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Against "Christian Morality"? Ellul on Paul's Freedom Doctrine

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In 1951 the French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul published a seminal theological essay on "The Meaning of Freedom According to St. Paul" -- an exposisition of Romans 8. As commentator Marva Dawn explains, early on Ellul had been drawn to the works of Karl Marx, but he came to find Marxist theory was insufficent to address ultimate questions about the meaning of existence; for that, the transcendent perspective of religious faith is necessary. While reading Romans 8, he had a sudden "watershed" experience in which the words of the Bible came alive as a liberating word addressed personally to him. This essay, she writes, reflects some of the early fruits of that conversion.

Sources and Trajectories: Eight Articles by Jacques Ellul that Set the Stage, Trans. & Ed. by Marva J. Dawn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eeerdmans, 1997).

Like so many interpreters of Paul, from Luther to Barth and beyond, Ellul discerns in this text a liberating word that casts a shadow of j…

Authority and Bible in Schleiermacher’s Theology—more from Daniel Pedersen

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In my last post post, I talked about my preferred approach to relating the introductory sections (§§1-31) of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith to his concrete theological claims later in the book. A great advantage of my approach is that it offers a better way to understand how Schleiermacher meant his method and dogmatic particulars to relate. In other words, this approach makes Schleiermacher’s method more understandable.

In this post, I want to stick with the theme of Schleiermacher’s introductory sections. This time, however, I want to say something about the why of Schleiermacher’s introductory sections. I am convinced that we don’t really understand what Schleiermacher is up to unless we understand his motives. In this post, I will say something about one motive in particular: the search for an adequate authority.


One story we could tell about §§1-31 of The Christian Faith is that they were a thought experiment. Or that these sections were the product of whimsy. Or they were…

What Am I Reading? Willem Spijker’s “Calvin: A Brief Guide”

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Long-time DET readers know that I have a soft spot for Calvin. My posting will inexorably circle back to him if given enough time. This is one of those times because I’ve been reading Willem van’t Spijker’s Calvin: A Brief Guide to his Life and Thought (WJK, 2009). This is one of a slew of books that were published about Calvin to mark the 500th anniversary of his birth.

Generally I wouldn’t pick up such an introductory volume at this point in my Calvin-reading career, but I hoped this one would provide a glimpse at the state of Calvin scholarship in Europe in general and the Netherlands in particular. It’s hard to know whether that’s what I received, but I will say that the various European languages are well represented in the bibliography. Furthermore, I discovered that Spijker has an effortless way of bringing in a great deal of historical detail that I had not encountered in such an economical, summary fashion before.


For instance, Spijker's treatment of the background to th…

Word from the Trenches: Klempa on Barth as Wartime Preacher

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William Klempa's introduction highlights several notable features of Karl Barth's preaching (see pp. 40-45); most of these will not be new to the seasoned Barth student, but they are helpfully laid out here.

For one thing, Barth was deeply troubled by the preachers of the World War I era who used the pulpit to legitimate the entanglement of their respective nation states in the burgeoning conflict. As we shall see in looking at these sermons, Barth discerned a positive theological value in Swiss neutrality: Though Switzerland was far from innocent in the conflagration of the European powers and their respective allies worldwide, at least Barth could view his pulpit in the Aargau canton offered a vantage point for criticizing both sides in the war; Swiss neutrality, we might say using a later Barthian trope, provided a parable of the peaceable kingdom, dim though the reflection might be.

A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, Trans. & Ed. By William Klempa (Loui…

How to Understand Schleiermacher's Theology—A guest post by Daniel Pedersen

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Anyone who has read the first one-hundred or so pages of The Christian Faith knows that it is rough going. While all of Schleiermacher’s writings are sophisticated, and so difficult, the introductory sections (§§1-31) of that work might be the most taxing.

This is a problem. Many, or even most, courses on Schleiermacher only read the introduction (along with the Speeches and some other works). This can make studying Schleiermacher frustrating, and so discourage folks from reading further into the meat of his thought.

This heavy emphasis on Schleiermacher’s introduction also implies, or at least suggests, that Schleiermacher’s work is, first and foremost, driven by method, by a set of rules or procedures; that what Schleiermacher did was come up with these rules and then, like a computer program, let them run. If so, his readers should repeat the process to really understand him. And that means getting his method right first.

Now, I won’t disagree that method is important to Schleierm…

Not Another “Bonhoeffer Moment”

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As I’ve mentioned before, I read Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In doing so, certain passages jumped out at me as offering interesting suggestions of parallels between Bonhoeffer’s sociohistorical context (the rise of the Third Reich) and our own. So I want to reflect on some of them with you, gentle reader. However, I need to offer some disclaimers:

I have no intention of fueling the fire of those who search for a “Bonhoeffer Moment” (Huffpo has published an article with that phrase in the title each of the last three years: 2015, 2016, 2017). We have enough problems without dragging poor Dietrich into it…I don’t intend to claim that the present administration is fascist and racist in a way analogous to the Nazi regime. There are times when I’m inclined to claim that, and I’d certainly claim that there are members of it who are demonstrably racist and have clear fascist tendencies. And I hear people talking, saying we have fascists in the White House. I…

Mapping the Powers: Clues from Ellul

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Just what are the "principalities and powers" that play a piovtal role in the New Testament writings, particularly in the Pauline corpus? Are these concepts simply arcane and outmoded notions from an ancient worldview? Or do they speak to our times and situations in a particularly accute way? These are questions that have preoccupied me for some time. At long last, I'm beginning to give some closer attention to the works of the French social thinker and theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), whose multifaceted, interdisciplinary corpus had much to say on these questions. To that end, I've been working through Marva Dawn's fine collection of early essays from this major 20th century dialectical thinker.

Sources and Trajectories: Eight Articles by Jacques Ellul that Set the Stage, Trans. & Ed. by Marva J. Dawn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eeerdmans, 1997).

This volume draws together eight early essays from the French Reformed thinker, pieces chosen not so much for their qu…