Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century
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AT THE outset of this important study, Johannes Zachhuber
comments that "Over the past two hundred years, few theological
issues have been debated with as much academic and, more
occasionally ideological, fervour as the status of theology as
science or Wissenschaft."
Some readers will immediately shrug this off as a distinctively
Germanic issue, a view justified superficially by Zachhuber's
acknowledgement of the near-untranslatability of the German
Wissenschaft - "science", yes, but not as "we" know it.
Such readers would be mistaken, since contemporary wrangles about
the place of theology in the contemporary university are largely
argued in terms essentially derived from the 19th-century German
debates that are the focus of Zachhuber's meticulous study.
And, while some in the Churches may feel that they could do
without academic theology, I suspect that the entire loss of
theology's academic credibility would have significant knock-on
effects for wider public attitudes towards those Churches that
claim to embody mainstream opinion. Claims about theology as Queen
of the Sciences are of no avail if theology does not have the
intellectual respect of its academic peers.
The main focus of the study is on F. C. Baur (never translated
into English) and Albrecht Ritschl (only partially translated into
English and not widely read). The issues that they addressed,
however, have defined much of modern theology. As Zachhuber shows,
these are rooted in what he calls the "historicization of European
intellectual life" from the 17th century onwards. For the German
tradition, history, like physics or chemistry, was henceforth to be
studied with full scientific rigour.
This immediately made problems for Christian theology, since
Christian truth-claims are tied to historical claims about
Christian origins. For his part, Ritschl affirmed the intellectual
legitimacy of a faith position in interpreting the significance of
the life of Jesus for the community that he founded, and of an
ethical commitment to furthering the coming of the Kingdom. Yet
Zachhuber shows that Ritschl's synthesis of history, philosophy,
and theology was always fragile, trying to do justice both to the
real particularity of Christian life and Christianity's place in a
progressive view of history as a whole.
In successors such as Harnack and Troeltsch, the synthesis broke
down, and the stage was set for the typically 20th- and early-21st-
century opposition between a purely confessional "insider-view"
theology and a supposedly neutral secular historicism. Even if Baur
and Ritschl themselves are unlikely to be the focus of the next
theological generation, I am persuaded that Zachhuber is
fundamentally right to call for the continuing attempt to hold
historical and doctrinal theology together, and that Baur and
Ritschl remain outstanding examples of thinkers prepared to step up
to the intellectual demands of such a task.
This book deserves to be taken seriously by all who are
concerned not only for the history but also for the future of
theology as an academic discipline. It admirably exemplifies the
virtues it commends.
Professor George Pattison holds the 1640 Chair of Divinity
at the University of Glasgow.