A teacher’s theology, virtue and faith

by Jon M. Sweeney

The Paul L. Holmer Papers: On Kierkegaard and the Truth (Vol. 1); Thinking the Faith with Passion: Selected Essays (Vol. 2); and Communicating the Faith Indirectly: Selected Sermons, Addresses, and Prayers (Vol. 3),

Paul L. Holmer, edited by David J. Gouwens and Lee C. Barrett III

Eugene, Ore., Cascade Books, 2012

I was what some might derisively call a “disciple” of Paul Holmer (d. 2004) for three years, toward the end of his life. Retired from Yale, where he taught in both the University philosophy department and the Divinity School, Holmer returned to his Swedish Pietist roots for one month each year to teach the December term at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, where I was a student.

I was in my early twenties, fresh out of college, Holmer’s Socratic style and religious piety appealed strongly to me. After taking his seminars on Wittgenstein/Kierkegaard (he’d combined their thought by then) and C. S. Lewis, I promptly informed my supervisor that I wanted to switch from an MDiv to the MA program and write my thesis on Holmer. So perhaps Holmer is the reason why no one ever had to endure me as their pastor.

That is all by way of full disclosure. I am biased, to be sure. In fact, in 1990 and 1991 I published two essays on Holmer’s life and thought in Pietisten. One was entitled “Something about Holmer,” an homage to Holmer and his former professor and friend, David F. Swenson, from the University of Minnesota, who published one of the first books in English about Kierkegaard, Something about Kierkegaard (1941). Today, my essays read as more hero-worship than scholarship, but I’m still proud of them.

Before I left seminary to work in book publishing, I saw the look of gratitude in Holmer’s eyes one day at lunch when he encouraged me to go on to graduate school and teach. “It is a wonderful way to spend a life,” he wistfully said. And by all accounts, this polymath lived a full and rewarding life indeed.

Holmer published little during his lifetime, and he was published poorly. There were two books for Harper & Row in the late 1970s, one a slim but insightful essay on Lewis, the other an excellent work of popular theology, The Grammar of Faith. They were “little” books, received little attention, and his publishers probably had little understanding of Holmer’s way of thinking and how it might appeal to people otherwise reading pap. Above all else, Holmer was a teacher, and the list of his former students (George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon, Don Saliers, etc.) includes the best of the best of the last fifty years of theological teaching, scholarship and writing. This deeply religious man made his mark in the academy.

The first volume of the Paul L. Holmer papers is actually the carefully reconstructed, long-rumored book of his on Kierkegaard. I recall Robert C. Roberts, my former professor at Wheaton College, telling me of having seen some of this material in typescript while a student of Holmer at Yale. Others have told me that they believe Holmer first wrote it in the 1950s while teaching at Minnesota, attempting to carry on Swenson’s legacy by actively combatting logical positivism (a mantel he would take on for a quarter century at Yale, as well). Indeed, when I saw that the editors’ preface did not mention any previous attempts on Holmer’s part to publish the work, I queried editor David Gouwens via email. He wrote back to explain:

“There is to our knowledge just one bit of evidence that Holmer sent his Kierkegaard book to a publisher for consideration. While he was still on the faculty at the University of Minnesota, a manuscript version was reviewed by the University of Minnesota Press in 1957. They declined to publish the manuscript, finding it to be composed of ‘disconnected essays.’ Holmer did not date his drafts, but based on internal evidence, and various versions of a table of contents, some quite lengthy, we suspect that this 1957 manuscript was a longer manuscript with more chapters. We have reconstructed a manuscript of later drafts, and a shorter table of contents, that we believe make a coherent and connected volume, lacking only the first few pages of the final chapter.”

The second volume is comprised of Holmer’s best essays, previously published and unpublished, with titles such as “Wittgenstein and the Self,” “Kierkegaard and Logic,” and several having to do with theology and faith. Theology and faith couldn’t be understood apart from one another, in Holmer’s view. But most interesting, I think, is the final part, which includes seven essays on emotions, virtues and passions; these intentionally subjective topics always made for the most interesting talks at theological conferences. Holmer could talk about loving and hoping in a way that would incite some to passion for theological discipline and Christian faith, and drive others to decry him as an anti-intellectual.

The third and final volume is by far the most personal, and contains part of the Holmer that his students best remember: the man of deep piety. An accomplished musician himself on any keyboard, Holmer was known to quote evangelical hymns during philosophical lectures. He was a man of serious interior life, and taught that one couldn’t hope to understand faith without virtue and prayer. In this volume are some of Holmer’s sermons – on receiving mercy, on being steadfast, and on “Making Sense Christianly,” one of his favorite phrases. The eight pages on “The Transforming Power of Otherworldliness” alone are worth the price of these fairly expensive but expertly edited and designed paperbacks. And special thanks go to editors Gouwens and Barrett for digging deeply enough in the archives to find some of Holmer’s selected prayers, a special treat, that demonstrate his depth of feeling and understanding.