Monday, July 14, 2008

The Church According to Donald Bloesch

Donald G. Bloesch, The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission, Christian Foundations (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002).
Now that both the Barth blog conference and the Princeton Seminary Barth conference are concluded, I have had some time to do some wider theological reading. I have spent a number of hours over the past few days sitting on my porch with this volume by Donald Bloesch. Bloesch has an eight part series entitled “Christian Foundations,” and this is the portion dedicated to ecclesiology. While it is true that Bloesch is not a very creative thinker in his own right, he is interesting – at least to me – as one who is an evangelical and has learned from Barth, but who does not follow Barth whole hog.

Before I get on to a few thoughts on this volume, however, I want to plug another of Bloesch’s works - Essentials of Evangelical Theology - which makes, in my humble opinion, a great volume (actually, two volumes now bound in one) for introductory theology classes at evangelical Christian colleges or for teaching theology to adults in your local evangelical church. I recommend it whenever I get a chance.

Back to The Church. First, here is a list highlighting some of the good and helpful things about this volume:

  • Bloesch tends to write in a very summary-oriented style. He likes to lay out the various positions that different branches of the Christian tradition hold on a given topic before going on to let the reader knows what his own personal view is. This is one of the things that makes his work a great teaching tool.

  • Bloesch also, in the course of his summarizing, tends to quote from a diverse body of thinkers. Emil Brunner, P.T. Forsyth, Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, Philip Schaff (to whom the volume is dedicated), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Schmemann, and Hans Küng are those names that Bloesch quotes and that now spring to my mind. This is great exposure for beginning students of theology.

  • Bloesch is ecumenical in orientation, as demonstrated by my previous two points. This comes out materially especially in his chapter on the Sacraments, which he concludes with an appendix discussing the Lima text (Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry).
And now, some of the less helpful things:

  • Bloesch is clearly an evangelical in writing this volume. This is good and bad, but it is less helpful in two cases in particular. The first case, Bloesch’s discussion of worship, shows his age. He enters into a discussion of contemporary evangelical worship methods, and does his best to make room for the new without quickly casting aside the old. In general, this works out, but there are a few occasions where his own age makes him a bit tone deaf. At one point he charges contemporary worship music – praise choruses, etc – with being “an elitist music” (138) because it is difficult for the congregation to sing along. Well, had Bloesch come of age after the genesis of rock music (he was born in 1928), he wouldn’t have trouble singing along and would recognize that in the present milieu it is traditional hymnody that is elitist (which I must say even though I love it myself!). Shortly thereafter Bloesch extols the organ which “seems to convey at least some intimation of the grandeur of God” (140). Again, what we have here is the deleterious effect of generational blinders – something that we are all subject to.

  • The second time that Bloesch’s evangelical context gets him into trouble (and mind you, these are merely my contrasting opinions) is in his discussion of women in ministry. He goes much farther than some in making room for women to serve as elders and even as pastors, but he cannot countenance them doing so independently of men: “In a co-ministry, man and woman make decisions together but always acknowledging the priority of man in a fellowship of equals” (225). On my reading of Galatians 3.28 (and other passages), which Bloesch quotes at one point, this does not go far enough.

  • The final criticism that I will make here is that Bloesch, while very aware of the missionary task of the church, does not in any way incorporate this task into his ecclesiology. For instance, there is no chapter devoted to discussing it, and it is not in any way an organizing category as he makes his way through other topics. It is true that this topic shows up, but generally only in the context of discussing other contemporary theological movements or positions that Bloesch feels compromise it. It does very little positive work, and this is unfortunate.
To sum up, Bloesch is no more perfect than you or I, but his work in general – and The Church in particular – serves as a helpful and interesting conversation partner.

2 comments:

Luke said...

Lucky you are, my honest calvinist friend! Sitting in your porch and reading your books!

I am also working in a book, "The Miralce of Theism", by JL Mackie, a tremendous atheist. I hope to produce something interesting trying to show why, in my opinion, Mackie is wrong.

Bobby Grow said...

Travis,

I have found Bloesch helpful as well. I have only read his "Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord" and another dated book on the Future of Evangelicalism. I think his breadth is good for exposure to other theologians, as you mentioned, and I like to see how he synthesizes Barth . . . sometimes I agree with him, and other times I don't :-).

I think he certainly is a great resource for doing introductory teaching---so I second your points on that. Thanks for the review.