Kairos/Conversation One: Commentary by Norman Faramelli

Commentary on “The Prophetic Theology of James Luther Adams” by George Kimmich Beach

Reply by GK Beach

“Response to Beach on Adams’s Prophetic Theology”

by Norman Faramelli [Bio]
Norm Faramelli

It is clear throughout this essay that Beach has a profound grasp of the thought of James Luther Adams (JLA). We are grateful and indebted to Beach for his excellent writings on JLA and for his compiling and editing of JLA’s works.

    I was pleased to see the quote from Ephesians at the top. It is a vivid reminder that a prophetic theology must engage demonic forces not only in individuals but in the culture and in the institutions in society.

        This response to Beach will address the influences on JLA, the main issues noted by Beach in the text, and the importance and relevance of JLA for doing social ethics and prophetic theology today.


        Beach correctly cites Troeltsch, Tillich, and Whitehead as key influences on JLA. Tillich’s Yes and No to culture is very significant where the prophetic and the mystical are in a dialectical tension.. Troeltsch , who influenced Tillich, viewed religion as an independent variable but always in tension with the cultural social, economic and political spheres. (Troeltsch realized that no absolute claims can be made by any religion based on historical realities.) For him, religion and culture are in a dialectical relationship demanding both with a Yes and a No to culture. Whitehead’s process philosophy can be seen in JLA’s interest in novelty, persuasion and association—and faith in a creative reality that is re-creative. 

    I would, however, add a fourth influence- his friend and mentor–Rudolf Otto.  Otto’s idea of the Holy and his view of eschatology most likely influenced JLA’s understanding of transcendence and prophetic theology. (Beach does cite Otto in a footnote,) —–That transcendence was absolutely critical to the biblical prophets who said NO to the idols and false gods. The biblical prophets disrupted the status quo. They issued calls for repentance, judgment and in most cases, restoration. It was the transcendent God who gave the prophets their center of value as they proclaimed the divine message. The prophetic task was and IS- not to predict the future,-but to discern the signs of the times.


       Beach’s section on radical laicism and prophethood of all believers is excellent as is his discussion of the covenantal aspects of JLA’s’ work.—I think, however,that the role of power is a key element in JLA’s prophetic theology and should be stressed.  Power gives us the capacity to influence as well as to be influenced. JLA reconceptualized power to be “power with” and not the traditional and dominating  “power over”. JLA was always critical of liberals who desired social change but were aghast at the role of power.

In his address at the inauguration of the Boston Theological institute, JLA spole of “Blessed are the Powerful'”.   He said:

“The authenticity of power is determined by the ends it serves and the means it uses. The truly powerful are those who serve large purposes and can accomplish them. This kind of fulfillment requires power with, not power  over; it requires love.”

     No theologian/ethicist has affirmed the need for and ethical importance of voluntary associations more than JLA.  For JLA the voluntary association (beyond business, government and other civic institutions)  is a mediating structure in society based on free association.  JLA saw the need for these entities to maintain covenantal bonds and to form power centers which become expressions of “power with”.  In societies where there are no such associations, individual freedom can become vulnerable to the forces of coercion from the dominant institutions. These dominant institutions can become faceless collectives with vast concentrations of economic and political power. 

       For JLA, the voluntary association is an entity that protects against the twin evils of atomistic individualism on the one hand and faceless collectivism on the other.  For him, the voluntary associations play a critical role as centers of social creativity, places where the prophetic critique can address injustice and social sin.  JLA viewed the voluntary association to be indispensable for the preservation of a free society.. From a religious standpoint, voluntary associations are related to the biblical covenant between God and the people.  —JLA used to say  “By their groups you shall know ahem”. This emphasis on a covenantal theme is rooted in JLA’s nurture of fellowship and intentional community.. (Note: JLA knew that some voluntary associations can be really bad and destructive.)


Yes. we should treat JLA as an important historical figure. Although true, that alone shortchanges his legacy which is vital for doing social ethics and prophetic theology today.  Let me offer a few examples:

  1. In my long lifetime, I cannot remember a time when we needed to understand and appreciate what it means to live in a democratic society. JLA’s work on voluntary associations and covenantal bonds still has much to say to contemporary issues such as the preservation and enhancement of democratic order.
  2. Throughout his life and in his writings, JLA played a key role in advancing human rights. Unfortunately, white racism and white supremacy are still very much alive and well. JLA’s life and work bear strong witness for racial justice, as he wanted to respect the dignity of every human being, not just some. He was often seen as the “smiling prophet” who respected all people including those with whom he disagreed. There is a religiously based humanism in JLA.  He once said:
    “The Church is a place where we get to practice what it means to be human”.—-Yes, JLA”s life and work provide key insights in our struggle for racial justice.
  3. JLA’s experiences in Nazi Germany (in the 1930’s)  can assist us in understanding how authoritarian and totalitarian regimes find their roots, and then develop into full blown power centers. His work provides insights into how antisemitism blossomed in Nazi Germany.

     Today antisemitism is on the rise globally on the political Right and in some cases on the Left–on the Right the chant of “Jews will not replace us” rings out with increasing volume, and inadvertently on the Left because of its severe criticism of the state of Israel..  

    JLA also offers some key insights on issues that he did not squarely address in his lifetime–such as the environmental crisis and globalism.

(a)  Most of JLA’s work was done during a time when his theological contemporaries saw a sharp division between history and nature. Nevertheless, JLA, like Tillich, always had a deep appreciation of the natural order. That was related to their Yes and No to the world. Unlike those in the Nature vs. History school (Barthians and some Neo-orthodox theologians),  JLA and Tillich saw the divine manifested in nature. 

     JLA’s view of social ethics was comprehensive ; he had no difficulty in dealing with the “big picture”. He was able to bring that “big picture” approach as he engaged specific issues.  That “big picture” approach will assist us in addressing issues such as climate justice and environmental destruction. 

    Like Troeltsch and Tillich, JLA provided a comprehensive social ethic–the “big picture” approach. In an age of specialization this type of comprehensive ethic is often pushed aside in favor of particular approaches such as gender ethics, bioethics, sexual ethics, etc. This “big picture” approach might seem outdated, but I believe it is sorely needed today.

(b) To my knowledge, JLA did not deal directly with the issue of globalism. One of his students, Max Stackhouse, did use the “big picture” approach to deal with globalism. I think there are insights in JLA’s work that can amplify Stackhouse’s efforts and even result in a different assessment of globalism.

   JLA’s ability to weave the classical with the contemporary was a gift that few of us have.  We can, however, learn and follow his guidance and example.  He offers both a strong Yes and strong No to Culture depending on the occasion.    

   One more thing.—The Yes and No approach is not without its problems. For instance, it is much easier to embrace a solid Yes or a solid No than to embrace both Yes and No. I recall a discussion with Stanley Hauerwas who is skeptical of the Church engaging the world. He said:

“Every time the Church tries to change the world the world changes the Church”.

There is some truth to that.-JLA was acutely aware that the liberal Churches saying Yes to the world often resulted in their being swallowed up by the world—a cautionary tale. Yet the greater danger is to think that religion can be isolated completely from the world.

  There can also be a sharp flip-flop from a solid No to a solid Yes. See, for example, how some fundamentalists who for a longtime embraced a solid No flipped to a solid Yes and are now embracing a Christian nationalism where the access to political power becomes as important as the Gospel message. 

    It is true that the both Yes and No approach can be difficult to maintain, but it is essential that we do so. JLA’s prophetic theology requires both. It requires an appreciation of the gifts of the natural and social order (such as the arts and literature)–to see the divine manifested in the world. When things go askance, however, a strong No is required, where divine judgment is real-the role of prophet.

     JLA’s prophetic theology offers a comprehensive social ethic- a “big picture” approach. with both a YES and NO to culture.  As we recognize the dialectic between religion and society, JLA’s contributions will be invaluable as we work to build “the prophethood of all believers.”

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