Donald Bloesch: Ecumenical Evangelical

JANUARY 2012: INTERVIEW

by Richard E. Burnett

Editors’ Note
Donald Bloesch (1928–2010) was a professor of theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary from 1957 until 1992. His major works— the seven-volume Christian Foundations series (InterVarsity) and a two-part systematic theology, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (Hendrickson)—are known to be accessible and scholarly.

Gabriel Fackre, Abbot Professor of Christian Theology emeritus at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, a longtime friend of Bloesch, shared some observations about Bloesch withPerspectives. Fackre calls Bloesch the leading American evangelical theologian of the twentieth century, “second only to Carl Henry.” According to Fackre, Bloesch’s Christian Foundations series is “a unique achievement in American theology, and probably even, in our time, in any theology….No one else has done, as far as I know, a seven-volume series on the basic loci of systematics. So that fact alone marks Don as a major figure in Christian theology in our time.”

Bloesch was a leader of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, an evangelical renewal group within the United Church of Christ, which often stridently chastises the UCC. He was, says Fackre, a “feisty critic of the liberal establishment.”

But Bloesch resisted pigeonholing, considering himself a “progressive evangelical” or “ecumenically orthodox.” Deeply invested in ecumenical conversations, Fackre says, “Don was a major figure in drawing people into dialogue with the larger Christian community….He had a significant impact, I think, in regard to bringing evangelicals closer to ecumenicals.” Fackre notes that figures as diverse as Roman Catholic Cardinal Avery Dulles and Reformed theologian T. F. Torrance paid tribute to Bloesch in a 1999 festschrift. Bloesch was “an unconventional evangelical theologian as well as a leading one,” according to Fackre—noting his fascination with Mariology as a “curious interest,” along with his openness to the possibility of posthumous salvation for those who have never heard the gospel.

Bloesch was interviewed in October 2009 by Richard E. Burnett, who teaches systematic theology at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, and has used Bloesch’s Christian Foundations series in his courses for several years now. Portions of their conversation, including a number of questions posed by Burnett’s students, appear below. A version of this interview also appeared in the New Mercersburg Review (Fall 2011).

RB: Could you say something about your own theological background and upbringing?

DB: I came from the Evangelical Synod of North America when it was still a denomination and had not yet merged with any other tradition. That church merged with the German Reformed Church—the Reformed Church in the United States was the name of the German Church, related to the Mercersburg movement. I think it was 1934 when the merger took place to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church (E&R). Then a few years after that [in 1957] the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ. All along the way my loyalty to the Reformed tradition was in place. I inherited those elements of the Reformed tradition that some of my colleagues in Presbyterianism haven’t had. That’s why it seems that some of the things I say are new. But for those who know that longer tradition, I am simply rephrasing an old tradition.

RB: Your father was a pastor?

DB: Yes, I was raised in the church. My father was also a pastor in the Evangelical Synod of North America. Reinhold Niebuhr was probably our most well-known member. Niebuhr, like me, was a graduate of Elmhurst College. He went to Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, which was the school most influential in the development of the E&R Church. This is a topic I could keep talking about because it’s necessary to see that there were cultural and religious reasons for some of the things that I hold.

RB: And your own spiritual pilgrimage and calling? When did you decide to become a theologian?

DB: It was in my high school years that I became very interested in theology. But in the home in which I was raised, my grandparents also lived there, for a time at least, and their influence was also very palpable, very noticeable in my theological development. Both of my grandfathers were also ordained ministers. They both came from Europe as missionaries to German-speaking people in this country, so there was a Germanic cultural influence in my life that was probably absent in most ministers, even in the German tradition of the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

I should mention Elmhurst College too, where I was challenged to believe in the gospel once again. Evangelical renewal groups on the campus had an influence on me simply through natural friendships. And the influence of Chicago Theological Seminary on my development made me wary of the realities of liberalism and what it can do to a congregation—so that played a role too.

RB: You say in your Christian Foundations volume The Church that, growing up, your denomination was more Lutheran than Reformed, and you’ve even said that you’ve thought of yourself as more Lutheran than Reformed.

DB: For many years I thought of myself as more Lutheran than Reformed. Now I would say I feel myself more Reformed than Lutheran.

RB: When did you have that sense of being more Reformed?

DB: I think [it was] through the readings of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, the theology of crisis, later called “neo-orthodox” theology, which was much more decidedly Reformed than Lutheran. Karl Barth himself was much more Reformed than Lutheran. In fact, several of the controversies that have developed around Barth arise out of this tension between Lutheranism and Reformed.

RB: How would you describe your theological education at the University of Chicago and Chicago Theological Seminary?

DB: Those schools were a wonderful place to be introduced to the history of the church, and the research materials and the sources that are found there are probably the best in the Midwest. It was a wonderful place to earn a doctorate in theology. But as far as nurturing personal faith, it just wasn’t there. I was able to retain faith, I think, through my past relationships with many ministers and not only from the E&R, but some other traditions which are more outspokenly evangelical, including the Salvation Army. So my parental and cultural heritage played a major role in my theology.

RB: How did your experience at the University of Chicago shape you for your future?

DB: I was active for the so-called evangelical cause when I was still in seminary, and when your back is pressed against the wall you finally have to speak up. There were some things I said that brought upon me the wrath of people in power. Despite that, I was still able to weather the storm, so to speak. I think one reason that I wasn’t dismissed was the fact that there was a segment of the faculty that actually sympathized with me, and there were some faculty members who were liberal but were also self-critical. In addition, there were some that harbored a Reformed faith but kept it hidden.

I should mention too that my interest in participation in community movements, religious communities, was apparent even at Elmhurst College. Meeting and living in some of these places like Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia, for example, or the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Darmstadt, Germany, and groups like them—where real piety was embodied—had a special attraction for me and helped cement my faith.

RB: Who were among your most influential teachers in seminary and at the University of Chicago?

DB: One of the early theological books that influenced me was Choose Ye This Day by Elmer Homrighausen, who was a teacher at Dubuque Seminary for a time, and a powerful preacher, I would call him—an evangelical preacher. And the whole theology of crisis has played a positive role. I had discovered Karl Barth in seminary, as well as John Calvin and Emil Brunner. I visited both Barth and Brunner in Switzerland, some years later. Alfred North Whitehead, who was really the leading thinker in the divinity school, also had an influence on me. He was a British professor who taught in the United States for a time. The impact that he had was partly negative because he was a devout opponent of evangelical Christianity. Charles Hartshorne, who was also in the process school of theology and philosophy, had an influence on me as well. I thought him to be a very fair person, very knowledgeable and actually very supportive.

RB: How did you find Barth as a man in Basel?

DB: A person of complete integrity and a deeply earnest man, a sincere person committed to the gospel. But I should say the main influence of Karl Barth was mediated to me through Arthur Cochrane, who was really a longtime interpreter of Barth.

RB: What aspect of Barth’s theology has been most influential in your own theology?

DB: The great difference between finitude and infinity, between this world and the higher spiritual world, an emphasis on the “wholly otherness” of God, the cleavage between God and humankind. All of these are all in Calvin too, and in Luther, but Barth brought that debate up to date, so to speak.

I am quite sure I would not have developed along these lines, stressing the otherness and infinity of God, if Karl Barth were not in the picture. Even someone like Emil Brunner, who is in that same tradition, I don’t think stood as firm on some of these issues as Barth did. And Barth, I think, gained a lot of his influence because of his political stands, although he himself cautioned never to confuse politics and theology.

RB: What do you see as the greatest temptation facing the church of North America today?

DB: Worldliness. I think that is the greatest temptation in so many aspects of life. The growing secular influence, the rise of a new kind of mysticism, which I call “secular mysticism,” a new kind of spirituality, the rise of syncretistic cult movements, should definitely be observed and warned against.

RB: A student asks, “What do you see as the greatest challenge facing ministers today?”

DB: I think that same phrase, “holy worldliness”—the temptation to resort to the things of the flesh to understand the things of the Spirit or to lead us into the things of the Spirit—is so often well-meaning, but it betrays a lack of confidence in the power of the Spirit—that is, God bringing about these changes himself. It is the desire to accommodate to academic opinion, but also the desire to find the security of our people in the nation state.

RB: What advice would you give beginning students of theology today?

DB: Always explore several options to various issues. Always remain selfcritical and believe that all truths need constantly to be restated in order to have efficacy.

RB: Any advice you would give ministers today if asked?

DB: “Stay put” would be one piece of advice. There are so many ministers, and professors too, who have an anxious quality about themselves. They are insecure in the traditions that God has placed on them. So, “be patient” would be the advice I would give. “Patience overcomes all things,” said St. Teresa of Avila. That suggests something of my ecumenical interest. It’s along these lines that, in addition to my evangelical persuasion, I also have an ecumenical concern and an ecumenical outreach in my theology, which is a little different for evangelical theologians.

RB: Yes, when I was at the celebration of the completion of these seven volumes of the Christian Foundations series, I saw an incredible range of people in the audience: Roman Catholic monks, Pentecostals, many “high church” Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and all kinds of evangelicals.

DB: Also, the Anglo-Catholics—a group that I did not seek out. They came to me. And their magazine, theNew Oxford Review, has pushed my books. And yet there is no kind of spirituality that is more different from my own than the Anglo-Catholic position because they combine an ultrahigh liturgy with a kind of a mystical theology that, I think, undercuts genuine ecumenical dialogue.

I did not sign “Evangelical and Catholics Together.” I don’t want to be tied down that way because I want to be free to criticize the Catholic Church as well as appreciate their differences. I think we have to be strong in our faith and say “no” to some of their beliefs to be true to our own beliefs and our own traditions.

RB: A student asks, “What led you to become so interested in Pentecostalism?”

DB: That’s a good question because that interest was not at all apparent during my college years and hardly during the years I was in seminary. It came on me very suddenly. I think it was when I first began teaching at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, in the 1960s, that I saw the Pentecostal revival, or at least a mini-revival, as it passed right through our seminary. The fact that some of our best students were drawn to this movement made me doubly interested, and its appeal to evangelicals was an additional reason to consider Pentecostalism as one of the theological options today.

RB: You state this with far more specificity in your book on the Holy Spirit, but what worries you the most about Pentecostalism?

DB: Sectarianism is one of the worries. Pentecostals often will not work with other churches and use ecumenical dialogues as a means to advance their own position. Self-advancement would be something I would caution Pentecostals about.

RB: Since your book The Church, where you devote a chapter to worship in the United States and to evangelicalism generally, have you had any further thoughts about the dangers of any of the trends going on today in American worship?

DB: The shift to contemporary music, of which I have written, is certainly a sign of secularism coming into the church through the medium of music. (When I say “contemporary,” I am talking about method more than content, but those who are in the contemporary music movement or in the contemporary worship movement see these distinctions differently. They see a need for change of content as well as method.)

Yet love for ritual for ritual’s sake is always dangerous, and I see this as a temptation today too. A trend to ritualism and formalism, ecclesiasticism, all of these things should be mentioned. I refer you to my book Faith and its Counterfeits, a small book on spirituality written some years ago, in which I cite the danger of formalism in worship. We need forms, but not formalism. I tried to make that distinction.

We are losing the sense of the utter transcendence of God, and Kierkegaard and Barth can help us here—and Calvin too, for that matter.

RB: Do you see any hopeful trends in American evangelicalism?

DB: I’ve yet to see a genuine revival taking place. There are eruptions, you might say, but real transformation can only be brought about by the Holy Spirit. We mustn’t become too excited about peripheral changes because they come and go. Yet, still something is happening. There are real gains in evangelical denominations and certainly in the advance of Pentecostalism. All of these things have to be considered in the long run, I think, positively.

RB: You mention “revivals.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he was in this country, said that America has experienced many revivals but never a reformation. Why do you think that is?

DB: There is an anti-intellectual bias that has come into the church after the Reformation through Pietism, Puritanism, and some of these other spiritual movements that are in themselves good things, but they have tended to lead people away from serious study. Calvin saw the need for study as well as prayer for the good of the church and the success of the church. And here is where the conservative movement, I think, is really letting us down. It’s ignoring the need for study and the need for theology, as the discipline of knowledge, as a science.

There’s a deliberate attempt, you might say, to ignore the theological issues and instead to give cultural and political answers to questions that are really theological and can only be addressed by theologians or ministers. I see this trend in the Catholic Church and in the Protestant churches, but it’s more apparent in conservative evangelical Protestantism than in Catholicism. The Catholic Church, to its credit, has always made a place for theology.

RB: Is there anything you would care to say as we conclude?

DB: Keep the faith and learn from others.