The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford — 1833-1945
Fortress Press £22.99
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HISTORY books often achieve their force by demonstrating either that the past was unlike the present in surprising ways, or that it was more similar than we might have expected. For most readers, The Making of Modern English Theology no doubt fall firmly in the first category.
It did so for me. Theology has been taught at Oxford for centuries. I contributed for a few years, and, in as much as I thought about the history of teaching theology there at all, I imagined that the present-day endeavour was basically in long historical continuity with what had always happened, some historical drift aside. I was wrong, as Daniel Inman relates in laying out this fascinating story.
Until the creation of the Honour School in theology at Oxford — the event round which this book pivots — the place of theology was both remarkably broad and remarkably shallow. It was broad, indeed, until 1932. Before that, undergraduates as a whole had to pass an examination in Divinity in order to graduate, entitled “Rudiments of Faith and Religion”. On the other hand, the curriculum was singularly uninspiring and undeveloped, and revolved around a Sunday-school-on-speed familiarity with nugatory biblical facts, examined viva voce.
It was a catechism class of the most unimaginative sort. Candidates faced questions such as “Give an account of the plagues of Egypt in their right order” and “[Describe] the foreign and domestic policy of Hezekiah.” It led to knowledge of a “homeopathic dose” of theology, as one critical bishop put it. None of this brought the Church or the faith into good repute; nor did it prepare clergy well for ordination. No wonder the new theological colleges burgeoned. The culture of research among the theology professors was sluggish.
Much of Inman’s book is concerned with attempts to reform this situation, and it would therefore be easy to see the story as one simply of throwing off obfuscation; but something else was also clearly at stake. What critics of reform valued most of all in the old settlement — and E. B. Pusey was the arch-critic among them — was a sense of theology as the common patrimony of all students, not only of an elective few. Moreover, those critics also nobly shuddered at the thought of competitive examinations in theology, which they thought was “unworthy”: the “Rudiments” exam was pass/fail.
Today, we might look askance at that syllabus, but its emphasis on knowledge of the Bible and the faith of the Creeds should leave us feeling somewhat bashful about recent lists of “outcomes” for theological training, issued by Ministry Division. They have been decidedly coy about any requirement that ordinands should know the content of the faith. As I remember from my days teaching in theological colleges, the emphasis from central office has been on students’ being able to “articulate their responses” to the faith (or something like that) rather than on knowing what the deposit of faith itself might amount to in any objective sense.
The period so ably recounted in this book was one of much soul-searching on what the teaching of theology is about, and those arguments from a century ago make thought-provoking reading today. Much of what eventually transpired seems well judged: a move to ecumenism and to greater lay involvement, for instance, and to a concern for scholarly rigour, combined with a sense that theology belongs to a living and enduring community of faith.
If the picture is mainly one of change, it is worth remembering unexpected continuities. A few of the Oxford theology professorships are still reserved for clerks in Holy Orders, and, while a wholesale laicisation of the fellowships followed the 1877 Oxford University Act, the chapels remain in good heart today, and their feared implosion (to which the foundation of the Oxford Pastorate and Pusey House was a reaction) has not come about.
Inman’s focus is on Oxford throughout. Cambridge is mentioned from time to time, and so are other universities as they arise, but only rather marginally. That tight focus helps the book, but it puts the title under stress: modern English theology was not “created” primarily at Oxford, despite the legend at the top of the back cover. Indeed, as the author relates, many of the developments that were so fiercely fought over at the older university passed through Cambridge with little opposition. No matter: wrangling makes for a more engaging story than the nem. con. trajectory in the Fens.
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and currently a research fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton University.