A Great Evangelical Theologian to Read: Donald G. Bloesch
Very few, if any theologians have influenced me as profoundly as the late Donald G. Bloesch (d. 2010). Fortunately, many of his books are still in print or readily available through used book resellers on line.
I realize that many Christians who are deeply interested in theology cannot avail themselves of a formal theological education. For you I strongly recommend that you read Bloesch’s books. Here I will mention a few and give an overview of his approach to theology and themes that pervaded his theological works.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I first encountered the name “Donald G. Bloesch” in the pages of Eternity magazine. I don’t recall now how or when or why I first began reading that monthly magazine that some described as Christianity Today Lite. (Back then, in the 1970s, CT was quite “heavy” with theological articles.) Eternity was a widely read evangelical Christian publication that began out of the ministry of Donald Grey Barnhouse and his church, Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia.
Eternity opened my eyes to the wider evangelical world outside of Pentecostalism and fundamentalism. I still own three bound volumes of Eternity magazines from the 1970s and occasionally peruse them to remind myself of how I was formed theologically as I struggled almost alone to find my way into that wider evangelical world and out of my extremely narrow, sectarian upbringing.
Now, when I look into those issues of Eternity I see that many of the themes being talked about today were already matters of conversation then—the “worship wars,” contemporary Christian music, science and religion, homosexuality, women’s roles in church, family and society, etc.
The articles in Eternity were not especially “heavy” theologically (compared with those in CT), but the book reviews section usually contained reviews of new books of evangelical theology. In fact, the very first piece I ever wrote that was published was a book review in Eternity. It was a review of two books about liberation theology. Thanks to editor Stephen Board who helped me revise the piece for publication and then published it. He took the time to give me helpful guidance about writing for publication.
Donald G. Bloesch’s books were often reviewed in Eternity and he wrote some reviews of others’ books for the magazine. Something about his book titles and the reviews of the books caught my attention and I latched onto Bloesch as my chosen theological mentor long before I met him. Over the years I have met many men and women theologians around my age (some quite a bit younger) who confess that they also were nurtured in theology by Bloesch’s books.
You can do no better now than read Bloesch’s seven volume Christian Foundations series that brings together his whole life’s work in theology. It is published by InterVarsity Press. The first volume, A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology was published in 1992. (See the entire series at InterVarsity Press’s web site ivpress.com or on Amazon.) So far as I know the seventh volume in this series was his last published book.
Christian Foundations is not exactly a systematic theology although several themes pervade it. The same themes pervaded his earlier writings which “flowed into” the Foundations series.
I label Bloesch a confessional pietist, a progressive evangelical (a label he accepted), a mediating theologian (in the best sense), and an evangelical Barthian. Barth’s influence on him is obvious, although he did not agree with Barth about everything. In fact, he wrote an entire (small) volume both celebrating and critiquing Karl Barth’s theology: Jesus Is Victor! Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation. Of course many will know that the proclamation “Jesus Is Victor!” comes from Christoph Blumhardt who influence both Barth and Bloesch (and also Emil Brunner).
Bloesch was ecumenical in his use of Christian sources, frequently quoting from church fathers, Catholic mystics, Pascal, both Edwards and Wesley, Kierkegaard and Hodge, Barth and Brunner.
Bloesch was an evangelical alternative to Carl F. H. Henry and the “Gordon Clark” tradition of evangelical rationalism so well critiqued by Molly Worthen in Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). Somehow Bloesch doesn’t be get a mention in that otherwise excellent book. He would have provided an excellent foil to the rationalist evangelical tradition she critiques.
I once corresponded with Carl Henry. I still have that correspondence. I was writing a chapter about his career and theology for an edited volume about American theologians. In one letter Henry referred to Bloesch as a “mediating theologian” which, in context, clearly meant “not authentically evangelical.” By that time Bloesch had made clear that he did not believe in biblical inerrancy—at least not in the way expressed by Henry and other signers of the Chicago Statement. And Henry was making clear (at least in his letters to me!) that he believed biblical inerrancy was a crucial evangelical doctrine.
Some of Bloesch’s early books that deeply inspired me and guided me into classical evangelical orthodoxy with a strong flavor of pietism and even somewhat of neo-orthodoxy were: The Evangelical Renaissance, The Ground of Certainty, The Crisis of Piety, and The Future of Evangelical Christianity. He also wrote on specific topics such as Is the Bible Sexist? And The Battle for the Trinity.
If you are intrigued, I suggest you get yourself a copy of the first volume of Bloesch’s Foundations series mentioned above and see if it offers an alternative to so much of what has gone under the label “evangelical theology” in the past fifty years.
A few last thoughts about Bloesch that might further intrigue potential readers.
Unlike so many evangelical theologians Bloesch was not “haunted by fundamentalism.” He had no roots in fundamentalism. His own ecclesiastical roots were in the German Evangelical and Reformed Synod that merged into the United Church of Christ. He was probably one of the most conservative UCC theologians and he taught at a mainline Presbyterian seminary (University of Dubuque Theological Seminary). He was not part of the so-called “neo-evangelical movement” of the 1940s and through the 1960s and did not participate in the Evangelical Theological Society although Christianity Today reviewed his books as if he were a neo-evangelical.
I got to know Bloesch personally during the 1990s—through the American Theological Society (Midwest Division) that met (still meets) twice yearly in the Chicago area. We had some very interesting conversations over meals and during breaks between sessions. I found him to be a very humble man who was totally unaware of his tremendous influence on me and numerous other younger evangelicals struggling to free ourselves of the shackles of fundamentalism without throwing the baby of biblical authority and Christian orthodoxy out with the bathwater of fundamentalism. By all accounts he was a gentle man of deep personal piety without an ounce of liberal (“modernist”) theology infecting him. In fact, he was highly suspicious of and worried about the rise of liberal theology and its false attraction for many people fleeing fundamentalism.
In many ways he was our American evangelical Barthian (as Thomas Torrance was the British evangelical Barthian). His theology was imbued with the spirit of Barth’s theology without Barth’s early strongly dialectical approach to Scripture. And he was critical of Barth’s “objectivism” of salvation which, as he saw it, anyway, left aside the dimension of personal decision. Although Bloesch’s roots were in the Reformed tradition he was no Calvinist. He was a non-Calvinist but avoided being labeled “Arminian” or “synergist.”
In his second volume of Foundations about Scripture Bloesch provided an image about the Bible and the Word of God that I have used many times. To him, the Bible is like the glass and filament of a light bulb and the Holy Spirit is like the electricity that creates the light within the light bulb. Without the light bulb you have no light but the bulb is not the light. He described his understanding of the Bible “sacramental.”
So, if you are someone who is hungry to read good theology that is neither liberal nor fundamentalist, I can do no better than recommend that you read Donald Bloesch and you don’t need to worry about where to begin. It’s all in the Foundations series. Start there and find out if Bloesch can be for you what he was and still is for me—a paragon of moderate-to-progressive evangelical theology pervaded by deep Christian spirituality.
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