Monday, May 16, 2016

Some Thoughts on the 19th century Evangelist/Theologian Charles G. Finney

I posted this several years ago on the Confessing Christ listserv as part of an extended debate on the orthodoxy of Charles G. Finney's moral government theology.

I first encountered Finney when I was taking an advanced history course on the U.S. antebellum reform era and the prof, a Christian, recommended Finney. I was also attending an assembly of God church at the time in the full flush of a born again experience in 1972. Finney became the topic for my MA thesis where I focused on his revivals of religion. It was exhilarating studying Finney during the week then going home to the on fire Assembly of God church on the weekends and gaining an experiential sense of the quest for the presence of the spirit of God and a vision of "Victory in Jesus," a core staple of Finney's theology and of the AA church.  Finney never denied the reality of sin, but his best reasoned logic would not allow him to adopt any notion of physical depravity, though he was keen on identifying moral depravity as a voluntary embrace of sin which he tended to identify as specific acts like drinking coffee as well as owning slaves rather than any intrinsic state of mind or spirit.

 At that time I had little understanding of Reformed theology, though I was a good Bible reader in which the Epistle to the Romans was my favored text--a text that Finney spent much time on, also.  For Finney, the theology of Victory in Christ served as a pathway for the embrace of holiness as a lifelong quest with the most serious existential intent.  He did know the difference between justification and sanctification and often returned to the former in his preaching in his objective of being God's agent (aka, attorney) in encouraging potential converts to turn to Christ or what he termed "backsliders" to return home.  On this his preaching could be both incredibly tender as well pointed in its judgmental power in which he took the wrath as well as the love of God with radical seriousness.

 Finney cannot be understood outside the potency of his 1821 conversion experience which served as the touchstone of the remainder of his spiritual life.  For the first 10 years of his post-conversion experience he concentrated on revival preaching from Boston in upper New York State, NYC, and to the pulpits of New England where he was allowed.  This period of his life was marked by a great deal of controversy, which might also be viewed as his most vitriolic period in which he was taking no prisoners.  His caricature of old school religious coldness was one of his chief targets in a period in which one of his key texts, Lectures of Revivals of Religion were published (1835). 

 It is to this text and to this period of his life that most critiques turn to and they miss out or downplay the subtle changes that he underwent from around 1840 through the rest of this life.  His move to Oberlin and his shared ministry with Asa Mahan at the newly formed college was one pivotal factor.  Another, coming from the influence of Mahan, was a renewed experience of the Holy Spirit, which drew for him a very clear distinction  between the spirit of God and human ability.  While he recognized the centrality of both justification and sanctification he clearly emphasized the later as well as the theoretical capacity to obey the will of God as far as we knew it (and for him, that's all that was asked), however much our native ability may have bneen marrred by the consequences of sin. (I'm not necessarily defending this position, but any subtle analysis of Finney's theology needs to be sifted with a knowledge of some of the precise ways he defined this.  The final point I'll major here is that he and his arch rival Charles Hodge carried on a series of very extensive point-counter point debates and it is those debates in particular that need to be carefully sifted through before making a reasoned judgment on Finney's theology and the significance of his broader influence in 19th century U.S. and English Protestant circles.

 I do not consider myself a Finneyite, though there have been periods of my life where his work has been influential in my life in which given both his influence and large body of work merit close examination in which a balanced perspective could emerge through a binocular  affirmational/admonitional reading.

 Two final points;

  1. When I read devotional writers or theologians I try to get a sense of some of the ways that God may have been working in their lives (obviously an imperfect science) and then sifting that person's work and my relation to it accordingly in which i am implicitly asking, what is driving me to consider this person's work at this time.  Thus, at one period of my life I was highly influenced by Walter Brueggemann; in more recent times, JI Packer has had much influence in my life.  Our theological interpretations are invariably affected by such inclinations.
  2. If one takes seriously the distinction Fackre makes between Scripture as the primary source of faith and theology as a primary resource, the one could make a plausible argument that there is an unfathomable gap between the two in which theology, while valuable is always secondary to a canonical approach to Scripture read through the lenses of common and critical sense, through the third litmus test in the hierarchy of values, the context.  on this reading I would place both Reformed theology and Finney's systematic theology as an important secondary concern and sift both works first and foremost through the monocular lens of Scripture as a serious heuristic worthy of much effort, however ultimately impossible that is to do since context is invariably part of the interpretive process.  At the least this could lead to a "post-critical interpretation" in the sense that the text has its own authorial integrity whatever reader-response bias we place on it,.  Through this approach, one shapes one's theology accordingly, drawing on all the resources that one can, yet, if the hierarch of values does hold (and I realize that for Gabe this schema is a heuristic) then that does suggest turning to the Bible first and foremost for understanding and direction, however much we ,may draw on other resources for amplification.

I've linked one pro-Finney review of BB Warfield's assessment of Finney's theology[1].htm

Sunday, April 24, 2016

In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective A Review

Much appreciation to Al Scopino, Jr, an American religious historian,for his review of In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center. (GD).  The review can also be accessed here:

Focusing on the fractured state of current American Protestantism, George Demetrion’s study, In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective, provides an antidote for greater cohesiveness. The author’s message is directed to both moderate conservatives and post-liberal believers. Demetrion insists that a centrist position must maintain the tradition of orthodoxy. In this, Demetrion builds on the centrist theology of Gabriel Fackre, whose work he explores in depth in Chapter 5. And while this position appears at first reading to be contradictory, Demetrion assists readers in navigating through theological complexities via the works of theologians whose writings provide hope, intellectual verve, and creative imagination as means to avoiding polarization and mistrust.

Analyzing the works of conservative theologians J.I. Packer, Donald Bloesch, and Richard Lints, as well as post-liberal scholars Walter Brueggemann, Gary Dorrien and Douglas J. Hall, Demetrion locates theological openings and nuances in accord with Biblical principles to provide the grounding for his argument. All, in different ways, provide guideposts for future progress. Going beyond the fundamentalist-modernist divide that was set in history with the Scopes Trial of 1925, Demetrion has called on both conservative and liberal thinkers to seek higher, common ground by reaching consensus on shared religious principles. Unlike conservative spokespersons of the past, Demetrion’s orthodox models have championed reason, employed current knowledge, challenged Biblical literalism, exercised imagination in their analyses, promoted ecumenicalism, acknowledged the contributions of women, and advocated the Kingdom of God on earth. All of these qualities, Demetrion contends, would revitalize the Protestant center and provide space for meaningful dialogue, greater understanding, and fruitful cooperation. For post- liberals who have spiraled into the nether regions of relativism and for conservatives who have built fortresses to stem the tide of intellectual curiosity, Demetrion has reopened a bridge that has long been closed.

While the book offers high expectations for clergy and laity alike, several components must be considered. First, the work is designed for moderate post-liberals and conservatives and it is they who would reap the benefits of an energized vital center through free and open exchange. Yet, how this new thinking is to reach and impact the greater laity and those religiously disaffected is more problematic. Second, while the author refers to the angst of mainline Protestantism’s supposed marginality, it should be noted that despite staggering membership losses, the mainline continues to retain cultural currency in greater American society. Third, for a vast number of Americans who have become comfortable without any religious identity, to impose or suggest any theological prerequisites, such as the primacy of the Bible and the focal point of Jesus Christ, would more than likely engender a chilly reception. In this all-too-real possibility, Barth’s call to embrace “the strange new world of the Bible” might simply fail to resonate within a population uncomfortable with absolutes, especially religious absolutes. One recalls Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger reminding clergy in the 1950s that what preachers proclaimed on Sunday held little impact on the daily activities of parishioners on Monday or the days that followed.

Demetrion has provided much to challenge and encourage clergy and laity in closing the Protestant divide. For too long, conservatives and liberals have turned inward for sustenance. Perhaps it is time for American Protestants to turn outward and embrace those on the other side of the religious spectrum. In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center complements Douglas Jacobsoen’s and William Vance Trollinger’s Re-Forming the Center: American Protestantism, 1900 to the Present (1998), which challenged the thesis of two opposing Protestant camps. Demetrion has moved the debate further along by examining the theological commonalities and perplexities of Protestantism and is required reading for theological students, particularly those devoted to greater inter-faith understanding and ecumenical efforts.

A. J. Scopino, Jr.

Central Connecticut State University

Monday, April 11, 2016

Reflections on Stanley Grenz's Post-modern, Post-Foundational Postconservative Theology

 This reflection was also a post that I placed on the discussion board for a recent course on 19th and 20th century theology.  The commentary was influenced by a reading of Grenz's important, accessible book, Envisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (IVP, 1997).  The comments below highlight concerns I have with the polarities in Grenz's theology.  Though I do not do so here, I also find much to admire in Grenz;'s work. The critique stands as a point in time in my reflection on his theological stance.
There are substantial differences between Schleiermacher’s receptivity to an ineffable religious prompting, in which Christian doctrine served, as best, as a metaphorical resource in tapping into the “inward sensibility” of faith, and the strong pietistic accents underlying Stanley Grenz’s embrace of a generously orthodox, specifically Christian doctrinal theology. Therefore, D. A. Carson’s charge against Grenz of resuscitating the methodology of Schleiermacher is a most exaggerated one, given that the latter’s identification of being a “pietist of a higher order” entailed a move beyond classical Christian orthodox doctrine.  In contrast, Grenz sought to reinterpret (rather than reconstruct) orthodox doctrine in light of what he viewed as the challenges of defending a strong faith stance in the midst of a postmodern culture, which he sharply distinguished from the Enlightenment premises that underlay the early modern Western world view.
In his quest to (a) sift Christian doctrine through a strong pietistic prism, in his effort to (b) explore the dynamics of the Christian faith tradition within the cultural context of what he viewed as the postmodern era, and in his (c) highlighting of the communal aspects of faith, Grenz has made a major contribution to contemporary evangelical discourse—a contribution reinforced by his desire—not always successful—to stimulate constructive dialogue between traditional and postconservative evangelical theologians.  I am empathetic to these aspirations.
What I question is the great divide that suffuses Grenz’s work between his characterization of traditional evangelical theologians as dogmatic rationalists operating from out-of-dated foundationalist and modernist-based epistemological and social assumptions, which he contrasts to Spirit-focused postconservatives operating out of a more complex non-foundationalist and postmodern epistemological and social prisms, which he obviously favors.  I think this polarity is wrong-headed on several accounts.
·         First, it works against the irenic spirit out of which Grenz seeks to expand the boundaries of fruitful Christian community.

·         Second, the modern/postmodern contrast is exaggerated in that both contemporary modernists and postmodernists have moved beyond the exaggerated simplifications of the 18th-century Enlightenment focus of an almost worship-like embrace of rationalism, science, belief in unending human progress, and an utter repudiation of religion as inherently anathema to the human spirit.  Some intellectuals have identified an intermediary zone that they refer to as “late modernity”—a more chastened form of modernity—that takes into account the complexities of the contemporary period while maintaining a strong focus on reason, critical thought, technology, secularization, pluralism, and a complex, socially embedded individual identity. and

·         Third and closely related, the complexities of contemporary evangelical thought require a more discerning assessment than one based on the simplistic polarity between foundational and non-foundationalist epistemological assumptions.  Through more mediating modes of knowing, such insights gleaned from critical realism, critical rationalism, and modest (or weak) foundationalism need to be brought into the discussion. Such epistemological resources can highlight the concept of truth as a regulative ideal to mediate the polar concepts underlying discussions of culture and knowledge construction that give shape to key aspects of Grenz’ s theological assumptions.

·         Fourth, I am not aware of a single traditional evangelical scholar who does not also view the spiritual condition of his or her walk with Christ as absolutely central to his or her theological integrity and core Christian identity), nor who is not aware that his or her theological stance is ultimately grounded in faith.

·         Fifth, the contemporary evangelical community is a big tent that can draw in the wide diversity of gifts across the dogmatic-pietistic landscape. I am reluctant to privilege the pietistic impetus over those who concentrate on what they view as right doctrine in the quest to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, strength, and soul.  Moreover, I want to stress more than does Grenz the universal claims of the faith once for all delivered to the saints, however limited may be our knowledge that ground such faith.

I am sure that Grenz would have been aware of all of these concerns.  Nonetheless, in the heat of his own battles, particularly with traditionalist, cognitivist-oriented evangelicals like D. A. Carson, David Wells, and J. P. Moreland, he did not always follow his more discerning irenic impulses.  A more thoughtful dialogue between traditional and postconservative evangelicals would make a most important contribution to the wider evangelical and broader Protestant faith communities in working through the relationship between faith and culture. This would require an attenuation of the modern/postmodern great divide toward one more in line with a late modern sensibility. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Liberationist Theology: Affirmations and Admonitions

(The following was also a post written for a recent course on 19th and 20th century theology, based largely on the excellent text by Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction, a book I highly recommend for anyone interested in contemporary Western Theology).

Distinctive biblical and theological themes are highlighted in different eras and historical contexts. In his reaction to a century’s worth of liberalism, Barth stressed dogmatics and, especially in his early era, dismissed apologetics as invariably tinged with natural theology.  In his one-sided emphasis, again, especially in his earlier career, Barth’s theology exhibited certain unbalances, arguably due to a necessary move to rectify the previous liberal overemphasis on human experience.  A broader theological dialectic would emerge through the collective work of the community of theologians influenced by Barth, while also more attuned to the culture (e.g., Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Bultmann, and Niebuhr).

 Moltmann’s twin emphasis on eschatological hope and the suffering, most vulnerable God can be viewed in a similar way when one sifts his theology through the unimaginable destruction unleashed during World War II and its aftermath and the various liberationists themes emerging out of the 1960s.  Certain themes were highlighted (eschatological hope, the social Trinity, panentheism, and the vision of the crucified God), while other themes (the enduring impact of sin on the human condition, the wrath of God, the doctrine of hell, and the unequivocal sovereignty of God) got less play in Moltmann’s work. The hope is that a more comprehensive vision would emerge among those influenced by Moltmann.  A book edited by Sung Wook Chung, Jurgen Moltmann and Evangelical Theology, is one hopeful sign

 It is similarly  so with liberationst theology in its important emphases on social justice, the humanization of the poor, collective or social sin, and righteousness defined as liberation from all modes of oppression stemming from colonialization, capitalism, racism, sexism, and the internalization of the oppressor voice (“false consciousness”) within the personal and collective psyche of the oppressed.  All of these are themes that have substantial biblical warrant, though in its totality, liberationist theology is a new key that has emerged in the era of the breakdown of colonial oppression, as reflected in two iconic-like texts: Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

 With its emphasis on “praxis,” “preferential treatment of the poor,” its overarching Marxist economic presuppositions, its this-worldly emphasis, its focus on the deleterious impact of oppressive “social structures and customs” (p. 511), and its wide-scale rejection of many themes inherent in classical orthodox Christianity, Olson is surely right in referring to liberationist theology as “a paradigm shift in theology” (p. 509).  There is, in liberationist theology, a  clear emphasis on social ethics and a relative diminution of doctrine, which is not to deny shifts within liberationist theology, itself (beyond my current awareness) that could strike a more concordant note in sifting its very important ethical foci through more orthodox doctrinal lenses.

 As currently practiced, there is a great deal of merit in Olson’s observation that in the liberationist mode, “the essence of Christianity is not doctrine but ethics” (p. 546).  With that noted, I argue that; (a) liberationist theology has brought out important biblical and theological strands that can be discerned within the Christian corpus that are highly salient to our current global reality which, in their totality, have been marginalized; (b) that there may be ongoing work among advocates, themselves (and there certainly needs to be) in working toward a more sophisticated relationship between ethics and a generous and faithful orthodox doctrine; (c) that it would do the universal church well to affirm much of what the liberationist theologians affirm, while issuing discerning admonitions in areas where that may be warranted.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Preliminary Perspectives on Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope.

The following commentary was a discussion post from a recent online course on 19th and 20th century theology.  It is based on Roger Olson's extensive discussion of Moltmann in his recently published, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (pp. 452-476).  Since then I have read Moltmann's Theology of Hope and have begun to re-read his more recent, The Coming of God, as well as the extensive commentaries on Moltmann's eschatological vision by Richard Bauckham. The result of this more recent re-reading may result in some revision of the following commentary which I will let stand here as a provisional statement.

This week’s reading on Jurgen Moltmann helped to deepen my appreciation for the significance of his future-oriented emphasis on hope.  It also raised recurring aspects of his eschatological theology of hope that I continue to find perplexing.

Through Olson’s discussion, I gained a deeper understanding of the biographical significance of Moltmann’s theology of hope, rooted in the hopelessness and despair he experienced as a German prisoner of war for two years after WWII.  It was not only his personal experience, but the press of broader historical events rooted in the evil and destruction that permeated Europe during the 1930s and 40s, in which Moltmann found, through his conversion to Christianity, a more enduring reality—an alternative vision in the kingdom of God of what the world will become when God draws the future of his kingdom within the moving trajectory of human and broader creational history. This tension between the then current personal and historical reality he encountered in the mid-1940s and the indwelling vision of God coming to humankind in the form of the crucified Christ stimulated a profound sense of hope within Moltmann that he initially fleshed out through the insights of the atheist utopian visionary Ernst Block that he sought to Christianize.

Central for Moltmann was not so much the indwelling of God in any immediate personal or historical encounter, but God’s perpetual coming in leading creation to its destined future dwelling place, in which, in one of Moltmann’s most oft cited biblical passages, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).  Based on this perspective, “From first to last [for Moltmann] …Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and also revolutionizing and transforming the present.  The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day” (Moltmann, cited in Olson, pp. 450-51).

While I am appreciative of his theology of hope, I have problems with Moltmann’s overarching emphasis on eschatology for a variety of reasons, one of the chief being his failure to grapple sufficiently with the deep-rooted; arguably, unfathomable tension between the already and not yet, as reflected in a great deal of orthodox Christianity  across a wide theological stream.  This is troubling and draws out, at least in me, a sense of unreality at the heart of his future-oriented vision.  Is not God present to us now, in a real and vital sense, however ineffably so—providing us with a real presence that guides us through the veil of tears in the here and now—however much the “earnest” of the eschatological hope holds promises of a better day to come?  Think, too, of the question the apostles posed to the risen Lord: [When] “will you restore the kingdom to Israel”?  Recall the response:  “It is not for you to know the times or seasons….But you will receive power on high” to do the work I am calling you now to do (Acts 1:6-8).

It is the relative lack of this tension between the already given fruits of Christ’s first coming (including the living power of the resurrection and ascension) and the future oriented hope when God brings in the entire creation into his full glorious presence that I am most troubled by the eschatological aspect of Moltmann’s very fruitful theology. 

Through Olson’s discussion I have gained a clearer appreciation for the biographical role in shaping his vison.   As Olson cites Moltmann:  “I probably owe this hope,” my hope for my own very survival in every sense, “for it is what saved me from despairing and giving up.”  With that hope I set “a new ‘personal goal’ of studying theology, so that I might understand the power of hope to which I owe my life” (Olson p. 453).

Well done, thou good and faithful servant, but what about those of us with a different set of personal trajectories, set within a different historical experience?  In short, how universal is the theology of hope or Moltmann’s broader eschatological vision for our personal and collective early 21st century U. S. and Western context?  How central is it as the all-important prism of any creative and vital theological work?

By way of concluding, I appreciate Moltmann’s role in bringing eschatology back into prominence where it had gone through considerable declension in much of late 19th and early 20th century theological perspectives.  This was a major contribution through which Moltmann brought considerable credibility toward the restoration of the orthodox great tradition to Protestant mainline denomination, a work in progress, to be sure.  One author has also noted that in his eschatological focus—so very different than that of the author of The Late Great Planet Earth—Moltmann has made a major connection with Pentecostal theology (Castelo, “Reclaiming the Future,” in Chung, ed., Jurgen Moltmann and Evangelical Theology, pp. 209-210). This, too, is a great contribution, as is his broader eschatological passion, in which Moltmann links his eschatology of the time when God will become all-in-all to his Trinitarian vision, not only of the crucified Christ, but of the crucified God, in which the crucifixion becomes an eternal presence in the heart of God, even in the glorious fulfillment promised, when human and creational history become one with their eternal destiny.

All of this is very fruitful, well beyond what can be explored here.  This makes even more pressing the need to work through the perplexities and problems that I do find in his eschatological vision.  Is there gold here in Moltmann evocative vision for a more fruitful evangelical theology?  I think there is. 

Inquiring minds want to know how much and how his insights can be fruitfully appropriated.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Thematic and Historical Overview of In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective

In 2014 I published In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective, which I briefly summarize below. Additional information is available through the publisher, Wipf & Stock and through Amazon  Comments and/or questions welcomed.

Summary Overview

In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center probes into the relationship between Scripture and culture in twentieth-century US theology and biblical studies. It points to the necessity of turning to what Karl Barth has referred to as “the strange new world within the Bible” for any revitalization of mainline Protestantism in the tradition of the Protestant Reformers in critical dialogue with serious evangelical theology. The study includes a historical overview underlying what the author refers to as the “fundamentalist/modernist great divide,” which continues to resonate powerfully in contemporary US Protestant thought and culture. The book offers an in-depth exploration of four representative twentieth-century Protestant theologians and biblical scholars, spanning from the conservative evangelical theology J. I. Packer to the postliberal dialectical theology of Walter Brueggemann. It also includes substantial discussions on the theological perspectives of Lesslie Newbigin, Richard Lints and J. Douglas Hall.

The book addresses two consequential issues facing contemporary U.S. Protestantism: acceptance of the Bible in its canonical integration as the primary source of Christian revelation and the viability of creating a durable centrist position between traditional and postconservative evangelical and postliberal, predominantly mainline theological perspectives. The convergence I seek is based on a common acceptance of the historic Reformation tradition on the sovereignty of God, the incarnation, the Trinity, the atonement, and scriptural revelation, which Donald Bloesch and others refer to as the Great Tradition. My aim in this book is “the recovery of a centrist position standing thoroughly in the tradition of orthodoxy but not averse to articulating the faith in new ways that relate creatively to the contemporary situation.” (Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit, 31). The challenge of doing so is underlined by the persistence of the modernist/fundamentalist divide on the interpretation and role of the Bible—an issue that came to symbolic climax with the Scopes Trial of 1925. Mediating theologies in both evangelical and mainline camps have moved well beyond the intense polarization unleashed on both sides of this crucial divide. Still, its enduring influence persists into the current era as a continuous strain adversely impacting more comprehensive efforts toward the construction of a vital theological center. That is one challenge.

This book builds on the current dialogue between evangelical and postliberal theology as depicted in the collection of essays titled The Nature of Confession, edited by Philips and Okholm (1993). By incorporating the neo-orthodox perspective, it provides an additional resource in the construction of a centrist theological project that builds on the triple pillars of canonical scriptural integrity, theological acuity, and ecumenical comprehensiveness. The book is written in the spirit of two short books by Andover Newton Professor emeritus, Gabriel Fackre (Ecumenical Faith in Evangelical Perspective; Restoring the Center). It is resonant in content with Fackre’s more extensive theological work, as discussed in Chapter 5.

Given their respective impact across the theological landscape of contemporary Protestant thought and culture and the relative dearth of secondary work on the four main writers I focus on—J. I. Packer, Donald Bloesch, Gabriel Fackre, and Walter Brueggemann—the profiles in themselves help fill an important gap. Placing their work on an evangelical to postliberal mainline continuum provides critical insight for drawing out and working through the prospects and the challenges of establishing a centrist Protestant culture through a comprehensive Protestant sensibility on the centrality of the Bible in its critical role of encountering the culture.      

The book includes a chapter on the neo-orthodox legacy as a mediating resource in bringing evangelical and postliberal theology into dialogue with the core issues of theology, biblical hermeneutics, and religious culture. As a summary reprise of the argument carried throughout the book, In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center concludes with a critically empathetic review of the postliberal dialectical theology of Douglas J. Hall and the redemptive-historical evangelical narrative theology of Richard Lints. In linking evangelical, postliberal, and neo-orthodox theology to a common search for a vital Protestant center, this book facilitates fruitful dialogue among divergent schools of Protestant thought both in seminary circles and among theologically discerning clergy and lay practitioners. In so doing, the book probes for current and potential commonalities as well as areas of persisting differences. It also points to areas for ongoing research in the quest for an invigorating Protestant presence in the midst of a culture commonly depicted as postmodern, global, and highly secularized that in surface and not so surface ways conflicts with the predominant presuppositions.

Additional Comments

Throughout the course of the forty-one years since my conversion to Christianity, I have studied many academic and lay-oriented religious texts on a wide assortment of themes. Much of this reading has played out at the critical intersection between a sharply-attuned critical evangelical sensibility and a more open-ended mainline Protestant identity, largely within various Assemblies of God, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church settings. It is within these denominational contexts—in the realm of church affiliation, personal faith formation, small group study, and in my stint as a campus ministry associate as a graduate student in a state college—that I have placed theological exploration and searching biblical discernment at the center of an ongoing faith formation process. This book represents an imaginative integration of this process in search of an invigorating theological center—a critical center which spoke to me early on through Horace Bushnell’s 1847 essay, “Christian Comprehensiveness,”—to which I have always been called.

Throughout this book I have taken the position that any substantial revitalization of a theology rooted in the tradition of the Protestant Reformers within mainline and evangelical theological camps will require a substantial embrace of Barth’s biblical turn as the primary theological source for interpreting the culture. However problematic the Barthian turn may be, I maintain that the alternative of positing some aspect of culture in the more privileged position than the Bible is even more so. To do so would undercut the potential depth of what a theologically sophisticated and ecumenically grounded faith commitment could come to mean for a contemporary Protestant identity that seeks to be faithful to the core kerygma in a manner that also has the capacity to be profoundly culturally relevant. I view this latter objective as a critically important secondary concern. 

The critical issue for contemporary Protestant life and identity formation remains the basic one on whether the culture, in all that that implies, becomes the source for interpreting the Bible or whether Scripture, in all that that implies, becomes the basis for interpreting the culture. This is a matter that has attendant implications for theology, congregational life, ethics, and personal piety. For all of the complexity and nuance in the relationship between contemporary culture and theological discourse, what cannot be avoided is that of prioritizing centers of value. It is this realization—and the identification of radical monotheism as the ultimate center of value underpinning all of creation as an uncompromising ontological assumption—that requires sustaining epistemological assent in the embrace in faith of whatever grace is given. It is this assumption that opens the biblical text as the most singular viable entry point to the strange new world of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, who in faith, is “the exact representation of his [God’s] being” (Heb 1:3). 

This core summary statement provides a compressed overview of the topics and these discussed in much detail in my book In Quest of a Vital Protestant Center: An Ecumenical Evangelical Perspective is about.

Chapter Headings

Chapter One    In Search of a Vital Protestant Center
Chapter Two   Theological, Historical, and Autobiographical Explorations of Twentieth-Century Protestant Thought and Culture
Chapter Three Defending the Fundamentals of Historical Evangelicalism: J. I. Packer and the Written Word of God
Chapter Four   The Mediating Theology of Donald Bloesch: Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical
Chapter Five   Restoring the Center: Gabriel Fackre’s Evangelical Ecumenism
Chapter Six     Reading Walter Brueggemann through a Fluidly Canonical Lens: Texts That Linger in a Fragile World
Chapter Seven Re-Envisioning the Neo Orthodox Legacy
Chapter Eight  Postliberal Dialectical and Evangelical Narrative Theology in Critical Juxtaposition

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Self Authenticating Word

(Another discussion post from a course on 19th and 20th century theology)

Based on the radical gap (the dialectical reality) between the absolute transcendence of God as “wholly other” (the God revealed in the OT and NT and most completely in Christ) and humankind’s capacity to grasp this presence on its own terms—say through natural theology—Barth posited the self-authenticating Word of God.  In the most radical sense, the Word of God (by which Barth meant the revelation of God in its fullest sense) is an event that breaks into history and human experience time and time again in a manner of God’s own choosing.  These epiphanies (self-disclosures or indwellings) are both veiled and unveiled that are discerned through various witnesses or testimonies.

The Word is most fully revealed in and through Jesus Christ as both the immanent presence of God in human experience and the transcendent second presence of the Trinity.  Scripture is the primary witness to the indwelling of God in and through Christ; in its canonical totality it is absolutely reliable in its function as witness.  In this, Barth held to a very high view of Scripture, in which, even as Packer notes, his practice was better than his theory (theology) of Scriptural revelation.

In The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, Gary Dorrien maintains that Barth’s theology throughout his career was driven by his “commitment to the primacy of the Spirit-illuminated Word.”  Through the dialectic of Word and Spirit, Barth sought “to recover and to express the spiritual depth of the inscripurated Word” (p. 5).  Reflecting the influence of Kierkegaard as well as that of Wilhelm Hermann, Barth maintained the Word of God in its testimonial biblical form as both veiling and unveiling was grounded in mystery and paradox, in which the Bible, as absolutely reliable in its self-authenticating form as witness, could not be inerrant as expressed in certain rationalistic streams of evangelical theology and the advocates of the Old Princeton Theology.

On the charge of bibliolatry, I am reluctant to put pejorative labels on various theological trends given that all of our theological work is incomplete and in need of correction, in which the Spirit of God works in different ways among those of diverse perspectives.  I hold to the theological canon of a “generous orthodoxy” and am willing to draw on and draw out all that I can among those across a wide landscape within the broad, but faithful theological spectrum of those who espouse to the Great Tradition of Christian Orthodoxy.   From this vantage-point, I can appreciate the contributions of the classic Princetonians in their effort to be both diligent and faithful to what they take as the inscripturated Word of the inerrant Bible, while drawing as well on the dialectical theology of Barth and others on the revealing Word of God.  On this I follow one of my mentors who spoke of both the need to affirm as much as one can within a given theological perspective and to critique those aspects that one feels compelled to reject through loving admonitions (

My drawing on Barth for understanding the current theological moment stems from his 1917 epigraphic-like statement on the importance of affirming “the strange new world of the Bible” as the critical starting point of faith in his explosive reaction against the preceding century’s focus on experience and culture based on the liberal theological tradition grounded in Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, and Trolesch.  I think this Barthian turn, including his emphasis on church dogmatics, continues to hold much currency in the current era, even as I would like to see more of an engagement with the culture that, at least in his more extreme statements, Barth seems to elide.  This, even though he had good reasons, based on his own historical context from the 1920s-40s, to keep the focus on the breaking in of the Spirit of God and let apologetics go by the wayside—work, it might be added, that has been picked up in different ways by the eschatological theologians, Pannenberg and Moltmann.

There is also much to draw from on Barth’s dynamic theology of Word and Spirit. I think that's so on its own face and also in light of J. I. Packer’s statement that “the literal meaning must be consistent and correlating with the Spirit of Truth, ” an incredibly fluid perspective, quite consonant with what Dorrien describes as Barth’s “Spirit-illuminated….inscripturated Word” (The Barthian Revolt, p. 5).  While different from Barth in so many ways and critical of him for not embracing a more foundational biblical hermeneutics, even Packer is ultimately ministerial in his interpretation of the role of the Bible to the more fundamental revelation of Christ himself—a revelation of which both Packer and Barth maintain can never contradict Scripture and can only be grasped (however partially so) most fully and reliably within and throughout its canonical expanse. The Barthian echo can be heard in the following passage by Packer:

“Evangelicalism…stakes its identity…on the authenticity and authority, which involves the intrinsic coherence and clarity, of canonical Scripture, received as the true and trustworthy witness of God to himself given in the form of man’s witness to him as the Redeemer Lord of history…in the world that he made and sustains.  Discernment of the dual character of Scripture as God’s word in the form of man’s word is basic to the Evangelical position; the characteristic claim that the Bible is infallible and inerrant mirrors this view, and so does Evangelicalism’s constant insistence that the only analogy to the sacred mystery of biblical inspiration is the even holier mystery of divine incarnation itself” (Packer, Understanding the Bible: Evangelical Hermeneutics,” in Packer’s Engaging the Written Word of God, p. 142).

While Packer accents the importance of rational thought and adheres to a sophisticated understanding of inerrancy, which Barth clearly rejected in his embrace of mystery and paradox underlying his dialectical approach, there are clearly common affinities at the most basic hermeneutical level.  I believe that Barth’s view of Scripture—his formal theology and practice—has much to offer to discerning evangelicals, which resonates with my own view of Scripture that I sift, ultimately through a sacramental lens.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Reflections Mostly on Schleiermacher

(Adapted from a discussion post on a recent course on 19 and 20th century theology at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, CA) 

It is an apt characterization to depict Schleiermacher and Hodge as representing something like polar opposites within 19th century Protestant thought in culture.  This is due not only to their divergent responses to the crisis in faith stemming the Enlightenment (including its skeptical Humean and Kantian modifications), but also to their enormous influence on 20th century theology and religious culture in spawning the modernist/fundamentalist great divide.  Such radical divergence is an apt characterization, notwithstanding pervasive depictions in which the views of Schleiermacher and Hodge have been often caricaturized.  Caricaturized, I argue, because in his emphasis on religious experience Schleiermacher never denied the existence of a God beyond personal experience, and in his emphasis on Scripture as “the storehouse of facts” upon which theology should be crafted, Hodge never disregarded the importance of heart piety, without which, any merely knowing of God would be vacuous, if not, in the final analysis, downright impossible.

I do not want to overplay these caveats; only to note them, not only for their value in providing for a more thorough understanding of Schleiermacher and Hodge, but in helping to work through some of the polar tensions marking the great divide in contemporary Protestantism, which, if discerningly grappled with could provide opportunity for greater subtlety and dialogue across the theological continuum.

Because of space limitations I will concentrate here on Schleiermacher.  I will saying passing that Hodge should be cut some slack for his reliance on Scottish Common Sense Realism in that this philosophical influence was pervasive throughout 19th century religious and political thought, including the Declaration of Independence claim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Moreover, this philosophical tradition represented a valuable mediation between claims of absolute certainty (whether of science or religion) and utter epistemological skepticism that we find, in different ways, in Hume and Kant.
In response to the “acids of modernity,” Schleiermacher sought to respond to the “cultural despisers of religion,” those intellectual elites who raised both rationalism and epistemological skepticism to a religious-like absolutism, with the sum impact of rejecting traditional religious dogmatic and biblical claims based on any form of supernaturalism that extended beyond the commonly accepted natural order. Such rejection included the Trinity, the incarnation, a penal substitution interpretation of the atonement, the resurrection, eschatology, and divine miracles.

Whether or not Schleiermacher rejected these core components of the Christian proclamation in their totality, he downplayed them to a most significant degree in laying stress instead on religious sentiments as the grounding point of faith, ultimately, “the feeling of being utterly dependent on something infinite that manifests itself in and through finite beings,” which, as summarized by Olson was something like "cosmic awe” (Olson, p.137).
In placing the emphasis on heart piety, Schleiermacher struck what I view as two positive cords.  First and foremost, he was clearly right in placing a strong emphasis on the centrality of a dynamic faith as a critical bedrock in living out a vital Christian life.  On a secondary note, in emphasizing religious feelings Schleiermacher identified a topic for engaging secular intellectuals on their own term in opening up a basis for what would ultimately come to be the social scientific investigation of religious phenomenology.  While Schleiermacher did not take up such a research project, there is a clear link between his work and that of William James in his important study, Varieties of Religious Experience, which provided a preliminary model for such a mode of study.  The study of religious phenomenology does not prove anything about the validity of the truth claims of those who attest to a personal relationship with the living God.  It does, however, provide a source of evidence from the mighty cloud of witnesses that can be drawn upon for a variety of apologetic and ministerial purposes in the academy, the church, and the broader culture.

From both a neo-orthodox and evangelical perspective one needs to be critical of Schleiermacher’s marginalization of traditional Christian dogma related to all aspects of supernaturalism.   Francis Schaefffer spoke of the “God out there” and Karl Barth, in his early work, spoke of God as “wholly other,” which he ultimately modulated to some degree in his later emphasis on Christ’s incarnation.  The central problem here is the failure to identify God as both beyond as well as embodied within human experience through a dynamic relationship which embraces both the transcendent and immanent dimensions of God.  Given Schleiermacher’s biography, including the religious and broader cultural and intellectual issues he encountered in the Romantic Era within early 19th century German history, that may have been a tall order. Nonetheless, as a critique of his broader influence on the 200 year history of liberal theology that followed, the concern stands.  Simply put, ways need to be worked that keep in dynamic unity heart piety and the orthodox Christian theological tradition clearly, a quest for a most generous and faithful orthodoxy.