Dissenting Voices in Modern Theology

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Before leaving the nineteenth century behind it is important to remember that not all Christian thinkers followed the path of accommodation to modernity blazed by Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel. There were, first, those representatives of traditional orthodoxy who tried their best to remain staunchly unaffected by modern ideas. In addition to Catholic traditionalists, this group includes various restoration movements among European Protestants; but of all the attempts to restore the Church to its historical confessions none was more influential than the Princeton Theology, which flourished for more than a century at Princeton Theological Seminary. The leading theologians of this movement, especially Charles Hodge (1797-1878) and his successor, Benjamin Warfield (1851-1921), combined a doctrine of direct verbal inspiration of Scripture with a commitment to conservative Calvinist confessionalism. Although they saw themselves as simply re-stating orthodox doctrine, they were in fact modern thinkers in their stress on the use of reason and their insistence that theology is a science in the modern sense of the term. The Princeton theologians also defended Christian orthodoxy against modern secular and scientific ideas, especially Darwin's theory of evolution. Their struggle with liberal theologians led in the early twentieth century to the FundamentalistModernist controversy, which split the Presbyterians and some other mainline churches into separate liberal and fundamentalist or evangelical denominations.

Not all those who rejected theological accommodation to modernity, however, were confessional restorationists. Two towering figures from the second half of the nineteenth century - Seren Kierkegaard (1813-55) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) - though in some ways direct opposites, offer powerful critiques of Enlightenment and Idealist rationalism while attacking modern acculturated Christendom, which they see as incompatible with New Testament Christianity. And both are masters of irony and indirection, deliberately making it difficult to pin down their precise positions.

Kierkegaard, reacting strongly against the Hegelianism of the leaders of the new Danish People's Church founded after the revolution of 1848, employed irony and a complex pattern of pseudonymous writings to challenge the bourgeois Christianity of his times with the strangeness of the New Testament gospel. He ridicules and parodies the systems of the Hegelians while using Socrates as a foil for presenting the radicality of true Christian faith, which he sees as discontinuous with rational argument, a "scandal" that can only be appropriated by means of a subjective "leap." His influence was not felt beyond Denmark until the twentieth century, when his writings began to appear in German and English.

Nietzsche is equally scathing in his rejection of modern bourgeois society and religion, but his alternative is not Christian faith, against which he hurls vehement arguments. No phrase better epitomizes the modern challenge to theology than the "death of God," Nietzsche's name for the defining experience of modernity. His attitude towards Christianity is complicated, however, for he occasionally expresses sympathy for genuine Christians, and his rather contradictory view of Jesus seems sometimes to want to separate him from the vengeful "Christianity" created in his name by his disciples and St. Paul. On the one hand, Nietzsche can be seen as the heir to the atheism of the Enlightenment (Voltaire was one of his heroes); but on the other hand he is the prophet of postmodernism, who seems to reject all objectivity, leaving us with an unresolved interplay of competing interpretations.

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