Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Powerful Trio

Was Karl Barth the father of contemporary theologies of the principalities and powers? Perhaps he was, from a certain perspective, and quite literally so.

Let me explain.

First, (for anyone who doesn't follow these things) there is a strand of thinking in recent theology, biblical studies and social ethics that seeks to retrieve the language of "principalities and powers" found throughout the New Testament and relate it the social and political realities of our current context. According to this way of thinking, institutions and ideologies are more than just the products of human individual agencies: They have a reality all their own. They have, in some sense, a "spiritual" reality. Or better, they just are spiritual realities as incarnate in concrete social, political, economic and ideological structures. Probably the most famous proponent of this highly influential line of thought was the late Walter Wink, who passed away just this past year (You can read Professor's Wink's obituary in the Sojourners blog here.)

Wink acknowledged his debt to the earlier work of the Episcopal lawyer, activist and theologian William Stringfellow (1928-1985). Stringfellow, it's hard to deny, is the fountainhead of the theology of principalities and powers.

So now I've been reading Anthony Dancer's book on Stringfellow, An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow. In chapter 6, I'm learning some fascinating things about Stringfellow and the development of his mature theology. If you've read Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, which is primarily the fruit of lectures he gave in his trip to the United States in 1962, you might recall that Stringfellow gets a shout-out in the preface. Famously, when Barth spoke as part of a panel at the University of Chicago, he admonished the audience to "listen" to the spirited young lawyer. Stringfellow, alone among the panelists, had no credentials with an ecclesiastical or academic institution, and in the 1950s he had given up prospects for a more lucrative career in order to live, practice law and advocate for the poor and oppressed in East Harlem. Stringfellow's affection for Barth is evident in the younger theologian's writings.

What I knew nothing about, however, before reading this book is that Stringfellow had a close friendship with Barth's son Markus, who himself became an eminent New Testament scholar. The two had a lively correspondence which has never been published but can be found in the collection of Stringfellow's papers (which I've never seen) at Cornell University. Stringfellow credited the younger Barth -- especially his Anchor Bible commentary on Ephesians (1-3) -- with giving him keen insights into the principalities and powers. (Stringfellow's friendship with Jacques Ellul is also quite significant).

So you see, one way or the other -- like I've always said -- preacher's kids inevitably cause trouble. This seems to be especially true when they pay close attention to the Bible, the most dangerous text that's ever been published.

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