Protestant Theology and the Making Of the Modern German University
by Thomas Albert Howard
Oxford University Press, 2006
(496 pages, $135.00, hardcover)
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:
Harnack’s [and one may also say, Schleiermacher’s] politically successful efforts to defend theology’s legitimacy in the university (though ostensibly conservative when measured against more strident scientific and social democratic voices) rests on and brings to seasoned expression a much greater discontinuity in the nineteenth century: the redefinition of Protestant theology (or at least influential sectors thereof) not as an apologetic, practical, confessional, or ecclesial enterprise, but as a critical, academic, scientific and, indeed, profoundly statist one—the submission of Heilsgeschichte to the criteria of Weltgeschichte, the submission of theology to the guidance of Wissenschaft, the submission of the training of future church leaders to the custody of the state.
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 is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.
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