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Advanced Historical Theology - Contours in 19th and 20th Century Theology - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 26 – Advanced Historical Theology – Contours in 19th and 20th Century Theology

Protestant Theology in the 19th Century

There are four theologians during this era that make the most profound impact on theological thinking for modern liberals and scholars – Frederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (c. 1768-1834), G.W.F. Hegel (c. 1770-1831), Soren Kierkegaard (c. 1813-1855) and Albrecht Ritschl (c. 1822-1889).

Schleiermacher was deeply influenced by Kant’s philosophy and began to develop his own ideas about Christian faith. In 1794 he was ordained as a Reformed pastor (liberally Reformed in name only) and then was influenced by the Romantic movement. He wrote his work Speeches which were well received throughout Europe. He then wrote his Christian faith and divided this into three main themes: the self, the world, and God. All of his theological abstractions on these issues rely heavily on existential features. Self-consciousness determines what an individual person will “do” with these three themes. Sin is simply the “preventing of the God-consciousness” that everyone should attain. Theology then becomes a slave to the self, and liberal theology was born, yet not formally structured.

Hegel always considered himself a theologian. It was not however, a theology of traditional theism, but a sweeping attempt to understand ultimate reality in terms of a dialectic of contradictions and empowerment. Hegel taught that the thesis of something and the antithesis of something did not wind up in a contradiction. Rather it turned into a synthesis that rests upon a greater level than the supposed contradiction, and it spring boarded the thinker toward the Absolute Religion. Hegel influenced such men a Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Karl Marx (1818-1883).

Kierkegaard thought of himself as a man who was destined to make Christianity difficult. He is hailed as a great philosopher and the founder of modern existentialism. He divided the “Christian life” into three stages – the aesthetic, the ethical and the faithful. The aesthetic life is the man who is down in the dumps and cares nothing for life. The ethical man attempts at reforming his life with law and discipline. But the man of faith attempts to make a leap of faith (not intellect) to trust in what his destiny may dictate to him as a Christian walk with God. This last religious stage can only be reached by a conscious understanding of sin and leap towards God’s mercy for the person, although there are no guarantees that God would be merciful.

Ritschl’s main tenor of theology is seen in his three large volumes on The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation. Forgiveness of sins means that the penalty of separation from God has been removed. God does not need to be reconciled, but men do. Reconciliation implies more than justification. Rather, justification and reconciliation are a corporate matter. The Kingdom of God is not something that will come later, but has already come. And recognizing one’s reconciliation in that kingdom amounts to upholding the vocation that God has given each man for the good of the others. He emphasizes the love of God to all men, and rejects justice and divine wrath. Sin and grace are thus reduced in their importance to mere bywords.

Historical consideration took place at this time following Ritschl’s thoughts that the best way to enter into studying about Christianity is through history. Albert Schweitzer (who wrote the Quest for the Historical Jesus) and Ernest Troeltsch (who wrote The social Teachings of Christian Churches) were the largest advocates of this tendency. After this the social Gospel under the guise of Walter Rauschenbaush (c. 1861-1918) emerged. The fundamentalists also emerged around the turn of the century (1895) upholding some the basic tenets of historical orthodoxy against the liberalism of the day.

Roman Catholic Theology to the First World War

During the sixteenth century the Roman Catholic Church went though an intense time of theological reformation. It is unfortunate that this was not in a positive direction for the Gospel. The Council of Trent anathematized the gospel, and from that point the apostate church simply became worse.

One of the highlights of theological controversy within the Catholic Church as well as without the question was on papal authority. Although this was widespread throughout Europe, it was strongest in France and became known as Gallicanism. Certain concessions were promises to the French that never transpired. Thus the Council of Trent, to the French, seemed simply as an Italian council with no authority for binding the church. Four leaders of this movement during this time are most prominent in respect of resisting papal power: Guy Coquille (1525-1603), Pierre Pithou (1539-1596), Edmond Richter (1559-1631) and Andre Duval (1564-1638). These attempted to demonstrate that the role of pope was that of honor, not authority, something even Philip Melancthon was thoughtful of approving. The French Revolution, however, put a stop to this religious battle through political pressure.

One of the most important milestones in gaining papal power was the bull Ineffabilis Deus in 1854 by pope Pius IX. It surrounded the question of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the bull was accepted by most of the Catholic world treating her as perpetually a virgin. This gave the pope power. The church’s opposition to new ideas was struck down by Pope Pius on a number of occasions, but most famously in his Syllabus of Errors published in 1864. The First Vatican Council was formally called by Pope Pius IX in 1868, and began sessions after that to rule on matters of doctrine. In 1870, at this session, papal infallibility was deemed orthodox by the Roman Church and has been the case ever since.

The modernist movement was also growing in the Roman Church during this time of transition and its most important leader was Alfred Firmin Loisy (c. 1857-1940). He was a German scholar who was greatly influenced by higher critical studies and liberal theology.

Eastern Theology After the Fall of Constantinople Through to the 20th Century

The Greek Orthodox Church was forever on the decline after the Great Schism on 1054. However, there were some bright lights at this time that arose with sound doctrine. Cyril Lucaris (c. 1572-1638) formulated a Confession of Faith in 1629. It was very Calvinistic and spoke heartily of predestination, the sole mediatorial work of Christ and justification by faith alone.

The Russian Church was united with Rome at the Council of Florence. However, by the end of the 17th century there was already a Protestant church in Moscow, although most of them were German merchants who resided in that city. Simon of Polock rose and wrote anti-Protestant works against the movement beginning in Russia. When Nikon became patriarch of Moscow in 1652 Russia was flourishing and increasing in political power and was thought to be a third “Rome” and should lead the Eastern Orthodox Church. Instead of becoming Roman, the Russian church continued on its Eastern path.

Peter Mogolia (c. 1596-1646) gave the Kiev school a stability that it lacked previously. He was an able scholar who studied and was thoroughly familiar with the Latin scholastics. His work, Orthodox Confession of the Catholic and Apostolic Eastern Church, was accepted by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch and became a major work in the East.

Theology in the Twentieth Century

The world wars changed the perception of theology and Western civilization around the world. The major theologian at this time was the rise of liberal theology under a “Reformed” name in the theology of Karl Barth (c. 1886-1968). Barth’s father was a conservative Reformed Theologian. He sent his son Karl to study at the best schools at Bern, Tubingen and Marburg, and after this went into a pastorate for a time. After this, while working on a commentary on Romans, was invited to be a teacher at Gottingen, then Munster, then to Bonn and eventually in Basel.

Barth’s theology began to break away form the existentialists of the day because of certain more modern ideas he was formulating. He broke with Brunner, Gogarten, and Bultman. As a result, he put together a voluminous series that covered creation, God and the Trinity, salvation, Jesus Christ and the celestial host. Barth developed, though, a theology that went way beyond the Scriptures without abandoning key terms. So he sounds orthodox when he uses terms, but his liberalism causes his meaning and traditional meaning to be at complete odds. He was a liberal, actually denying everything from the substitutionary atonement, to the reality of the three persons/one substance of the Godhead, to justification by faith. Much of his influence is in Roman Catholic thought who borrowed certain ideas to defend Catholic dogma against continuing protest pressures. Among more contemporary theologians who were affected by Barth’s ideologies is Cornelius Van Til who had worked critically on his works throughout his life and Reinhold Niebhur.

Other liberal theologians worthy of notation are Rudolph Bultman, who demythologized the Gospel, Jurgen Moltmann, who offered a liberalism in a theology of hope, and Paul Tillich who expanded process philosophy.

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