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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Wolfes, Matthias


Protestantische Theologie und moderne Welt. Studien zur Geschichte der liberalen Theologie nach 1918.


Berlin-New York: de Gruyter 1999. XIV, 837 S. gr.8 = Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann, 102. Lw. DM 298,-. ISBN 3-11-016639-9.


Mark D. Chapman

The study of the history of liberal theology after the First World War has not received the critical attention it deserves: the dominance of Karl Barth and the dialectical theologians after the catastrophe of 1918 has meant that the alternative theological tradition, which displays many continuities with the period before the war - and yet also important differences - has been frequently subjected at best to caricature, and at worst to ridicule. In order to understand a crucial period in German theological history, however, it is vital to remember that liberal theology did not die with Troeltsch, Herrmann and Harnack: a younger generation continued to represent something of their different liberal traditions, attempting, like their forebears, to relate theology to religious experience and to the study of history. Consequently, the often painful theological dialogue with modernity in the inter-war years was not characterized solely by the hostility of the anti-modernist positivists and the dialectical theologians. Instead the ambivalent relationship of theology to modernity, which had shaped theology throughout the nineteenth century, persisted even after the supposed defeat of the liberal tradition in 1918. As W.' impressive volume makes clear, the Antihistorismus of Barth, Brunner and Gogarten was paralleled by a theological tradition which sought in various ways to adhere to the legacy of Schleiermacher and his heirs.

This massive work of 586 pages of text and a further 223 pages of bibliography, is a preliminary attempt to fill the gaps in the historical analysis of theology in the 1920's and 1930's. It is based on the author's Heidelberg dissertation and offers a comprehensive account of three very different theologians who stood in the liberal tradition and whose main period of activity was between the two world wars. The overall aim is to paint a picture of the main characteristics of liberal theology in the inter-war period through an exhaustive discussion of the literary output, as well as biographies of Horst Stephan (1873-1954), Georg Wehrung (1880-1959) and Georg Wobbermin (1869-1943): extensive use is made of unpublished materials and much hitherto unknown personal information has been unearthed. What is clear through the course of the book is that it is extraordinarily difficult to make generalisations about liberal theology: the theological systems, political activity and church orientations of the different theologians, although containing family resemblances, are marked by very real differences.

The first of the three main sections offers a lengthy treatment of the much disputed concept of 'liberal theology', together with a summary of the current research in this area. Given the period under discussion, the analysis of the role played by the First World War in the change of theological direction is crucial. What becomes clear is that despite the massive social and political changes, there were also significant continuities with the past. In particular, some liberal theologians (including Harnack, Naumann and Troeltsch) were involved in setting up the educational and church policy in the early years of the new Weimar Republic which in many ways mark a culmination of the pre-War policy of many liberals. The author then goes on to discuss the main characteristics of liberal theology from the eighteenth century, paying special attention to the different currents of liberalism in the fifty years before the First World War: the Protestantenverein (as a populist organisation) is differentiated from those more academic liberal theologians associated with the religionsgeschichtliche Schule and the supporters of the journal Die christliche Welt. The understanding of education and of the relationship between individual freedom and the role of the state are discussed at length: again it becomes apparent that liberal theologians both before and after the First World War held quite different views. Furthermore, there was much dispute between liberals over the relationship of religion and theology with the rest of life, and equally with wider academic learning. Some maintained a unique irreducible sphere for religion, while others sought to understand it as part of the flux of history - whether there was any escape from this apparent historical reductionism continued to dominate liberal theological discussion long after Troeltsch's death. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that divisions over the role of history in theology, and of theological epistemology more generally, continued to be much debated between liberals long after the First World War: the scientific methods of liberal theology, which are painstakingly analysed, were always extremely diverse.

After a brief rationale for his selection of the three chosen authors, W. goes on in Section II to outline their successive biographies and academic careers. Throughout, he seeks to integrate the literary output with the political and cultural presuppositions of the theologian. Academic, cultural, publishing and church policy are discussed in detail, with many interesting excurses (e.g. on the motives and history of the Töpelmann series, 122-124). The attitudes towards the Weimar Republic, and the social pluralism in both church and state which it represented, varied greatly between the three theologians. Parallels between attitudes to theology and society are sometimes explicitly drawn: this is clear from the work of Horst Stephan, who is discussed first. As editor of the Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, he did not seek a unity of method, but rather sought to maintain an atmosphere of tolerance, where quite different methods could gain expression. Pluralism was little more than the expression of the chaos of meaning in contemporary life. It was Stephan's achievement that he allowed this pluralism to continue despite all tendencies towards uniformity from both the National Socialists and the Confessionalists. Although he did not consider himself a liberal (138), he remained liberal-minded, and at the same time held a critical distance from the totalitarianism of the 1930's, even defending the Jewish contribution to philosophy of religion as late as 1935. However, Stephan was torn - like so many others - between loyalty to his role as an employee of the state, and his loyalty to the Gospel: the tensions between the competing demands on his duty make often painful reading.

Georg Wehrung, who is discussed next, although remaining more distant than Stephan from the organized structures of liberalism, was equally concerned with the relationship between theology and the modern world, especially the role of history in theology. As the token liberal on the editorial team which produced the Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie, he offered an alternative voice to the other editors of the confessionalist-dominated journal. As with other liberals, Wehrung devoted much time to the study of Schleiermacher, whose relevance for the present day was unquestioned. Again, Wehrung's academic theology was connected with his stance towards the politics of state and church - as with Stephan, the same tensions over duty and commitment are again apparent; and like Stephan, Wehrung offered criticism of the racist ideology of the National Socialist state in the light of the Christian understanding of the human being.

Finally, Georg Wobbermin, the senior of the theologians chosen and only four years younger than Troeltsch (whom he succeeded at Heidelberg), is discussed at far greater length. He is a far more ambivalent figure: on the one hand he was a keen ecumenist and very well-known in the English-speaking world, and also pioneer of the psychological method in theology (and translator of William James), he was, on the other hand, a member of extreme right-wing political movements (including the 'Bund der Aufrechten') and in the 1930's an enthusiastic supporter of the National Socialists. There is no hint of Stephan's tolerant pluralism in Wobbermin - instead the dominant political and theological themes are those which promote a unity of world-view with all the sinister repercussions of such movements. In the face of the seeming chaos of the Weimar system, Wobbermin saw the need for a totalitarian renewal of a Christian German culture under a strong leader. A member of the NSDAP from 1933, he quickly became one of the leading theologians of the Third Reich, defending the Arian paragraph and entering into controversy with other more questioning theologians of the time (including Bultmann and Barth, whom he accused of making papal claims). A fascinating and deeply disturbing section recounts the lengthy controversy with Emanuel Hirsch, who became the subject of a rumour - possibly initiated by Wobbermin - that he was not of Arian blood. Most distressing of all, however, is the history of Wobbermin's enthusiastic support of the ,Institut zur Erforschung und Beseitigung des jüdischen Einflusses auf das deutsche kirchliche Leben' with its quasi-scientific researches and efforts 'to purify' the German nation of all Jewish influences. The inevitable conclusion here is that liberal theologians were not always remotely liberal.

The third section comprises a lengthy discussion of the leading theological ideas of the three thinkers. By means of extended exposition of their main works, W. shows how their systems differ, especially in their approaches to the relationship between faith, revelation and history and over the scientific character of theological method, particularly the relationship between the subjectivity of religious feeling and the objectivity of science. The influence of Schleiermacher is dominant with analyses of the 'essence of Christianity', although each of the three made original contributions to systematic theology. Wobbermin's theology is perhaps most difficult to characterize: although it makes use of the liberal method which places primacy on religious feeling, there is at the same time a decidedly anti-liberal aspect. If the supremacy of autonomy is seen as one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment, then his call for a renewal of a theonomous world-view based upon the total claim of church and state must be considered anti-modern (and in that sense, it is difficult to characterize him as a consistent liberal). Moreover, the discussion of the relationship of history and faith reveals just how crucial is a historical understanding of Jesus of Nazareth if theology is not to collapse into mere reflection on the community's faith.

In a relatively brief concluding section, W. outlines a series of propositions which form his characterization of an 'ideal concept' of liberal theology in the 1920's and 1930's (even if it was not represented in its pure form by any of the theologians chosen). These propositions are grouped around the twin themes of ecclesiastical faith and academic study, enunciated by Stephan in his Geschichte der evangelischen Theologie (Berlin, 1938, 1). There are seven related areas: theology and faith, theology and church, theology and Glaubenslehre, the presentation of Glaubenslehre, theology as Wissenschaft, theology and ,christliche Praxis', and finally Protestant theology and modern world. Although now one side of the polarity and now the other is emphasised by the chosen theologians, the overall conclusion is one of tension: against the dogmatic method of the positivists and dialectical theologians remains the historical method and yet this always presents a problem to be overcome. The underlying tension is thus between the inherited doctrines of the faith (nearly all of which were retained in traditional form by the three figures discussed) and the role and legitimacy of the modern world. Because the different figures offered different solutions, liberal theology remained a many-sided and disputed phenomenon between the wars. What is most important, however, for anybody wishing to maintain a liberal method in theology (which W. suggests might still be feasible, 558) is that the tension between tradition and modernity is retained: overcoming the tension in the name of a unified world-view (which was Wobbermin's error) or tradition (the fault of the neo-Confessionalists) renders theology insufficiently critical and ultimately ethically impotent and sometimes positively illiberal. Pluralism is more important than unity.

Overall, W. has contributed much to the study of the history of theology. His book offers a unique insight into the complexities of theology in the Weimar and Hitler eras; at the same time it provides massive resources, particularly bibliographical, for further research. It is long enough to have been three separate studies, and some of the material has the feeling of being rather detached from the overall theme; similarly some of the connections between the biographical and the expository sections are not sufficiently drawn out. These are, however, only minor criticisms and should not detract from the enormous achievement this book represents. My hope is that Wolfes might be able to condense the fruits of his research into a couple of hundred pages.