Donald G. Bloesch, a prominent evangelical theologian who was an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, passed away last Tuesday, August 24. This news deeply moved me since Dr. Bloesch was one of my most trusted and beloved mentors. This was true even though I never formally studied under Don as a professor. My relationship was far more interesting in its own way.
Back in the 1970s I first heard the name of Donald Bloesch but at first I didn’t think much about him since I was fairly shut off in my own sectarian world of thought and practice. One summer, in the late 1970s I believe, I attended a small gathering associated with the ministry of a popular magazine of the time called Present Truth. The magazine actually opened my eyes to the need for recovering gospel truths in an age that was fast losing its grasp on the grace of God. Two teachers were leading this small gathering and there could not have been more than 75 people in the room. One of those in the audience, and sharing insights only as a humble participant, was Dr. Don Bloesch. I was impressed that a man of such profound scholarship would take the time to share in a small event where he was not a featured speaker. Don believed something important was going on in that room and wanted to interact with it. So did I.
Fast forward to the late 1980s and I would meet Dr. Bloesch again, this time in Iowa. Don taught for a lifetime at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, a PCUSA seminary. He had taught at UDTS during a time when he was likely one of only two or three seriously evangelical theologians on the faculty. Don was a graduate of Elmhurst College and the University of Chicago Divinity School and had been a mainline Christian his whole life. He had grown up in a minister’s home and personally knew both Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr. He had listened to Barth and Brunner and shared conversation with the greatest theological voices in the Western world. Yet he remained both evangelical and humble throughout his entire life.
The way I connected with Don personally was through a copy of the theological journal I edited in the 1990s. He liked both the concept and the content of this journal a great deal and began to warm up to me as a friend. I was making more and more trips to Dubuque in those days because I had a standing offer to use a ranch near Galena (IL) for a retreat place. I would always make time to see Donald and Brenda, his lovely wife. We became friends and began to talk about personal concerns as well as theology. We prayed together, shared some dreams and enjoyed frequent table fellowship. I worshiped with Don and Brenda, visited several monasteries and through him got to know many of the faculty in Dubuque, some of whom remain good friends.
By the end of the ‘90s Don and I had forged a relationship for the renewal of the church, especially the mainline church. We decided to host a conference in 1999 at UDTS. We invited various mainline renewal speakers to do workshops. The plenary theologians included J. I.Packer, William Abraham, Carl Braaten, Donald and myself. It was a rich time for me since I was moving away continually. And Brenda was a lovely host and extremely intelligent conversationalist too. She always cheerfully thanked me for something I had said or done. I began to phone Don regularly, and he would phone me now and then as well. He had a most unusual , abrupt and odd way of answering the phone. He would pick up the receiver and simply say, “Yes.” When the conversation ended he would say something like, “Well, good bye.” That was it. Don was, as I discovered, simple, humble and quite shy in his own way. He was a man of the mind who liked people but was much more comfortable with writing and teaching.
Don’s magnum opus was his seven-volume work, Christian Foundations, a survey of modern theology published by InterVarsity Press. The first volume, which I have read several times and cannot recommend too highly as an introduction to understanding theology, is A Theology of Word and Spirit.
When I am asked by students what they should read to begin to deal with theology I recommend this book be first. If you have used the typical conservative theology books, especially those written by popular authors like Wayne Grudem, you owe it to yourself to read Donald Bloesch if you really want to understand how to do good theology. Grudem provides a recipe book, with a myriad of proof texts and propositions, while Bloesch opens windows to the mind and soul and shows you how to think in a Christocentric and careful way that does not slavishly follow philosophical systems. Bloesch provides evangelical and catholic theology at its very best, with an eye on the past and a keen perception of the present and the future.
Don Bloesch devoted years and years to this huge writing project. It will serve, I believe, as a major theological project for at least one generation to come and maybe many more. I treasure it as among my most valuable theological sets. I encourage everyone to read these books; pastors, students or lay readers. You might even start a reading group and work through them one-by-one. When the final volume appeared a few years ago I was stunned that my friend dedicated it to my mission. He never told me this was coming until the book came out. That was one of the great joys of my professional life.
Another great joy came when the seventh and final volume was completed and InterVarsity decided to honor Donald in Dubuque with a special evening. Three speakers were asked to give ten minutes on how Donald Bloesch’s work has shaped their lives. Donald chose two academics, one of whom was a current professor and a former student, and me. I still do not know why he asked me but I was in another zone that night. It was also the same evening in which I met some of my finest Catholic friends who are monks and who also loved Dr. Bloesch. Donald had friends across every part of the catholic church. In this he modeled which now shapes my life too.
Donald Bloesch understood the deep problems of the mainline church. He also understood that most conservative churches had their own problems. He believed ideology was at the center of our problems. We have substituted our political and social ideology for the gospel. He thus became a model of missional-ecumenism in his theology, embracing catholicity while remaining committed to Christ and the evangel. More than I think Don knew he helped me to form my mind and direction over these last twenty years and what I now do owes a great deal of debt to him.
The church lost one of its greatest modern theologians last Tuesday but I lost more because I lost a friend and dear mentor. Don was not only a man who prayed for me but he supported me financially as well. I grieve for Brenda, Don’s beautiful companion for decades. (They were both academics and met later in life. They lived a simple life together and Brenda was the brilliant editor of all Don’s work. She is a gifted academic in her own right.)
There are four or five older men that I have counted as my theological mentors in a unique personal way. These brothers have shaped my journey as a minister. I lost two of them in recent years; Robert Webber and now Donald Bloesch. (Two more remain and encourage me profoundly.) In the passing of friends like Bob Webber and Don Bloesch I realize that even more is expected of me as I seek to pass along what these giants taught me as their mentoree/student/friend. I rose up this morning giving thanks for my friend Donald G. Bloesch and feeling again my great loss.