Protestant Theology and the Making Of the Modern German University
reviewed by S. M. Hutchens
One of my teachers, a distinguished theologian thoroughly trained in the tradition of German academic theology, once said of an acquaintance that the poor chap felt incapable of preaching the gospel unless he felt up on “the latest poop from Germany.”
Thomas Albert Howard demonstrates in this magisterial and brilliantly executed study why the preacher’s dilemma was rooted in far larger and deeper considerations than slavish devotion to German school theology—the relationship between the critical science of the modern university ( Wissenschaft), born and reared in Germany, and the peculiar knowledge claimed by the Christian Church, a knowledge that one time supported the claim that theology was the queen of sciences to which all others must apply for meaning and place.
Of particular interest is Howard’s concentration on the struggles of intellectual titans such as Schleiermacher and von Harnack to maintain the right of what they considered Christian theology, in the face of those who found it essentially unscientific, or as only a differentiated expression of the universal religious impulse, to be represented in the university faculty. They argued it was worthy not only because it helped maintain the social order, serving the state by supplying educated clergy, but because it could hold its place, if properly conceived, among the true sciences.
There was a cost:
The study ends, appropriately, with Karl Barth, who, to the utter mystification of his old teacher in Berlin, made the criticism explicit: “Scientific” theology was valid only so far as it was an unapologetically ecclesial enterprise—a notion that was, to von Harnack, nothing more than enthusiasm and medievalism. Barth’s experience as a pastor in Safenwil, who found nothing to feed his people in the latest poop from Germany, may be seen in the liberal churches of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, where death from starvation is the rule, as paradigmatic.
I have never said this about a $135 one-volume monograph, and will probably never say it again: The book is, for anyone interested or involved in the academic study of theology, worth the price.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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