My Response to the Reviews of Watkins and Cornwall [4/24/14]


Keith Watkins and Robert Cornwall have done me a distinct honor in providing insightful reviews of my recent book, A Lover’s Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church Cascade, 2014. Their reviews were posted together on this website on 4/14/14. Both understand themselves as standing in the Stone-Campbell tradition, and that reference point might be helpful to others in understanding what I thought I was up to in this recent book.

Watkins is especially helpful here insofar as he immediately poses the question as to which ‘church’ is the beloved church with whom I have a quarrel. But he too narrowly answers the question by asserting that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the beloved church. I do, of course, have a quarrel with this tradition in which I was raised, ordained, and have given academic leadership to two of its educational institutions: Phillips University and its ‘Graduate Seminary’ and Christian Theological Seminary. But what might folk make of the fact that I did not attend a Disciples seminary and my first professorial appointment was at Perkins School of Theology in the United Methodist tradition? So, I may be odd as a life-long Disciple who regards himself as radically and ecumenically orthodox. And in this way I am a radically church theologian who has a quarrel with various ecclesial traditions in their disarray and somnambulant ways of being church.

In any event, I think Watkins has been misled by the nature and locus of the discussion in Part One: Ecumenical Theologizing with Ecclesial Friends. It so happens, quite fortuitously, that since my last book, On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times (2005), I have been invited to participate in a variety of conversations with ecclesial friends from the Stone-Campbell traditions. I greatly enjoyed speaking and writing for those conversations, and they permitted me to advance a number of theses concerning the theological character of the historical trajectories of those traditions. But it would be a misleading stretch to suppose that my major systematic theology, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine, 2 vols. (2002), was aimed primarily at the Stone-Campbell traditions. The seminary students in a course in systematic theology at CTS—the breeding ground for the later Grammar—were from a variety of ecclesial traditions and I understood myself as being ecumenical in character and emphasis. But to put an exclamation mark on that ecumenical stance, I provided an ongoing critique of the actual discourses and practices of those mainline traditions. That critique also could be considered a quarrel, but surely also a lover’s quarrel!

Watkins and Cornwall both note the importance Karl Barth’s theological volumes have been to my theological understanding and writings. In the Lover’s book, some of the influence of Barth is explored on pp. 59-62, 67-76, 141-42, 144-51. In particular on p.144 I write:

Put in simplest terms, Barth drew a profound and carefully examined contrast between two methods by way of which the church’s theologians have defended or attempted to justify the church’s knowledge of God—or in the way I would come to put it: ways in which the grammar of God might be constructed and elaborated. The first attempt has long been credible in traditions that assumed there was a basic rational or natural grammar available to anyone. Or, in the language of much Christian theologizing in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the first task is to locate God-talk on a spectrum of human epistemic and moral possibilities, and then symbolically construct what might be peculiar to the church. But Barth turned that grammar on its head, declaring that at the heart of the church’s language has been the belief that God reveals Godself in Jesus Christ. Rather than trying to locate this possibility along the spectrum of inherent human possibilities, Barth proposes this self-revealing of God is what must be taken as given, from which we can explore what sort of grammar is implicit in the claim that God is the One who reveals Godself in Jesus Christ.   

In Barth’s further theologizing the wonderfully shocking phrase emerged that Jesus is the Humanity of God!

Might so-called inductive generalizations from the study of philosophy and religion continually, and dogmatically, reduce Christian faith to one religion among the many. When that is done, either theoretically or practically, Christian theological claims get relativized without remainder and appears that it is up to the individual believer to put together a recipe of beliefs and practices that ‘suit me.’ 

It is in the context of some disheartening inclinations in church life, that I began using the phrase radical orthodoxy. And it could be understood that my proposed “definitions” of church and Gospel might be understood as basic summations of right belief—orthodoxy—and orthopraxis—right practice. The radical character of both orthodoxy and orthopraxis is rooted in a firm grasp that the church is that liberative and redemptive community of persons called into being by the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit to witness in word and deed to the living Triune God for the benefit of the world to the glory of God. But as a good Protestant, I believe the church’s confessions and practices of faith are always subject to reform—no infallibility herein. But the caution about infallibility does not mean that the church and the Christian can go on a holiday and say and do as they please.

Watkins fears that my proposed definitions of church and gospel will be used as “tests of fellowship.” That is a typical fear, but I confess that for me the real fear is already upon and within us, namely, that there is no coherence in the witness of the church today: a cacophony of voices bereft of any coherent gospel. But surely even Watkins must respond to the question the world will surely ask: what must I believe and do to become a Christian? My concern is that a church, roughly so-called, that has no firm conviction herein is quite content to be merely a debating society about life and death, good and evil, local and federal politics. On the other hand, I have overhead some folk say, “to hell with the church if it does not have any strong convictions about God and life and death.”

Yet, it is true that as a confessional theologian and teacher of the faith, my proposed definitions of church and gospel are primarily pedagogical in character. What does one do with seminary students and ordained ministers who become speechless and fearful of controversy when you ask them to state what they think the gospel is and who Jesus is and who God is. Hence, my ‘definitions’ of church and Gospel could be used by congregations to create an ongoing conversation within the church, and therefore within the lives of the person comprising the church, about the most basic beliefs and practices that they regard as central to their lives. Does the Gospel have a place in my life, in how I live, in the practices that comprise my daily living and in the language I use to construe who I am? Maybe it might be clarifying and upbuilding for the folk of the church to ‘test’ the nature of their fellowship?

I also think Watkins then fails to note that my sense for radical orthodoxy goes hand in hand with radical practices, such as peace-making, refusing to return evil for evil, neighbor love that includes the enemy and many other practices. It has always been a mistake in the strong creedal traditions that they seemed to neglect the radical practices. Well, the Lover’s book and my other writings aim to show how discourses and practices intertwine in making the church a site of radical beliefs and radical practices. Hence, for me there is no deep distinction between creedal and liturgical modes of ecclesial faithfulness: the practices of liturgies are and should be saturated and formed by theological language and thereby empowered to teach the church how to sing and speak faithfully about the reality of God! Hence, I really do not think Watkins himself has ventured on some ‘inductive’ approach, liturgical in character, and utterly severed from acute theological discussion and profession.

But Watkins has spent a lifetime studying and theologizing about the life of worship in congregations and traditions. I agree that the recitations in the liturgy can carry much theological weight, even as I do worry these days that such recitations are largely rote and empty for many church-goers. But is that the fault of the liturgical language or is it the indifference of church-folk to theological language?

Keith Watkins is indeed a dear friend and his liturgical leadership and preaching in chapel at CTS was invariably profound and upbuilding in a non-harassing way that nevertheless proclaimed a good news bereft of any suspicion that we deserved it. It is a testimony to his skilled understanding of discipleship that his elder daughter, Sharon Watkins, is the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)!

Robert Cornwall, a Disciples minister in Troy, Michigan with a Ph.D. in historical theology, has been a long-range conversation partner over the years. I find his review of my recent book fair and illuminating. He picks up on a decisive point in my ecclesiology that was strangely absent from Watkins’ review: that the church, wherever it is located, is an alternative community to grammars of self-understanding that prevail in that located world! That sense for church as an alternative community was essential to my theologizing even before I read Yoder, but Yoder helped clarify and strengthen that sense. Thus, contrary to Watkins almost wistful invocation of Peter Berger’s analysis, the church is alternative precisely because it is formed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not because it has found a culturally acceptable niche for itself in the developing sociologies of nations and cultures.

Cornwall also identifies the influence Karl Barth has had on my theological writings, and he understands my emphasis on discourses and practices as my way of rooting Barth and the Disciples and any other church tradition in the grammar of what is said and the practices in terms of which such speaking has traction, authority, and upbuilding power.

Further, Cornwall’s radar correctly understands that the doctrine of Trinity is not a stand-alone doctrine. It arises in the church solely because of the church’s wrestling with the reality of Jesus as Savior and Lord and the new, emerging logic of such words as theos, God, and divinity. There is absolutely no reason for Trinitarian belief apart from understanding Jesus as divine—which means that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection will transform and reconceive what we mean by divine, by ‘God’! There is no deep reason why the church should adopt a common neologism of the world in which the word God is treated as the name of a being, perhaps of dubious reality, surely unknown and mysterious, but easily invoked when we are in peril and need help.

I sadly admit that I often fall into dismay when I realize that my genuinely beloved Disciples tradition, even as it is falling into lethargic despair, persists in rendering a shrug to anything I might say or write. It is a simple truth that persons who might read the Lover’s Quarrel or any of the other books of mine are largely folk from other Christian traditions or folk simply curious about how I as a theologian construe Christian faith.

There is a deep theological illiteracy in congregational life across many traditions. That will not be overcome by congregations that have pastoral leadership that is so hesitant, polite, politically correct either on the right or left, evasive of vigorously engaging theological discussion. But how will such congregations ever learn the faith, learn how to be faithful, learn how to hear a Jesus who not only forgives but commands the forgiven to live persistently and passionately on behalf of the least of these in the world?

By now, dear reader, I have been exposed as quarrelsome indeed! But then I too confess that I am a frail and only somewhat penitent believer who needs to sit in the pew and be addressed by another declaring the judgment and the grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As I conclude this response to the reviews of friends who have taken my writings with great seriousness, I am struggling to grasp a negotiable future of continued writing and creating some conversation among church folk eager to talk and eager to listen and eager to discover forms of faithfulness in precisely this contemporary world in which we live.

A shocking realization has forced itself upon me in these days of aging and decline: I weep a lot. I weep at even the slightest hint of folk overwhelmed with the tenderness and fragility of their lives and their vulnerability to harm and their doggedness in persevering into the future. I weep when I talk with folk wanting to be a Christian in some sense, but quite unprepared for the arduous but wonderful task of learning how to be a Christian in precisely this contemporary world. I weep for congregations divided and uncertain and fearful of decline. Yes, folk-lore suggests that such weeping is simply that sadness the elderly experience when they acutely realize that lifetimes are invariably limited and their days are numbered!

But might Christians weep when we receive the communion bread and cup, which can only be properly received when we know with unerring certainty that we are in the presence of sheer gifts of grace. We have not earned the right to participate, however much it is also true that we have to learn and to relearn that the bread and cup are sheer gifts of grace. But then it is also possible to receive the cup and bread simply as drinkable liquid and edible morsel. And the weeping goes on.

I hope that some readers of A Lover’s Quarrel will discern and appreciate here and there the distinct passion of many of the writings therein. Might it also be obvious that such passion has been cultivated and disciplined by many years of living with and among Christians earnest about life before the Triune God.

Peace, Joe

Comments welcomed in response to this blog or the previous blogs by Watkins and Cornwall. Also, comments are welcomed by folk who might just now be getting around to reading the Lover’s book.

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Reader Responses

Hyla Glover

responded on 04/27/14

Dearest Joe:

Thank you, thank you, thank you and bless you for your words.


Elizabeth Carroll Trang

responded on 04/28/14

Dear Professor Jones,
I have been waiting for the perfect time to write a letter of gratitude to you since I last sat in your classroom at YDS a handful of years ago. Today, I am as busy as ever but your writing above compelled me to sit down and write. I simply want you to know that as my professor, I completely trusted you as a Christian who lived the Word of God. I believed in the depth of your faith and knew that it fed and sustained you. I’m in the middle of selling a house in Florida, moving to Washington, DC and running a business. As you can imagine, my hands are full but of course, excuses for finding time are always here…what I want you to know is that of all the professors I had while at YDS, you were among the few who I completely trusted, who I would feel perfectly fine leaving my children with, who I believed was honest, sincere, committed to living a God centered life and the list goes on. Your sincerity in the classroom, expressed through your writing and lived by your example of love made an impression on me that will always mark my memory of having had the good fortune of finding myself at YDS when you were a visiting professor. I weep the same tears as you do regarding the future of our faith but they are a reminder of this vale of tears and I know that there are glorious days ahead. Your presence in the classroom stood for much more than you probably realize. You and your sensibility is one that I miss in general in all kinds of settings, from your good manners, to always being well dressed (!), to listening intently and speaking sincerely, and to simply loving humankind in all of our sinfulness. Although I am Catholic and have different views on a couple of issues, to me, you were a perfect example of what it means to be Catholic and I really did want to attend Mass with you while we were at Yale! But it doesn’t matter, I know you eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, the same Body that I partake, and I want to thank you for providing me an example, like my own father, of a man who truly is heroic, courageous, and Christlike. And for that I feel extremely blessed to have sat in your classroom. One day, I will write more but for now, I simply want to say thank you.
With best regards, Elizabeth

Kent Dorsey

responded on 08/26/14

I recently submitted a review of Lover’s Quarrel to Criterion at Ron Allen’s request.  I also appreciated your description of a church as an alternative community and recommended that the practices of being a theological community with a radical discipleship belong alongside our current efforts at congregational transformation.  I am also trying to figure out how to get some leaders in my congregation to sit and read together so that we understand ourselves as a theological community and not be self-limiting as a non-creedal church.  As always, we are indebted to you for loving the church and us who are in it enough to put up a good fight instead of limping quietly away.