Wednesday 1 August 2007

The influence of essays

Sometimes a single essay can change your life. You sit down in a lazy moment to read it – you’re not expecting much. But half an hour later, your entire world has been altered. You’ve got new eyes, and you’re never able to look at things in quite the same way again.

At times, the entire landscape of theological studies can be altered in this way by a single essay. Some examples that spring to mind are:

  • Karl Barth, “The Word of God and the Task of the Ministry” (1922)
  • Gerhard von Rad, “The Theological Problem of the Old Testament Doctrine of Creation” (1936)
  • Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology” (1941)
  • Gerhard Ebeling, “The Significance of the Critical Historical Method for Church and Theology in Protestantism” (1950)
  • Ernst Käsemann, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus” (1954)
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Redemptive Event and History” (1959)
  • Karl Rahner, “Remarks on the Dogmatic Treatise De Trinitate” (1960)
And if you were to look for recent examples, you might think of Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace” (1990), or perhaps Bruce McCormack, “Grace and Being” (2000).

So what about you? Have you ever read a life-changing essay?


Anton Reiser said...

Hi Ben,

an essay I read recently and which I found "converting" in a very deep sense of the word was "Towards an Eschatological Ontology" by John Zizioulas.

JP said...

Has to be "The city: beyond secular parodies" by William Cavanaugh - quite brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Ben. For me it's these three that come to mind first:

James B. Torrance, 'The Vicarious Humanity of Christ', Pages 127–47 in The Incarnation: Ecumenical Studies in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Edited by T. F. Torrance; Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1981.

Peter T. Forsyth, 'The Holy Father', Pages 3–27 in Peter T. Forsyth, God the Holy Father. Blackwood: New Creation, 1987.

Peter T. Forsyth, 'Christian Perfection', Pages 99–148 in Peter T. Forsyth, God the Holy Father. Blackwood: New Creation, 1987.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I have had that experience, but the first article that comes to mind that has had that sort of effect on many in the 60's and 70's was "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" by Stendahl.

Fred said...

"The Layman and the Church" Hans Urs von Balthasar. Explorations in Theology: vol II The Spouse of the Word. P 315-331

Anonymous said...

Herbert McCabe OP, 'The Genealogy of Christ', God Matters (London: Continuum, 1987), pp.246-9

Short but sweet!

J. Reimer said...

My two cents: Reinhard Hutter, "The Church as Public: Dogma, Practice, and the Holy Spirit," published in Pro Ecclesia.

Anonymous said...

bonus points to any and all who can find the texts freely available online...

Jackson said...

David Steinmetz, "The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis"; I know that this is not a favorite of historical-critical fans, but it got me thinking in different directions that I continue to think this day. Even led me to start to read different theologians.

And Robert Wilken's "The Church's Way of Speaking." Read it two years ago and I still think about it.

Anonymous said...

John Webster's "The Dogmatic Location of the Canon" and "Christ, Church, and Reconciliation" in Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics

Aric Clark said...

One ought not leave out:

Valerie Saiving "The Human Condition: A Feminine View" (1960)

David Funk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Funk said...

On a more literary but not less theological note, "An Expedition to the Pole" by Annie Dillard forever changed the way I think about and experience corporate worship.

Anonymous said...

William Cavanaugh, "A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State," in Modern Theology 11 (1995): 397-420. This essay provided for me a critical key for unlocking the doors of political theology and many questions of "church and state."

Anonymous said...

So much good stuff already mentioned!

I wouldn't call them life-changing, or paradigm-shifting, but "Aha!" or "Right on!" moments for sure:

Nicholas Lash, "What Authority Has Our Past?" (1979) and "Performing the Scriptures" (1982), both in Theology on the Way to Emmaus (1986).

George Hunsinger, "Where the Battle Rages: Confesssing Christ in America Today" (1987), in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (2000). (Ten years on ...)

D.Z. Phillips, "On Not Understanding God" (1988), in Wittgenstein and Religion (1993).

Rowan Williams, "The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer" (1988) in Richard Ball (ed.), Grammar of the Heart: New Essays in Moral Philosophy and Theology (1988), reprinted in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (2007), (ed.) Mike Higton).

Halden said...

One of my early articles was Kevin Vanhoozer, "From Canon to Concept: 'Same' and 'Other' in the Relation Between Biblical & Systematic Theology” (Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 12/2). This got me thinking about what it might mean for theology be "biblical".

michael jensen said...

The Epistle to the Romans, anyone? That's a pretty tidy essay!

George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Langauge'.

Unknown said...

What was so great about "The Body's Grace" by Rowan Williams? I loved Williams' book on Arius, but I was disappointed by this essay--there is one central question in the debate about homosexuality (whatever one's anwer to it): What does God command me to do? Williams spends the entire essay attempting not to raise that question.

I would also like to second Jackson's endorsement of Steinmetz's "On the Superiority of Precritical Exegesis," although I would also add Dan Treier's rejoinder "The Superiority of Pre-critical Exegesis Sic et Non" (Trinity Journal, 1996 or thereabouts).

::aaron g:: said...

Gerhard Ebeling, “The Question about the Nature of Christian Faith.”

John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed.”

a. steward said...

Krister Stendahl's "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West." While I had already gotten the gist of it from Yoder and Wright, this reading this essay marked the climax of a real turning point in the way I read not just Paul, but all of scripture.

Anonymous said...

I had a nominal Lutheran upbringing. When I started serious seeking in my late teens I always found all Christian theology incredibly boring. I still do.

Sean said...

Mine would have to be G.B. Caird: "Jesus and the Jewish Nation" which was published as a little lecture by Athlone Press, university of London. It's simply outstanding and changed my whole perspective on Jesus and the gospels.

Anonymous said...

"Politics and the English Language" by Orwell

maybe "Jesus the Logician" by Dallas Willard, that did a good job of reminding me that if my theology somehow implies that Jesus wasn't actually intellegent then I won't trust him in practice for anything.

Anonymous said...

"The Particularity of the Incarnation and the Universality of Truth," by J. H. Yoder

"Narrative Justice as Reiteration" by Glen H. Stassen

"Distinguishing Modern and Postmodern Theologies" by James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and Nancey Murphy

"Practicing the Rule of Christ," by J. H. Yoder

"After Racism" by Tammy Williams

"What it Means to Stand in a Living Tradition" by Douglas F. Ottati

"From Decision to Story," by James W. McClendon, Jr.

"The Grace of Doing Nothing," H. Richard Niebuhr

"Letter from a Birmingham City Jail," by Martin Luther King, Jr.

"The Case of Christianity Against Capitalism" by Walter Rauschenbusch

"'I Will Ask You a Question': Interrogatory Theology" by Ched Myers.

Probably many more. I think the essay probably focuses the mind and prepares it for the more elaborate and qualified arguments of a book-length treatment. Oh, and many of those already chosen were also influential with me.

inpi said...

I loved the "Heart of the World" by Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

Martin Kemp said...

"How can Theology be Moral?" by Oliver O'Donovan. Journal of Religious Ethics 17 (1989): 81-94.
So much came together for me after reading this.

Anonymous said...

A few years late here, but certainly "Theology and Sanctity," in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology I: 181-210.

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