Mini-Review: An Introduction to Protestant Theology, Helmut Gollwitzer

July 24, 2012

I’m thinking of doing some brief book reviews over the next several weeks. First in the dock: Helmut Gollwitzer’s An Introduction to Protestant Theology (Westminster Press, 1982).

According to the publisher’s blurb on the back cover, Helmut Gollwitzer (1908-1993) is “Karl Barth’s most controversial living disciple.” Gollwitzer, who completed his doctorate in Basel under Barth, attained this controversial status over years of political and social advocacy while a professor of systematic theology in Bonn and then Berlin. This aspect of his career is highlighted by the subtitle, added by the publisher for the English edition: “In the tradition of Barth & Bonhoeffer; a theology of freedom and solidarity.” Given the little I’ve read about Gollwitzer and his “radical” politics, I went into this book expecting Hauerwas on steroids.

There is idol smashing, to be sure, but I found this to be a measured and serious doctrinal treatise, not a socialist screed. The religious socialism comes later in the book, with intimations early on; and it is likewise measured and carefully qualified. But this is only after putting forth the doctrinal material with methodological reflections. The first two chapters deal with prolegomena, including the place of theology in the modern academy. The next three chapters deal with core dogmatic topics: “The Bible” (ch. 3), “Jesus Christ” (ch. 4), and “God” (ch. 5). These are solid entries, but there will be nothing new here for anyone who is already familiar with the neo-orthodox approach to these topics. I know “neo-orthodox” is a contentious term and too ill-defined to be serviceable for many, but I find it useful to identify common moves across a number of Protestant theologians at this time, all of whom were resourcing the Reformation for today. One such move is to locate the authority of Scripture in the living and active Word of God in Jesus Christ, not in inerrant autographs which tends to domesticate and naturalize the Word. If there was ever a neo-orthodox maxim, that’s it. And it can be found in Brunner, Barth, Torrance, and here in Gollwitzer.

As much as I appreciate this first half of the book on theological groundwork, Gollwitzer is in his element when he turns to social and ecclesial issues. The quality of the writing increases as well. This second half of the book has the most to offer to theological students who are already well-versed in the contemporary dogmatic points made in the first half. In particular, the stand-out chapters for me were “Christianity and Judaism” (ch. 7), “Grace and Gratitude” (ch. 9), and “Discipleship in the Conflicts of the World” (ch. 10). The tenth chapter on discipleship is especially noteworthy for his nuanced insights into how discipleship really functions. For example:

Becoming a Christian is a change in this world, of life in this world, not a removal into another, transcendent life. It is indeed a being summoned out of my previous life, but a being summoned into my previous world, into the world of the old life.

…not everything in the old life is wrong. What is wrong in the old life comes from its contradiction to the life of a created being, which it still always is at the same time; i.e., it is still a life willed and affirmed by God, daily equipped in many bodily and spiritual ways. I share in this, and take part in it, in the natural basis, the work for maintenance of life, in intellectual life with its knowledge and innovations, in joy, pleasure, and grief, in the whole range of man’s divinely given powers. A too-pious renunciation of cultural life is a sin against faith in the Creator. [p. 181]

This careful parsing of the ways in which the new life abides with the old life, in a “radical but not total” disjunction between the two, continues throughout his social and political theology. These are mature reflections from a man who has clearly lived with this disjunction and has sought the best ways to make the discontinuity (between the old and new creation) known and expressed in church thinking.

In sum: I recommend this for seminarians and other theology students. Technical terminology is kept to a minimum, but the conceptual complexity would make it too difficult for those entirely outside the guild. The first half can be skimmed, if not skipped altogether, for most students. The second half will bear fruit.

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2 Responses to “Mini-Review: An Introduction to Protestant Theology, Helmut Gollwitzer”

  1. John said

    Would anyone to whom God was completely obvious as an all pervading feeling-energetic presence which one could consciously breath in and out with every breathe, SMOKE A PIPE?
    Thereby sucking into his lungs a stream of toxic chemicals. Which then enter the blood stream. Which then carries the toxins/poisons to every cell of the body.

    Which is to point out that such a person is effectively systematically destroying his body – the body (which is itself a form of Conscious Light) being the temple which houses his soul and the holy spirit.

  2. Mike Cheek said

    Kevin, your book reviews are always appreciated. Thanks.

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