The significance of German theology

Weimar's Courtyard of the Muses - Theobald von Oer

Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism is full of wonderful moments of insight and careful scrutiny. I can hardly believe that he was only 25 years old when he delivered it as a lecture in 1844, soon after his move to America from Berlin. Even at this early period in his scholarship, his mastery of both history and dogmatics is well on display. This would later find expression in his massive work within patristics and church history, which are consulted to this day.

His admiration for the German theology in which he was trained is balanced by an appropriate caution. He knows the pitfalls well, but he refuses to find refuge in either a subjectivism or objectivism, as he terms them. He is opposed to rationalism but also to its counterpart in sectarianism, his label for a degenerate pietism. Both are rooted in a false subjective freedom: respectively, “theoretic subjectivism” and “practical subjectivism.” And he is equally opposed to a false objectivism, whether of the Roman Catholic (or Oxford Movement) sort or the repristinated Protestant sort. This is most fully developed in part two (p. 125ff). It is easy to see affinities with Karl Barth from the following century.

Thus, it is characteristic to find Schaff both appreciative and critical of Schleiermacher and Hegel, and he has a particular admiration for the mediating theologies of Karl Immanuel Nitzsch and Isaak August Dorner, among others. To give you a taste, Schaff defends the significance of German theology with great energy:

But the proper home of Protestant theology is Germany, and hence we may say that those who refuse to take account of German theology, set themselves in fact against the progress of Protestantism. The land which gave birth to the Reformation stands pledged by that movement itself not to rest till the great work shall have been made complete, when the revelation of God in Christ shall be apprehended in full and the contents of faith shall be reduced to such form as to carry with them also the clearest evidence and most incontrovertible certainty in the way of knowledge. We wish not to depreciate in the least the merits acquired in former times, by the Dutch and the English in particular, in the way of biblical study — critical, exegetical, and antiquarian. The German is always disposed rather to put an undue value on what is foreign, and has long since appropriated the results of these investigations and worked them into the process of his own cultivation. But what is all this beside the gigantic creations of German theology! All its heresies cannot destroy my respect for it. In England and America one learns first to prize it according to its true worth. It must not be forgotten that even the German rationalism, worthy of all reprobation as it is, gives evidence, at least in its better forms, of an extraordinary scientific energy and a deep interest in the investigation of truth, from which we are authorized to draw a favorable conclusion on the opposite side. For only an archangel can become a devil. As England and America would not have been able at all to produce so fearful an enemy of Christianity as David Friedrich Strauss, so must they have been much less able to meet him with a proper refutation; and I shudder at times to think of the desolation his writings must occasion, if they should come to be much read — which may God prevent — in this country. It must be borne in mind also on the other side that there is a species of orthodoxy, by no means rare, which rests upon the foundation of mere convenience or intellectual indolence, or the lowest motive possibly of self-interest, and is consequently no whit better, yea by reason of such hypocrisy in its constitution is even much worse, than open and honest unbelief.

And most interestingly, he continues by comparing the developments in German theology with that of the early church, in her quest for doctrinal clarity amidst false paths exposed by heresies:

If we look into church history, we shall be still less disturbed in our estimate of German theology by the heretical elements that belong to it, since they must appear to us only as negative conditions of a new doctrinal conquest. Thus the full determination and clear, close definition of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the relation of the two natures in Christ, as exhibited to us in the ecumenical councils, were conditioned throughout by a succession of heresies in the direction of these articles. The Pelagian error must serve, in the hand of God, to unfold and establish more profoundly, through Augustine, the doctrine of divine grace and human liberty. At the Reformation also heretical tendencies, Socinianism, Anabaptism, antinomianism, and so on, come into view; as in a period of such vast excitement was to be expected. They wrought with salutary force on the development of orthodox Protestantism, making it necessary for it to understand more clearly its own commission, to discriminate more closely its proper sphere, and to fortify itself against unauthorized consequences and various misapprehensions of its true character.

[The Principle of Protestantism, trans. John W. Nevin, pp. 202-203]

If you enjoyed that, you may also be interested in Schaff’s survey of German universities and theologians, published in 1857: Germany: Its Universities, Theology, and Religion.

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Image: “Weimar’s Courtyard of the Muses” by Theobald von Oer

4 comments

    • Yeah, I would not have lumped Anabaptism with the heresies. Perhaps he is concerned about a “docetic ecclesiology,” to borrow from Barth. He doesn’t elaborate.

      • Well, some of the early Anabaptists at the Reformation were heretics, and violent. Remember Munster, or was it Munzter?

  1. […] This morning I happened to read a few reviews of Annette Aubert’s book, The German Roots of Nineteenth Century American Theology (Oxford, 2013). Aubert argues that the influence of German theology, and Vermittlungstheologie in particular, has been neglected in studies of American theology of the 19th century. She uses Charles Hodge and Emanuel Vogel Gerhart as her test cases, representative of those who expressed their theology in considerable dialogue with German mediating theology. In Hodge’s case, it is a sharply pronounced rejection, whereas Gerhart is favorable, along with his better known colleague at Mercersburg Seminary, Philip Schaff. In regard to Schaff, see my post, “On the Significance of German Theology.” […]

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