This piece is a response by W. Travis McMaken to a series of replies to his book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer.

McMaken is an Associate Professor of Religion at Lindenwood University. His previous work includes The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth.

My deepest thanks to the good folks at Theology Corner for producing this series of engagements with my work on Helmut Gollwitzer (Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer, hereafter OGLJ), and especially to the authors for devoting their time to me and Golli. It is my pleasure and honor to provide a series of responses to their reflections. Ultimately, I hope that these blog posts will convince folks to give Gollwitzer a first look (and a second, and third, and fourth, etc.). As I’ve said in other contexts, I remain firmly convinced that Golli still has much to teach those of us in the various white, North American, protestant traditions. 

Harken to Larkin

Larkin’s post endows me with perhaps the most meaningful compliment that I have ever received. As someone who is largely self-taught as a writer—although, I’ve had the incredible good fortune to be friends (as if that’s strong enough) with the best academic editor out there, and to have worked on two book projects with the second best—hearing that OGLJ is so “well written and presented” that she could give it to a high-school student is high praise, indeed. Her summary of the volume leaves little, if anything, to be desired.

It might be hard to identify where Larkin’s summary of OGLJ stops and her constructive riffing begins, but just watch for where the footnotes fall away. There’s a good paragraph and a bit more toward the very end where she modulates from my own ecclesiological reflections to provide some anthropological reflections of her own. She emphasizes that one’s being is both crucified and resurrected in the event of faith, and that this establishes a robust account of individual self-hood and responsibility. Furthermore, this selfhood and responsibility provides the foundation necessary to “resist and reject the oppressive and abusive patriarchal systems and status quo”—and I don’t think she would mind if we fleshed out her “patriarchal” with terms like imperialist, colonialist, racist, homophobic, etc.

The implied technical bridge between my ecclesiology and Larkin’s anthropology is something like David Congdon’s “soteriocentric theology of the creature as eccentric, unconscious, and unnatural” (The God Who Saves, 207).

Can anything good come out of Toronto?


And not just because Dettloff’s post undertakes, in his own way, to produce a three-point apology for my conviction that Gollwitzer is worth hearing in the here and now of contemporary North America. But certainly also because of that.

As an aside, I appreciate Dettloff’s highlighting the notion of kairos, with which I began OGLJ and which I interpret in a largely Tillichian way. In fact, I still haven’t entirely forgiven my editor for convincing me to cut from the ms a long paragraph interpreting Tillich on this point.

What I appreciate most about Dettloff’s reflections, however, is how he situates Gollwitzer in such a way as to emphasize his radicality. Dettloff sharpens edges that are too easily blunted by situating Gollwitzer explicitly, even if in so brief a way, in the particulars of leftist history and politics. Whereas many might find it radical enough to speak simply of Gollwitzer’s anti-capitalism, the “Catholic communist in Toronto” accentuates Gollwitzer’s engagement with socialist movements in the global South, learning from Cone and black theology, and wrestling with the question of revolutionary violence.

I very much like Dettloff’s definition of socialism as “a necessary node in a network of struggles against intersecting oppressions,” and he is entirely correct that “reading Gollwitzer alone will not be enough to have a fully-fledged conversation about socialism in American churches” at least in part because his work is “still a product of his whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity.” But like Dettloff, “I suspect if I would have found Gollwitzer sooner I would be further down the road than I am now in terms of socialist praxis.”

Massachusetts Milieu

Seriously, though: leave it to Scott to use a phrase like “Anglo-American milieu” in the third sentence of a blog post. After blogging with Scott for more than 4 years, and working with him as my right-hand man at DET (Die Evangelischen Theologen), I know what to expect, and I’ve come to greatly value his insight and feedback. He was around for most of the time that I was researching and writing OGLJ, he workshopped bits and pieces of it with me along the way, and he read and gave me feedback on the whole ms prior to publication. And amazingly enough, we met in person for the first time at AAR in Boston last Fall! For the sake of decorum, however, I will henceforth make use of his surname.  

Jackson’s reflections on OGLJ remain preoccupied with eschatology, and especially with the intersection of the eschatological and the historical, as they have been since he first read the ms. Indeed, perusing his postings at DET reveals that this particular intersection preoccupies him more broadly than just in conversation with OGLJ. Jackson is right to highlight the radical “eschatological reserve” operative in Gollwitzer’s thought, even while also suggesting that “there is a certain shape or at least a trajectory to the Christian life.” “Shape” doesn’t work for me because it carries—at least in my mind—all sorts of unpleasant baggage related to liturgico-sacramentalism in a postliberal vein (see ch. 5 in OGLJ). But “trajectories” might work better. It’s very similar to “direction and orientation” as used by Golli and Barth (see esp. OGLJ, 87).

To conclude his piece, however, Jackson transposes this line of thought into a christological key, working to integrate radical eschatological reserve with some sense of “trajectory.” He writes: “It might seem that the personal being and vocation of the Savior would form the natural loci for clarifying the connection between the transcendent God and the concrete demands of social justice. Building upon this account of Gollwitzer, might we depict Jesus is the one who embodies the kingdom of God not merely as dissolution of idolatries but also as self-giving love?” I’d like to essay an answer to this question by diverting to the topic of “revolution.” One way that I articulate the eschatological reserve that Jackson highlights is through language of “permanent revolution”—which I take from Golli, and which has other roots in Barth studies, and of course goes back as well to Trotsky and Marx (see OGLJ, 120). In the Western, liberal imaginary that many of us walk around with as a default setting, revolution is primarily a negative thing. It’s destructive. But part of breaking free of that imaginary means reevaluating our concepts of revolution. It means coming to realize that many good things have come from revolution, and could again come from it. Indeed, that for all their historical and potential horrors, their dangers and ambiguities, particular revolutions have—in fact—been instruments for the increase of justice and human flourishing.

If we think of the permanent revolution of the kingdom of God in this way, we must describe it as a permanent revolution of “self-giving love.” And for whatever it’s worth, it strikes me that this just about summarizes what the historians can tell us with any serious probability about the message preached by Josh from the village of Nazareth a couple of millenia ago.

Prodigal Podcaster

My first thought upon reading Stephen Waldron’s post was: “How is it that I haven’t yet been on the Theology and Socialism podcast?!”

My second thought upon reading Stephen Waldron’s post was: “David Tracy, George Lindbeck, George Hunsinger, and Chance the Rapper—all in one post? I’ve never seen that combination before!”

More seriously, though, I think that Waldron is spot on with his reflections on risk and honesty. With reference to risk, he writes: “People who choose involvement in both religion and politics almost inevitably make that kind of mistake sooner or later. Taking that risk, though, is one of the most Christian things that one can do.” To build on this, it seems to me that many times Christians (and professional theologians) can take the Christian life a bit too seriously, and so try to insulate themselves from risk. But I stand with Barth, who likewise stood with Zwingli, when in his reflections on discipleship he admonishes his readers: “For God’s sake do something brave” (CD 4.2, 540)! Christian life, theology, and political engagement are certainly serious things insofar as they involve the response of the believer to the event of encounter with God. But they are only ever fleeting shadows (Eccl. 1:2), all too inadequate creaturely messes no matter what we do. So get out there, sin boldly (as Luther supposedly said), and muck it up while trying to make the world reflect the true socialism of the kingdom of God even just a tiny bit more. For God’s sake, do something brave!

On the subject of honestly, Waldron notes: “If the Son of God was sent into the world to mingle with sinners and suffer at their hands, surely Christians who claim to talk about God can take on the risk of doing so publicly. Surely they can honestly disclose their political orientations and give up their pretenses to non-partisanship and objectivity. Surely they can tell the truth to and about their own churches as it is appropriate to do so.” I think we have to keep in mind that many professional Christians (as it were) are engaging in precisely this sort of disclosure. The problem (in my mind), is that it is primarily the sociopolitical conservatives that do so. Sociopolitical progressives do so as well, but there are many fewer of those (as far as I can tell). And this next bit is key—those in the middle tend not to do so. This might be because these leaders are themselves still befuddled by America’s original heresy (e.g., the spirituality of the church; see OGLJ, 83), or perhaps they have not yet figured out that ostensible neutrality in the context of oppression is actually support for the injustice of the status quo. Or perhaps it’s much more a matter of Realpolitik: they have people in their institutions who fall on both sides, or perhaps they find themselves in a context that is more conservative than they are, and they have children to feed, clothe, house, and educate. Love of one’s own is a hell of a drug.

Oh, I don’t have any solutions to any of this. I’m just riffing on Waldron’s piece. And I’m prepared to admit, with some of my forebears in the Pauline school, that I have a serious claim to being the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15) in this regard.

And so, perhaps, we all must hear—again and again—Zwingli (via Barth): For God’s sake, do something brave! 

I’m fresh out of playful headings. Mallory wants me to talk about christology.

Before getting into this section further, I’d like to say that I appreciate Mallory’s footnote #3: “Cf. McMaken’s helpful discussion of how Barth’s rejection of natural theology was an extension of the Reformation’s soteriology into the sphere of theological epistemology on page 55.” I wish this point was more widely appreciated, so I’m glad he highlighted it.

Jackson’s and Mallory’s posts pursue lines of inquiry that are similar in many ways. We return to the question of the relationship between the divine and the human (or creaturely), whether in terms of history and eschatology, historical Jesus and proclaimed Christ, etc. It’s the same basic question and dynamic, and—ultimately—it’s the basic question and dynamic at the heart of Christian faith. Mallory is therefore quite right to put it in fundamentally Chalcedonian terms, speaking of the “Wholly Other” (i.e., the divine) and the “Wholly Human.” How we understand the relationship between this dialectical pair will determine our theologies in decisive ways.

Now, I’m Protestant enough (well, actually, far more than merely Protestant enough) to think that conciliar decisions are only authoritative insofar as they provide explanatory power. The standard Protestant line is that they have to help us interpret (“explain”) scripture, but in dialectical theology we are much more concerned about adequately attesting (“explaining”) the event of faith. Does Chalcedon help us do that? Not if we get caught up in the conceptual world that Chalcedon assumes. But if we focus on the judgment Chalcedon makes, as opposed to the concepts it uses to express that judgment, we might get further.

I’ve tried to articulate this at some length in my essay, “Definitive, Defective or Deft? Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4” (see esp. pp. 98–107), which in turn builds on the discussion in my book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (see esp. pp. 240–50). In short, I use the language of paradoxical identity to recast the judgments of Chalcedon in a dialectical theological key indexed to the event of faith. The payoff is to radicalize the relationship between the divine and the (creaturely, historical) by saying that one encounters the divine precisely as the human (creaturely, historical). They are identical; but only paradoxically so, and only in the event of faith.

This builds the “eschatological reserve” that Jackson talked about into the heart of christology. Even for someone like Barth, with his actualization of Chalcedonian categories (see esp. the excellent study by Darren Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation: Christology and the Humility of God), Jesus’s divinity is not a characteristic but an occurrence: it is not only that God becomes human once and metaphysically for all, but God actually becomes human again and again, in each moment. And, critically, the only way that we ever have any inkling that this is the case is through the event of faith—it is not an objectified condition that is somehow generally accessible.

So at the end of the day, we have to say that dialectical theology affirms the inseparability (identity!) of Jesus’s humanity from the event of faith, and vice versa. However, we only affirm that inseparability because of the event, and that inseparability only exists in the event. Jesus’s humanity and God’s Thou-objectivity are paradoxically identical, and the paradox is such that it only resolves in the event itself (see my other essay, “Actualism, Dualism, and Onto-Relations: Interrogating Torrance’s Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism,” esp. 23n75).

There, I think I’ve cited enough stuff to keep folks busy for a while. My work here is done.

Wait, sorry, I spoke too soon. Very briefly: affirming God’s nonobjectifiability describes the God encountered in the event of faith. I find entirely unmoving abstract concerns about whether or not something “limits” God. Daniel Pedersen’s discussion of necessity vis-à-vis God is excellent in this regard (see The Eternal Covenant: Schleiermacher on God and Natural Science, esp. chs. 5 & 6).

Finally (i.e., in conclusion)!

My response has grown far too long already, so I won’t belabor this point. I want to thank once again these lovely people who have taken the time to write about my book, and I hope that this at least somewhat lighthearted response adequately serves to carry on the conversations with Golli (and me) that they have begun. But most importantly, I want to thank them—and you, gentle readers—for taking an interest in Gollwitzer. I hope that interest will continue to grow. And I’m always happy to provide advice on how to get to know his work better.