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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte
Christ, Providence and History. Hans W. Frei’s Public Theology.
London-New York: T & T Clark International (Continuum) 2004. XII, 287 S. gr.8°. Kart. £ 29,99. ISBN 0-567-08052-8.
David F. Ford
Hans W. Frei was perhaps the most important American theologian of the 20th century. He was not simply American, having been born in 1922 to secularised Jewish parents in Berlin, and as a theologian he was complexly both European and American in his sensibility. In 1935 he was sent for safety to a Quaker school in England, where he became a Christian. Frei moved with his parents to the United States in 1938. After some time in textile engineering he eventually studied at Yale (notably with H. Richard Niebuhr – perhaps the other main candidate for the century’s leading American theologian) which for most of his life was his main theological home. He wrote relatively little: there were three major books – The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, The Identity of Jesus Christ and the posthumous Types of Christian Theology – supplemented by some major essays and articles (notably on H. Richard Niebuhr, D. F. Strauss, hermeneutics, Schleiermacher and Barth). Yet these distilled a great intensity and range of thinking. Frei was also a dedicated teacher and influential colleague, who through these relationships shaped many minds and lives. He died in 1988 and only now is his achievement beginning to be appreciated as a whole.
Mike Higton’s account of his thought is by far the most thorough and perceptive to have appeared to date; indeed it is something of a tour de force. He not only gives a lucid, authoritative account of Frei’s work in the context of his life (based on extensive use of archive material); he also engages thoughtfully with Frei in ways that draw the reader into the questions and debates with which Frei was involved and opens the way for constructive appropriation of his theology in the 21st century. It amounts to a model combination of scholarship and theological thinking in the interests of enabling Frei to continue contributing to Christian thinking and living.
Part of Frei’s genius was in identifying some of the deepest problems of Christian theology in recent centuries and in opening up ways through them. The major constructive and critical theological achievements of the modern period were in the German academic tradition from Schleiermacher to Barth, and Frei was steeped in this and in its 18th century antecedents. He combined this with deep knowledge of English and American writers, not only in theology but also in history, literature, philosophy and hermeneutics.
One key issue with which he wrestled all through his academic career was the relation of history to faith and theology. H. traces Frei’s efforts to meet the challenges of Strauss and Troeltsch, and the daring yet thorough way in which he came to the point of being able to laugh – ›fairly and not sarcastically‹ – at Strauss. The secret of this laughter was the way Frei found to do justice to Strauss’s concern for history while reversing the positions of history and Christian faith: instead of asking with Strauss how Christian faith might fit into ›the constraining grid of historical Wissenschaft‹, Frei sought to find ›the proper location within Christian faith for something like the historical world of Strauss and Troeltsch‹ (35). That ›something like‹ involved refusing – despite the temptation to separate history into ›inner‹ and ›outer‹, or to find some other way of insulating Christian faith against secular historical accounts that allowed no room for the essential, normative and universal – to give up on the principal location of Christian truth being in the public history of people and events in interaction over time. It also embraced an appreciation both of the ›history-likeness‹ of the realistic narratives of the Bible, in particular the Gospels, and of the importance of their reference to actual history (H. is a clear guide to the subtleties of Frei’s thought on meaning and reference). But history’s ›location within Christian faith‹ involved both appreciating the ›unsubstitutable identity of Jesus Christ‹ as portrayed in those realistic narratives and also doing justice to the resurrection as intrinsic to Jesus’ identity. Some of H.’s most perceptive comments are on the resurrection, which is treated at several points in the book. Frei’s combination of a definite, well-argued affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection with a radical reserve about how much can be said about it is one of his most original theological contributions, but it has often been misconstrued. H. succeeds not only in expounding what Frei actually says in various writings but also in making the deep connections with other aspects of his thought – on God as Trinity, power and powerlessness, the Holy Spirit, the identity of Jesus, bodiliness, Gospel narratives, providence, figural interpretation, meaning and reference, historical proof, the dangers of ›epistemological monophysitism‹ and the most appropriate type of public and politically alert Christian theology.
Christian faith sees the Gospel story at the centre of a larger story of God’s ways with the world. Frei draws on and moves beyond Auerbach, Dante and Barth in his post-critical recovery of figural interpretation of the Bible as a way of reading the Old Testament in relation to the New and reading the rest of history in relation to the Bible. If I were choosing just one theme from this book to commend to 21st century Christians it would be H.’s persuasive account of Frei’s creative retrieval of figural interpretation. The eclipse of figural interpretation that accompanied the eclipse of realistic biblical narrative was a contingent historical event whose genesis and devastating consequences Frei described and analysed. He did not simply try to revive premodern figural interpretation, but showed how it could be renewed while taking seriously the history of its rejection. Above all, he shows how ›figural imagination and secular sensibility go hand in hand‹ (166).
Reading the account by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age of the transformation of the conditions for religious faith in the West between 1500 and 2000, I am struck by the prophetic relevance of Frei’s lifelong grappling with the question of history and faith in a time when the ›default position‹ of most members of the intellectual and academic elites is one of religious scepticism. Frei offers a faithful, imaginative and intellectually rigorous way of figuring oneself and the rest of reality into a God-centred universe, doing justice, through constant discernment in the Spirit of the ways of God, to life’s diversity, complexity, contingency and surprises. It is ›a thoroughly theological secularity‹ (167) that, as H. says, opens the door to going deeper into the Gospel and deeper into the realities of our world, faithfully though fallibly discerning and serving the purposes of God. I suspect that among those who go through that door will be some of the most important Christian thinkers of the present century.
H.’s book will not be the last word on this major theologian (one longs for more on many topics, such as Frei’s readings of particular German and English thinkers; his philosophy and social science; his relationships within the ›Yale School‹ – H. Richard Niebuhr, Lindbeck, Kelsey, Meeks, Childs; his response to Ricœur; his institutional commitments and achievements in relation to religious studies and theology at Yale; and his actual politics), but it is by far the best there is, and it is to be commended to anyone concerned with the challenges facing Christian theology in recent centuries and today.