Two Reviews of A Lover’s Quarrel [4/14/14]


Two friends, with roots in the Stone-Campbell traditions, have posted substantial and insightful reviews of my recent book, A Lover’s Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, Cascade Books, 2014.

Keith Watkins is a dear former colleague in worship and church history of mine at Christian Theological Seminary and author of numerous books. Robert Cornwall is currently pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of several books and articles in ecclesial practices and church history. Each maintain active and illuminating website and I will post their website addresses at the end of their reviews.

I also welcome other reviews or comments about this recent book or any of my other books. And comments about these two reviews are welcome for this website.

It is my intention to write a response to their reviews in the near future and post them on this site.

Keith  Watkins
Reviewing A Lover’s Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, by Joe R. Jones
The lover in the book title is Joe R. Jones, retired theologian, professor, and academic administrator. The beloved church is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in which Jones was reared, educated, ordained, and employed through much of his career. The quarrel is the author’s contention that his church needs theological renewal at its deepest level in order to continue as a faithful  and effective witness  of  the Christian gospel in the world today.
A Lover’s Quarrel follows two other books that Jones has published since his retirement in 2000. A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine (published in 2002) is a two-volume exposition of Christian theology based on many years of graduate level teaching in three seminaries. Jones frequently references this book in his later publications.
On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times (published in 2005) contains lectures, papers, sermons, prayers, and other documents (some previously published) that represent the wider range of Jones’ theological and cultural work. As the title indicates, Jones understands himself to be a theologian in the church and for the church rather than a scholar who understands theology primarily as an academic discipline.
Jones’ latest book continues the pattern of the previous volume in that it is a collection of documents of varied character, all but two of them written since 2005. These recent documents, he writes, “are consistent with the overall perspective conveyed in the Grammar” although they “were occasioned by time-specific personal and public events, politics, and church life” (viii).
Jones divides the book into four parts that indicate the range of his interests:
(1) Ecumenical Theologizing with Ecclesial Friends; (2) On Being Mugged by Politics but Lifted by Gospel Hope; (3) Fragments from Times Past and Emerging Hopes; (4) Sermons Ventured on Behalf of the Witness of the Beloved Church.  The chapters vary in length from two-page blogs to substantive papers, notably: “Salvation: Mapping the Salvific Themes of Christian Faith,” and “Yoder and Stone-Campbellites: Sorting the Grammar of Radical Orthodoxy and Radical Discipleship.”
I first met Jones at a General Assembly of our church some thirty years ago. Listening to him speak to a topic of mutual interest, I was impressed by his passion and clarity of thought, even though I held a different view of the topic being debated. Some years later, he became academic dean of the seminary where I was a senior professor, and during the next years (until my retirement) I saw these same qualities at work on a consistent basis.
One of the essays in A Lover’s Quarrel helps me understand the source of Jones’ passion for his work. In preparation for the fiftieth anniversary reunion of his class at Yale Divinity School, he wrote a paper with the subtitle “Remembrance of Things Past and Present Discontent.”
Jones had arrived at Yale Divinity School with over sixty hours of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma “ready to consume whatever quasi-liberal YDS had to offer” (143). Steeped in the theology of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, he was not prepared for the intellectual revolution that he would experience when he encountered the theology of Karl Barth.
He continued in a PhD program of study at Yale University and started work on a dissertation on Barth. With dissertation not yet completed, he was called to teach at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.  The conviction grew within him that some of the theological proposals being published at that time “were not merely reformative of Christian theology, but were in fact the demise of anything bearing an identifiable relation to Christian traditions.”
What he calls “a basic question of honesty” was emerging within him: “either stay in church and get serious theologically or leave church and give up any pretense that one is a Christian.” He concluded that for him “the only theological substance worth saving was a Radical Orthodoxy with a substantive Christology and a Trinitarian heart, closer to Barth rather than the later Milbankian sort. Only a church with those theological linchpins could possibly have sufficient integrity and conviction to survive the overwhelming sociopolitical upheavals surging in America and be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (148).
At that critical moment (1969), Jones was granted a semester leave to finish the dissertation on Barth. “In ways not easily summarized and encapsulated, I healed spiritually and became clearer about my vocation as a church theologian.” His vocation, he was convinced, “was to help the church learn how to be the church in the midst of that rankling and social conflict that did then and has ever since dominated American political life.”
This autobiographical essay illuminates the thesis that flows through A Lover’s Quarrel: that churches today, and in particular Jones’ Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) need to recover radical orthodoxy. In his essay on Yoder and the Stone-Campbell movement, Jones summarizes what he means: “Were the church truly and radically orthodox, … then it would consistently be clear to the church that it serves God first and that God’s reality and will is known in the compelling contours of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, very God and very human. Only by bearing this in mind could the church refuse to identify God’s will with the arrangement of power and politics in any particular human government and culture” (60).
Jones is willing to mix his metaphors in the way he words radical orthodoxy. Note the doxology with which he closes sermons in the last part of the book: “All this, dear friend, I have dared to preach in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us all. Amen.” The tone of this ascription is similar to one by Theodore Parker, a nineteenth century New England pastor, that I had proposed as the title for my 1981 book on inclusive language in worship: “God our Father and Our Mother Nonetheless.” (The publisher preferred a more conventional title: “Faithful and Fair.”)
Throughout A Lover’s Quarrel, however, Jones uses a more formal statement to summarize the radical orthodoxy that he urges the church to affirm. It is about the same length as the ancient Apostles Creed and about half the length of the Disciples Affirmation that is widely used within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The first lines indicate the tone of Jones’ creed-like statement.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News
that the God of Israel, the Creator of all creatures,
has in freedom and love become incarnate
in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth
to enact and reveal God’s gracious reconciliation
of humanity to God’s self…
Throughout the book, Jones also uses a brief definition of the church that does not have a close counterpart in the church’s classic liturgical formularies.
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 (xxv).
Illustrations of Jones’ radical orthodoxy at work are found in his blogs on current issues in contemporary life. His public discussion with members of his own extended family about the Affordable Care Act is one example. Even more forceful than that essay is another in which he refers to the time when “the Nazis hijacked the German/Lutheran/Reformed Christian narrative” and thereby “dismantled and dismembered that narrative, rendering it unrecognizable.” Two-thirds of a century later, the church in Germany is having to work at re-educating “lay and clerical alike in what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ quite apart from what it means to be a postmodern German” (103).
Jones continues: “Is there not a profound sadness that engulfs the church in America when that prime Christian narrative of what God has done in Israel and in Jesus Christ for the world is continually subordinated to a narrative about ‘righteous and democratic America’ in a war on terror, about the freedom to be capitalists and escape the dependencies of ‘self-imposed poverty’ and government handouts, about the evils of Islam, about the evils of divorce and homosexuals?”
As I reflect upon A Lover’s Quarrel, I recognize a similar discontent in my own relations with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in which I too have lived out my Christian life and served as pastor and professor. My diagnosis is similar to Jones: that in their involvements with modernity, our churches have been losing the gospel. Jones and I also agree that the prescription is to reestablish the gospel at the center of the church’s life.
When it comes to prescribing a therapeutic intervention, however, we differ. As a theologian, Jones naturally turns to summations of the faith, expressed in concise statements, that are to guide everything the church thinks, says, and does. For Jones radical orthodoxy and creedal orthodoxy are virtually synonymous.
As a church historian, with special interest in its liturgical life, I have depended upon carefully crafted, theologically careful rites, ceremonies, and prayers  to  express the church’s faith. In the same year that Jones experienced his crisis of faith and vocation, I was one of my church’s representatives on a commission that was developing a text for celebrating the Lord’s Supper for use in churches in the Consultation on Church Union. The principal drafter was Massey H. Shepherd Jr., a leading liturgical scholar of the Episcopal Church. In response to a discussion about the inclusion of a classic creed in the liturgy, Shepherd noted that, strictly speaking, it was not necessary.
In the commentary that he prepared to accompany the published liturgy, Shepherd explained: “the recital of a Creed has never been a necessary or invariable usage in the liturgies of the Lord’ Supper.” The reason is that “the great Thanksgiving Prayer of the service, not to speak of the doxological hymns such as the Gloria in excelsis and the Te Deum laudamus, are themselves synoptic recitals of  the  essential faith of the Church and summaries of its gospel” (An Order of Worship, 60).
As I reflect upon Jones’s book, however, I realize that we differ in a more significant way than this distinction between creedal and liturgical modes of preserving the gospel core in the church’s life. In his book The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, Peter L. Berger discusses three ways in which Protestant Christians have responded to modernity: (1) The Deductive Possibility—Reaffirming Tradition, with Karl Barth the exemplar; (2) The Reductive Possibility—Modernizing Tradition, with Rudolf Bultmann the exemplar; and (3) The Inductive Possibility—From Tradition to Experience, with Friedrich Schleiermacher as the exemplar. One of my disappointments with Berger’s exposition is his failure to use a twentieth century theologian as the representative of the third form of response.
Jones clearly works within the framework of the reaffirmation of tradition, whereas my work is closer to what Berger calls the inductive possibility. Both of us shy away from Berger’s middle form of response, and for much the same reason: our sense that when the Gospel is demythologized, with classic doctrines and liturgies translated into psychological and philosophical categories, the substance of Christian faith dissipates and little is left.
Jones writes with poignancy as well as with passion, as can be seen in a homily that he gave at the funeral of a friend in 2007. Their friendship had included strong and vigorous conversations about the theology of Paul Tillich about whose work their judgments differed significantly.  These conversations had sometimes focused on Tillich’s book The Courage to Be.
Jones summarizes the meaning of that phrase by saying that this courage is the “refusal to give up or give in to despair in the midst of the whirlwinds and tumults, the disappointment and grievous harms, that human beings so often encounter. It is the strong and consistent resolve—and thereby the courage—to trust that at the depths of life and death there is a sense-making Presence that cannot be defeated” (191).
He references the affirmation in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, thus renewing the thesis of this book and his own life-long ministry: “It is precisely this triumphant love of God in Christ Jesus that is the Gospel—the utterly true and disarming good news that has been revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.”
My thanks to Joe Jones for this book that helps me—and, I hope, many others—find the courage to live courageously as long as life shall last.
A Lover’s Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, by Joe R. Jones. Foreword by Stanley Hauerwas (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).
Faithful and Fair: Transcending Sexist Language in Worship, by Keith Watkins (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).
The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, by Peter L. Berger (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1980.

Robert Cornwall

A LOVER’S QUARREL:  a Theologian and His Beloved Church.  By Joe R. Jones.  Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, 2014.  Xxvi + 201 pages.

It is appropriate when one has reached a certain age, to look back and take stock of the situation one finds oneself in.  Where did I begin the journey and where do I stand now.  Sometimes, one looks at the landscape and finds it troubling.  Joe Jones is a retired Disciples of Christ theologian.  He has been a leader of church related institutions including serving time as the dean at two seminaries, and president of a college.  He loves the church, but has concerns about its direction.  While some of this concern is directed at the denomination in which he is a member, it is also more generalized.  The concern is that the church is unable to see itself as an alternative community deeply rooted in relationship with Christ as Lord.  The concern is that too often culture/society determine the focus of the church, robbing the church of its voice.  As a committed participant in this community, he engages in a bit of theological quarrelling in the hopes that he can catch our attention and push us toward a richer understanding of the faith.

 A Lover’s Quarrel is a collection of essays and sermons – some have been published in journals and books and some on his blog.  Among the sermons is one preached at the ordination of his daughter, Verity Jones.  Since this book follows upon an earlier collection published by Cascade Books in 2005 under the title On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times, most of these pieces have originated since 2005. 

Joe Jones is somewhat unique among Disciples of Christ theologians in that he has had an affinity for Karl Barth (an affinity I share as a Disciples pastor/theologian) and for John Howard Yoder.   Karl Barth has never been popular in a tradition known for its rational empiricist views and aversion to dogmatic theology.  Because he was trained as a philosophical theologian with a focus on Ludwig Wittgenstein, he is quite concerned about words and grammar.  In fact his published theological system has the title of A Grammar of Christian Faith.   Jones is troubled by the lack of theological sophistication among many in the church -- especially the clergy of his own denomination.  To use his words:  “My primary conviction here is that human beings, wherever and whenever, are distinctly formed by the language – the discourses -- in which they construe, have, and live in a world.”  But, it’s not just words, it is practices as well.  Since the church is in our focus, then whatever we mean by church “must pivot around some understanding – some discourses and practices – identifying the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. xxi-xxii).

The author writes from within a tradition that is non-creedal, and as a non-creedal tradition those theological matters that have been defined more by Tradition (and creeds) than by biblical statements have less presence.  One of those doctrinal discourses concerns the Trinity.  The Disciples of Christ has among its members and theologians persons who affirm the Trinity, and others who do not.  Some would affirm the classic creedal statements, but others have little use for them.  As for Joe Jones, this is unfortunate.  In his mind, the Trinity is central to our theological discourse, for it is the means by which we are able to affirm the divinity of Christ.  What Jones is concerned about is the need for agreement among Christians “about a theological characterization or definition of the church in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at the grammatical center of its discourses and practices” (p. xxiii).  It is out of that confession that the church makes it way in the world.     

The book is divided into four parts. Part one focuses on theological matters -- "Ecumenical Theologizing with Ecclesial Friends."  I personally found this section to be the most provocative, as he calls on the church, especially the church formed by the Stone-Campbell Tradition to take seriously the theological task.  He addresses the question of what is faith, and speaking grammatically notes that faith has a “family of uses.”  Thus, it involves an orientation toward God, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it involves belief (this is where the creeds come in, for faith must have content and substance), it involves trust (that is, “we are staking our life on God”), and it involves a “personal knowing of God.”  What I find important in this conversation is that he overcomes the tendency to separate the substance from the relationship, whereas it involves both content (belief) and relationship (encounter and trust).  Most importantly this orients our lives toward God (pp. 6-7). Speaking theologically, he engages his own tradition and the broader Christian tradition.  He embraces the need for interfaith conversation, but that conversation needs to be grounded in the tradition.  Thus, there is need for spiritual formation and concern for salvation and discipleship.  And as a Disciple, there is need to take stock of the Lord’s Supper.     

Although Karl Barth was an early conversation partner for Jones, in more recent years he has been engaging with the thought of John Howard Yoder.  Yoder provided him with a new vantage point to view the church as an alternative community – a view that is shared with Stanley Hauerwas, a classmate of his at Yale and the author of the foreword to this book.  Writing as one concerned about the Christian America rhetoric that often defines the Christian faith in terms of American interests, Jones tackles the issue of politics – from a Yoder-influenced perspective.   Now it’s clear that his politics falls on the liberal side of things.  He supports universal health care as a right not a privilege and the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in society.  He opposes the military-industrial complex and embraces a more pacifist vision (again finding affinity with Yoder).  But more importantly, he approaches these issues from the perspective of a Gospel of hope.  In light of that he asks the question – are you an American who happens to be a Christian, or a Christian who happens to be an American?   

In Part Three, Jones takes a more introspective turn.  It takes a look back at his life journey.  There is an intriguing memoir of growing up in Oklahoma, the son of a judge and an athlete who seemed destined for a career in law.  But, as he grew up in the church, this faith began to take hold of him, and so by the end of college, having engaged in heavy philosophical studies, he chose to purse theology.  In the course of time he would go to Yale Divinity School, where he received his B.D. and Ph.D.  He was ordained, and found himself teaching theology first at a Methodist Seminary in Texas and then at a Disciple School.  In this collection of essays there is an intriguing one that introduces us to H. Richard Niebuhr, one of his professors at Yale. The section concludes with a reflection on preaching.  He notes his frustration with much of the preaching that he hears, for most sermons seem to lack theological insight and passion.  It appears to him that most sermons are “thrown together at the last minute, largely ignorant of the scripture and bereft of a skillfully learned use of the English language.”  You can see the Barthian roots of his vision by his insistence that the sermon be rooted scripture, aware of the traditions of the church, aware of the world both contemporary and historical, and finally having a “profound and compassionate sense for the gnarled, broken ambiguity of the gathered folk, yearning for a good and truthful word of judgment, forgiveness, and hope.”  That is – they want to hear the Gospel of Jesus (p. 163).

The book concludes with a collection of sermons that range from the ordination sermon for his daughter to funeral reflections at the death of his pastor.  In each of these pieces we are drawn into the biblical story and the need to draw close to the God witnessed to by this story. 

What comes through these various pieces is Jones’ commitment to the church, and a desire to see that church centered in the Gospel of Jesus and formed by its relationship to the Triune God.  Therein lies some of the frustration that Jones has with the church, and its teachers both in the church and in the academy, for the Trinity is not always front and center in the faith tradition we both share in.   He is an ordained minister in a non-creedal church, but he laments the lack of attention to the creedal testimony, which he finds detrimental to the life of the church, which lacks a theological center.  

My sense is that the message of this book will gain a greater audience outside the Disciples than within, but perhaps my friends and colleagues within the Disciples might benefit from wrestling with this call to a substantive faith, one that has its roots in the biblical story.  Because this is a collection of essays, readers will likely find some pieces to have more resonance than others.  Whatever your theological position, however, I believe this sometimes grumpy message needs to be heard, lest the church find itself theologically adrift – being little more than a service club with certain rituals.

In closing I feel the need to share a quote from the statement he gave at the funeral of his pastor.  He speaks of hearing clergy say of themselves that they are not theologians – though they enjoy being a pastor.

To which I reply that it is a self-contradiction to claim to be a pastor of a Christian congregation and to admit that one is either ignorant of or simply uninterested in the theological language of the church concerning the reality of God and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  How can you even preach a sermon about the Gospel of Jesus Christ if you disclaim being a theologian and abstain from theological reasoning and language? (p. 198)

With that statement in mind, whether you’re of this denominational tradition that the author and I share or not, if you are willing to be pushed I believe you will find this to be a book worth wrestling with.   You may not agree with his theology or his politics, but the challenge to take seriously the theological foundations of the Christian faith is one the church, especially clergy in mainline churches can’t afford to ignore.  It is the key to our sense of identity as Christians.

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall


Peace,  Joe

Responses welcomed


Read More

Responses (1)


Share Your Response


Please enter the word you see in the image below:

Reader Responses

Phil Jones

responded on 04/15/14

I always enjoy Joe’s website and these reviews remind me how much I miss a monthly (or quarterly) periodical like The Disciple. A printed periodical offered a communal experience that seems hard to re-capture in digital formats. At least The Disciple tried to hold together (however limited) both the experiences, practices AND theology of our tradition.