Finding roots and gems in old theologies

Finding roots and gems in old theologies February 2, 2012

For the past month I’ve been immersed in nineteenth century theology: Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Ritschl, Hodge, Catholic Modernism (Blondel, Loisy, Tyrrell), Troeltsch, Dorner, Bushnell. It isn’t the first time, but this time I’m reading more primary texts and writing about these almost forgotten theologians.

One thing I’m finding confirmed is my long-standing opinion that there’s really nothing new in “contemporary theology.” That’s one reason I chose historical theology as my primary field of research and teaching. Every time I hear that there’s a “new thing” afoot in theology or church life or among Christians I easily find how it’s not really new at all!

For example, “relational theology” is all the rage now in certain theological circles. It’s a catch-all phrase for viewing God as affected by what happens in the world. It’s a reaction against strict classical theism that says God is simple substance, pure actuality with no potentiality, absolutely immutable, etc. Process theology is one form of it, but there are more “conservative” forms as well. (Open theism is a form of relationship theology.) I wish they would read Isaak August Dorner! In his three essays on divine immutability he completely overturned classical theism without denying God’s essential sameness through time. He made a strong distinction between God’s “ethical immutability” and God’s changing experience in relation to the world (which he regarded as an expression of his ethical character as love). Dorner clearly also influenced Barth’s doctrine of God as “He who loves in freedom.”

Dorner’s “progressive incarnation” idea struck me immediately as similar to, if not identical with, Norman Pittenger’s neo-Antiochian Christology in The Word Incarnate.

Bushnell’s idea of all language, and especially God-talk, as symbolic and metaphorical anticipates many postmodern ideas about language and theology. (Fortunately he did not take it to the extent that, say, Sallie McFague takes it.)

Troeltsch’s historicism foreshadows “religious pluralism” (e.g., John Hick). He even talked about an “Absolute” that transcends history and religious diversity that is very much like Hick’s “The Real.”

Catholic Modernism paved the way for the “Nouvelle Theologie” that created Vatican 2 and found expression in de Lebac, Rahner and von Balthasar. But even much of the Modernists thought was influenced by Newman, a previous Catholic thinker.

Kierkegaard, of course, sounds like all kinds of dialectical Christian thinkers from Barth to Peter Rollins!

When I was reading Hodge, of course, I almost thought I was reading Grudem or David Wells!

So to what conclusion does all this lead me? There are new ways of expressing old ideas, but most “new ideas” are, at core, recycled old ideas–repackaged, updated, sometimes reconstructed. But it’s very difficult to find anything truly new.

Did the nineteenth century see anything truly new come about in Christian theology?

Well, the whole idea of a “secret rapture” among fundamentalists is totally new in about the 1830s. It first appeared in circles associated with Edward Irving, the pre-Pentecostal Presbyterian preacher in Great Britain.

(That was meant somewhat tongue-in-cheek as most believers in the “secret rapture” think true believers have always believed it!)

Sure, there were some new developments in theology in the nineteenth century, most of them not particularly helpful (because they were somehow related to modernity–as accommodation to or over reaction against it). Schleiermacher’s idea of religion as “the feeling of utter dependence” was relatively new, although it stood on the shoulders of Pietism and Romanticism. Dorner’s idea of progressive incarnation seems new even if it parallels Nestorianism.

But what’ s really new in twentieth century or twenty-first century theology? The God-is-dead movement (that is still alive with certain radical postmodern theologians)? Perhaps. But, of course, that was heavily dependent on Nietzsche, Hegel, Feuerbach and Blake!

Show me something claimed to be “new” in twentieth or twenty-first century theology and I’ll show you its roots in nineteenth century (or earlier) theology.

Now, maybe that’s a good thing. I’m sure many would say it is. I’m not making a value judgment here. I’m just being descriptive.

My point is that perhaps we need to go back and rediscover nineteenth century theology; at the very least it will help us understand and put contemporary theology in perspective.

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