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.

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