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Historical Theology

From 1750 until today.

Introduction to Historical Theology – The Modern Period (c. 1750-Present Day)
By Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

The Modern Period (c. 1750-Present Day)
Short Study: The Quest for the historical Jesus
Short Study: The Basis and Nature of Salvation, the debate over the Resurrection, the debate over the Trinity, and the debate over the Church
Short Study: The Attributes of God in Process Theology
Short Study: The Feminist Critique of Transition Christian Theology
Short Study: Christian Approaches to other Religions in Contemporary Theology
Short Study: Theological Method in the Modern Period

The Modern Period, 1750-Present Day

During the later part of the fifteenth century, Christianity became a European religion and went through some rather disturbing changes. John Locke (c. 1689-1692) wrote Letters Concerning Toleration arguing for religious toleration. Here individualism over community and church appeared. From Europe, between 1627 and 1640, some 4,000 individuals migrated to the new world. A time of “great revival” began to immerge which moved theology from the community to the individual. The first signs of revival were noticed there in 1727 by Theodore Freylinghausen, a Dutch pastor ministering in New Jersey. In the winter of 1734-1735 the Northampton church experienced revival under the last great Calvinist mind Jonathan Edwards (Calvinists would not emerge with preaching power again until the 1800’s and Princeton Theology with Charles Hodge and A.A. Hodge). Edwards wrote A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God which drew international attention and went through 20 editions. George Whitefield (c. 1714-1770) at this time came to America and undertook a preaching tour of the colonies. Crowds of up to 8,000 people are said to have come to hear him preach at any regular time.

This shift toward revivalism had a lasting impact on Christianity. It established the role of wandering preachers, it undermined the authority of the clergy, the foundations of mass popular culture was laid, and a revolt occurred in the colonies that triggered the American Revolution.

While the American colonies were in a theological paradigm shift, the French Revolution also took place. In 1789 the foundations of the social structure in France was shaken. The church and the monarchy were opposed to one another, and needed reform. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790) rejected the authority of the Pope. A revolutionary faction gained power and Louis XVI was publicly guillotined on January 21, 1793. A program of dechristianization was put into place during the period of 1793-1794 and the cult of the Goddess Reason was given official sanction. In 1814 Louis XVIII returned to claim the throne and established Catholicism again as the national religion. Writers such as Denus Diderot (c. 1713-1784), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (c. 1712-1778) and Voltaire (1694-1778) had an impact on philosophy and religion. Then, the period of 1815-1848 undertook some revivalist tendencies. All this gave way to the period known as the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment passed into circulation at the close of the nineteenth century. It is a loose term that seems to deny a precise definition, and embraced a cluster of ideas and attitudes characteristic of the period from 1720-1780. Reason was placed on an intellectual pillar that could destroy the old myths that bound the mind. The term “The Age of Reason” is really a misnomer in terms of the actual thought process of the Enlightenment. Many anti-rational movements came about during this time. The term rationalism should also be cautioned as a help to the idea of the Enlightenment. Rationalism teaches that the mind and reason alone can make sense of ultimate reality without some divine revelation (such as the Bible). Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, may be regarded as an attempt to synthesize the insights of pure rationalism. It marks the time that the rationalistic tendencies of the Enlightenment came to a close (the early period ending about 1781). It is here that Protestant theology, instead of rebutting the Enlightenment, as a whole, came closer to accept many of its misguided notions.

The Enlightenment criticism of traditional Christianity was based on the principle of the omniscience of human reason. Christianity was rational, therefore many, like Locke, thought it could be deduced simply from reason alone. The enlightenment doubted the possibility of miracles as seen in Hume’s Essay on Miracles (1748). Diderot also disbelieved the resurrection, which really was a continuing influence of skepticism on Enlightenment “thinking.” The Enlightenment was set against the notion of a divine revelation intruding into history. Nor did it accept original sin (which is greatly important for the revivalist tendencies later to emerge under Charles Finney). The problem of evil demonstrated to most Enlightenment thinkers that Christianity was false. It called into question the importance of the divine inerrant and infallible Word of God. This in turn called into question the identity and significance of Jesus Christ and turned his atonement into a moral theory of someone to follow, not something to be imputed to wicked men who were alienated from God.

After the Enlightenment there were a number of theological movements that evolved. F.D.E. Schleiermacher propagated Romanticism, Karl Barth Neo-orthodoxy, and Paul Tillich Liberal Protestantism, as well as seeing the rise of Marxism, Modernism, Feminism, Post modernism, Black Theology, and various Liberation theologies across the globe.

Romanticism is notoriously difficult to define. The movement is perhaps best seen as a reaction against certain themes of the Enlightenment, most notably the idea that human reason alone could dictate ultimate reality. As John Keats said, “I am certain of nothing except the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination.” This was a movement of feeling and sentiment. Though the movement did not undermine Christianity, it did have affects on it, such as the Pietistic movement which relied on feeling and sentiments rather than Scripture.

Marxism, propagated by Karl Marx (c. 1818-1883) was one of the most significant worldviews to impact Christianity for the worse. The concept of materialism is foundational to Marxism. The world consists in only matter, and the way human beings respond to material needs is all that matters. This is hopelessly atheistic, and philosophically impossible to set as a belief system that remains coherent. Unfortunately, many have followed Marx because of his materialistic viewpoints and the rise of Communism. Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto in 1848, and this pressed ”workers of the world to unite.” Only the material world exists and people have a hand in making the community in which they live better for the whole. Human beings, then, to raise themselves out of mundane despair, resort to the creation of religion. The Russian Revolution, just after World War I gave Marxism its hold on humanity the political structure of the day. It was strengthened by the military in the Soviet Union and the political destabilization that occurred. Latin American theology, as will be seen, draws from Marx’s ideas and is where Marx has done the most harm to Christian thought.

Liberal Protestantism is one of the most important movements within modern Christian thought. This movement gave way to atheistic ideas such as Darwin’s evolutionary theory. A number of Christian beliefs, then, came to be regarded as seriously out of line with modern cultural norms. These beliefs were abandoned, or liberal theologians reinterpreted them. This can be seen in the writings of men like Albrecht Ritschl that simply saw the Kingdom of God as ethical values for culture. Many writers such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Neibhur in North America regarded liberal Protestantism as based upon an optimistic view of human nature. Paul Tillich wanted to see a correlation between theology and culture, culture obviously giving the foundation and structure of what is to be believed. The gospel must speak to culture, thus, as culture changes, so does the Gospel. Liberalism places weight on the notion of universal human religious experience. It places emphasis on transient cultural relationships, and surrenders Christian theology at the expense of changing times.

Modernism is used to refer to a school of Roman Catholic Theologians operating toward the end of the nineteenth century which adopted a critical and skeptical attitude to traditional Christian doctrines. The sense of feeling was coming to the forefront. Relativistic tendencies were being born as a system of “thought.” Maurice Blondel (c. 1861-1949) regarded that the supernatural was part of everyday life and that all were in touch with it. Henri Bergson (c. 1859-1941) stressed the importance of intuition over intellect. Alfred Loisy (c. 1857-1940) was a critic of traditional views of the Bible and George Tyrrell (c. 1861-1909) followed him stressing a critique of Adolph von Harnack’s Christianity at the Crossroads. One cannot reconstruct the historical Jesus – something Harnack was attempting to do – rather, they must interface with spiritual reality that they deem important. Neo-orthodoxy under Karl Barth reacted against liberalism and taught that God was wholly other, and that one must take into account the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ and in Scripture. This seems all well and good until one studies what Barth meant by Scripture and self-revelation. They are not traditional viewpoints of either. There is a dialect which cannot be crossed – that of God and humanity. God is irrelevant since He is wholly other. This leads to extreme skepticism. Also, there are no recognized external reference points which neo-orthodoxy can be verified. For example, if God is wholly other, how could He interact with men to give them revelation that is meaningful? Nor does neo-orthodoxy have any helpful response to those who are attracted to other religions since God cannot really be known.

In Roman Catholic theology, the two most important theologians to come about during this time was Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) and Karl Rahner (1904-1984). Rahner thought that the sense of the transcendent (something which he felt was lost) could only be achieved by a recovery of the classics (such as Augustine and Aquinas). In 1994 the Roman Catholic Church represented a lucid summary of some of the major themes of the modern Roman Catholic thought in its Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is updated in light of the second Vatican council and represents the solidified thought of the Roman Church through the centuries.

Feminism had come to be a significant component of modern and western culture. It was a movement dedicated to the emancipation of women. The published writings of Simone de Beauvior (1945), Mary Daly (1963), and Carol Christ (1979) argued that women may find religious emancipation by recovering the ancient goddess religions (or inventing new ones) and abandoning Christianity altogether. They despised the male pronouns used in Scripture to depict God, rejected original sin, and blames Christology for being sexist.

Postmodernism has come to be known as a cultural sensibility without absolutes, fixed certainties, or foundations. It delights in pluralism, and divergence, and it aims to think through the radical “situatedness” of all human thought. Deconstructionist ideas are a primary aspect of this movement which teaches the critical method which virtually declares that the identity and intentions of the author of a text are irrelevant to the interpretation of the text. Therefore, before the interpretation is given, there is really no meaning to the text but what one brings to the text or reads from it. Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom and J. Hillis Miller are proponents of this view. Traditional and academic biblical interpretation is overthrown and systematization of information (theology) is hostile to the framework of postmodernism.

Black Theology is the movement seen throughout the United States during the 1960s-1970s. Joseph Washing in his Black Religion demonstrated the distinctive of black theology. He argued that Scripture was written by black Jews, and that Christ was black. He urged people to liberate themselves from white oppression. The movement made several decisive affirmations of its theological distinctions during 1969 where the Black Manifesto was issued. This movement gained momentum for the civil rights movement that left the churches and then entered the theological arenas of the seminars. Theology of this kind began to affect Latin American countries and liberation theology was born. The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrezin his Theology of Liberation (1971) characterized the movement as follows: Liberation theology is oriented toward the poor and oppressed. It involves critical reflection on practice. It is indebted to Marxist theories using “tools of social analysis” and uses the political program that Marx instituted to fight the oppression of the poor.

Evangelicalism dates from the sixteenth century, and was a term used of those who held to Reformation Theology. Today it refers to those who are liberally minded, who are ecumenical in their theological stance, and are inclusivistic of any who believe the basics of the Christian faith (which ultimately overthrows church government). Evangelicalism is transdenominational, not a denomination in and of itself, and has been an advocate of national affinity among denominational lines. Doctrinally Evangelicals hold to a reinterpretation of the concept of inerrancy that agrees with much of the higher criticism theories. This presses many of them to propagate the point that the teaching of Scripture is without error, not the actual text of Scripture. They also hold to Solo Scriptura (me and my Bible) rather than Sola Scriptura (the regula fide and Scripture). They also seem to continually have a fresh dialogue not only with ecumenical liberalism, but also other religious traditions.

Short Study: The Quest for the historical Jesus

The original “Quest of the Historical Jesus” was based upon the presupposition that there was a radical gulf between the historical figure of Jesus and the interpretation which the Christian church had placed on this. Classic statements of this theological view were given by men like Hermann Samuel Reimarus (c. 1694-1768) who wrote An Apology for the Rational Worshipper of God, and later by Gotthold Ephrain Lessing (c. 1729-1781) who was a significant representative of the German Enlightenment, noted strongly for his rationalist approach to Christian theology. Albert Schweitzer (c. 1875-1965) was a leading German Protestant Theologian who was noted particularly for his work on the historical Jesus, which led to a series of influential publications calling the validity and presupposition of the “quest of the historical Jesus” into question. In 1913 he gave up his theological career to undertake medical work in Africa.

The critique on the historical Jesus went through three main criticism 1) the apocalyptic critique – associated with Johannes Weiss (c. 1863-1914) and Schweitzer, which maintained the strong eschatological bias of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, 2) the skeptical critique of William Wrede (c. 1859-1906) which called into question the validity of the historical Jesus, and 3) the dogmatic movement with Martin Kahler (c. 1835-1912) who was a German Lutheran theologian with a particular concern for the theological aspects of New Testament criticism and interpretation. He was appointed to the chair of systematic theology at Halle in 1867. His most famous work is an essay of 1892 in which he subjected the theological assumptions of the “Life of Jesus Movement” to devastating criticism. Then came the retreat from history altogether by Rudolf Bultman (c. 1884-1976). Bultman was a German Lutheran writer who was appointed to the chair of theology at Marburg in 1921. He is chiefly noted for his program of “demythologization” of the New Testament, and his use of existential ideas in the exposition of the twentieth century meaning of the Gospel. For Bultman, it is only necessary “that” Jesus lived, not to interest one’s self in the actual historicity that cannot really be proven. In more recent days, the historical Jesus has come under attack by men like Ernst Kasemann and his lectures in October, 1953. There is a difference, he says, about the preaching of Jesus and the preaching about Jesus. Joachim Jeremias refuted Kasemann by defending that the basis of Christian faith lies in what Jesus actually said and did, in so far as it can be established by theological scholarship. Also, E.P. Sanders insists that Jesus is to be seen as a prophetic figure who was concerned with the restoration of the Jewish people, He has opened the door for many of the New Perspective on Paul treatments of the historical ideas surrounding what Paul actually meant in doctrinal categories such as justification.

Short Study: The Basis and Nature of Salvation, the debate over the Resurrection, the debate over the Trinity, and the debate over the Church

How is salvation attained? By modern liberal and postmodern theologians, the answers vary. The relation of Christology to soteriology will vary depending upon which modern theologian one studies. There was a greater affinity in drawing these two concepts together from men like Ritschl who followed Kant, than there were with Tillich who draws a distinction between the Christ principle and the historical Jesus. In terms of the atonement of Christ, a metaphorical meaning and extension has come to be given priority over the original. That trend began with John Locke and was continued by Thomas Chubb (c. 1679-1747), and Joseph Butler in 1736. Horace Bushnell took that idea and wrote Vicarious Sacrifice in 1866 that paved the way for Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor in 1930. Later, G.S. Steinbart through to Adlof von Harnack argued that the assumptions of Christianity cannot be seen as anything but historical accidents that fell into historical theology. These assumptions, or accidents, were things like the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, the concept of satisfaction, and the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. Others that later followed this downward theological spiral and reinterpretation of Christ and salvation were P.T. Forsyth in his Justification of God, and Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics.

In such theological ideologies, the cross has no transcendent references or value. The person who died upon the cross was a human being, and the impact of that death is upon human beings. The most important aspect of the cross, though, is that it demonstrates the love of God toward humanity.

For the Enlightenment, the resurrection was a non-event. It simply never happened. Human autonomy has no need for a resurrected Savior. David Frederich Strauss saw the resurrection as a myth and stated so in his work Life of Jesus (1835). He claimed there was no objective source for a belief in a resurrection of this kind. Bultman dismisses it as an event in the experience of the disciples. It was an ethical event that the disciples needed to believe in order to carry on their work. Barth saw the resurrection as an historical event beyond the realm of critical inquiry and said the empty tomb was of little important to the idea of resurrection. Wolfhart Pannenberg (born 1928) was one of the most influential German Protestant theologians, whose writings on the relation of faith and history, and particularly on Christological issues, have had considerable influence. He believed the resurrection was an historical event, but that it was open to critical inquiry. But, his view that all things are wrapped up in the end of history, not in the line of history, did not make the event an actual event, but a possible event. Only at the end of time will anyone really and truly know if there was a resurrection.

If Christology and the resurrection came under attack by these theologians, it is no wonder that the Trinity did as well. They simply thought it was absurd. Existentialists such as Schleiermacher saw the Trinity as simply a theological copingstone to help theologians understand things about Jesus that should be known. Karl Barth (c. 1886-1968) is widely regarded as the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. Originally inclined to support liberal Protestantism, Barth was moved to adopt a more theocentric position through his reflections of the first World War. His early emphasis on the “otherness” of God in his Romans commentary (1919) was continued and modified in his monumental Church Dogmatics. He said that the Trinity is a true doctrine (though he could not prove it since God is wholly other). He said the Father is seen in the Son, but then befuddled his attempt to make sense of the Spirit. Sinful humanity cannot reach insights about the Trinity unaided, so, he saw the Trinity as one which revealed himself at different times and in different ways. Jesus, for example, is the revelation of God. He is the expression of God at that time. This is a form, though, of Sabellianism and modalism.

One of the most influential of modern Roman Catholic theologians is Karl Rahner (c. 1904-1984). His Theological Investigations pioneered the use of the essay as a tool of theological construction and exploration. He said that the Trinity is an absolute reality and that the Trinity could be conceived in a systematic conception of the economy in which they work. The same God who appears as a Trinity is a Trinity. The way in which people know God is known in self-revelation and corresponds to the way God is internally. Robert Jenson, a Lutheran, continues this orthodox thought about the Trinity in saying that it is the proper name for the God who Christians know in and through Jesus Christ. This is not a name in which men have chosen, but the name which God has revealed to men so they may known Him as He is. These are linguistic means to identifying God.

Another doctrine that has been tempered by modern theology is the teaching surrounding the church. Differences from ecumenicalism to the teachings of the Vatican council exemplify 21st century ecclesiology. Ignatius said, “Wherever Christ is, there is also the Catholic Church.” The Second Vatican Council stated that the sacraments are exceedingly important in the study of the church. The church is not the sacraments, but it does dispense the sacraments. Otto Semmerlroth (1953) published the influential The Church as Primordial Sacrament in which he argues that the church is a primordial sacrament in and of itself. The overall affect of this approach is to meld Christology, ecclesiology and sacramentology into a cohesive whole. The Jesuit, Karl Rahner, has made inroads demonstrating that the Roman Church is to make Christ known in the world through these visible signs.

For Protestants, the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments are of prime import in identifying the church. Calvin said that without these two, there is no church. The Holy Spirit must also be constitutive of the church. Charismatics tend to deemphasize the Word of God for a raised level of awareness to the things of the Spirit (yet which may in fact be demonic manifestations).

The Roman Catholic Church placed a great amount of authority based on apostolic succession, but at the expense of the preached word and right administration of the sacraments. They make a distinction between ecclesia docens (the teaching church) and ecclesia discens (the learning church). This is a division between the laity and the clergy. The Roman Church also believes the church to be a communion of saints, the gathering of the people of God, and a charismatic community (but not in the same sense as charismatics do). The Council at Vatican II used the term “charismatic” on purpose because of the charismatic wave taking place over the last 50 years or so, and decided that they needed to define their fellowship with a more foundational belief in the charismata as the “gifts and abilities” that various people have in the body to minister to one another.

Short Study: The Attributes of God in Process Theology

It is widely accepted that Process theology is one of the most significant theological movements to emerge from North America. Alfred North Whitehead (c. 1861-1947) in his Process and Reality, conceived reality as a process that is never stagnant or immovable. God is an entity, exists permanently, but can change. Charles Hartshorne (c. 1897-?) also continued this line of thinking where he says that both God and creation exist necessarily, and God is simply one agent in the world that can be affected by trends through history. Process Theology thus locates the origins of suffering and evil within the world to a radical limitation of the power of God. God intends good for the creation, and acts in its best interests. However, the option of coercing everything to do the divine will cannot be exercised.

Short Study: The Feminist Critique of Transition Christian Theology

Both the Old Testament and New Testament use language about God that is masculine. Does this mean that God is male? Feminist writers like Anne Carr and Mary Hayter say “no.” To speak of God as father is to say that the role of the father in ancient Israel allows us insights into the nature of God. It is not to say that God is a male human being. God has been given female characteristics as well through the Bible, and Feminists attempt to demonstrate that it is equally acceptable to call God mother as well as father. However, the Trinity is expressed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This obviously demonstrates problems for Feminist Theology. Christ was also a male who referred to God as His Father. Also, feminist writers tend to change the concept of sin from alienation from God to framing concepts such as power and dominion and oppression of the female sex.

Short Study: Christian Approaches to other Religions in Contemporary Theology

When one studies the Bible, they cannot help come away with the exclusivist ideas it holds about Salvation. Jesus Christ is the only Savior at the expense of all other religions and ideas. Contemporary theology, though, bent on its liberal or modernistic theological ideas, moves away from this to create a more inclusivistic and toleration of other religions. David Tracy says that there is no one way to heaven. John B. Cobb Jr. notes that there is no “essence to religion.” Religions are better understood as cultural expressions and religious movements through the centuries. Pluralism has resulted here which holds that all the religious traditions of humanity are equally valid paths to the same core of religious reality. The most significant advocate of the Pluralist approach is John Hick (b. 1922). In his God and the Universe of Faiths (1973) he argues that the church should move away from a Christ centered approach to a God-centered approach. Describing this change as a Copernican Revolution of sorts, he believes that all religions lead men to heaven and all are inclusive to idea of God. But this, in reality, is abandoning the Christ and Savior of God, and demonstrates a pluralistic problem of contradictory ideas.

Short Study: Theological Method in the Modern Period

The question of the proper starting point in contemporary theology has created a great stir. Schleiermacher said that the starting point is the existential “dependence upon God.” The vivid consciousness of the whole, of God, is needed before any intellectual starting point can occur for defining one’s beliefs. This though is placing the cart before the horse. It is a remnant of Gnosticism. Paul Tillich’s concern was to make Christianity meaningful in a period in western culture in which it seemed to be losing its public credibility. Therefore, the starting point for him is to survey culture and social trends. Karl Rahner pressed the need to go beyond the abilities of human nature and to become aware of the sense of being made for more than they are now. Even though men are finite, they have the ability to transcend themselves first, which is his starting point. Karl Barth draws from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard stressing the infinite qualitative distinction between God and human beings. God cannot and must not be constructed or conceived in human terms. Liberation Theology attempts to place considerable notion on the starting point of praxis. This is practice modeled after theory. It is an abstract manner in thinking about Christian Theology. Theology, then, is not simply thinking about ideas; it is depending on the practical aspects of doing theology.

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