Review of Douglas John Hall Bound and Free: A Theologian’s Journey

[1] Douglas John Hall describes Bound and Free as his attempt “at the end of this long apprenticeship to say something publicly about what I have found this vocation [theology] to entail” (page xi). Within that purpose statement stand the two words and concepts that become the most interesting reflection point of this work: theology and vocation.

[2] More to the point, you could say that (as Hall does) that he is not interested here in a general or generalized theology of vocation. Instead, he is interested in discussion theology as vocation: his personal vocation expressed over a lifetime and a public vocation for the sake of the church.

[3] Hall self-consciously writes autobiographically about his own journey into theology and through a lifetime “apprenticeship” in theology. However, as he writes his own story and invites the reader deeply into his own story, we learn things that are much more wide-ranging and general than the specifics of the life of Douglas John Hall. This fact alone opens an important window to Hall’s theological practice. Context is critical and general truths about God and humanity are primarily (only?) encountered in the specific experiences of individuals shared with one another.

[4] Hall begins to get into the meaning of vocation when he describes his own ordination ceremony where each of the ordinands made a public statement about what they felt at that moment about Word and Sacrament ordination. Hall remembers that his own statement was about the irresistibility of God’s call: the “it’s not exactly my idea” (page 5) side of the vocational experience. In his ordination oration long ago and in this book now, Hall quoted from Jeremiah 20 to describe the nature of vocation: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.”

[5] After describing his own ordination experience long ago, Hall moves to the more general. He describes the lost sense of irresistibility in vocation. For this reader this passage entered what might be described as the tempting territory of a book of this type: the tendency to decry “current conditions” in the church and wish things were like they used to be in some dreamed-of idyllic past. However, Hall avoids this tendency in this discussion of vocation by providing a slightly different spin: what he feels is sorely lacking is the sense that vocation to ministry is missing a sense of irresistibility primarily in its specificity. In other words, “one has the distinct impression that decisions concerning the actual working out of the call to ministry are less a matter of vocation than of practicality and of personal or conciliar determination” (page 7).

[6] Hall is speaking of course of the call to live out the ministerial vocation in the realm of theology. However, the same call to a sense of the specificity of vocation applies throughout what the church considers ministerial vocations. The church and those in its service would do well to cultivate a sense that God is involved (in fact, driving) our calls to serve in parish ministry or in chaplaincy. And God is driving the call to serve in a particular ministerial context. God, through the Spirit and the church, calls me to serve as pastor in the specific congregation in which I serve and not another. All too often, we speak as if these issues are determined by my personal preferences or the whims of committees and call processes. Hall would call us to recover a sense of speaking of call in specific terms: God has called me to serve as a parish pastor in Palatine, IL just as God has called him to serve as a theologian in Montreal, Quebec.

[7] Upon identifying the problem, Hall moves on to place blame for this lack of a clear sense of vocation related to theology. The blame and the discussion of how we got to this point, according to Hall, is two-fold: the church has failed itself and its theologians, and theologians have failed the church and their own vocation.

[8] In a phrase, Hall describes the failure of the church to nurture theology as a vocation as a “failure to require theology and nurture theologians” (page 7). What he means by this is that the church historically and definitely in the 20th Century has failed to see much need for serious theologians beyond as seminary teachers for pastors. Hall calls on the church and on local congregations to think creatively about their own need for theology. This is especially true in our current cultural context with a lack of what Hall calls “automatic Christianity” (page 8). That is to say that, in this post-Christendom era where all of society no longer encourages or establishes Christianity, there is a greater need for serious conversation about faith and the church, the province of theology.

[9] After placing the blame for this disconnect between the church and theology at the foot of the church and its lack of respect and demand for serious theology, Hall turns to place the fire at the feet of theologians as well. He does this primarily in chiding his fellow theologians who have fallen for the temptation of what he calls “career-oriented intellectualism” (page 9). Here he speaks of those who strive after academic distinctions and personal ambition at the expense, sometimes, of service to the wider church. Two specific examples are illuminating. First, in Hall’s own lifetime the preferred degree for theology has moved from being a ThD (which Hall maintains has come to be suspect in academia) to the more-acceptable but less “churchly” PhD. Second, those who do attempt to write and speak of theology in ways that are accessible to those outside of the academy but within the church are all too often accused of being “popularizers” within academic circles, which is not a compliment.

[10] These discussions of the vocation to theology and the unfortunate disconnect between theology and the church are all from the Preface and the Introduction to Hall’s volume. In the remainder of the book, Hall goes on to describe something of his own journey as a theologian and emphasizes what he believes to be the most important features in the theologian’s life.

[11] I have chosen to focus on these distinctions from the Introduction because they have been captivating to me as a parish pastor. The distrust of theology and theologians as somehow foreign to what we in parish ministry are trying to do is too often palpable in the church. In seminary communities false distinctions are too often drawn between those who focus on systematic theology and those who focus on ministry skills such as preaching and liturgy. Too often in congregational or denominational settings there almost seems to be a preference for approaches uninvolved with theological reflection: words like “practical” and “real-world” reflect these preferences, however they are stated.

[12] I pray that the church can find the courage to “require theology” to use the words of Douglas John Hall. I pray that the church will find the courage to reflect seriously and theologically and historically about its life together. To quote Hall: “to do so will require of the churches that they overcome the adolescent’s disease of rejecting every kind of authority in the name of a pseudodemocratic assumption that everybody is already theologically knowledgeable, just on the grounds of being human. Christianity is a historical faith; we are simply not born with the knowledge of it” (page 13). Count me as one pastor who will strive more and more to seek the authority and the guidance of theological tradition and theologians in our own day and time, in our own church.