Good News! A Wonderful Theological Book Gets a New Lease on Life
Recently I’ve been listening (on my ipod) to a trilogy of novels by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven). One especially interesting feature of all three is the (Zafon-created) mythical “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” that lies mostly unknown in Barcelona, Spain. Only a few initiates know of its existence. The “cemetery” is a gothic labyrinth-library that holds one copy of every book ever published. Many of them are wonderful books that simply didn’t catch on with the reading public or were suppressed for some reason. An initiate is required to take one book from the “library” and treasure it, taking care of it and making sure it is passed down to his or her descendents. It’s all very mysterious and gothic.
I often wonder why certain excellent books get forgotten and, of course, I’m especially concerned about wonderful theological books that fly in and out of print and are all-too-quickly forgotten without getting the attention they deserve. One such book (that made a huge impression on me) was the badly titled Here Am I! A Believer’s Reflection on God by South African theologian Adrio König. It was first published in South Africa and then by Eerdmans in the U.S. I don’t remember how I came to read it, but I knew right away it was a good book, a very good book, about God that covered most of the controversies about the doctrine of God in Christian theology and was both critical and constructive.
I used it in one of my first theology seminars—way back in the 1980s. I planned to use it again, but it went out of print quickly. I gained permission from the publisher to copy it for students in later seminars, but I eventually moved on to other books because getting copyright permission to copy it became less simple as even the publisher forgot about it.
Sometime in the 1990s I had the privilege of spending an evening with König when he came to America to give lectures. I found him as delightful and profound as his book. We formed a sort of friendship and kept in touch off and on. I read a few of his other books, but didn’t find them as exciting or stimulating as Here Am I! I believe König is now retired from UNISA (University of South Africa), but, last I corresponded with him, he was working on a new book.
Sometime last year Wipf & Stock re-published Here Am I! with a new subtitle: “A Christian Reflection on God.” I believe it is also published by Mosaic Press (a Canadian publisher). Wipf & Stock is one of the few publishers who dares to enter the cemetery of forgotten books, take one out, and give it new life. (I think I mentioned this one to them some years ago, so I’d like to think I had something to do with it being republished.)
So what’s so great about Here Am I! Certainly not the title. I suspect the title put off many a potential buyer. And the original cover left much to be desired. And it is not exactly bed time reading; it was not written as an introduction to the doctrine of God. Still, I think college and university educated lay Christians interested in theology can read and understand it with benefit. In the book König interacts creatively with biblical theology. He is not afraid to take the biblical narrative in which God is the primary character seriously. He avoids interpreting it through a preconceived philosophical lens. In fact, one of the attributes of the book that first attracted me to it is the author’s determination to follow the biblical narrative about God wherever it leads and not be controlled by a philosophical theistic hermeneutic.
About the first half of the book is very insightful and unusual reflections on the biblical doctrine of God. König works out of the broad Reformed tradition, clearly influenced by Barth, Berkouwer and Henrdikus Berkhof, but he does not allow his reflections on God to be controlled by any theologian or school of theology. In the doctrinally constructive portion of the book (approximately the second half) he interacts with process theology, liberation theology, Moltmann and Pannenberg, and, of course, Barth. He discusses the “proofs” for the existence of God and the traditional attributes of God (especially immutability and impassibility). He ends up expounding and defending a view of God as faithful but not immutable, self-sufficient but not impassible, and eternal but not “timeless.”
I have quoted from Here Am I! several times in my books. One reason is that König cannot simply be dismissed as “one of those open theists” or even “Arminian.” He’s embedded deeply in the Reformed tradition even though conservative Calvinists would no doubt consider him a revisionist. (But who isn’t a revisionist? Every Calvinist theologian I read has his or her own “spin” on that tradition.) He rejects meticulous sovereignty and affirms God as absolutely sovereign nevertheless. If that sounds contradictory, well, I suggest you read the book.
But Here Am I! is not just an exercise in revision of classical theism and traditional Calvinism. It’s a whole course in biblical theology (including much interaction with the Old Testament) and modern/contemporary theology.
One of my favorite quotes from Here Am I! is from pages 198-199 and expresses this Reformed theologian’s strong rejection of divine determinism:
“Anyone who levels things out in vague generalizations by attempting to explain everything and all possible circumstances as the will of God always ends up in the impossible situation that there are more exceptions than rules, more things that are inexplicable and that clash with the picture of God that is given to us in his word, than there are comforting confirmations that he is directing everything. … Anyone who tries to use the omnipotence and providence of God to propose a meticulously prepared divine plan which is unfolding in world history (L. Boettner) will always be left with the problem that other believers might not be able to discern the God of love in the actual course of world events. … [i]t must be emphatically stated that…the Scriptures do not present the future as something which materializes [sic] according to a ‘plan’ but that are not the will of God (Luke 7:30 and every other sin mentioned in the Bible), that are against his will, and that stem from the incomprehensible and senseless sin in which we are born, in which the greater part of mankind lives, and in which Israel persisted, and against which even the ‘holiest men’…struggled all their days. … To try to interpret all these things by means of the concept of a plan of God, creates intolerable difficulties and gives rise to more exceptions than regularities. But the most important objection is that the idea of a plan is against the message of the Bible since God himself becomes incredible if that against which he has fought with power, and for which he sacrificed his only Son, was nevertheless somehow part and parcel of his eternal counsel.”
To that I have always been able to say only “Amen and amen!”
My invitation to you is to report about one theological book that you think went too quickly to the cemetery of forgotten books and should be brought out and given a new lease on life and why.