What Am I Reading? Brian Gerrish, “Christian Faith”
Gerrish approaches the task of dogmatics with a three-step process: first, he engages with the biblical material associated with a given dogmatic topic; second, he elaborates the theological tradition on the topic; third, he attempts to speak to the contemporary situation by providing a constructive statement to guide further dogmatic reflection on the topic. These constructive statements are given at the start of each chapter as a thesis (or leitsatz), and they are gathered in an appendix for easy cumulative access (there is also a selected bibliography, index of ancient sources, and index of subjects).
Allow me to make some observations:
First, those who have learned much from Barth might be put-off a bit by Gerrish’s architecture. He sets up a three-part approach that is modelled in some ways (as he explains) on both Calvin and Schleiermacher. So he does some prolegomena, which also serves to articulate “elemental faith.” Then he has a unit on the doctrine of creation and theistic faith. And then he has the largest part on the doctrine of redemption and Christian faith, before concluding with the Trinity and eschatology. But Gerrish is alive to the sorts of complaint that Barthians would want to make, and helpfully clarifies what he is and is not trying to do with all this:
The order of presentation is not experiential—as though a person first had elemental faith, then came to faith in the order of creation, and finally ascended to faith in Christ. Nor does it lay down three steps in a linear argument. My introduction does not provide a foundation for believing in Christ, and part I is not an independent natural theology designed to make an outsider receptive to the credibility of Christian faith. (CF, 32)
Rather, Gerrish understands himself as constructing a teaching order that is determined at every point by Christian faith even if Christian faith is not the clear subject of reflection at these earlier points. Here we can recognize the influence of both Calvin and Schleiermacher.
Second, and speaking of Calvin and Schleiermacher: when Gerrish comes to the portion of his chapters where he discusses the post-canonical / post-biblical tradition, he always privileges the contributions of Calvin and Schleiermacher. This makes sense because Gerrish is himself within the Reformed tradition. Honestly, this may be the aspect of this volume that I most appreciated. So often those of us who do Reformed theology today find themselves caught up in arguments about Barth’s relationship to Calvin, and the related question of Calvin’s relationship to Reformed scholasticism. The prevailing perception, at least as far as I can tell, is that Calvin and Schleiermacher do not belong together. Gerrish shows through his procedure that this is not the case. I am reminded in this connection about the story that Gerrish tells in the preface of Grace and Gratitude (and which I have heard Bruce McCormack tell as well): when Gerrish gave the lectures that would become Grace and Gratitude, McCormack was there. As Gerrish tells it: “[McCormack] made the interesting remark (without disapproval, I am happy to add) that what I presented . . . was ‘a Schleiermacherian’s Calvin.’ He was right” (G&G, x). It seems to me that the further elaboration of this is one of the principle charms of Gerrish’s Christian Faith.
Third, and although Gerrish self-consciously writes as one attempting to make a constructive contribution to dogmatics today, much more might have been done with contextual and political theologies. It seems clear at various points that Gerrish supports forms of these theologies and at the very least is alive to their concerns. For instance, he reflects upon the current ecological crisis (CF, 95), on the question of animal rights (CF, 97), and on feminist criticisms of traditional doctrines of sin (CF, 85). But he does not discuss these things at length and there are many other points where he might have gone in similar directions. The theoretical justification for this reticence is found in an overly sharp (to my mind) distinction between dogmatics and ethics (see CF, 96). Granted, overcoming this distinction would have required him to write a longer book. All I can say is that I would have been happy to read it.
Fourth, I’m less excited about Gerrish’s ecclesiology. He works to build in a missionary aspect to the church, but the organic character of his ecclesiological approach draws extensively on Schleiermacher, and this mutes the actualism that I think ecclesiology requires (very much following Barth and dialectical theology here). This is no doubt tied to Schleiermacher’s christological emphasis on the historical Jesus rather than—to use the language of dialectical theology—the kerygmatic Christ, another point at which I’m with DT and against 19th c. liberal theology. Along these lines, Gerrish is even willing to think about the church as something like the incarnation of the Spirit (see CF, 305). So while there are many things that I like about Gerrish’s ecclesiology, there are also some key points where I demur.
In conclusion, Gerrish’s Christian Faith is a wonderful work that anyone who wants to call themselves a Reformed theologian today needs to read. I highly recommend it and can only say that I hope WJK keeps it in print.* Also, there will be a session on Gerrish’s book at AAR on Monday with Bruce McCormack (Princeton Seminary), Martha Moore-Keish (Columbia Seminary), Roger Haight (Union Theological Seminary), and Dawn De Vries (Union Presbyterian Seminary) on the panel. Be sure to take it in if your schedule allows (alas! mine does not…).
* And, perhaps, even lowers the price a bit so that folks like me could conceivably assign it as a textbook.