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).

Secondary

  • 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.