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Interview: James Ernest, theology publisher

11 March 2016

‘We have the power to encourage or discourage, to help or to hinder’

James Ernest

James Ernest

Since Eerdmans started publishing, more than a century ago, much has changed in theology. In the earlier days, dogmatic theology that was linked closely to particular European confessional traditions dominated, but more recently genres and viewpoints have proliferated, so that the discourse is much more diverse and complex.


Eerdmans used to publish mainly Reformed perspectives, both mainline and Evangelical, but it has broadened to publish also Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and Orthodox voices, as well as Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, and other perspectives that we think add value to the mainly Christian conversations that we sponsor. Of course, if Anglo-American theological scholarship is to reflect contemporary global Christianity, our publishing will have to become more diverse yet.


Diversity per se has positive cultural significance. More important, Christians writing from diverse perspectives enable those who are able and willing to read outside their own methodological and ideological commitments to inquire more sharply into the aims and nature of Christian theological discourse. Critical interaction between diverse voices can have a clarifying effect. Or, as one ancient theologian put it, “Iron sharpens iron.”


Theologians left and right tend to identify the central aims of theology too closely with the current concerns of their own social, ecclesial, or intellectual community or party. Of course, it is vital to acknowledge one’s own commitments, and to pursue them honestly, but it is also necessary to subject them to critique and discipline vis-à-vis scripture, the tradition, and the global Church. Traditionalism (a way of focusing on tradition that ignores or belittles contemporary challenges) and progressivism (a way of following contemporary commitments that too freely disconnects from traditional commitments) both shirk the true task of theology, and both are rampant.


I’ll admit both to having a deliberate openness to the “great books” — Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and so on — and to not having let them influence me enough. In my own graduate study, I paid special attention to theologians of the first four centuries. I once had the privilege of taking a course on the pre-Socratic philosophers with the great hermeneutical philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. In his opening lectures he explored the significance of beginning. I later tried to approach the Church Fathers with something like Gadamer’s sense of wonder, respect, and curiosity about the openness of the era of beginnings. What does it mean that things might have been thought and said in any of a number of ways, but came to be expressed in precisely this way?


Before asking about the role of theology in mission, we must first ask, what is the role of mission in theology? Theology that is not inspired by, and answerable to, the missio dei in the world is theology that has lost its way, and is not profitable. Mission is the criterion and energy of theology. Of course, it is also true that theological investigation and reflection can, and must, always reform and redirect mission. But prayer, proclamation, and works of mercy can and do proceed at times without academic theology, while academic theology that neither draws on nor nourishes prayer, proclamation, and works of mercy is false, or at best useless.


We publishers live in interesting times. On the one hand, we see imaginative exploration pushing the boundaries in order to take seriously the circumstances, perspectives, and questions of people who were once either marginal or utterly beyond the margins (in terms of various parameters of either individual or ethnic identity).


On the other hand, there’s deliberate retrenchment that ignores new challenges, and takes refuge in comfortable patterns of thought and life. For me, what is most interesting are the various modes of ressourcement, constantly returning to the beginnings — the canonical texts and their classical interpreters —precisely in order to face contemporary lived realities, and say something to them that is both fresh and deeply traditional. Both the contemporary realities and the modes of entrenchment can differ from one side of the Atlantic to the other, but there’s a lot of communication and mutual influence.


Eerdmans has a broad range of authors and readers, including Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant folk of all stripes, but Evangelicals have been, and remain, a very important constituency for us. You may be aware that in the US we have some Evangelicals whose main preoccupation is deciding and announcing who is not an Evangelical. The Evangelicals who write and read Eerdmans books have more robust and constructive interests. They’re very interested in drawing on scripture to support discourse aimed at transforming individual lives and whole societies with the good news of Jesus Christ. Increasingly they’re noting the importance of the entire “great Church” tradition for that enterprise.


We have Evangelical authors who are interested in exploring ecumenical agreements and differences on themes that have been defining and divisive. We have Evangelical authors who are interested in addressing current ethical concerns with theological fidelity and pastoral wisdom. We have Catholic authors who exhibit very Evangelical aims and commitments. We think our press is one of a small number that are ideally positioned to foster fruitful cross-fertilisation between the most vital Christian sub-traditions, in an era in which both “Evangelical” and “mainline” are increasingly difficult to define.


I’m often surprised by bestsellers in Evangelical academic publishing, and I think this is a good thing. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”


We’re seeing manuscripts and proposals, and hearing interest from authors in topics ranging from atonement to eucharist. I see a pattern here. Diverse understandings of how Christian salvation works, what it entails for relations between Christians, and how it extends into Christian mission in the world seem to be collecting around the theme of participation in, or union with, Christ.


My family of origin was a conventional American Bible-belt nuclear family — a father who worked in a chemical plant, a mother who kept house, one sister, and social life centred on church services Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday-night prayer meeting, and Saturday-night youth group. My father served as clerk of session in our Presbyterian congregation for years. He wasn’t theologically educated, and I remember him mentioning “the Council of Nicaea” as a mysterious event from the deep past that he would love to know something about. I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Athanasius, and still feel that way about Nicaea.


My wife is a minister, our daughter is a ballet dancer, our son a first-year theology student. Their creativity and their love inspire and sustain me.


I was drawn into publishing by friends. My first non-theological publishing job was with an educational publisher for whom my grad-school roommate was already working. Two years with the H. W. Wilson Company gave me a rigorous introduction to line editing. But theological publishing? I had gone to seminary not because I thought I had a vocation to pastoral ministry — though afterward I did explore that vocation, to the extent of passing all the way through the process toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church. I was not ordained, because at the moment when my committee invited me to circulate my profile in order to seek a call, I instead went back to graduate school.


Earlier, as a Greek-teaching Fellow at my seminary, I had a senior colleague who became a very good friend, and a bit of a mentor. He went into publishing after seminary, and then repeatedly invited me to join him in that work. While I was working on my doctorate, my wife worked full-time in ministry while I studied and looked after the babies. When she decided to step down from her pastoral position to stay home with our small children for a while, I phoned my friend and said, “I think now is the time.” I’ve worked in theological publishing ever since.


Every day I pray that I will be a blessing to my co-workers, and to our authors and readers. I do not take it for granted that I am, or will be. I am very mindful of, and not a little daunted by, the trust that has been placed in me, and I know that any hope I have of executing that trust well depends utterly on God’s grace.


Publishers are not just allowed but required to determine which books, by which authors, will be published, and how well they will be vetted and revised. We have the power to encourage or discourage, to help or to hinder; but our wisdom and strength are limited, and our time is constrained in ways we cannot ask our authors to begin to imagine. Ultimately, like any theological undertaking, theological publishing requires conscious dependence on God’s help.


If I had to be locked in a church with anyone, I would, in line with my interests in beginnings and in publishing, have to go with the first known writer of Christ-focused theology drawing upon and aiming at prayer, proclamation, and mission. It’s mind-blowing even to try to imagine spending several hours with St Paul.


Terence Handley MacMath was talking to James Ernest, Editor-in-Chief at Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. www.eerdmans.com

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