A LOVER'S QUARREL: A Theologian and His Beloved Church. By Joe R. Jones. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014. Xxvi + 201 pages.
It is appropriate when one has reached a certain age, to look back and take stock of the situation one finds oneself in. Where did I begin the journey and where do I stand now. Sometimes, one looks at the landscape and finds it troubling. Joe Jones is a retired Disciples of Christ theologian. He has been a leader of church related institutions including serving time as the dean at two seminaries, and president of a college. He loves the church, but has concerns about its direction. While some of this concern is directed at the denomination in which he is a member, it is also more generalized. The concern is that the church is unable to see itself as an alternative community deeply rooted in relationship with Christ as Lord. The concern is that too often culture/society determine the focus of the church, robbing the church of its voice. As a committed participant in this community, he engages in a bit of theological quarrelling in the hopes that he can catch our attention and push us toward a richer understanding of the faith.
A Lover’s Quarrel is a collection of essays and sermons – some have been published in journals and books and some on his blog. Among the sermons is one preached at the ordination of his daughter, Verity Jones. Since this book follows upon an earlier collection published by Cascade Books in 2005 under the title On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times, most of these pieces have originated since 2005. As one reads the book it would be helpful to be aware of his two volume theological treatise entitled: A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine.
Joe Jones is somewhat unique among Disciples of Christ theologians in that he has had an affinity for Karl Barth (an affinity I share as a Disciples pastor/theologian) and for John Howard Yoder. Karl Barth has never been popular in a tradition known for its rational empiricist views and aversion to dogmatic theology. Because he was trained as a philosophical theologian with a focus on Ludwig Wittgenstein, he is quite concerned about words and grammar. This focus is reflected in the title of his published theological system has the title of A Grammar of Christian Faith. Jones is troubled by the lack of theological sophistication among many in the church -- especially the clergy of his own denomination. To use his words: “My primary conviction here is that human beings, wherever and whenever, are distinctly formed by the language – the discourses -- in which they construe, have, and live in a world.” But, it’s not just words, it is practices as well. Since the church is in our focus, then whatever we mean by church “must pivot around some understanding – some discourses and practices – identifying the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. xxi-xxii).
The author writes from within a tradition that is non-creedal, and as a non-creedal tradition those theological matters that have been defined more by Tradition (and creeds) than by biblical statements have less presence. One of those doctrinal discourses concerns the Trinity. The Disciples of Christ has among its members and theologians persons who affirm the Trinity, and others who do not. Some would affirm the classic creedal statements, but others have little use for them. As for Joe Jones, this is unfortunate. In his mind, the Trinity is central to our theological discourse, for it is the means by which we are able to affirm the divinity of Christ. What Jones is concerned about is the need for agreement among Christians “about a theological characterization or definition of the church in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at the grammatical center of its discourses and practices” (p. xxiii). It is out of that confession that the church makes it way in the world.
The book is divided into four parts. Part one focuses on theological matters -- "Ecumenical Theologizing with Ecclesial Friends." I personally found this section to be the most provocative, as he calls on the church, especially the church formed by the Stone-Campbell Tradition to take seriously the theological task. He addresses the question of what is faith, and speaking grammatically notes that faith has a “family of uses.” Thus, it involves an orientation toward God, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it involves belief (this is where the creeds come in, for faith must have content and substance), it involves trust (that is, “we are staking our life on God”), and it involves a “personal knowing of God.” What I find important in this conversation is that he overcomes the tendency to separate the substance from the relationship, whereas it involves both content (belief) and relationship (encounter and trust). Most importantly this orients our lives toward God (pp. 6-7). Speaking theologically, he engages his own tradition and the broader Christian tradition. He embraces the need for interfaith conversation, but that conversation needs to be grounded in the tradition. Thus, there is need for spiritual formation and concern for salvation and discipleship. And as a Disciple, there is need to take stock of the Lord’s Supper.
Although Karl Barth was an early conversation partner for Jones, in more recent years he has been engaging with the thought of John Howard Yoder. Yoder provided him with a new vantage point to view the church as an alternative community – a view that is shared with Stanley Hauerwas, a classmate of his at Yale and the author of the foreword to this book. Writing as one concerned about the Christian America rhetoric that often defines the Christian faith in terms of American interests, Jones tackles the issue of politics – from a Yoder-influenced perspective. Now it’s clear that his politics falls on the liberal side of things. He supports universal health care as a right not a privilege and the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in society. He opposes the military-industrial complex and embraces a more pacifist vision (again finding affinity with Yoder). But more importantly, he approaches these issues from the perspective of a Gospel of hope. In light of that he asks the question – are you an American who happens to be a Christian, or a Christian who happens to be an American?
In Part Three, Jones takes a more introspective turn. It takes a look back at his life journey. There is an intriguing memoir of growing up in Oklahoma, the son of a judge and an athlete who seemed destined for a career in law. But, as he grew up in the church, this faith began to take hold of him, and so by the end of college, having engaged in heavy philosophical studies, he chose to purse theology. In the course of time he would go to Yale Divinity School, where he received his B.D. and Ph.D. He was ordained, and found himself teaching theology first at a Methodist Seminary in Texas and then at a Disciple School. In this collection of essays there is an intriguing one that introduces us to H. Richard Niebuhr, one of his professors at Yale. The section concludes with a reflection on preaching. He notes his frustration with much of the preaching that he hears, for most sermons seem to lack theological insight and passion. It appears to him that most sermons are “thrown together at the last minute, largely ignorant of the scripture and bereft of a skillfully learned use of the English language.” You can see the Barthian roots of his vision by his insistence that the sermon be rooted scripture, aware of the traditions of the church, aware of the world both contemporary and historical, and finally having a “profound and compassionate sense for the gnarled, broken ambiguity of the gathered folk, yearning for a good and truthful word of judgment, forgiveness, and hope.” That is – they want to hear the Gospel of Jesus (p. 163).
The book concludes with a collection of sermons that range from the ordination sermon for his daughter to funeral reflections at the death of his pastor. In each of these pieces we are drawn into the biblical story and the need to draw close to the God witnessed to by this story.
What comes through these various pieces is Jones’ commitment to the church, and a desire to see that church centered in the Gospel of Jesus and formed by its relationship to the Triune God. Therein lies some of the frustration that Jones has with the church, and its teachers both in the church and in the academy, for the Trinity is not always front and center in the faith tradition we both share in. He is an ordained minister in a non-creedal church, but he laments the lack of attention to the creedal testimony, which he finds detrimental to the life of the church, which lacks a theological center.
My sense is that the message of this book will gain a greater audience outside the Disciples than within, but perhaps my friends and colleagues within the Disciples might benefit from wrestling with this call to a substantive faith, one that has its roots in the biblical story. Because this is a collection of essays, readers will likely find some pieces to have more resonance than others. Whatever your theological position, however, I believe this sometimes grumpy message needs to be heard, lest the church find itself theologically adrift – being little more than a service club with certain rituals.
In closing I feel the need to share a quote from the statement he gave at the funeral of his pastor. He speaks of hearing clergy say of themselves that they are not theologians – though they enjoy being a pastor.
To which I reply that it is a self-contradiction to claim to be a pastor of a Christian congregation and to admit that one is either ignorant of or simply uninterested in the theological language of the church concerning the reality of God and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. How can you even preach a sermon about the Gospel of Jesus Christ if you disclaim being a theologian and abstain from theological reasoning and language? (p. 198)
With that statement in mind, whether you’re of this denominational tradition that the author and I share or not, if you are willing to be pushed I believe you will find this to be a book worth wrestling with. You may not agree with his theology or his politics, but the challenge to take seriously the theological foundations of the Christian faith is one the church, especially clergy in mainline churches can’t afford to ignore. It is the key to our sense of identity as Christians.