Modernity has been an age of revolutions—political, scientific, industrial and the philosophical. Consequently, it has also been an age of revolutions in theology, as Christians attempt to make sense of their faith in light of the cultural upheavals around them, what Walter Lippman once called the "acids of modernity." Modern theology is the result of this struggle to think responsibly about God within the modern cultural ethos.
In this major revision and expansion of the classic 20th Century Theology(1992), co-authored with Stanley J. Grenz, Roger Olson widens the scope of the story to include a fuller account of modernity, more material on the nineteenth century, and an engagement with postmodernity. More importantly, the entire narrative is now recast in terms of how theologians have accommodated or rejected the Enlightenment and scientific revolutions.
With that question in mind, Olson guides us on the epic journey of modern theology, from the liberal "reconstruction" of theology that originated with Friedrich Schleiermacher, to the post-liberal and postmodern "deconstruction" of modern theology that continues today. The Journey of Modern Theology is vintage Olson: eminently readable, panoramic in scope, at once original and balanced, and marked throughout by a passionate concern for the church's faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This will no doubt become another standard text in historical theology.
The Acids of Modernity and Christian Theology
by Scot McKnight
Aug 22, 2014
Modern theology is theology done in the context of modernity, which means, in the context of what happened to thinking and culture as a result of the Enlightenment. Modern theology is often a code expression for “liberal” theology, and many ways that might be right. But Roger Olson, in his big book The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction, [has] massively updated [a] book he co-wrote with Stanley Grenz (called Twentieth Century Theology, 1992), spends less time thinking about “liberal” and far more about “modern.”
To get what he’s doing we have to understand what “modernity” is, what one famous American thinker called the “acids” of modernity?
The "acids of modernity..."
- Walter Lippmann' 1929 essay "A Preface to Morals"
"Corrosion is an apt metaphor for the effects of overblown
certainty, legalism, inerrancy, and the insistence on
surely knowing everything. It can eat you alive."
Olson highlights seven features of modernity, each of which has stronger and weaker forms, so that one must have nuances all over the place if one wishes to be intelligent about this kind of subject. I have spent some of the last year reading about liberal theology, and I see Roger’s book as the best sketch of the big picture we have available today.
So, what is modernity?
1. Rationalism: the omnicompetence of autonomous human reason.
2. Skepticism: an anti-posture toward tradition, especially Christian religious traditions, as beliefs not based on reason.
3. Scientism/naturalism: a belief in the scientific method, on the indubitable realities of the empirical world in contrast to beliefs, and in a worldview that is shaped by naturalism.
4. Secularism: life can be lived best without God and religion. Religion belongs in the private, personal sphere of life.
5. Historicism: everything in history is causally related to other historical events.
6. Optimism: modernity, when lived well, leads to inevitable progress in overcoming misery.
7. Anthropocentrism: humans are at the center of knowing and the center of the universe.
(8.) These elements, when pursued, enable us to pursue progress in society and culture.
Many major modernistic voices — e.g., Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson — have contended that modernity’s march would trod religion, especially Christianity, under foot and it will disappear but Christianity, paradoxically, has flourished in a worldview of modernity.
Modern theology traces how various theologians have accommodated to modernity’s central features. Some have capitulated; many have reacted under the control of modernity. So there is a spectrum from capitulation and subversion all the way to robust reframings of the tradition in more modernistic categories (many would say that is what American Protestant fundamentalism was/is).
Where do you place “progressive Christianity” in this discussion?
Join me in purchasing this book and reading it over the next few weeks.
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Baylor Historical Theologian Roger Olson