The Common Good
May-June 1997

The Substance of Hope

by Ronald Johnson | May-June 1997

Since 1991, Douglas John Hall has published three large volumes designed to provide an essentially systematic theological statement that reflects the North American context. 

Since 1991, Douglas John Hall has published three large volumes (Thinking the Faith, Professing the Faith, and Confessing the Faith--all Augsburg Fortess Publishers) designed to provide an essentially systematic theological statement that reflects the North American context. Hall addresses the most central theological concerns with an elegant and unusually lucid writing style, making his work available to a far larger audience than most professional theologians. He believes that expanding theological dialogue is critical for the well-being of the church and society.

A great responsibility of theology in North America, writes Hall, "is to help provide a people indoctrinated with the modern mythology of light with a reference for the honest exploration of its actual darkness." The American Dream and the dream of Western technocracy, with their blind commitment to optimism, are unraveling. In many quarters of the church and society, there is steadfast resistance to a recognition of this reality.

What is needed, argues Hall, is a gospel that has the substance and courage to say that real hope can start only where illusion ends. Real life does not preclude the taste of suffering and death. A "theology of the cross" is evident throughout the three volumes.

"IF OUR FAITH IS something to be understood and not merely felt or lived, what is the character of this quest for understanding and how does it relate to other aspects of our life as Christians?" In such a manner, Hall lifts up the focus of his first volume.

Part one is captioned "The Disciple Community," and is devoted to identifying influences that have shaped our thinking. He concludes that the disciple community in North America lacks originality in its theology and must refrain from relying upon the importation of theology. There is no substitute for thinking through one's faith in the light of a particular context. The discipline required for this endeavor is addressed in the second portion of The Thinking Faith.

Evidence is strong that the level of theological understanding is very low within the North American community of faith. Those of us who are pastors have failed to engage people in serious theological thinking. Sermons are often shallow, feel-good, entertaining exercises rather than that which speaks to the deepest issues of life and faith.

I can think of no better corrective than to read Professing the Faith. It is divided into three parts: The Christian Doctrine of God, Creaturely Being, and Jesus the Christ. Hall's method is to deal with these themes by reviewing the tradition, offering a critical analysis of the tradition, and providing a constructive proposal. While there is great substance here, the story is so engagingly written that one can hardly wait to discover what is to be said on the next page.

In the final volume, Hall addresses four primary themes: the church, a movement from Christendom to Diaspora, various forms of confession, and the substance of Christian hope. In an era when mainline churches are alarmed with declining statistics and often seduced into a gimmick approach to new vitality, Hall's Confessing the Faith comes as a much-needed challenge and word of grace.

Hall is a person of faith. He is disturbed by much of what he sees in the church and society, yet he maintains that renewal is possible. He has confidence in God's capacity and intention to do in our midst a new thing.

RONALD JOHNSON is pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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