Disciplined by Theology: A Profile of Paul Holmer

by Mark Horst

Mark Horst is a pastor at Excelsior United Methodist Church in Excelsior, Minnesota.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 12, 1988, pp. 891-895. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


Christianity should not be understood apart from the believer’s capacity for “repentance,” “hope” and “despair”. Emotions, therefore, play an important part in the process of understanding Christianity

Last year Yale Divinity School bid farewell to a teacher whose intellect and character shaped generations of students who sat for his lectures, sermons and seminars. Paul Leroy Holmer retired from a teaching career that spanned 40 years, a career that left its mark upon pastors, philosophers, seminaries and churches across the land.

In the course of his life as a teacher of philosophical theology, Holmer has been ' mistaken for many things. He has been labeled a reactionary by some, an antiintellectual bent on undermining the scholarly enterprise by others, and to still others he is a brooding, stubborn, unimaginative thinker.

Holmer's influence is also difficult to locate, perhaps because its weight has been felt more through his teaching than through his writing and more through the strength of his personality than through his authorship. However, the breadth and depth of Holmer's influence as teacher and colleague is evident in a newly released festschrift titled The Grammar of the Heart edited by Richard Bell, (Harper & Row). It features a diverse group of scholars, including Welsh philosopher D. Z. Phillips, the brilliant young Cambridge theologian Rowan Williams and liturgist and theologian Don Saliers. This collection only hints at the extent of the teacher's influence. Many of his colleagues, including Brevard Childs, whose work in Old Testament studies has helped, chart a new agenda for biblical studies in this country, and George Lindbeck, whose seminal work in theological methodology has attracted so much attention recently, owe a debt to Holmer.

The distinctiveness of Holmer's legacy lies in a sustained Kierkegaardian critique of contemporary religiosity which takes both theological and ecclesiastical establishments within its purview. At the same time he has labored to overcome contemporary suspicion of Christian beliefs created by modem scientific and philosophical conundrums. I had the opportunity recently to speak with him about his career and his perspective on theological education.

Holmer grew up in Minneapolis, the son of Swedish immigrants, steeped in the Swedish Covenant tradition of Lutheran pietism. As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota he studied with David Swenson, one of the first Americans to take an interest in the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. Swenson was at work on the first English translation of The Concluding Unscientific Postscript and seems to have taken special interest in his young student. He met with Holmer each Saturday morning for over a year to discuss the collected works of Nietzsche. At the end of the study Swenson handed Holmer a mimeographed copy of his translation of Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments. The clarity and precision Kierkegaard brought to Christian reflection made a deep and lifelong impression.

Holmer earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale with a dissertation devoted to Kierkegaard which was, he said in the preface, "unabashedly Swensonian. " Returning to teach at Minnesota, he divided his time between Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter and the University of Minnesota. Among those studying at Gustavus around that time were Lindbeck, who went on to hold the Pitkin chair of historical theology at Yale, and Sydney Ahlstrom, the great American church historian. In 1954 Holmer became full professor at the University of Minnesota's department of philosophy. He remained there until 1958 when he accepted part-time appointments at Dartmouth and Yale. Yale offered him a full-time position in the fall of 1960.

Yale Divinity School was an imposing intellectual environment when Holmer arrived in 1960. It was shaped by the presence of Kenneth Scott Latourette, H. Richard Niebuhr and Robert Lowry Calhoun. Yale was known as a place that earnestly attempted to understand and remain faithful to the history of the church and its theological traditions. "As I understood it through the years," Holmer reflects, "the lovely thing about Yale was that, through a previous generation of thinkers, Niebuhr, Calhoun, Latourette and others, it did take the history of the church and of theology with great seriousness. The aim was to discipline everybody by that, And that Yale tradition was something I fit into very easily when I first came there."

The disciplining effect of the theological tradition upon the individual has remained a central element of Holmer's teaching. He has always rejected the many attempts to make theology address special interests, and as a result has been something of a gadfly on the current theological scene. Christianity, as he understands it, is not a platform from which to push our favorite causes. Theology is a means of extending the gospel's claim upon us, and at its best helps us understand the shape God wants to give our lives. "The task for me has been to transform the individual and make the individual able to believe in the tradition. And so instead of theology being a set of -conceptual accommodations [to special interests] it looked to me as if theology should have a disciplining effect on the individual . . . to make belief in God, judgments and confidence in one's own self plausible through old-fashioned things like repentance, faith, hope, love.

Holmer has been suspicious of contemporary models of theology which seem to depend heavily upon distinctions between theory and practice and between intellect and emotion. Too often Christianity has been treated as a theory which theologians refine and which some of them choose to practice. One of the hallmarks of his teaching career has been his ability to plot the connections between "understanding" and "practice." Christianity should not be "understood" apart from the believer's capacity for "repentance," "'hope" and "despair."

Emotions, therefore, play an important part in the process of understanding Christianity. Sometimes, Holmer reminds us, the exercise of an emotion is the best display of understanding possible. A child who doesn't fear the flame has failed to understand fire. The person who knows joy and awe in God's presence is beginning to grasp the concept of "God," whereas the person who talks glibly about God without awe, fear or joy has failed to grasp something basic. Theology thus makes demands upon those who practice it. It is an imposing body of teachings and practices which shapes the pattern of our emotions, our actions, our desires and our thoughts. This vision of theology flies in the face of contemporary views which encourage each and every believer to "develop a theology" and which applauds the constant emergence of new theologies. According to Holmer it is not so much new words that we need in order to know God, but hearts and minds devoted and obedient to God's will. Theology, in Holmer's understanding, has a therapeutic task. It helps us clean up and rid ourselves of obstacles to understanding and belief. More often than not these obstacles are to be found in the individual rather than out in the world. The problem is not that the world is unsuited to Christian belief, but that we are unprepared to receive the word being offered.

As a teacher Holmer was alert to the danger of theology becoming an academic technique in his students, and he called their attention to the problem both indirectly and bluntly. When one particularly bright student had finished reading a paper filled with a long and aimless series of distinctions, Holmer turned to him and said, "You've got all the makings of a scholastic." A student who submitted a book-length paper that was impressively erudite received a short response from his teacher: "So what?" Another comment Holmer liked to make by way of keeping his students focused theologically was, "Think small, don't think big!" Don't suppose that an issue is important just because it looks big in the academic arena. Ideas are not important because they are big, Holmer reminded his students. Ideas become important when they have a context in our fives, our, cares and passions, our longings and hopes. Holmer never allowed his students to assume that they could have the words of faith without the religious life. "The religious life is the only foundation for having theological convictions; otherwise it's all puffery. I don't even want to draw a distinction between theory and practice. Because this is one area where those distinctions don't hold. But the declaration of that oneness is hard to do. You do it moment to moment. Having the practice devoid of the beliefs is responsible for a certain superficiality in church life. It turns it into a social context only. But then having the other, the religious convictions and beliefs without the religious life --that's contrary to the Scriptures. You can't have a separation like that."

Holmer's unwillingness to separate-the gospel teachings from the life of faith results-in a critical perspective on church and seminary. "My teeth have been put on edge both in the church and in the seminaries. And they've stayed on edge.," His interest clearly cuts across the kind 'of divisions which are standardized in seminary curricula. There theology stands on one side and preaching on the I other, "as if preaching is something independent of theology and as if preaching is optional and only certain people do that, whereas I would think that having the words of faith on your lips is one of the ways to be a Christian. There's something artificial about the contemporary seminary's rubrics. Letting the rubrics construe the teachings is really baleful. The more deeply you get into the subject- the less, the rubrics fit."

While on the faculty at Yale Holmer consistently made contact with local churches. In preaching and teaching Sunday !school he, has, distinguished himself as an academic who can make sense to church people and make sense of church, people. He has given unfailing support to the local church, and never ceased to elevate the ' role and significahce of the parish ministry. When planning to visit. some distant part of the country, Holmer often dropped local pastors a postcard letting them know of his willingness to preach.

Familiarity with the local church has also given him a critical perspective on the church. Holmer noticed early on that theology and the church didn't always support one another. In the '40s, '50s and '60s, theology became a university subject, increasingly. divorced from church life, Holmer says his interest lay in attempting to close the gap between theology and the churches that had other reasons for expanding and being socially viable.

The church’s claim on people still seems, in many instances, to be independent of theology. "Part of my interest has been to get more God-centered religion in the churches," Holmer explains. "That's what I need myself and that's what I seek when I go there. The fact is that you don't often find it and that the church has become an institution with its own vitality independent of that teaching tradition.... A lot of times the religion of the New Testament doesn't get articulated out there. It's a genial, natural religiosity of some genial, natural religiosity of some sort –communal felling."

Holmer's contact with pastors in the thick of parish work yields useful insights into the difficulties and pitfalls of work in the church. The challenge for parish ministers is to keep clarifying the task for themselves: "What is this congregation all about? Why do we do this every Sunday? Pulling us back to that awareness, of ourselves as sinners in need of, God-that's . the task. Once you see that, then you don't have to educate everybody.

"Part of the difficulty of ministry in the church is that we so easily lose sight of the theological basis of the task and begin to respond to the unfocused demands of the institution. Every profession receives its focus from some diagnostic facts ' of the human condition [for example, illness necessitates ' doctors and ignorance necessitates teachers]. All human beings are not in synchronization with God and the name for that diagnostic fact is sin. Now one doesn't have to parade the concept "sin" there., any more than you have to tell everybody that they're ignorant in order to teach. But the clergy ought to keep the diagnostic fact clear before themselves: there's something like an ill health of the human spirit, here."

Theology, for Holmer,.has involved mediating the abiding truths of the gospel and the particular issues of the present age. "You have to have some kind of grip on what the -gospel is and what it says, and that's something like getting the content of the New Testament and the preaching tradition in hand.... The second thing would be to understand the audience and the present age that informs people. . . . And therefore I would have to know people and to know them exceedingly well in order to address them with that gospel. Theology is a name for some kind of formal learning that would mediate between the contemporaries and that tradition, that gospel.

Mediating between the contemporary situation and the gospel did not mean, for Holmer, that the gospel was not often a "very disturbing thing," to use Luther's expression.

In the blush of the human potential movement, Holmer was invited to speak to a gathering of pastors in California. Much to the dismay of his listeners, he announced that "deep down we're very superficial. " On another occasion Holmer angered his California audience by exalting chastity, condemning adultery and quoting Plato to support his case. People achieve their integrity, he insists, not by some inner life they hide from their neighbors, but precisely through the commitments and responsibilities they accept for their lives and for the lives of others.

Holmer addressed a generation of students whose confidence in the meaningfulness of the Christian faith had been undermined by intellectual criticism. His own experience as an undergraduate in the heyday of logical positivism raised serious questions about the possibility of the meaningfulness of moral and religious language. The positivists espoused the philosophical doctrine that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis of human knowledge and precise thought. To them, religious claims looked muddleheaded and indefensible "The kind of student that I myself was, the kind of students that I have addressed best through the years, were students who have had the confidence in the meaningfulness of Christianity vitiated by intellectual criticism.. The intellectual criticism of our time that bothered me . . . was logical positivism and popular forms of positivism that said that science was the only form of knowing." Coupled with popular positivism was Freudianism, behaviorism and other psychological views that attacked the validity of thinking and created, according to Holmer, an enormous range of suspicion about beliefs and thoughts.

"And then with that was popular Marxism, in the '30s when I was a student, which made churches and an awful lot of learning look as if it were class-oriented and the work of the elites. Not that anyone read Marx; but Marx, along with Weber and lots of 19th-century German philosophy, made people think that all thoughts were relative and that everything was related to your socioeconomic elite."

The corrosive effects of modernity upon Christian faith gave Holmer an audience. He turned to Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein and the general philosophic culture they articulated. For his students, Holmer's exposition of Kierkegaard and later of Wittgenstein proved to be an intellectually and religiously liberating critique of the general suspicion surrounding religious conviction.

Holmer's ability to make use of Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard sets him apart from both the philosophical and theological establishments in this country; it is his use of these thinkers that gives him his distinctive place in the American theological world. "Paul Holmer began to wed some of the ideas of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein in ways that gave a new liveliness to their works and suggested some new directions in which moral philosophy and theology might develop," writes Richard Bell (The Grammar of the Heart, p. 3). "No longer was Kierkegaard just an 'existentialist' thinker, nor could Wittgenstein be constrained. within narrow 'analytic' bounds. They both were seen to address the human heart by their careful analysis of concepts that focused attention on how to understand human subjectivity and how to see our human affections and emotions as part of human life and culture."

Holmer never avoided the hard-headed intellectual questions posed by cultural positivism. His therapy begins by identifying the problem, coaxing the vague, often unarticulated suspicion of religious belief into the form of a direct philosophical or theological claim, setting the stage for a vigorous discussion. Holmer's critique frequently takes the form of an argument about the nature of language and meaning.

Our ability to speak meaningfully about God has little to do with our ability to verify the existence of some being to which we might attach the name "God. " Rather, the concept of "God" becomes meaningful as we learn to live in relation to that God. "Words do not 'mean' all by themselves," Holmer writes in his book The Grammar of Faith (Harper & Row, 1978, p. 134). "They are not like some coins that have value because they are made of silver or gold...Words may have meaning for one man and not for another. The question is the way they are used, how the person lives and what applications the expressions are given."

Conceptual clarity was a tool Holmer used with impressive skill. He taught his students that any number of concepts might be uncovered by examining the use of a single word such as "belief," "reason ... .. fact" and "understanding." I remember a discussion in the Yale Divinity School common room, devoted to the question of whether the school was a "caring" place. Henri Nouwen spoke passionately and at length about caring and its importance. Another faculty member added his remarks affirming the importance of being caring. Holmer, obviously irritated by what he took to be a tone of intellectual flabbiness, said, "You get the feeling we're all a lot of hothouse plants just crying for attention. I thought Christian caring was something specific. A doctor cares for the patient by restoring the patient's health. The teacher cares for the student by expunging ignorance in the student. Now Christian care means helping to overcome human sinfulness by the grace of God. That's Christian care.

Holmer identifies the lack of conceptual clarity as a major problem in today's intellectual climate. "Theology as a result has become vague, but it's a malaise it shares with the rest of the academic world -- vagueness and formlessness. Now, theology to me doesn't even seem to be very intellectually respectable. There's a distrust of exactness, clarity and formal learning that has pervaded so much of contemporary discourse that even the problems don't get a sharp, definitive statement. Then the theology that addresses it doesn't . have that much definitiveness.

Wittgenstein said that in his own work, he was trying to say the same thing in every sentence. Holmer's teaching is also, directed toward well-defined aims. I asked him to summarize the focus of his career: "When I look back upon the years that I spent, sure there's narrowness, but it's a narrowness that consists of two things. I was just trying on the one hand to discover where the dignity, honor and glory of being a-person lies. And that's what I was doing by reading novels, by reading world literature, by thinking the thoughts of the great thinkers. I was on an enterprise here of realizing my own humanity. And helping to share that with everybody. So that's one side. Kind of a secular version.

"Correlative to that is that the' glory of a human being -- moral, upright, seeking the truth -- is brought to a climactic point for me by what it is to be a. Christian'. Being a Christian is pulling all those things to a sharp focus. The loveliness of the Christian gospel is that, while all these other ways of being human will finally fail us, there is another way of being a human being [that will not fail] that is shown us in Christ Jesus."

The intensity, and singlemindedness of Holmer's teaching is rooted in a rich and,,living faith. Perhaps for that reason more than any other, his career as a teacher has been pervaded by a sense of gratitude and reverence. "It isn't something I have gripped so much as something that has gripped me. I have felt increasingly through the years, not decreasingly but increasingly, a tremendous enthusiasm for the Christian teaching. I can't "explain that.. any other way than by saying it's become easier in some respects, but also more necessary, for me to be a believer. And that's, I guess, what we mean by the grace of God."