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

[1] Douglas John Hall, noted for his Theology of the Cross, has written an autobiography detailing the evolution of his theological framework from his childhood in Canada to present day. It is a short work for someone wanting a quick understanding of how current-day mainstream liberal theologians developed their theology and their worldview.

[2] The introduction and final chapters are must-read prophetic calls for all Christians whether they are conservative/evangelical or liberals wanting to make an impact on a post-modern world. The introduction should be required reading for all ecclesiastical leaders and people on “Commissions on Ministry” determining who should be ordained. It details the importance of the teaching vocations in theology, and as an aside, Church History and Biblical Studies. As a prophet, Hall attributes the decline in the church to a lack of teaching in the church. On page 13 he says, “churches… become collectives of a nebulous sort of ‘fellowship’ or of random activism or of undifferentiated ‘spirituality’, or of moralisms old or new, or simply of ‘nice’ people who don’t quite know why they are there but feel they ought to be …there is a greater need for sound teaching than ever before in church history. Therefore, it is imperative for us to reclaim for ourselves the biblical and Reformation insistence upon theology as vocation.”

[3] The final chapters issue a profound prophetic call as “mainline denominations” become more and more insignificant in the culture at large (as opposed to the 50’s and early 60’s). Hall suggests how to use that disadvantage as an opportunity to reach out to people in a post-modern world. Some of his ideas include returning to our Reformation roots, being welcoming to doubting people, and being better stewards of God’s creation and of the “mysteries of God.” He insists we must engage people of other faiths in dialogue and reach out to the unchurched.

[4] Hall’s concern for the state of the church and his desire to reach out to post-modern culture continues throughout the book as he asks very important questions of the church: “What has happened to reverence? Where is the understanding of the battle of good and evil that Jesus came to die for? How do we reach out to a suffering world? Again, his answer is to return Protestant Reformation Roots.

[5] The bulk of his book is a sojourn through his theological journey via Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, and Moltmann to name a few, to where he is today as a steward of the “mysteries of God”. Hall acknowledges his theology was formed by the struggles of German theologians who were so deeply impacted by WWI and WWII, his own hard childhood in Depression-era Canada, and the multiple wars of the 40s through the 70s. His theology is also deeply impacted by his melancholy personality and it is so intricately woven with the social challenges of his day that he fails to see outside his box to the depth of other Christian traditions.

[6] Hall describes his Theology of the Cross as a challenge of paradoxes: the cosmic battleground of good verses evil, the struggle between light and darkness. The cross is the intersection of suffering with a hurting world. It is not a place where a believer can find security, certainty or triumphalism. As he says on page 58, “…surely Christianity has at its very center what is precisely a ‘frame of reference for the experience of negation.’ It is called the cross.” Hall believes the cross is emptied of its meaning in current Christian circles by the emphasis on the resurrection. As he states later on page 58, “Thus, the cross as such tends to be unconnected with the real pain and alienation people experience. It signifies what has been overcome, defeated, surpassed. It speaks of a reality that is no more.” He emphasizes the theology of the cross as a “gospel for a desperately optimistic people, a fearful and covertly despairing people afraid of expressing its fearfulness and lostness.” (Page 59.) Hall fails to say how these hurting people are ministered to with the theology or how it brings hope and healing. Hall rarely addresses Jesus’ intense love for individuals as opposed to institutions throughout the gospels and Jesus’ deep concern for individual repentance. He does not discuss the depth and cost of redemption and does not seem to believe in substitutionary atonement. As part of his discussion on the place of the cross in addressing the battle of good versus evil, he argues against the evils of Capitalism and Marxism, but heavily leans toward Marxist and Socialist views. Much of this is also discussed later in the book (and in this book review) under the “Stewardship of the Mysteries of God.”

[7] While this book has many gems of truth and insight into the Christian faith and the role of the cross in faith, these gems are often clouded by his prejudice against and misunderstanding of Christians who see the cross and resurrection as a place of assured victory over sin and evil. He is very critical of Christians who are “triumphalists”, who see the certainty and victory of Christ on the cross and in his resurrection as foundations of their faith. The book is peppered with allegations against “triumphalist” Christians who are on the “Christian Right” and “Fundamentalist.” What he fails to recognize or state is that many of his criticisms of this group of Christians also applies to the Eastern Orthodox Church which sees the cross as the victory of Christ over sin as opposed to the “suffering servant” of Roman Catholicism and some Protestants. As an example, he takes on Mel Gibson’s, “The Passion,” even though that movie vividly portrays Jesus’ suffering. Hall spends a great deal of time accusing Christians who hold to the “certitude” of the cross and resurrection for personal salvation and eternal life as “aberrant,” naïve, and failing to see the cross as a “point of reference” with a suffering and hurting world. He states on page 101, “It is important that we understand the dread and anxiety that is at the heart of fundamentalist vision, because only then will we begin to comprehend its passionate rage, its frantic desire to fill the void with certainty, and its conviction of ever-encroaching evil.” Hall completely misses how much conservative Christians deal with the problem of pain, suffering and evil and that is why the cross and resurrection are so central in their theology. He asks a wise question, but a question that shows he does not understand these groups of Christians. “Can we Christians now in these once-overconfident Anglo-Saxon societies of the West, present a Christian gospel in which the resurrection of Jesus Christ is still able to speak to the human hope for “a happy issue out of all our troubles,” but without minimizing the “troubles” and thus making this faith only available to those who are adept at repression? Can we offer our contemporaries a gospel that helps them courageously affirm their creaturehood while keeping their eyes open?” (Page 72.)

[8] As mentioned, Hall spends a great deal of time evaluating “fundamentalists” as defined on page 100. Using his definition, he fails to see he falls into a fundamentalist liberalism that is so certain its way is the only right way. That high value of uncertainty/doubt and lack of assurance in redemption is just as much a fundamentalism. This reviewer sees this as another reason for the decline in “mainline” denominations.

[9] Hall’s “Stewardship of the Mysteries of God” is a challenge to Protestants (referring to mainline churches only) to “articulate for itself the ‘reason for the hope within us.’ “(I Peter 3:15 KJV). He once again rightly claims this is “the primary cause for the humiliation of classical Protestantism on this continent.” Part of Hall’s stress on the “Stewardship of the Mysteries of God” is his call for “mainline” denominations to return to their Protestant Reformation roots. He lists 5 areas they need to return to: 1) being Christ-centered, 2) the priority of divine grace in human salvation, 3) the “dialectical character of theology,” 4) the “mutuality of faith and reason,” and, 5) the Bible. Several of those charges would apply to all Christians, Protestant or not. In that discussion, he does not clearly define justification by faith through grace. What he leaves out of this discussion that is of equal Reformation importance is the priesthood of all believers and an individual relationship with God. In each of these, he once again takes on Christians who hold to biblical literacy and the authority of Scripture. At one point, while discussing Luther’s view of grace and justification by faith, he emphasizes Luther’s understanding of the “complicities” between good and evil, faith and reason, the role of doubt. However, Hall will not confess Luther’s assurance of salvation and personal atonement for sins; the cross is not just a struggle with good and evil. Hall quotes Luther’s famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, in discussing the challenges of good and evil, but does not see a personal element within it.

[10] Hall’s view of stewardship in a Christian’s life aptly addresses the place of humanity in the stewardship of creation. He spends many pages talking about the stewardship of creation and discusses many environmental issues, particularly related to global warming. He is a strong advocate of personal and corporate responsibility in preserving the environment and is a proponent of the Kyoto Treaty.

[11] In many ways, this book is a sad book because it focuses so much on the pain and suffering in this world without offering any real hope based on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension.

[12] In his conclusion, Hall talks about joy, but that is the first time joy is mentioned in the entire book. Hall talks about the cross as a “point of reference” with a suffering world, but leaves it at that point of reference without offering hope. He mentions God is a merciful God, but doesn’t show how that mercy can impact a person’s life.

[13] In conclusion, Hall is completely correct when he maintains that people are starving for teaching and that the church needs to return to its roots. His title could be maintained by Christians of every persuasion. He beautifully defines it on page 22, “Christians are bound by a tradition, whose goal, if we allow it, is to be free.” His final chapter sums up his theology adeptly. “Confidence we may now and then feel, certitude, never. That we are in touch with truth, we may sense, now and then, here and there, that we possess Truth, never. … The gospel is not melancholy; it is ‘glad tidings’ for the melancholy. For the frivolous it is of course not so, for it wishes to make them serious… I can only hope that it (the book) will make some who read it joyful, as only those can be who ponder again the joyous mystery-the gospel, of a God who enters into complete solidarity with our difficult, perhaps even impossible kind of creaturehood, joyful as souls called out of the depth by a Spirit still at work ‘giving life to the dead and bringing something out of nothing.'” (Rom.4:17, KJV.) (Pages 131 and 132.)