May 4, 2015
“The Protestant Reformation was a major rupture in Western history, rather than some murky transitional era,” according to Yale professor, Carlos Eire. “The great ontological difference between the physical and spiritual realms — upheld by Protestants, especially in the Reformed tradition — drove a wedge between matter and spirit.”
In the following lecture (embedded below) at Gordon College, Professor Eire argues that “in the sixteenth century, something very odd happened, which was that suddenly some Christians started to argue that miracles, such as the ones that are told about in the New Testament, could no longer happen, but in fact that they had ceased to happen when the last apostle died.” That was a theological novum in the history of the church. By contrast, the Roman Catholic world experienced a boom in miraculous accounts, in continuity with the early and medieval church.
Professor Eire wants to extend and modify Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism desacralized the world, resulting in the secularization of the West. Weber was limited to “magic and superstition.” He did not account for the radical way in which reality was reconceived in theological terms by Protestants, where the divine-world relationship was given an altered metaphysical landscape in contrast to the Christian past. A continuing emphasis in Eire’s academic work is that historians have underestimated the role of theology and belief, in favor of political and social forces (e.g., “class struggle”). He does not discount the latter, of course, but he is taking seriously the theological commitments and their ramifications for social change, which is in fact closer to the self-perception of the major players who were initiating the changes (e.g., Calvin).
Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. He is the author of War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge University Press, 1989), From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and A Brief History of Eternity (Princeton University Press, 2011). His most popular book is his award-winning memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press, 2003).
The image above, of St. Bernard of Clairvaux receiving milk from the breast of Mary, is referenced by Professor Eire in the lecture. Image source: Taylor Marshall
February 25, 2015
“A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1734) is one of Jonathan Edwards’ most important sermons. Therein, Edwards is beginning to formulate his understanding of “religious affections,” culminating in his famous treatment of the topic in 1746. To give you a time frame for reference, his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God was published in 1737 on the basis of the revival in his congregation at Northampton in 1734. So, this sermon was delivered in the same year as the “Great Awakening” made its way to Northampton.
The following is the first of a two-part analysis of the sermon. You can find the sermon in the Yale anthology of his writings. I own this volume, but it is stored away somewhere in a box. So I had to use the online edition without pagination. The text for the sermon is Matthew 16:17.
In Matthew 16:17, Jesus pronounces Peter as blessed for his confession of faith. He alone rightly recognized Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). This was not a revelation of “flesh and blood” but of the “Father in heaven.” In other words, God revealed this to Peter, not as a revelation derived from the material and limited nature of creation. This was not a particularly clever insight of Peter. It was a “revelation” or “unveiling” from God himself, and as such it was a gift. It is the nature of this gift of faith that Jonathan Edwards aims to discern in his sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” delivered in 1734. The sermon reveals some of the distinctive aspects of its time and place. While it is surely an expository sermon, committed to the faithful exposition of the passage, it is also oriented to the currents of the time, both receiving and influencing these currents.
In the early eighteenth century, Protestant divinity was the recipient of the Reformation heritage, with its subsequent scholastic development and impressive coherence. This doctrinal heritage was challenged mightily by the currents of Enlightenment thought, most famously pronounced by Descartes’ “subjective turn.” No longer was external authority a sufficient means to our knowledge of God and the world. The authority had to be ratified within. There was a crisis of certainty, which is to say, a crisis of knowledge. John Locke would distinguish between opinion and certainty, wherein the latter can only ever amount to “degrees” of certainty and that only upon a subjective foundation and apprehension. And the criterion for all Enlightenment thinkers was reason, together joined with the incontrovertible evidence of sense experience. The result is “natural” religion, with its noble quality of ratiocinative integrity. As John Tillotson stated it, “Nothing ought to be received as a revelation from God which plainly contradicts the principles of natural religion.” Interestingly, Jonathan Edwards agrees with the “subjective turn” in his own way. Truth is received and verified within, and this verification is capable of articulation. The difference is that God, for Edwards, is both the author and the criterion of this truth, when it concerns matters of God’s own self-disclosure. This displaces man and man’s reason as the criterion, while maintaining the “realm” of man’s subjectivity as the location in which God is operative and graciously present. In this way, Edwards is able to maintain the Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation within an anthropological rendering of our subjective apprehension of this God. He is, at once, an heir of the Reformation and an heir of the Enlightenment. And perhaps Pietism, with its experiential basis for doctrinal reception, is the synthesis of the two. Edwards is all three.
As he exposits Matthew 16:17, Edwards is keen to emphasize that Peter’s knowledge is “above any that flesh and blood can reveal,” because it is “too high and excellent to be communicated by such means as other knowledge is.” Our knowledge of God is categorically distinct from other knowledge. The “otherness” of this knowledge derives from the fact that God “reveals it…not making use of any intermediate natural causes, as he does in other knowledge.” Lacking such intermediate means, this knowledge is “immediately imparted to the soul by God.” In contrast to the “natural man,” those who receive this saving faith are given the “light” to apprehend the truth of God, and this light gives life. It is an “indwelling vital principle,” such that God indwells man and “takes him for his temple, actuates and influences him as a new supernatural principle of life and action.” The Holy Spirit abides within the saints, “exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties.”
For Edwards, the assent of faith is never a merely intellectual calculation and conclusion. While our faith involves the intellect, in its full analytical rigor, it is true faith insofar as it is birthed by the new life of God within our hearts. Edwards has a number of ways to express this existential reality: “the sense of the heart: as when there is a sense of the beauty, amiableness, or sweetness of a thing; so that the heart is sensible of pleasure and delight in the presence of the idea of it.” In this one sentence, we have several of Edwards’ favorite terms: heart, beauty, sweetness, pleasure, and delight. The significance here is that Edwards is utilizing aesthetic categories within a moral framework. Herein, the individual’s will is operative upon the conditions of an aesthetic “divine excellency,” to use one of Edwards’ favorite expressions. In other words, as Edwards states it, “There arises from this sense of divine excellency of things contained in the word of God, a conviction of the truth and reality of them….” The “conviction” follows upon the “sense.” Our assent is a consequence of our aesthetic perception and reception of God’s splendor.
This “spiritual light” does not produce any new doctrine, for that would be the gift of inspiration. Rather, the light allows us to apprehend and receive the truths of the word of God, already given. The objective referent is the truths of Scripture and the Gospel revealed therein. Edwards is offering an account of how our subjective disposition is made capable of receiving this truth. The important point here is that Edwards is not orienting our subjectivity back upon itself, as if the “sweetness” or “delight” was the object of faith. The feelings are the medium or the means, not the end. Edwards is preserving epistemological realism, even as he challenges an Enlightenment aridity that elevated the rational at the expense of the moral and aesthetic. For Edwards, the rational is never alone, never without the moral and aesthetic, which would make him a Platonist, broadly speaking. In this way, Edwards is also anticipating 19th century Romanticism, but without retreating into subjective affectivity as an end in-itself, which cheapens truth and elicits sentimentality in one’s piety.
 As Locke states, “A man cannot conceive himself capable of a greater certainty than to know that a given idea in his mind is such as he perceives it to be.” An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chapter 2.
 The Works of the Most Reverend Dr. John Tillotson (London: Goodwin, Tooke, and Pemberton, 1714), 225.
 All citations from Edwards are from “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (www.ccel.org/e/edwards/sermons/supernatural_light.html). No pagination.
 The transcendentals of Platonism (Goodness, Truth, Beauty) are convertible with one another: the good is always beautiful and true, the truth is always good and beautiful, and the beautiful is always good and true. And yet, they are not identical with each other: for example, Edwards writes, “It is out of reason’s province to perceive the beauty of loveliness of any thing: such a perception does not belong to that faculty. Reason’s work is to perceive truth and not excellency.”
January 5, 2015
Henry Sloane Coffin is one of the most delightful writers that I have ever read, similar to George Buttrick. There is something about that generation. In the excerpt below, Coffin offers an illustration for our knowledge of God, using “great authors” as an analogy for God’s self-disclosure. In Coffin’s day, personalism was a favorite means to articulate the Christian faith. Emil Brunner was perhaps its greatest exponent in systematic theology.
To know God — what a presumptuous statement! In what sense is it possible? Knowledge of anything depends upon some fitness in us to the object to be known. The same vibrations of ether are to the skin heat, and to the eye light. The same vibrations of the air are to the body an imperceptible tremor and to the ear sound. We have to develop the organ which equips us to interpret anything and to understand it. And this is emphatically so of our knowledge of persons. An English critic some years ago said: “To understand some writers we must change our planet and wait patiently till we are acclimatized.” Great authors as a rule have to educate a public to appreciate them, and often they wait years, perhaps until they themselves are dead, to be prized and understood. We can all think of books that meant nothing to us once. We wondered why anyone praised them. But we have since grown up to them, and have come back to them with eagerness. Life’s experiences have developed in us the capacities to interpret what was once lost upon us. It is often said that no hero is a hero to his valet. That is not because the hero is no hero, but because the valet is a valet.
[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 58-59.]
As with any analogy, it can be criticized. God is not just a very eloquent novelist, waiting for our maturation. There is a necessary dialectical otherness that is missing, but that is the risk of all analogies.
As some of you may remember, I blogged an excerpt from Coffin previously: “Faith Without Apologetics.”
Image: Reformation Bible College
November 29, 2014
I have previously blogged one of my favorite Q/A’s from Karl Barth’s Table Talk:
Here is another favorite of mine, about the conversation between theology and “the world”:
Student: What is the relation of the Church to the world, with its science and philosophy? Why is dogmatics necessary for fruitful contact and conversation?
Barth: You speak of conversation, but what does this mean? Conversation takes place when one party has something new and interesting to say to the other. Only then is conversation an event. One must say something engaging and original, something with an element of mystery. The Church must sound strange to the world if it is not to be dull. The Church’s language has its own presuppositions. The Gospel is good news, news that is not known. Even we Christians will find ourselves in conflict with the Gospel, for it is always news and new for us too. The secularized Church is peaceful, but not a light in the world. The Church must be salt and light, but in order to be these, it must clarify its presuppositions. Thus the necessity of dogmatics! Even philosophers will not listen to a theologian who makes concessions, who is half-philosopher himself. But when you ring the bell of the Gospel, philosophers will listen! For the past two centuries most theologians have been cowards, and the result was that the philosophers despised them. There is no reason for theologians to be afraid. We may read philosophers (and we should!) without accepting their presuppositions. We may listen respectfully (I have a holy respect for a good philosopher!). We can learn much from philosophy and science. But as theologians we must be obedient to the Word.
[Karl Barth’s Table Talk, ed. John Godsey, p. 19. Originally published by John Knox Press in 1963.]
September 15, 2014
It is worth highlighting and further commenting on, as I called it, “the most ridiculous moment” in God’s Not Dead. As a reminder, here is the description in my review:
After this heated exchange between Josh and the professor, each student begins to stand, one by one, declaring, “God’s not dead.” (Think of Dead Poets Society and all the students declaring, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”) Over and over, “God’s not dead. God’s not dead.” Eventually the entire class is standing. Remember, this is the same class that wrote, “God is dead,” with their signatures just a few weeks prior. Josh is so persuasive that he wins over the entire class!
This is the coup d’etat for Josh. He has just delivered his final blow to the professor. Standing victorious, Josh watches the class rise in an emotionally-gripping declaration of their belief in God. Martin, a student from China, is the first to stand. Earlier in the film, he informs his father back home that he was being persuaded by arguments for God’s existence, much to his father’s displeasure (commie atheist bastard that he is, of course, because only stereotypes exist in this evangelical fantasy world). Apparently Martin was not alone, as we see every student in the class rise after him, determined and defiant with their newfound faith in God.
That should strike you as profoundly disturbing. Josh has converted the entire class. How? By proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ? No. By preaching repentance and forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ? Nope. By mentioning at least something vague about Jesus Christ, the promise of redemption, the hope of glory, or any of the sort? No again. The message of the film is clear. You don’t need Jesus or the Holy Spirit to convert a classroom of students to belief in God. Reason alone is a sufficient bridge from unbelief to belief. No “foolishness” to the Greeks here. Sorry, Paul. “God is alive,” and you don’t even need to change your heart of stone to a heart of flesh.
Josh has “put God on trial,” as he stated at the beginning, and God won! Whew, I’m glad that God has such great lawyers on his defense team. What would The Almighty do without them?
Switching topics. In the review, I talked about the one-dimensional characters and the filmmakers’ apparent inability to grapple with the complexities of human nature. In the comments, Robert has a sober reflection:
When contemporary Christians produce “art,” including and perhaps especially popular “art,” that so poorly reflects the truth of the human world around them, reducing it to caricature (and they do this very, very often), it inevitably supports the suspicion among perceptive non-believers that, since Christians are so badly out of touch with the truth about human reality, they are even less likely to be in touch with the truth about divine reality. It in fact produces the same suspicion in me, a Christian, about many other Christians, both the ones who produce this “art” and those who gleefully consume it. This is why it’s so embarrassing, and cringe-worthy.
Amen. The End of the Affair, this movie ain’t, and it is hard to imagine evangelicals today being capable of such.
September 12, 2014
A number of folks in our congregation asked me if I had seen God’s Not Dead, the recent evangelical film which chronicles the plight of a freshman in college who is challenged to defend his faith. I had not seen it. Until now. The film has been a sensation in the niche market of Christian films, preforming extraordinarily well at the box office. And if Amazon reviews are a reliable indicator, it is much beloved by a good many people — currently at over 2,000 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars. [UPDATE: 14,000+ reviews as of March 2016]
The scenario which God’s Not Dead attempts to portray is important. It is something which Christian parents and their children need to have open and honest dialogues. In this regard, I hope this film may generate some much needed discussion.
But this is not the film we need! My review will be highly negative, with only a few positive observations along the way.
The protagonist in our story is a newly arrived freshman on campus, Josh Wheaton. We know nothing about him except that he wears a Newsboys t-shirt and a cross necklace, which prompts a fellow student to warn him. About what? About the Philosophy 101 course on his schedule. The professor of the course is Dr. Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), who is well-known for his avowed atheism and open disdain for religion. The next scene is Josh’s first day of class with Professor Radisson.
The scene starts decently enough. Kevin Sorbo portrays the professor. It is an enjoyable performance. He is a charismatic and very confident professor of philosophy, who doesn’t skip a beat in his Richard Dawkins-esque monologue. This monologue is targeted against the primitive and infantile belief in a supreme being, who is now made obsolete by the advance of science. It’s a bit over the top, but that’s nothing compared to what happens next. The professor instructs the students to pull out a sheet of paper. Their first assignment is to write the words, “God is dead,” and then to sign their name underneath! Without any objections, the entire class obliges. It’s a large class of about 80 students, since this is a gen ed course. Yet the lone student who is struggling with writing, “God is dead,” is Josh. When the professor approaches Josh, he informs him that if he refuses to do the assignment, he will fail this portion of the class. Josh holds his ground, even while Professor Radisson mocks him mercilessly. The professor then gives Josh the option of defending his thesis that God is not dead — in front of the class during the next few sessions.
That’s how the movie begins. It’s ridiculous. It’s so painfully ridiculous that I was genuinely shocked and embarrassed as a Christian. The portrait of Professor Radisson is the fanciful product of an overactive evangelical imagination, an imagination too long steeped in fear. It’s a mockery of atheists and other skeptics, who have every justification to be angry at the film. It’s an exaggerated portrait, an unfair portrait, and an outright silly portrait. Philosophy professors do not require their students to sign a statement that God is dead. They would be reprimanded, and a sufficient number of students in the class would have refused — not just our protagonist. With the recent happenings at Cal State and Vanderbilt, there is not much that would shock me about the “benign guardianship” of our liberal elites. But this is dumb — nothing more than an obvious scare tactic in order to portray the professor as villainous as possible and Josh as the great martyr-hero. I was fully expecting Professor Radisson to next instruct the class to write 666 on their foreheads.
Afterwards, Josh is walking through the campus with his girlfriend, who is not happy that Josh is jeopardizing his grades and potentially ruining their future together, with him hoping to enter law school. She encourages him to just comply with the professor’s demands, to which Josh responds, “I feel like God wants someone to defend him.” And sure enough, Josh is the man to do it. He is given four different class sessions in order to make his case for the existence of God. During his first session, he tells the class that they are going to “look at the evidence” and “put God on trial.” Seriously. These are real quotes. Surprisingly, his first point is actually not too bad. He states that, against Aristotle’s belief in a “steady state” universe without beginning or end, both Genesis and the Big Bang indicate a beginning to the universe. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Big Bang and billions of years in a film geared toward an evangelical audience, where Young Earth Creationism still has its ardent proponents.
But everything else is downhill from here. With each session, Josh gains in confidence, though he was already rather confident from the beginning. You would never know that he was a freshman. The point, of course, is to show that our Christian hero is just as confident and capable as the evil professor. The problem is that he’s a college freshman, not a professor. The film encourages the completely unrealistic expectation that any Christian, after reading a few Josh McDowell or John Lennox books, can take on any professor. I can assure you, every Christian at every university can tell you that this is just plain stupid.
There are some bizarre moments, like when Professor Radisson tells Josh after class, “Do not humiliate me in front of my students,” which is followed by the threat, “If you continue with this charade, I will destroy any hope of you getting a law degree in the future.” Professor Radisson is a completely one-dimensional character, in a film with only one-dimensional characters. Everyone is stereotyped in an exaggerated manner. The good guys are really good, and the bad guys are really bad. The Christians are kind and thoughtful. The non-Christians are mean and flippant. This inability to deal with the complexities of the human personality is, frankly, amateurish and pathetic. If this is Christian artistry today, God help us. You would never know that we have Shakespeare and Tolkien in our heritage.
Worst Moment in Film History
I have not disclosed the most ridiculous moment in the movie. Here is the scene: During Josh’s fourth and final performance in front of the class, Professor Radisson engages with Josh in a tit-for-tat, where Josh comes across like a rock star lawyer. (Think of A Few Good Men with Cruise versus Nicholson.) Josh is blasting away about the immorality and meaninglessness of life without God, and the professor is responding from the Dawkins playbook about the “disease” of religion and so forth. It all culminates with Josh yelling at the professor, “Why do you hate God?!” Radisson responds, “Because he took everything from me,” in reference to the death of his mother when he was a child. “Yes, I hate God.” Josh deals the final blow, “How can you hate someone if he doesn’t exist?”
Booyah! You see what happened? The professor’s rejection of God is not about reason. It’s about emotions. It’s about the loss of his mother. Josh even declares that Radisson knows that the reasons are on Josh’s side. Atheism is not about reason. We’ve already seen how easily Josh has been able to demolish all of the rational objections. So it must be about something else. Emotions. Nevermind that this is exactly the same tactic that skeptics use against Christians. After this heated exchange between Josh and the professor, each student begins to stand, one by one, declaring, “God’s not dead.” (Think of Dead Poets Society and all the students declaring, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”) Over and over, “God’s not dead. God’s not dead.” Eventually the entire class is standing. Remember, this is the same class that wrote, “God is dead,” with their signatures just a few weeks prior. Josh is so persuasive that he wins over the entire class!
That, my friends, was the most ridiculous moment in the whole movie.
There are other characters in the film — various sub-narratives that lend support to the overarching narrative between Josh and Professor Radisson. We have Amy, a young and attractive journalist, highly ambitious and highly condescending toward Christians. She gets cancer, and when she reveals this to her equally driven boyfriend (played by Dean Cain), his response is callous beyond imagination (“This couldn’t wait until tomorrow?,” since he was celebrating his promotion) and he dumps her. Trisha LaFache plays Amy, and I thought she did a fine job. She lends a great deal of empathy to her character. Throughout her struggle, she is alone and afraid. Amy eventually comes to faith at the Newsboys concert at the end of the movie. Yep. Everything comes to a resolution at a Newsboys concert. Professor Radisson, while on his way to the Newsboys concert, gets hit by a car and, while he is dying on the street, the minister in the movie (who happened to be present at the intersection) shares the gospel message and Radisson finally relents and accepts Christ for his salvation. There is also a Muslim girl who is severely beaten by her father for secretly being a Christian (after her brother catches her listening to Franklin Graham sermons on her iPod). And there is Martin, a Chinese classmate of Josh who comes to faith after hearing his arguments in the class. And, finally, there is the minister, who actually has some solid practical wisdom in the film.
The film ends with Newsboys’ lead singer giving a shout-out, during the concert, to Josh. He praises him for “defending God’s honor” and “putting a smile on God’s face.” Before the rolling credits, we have an exhortation on the screen: “Join the movement. Text everyone you know. God’s not dead.”
That’s right. They will know us by our texts.
September 9, 2014
I recently wrote a post, “Faith Without Apologetics,” and I stand by every word! But I appreciate when an apologist offers some wise advice on how to talk with real people, which is not something I typically associate with my fellow systematic theology nerds.
Mary Jo Sharp teaches at Houston Baptist University, and here is a Question and Answer session with her:
She avoids, here at least, all of the facile maneuvers that have plagued apologetics, and she demonstrates an obvious depth of both warmth and intelligence. May she prosper in all things (3 John 1:2).
August 26, 2014
The defense of the faith (apologetics) along evidentiary or rational lines is not entirely without merit. It can serve a certain negative role, as in the way historical Jesus research can rule-out patently false postulates. To use Sarah Coakley’s examples,
Thus, for instance, if a self-proclaimed Christian believer avers that Jesus was not a Jew (a denial on which so much hung in the twentieth century), or if she insists that Jesus tells her that being obedient to him should rightly result in worldly influence and financial success (a supposition not absent from certain forms of twenty-first-century spirituality), we may appropriately object, not only on intra-Christian biblical ground, but also on historical grounds that this cannot be the same Jesus who lived and taught and walked about and was crucified in Palestine at a known period in the first century C.E.” (Seeking the Identity of Jesus, eds. Gaventa and Hays, p. 312)
Coakley is speaking to the broader usage and legitimacy of historical argumentation, not apologetics directly, but I believe the principle applies there as well. The purpose of her essay, which is brilliant, is to move past the exegetical impasse represented by the Bultmann/Käsemann debates of the 1950’s. But that is not the purpose of this post.
As with any basically competent student of Barth, I have spent considerable time negotiating the value of apologetics and the legitimacy of historical “foundations,” to the extent that is even allowed. Not happy with the metaphysical collapse into existentialism, the presumed last safeguard for Christian faith within much of twentieth-century theology (culminating at the popular level with the “death of God” controversy of the 1960’s — watch this documentary — and continuing today among self-styled radical/apocalyptic types), I am nonetheless convinced that theology is much better without apologetics on the front end. This pertains to the whole “freedom” and “joy” of theology, which are sure watchwords for an approaching Barthian!
Apologetics frequently belies an anxiety at the subjective level and a profound diminishment of God at the objective level. I have touched upon these matters in the past, in a piecemeal fashion, but I won’t argue the point at present, for the simple reason that I do not have the time. Let me just offer these reflections from Henry Sloane Coffin:
To us likewise the prophet [Isaiah] would say that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god whom we conceive in doctrines which we force ourselves to believe and which we struggle to safeguard, with whom we have fellowship in forms we must spur themselves to keep up, and whom we serve in duties our consciences strap on their reluctant backs, is a man-made idol, not the living and true Lord, of heaven and earth. Religion that is a load is not comradeship with the Most High God. Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you. The test by which one may discover whether he is dealing with an idol or with the living God is this: Do you feel yourself carrying your religion, or is it carrying you? Is it a weight or wings?
A Christian’s beliefs are not ideas which he compels his intellect to accept; they are convictions — ideas which grip and hold him. They seem to come with hands and arms and to grasp his reason; he is aware of being lifted and carried along by them. The Truth takes him off his feet, and he is conscious of resting on it, rather than on ground of his own choosing.
[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 8-9]
Beautiful. “Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you.”
July 28, 2014
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.
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:
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.