Recommendation of Donald G. Bloesch's theology

Recently I’ve been re-reading some books by my favorite American theologian Donald G. Bloesch (who died in August of this year).  Bloesch was a member and minister of the United Church of Christ and one of its few evangelicals.  He grew up in the Evangelical and Reformed Church (mostly Swiss Reformed immigrants) that merged with the American Congregational Churches to form the UCC.  He was never comfortable with the liberalism of the UCC but chose to stay within it rather than abandon it totally to the liberals.  He taught at a Presbyterian seminary–The University of Dubuque School of Theology.

When I was making my transition from Pentecostalism and Fundamentalism to “mainstream” evangelicalism during seminary in the mid-20s I found Bloesch to be my most faithful guide.  I realize conservative evangelicals have some problems with him.  He was never part of the fundamentalist movement and didn’t care about some of their issues such as young earth creationism, premillennialism and strict inerrancy.  However, he was a staunch defender of biblical authority (together with the Holy Spirit that inspired and illumines the Bible), God’s creatorship of everything outside himself (creatio ex nihilo) and a literal, visible return of the risen Jesus Christ to earth (he promoted a version of postmillennialism which I never accepted).

Boesch’s approach to theology was basically Pietistic with some neo-orthodox flavoring thrown in.  He called it “catholic evangelical” and “evangelical catholic” by which he meant emphasizing conversion and biblical authority while embracing the Great Tradition of Christian doctrinal orthodoxy.  His main influences that he often quoted were the Reformers, the Pietists (Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf and Christoph Blumhardt), P. T. Forsyth and Kierkegaard.  He also quoted Barth and Bunner positively but also critically.

Bloesch called his theology “progressive evangelical” by which he meant he used higher criticism of the Bible without anti-supernatural biases.  In other words, he had no trouble acknowledging that the final verses of Mark are a later addition to the gospel (and etc.).  But he believed in and strongly defended the supernatural inspiration of Scripture and its infallibility

Recently I’ve re-read (and taken copious notes on) one of his early books The Crisis of Piety (Eerdmans, 1969).  I find it still very relevant to today’s American churches.  Rarely do I read an entire book of theology without coming across something with which I strongly disagree.  But this case is different.  Bloesch’s diagnoses of the ills of American Christianity and his prescriptions are spot on.  For example, to the so-called mainline, mostly liberal Protestant churches he urges a recovery of devotion and commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord–a renewal of genuine piety without secularism or fanaticism.  To the evangelical churches he urges a recovery of a catholic vision of Christianity as rooted in the church fathers and Reformers.  To everyone he urges a renaissance of conversion as event and process that is life transforming for both individuals and communities. 

As I re-read The Crisis of Piety I was reminded of how sane, balanced and clear headed Bloesch was–a model evangelical theologian with something prophetic to say to every branch of the American churches.  Here’s just a sample: “Devotion to Jesus Christ cannot long maintain itself apart from theological fidelity and integrity.  A holy life divorced from sound doctrine soon becomes moralism.  At the same time correct doctrine apart from a holy life is nothing other than intellectualism.” (p. 15)

You might wonder if Bloesch was a Calvinist.  Well, he belonged to a Reformed denomination, but he hardly fit the profile of a high Calvinist.  He affirms repeatedly that salvation includes a free human response to grace even though that response is itself grace enabled.  Here is a typical Bloeschian statement: “Man is by nature bound to the powers of sin and death, but he becomes free in the moment of decision when the Spirit empowers him to respond to the offer of the gospel.” (p. 84)

I don’t know how many of Bloesch’s books are still in print.  But I highly recommend him to all students of theology.  If there is any one theologian who has shaped and formed me theologically more than any other one it is Bloesch.  And that is because of his sanity and balance as a broadly evangelical thinker.

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  • Riles

    I came across you site a couple of weeks ago, and am devouring your writings. As a refugee from a church that is now NAR oriented I started examining what I truly believed doctrinally. Since so many discernment blogs are rigidly Calvinist in nature, it was truly frustrating to not read any real, lucid treatments of Arminianism. Thank you for that. In addition many Dr. Bloesch’s books are available on Amazon.

  • Clay Knick

    Amen & amen. You’ve inspired me to go back and read him some more.

  • I appreciate the quote from pg. 15 mentioned above. It reminds me of a quote from Clark Pinnock in his book, ‘Flame of Love,’ — “Religious experience needs good theology the way a traveler needs a reliable map. A traveler with lots of enthusiasm but no map for the journey is a dangerous person to travel with. Together you can get hopelessly lost.”

    Bloesch certainly has a lot to offer. His sense of balance being one his most significant contributions.


  • Matt Waldron

    Thank you for continuing to highlight the work of Donald Bloesch on your blog. I have started reading his book, The Struggle of Prayer, based on one of your recommendations the other month. It is excellent.

  • Percival

    My Dad’s library was full of Bloesch and in my gap year back home after college I read most of them. For a young guy such as I was, they were difficult but formational.

  • Roger,

    I would like to “second” your word on Bloesch. I highly appreciate him as well! We used his book on Jesus for our christology class way back in my undergrad days; which was my first exposure to him. Then I read his book on Karl Barth (I think called “Victor”), which was insightful; and helps provide a good balanced critical reading of Barth (I think). Ironically, it was my reading of Bloesch that opened me up to ever considering Barth’s theology in the first place!

    I wish more “Evangelicals” would take advantage of Bloesch and his insights! Thank you for alerting folks to Bloesch!!

    • The Bloesch book on Barth is Jesus Is Victor! That was Christoph Blumhardt’s motto and Barth picked it up from him.

  • Deb

    Thanks for this. Found a used copy on amazon. It’s in the mail. 🙂

  • (a different) Robert

    I first came to Bloesch via the Christian Foundations series, and God really used it in my life as I tried to maintain my faith during a period of questioning and growing pains. I liked that Bloesch seemed to be an equal opportunity offender–he had a prophetic way of challenging both liberals and conservative evangelicals. I also found that his paradoxical, dialectical style and his engagement w/ the tradition’s ‘cloud of witnesses’ made for very robust, satisfying, and challenging theology. At the same time, he had a (mostly deliberate) tendency to talk in circles, and I would often read and even re-read his work and still scratch my head, not quite clear where he stood on certain issues (he seemed to answer ‘yes and no’ to many questions). For example, if you take all of the assertions from the “Predestined to Glory” ch. of ‘the Last Things’ (and his response to Pinnock in Evangelical Theology in Transition), it’s very hard to hone in on where he stands wrt to predestination and free will. I believe this is mostly intentional on his part, as it jibes w/ his emphasis on preserving the tension of paradox and mystery over against rationalist attempts to resolve it.

    I haven’t read any of his earlier stuff, but sounds worthwhile!