Sunday, August 29, 2010

In Memoriam: Donald Bloesch

How strange. Just last week, while remembering the influence of Clark Pinnock on my theological pilgrimage, I off-handedly remarked that "Donald Bloesch is another figure who actually plays a towering role in my early formation, though I don't think anybody could know that from the written record." And now, upon returning from vacation, I just got the sad news that Dr. Bloesch has also passed into his eternal rest in Christ, on August 24, 2010.

My memory of Dr. Bloesch is simply one of grace--warm, wise, hospitable grace. While attending Bible college in Dubuque, IA on the edge of the Mississippi river, I sometimes noted a guest at our "chapel" (a Plymouth Brethren assembly) on Sundays. Several of my professors would often be engaged in earnest conversation with this guest, and then one day my professors introduced me to him as Donald Bloesch ("Dr. Bloesch"). Though I was only an eager, anxious freshman, within a week, he had graciously invited me to attend one of his classes at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. And so I first dipped my toes into what would later be my vocation: philosophy of religion. I remember being spellbound as he lectured on William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, but it was our reading of Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments that made an indelible impression on me. Indeed, I could honestly say I've been drinking from wells dug in that course for my entire career. The next semester I recall sitting in on his Christology class, encountering figures that were anathema at my Bible college (Barth, Forsyth, Tillich), but read through Bloesch's sympathetic, critical lens--and always with a view to "faith and practice," to what he so rightly called "piety," rescuing the word from its cultured despisers.

Unlike most instances in which we feel like we know someone from their books, in the case of Dr. Bloesch I knew the man before I knew his books. And so when I came to his books later on, they were suffused with his grace and warmth and pastoral concern. Here I was reading a theologian who had also welcomed me into his home, to meet his wife, to enjoy a meal with them.

So I knew it was this same care and concern that later motivated him to write me a rather stern, alarmed letter when Dr. Bloesch felt I was becoming captive to "postmodern" extremes (Bloesch was always the champion of the moderate middle way!). But we maintained a cordial correspondence, and I was both moved and blessed when he would graciously send me a copy of each new volume of his "Christian Foundations" systematics, which still have a prominent place on the shelves in my office. (Like Pinnock, I felt that Bloesch's evangelical pietism really hit its stride in the volume on pneumatology, signaled in that very first volume, A Theology of Word & Spirit.)

And so it is with sadness, but profound gratitude, that I remember the witness, testimony, and gracious piety of one of my teachers, Dr. Donald Bloesch. May he rest in peace.