Theological education

Rowan Williams on theological education

Call me theologically naïve, or ignorant, or not well enough read, but I simply do not understand some of the criticisms directed at Rowan Williams. Archbishop Williams is a person of deep faith and prayer, of contagious love for Christ, for the Scriptures and tradition which bear witness to him, and for Christ’s church, and who for decade after decade has been among the church’s finest public theologians (and poets!), producing first-rate scholarship with exemplary integrity and gospel-spirited passion, and helping a new generation of Christians to find the words and posture to understand and bear witness to the deepest realties of their faith in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Moreover, his literary and spoken output alone – books, radio interviews, lectures (his 2011 Holy Week Lectures on Lewis’ Narnia are outstanding), reviews, articles, etc. – not to mention his gracious and steady leadership of the Anglican communion, leads me often to wonder if there are not two equally-brilliant and identical twins that Mr & Mrs Williams named ‘Rowan’ sometime last century.

Put differently, I keep an eye open to read and digest everything he writes. And why not, when it is so edifying and educative, and models a way of doing theology so worthy of emulation, if not entirely uncritically so. But there’s one lecture that I’ve missed, until now – his CEFACS lecture, given some years ago at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies in Birmingham. So thanks Jim for pointing me to it, not least because the lecture attends to a subject in which I have some serious investment, namely theological education.

In that lecture, Williams invites us to think about theological education by way of the analogy of a musical education: ‘Just as, in relation to musical education, I might be reasonably sure of being able to identify what a musically educated person is like. I would know what sort of skills to look for and listen for in that case. Now I want to suggest that a theologically educated person is somebody who has acquired the skill of reading the world, reading and interpreting the world, in the context and framework of Christian belief and Christian worship … That means that a theologically educated person is not someone who simply knows a great deal about the Bible or history of doctrine but somebody who is able to engage in some quite risky and innovative interpretation, and who is able, if I can put it this way, to recognise holy lives. Because I think that the skill that belongs to being a theologically educated person is a very significant part – the skill of knowing what an exemplary life looks like lived in the context of doctrine and worship’.

Then, drawing upon the work of Thomas Aquinas and the example of God’s revelation to Moses, Williams proceeds to argue that ‘theology is inevitably, consistently to do with human lives, not in any sense that excludes theology having to do with God – far from it: but in recognition of the fact that because God is not an object lying around for examination, God’s impact upon and the difference God makes to human lives is where we are bound to begin. The word of God, the self communication of God is always bound up with the actual and concrete transformation of human situations – corporate and individual … From the vantage point of Christian theology that should not surprise us at all. Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation’.

And later on: ‘Theology begins when something in the human world and human lives has struck at such depth that we need language more than just the conventional language of human agency and historical forces. Theology arises then when the world looks new. One of the saddest things that can be said about theology is that it has become stale; that it no longer speaks of transformation. Because the impulse to do theology arises when the world looks different from what you thought it was. The New Testament is riveting, exasperating, exhausting, inexhaustible because it is the work in progress of the people whose world is in “in the business” of being reformed, reshaped’.

And here is the point – the challenge, if you like – for those engaged in theological education: ‘Theological education is bound … to be regularly a matter of looking at the patterns of human lives. Theology has a great deal to do with biography and with history – the Bible containing many examples of both. It is out of those narratives, out of those stories and transactions that the ideas emerge and I would venture to say that a bad theological education is one which never gets you from the ideas to the narratives; and a good theological education is one that pushes you inexorably from the narratives to the ideas’. One thinks here of James Wm. McClendon Jr’s fine book, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can remake Today’s Theology, or of the work of Ray Anderson whose entire project is an outworking of the conviction that ministry precedes theology.

And that is why, Williams reminds us, contra Nietzsche, ‘theology is inevitably a component in the business of Christian discernment’, and good theology is concerned not to ‘set out to give you a map of another world but a set of instructions for this one’. And that is why, Williams notes, ‘theology is an uncomfortable partner in the academic enterprise … An uncomfortable partner in the enterprise because universities on the whole do not set themselves the task of educating people in the discernment of holiness. Why should they? And yet there is something in the level of critical questioning which theology ought to bring to the intellectual enterprise overall that is essential to intellectual health’.

These introductory points made, Williams then turns to some of the particularities of theological education in light of the definitions he has introduced. And here he wishes to speak about bible study, doctrine and church history.

Regarding the first of these, bible study, Williams is adamant that theological education ‘is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible’. Why? Because ‘the Bible is the primary record of the primary difference God makes. It begins, of course, by recording the greatest difference of all – the difference between things being there and things not being there and associates that with God. And in Christian scripture that primordial difference between being and non-being is latched on with an enormously ambitious theological pun at the beginning of St John’s Gospel latched on to the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who makes the difference between being and non-being within the world’s history. But the narrative of Hebrew scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament, evolves in a series of upheavals. The uprooting of Abraham from his native land, the release from slavery of the people of Israel, the betrayal and exile that follows the abandonment by God’s people of God’s justice, the restoration of the people around more liturgy. And within its contours we are not allowed at any point, I think, to come too quickly to a generalised version of what all this is about and who this God is. We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative’.

Williams then encourages us to adopt a particular posture when we turn to Christian scripture:

‘Be patient, don’t assume the end of the story is come. God is a God who upturns the conventions and the ideas and the images we have and he does it centrally, focally, forever, in the life and death of Jesus. We watch them again as Christian scripture evolves, we watch people in that new landscape trying to find the words for it. To say that is not in the least to say that the Bible does not tell us the truth. The way the bible tells us the truth is by showing us how God’s reality, in its freedom and majesty, impresses itself upon human life. We read the impress, we read the impact, we begin to understand who it is that we are dealing with and that is as true of the New Testament as of the Old. Frequently as I read Paul’s epistles I read the impatient, inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God’s spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul’s God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying “I don’t know where this is going but …” as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9–11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, “O the depth and mystery of God”. And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don’t know where to go but God does. Now that means, I think, that a person who is educated in reading the Bible is a person who, you can say theologically, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, has been brought into that relationship with the God of the Bible which allows them to recognise in the language of the Bible their own faith and their own narrative. And that is something rather different from quarrying the Bible for little bits that happily remind you of how you feel. That is not biblical theology. It may be a useful form of apologetical psychology but it is not particularly theological. But to find in that language, that narrative, that register of exploration, something of the faith that transforms your own life; that I think is to see what biblical understanding is … The Christian comes into the biblical world – a strange world, a world in which images and ideas and words are not always what you expect. But the education of the Christian in the biblical world is an education in the skills of analogy and connection … That means that being a biblically educated person is a great deal more than knowing the texts’.

Williams turns next to the matter of Christian doctrine, rejecting the kind of doctrine-as-finished-product approach so often associated with theological education, and proposing instead a notion of doctrine as ‘the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy’. ‘We can’t tell all the truth’, he says, ‘we can tell the truth consistently, we hope intelligently and then once again … come to the point when we say that is as far as we can go but we have done the work’. A ‘doctrinally educated person therefore is … somebody who can see what sort of human anxieties, aspirations, tensions, prayer, love, sin and grace led people to think it mattered to talk about Jesus in this way, to talk about God in this way, to talk about the Sacraments of the Church in this way. It was not a word game. It wasn’t a way of passing the long winter evenings’. Williams cites Barth and Bonhoeffer as examples of what it looks like to do theology in this way, i.e., in a way that takes the contemporary location seriously, in a way that seeks to profess Christ in a new and different space.

Williams then comes to the matter of education in church history, a subject with he has written very helpfully on before (see, for example, his wonderful book Why Study The Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church), and a subject which, he observes, ‘has tended sometimes to be a little bit of a Cinderella subject in theological education’. He continues:

‘When it has been done people don’t always quite see why it is done, whether there is a theological reason for doing it. It becomes another bundle of anecdotes. Facts about the past which may or may not be interesting, probably not very. Stories about people far away, speaking foreign languages with strange names with very bizarre ideas. Now I don’t think that will do as an approach to Church History because one of the things that comes out of being a biblically educated and doctrinally educated person is some sense of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. That is to be part of a community which has no spatial or temporal boundaries but in which every participant has something to give and something to receive … Those odd people in the text books are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ, and frequently you would much prefer that they weren’t. Almost as much as you would prefer that some of your contemporaries weren’t! But these are people in whom Christ is given to you’.

He argues that the difficulty with teaching church history is that the subject frequently falls apart into two equally unhelpful poles: ‘There is the kind of Church History which looks at the past as answering the questions. That is the story, that is how we got here and it all ends happily because it ended with us. And there is the kind of Church History which says we have to be deeply conscious of the absolute cultural gulf that separates us from everybody before 1550 or 1700 or 1981 or whatever. Both of those are unhelpful simply as historical method but they are totally insupportable as theological method’. And so part of the challenge, he goes on to say, ‘is being able to cope both with the continuity and with the gulf. These are people deciding to be disciples of the same Lord that I try to follow. These are people speaking of that discipleship in categories that are so strange that it will take me a lot of patience to learn what they say and listen to it effectively. Yet both those elements are true and essential in the process’. Not only is the position that nothing important happened between the NT and now (or between the first and the fifteenth centuries) ‘intellectually shabby and indefensible’ but such a view is also ‘spiritually impoverished’, for whether we like it or not, God has graced us with ‘a very, very large number of companions on the journey. Each one of whom will have something distinctive to say however well I hear it, however easily I digest it’. And here Williams returns to the question of reading the Bible, noting that ‘an educated reader of the Bible is also somebody who knows how to read the Bible in company – in company with other Christians now, in company with Christians through the ages’, in the company of the Christian community ‘and to find education and discipleship in that process’.

Finally, Williams makes the point that as alarming, pre-modern and unattractive as it sounds, one indispensable, if not largely forgotten, theological virtue is obedience. Naming Barth as ‘the greatest theologian of obedience in the 20th century’, Williams defines obedience in theology as ‘that absolutely faithful attention to the otherness of what you are dealing with, that springs you from the trap of your own preoccupations and preferences. Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God. For Karl Barth, that meant of course, that an obedient theologian was someone who was free to be the most dramatic possible nuisance in church and world. Obedience to the otherness of God, such a person would be obedient to no other constraints and no tyranny that could be concocted on the face of the earth’.

‘What obedience means for us’, he continues, ‘is a far tougher, far more complex matter to work out. And yet’, he says, ‘a theology that does not somehow tackle that issue of obedience somewhere along the line as part of the education we are talking about, will fail to be theology. And that is an obedience, of course, which challenges great deal of what we often mean by the term’. Williams then provides some examples of what he is talking about, examples which underscore his claim that obedience is far from what we often associate with terms like passivity or docility: ‘Whatever obedience means there, it does not mean docility. Obedience can mean again Paul throwing down his pen with exasperation and say “I don’t know what more to say; it is too big for me to speak of” – that’s obedience. It’s St Thomas Aquinas saying at the end of his life saying, ‘all I’ve written seems like so much straw compared with what has been shown to me’. It is Luther throwing his inkpot at the devil. It is Barth wonderfully, at the end of a deeply boring and conventional parish mission, designed to make everybody feel a great deal worse, decided as he tells us to preach a sermon on little angels with harps and sheets of music. Because he felt he had been listening for a week to a mission all about how ‘I’ ought to feel and not about how God was, therefore he wanted to turn the whole thing back to praise, and that’s obedience’.

Linking this back to the subject of theological education, Williams concludes by noting that obedience properly belongs in the very DNA of any theological education worthy of its subject, for such education is about ‘passionate intention to what is there, to the extent that I am changed by that attention, and set free by it from other pressures to conformity’. And he then offers some specific words to his own Anglican Communion, words which I venture to say are pertinent to the entire body of Christ: ‘We have a very long way to go in making our Anglican church a coherent, communal, obedient, renewed family of congregations. And yet we share the reality given in Christ by our baptism, the reality of Christ’s body. The theological education we need, I believe, in the Communion is something which will make that come alive for us, which will make us literate in reading scripture and doctrine and church history, which will deepen in us those skills of discernment that we need in respect of our own calling and the calling of others, which will set us free from being simply an ecclesiastical organisation preoccupied with policing itself in various ways which will perhaps make us a more effective servant of the world into which God calls us. The world in which God invites us to recognise him, respond to him, praise, be glad in him, a world which is on the way to becoming that new creation which is really the context, the locus of any theology worth the name’.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part II, On Theological Education 2

We continue on with citations from Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, and with another on theological education:

‘The congregation and I were insignificant figures in a larger and older pattern. The church has always identified its potential leaders, indoctrinated them, and then rudely inserted them in some setting or other where they almost never belong. At seminary we brooded over the mysteries of God for four years only to turn up later as chaplains to covered-dish suppers and car washes with the youth. One part of the church goes to great expense in order to prepare a theologian for another part of the church that wants a guitar player. Like misshelved books, we are there waiting to be used, but will anyone ever find us? As partners in an arranged marriage, my congregation and I might fall madly in love, which, in this creaky old church already seemed unlikely to me, or we could accommodate ourselves to what, if we were honest, each of us knew to be a mismatch’. (pp. 48–9)

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part I, On Theological Education

As one whose vocation concerns the formation of ministers, I am for ever on the lookout for resources that assist in this task. One such book is Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery. Rather than write a review of it (Want a review? Just read the book! Repeat: Read the book! There you go), I thought I’d simply post a few of my favourite sections of it over the next week or so. It won’t and it can’t substitute for reading the book, and isolating snippets out of a novel and its narrative is frightfully problematic, but it may at least help to introduce the book to those unfamiliar with it, and, even without wider narrative-bearings, encourage some fruitful thought. So here we go:

‘Exactly why I had arrived at my first call with such a developed sense of entitlement, I’m not sure’. (p. 12)

‘I didn’t ride through eight years of education on a crisis, nor did my co-travelers in the System. We put one foot ahead of another as if following snowprints through a Wisconsin woods, but with no horizon in view. Some of us emerged from the journey open to new learning and experience, and some fancied ourselves as completed ministers of the gospel. But all of us were missing something. Our education taught us to speak the System’s language, but it did not disclose the language that “speaks us” by possessing our spirit and shaping us as human beings. It is not a question of how did we survive the voyage. Surely, at one time or another every boy in that school must have fought through a crisis as quietly as I did mine. The real question is, how did those long years open a path to ministry?

There’s a New Yorker cartoon in which a pompous-looking doctor hands a prescription to his patient and says, “Take this. It will either cure you or kill you.” I’m afraid my education was something like that. It didn’t attend to the gifts of the Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, patience, and long-suffering. It did not help me develop Jesus’ instinct for compassion toward the outsider or outrage toward injustice. Our professors didn’t invite us into the agony of race or war; they never intimated that God could grieve over the poor or that Jesus really cared about the fate of women. Perhaps it was the substructure of Greek humanism that kept us to the middle way, which caused us to overlook God’s grief and anger and the essential excesses of Christianity.

The spirituality imparted to us was the safe spirituality of structure but not of passion or abandonment. The theological categories we memorized would either stifle true spirituality for the rest of our lives or provide the skeleton for a growing and adapting organism.”We’ve given you a vocabulary,” my teachers seemed to say, “Now, what are you going to do with it?

Likewise, the enforced chapel services into which we dutifully filed morning and evening could either kill you or make you well. If you paid too much attention to the sermons of Dean Axelmann and others, you might die in the spirit. But we also sang Matins every morning, and four hundred male voices chanting the Te Deum couldn’t be wrong:

To You all angels cry aloud,
The heavens and all the powers therein.
To You cherubim and seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth!

Take that prescription five mornings a week for eight years, and it just might save your life’. (pp. 36–7)

Why universities welcome theological colleges

Today’s Eureka Street includes a piece by Neil Ormerod on ‘Why universities welcome theological colleges’. He concludes with this warning:

The movement [of theological education] to the university sector of course restores the ancient place of theology as a discipline within a university. But there are dangers in such a move. Theological colleges should be under no illusion that the interest of most of these universities extends beyond the financial. The colleges bring student numbers, and their theologians contribute relatively well to research outputs with minimal investment from the university. Apart from ACU they have no particular interest in theology for its own sake. A decline in student numbers or changes in government funding formulae for research could lead to a colder relationship. The last twelve months has proved tumultuous in the theological sector. The future is not likely to be less so.

The whole piece is worth reading, but his conclusion in particular invites reflection on a host of issues, one of which concerns the relationship between theology and religious studies. And that conversation reminds me of Karl Barth who, in his more generous moments, acknowledged the importance of various facets of religious studies, even though for Barth these could be never more than a beginning, and often a false start at that. The growing trend towards names like ‘religious studies’, ‘philosophy of religion’, ‘phenomenology of religion’, would seem, in Barth’s eyes, to give the game away. For Barth makes a quite fundamental distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘theology’, and the two are not to be confused. For Barth, ‘religion’ is something entirely human and concerns a human being’s search for God, a search so entirely fruitless or perverted that it ends with another god. Theology, on the other hand, is ‘God-talk’: not talk about God, for God is not an object that can form the content of our discourse, but rather the human response to, and participation in, the theologia that has already addressed, undressed and redressed us in Jesus Christ.

And whatever his critics may say of him, Barth’s work can never be faulted at this point. From the beginning, he is constantly aware of the demands of the subject. During the first year of his first university teaching appointment, in the academic atmosphere of Göttingen, Barth wrote to a friend:

To make you acquainted with my spiritual condition I will report to you what Barthold von Regensburg (AD 1272) once said: ‘A man who looks directly into the sun, into the burning radiance, will so injure his eyes that he will see it no more. It is like this also with faith; whoever looks too directly into the holy Christian faith will be astonished and deeply disturbed with his thoughts.’ And then he went on: ‘Often it seems to me problematic to what extent it is both good and possible to spend the thirty-four years that still separate me from my retirement at that task ‘being deeply disturbed with thoughts’. To be a proper professor of theology one must be a sturdy, tough, insensitive lump who notices absolutely nothing … will I perhaps in time myself become such a blockhead? Or explode? If you can see any third possibility, tell me of it for my comfort’. – Barth and Thurneysen, Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914-1925, 92–3.

Grant us more insensitive lumps O Lord.

A challenge for theological educators

resident aliens‘The seminaries have produced clergy who are agents of modernity, experts in the art of congregational adaptation to the cultural status-quo, enlightened facilitators whose years of education have trained them to enable believers to detach themselves from the insights, habits, stories and structures that make the church the church’. – Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: A provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 116.

Jürgen Moltmann on threats to theological education

A Broad Place‘At the end of the war, both seminaries [established by the Confessing Church] were reopened in order to make it possible to study theology both at state universities and in independent faculties. I still think this double strategy was a wise one, for one never knows from which quarter the freedom of theology may be threatened’. – Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 71.

William H. Willimon: Advice for New Pastors

William Willimon

William Willimon recently posted an exceptional series of posts in the form of ‘advice’ for those starting in pastoral ministry. It is taken from a book edited by Allan Hugh Cole titled From Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral BeginningsI have pasted Bishop Willimon’s posts together into this one post. Read on seminarians, pastors and theological educators, and be encouraged … and challenged. This is one to keep coming back to and re-reading again, and again.


Between Two Worlds

In retrospect, my first year as a pastor was perhaps the most painful, frightening year of my entire ministry. Part of the terror that I experienced was my fear of failure, not simply to fail at being an effective pastor (I had little means of knowing what being “effective” would look like), but rather my fear that I had failed to discern God’s will for my life. What I had thought was my tortured, gradually dawning, wrestling with “call to the ministry,” might be revealed as something other than God’s idea. Looking back, I realize now that the early bumps and potholes that I experienced during the course of that first year were so disconcerting because each one of them made me wonder: maybe my friends are right. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a pastor. Perhaps the church really is a waste of my life.

As it turned out, I received more confirmation of my vocation in that first year than invalidation. Wonder of wonders, God really did occasionally speak through me to God’s people, God really did sometimes use me to work a wonder, and God’s people – some of them – really did respond to my ministry. I came to realize that much of my consternation was due, not to my own lack of preparation, or to inadequacies in me or in the church but rather to a move I was making from one world to another.

I recently heard Marcus Borg of the errant “Jesus Seminar” chide us pastors for protecting our congregations from the glorious fruits of “contemporary biblical scholarship.” There’s a brave new world of insight through the historical-critical study of Scripture! Don’t hold back from giving the people in the pew the real truth about Jesus as it has been uncovered by contemporary biblical scholarship and faithfully delivered to you in seminary biblical courses. He implied that even the laity, in their intellectual limitations, can take the truth about Jesus as revealed by Professor Borg and his academic friends.

Yet it seemed not to occur to Professor Borg that contemporary biblical scholarship, because it is asking the wrong questions of the biblical texts, and even more because it is subservient to a community that is at odds with communities of faith, may simply be irrelevant both to the church and to the intent of the church’s Scripture. Sometimes the dissonance between the church and the academy is due, not to the benighted nature of the church, but rather to the limited thought that reigns in the academy.

It took me a long time to learn this. As I said, I remember experiencing that dissonance in my first days in my first church in rural Georgia. I was the freshly minted product of Yale Divinity School now forlorn and forsaken in a poor little parish in rural Georgia. My first surprise was how difficult it was to communicate. If was as if I were speaking a different language. As I preached, my congregation impassively looked at me across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf.

At first I figured that the problem was a gap in education. (Educated people are continued to think this way when dealing with the uneducated.) I had nineteen years of formal education behind me; many of them had less than twelve. Most of my education involved lots of writing and talking, whereas they seemed taciturn and reserved.

I was impressed that they knew more about some things than I. Mostly, they talked and thought with the Bible. They easily, quite naturally referred to Scripture in their conversation, freely using biblical metaphors, sometime referring to obscure biblical texts that I had never read. If they had not read the masters of my thought – Bultmann, Tillich, and Barth, then I had no way to speak to them. I had been in a world that based communicating upon conversations about the thought of others, rather than worrying overmuch about my own thoughts. I realized that my divinity school had made me adept in construing the world psychologically, sociologically (that is, anthropologically) rather than theologically. The only conceptual equipment my people had was that provided by the church, whereas most of my means of making sense were given to me by the academy. Their interpretation of the world was not simply primitive, or simple, or naïve, as I first thought. Rather they were thinking in ways that were different from my ways of thinking. I came to realize that we were not simply speaking from different perspectives and experiences; it was as if we were speaking across the boundaries of two different worlds.

When a theologically trained seminary graduate like me confronts the sociological reality of the church, when a new pastor, schooled in a vision of the church as it ought to be, has his or her nose rubbed in the church as it is, it’s a collision that is the concern of this book. The leap between academia and ecclesia can be a challenge.

I want to avoid a characterization of the challenge as a leap between the goofy ideal (ecclesia as portrayed in the thoughtful academy) and the gritty real (ecclesia as it is in all its grubby mediocrity). Sometimes new pastors say, “Seminary did not prepare me for the true work of ministry,” or “There is too great a gap between what I was told in seminary and what the church really is.”

I do not want to put the matter in a way that privileges academia over ecclesia, as if to imply that to theological schools and seminaries has been given the noble vision of the real, true, faithful church whereas it has been given to the church the grubby, impossible task of actually being the church, putting all that high falutin’ theological theory into institutional praxis.

The challenge is not to stretch oneself between the ideal and the real, or the clash between the theoretical and the practical, the challenge is in finding oneself in the middle of an intersection where two intellectual worlds collide. True, there is often a disconcerting disconnect between the questions being raised in the seminary and the answers that constitute the church. Yet there may also be the problem that the seminary is preoccupied with the wrong questions, or at least questions that arise from intentions other than the Kingdom of God and its fullness.


The Seminary’s World

To be sure, it’s risky to attempt to characterize so complex and diverse a phenomenon as “the seminary.” My characterization arises out of nearly thirty years on a mainline protestant seminary faculty and visits, in the course of time, to over forty different theological schools. Some of my books have become standard texts in the curriculum of a few dozen seminaries, so I know at least a large part of the world of the seminary.

I am helped, in attempting to generalize about theological education, because the world of the seminary is more uniform and standardized than the world of the church. Seminaries, be they large or small, conservative or liberal, have more in common than the churches they serve. They have patterned their internal lives, constructed their curricula, selected their faculties, and have expectations of their students that are based more on the models of other seminaries than on the mission of the church. That’s only one of the problems of theological schools.

Seminaries, at least those in our church, labor under a growing disconnect between the graduates they are producing and the leadership needs of the churches these graduates are serving. This disjunction causes friction in and sometimes defeat of the transition between seminary and church for new pastors. For example, most protestant seminaries have organized themselves on the basis of modern, Western ways of knowing. The epistemology that still holds theological education captive is that which was borrowed from the modern university – detached objectively, the fact/value dichotomy, the separation of emotion and reason with the exaltation of reason as the superior means of knowing, the sovereignty of subjectivity, the loss of any authority other than the isolated, sovereign self pared with subservience to the social, cultural, and political needs of the modern nation state. (The best history of what happened in our seminaries in the Twentieth Century is by Conrad Cherry, Hurrying Toward Zion: Universities, Divinity Schools and American Protestantism, Indiana University Press, 1995.)

That’s saying a mouthful but it is an attempt to depict the intellectual “world” of the theological school that has a tough time honoring the intellectual restrictions of academia and the peculiarly sweeping mandate of the church of Jesus Christ.

The word “seminary” means literally “seed bed.” Seminary was meant to be the nursery where budding theologians are cultivated and seeds are planted that will bear good fruit, God willing, in the future. Trouble is, seminaries thought they could simply overlay those governmentally patronized, culturally confirmed ways of academic thinking over the church’s ways of thought, and proceed right along as if nothing had happened between the seminary as the church created it to be (a place to equip and form new pastoral leaders for the church) and the seminary as it became (another graduate/professional school).

In the world of the contemporary theological school, faculty talk mostly to one another (As Nietzsche noted, long ago, no one reads theologians except for other theologians.), faculty accredit and tenure other faculty using criteria derived mainly from the modern, secular research university. While the seminary desperately needs faculty who are adept at negotiating the tension between ecclesia and academia, faculty tend to be best at bedding down in academia. The AAR (American Academy of Religion) owns theological education.

One last disconnect I’ll mention: The seminary, by its nature, is a selective, elitist institution, selecting and evaluating its students with criteria that are derived from educational institutions rather than the ecclesia. In one sense, a theological school should be selective, astutely selecting these students who can most benefit Christ’s future work with the church. Trouble is, when criteria are applied that arise from sources other than the Body of Christ, we have the phenomenon of the church’s leadership schools cranking out people who have little interest in equipment for service to the church as it is called to be. If college departments of Religious Studies were not in decline, there would be something to do with the best of these seminary graduates. If the US Post Office were not holding its employees more accountable for their performance, the rest of them would have promising careers.

For instance, when my District Superintendents and I interviewed a group of soon to be graduates in one of our seminaries, we were distinctly unimpressed with their responses. Here we were before them saying, in effect, “We are a declining organization. We are looking for people who will come into the United Methodist ministry, take some risks, attempt to grow some new churches and new ministries, and help lead us out of our current malaise.” Yet the seminarians we were conversing with struck us as mostly those interested in being care givers to established congregations, caretakers of ministries that someone else long before them had initiated, and in general, to be people who were attracted to our church’s ministry precisely because they would never, ever have to take a risk with Jesus. 

When I was critical of the students we were meeting, one of the pastors with me said, “Look, you have people who have spent a lifetime in school learning nothing more than how to be in school. They have been taught by tenured faculty who have given their lives to doing well in academia and thereby getting tenure and never having again to take a risk in their lives. Faculty who are not held accountable for their performance or results are not likely to educate clergy who are focused on accountability or results.”

When seminaries appoint faculty who have little skill or inclination to traffic between academia and church, is there any wonder why the products of their teaching find that transition to be so difficult? Alas, what many graduates do is quickly to jettison “all that theology stuff” that seminary attempted to teach and relent to the “real world” of the congregation, the rest of their ministry simply flying by the seat of their pants. The seminary may self-flatteringly think of itself as the vanguard of the thought of the church when in reality it is an agent for the preservation of the church’s boring status quo.


The Church’s World

Seminarians who have been schooled in modern, Western notions that they are primarily individuals, detached persons whose main source of authority is their own subjectivity, have thereby been inculcated into the unchristian notion that they should think for themselves. What a shock to enter their first parish and find that church is an essentially group phenomenon, an inherently traditioned enterprise. Our most original thinking occurs when we think, not by ourselves, but with the saints. The best thing that seminary has done for its graduates, if it has done its work, is to introduce them to the burden and the blessing of the church’s tradition, to form them into advocates for the collective witness of the church, and to make believe that the church is God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world. Yet the way that the seminary engages the witness of the saints makes it difficult for new pastors to think with the saints.

For example, Scripture, the tradition of the church, has a privileged place in the communication of the church. Pastors are ordained, ordered to bear that tradition compellingly, faithfully, quite unoriginally before their congregations, not primarily so that their congregations can think through the tradition, but rather so that they can, in their discipleship incarnate Christian truth. We pastors are not free to rummage about in the recesses of our own egos, not free to consult other extraecclesial texts until we have first done business with Scripture and the great tradition. Alas, too much of today’s theological training (arising out of the German university of the Nineteenth Century) places the modern reader above the texts of the church, assuming a privileged, detached and superior position to the church’s historic faith. The academic guild stands in judgment upon the texts, raising questions about the texts. Thus it comes as a jolt for the seminarian to graduate and to find him or herself cast in the role of the ordained, the official who leads the church not in detached criticism of these texts but rather in faithful embodiment of the sacred texts.

In my book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon, 2002), I observed that many seminarians tend to be introverted, reflective, personal seekers after God whereas the church is heavily politicized and communal. Pastors are supremely “community persons,” officials of an institution, leaders who the church expects to worry about community and group cohesion with a Savior whose salvation is always a group phenomenon. The seminarian who is trained occasionally to write a speech for a group of individuals, sometimes to do one-on-one counseling, to form intense personal relationships within a conglomerate of individuals, finds herself flung into a politically charged, complex organization, a family system that requires astute knowledge of group dynamics and wise leadership of a divisive group of people who have been caught in the dragnet of God’s expansive grace in Christ. When Chrysostom argued his own inadequacy to be a pastor or bishop, it was precisely this public quality of Christian leadership that he cited as the reason why he did not have what it takes to be a pastor.

Sadly, too often the seminary has taught its students to step back from the Christian tradition and its Scriptures, to reflect, learn to critique, and actively to question. True, such stepping back and critique are developmentally appropriate for the formation of the church’s leaders. Yet when the seminarian becomes a pastor, she takes her place as leader of an organization that has goals like embodiment, engagement, involvement, participation, and full-hearted commitment, embrace of the enemy, hospitality to the stranger, group cohesion, koinonia. The whole point of discipleship is not cool consideration of Jesus but rather following Jesus. The person who fails to make the move from being the lone individual, confronting the faith, tending his or her own spiritual garden, to the role of a public leader of a group, is the person who will have a tough time in the first parish.

Today many describe the ordained ministry as “servant leadership.” The peculiar service that the church needs from those who ordained is that they step up, lay aside their own spiritual quandaries, and speak for the church to the church. They must, as the bishop tells them in the ordinal, “take authority,” cultivating in themselves the habit of thinking more about the community and its needs than their own. Students who have been enculturated into the world of the academy – in which students must defer and submit to the authority of the professor, who has submitted to the authority of the academic guild – sometimes have difficulty standing up in a congregation and, in service to the community, taking charge, casting a vision, and taking the time and doing the work to build a group of allies who will join the pastor in moving toward responsibility for Christ’s mission into the world.

I, therefore, say to seminarians, upon their graduation, you are not just taking on a new job, you are moving to a new world.

Recently, I asked a group of our best and brightest new pastors what they would like most from the church and from me as their bishop. I was surprised to hear them all respond: “Supervision!” They yearn for help with the move between these two worlds because they realize the inadequacy of their preparation. Churches and judicatories must take this move more seriously and must develop better means of mentoring and supervising new pastors through this process.

As someone who now works with new pastors on that move from the world of the theological school to the world of the parish, I have some specific suggestions:

1. Devise ways to learn to speak their language. Laity sometimes complain that their young pastor, in sermons, uses “religious” words like “spiritual practice,” “liberation,” “empowerment,” “intentional community” (this is an actual list a layperson collected and sent to me) that no one understands and no one recalls having heard in Scripture. Such “preacher talk” makes the pastor seem detached, alien, and aloof from the people and hinders leadership.

2. At the same time, prepare yourself to become a teacher of the church’s peculiar speech to a people who may have forgotten how to use it. This may seem contrary to my first suggestion. My friend, Stanley Hauerwas, says that the best preparation for being a pastor today is previously to have taught high school French. The skills required to drill French verbs into the heads of adolescents are the skills that pastors need to teach our people how to speak the gospel. Trouble is, most seminarians are more skilled, upon graduation from school, to be able to describe the world anthropologically than theologically. They have learned to use the language of Marxist analysis or feminist criticism better than the language of Zion. We must be person who lovingly cultivate and actively use the church’s peculiar speech.

3. Keep telling yourself that the difference in thought between the laity in your first parish and that of your friends back in seminary is not so much the difference between ignorance and intelligence; it’s just different ways of thinking that arise out of life in different worlds. I recommend reading novels (Flannery O’Connor saved me in my first parish by writing true stories that sounded like they were written by one of my parishioners) in order to appreciate the thought and the speech of people who, while having never been initiated into the narrow confines of the world of theological education, are thinking deeply.

4. Remind yourself that while the seminary has an important role to play in the life of the church, it is the seminary that must be accountable to the church, not vice versa. It is my prejudice that, if you have difficulty making the transition from seminary to parish it is probably a criticism of the seminary. The Christian faith is to be studied and critically examined only for the purpose of its embodiment. Christians are those who are to become that which we profess. The purpose of theological discernment is not to devise something that is interesting to say to the modern world but rather to rock the modern world with the church’s demonstration that Jesus Christ is Lord and all other little lordlets are not.

5. Be open to the possibility that the matters that were focused upon in the course of the seminary curriculum, the questions raised and the arguments engaged, might be a distraction from the true, historic mission and purpose of the church and its ministry.

6. On the other hand, be open to the possibility that the church has a tendency to bed down with mediocrity, to accept the mere status quo as the norm, and to let itself off the theological hook too easily. One reason why the church needs theology explored and taught in its seminaries is that theology (at its best) keeps making Christian discipleship as hard as it ought to be. Theology keeps guard over the church’s peculiar speech and the church’s distinctive mission. Something there is within any accommodated, compromised church (and aren’t they all, in one way or another?) that needs to reassure itself, “All that academic, intellectual, theological stuff is bunk and is irrelevant to the way the church really is.” The way the church “really is” is faithless, mistaken, cowardly, and compromised. It’s sad that it is up to seminaries to offer some of the most trenc hant and interesting critiques of the church. Criticism of the church ought to be part of the ongoing mission of a faithful church that takes Jesus more seriously and itself a little less so. I pray that your theological education rendered you permanently uneasy with the church. Promise me that you will, throughout your ministry, never be happy with the church.

7. I pray that you studied hard in seminary, read widely, thought deeply because you are going to need all of that if you are going to stay long as a leader of the church. Your life would be infinitely easier and less complicated if God had called you to be an accountant or a seminary professor. Most of the stuff that you read in seminary will only prepare you really to grow and to develop after you leave seminary. Think of your tough transition into the parish as the beginning, not the end, of your adventure into real growth as a minister. Theology tends to be wasted on the young. It’s only when you run into a complete dead end in the parish, when you are aging and tired and fed up with the people of God (and maybe even God too) that you need to know where to go to have a good conversation with some saint in order to make it through the night. Believe it or not, it’s much easier to beg in in the ministry, even considering the tough transition between seminary and the parish, than it is to continue in ministry. A winning smile, a pleasing personality, a winsome way with people, none of these are enough to keep you working with Jesus, preaching the Word, nurturing the flock, looking for the lost. Only God can do that and a major way God does that is through the prayerful, intense reading, study and reflection that you can only begin in three or four years of seminary.

8. Try not to listen to your parishioners when they attempt to use you to weasel out of the claims of Christ. Much of the criticism that you will receive, many of their negative comments about your work, are just their attempt to excuse themselves from discipleship. “When you are older, you will understand,” they told me as a young pastor. “You have still got all that theological stuff in you from seminary. Eventually, you’ll learn,” said older, cynical pastors. Now it’s, “Because you are a bishop, you don’t really understand that I can’t….” God has called you to preach and to live the gospel before them and they will use any means to avoid it. Be suspicious when people encourage you to see the transition from seminary to the parish as mainly a time finally to settle in and make peace with the “real world.” Jesus Christ is our definition of what’s real and there is much that passes for “the way things are” in the average church that makes Jesus want to grab a whip in hand and clean house.

9. The next few years could be among the most important in your ministry, including the years that you spent in seminary, because they are the years in which you will form your habits that will make your ministry. That’s one reason why I think the Lutherans are wise to require an internship year in a parish, before seminary graduation, for their pastors and why I think that a great way to begin is to begin your ministry is as someone’s associate in a team ministry in a larger church. In a small, rural church, alone, with total responsibility in your shoulders, in the weekly treadmill of sermons and pastoral care, if you are not careful there is too little time to read and reflect, too little time to prepare your first sermons, so you develop bad habits of flying by the seat of your pants, taking short cuts, and borrowing from others what ought to be developed in the workshop of your own soul. Ministry has a wa y of coming at you, of jerking you around from here to there, so you need to take charge of your time, prioritize your work, and be sure that you don’t neglect the absolute essentials while you are doing the merely important. If you don’t define your ministry on the basis of your theological commitments, the parish has a way of defining your ministry on the basis of their selfish preoccupations and that is why so many clergy are so harried and tired today. Mind your habits.


The Necessity of Mentors

One of the most important decisions that a new pastor can make is to obtain a good pastoral mentor. Ministry is a craft. I am unperturbed when new pastors sometimes say, “Seminary never really taught me actually how to do ministry.” I think seminary is best when it instills the classical theological disciplines and exposes to the classical theological resources of the church, not so good at teaching the everyday, practical, administrative and mundane tasks of the parish ministry. One learns a craft, not by reading books, but by looking over the shoulder of a master, watching the moves, learning by example, developing a critical approach that constantly evaluates and gains new skills.

Selecting a mentor can be your greatest challenge as a new pastor. Few experienced pastors have the training or the gifts for mentoring a new colleague. The “Lone Ranger” mentality afflicts many lonely pastors and their work shows the results of their failure to obey Jesus’ sending of the Seventy “two by two” (Luke 10:1). Some senior colleagues are often threatened by your youth, or your idealism, or your talent, seeing their own failures and disappointments in the light of your future promise. You will encounter those experienced pastors whose main experience has been that of accommodation, appeasement, and disillusionment with the meager impact of their ministry. They have a personal stake in robbing you of your youthful energy and expectation for ministry. Their goal is to get you to say, “Well, I thought that ministry in the name of Jesus would be a great advent ure but now I’ve settled in and turned it into a modestly well paying job.”

Yet in asking someone to be your mentor, to look into your life, to show you how to do ministry as they have done it, is one of the most flattering and affirming things you can do for a senior colleague. The Christian ministry is too tough to be done alone. There is something built into the practice of Christian ministry that requires apprenticeship from Paul mentoring young Timothy to Ambrose guiding the willful Augustine, to Carlyle Marney putting his arm around me and saying, “Here’s what a kid like you has got to watch out for.” In my experience, one of the most revealing questions that I can ask a new pastor is, “Who are your models for ministry? Whose example are you following?”

One of the most decisive examples given to me, in my first months of ministry, was a negative one. I was attending my first Annual Conference. Between one of the sessions, an older, self-presumed wiser pastor took me aside and said, “Son, you seem ambitious and talented. Let me give you some advice that I wish someone had given me when I was at your age. Buy property at Junaluska (Lake Junaluska, the retreat center now Methodist resort near our Conference).”

Property at Junaluska?” I asked in wide-eyed stupidity.

“Right. Doesn’t have to be a house. Perhaps start with an undeveloped lot. Eventually move up to a home at Junaluska,” he continued. “Name me one person on the Bishop’s Cabinet who doesn’t have a house at Junaluska,” he responded before moving on to offer advice to some other promising young pastor.

I thought to myself, “Four years of college. Three years of seminary. Three years of graduate school for the purpose of a lousy mortgage at Lake Junaluska. This is what it’s all about?”

That interchange was one of the most significant in my first days as a United Methodist minister. It was encouragement for me to lay hold of the vocation that had taken hold of me. Standing there in the lobby of the auditorium, I prayed, “Lord, you have my permission to strike me dead if I ever degrade my vocation as that guy has degraded his.”

That I am here today, over thirty years after my transition from seminary to the pastoral ministry, writing this essay, suggests to me that I kept the solemn vow I made that day. More likely is that the Lord is infinite in mercy, full of forgiveness, and patient with those whom the Lord calls to ministry.

William H. Willimon

[Source: Parts I, II, III, IV]

On theological education

In Theological Reflection and Education for Ministry: The Search for Integration in Theology, John Paver observes that the credit for the definitive catergorisation in modern theology and its attendant implications for the training of pastoral ministers lays with Schleiermacher. He writes:

‘… including theology in a research university could be seen as a betrayal of the educational revolution that the research university represented. Schleiermacher had to answer to these objections if theology was to have a place so he added another pole [to the “Berlin” type of theological education] by advocating that theological education should constitute professional education. His argument was partly sociological and partly philosophical-theological. Schleiermacher’s sociological argument was that every human society has sets of practices dealing with bodily, health, social order, and religious needs. These are socially necessary for the well-being of society as a whole and each of these requires properly trained leadership. Schleiermacher’s philosophical-theological argument proposed that religions such as Christianity do not rest on principles, but on a kind of initiation or insightful experience, which can be the subject of philosophical enquiry. hence, Christian theology can be a subject of Wissenschaft enquiry without threat or compromise to Christianity’s integrity or the integrity of the university’. – John E. Paver, Theological Reflection and Education for Ministry: The Search for Integration in Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 8.

Paver’s essay is a significant contribution to the ever-burgeoning field of theological education, training for ministry practice, and pastoral supervision as a vehicle for theological reflection. Whether it justifies the £55 price tag is another story, but then that’s what libraries are for.

Colin Gunton’s ‘The Barth Lectures’: A Review

Colin E. Gunton, The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited by Paul H. Brazier; T&T Clark, London/New York, 2007). xxiv + 285 pages. ISBN: 9780567031402.

While he fruitfully enjoyed a life-long engagement with and formation by Karl Barth’s work, produced numerous articles on various aspects of such, and lectured on Barth most years he taught at King’s College London, Colin Gunton never fulfilled his ambition to pen a monograph devoted solely to this his favourite theologian. Had he done so, these lectures (recorded and transcribed almost verbatim by Paul Brazier, complete with charts, diagrams, live-questions and Gunton’s responses) would have served as the basis.

Chapters 1-3 attend to the intellectual, historical and theological background to Barth’s thinking. Beginning with a focus on Enlightenment philosophy as it finds voice in Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel – all three of whom ‘identified Christianity too closely with modern culture’ (p. 17) – Gunton then turns to Barth’s early theological formation in the nineteenth-century liberalism of Harnack and Herrmann, as well as to some other voices and ideas that impinged on Barth’s theological development – Johann Christoph Blumhardt (who also influenced Moltmann), Albert Schweitzer and Franz Overbeck through whom eschatology was re-confirmed on the theological radar. Barth’s engagement with existentialism (Kierkegaardian and other) and theologies of ‘religion’, ‘crisis’ and ‘dialectics’ are introduced in the second and third lectures, and re-appear subsequently throughout. Certainly, for the Swiss theologian, ‘no road to the eternal world has ever existed except the road of negation’ (p. 33). Thus when Gunton later comes to unpack something of the charge concerning Barth’s ‘irrationality’ through the continuing influence of Der Römerbrief, empiricism, and Barth’s ‘assertive style’, the United Reformed Church minister notes:

The influence of empiricism, especially on the minds of English and American theologians, cannot be dismissed. The English, or to be more pertinent, the Anglican theological mind is shaped by a philosophical tradition that does not find Barth’s approach to theology easy to understand let alone agree with … Part of our intellectual tradition makes it hard for us to understand – particularly an Anglican tradition. Anglicans on the whole like things to be nice and middle way, the via media. And there is not much of the middle way in Karl Barth! … Barth’s assertive style does make it difficult for mild-mannered establishment Anglicans to cope with. (p. 66)

Whether critiquing Augustine, Calvin, Kant, the ‘Absolutely Pagan’ Hegel (p. 17), or the ‘great opponent’ Schleiermacher (p. 15), Gunton repeatedly identifies that the crucial question for the author of the groundbreaking Der Römerbrief remains ‘how much of your intellectual method hangs on something foreign to Christianity?’ (p. 42; cf. pp. 52-3). To this end, Gunton also devotes an entire lecture (pp. 53-63) to Barth’s 1931 work on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, and to the Archbishop’s understanding of the relationship between ‘proof’, ‘reason’ and ‘faith’. He later writes: ‘Barth is a post-Reformation thinker with the rallying cry, by scripture alone and by faith alone! Barth found in the Reformation tradition a conception of theology based on a view of God that is linked with human salvation. The problem for Barth with the Scholastic tradition is that they begin with a rational view of God – a rational idea of God abstracted from human salvation. Barth begins with scripture because the God of scripture is about salvation not philosophical argument’ (p. 69). And on a comparison with Schleiermacher: ‘the problem with beginning with religion is that it is not theological, it can be, it can lead into theology, but in essence it is not: religion is an experiential concept, not a theological concept. Barth wants a theology that is theological right from the very outset. Barth considers that Roman Catholics and Protestants such as Schleiermacher are wrong in thinking that there can be a non-theological basis for theology. Barth is a theologian you see, to the fingernails’ (p. 69).

From Chapter Four onwards, Gunton turns to Barth’s Church Dogmatics, acutely aware that ‘there is nothing as boring as résumés of Barth’s Dogmatics‘ and that ‘the way to get into Barth is to select and to read – read him, there is no substitute!’ (p. 71). Over the next 190 pages, this is precisely what Gunton masterfully helps us do; whether on Barth’s theological prolegomena, his witness to the three-fold Word, trinity, the doctrine of God proper, election, christology, soteriology, ethics and creation, we are all along driven by the only thing of theological interest for Barth, the question ‘Who is the God who makes himself known in Scripture?’ (p. 77). ‘When Barth is at his best’, Gunton writes, ‘he looks at the biblical evidence in detail; when he is weak he tends to evade it’ (p. 119)

A few tastes from ‘5. Barth on the Trinity and the Personal God’:

Barth is anti-foundationalist … God’s revelation is self-grounded; it does not have to appeal to anything else beyond itself. Because it is revelation through itself, not in relation to something else, because it is self-contained, lordship means freedom. This is characteristically Barthian: a characteristically Barthian phrase. Lordship means freedom – freedom for God, absolutely central for Barth’s theology. (p. 78)

The basis of all theology lies in the fact that revelation does happen … This revelation is Christological: Jesus Christ is God’s self-unveiling. The Father cannot be unveiled, but the Father reveals through the Son. This is imparted through the Holy Spirit. A little artificial I actually think, but you can see what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to show that inherent in the structure of God’s presence in Jesus Christ is a Trinitarian view of God … The point here is that in Jesus Christ we see the limits, the possibilities of the knowability of God … So Barth in a way is still retaining this dialectical structure: veiling-unveiling, knowability -unknowability, revelation-hiddenness … In the end you have only got paradox … God preserves his privacy. (pp. 79-80)

The logic is that if God is like this in time then because he doesn’t con us, so to speak, he doesn’t pull the wool over our eyes, because he is a revealing God, then that is what God is. So don’t think that the God we meet in Jesus is one God and that the God of eternity is entirely different from Jesus. The God you meet in Jesus is no different from the God you might meet if you were able to have a direct view of eternity. (p. 83)

Barth is against all mathematics in theology – he is against theories and ideas propounded down the centuries by theologians whereby examples are given of the Trinity, where three things make one; Augustine was often doing this, it is pure analogy or an attempt at analogy, which generally fails to offer any theological elucidation … I don’t like Augustine. I think he is the fountainhead of our troubles. (pp. 84, 96)

[Barth] is often accused of modalism, and I think he is near it … I think he is on a bit of a knife-edge myself, but then all theology is on a knife-edge, it is such a difficult discipline. [Barth] wants to do what the Cappadocians did, and Barth thinks he has done it better with this term – ‘modes of being’. Well, I don’t agree with him, but that is the way he puts it. (pp. 88-9)

Theology is our interpretation of God’s self-interpretation. God interprets himself to us, that is what revelation is. Our response is to interpret this faithfully, or as Jüngel would put it, responsibly … We move from faith to understanding. We move from a grateful acceptance of revelation to an attempt to understand as best we may what that revelation means for God and ourselves. And the understanding consists in the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit. It is so obvious that we should, isn’t it! We might talk of God as a tyrannical monad, but the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit is, so to speak, a demonstration after the event that we are making sense, that God is making sense, our theology makes sense. (p. 91)

And from ‘8. Ethics: Church Dogmatics Chapter VIII:

I do think that there is a problem of abstractness because there isn’t really in Barth, I think (and I say this tentatively), I think that there isn’t really in Barth an account of how this relationship between God and the moral agent takes shape. There is not much of a principle of formation. How are people formed so as to take one ethical direction rather than another? Barth is relatively weak in ecclesiology; that is, some account of how ethics are shaped by the community of belief. He is so anxious not to tie God down; that is always his anxiety, not to tie God down. (p. 133)

Throughout, Gunton is rousing his 30-40 mostly MA and PhD students (although the lectures were intended for undergraduates and so leave considerable ground un-traversed and engage minimally with secondary literature) to ‘read as much of the man himself’ not least because ‘the people that write about him are much more boring than he is’ (p. 9; cf. p. 39). In a sense, this is one book to ‘listen to’ more than to ‘read’. At times, it’s a bit like the difference between a live album and a studio version. Not all the notes are spot on, but the energy – filled with a depth of theological and pastoral insight that betray years of wrestling with the things that matter – is all there.

Such wrestling means that whether expounding a key motif in Barth’s theology or fielding questions, Gunton reveals not only a deep indebtedness to Barth’s work, but also points of divergence. He is upfront in the first lecture: ‘Not everyone buys into Barth … I don’t, all the way along the line, as I get older I get more and more dissatisfied with the details of his working out of the faith … over the years I think I have developed a reasonable view of this great man who is thoroughly exciting and particularly, I can guarantee, if you do this course, that you will be a better theologian by the third year, whether or not you agree with him – he is a great man to learn to think theologically with’ (p. 10; see the prefaces to his Theology Through the Theologians and to the second edition of The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). Clearly, Gunton is no clone of Barth. Though mostly unnamed, he draws upon Coleridge, Owen, Zizioulas and Polanyi as allies in order to attain a measure of distance from Barth’s theology (and that of Barth’s student Moltmann), notably on creation, trinitarian personhood (Gunton prefers the Cappadocians), natural revelation, Jesus’ humanity, Christ’s priesthood, the Word’s action as mediator of creation, ecclesiology, and an over-realised eschatology, among other things (see pp. 52, 74, 82, 88-90, 96, 133, 142, 148, 170-1, 186, 200, 212, 227, 236, 250, 253-4, passim). Not alone here, Gunton reserves his strongest criticisms for what he contends is Barth’s weak pneumatology (for which he blames Augustine and the filioque): there is ‘not enough of the Spirit accompanying and empowering Jesus at different stages of his ministry’ (p. 200). Again: ‘the second person of the Trinity is made to do a bit more than he does in Scripture’ (p. 212). Gunton is always cautious and respectful however: Barth ‘never really forgets anything, he is too good a theologian for that. And when you are criticizing Barth it is only a question of where he puts a weight; he never forgets anything, he is too good a man for that’ (p. 171). Even on the Spirit, Gunton suggests that he can only be critical here because of what he has learnt from Barth already: ‘That’s the great thing about Barth: he enables you to do other things that aren’t just Barth but yet are empowered by him. Yes, that’s his greatness’ (p. 200).

While the reformed theologian is ‘too-multi-layered a thinker to have one leading idea’ if there is one, Gunton suggests it is that of covenant: ‘that from eternity God covenants to be the God who elects human beings into relation with himself’ (p. 149), that from eternity the triune God is oriented towards us. Gunton’s chapter on Barth’s revision of God’s election in CD II/2 is an astounding example of his adroitness and élan as a theological educator. Not many teachers could summarise so sufficiently and with such economy (just 12 pages!) what for Barth is the root of all things, ‘creation, atonement, all’ (p. 115), that is, election. Gunton concludes by (over?)-suggesting that Barth’s effort was ‘a huge improvement in the crude determinism of the Augustinian tradition, which did not represent a gracious God. The Augustinian doctrine replaces grace with gratuity: God gratuitously chooses group A and not group B – this is not the God who seeks out the lost [even Judas] and does not reject them’ (p. 121).

This volume is significantly more than merely a course on the theology of the twentieth century’s superlative theologian. It is also a reminder that to read Barth attentively is to be introduced to a broader dogmatic and philosophical tradition. Moreover, it is to be led to do so by one of Britain’s ablest pedagogues. A foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and a warm introduction by Steve Holmes prepare us for one of the freshest introductions to Barth available. Again, we are placed in Professor Gunton’s debt.

Biblia Clerus

The Vatican Congregation for the Clergy has launched Biblia Clerus which allows researchers to access Bible verses with exegesis from doctors of the Church or cross-reference liturgical texts with commentaries from some Church Fathers. The site promotes a program which ‘offers Sacred Scripture, its interpretation in light of Sacred Tradition and the teachings of the Magisterium, with appropriate theological commentary and exegesis’. It is available in French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, English and Italian.

On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times: A Review

Joe R. Jones, ON BEING THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST IN TUMULTUOUS TIMES (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2005). Pp. xxx + 239. $27.00, ISBN: 9781597522762. A review.

Joe R. Jones, author of the massive The Grammar of Christian Faith and Doctrine, and who Stanley Hauerwas names ‘the best unknown theologian in America’ (how would Hauerwas know?), is well aware of at least two important realities that inform good theology. First, that theology is a discipline not of the academy but of the believing community which is ever to be that ‘sort of community that sustains a vigorous and continuing conversation within itself as to who has called it into being, to whom it is responsible, and what it is called to be and to do’ (p. xiii). Second, that Christian theology has its ground and end in the redeeming economy of the Triune God. These two convictions inform this collection of essays, sermons, and prayers composed over four decades.

The volume is made up of three sections. In the first, he addresses what it means to be the Church, that ‘broken body [which] must strive, in the midst of its brokenness in tumultuous times, to remember its calling and mission as an alternative community living an alternative way of life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ‘ (p. xiv). He repeatedly posits (pp. xvi, 6, 21, 35-6, 51, passim) his working definition of the Church:

The church is that liberative and redemptive
community of persons
called into being
by the Gospel of Jesus Christ
through the Holy Spirit
to witness in word and deed
to the living triune God
for the benefit of the world
to the glory of God.

Jones, a confessing pacifist ‘with many questions about how to be a pacifist’ (p. xxiv), contends that wherever Jesus’ body lives in the world, there the Church is properly a political entity with a distinct theology and ethic, and whose political witness is never for itself but is for the benefit of the world. Thus with definition above before him, Jones, in the tradition of that prisoner on Patmos, pens ‘A letter to the Churches After 9/11′ in which he reminds the church that it is ‘not called into existence by the American way of life, not called into existence in order to punish evildoers, not called into existence to endorse any given political regime, and not called into existence to protect Christians and wreak vengeance on nonchristians. But it does exist for the “benefit of the world,” though not on the world’s own terms regarding what it finds beneficial as an endorsement of the way it prefers to live’. When the Church, either ecumenically or as a particular congregation, is unclear about how to answer the key questions of its own identity ‘then its life will be a miasma of disarray and confusion’ (p. 6). Jones consistently names nationalism for the destructive and deceitful idol that it is, calling the Church to allegiance to its Lord alone, rather than serve two masters.

Jones turns in the second, third and fourth essays to a reflection on the Church’s illiteracy wherein he argues that the Christian community whose ‘language of faith has too often become hallow and empty’ has become ‘illiterate’ and ‘uneducated’ (p. 11). The Church needs to recover its ‘distinctive language’ (p. xv), its own voice – or that of her Lord’s – lest it be repeatedly ‘overwhelmed and held hostage by the nation-state and its political discourses and practices’ (p. xxiv), and whose discourse and practice form a necessary purlieus for doing theology. The witnessing Church requires a literacy in the Gospel: ‘The Gospel is not willy-nilly whatever people choose it to be. It is not just any presumably good or comforting news. But to be able to hear well and to witness well, the church must incessantly cultivate an understanding of the Gospel and the light it throws on the world. Whenever the church has neglected this cultivation, this education, it has itself become a wandering nomad, bedeviled by the mirages of passing fancies and fads’ (p. 14). He calls for a recovery of the Church’s educational processes that accentuate learning the Gospel’s content and giving it intelligent expression for the world. This doing of theology is not a luxury (or responsibility) for a few but for all the people of God. That said, the Church also needs to recover, he argues, a sense of the pastor as teacher and theologian for the community, to equip the community of theologians for ek-static movement towards and in the world as witness to God’s loving life (see pp. 21-34).

In the second of the three sections, ‘Theological Baselines for Doing Church Theology’, Jones explores, among other themes, notions of faith, soteriology, trinity, and Jewish-Christian dialogue. The essay on salvation (chapter 7) outlines the basis upon which believers have good reason to hope in an apokastasis panton. He argues that ‘the logic of a radical incarnation/atonement view centred in Jesus Christ moves resolutely to the final conclusion that all we be ultimately saved by God’s sovereign grace’ (p. 119). It is of little surprise, therefore, to read that Jones lists among his most significant influences and conversation partners, Karl Barth, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

Also, not a few of the essays betray Jones’ indebtedness to Søren Kierkegaard and to that Dane’s insistence that ‘to be a Christian is to learn how to be a Christian’ (p. 51). This American nonconformist does not, however, share Kierkegaard’s despairing thoughts on the Church more generally, or the latter’s over-subjectivism. Instead, Jones persuasively posits that learning how to be a Christian ‘involves being a member of a community that has characteristic discourses and practices about the narrative of God’s grace’ (p. 67). Little doubt, if Kierkegaard had a different model of Church in mind when he made his bold criticisms, he would agree with Jones here. Jones’ collection includes two fine chapters on Kierkegaard: one on Kierkegaard’s thoughts on authority and revelation; the other on Kierkegaard as ‘Spy, Judge, and Friend’ in which he outlines the basic life, contributions and contours of Kierkegaard’s thought. He laments that while Kierkegaard ‘was one of the most influential intellectuals for the twentieth century’ today ‘I find few entering divinity students that can spell his name, fewer still who have read anything of his, fewer yet that have benefited from his friendship’. He describes Kierkegaard as ‘a Spy who will push you into inward places of hiddenness you are reluctant to explore, a Judge who will indict your vagaries of life with inescapable and relentless precision and vivacity, but finally a Friend who might spiritually edify you on the multifaceted journey of becoming a Christian‘ (p. 154). He proceeds:

‘With uncanny prescience, Kierkegaard knew he would someday be famous but feared and loathed the prospect that he would fall into the hands of the professors, who would analyze and reduce his life and writings to a thumbnail sketch or footnote, or even to a voluminous narrative, but would never realize that the whole of his literature was directed even to the professor as an existing person who still had to exist somehow. He criticized professors, philosophers, and theologians unmercifully for building grand mansions of theory and thought only to live their actual, existing lives in the barnyard, feeding daily out of the pig trough. The point here is this: intellectuals are given to the pursuit and development of thought, concepts, and ideas, and they can easily fool themselves into supposing that if they have thought the thought they have also lived the thought. No, says Kierkegaard; to live the thought means to have one’s living passions and decisions shaped by the thought. Intellectuals are inclined to forget the actual passions and concrete decisions that shape their daily living, and therefore are forgetful of their actual existing. Their theories cannot – of themselves – encompass and shape the theorist’s existential reality without decision and persistence in passions’ (p. 155).

The final section is made up largely of pastoral prayers and some moving sermons, including those preached by Jones at ordination and funeral services.

While few will be convinced of all Jones’ claims, this an engaging and at times provocative miscellany properly written with one eye on the Church (and not least his own Disciples of Christ denomination the focus on which, at times, gives the reader a sense that she is reading an in-house review) and one on God as both God and Church direct their engaging gaze to the world. The reader would have been better served with the inclusion of an index and a little more editing out of repetitious material. That said, this book will assist the Church to better understand, celebrate and practice the good and missional news of Jesus Christ in tumultuous times.

Conversations with Poppi about God: A Review

Robert W. Jenson & Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006). 158 pages. ISBN: 97815874321613. Review copy courtesy of Brazos Press.

When was the last time you had a conversation about baptism, temptation, purgatory, time, economics, the Nicene Creed, creation, the Trinity, Christmas, metaphysics, church calendars, evil, indulgences, the Holy Spirit, liturgy, Lucifer, hamsters, a ‘really stupid’ bishop, the disestablishment of the Roman Church, the imago Dei, and a host of other things, all with the same person? When was the last time you did so with a person who just happens to be a world-renowned Lutheran, and ecumenical, theologian? When was the last time you did so with an eight-year-old who knows more about Dante than not a few philosophy undergrads?

In this remarkable book, we are invited to eavesdrop on a spontaneous and unscripted conversation between elementary schoolgirl Solveig Lucia Gold and her septuagenarian grandfather affectionately called ‘Poppi’, more formally known as the Reverend Canon Professor Dr. D. Robert W. Jenson, B.A., B.D., M.A., D.Theol., D.H.L., DD.

The book comprises the verbatim transcripts – with minor editing of ‘Ums’, ‘Well, buts …’ and ‘You knows…’, etc – of conversations recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder over a series of weekends in which Solveig visited her grandparents (‘Poppi’ and ‘Mimi’) in Princeton. After each session, Mimi typed it up.

The authors invite us to read their book ‘as you would a Platonic dialogue, though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth’ (p. 10). Their discussion is more wide-ranging than most systematic theologies, and is filled with wit, warmth and wisdom.

Time for an example:

Solveig: How can God pick who goes to heaven or hell?

Poppi: By looking at Jesus, who loves you, Solveig.

Solveig: Can you show me?

Poppi: One way of saying what happened with Jesus is that Jesus so attached himself to you that if God the Father wants his Son, Jesus, back, he is stuck with you too. Which is how he picks you. (p. 20)

The young Episcopalian and her ‘sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran’ (p. 70) Poppi return to some themes a number of times over the weekends. One such theme that offers some of the book’s richest insights concerns the Spirit, or ‘God’s liveliness’ (p. 38), as the good Professor Dr Poppi likes to remind his granddaughter. Solveig tries on more than one occasion to argue a case that the second and third articles in the Creed ought to be reversed not only because ‘all of us share in the Spirit’ (Father and Son included), but also because that’s how you cross yourself. Poppi agrees, ‘Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement’ (p. 146). The Spirit is also ‘God’s own future that he is looking forward to’ (p. 42). They compare God’s liveliness with Santa Claus who is ‘sort of like a messenger from the Holy Spirit – in a way’ (p. 100), before coming to discern the spirits to see if they are from God, for whom to have Spirit means that he ‘doesn’t stay shut up in himself … but that the goodness and mercy – and wrath, when it comes to that – that is in God blows out from him to hit you and me. And that means that just like your spirit is yours and not mine, even though your spirit effects me, so God’s Spirit is his and not a spirit like Santa Claus’ (p. 101).

In between laughs, they talk about what it is about Holy Communion – Solveig’s ‘favourite part of going to church’ because she gets to ‘stretch and walk around a little’ (p. 31) – that means that ‘the wine should be the very best’ (p. 33) and that dissolvable bread should be banned. The meal should be appetising, and not like those baptisms ‘when they just dribble a couple of drops on the baby’ (p. 34). They also talk about a confirmation service led by ‘this weird bishop guy’ who is ‘really stupid’ (p. 34).

While I’m trying to resist the temptation to share every gem in the book (and there are lots), allow me one more, this time on heaven, purgatory, and hell:

Solveig: Do you think of where you might go after you die as two places or three places? I think of it as three places.

Poppi: What three is that?

Solveig: Heaven, purgatory, and hell.

Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: You know that is very controversial.

Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?

Poppi: Well, it’s in Dante, yes. But of course, Dante isn’t exactly in the Bible.

Solveig: No. But he’s still …

Poppi: The thing about purgatory is that it’s a very reasonable idea. It’s just that we don’t know if it is true.

Solveig: Except … Maybe God thinks that you should just go to two places. If you are bad, he has no patience with you at all, and he will just sort you to go to heaven or hell. I think that is reasonable enough.

Poppi: That God is impatient?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: That’s where I think the notion of purgatory is reasonable. I don’t think the Bible talks about God’s being impatient in quite that way.

Solveig: If he isn’t impatient, maybe he doesn’t want us to spend time thinking about where we should go.

Poppi: You know that plate that your mother and father gave us that hangs on the wall in the dining room?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: Remember what it says on it?

Solveig: I don’t remember what it says.

Poppi: It says, ‘I desire not the death of the wicked.’

Solveig: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’

Poppi: Right. So the biblical God takes no pleasure in sending people to hell, and that’s why I think that purgatory is a reasonable idea. The problem is we don’t have any way of knowing whether the purgatory idea is true or not.

Solveig: It’s just Dante’s idea.

Poppi: Well, it was older than Dante.

Solveig: It was?

Poppi: Yes.

Solveig: Yes. Well, see, I think of Dante as a theologian, in a way.

Poppi: He was a very great theologian.

Solveig: Yeah, I know. I’m saying that he kind of liked to make up things he wasn’t quite sure about, if you know what I mean.

The delightful exchanges in this album offer us a model of how good theological dialogue can and should take place: with mutual respect and humility which delights in both the giving and the receiving; with an eye on the scripture, an eye on the tradition, and an eye on the world (for those who possess at least three eyes); and within an environment of safety in which no idea is too whacky and no avenue of enquiry cut off prematurely.

Carl Braaten’s words regarding this book are worth repeating,

Robert Jenson has created a new medium, with his granddaughter Solveig, to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Just as Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism for children, this book of conversations covers the beliefs and practices of the Christian church – among them the commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the sacraments – in a way that parents, regardless of their denomination, can confidently read and discuss with their children. Robert Jenson has translated the core convictions of his two volumes of Systematic Theology into simple truths that his eight-year-old grandchild can understand in the course of their unrehearsed and lively conversations. If you want to know what a sophisticated theologian really believes, listen to him explain the mysteries of the Christian faith to a child in simple terms without being simplistic.

Teaching position

The University of Botswana is seeking someone to ‘teach both under-graduate and post-graduate students, supervise research projects, conduct tutorials, provide guidance to students, undertake research and any other duties deemed necessary. Candidates must also be ready to teach other courses outside their area of specialization. Candidates must possess at least a Masters degree or accepted qualification in Theology and Religious Studies with a concentration in Old Testament Studies. Possession of a PhD will be an added advantage. Preference shall be given to candidates who can teach Biblical Hebrew. Teaching and research experience at a university level will also be an added advantage’.

More information here.

Nineteenth-Century Theology Group

Those with an interest in PT Forsyth (as all should have!) might be keen to know about The Nineteenth-Century Theology Group which meets at AAR. The Group is concerned to explore religious thought and theology from the French Revolution to World War I. Attention is given to issues or themes, to major figures, and to the relation of religious thought to its historical and cultural context. The Group selects two or three topics for each year’s program and invites papers on those topics. Papers are printed and distributed in advance. More information here and here and here.

Across the Spectrum: A Review

Gregory A. Boyd & Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). 287 pages. ISBN: 9780801022760. Review copy courtesy of Baker Academic.

‘What Christ has done for me’, announced PT Forsyth, ‘has become possible only by what He did even more powerfully for others whose faith and experience have been deeper and richer than mine, but who reflect my experience all the same, even while they diversify and enlarge it mightily. Standing over my experience is the experience of the whole evangelical succession’. What Forsyth reminds us of here is of the great breadth and depth within the Christian tradition, a breadth and depth to be appreciated, studied and celebrated.

The purpose of this book by Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy is precisely to appreciate, study and celebrate this diversity within one dominant Christian tradition, and to introduce evangelical college students ‘to the positions evangelicals take on various disputed topics. Each position is argued from the perspective of one defending the position and is therefore presented as persuasively as possible’ (p. 6). The book assumes a distinctly liberal arts approach to theological study, presupposing that the teacher’s job is not indoctrination of one particular position, but rather to introduce students to a variety of perspectives while providing students with the tools to think critically for themselves.

Five presuppositions are identified by the authors: First, the goal of this book is not to present a balanced overview of Christian doctrine. Second, this book considers only options that are discussed and embraced within evangelicalism, defined by a commitment to the core beliefs of historic, orthodox Christianity as expressed in the ecumenical creeds and to the primacy of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice. The authors’ decisions concerning what constitutes ‘major’ and ‘minor’ issues are governed mostly by their own assessment of how lively a particular debate rages within the evangelical family. Third, the book promises only an introduction to the diverse positions within evangelicalism. Thus, along with space limitations, each chapter is intentionally non-technical and general in nature. This it does very well. Fourth, the theological criteria assumed is that proposed by John Wesley’s quadrilateral: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Fifth, each chapter follows the same basic outline: Firstly, a brief section introduces each topic. This is followed by an outline of common ground evangelicals share on the topic then a note of the different views evangelicals embrace concerning the topic. Next, major differing perspectives are presented and defended, utilising the quadrilateral when appropriate. Each chapter concludes by refuting objections to the position under discussion.

The various chapters are given to discussing the following questions:

  1. The Inspiration Debate (Inerrantist, Infallibilist)
  2. The Providence Debate (Calvinist, Armenian)
  3. The Foreknowledge Debate (Classical, Open)
  4. The Genesis Debate (Young Earth, Day-Age, Restoration, Literary Framework)
  5. The Divine Image Debate (Substantival, Functional, Relational)
  6. The Human Constitution Debate (Dichotomist, Trichotomist, Monistic)
  7. The Christology Debate (Classic, Kenotic)
  8. The Atonement Debate (Penal Substitution, Christus Victor, Moral Government)
  9. The Salvation Debate (Calvinist, Armenian)
  10. The Sanctification Debate (Lutheran, Calvinist, Keswick, Wesleyan)
  11. The Eternal Security Debate (Eternal Security, Conditional Security)
  12. The Destiny of the Unevangelized Debate (Restrictivist, Universal Opportunity, Post-Mortem Evangelism, Inclusivist)
  13. The Lord’s Supper Debate (Spiritual Presence, Memorial)
  14. The Baptism Debate (Believer’s Baptism, Infant Baptism)
  15. The Charismatic Gifts Debate (Continuationist, Cessationist)
  16. The Women in Ministry Debate (Complementarian, Egalitarian)
  17. The Millennium Debate (Premillennial, Postmillennial, Amillennial)
  18. The Hell Debate (Classical, Annihilationist)

The chapters I found most helpful were 3, 7, 10 and 12.

In addition, an online appendix is given to discuss the following topics:

  1. How Should Evangelicals “Do” Theology? The Theological Method Debate
  2. The Psychological and Social Models of the Trinity
  3. Was Noah’s Flood Global or Local?
  4. Must Wives Submit to their Husbands?
  5. Christians and Politics: Three Views
  6. What Happens to Babies Who Die?
  7. The Debate of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit
  8. Is Speaking in Tongues the Initial Evidence of Receiving the Baptism of the Holy Spirit?
  9. Can a Christian be Demonized?
  10. The Debate over the Book of Revelation
  11. Has Jesus Already Returned? The Preterist Debate
  12. When Will Jesus Return? The Rapture Debate.

Boyd and Eddy provide the entering year theology student or interested lay person with an accessible introduction to some of the burning points of debate amongst conservative evangelicals, introducing readers to major strands in the tradition of which they may be unaware or ignorantly dismissive of. While their selection (rather than their definition) of what constitutes the ‘hot spots’ of evangelical theology betrays something more North American than I am familiar with, Boyd and Eddy’s representations of the various positions are fair and respectful. The volume also includes a useful glossary and a good list of resources for further reading.

Any volume endeavouring to cover such a broad sweep of topics will inevitably fail to address the favourite topics of many of its readers, and this book is no different. The topics covered understandably betray a focus on North American evangelicalism (indeed, some of the non-American related facts are just plain wrong; for example, Keswick is not ‘a seaside English town’ (p. 156)), though there is enough here to inform the reader from anywhere, not least those with some discerning selectivity of chapter readings.

Two smallish reservations: First, the volume could have provided a little more engagement with how ideas develop and are shaped throughout history. Second, the chapter, ‘The Hell Debate, fails to offer as an alternative ‘evangelical’ view the notion of christological universalism, even though this position is increasingly gaining adherents among confessing evangelicals and the authors are content to include George McDonald as a ‘noteworthy evangelical’ (p. 187). Other omissions (even from the appendix) include evangelical convictions regarding war and pacifism, regarding divorce and remarriage, and regarding tithing.

That said, Across the Spectrum is a really useful introductory volume for the student, and a helpful model for the teacher, proving again that what we call ‘evangelical theology’ is kaleidoscopic, versatile and diversiform.

Developing a Reading List

Here is the series of posts from my series, Developing A Reading List. Please note that this list will be regularly updated as I come across suitable material.

Developing a Reading List – Theological Method and Prolegomena, Systematics/Dogmatics, Biblical Theology, Theology Proper

Developing a Reading List – Patriology, Christology, Pneumatology, Revelation

Developing a Reading List – Creation, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, Anthropology

Developing a Reading List – Prayer and Meditation, Missiology, Ethics, Doxology

Developing a Reading List – Pastoral Ministry, Preaching, Theology and the Arts, Eschatology

Or you can access each category here:

1. Theological Method and Prolegomena
2. Systematics/Dogmatics
3. Biblical Theology
4. Theology Proper
5. Patriology
6. Christology
7. Pneumatology
8. Revelation
9. Creation
10. Soteriology
11. Ecclesiology
12. Anthropology
13. Prayer and Meditation
14. Missiology
15. Ethics
16. Doxology
17. Pastoral Ministry
18. Preaching
19. Theology and the Arts
20. Eschatology

Distance Education

At a recent meeting of the World Reformed Fellowship in Johannesburg, it was decided that during the following year all distance education course lectures for the Reformed Theological Seminary would be made available free over the internet using iTunes technology. This is great news for many thousands of students and would-be students around the world who have access to the internet but not to a passport, or sufficient finances to study abroad or at home, or don’t live near the big cities, or for whom family or personal circumstances make getting out difficult. More information is available here. Of course, it’s not as ideal as face-to-face learning (and coffee drinking), but may there be many more colleges offering their distance-ed courses likewise.