Theologians I Have Known: Reflections on Their Personalities Part 2
This is, of course, a continuation of “Part1” which began with an introduction. Please go back and read that before continuing here (assuming you haven’t already).
I don’t recall exactly when I first met Donald Bloesch, but it was at a meeting of the American Theological Society (Midwest Division) that meets every Fall and Spring in Chicago. I joined the ATS not long after arriving to teach at Bethel. My colleague Al Glenn took me there and introduced me to the Society. Don came to the meetings occasionally—driving with his wife from Dubuque. I made a point of meeting him and getting to know him personally. At one meeting I gave a paper about Don’s theology and he responded. (Others read papers about Don’s theology as well.) Every time I talked with him he was interested in what I had to say and treated me extremely graciously. He always stood during discussion times, after papers were read, to ask a question. His questions were always well thought out and apropos to the subject matter, but they often stood out as “evangelical questions.” (The majority of members of the ATS were not evangelicals.) He was one of the most humble, gracious, kind and personally likeable theologians I have ever met. It was a privilege to know him personally.
My involvement in the ATS led to encountering many famous theologians. But here I am only going to focus on those I actually sat with, one-on-one, over a meal, for example, and got to know personally.
Lutheran theologian Ted Peters came to the ATS (Midwest Division) and I had the privilege of taking him to dinner. I also served with him on the steering committee of the Pannenberg Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion. Ted is a very warm and kind person who, when you are with him, is interested in what you have to say. There is nothing haughty or self-important about him even though he is one of the most influential Lutheran theologians in America and perhaps the world. And he is influential outside Lutheran circles. I especially valued his writings on the Trinity and that was the subject we talked about during our dinner together in Chicago. He attributed to me the phrase “Rahner’s Rule.” I thought he coined it. Perhaps we both came up with it independently and nearly simultanerusly. I take credit for “Pannenberg’s Principle” (“The deity of God is his rule”). Peters was then editor of Dialog journal and he asked me to write an article for it on the state of evangelical theology which I did. He was very gracious to give a young pup like me (then) space in his journal.
There was another very well-known Lutheran theologian who also often attended ATS meetings in Chicago. I won’t name him because I don’t have anything good to say about him. He was virtually the opposite of Peters in terms of personality and approach to others. I got to know him quite well, but I will refrain from saying any more because I don’t want to identify him. One incident involving him stands out in my memory as especially emblematic of his personality. At one meeting of the ATS Catholic theologian Paul Knitter delivered a paper on, of course, religious pluralism. After the session, Knitter and I were standing together talking. (I was at that time president-elect of the ATS and was involved in bringing Knitter to the meeting.) Knitter was a very gracious and kind person, so far as I could tell. He did not have any trouble with those who disagreed with him. The Lutheran theologian came up to us and interrupted our conversation to berate Knitter for his “heresies.” Then he (the Lutheran theologian) turned to me and began to talk in vulgar language about Knitter in his presence. It was one of the weirdest experiences I have ever had in a theological context. I could only assume the Lutheran theologian had drunk a little too much of the “refreshment” provided by the Catholic university where we met for that meeting and his inhibitions were lowered. Knitter handled the situation very well. He did not argue with the Lutheran theologian or chide him for his demeanor and language. He just stood there and took it with a little smile on his face which gave me the impression that he, too, thought alcohol might be involved. Now you might wonder why I said this incident was “emblematic of his personality” if I attribute his tirade to alcohol. Well, I knew this Lutheran theologian from other settings and regarded his behavior toward Knitter as simply revealing his true character. Not all theologians are nice.
It was during this time (1980s and 1990s) that Stan Grenz and I really solidified our close friendship. Throughout the 1990s and until his death in 2005 we shared a hotel room at every annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. We saw each other at other times and places as well, including some ATS meetings in Chicago. Eventually Stan joined the faculty where I teach but stayed only for one year. Stan became like a brother to me. My own view of his personality may be biased; I am aware that some people thought him arrogant and overly ambitious. But I did not experience him that way at all. His attitude and approach to everyone was calm and kind. He worked hard to bring evangelical theologians of differing persuasions together. He was friends with fundamentalists and progressives alike. He loved to use his influence to help younger scholars break into publishing. He was an encourager to me and to many others. Every year at AAR meetings we enjoyed getting together with our publisher and editors at InterVarsity Press for a dinner. Stan was always the life of the party—telling jokes and regaling us with stories. After one of these dinners (in Washington, D.C.) Stan and I rode in a taxi back to the hotel with some of our friends from IVP. They have commented about this taxi ride to me many times. During the rather long ride through Saturday evening traffic from downtown D.C. to our suburban hotel (where the AAR was meeting) Stan and I came up with a plan for a second book together. In the taxi we worked it all out and by the time we arrived at the hotel had the book pretty much planned and accepted by our IVP friends. A couple years later it was published with the title we decided on in the taxi—Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God. Stan was energetic, full of ideas, overflowing with suggestions, always at work—even during leisure times.
I think it was in 1990 that my Rice University mentor, Niels Nielsen, chair of the Religious Studies Department, invited me back to Rice for a special purpose—to be Hans Küng’s chauffeur during a special symposium on “The Encounter of the Religions in China” co-hosted by Rice and the University of Houston. I jumped at the opportunity partly because I was slated to write the chapter on Küng for Stan’s and my book 20th Century Theology. I had read much of the Catholic theologian’s work and wanted to meet him and ask him some questions. He was at that time probably the world’s most famous, if not most influential, theologian. He was famous for being declared “not a Catholic theologian” by the Vatican. But he was still teaching at Tübingen even though students studying for the priesthood could not study theology under him. (Or, to be precise, they could but those courses would not count toward their education for the priesthood.) I drove him around Houston for three days—from meeting to meeting and from meal to meal and back and forth to and from his lodgings. It was a wonderful experience. Küng treated me very well and at least attempted to answer my questions. However, often when I asked him a question about his theology his first answer would be simply “I answered that on page [such-and-such] in” and then he would name one of his books. One question I asked him was which of his many books he thought was his “personal best.” He said The Incarnation of God. I agreed. But few have read it. I’m tempted to say that Küng came across as somewhat arrogant and full of himself, but that could very well just be due to all the people bowing and scraping to him. He was clearly the “star” of the whole conference even though there were many other well-known theologians and religion scholars present and speaking including the Catholic Bishop of Shanghai, Robert Neville, and Tu Weiming. The “host” of the whole conference, because his foundation was supporting it financially, was Henry Luce III who I met and talked with one-on-one (in an elevator quite by accident!).
Sometime in the early 1990s I had the privilege of meeting and talking with German New Testament theologian Peter Stuhlmacher. We were together at a conference on theology and ecology at North Park University in Chicago. It was hosted by the publisher of the journal Ex Auditu and the papers read were published there (including mine on the resurrection and environmentalism). Stuhlmacher was, of course, the “star of the show.” It was a relatively small gathering and so I had ample opportunity to meet him and have conversation with him. After my paper (in which I argued that Christians should be in the forefront of environmentalism because of the resurrection) Stuhlmacher confronted me. We were sitting around a table during a break drinking coffee. Suddenly, much to my surprise, he wanted to argue with me—in a very civil and respectful manner—about whether Christians should try to influence public policy. He was very much opposed to anything like a “social gospel” and argued that our only “job” as Christians is “to praise God.”
My first encounter with Jürgen Moltmann was at a dinner hosted by InterVarsity Press at an annual meeting of the AAR. I don’t remember the year or the city. I suppose it was sometime in the early 1990s. I had written the chapter on Moltmann for Stan’s and my book 20th Century Theology and had read many of the German theologian’s books. I had also written an article on Moltmann’s doctrine of the Trinity that was published in the Scottish Journal of Theology. My IVP friends invited me to be on a panel to interact with Moltmann. I don’t remember all who were on that panel, but I recall Clark Pinnock was on it and that was perhaps our first meeting. Moltmann was extremely gentlemanly, gracious and forthcoming with his responses. I asked him if he believed in a realistic “second coming of Jesus Christ” and he quickly responded that he preferred to talk about a “new appearing of the Christ.” Unfortunately we did not have time to delve deeper into that subject. In 2001 I was privileged to meet Moltmann again when he delivered the Parchman Lectures at the seminary where I now teach. I spent quality time with him over three days. I was on the committee that invited him and hosted him in our city. Then I got to know him better. I found him to be quite shy and embarrassed by the spotlight. But he was always extremely gracious and friendly even if not particularly outgoing. Several of us took him to dinner one evening and enjoyed our time with him in a private dining room. I sat next to him so we had plenty of time for conversation. At first he was as always a bit reserved, but after perhaps five or six glasses of wine he became downright talkative. (The university hosting the lectures did not pay for the wine! I think the dean paid for it out of his own pocket! Moltmann, of course, did not know that.) I asked him about “open theism.” He asked me to explain it to him which I did. His response was: “But of course! That is part of the kenosis of God!” One of my most memorable moments happened the next day. I was moderating a time of discussion after Moltmann spoke publicly about life after death. There were at least three hundred people crowded into the room. A student asked him a question and while she asked it he sipped some water. Unfortunately he swallowed wrongly and spluttered as he tried to talk. Finally he pointed up at me (I was standing at the podium) and said “You answer it!” He trusted me to answer a question for him! I think my response to the question pleased him. I just said what I was sure he would have said.
Stay tuned for Part 3…