Heroes and Villains

Over at his blog, Jesus Creed, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight offers some interesting reflections on the neglected topic of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's attitude to the work of Rudolf Bultmann. The post is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, it highlights the complexity of categorizing Bonhoeffer's own thought relative to twentieth century theological currents and parties.  Second, it raises the issue of the difficulty of dispassionate reading of great and influential figures, and particularly the need to take sides when discussing them.

Christians often seem to struggle with the notion of difference.  I wonder if a large part of the passion generated by debates about baptism between Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians is in part the result of the fact that the theological heroes of the Reformed Baptists are on the whole those who repudiate that which is the very hallmark of the Reformed Baptist position.  This fact can be ignored on almost any other theological topic of interest to the two groups but there, at the very point of essential identity, the difference is clear and insurmountable and the heroes should really become villains.  Emotions consequently run high when baptism is mentioned and ownership of certain of the great and the good is challenged.

Over the years, I have made no secret of the fact that many of the theologians I most enjoy reading and by whom I have been most influenced have been those with whom I have fundamental disagreements.  I love Luther's existential power and his grasp of justification by grace through faith.  I cannot agree with his sacramental theology, yet even there I find his arguments force me to sharpen and deepen my own thinking.  I love Newman's Christological sermons, his polemical incisiveness, and his remarkable style of writing, but I repudiate his Romanism even as I find his arguments about history, tradition and authority to be a spur to my own thinking in these areas.

The problem with difference is always the same.  Evangelicals are uncomfortable with it.  A hero has to be one of them.  Yet therein lies the problem because it is often at the point of difference that such thinkers become spurs to deeper thinking.  Lewis the evangelical, Bonhoeffer the evangelical and, to those who remember that strange list, Neuhaus the evangelical are of far less use to me and to the church's theological reflection than the thinkers they really were.