Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Dialogue Partners in the Wider Evangelical Tradition

This is a long overdue contribution to my series on Dialogue-Partners in Theology.  I first wrote a post on My Favorite Liberal Theologians outlining those theologians in the liberal/modernist tradition that I find to be indispensible conversation partners in my theological reflection.  I then did the same for Conservative Evangelicals and for Jewish theologians and philosophers.  But I had promised to list my conversation partners in the wider use of the term “evangelical,” (gospel centered) where the term “conservative” might not apply.  I have neglected this now for too long.  Part of the neglect was because it is impossible to define the term “evangelical” in a way that invites consensus–and the term has different connotations in the U.S. than outside it. 

So, I here refer to those theologians (and theological ethicists) and biblical scholars who are rooted deeply in the Protestant Reformation (both Magisterial and Radical Reformations), Puritanism, Pietism/Wesleyanism, and/or 19th C. Revivalism (and/or the way any and all of these movements have made encounters in Asia, Africa, indigenous cultures in the Americas, etc).  They are “gospel centered” in their approach to theology, rather than deliberately beginning with human experience as with liberals. (This is not to say that experience plays no role: the experiences of conversion and/or later “baptisms” or “fillings” with the Holy Spirit play major roles.) The centrality of Scripture for the life of the church is assumed–whether or not a term like “inerrancy” (by whatever definition) is used.  There may be correspondences between such theologians and persons in Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions, but there are also differences in both style and substance.

Now, since I have already described my major dialogue partners among  “Conservative Evangelicals,” who are within shouting distance of Protestant fundamentalism–at least at times, I am here not including them. Rather these individuals either moved away from conservative evangelicalism or (as in the case of many “post-liberals”) began with another tradition and moved in a more evangelical direction–or simply always had a more mainstream, or ecumenical,  or “catholic” perspective on “the evangel,” the Good News of Jesus Christ for the beautiful but sad world. What follows is not an exhaustive list of such persons, but merely the ones who are the dominant conversation partners in my own theological reflection: MY favorite non-conservative evangelicals, if you will. Lack of inclusion should not be seen as a judgment on merit–but no one can seriously engage ALL the important thinkers in any adequate fashion.

For the sake of limiting the size of this post, I will omit all thinkers before the late 19th C. when liberal and evangelical theologians began to diverge sharply in methodology, at the least.  (This means I’ll need another post on Voices from the Reformation to the late 19th C. Sigh.)  I will include some (not all) of those otherwise  classified as “Neo-Orthodox” or “Post-Liberal.” I no longer find either term especially useful.

I. “Non-Conservative” Evangelical Dialogue Partners No Longer Living.

  • Karl Barth (1886-1968). Arguably the most important theologian since the Reformation and EASILY the most important theologian of the 20th C.  Raised in the household of a conservative Swiss Reformed pastor, Barth studied with the great 19th C. German liberals and initially was one of them–but rejected their entire program when he saw almost every professor he knew sign a statement in support of the Kaiser’s war aims at the beginning of WWI. This crisis in faith led him to rediscover the Reformers (especially Calvin), the Church Fathers, and the “strange new world within the Bible.”  Barth was almost the first theologian I read when I started trying to read serious theology. (I think I first encountered him through the essays in The Word of God and the Word of Man and then in Evangelical Theology.) Eventually, in seminary, I would study with David L. Mueller, a brilliant Barth scholar who published much less than I wish he had.  I took his Barth seminar and we read most of The Church Dogmatics–Barth’s unfinished masterpiece which is sprawling and not without its faults, but attempts to think through everything from the standpoint of God’s freedom to love the world and humanity through Christ.  I have not remained everywhere a Barthian–I especially find his reworked divine command ethics to be greatly wanting–but my view of Scripture remains thoroughly Barthian and my Christology at least largely so. I thought Barth should have taken the plunge to embrace pacifism (he hovered at the edge), but appreciate his caution on universal salvation. Like Barth, I WANT to be a universalist, but I have a real sense of God’s judgment on an unjust world.  See further The Karl Barth Society of North America and the Center for Barth Studies.  
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) unites life, faith, and theology in a way that convinces me over and over again of the reality of God in Jesus Christ.  A German pastor from a secular university family, who himself encountered Barth in his studies, Bonhoeffer was a major figure in the church struggle against Naziism as well as one of the plots against Hitler–despite having described himself as a pacifist.  Nachfolge  -badly translated as The Cost of Discipleship–(See Discipleship in the new Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works, English Edition, for a much better translation.) laid the basis for my first sermon at 19, “Are You Prepared to Live or Die for the One Who Died for You.” (Bonhoeffer is great. I can’t vouch for my teenaged sermon all these years later!) He began my lifelong wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount in a world of war, street violence, injustice, domestic violence,  economic violence, and terrorism.  Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall allowed me to read Genesis theologically–without needing stupidities such as “creation science” or “intelligent design.”  His Christ the Center continues to orient my Christology and his Life Together ended the individualism of my ecclesiology. I wrestle with many great concepts in the unfinished Ethics, but find the result (perhaps because it  was never finished) to be unsatisfying in several places, but Letters and Papers from Prison continues to serve me as a better devotional guide than most books on “spirituality.”  As a pacifist, I disagree with Bonhoeffer’s participation in an attempt to assassinate Hitler, though Bonhoeffer himself didn’t know one end of a gun from another–but even more do I dislike the way many war-loving Christians (and violence prone Christians) have used Bonhoeffer as an excuse–never wrestling with his assertions that there were no exceptions to the ban on killing and that those involved in the plot would have to deal with both God’s judgment and mercy.  Here, Bonhoeffer was more honest than Barth–not seeking some general Grenzfall or emergency escape clause from the call to nonviolence–honestly seeing the desperate plot against Hitler not as a “lesser evil,” much less a real good, but as a failure to find another way that was more faithful to Christ.  See further, the  International Bonhoeffer Society.
  • Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), the greatest theologian of the Social Gospel, certainly had one foot in liberalism–especially having been influenced by Albrecht Ritschl.  But he remained an evangelical and is still a prophet of Christian work for social justice.
  • Dale Moody (1915-1992) the Texas Baptist giant.  Moody was raised in a fundamentalist setting (combining elements of dispensationalism, free-will Arminianism, and semi-pentecostalism) that could not contain him. A genius I.Q. had this dirt poor farm boy memorizing the Greek New Testament as he plowed the field.  Educated at Baylor University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, and Regent’s Park College, Oxford, Moody became the second Protestant and first Baptist to lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome.  An eclectic thinker who once spent a sabbatical living with Emil Brunner in Zurich while commuting daily to Basel to hear Barth lecture, Moody came even more under the influence of Oscar Cullmann and the “Biblical Theology Movement.” Moody’s systematic, The Word of Truth, was an attempt to  do biblical theology AS systematic theology.  It doesn’t entirely work–but where it breaks  down, it usually gives hints at  the way forward.  Moody’s major influence on me was to reinforce my view that Baptist biblicism could be completely united with critical scholarship and ecumenical concerns.
  • Letty Russell (1916-2007) was one of the first women ordained in the United Presbyterian Church, ancester body to today’s Presbyterian Church, USA.  She served for years as one of the pastors of East Harlem Protestant Parish, and taught theology at Yale University Divinity School.  She was a major voice in ecumenical studies and in connecting first world movements for social justice to those in the Third World.  A product of the encounter of Barth and Moltmann with feminism and liberation movements, Russell was a pioneer in feminist biblical studies and feminist theology.  I encountered Russell’s work thanks to my own feminist theology mentor, Molly Marshall (now  President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary).
  • John Howard Yoder  (1927-1997).  The most important Anabaptist theologian since Menno Simons, it is not true that Yoder’s writings convinced me of gospel nonviolence/Christian pacifism. But his The Politics of Jesus (1972, rev. 1997) was the first theological reflection I read after becoming a pacifist and leaving the U.S. army as a conscientious objector. Yoder CEMENTED my Christian pacifism (c. 1983).  I have written deeply on his influence elsewhere.  As I predicted at John’s funeral, many secondary studies of Yoder have begun to emerge. Most have serious flaws.  I do recommend two secondary studies as showing particular insight, however:  Mark Theissen Nation, John Howard Yoder:  Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions. Eerdmans, 2005 (which is the long awaited publication of Mark’s Ph.D. dissertation done at Fuller Theological Seminary) and Earl Zimmerman, Practicing the Politics of Jesus:  The Origin and Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics. Cascadia, 2007.  I also recommend both these Festschriften or books of celebratory essays, Stanley Hauerwas, Chris K. Huebner, Harry J. Huebner, and Mark Theissen Nation, eds., The Wisdom of the Cross:  Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder. Eerdmans, 1999 and Ben Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds., A Mind Patient and Untamed:  Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking. Cascadia Publishing House, 2004.

II. Living Dialogue Partners in Wider Evangelicalism

  • Juergan Moltmann (1926-).  A German Reformed theologian who has been in major dialogue with Mennonite scholars, Latin American liberation theologians, feminist and Black Liberation theologies, Moltmann has greatly modified my Barthianism.  During my first semester of seminary, I read Moltmann’s The Crucified God (1972, ET, 1974)–and would never be the same.  For one thing, although  I have always believed in the Trinity (because the alternatives, tri-theism or modalism, were so bad), I never gave it much thought. But in The Crucified God, Moltmann shows that only the Trinity can adequately deal with Jesus’ crucifixion–and so it has been central to my theology ever since.  Second, Moltmann made  me a profoundly eschatological thinker because he showed me that eschatology was not escape from social  action.  Third, despite his Reformed viewpoint, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Moltmann reinforced by Free Church (baptist) ecclesiology–and made me a “near Pentecostal.”  Most importantly, Moltmann made me a liberation theologian. I had already read Gustavo Gutierrez and recognized the importance of liberation theology–but Moltmann showed me that I could be a liberation theologian in a First World context.  Moltmann had been drafted into the German army in 1944, and surrendered to the first British soldier he saw 6 months later, and spent time in a prison in England, not repatriated until 1948. I have never known  whether this former prisoner of war completely embraced pacifism (his statements seem ambiguous), but he reinforced my own commitment to gospel nonviolence.  He also showed me how to be an ecological theologian without embracing some “New Age” nonsense like Matthew Fox.
  • Stanley Hauerwas (1940-) is the greatest living theologian in the U.S.  He grew up in a blue-collar evangelical United Methodist home in Texas and went to Yale Divinity School (and is still angry about Yale).  At Yale, James Gustafson mal-formed Hauerwas’ view of the work of H. Richard Niebuhr.  Despite Yale, Hauerwas somehow came under the influence of Karl Barth, interested in work on the virtues (which led to dialogue with Catholics for the rest of his career), and narrative theology. Teaching at Notre Dame, he encountered John Howard Yoder and, against his will, almost, became converted to Christian pacifism.  He has spent most of his life teaching at Duke University Divinity School weaving these various influences together–and leading a one-person charge against Enlightenment modernism, against democratic liberalism (thinking wrongly that Yoder iss completely on his side there) and insisting that the church become, once more, a counter-cultural community (he’s right about that part).  I have a love-hate relationship with Hauerwas.  When he’s wrong, he’s very wrong, but when he’s right, he’s excellent. Because he writes “combat theology”–with passion and fury–he’s often sloppy and makes what I consider to be large mistakes. But he gets more right by accident than most do on purpose.  Siblings often fight more than strangers. 
  • Walter Brueggeman (no dates found) is a retired Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), and a minister in the United Church of Christ, having previously taught at Eden Theological Seminary.  Educated in the “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr, Brueggemann has been brought into a counter-cultural evangelicalism by Scripture itself.  He is the most fascinating and provocative OT scholar living.  The Word comes alive with Brueggemann and he  sees all of it as relevant for re-shaping the church in  a profoundly pagan, post-Christian world.  Influenced both by Karl Barth and by German critical scholarship, Brueggemann is good at making people uncomfortable with the Word.  My teacher, John D. W. Watts, a brilliant Old Testament scholar in his own right, assigned me Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination and I’ve never been the same–and a good deal of disposable income has gone toward purchasing many of Brueggemann’s books.
  • J. Deotis Roberts( 1927-) is often overshadowed among Black Liberation theologians by James H. Cone, the other pioneer in the field, but in my humble opinion (as a white dude), Roberts is by far the better theologian.  He combines traditional (evangelical) Black Church theology with classic philosophical training and a very wide ranging ecumenical and multi-cultural engagement.  His contention that liberation and reconciliation must be worked on together has made many think him “less radical” than Cone, but it seems to me that it simply makes him more thoroughly gospel-centered.
  • Desmond Tutu (1931-) retired Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa and former Primate of the Province of Southern Africa (now called the Anglican Church of South Africa), the Most Rev. Tutu came to prominence during the struggle against apartheid as a leader in the nonviolent church struggle against white oppression.  Since the end of apartheid, Tutu has led the South African Commission on Truth and Reconciliation and continued to be a global worker for justice and peace. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.  I have found his theological works, particularly Hope and Suffering and No Future without Forgiveness to be deeply moving.
  • N. T. Wright (1948-). Nicholas Thomas (“Tom”) Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, is one of the finest New Testament scholars living.  Since I had already encountered the “new perspective on Paul” through others and not found it controversial, I have most been influenced by Wright as a Jesus scholar.  I have said more about this here.  I’d also like to recommend the online N. T. Wright page
  • Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel (1926-) was the second woman (the first single woman) to receive a doctorate in theology from the University of Gottingen–a year before her fellow student and soon husband, Jurgen Moltmann.  She has been a pioneer in feminist theology. I have especially enjoyed I Am My Body (a theological anthropology) and Rediscovering Friendship as well as The Women Around Jesus.
  • Nancey Murphy( no dates found) is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Church  of the Brethren.  Raised Catholic, she has a B.A. in physics from Creighton University and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science from the University of California at Berkeley.  She has a Th.D. in Modern Theology from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley where she met her late husband, James McClendon (see above). She has become a major voice in the dialogue between science and theology, and is a feminist pacifist theologian.  She has been a devastating critic of the “Intelligent Design” movement  and a major voice in showing how different fields require different canons of reason. She has tried to rework Yoder’s thought into an overall ontology–something Yoder himself resisted.
  • Willard Swartley (no dates found) is Professor Emeritus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and also a former dean of the school. He is a brilliant NT professor whose work  has encompassed hermeneutics, interaction with the anthropology of Rene Girard, editing a dialogue between Mennonites and Juergan Moltmann, and a huge amount on the theme of peace within Scripture. He also has written on homosexuality and hermeneutics, where I find him less helpful.
  • J. Denny Weaver (no dates found) is Professor  of Religion Emeritus at Bluffton College, a Mennonite liberal arts college in Bluffton, OH.  He is probably the most important Mennonite theologian since John Howard Yoder. He advances Yoder and the Anabaptists into the post-modern context.  Especially helpful to me is Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement which argues for a narrative reworking of Christus Victor as an atonement theology which is not at odds with the commitment to nonviolence of the NT.  Weaver objects to those theologies which, while claiming that Christians must commit to nonviolence, ultimately have a violent view of God.
  • Paul Fiddes (1947-) is a British Baptist theologian, formerly Principal of Regent’s Park College and a Professor of Systematic Theology, Oxford University.  In conversation with Moltmann and with liberation theologies, Fiddes has written some profound works that explicate the heart of the gospel, including: Past Event and  Present Salvation; The Creative Suffering of God; Participating in God:  A Pastoral Theology of the Trinity; Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology; Reflections on the Water; and Under the Rule of Christ:  Dimensions of Baptist Spirituality.
  • Walter Wink (1935-) is a United Methodist theologian and Professor Emeritus at Auburn Theological Seminary in NY.  A New Testament theologian and committed pacifist, Wink has one foot in the liberal tradition (including membership in the Jesus Seminar), but was profoundly influenced by the biblical witness of the Episcopal lay theologian William Stringfellow–and through Stringfellow, Jacques Ellul, Karl Barth, and John Howard Yoder.  Wink is most famous for his work on the Powers in NT theology and their implications for contemporary church life–in which he proposes not simply capitulation or resistance, but engagement, holding out hope even for the redemption of the Powers.  Wink has also been a strong voice for full  GLBT inclusion in the church.
  • Thomas Oden (1931-) is a United Methodist theologian who, during the 1960s and 1970s, poured himself wholeheartedly into every new theologically liberal fad that came along. Burned out by that experience, he reclaimed his faith from the brink of extinction by rediscovery of the the ancient church theologians, the Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church from the post-apostolic era to Chalcedon.  Thus, Oden proposed a return to orthodoxy, but not “neo-orthodoxy,” but paleo-orthodoxy–including a recapture of pre-critical exegesis and an immersion in the consensus theology of the early Church before the split into East and West. He has been also rediscovering Wesley and classic, pre-Freud resources for pastoral care.  There is much in Oden’s work I like, including the dismissal of inerrancy as a modern doctrine (it is) and immersion in the work of the Church Fathers (and Mothers).  But Oden is a dialogue partner and not a mentor because he seems to see theology as an ivory tower existence–in overreaction to his earlier faddish social activism.  Let me put if provocatively:  Stanley Hauerwas has often been accused of having a “separationist” or “withdrawal from culture” ethic or ecclesiology.  While I think this is a misreading of Hauerwas (a fairer charge would be that those with a tendency toward withdrawal ethics take too much comfort from overly quick readings of Hauerwas’ work), it strikes me as right on the money concerning Oden–which seems odd in an heir of John Wesley whose passion against slavery and against oppression of the poor are a matter of record.  Then, too, paleo-orthodoxy strikes me as “fossilized theology.” Like it or not, each age, each cultural context, brings new questions to the tasks of theology that cannot be ignored–although they need not be capitulated to and certainly one might want to address those questions with voices from the far past and not just the recent past.  Immersion in Christian classics is never a bad thing–but I don’t see enough in Oden of turning from that immersion back to the world.
  • Justo Gonzalez (no dates found) is one of the best church historians and historical theologians living. In his work, I find exactly what I am missing with Oden, the relation of all that went before, and a global  awareness of the multicultural church, to today’s questions. (Interestingly, I saw a panel once on “post-modern theologies” which agreed that Gonzalez and Yoder, who were both present, were not post-modern precisely because they had never bought into Enlightenment modernity. Thus, they were not in wholehearted rejection of the Enlightenment,either. )
  • Richard B. Hays (no dates found) is a United Methodist theologian and a New Testament scholar at Duke University Divinity School, previously having taught at his alma mater,  Yale.  Hays began as primarily a Pauline scholar, especially engaging the wok of E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn.  But his fame (and infamy) came with the publication of his The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Cross, Community, New Creation a contemporary work in New Testament ethics. In scope it is the most powerful work of its kind currently in print.  I loved his defense of Christian pacifism and of sharing possessions, the equality of the sexes, and much else. My disagreement with Hays over same-sex matters (excellent exegesis, but hermeneutics that are inconsistent with his principles and practice throughout the rest of the book) has been well aired on this blog in the series on GLBT inclusion in the church. (It was painful. I like Hays’ work and I didn’t want to be that critical publicly.)
  • Miroslav Volf(1956-) is a Croatian by birth and ordained in the Evangelical Church of Croatia, though now a member of the Episcopal Church, USA.  He is a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. A former doctoral student of Juergan Moltmann and a former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.  Volf is immensely helpful in theological reflection on the pain and tragedy of the world.  His Exclusion and Embrace written in Los Angeles in the wake of the riots after the aquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, and written while the massacres in the former Yugoslavia were still happening, argues profoundly for Christians as peacemakers in this world–but disturbingly does so by projecting vengeance onto God.  (Volf’s views are the kind that disturb Denny Weaver.) He has moved further in his reflections on nonviolence since 9/11 and the declaration of a “global war on terrorism.” 

I could add others to this list, including Gabriel Fackre, the late Hans Frei, the late Jaroslav Pelikan, the late Orlando Costas,  but these are my major dialogue partners in “wider evangelical circles” except for my personal teachers, but I have spoken elsewhere of the influence of my teachers Glen Stassen, Molly T. Marshall,  Dan R. Stiver, and –in my posting on conservative evangelicals, of Craig Blomberg and George R. Beasley-Murray.  I think the next installment in this series will focus on Catholic dialogue partners, both ancient and contemporary.

August 23, 2009 Posted by | autobiography, theology, tradition | 11 Comments