Theology Now Its Inheritance

Theology now, as in every historical context, has a sense of the legacy bequeathed by the past. A peculiar mark of Western theology in the last two decades is that as the twenty-first century approaches, so its appreciation of the nineteenth seems to increase. Writing from prison in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most seminal influences on theology in the second half of the century, commented:

There are so few people now who want to have any intimate spiritual association with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. [Who] bothers at all now about the work and achievements of our grandfathers, and how much of what they knew have we already forgotten? I believe that people will one day be quite amazed by what was achieved in that period, which is now so disregarded and so little known.

(Bonhoeffer 1971:227)

Perhaps now that prophecy is being fulfilled. Far from the previous century being left behind and outgrown, much of its religious and philosophical thought has returned to question and haunt the present generation, which is increasingly in dialogue with those who brought the Enlightenment to its critical climax and who pioneered theological responses to it. A sketch of how much of theology now sees the main features of that past is therefore vital to understanding the current scene.

There is widespread agreement that in summing up the Enlightenment and in pointing beyond it, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) redefined the human intellectual task, in both theology and philosophy, in such a way as to provide a continuing challenge down to the present. While Kant believed with the Enlightenment in human reason as the key to knowledge, he radically redefined the scope and role of that reason: it is capable of dealing only with the sensible, empirical world. It does so by applying to the 'phenomena' perceived by the senses the innate or a priori categories with which the human mind operates. Human knowledge is thus a synthesis of the mind working upon sensory data, and thereby contains an irreducibly subjective element. There is no completely 'objective' knowledge of 'things-in-themselves', that is, totally independent of the knowing mind. Along with much else, the traditional metaphysical systems in which the doctrine of God, and the proofs of God's existence, had been framed, collapsed. From Kant onwards, human awareness, subjectivity and feeling became central in Western understanding of 'truth'. Illustrative of this was Kant's own argument for God's existence, based on the human inward moral sense from which the existence of the divine Giver of the moral law could be inferred.

On the Continent, response to the critical situation posited by Kant took several forms. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) gave a fresh and long-lasting impulse to Protestant theology by identifying the essence of religion as lying not in knowledge, whether of a scientific or metaphysical kind, nor in the moral sense, but in a specifically religious emotion, the feeling of absolute dependence. G.F.W.Hegel (1770-1831) grappled with Kant in a singularly contrasting way. If, as Kant had argued, knowledge is limited to the scope of reason, then one may as well say that there is nothing outside reason, and therefore reason is itself the basis of reality. On this idealistic premise, therefore, the whole of human, historical reality, and indeed nature as well, was interpreted as the out-working of absolute Spirit or mind in the conditions of finitude, becoming self-conscious in the human mind. Later in the century 'Liberal Protestantism' led by Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89) returned to the ethical emphasis which Kant himself had made so primary, seeing the kingdom of God as the progressive realization of the ethical ideals of human brotherhood as promulgated and exemplified in Jesus.

Amid this diversity of response, one issue stood central: history in general, and in particular the history of Jesus and the Christian movement which somehow flowed from him. For such as Schleiermacher the historical Jesus was important as the definitive example and imparter of the uniquely full consciousness of God. For Hegel and the idealists the figure of Jesus—or at least the doctrines that had been subsequently created about him—had the significance of demonstrating in a particular way the eternal truths of spiritual reality. For Liberal Protestants like Ritschl, and still more so for the celebrated Church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1931), it became crucially important to recover the actual 'Jesus of history' as distinct from the Christ of later dogma, so that the specific nature of his ethical teaching could be identified. But at the same time, the element of subjectivity could not be kept out of historical knowledge any more than other areas of human understanding. Is 'objective' historical knowledge of the past, beyond the frames of reference and experiential background of the historian, possible at all? This was the question first explored in depth by Wilhelm Dilthey (18331911). And in reconstructing the past could we get behind the subjectivities and synthetic creations of those who themselves compiled the earliest records? In the Christian case, could we get behind the 'Christ of faith' of the early

Church to the 'historical Jesus'? This last question was posed by Martin Kahler (1835-1912) as one of the most important enquiries which nineteenth-century New Testament scholarship asked itself, just as Soren Kierkegaard (181355) threatened to undermine the whole rationalist and idealist presuppositions with his agonizing recognition that 'truth is subjectivity'.

Perhaps the figure who best sums up the nineteenth century and brings it right into the twentieth is Ernst Troeltsch (1855-1923), in whom elements of the Kantian, idealist and Liberal Protestant approaches can all be seen, within the framework of the most thorough-going historical perspective. For Troeltsch, all human religions are an integral part of the ultimate wholeness of human history. This means that religion is an ineluctable feature of human existence, and that no one religion can claim absolute significance or truth-value over all the others. Christianity can claim to be the one most nearly approaching the absolute, and indeed is the normative one for Western culture. But the absolute can never be wholly manifest within history itself.

In Britain, too, the tendency to emphasize the inwardness of faith and its affinity with moral sensibility, and the divine as an immanent process within nature and human history rather than an external deity controlling from afar or from above, were marked features of nineteenth-century thought, as was the wrestling with the implications of an unqualified commitment to historical (as distinct from purely dogmatic) understanding of religious truth. This can be seen in the explorations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in the enquiries of John Henry Newman into the development of dogma and the nature of religious authority, in the authors of Essays and Reviews (1860), and the later High Church Anglicans of the Lux Mundi school (1889).

The fact is that for much of theology now, that century of thought remains deeply significant, and in some ways increasingly so. It is evidenced in the increasing scholarly attention being paid to it by theologians and historians alike. The fundamental reason lies in the fact that the questions being faced then are recognized as the questions still requiring answers now.

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