Book Reviews

 

Dr Donald Bloesch

Christian Foundations series

and others

 

 

New - Oct 2007  - Spirituality Old and New

 

by

David Parker

© copyright Oct 2007

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Spirituality Old and New: Recovering Authentic Spiritual Life (2007)
 
A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority & Method in Theology (1992)
Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration and Interpretation (1994)
God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (1995)
Jesus Christ: Saviour and Lord (1997)
The Holy Spirit: Work and Gifts (2000)
The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission (2002)
The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgment, Glory (2004)

 


 

Spirituality Old and New: Recovering Authentic Spiritual Life

Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007

 

 

 

After completing his seven volume ‘Theological Foundation’ series, Donald Bloesch has turned to the topic of spirituality, simply defined as ‘the way we live out our religious commitment.’ This is a book which gives him the chance to draw on many of his distinctive theological themes, especially Word and Spirit: ‘True spirituality is based on the paradoxical unity of Word and Spirit, and this unity is conveyed to us through earthen vessels—especially the preaching of the Word in the assembly of believers’ (p. 142). It also displays in a sustained manner his distinctive style of writing—the juxtaposition of contrasting views of the topic under consideration. For example, in differing systems of spirituality, the body is seen as ‘the vessel of the soul’, ‘the tomb of the soul’ or ‘the seed of the soul’, or they stress ‘eternity of God’, ‘the sovereignty of God’ or ‘the potential or future of God.’

 

This book lends itself well to this kind of treatment because more than half of it consists of a delineation of three ideal types of spirituality—mysticism, classic biblical personalism and ‘the new spirituality’. The main focus of three systems can be characterized distinctively from various perspectives. For example, ‘in mainstream mysticism life is a quest for happiness in union with God. In biblical religion life is a witness to God’s gracious election brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In modern religion life is an invitation to demonstrate heroic virtue. Or life is a transmutation of matter into spirit’ (p. 131).

 

After various introductory topics are considered, Chapter 3 gives a brief outline of these three types of spirituality, with the following chapters devoted to extended presentations of their features, but always in reference to each other, comparing and highlighting the contrasts. Chapter 7 continues the same method, but by showing how each of the three types of spirituality relate to key Christian doctrines and practices, such as the person of God, Christology, ecclesiology, prayer and the like. Thus, ‘Faith in biblical religion is trust in the underserved mercy of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In classical mysticism faith is a venture into the darkness of the unknown culminating in the vision of God beyond the boundary of death. In the new spirituality faith is power force that works miracles’ (p. 132).

 

This is a very helpful synthesis which cannot help but leave the reader completely clear about the author’s views on the nature and values of biblical or evangelical spirituality, which is ‘centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ and dedicated to the conversion of a lost humanity’ (p. 140) and is guided by ‘Holy Scripture as the infallible norm for faith and practice (p. 22).

 

It leads on to the final chapter which takes the author’s own personal views further in terms of the Kingdom of God, showing how evangelical spirituality involves fellowship, service and witness arising out of a personal relationship of trust and worship of the personal God of the Bible. This chapter serves to reinforce Bloesch’s concern that there is a ‘crisis in spirituality’ caused by ‘theological erosion’ in which the church has been ‘accommodated to new winds of doctrine’ that contradict historic Christianity. This spirituality is without doctrinal substance, and, he explains, can be seen in a variety of forms including the electronic church, the New Age movement, some forms of Pentecostalism (including contemporary worship, prosperity doctrine, the positive confession movement), feminist spirituality and the emerging church movement. 

 

Most of the treatment of spirituality in this book is general and theological (rather than oriented to spiritual practices) and, typically of the author, with a very wide perspective on history and the scope of Christian experience.  Appendices throughout the book treat particular issues—Gnosticism, the new age spirituality and Thérèse of Lisieux (who is presented as one with significant evangelical sympathies); a final appendix highlights one of the hymns of Pietism. However, it is only in the last chapter that there is any specific reference to the dominant Pentecostal or Charismatic spirituality which, according to the author, is ‘basically evangelical in orientation.’ But it ‘reflects mystical motifs’ (due to its roots in mysticism and pietism) and has the ‘danger’ of tending to ‘elevate the Spirit over the written Word’ and, reflecting the new spirituality, sees God as ‘erupting power rather than redeeming mercy’ (p. 146).

 

Another appendix reflects the main conclusion of the work—the unresolved tension between evangelical spirituality and the other two streams selected for discussion. While Bloesch is at pains to emphasise repeatedly that individuals, whether contemporary or from the past, may exhibit any of the three types of spirituality in varying degrees and combinations, the systems themselves are in principle irreconcilable. This means that evangelical Christianity cannot contemplate adopting either of the other two system if it wants to remain faithful to its sources. With this clear message reinforced strongly and with a warm and passionate presentation, this is book from a senior evangelical theologian that is important reading for Christians today.

 


 

 

The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgment and Glory

(Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004)

In this the final volume of his seven part 'Christian Foundations' series, Donald Bloesch (Emeritus Professor of Theology, Dubuque Theological Seminary) emphasises strongly the distinctive evangelical theology of Word and Spirit that has characterised the project throughout. He ends up with an 'Afterword' on the topic and a full bibliography of his extensive writings and works about them.

Biblical authority interpreted according a non-rationalist (or fundamentalist) manner, and copious references to the subordinate authority of 'sacred tradition', are prominent features as he tackles conventional topics in the area of eschatology - millennium, death, resurrection, judgement, heaven and hell, the intermediate and final states. His conclusions (such as a re-emphasis on 'hades' and paradise) emphasise the victory and lordship of Christ, the cruciality of the cross, and the final sovereignty of God. But even so, he is not satisfied with standard answers which appear to him to be imbalanced or without adequate support.

For example, avoiding both futurism and preterism, and trying to bring 'a semblance of unity to evangelical churches' which are so divided on this matter, he opts for a 'transmillennialism.' Arguing that 'one glaring weakness' of premillennialism is 'its lack of firm biblical basis' and rejecting an over-literalizing hermeneutic, he proposes a 'realizing or unfolding millennium.' This holds that the kingdom of Christ belongs to 'both history and superhistory' and is in the process of being revealed - 'its inauguration has already occurred at his first coming.' He explains, 'Now we have the millennium in its preliminary phase; then we shall see it in its manifest or consummate stage.' The millennium is therefore 'a fluid symbol' of the 'earth in a stage of transition from history to eternity . . . of the world in the process of being transfigured by the glory of God' (pp 109-111).

But even more than this, Bloesch's theological principles lead him to explore unusual, and as he puts it in the Preface, 'controversial positions, ' - but ones, nevertheless, that always 'stand in continuity with the biblical message.' One such example, which is treated in different places throughout the book, is the impact of the 'triumph of grace' and the fact that in the biblical witness to God, there is no ultimate dualism. When applied to teaching about judgement and the final state of unbelievers, this means that there can be no simplistic view of hell as an eternal state completely outside the rule of God. Not wanting to abandon the notion of hell for sentimental or other reasons, Bloesch affirms that 'The reality of hell must be taken seriously but this is not a hell outside the compass of the love of God. . . . . we must affirm no ultimate dualism but instead a duality within an ultimate unity. There is no coeternal evil . . .' With passages such as Psalm 139:8 and Philippians 2:11 in mind, he argues that we must 'see that God's judgment is not opposed to his glory; his glory is indeed revealed in his judgment. The glory of God already fills all things, but it will be revealed as all-encompassing when Christ comes again to judge and redeem the world.' From the point of view of the unbeliever, hell is seen as 'the horror of eternal separation from God' but 'the pain in hell is due to the presence of God rather than to his absence, to his unfathomable love rather than to any abysmal hatred, or what is worse, gross indifference' (p 217-8).

As Bloesch attempts to brings all of the biblical parameters to bear on difficult topics, he presents a position which is typically positive and hopeful, and full of grace, and which contrast strongly with pessimistic, vengeful or apocalyptic eschatologies which are often encountered. He may not carry all his readers with him in these views, but none would deny that it is necessary to push questions like this to the limits of their logic, sources, norms and especially their gospel dynamic. The caveats and examples mentioned by Bloesch adequately identify the zones of danger, thus allowing his reflections to open up possibilities that are worthy of serious consideration.

In line with this approach, the author is not restricted to the traditional topics but is anxious to give guidance on many important matters which are often omitted. This large twelve chapter book allows space to include many of these. One of the 'abysmally neglected' topics which he addresses is 'the communion of saints,' (including prayers and the dead) in which, incidentally, he draws upon Christian hymns for insights because 'while evangelical Protestants have been almost mute . . . in their excursions in systematic theology, their hymnody present a somewhat different picture.' Another important topic is 'Israel's Salvation' which includes the author's support for missions to the Jews, although, regrettably for the current context, it does not move into socio-political implications of evangelical teaching in this area. Other less frequently addressed topics covered include the spiritual world of angels and evil powers, and the Day of the Lord.

One chapter that does not seem so appropriate, at least at first sight, is 'Predestined to Glory' in which the traditional doctrine of election is addressed, without much integration with eschatology. However, it gives the author the opportunity (especially in an appendix to the chapter) to reiterate his theology of paradox, which for him is 'not a logical riddle nor a verbal puzzle but the inbreaking of a new reality into human thought and experience.' This means, of course, that 'We should not glory in paradox but rejoice in the reality that comes to us in the form of paradox' (p 186).

The opening chapter discussing the church in relation to culture, history and the kingdom of God is also unusual - although it is an appropriate bridge from the previous volume in this series. But it is far more than an exercise in systematic integration - it reflects an important aspect of the entire focus of the series and of the author's theology - as he states clearly in the 'Afterword' - 'My purpose in offering these volumes is not simply to refine theology's reflection on the Word of God but to pave the way for the reform of the church in the light of the Word of God.'

The final chapter carries this aim through to 'The Dawning of Hope.' Here the author rounds out his vision by extolling a worldview and spirituality focused on the supremacy of Christ and the consummation of kingdom for all creation, in contrast with false and unsatisfying positions such as fatalism, cynicism and determinism. He concludes,

We can face the future with hope because we have already been given a foretaste of future glory in the power of the Spirit. . . . We can embark on a pilgrimage of faith because we are energised by the Spirit, who liberates our will for obedience in the name of Christ. We can give ourselves to the service of the kingdom in the power of love because the Spirit rekindles within us the hope of the everlasting. ( p 260)

This hermeneutic of discipleship embodying well founded scholarship in the service of the gospel is the sign of good theology.


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The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission

(Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002)

If the previous volume in this 'Christian Foundations' series on the Holy Spirit by senior evangelical theologian, Donald Bloesch, was virtually a manual of spirituality (see review below), this volume is a handbook of pastoral theology. It consists of fourteen chapters covering a wide range of topics, typically surveyed in an introductory chapter, extending from the church, salvation and kingdom to creeds, mission, women in ministry, preaching and worship. While highly theological in character, the discussion is always angled to the outworking of the concepts and principles in the life and work of the church. But where the book offers detailed advice on church practice (on orders of worship and design of church buildings), it is less than successful.

The perspective is ecclesial (although not narrowly denominational), rather than inter- or non-denominational which is the more common approach of evangelical theologies. This approach accounts for the selection of topics and, of course, their treatment. Thus we find comprehensive treatment of topics such as ecumenism, the marks of the church, sacraments and authority - even Mary as a 'type of the church'. In these and other chapters, the author surveys with insight and sensitivity much of the classic and historic material, and, showing awareness of the contemporary issues, invariably comes back to the need for the church of today to be faithful to its divine calling as the people of God, based on the witness of Scripture and empowered by the Spirit.

Thus 'the ecumenical imperative' in an age of sectarianism is 'not one world church' but churches of all types that 'hold up Christ before the world' - 'not the conversion of one church into another but the continued conversion of all churches to Jesus Christ and his gospel.' Similarly, on the vexed issue of authority and leadership in the church, the author makes it clear that 'The pope has authority when he submits himself unreservedly to Scripture, when he places the gospel over his own wisdom and insights' and would 'earn the right to be listened to when he ceases to think of himself as a supreme authority in the church and is willing to view himself as simply a servant of the Word' for papal statements can only be a 'dim reflection of the truth of the gospel' unless purified and reinterpreted 'by the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures.'

What holds this variety of topics together is the author's concern for 'reformation [of the church] in the light of the Word of God and revival through the outpouring of the Spirit of God' which is founded on his distinctive underlying theology of Word and Spirit. The combination of these characteristics results in some highly perceptive, challenging and unusual discussions.

For example, the chapter on the 'Marks of the Church' commences by drawing attention to polarisation that has occurred by overemphasising either the Word (as in the tendency to 'biblicistic rationalism' of the Reformers) or the Spirit (Irenaeus or Moltmann). A short discussion of the classic 'Catholic Consensus' on the four marks, however, is followed by a valuable addition - on the 'Practical Marks' which relate to its identity and activity, making it 'visible to the world'. These marks include the Reformers' faithful preaching, gospel sacraments and discipline, but go on to cover fellowship of love, mission and service (of the Pietists and other spiritual movements), right teaching, peace, suffering and faithful leadership, holiness, community of later groups, and even signs and wonders (Pentecostal), liberation, and prayer. Not all of these are necessary for the essence of the church (not even sacraments and right doctrine!), for fear of 'excluding those whom God includes' whatever their limitations may be. But the author is still not finished, because he moves on to a section on 'Marks of the False Church' - which he identifies as insularism and exclusivism, inclusivism, latitudinarianism, heretodoxism and experimentalism. Ultimately the mark of a true church is not some outward form in and of itself, but the fact that 'people are brought into mystical union with Christ through faith and repentance.'

Another interesting chapter brings a sociological approach to the study of the church, with focus on work in this field by Troeltsch, Weber, Niebuhr and others. Although writing from a mainline church position, the author's evangelical spirit finds considerable sympathy for the 'sect type' in that 'churches, institutions firmly established in society and standing in continuity with Christian tradition, need to incorporate the sectarian impulse if they are to maintain their religious identity and remain true to their mission of bringing hope and meaning to a lost and despairing world.' As helpful as this sociological taxonomy is for the understanding of the church's mission, Bloesch does not believe the church's life is determined purely by its social context and so characteristically calls attention to the need also for a theological analysis, focusing on issues of orthodoxy, heresy and apostasy.

The intensity of this book increases as it proceeds, with chapters calling for renewal of worship, a recovery of biblical preaching and increased attention to the urgent need for the church's gospel mission in a syncretistic world. Like a 'tract for the times', it comes to a climax in the final chapter which draws attention to 'the foundations of religion . . . crumbling', 'theocentric worship . . fast eroding', increasing syncretism, people 'hankering after other gods.' In the light of these developments, the author declares that the 'church is impelled to declare anew the biblical truth that there is only one God and that he has revealed himself decisively and irrevocably in Jesus Christ, who is attested and exalted in Scripture.' Hence he calls for 'a confessing church' that 'courageously confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord and that the gospel is crucial in our time and culture.' This is not a 'creedal church' although 'a confessional stance will invariably lead to a restatement of the Christian faith that will sharpen what is distinctive'. Such a confession arising out of intense study and prayer, would have as its goal 'a purified and reformed church' - it would speak to the whole church, and prophetically to the world.

We need not agree necessarily with all of the author's views on the vast range of topics covered in this volume or with his assessment of the state of the church and culture to recognize the virtues of this type of approach to theology in general and ecclesiology in particular - a theology of Word and Spirit that seeks 'a contemporary reaffirmation of old truths, one that is based on the Bible, illumined by the Spirit and appropriated in the evangelical experience of an awakened heart.'

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The Holy Spirit: works and gifts

Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000

We welcome the fifth of Donald Bloesch's seven volume 'Christian Foundations' series. Written in his typical aphoristic and dialogical style, it is the largest so far and tackles irenically a number of thorny issues on the topic of the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Many of these are survey in the first main scene-setting chapter on the contemporary debate with extra comment and reflection at many other places in the book. Some of the most notable of these are the person of the Spirit, gifts, baptism, holiness and assurance, and (in a lengthy appendix to the chapter on Pentecostalism), demonism.

As Dr Bloesch is well aware, this work is as much a book on spirituality as it is of systematic theology (or perhaps even more so), and as such, it follows up on several of his earlier works in the same field. Historical theology is also a focus of treatment - in fact six out of the total of eleven chapters are given over to this perspective. As the author states, 'In order to grasp the mystery of the working of the Spirit as delineated in the Bible, one also needs to explore the manifestations of the Spirit in the history of the church.'

As well as ancient and classical authors, this historical overview covers recent and contemporary thought (orthodox and otherwise). Literally dozens of cameos present insights from an extremely wide range of people from every age, many of whom would not make it into the pages of more narrowly focused theological work but are shown to be essential for portraying the rich texture of heritage of Christian spirituality of the church. This may be one of the greatest strengths of the book, confirming the author's view that 'a comprehensive theology of the Spirit is formed not only out of the testimony of the prophets and apostles of biblical history but also out of the thoughts and deeds of the great saints in the various traditions of the church.' The primary impression one receives upon reading this vast panorama so skilfully presented is of the varied splendour and impressive power of God's grace.

The topic of this volume gives the author a good opportunity to reinforce many of the characteristic features of his 'Word and Spirit' theology already outlined in this 'Christian Foundations' series. For example, he opens with the warning that the 'the two deadliest enemies of true faith are formalism and spiritualism' and he goes on to highlight the dangers of evangelical rationalism, to emphasise Scripture as the Word of God over against a biblicistic approach and to affirm a sacramental rather than a sacramentalist position.

He is cautious about the tendency of the holiness and renewal movements towards subjectivism, legalism and perfectionism, but endorses them for their recovery of 'the biblical call to holiness', the priesthood of all believers and the awareness that there are ongoing blessings of the Spirit for the empowering of the Christian life, fellowship and mission. In a lengthy chapter on the Pentecostalism, which traces its background to a surprising number of these renewal movements, he finds that its shares many of the same benefits as its precursors. However, he is cautious about its superficiality, proclivity to sensualism, spiritualism and triumphalism. However, he welcomes a sense of self-criticism that he believes has promise for the future, and wants to see Pentecostalism regarded by others not as an 'adversary' but as 'a challenge to regain the fullness of the gospel.'

Some of the author's key theological perspectives take on special focus in view of contemporary conditions. In fact the book opens with a substantial introduction outlining a theology of the Christian life based on a 'revelation-pneumatic' position in the context of postmodernism. Reopening some topics which have already been discussed in this series, such as theological method, authority and the relation of the Bible and church, this chapter includes a long appendix on 'evangelical rationalism and propositional revelation.'

Although there is a strong emphasis on historical and contemporary perspectives, the biblical material is not overlooked. It is treated generally in a separate chapter - and occasionally in discussion in other places - but in a quite unusual move for the author, there is direct discussion in a 14 page Excursus to chapter 10 of several 'difficult texts.' These include John 3; Pentecost in John and Acts; Acts chapters 2 and 8; Galatians 4; and 1 John 5. However, they are treated separately as discrete texts only and not synthesised or strongly related to the main argument.

Although the author presents his evaluation of various movements and ideas throughout the book, it is not until the final two chapters that his own theological views are presented more systematically. Even so, the particular treatment here only partly reflects the subtitle of this volume, although the intended focus of the whole book on 'the work of the Spirit in renewing the church and shaping the Christian life rather than on his person' is carried through effectively.

In relating the Spirit to the Trinity, he works from the unity of the Godhead and is cautious about the contemporary emphasis on the social relations in the Trinity. Therefore, he upholds the filioque clause and opposes trends towards a 'Spirit christology' and those who seek the Spirit 'in the inner recesses of the human self' awaiting discovery. As expected, Bloesch finds a close nexus but not identification between Spirit and Word and between Spirit and water; he emphasises the revealing and regenerating work of the Spirit and the spiritual gifts.

For Bloesch, the Christian life is one of pilgrimage, and 'the metaphor that most clearly describes' it is 'battle' yet in a positive assured sense because he advocates a springtime theology, not a wintry one (as in orthodox Calvinism and Lutheranism) or a summery one (as in the Holiness movement and Pentecostalism). This is perhaps why he ends the book with a strongly worded appendix on 'A theology of the cross' which critiques Michael Horton's In the Face of God for failing to realise that there is both a theologia crucis and a theologia gloriae.

In a closing statement which reflects the hallmark of Dr Bloesch's thinking, he sums up his theology of spirituality:

'Indeed, the cross without the resurrection becomes a pretext for despair just as the resurrection without the cross becomes a fantasy that deceives. Our mandate is to herald both the reconciling work of Christ on the cross and the redeeming power of the Spirit of Christ who seals the truth of the gospel within us through the experience of faith. . . . The way to glory is through the cross, but the cross itself brings assurance of glory, for the Spirit surprises us with joy even in our descent into the darkness of sacrificial service in the name of Christ.'


A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority & Method in Theology

(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992)

 

A Theology of Word and Spirit is the first volume in a new series called Christian Foundations by Donald G. Bloesch (PhD, University of Chicago, 1956) who has been on the faculty of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (Presbyterian Church USA) since 1957 and is due to retire in 1993. He is a prolific writer in the area of evangelical theology, spirituality and ethics, and is perhaps best known for Essentials of Evangelical Theology (2 vols: Harper and Row, 1978-9) and The Evangelical Renaissance (Hodder and Stoughton, 1973).

This is his 26th book, and previous works include two theological diaries, one edited work, one co-edited work, two co-authored and one book of songs; he has also published more than hundred articles, reviews and contributions to symposia and reference works.

This ambitious new series (a projected seven volumes over the next eight to ten years) is designed to treat specific theological issues in greater depth and with broader appeal than his previous works. Appropriately, the first volume is devoted to theological foundations, and deals with topics such as revelation, faith, reason, authority, language and method with a view to establishing the basis for a theology that is comprehensive (or catholic) and evangelical, as well as one that serves the church in renewal, witness and worship.

However, in the compass of its 273 pages of attractively laid out text (plus extensive notes, complete indices and several appendices but no bibliography), it manages to deal with many other issues as well including apologetics, ethics, evangelism and theology proper, as well as offering an analysis of contemporary theological trends and mapping out options for future development.

As usual, Bloesch presents a tightly integrated system, reiterating fundamental themes in the manner of a good teacher and showing how they relate to various aspects of his thinking even if this involves a certain amount of repetition. He also provides succinct summaries of biblical material and surveys of historical theology, as well as making many applications to the life and witness of the church.

Gender neutral language has also been introduced for the first time in his writings, although not for divine names, an issue about which Bloesch has strong views. These views appeared in two of his earlier books, Is the Bible Sexist (Crossway Books, 1982) and The Battle for the Trinity (Servant Books, 1985) and have been repeated in some detail in this latest offering (p 81-94).

Readers familiar with his earlier books, especially The Ground of Certainty (Eerdmans, 1971), The Christian Life and Salvation (Eerdmans: 1967) and Christian Witness in a Secular Age (Augsburg, 1968) will notice that in A Theology of Word and Spirit he has provided an excellent restatement of his distinctive theological ideas, with "some slight changes in my theological perspective," as he puts it. (p 11) These are largely changes of emphasis, (rather than of substance) due to changes in how Bloesch perceives the current theological climate. Most of these emphases have been noticeable in articles which have appeared over the last few years, but they are now brought together much more systematically.

Instead of the existentialism, secularism and neo-Protestantism which mainly occupied his attention earlier, he now focuses more on "undogmatic theology" which is "free from the constraint of biblical or confessional norms," (p 16) that is "divested of its metaphysical import" and is "focused on the language and psychology of faith rather than its veracity and universal normativeness." (p 11)

Accordingly, he now places greater emphasis on the truth content and metaphysical implications of revelation, which leads to a small but subtle change in his definition of theology. This is now more clearly seen as the "faithful exposition of what God has revealed in Holy Scripture," (pp 18, 38, 114, 129) rather than "a true understanding of the will and purpose of God disclosed in Jesus Christ" (Future of Evangelical Christianity Doubleday: 1983, 122)

In the interests of the "catholic" aspect of his theology (universality in outreach and continuity with the whole church p 124) he now consistently relates God's self-revelation in Scripture to the tradition of the church where it is witnessed or reaffirmed. Similarly he spells out in more detail the inter-relationships between the relative norms which he lays down as the sources and authorities for theology - Scripture, church and conscience. (p 196f)

But he still follows a Barthian line in strongly rejecting natural theology, natural law, rationalism and evidential apologetics (not least in their evangelical forms) in favour of what he now calls "fideistic" or "dynamic revelationism." (p 21) He still faults Protestant and Catholic liberalism, process, liberation and feminist theologies (and now also narrative theology, the New Age movement and the pluralistic theology of religions) for accommodating and correlating themselves too much with the contemporary mindset and culture. He also repeats his charge accusing much evangelical theology with an irresponsible disengagement from modernity in its misguided efforts to restore the values of a pre-critical age.

Essentially, however, the book is an updated, more detailed and sharply focused outline of the basic elements of Bloesch's theology of Word and Spirit which he has expounded from the beginning of his career.

 Showing his fidelity to the classic Reformation doctrines, he begins with the living God personally addressing us in the Gospel of Christ, as attested in Scripture and reaffirmed in the teaching and witness of the church. The appropriation of this salvation in the awakening to faith through the illumination of the Spirit is only fully actualised in a life of costly discipleship and devotion to Christ within the context of the church, its worship, witness and service in the world.

What is distinctive in Bloesch's approach is first of all a profound integration of objective and subjective elements so it is truly a case of a theology of Word and Spirit. This has important implications for the nature of theology because it makes the experience of faith a correlative of revelation, although they are not on an equal par (p 14) because of the total independence of the absolute norm, God's self-revelation in Christ. (p 196)

It also means that the purpose of the theological enterprise is to lead the church to greater devotion and conformity to the will of God as known in Christ. As a human formulation of the content of divine revelation, theology is a humble, open-ended exercise of piety (summa pietatis - Calvin p 124) rather than a dogmatic intellectual exercise which seeks rational certainty about divine truth. It is "a venture of obedience before it is a search for a deeper understanding - either of divinity or of humanity." (p 133)

This view of theology as "faith seeking understanding" greatly enhances its role in relation to the church, especially its witness, renewal and unity, which is a highly prominent feature of Bloesch's work.

Then arising out of the above, the second distinctive feature is the role of paradox and its extensive impact upon theological method and content. With Kierkegaard, Bloesch points to the foundational paradox of the divine-become-human in the incarnation as a key to understanding the Christian faith. He also builds a great deal on the paradoxical unity of divine and human elements in Scripture, (which will be the topic of the second volume in the Christian Foundations series) but he also identifies similar characteristics in the other loci of theological authority, church and conscience, (pp 199-202) and especially in salvation and the Christian life - the "paradox of salvation" is that "God does all but in and through human decision and obedience." (p 247)

Indeed, for Bloesch, paradoxical (and analogical) language is a necessity for the explication of the Word of God, not because there is ultimate mystery, but because of the limitations of fallen human reason. Bloesch is emphatic about the noetic effects of sin, which is the reason for his sharp rejection of natural theology and rationalistic apologetics and for his condemnation of semi-Pelagian forms of revivalism. But in this volume he is much more affirmative that "there is no paradox in Christ himself nor in his relation to God," for he is the "divine rationality . . . the Logos, the power and wisdom of God." (p 199)

Bloesch finds the concept of "paradox" extremely effective when dealing with the "new reality" (p 200) of Christ and in many related matters. Thus he uses it not only to explicate the relationship of divine and human in salvation, but also as a means to resolve long-standing doctrinal and ecclesiastical conflicts. This commitment to a centrist approach which does not involve a compromise but a synthesis of theological polarities and a desire for Christian unity based on the Gospel is a key feature of Bloesch's proposal for a catholic and evangelical theology.

He employs the idea of paradox in conjunction with his distinctive view of the nature of theology when advocating a confessional, kerygmatic theology that stands over against modern culture to transform it, rather than one that is in synthesis or correlation with it, as is the case with so much of the contemporary theology he describes in this book.

The overall purpose of his theological work is "to equip the church to make a powerful and compelling witness [in both word and deed] to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ as we find this in Holy Scripture" and thus to "prepare the way for the kingdom of God." (p 24) However, by the end of the book he seems to have his eye more on the discordant theological voices and the threat of an impending church conflict which calls for a "new kind of confessional theology" (p 267) than he does on the call for church renewal.

In this volume his customary dialectic style of writing is still apparent, which sometimes leaves the reader grasping for tangible content but at the same time experiencing a satisfying sense of illumination and edification. But in fact, this is intrinsic to those basic principles which have made his work so significant for evangelical and ecumenical theology. This book provides an excellent statement of those principles and offers a promise of more to come in the remaining volumes of the series.

 

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Holy Scripture: revelation, inspiration and interpretation

(Carlisle: Paternoster / Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994)

 

Holy Scripture is the second volume in a new systematic theology series, Christian Foundations, being published by Donald Bloesch, emeritus professor of theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. (For the first, A Theology of Word and Spirit, see ERT 17:4 October 1993, 509-512). In tackling critical elements of the doctrine of Scripture in this expanded form, Bloesch consolidates and refines his position as expressed in earlier writings, especially Essentials of Evangelical Theology. Expounding his distinctive "progressive evangelicalism", his main concern is to steer between two equally unacceptable and increasingly polarised options. On the one hand, there is a rationalistic biblicism which treats Scripture as if it were a legalistic text or even an oracle; on the other, a "latitudinarianism that plays fast and loose with the biblical texts". Bloesch’s preference is for a view which sees Scripture as the written Word of God which is "by virtue of its divine inspiration a reliable witness to the truth revealed by God in Jesus Christ." However, "it becomes the living Word when it actually communicates to us the truth and power of the cross of Christ through the illumination of the Spirit.".

The first part of the book sets the topic in its contemporary scholarly and church context with emphasis on "the crisis in biblical authority," and then proceeds to as detailed discussion of revelation and inspiration. Bloesch rightly sees the approach to Scripture as crucial for all other theological issues. Although he holds a high view of Scripture and its authority, he rejects the idea that the Word of God can be identified simply with the text of the Bible. Instead, he sees it as a "mediate source of divine revelation"; the "ultimate source is the living Christ, who speaks to us by his Spirit." Following on the theme of his earlier volume, Bloesch affirms "the paradoxical unity of Word and Spirit so that the reception of the Word is both a rational apprehension and a redeeming experience."

Bloesch’s comprehensive approach is seen a chapter on tradition in which he discusses the complex relationship between Scripture and the church, including tradition, canon and the role of the believing community for the proper reception of the power of Scripture as the Word of God. He affirms the need to recognize that "church tradition is not the container of the truth of the gospel but the sign and witness of the forward movement of this truth in history." However, he warns that the gospel is "imparted in such a way that it is never our possession but always our goal and hope."

The second half of the book, which is more tightly constructed than the first, turns to the important issue of hermeneutics. A general discussion of the topic is followed by a chapter devoted entirely to "Rudolf Bultmann: An Enduring Presence." Bloesch regards Bultmann as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century in regard to biblical studies and especially hermeneutical issues. This judgement is reinforced in the concluding chapters on the Bible and myth, and biblical and philosophical perspectives on truth. Bloesch recognizes that the Bible contains various literary forms, some of which may be described as "mythopoetical" by which he means an "imagistic language describing the dramatic interaction between divinity and humanity . . . that cannot be captured in literal or univocal language." However, this does not imply that the "reality that this language describes is mythological" and nor does it limit the ability of Scripture to convey the truth of God’s word. Nevertheless, Bloesch asserts that the forms must be taken seriously since we only have access to the Word in its literary form. But the "transformative and informative" truth of God’s Word is to be found in obedient faith rather than in assent to some rationalistic concepts or being caught up in some moral or mystical experience.

Bloesch’s dependence on key mentors such as Barth and P.T. Forsyth is once again clearly apparent, as are his skilful presentations of insights from historical theology and his creative integration of theological insights with spiritual realities. Similarly, crucial interpretative concepts such as paradox and Christological gospel-centred hermeneutics are used extensively. Bloesch devotes special attention, (sometimes in appendices attached to the relevant chapters), to topical issues such as theological method, inerrancy, narrative theology and the status of the Apocrypha. These, and discussions of some prominent evangelical positions, together with extensive documentation, combine to make this volume an important point of reference for the thinking of one of evangelicalism’s most respected senior theologians.

 

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God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love

(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995)

 

This is the third in Donald Bloesch’s new theological series, Christian Foundations. The earlier volumes were devoted to theological method and the doctrine of Scripture. He now tackles classic and contemporary issues relating to the theology of God in an "expositional theology" with twin emphases. First, there is a clear presentation of what he calls the "biblical-prophetic" understanding of God which contrasts in many ways with other historic and modern treatments. But then above all it reveals a God who is personal and one who calls for the worship and service of his creatures. As Bloesch puts it in the conclusion, "We can worship this God because of the majesty of his glory. We can love this God because he has chosen to meet us on our level and enter into personal relations with us."

The general line taken by the author is clear from the title and subtitle, indicating that he has little sympathy with much contemporary thinking which speaks of God’s vulnerability or speaks of God in impersonal terms. Thus a considerable proportion of the volume is devoted to an exposition of the classic attributes.

In accordance with his customary rigour, Dr Bloesch, Emeritus Profess of Theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary, Iowa, commences with an investigation of philosophical questions, such as act and being; essence, existence and attributes; God and necessity, and rationalism and mysticism. While not conceding that philosophy can be a source of divine knowledge or a "preamble to theology," he is not hesitant to employ philosophy and reason to clarify our understanding of God as revealed in Scripture. He argues that "We should indeed strive for as much coherence as possible but at the same time recognize that no human mind can grasp the mystery" of God’s merciful ways with his people.

This clears the way for a discussion of the "self-revealing God" which includes treatment of mysticism, natural theology and Scripture, and is followed by further chapters on transcendence and immanence. Rejecting deistic interpretations as well as the popular contemporary pantheistic and panentheistic approaches, Bloesch opts for the "dynamic transcendence" of the biblical God who is known as unbounded love in the Christ, the one who "reaches out to us even in our sin and depravity in order to draw us toward himself."

From here, the author goes on in a series of chapters to discuss the other major divine attributes - power, wisdom, holiness and love, clarifying the biblical data with copious historical and philosophical references and insightful explanations, including extended treatments of classic topics such as creation and evil.

The last substantive chapter covers the Trinity with a competent outline of the biblical and historical material, a subject which Bloesch regards as "the culmination of biblical and apostolic reflection on the nature and activity of the living God." His treatment, which includes a discussion of contemporary issues such as the nature of "person" in a section devoted to "restating the Trinity," is supplemented by a thoughtful exposition of trinitarian spirituality (especially, relating to prayer) and appendices on unitarianism and the question of subordination and equality in the Godhead

In the remaining chapters, he restates much of the earlier material in a different arrangement (and often goes beyond it to other related areas of theology) as he contrasts the biblical position with the biblical-classical synthesis, in which "the ontological categories of Greco-Roman philosophy have been united with the personal-dramatic categories of biblical faith" - often with detrimental results. Covering such topics as providence, truth, love, grace, prayer, justification and resurrection, a vintage Bloesch presents a dynamic kaleidoscope of the history of theology and the dangers for the faith of the church of substituting belief in the living God with belief in an impassible Absolute Being and the subsequent impact of metaphysical speculation in place of personal encounter with the Word become flesh.

Another shorter chapter is dedicated to the danger of the biblical-modern synthesis, which since the Renaissance has sought "to accommodate the faith to modernity" (and post-modernity). Here Bloesch focuses on issues such as to the authority of the autonomous self, the contemporary stress on radical divine immanence, a God of temporality and futurity who is "dynamic becoming" and a post-Christian naturalistic mysticism. He thus draws attention to a radically new worldview which stands in contrast to the biblical and classical approaches.

While, at first sight, these two chapters may seem somewhat extraneous, it is in them that the author reveals the main burden of his case, viz., that both the classic synthesis and the views of modern scholars who rightfully react against the weaknesses of this synthesis fail to represent the full truth of the "biblical-prophetic" view of the holy, almighty personal God. His own exposition is a highly stimulating example of the way it is possible to hold together "the polarities that are reflected in God’s nature and activity" as revealed in Scripture.

This is the reason why he includes a detailed discussion of the "open view theism," as proposed by certain recent evangelical scholars; he sympathises with their rejection of non-biblical views of God such as that presented by the biblical-classical synthesis, but remains uneasy about their conclusions, claiming that they need to be "more thoroughly biblical and also more solidly evangelical."

The early chapter on philosophic understanding reinforces Bloesch’s contention that understanding God as revealed in Scripture requires the utmost intellectual effort as well as the deepest devotion.

Thus Bloesch’s most recent work is as welcome for its sound judgement about the crucial issues facing the doctrine of God as it is for its theological content and spiritual sensitivity.

 

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Jesus Christ: Saviour and Lord

(Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1997)

 

For the fourth volume in his comprehensive theological series, Christian Foundations, Donald G. Bloesch, Professor of Theology Emeritus of Dubuque Theological Seminary, turns to a study of the person and work of Jesus Christ. After a brief survey of some of the key issues in contemporary discussion, he clearly indicates the nature of his approach to this much disputed area of theology by declaring that we "cannot fully appreciate the significance of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as his incarnation apart from a keen perception of the plight of humanity corrupted by sin." In his typical style, he first surveys a range of views on the subject (both Christian and otherwise) and then gives a clear although not extended statement of the biblical position; he takes care to include personal, corporate and social aspects of sin..

This initial chapter opens the way for a discussion of the incarnation, with summaries of early and later Christological perspectives and heresies; the author includes a helpful investigation of the different emphases found amongst Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed churches. In re-affirming orthodox Chalcedonian Christology, Bloesch warns that "the heresies of the church all have their source in the often well-meaning attempt to rationalize or resolve the christological paradox" thus giving rise to either docetic or ebionitic views, both of which are unsatisfactory. He seeks to overcome this problem by beginning neither with "an abstract concept of God or Christ removed from history nor with the historical man Jesus" but with the "paradox of God himself entering world history at a particular place and time, in a particular historical figure - Jesus of Nazareth" or in other words, "the unique, incomparable" and personal, ontological union of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ.

Bloesch devotes a lengthy chapter to the Virgin Birth. He discusses the doctrine from various angles showing its historical and theological foundations, removing obstacles to its belief and warning against holding it for invalid reasons (including the idea that it proves the deity of Christ or that it was the only possible mechanism for the incarnation). Thus, not wanting to claim too much for this doctrine or too little, he affirms that it is "an ineradicable sign that God's great gift to humanity is entirely by grace." Although he holds that it is not a belief that is necessary for salvation, he believes it is "necessary to maintain the integrity and consistency of the witness of the church" and it "serves to safeguard the faith against any heresy that separates or obscures the two natures of Christ." Even if it is not a core belief like the gospel itself, the kernel of the faith, it is "a sign that serves to communicate the mystery." The chapter concludes with a full appendix on the "role of Mary", in which the author seeks to "reclaim Mary for the wider church." against the development of mariological doctrines; he asserts that from an evangelical perspective Mary is to be understood Christologically and given honour as "the handmaid of the Lord and therefore as a model of holiness" according to the biblical witness.

Bloesch's Christological discussion does not include traditional sections proving the deity and humanity of Christ, but it does contain a short chapter on the pre-existence of Christ, which the author acknowledges in his introduction as a point of some significance for him. After outlining various alternatives from the history of theology, he takes a minority option which affirms belief in the "preexistent humanity of Jesus Christ." In adopting this position, he again follows Karl Barth, to whom he is indebted for many insights (although not uncritically). Bloesch does not believe that the "man Jesus preexisted in heaven as a separate being" but, basing his views on a profound theology and in coordination with his fundamental incarnational approach to Christology, he thinks in terms of "individuality, embodiment, vulnerability and dependency." These are all are implied in "true deity" and have important consequences for and give strength to the notion of incarnation understood in the orthodox sense of the assumption of human flesh by the second person of the Trinity.

The second half of the book is devoted to chapters on the atonement, salvation, and the law and gospel. For Bloesch the "incarnation sets the stage for the atonement, though the work of redemption already begins in the decision of Christ to incarnate himself in human flesh." While Bloesch covers familiar material in these chapters, his own distinctive perspective linking both objective (atonement) and subjective (faith) aspects is clear; it is therefore possible for him to integrate thoroughly theology with spirituality, discipleship and ethics, and also to appreciate elements of otherwise rival theories of the atonement, salvation and sanctification. He is thus able to show a more catholic spirit than many other evangelical theologians, advocating the need to "draw upon the insights of the fathers of the early church as well as the doctors of the medieval church", and at the same time to "give serious attention to the enduring witness of the Protestant Reformation." Yet he is fully aware of the necessity of restating "the ancient faith in the language of the present day and [to] relate that faith to the pivotal issues in modern philosophy and culture", thus warning conservatives against the danger of simply returning naively to older positions.

Bloesch illustrates this approach to dealing with traditional doctrines in a new context with his treatment in the closing chapters on the lordship and the finality of Christ. He speaks of a "progressive lordship whereby the victory of Christ is carried forward into history through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit" which allows for both the final victory of Christ and a "christocracy" of word and prayer. Strongly counteracting "power theology", he points out that "As Christians we cannot bring in the kingdom but we can witness to it . . . We can announce the coming of the kingdom and call people to be ready for Christ's kingdom. We cannot build the kingdom, but we can serve the kingdom with the aid of the Spirit." This is a perspective which places a heavy emphasis upon the church's mission and its engagement in the world, but avoids the pitfalls of considering these topics exclusively in terms of doctrine, ecclesiology or the history of religions.

Throughout this lucidly written volume, the author touches on a wide range of issues, both contemporary and historical, effectively showing their key elements and responding in terms of his own distinctive theological insights and methods. Although the book does not provide as much detail as some readers might expect, it is a valuable statement of a senior evangelical theologian's understanding of some of the most important and controverted aspects of Christian truth today.

 

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