According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Nothing New Under the Sun:" 19th Century Theology v. Today's Late 20th Century Contemporary Theology

Finding roots and gems in old theologies
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/02/finding-roots-and-gems-in-old-theologies/

by Dr. Roger Olson
February 2, 2012

For the past month I’ve been immersed in nineteenth century theology: Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Ritschl, Hodge, Catholic Modernism (Blondel, Loisy, Tyrrell), Troeltsch, Dorner, Bushnell. It isn’t the first time, but this time I’m reading more primary texts and writing about these almost forgotten theologians.

One thing I’m finding confirmed is my long-standing opinion that there’s really nothing new in “contemporary theology.” That’s one reason I chose historical theology as my primary field of research and teaching. Every time I hear that there’s a “new thing” afoot in theology or church life or among Christians I easily find how it’s not really new at all!

For example, “relational theology” is all the rage now in certain theological circles. It’s a catch-all phrase for viewing God as affected by what happens in the world. It’s a reaction against strict classical theism that says God is simple substance, pure actuality with no potentiality, absolutely immutable, etc. Process theology is one form of it, but there are more “conservative” forms as well. (Open theism is a form of relationship theology.) I wish they would read Isaak August Dorner! In his three essays on divine immutability he completely overturned classical theism without denying God’s essential sameness through time. He made a strong distinction between God’s “ethical immutability” and God’s changing experience in relation to the world (which he regarded as an expression of his ethical character as love). Dorner clearly also influenced Barth’s doctrine of God as “He who loves in freedom.”

Dorner’s “progressive incarnation” idea struck me immediately as similar to, if not identical with, Norman Pittenger’s neo-Antiochian Christology in The Word Incarnate.

Bushnell’s idea of all language, and especially God-talk, as symbolic and metaphorical anticipates many postmodern ideas about language and theology. (Fortunately he did not take it to the extent that, say, Sallie McFague takes it.)

Troeltsch’s historicism foreshadows “religious pluralism” (e.g., John Hick). He even talked about an “Absolute” that transcends history and religious diversity that is very much like Hick’s “The Real.”

Catholic Modernism paved the way for the “Nouvelle Theologie” that created Vatican 2 and found expression in de Lebac, Rahner and von Balthasar. But even much of the Modernists thought was influenced by Newman, a previous Catholic thinker.

Kierkegaard, of course, sounds like all kinds of dialectical Christian thinkers from Barth to Peter Rollins!

When I was reading Hodge, of course, I almost thought I was reading Grudem or David Wells!

So to what conclusion does all this lead me? There are new ways of expressing old ideas, but most “new ideas” are, at core, recycled old ideas–repackaged, updated, sometimes reconstructed. But it’s very difficult to find anything truly new.

Did the nineteenth century see anything truly new come about in Christian theology?

Well, the whole idea of a “secret rapture” among fundamentalists is totally new in about the 1830s. It first appeared in circles associated with Edward Irving, the pre-Pentecostal Presbyterian preacher in Great Britain. (That was meant somewhat tongue-in-cheek as most believers in the “secret rapture” think true believers have always believed it!)

Sure, there were some new developments in theology in the nineteenth century, most of them not particularly helpful (because they were somehow related to modernity–as accommodation to, or over reaction against, it). Schleiermacher’s idea of religion as “the feeling of utter dependence” was relatively new, although it stood on the shoulders of Pietism and Romanticism. Dorner’s idea of progressive incarnation seems new even if it parallels Nestorianism.

But what’ s really new in twentieth century or twenty-first century theology? The God-is-dead movement (that is still alive with certain radical postmodern theologians)? Perhaps. But, of course, that was heavily dependent on Nietzsche, Hegel, Feuerbach and Blake!

Show me something claimed to be “new” in twentieth or twenty-first century theology and I’ll show you its roots in nineteenth century (or earlier) theology. Now, maybe that’s a good thing. I’m sure many would say it is. I’m not making a value judgment here. I’m just being descriptive. My point is that perhaps we need to go back and rediscover nineteenth century theology; at the very least it will help us understand and put contemporary theology in perspective.



31 Responses to Finding roots and gems in old theologies

*as always, comments, highlighting, etc, are mine own observations! - res

  1. Joe Canner says:
    How would you characterize recent efforts (Peter Enns, for example) to re-evaluate in a more reasonable way the historical and archaeological findings that led to radical criticism and attempts to eviscerate the Scriptures? For me, it has been a very refreshing development (even if not entire novel) that we can look at the implications of these findings carefully without having to to throw out Scripture, and without having to reject the evidence out of hand because of an a priori commitment to strict inerrancy.
    • rogereolson says:
      Horace Bushnell, allegedly the “father of American liberal theology,” was opposed to “radical biblical criticism” even though he didn’t believe in inerrancy. There were voices raised against radical biblical criticism (e.g., Baur and Strauss) when it first raised its head and ever since. I doubt anything new is being said now, although perhaps some new archeological discoveries are relevant to the contemporary discussion that weren’t available a century ago or more. The problem with radical biblical criticism (e.g., Bultmann’s) is its presuppositions. Bushnell pointed that our over a century ago. He was a supernaturalist and accused the radical critics of operating out of an anti-supernatural world view.
      • Robert says:
        I’ve started to read Sparks’s “God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Biblical Criticism.” One of the arguments he makes is that, although there are indeed certain aspects of “liberal” biblical criticism that are driven or constrained by naturalistic assumptions, this is not always the case and is too often used as a convenient ad hominem argument to dismiss biblical criticism.

      • Basically, if you take a broad brush and say that the conclusions of biblical criticism are all (mostly, etc.) simply artifacts of naturalistic assumptions, then you can dismiss such criticism out of hand as being nothing more than materialistic naturalistic bias. That’s the same basic argument against evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory [sic, Darwinism/Scientific Naturalism - res] is nothing but an artifact and outgrowth of (atheistic, materialistic, naturalistic) assumptions, and that if you set aside those assumptions, then evolutionary theory (biblical criticism) is nothing but a shaky house of cards.

      • I’m not going to re-produce Sparks’s arguments. But his basic thesis is that this often is simply not true and not intellectually honest. Many biblical critical conclusions are based on the same basic methodology that shapes other historiographical work and which has been used to, e.g., successfully decipher various “dead” languages. And if you take the time to work through those arguments to their conclusions, it requires considerable interpretive heroics (special pleading) to explain them away.

      • Again, I’ll leave it for Sparks to advance those arguments in detail, b/c I’ve not mastered them myself. But I found him pretty credible and compelling, at least as far as I’ve gotten.
        • rogereolson says:
          I think there are two types of higher criticism of the Bible–those based on naturalistic assumptions (e.g., Bultmann and Perrin) and those not based on naturalistic assumptions. The problem is, it’s harder to come up with names of those practitioners of higher criticism (form, redaction, etc.) who explicitly hold a supernatural worldview.
  2. ME says:
    I’ve read a lot of Kierkegaard, and love it. Besides Barth, what 20th or 21st century theologians have been strongly influenced by the great Dane?
    • rogereolson says:
      Many! Brunner, of course. Reinhold Niebuhr, Rudolf Bultmann, every existentialist theologian is at least indirectly influenced by K. About a year ago I was reading a lot of John Caputo and recognizing the influence of K. all over the place in his writing even though Derrida is his muse. I’d say Peter Rollins is influenced by K. I’d say K. is one of two or three most influential Christian thinkers of the modern world.

      • ME says:
        Thanks! I don’t think I’ve read any of those you mentioned, but, from the very little I do know I have a negative opinion of Niebuhr (strongly negative!) and Derrida. K wrote with “two hands” so to say. I love most the things he wrote from the ideally Christian point of view and suspect Niebuhr and Derrida were more influenced by what K wrote with his “other” hand. Just an uninformed guess, though.
  3. Robert says:
    I think it’s a good thing :-) If you think about, e.g., salvation, you have inclusivism, restrictivism, universalism. I mean, as an example, what else is left that isn’t in some respect derivative?
  4. Brian says:
    Hello, it’s interesting to see how the hottest “new” trends in theology aren’t so new. Now my question deviates a little from your article, but I am pretty sure that all “new” forms of heresies (with a capital “H”) have their roots set in early heresies. Now, my question is, is it possible for new heresies (with a capital “H) to just pop up? If this isn’t the case, is heresy (with a capital “H”) defined only by the early church’s creeds? (For example, the Nicene Creed) Or is it actually possible for new heresies (ones that the early church may not have addressed) to pop up onto the theological scene?
    • rogereolson says:
      I guess I’d have to hear an example to decide. But I can’t think of any new ones; they all seem to be new versions of old ones. Now, if we step outside of Christianity, of course there are lot of invented religions–religions simply invented by entrepreneurs. In virtually ever case, they are just new, eclectic expressions of old traditions such as gnosticism. Don’t ask me to name any; some of them have batteries of lawyers that sue people who mention them in a negative way. But they’re pretty easy to spot.
  5. Sean says:
    Funny–I’m presently reading Schleiermacher (TCF) for the first and last time in my life. While there is an occasional gem (or at least shiny stone) amidst the mounds of problems and the work explains a lot of what happens later–my goodness, is his prose ever impenetrable! (And I say that as someone who enjoys reading Barth’s CD as a morning devotional!) It makes me wonder how much his recognition as brilliant is actually deserved or if people concluded that simply because he’s so difficult.
    • rogereolson says:
      Yes, he’s difficult to read. No doubt about it. But he’s worth wrestling with just because of his influence on later theology.
  6. Holdon says:
    “Well, the whole idea of a “secret rapture” among fundamentalists is totally new in about the 1830s. It first appeared in circles associated with Edward Irving, the pre-Pentecostal Presbyterian preacher in Great Britain.” That it first appeared in Irving circles is a myth, not historical. And that it was totally new has been debated as well. But “new” has various meanings, so you could be right. It was never really a secret since Paul wrote: “I don’t want you to be ignorant brethren….” .
    • rogereolson says:
      I stopped believing in the “secret rapture” when I studied Paul’s eschatology closely for myself. There’s not even a hint of it there. As for how and when belief in it arose, read The Incredible Cover-Up by Dave MacPherson.
      • Holdon says:
        “As for how and when belief in it arose, read The Incredible Cover-Up by Dave MacPherson.” I suspected as much, that you would rely on that source. But it isn’t a good source. Nor was his’ a “new” discovery. Something similar was uttered a long time ago and refuted then as well. See: http://stempublishing.com/authors/kelly/7subjcts/rapture.html. Paul never said that the rapture would be “secret”. He plainly told the Thessalonians that he didn’t want them to be ignorant and then explained the rapture. I don’t know who came up with calling it a “secret” rapture. I suspect it came rather from the opponents as the proponents allude to them calling it such in the 19th century.
        • rogereolson says:
          I didn’t say MacPherson’s discovery was “new,” did I? But I am convinced by it. As a historical theologian, I cannot find any reference to a pre-tribulation rapture, secret or not, before the originating events MacPherson talks about. Can you? Name a Christian biblical scholar or theologian before the 1830s who believed in such. I do not know of any. The issue isn’t “secret” or not; the issue is “pre-trib” or not. However, all the people I know who write about a pre-tribulation rapture describe it in ways that could rightly be called “secret” meaning Jesus does not appear to everyone in that event.
  7. What are the historical roots of liberation theology?
    • rogereolson says:
      I find “the preferential option for the poor” for in Rauschenbusch’s writings. And the there were the Zealots and the Fraticelli and Thomas Muntzer and many groups throughout Jewish and Christian history that advocated and practiced revolution against injustice and oppression.
  1. Bev Mitchell says:
    What is really new in the last 100 years is our understanding of the nature of the biological and physical world, along with phenomenal advances in our understanding of the facts of history and archaeology. All these new discoveries have their various interpretors, of course, but the mountain of new facts is enormous – major truths have come to light and they are very different from what was known in the past. Many of these new truths have yet to find there way into general evangelical thought and theology/interpretation of Scripture. If we hold to the idea that theology is faith seeking understanding, which I take it means starting with a solid faith and then considering all truth as from God, and considering it seriously, there is much work to be done.
    Fortunately, many are hard at work on this front. Unfortunately, many evangelical leaders, inside and outside the academy, prefer to spend their time ignoring or severly criticizing this work – or re-dissecting/defending age- old positions with little reference to modern advances. As you say, there is little new when one considers the scope of theological positions taken through the centuries.
  2. What is very new is the good fruit yielded by recent secular studies that can be used to support/elaborate various of those positions that were once more speculative. Even in working together, generally creed-afirming Christians reveal a reluctance to be as cohesive as they should be. Consider the following, four multi-authored books. While the scope is very broad, they are all very Christian works and strongly related at various levels. Yet, there is practically no overlap among the 67 authors.
    The Work of Love: Creation as KenosisJohn Polkinghorne ed. 2001
    11 authors
    The Bible Tells Me SoRichard P. Thompson and Thomas Jay Oord eds. 2011
    32 authors
    The Art of Reading ScriptureEllen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays eds. 2003
    13 authors
    Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s BibleMarcus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance eds. 2008
    11 authors
    • rogereolson says:
      The sheer amount of theology being written and published these days is staggering. Who can keep up? Yet, as I approach books like these I’m prone to think I won’t find anything all that new in them (except new packaging and new evidence). The basic theological views and arguments seem to be recycled.
  3. Rob says:
    Question. At what point would you say that theologians in the U.S. and Britain stopped reading the contemporary philosophy of their own language? 19th century? 20th century? Seems as though many of the ones you mention were well-read in the 19th century German philosophy and that their theology is unintelligible apart from it.
    • rogereolson says:
      To be sure, Germany became the “Mecca” for theologians from all over the world, probably beginning in the early 19th century [sic, thus the need to be able to read German b/c of all the literature being produced at that time! Theology for today requires one to be able to read English to keep up with current trends. - res]. All American and British theologians who could traveled to Germany (and later Switzerland) to hear Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Tholuck, then Barth, et al. I’m not sure that Hodge was all that influenced by German theology; he traveled in Germany and met leading German theologians and heard them lecture, but he was more influenced by Reid than by them. Bushnell was mainly influenced by Coleridge. Without doubt, however, German language philosophy and theology has led the way in modern theology (for better worse).
  4. DRT says:
    Buddy Jesus is new :)
    • rogereolson says:
      I’m not sure about that. The language may be new, but think about Zinzendorf’s talk about Jesus as “our little lambkin” (and friend).
  5. Bev Mitchell says:
    I need to become a better proof reader – “find their way” not “find there way” – sigh!
  6. Fred Smith says:
    Your reading of the 19th Century is a bit “one-sided”–diverse as these theologians were they were very much in the “classical liberal” wing of 19th Century theology. Important work was done by such men as John L. Dagg, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Charles G. Finney, A. A. Hodge and Augustus H. Strong, to name a few. Many of these were Calvinists, but not all (but then, Calvinism was a leading intellectual movement in the 19th century). Every one of them had an influence on the life of the churches, often across denominational lines, at least as much so as the classical liberal theologians on your reading list.
    • rogereolson says:
      Especially the conservatives you mention would deny introducing any new ideas. In fact, at the celebration of Hodge’s 50th anniversary of teaching at Princeton he famously declared that during that time no new ideas had been taught at Princeton. Finney? Even his “New Measures” were anticipated by Whitefield and Wesley and certainly by the revivalists of the Cane Ridge Revival. But my main point was that contemporary (late 20th century/early 21st century) theology doesn’t seem to have anything new to offer. My point was that today’s “trends” in theology seem to bed recycled from the 19th century. Also, I included some non-liberals in my list of 19th century theologians. Dorner was not a liberal.
  7. Matt W says:
    Donald Bloesch had an intersting idea in his volume on the Church in his Christian Foundations series. He wrote that the emergence of sects and cults, and the emphasis of second order truths to first order status, is a result of the Church not fully living up to her high calling in a holistic sense. In other words, where there is a deficiency in the life and thought of the Church, the tendency is to overcompensate with some ‘new’ movement or ‘new’ school of theological thought.
    • rogereolson says:
      Bloesch was a good Pietist (in the best sense of the word). He tought that spiritual vitality was first and doctrine second (without in any way making doctrine unimportant). His early books on evangelicalism modeled for me what it means to be “generously orthodox.”