A response: a crisis of relevance?

The following began as a comment responding to the comments made by others to my previous post. At the end, I decided this was too important not to publish as a separate post.


A very stimulating conversation!

First, I must concur with Kim on the very poor judgments made thus far about Barth. If it hasn't been said a thousand times already, let me just reiterate: Barth saw himself thinking theologically in, with, and for the church. Any attempt to place a wedge between Barth and the church is doing great violence to Barth.

That said, I will not dispute the point made that there has been a great shift from pastor/bishop-theologians to professor-theologians. This is, in fact, a central critique of my own. I believe this is a major issue that the church needs to address. But rather than denigrating the professors, churches need to start actively cultivating a theologically rich environment where such thinking may take place. Theologians are more or less bound to the academic structures in place, but that does not preclude churches from creating an environment ripe for theological education.

The question, it seems, is this: Do churches actually care about theology? Let's put aside the possible counter-claim that there are no good theologians who are seeking to benefit the church. Why put this aside? Because if there were no such theologians, and churches really cared, then not only would the uproar from the Christian communities be a sufficient rebuke of the present-day theologians, but it would also create an environment where theologians could organically arise from within these communities. So I do not think the issue is whether or not theologians exist who seek to write for the church. The burden of proof, it seems to me, rests on the churches. The Christian communities of America and elsewhere need to prove that theology is actually a concern for them. As its stands, I am not convinced that it is.

Or ... and this only underscores my point: these churches do not know what theology actually is, and so the work of Lewis passes for dogmatics, or the work of Borg passes for NT scholarship—just as the books of Dan Brown pass for historically accurate fiction.

It seems to me that Thomas and Miner have set up the following hypothetical scenario: An average lay person (whoever that is!) has two books in her hand. One book is Barth's Dogmatics in Outline and the other is Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. She looks inside the former, and after reading the first chapter on dogmatics as a science, she decides to check out Warren's book. Opening that one, she reads about things that seem relevant to her, like the search for meaning in life. So she puts Barth's book back on the shelf and buys the other more relevant book instead.

This scenario, I suggest, is nonsense—the technical term is actually “bullshit,” but I like to keep potentially offensive words to a minimum. This “crisis of relevance” assumes that people are knowledgeable about the current writers and thinkers, but they are simply going with the ones that seem “relevant” to their daily lives. But this is utter nonsense. Most people have no idea who Barth is, but that is not because Barth is irrelevant. Such a statement could only be made by people who already know of and have read Barth, and yet find him difficult. In other words, the “relevance” position is an elitist position already! Barth is not irrelevant—and any sympathetic reader of Barth would argue to their death to the contrary; rather, he is off the radar. Barth is just not one of the options. To the average person, he never even existed!

The “crisis of relevance” is a red herring. The “crisis of knowledge” is the more basic and more important one. Relevancy is the idol of the “postmodern” church. The word “relevancy” is like the word “authentic”: both are sexy words people throw around for the purpose of making arbitrary distinctions between “relevant” and “irrelevant,” between “authentic” and “inauthentic.” But relevant to whom? And inauthentic according to what criteria? Is anyone asking these basic questions??

Are there problems with people writing and speaking to their own academic choir? Of course. I think people in the Radical Orthodox camp are especially guilty of this, though they are first guilty for producing poor theology. And, in fact, let me suggest something here: I am willing to stake my career on the assertion that “good theology” (theology that is concerned about nothing except being faithful to the word of the gospel) will be, by its very nature, helpful and profitable for the church. When theology attends to the Word of God, it will also by definition attend to the church. If such theology appears “irrelevant” and “foreign,” then such theology stands as a judgment on the community of faith for veering away from the Word of God.

Good theology will always call us back to the gospel, and that means it will often come to us as a word of judgment. That is, good theology functions like good preaching: as a prophetic voice of judgment and grace. Is a word of judgment ever “relevant”? Is a sermon about our sinfulness ever “relevant”? Will a dogmatics that denies the ability for humans to attain salvation through their good deeds ever be popular? Can a book of theology or a series of sermons that places a claim upon our lives ever be a best seller or be “seeker-friendly”?

One such judgment that I think theology can and should make is the judgment that churches today have simply grown lazy and fat when it comes to the life of the mind. Why must Christians give their very best in music, web design, and all the other things people like nowadays, but when it comes to engaging the mind and educating people in the church theologically, we just don't care? Is it because theology today doesn't care about the church, or because the church just doesn't care about theology? I think the latter. And I believe we will have to answer to God for why we were not more concerned about this during our lifetime.

We should not expect theologians to meet us on our level. This is the cry of a lazy church. We must seek to cultivate ecclesial communities that push, challenge, and provoke the theologians! The church ought to be setting the parameters for the issues theologians need to explore. In the early church, arguments within the churches provoked theologians to think critically in response. The closest thing to that now is the debates over homosexuality. Issues of dogmatics are simply ignored altogether. Churches today are simply a watered down form of Schleiermacherianism, in which personal experience is the beginning and the end of religion. But while Schleiermacher wanted religion to be the basis for knowledge and ethics, Christians today want religion apart from knowledge and ethics! This is a travesty!

In the end, the best thing the church can do for the health of theology and for its own health is to ensure and affirm the freedom of theology. We need to preserve a space (ideally within the church) for theologians to engage the important dogmatic issues of the day in faithful response to the Word of God that is heard and preached in the worshiping community. The church must not demand relevancy from theologians, in the same way—and this is a critical comparison!—that the world must not demand relevancy from the church. The moment we give in to the idol of relevancy, we forsake our identity as the people of God. At that point, not only theology but Christian faith itself is simply a waste of time.


The Miner said…

First of all let me say that all my comments are written with respect. I wouldn't be disagreeing with you if I didn't think you were worth debating with. Neither at any point have I intended to slight theologians of any stripe (least of all Barth, one of my personal idols). What I do see us contending over is a very broad and generalized (and therefore flawed) diagnosis of the situation in the church regarding intellectual forms of theology.

First of all you conflate popularity and relevance in your example. No, of course, people aren't giving Barth and Warren the same reading and then opting for Warren. Other factors come into play here, like marketing, readability, trends etc.. I am not suggesting that just because a writer is popular that they are good. However, you seem to dismiss out of hand writers like Warren who are having a big impact on the church by criteria that most people simply don't accept. There is no inherent reason why Barth or Moltmann or Pannenberg or Jenson or Tillich or Neibuhr are superior to Warren or anyone else out there that you would categorize as "popular".

Nor do people read Lewis as a substitute for dogmatics. They don't need dogmatics at all! They read Lewis because he reaches them, he makes sense.

It seems to me that when you say the church is ignorant of theology you have a very restrictive view of "theology", which is unjustified. Jesus didn't do dogmatics. The NT isn't a systematic theology. Paul was not a systematic theologian. No one in the early church was particularly concerned with systematic theology or dogma. Nor for the rest of Church history has dogmatics always been the dominant (or even a major) voice in theology. Therefore, it is a bit strange to suggest that the church will be unhealthy if it doesn't support the "freedom of theology", which is an idea that is entirely humanist and alien to the church. Theology exists for the service of the church it must NOT be "free" in the typical ivory tower academic sense.

Yes, relevancy can become an idol. No it is not the ultimate determining factor. But intellectual freedom is just as likely to become an idol and it is more dangerous because it does not exist in service to anyone or anything except itself. It is just silly to say that relevancy isn't a fair demand and very alien to the gospel in my opinion. Jesus does nothing, but try and make his message relevant to people's daily lives. He tells parables and uses examples that are right out of daily existence. Paul gives eminently practical advice to his parishioners. Calvin was an ethicist par excellance. The moment you stop asking how and where the gospel touches down in everyday experience is the moment you are no longer preaching the gospel. It is about transforming THIS world afterall.

The question to be asking is not how we can get more people to be reading Barth, but how we can get more people to think and act theologically on their own - living out the gospel whether or not they understand it exactly as Barth did.
The Miner said…
Sorry to be so verbose, but one other comment - partially in response to Kim's note in the last post.

Please do not assume that I mean that theologians should start talking down to parishioners. Yes, Paul used complex scriptural allusions and frequent vague mixed metaphors. Yes he presumed much of his audience. But he also gave direct advice, which was clearly intelligible. He also was speaking to a particular crowd and he addressed them. Part of the problem may be that most theologians simply aren't addressing the church - they're addressing other theologians. Even putting it in terms of up and down as though theologians would "condescend" to speak to parishioners or parishioners would "rise" to the challenge of reading theology is misguided.

We are not gnostics. Theologians are not in possession of secret knowledge which others need. It is a conversation of equals or it is a waste of time.
kim fabricius said…
As Barth himself would say, David, "Well roared, lion!"

On relevance, I don't think any of the people the Miner mentions - including our Lord - tried to make the gospel relevant. The gospel itself determines what is and is not relevant. What they tried to do was to make the gospel intelligible.

My own view is that the reason why the best-sellers are best-sellers is that they make the gospel easy - even Lewis. (By the way, as the appendix of The Existence of God As Confessed by Faith (1964) by Barth's student Helmut Gollwitzer, there is an interesting little book review called, precisely, "Christianity Made Easy" on J.A.T. Robinson's baleful best-selling Honest to God - which of course became so popular because of its - relevance!)
kim fabricius said…
Oh - I should have added that the urgent need in our churches today - and there is nothing elitist about it - is for them to become cultures of learning.
The Miner said…
I've extended the conversation over to my own blog and quoted you, David.

Kim - you're right to say that relevant is something the gospel is not something we make it. It is not as though we are talking about multiple gospels. However, preaching the gospel is a contextual act. It is not done in a vaccuum and it matters WHO you are talking TO, not just what you are saying. Calvin talks a lot about "accomodation" to mean just this. It is always God who accomodates to us not the other way around and without that accomodation the gospel isn't even possible.
Shane said…
Just some thoughts from someone who has worried a lot about the 'relevance' of his philosophical education.

One of the quirks of the graduate program I now attend is their (insane) desire for philosophers to be able to communicate with ordinary people. For example for one of my finals, the largest question (which was worth 30% of my overall grade for the class by itself) was: "Explain Gödel's second incompleteness theory to your grandmother (1 page)."

At the time this question nearly gave me a heart attack, but in retrospect, I've come to appreciate it. Whenever I am writing a paper or preparing for an exam, I always have this fear in the back of my mind that I'm going to be called upon to explain it to my grandmother. Perhaps this would be a salutary thing for young theologians also to keep in the back of their minds, especially the ones bound toward pastoral ministry.

The other things I've been trying to do to keep my writing style clear and understandable is to spend as much time as possible reading those writers who manage the communication between the two cultures without watering down the academic content but also without relapsing into obscurantist jargon. (Right now I'm head over heels in love with Johnathan Lear's "Aristotle: The Desire to Understand". Last night his description of Aristotelian psychology gave me wood.)
WTM said…
It should be noted that in the theological / ecclesial landscape of the United States after 1930, “academic” theology increasingly betrayed the church. Union theological seminary is a fine example of this – once a Presbyterian school with significant funding coming from churches and Christians. As the century progressed and the theology being done at Union became increasingly liberal – and the pastors they turned out became increasingly so as well – Union, its graduates and faculty because less and less interested in the theological questions that mattered to the congregations it at one time served: what is sin? whence comes our salvation? what does Jesus tell us about God? how can I get to know this Jesus?

As the century progressed, those congregations served by ministers from Union (and other like institutions) gradually stopped asking these questions in favor of other questions. This is not to say that the people started asking different questions – those who asked the first set of questions simply died or moved on to a place where their questions could be answered in a fashion. But, to make a long story short, Union is no longer a denominational school, has very little ecclesial funding, has been forced to sell its library, and no longer holds a place of prominence in the world of theological education in the USA.

Now, take Princeton Theological Seminary as a counter example. Although PTS at times drifted in similar directions – especially during the 1970’s and early 1980’s – PTS has retained close ties to the PCUSA, has a large number of “evangelicals” in attendance, is concerned about dogmatic theology, and is STILL a widely respected academic institution. Church funding remains in place, the library continues to expand, etc. I credit the neo-orthodox movement, which was very strongly represented at PTS in the middle of the 20th century, with this state of affairs (a state which is, by the way, threatened presently by the curriculum review underway). Neo-orthodoxy, fed in no small part by Barthian theology, provided a way for professors and seminarians to continue talking about Scripture and seeking answers to the basic Christian questions.

What does all this mean? It means that as much as the church in the United States has rejected academic theology, we really cannot blame them. Academic theology has, by and large, betrayed the churches. But, this does not excuse the churches from their continued rejection. Because the churches rejected academic theology, they have built up their own hopelessly theologically impoverished “theologies”, and are therefore unable to recognize the Gospel in the work of a new crop of dogmatic theologians.

This forces a choice upon these young ecclesially minded theologians - do I want to be an ‘evangelical’ among liberals, or a liberal among ‘evangelicals’? I can testify from personal experience that the former is the easier route. Until this changes, I don’t see how we can have progress in the integration of academic theology and churches. Certain theological, cultural, and ‘other’ idols must fall before this reunion can take place.
D.W. Congdon said…

I do believe you are entirely wrong on this. Kim beat me to it, but let me just state it again: there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that relevancy, of all things, was on their mind!

But perhaps we are speaking past each other. It seems that, for you, this debate between relevancy-irrelevancy is really a debate between what matters for our lives and what does not matter. If this is the dichotomy you have in mind, then let me assure you, all of the theologians working today who are worth their salt (and there are many who are not!) believe that what they are writing has importance for our lives. If you wish to argue that this is not the case, then perhaps we need to address some specific theologians or books or concepts that you find to be "irrelevant."

My contention is that the church is just as much to blame for the current state of affairs as the academy. If the academy has become more abstracted from daily life, then the church has become more abstracted from the world of learning and the life of the mind. This is a two-way street. The church, unfortunately, reflects the culture at large — in which entertainment reigns, not the cultivation of arts and learning. The church ought to be the vanguard, pushing our society forward rather than simply mirroring what is around us.

I think you must fail to realize what you are saying when you deny the "freedom of theology." The freedom of theology is NOT the freedom of the academy. It is the freedom of theology to speak according to the gospel without being hindered by any external demands. In other words, it is the freedom of the OT prophet. It is the freedom of the apostle. It should also be the freedom of the preacher. The freedom of theology is similar, except that it is concerned with the divine calling to explicate and define our knowledge of God and ourselves in light of the Word of God. Theology is not primarily concerned with the people in the pews. That is the concern -- the "freedom," so to speak -- of the preacher. The theologian serves the preacher and the church by clarifying our theological knowledge in strict adherence to the claims of the gospel.

If we were to demand that the theologians meet people in the their particular Sitz im Leben, then we would end up giving theologians a starting-point outside of the Word of God! This is precisely the failure of contextual theology. As much as I appreciate some of the insights of feminist, African-American, Latino, etc. theologies, they are finally secondary in nature and potentially idolatrous, precisely because their starting-point is human experience, not in the Word of God. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, for example, says explicitly that we need to discard the Bible for human experience as our theological starting-point. I believe that you are asking for precisely the same thing when you ask for relevance.

In the end, I do not believe I am unfair when I say that all "relevant" writers begin with human experience. Is this important at times? Sure. But it's not proper theology. And let me state for the record, the Bible does not begin with human experience; it begins with the self-revelation of God.
I agree with much of this comment. Although I find much of value in Borg (and also much with which to disagree), I am not happy that very few in my congregation (or others with which I am familiar) are interested in serious theology, whether Barth or Moltmann or even N. T. Wright.

Unfortunately, for most in the churches, their eyes glaze over whenever anyone talks about serious theology. I HAVE been able to import some into sermons, but not in getting folks interested in serious theological study.

It's sad, but I don't know what to do about it.
Shane said…
I think the tridentine catholics had it right:
"What do laypeople need to believe?"

"Whatever the magisterium tells them to."

As it turns out, Luther did make the plowboy in the fields read the Bible. Unfortunately, it made the plowboy think that Luther was pretty much irrelevant and unimportant.

Shane said…
And Luther would have been irrelevant, even if he had a mohawk, earring, tattoos, played electric guitar and changed the elements of the eucharist to doritos and mountain dew.

I reject WTM's characterization of things. First of all, evangelicals are AT LEAST as guilty as liberals of betraying the gospel. Producing liberal vs. evangelical pastors is no guide AT ALL as to whether such a pastor gives much theological meat to the church s/he serves. Second, Union had some of the best theology of the middle 3rd of the 20th C. in America.

There are liberal seminaries that have completely lost their way--University of Chicago Div. School comes quickly to mind (whereas it was once so vital). But, for my money, what happens at Westminster Theological Seminary or Dallas or several other conservative evangelical places I could name is AT LEAST as useless to the theological life of churches as anything that happens in a typical "liberal seminary."
WTM said…
The schools of which you speak being relatively new, or generally existing in the wake of the great disturbance at PTS in the 1920’s, I take your post – Michael – as a confirmation of my own. You’ll note that I wrote:

“Because the churches rejected academic theology, they have built up their own hopelessly theologically impoverished “theologies”, and are therefore unable to recognize the Gospel in the work of a new crop of dogmatic theologians.”

This includes, of course, institutions. And, when I point out that the churches are deficient in these areas, I highly doubt that you can make stick the notion that I am simply advocating for “evangelical” schools against “liberal” schools. I myself am a student at PTS, a school that most “evangelicals” consider to be liberal. Furthermore, I have recently applied to programs at Harvard and Union (NY).

Furthermore, I did not cast my post in evangelical vs. liberal terms. I mentioned “evangelicals” in attendance at PTS, and I spoke of the plight of those young theologians who are forced to choose between two enemies. Besides, I would direct you to the first post on my own blog if you care to learn what my definition of “evangelical” is – you may be surprised.

My point is simply that academic theology in the United States first abandoned the churches, even if the churches are to blame for perpetuating the situation.
Anonymous said…
i would earnestly say here that "relevancy" was not a word i ever used in this context. Barth, by his own admission, was not writing for the person in the pew. this is not, for me, any reason to care less about him; it does not denigrate him; it is not a criticism. it is simply an explanation: if the person in the pew has not heard of Barth and has not read him, it may be because the person in the pew was never Barth's audience in the first place.

i challenge the protestant assumption that theology (of the sort we are talking about) is something every Christian ought to be concerned with. so when is see that most people are unconcerned with it, i do not see a problem; i see things as they are. it does not bother me that most Christians have little taste for what Barth writes (for whatever reason) or have never heard of him; it also does not bother me that most people have never read Kant or Hume—and i am an academic philosopher. the world would be sadly impoverished without theologians and philosophers, but not because everyone must be reading and caring about them. in the grand scheme of things, they are far less important than justice and mercy and the weighter matters of the law.

the hypothetical situation you describe is, in fact, exactly what i have in mind, but unlike you, i do not see it as a problem. it is just a fact. (though i would put new seeds of contemplation perhaps against dogmatics in outline; let's at least have something good in each genre to compare.)

i do not think that Barth should be any different than he is; merely that the reason he is not read as much as, say, Merton, is that he has a different audience. i, for my part, would not want to give up either.
Anonymous said…
Theologians are more or less bound to the academic structures in place, but that does not preclude churches from creating an environment ripe for theological education.

the last part of this, i agree to with unhesitating assent. the first part is, i submit, nonsense (or that other fancy Harry Frankfurt term you used), with all due respect.

since theology does not require the academy, theologians are not bound to academic structures. moreover, the faculty at every institution of higher education i have ever been associated with possess tremendous power—though they usually prefer not to exercise it, remaining a slumbering giant.

anglican theology has been particularly interesting for caring greatly about institutions of higher learning and theological education. figures such as Keble or Pusey came out of an academic context, but went "into the trenches" and it is there where they produced their best work.

i submit that if academic theologians feel themselves to be "bound" by these structures, they might seek for a different context in which to do theology. Augustine was a bishop and Bernard was an abbot. and let us not forget: it is not that they were bishops and abbots who said, "oh, i am now a leader in the church; i am supposed to care about theology"; it was that they were powerful intellectuals who said, "how can i best serve God?" and the answer was to become a bishop, or an abbot, and continue to do what Christian intellectuals often do: write theology.
D.W. Congdon said…

1. Theology is not something every Christian has to care about; theology is something every Christian cares about whether they want to or not! If you confess, Jesus is Lord, you have entered the realm of theology. Barth was right to demolish the distinction between clergy and layperson, between theologian and the "everyday" Christian. As Barth states without equivocation, all Christians are theologians. The reality of this only underscores the dual importance of (1) churches caring more about dogmatic theology, and (2) dogmatic theologians caring more about the church. The comparison between theology and philosophy in this regard demonstrates either a failure to understand what theology is about, or a capitulation to the definitions set by the modern academy.

2. Did you just say that Dogmatics in Outline is not a good book?? Shame on you! And to even harbor the thought that Merton is even close to Barth is validation of my entire complaint.

3. Theologians are not by definition bound to current academic structures, but they are almost by necessity. If all churches stepped up to the plate and financially supported the work of theologians, I think we live in a much healthier world. Unfortunately, churches with loads of cash spend it on sound systems, auditoriums, and entertainment facilities. Theology is abandoned altogether, even denigrated. The fact of the matter is: theologians are bound to the academy (at least initially) in order to establish themselves. If they want to get a book published, they have to prove their academic pedigree. This is just the reality of the world today. I see no reason to deny it.

Not all theologians are called to be pastors. Moreover, a lot less theology would be written if they all had to take care of a parish. Pastors today barely have time to keep up on their sermons, much less keep up on current theology. To add constructive work to this already burdensome situation would simply be too much. We live in a world in which the division of labor between theologian and pastor is necessary — not for all, but definitely for most.

Examples like Augustine and Bernard are simply irrelevant for our present context. And Keble and Pusey actually prove my point: they began in the academy, and it was only after starting there that they were able to move into pastoral work.
The Miner said…
I do think we are talking past each other a certain amount. Your definition of relevancy as "mattering for our lives" is essentially what I mean. The word relevant has become a buzz word that people react to either positively or negatively based on whether they consider themselves a part of the postmodern camp or not. My purpose here was not to take sides along ideological lines, but to say it is important that things matter for our daily lives. Things which don't matter will die out by default.

I don't disagree that theologians believe that what they are doing matters, but everyone believes their own enterprise is important. The verdict on "what matters" will ultimately be given by the spirit-filled church and not any individual school of theology, as it was with the ecumenical councils. Only those things that received broad acceptance in the church became creeds. All I'm suggesting is that theologians need to spend less time presuming that what matters to them and what they believe matters based on their own interpretation of the gospel is what is really important to God. They should be humble enough to approach people in the church and ask what matters to the people in the pew since it may very well be their concerns that are primary.

As you continue to elucidate your opinion I find that our basic disagreement probably spins around the definition of theology. Your position is that theology should matter to the church, but when you say that you have a very specific (too specific) idea of what theology is. You expect it to be Bible based, christocentric essentially "neo-orthodox" theology. So what you're really saying is "Why doesn't Neo-Orthodoxy matter to the Church?"

To me it seems that you are too quick to make judgments of value - so far you've denigrated liberation theology, feminist theology, latin-american, black, african or other contextual theologies, popular theologians like Warren and Lewis, New Testament scholars like Borg, monastics like Merton... on what basis can you possibly expect all of these people who are doing theology and who in various parts of the church ARE having an impact to accept that they have to do theology your way? If you can't see the value in what they are contributing to the church it is you who is impoverished not the people in the pew.

I wonder if you can hear the pre-existing theological perspective in statements like "beginning with human experience is not proper theology" or "the bible begins with the self-revelation of God". These are not neutral statements or truth or historically universal beliefs of the church. They belong to a very specific school of thought. ONE school of theological thought among many the church has spawned in its 2000 years. I could just as easily say the Bible begins as a political document. Or theology that starts anywhere but the tradition of the church is not proper theology.

The point is that it sounds to me like what you are lamenting is that more people in the pew don't think theologically the same way you do when there is absolutely no basis upon which you can claim to be doing theology "right".
The Miner said…
Just because this is a medium that is ripe for miscommunication and I want to be sure that no one feel attacked or belittled, though we disagree vigorously, allow me to reaffirm that I regard everyone in this conversation with respect bordering on admiration. If my words EVER seem harsh or personal please give me the benefit of the doubt that I meant something more compassionate than I said.
Anonymous said…
1. Anglicans say that the liturgy is "primary theology"; right at the beginning of CD, Barth says that dogmatics is one kind of theology among three. I agree that every Christian must be concerned with theology, for the reason that they already are, but I am quite convinced that not every Christian must be concerned with secondary theology (anglican term), or dogmatics (Barth's term). when you say that some kind of serious intellectual engagement is necessary for every Christian, you have unbaptized the three year olds, the mentally disabled, and plenty of other people.

2. No, I said that Warren's is not a good book. If you think that Merton is in the same land as Warren, I guess we have to disagree. But you can substitute any work of popular theology which you do think is good. Or are there really none?

3. I think you miss the point. The Church funds academic theology now far more than it did in the days of Augustine and Bernard. You don't have to be in the academy to do serious theology. I can attest, however, that in philosophy where the same thing is true, academic philosophers do often sneer at those who have other sources of income.

Let us not forget that there is a reason why academic pedigrees are necessary to get certain kinds of books published: because the academics who make the publishing decisions only value authors with academic pedigrees. ("Merton? Feh! He only had a BA!")

You say a lot about how this or that is "necessary", but I can only wonder, if it was necessary, why was it not necessary for, say, Augustine? Gregory? Bernard? Were there more hours in the day in the twelfth century? Maybe it's obvious to you what social changes make this impossible to day, but it isn't obvious to me what changes you think are the relevant ones here.

On the other hand, Anselm did his writing as an abbot; when he became an archbishop he no longer had the time.

I'm all for theological education, and I'm going to happily agree that the churches would do well to spend a lot more on it than they do now. You'll get no disagreement from me on that score.

I'm simply disagreeing with the claim that academics are somehow not responsible for their own situations.

I don't much care if "less theology" is written; what matters to me is only the quality. If there were one percent the current output, but it was of extraordinary quality, that would be a quite worthy trade in my opinion.

4: you had no (4), but i should. i want to stress here that i'm not trying to be vituperative or mean at all. you are raising, it seems to me, wonderful questions, and i find that i am agreeing with 90% of what you say. don't let my critical bent about the little bits make you think that i am not finding this fun and engaging; if it is not fun for you, let me know, because my only goal is for both to enjoy a fruitful conversation.
Anonymous said…
My contention is that the church is just as much to blame for the current state of affairs as the academy.

Ah! i missed this, and it helps me greatly. thanks for putting it down, because it helps me to see the ways we are talking past each other a bit.

i agree completely that it is a two-sided affair, and that responsibility for the "current state of affairs" lands squarely in both camps.

what i disagree about is that this "current state of affairs" is a bad thing, that it is lamentable. that is, it's the word blame that i take issue with.

the current state of affairs is, it seems to me, the state of affairs as it has been for an extremely long time, and is nothing to be lamented or regretted—or rejoiced in. it's just the way human beings are.

i wonder if you are harkening back to a golden age in which everyone did read the theological lights of the day. but i think that there never was such an age, and this makes me think that the present "state of affairs" is just one more aspect of the human condition.
D.W. Congdon said…

My apologies regarding Merton. I misread what you wrote; I thought you were replacing Barth with Merton. I entirely agree with you. Warren is no good, but I'm not sure how familiar the average evangelical is with Merton.

I'm a little confused about the distinction between primary and secondary theology. It seems like, as an Anglican, you are simply elevating Thomas Cramner as your primary theologian. But Cramner didn't make stuff out of the air. The BCP is entirely dependent upon what you call secondary theology. Similarly, the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox church is entirely dependent upon the "secondary" theology of the seven ecumenical councils. My point is this: the distinction between primary and secondary seems both arbitrary and misleading — arbitrary in that liturgy depends wholly upon prior dogmatic decisions, and misleading in that it gives the impression that Cramner is a theologian independent from those who came before him or that liturgy is theology independent from the dogmatic decisions upon which it is grounded.

It seems that the primary-secondary distinction is really just a way of justifying the neglect of "secondary" theology in the church. I realize that this is perhaps not what Anglicans intend, but I sense that such a distinction would lend itself to this kind of abuse.

Finally, I honestly believe that our modern situation is different enough from the ancient world that Augustine and the contemporary theologian are incommensurable. So what is necessary today may not have been necessary in the past.

That said, I agree with you that academics should be held responsible for failing to attend to the church. I have never disputed this point.

But you seem to imply that current theology lacks quality because it is not attentive to the needs of the church. I would disagree. There is some excellent theology being written today, and most of it is being done by professors — e.g., John Webster, George Hunsinger, Douglas Knight, etc. Of those, Hunsinger is explicitly writing for the church: in his new book on the Lord's Supper, he seeks to offer an ecumenical proposal that will help unify the church. Hunsinger is also ordained in the PCUSA, so perhaps he fits both of our arguments. Even so, I do not think such high quality theology would be improved by such theologians working more closely with the church. In fact, I would be willing to bet that these theologians would be unable to produce such creative work apart from their location in the academy. But I do not think this is grounds for denying good work when we see it.

Finally, I do enjoy this conversation very much. These questions are very interesting to me, and I enjoy a good discussion.
Anonymous said…
primary theology is what is actually said in liturgy, and is not determined simply by the theological opinions of revisers. what the text means is a product of how it is used and lives in the church, and time and again it has been shown that revisers, for good or ill, lack control over that.

the distinction is intended to highlight that, whatever the dogmatist says, the actual theology of the church is found in its prayer, and especially in its official prayer.

we can conclude from this that, for example, the reformed churches do not place theological importance on frequent reception of communion: whatever their theologians may keep saying to the contrary about the value of weekly celebration. (And the same is true for most anglicans until the last centuries, whatever the BCP says, because it is the actual liturgy as celebrated which is primary theology, not just the representations of books.)

i suspect (and this is a rank guess) that Princeton is great at systematics and a little short on liturgics.

does Hunsinger's proposal address the validity or lack thereof of Presbyterian orders? this will always be a crucial concern, and was one of two things which led to the collapse of COCU. (the other, of course, was the lack of a correspondence between the official COCU theology and the official COCU liturgy! see the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations final report on COCU from back then to see how, in practice, Anglicans put liturgy first. the document is a stuuning examination of how, for example, the official theology talks about the trinity, and the importance of the creeds, and then the liturgy doesn't mention the former and never uses the latter.)

for more on primary theology, my own blog (reloquus.blogpsot.com) has a recent comment on the beginning of Church Dogmatics about this whole topic. suffice it to say, no, it does not amount to taking Cranmer as normative.
D.W. Congdon said…

Are you suggesting that only what makes its way into a creed is important? Or that only the things which individual Christians say are important are actually so? Does this not essentially bind the gospel to each particular culture? What if a group no longer believes the Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation? Are they now defining the terms? If Jesus is no longer relevant to them, should we move on? Who or what defines what is important? It seems that you are simply elevating the "person in the pew" as the church's magisterium. In this, you sound like a hyper-evangelical, and I am very concerned about this.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that what people call Neo-Orthodoxy is somehow a superior form of theology. Moreover, Neo-Orthodoxy is not Barth's theology. Bruce McCormack already demolished that one. I take what Barth is doing to be in line with the best stream of theology throughout the church: theology that is first biblical, and second dogmatic (concerned about the doctrines of the church). Proper theology attends to the revelation of God. It is not glorified anthropology (as is often much contemporary contextual theology) nor is it glorified psychology (as is much pastoral theology today). Proper theology seeks to hear the Word of God and proclaim it to the church; it is akin to preaching, or at least it serves preaching.

Karl Barth once said: "If I understand what I'm trying to do in the Church Dogmatics, it is to listen to what Scripture is saying and tell you what I hear." This is what I take proper theology to be. A hearing and a speaking. Sure, this takes place within a particular context, but the context is not primary. What determines the shape of theology is precisely this attentiveness to the Word of God as the witness to God's self-revelation in Christ.

Through all the volcanic changes throughout the history of the church, this is the red string connecting them all. The unity of the Christian church depends upon its steadfast attention to Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. Where the church has deviated from this center (e.g., Greek metaphysics, Constantian confusion of church and state, natural theology, radical contextual theology, etc.), it has deviated from its proper identity as the church of Jesus Christ.

So yes, my statements are not neutral, but they are only not neutral for those who have fallen off the path. And as inclusive as I am of all people, I refuse to be inclusive of poor theology that misleads the church. In relation to that, I will always be polemical and demanding in my critique. I may be ruthless, but I promise to also be forgiving.

And just for the record, I am not suggesting people need to think "like me." People just need to think biblically and christocentrically. That is all I ask.
Anonymous said…
Barth's theology is biblical in its anti-Modernist element.

But it is not biblical in its anti-catholic element. Where he levels his polemic against Modernism, it is founded on the Bible, and well and good.

But his polemic against "Roman Catholicism" is founded on such things as "we simply are Reformed and we can stand nowhere else". We find no defense of the exclusion of the apocrypha from the canon, for example, in I/2; instead we find the statement that the canon is "what the Church decides on" with much good stuff about that, and the note that we cannot definitively say the canon is closed, but since I/1.intro.2 promised us that the prolegomena were concerned with what distances "us" from "heretics" (where "heretics" means "Modernists and Roman Catholics"), it is rather distressing to find that there is no defense of any of the things that mark the differences between "us" and Roman Catholics, while there is excellent defense of the things that mark the difference between "us" and Modernists.

And his happy inclusion of Anglicans, along with Lutherans, as part of the Evangelical "us" feels to me rather like a dismal co-optation, or subornation even. Frankly, it is the weakest part in I, imho: it is as if he did not know of the very existence of anglo-catholicism, let alone anything that Pusey, Newman, Keble, Faber, etc. wrote.

So I just want to disagree with the easy "Barth is Biblical!" bit. To repeat the standard catholic polemic:

Where in the Bible do you find the canon of Scripture laid out, let alone the principle "sola scriptura"?

Where in the Bible do you find the rule that Paul must always be given priority over Peter and James?
The Miner said…

Hello again, I hope the semester at Princeton is going well.

I am not suggesting that ONLY what makes its way into a creed is important, though only things that are in creeds should be taken authoritatively. All other theology is provisional, situational and always needing revision.

It is not a matter of individual christians, quite to the opposite, it is not the "person" in the pew, that matters, but the "people" in the pew. Only the church catholic can ensure the authenticity of the transmission of the gospel. (which makes ecumenism the most pressing need in our world today)

Whether you call the school of theology Barth belongs to Neo-Orthodoxy (as most do) or something else as Bruce McCormack apparently does matters little. The point is that Barth is doing a particular kind of theology that is heavily contextual (as all theology is) whether anyone wants to admit it or not. Barth definitely uses the bible in a pronounced (and I think good) way, but he is hardly exclusively biblical (see Thomas' points and there are plenty of others). And anyway, no theology could escape the fact that it is more indebted to context and the church than to the bible because the bible itself is a contextual document, the canon assembled by the church, and the way we read it is totally determined by our own context. The bible is a resource (even a primary one), but not the source of theology.

Believing that the unity of the Christian church depends upon its "steadfast attention to Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture" is just another example of a contextual belief. The Orthodox church would say it was the creeds or the liturgy that maintain the unity of the church. Catholics would say it is submission to mother church itself. Anglican's might say liturgy or something else. Baptists and others might say it was the holy spirit. In my opinion you either need to narrow your context to say I mean only the churches in the reformed tradition or acknowledge that you have no claim to priority over other traditions.

My point that you have in this argument made yourself judge and jury is simply reinforced by all your usage of "I" language. Why do you feel the need to make absolute statements without qualification? Why is it so important that other people think or act a certain way (ie: embrace a particular way of doing theology in church)?

Listen to this:
"I take what Barth is doing to be in line with the best stream of theology throughout the church"
You take it? Best stream? What puts you in a position to judge? and if you acknowledge that this is only an opinion why should this opinion be normative for the people in the pew? Why should their opinion about what is good theology (Lewis, Merton, Borg etc...) matter more than yours?

"Proper theology attends to the revelation of God."
Proper theology? Again, who made you judge of what constitutes proper theology? Why not say I find this way of doing theology valuable and I wish I could help more people see the value in it?

"My statements are not neutral, but they are only not neutral for those who have fallen off the path."
So anyone who disagrees with you is apostate? What!? You surely don't mean this.

If your point was simply that you like Barth, you think he's saying something important and you would like to find ways to persuade more people to read Barth, I'd have no disagreement with you. The moment you turn it into a "should" or a "must", or you start talking about other christians as though they were deficient, or you act as though your own point of view is somehow immune to subjectivity or inherently superior to someone else's is the moment you go off the deep end. Obviously in blogs we are polemical and we state things in strong language, but I think you are severely lacking in Christian compassion if you genuinely think along these rigid lines.
D.W. Congdon said…

The church in America is in disrepair from people who think ecumenism or living in a pluralistic society requires that we water down our beliefs so as to offend the fewest possible people. This kind of thinking will only lead to the demise of the church. We need to be more dogmatic, not less. I will not apologize for my views, nor will I soften them. I may not entirely agree with Barth's judgment on the analogia entis, but surely he should not have to apologize for calling it the work of the Antichrist. If something will tear down the church and the Christian faith, we need to call a spade a spade.

I believe the tendency to contextualize everything in theology is also the work of the Antichrist, and it must be condemned. Surely it is correct to say that we are contextually situated in time and space, and of course the Bible is a human document and theology is a human project. (Although, interestingly enough, you do not seem to think of the creeds as provisional and always potentially in need of revision. While the biblical canon is not in need of revision -- hence "canon" -- surely we must think of all creeds as reformable, even if we assign them authoritative status.)

However, just because we recognize the contextual nature of theology does NOT -- repeat: not -- mean that the truth, the Word of God, which we seek to explicate is itself contextual. The radical contextualization of theology is the radical anthropologizing and psychologizing of theology. What you are suggesting, whether you realize it or not, is that the Truth to which we point (like John the Baptist in the Grünewald piece) is not at our disposal. The Truth grasps us, not we the Truth. God is the Subject, not our manipulable object. Call this "Barthian" if you want. I will always call this the gospel. Hence, I will not water it down and call it my "preference"; I will stand up and say, "Here I stand, I can do no other."

I will not apologize for being polemical on this point. I do not see feminist theologians apologizing for being feminists, and they shouldn't! They are right, in so far as they are a witness to the patriarchy that has plagued the church. Such is the case for other "contextual" theologies. But the moment any theology elevates anything over against the witness to Jesus Christ in Holy Scripture, I will stand my ground and refuse to budge. I think the church desperately needs people who will do exactly this. The church will continue to die until people like Luther and Calvin make their voices heard.
D.W. Congdon said…

It seems that your problem with Barth's reading of Catholicism is simply his difference on the issue of the Apocrypha. Is that right? Is that it? If so, that's a rather weak point of difference. I would have thought Barth's rejection of the analogia entis would be your point of concern, since this is the one thing Barth said would prevent one from becoming a Catholic. Remember that Barth said that no one who has not seriously considered becoming Catholic has the right to claim being Protestant.

It would seem that Barth's objections to Catholicism stand on far more biblical grounds than simply the issue of the canon. That is far too minor even to be worth a mention. Consider the issue of mediation, the issue of revelation, etc. These are all much more important.
Anonymous said…
It seems that your problem with Barth's reading of Catholicism is simply his difference on the issue of the Apocrypha. Is that right?

I don't see how you could get that idea. What I said was that KD I is unsuccessful at actually addressing Roman Catholicism as it actually exists, and a good example of that is the failure in the prolegomena to address such an obvious issue as the actual content of the canon of Scripture.

The analogia entis stuff is an excellent example, in fact. This is all much more a polemic against Modernism than it is against Roman Catholicism.

The task of prolegomena, he claims, is to address the heretics, to explain "our" starting points and why they are different from "their" starting points.

As an Anglican, I find that volume I is great reading, but a magnificent failure at explaining why Barth's starting points are so different from mine. I'm not a Modernist, and I'm not tempted by Modernism, and I find his criticisms of it compelling.

I find his attempt to redefine me as a protestant extraordinarily ignorant, wildly out-of-character ignorant, but maybe he just has blinders on there. So I figure, well, even if he cannot address and does not seem to understand Anglicanism as it actually exists outside the fantasies of Lutherans and Reformed, maybe he will still explain the things about which he differs from the position of the typical anglo-catholic.

And, about such things as sacramentalism, he does an excellent job. But as regards the foundational stuff--the very thing that supposedly exists to answer the heretics like me, well, it just ain't there.

And the analogia entis stuff is an excellent example: he answers the Modernists with it, but if what he says is directed against, for example, Aquinas, it only shows that he does not understand Aquinas well, because what he says is oddly off the target.
Anonymous said…
the point i was trying to make above about the apocrypha has, i hope, now been made better over on my blog Reloquus within this post (though in a different key, as it were).

comments there are welcome.