James Wm. McClendon (1924-2000) may be characterized as an inspiring Atlantic theologian. His three volumes on systematic theology exhibit profound knowledge of European and American theology, as it specifically revolves around the retrieval of the baptistic tradition. It also profoundly affected theological thinking on both sides of the Atlantic. He combines the Free Church mentality with robust orientations of Barthian, Mennonite and narrative-hermeneutical background. Anyhow, the result is a challenging and in McClendon’s days a timely presentation of baptistic theology as a way of living and thinking the truth of Christ.
At the onset of the third millennium McClendon’s theology proves even more beneficial and relevant than decades before, because in the present demise of grand narrative of the church, Christian life should be spoken of in terms of diaspora ecclesiology. The church is, and will become, a social-religious minority. Hence, Christianity will not predominantly be studied as a historical and dogmatic reality, but as a lived conviction and a lived religion. Whosoever thinks and believes as a Christian lives like a Christian. McClendon’s basic premise may be summarized in the three words noted down in his Ethics: radical Christian materialism. Christianity is about knowing and obeying Christ as bodily as it can be, as regards our personal constituency as an individual who is a follower of Christ, and as regards our social constituency as a person who engages with others and forms and folds the community of Christ.
Christian faith materializes; otherwise it may be deemed illusive or defective. Such emphasis on the morality of bodily presence automatically comes with the history and lived tradition of the Baptist, Anabaptist and Free Church tradition. Major voices from these springs have always underscored the Christ-centred visibility of the Christian faith. The McClendon Chair for Baptistic & Evangelical Theologies is determined to hold on to these core values, to study them, and to be committed to living them out.
It has astutely been assumed that the Atlantic mind is a unique breed, born from three mothers: Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Three spirits were mingled into one soul. Albeit that the imagery of the theory is far too simple, yet the fabric of Western thinking, throughout the nascent ages of Europe, has strongly been coded by dualistic reasoning. The realm of God and the realm of human beings were not to be confused or perfused. Inasmuch as Christian discourse took up words like these, the church wrestled with the palpability of the flesh of Christ. As a whole, the church of the West displayed the inclination of spiritualizing the physical existence of Jesus, whether in its reflections on his life on earth or in its notions of the Eucharist. According to McClendon the very person of Christ himself should cure us from having such double-sided notions of him.
"If we should call this this radically changed state of affairs simply “the new that comes in Christ,” that choice of words would designate a gap in ordinary speech: How is this truly extraordinary even to be named? This linguistic gap corresponds to the primitive disciples’ dilemma: How can converted folk ever talk with the inexperienced, or even with one another, about the unprecedented, the unique? If it is new, old terms will not do, while new ones may convey nothing."
"So to be a Christian is to remember, and the church is the place, the event, the sharing in which these memories are kept, these stories told, these treasures are brought to life again and again, while time lasts (…) If we forget the stories, church will be no more. If we merely remember, but have no new stories to tell in our own generation, church will be only a mausoleum of dead memories."
For Gospel-people there is no controversy between a life oriented to heaven and a life lived on earth. The Gospel story, indeed, is the Christian’s story in which the world of God and the world of humans basically merge. Tangible life, as such, is the realm where people and God meet, where the infinite chooses to touch and tolerate the finite. As a consequence no detail of the life of Christ can be seen as superfluous, in particular his Jewishness. Jesus’ Jewishness may prevent the church from becoming antagonistic about Jesus’ presence in the world, even today. In line with McClendon and Yoder’s thinking, it also reminds us of the many complexities there are between Jews and Christians, and the urgency these issues have. The Chair advocates involvement in ecumenical studies and inter-faith studies, in particular Baptist relations with Jews.
James Wm. McClendon Chair
1061 AX Amsterdam
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
De Boelelaan 1105
1081 HV Amsterdam