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Pro Ecclesia

Pro Ecclesia is a quarterly journal of theology published by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. It seeks to give contemporary expression to the one apostolic faith and its classic traditions, working for and manifesting the church's unity by research, theological construction, and free exchange of opinion. Members of its advisory council represent communities committed to the authority of Holy Scripture, ecumenical dogmatic teaching and the structural continuity of the church, and are themselves dedicated to maintaining and invigorating these commitments. The journal publishes biblical, liturgical, historical and doctrinal articles that promote or illumine its purposes.

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50 Issues

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Pro Ecclesia Vol 27-N4 10
Pro Ecclesia Vol 27-N3 11
Pro Ecclesia Vol 27-N1 10
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Pro Ecclesia Vol 26-N2 10
Pro Ecclesia Vol 26-N1 10
Pro Ecclesia Vol 25-N4 6
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143 Articles

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Theology and Moral Reflection and Practice

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Theology and Moral Reflection and Practice

Karl Barth, David Haddorff, and Christian Ethics

Arne Rasmusson1

In recent years we have seen an abundance of books and articles (some very impressive) on Karl Barth’s understanding of ethics. But the role of Barth’s theology in understanding Christian ethics is puzzling. On the one hand, his account of a distinctly theological ethics has been broadly influential far outside strictly Barthian circles. But this has been a selective reception, in which Barth’s thinking has been integrated with broader Christian traditions and theological approaches in quite different ways. Furthermore, some central parts of his thinking have often been left out, because people either don’t understand them, don’t agree with them, or don’t know what to do with them. What many find most problematic is Barth’s actualistic account of God’s command. This is, of course, not a peripheral issue. So, on the other hand, we find among Barthian scholars different, often ingenious, attempts to explain what he means and to develop a “complete” account of ethics on Barthian grounds, often together with attacks on approaches to theological ethics sympathetic to Barth for failing to account for, say, the priority and freedom of God’s Word. I belong to the former group. After having read many impressive defenses of, for example, Barth’s understanding of God’s command, I am still puzzled. For one thing, the specialists don’t agree with each other. Moreover, it is not clear to me that they have shown the fruitfulness of Barth’s account, when understood in the latter exclusivist way, for understanding Christian life. Mostly they don’t even try. Most seem preoccupied with describing the right way of understanding ethics; only a few (in contrast to Barth himself) consider the content of Christian practice itself. Barth’s account cannot, by definition, be formulated as a theory, but should it not help us, at least in retrospect, to describe Christian practice? Most of this more narrow Barthian scholarship simply does not help us much to think about actual Christian practice.

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The Catholic Spirit of Protestantism

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The Catholic Spirit of Protestantism

A Very Methodist Take on the Third Article, Visible Unity, and Ecumenism

Tom Greggs

Protestants have a reputation for being schismatic. Were it not enough that they broke with Rome in the sixteenth century, Protestants, from the very off, have been divided among themselves: Luther and Zwingli could not find agreement over the nature of Holy Communion at the Marburg Colloquy; more profoundly, Radical and Magisterial Reform divided; and ever since the Reformation, there has been division upon division of churches who have all protested against their parent church that it has not proclaimed Scripture or performed church practice or celebrated the sacraments or ordered itself or articulated its doctrine correctly. Moving to Scotland in recent years, I have been particularly aware of this propensity to divide. Reading Scottish church history can feel a little similar to reading a script from an episode of Dallas: unending fall outs, divisions, and divorces, followed by the odd makeup and ostentatiously glamorous wedding. Diagrams of Protestant church history can bear an unhealthy similarity to complex plumbing maps, with lines dividing off and coming back together in almost inscrutable ways. It is rumoured indeed that one particularly narrow and exclusive Protestant sect even has a hymn that goes:

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“YOU HAVE NOT YET CONSIDERED THE GRAVITY OF SIN”: A KEY RETRIEVAL FOR OUR TIME

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“YOU HAVE NOT YET CONSIDERED THE GRAVITY OF SIN”: A KEY RETRIEVAL FOR OUR TIME

George R. Sumner

Two generations after Karl Menninger’s Whatever Became of Sin?,1 it is hard to deny the eclipse of this concept on the theological scene. Just as the confession of sin is sometimes omitted from worship, so is the subject of sin in theological circles. The reasons for this in our culture are doubtlessly many, but they include the following: the scorn for sexual repression, the pressure for successful, and hence optimistic, religion, and the whiff of judgmentalism in the word.2 Equally telling is the amnesia about what the theological term used to mean to say. Sin has not been so much rejected as forgotten. People do think, of course, that there are things profoundly wrong with the world, but, lacking the concept of sin as the tradition understood it, their explanations are wanting. We are like speakers of a new language who lack certain parts of speech, and put together sentences as best as we can. My purpose in this article is a modest one, namely to encourage others to make this locus a topic of more earnest discussion in our time.

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REVIEW ESSAY

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BUT WILL IT PREACH? ENGAGING FLEMING RUTLEDGE’S THE CRUCIFIXION

David Widdicombe

Fleming Rutledge

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015)1

Yes! Doctrine preaches. Anyone who has heard Fleming Rutledge expound a biblical text knows that this is true. But which doctrine exactly and how exactly does it preach? Here is the answer in a work of wide-ranging scholarship and staggering authorial stamina. As Luther said, the preacher must know his doctrine and should teach it systematically. This book is a gold mine for preachers who take Luther’s advice seriously. Everywhere in this text we see the discipline involved in setting out an argument that intends to summarize, systematically arrange, and even point beyond everything the church has so far taught about the death of Christ. The argument is objective, intensely biblical and, nothing if not thorough, the prose cool and clear. The detail necessitates slow reading, yet it reads like the hardening lava flow from a volcano of Christian imagination that never sleeps. The doctrine preaches with power because, in Fleming Rutledge’s opinion, it is the preaching. The Christian doctrine of the atonement, or better, the narrative of the crucifixion in all its horror, is the truth about the world’s salvation, and truth matters because the fate of humanity matters—the truth speaks for itself.

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Hans Frei’s Deflation of Revelation

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Hans Frei’s Deflation of Revelation

James J. Buckley

I was honored when George Hunsinger asked me to offer some reflections on Hans Frei’s theology for this symposium.1 My own thinking has been deeply influenced by Mr. Frei—his story of modern Protestant theology in England and Germany, his work in contemporary hermeneutics, his reading of Karl Barth, and in other ways. But I also hesitated to take up George’s invitation for two reasons relevant to what I have to say.

First, although I continue to be deeply influenced by several strands of Frei’s project or projects, I have not until now dared any analysis of his development in any way near the way others have—some of whom are here this morning. I feel very much the amateur. But there is a second reason I hesitated to take up George’s invitation. As I reread Frei over the last couple of months, it struck me how much over the years I have thought about Frei’s project specifically as a Catholic theologian dissatisfied with what Frei and Barth taught me to call conservative, liberal, and mediating options in modern (Catholic or evangelical) theology. With regard to Revelation, Catholics like myself have been concerned with the sort of things one finds in Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) as an ecumenically Catholic proposal or perhaps individual theologians like John Henry Newman’s work on “the grammar of assent.” These concerns will only emerge marginally (and cryptically) at the very end of my remarks. In any case, I finally decided that, even if I could not avoid making a fool of myself in what I say about Frei, this would be a perfect group to help me and perhaps others think about the role of a doctrine of revelation in theology.

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What’s to Celebrate?

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What’s to Celebrate?

Robert W. Jenson

Since it is commonly supposed that the Reformation began in 1517 with Luther’s debate theses on penance and the fuss they occasioned, people are looking to celebrate its five hundredth anniversary in 2017. And there you have it, the inevitable word, celebrate. For it is also commonly supposed that what happened back there rightly occasions celebration: large gatherings, encomiums, cheerleading, processions/parades, that sort of thing. Like the Fourth of July used to be in the United States.

But celebrate what, exactly? And how are we to do that? (The “we” here are the Protestants, including those reluctant to be so labeled.)

We can hardly now celebrate the eventual separation itself, since Protestant churches in the ecumenical movement spent decades lamenting and working to overcome it. Protestants could praise God for the supposed gift of churches liberated from papacy, so long as we thought that the papacy was an aspect of Satan’s tyranny, doomed to destruction with Islam and the like. For many good reasons, most of us have given up that doctrine. And getting along simply without a universal magisterium has in the meantime proven easier said than done.

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D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth: An Agent’s Perspective

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D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth: An Agent’s Perspective

Robert W. Jenson

Two things should be said at the very beginning.

First. This is a well-researched and often illuminating book from which readers can greatly profit. I lay this down here because I am going to spend most of the following contesting a polemical strand in Professor Long’s project.

Second. The review will have an odd logical twist. I find I am obligated to include myself as an agent in the story Long tells. Perhaps making a high-modernist review?

So to the review proper.

The title is precise. The book is about von Balthasar’s career-long preoccupation with saving Barth from what von Balthasar takes to be his mislocation of Catholicism’s problems and for the benefit that exposure to Barth’s theology, if interpreted in Balthasar’s way, could bring to Catholic theology.

The book falls into two parts. The first tells the history of von Balthasar’s Barth-saving; the second deals with the same theological matters, now systematically.

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Story Time in America

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Story Time in America1

Joel Biermann

It has become commonplace within Christian conversation that the Church in North America is facing increasingly stiff competition not only from other religions, but from worldviews or narratives that profess to be irreligious. Those committed to the project of apologetics are likely to concur and respond by mounting spirited campaigns to counter the threat. Others like the present writer affirm the ultimate supremacy of the Christian account of reality and see dubious outcomes when the attackers are engaged on their own turf. When all is said and done, Christianity has no competition. Nevertheless, simply from the standpoint of undertaking the Church’s mission with some degree of deliberation and effectiveness, there is value in surveying the contemporary narrative landscape and exploring the sort of life stories or worldviews or narratives that describe and drive people in North America.

To describe or even just to think about the narratives that are at work in the surrounding culture and to accomplish such a task in the space of a single essay is more than an ambitious undertaking, it is, it must be admitted, the errand of a madman. Which is to say, that this essay will not offer a general overview or assessment of the assortment of narratives at work today in the American context. Of course, it would be tempting to invest some time and thought considering some of the alternative narratives at work in the wider culture. It would be easy enough to craft a paper that recounts a quick trip around the “western-worldviews-buffet” and offers a spicy or, more probably, a rancid sample here or there. While there certainly remains a compelling attraction to following such a route, that exercise would, it seems likely, easily and speedily devolve into self-indulgence and tend merely to nurture the simmering sense of outrage and sanctimony all too typical among more conservative Christians as they survey the godlessness, wantonness, and arrogant decadence of our contemporary Western culture. It would be wonderful to serve up a sizzling diatribe against the theological naturalism described and refuted so cogently by Cornelius Hunter.2 And it would be gratifying to savor the penetrating arguments of Timothy Keller as he tackles some of Western culture’s most cherished and most inane ideas about God and religion.3 It would be a delight to share a healthy portion of N. T. Wright’s soaring refutation of those—Christian and non-Christian alike—who pine for an otherworldly, immaterial, pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-bye-and-bye version of heaven.4 Obviously, though, this work has already been done, and it just may be that there are better things to consider in grappling with the reality of our current twenty-first-century Western context. To add to the critique does little to further our understanding of the culture around, and begins to seem a bit like piling-on.

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Martin Luther after 500 Years

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Martin Luther after 500 Years

Bruce D. Marshall

Five hundred years ago this past October, on the eve of All Saints—what we call Halloween—a young theology professor at a provincial German university posted a set of theses for academic debate.1 The university was in the northeast German town of Wittenberg, and the professor was Martin Luther, a monk and priest two weeks shy of his thirty-fourth birthday. His aim was a standard academic exercise, a public disputation on a series of contested points, so his theses were written in Latin, the universal academic language of Europe at the time. The subject of his theses was the theology and practice of indulgences. Indulgences had been a standard part of Western medieval religious life for several centuries, one part of a much larger picture about sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God and one’s community. Luther was moved to post his “Disputation to Clarify the Power of Indulgences,” to recall its formal title, by his lively irritation over the way a particular indulgence tied to the building of the new St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was, with papal approval, being preached and sold in north Germany at the time. But the proper understanding of indulgences, of what they could and could not do, was already a topic of running controversy, and a good deal of what Luther had to say in his ninety-five theses had already been said by others.

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Christ and Human Flourishing in Patristic Theology

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Christ and Human Flourishing in Patristic Theology

Christopher A. Beeley

The mystery of the incarnation of the Logos holds the power of all the hidden meanings (logoi) and figures of Scripture as well as the knowledge of visible and intelligible creatures. Whoever knows the mystery of the cross and the tomb knows the principles (logoi) of these creatures, and whoever has been initiated into the ineffable power of the resurrection knows the purpose (logos) for which God originally made all things.

—St. Maximus the Confessor1

The pursuit of “human flourishing” has become a subject of considerable public interest in recent years. While some hear the phrase as a translation of the classical philosophical term eudaimonia, for many others it represents a way of speaking about the various goods of life across cultural, ideological, and disciplinary boundaries that might otherwise divide us. Christian theologians, too, have joined the conversation in hopes of finding new ways to contribute to the private and public quest for a good life.2 As thinkers of various stripes go about their work, it seems helpful to give an account of how major Christian theologians of the formative, patristic period understood human flourishing. As one quickly discovers, the starting point for all such questions is the identity and work of Jesus Christ.

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A View from Above? Balthasar and the Boundaries of Theology

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A View from Above? Balthasar and the Boundaries of Theology

Brendan McInerny

Among the recent publications on the thought of the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karen Kilby’s Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction stands to reach the broadest audience and likely cause the biggest stir. The purpose of Kilby’s book is to introduce her audience to the major contours of Balthasar’s theology in a balanced manner that identifies both its positive and negative elements (2). As the subtitle indicates, however, she wishes to do so while advancing a critique of his work, one that strikes at its very center. Kilby’s critical thesis is that the central problem of Balthasar’s theology is his characteristic voice, the way in which he “writes as though from a position above his materials—above tradition, above Scripture, above history—and also, indeed, above his readers,” as if from “a God’s eye view” (13). And, because “the content of [his own] theology rules out” this position, Balthasar is caught in a “significant performative contradiction” (14). Much of the evidence Kilby musters suggests there may be such a problem in Balthasar’s thought. However, Kilby neglects to substantiate a crucial component of her argument; and, therefore, despite her own confident claims, she is ultimately unsuccessful in demonstrating her thesis.

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A Brutal Honesty

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A Brutal Honesty

Joseph D. Small

Modern ecclesiology suffers from a disjunction between sociology and theology. Sociologists focus on the church as it appears in various social settings while theology imagines the church as it “is” in ideal exhibition. The church is either observed as “a powerful institution in our society because it encapsulates the individual in a community that becomes an essential part of the individual’s own identity” (Robert Wuthnow), or it is presented as “the messianic fellowship of service for the kingdom of God in the world” (Jürgen Moltmann). Theologians paint lovely portraits of an ideal church while sociologists—both academic and amateur—show a documentary film of the flawed church, sometimes designed merely to deconstruct but often meant to suggest strategies that can produce the church that could be.

The problem is that both are instances of what Nicholas Healy calls “blueprint ecclesiologies,” two-dimensional templates that display either normative construals in the guise of description, or description as the backdrop for normative prescription. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put the matter plainly more than eighty years ago: “There are basically two ways to misunderstand the church, one historicizing and the other religious; the former confuses the church with the religious community, the latter with the Realm of God.”1 Theology apart from the concrete reality of actual churches easily becomes irrelevant to lived faith; sociology apart from faithful attention to the one holy catholic apostolic church easily becomes irrelevant to lived faith.

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Beggars All

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Beggars All

A Lutheran View of the 2017 Reformation Anniversary

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson1

One of the newest products from Playmobil, a toy company based in Nuremberg, Germany, is a little figurine of Martin Luther. Playmobil has issued historical figurines before—a series of Dutch painters was a hit, and so was Charlie Chaplin. The Luther toy was developed in conjunction with the German National Tourist Board and the Luther-Decade program of the Protestant Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), another fun trinket to advertise the gala events leading up to October 31, 2017.

What nobody anticipated, however, was the immense popularity of these little Luthers. Within three days of their release in February 2015, all thirty-four thousand Luthers had sold out. The factory couldn’t keep up with the demand, and new Luthers didn’t hit the market until late April.2

That’s remarkable in itself, and proof that not only the pious and the scholarly have their eyes on the 2017 anniversary. But what is even more remarkable is what this commercial Luther toy is holding. It’s not the 95 Theses—though of course the Theses are why the anniversary date is in 2017. Instead he’s holding a Bible. The left-hand page says, in German, “the end of the books of the Old Testament” (Bücher des Alten Testaments ende), and the right-hand one says, “The New Testament translated by Dr. Martin Luther” (Das Neue Testament übersetzt von Doktor Martin Luther). Our Luther, smiling blandly like nearly all Playmobil figurines, is no polemical figure, no wrecker of an intact church, no angry young man naming abuses. He’s a translator, giving the Word of God to Germans in their own language.3

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The Second Canary: Thoughts on Theological Education

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The Second Canary: Thoughts on Theological Education

George Sumner

The story seems a familiar one. The dean of a theological school tries to recruit students to come for a residential, three-year master of divinity (MDiv) degree, as has been normative for future clergy in mainline denominations in North America. However, he is rebuffed by the potential students, who don’t want to leave homes and jobs and who would prefer to opt for online courses. Nor do their dioceses, presbyteries, etc. insist they attend. For his part, the dean muses about the viability of the school’s mandate. But the story (a true one) is actually not so familiar, since the dean in question oversees not an impoverished school but one that is rich as Croesus, offering impressive scholarship packages. Students should be flocking to such a place. When his fellow theological administrators at less fortunate institutions read the story, they understand its import. That dean’s lament is the canary in the proverbial coal mine, proof that, regardless of resources, all schools are in a new era in which the erstwhile residential seminaries must “change or die.”

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The Apocalyptic Body of Christ?

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The Apocalyptic Body of Christ?

Reflections on Yoder and Apocalyptic Theology by Way of David Foster Wallace

Chris K. Huebner

I have been asked to speak about John Howard Yoder and apocalyptic theology. I will do so by reflecting on Yoder’s understanding of the body and its capacity for speech or articulacy—in particular as these themes are reflected in his understanding of the body of Christ. These questions play out somewhat differently in Yoder’s work than they do in what we might call apocalyptic theology more generally (whatever that means—and I will admit here, as an aside, that one of my struggles in undertaking this assignment is to figure out just what counts as being representative of the so-called apocalyptic turn in recent theology). This difference would mean that any attempt to enlist Yoder as an ally in support of a program or movement called apocalyptic theology will be awkward at best. If it is appropriate to draw on Yoder in support of apocalyptic theology, it must equally be acknowledged that his work also pushes back against it in some significant ways. To draw attention to Yoder’s posture of ambivalence toward academic movements should hardly be necessary, for it has received plenty of attention in recent engagement with his work. I don’t want to rehash that ground here. So let us get one thing out of the way at the beginning. Yes, we can find texts in which Yoder emphasizes the category of apocalyptic. But it is also worth noting that he typically qualifies these references by insisting that the category of apocalyptic is only one among many and should not be elevated to become a sort of governing principle. As Yoder himself puts it, “Apocalypse is only one of many modes of discourse in the believing community. We should not prefer it; we should use them all.”1 Call it methodological non-Constantinianism or perhaps something more elegant. But that is not what I want to dwell on today. I am more interested in exploring how the question of apocalyptic theology relates to some of Yoder’s more substantive commitments about the body of Christ and its capacity for speech.

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Virgin Territory?

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Virgin Territory?

Daniel J. Treier

Andrew Lincoln’s Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013) is important for its courageous, holistic, monograph-length treatment of a relatively neglected subject (relatively—if, that is, any subject qualifies as neglected in contemporary biblical and theological scholarship!). Lincoln’s book is important beyond its subject matter, however: it offers a distinctive test case for today’s complex interactions between historical and so-called theological interpretation of Scripture. Recent intrigue over the latter has helpfully raised questions about whether Christian doctrine informs—rather than solely being informed by—biblical interpretation. Lincoln’s attempt at a “postcritical” approach to historical inquiry along with serious doctrinal engagement inserts his work into the current conversation about theological exegesis.

Yet Lincoln departs from a traditional embrace of the virgin birth by rejecting older concepts of the unity of Scripture and, accordingly, refusing to “harmonize” various scriptural texts or biblical and dogmatic theology. Lincoln makes these moves as a committed Trinitarian Christian, so his project deserves careful attention on multiple sides. According to some who are wary of theological interpretation, historical inquiry proceeding from faith should be able to duplicate (or deny) creedal dogmas from Scripture without appealing to their distinct epistemic authority. According to others who are interested in some version of theological interpretation, ecumenical creeds offer a substitute benchmark entirely replacing older doctrines of Scripture—allowing freer historical inquiry while preserving dogmatic fidelity, unfettered by the policing of biblical inspiration and related standards. Lincoln’s book illustrates problems with both of these tendencies.

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Mr. Lindbeck’s Surprisingly Effective Pedagogy and Its Consequences for Theology Today

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Mr. Lindbeck’s Surprisingly Effective Pedagogy and Its Consequences for Theology Today

Peter Casarella

“Everyone should remain in the state in which she was called.”1 St. Paul’s advice is sometimes paraphrased as “Grow where you are planted!” It comes in the midst of complicated counsels regarding marriage, virginity, and slavery, and an “originalist” reading of Paul here would not necessarily be advisable. But these are the words that come to mind when I think of what my teacher George Lindbeck (“Mr. Lindbeck” in the now-antiquated parlance of those days) imparted to me and to others. The Catholic became a better Catholic. The Buddhist a better Buddhist. And, of course, the Barthian and Thomist a better Barthian and a better Thomist (sometimes at the same time). This insight is surprising for two reasons. First, Lindbeck’s legacy has been saddled with the charge of fideism, proselytism, and the like from almost the beginning. This charge was simply astonishing to those of us who knew the man. No teacher ever matched his ability at self-effacement or respect for the dignity of the other. The brash and fearless divinity student and the shy undergraduate who made the trek with his bicycle, sometimes even in the snow, up the hill to the divinity school were placed on equal footing. Protestants, Catholics, and non-Christians wanted to learn from him because he was so nonjudgmental and hard to pin down. He was not particularly effusive, but one-on-one he could be amazingly open and transparent. The many testimonies of his students regarding life-transforming reading courses of one, two, or three people in his crowded office tells us something about his remarkable witness.

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You Shall Love the Lord with All Your Mind

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You Shall Love the Lord with All Your Mind

Blanche Jenson

1953

We sat in Solomon, his 1939 Packard, engaged in serious debate. Should the Lutherans join the World Council of Churches? I chose the affirmative. He firmly argued the negative. He became an ecumenical theologian.

We sat eating lunch in Dinky Town talking theology. He said, “You know only the froth on the beer.” How right he was.

1954

We sat on the bank of the Mississippi River eating pizza. A decision was made. We would spend the rest of our lives doing theology together. And so we have.

2017

It is Advent. I sit at my grandparents’ table opposite an empty chair. Our conversation has been interrupted. But I am blessed with his words: books, essays, lectures, sermons, verses, and all the memories attached to them.

Above the mantel in his study hangs an embroidered command (a gift from a student): YOU SHALL THE LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR MIND. Although Jens chose to follow his father into the ministry, he knew his gift was not his father’s: the common touch. His gift was thinking and, he soon learned, also teaching. The seminary assigned him not to a parish but to campus ministry at the University of Minnesota for internship. That is where our life together began.

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