The nineteenth century was one of the most diverse and creative periods in the history of Christian theology. Its problems, challenges, and developments continue to be assimilated by theologians today, while its great thinkers - G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Soren Kierkegaard, John Henry Newman, et al. - are the subject of intensive international scholarship.
The theologies of the nineteenth century can be viewed variously as reactive, creative, and innovative. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century had bequeathed a set of problems that continued to preoccupy philosophers and theologians. These included the disputed rationality of religious belief; the status of claims based upon a putative divine revelation, especially with respect to miracles; and a growing awareness of the multiplicity of religions across the world. While recognizing the pertinence of these questions, many later thinkers were deeply dissatisfied with the responses developed by deists and rationalists throughout the preceding century. Their reliance on the traditional arguments for the existence of God was queried. The notion of an essential natural religion that could be identified as the kernel of all historical variants was found to be problematic. And, at the same time, the predominantly dry and cerebral approach to religion did not appear adequate to the affective and spiritual dimensions of life. In much of this reaction to the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant functions as a key transitional figure both in his criticism of the powers of reason and in his attempt to establish religion as an article of moral faith. In his work, however, much of the Enlightenment is affirmed, there being no way back to a premodern era.
Despite this intense intellectual scrutiny of the tenets of Christian faith, the churches maintained their powerful social position in the confessional states of Europe while also displaying an impressive vitality in the New World. This ensured that theological work continued to receive the closest attention of some of the greatest thinkers in Europe and North America, not merely those within a narrowly confined guild but also philosophers, historians, natural scientists, and literary theorists. To some extent, this reflects also the absence of clear demarcation lines between the academic disciplines, at a time prior to the greater specialization and sequestering of subjects that would later characterize university life.
It has sometimes been claimed that the primary characteristic of the theologies of the nineteenth century is their stronger historical sense. In many respects, this is borne out by the essays in this collection. Standing at the beginning of the period, Hegel's philosophy views the divine life as itself unfolding under historical conditions. Perhaps more than any preceding thinker, at least since Augustine, Hegel attempts to discern a philosophical pattern in the fluctuating forces and circumstances of world history. It is not accidental that within the Hegelian school there emerged a tradition of biblical criticism that cast doubt on whether historical study of the Gospels could support, in either theory or practice, the standard doctrinal claims made for Jesus. Schleiermacher also had made a significant contribution to the critical historical study of ancient texts. Despite his attempt to find a solution to the problem of the historical Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, the "faith-history" problem would rumble on well into the twentieth century. At the same time, the search for ways around or through this problem would generate the striking proposals of Kierkegaard, and the different accom-modationist strategies found in kenotic Christologies, liberal Protestantism, and Roman Catholic modernism. Developments in the natural sciences also confirmed a keener historical sense. In particular, Darwinism offered an account of the natural world as itself having a history or narrative. Much older than previously surmised, the world was shown to have undergone dramatic changes over the course of millions of years, not least in the evolution of different species amongst which Homo sapiens was a relative latecomer.
Other assumptions about the nineteenth century, however, may be called into question. The notion that it witnessed a steady and irreversible ebbing of faith is hardly plausible. While agnosticism, anti-theologies, and heterodox beliefs abounded, this was nevertheless a time of extraordinary religious and spiritual energy. Idealist philosophers, novelists, poets, and political theorists all displayed a religious vitality. Though sometimes far from orthodox, they revealed a sensitivity and awareness often lacking in the tone-deaf criticisms of some of our most vociferous contemporary critics of religion. Similarly, the notion that the theological developments of the nineteenth century were somehow exposed as outmoded and quaint by the thinkers of a later era must also be contested. It is simply too easy to dismiss a theological proposal as "nineteenth century" in much the same way as the media are prone to use the term "medieval." The essays in this volume reveal that the problems of the nineteenth century are still with us and that many of the lines developed at that time have to be followed. In particular, our own sense of historical context is, if anything, even stronger, and many of the strategies of suspicion that have characterized postmodern writing have their antecedents in writers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx. Finally, the assumption that the nineteenth century was a sterile period for the development of confessional theologies is also challenged in this volume. Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions continued, perhaps surprisingly, to flourish in the hands of leading exponents. This should also caution us from supposing that all the significant developments of the period are to be found in heterodox offshoots of Protestant culture.
This collection is offered as a guide to the leading thinkers and trends within Christian theology during the nineteenth century. It acknowledges the important interaction with philosophy, history, literature, and the natural sciences, while also seeking to understand the different social and confessional contexts within which all this took place. It is intended as a guide for senior students and other scholars seeking to find their way into the field, while also registering the latest insights and developments within the study of the period. Throughout the final stages of the project, I have been indebted to my research student Frances Henderson for her excellent contribution as editor, translator, proof reader, and index author.
Sadly, the production of this volume was interrupted by the premature death in 2003 of its initial editor, Colin Gunton. His was the original vision, and several of the essays were already completed at the time of his death. However, the present editor is grateful to those who so willingly joined the project at a later stage, as well as for the patience of earlier contributors who revised and awaited the publication of their initial work. This book is offered in grateful memory of Colin Gunton, a friend and theologian much appreciated and often missed.
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