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)

8 Responses to “Vermittlungstheologie”

  1. I agree that we can’t pretend the Enlightenment didn’t happen, but it seems to me that all too often that means that we grant every assumption made by the Enlightenmen.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, and that is what I perceive among those today who are attempting to revive Schleiermacher, including “radical” Barthians against Barth. This is a longstanding complaint of mine: I am not impressed by the vast majority of what is happening in theology today, regardless of where on the conservative-liberal spectrum. There was enormous promise in the 1940’s to early 60’s, both Protestant and Catholic, and then everyone lost their marbles!

      Theology is, to be blunt, remarkably pathetic right now.

      • I very much agree about the poor state of theology today – specifically, I think Protestant dogmatics is in an especially sorry state, unfortunately. I wonder if some comparisons might be made between modern Prot dogmatics and late scholasticism, now that I think of it.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Hmm, yes, that would make an interesting comparison — especially 18th century scholasticism.

    • Andrew said

      There’s also the temptation to refiy the Enlightenment into something and a something that happened; and as such a something that is either accepted or rejected. It’s on this basis that we grant, or don’t, every assumption made.

      • That’s a good point. Interesting how that perspective seems to be pretty much the default way of thinking.

      • Kevin Davis said

        The reification that makes the Enlightenment an all or nothing, take it or leave it, proposition is especially true for “presuppositional” apologetics, at least from what I’ve seen — with its counterpart on the opposite side: the new atheist apologists.

  2. Andrew said

    Yes, that’s my sense too.

    In my view, one can’t be glad to live in the modern world and take the leave it approach to, what’s called, the Enlightenment. At least it’s this realisation that ended my temptation to reify it. Of course, the alternative is to say Christianity is responsible for everything good about modernity and then throw everything you don’t like into the Enlightenment bucket, as far too many conservative Protestant genealogies of modernity seem to do.

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