Protestant theology has been constructed over centuries. We shouldn’t look for it only among the Reformers, but also among their successors who were able to enrich it, renew it, reorient it and rectify it. A recent book retraces the successive stages of this outworking which has not finished, but still moves forward.
Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
Under the leadership of Pierre-Olivier Léchot, eleven academics have contributed to the book “Introduction to the History of Theology” (Introduction à l’histoire de la théologie, Geneva, Labor et Fides, 2018), in reality the history of protestant theology, even if it also deals with what preceded or accompanied it.
From this book—which I read with pleasure and from which I learned a great deal—I retain only the chapters on the centuries (17th, 18th and 19th) which have long been neglected. When I was a student we leaped merrily from Calvin to Karl Barth as if protestant reflection in the mean time had been a sleeping beauty. We were interested in the events but hardly in the theologies of these three centuries, which gave the impression that Protestantism had continued to live but had stopped thinking between the Reformation and the First World War.
This book gives its proper place to this previously despised period. It is characterised by the emergence of a “neo-protestantism” which simultaneously inherited and differed from the theology of the Reformers in a mixture of continuities, transformations (or “slippages”) and ruptures. This process began as early as the classic age with the debates about predestination ( which some radicalised and others softened), the authority of the biblical text (which controversies led to hardening while historical research began to call it into question) or the role of reason in religion.
The 19th century was a turning point. Previously people had relied on a natural knowledge of God: they believed that God was perceived as creator in the observation or study of the world and that then God was revealed as saviour in the gospel. Thereafter there was a tendency to seek God’s trace and God’s presence preferably in the interiority of the person: they relied on what the human subject feels when it enters into itself rather than on what it perceives when it examines what surrounds it. Religion (dissociated, following Kant, from science) suggested existential meanings and most knowledge of beings, objects, or supernatural events. Theology became interested in feeling, intuition, moral awareness, religious experience, mental structure.
At the same time, a multiplicity of historical studies obliged people to understand the authority of the Bible differently. It was considered less and less as a text reproducing verbatim the very Word of God, even if it was believed that this Word reaches us through it. Its stories do not seek to recount what actually happened; they have a pastoral aim, they want to nurture and orient the readers’ faith. The accent rests not so much on the literal content of the texts (on what they say) as on the interpretation of life which they express (on what is said through them).
So, simultaneously the truth of religion (on what is it based and what does it mean?) and the truth of the biblical texts (about what are they talking and what exactly do they mean?) are in play. These questions are at the origin of liberal protestantism. Knowing how they arose, understanding the positions and debates which they stirred up, does not dispense us from reflecting on them on our own account, nor does it bring us solutions to rehash, but it illuminates our own questions and researches.
This book is learned and… sometimes demands an effort from the reader; it is nonetheless clear and accessible. And it helps us to understand ourselves better.
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