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Betz, Hans Dieter, Browning, Don S., Janowski, Bernd, u. Eberhard Jüngel [Eds.]
Religion Past & Present. Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion.
Leiden/Boston: Brill. Vol. 1: A – Bhu. 2007. CIV, 720 S. ISBN 978-90-04-13980-0. Vol. 2: Bia – Chr. 2007. CXII, 664 S. ISBN 978-90-04-14608-2. Vol. III: Chu – Deu. 2007. CXII, 795 S. m. Abb. ISBN 978-90-04-13979-4. Vol. IV: Dev – Ezr. 2008. CXI, 789 S. m. Abb. u. Ktn. ISBN 978-90-04-14688-4. Vol. V: F – Haz. 2009. CXI, 685 S. m. Ktn. ISBN 978-90-04-14689-1. 27,2 x 20,1 cm. Geb. EUR 249,00 pro Band.
Religion Past and Present, the first five volumes of which are con-sidered here, is the English translation of the fourth edition of Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. It is by any reckoning a remark-able achievement; both in the original and in its English-language version it is surely destined to remain a standard point of reference for at least a couple of decades.
Though RGG4 completely overhauls the three previous editions, it shares the basic conception of its predecessors. It aims to provide economical coverage of all the major fields in Christian theology and religious studies, as well as of cognate areas (history, philosophy, the human and social sciences, law, literature and the other arts). In so doing it presents a thorough but manageably compact summation of the status quaestionis of the topics which it treats, covering both material and formal questions, and identifying points of particular contemporary concern. As a work of reference it does not align itself with any one school; however, its approach to its task – in such matters as the choice of lemmata or the assignment of space – is generally that of modern German Protestantism. Alongside that, however, it seeks to be international, both in its content and in its editors and authors.
All this is now made available in translation, providing what the Preface claims to be ›depth and breadth of information unmatched by any comparable theological reference work in English‹. Any translated work, especially a work of reference, retains much of its original character, and RPP is no exception. Its authors are largely German; its style is sober and conscientious, and it tends to look out on the world with the German Protestant eyes of the original. However, in the course of the move from German to English, some minor changes have been made: some articles of negligible interest to a non-German language audience have been dropped, a few articles on recently-deceased figures have been added, and other adaptations made to render the work as useful as possible to its new readership. In particular, bibliographies have been revised, although sometimes titles listed in the bibliographies are German translations of English originals. The English is generally excellent; blemishes or infelicities are very rare indeed. The physical production of the volumes is to a very high standard; it is durably bound, set in an excellent typeface for maximum readability, and maps and plates are clearly presented.
The articles treat their topic from the standpoint of, and by using the tools of, theological and religious Wissenschaft, with much space devoted to historical description and conceptual mapping. The ethos of the volumes is restrained and impartial, but by no means disengaged or secular. Theology is broadly conceived as a scientific enterprise with a dual responsibility to the academy and to communities of faith. This means, for example, that articles on major theological topics include coverage of practical theology, and that the constructive dogmatic sections of such articles speak from the inside of Christian faith, though in a suitably modest and self-possessed way. As already noted, there is a general theological orientation in the material, which, though by no means universally present (many articles offer no occasion for its expression) is often discernible in entries on systematic, dogmatic and practical theology, as well as in the periodization and distribution of weight in some historical entries. This orientation expresses what the Preface explicitly identifies as RPP’s ›coherent theological vision rooted in the tradition of modern Protestantism‹. ›Modern‹ here is a shorthand term for a way of setting theology in relation to broader intellectual and socio-cultural developments since the Enlight-enment; ›Protestant‹ is largely synonymous with a particular reading of the Lutheran wing of the Reformation and its modern expressions.
The orientation is often visible in the historical surveys found within articles on doctrinal topics (though somewhat less prominent, it should be noted, in strictly historical articles). In such surveys, there is often to be found a concentration on the Lutheran Reformation as a (sometimes the) decisive turning-point in the history of Christian thought and practice, that to which earlier phases lead and from which later movements arise. ›Modern‹ Christianity consists in figuring out how to identify and articulate essential Reformation insights while negotiating with the intellectual culture of modernity. One result is that patristic and me-diaeval materials tend to feature less prominently in the historical accounts, and less attention is paid to their constructive potential (ressourcement interest in pre-Reformation Christianity, currently strong in some French- and English-language theology, remains almost invisible in RPP). A further result is that the Calvinist and (to a lesser extent) Roman Catholic traditions have less profile.
In the more constructive treatments of Christian theological topics, mainstream modern Lutheran theology tends to be the default position, especially in the preference for a soteriological rather than speculative orientation in Christian doctrine. In the article on ›Christianity‹ in volume 2, for example, there is a striking disjunction between, on the one hand, the studiedly neutral com-parative historical survey which constitutes the main body of the piece, and, on the other hand, section IV which treats systematic theology and sets out (with admirable clarity) an account of the identity of Christianity in quite clearly modern European Pro-testant form. Something of the same can be found in many places; random examples include the articles on ›Adiaphora‹, ›Causality‹ or ›Freedom‹. Perspective is not, however, tendentiousness. From its particular – quite generous – perspective, RPP is generally scrupulous in recording in an impartial way the range of expressions of the Christian faith and of ways of interpreting its phenomena. That said, readers will probably profit more from the surveys of data and of the status quaestionis of a particular topic than they will from the synthetic judgements made by some of the articles.
Many of the articles are outstandingly good. Among the major pieces, mention might be made of those on ›Baptism‹ (the precise and accurate account of early developments is especially impres-sive); ›Calvin‹ (an extraordinarily well-constructed and informative piece which presents a very judicious account of major scholarly issues in a remarkably economical way); ›Bible Translations‹; ›Church History/Church Historiography‹; ›Early Church‹ (a superlative comprehensive treatment, illuminating everything it touches); ›Eucharist‹. Among a host of excellent smaller articles, especial mention might be made of those on ›Analogy‹, ›Conscience‹ and ›Covenant‹ (this last including a judicious presentation of the Calvinist tradition). The articles on particular countries are also uniformly excellent surveys of cultural-religious history, sociology and ethnography. Inevitably in a work of this scale, there are entries which disappoint, though they are few. The article on ›Cross/Crucifixion‹ provides a clear survey of historical and iconographical materials, but is thin in its treatment of the dogmatic dimensions of the topic. Or again, the entry on ›Exegesis‹ is weak in treating ›new directions‹, and does not draw attention to the substantial renewal of interest in pre-modern hermeneutics.
Coverage is admirably thorough. RPP is especially strong in the theological disciplines (and, among them, in church history, sys-tematics, ethics and practical theology). The religious studies materials, though they remain to some degree subsidiary to the theological concentration, are by no means treated in a cursory way. Of the related disciplines, the articles on philosophical topics gener-ally reflect the agenda of the modern German tradition; analytical philosophy of religion is scarcely visible. The social sciences, how-ever, are not accorded quite the attention one might expect them to receive in a work dedicated to presenting, inter alia, current re-search on religion: the sub-entry on ›Scientific Anthropology‹ covers less than two columns, and includes only a very brief (and rather dated) account of social and cultural anthropology.
The proportions of the articles generally accord with the importance of their topics in current scholarly inquiry. There are some exceptions to be noted, however. A number of entries might be considered disproportionately lengthy. An excellent informative treatment of ›Church Architecture‹, for example, runs to 106 columns (some of this space being given over to plates and diagrams). ›God‹, by contrast, receives only 60 columns, including shorter articles on each of the triune persons. Other articles are unexpectedly brief. This is especially the case with major patristic theologians: with the exception of the entry on ›Augustine‹, most of the thinkers of the early church are dealt with only summarily. ›Basil the Great‹ re-ceives only four more lines than ›Baudelaire‹; ›Clement of Alexandria‹ is given roughly the same space as neighbouring articles on ›Corneille‹, ›Crossroads‹ and ›Crüger‹.
Such matters aside, RPP is without any doubt a splendid achievement, which amply fulfils its aims. For scope, penetration to the essentials, concision, balance and scholarly judgement it has no rival in English. It affords the user easy access to a wealth of accu-rate information about individual topics, and gives comprehensive guidance to the state of play in theology and religious studies. For the wider community of research in Europe and North America, and in theological cultures still shaped by them, it is an outstanding testimony to the close scholarly relations of theology and religious studies, and to their importance for the academic and eccle-sial publics.