I don’t inquire into Robert Saler’s identity because he is mysterious and unknown in the mode of Thomas Pynchon. And I don’t ask it in order to launch an ad hominem discourse undermining his authorship based on biographical or personal details.
I ask the question because Robert Saler, in his book, Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church (Emerging Scholars), launches an inquiry into what he calls “theological authorship” and this in relationship to the place of such authorship in the life of the church and the method by which we establish authorial authority.
I don’t need to review Saler’s CV here. You can read it for yourself if you’re curious. Instead, what I’d like to do in this review is simply ask a set of questions relative to Saler’s central thesis, but employ those questions in the direction of the intellectual product he has brought to us–namely, a book that originated as a dissertation.
Let’s start with the dissertation. Saler’s book is published in an outstanding new monograph series from Fortress Press, the Emerging Scholars Series. This is a curated, selective dissertation series dedicated to highlighting creative, innovative new projects from new scholars in biblical studies, theology, and Christian history.
Since Saler in his dissertation posits that theological authorship as we understand it is particularly influenced by the 19th century valorization of originality and innovation as essential elements of the authorial craft, we might consider the entire Emerging Scholars series as a living example of this 19th century valorization.
Saler further argues that this innovation is the most salient feature of authorship for self-authentication, above other things like obligation to an ecclesial tradition or governing structures of a church. I would add to Saler’s point one further thesis, that although authors in such a series are not beholden to a specific ecclesial tradition or governing structure, they are however subject to the “curating” process of the publishing house that may or may not publish their dissertation, and further subject to the critical review of their dissertation readers. Since Saler wrote his dissertation for a Lutheran seminary, and published it with a Lutheran publishing house, there may be more of a magisterium in place than he acknowledges in his book. And curiously, his book is a product of a magisterium that is also in some sense the marketplace.
But returning to Saler’s central thesis and concept, Saler takes time, as many dissertations do, to place his argument within an historical and theological context. This is actually one of my favorite reasons for reading dissertations, and Saler’s in particular. It is often illuminating and gratifying to walk through a theological period, or be re-introduced to theological authors, out of the perspective of a theologian and academic who has spent the past few years immersing themselves deeply in their work.
Here is Saler’s central thesis: Authorship is always a kind of political transaction with authorization and therefore authority. In the case of theological authorship, the clear and most compelling option for establishing authority is what theologians often call the teaching authority of the church–the magisterium.
In order to get us to concede his point, after a rather fascinating historical comparison of Tyndale and More in their exchanges over theological authorship, Saler walks us through a comparison of Schleiermacher and Newman, with Newman offering the catholic, magisterial option, and Schleiermacher grounding the poetic, virtuoso marketplace author. These two chapters illustrate the historical and research work any author of a dissertation needs to accomplish in order to establish themselves with any kind of authority as an author deserving of a ph.D.
Along the way, Saler coins a term, “polis ecclesiologists,” to classify (perhaps too broadly and simply) a set of theologians who believe it is desirable to have a concrete, enduring, and visible magisterium that establishes the public teaching function of the church in the world. Into this camp he tosses authors like Reinhard Hütter, Ola Tjørhom, Carl Braaten R.R. Reno, and Paul Griffiths, many of whom have converted to Roman Catholicism, and/or are Lutherans with an evangelical catholic disposition.
For this reason, Saler’s book is an excellent primer or inquiry into the evangelical catholic movement within Lutheranism.
Here are some of my enduring questions for Saler. First, given that he sees the “polis ecclesiology” as the most sustainable alternative to his proposal of church as diffused spatialized event, I do wonder why he so readily elides the Schleiermacher option from his constructive proposal. He has a rather humorous way of summarizing this midway in his book: Enter the theologian as hip virtuoso; enter the genius as doctrinal author” (82). What’s so bad about this approach, actually? It takes place in the marketplace, which Saler finds problematic… and yet his very arguments are made as Saler the hip, virtuoso theologian, and whether we trust Saler in his overall argument rests to a considerable extent on whether we consider Saler a genius doctrinal author.
Furthermore, I wonder where rationality is in all of this. Saler himself relies on rationality through and through. This is an incredibly well-argued and programmatic dissertation. Saler establishes the truth of his claims through rational argumentation, yet rationality as a form of authorial authorization does not make an appearance in the book. It makes me wonder if Saler believes rationality is counter to the weakness and diffusive spatiality he posits as the concrete alternative to a public church with a magisterium.
Saler writes, “To the extent that one wishes to have the church function as a concrete, distinct public with the means of authorizing theological production in such a way that escapes the logic of the marketplace, then a magisterium is necessary” (176). Saler concedes this point, but I believe it concedes too much, but in a direction somewhat different than he intends. It gives up on the marketplace, which is one kind of problem. It also fails to consider other loci for authorization such as rationality itself, or even other positivist options like Barth’s Word of God.
In his concluding chapter, Saler takes up the task of describing the alternative, church as diffusively spatialized event, through the work of Joseph Sittler in his Called to Unity speech. For Saler, the church is not best thought of in spatial terms as a concrete, visible publi that is self-present to its own authorization (187), but rather as diffusively spatialized event.
Saler takes a very puzzling turn at this point. Instead of investing time in the concluding chapter outlining what this ecclesiology might entail, he launches a lengthy inquiry into Barth’s Romerbrief (in dialectical conversation with Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?), arguing that the book itself models the nature and task of the church that Barth envisions, an intriguing and fully realized eschatology. As odd as this sounds, I think Saler means it. In other words, Barth’s Romans commentary IS the diffuse, spatialized event Saler proposes as an alternative ecclesiology to the magisterium of the polis ecclesiologists.
Where does this leave us, then? As strange as it sounds, and as overwhelmingly bookish as Saler’s proposal ends up being, I think I largely agree with it, even if perhaps for different reasons than Saler. I think Saler is arguing here that the church exists in the world much like Barth’s Roman’s commentary exists in the world. It has no specific power per se, and yet that book when it came on the scene set off an explosion that rocked the theological world, and set the course of the church in some new directions. At the same time, even though Barth’s theology has been strong in that sense of changing the course of theology, it has never, unlike the work of some other theologians, firmly claimed or formed a “movement.” There’s not a Barth church. Instead, the internal inconsistencies and weakness of his work have left his theology more diffuse, spatialized but not thoroughly public, an event rather than a building.
He writes, “I constructed a vision of authorship in which the destabilized subjectivity of the author, the necessary failure of theology to achieve total representation of God or God’s creatures, and the ultimate ‘worthlessness’ of that theology to the marketplace are positive goods to be welcomed by Christians seeking to live out their lives as witnesses to God’s redemptive mission toward all creation” (236-237). Worthless, but I have a feeling Fortress Press hopes to make some money selling Saler’s book?
Although I wish Saler would have gotten more constructive in his constructive chapter, I admit that most dissertations leave that portion of their work weak, and perhaps on purpose, because the focus of dissertation writing is more on the historical inquiry and research, the assembly of resources to make a new argument, so the argument itself is the main constructive work rather than the proposals that emerge from it. In this sense, Saler’s conclusion is apt, and inspiring: “In the near future, it will be important for other ecclesiologists to follow suit with similarly critical assessments of how the ‘marketplace’ of academic theology can and can’t host ‘worthless’ truth telling” (238).
Or this: “Like all ecclesial codifications, denominations as entities are under holy threat by the unpredictability of the church event, and for that threat they should be profoundly grateful” (233). So my last question: Can a published dissertation be a church event?
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