Despite it being one of the most contentious issues in the history of Christianity, Christian penitents find a common voice on repentance/penitence in the Tradition and they do so with a healthy respect for pluralism. This is the fruit of dialogue and a real appreciation for contextualized theology. Such a consensus reflects hermeneutical sensitivity and an honest look at the reality of the Christian life. The eighteen biblical scholars, theologians, and church historians from various Christian traditions who first came together to discuss the issue of repentance/penitence in Christian theology at the 2003 AAR/SBL meeting surely did not know what to expect. They came with the intention of sharing their insights with one another for the sake of the common and greater good of Christianity. Yet until they actually immersed themselves in the conversation – and really engaged each other’s traditions and ways of seeing, understanding and appropriating the meaning and practice of repentance – the extent of their contributions to the theological enterprise remained an empty promise. It came as no surprise to me to read the open and humble acknowledgement by many of these authors that they came away from the overall project having gained far more than they expected from the enterprise. Their humble engagement of the texts, traditions, and very own selves makes the work even more solid, both academically and pastorally. As such, Repentance in Christian Theology should prove to be a wonderful resource for further reflection on the Christian faith life, both in the academy and in the churches.
Indeed, the conversation will not stop with the publication of this book, for there is too much substance for a single read. To ponder and to assimilate, to contextualize and to personalize, yes, to even confess, this is how I envision the continuation of the conversation. There is enough substance here to do all of this and more and to do so with very diverse participants in mind, as the book is flexible enough to address and challenge a diverse learning community. Scholars and non-scholars alike will be challenged, regardless of where they happen to be in terms of their experiences and understandings of Christian initiation. The potential of the book is great in this regard. This is due in large extent to its being the work of many people from different scholarly backgrounds and faith traditions. The opportunity to choose the engagement of a single essay or an entire section lends to the book’s flexibility.
In terms of outline, the book includes a very fine introduction by Mark J. Boda entitled “Creating Space for a Theological Conversation.” Following the introduction are four sections and a conclusion. In section one, entitled “Canonical Texts,” each of the seven authors discusses the theme of repentance/penitence in light of a part of the canonical Scriptures, e.g., the Torah, the Former Prophets, the Latter Prophets, the Writings, the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, the Johannine Writings, or the Epistles. The methods used and the sensitivities expressed in each essay vary according to the author, which in and of itself offers a great opportunity for a study of hermeneutics. Both diachronic and synchronic methods are employed in this section of the book.
In section two, entitled “Historical Perspectives,” we hear from two new voices. The first author is given the task of articulating the theologies and practices of repentance/penitence in early Christianity. She does so drawing on both Eastern and Western sources. The second author addresses private confession in the German reformation. Contrary to popular belief, Luther does not denounce the practice of private confession. As the author, Ronald K. Rittgers, notes, “Protestants can confess!”
Section three, entitled “Theological Traditions,” appropriately follows the first two sections in its engagement of the various traditions built upon the Scriptures, the history of the early Church or the Reformed tradition. In this section, another seven authors tackle the constellation of issues that form and inform the theology and practice of repentance/penitence in the following traditions: Eastern Orthodoxy; Roman Catholicism; The Reformers, Luther, Calvin and Bucer; Evangelicalism; Pentecostalism; Middle Eastern Perspectives and Expressions; and African/African American Christian Spirituality.
In section four, entitled “Reflection,” Walter Brueggemann and Marva J. Dawn are given the task of reflecting on the book as a whole. In his essay, “The Summons to New Life: A Reflection,” Brueggemann assumes the challenging task of making sense of repentance/penitence in the whole of the Christian tradition, as least insofar as it is discussed in the preceding essays. He does so with his fine and usual fervor. I found his summary point about the various tensions at work in the traditions most helpful. For example, there is a tension between a corporate and an individual focus in repentance/penitence and between a sacramental rite and the very real expectation that one’s repentance/penitence will be reflected in a change of conduct. Likewise, there is a tension that exists between the work of divine grace and the human factor of responsibility and between nurture and discipline, that is, between the care of the nurturing pastor for the already sorrowful penitent and the disciplined practice and witness to the church and world at large.
The tensions Brueggemann sighted were clearly present in the essays and throughout the book. I especially appreciated the fact that all of the authors, though in varying ways and degrees, agreed that Christian repentance is a complex reality.
In her essay, Dawn reflects on the implications of the authors’ findings in particular for liturgical practices. I especially appreciated her communal emphasis and sensitivities to the working of divine grace in the life of the repentant/penitent, her focus on God’s redeeming grace more than on the human experience of repentance itself, albeit a graced one, her appreciation for the suffering Christ still in our midst, her question as to whether our liturgies truly acknowledge the depth of our waywardness and, hence, our repentance, and her attention to the essential virtue of humility.
Concluding the work, Gordon T. Smith, in his “The Jolly Penitent: Religious Leadership and the Practice of Confession,” admirably leaves this reader with more joy than one might expect in a book on repentance. He means to do so, for as the book portrays, repentance is not really about looking back at the wrongs we have done as much as it is about looking forward in hope for the realization of God’s Kingdom, indeed, for the joy-filled coming of God.