Archive for the ‘James W. McClendon, Jr.’ Category

Sermon for Pentecost – May 24, 2015

May 25, 2015

Acts 2:1-21 This is that.

A little over fourteen years ago I came out of seminary from The General Theological Seminary (GTS) in Manhattan. Mark Richardson taught systematic theology and Tom Breidenthal taught moral theology. Mark Richardson is now dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, which is an Episcopal Church Seminary in Berkeley, CA. Tom Breidenthal is presently the Bishop of Southern Ohio, and one of the four nominees to become the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (the election of the next PB is next month in Utah)

It was a pretty unusual arrangement, because both Profs. Richardson and Breidenthal used the same systematic theology textbooks.

The three books were written by James W. McClendon, Jr. Ethics (1986
); Doctrine (1994); 
Witness (2000).

Jim McClendon started out as a Southern Baptist. Later, he was a theologian in the Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptists are Christians of the Radical Reformation. The descendants of the original Anabaptists include the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists!

McClendon taught for 46 years at various schools:
Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, the University of San Francisco, Stanford University, the University of Notre Dame, Fuller Theological Seminary, Baylor University, Temple University, Goucher College, Saint Mary’s College of California, and Church Divinity School of the Pacific. His longest appointment was at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

McClendon helped found what came to be known as the narrative theology movement in the late 1960s.

So, I attended an Episcopal Church Seminary in the Anglo-Catholic tradition where both the systematic theology and the moral theology professors used the same textbooks written by a former Southern Baptist from Texas, who had converted as an adult into an Anabaptist.

When someone is a good teacher – he or she is a good teacher – it sort of doesn’t matter where he comes from. Southern Baptist, Mennonite, Catholic, who cares?

I could go on and on about James McClendon. His first major book was called Biography as Theology. He thought we all could profit by reading about the lives of people who lived out their faith. In Biography as Theology he presents the lives of Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Jr, Clarence Jordan, and the composer Charles Ives.

In McClendon’s systematic theology books we read stories about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The question always was: What motivated these lives, and how did they handle adversity?

The other thing McClendon did was turn us back to the biblical stories. The stories in the Bible had become embarrassing myths and fictional accounts for many theologians of the 20th century.

McClendon is well known for three words: “This is that.”

“This is that” comes from today’s first reading in the 2nd chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. McClendon was using the King James Bible. In our translation, and in most modern translations, this is rendered as “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel.” It is the 16th verse of the 2nd chapter.

The KJV has “but this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.”

In the first chapter of Acts the text says there were about 120 people gathered together: The eleven faithful disciples, Matthias (who was Judas’ replacement), Jesus’ mother Mary, various women disciples, relatives and other disciples.

And then they have this tremendous experience together, which we hear about in church every year on this day. People began mocking them, and rumors were spread that the Christians were drunk. Peter stands up and says these people are not drunk! No, “this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” And then he proceeds to quote from the Prophet Joel.

People generally think that prophecy is prediction. Prophecy is often actually something completely different. The Prophets are really saying something about their own times, if only to reject the status quo.

It is certainly true (for instance) that when Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream” he was criticizing the society he was living in. But in another way, Dr. King is speaking to us now.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

And when that day comes, whether in Georgia, Mississippi, or Troy, NY the people will recognize what Dr. King said, and they will say, “But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!”

“This [NOW] is that [THEN]”

Jim McClendon’s insight about “this is that” is important because Christians are always confronted with skeptics who doubt the truth of our convictions. It is hard to prove that we know God in Jesus Christ. We don’t get drunk at our Sunday services, but maybe we are just delusional?

But, there are those times when we do see the Kingdom of God on earth:

– Homeless people grateful for our gifts of toilet paper and socks.
– Times like yesterday when a motley crew of various saints of the church came out to St. Paul’s to do yard work.
– I remember so vividly the night I was volunteering in a shelter, and a young Syrian homeless man with epilepsy came in – a man who did not have work papers, a man who couldn’t keep steady work because every week or so he would land in the hospital with grand mal seizures. Well, this young man came in one night caring for another old man, who was mentally disabled. The Syrian man helped him get some food, get him ready for bed, and tucked him in. I still don’t know why he cared for the other man. They weren’t related. It was just so kind.

And I wish I could have known then to stand up in the middle of that homeless shelter and say, “Some people will say this is sad. Here is a homeless man taking care of another homeless man? But I say this is that which was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”

In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used this same text from Isaiah, chapter 40 in his “I have dream” speech, which just goes to show that Dr. King was using “this is that” himself when he prophesied in Washington, DC in 1963. He was not predicting a date when his dream would come true. He was telling a truth that was ignored.

May each one of us hear in Scripture those words that will open our eyes to the truth around us. May we recognize Beauty in the commonplace, Wisdom in the powerless, and see the Kingdom of God even here in Troy, NY. Amen.

On trying to do theology without getting co-opted by the man, who in this case happens to be a very nice liberal academic.

July 10, 2010

Up until fairly recently Christian theology was taught at mainline seminaries in the following order:

1. Prolegomena, also called Fundamental (“First”) Theology, Foundations for Theology, or Philosophical Foundations for Theology.
2. Doctrine.
3. Ethics.

I was taught theology at The General Theological Seminary, NYC, by Mark Richardson (The Very Rev. Dr. W. Mark Richardson, recently appointed the Dean and President of Church Divinity School of the Pacific) and Tom Breidenthal (The Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas E. Breidenthal, the present Bishop of Southern Ohio, Episcopal Church). Both of these professors were in turn taught at one time by Jim McClendon (James William McClendon Jr. (1924-2000)), who was a Christian theologian in the Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptists are Christians of the Radical Reformation. The descendants of the original Anabaptists include the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists!

McClendon’s greatest work is a systematic presentation of Christian theology in three volumes (Abingdon Press):

Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1, 1986
Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume 2, 1994
Witness: Systematic Theology, Volume 3, 2000

I had the great honor of being taught Ethics by Breidenthal, and Doctrine by Richardson. Both professors used McClendon’s texts. The experience was transformative.

You can see right away that McClendon’s order is different from other systematics. He said Christians from the Radical Reformation haven’t written much theology because they were

1. too busy being persecuted and
2. too busy practicing their faith, and making a living.

It takes a long time to write theology, and one needs an income and some leisure to do it – so it isn’t surprising there is so little Anabaptist theology.

For McClendon the first task of being a Christian is discipleship, which involves living a particular kind of life in a community of shared practices. This is “first order” Christianity, or living the Christian Ethic.

“Second order” Christianity is reflecting on, and sharing the faith (Doctrine and Witness). This would include theology and philosophy (especially that branch of philosophy which attempts to understand other convictional communities – often labeled, “Philosophy of Religion.”)

McClendon offers an interesting critique of theology done since the Enlightenment:
1. A Christian doesn’t have to submit first to universal philosophical categories before discipleship.
2. A Christian doesn’t need theology or philosophy to practice Christianity, but needs to use theology and philosophy in order to enter into dialogue with people from other traditions.

The primary issue here is whether theology should be subject to non-Christian standards for the verification of truth. In fact, in many quarters, (especially academia) theology has submitted to so-called universal philosophical categories. As a result, Christian faith and practice have been relegated to a private sphere of value, opinion and sentiment.

For those, like myself, who think that the living practice of Christian self-understanding and identification determines its “applicability [for] a general criteria of meaning,” the effort should be rather to “correlate theology as a procedure subject to formal, universal, and transcendental criteria for valid thinking.” * The difference here is between agreed forms of rationality as opposed to universal rational standards for establishing what is true.

Fortunately, there has been a degree of convergence in method (“criteria for valid thinking”) between various fields of study. One of the major developments in science, philosophy and theology in recent years has been a growing appreciation for the social aspect inherent in the practice of each of these disciplines. This movement, which some have labeled post-modernism, places an emphasis on the importance of language, narrative, and culture in the formation of systems of thought, communities of discourse and shared moral practices.

* Quotation from Hans W. Frei in Types of Christian Theology (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), edited by George Hunsinger and William C. Placher, p. 3.