Theologian Donald Bloesch died a week ago at the age of 82. His friend and colleague Gabriel Fackre paid tribute to him in Christianity Today and commented that he was “underappreciated in his lifetime.”
His denomination (and mine), the United Church of Christ, certainly never paid him much heed. Fackre said, “Don was never given the recognition due to him in the UCC because he was a feisty critic of the liberal establishment. We both were doing our best in the United Church of Christ to call it back to its original ecumenical vision.”
But whether he got the recognition he deserved or not in the United Church of Christ, he never left it, and in doing so he embodied a steadfast commitment to church that reflected his own deep catholicity. In this regard he was an evangelical catholic in the best sense of the word, but he defied easy labels. He himself used such dialectical phrases as “progressive evangelical,” and “Ecumenical orthodox” to describe himself.
He called himself an evangelical theologian and he was on the board of Christianity Today to prove it, but he was never at home with the obscurantism and anti-intellectualism that so often attached itself to the label evangelical.
He came by the term honestly, since he was actually a big E evangelical, being born into the Evangelical Church, where his father and both his grandfathers were ordained ministers. The current minister of the First Evangelical Church in Bremen Indiana found his baptismal records. The records state: Donald George Bloesch, born, May 3, 1928, baptized, June 24, 1928. His father Herbert Bloesch was pastor there at the time.
The Evangelical Church (which joined with the German Reformed in 1934 to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church) was a German immigrant church with a lively combination of theological rigor and deep piety that clearly shaped Bloesch’s own approach to his theological projects.
In 1957 the E and R joined with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ and that became Bloesch’s church until he died.
Bloesch was actively involved in theological renewal movements in the United Church of Christ, and wrote the Dubuque Declaration, which became the statement of faith of the Biblical Witness Fellowship.
I think of Bloesch as an accessible interpreter of large theological ideas. He introduced many evangelicals to the thought of Karl Barth, a figure often viewed with suspicion in their camp, and to P.T. Forsyth, the great British pastor theologian of the cross. Bloesch brought fresh readings to these and other figures. His writing is easy to read and infused with a warm-hearted piety. Like Barth and Forsyth he wrote primarily for the church, not the academy, and he knew that fruitful theology grows best in the rich soil of active church life and personal piety (what today we, but not he, would call “spirituality.”)
Another corrective Bloesch’s theology offers to his evangelical brothers and sisters is an appreciation of the length and breadth of the church, that is, tradition and ecumenism. Fackre notes in the CT article that scholars as diverse as Roman Catholic Cardinal Avery Dulles and Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance paid tribute to Bloesch in the 1999 festschrift volume Evangelical Theology in Transition.
I am proud that he was a theologian in my denomination, and grateful for his contribution to the great church which he loved.