The title of this volume accurately conveys its purpose and scope. In 2009, Westminster John Knox Press released a massive two-volume work by David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. Kelsey, now retired, was a long-time professor at the Yale Divinity School. His book was many years in the making and has garnered a great deal of interest in the world of academic theology. The present volume, consisting of eight essays interacting with Eccentric Existence specifically and Kelsey’s theological work generally, is further evidence of that interest.
John Thiel opens the book with an essay on Kelsey’s methodological choices in writing Eccentric Existence. Key in this regard, according to Thiel, is the way Kelsey structures his book around the idea that God relates to what is not God in three interrelated but distinct ways, “to create us, to draw us to eschatological consummation, and, when we have alienated ourselves from God, to reconcile us” (p. 3). Thiel points out that this threefold relation corresponds to the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Hence, Kelsey works out his theological anthropology in light of this distinctively Christian idea, and he makes God rather than human beings the center of his work. Nearly every other contributor to this volume also reflects on this basic approach of Kelsey.
The next essay, by Charles Wood, reflects on a number of features of Eccentric Existence and closes by posing three questions (which are really friendly challenges) to Kelsey. One of the features of Eccentric Existence he discusses is its extensive attention to the Old Testament wisdom literature. Kelsey turns to the wisdom literature because, he believes, it is the one place in Scripture that considers God’s relating to people as their creator in a way independent from considering how God brings them to eschatological consummation or reconciles them. I mention this because Kelsey’s attention to the wisdom literature is another theme that many of the other contributors also discuss.
The next essay, by David Ford, focuses upon Kelsey’s use of Scripture. Among the issues he raises, Ford mentions three books of Scripture (John, Isaiah, Song of Songs) to which Kelsey does not give much consideration and suggests how they might contribute to his analysis. Then Cyril O’Regan, a Roman Catholic, attempts to begin a dialogue between Eccentric Existence and Roman Catholic theology. He gives particular attention to Karl Rahner, with whom Kelsey interacts, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, with whom he does not. The following two essays focus on particular theological doctrines. Amy Plantinga Pauw seeks to extend Kelsey’s interest in the wisdom literature into ecclesiology, suggesting how a robust conception of wisdom ought to shape our understanding of the church. Joy Ann McDougall then turns to the doctrine of sin and considers how Kelsey develops his conception of sin in light of the three interrelated but distinct ways in which God relates to human beings. She presents Kelsey as upholding all of the key features of the traditional doctrine of original sin, except that he rejects the idea of an historical, primeval fall from an originally sinless state.
The volume concludes with essays on two issues tangentially related to Eccentric Existence but important to Kelsey and the so-called Yale School, of which he is a prominent representative. First, Barbara Wheeler and Edwin van Driel reflect on how Kelsey’s anthropology might stimulate professors of theology to rethink the nature and purpose of theological education. This piece considers some of Kelsey’s earlier scholarship on the nature of theology and theological training. Finally, Shannon Craigo-Snell closes the volume by locating Eccentric Existence within the Yale School, which emphasizes the importance of narrative. She compares this emphasis on narrative with more recent scholarship that highlights the related theme of performance, and concludes that Eccentric Existence is open to important performance-related themes but has difficulty accounting for others.
Reviewing a collection of essays by different authors always presents the challenge of trying to evaluate the collection as a whole as well as the many parts that are inevitably of different quality and conviction. For the most part, I will focus my remarks on matters pertaining to the former.
First, it is worth mentioning for readers of Themelios that this volume, like Eccentric Existence, is written at a fairly high level of theological sophistication. Readers without a good theological education will likely find it very challenging. On a related note, I observe that this book is primarily designed for those who have read and pondered their way through Eccentric Existence itself. The book could have limited value for those who wish to gain some knowledge about Kelsey’s project but have not and do not want to invest the time to read his rich but slow-moving tome of more than a thousand pages. Nevertheless, those who have already immersed themselves in Kelsey’s theological world will reap the greatest reward from this book.
The origins and purpose of the volume is worth noting in a little more detail. In a brief preface, the editor relates how the project began as a Festschrift in honor of Kelsey’s work generally, and that Kelsey himself chose the contributors from a group of colleagues and former students with whom he had collaborated. But in the course of events the project turned into a book focused upon Eccentric Existence, thereby becoming not exactly a Festschrift but more like a “celebratory volume” (pp. vii–viii). I point this out because it explains certain features of the volume—features that somewhat detract from its quality, in my judgment. For one thing, the essays are highly laudatory of Kelsey’s work. Insofar as the book aims to be a “celebratory volume,” that seems perfectly appropriate, although some of the comments are more than a little excessive. (Eccentric Existence is impressive indeed, but, for example, is it really “impossible to do justice to such a capacious book and quite so masterly a theological performance” [p. 88]?) Of more importance is the fact that, while many essays raise questions offering at least implicit challenge to this or that aspect of Kelsey’s work, none of them propose fundamental challenges to the method or substance of the book and often they do not even pursue their questions very far. Thus, the book satisfies its stated purpose of being celebratory, but I believe it would be a more interesting work and more profitable for the larger theological community if its contributors were drawn from a wider circle or at least if they offered more sustained critical engagement with Eccentric Existence. Readers who are looking for such critical engagement may find most interest in the essays by Ford (because he asks a number of very good questions of Kelsey) and O’Regan (because he puts Kelsey in extended dialogue with Rahner, one of the most important Roman Catholic theologians of recent memory).
One of the interesting features of the book to me is the fact that many contributors comment on the Reformed character of Eccentric Existence. I reviewed Eccentric Existence shortly after its publication (Them 35.3 : 523–25), and there I claimed that, for better or worse, it lacked dependence upon or commitment to a particular theological tradition. The contributors to the present volume obviously feel differently. One of them even calls Eccentric Existence “unequivocally a confessional text” which “takes its place in the great tradition of Reformed theology” (p. 65). These contributors have a point. From the perspective of mainstream academic theology, in which the Reformed tradition of recent centuries is understood to flow through the likes of Schleiermacher and Barth, Kelsey’s work does seem to belong to the Reformed tradition in several respects. Yet as a Presbyterian who identifies with an older, confessional Reformed Christianity, I would still defend my claim that Eccentric Existence is much more eclectic than confessional or Reformed. A few examples briefly illustrate. MacDougall says that Kelsey upholds all of the standard features of the traditional idea of original sin except the notion of an historical fall, but she ends up making him sound rather Pelagian—although she does not use this term but ascribes to Kelsey “a social theory of the inheritance of sin” (p. 113). Also Pauw, addressing herself to Kelsey as a “fellow Presbyterian” (p. 91) and seeking to extend his focus on wisdom to ecclesiology, has sharply critical things to say about several confessionally Reformed theologians and several historic Reformed convictions as she develops a defense of universal salvation. One contributor, the Roman Catholic Thiel, does see (and like) in Kelsey a “Franciscan style of Christology” but wonder whether it is “faithful to the classical Reformation heritage captured in the great Lutheran and Reformed confessions” (pp. 14–15). But on the whole I believe the contributors exaggerate the purported Reformed character of Eccentric Existence.