What the Germans did to theology

by
13 June 2014

George Pattison is impressed by this study of ideas

Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Johannes Zachhuber
OUP £75
(978-0-19-964191-8)
Church Times Bookshop £67.50 (Use code CT413 )

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.

Advertisement

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.

100 Best Christian Books

How many have you read?

Visit the 100 Best Christian Books website to see which books made our list, read the judges' notes and add your own comments.

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Forthcoming Events

5-6 May 2018
Church Times Festival of Poetry
With Sarum College, Salisbury. More details coming soon - register your interest here

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)