2017 Book Round-Up

Just a few books I thought I’d like to shine a light on before the year ends.

2017 Theology & Philosophy Titles

Books to look forward to early 2018

A miscellany of recent responses to our besetting American civic malaise: 

Book Notices: Some Upcoming Titles and More

Most Anticipated Books of 2016

This first list is a short one, but no less strong on that account.

And A Few Edited Volumes Worth Noting

Essay Collections can be tricky endeavors. Often they deliver an uneven product. They might have really only one or two essays that command your attention, while the rest of their contents don’t quite follow suit. The following collections, however, I consider exceptions to this rule. They all feature rosters of leading theologians working at the top of their game on some of the hottest topics in contemporary academic theology. So if you’ve got any interest in questions related to topics in theological ontology, God’s (in)capacity to suffer, divine providence, or the character of the Christian life, here are some titles worth considering.

Book Notice: Marianna Forde

Marianna Forde, Gerhard Forde: A Life. Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2014. 247 pgs.

Marianna Forde has written a welcome tribute to her late husband Gerhard Forde. Gerhard, or “Ga” as his family knew him, and who passed away in 2005, taught theology for nearly forty years at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. In theological circles Gerhard will surely be remembered for his many writings, his “Radical Lutheranism,” and his inimitable articulation of Reformation commonplaces like the distinction between law and gospel, the bondage of the will, and justification by faith. A credit of Marianna’s work, though, is its premise that there is just as much reason to appreciate the memory of Gerhard the man as there is for Gerhard the theologian.

Marianna develops this lesson in two principal ways. First, interspersed throughout the volume, there runs a biographical narrative that outlines the major episodes that structured and colored Gerhard’s life and ministry. Much of the material is what you would expect from a biography. Marianna details Gerhard’s childhood in 1920s Starbuck, Minnesota; the tragic early loss of his mother; his decision to switch from the study of chemistry to theology; his time in the U.S. Army Medical Corps (‘46-‘47); his attendance at Martin Luther Kings Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech accompanied by Robert Jenson and Sam Preus; his courtship of Marianna and the beginnings of their family; and his work at the universities of Harvard, Tübingen, Oxford, and other institutions. Second, Marianna includes a copious amount of first-hand recollections of Gerhard from siblings, friends, colleagues, and students. From these vignettes much is learned about Gerhard that his own writings shed only little light on, namely, his political sympathies for the working classes, his profound enjoyment of music and poetry, and his partiality for understated, dry witticisms.

When it does come to Gerhard the theologian, Marianna proves just as able a guide. This is not the least surprising considering, she admits, “my theological understanding was much increased listening to Gerhard very often discuss theology over the dinner table during forty years of marriage” (7). The result is the most comprehensive introduction to Gerhard’s writings and characteristic themes to-date. Gerhard is situated as a student of the Luther Renaissance. Particularly influential for him were the Lutheran theologians Lauri Haikola (1917-87, Finnish) and Hans J. Iwand (1899-1960, German). Gerhard himself contributed to the recovery of Luther’s theology of the cross and eschatological sensibilities, and he sought to demonstrate their fruitfulness for contemporary systematic use. Gerhard’s work in atonement theology is a prime case-in-point. Still controversial, even in some Lutheran circles, are Gerhard’s treatments, or lack thereof, of sanctification, the third use of the law, and ecclesiology, though Gerhard would more likely consider these lacunae badges of honor. A more germane testament to Gerhard’s ministry as a theologian, however, would have to be the generations of students who, stirred by his teaching and preaching, “have described what happened to them as a conversion” (167).

The volume is not without its share of shortcomings. At times the narrative dallies with repetitiveness (cf. 69-70 and 121). It may be overgenerous with lengthy quotations. Its endnote apparatus is a curious editing choice. The volume would also have been improved had it included an index. None of these features, though, eclipse its achievements.

What’s nicest to see is the attention Marianna pays to Gerhard’s central insight: “dogmatics cannot save us—only preaching and the sacraments can do that” (114). It’s difficult to overstate how formative this conviction was for Gerhard’s body of work. It even came to inform his choice of audience, for Gerhard “refused to write his theology for [the] guild. Instead, he wrote for preachers. He could have written for the guild, of course. His mind was first class, and he wrote beautifully. But, like St Paul, he came to preach Christ and him crucified. Toward that goal, he was steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord” (190).

For Marianna’s work in preserving the memory of such a theologian, and the gospel Gerhard served, we owe Mrs. Forde our thanks.

Book Notice: Donald MacKinnon

Though perhaps not as widely engaged as his thought warrants, Donald M. MacKinnon (1913-1994) has nevertheless left an indelible mark on contemporary theology. This oversight in theological literature may just be due to MacKinnon’s preference for occasional forms of writing. Whatever the reason may be, though, if you’re an avid reader of theology, it would be a curious circumstance if you haven’t encountered at least one of his students before. To name just a few, MacKinnon’s pupils included Nicholas Lash, Fergus Kerr, Rowan Williams, Sarah Coakley, David Ford, Frances Young, and John Webster. An impressive roll call, to say the least, and not a trivial reflection of MacKinnon’s legacy. This is why the release of Philosophy and the Burden of Theological Honesty: A Donald MacKinnon Reader, Ed., John McDowell, (T&T Clark, 2011) may be hoped to contribute to a retrieval of MacKinnon of sorts. This anthology collects 30 selections spanning 54 years of MacKinnon’s publishing career, from 1941-1995. Its contents, much like MacKinnon’s interests, evince a staggering breadth. If that’s not enough, however, and your curiosity still isn’t piqued, let me leave you with a taste of MacKinnon’s prose:

 There is no escape at any point in life from the fear that our very seriousness about ourselves is sound and fury signifying nothing. The medieval schoolmen would have said: inevitably so, for man is poised between being and not being; he draws his existence wholly from the self-existent God. The movement of human thought must reflect man’s situation in being. Because he is so poised between being and not-being, he will never see his experience as something assured. Again and again, in tacking stock of himself, he will not find easily the arguments which will assure him that his standing is secure. At their wisest the schoolmen would never allow that by a formula we could somehow escape the most fundamental conditions of our existence. In the end they would have said: the proof of the pudding is in the eating; a necessary implication of their insistence on the primacy of being over thought. And perhaps we must say the same. There is no other proof possible that a seriousness in life is justified than is found in living. One cannot by any magic escape the conditions of humanity, assume the absolute perspective of God. If it is better to arrive than to travel, we are still inescapably travelling in statu viae, to use the old phrase. And our perspectives are necessarily those of travellers, at least for most of the time. But there still remains a difference between the traveller who takes the measure of his road and the one who seeks to be oblivious of its windings. (310-11)

And for those especially curious about MacKinnon, here’s a sampling of additional works to consider:

Primary Sources

  • Borderlands of Theology: And Other Essays, Re-issued Ed., (Wipf&Stock, 2011).
  • Explorations in Theology, Vol 5: Donald MacKinnon, (SCM, 1979).
  • Themes in Theology, The Threefold Cord: essays in Philosophy, Politics, and Theology, (T&T Clark, 1987).


  • The Philosophical frontiers of Christian Theology: Essays Presented to D.M. MacKinnon, Eds., Brian Hebblethwaite and Stewart Sutherland, (CUP, 1982)
  • Christ, Ethics, and Tragedy: Essays in Honor of Donald MacKinnon, Ed. Kenneth Surin, (CUP, 1989)
  • Paul D. Murray, “Theology in the Borderlands: Donald MacKinnon and Contemporary Theology.” Modern Theology vol 14, no 3 (1998): 355-376.
  • Timothy Connor, The Kenotic Trajectory of the Church in Donald MacKinnon’s Theology, (T&T Clark, 2013).
  • André Mueller, Ph.D diss., University of Otago, [forthcoming intellectual biography of MacKinnon]

Upcoming Books in 2015

There are some books coming out later this year that I’m looking forward to, and I’m thinking others might share my excitement, so I thought I’d flag them down. More info on them is available through the links provided. These authors won’t disappoint.

Book Notice: Darren C. Marks

It’s been said that it’s “when we begin to discern the entire shape of a person’s life, [that] we also begin to understand why a particular belief might or might not be important to that person.”* I at least have found this a suggestive insight. That’s probably why I was pleased to happen across the following title from Darren Marks. Back in 2002 Marks published Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology (Ashgate). I wish I’d known about it earlier. The modest volume is a collection of short autobiographical essays that offers an array of noted theologians the opportunity to reflect on the circumstances and deliberations that forged their theological sensibilities. Marks’s choice of contributors leaves the reader with a fair impression of the varied methodological options operative in theology today. We end up hearing from voices as diverse as those of James Cone, Colin Gunton, Alister McGrath, Wayne Meeks, John Milbank, Jürgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Gerald O’Collins, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and more. For me, though, the standout contributions had to be those from Kathryn Tanner and John Webster. What I especially appreciated was how the juxtaposition of their respective theological orientations in such close proximity to one another brought to the fore a dilemma I’ve previously tried to register (here). But before we rehash that old ground, let’s hear from Tanner first:

With the onset of a postmodern humility about pretensions to such things as universality and disinterestedness, … the theoretical deficiencies of which theology has been accused are now so spread around [the academy] that they appear to be the defining fault of no one field in particular. … The legitimacy of theology … is no longer a matter of whether theology can meet some scholarly minimum in its procedures. Theology’s warrant now centers on the question of whether theologians have anything important to say about the world and our place in it. …

Answers to these questions require new methods. Theology’s closest analogue is no longer a perennial philosophy, addressing the most general questions of human moment purportedly common to every time and place, but a political theory (broadly construed) of cultural meanings that is quite situation-specific in its focus. In other words, the theologian — like a Weberian social scientist or a Gramscian political theorist – now asks about the way Christian beliefs and symbols function in the particulars of people’s lives so as to direct and justify the shape of social organization and the course of social action. As a historian of Christian thought and practice, the theologian needs a thorough knowledge of the various permutations of the Christian symbol in all its complicated alignments with social forces for good or ill. With this knowledge in hand, the constructive theologian is better positioned to intervene in the current situation adroitly, effectively and responsibly, with suggestions for both rethinking Christian claims and refiguring human life for the sake of the greater good. (116)

Bearing Tanner’s thought in mind, let’s turn to Webster:

[Systematic theology as Webster was taught it] tended to lack a robust sense of its own integrity and coherence as a field of intellectual inquiry, and so [expended] a great deal of energy in forming alliances with other disciplines (principally philosophy and history, but sometimes social theory or philosophy of natural science) as a means of reassurance. […]

A number of things came together to extract me from the inhibitions of my theological formation. One very prominent factor was a half-conscious but remarkably emancipating decision to teach confessionally, in two senses. First, I resolved to work on the assumption of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confession, and not to devote too much time and energy developing arguments in its favor or responses to its critical denials. I discovered, in other words, that description is a great deal more interesting and persuasive than apology. Second, I resolved to structure the content of my teaching in accordance with the intellectual and spiritual logic of the Christian confession as it finds expression in the classical creeds, to allow that structure to stand and to explicate itself, and not to press the material into some other format. Thus my survey of Christian doctrine was (and remains) simply a conceptual expansion of the Apostles’ Creed as a guide to the Gospel that is set out in Holy Scripture. Once I resolved to work in this way, I quite quickly found that the substance and order of Christian doctrine displayed itself as much more grand, and much more comprehensible, than when I had approached it as a series of critical problems. (130-131)

The questions that Tanner and Webster leave me with are ones I’ve asked before.

To Webster I’d want to ask the following:

  • Is every multi-disciplinary approach to theology, e.g. Tanner’s, indicative of a lack of confidence in the adequacy of theology’s explanatory power? Is insecurity the only motive that would lead one to reach for a multi-disciplinary mode of inqury?
  • Is it not possible to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach that would not distort theology’s aims and procedures, or press it into a model of inquiry that obscures its subject matter?

And to Tanner:

  • What tools of description and assessment can theology’s cognate disciplines provide that theology’s own categories don’t already equip it with? Can theology account for the blind spots being attributed to it?

I don’t have satisfying answers to all of these questions yet, but I do intend to return to them. Though we may be in a season that’s witnessing a shift in attention away from methodological issues to more substantive concerns, a trend both Tanner and Webster applaud, I still can’t help but find questions like these fascinating.

*This nugget comes from David S. Cunningham, Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film, (Brazos, 2002).

Book Notice: James Wetzel

How do you introduce a mind as cavernous as Augustine’s to those unversed in the terrain of his literature? Answering this question is the task James Wetzel sets himself for his contribution to Continuum’s series on Guides for the Perplexed. It may be worth noting that Wetzel’s Augustine (2010) is not his first venture into Augustine studies. Quite the opposite is the case. Wetzel holds the Augustinian Endowed Chair in the Thought of St Augustine at Villanova University. Augustine, the point is, is a specialty of Wetzel’s. In fact, he has already offered the well-received Augustine and the Limits of Virtue (Cambridge, 2008), and more recently Parting Knowledge: Essays after Augustine, (Wipf&Stock, 2013). Both of those volumes, however, are more specialized in focus. For that reason, it will serve my purposes better if we simply consider Wetzel’s Guide, which works as a general and more accessible introduction to its subject matter. Wetzel selects as his point of departure Augustine’s moral psychology. It makes for demanding reading. But I would be quick to add that your efforts will be abundantly rewarded. The results of Wetzel’s account are soul-stretching. Wetzel’s Guide doesn’t just introduce you to Augustine, it is itself an exercise in Augustinian spirituality.

What Wetzel so helpfully brings to view is the character of Augustine’s theology as a “great refusal” — the refusal of a lie (125). “The lie is that he [Augustine] is most himself when he is nearest a self-contained intelligence” (126). The truth, however, so often lost amidst our aspirations to a god-like epistemic self-sufficiency, is disclosed in “Augustine’s ideal of a life,” namely, that “of a life confessed” (8). It was a trail of trials and tears that taught Augustine how to surrender his self-definition to others (35); he had to learn that perspicacious self-perception is a fruit of friendship, divine and human. Even in matters of self-knowledge there can be no elimination of truth’s character as a gift received, extra nos, and not the product of an individual’s genius.

Augustine’s insight points to a critical moment for theology and philosophy. Augustine is building to the conclusion that an ingredient of either enterprise is the pursuit of a right spiritual posture. Wisdom is with the humble, we’ll remember (Pr 11:2). The truth is, the blind spots in the field of our self-vision are not exceptions to our general epistemic condition. Rather, they’re indicative of the fundamentally cooperative and dialogical character of all inquiry (i.e., bringing into view some of the moral liabilities of intellectual endeavor). Wetzel is alert to the significance of this consideration, and he aims to practice what he finds Augustine preaching: “I respect and share his [Augustine’s] view that philosophy is not about gaining the upper hand in an argument. It is about risking self for the sake of truth and a more generous self” (10). Here Wetzel reminds me of another philosopher (Joel Backström) who’s made a similar point about this reflexive dimension of inquiry, “Winning arguments and proving others wrong is quite useless. The promise of philosophy is that one may come to prove oneself wrong, to see through one’s own illusions.” Surely theology would applaud this sentiment with a hearty Amen. It’s been a defining task of theology to bid us to mind our sins — even in our theologizing. For theology’s promise, at the end of the day, is the divine unmasking of our idolatries, to have our own unconfessed reserves of faithlessness disclosed.

We, however, Augustine has been cautioning us, ought not to presume to be experts in self-diagnosis (37). We stand in need of a Confessor. “I beg you, God of mine,” prays Augustine, “show me me, that I may testify to what I find mangled in me” (Conf.10.37.62). The truth we can apprehend, we learn, is a measure of the company we keep. This is the difference a student’s spiritual state makes in their intellectual formation. Our temptations to distort or refuse friendship will figure into our capacity to discern truth. But if we would follow Augustine, it will become our prayer that our as-yet disparate spiritual, moral, and intellectual labors would begin to image the integrity of the one God.

So who do I think would profit from spending some time with Wetzel’s Augustine? Well, if you’ve had trouble “subordinating [your] responsibility for sin to [your] more fundamental responsiveness to God” (9); if you’re someone who questions “the value of the life that makes a person liable to grief” (17); if you’ve found yourself tempted by the desire for knowledge that “banks on the notion that knowing the good and being willing to live by it are entirely separate things” (52, 67); if you’re curious as to how the Christian religion functions as a map of the human soul (51); then to you I would suggest letting Wetzel be your guide to both Augustine and Augustine’s God. May they impress upon you the integrity of truth and love. Rest assured, Wetzel knows better than to “stay too long with a negative moral” (111).