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

[1] I was intrigued to receive Douglas John Hall’s theological autobiography because his is a name I have long been aware of, but about whose life and theology I knew virtually nothing – except from a couple of small things he wrote ages ago. I was conscious that he was a Canadian but other than that I was a tabula rasa when I started reading, and so by reading was asking him to impress himself on me.

[2] I set off into Bound and Free on the western side of the Atlantic a few days before leaving for new work in England, the land of my birth and ordination, after three stimulating decades in the United States as a priest of the Episcopal Church. Bound and Free became one of my companions on this transitional journey. Given how stressful such an experience can be, I was anxious concentration would be difficult, and that I would be stretched further than an addled mind in motion could bear. My fears were unfounded, and the experience of reading Douglas John Hall turned out to be enjoyable in the midst of one of the more trying of life’s episodes.

[3] I have always been attracted to writing with a biographical flavor so found this, Hall’s personal story and theological journey, engaging and at times challenging. While I am still not be entirely sure of his aim when he set out to write the book, the perspectives he brought to his life’s journey forced me during an chapter of great personal change to learn fresh insights from someone with a different standpoint than my own, and who has theologically responded to the faith within the culture in ways I have not.

[4] An influence on my early years in ministry in the 1970s was the Anglican missionary statesman and evangelical leader Canon Max Warren. It was Max who encouraged this then wet-behind-the-ears twentysomething to insure biography and autobiography always figured prominently in my reading. He believed sensibilities are sharpened from attempting to discover what shapes a diversity of lives, and then applying the lessons to our own attitudes and experiences. Bound and Free fits well into this category. Pondering Hall through his life and times, and in light of the various influences that molded his perceptions, I was led to helpful personal insights, and he helped me unwrap some of the dynamics of the theological world a couple of decades before I starting emerging to theological adulthood in the last Sixties and early Seventies.

[5] However, I have yet to work out what sort of book this is! Yes, it is autobiographic, but with the twist that Hall’s personal story is interwoven with the consequences of that lifetime spent exploring the faith, and his yearning for the church today to be more overtly theological – a conviction with which I heartily approve. This juxtaposition of storytelling and Hall’s theological odyssey is helpful because it enables the one to enlighten the other. If the Christian faith has a strong incarnational flavor, then it should be natural to want see how a theologian’s convictions and the circumstances of his life edify one another.

[6] Knowing something about Hall’s life has helped me understand his theology, just as when a graduate student I was only able to make any sense of the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher when I knew enough about his life to put his seminal thought into context. As a result, I agree entirely with Hall that there is much happiness to be found in “the sheer grace of God as it is mediated through the lives of other people” – whether they are kin or the Augustines, Luthers, Barths, or Brueggemanns of this world (page 30). By outlining the context that has shaped him, Hall gives us insights into both his soul and his personality, and this shed light on his theologizing.

[7] Then the more I read of Bound and Free the more convinced I became that I would very much enjoy a day spent in this man’s company. This impression was reinforced by the jolly photo of him on the back cover. If such a day were ever to happen I suspect the conversation would be stimulating, we would probably find we have a lot in common despite the fact he is the best part of twenty years older than I, but when we got down to the nitty-gritty of faith, belief, and conviction, then we would have to agree to differ.

[8] I did not set out with any particular desire to differentiate myself from Douglas John Hall, but as he outlined his pilgrim’s progress it was easy to see that he had been shaped by events, people, and ideas that meant that each of us had taken a significantly differing path. He is right when he says that he has been “a participating witness in many changes in social, religious, and ecclesiastical self-understanding, some of them watershed changes” (page 31), his response having moved him from neo-orthodoxy down a more ‘progressive’ road. Under the tutelage of the likes of Neibuhr and Tillich, he embraced the principles of the cultural transformation that marked the Fifties and Sixties, and these became the touchstone against which he still measures what is going on today.

[9] In this book Hall is giving us an idea of how and why his Protestant theology has developed as it did, and from this flows his own pressing concerns about the state of mainline Protestantism in 21st Century North America (and further afield). But what troubles me is that he seems to absolutize the principles of his own more formative years, and then keeps projecting them onto all that happens and is believed from then on. Early on he writes, “one does not become a serious theologian until one has experienced the freedom to pursue the promptings of the divine Spirit without always looking over one’s shoulder to see whether ‘the authorities’ approve” (page 18). I think I know what he means, but wonder whether he actually ever managed to disentangle himself from those ‘authorities’ who were his own mentors and teachers.

[10] I scribble in the margins of books as part of my own debate with the author, and flicking through my copy of Bound and Free I find myself increasingly drawing attention to Hall’s willingness to sit loose to more catholic understandings of cardinal Christian doctrine in favor of the insights of those who shaped him. On page 119, for example, where he talks about what he believes is centuries of misunderstanding of sin, I write that his grasp of sin seems to owe more to Paul Tillich than it does to Scripture. On that same page he also shows a distinct distaste with any theory of the atonement that might have a substitutionary flavor.

[11] Indeed, throughout the book there is more than a touch of disdain toward those whose understanding of the nature and authority of Scripture was until relatively recently in the mainstream of Christian, and especially Protestant, believing. I get this sense that Hall would be genuinely pained if you told him such a thing to his face, but there lurking in the background is the implication that if you are going to delve deeply into the Christian faith and its relationship with the culture and the world around it, then inevitably you are going to move beyond more historic understandings of the faith – which he assumes are held because they have been inadequately examined.

[12] Reading this book was a bit like watching a movie whose soundtrack is not quite in sync with the pictures on the screen. I often found myself having to double back and reread something because as I had gone along I realized that while Hall was using the same words I would, often meaning something different by them. I put this down to the fact that Hall reads the Christian story through the lens of the mid-Twentieth Century, and is willing to embrace the perceptions that grew from this approach to believing.

[13] Hall wants to get back to this as the golden age of theology. This is not far enough back, for I would suggest that if we are to abide by Reformational principles then the most cogent is that of ad fontes, returning to the roots, which are the Scriptures themselves – and the Scriptures seen within the context of insights and interpretation that have grown up through the Fathers, Reformers, and in every intervening century.

[14] I love Douglas John Hall’s passion for life and theology. I am sure that if I met him I would delight in him as a person. However, this book leads me to the conclusion that theologically he is trapped in a bit of a time warp.