Vermittlungstheologie

July 28, 2014

Schleiermacher stamp

German “mediating theology” — or Vermittlungstheologie for the nerds among us — was an important movement in the theology of the 19th century. Given its great diversity, it is probably best to not call it a “movement,” which recalls the same difficulties with labeling dialectical theology as a movement in the following century. Nonetheless, the general context and purported aims do give some unity.

The Vermittlungstheologen were working in the wake of Schleiermacher’s noble project of rethinking Christian dogmatics for the modern man, with his acute awareness of historical contingency and the subjective conditions for knowledge. The “mediating theologians” agreed that we cannot pretend the Enlightenment never happened, and thus they agreed that Schleiermacher was an important figure for the responsible theologian. But they disagreed, with Schleiermacher and with each other, on precisely how the church should navigate her way forward. They sought to mediate between the confessional Protestant theology of the past and the critical philosophy of the present, while also responding to the skepticism of figures like David Strauss in biblical studies.

Among the Vermittlungstheologen, probably the greatest name is Isaak Dorner in systematic theology. While this is a Protestant movement by and large, similar happenings can be found in Catholic circles. Johann Adam Möhler at Tübingen and John Henry Newman in England both sought to rearticulate Catholic orthodoxy in the wake of Romanticism and Historicism of the 19th century. Newman’s thesis on the development of doctrine is a perfect example of recognizing historical contingency within doctrinal formulation, and his moral epistemology in Grammar of Assent is a brilliant display of an aesthetic mind grappling with “modern” doubt.

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German Roots

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.”

Here are the reviews, all of which are available free:

James D. Bratt (Calvin College)

Zachary Purvis (Regent’s Park College, Oxford)

Daniel Ritchie (Queen’s University, Belfast)

Newbigin

Lesslie Newbigin accepted the reality of pluralism — without accepting, as Lamin Sanneh expresses it, the “modern historical consciousness” that contextualizes and relativises all religious claims, subsuming them under the all-encompassing category of power. Under the pretense of tolerance, religion loses — as does genuine pluralism.

Lamin Sanneh (Yale Divinity School) provides one of the most incisive accounts that I have read of Newbigin’s work and lifelong project to rethink Christian exclusivity within pluralist societies:

…It is not true that all roads lead to the peak of the same mountain. Some roads are false short cuts, and even if they do not lead over the precipice, they leave people self-centredly entangled. For Christians, the ultimate clue, the rock of ages, is Jesus, the one God chose to honour and to glorify the divine name, and who has gone before them in honour and faithfulness.

Newbigin makes the point with some force that religious pluralism, in the sense of competing truth claims as well as of simple numerical multiplicity, does not exclude claims of absolute uniqueness. Without some sense of objective truth people will become totally imprisoned in subjective relativism. Religion can become relativist only by turning into an ideology, in which case tolerance will become a relative value as mere expedience. There would be no independent basis for it. That is why truth claims are not convertible currency that give people personal advantage; they are not a question of will power, à la Nietzsche: you want in this case a liberating creed, so you produce the sacrosanct truth of the infallibility of revolutionary relativism and smash your way to victory by gutting truth claims, any or all of them. Will power can only produce a wilful world based on power. Its truth claim leaves no room for difference or variety, or for openness and tolerance.

The point about pluralism reducing theology into ideology is really the key to the whole thing. And now my favorite part:

To assume [pluralism] is to settle for a beguiling notion that to concede truth to the other side somehow represents an advance on mutual tolerance when in fact it only triggers an unintended domino effect: the fall of Christian uniqueness would be followed in turn by the fall of all the other claims of uniqueness. Fewer generalisations would be possible until all religions are excluded — a most unsatisfactory state of affairs in which the generalisation of exclusion, not pluralism, would be left ascendant.

[Mission in the 21st Century, eds. Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross; Orbis Books, 2008, pp. 140-141]

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Image: Lesslie Newbigin (source)

Here is another photo from my recent vacation to California:

Golden Gate Bridge Kevin

Click to enlarge. We stumbled upon this incredible view of the bridge, away from the tourists.

Thomistic Personalism

July 15, 2014

Are Thomism and Personalism compatible?

Peter Kreeft (Boston College) delivers an engaging and winsome affirmative answer in his presentation at the Center for Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas:

At one point in the lecture, Kreeft provides ten objections to the synthesis, among which I want to highlight is his response to the first objection (at the 50′ mark):

Objection 1: There is no need for a further synthesis. Thomism is complete.

The reply is that no philosophical system in this world is complete and that Thomism does not claim to be a complete system. It is a system, but it is an open system — not a closed one, like that of modern rationalists. It is essentially a dialogue with all philosophies. That is manifested in the very form of the summa article, which is a systematized dialog, and in the fact that Aquinas almost always answers objections — not by simple denials but by distinctions and tries to affirm and preserve the true aspect of every objection.

Second, Thomism is not incompatible with further synthesis, because Thomism is itself a synthesis: of Plato and Aristotle, of theology and philosophy. In fact, Thomas is history’s greatest synthesizer — rivaled only by Hegel….

There are many gems in this lecture, and I highly recommend it to one and all. By the way, Professor Kreeft’s annotated edition of Pascal’s Pensées — Christianity for Modern Pagans — was one of the most formative books I read as an undergraduate student.

With the vacation last week and several commitments over the next few weeks, the blogging here will continue to be slow — probably until August. In the meantime, I may pass along the occasional article of interest, like so:

“What Killed the Romantic Comedy?” by Rachel Lu (University of St. Thomas)

Back from California!

July 9, 2014

So, I have been away for the past week on a family vacation to Northern California — my brother, myself, and the parents. It was the first time I have ever been to the west coast. We started with Yosemite National Park, then the wine country (Sonoma Valley), and then San Francisco. The temperature change was ridiculous! The weather was in the 100’s in Yosemite, then the 80’s in Sonoma, and then 50’s/low-60’s in San Francisco! The wind chill was in the forties! It’s July! My brother quoted Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” As beautiful as San Francisco is, I am far too acclimated to weather in Dixie to ever live in SF, unless I could acquire one of the endless number of gorgeous houses that line every street. There is a reason why SF is the most expensive city in America.

In San Francisco, we went through Haight-Ashbury. I was a bit disappointed. I wore my General Lee t-shirt (Dukes of Hazzard), and I didn’t receive even a mild rebuke! Seriously, I expect more gusto from the liberals on Haight Street. Oh well. They did have a huge rainbow flag waving.

Here are some of my pictures (click to enlarge):

Yosemite. Huge rocks are everywhere!

Yosemite, near lower falls. Huge rocks are everywhere!

Trees growing out of rocks!

Olmsted Point in Yosemite. Trees growing out of rocks!

Tunnel View in Yosemite. Half Dome is the farthest. El Capitan is on the left -- the largest rock face in the world.

Tunnel View in Yosemite. Half Dome is the farthest. El Capitan is on the left — the largest rock face in the world.

Glacier Point. Half Dome is on the right.

Glacier Point. Half Dome is on the right.

My brother next to a Giant Sequoia tree-- the largest living organism in the world!

My brother next to a Giant Sequoia tree– the largest living organism in the world!

Yosemite Chapel. Erected in 1879 by the California State Sunday School Association. It is still operating as a nondenom evangelical church, with tracts quoting John 3:16 and asking, "What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be."

Yosemite Chapel. Erected in 1879 by the California State Sunday School Association. It is still operating as a nondenom evangelical church, with tracts quoting John 3:16 and asking, “What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be.”

Franciscan Mission in Sonoma. Founded in 1823 -- the northernmost Franciscan mission.

Franciscan Mission in Sonoma. Founded in 1823 — the northernmost Franciscan mission.

Random street in San Francisco. Nearly every house is like this!

Random street in San Francisco. Nearly every house is like this!

Golden Gate Bridge. The fog never lifted.

Golden Gate Bridge. The fog never lifted.

Another random street.

Another random street.

Old Saint Mary's Church in Chinatown. The only structure to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Old Saint Mary’s Church in Chinatown. The only structure to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Outside of a coffee shop. St. Ignatius Catholic Church is in the background.

Outside of a coffee shop. St. Ignatius Catholic Church is in the background.