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Protest, philosophy, and process

18 March 2016

Andrew Davison looks at 20th-century theologians


Walter Rauschenbusch

Walter Rauschenbusch

BY THE end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, books to help Christians educate themselves in the faith were rolling off the presses.

Among Anglo-Catholics (strong in England on both sides of the turn of the century), the books of Vernon Staley (1852-1933) stand as an example. In the United States, that tradition produced summaries of the Christian faith that are still useful today: Alfred Garnett Mortimer’s Catholic Faith and Practice in two volumes, and Francis Hall’s ten-volume Dogmatic Theology (both Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897 and 1923 respectively).

Among Evangelical Anglicans, Thomas Chatterton Hammond’s work bore particularly long-lasting fruit. An Irishman (1877-1961) living in Sydney, Australia, his summary of Christian belief, In Understanding Be Men (IVP, 1936; later editions with David Wright), remained a standard, especially among students, until recently.

In the US, Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was instrumental in placing a new emphasis on the Kingdom of God in mainline Protestantism. This went along with an approach to theology which focused primarily on social questions.

At the turn of the 20th century, theology in a notably philosophical register was flourishing in Russia, for instance with Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900). Western Europe was to become an important centre for Russian theology, as émigrés fled Russia after the Soviet revolution. Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944) has come to particular prominence in the past couple of decades.

His topics are pleasingly off-beat to contemporary eyes: John the Baptist, angels, the Wisdom of God, and the Holy Grail, for instance, as well as his volumes on the Church, and the Holy Spirit. Eerdmans are doing excellent work translating them into English. Other Orthodox theologians, such as Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) and Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), remained in the USSR.

In England, the mathematician-turned-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861– 1947) stood at the fountainhead of “process” metaphysics, which puts the emphasis on relation and change over what is related or changes. Applied to theology, one of its most significant consequences was the idea of God as party to the open-ended vicissitudes of the world; and that: “It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.” One of his principal theological disciples was Charles Hartshorn (1897-2000).

A great “instinctive” theologian of this period was G. K. Chesterton. His Father Brown novels are known for their theologian’s insights, but so is his prose, particularly Heretics (on what he does not believe), Orthodoxy (on what he does), and The Everlasting Man (an audacious theological account of history).

Mid-20th-century novelists whose works were strongly influenced by their Christian faith would, of course, include the “Inklings”, among them J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, as well as Dorothy L. Sayers, whose collection of essays Creed or Chaos? (Methuen, 1947) can hardly be bettered as a confident, joyful argument for theology at the heart of the Church’s life.

The giant in this landscape, especially in terms of his subsequent influence, is Karl Barth (1886-1968). Born in Switzerland, he reacted against the liberal Protestant theology of his youth, not least for the failure of its advocates to oppose World War I. His Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (first edition 1919, second edition 1922, translated into English in 1933 by OUP), was instrumental in turning the tide — back to a focus on revelation as the foundation for Christian theology, and on the message of grace found in that Epistle. The thunderclap of that book has been echoing around the theological skies ever since.

Barth’s monumental but unfinished Church Dogmatics, stretching to 13 volumes and more than six million words, stands as the most significant extended survey of Christian theology for centuries (1932-68, translated into English from 1936-77, T&T Clark).

Barth was strongly active politically, and a drafter of the 1934 Barmen Declaration, which defined the opposition of the “Confessing Church” to the Nazi party and its policies. Also associated with that resistance is Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), a Lutheran figure to place alongside the Reformed Barth. Both were active pastors and preachers.

Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in 1945. He wrote passionately about the Christian life (The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together), and his Letters and Papers from Prison present a striking picture of a faith that does not separate God from that world (Augsburg Fortress Press publishes Bonhoeffer in translation). Some of his more theologically radical suggestions in these papers, especially about divine mutability, were strongly influential in the half-century after his death, but are increasingly seen as a wrong turn by many today.

Another victim of the war — although it is hard to think of anyone rendered less a “victim” by her death — is Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun of Jewish descent, whose work reflected on philosophical movements of her day in a profoundly theological way. Finite and Eternal Being (translation from ICS, 2002) is central to her often demanding output.

Among Roman Catholic writers, the monumental output most comparable to Barth’s, and the most likely to be encountered today, is a trilogy in 16 volumes by Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88): The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic (1961-85, T&T Clark). Balthasar offers a more explicitly philosophical approach than Barth, by whom he was strongly influenced.

The three collections can be seen as exploring theology in terms of beauty, goodness, and truth. The tiny capping stone Epilogue (Ignatius, 2005) is a good place to start, as are Prayer (Ignatius, 1986), and his Holy Week study Mysterium Paschale (T&T Clark, 1990). Central to Balthasar’s approach and output is the influence of the rather little read Adrienne von Speyr (1902-67). Among her best works are The Cross and the Sacrament (Ignatius, 1984), and The Boundless God (Ignatius, 2004).

Balthasar belonged to a wider revival in Roman Catholic theology in the mid-20th century, known as Nouvelle Théologie or Ressourcement, because of its emphasis on returning to the sources: to the scriptures, patristics, liturgy, and historical sources more generally. Not for them the “neo-scholastic” idea of a static, already summarised synthesis.

Jean Daniélou (1905-74) and Henri de Lubac (1896-91) started publishing new editions and translations of patristics (Sources Chrétiennes), and drew attention to ancient Christian patterns of biblical interpretation. De Lubac’s work on the relation between grace and nature strikes a rather Anglican line, by not prising them too far apart. It is the subject of intense debate to this day. Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990) placed Aquinas in his time and analysed his sources.

France features prominently in the story of 20th-century theological renewal. Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) and Étienne Gilson (1884-1978) both produced work that was typically elegant and warm, philosophically aware, and theologically driven. The German Josef Pieper belongs alongside them, as the author of many short and accessible, but profound, works.

For an ideal survey of recent theologians, see David Ford and Rachel Muers, The Modern Theologians: An introduction to Christian theology since 1918 (Blackwell, 2005).

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