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.

As I announced last year at this time, I moved back to Charlotte to begin seminary training for the purpose of ordination. For the last year, I have had the joy of such training at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. RTS is a fine school in many respects, but I have been in the process of discerning whether RTS is the right fit for me. More pointedly, the question is whether the RTS vision for ministry, and the theology that underwrites that vision, is faithful and properly focused. There is no simple, yes or no, answer to that question. Yet, the weight of the “no” has dominated my thinking and praying, just as I am grateful for the “yes” in abundance at RTS.

So, this past semester I applied to Union Presbyterian Seminary, which has a campus in Charlotte. I was accepted, with nearly all of my credits transferred from RTS. Union is a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is the denomination of my church, Westminster, and the denomination in which I will pursue ordination. So, there is an obvious denominational advantage to Union over RTS, which primarily serves the other Presbyterian denominations which are, more or less, hostile to the PC(USA).

The shift from RTS to Union parallels a shift in my own Christian convictions for several years now, away from a type of evangelical theology that dominates conservative circles. It would take too long to enumerate the many influences and events along the way: the professors, the books, the peers and friends. Needless to say, a guy who loves Karl Barth and Simone Weil is not a typical evangelical, if an evangelical at all.

The classical Reformed tradition has much to offer. It is properly theological as Barth himself understood in his appreciative treatment of Dort. But, the current proprietors of this classical Reformed theology are, far too often, compromised by a conservative cultural captivity that severely limits the life of theology in the church. This captivity is further compounded by a “worldview” suspicion about anything outside the church. Thus, theology is isolated from other disciplines, which themselves are transformed and mutilated in order to conform to a “Biblical” worldview. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the whole fiasco over evolutionary science, which has lately resulted in evangelicals moving even further to the right. The same can be said for the understanding of history, philosophy, art, and particular areas of study, such as gender. Currently, the method of engagement by conservative evangelicals, especially the Reformed, is wholly inadequate. I’ve harped enough on these issues in the past, so I won’t rehearse them now. As it stands, such conservatism will thrive to the extent that it can isolate itself from responsible study of the world, as it presents itself to us. Such isolation is increasingly difficult to maintain, with information technology and the migrations of people. But, the fear surrounding these cultural changes has been a boon for conservative religious circles…for the time being.

I also have little sympathy for theological reflection that barely moves above the level of the text, and I assume that readers know what I mean. Perhaps inerrancy is to blame for this, or at least an inerrancy that “secures” the foundation of all dogmatic formulations (such that, Biblical inerrancy comes before the doctrine of God!). My own view of Scriptural inspiration may or may not be classified as inerrantism, and I don’t care if I could pass that test. I am really striving for the God behind the text, which serves as a temporal and provisional witness.

These are just some examples that have come to mind. Certainly, no particular topic can be isolated and made a determining factor in my shift to Union. Nor do I wish to caricature RTS as wholly obsessed with certain hot-button issues, as if to the neglect of all else. I could detail a host of excellent things, from fine professors, that I have learned at RTS. I am thankful for that, but excited to be moving on.

Last week I spent a few days in the mountains for the Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival. There, I had the joy of seeing the finest bluegrass band to emerge in the last ten years: Steep Canyon Rangers, from Asheville, North Carolina. In the past couple years, they’ve received a lot of attention (for a bluegrass band at least), thanks to their album and tour with Steve Martin, actor-comedian and banjo player. Here’s a fun sampling of this union:

On a more serious note, here is one of my favorite tunes from the Rangers, “Knob Creek,” which can be found on their latest album:

I just got back from vacation in the mountains. On the way to Grandfather Mountain, we passed this beautiful Presbyterian church in Pineola. Of course, I insisted that we stop on the way back so I could take some pictures. Click to enlarge.