My Blog is Ten Years’ Old: A Retrospective

In the Beginning: 2009-2010

I’d like to thank all of you who have dropped by this blog over the years. It is hard for me to believe a decade has passed since I began it. I started to write again as a personal act of healing which in time morphed into a new chapter of my ministry. Continue reading

Meeting an on-line friend in the flesh: my travels with Jason

For the last five years or so, I have been in on-line correspondence with Jason Goroncy, a young theologian from Australia who teaches in New Zealand.

What brought us together was a shared interest in P.T. Forsyth, the great British theologian from the turn of the last century.

Jason had a blog entitled the P.T. Forsyth Files that I frequented, where he had posted PDF’s of Forsyth’s main books.  Along the way I noticed the high quality of both the look and the content of the blog, which he renamed Per Crucem Ad Lucem (“from the cross to the light”) after the inscription on Forsyth’s grave in Aberdeen.  Per Crucem Ad Lucem became my favorite blog to visit.

When I first discovered his blog Jason was at St Mary’s College at the University of St Andrews working on his PH.D. on Forsyth.  I knew the place well as my family and I had enjoyed a splendid sabbatical there in the spring of 1995, and while there I worked with Richard Bauckham on the Christian understanding of atonement, in what would become the bulk of my little book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement.

So I knew about Jason from his blog, and eventually he knew about me from my book.  He tracked me down via my friend Cliff Anderson, the curator of Reformed Collections at Princeton Theological Seminary, who was a fellow blogger with me at Confessing Christ, a United Church of Christ renewal movement.

Eventually, I offered to read Jason’s dissertation and he accepted my offer, and I spent a good deal of the summer of 2009 doing just that.  You can get to know someone pretty well by a close reading of their dissertation, and Jason and I went back and forth by e-mail almost weekly throughout that summer.

I also started my own personal blog in 2009, Retired Pastor Ruminates, and Jason was gracious in promoting it on his blog and using some of my posts on ministry with his students.

In time I invited him to visit us here in Pittsfield anytime he was nearby. And so it came to pass that this winter he registered for the annual Princeton Karl Barth Conference earlier this month, and I suggested he spend some extra time at one end or the other to see us in the Berkshires.

So Jason took the plunge to stay with folks he had never met, and we took the plunge to have him, and the result was a lovely visit and a new dear friend.

Continue reading

Bridging Two Worlds: the Church and the Academy

As I have written before, my favorite theology blog is Jason Goroncy’s Per Crucem ad Lucem. On his blog today, On the relation between the pulpit and the academy, he has a terrific quote from Charles Partee:

‘[I]f God speaks, and if God speaks in the church, then on some subjects sermons are not popularized products of more basic scholarly reflection. Rather scholarly reflection is an academized product of the more basic proclamation of the gospel … Thus, for the Christian community, sermons are a first-order, not a second-order, activity … As worship is more fundamental in the church than theology, so kerygmatic proclamation is more basic and often more pertinent than scholarly reflection’. – Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 46.

I couldn’t agree with this more. I have always had one foot in the local church and one foot in the academy. I served two congregations adjacent to seminaries, and we always had a number of faculty members in the pews. In my church in Bangor I was also the chaplain and sat with the faculty.

I did three term-long research fellowships during sabbaticals at Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews Universities. I tried to stay current with the leading theology and biblical journals and wrote articles and reviews for several of them. I participated in the Pastor-Theologian Program at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton.

I am comfortable in both worlds, at a lecture hall at Christ Church College, Oxford or at a planning meeting for Vacation Bible School. But my comfort is more that I am, by analogy, bilingual than that they speak the same language. They don’t.

The Partee quote gets at one of the problems that plagues theological education. Once upon a time, seminarians were trained by ministers who were also scholars, but had spent some time serving congregations. Their commitment was to the church and its ministries and they believed in a learned ministry as the means. They were bilingual in being able to speak both church and academic.

There are still wonderful teachers who share these commitments, but sadly, the secular academy is now the model that must be considered, with its emphasis on tenure and publishing. And, at least in America, members of the Academy who represent the theological disciplines are often viewed as quant relics of a bygone day. They don’t get big research grants like their more robust colleagues in the sciences.

This inferiority complex makes them strive harder to be like the cool kids, and the art of theology is then betrayed by a series of niche disciplines dominated by identity politics and other “happy little hyphens” to use Karl Barth’s term of derision.

What is worse is that there seeps into theological education the conceit that what happens in the academy is more important that what happens in the church, and students then become ministers who are ashamed of what should be their life’s joyful vocation.

I can tell you from experience there is a lot of apologizing going on in our pulpits. Instead of hearing the bracing Good News about Jesus Christ and his holy love one often gets an attack on the tradition or an exhortation to do and be better. Sin and death are not the enemy, Christianity itself is, at least the kind practiced by our benighted forbearers who didn’t get straightened out by three years at a divinity school.

And if a commitment to a learned ministry went along with this critical posture there might be something to be said for it. But often, it is the worst of both worlds, a distain for the local church and a laxity about keeping up with the genuine insights of the academy. So no wonder the laity often think of the academy as obscurantist, while at the same time the academy views the faithful as naive. The result is many a pastor who feels, not at home in two worlds, but like a stranger and exile in both.

I have suggested in the past that theological education be removed from the secular academy, but there are drawbacks to this, and it just isn’t going to happen. And there would be much lost if students were deprived of having interlocutors from other disciplines.

I wish I knew how to bridge the gap. I have known many great teachers who did it, such a Gabriel Fackre, Gerald Cragg, Colin Gunton, Alan P.F. Sell, N.T. Wright, George Hunsinger, and Brown Barr, to name but a few.

My New Testament Professor, Krister Stendahl, at Harvard, was a first-rate scholar and a Lutheran bishop. There is a story told about him in one of his preaching classes. One of his students climbed into the pulpit, and before delivering her sermon said, “The text for today comes from the Deutero-Pauline corpus.” Stendahl looked over the top of his glasses, as he was wont to do, and gently said, “The people have come to be fed. Do not give them the recipe!”

He knew that preaching was a first-order activity!