IT IS difficult for many of us to think of the 19th century as the century before last. The 20th century saw greater and more rapid change than any before it, and yet we still sense the influence of the 19th century as recent and relevant. This applies as much to Christianity as to anything else; so this Oxford Handbook is timely and welcome.
The “long” 19th century begins with the French Revolution and ends with the First World War. It is the period covered by this collection of essays offered by an impressive roster of international specialists.
It is, the editors say, “the first expression of a revisionist view of the religious character of that period . . . the first comprehensive mapping out of a picture emerging from the twin recognition of Christianity’s abiding intellectual influence and its radical transformation and diversification under the influence of the forces of modernity”.
It has been suggested that theology’s history as an academic discipline has tended to attract two kinds of scholars: those concerned with internal debates and doctrinal controversies, and those concerned with external and institutional questions.
This symposium represents both approaches, to very good effect. While four of the six parts offer a total of 24 essays on internal topics, the other 16 concentrate on how Christian thought interacted with movements in culture, society, and the arts.
Each essay offers a pre-history of the topic, and a summary of the impact of the 19th century on subsequent developments. Shao Kai Tseng, a Chinese contributor, provides the most succinct summary of the book’s overall message: “Western Christianity in that century was at once informed and challenged by modernity.”
It is the story of the way in which historicism dominated biblical studies; and how Christian theology, as a science, sought to accommodate Rationalism and Idealism without unduly disturbing the faithful. How this had an impact on doctrine is the subject of the final section, but the focus on Christian thought rather than theology allows for the influence of Christianity on the widest possible range of issues, as covered by the preceding sections.
Philosophy, politics, culture, the arts, and science all feature as examples of how this era was not simply a story of progressive secularisation and loss of faith. Christian thinking was all-pervasive in its influence, demonstrating a capacity both to challenge new ideas and to be itself changed by them.
Protestantism tends to dominate, with Roman Catholicism some way behind, while Orthodoxy has little more than a walk-on part. Inevitably, stars in the German intellectual firmament feature in virtually all of the essays, Kant and Hegel seeming to outshine all the others. But Kierkegaard proves to be even more influential in the evolution of philosophy and theology in the subsequent century.
Frances Knight’s essay on Anglicanism focuses rather too much on its institutional and historical aspects when, as she herself acknowledges, since the 1980s “interest in Anglican theology has slipped out of sight.” She might have done more to correct this.
There are pleasing vignettes — Middlemarch as George Eliot’s allegory on the post-Darwinian science-and-religion debate; Jesus as the inspiration for emerging nation states; chronic absenteeism on “Saint Monday” and the birth of the weekend.
The 19th century plotted both “God’s funeral” and God’s revival, thus bequeathing to the 20th century a polarising intellectual tendency, with consequences that we are still experiencing and exploring.
But, as the editors conclude, these essays “reveal the industry, honesty, and ingenuity with which Christians . . . set the agenda for theological work and scholarship on religion down to our own time, but also incorporated and influenced the paradigm shifts and emerging standards in the world at large”.
As can always be said of Oxford Handbooks, this is a handsome volume, with a comprehensive index, and suggestions for further reading. The style varies from severely matter-of-fact to highly speculative, but, overall, a story is told that is historically informed and consistently instructive.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought
Joel Rasmussen, Judith Wolfe, and Johannes Zachhuber, editors
OUP £110 (978-0-19-871840-6)
Church Times Bookshop £99