The Modern Era
To some degree the nineteenth century is a continuation of
the original passion of the Reformation, after a two century
lull. Much of the unfinished business of the reformed thinkers
such as Martin Luther and John Calvin was moved forward on the
agenda after a post-Reformation scholasticism that tended to
close the doors on creative theological thought. Yet the modern
age was distinctively modern. New developments in science and
philosophy as well as the political and economic development
of peoples and cultures were forward-looking and not mere reproductions
of patterns already laid down. It was a creative, dynamic time.
For Christian thought the modern age up to the close of World
War I provided the presuppositions on which later developments
can be evaluated. The breakup of traditional theological axioms
whether in doctrine, biblical studies, or in the interpretation
of church history required a radical reconsideration of both
the heritage and destiny of Christianity.
To select just one representative for each of the major new
theological developments of the modern age would in itself make
an impressive roll call. Philosophy in Immanuel Kant, dogmatics
in Friedrich Schleiermacher, David Strauss in Biblical Criticism,
Adolph von Harnack in Church History, William James in the psychology
of religion, the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch, to mention
only a few of the obvious---these were the fermenting spirits
of an exhilarating century.
(the marginal characters are Adam and Eve who provide
running commentary on each cartoon)
Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889 C.E.)
Often linked with Friedrich Schleiermacher, with whom he had
much in common, Ritschl moved in a different theological world.
As Schleiermacher emphasized feeling as paramount in religion,
Ritschl emphasized the will. For Schleiermacher it was the person
of Jesus Christ, whereas for Ritschl it was the work of Jesus
Christ. Schleiermacher sought to reconstruct theology, Ritschl
was more interested in the ethical implications of the kingdom
Ritschl's major work was a three-volume study on the Christian
Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1870-1874). In
the New Testament context of justification and reconciliation,
the religious experience of redemption is related, on the one
hand to the work of Jesus Christ and, on the other, to the kind
of life --- individually and collectively --- that is appropriate
to the kingdom of God. To speculate about the person of Jesus
Christ or the relation of the divine and human natures is to
try to make scientific, factual judgments in an area where value
judgments alone make sense. Albrecht Ritschl's way of dealing
with the matter was to say that we know Christ is the Son of
God because he has the worth or value of God for us. And we
know this because he accomplishes a religious and ethical work
in us which only God could do.
Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930 C.E.)
Of the newly developed perspectives in the nineteenth century
for viewing Christian thought, historical research was of prime
importance. And in this field Adolf von Harnack was unparalleled.
Born in Dorpat, Russia, he was professor of church history successively
at Leipzig, Giessen, Marburg, and at Berlin, where his fame spread
far and wide. Particularly interested in the early church period,
since he regarded it as normative, Harnack wrote an impressive
series of books and monographs on the era.
As an historian, he was intrigued by the effect of social
and cultural mores upon Christianity. Heretofore it had been
assumed that Christianity sprang of a piece from the New Testament
and remained unchanged throughout at least its early history.
Harnack pointed up the contrast between the Christianity of
the Gospels and the effect upon early Christianity of the Hellenistic
point of view. On the whole, he felt that history had been unkind
to the religion of Jesus, hardening it into dogmas which expressed
the Greek spirit of speculation but falsified the simple gospel
of Jesus of Nazareth.
Karl Barth (1886-1968 C.E.)
Both friend and foe, and Barth had many of both, agreed that
he was the theologian's theologian of the middle years of the
twentieth century. His initial publication, a story commentary
on the Pauline Epistle to the Romans, appeared in 1919. Subsequently,
a steady stream of books from his pen made his name famous in
and out of religious circles throughout the world.
Although Barth addressed himself to a great diversity of topics
from Communism to Mozart, his consuming passion for thirty years
went into the volumes containing more than 7,500 pages known
as the Church Dogmatics (1936-1962). He would doubtless wince
at the suggestion, but the only comparison would be Thomas Aquinas'
Summa Theological in the Middle Ages. A theology in the grand
manner, its sprawling contents covered the spectrum of doctrinal
interpretation that stirred theological discussion for fifty
years and more.
Increasingly it became clear that Barth's governing norm was
Christology. Wherever he dipped into doctrine, he always came
up with christocentric implications. Even in the case with the
bristling and speculative doctrine of election, Barth approached
the question from the novel view that Christ is the elect. At
a time when few theologians could find anything positive to say
for the doctrine, Barth affirmed in his first proposition, The
doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all
words that can be said or heard it is the best: God elects man.
Rudolf Otto (1868-1937 C.E.)
An early spokesperson for what came to be known as the science
of comparative religions, Rudolf Otto provided a pioneering study
on the idea of the holy. Born near Hanover, Germany, Otto studied
at Erlangen and Gottingen, where he became a professor of theology.
Travel in the East, particularly in India, deepened his interest
in non-Christian religions. Rudolf Otto stands in the line of
Friedrich Schleiermacher who held that God is apprehended only
in feeling and that we can never really know God as God really
is. All attempts at know god, in God's essence, by means of scientific
or metaphysical analysis, are doomed to failure.
In his The Idea of the Holy., Otto endeavors to describe the
non-conceptual elements of religion. It is Otto's view that
religion is rational in that it ascribes definable attributes
to the deity and that it is non-rational or suprarational in
that the essence of the deity is not exhaustively defined by
any such ascription. the non-rational is the innermost core
of religion, the experience of the holy which can only be evoked
but not defined. To describe this experience Otto coined the
term numinous. The numinous is felt to be objective and outside
the self. It is more then merely a feeling of dependence, as
Schleiermacher would have expressed it. To be understood it
must be experienced in oneself, in creature-consciousness or
creature-feeling, e.g. when a person is overwhelmed by and respond
to an overpowering might. The numinous is not identical with
feeling; rather, it is that which evokes certain affective states.
This awareness of the non-rational is found, according to
Otto, in every for every religion is endowed with a pure a priori
capacity for experiencing the holy. But for him, also, the numinous
has been most fully realized in Christianity, for here the holy
has been made manifest in the person of Jesus the Christ.