For Paul Fiddes on his 65th Birthday

Fiddes portrait
It is rumoured that this coming Monday, 30th April 2012, marks the 65th birthday of Professor Paul Fiddes. Other celebrations may well be planned in Oxford, but from a distance I want to be included among those who will, over the next day or so, signal their debt to Paul for the ways in which his theology has shaped life, faith and vocation. Pages could be written about Paul's role within the contemporary Baptist theological scene. At times it has felt as if, almost single-handedly, he has re-energized and re-conceptualized the ways that Baptists have approached and thought about the task of theology. Let me name the ways: the suffering of God; the pastoral significance of trinitarian faith; the relationship between Christianity, culture and the arts (especially literature); the nature of the atonement; the role of theology within the university; the centrality of covenant for Baptist self-understanding; the question of authority and its relation to the nature of the church and the exercise of Christian ministry; the relation between Baptist identity and the catholicity of the Church; the significance of wisdom for understanding theology etc etc etc. No-one has done more to shape my sense of why theology is important, and of what theology can and should be in relation the life of the church and the world.

So, responding to a suggestion from Andy Goodliff, I post here a quotation from a recent essay by Fiddes in which many of the chords of thinking, signalled above, are struck. Above all they speak of his, and my own, sense of vocation to the work of Christian scholarship. If I understand things aright, the others will join in this online tribute to Paul, and perhaps, if there is time, I will add links to the thread of tributes that will hopefully spring up. I quote Paul's words with a sense of inadequacy in the light of Paul's own intellectual gifts (I mean, no-one should really be that clever!) only exceeded by a sense of gratitude for them:

As I have suggested, it is the apostolic responsibility of the pastor or episkopos to bring the tradition of the universal church onto the local scene. Professional theologians from the academy will have helped him or her in an initial formation to gain this vision. While they may also have to offer ongoing assistance to the pastor in representing the tradition to the local community – and it is a sign of grace and graciousness when such help is accepted – this will surely be rectifying a deficiency in the situation rather than being the distinctive contribution of the professional scholar.

In shaping and renewing the tradition, in finding the mind of Christ about its place in the mission of God, should not the church also be listening for the word of God spoken in the world? If Christ is the one Word of God alongside whom there is none other, then as Karl Barth reminds us, 'the sphere of his dominion and his word is …greater than that of the kerygma, dogma, cultus, mission and the whole life of the (Christian) community. In an early essay, Barth protests against the 'binding' of secular culture 'to a Christian conscience' but at the same time he states that 'there is even less place for a basic blindness to the possibility that culture may be revelatory, that it can be filled with promise'. Later he urges that 'Even from the mouth of Balaam the well-known voice of the Good Shepherd may sound, and it is not to be ignored in spite of its sinister origin.' We recall the words of Newman here about 'the incantations of Balaam'. Or again, Barth writes, Christ can 'make use of human beings [inside or outside the Bible] in such a way that to hear them is to hear him.' Those who transmit the tradition must be sensitive to hearing the word of Christ spoken in strange and unexpected places, and to being open to the challenge of the Spirit of God through (but not imply as) the cultures of the world. Barth does not think that hearing the word of God in the world as 'secular parables' will ever contradict scripture, but that such parables will open up scripture for the community in a new way and for a new situation. Renewal, thinks Barth, will often come from outside. True words from secular culture will demand a real hearing from the community, assisting, comforting and strengthening it. They prompt the community to become a 'better, more attentive and convincing' servant of the Word.

Now, the professional Christian scholar has stood in the place of conflicting discourses. in the market-place of secular culture and has aimed to connect the Christian faith with other disciplines of knowledge, with confidence in a covenant-making God. This, I suggest, was what was already happening in the interdisciplinary syllabus of the Dissenting Academies,  and for which there can be even greater possibilities in the context of a modern, public university. From this perspective, the scholar has guidance to offer to the local church in shaping its mission, as it gathers to find the mind of Christ together. The scholar should also offer a special resource to church members who are seeking to work out their Christian vocation in their own professions, whether in teaching, medicine, law, industry, banking or the public services. From their own interaction with theorists and practitioners of these professions in the university, Christian scholars should be able to assist church members in working out their 'everyday theology', in negotiating the demands of Christian discipleship with the ambiguities and pressures of modem society. At the same time, of course, the scholar's own theology should be shaped by the experience of these disciples in their daily life. Alongside the pastors of the church there stand, then, the 'doctors of the church' and the Christian community needs their witness too as it seeks to discern the mind of Christ, Lord of Athens and Jerusalem.

Paul S. Fiddes, 'Dual Citizenship in Athens and Jerusalem: the PLace of the Christian Scholar in the Life of the Church', in Anthony R. Cross and Ruth Gouldbourne (eds.), Questions of Identity: Studies in Honour of Brian Haymes (Centre for Baptist History and Heritage Studies 6; Oxford: Regent's Park College, 2011),139–140.