August 7, 2020

Robert Capon on the “Baseball Game” Image of Scripture

14951231.JPGNo single book anywhere by anyone has had 1/100th the positive effect on my life as Robert Capon’s The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect Through a History of Images. I have no idea what it will do for you, but it was the ingredient that turned a whole lot of dull this and that into an incredible Cajun gumbo of Gospel goodness for me. (That one was for you Fr. Capon.)

Capon’s book is a tour of, first, scripture, and secondly, church history. The history portion is outstanding. The section on scripture is still rocking my theological stadium. It’s implications for my reading, teaching and preaching of the Bible are profound.

I’m going to give you one of Capon’s images from his discussion of how all of scripture works together. The analogy- one of my favorites- is a baseball game. (Apologies to those allergic to sport’s analogies.)

Capon loves to “play” with ideas in the Bible and theology. It’s one of the reasons he’s so much fun to read. He’s aware that his playful method takes him into some places we all won’t choose to go, and even into places that he doesn’t plan to stay. His goal isn’t to write a stodgy, scary book of dogmatics. He wants to motivate you toward living and discovering the grace of God. Well….when his goal isn’t to make you so angry you start shouting at the book, as in the truly dangerous Between Noon and Three.

Those of you planning to raise lengthy Triabloguesque objections over Capon’s doubts about Pauline authorship of Colossians and Ephesians should know that I’m with you, but the fact that Capon might not be on board doesn’t make any real difference to me. Plenty of good scholars have authorship questions about various Biblical books. Whatever brushes with heresy you might have riding around with Capon will be worth the resulting insights.

So let’s visit the ball park:

The Bible is not a collection of essays by independent theologians; it’s one, long, theological ball game. True enough, the successive pitchers (The Old Testament Prophets, Jesus, Peter, Paul, the writers of Colossians, Ephesians and John’s Gospel) were talented participants in the game- and each of them deserves the closest attention to what he himself said. There’s nothing wrong with taking them one by one and trying to discover the historical Jesus, or the real meaning of Paul, or the essence of John. But from the point of view of the Manager of the team, none of that is central to the outcome of the game as his own management: his bringing Paul in to rescue Jesus from Peter and the Jerusalem church; his calling of Mark, Luke and Matthew from the bullpen to supply what Paul omitted; and his use of the authors of Colossians, Ephesians and John to finish what Paul started. In short, you have to read the New Testament as a team performance. The tag line to remember is “The Gospels were written for the sake of the [Pauline] epistles.” The game’s final score can’t be known until all the players have had their innings. All of the Gospel-writing (possibly even in Mark and certainly in Luke, Matthew and John) has to be dated after Paul’s death in 64: those books are commentary on Paul, not prefaces to his work. And in the case of John, his Gospel comes so late that it can be read as the last word on nearly all of the New Testament. (pp. 58-59)

Capon then goes on an excursion through Colossians, Ephesians and the Gospel of John. As he closes the chapter, another brilliant image.

Perhaps that will do, though; let me return to the image of the ball game one last time. What John has done, in effect, is turn our full attention to a player I haven’t said a thing about until now. I’ve spent this entire chapter on the pitchers of the church’s early games (starters, middle relievers, closers) and on the Divine Manager, the Holy Spirit, who was calling the pitches at every point. But do you realize who actually runs a baseball game on the field? Of course you do: it’s the catcher. He’s the one who takes the signals from the manager and relays them to whoever happens to be on the mound at the time. A pitcher, of course, may shake off the catcher’s signs now and then; but if he doesn’t finally give one of them the nod, he’ll be out of work in short order. (There’s a lesson in all of this for all the church’s subsequent pitchers, preachers and theologians especially including; but I’ll leave you to figure out that one for yourself.)

So who, then, is the catcher? In John, it’s Jesus himself, out there with his church on the field of play. It was the Divine Catcher who gave us the first sign to Saul on the road to Damascus; and it’s the Person of the Word Incarnate who’s been calling the game in the world ever since Adam. But it’s in John that we finally see the Catcher as the Manager’s Vicar in the world- or even the Owner’s Vicar, if you want to include his references to Jesus and the Father. At last, the “I am” at the center of our being stands forth as the only one from whom we”re supposed to take our signals. (pp. 74-75)


  1. For me, it was probably his Between Noon & Three, and about that time I ws reading Willard’s Divine Conspiracy, as well as the Nwe Kind of Christian novels. All working together to make my head go POOF 🙂 in a good way.

  2. What a brilliant image! I was first introduced to Capon through “Bed and Board,” his book on marriage from the 60’s. It’s good to see the old man’s still around, and still writing brilliantly.

  3. I’m not sure why Capon’s writings would inspire any new sense of discovery on the one hand or a leap to get out the “heretic” paintbrush on the other. Unless, of course, those being inspired or painting have just emerged into theology in the last 20 years. Capon is only a repackaged version of neo-orthodoxy…albeit much more entertaining than the theologs of Yale, Harvard and their ilk in the late 60s. His insistence on functional Universalism permanently marginalizes his theology and writings. Having said that, there are very few more writers on Scriptural themes that can entertain and twist logic as well as he.

  4. This might be splitting hairs, but isn’t Capon’s analogy backwards? If I were forced to make the analogy (to me it just doesn’t work), I would say that Christ is the “Divine Manager” who calls the pitches, etc. Christ is the One on the throne, the Administrator, the Executor of the New Covenant. The Holy Spirit is not the Manager, but the equivalent of Capon’s catcher. The catcher is “the one who takes the signals from the manager and relays them to whoever happens to be on the mound at the time.” I would think that the Spirit who indwells the believer (and who thus allows Christ to indwell the believer through His agency) is the one receiving signals from the Manager (Christ). When Christ in the Gospel of John promises the Spirit as another Comforter, doesn’t He indicate that He (Christ) will communicate to the Spirit who will then communicate to the disciples?