Book Review: Disruptive Witness

Disruptive Witness
Alan Noble
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 189pp.

It is quite apparent to anyone paying much attention that the world of late-modern Western capitalism is ever-the-more distracted, confusing, and messy. And, in the midst of all that messiness, the Western Christian Church finds itself languishing. It is all-too-easy to point the fingers of “poor doctrine” or “weak discipleship” when this languishing is occurring across the spectrums of “good,” “bad,” and “ugly.” For ages evangelicals have pointed at the mainline’s decline in membership and blamed it on their politics; recent polls show that the Southern Baptist Convention  – America’s largest evangelical denomination – is on just-as-serious a decline.

Disruptive Witness

Perhaps, then, the decline of the Church in the modernized, secularized West has far less to do with that of weakening or stagnant or calcifying dogmas, perhaps it has far less to do with where one lands on the mainline-to-evangelical plotline, and more to do with our context. Maybe the ground has shifted under our feet, and we do not yet recognize it.

A Secular (and Liturgical) Age

Alan Noble, in his debut work, sees this trajectory, and, translating the work of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies for a more general audience, takes careful aim in how to dismantle and address the impacts and effects of the secular culture. Especially for readers unfamiliar with Taylor’s landmark work, Noble’s summations will be invaluable general theological-philosophical introductions (A Secular Age is, after all, *that* daunting 800+ page book on your shelf that you spent $40-$50 on, but are unsure you’ll be reading anytime soon), as will Noble’s adjustments to the commonly-received “worldview” terminology used by evangelical missiologists (ad nauseum).

By articulating a missiology in the midst of Taylor, Smith, and in contradistinction to “worldview” approaches, Noble very carefully – and successfully – attempts to carve out an evangelism-within-the-secular that does not reproduce the secular’s own methods. This is tricky business, as he himself admits, since so much of the Church’s evangelistic language is coded with modern, secular values. Noble uses a bit of self-deprecation to good effect, and his illustrations function quite well to paint the picture of the problem of Christian evangelism under-modernity.

Double Movements

O Alan Noble.jpg

The second half of Noble’s work is devoted to praxis, and here we find a little bit of stumbling. I think the first instance is simply a clunky term. Maybe he’s channeling a bit of Charles Taylor here – neither “the immanent frame” nor “nova effect” are great turns-of-phrase in technical philosophy (this is the discipline with deep neologisms like being-in-itselfDasein, and noumenon, after all) – but “double movement,” although I feel like I understood it implicitly, doesn’t quite ring with the experience it attempts to circumscribe.

That being said, ignoring the terminological clunkiness, the double movement is indeed a crucial insight for how to apply a missiological response to Taylor. If we live within a frame-of-reference in which all existence is referred back to the immanent materiality, then developing practices that allow us to adopt a stance of recognizing and responding to the transcendent in everyday life is crucial. (Okay, I guess the previous sentence makes “immanent frame” useful; I recant. “Nova effect” is still dumb, though.) Noble provides some sketches of how to accomplish this both within individual, personal lives and, crucially, in ecclesial contexts. In the latter he borrows heavily from J.K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies, so those familiar with Smith’s claims in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom won’t find much groundbreaking here.

Aesthetics as Disruption

But what I personally found most compelling about Noble’s praxis were his overtures to the power of the aesthetic world – art, music, film, literature – and its ability to cause disruption in our lives. This is the point at which Noble’s own speciality, English literature, shines through. His brief vignettes on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, a reflection via Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, some engagements with film and music, are among the highlights of how Noble understands the aesthetic to serve as disruption. One autobiographical example from his professorship and the ability of 20th-century literature to disrupt our assurances was particularly telling, and I, for one, deeply appreciate his willingness to confront unhealthy evangelical attitudes towards art head-on.

Final Thoughts

All-in-all, I found Disruptive Witness to be an excellent introduction for both students and evangelists on some of the basic frameworks of what witness in a modern world must look like. It does leave me hungry for more – but I chalk a lot of that up to my own familiarity with the work of James K.A. Smith, which is no fault of Noble’s! – but on its own, given to campus ministers, evangelists, and pastors young and old, this book serves as an excellent starting-point for learning and discerning how to bear witness in a secular world without compromising to its values.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

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Book Review: Come, Let Us Eat Together

Come, Let Us Eat Together
Ed. George Kalantzis and Marc Cortez
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 252pp.

Essay collections can be a tricky matter to balance well. At times, even the b

est of collections (see, for instance, my review of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Hauerwas and Wells) can drag if one reads them cover to cover, simply because one covers the same materials in different formats from different voices. The same can easily be said of essay collections that are, in essence, the collected works of symposia, as the Wheaton Theology Conference and its correlated IVP book series are.

But Come, Let Us Eat Together drew me in. Maybe it was the incredible diversity of the writers (= speakers), or the panoramic insight of the varied angles, or, even, (and this surprised me the most) the sense that even at a conference with pre-prepared talks and papers, the interlocutors were engaging with the speaker or writer before them.

come let us eat together

And that is how it should be! When one covers the topic of “Sacraments and Christian Unity,” navigating the tricky lines between sacramental theology / ecclesiology on the one end and eschatology / ecumenism on the other, one would hope that each essay and each author would be “speaking” with one another. That, after all, is a crucial essence to the modern ecumenical movement.

Talking Together, Eating Together?

Of course, talking together, an essay collection from a conference with Catholic and Orthodox, Reformed and Anglican, Lutheran and (Ana-)baptist, is, as the essays assert, not enough. The chief question is: Can we share the table with one another?

Here the essays portray a vast array of views. Cherith Fee Nordling’s essay on the ascension of Christ, on the one end, gives a positive, eschatological assertion on the essential nature of the Church as unified; so too Paul L. Gavrilyuk’s (surprisingly) optimistic essay on the same theme from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. But Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s address of the topic from the Roman Catholic end of the conversation is less optimistic, observing some of the crucial fault-lines between the “orthodox episcopal” churches (i.e. the RCC and EO) and the Protestant churches; and Marc Cortez’s incredibly helpful discussion on the history of Baptist views on sacrament concludes with similar difficulties.

It might be easy, especially for someone like myself who has emerged from Pentecostal free-church traditions, to say that doctrine ought not separate us at the table. What is perhaps most surprising throughout Come, Let Us Eat Together is how relatively small the problem of doctrine is in comparison to other, largely ecclesiological, problems. With only a few exceptions, the conversation on transubstantiation versus Sacramental Union (the Lutheran view) versus real presence is glossed over very lightly. Far deeper is the historical realities and ecclesial distances between the various wings of the Church.

 

Wheaton Theology Conference (Bradley Nassif)And, as a result, the argument against open communion is, to my surprise! (being a lifelong open communionist), robust and reasonable and, at the end of the day, uninterested in doctrinaire authoritarianism. The historic relationship between baptism and Eucharist, for instance, cuts to the core of most sacramental debates (Cortez touches on this from the Baptist end, and so does Kalantzis from an early Christian historical lens). The question of the episcopacy and whether it descends from the apostolate also emerges as a central theme (one that Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen tackles valiantly in his essay). It turns out, and this has been an interesting surprise to me, that open communion is not as gracious or mindful or, even!, ecumenical as its proponents might say. The whole topic is far more complex; extending the right hand of grace and mercy to the disparate parts of the Christian Church might actually look more like learning the various wings’ views and traditions and honoring them. (InterVarsity actually does this actively at their Urbana conference, where Catholics and Lutherans are invited to join in the time of prayer at communion, knowing that many would bow out from full participation.)

 

Overall, Come, Let Us Eat Together is a fantastic volume on a particularly tricky subject. The wisdom of this particular set of authors, their diversity both externally (i.e. from different traditions) and internally (i.e. within a given tradition) provides the unique ecumenical balance necessary for accomplishing a book like this. And Kalantzis and Cortez, as editors, have done an excellent job of preserving the “conference” feel in the essays, even in the transition to print; the essay-writers “speak” with one another. Even the less intriguing essays contribute to the overall polyphony of the Church, and one can sense underneath this polyphony there is a powerful, supernatural work of God’s Spirit that will, before the end, bring all His people together again as one flock under one shepherd.

May it be so.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Book Review: Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition

Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction
Craig G. Bartholomew
InterVarsity Press, 2017. 363pp.

Early in my time with Theologian’s Library, about a year ago, I wrote a review on a collection of essays by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Little did I know at the time that Hearing the Call would actually be an introduction to a whole constellation of theological ideas revolving around topics of politics, public theology, and the institutional life of the Church catholic that I would continue to ponder for the next year and onward. In fact, if there is some undergirding thread to my book choices, it is that this constellation of thoughts continues to recur, especially as I read James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies (see my review for Vols. 1 and 2, and my review for Vol. 3). Since reading Wolterstorff (and entering the foray of the contemporary theological scene), I have learned to identify that constellation of ideas as “the Kuyperian tradition.”

Craig G Bartholomew

As my personal fascination with Abraham Kuyper’s legacy and thought grew, I realized it was about time I went backward to Kuyper himself and the origins of Kuyperian thought (and other thinkers associated with him). To that end, I searched out Craig G. Bartholomew’s recent introductory survey from IVP Academic, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition. It accomplished precisely what an introductory survey out to accomplish: it orients the reader with substantive surrounding material in order to begin to suggest new directions for research, discovery, and learning. For those unfamiliar with the origins and history of the Dutch Reformed church, its unique history and structure, and the thought of Abraham Kuyper, this survey is indispensably helpful.

Critiquing the (Post-?)Modern

Unsurprisingly, the national church in the Netherlands wrestled with and against the tides of modernism throughout the nineteenth century. The influence of such luminaries as Friedrich Schleiermacher and David Friedrich Strauss in the early higher-criticism / modernist schools bled over past Germany into all parts of European Christianity, leading to what has now become known as the modernist crisis. In this milieu, Abraham Kuyper (and those associated with him) took an ardent counterstance.Abraham Kuyper

Bartholomew paints a picture of Kuyper as a nuanced anti-revolutionary: Kuyper isn’t a fundamentalist by any stretch of the imagination, nor is he the kind of biblicist evangelical that is popular in present-day American circles. Rather, he is an intellectual  raised in the modern context, educated with modern values, who, nevertheless, finds the modern system lacking when faced with biblical Christianity. And, yet, (this is perhaps the most surprising bit of Kuyper) he is able to integrate the language and the politics of modernism into his critique of it.

Following Kuyper, Bavinck, et al.’s lead, Bartholomew takes the tack of the Doleantie to engage present-day postmodern movements, integrating the worldview(“ish”) discourse of James W. Sire. In so-doing, Bartholomew observes a crucial lesson from Kuyper — that is, engaging constructively with the culture rather than (as the Anabaptists and fundamentalists did) retreating from it. And, yet, Bartholomew’s critique of postmodernism (and Sire’s, for the record; nevertheless, The Universe Next Door is a crucial text for contemporary practical missiology) falls flat precisely in the way that it is dissimilar from Kuyper’s; in short, he doesn’t fully appreciate (or reflect) the problems that postmodernism observes. (For a more integrative, and thus truly Kuyperian, approach to postmodernism, see James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation.)

The misstep with engaging postmodernism aside (and especially forgivable given postmodernism’s difficulty in expressing itself clearly, something Smith also notes in The Fall of Interpretation), Bartholomew hones in on Kuyper, Bavinck, et al.’s anti-modernism in almost every single chapter, observing their vast disengagements with modernism’s views of theology, philosophy, Scripture, church, and science. And, most importantly for both Kuyper’s time and our own, Bartholomew hones in on the fact that (post)modernism must be discussed; it cannot be ignored.

Pastor, Public Theologian, Politician… “Reformer”

Most central to Kuyper’s work and legacy, even beyond his engagements with modernism as a pastor and theologian, are his roles as public theologian, politician and leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, and founder of the Free University of the Amsterdam. Kuyper is a “Reformer” in more senses than just his theological tradition!

Through excerpts intertwining Kuyper’s theological, political, and private lives, Bartholomew is able to accomplish what a cursory reading of Kuyper’s writings won’t: present a balanced, nuanced vision of “sphere sovereignty” (Kuyper’s greatest, or worst [depending on your inclinations], contribution to public theology) in the context of his day and age and reasons for so-doing. Late modern interlocutors are cautioned regarding taking Kuyper’s systems too linearly and reminded periodically of the unique position of the Doleantie, living in-between the end of Christendom and the rise of modernity. Both those who take “sphere sovereignty” to literalist extremes (like our contemporary Charismatic “seven mountains” version of dominionism) and those who oppose it at every chance (like Northern Seminary’s David Fitch) would do well to engage with Bartholomew’s excavation of Kuyper and Bavinck’s thoughts here.

The Voice of the Historian

One of the unwritten rules of writing history or biography (and Contours includes its fair share of both alongside its survey of theological and philosophical ideas) is that the historian or biographer in question ought to remove or edit out his or her voice from the writing. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the postmodern insistence on the storied nature of existence, this is impossible. Not only is it impossible, in my view, it can often lead to a deceptive sense of security in the objectivity and/or neutrality of the author with regards to the work-in-question.

Contours of the Kuyperian TraditionBartholomew, thankfully, breaks this unwritten (and, honestly, foolish) rule, and freely inserts himself and his perspective and his stories into the retelling of Kuyper (and company)’s journeys and developments in public theology. And his voice is necessary. Sometimes he can be a little-too-insistent on clarifying certain terms (see his take on postmodernism, above, for example), and sometimes his judgments on Kuyper are a little too quick. But most of the time Bartholomew’s voice serves as the mediating factor, bringing Kuyper’s late-nineteenth century words into conflict with the world of the early-twenty-first century. And it is always a productive engagement.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Bartholomew has presented a winsome overview of the work and life of Abraham Kuyper and his immediate successors, to the extent that this introductory text ought to be a requisite companion to any starting off researching the Dutch Reformed Church and neo-Calvinism in general. The public theology of Kuyperianism is a far more balanced view of “the politics of the church” than pretty much any of the major streams in American Christian thought today – which range from radical separatism (i.e. Anabaptist, pietisms, Holinesses) to radical theocracy (i.e. dominionism in all its shades) – and brings the healthy perspective of (gasp!) an actual politician to the conversation. In our present context, voices like those of Gov. Bill Haslam and Gov. John Kasich currently represent some of the more nuanced perspectives of Christian political thought from politicians; but Americans need the voices of those outside our own circles too.

Maybe this Dutch “Reformer” holds the medicine we need to keep our warring eschatologies and politics at check and pursue a more verdant and fruitful common life? Bartholomew certainly seems to think so, and he has done an excellent job of introducing us to the topic!

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Book Review: The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics
Ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells
Wiley-Blackwell, 2006 (1st edition). 528pp.

There is no such thing as “Christian ethics.” Such is a quick summation of the opening essays of a theological collection that espouses, audaciously, to then pursue that precise field of research. Yet Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, themselves Christian ethicists, are unconvinced. Having gathered over thirty of the Christian academic world’s most profound voices for orthodox, biblical, liturgical ethics, they are unconvinced.

It makes for a masterful work of theology.

Ethics and Worship

The centering conviction of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is that the “ethics” of the Christian faith is far less about pat answers to “ethical quandaries” (that is, far less about answers to “the trolley problem”) and more about Christian formation: what kind of people are formed, discipled, and trained by the faith. From this perspective, “ethics” is kind of an unnecessary afterthought, an all-too-modern reflection upon that which earlier, better formed, Christians understood naturally. Truly “Christian” ethics is unreflective, unpremeditated, organically developed, and found in the lived actions of Christian people, something that Hauerwas and Wells make explicit in their introductory essay, “Why Christian Ethics Was Invented”:

Christian identity is not primarily to be found in statements or debates or arguments, but in particular practices, commitments, and habits. (Hauerwas and Wells, BCCE, 37)

From this perspective, then, it is the Christian practice of ecclesiological, sacramental, liturgically-organized communal worship that best provides a suitable on-ramp for conversations about ethics, rather than, as Kantian Rationalists would prefer, a more “natural” morality or “relevant,” consensus-driven liberal democratic mode. A good summation of Hauerwas and Wells’ framework is found in their essay of biblical philadelphia “The Gift of the Church”:

Ethics names the ways in which disciples discern and embody Christ’s life in the world, and the chief way they learn how to do this is through worship. (Ibid., 26)

If this theme sounds familiar to my readers, it is because this is not a new topic for my blog-writing: Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, which I mentioned in my yearly books-in-review, prefigures some of the foundational liturgical-sacramental claims that Hauerwas and Wells use to organize this collection of essays. Likewise, since its publication, BCCE has been influential for a myriad of theologians writing today, especially James K.A. Smith, whose Cultural Liturgies I reviewed for Theologian’s Library. This continuity of theologians asserting that Christian ethics is emergent from Christian worship forms both the bibliographic backdrop for the BCCE and the scholastic reasoning for its continued reception. However radical a departure Hauerwas and Wells have made from Kant-inspired ethics, it is my sense that it is a necessary and foundationally Christian departure.

A Quick Sampling of What To Expect

Rather than give some exhaustive run-down of all that one might find in the BCCE, my review will now, instead, give some smattered highlights. While the collection is overall masterful, it is noteworthy to observe that some essays over-repeat previous themes, or gloss the same introductions overmuch. If read sequentially (as I did) one does begin to skim the front matter knowing that it will be a banal regurgitation of Hauerwas and Wells’ stuff. Some essays are worse about this than others. Nevertheless, the vast majority of essays are so superb that I find it well beyond my reasonable limits as a reviewer to treat each with their due diligence.

Here are some quick highlights:

+ Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan Catholic priest, discusses the problem with the concept of “racial reconciliation” and asserts, instead, the time of greeting as the formation of the People of God

+ Charles Pinches discusses the reading of Scripture as a form of naming and describing, creating the fundamental vocabularies of faith

+ David Matzko McCarthy, following the vein of his Sex and Love in the Home (which I also recommend), discusses a radical (and traditional?!) vision of hospitality in the home that reorients sexual relationships

+ R.R. Reno presents a positive vision (even provocative) towards a Christian work-ethic untainted by either global capitalism or socialist authoritarianism

+ Joseph Mangina corrects our scientific reductionisms regarding bearing children and brings the family into its proper context as a community of hope

And so on! For being a volume that “doesn’t do ethics,” Hauerwas and Wells’ collection pretty much addresses all the questions. Other notable highlights include Joel James Shuman’s address on homosexuality, Stephen Fowl’s thorough exegesis of Ephesians 4:25-5:2 in order to discuss theft, and the essays from William T. Cavanaugh and Kevin J. Vanhoozer. The whole work is worthy and replete with wisdom, liturgical practices, and theo-ethical challenges to the Church catholic.

My recommendation is simply to buy the book. With an updated edition out, the first edition’s cost is quite reasonable, so reasonable that I can’t see why any and every pastor and theologian shouldn’t have it on their shelf. It is perhaps the most comprehensive and helpful work of modern (postliberal / New Traditionalist) theology available today. It is a must-have.

Book Review: Becoming a Pastor Theologian

Becoming a Pastor Theologian
Ed. Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand
IVP Academic, 2016. 217pp.

“Pastor-theologian,” especially as a hyphenate, is perhaps as unhelpful a term as “public intellectual.” So often, it gets bogged down into the mire of (on the one hand) bad academic work and (on the other hand) poor pastoral vision. Even more often, and this is the true misfortune, it can easily degrade into an excuse for theologically-minded pastors to neglect their pastoral duties on the behalf of a misconstrued picture of their theological duties, which, at the end of the day, harms the local church.

And yet, for those more theologically-inclined pastors (like me), the term holds allure that goes beyond a mythical (and, at times, perverse) desire for scholastic isolation. There are pastors who hope to be both successful in their local ministry and in their academic- / theological- work. There are pastors whose theological prowess has something to contribute to the academic discourse. And then there are pastors who find informed theological discourse a vital source for their pastorate. It is for the sake of advancing this latter vision that Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand put together the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) and have compiled the essay collection Becoming a Pastor Theologian.

A Useful, Balanced, and Articulate Vision

The vision of the CPT is (from their website):

a broadly evangelical organization dedicated to recruiting, networking, and resourcing pastor theologians to provide faithful written, intellectual and theological leadership on behalf of the church, in light of the cultural challenges and opportunities of the late modern world.

Such a vision, “intellectual and theological leadership on behalf of the church,” is refreshing in an individualistic epoch. In Wilson and Hiestand’s own essays, they cast this vision with articulate precision. For those seeking to become pastor theologians or to navigate the nuances between the pastor theologian and, say, the academic theologian, these two essays (and the overarching architecture of this book) are incredibly helpful. They steer the issue away from the “pastor who writes theology” kind of vision and the “pastor who’s really just a theologian” one, and firmly assert, instead, a kind of theological ethnography picture of the pastor theologian. Instead of the pastor theologian being holed up in his or her study, working to write some dense and complex treatise, Wilson and Hiestand envision the pastor theologian as a theologically-empowered thought leader, tasked with engaging their particularized locality with the Gospel in the unique ways demanded of their context.

In short, Wilson and Hiestand rebuke the abstract, ideational picture of a pastor theologian, one that is sometimes portrayed by the prominent pastor theologians of our day (John Piper, A.W. Tozer, and R.C. Sproul all come to mind). Instead, they commend a practiced, local, contextualized, ethnographic, sociological vision of the pastor theologian, where theology is no longer a matter of simple discourse but, as it ought to be, “how now ought we live?”, that is, an ethics, a wisdom, a prophetic challenge to the powers-that-be, a local voice. This vision is articulated consistently throughout, and Wilson and Hiestand have clearly given a lot of time and thought to it.

 

Center for Pastor Theologians

Editorial Issues: Weak Essays with Narrow Diversity

That being said, two major issues harm Becoming a Pastor Theologian‘s effectiveness, and both serve as existential challenges for Wilson and Hiestand’s bigger project. The first is that a handful of the essays in this book are weak. Perhaps this is magnified by the organization of the text, which puts three academic theologians (Peter Leithart, James K.A. Smith, Kevin Vanhoozer) front-and-center, followed by Wilson and Hiestand’s essays, followed by the rest. But magnified or not, some of the essays written by pastor theologians show the rhetorical and stylistic sloppiness that plagues the field.

I’ve already written about how much I disliked Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (not to rehash an unpleasant experience). One of the major problems with that work is how poorly organized it was, how clunky its rhetorical structures, how disheveled its writing. When I discovered, later on, that Boyd was a pastor theologian, I simply shrugged and thought “Ah, well that makes sense. How would he have time to edit a dissertation like this?”

Given that Wilson and Hiestand’s explicit goal is to reject this assumption, to assert that pastor theologians can indeed write good theological work, the presence of anemic essays in this collection serves as a threat to the vision of this project. To be clear, none of the weak essays in particular are useless; they just show the signs of weak writing, signs that are evident enough to those who read a lot of this kind of work, like pointless footnotes or citations that divert from the thesis or citations for citations’ sake or disorganized thought. Whatever the weaker essays contribute in terms of content, their form is a problem that Wilson and Hiestand must address.

But, returning now to content, there is another considerable hurdle that hampers Becoming a Pastor Theologian, and it is editorial bias. Whether this bias was explicit or implicit, intended or accidental or even incidental, there is a clear, sub-denominational trend amidst the writers of these essays. There is a tendency (and a lean) towards Neo-Reformed thought, and, with that, a tendency towards complementarianism.

Becoming a Pastor TheologianWhereas such leans and tendencies, even biases, are not in themselves a problem — I tend to commend a writer or writers for sticking to their viewpoints instead of obscuring them — they do constitute a challenge to Wilson and Hiestand’s vision in the way they manifest in this book. The CPT, in word and in practice (judging from their fellowship lists), aims to work ecumenically, to advance a more inter-denominational vision of the pastor theologian. How can they do such without enlisting more diverse voices for their writing work? One essay referring to the Catholic John Henry Newman and one essay written by a woman discussing women’s theological role (but not, notably, their pastoral theological role) are simply not enough to constitute theological diversity; a that lack of reasoned theological diversity is problematic if the CPT purports to be “broadly” evangelical. Even the image of CPT fellows (shown above) is entirely white and entirely male.

What makes this lack of diversity problematic is, at the end of the day, that it harms Wilson and Hiestand’s stated vision. If the pastor theologian is, indeed, to be a social-, ethnographic-, and local- theologian, informed by the spaces he or she inhabits, then the future of good pastor theological work requires a diversity of inhabited spaces. Without that diversity, the work becomes narrowed and limited in its effectiveness. These two troubles, the poor writing in the weaker essays and the lack of diversity, are both serious threats to Wilson and Hiestand’s project as a whole, and they injure the effectiveness of Becoming a Pastor Theologian as a book.

Standout Essays on Local and Social Theology

That being said, there are more than a few standout essays to be underscored that make Becoming a Pastor Theologian more than worth its weight. Aside from Wilson and Hiestand’s articulate vision-casting essays and the opening salvos (written by three academic theologians whose works are already universally admired), there are three particularly engaging essays that bring a well-roundedness to the CPT’s work that I wish to highlight.

The first is Scott M. Manetsch’s essay on John Calvin’s Geneva. This historical reflection discusses the unique ways Calvin’s theological community impacted both the social and the political in Geneva through regular theological reflection. Whether we like Calvin or not (and whether we agree with his magisterial political theology or not), the essay provides a powerful “social imaginary” for considering the role of the pastor theologian in his or her city, as well within the network of ecumenically-committed churches in that city. What Manetsch’s essay does most successfully is cast a vision for new constructive orderings of theological-, social-, and political- community, and reveals the role of the pastor theologian(s) in ordering and endowing life to that vision.

The second great essay is Chris Castaldo’s reflecting on the life of John Henry Newman. Mentorship is an all-too-often neglected gift of the church and, given that the stereotypical vision of a pastor theologian is “the scholar in the study,” re-considering mentorship from a theological and pastoral perspective is incredibly valuable. Castaldo’s intermingling of biography and mentoring wisdom provides a jumping-point for reinvigorating this long-lost gift of the Church.

Finally, the conclusory essay by Douglas Estes on the letter of II John and the pastor theologian’s call to write was fantastic. Beyond deftly navigating the postmodern understanding of écriture, Estes reflects on the phenomenology of writing in a way that is absolutely crucial for the task of the pastor theologian, reminding us that writing is the mediation between the theological work and its effect, manifest in an audience. Even further, Estes raises the same challenge I raised earlier in this review, that pastor theological work ought to be well-written. As a closing note, Estes’ essay gives me hope of better and brighter things for the CPT in the future.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Becoming a Pastor Theologian is a suitable starting-point for those considering what pastor theological work looks like. It provokes certain assumptions and challenges certain selfish desires, and it prioritizes, rightly, the role of the local, the ethnographic, the social, and the ecclesial in the work of the pastor theologian. Despite their well-articulated vision, Wilson and Hiestand’s editorial decisions constitute a challenge to their work, with essays that need further refining before publishing and a lack of diversity in the author-base. Still, their essays, the essays of the three well-established theologians, and the three essays I highlighted above all make the work more than worthwhile, and I look forward to seeing more fruits of their labor with the CPT. The problems are not so big as to be insurmountable, and I am hopeful that their vision will bring about more and more change to the understanding of the pastor theologian’s role in the Church for years to come

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Book Review: God’s Mediators

God’s Mediators
Andrew S. Malone
IVP Academic, 2017. 230pp.

It should go without saying that one of the more complex and difficult strands to pull out and discuss throughout the course of the biblical canon is that of the intersections between the cultic liturgies of the Mosaic Law and the unique challenges to the assumptions of those under the Mosaic Law when it comes to the New Covenant and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not for nothing that denominational and doctrinal divisions exist solely on the basis of how one parses these relationships: dispensationalism for those who seek to make a clean break and separation, supersessionism for those who seek the advance the New at the expense of the Old, Covenant Theology for a more holistic approach, and N.T. Wright’s New Perspective of Paul for another, but more nuanced, holistic engagement.

Gods MediatorsI say that to point out that I think Andrew S. Malone is jumping into far deeper waters than the tools he allots himself allows. In this latest edition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology (edited by D.A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Malone seeks to peruse the canon of the Scriptures with the aim of developing, as he says, a biblical theology of priesthood. While his attempt is admirable, what he has actually succeeded in doing is revealing the precise limits of “biblical theology” (as deployed by Carson, et al.) and some of its more hidden biases, leading God’s Mediators to be less an insightful tool than a more elaborate bibliography.

The Limitations of the Biblical Theology Approach

I will be free to admit that I find even the term “biblical” theology to be more than a little jarring. Looking at the history of modern theology, one sees “biblical” theology emerging as an opposition and response to various trends in historical-critical and postmodern theological methods (like how Greg Boyd’s “theological interpretation of Scripture” attempts much the same thing; just with Open Theism). In short, for as much as historical-critical (et al.) methods are “modern” in that they represent a fairly-recent foray into particular concerns (origins, historiography, etc.) that the vast majority of Church history found uninteresting, so to are reactionary methods, like “biblical” theology, “modern” in that they begin with an opposition, rather than an affirmation.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t some value to biblical theology as it is. There are merits to its methods. In the previous entry of the NSBTPreaching in the New Testament by Jonathan I. Griffiths (which I reviewed on this site), I found plenty of useful biblical-exegetical nuggets, engagement with Greek texts, and the like to find the volume useful. Focusing in on a (surprisingly) rare topic in the Scriptures such as “preaching” serves as a word-study on the complexities and nuances of that topic. Biblical theology ought never be the main course, since it tends to lead us to overviews and exegetical insight rather than Christian discipleship; but it serves as a useful tool to highlight some of the more complicated miscellany of the Scriptures.

Malone makes two main errors that plague the entirety of his work here. The first is, like those who wish to substitute “biblical” counseling in place of “Christian” counseling, Malone mistakes biblical theology as being the same thing as “theology that is biblical,” and, so doing, places his kind of work on a pedestal of objectivity and scholarship that it simply cannot sustain. The second is that his subject matter is just not amenable to this kind of method: the various lines of priesthood, Old Testament sacrificial systems, Christ’s high priestly role, the priesthood of Israel and the Church, are just far too intricate and far too intertwined for biblical theology to even be successful in un-weaving them.

Sacraments? Anyone?

One of the glaring oversights of this biblical theology project is, unsurprisingly, its lack of any nuanced engagement with sacramental views of the priesthood. Malone attempts to  bypass denominational / doctrinal disputes on this matter by setting up the method of his survey as a biblical theology, but, like any attempted neutrality, all this serves to accomplish is to allow his own doctrinal presumptions show up in his selective reading of the text. For a survey attempting some broad biblical consensus on the nature of priests and the priesthood in the Scriptures, views on priesthood as diverse as that of the Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Presbyterians, and Lutherans are surprisingly absent. As such, passages classically considered within the purview of Christ’s high priesthood, like His Baptism or the Last Supper, and discussed typologically with relation to the sacraments are wholly disregarded.

An especially clear example of this is when Malone addresses the topic of Adam’s priesthood. In the background of his discussion, Malone has already brought certain presumptions on how the high priesthood functions — it defines the holy, allows the people to approach the presence of God, teaches the definitions of holiness (= ethics) — and then re-reads those terms into Adam’s role before God as the imago Dei. Whatever his reasons for beginning the discussion of priests in Exodus, we must observe that there are plenty of creational theologians who think that this discussion must begin instead with Genesis; that is, thinking of Adam as a pre-type of Aaron is wrongheaded, instead we must think of Aaron as some kind of Adam. This is the precise case that Alexander Schmemann makes in For the Life of the World, representing the Eastern Orthodox view on Eucharist, Creation, and the priesthood. That Malone thinks the high priesthood rightly begins with Aaron reveals already his assumptions.

Andrew S Malone

Here we see again the shortfalls of biblical theology on a subject such as priest(hood): for one, how one defines and reads priest(hood) is often already pre-determined by their doctrinal presuppositions. Whether or not one is reading the Bible to source such a survey is almost a moot point: a Catholic or Orthodox reader would see priesthood as a foreground interpreting Eucharistic moments in the text and one who rejects their view on sacraments out-of-hand can all-too-easily ignore such a reading altogether. It is not a neutral or objective view that discounts entire Christian traditions just because it takes for granted the superiority of its own hermeneutic; this is the definition of a biased method.

Abstracted Conclusions, Abstracted Discipleship

Of course, one could argue that a “biblical theology” hopes to deal with just the text, rather than historic receptions of said text or traditional typologies of the text, and that, as a result, ignoring the sacramental conversation or the high church concerns implicit in the understanding of “priest / priesthood” is part of the point. But even if we dismiss sacramental theology’s unique perspective on these terms (which is a modern tendency in theology), even if we dismiss potential verses and situations where we might be able to see the priest(hood) in action that we would have otherwise missed on these grounds, there are still glaring omissions present in Malone’s survey.

These omissions are obvious enough in the read-through, but nowhere do they present themselves with more clarity than in his closing chapter, for “applications.” Here, Malone presents a smattering of unconvincingly-serious discussions on the ends of such a study: a few thoughts on why the priesthood of all believers is important, some offhand suggestions for future exegesis (and his suggestion here to avoid “minimizing” the term priest(hood) is valid; I wish he too had followed through!), and, in an excruciatingly anticlimactic manner, an admonition against the present usage of the term “priest” for certain denominations’ ministers.

These “applications” are all-too-abstract. They are like when the pastor concludes his sermon saying “Now, all you need to do is believe this thing.” That is not an application; it is a doctrinal exhortation. An application would be “Now, here is how you do this thing.” Just as faithful preaching must call its congregation to the practical, concrete acts of the Kingdom, so too faithful theology ought to call its reader to practical, concrete acts. What is particularly surprising about this is that the ministry of the priest(hood) is one of the most action-ed ministry roles in the Bible.

In other words, Malone skips over the vast bulk of Leviticus, the formal washings and cleansings, the offerings, the sacrifices, etc.; in short, he skips over all of the explicit action-ed activities of the priest(hood)’s ministry, the very actions that constitute its proper functioning! Instead, Malone focuses on the preaching-teaching, judging-discerning roles of the priest(hood), roles present in Exodus, for sure, but not emphasized until Ezra’s post-exilic priesthood and the later Second Temple Judaism. This abstracting of the priest(hood)s’ role from their embodied actions results in abstracted conclusions and abstracted discipleship. These conclusions are frustrating, especially given how necessary a renewed vision of the Church qua priesthood of all believers is needed for counteracting a secularized (=demythologized, =disenchanted) world.

Final Thoughts

Ignoring the hermeneutical contributions of a large portion of the Church is lamentable, problematic, and paradigmatic of the problems inherent to biblical theology. But ignoring the cultic acts of the priests and Levites themselves in order to focus on their roles as teachers, like setting up Aaron as the paradigmatic priest without allowing for a creational precedent, is disingenuous to the task of biblical theology itself. One of my disappointments with this work as I began reading it was that it was more of a survey than a monograph; one of my disappointments upon finishing it was that it was not even an effective one.

All being said, I found Malone’s work to be more fraught with inconsistencies than the sort of nuanced and advanced scholarship one hopes from a more-established series like NSBT. In conversations with others who found this addition to be more than lacking, the consensus was that the series has been stalling for some time (those who have attended TEDS suggested that D.A. Carson is spending too much time on his commentaries of the Johannine letters), and this volume certainly speaks to the NSBT‘s need for a renewed vision.

At best, God’s Mediators provides a worthwhile bibliography for writers interested in pursuing the subject further, along with some conservative evangelical approaches to priest(hood); at worst, it presents itself as a solid biblical theology without spending time with some of these texts’ hardest denominational fights and without investing energy into these texts’ most complex (yet rewarding) sequences (namely, the priestly-Levitical cultic actions). If anything, Malone’s work here shows that there is still yet much ground to cover even in proposing basic readings for Exodus and Leviticus’ priestly texts, let alone dealing with the major themes of priest(hood) throughout the entirety of the Scriptures.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

 

Re-Forming the World: A Book Review of James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies (Part Two)

Awaiting the King
James K.A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2017. 233 pp.

If volumes 1 and 2 of James K.A. Smith’s landmark Cultural Liturgies sequence displayed an overtly pessimistic view on a Christian engagement with culture, maybe too much Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, then volume 3 provides the appropriately-Augustinian optimistic response. And that, in itself, is part of what makes Awaiting the King both utterly surprising and absolutely requisite reading for any student of theology and culture.

Following on the heels of his formational account of human beings, Smith reifies the central problem of a Christian account of politics: that is, that we are all-too-often co-opted by anti-formative liturgies that make us into non-Christian participants in a secular polity. Side-stepping the ridiculous rhetoric of partisanship, the lackadaisical and passive approaches of political agnosticism, and the un-bold-ness of anemic moderatism, Smith articulates a thoroughly Christian (echoing Hauerwas) account of the political (which he wisely frames as “the public”) for the sake of both re-forming the typical [Dutch] Reformed (= Kuyperian) approaches as well as challenging the nascent American political ideologies of late modernity.

Such a challenge requires great resources, and Smith draws on the best that ancient Christianity had to offer: Augustine’s City of God. Redeeming the Civitas Dei from its pigeonholed interpretations requires much close reading, but Smith manages Augustine masterfully in order to realize a far more complicated (and more helpful) vision of Christian political theology. At the end of the day, if Awaiting the King does nothing else (and it does quite a bit else), Smith has saved Augustine’s City of God from its modern reductions.

Life in the Saeculum: Contested Time versus Contested Space

One of the crucial observations that Smith brings to the fore is the tension between our typical metaphors of the political as spatial; instead, Smith presents an Augustinian view of politics as temporal, as the meeting point not of many different kinds of spaces but of many different kinds of time. For the Christian, there are not “two kingdoms” (in the Lutheran sense) but, instead, “two times”: the Now and the Not-Yet. The Now is not a “secular” space but a saeculum, a time in which the work of today is done. This allows for an eschatological re-engagement with all the preconceptions of the political.

Awaiting the King

There’s a powerful, biblical beauty to eschatological readings of politics: after all, the most rightly “political” books in the Bible are Daniel and Revelation, with a healthy reminder that Isaiah and Jeremiah are not just prophetic towards the people of Israel qua ekklesia, but also as prophetic towards the people of Israel qua polis. Of course, fundamentalists and modernists both will quail at the consequences of Smith’s eschatological re-reading: he asserts an Augustinian, even Constantinian (run for your lives!), view of the polis as ideally submitted to the eschatological Kingdom of God.

It’s a shocking thesis in late modern theology, especially for an author who asserts to be “speaking Hauerwas to the Reformed church.” Hauerwas, of course, critiques liberal democracy by reading John H. Yoder, and Yoder, of course, critiques theocratic political approaches by reading the Constantinian turn in the 4th century. It would appear that Smith is undercutting, as opposed to supporting, Hauerwas. But that would be a mis-reading of this project.

Instead, by turning back to Augustine and Constantine (the latter via the works of Peter Leithart), Smith actually provides an articulated political theology with both a Hauerwasian ecclesiology and a Constantinian politics without theocratic or theonomist or dominionist implications. This is what Smith is to be most applauded for! To articulate this in-betweenness betwixt (on the one side) Hauerwas and Yoder and (on the other side) Leithart and Augustine, Smith navigates a critique of various theories of liberal democracy (including John Rawls’ Theory of Justice) and advances Oliver O’Donovan’s theses on political theology. The result is a renewed vision of the Church qua polis, of ecclesially-centered Christian politics, and (surprisingly enough) an ardent critique of the American experiment of a churchless state and its inherent “separation” between church and state.

The Practice of Public Theology

Beyond the nuanced ecclesiology, eschatology, and political theory (all of which is quite effective), Smith also provides the outlines of a praxis of Christian public theology, with the Church, rightly, in the center. Following O’Donovan (as he does throughout; see a critique of his use of O’Donovan, below), Smith notes that the antidote for civil political engagement is not “teaching civil discourse” but actually Christian conversion. The formation of Christian disciples, the impact of “craters of the Gospel” in a civilization, literally changes the civic discourse of that civilization. With this in mind, Smith continues what I find to be the practical theological answer to the problem posed by Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imaginationhow are we, the Church, supposed to enact the imaginative powers of the Kingdom in our polity?

As I have explored elsewhere, Smith’s liturgical anthropological project allows for a vision of the Church as context for human formation, allowing for a diversity of political articulations in the midst of an orthodox center. By returning the Church to its discipleship-formative roots, by reminding us of our counter-liturgical, counter-cultural stance, Smith actually provides a practicable way for the Church to engage its political and public environment.

In fact, I am concerned that the [American] Church will continue to produce bombasts and American citizens unless it begins to recognize its spaces of contested formation as Smith has outlined here. With the tools Smith provides, we can finally begin to discern what in our liturgies and our discourses forms us as “American citizens,” and what, to the contrary, allows the Church to form citizens of the Civitas Dei. This distinctions isn’t merely important: it is central to the political witness of the Gospel.

But… … Couldn’t I Have Just Read Oliver O’Donovan?

All these laudations aside, however, I do have one major complaint with this volume, making it weaker, at the end of the day, than its predecessors. Large chunks of Awaiting the King are dedicated to block quotes or semi-paraphrased paragraphs of cited material, primarily from Oliver O’Donovan’s work (The Desire of the NationsThe Ways of Judgment) and a light sprinkling of Peter Leithart. Early on, this is tolerable as the kind of typical foundational work necessary to sustain a large and complicated argument; but about halfway into the book, I did find myself wondering whether I was reading the long-awaiting conclusion of James K.A. Smith’s trilogy or a footnote to Oliver O’Donovan’s oeuvre. There are some sections in this book that could have literally been transcribed as “Commentary and Analysis on a Few Passages from O’Donovan.”

This is disappointing because Smith has proved himself, time and again, in a wide variety of works, to be not only a winsome theologian but also a masterful rhetorician, bringing heady theology to an accessible level without overcomplicating unnecessary minutia or adding the “colloquialisms” of the academic in without explanation for an unlearned audience (although I did catch him using “always already” in its Althusserian accent once). The effect is that Awaiting the King feels like a book that was rushed to its publication without those final edits and final goings-over necessary to smooth out this overbearing quotation-heavy middle section.

Maybe our political-theological-historical situation in American Christianity merited quick response. A dying “evangelicalism” tied to political commitments finds itself faced against a resurgent progressive church building on millennial fervor; Smith’s (and O’Donovan’s) eschatologically-wise public theology is a much-needed antidote the false dichotomies and lost spiritual ground of our day and age. I can sense Smith’s editors thinking “this is the time for this book.” So, the rhetorical failure of Smith’s over-dependence on O’Donovan can be easily explained: this book needed to be published.

Still, the plethora of O’Donovan quotes really muck up the reading of the work and slow down its smoothness. (At the end of the day, O’Donovan’s tone and style are not nearly so winsome as Smith’s; and Smith’s rhetoric does not benefit from O’Donovan’s particular voice.) I would wish that the work had been given one or two more thorough readings, and that Smith had tried to better integrate O’Donovan’s speech with his own rhetoric and terms.

Final Thoughts

Smith’s overindulgence on O’Donovan and a few overwrought passages engaging theories of liberal democracy aside, Awaiting the King is a must-read for the late modern pastor, theologian, and disciple. Smith synthesizes our best political and ethical theologians — including antitheses like Hauerwas and Leithart — into his (a/e)ffective thesis of human liturgical formation for the sake of re-forming the world. In some sense, this is the politics of Schmemann’s For the Life of the World: how do Christians take our Eucharistic / priestly calling and engage the world around us with the Kingdom of God? As Smith notes at one point in a footnote, what Richard Rohr and Dallas Willard have done with private/personal spiritual disciplines, here he has accomplished a similar renewal in terms of the Church.

Here, we have a realized picture of what the Civitas Dei looks like in late modernity; and, as a pastor-theologian myself, I am excited and empowered with a vision and practical tools to actually begin to pursue the cultural-social-economic renewal of my community. This book ought be seen as a watershed for political theology, and I cannot emphasize enough that it is required reading in this day and age.