersect could contribute much toward a deepening Christian world view that is theologically comprehensive and spiritually quite rich.  Clearly, that work remains to be done.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of "A Fundamental Truth"

I have selected a sermon by Terri L. Hansen, titled “A Fundamental Truth: I Have Been Raised by Christ (Colossians 3:1-4)”[1]

As part of a young couple’s class, Ms. Hansen’s group chose to read and discuss Richard Foster’s highly influential text, Celebration of Disciplines, which provides practical helps to illustrate how God’s grace can be revealed in “transformative ways through the [intentional] practice of spiritual disciplines.”  Given Celebration’s inclusion of various “Catholic” spiritual practices, such as “contemplative prayer, solitude,” and confession, while also including the traditional Protestant emphasis on devotional Bible study, prayer, worship, service, and study, Hansen describes the book as an eye opener among those in “Baptistic, evangelical homes and churches.”[2] Celebration of Disciplines set Ms. Hansen on a “spiritual journey,” through which she also discovered the works of John Ortberg, James Bryan Smith, and Dallas Willard.  Along with Foster, the cited authors are (or were) part of the Renovare Institute: School of Christian Spiritual Formation  The overarching vision of the Institute is that of stimulating a pietistic sensibility across denominations and branches within contemporary Christian practice. 

Ms. Hansen draws on Colossians 3:1-4 to structure the theme of her sermon, placing the emphasis on the first verse, “You have been raised by Christ, set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (v. 1) and the correlate, “for you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (v. 3, NIV).  In amplifying her theme, and echoing Foster, she states that “we should put the formation of our souls into Christlikeness [in this life] as our number one priority.”[3]
I find the Ms. Hansen’s sermon helpful because it illuminates the strengths and as well as a few weaknesses of the Renovare Movement.  A major benefit is the opening up to the reader of the spiritual richness of the collective works of the contributing authors, who veer toward what I will call the Wesleyan pole of the Protestant theological and spiritual continuum.  Hansen references a critical insight about the Renovare theology and psychology of spirituality; namely, that while “we can’t directly impact the condition of our souls,…we can direct our heart and mind on things above.  That is, “through the practice of spiritual disciplines and activities, we indirectly [my emphasis] improve the conditions of our souls.”  This is accomplished through the spiritual disciplines like meditation, prayer, study and solitude (Foster), which results in “creat[ing] a condition in ourselves” that leads us to existentially desire “to becoming like Jesus.”[4]  

This emphasis on the power of indirection, through the grace of God, to progressively shape our character formation into the image of Christ is especially pronounced in Willard.  As he states it, “as our spiritual dimension has been formed” by the cumulative impact of everything that has influenced us, “so it also can be transformed.[5]   To elaborate, for Willard, Christian character formation emerges through intentional spiritual practices that gradually transform a diligent practitioner’s “ideas, beliefs, feelings, and habits of choice, as well as their bodily tendencies and social relations.”[6] It is through such a process that we become intentionally able, through the grace of God, to progressively put on the mind of Christ, and live in the spirit of God more and more.
As one who has read a good deal of this literature with small groups, with my wife, and on my own, I have been much edified in my Christian walk.  The works referenced by Hansen and other texts by these authors has stimulated much food for thought in helping me to connect my faith journey with some of the finest reflections and tried and true practices within the cumulative history of the Christian spiritual tradition.  Hansen provides the reader a most useful service in opening these authors to readers in her highly engaging and accessible sermon which draw the reader in.  I will continue to engage these authors—especially Willard—for some time to come in providing essential spiritual guidance and inspirational energy to my own faltering efforts.

Willard and the other Renovare writers are careful to link the practice of the spiritual disciplines to the grace of God and also to the ongoing process of sanctification while acknowledging the enduring reality of the persistence of individual and collective sin. Nonetheless, there is a tendency in this literature to downplay what I will call the Calvinist pole of the Protestant continuum, particularly on the sovereignty of God, the Lutheran emphasis on the justified sinner, the persistence of radical evil, and the tension between “the already” of Christ’s first coming and the “not yet” on his second coming” when God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28). 

In setting our hearts on things above (Col 3:1), we are still in his world, and—I maintain—only partially not of it (John 17:14); for we live in the reality of both Romans 7 and 8 and not of 8 only.  We have died in Christ and our life is hidden in him, but this is only a first eschaton reality in which we are given the deposit of the Holy Spirit, while we wait in faith for our full identification with Christ in the final eschaton.  While “my destiny is secure” regardless of “what happens in this life,”[7] I am still affected by what happens and I still “groan” to put on the full adoption that is promised to me, but which has not become a complete reality (Romans 8:18-27).  Thus, I am concerned when Ms. Hansen says that because “we live in the Kingdom—in the very presence of Christ already[,] fear of death and dying should never enter the mind of the Christian.”[8]  Whether the problem lies more in Ms. Hansen’s interpretation of the literature or in the works themselves, I remain concerned about a tendency toward a unidirectional progressive sanctification in this life and a corresponding tendency toward a sense of security beyond the weals and woes of this life in the exuberant belief that we can radically change our identity in a manner that comes close to the full embodiment of the Spirit and mind of Christ in this life.  These concerns, notwithstanding, I have been most edified by this literature.  I encourage that it be read with a strong dose of Puritan realism.

[1] Terri L. Hansen, “A Fundamental Truth: I have Been Raised by Christ (Colossians 3:1-4).” The Baptist Pietist Clarion (March 2014, Vol. XII, No. 2, 5-7).
[2] Ibid., 5.
[3] Ibid., 6
[4] Ibid.
[5] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart. (NavPress, 2002, 14),
[6] Ibid., 15.
[7] A Fundamental Truth,” 7.
[8] Ibid., 6

Saturday, January 17, 2015


Edification is a central theme in sections 5 and 6 of Part Three (pp. 103-122) of Philip Spener’s, Pia Desidera.  Edification is a major focal point in the training of seminarians, in which the professors serve as the primary role model for aspiring students.  As an essential part—more radically put, as the most essential aspect of their seminary training—“students should have it impressed upon them that holy life is no less of consequence than diligence and study” (p. 104). Without due attention to the formation of a character based on the primacy of holiness, engraved on the heart and soul early on in one’s training, there is the very likely prospect that the desired character formation will not be readily available in one’s formal ministry.  Spener warns against self-deception in any assumption that it will be easy for the ministry student to change stripes once assuming official duties in the pulpit, “as if a deeply ingrained love of the world [does] not generally cling to people throughout their lives” (p. 107). 
Spener identifies a number of focal points, including that of carrying on “edifying conversations” (104) by both students and professors in formal areas of studies and more informal communicative settings.  He also emphasizes the importance of discernment in dealing with controversial issues; to engage in such (when necessary) in a manner that builds up rather than tears down the life of holiness and faith.  Neither polemics nor doctrinal erudition are as important as the formation of holy character.  Attention to such requires that “great care … be exercised to keep controversy within bounds,” in which the entirety of one’s “theology ought to be brought back to apostolic simplicity” (p. 110).  In contemporary terms, theologians would do well to be more irenic in constructing theological frameworks that, consistent with orthodoxy, build bridges with others rather than drawing sharp lines of demarcation, especially where they do not need to be drawn. To cite a well-known aphorism: “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” (Cited in Olson & Winn, p. 104).
Spener also identifies, along with a sacramental approach to Bible reading, the study of devotional books as another edifying way of instilling right moral character based on the formation and ongoing exercise of holy aspirations and habits.  In addition to Arndt’s True Christianity, he identifies other similar texts such as the various works of John Tauler, the anonymous, 14th century Theologica Germania, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Luther’s Small Catechism, various works by Augustine (pp. 110-111), and other similarly inspired and inspirational texts.  Spener advocates multiple readings of such inspired texts, sifted through a devotionally-prompted heart to complement a similar reading of Scripture.  With foundations thus lain, the appropriately trained seminarians will be optimally poised to assume the pulpit and the duties of the pastorate with a sense of inner integrity and corresponding sense of assurance to nurture their congregation in the quest to live out a holy and devout faith for personal edification and missions as related to all the spheres of life.
There is enough in Pia Desidera to persuade me that Spener assumes a holistic approach to Christian character formation that takes into consideration the importance of the great doctrines of the faith (the sovereignty of God, the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the mandate to spread the gospel throughout the world, and the importance of the historical church).  The quest to exude a holy and devout Christ-based character formation has been a central aspiration of mine, notwithstanding the persisting chasm between the reach and the grasp, which can seem, at times, rather pronounced.  I can also attest, on personal experience, to the importance of both systematic and devotional Bible reading and to the study of both the devotional and more formal theological literature of the saints of God throughout the ages as mutually contributing to my faith formation.  This balanced and comprehensive approach to faith formation is echoed in Pia Desidera.
My only concern with the pietistic impulse is that of making the formation of the devout heart the (or even a) central litmus test of one’s allegiance to the Christian faith.  One concern is that the persisting gap between the quest and the attainment of the desired edification of heart, soul, strength, and mind can leave one with (a) a sense of futility, given that the quest is beyond our capacity to attain; (b) a sense of illusion that one may be “closer” to Christ than one actually may be, or (c) a sense of certainty that can override the ambiguity or complexity that one may actually experience, or (d) a sense that other critical faith-based matters, such as systematic and critically-informed Bible study, theological acuity, 2000 years of church history, and the truths that are incorporated into other religions or world-views (secular and religious) are of little or no account in the complexity of seeking to live out a consistent, well-formed Christian life in the mist of our post-Christendom, pluralistic, global area. 
While much of my early Christian formation was through a distinctively born-again Pentecostal prism where pietistic experience was central—and there’s much about this formation to which I am still attracted—I place more emphasis on faith itself, which may or may not exhibit itself in specific emotional experiences. That is, I may or may not feel pietistic in any given context. This includes that of participating in the most devout worship service, in which I do not base my faith on the attainment of a given experience, however holy or devotional my experience within the worship service may seem.   Rather, I adhere to “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3); that is the historical faith of the Christian revelation, as embodied within and throughout the New Testament and embodied within the best theological, spiritual, and ecclesiastic texts of our faith tradition.

I believe Spener and Francke would say something similar. Where I may differ is that I am not working out of a similar historical context as were they, where the pietistic impulse is, subtly or not, pitted in opposition to formal doctrine or dogma. More radically stated, I do no define the pietistic impulse as the defining litmus test of faith, however important and central it may be—a phenomenon that is more defining and central to some serious, committed Christians than others; so I believe.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Devotional Reflections

I've cut back this year on my morning devotional readings in order to concentrate with more intensity on the anchoring texts that I have selected.  The challenge for me is not so much to read more and more, but to make sure that I am truly connecting to the biblical passages and accompanying texts in a manner that enhances my appreciation of and awareness of the presence of God both in the immediacy of the reading moment and in a way that connects with the course of my daily life at work, at home, at church, in my studies and in my viewing of media.  A strength in my spiritual walk with Christ is that I almost always feel connected at some level.  A weakness is that the connection does not always feel vital, as exhibited, in part, in the difficulty I have with formal prayer, whether in solitude or in a small group setting.  One challenge this year is to strengthen my prayer life in both venues--in the interior regions of my soul and spirit and in small group settings at church.  Another is that in living out my faith with more intensity and intentionality in my daily work with homeless adults in San Diego.

Lord, I know that you are real. I know what your real presence feels like.  I know that you seek to be at the center of my life and there is much within me that seeks to place and keep you there.  I  also know there are forces within me seeking yo keep you at a distance; yet I also know that I seek almost the entirety of my existence in search of your perpetual presence in which Christ being formed and reformed within me is the purpose of my existence.  Teach me to appreciate and honor your presence. Remove thoughts and feelings which lead me to take you for granted, that lead me to not being awed by your presence.  I want to be awed.  I want to be inspired by your presence.  I want to be moved by your presence; I want to be empowered in my relationship with you.

Holy God, father, Christ, Holy Spirit, make your presence more vitally known to me and through me in a way that I can meaningfully share your presence with others, both among those within your household and among those who have not yet heard your name in a sufficiently persuasive manner for them to embrace.