Theology and the University: A Lover’s Quarrel – Jonathan D. Teubner

Jonathan D. Teubner on Johannes Zachhuber’s Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Johannes Zachhuber, Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany: From F.C. Baur to Ernst Troeltsch, Oxford University Press, 2013, 336pp., $150
Johannes Zachhuber, Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany: From F.C. Baur to Ernst Troeltsch, Oxford University Press, 2013, 336pp., $150

“A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution,” Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter written to philosopher Thomas Cooper in 1814. These words uttered by America’s third President, regarding his plans to found the University of Virginia, echo a standard Enlightenment principle: theology and the university do not mix. Jefferson shared this premise with the universities and academies of Paris, where theology was banished to the fringes of history, philosophy, and classics. For Jefferson and his Parisian compatriots, the future would be free of religion — and of the privilege and pettiness that it introduced into society. The university would be this future’s breeding ground.

Religion has a spectral quality at the twenty-first century American university, not only in its bricks and mortar but also in its curriculum and proceedings. For every university choral society singing Bach’s mass in B-minor, there are as many or more works of English literature, riddled with religious allusion, assigned to undergraduates. University societies — from sororities and fraternities to ultimate Frisbee teams and dance troupes — reflect the now skeletal reality of a formerly holistic university education. Though keggers and college dance have seemingly little in common, they are the vestiges of a university education that sought, in the words of John Henry Newman, to train students to be “good members of society.” President, Dean, Professor, Student: the hierarchical titles of the enlightened few point to an idea of a community, an idea whose ghost dwells on American university campuses today.

So where is the study of theology? Is it also an apparition in today’s university? Surely Mr. Jefferson’s now twenty-first century university, with its glimmering hospital buildings, schools of business and law, and tower gymnasiums has no place for theology and religion. Yet, there it is on Mr. Jefferson’s grounds just as it is on Harvard Yard. Despite certain fundamentalists proclaiming the death of theology, and the modern university its murderer, the story of theology’s survival from the early decades of the nineteenth century to present-day religious studies departments is not a tale of survival on the acorns left behind by the university maintenance team. It is a lover’s quarrel in three acts: marriage, divorce, and, if the optimists are right, reconciliation.

Theology founded the great medieval universities of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. Under the direction of the monks charged with Christendom’s education, priests in training read ancient literature and philosophy alongside vast codices of biblical commentary. By the eighteenth century, students — still only men — were by and large sufficiently modern that they had no need for theology, but neither could they envision their culture without the university. Hence the university, doing what any sensible modern would do, sued for divorce. Although the initial arguments were heard by Sorbonists, Swabians would be the judge. The modern university with its research priorities, social commitments, and political consultation has its more immediate provenance in the German university inaugurated in the early nineteenth century. And it is the story of this second act, with its infidelities, harsh judgments, and apparently insurmountable differences, that Johannes Zachhuber narrates in his magisterial Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany: From F.C. Baur to Ernst Troeltsch. Yet it is the reconciliation of theology and the university for which Zachhuber ultimately hopes.

The German nineteenth century is not well understood in Anglophone circles, and its theology even less so. Zachhuber, who trained in his native Germany before taking up a lectureship at Oxford, is better placed than most to tell us this story. At the founding of the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1810, the question put to theologians was: in what sense are you the peer to philosophers, philologists, historians? This was not a question the theologians and their churches could duck. Theology needed the university. Where else would scholars be able to aggregate Christian teaching in order to pass it on from generation to generation? Theology thus needed to shape up or ship out. The central impulse of German theology from this period, often referred to as “liberal theology,” was thus to justify its existence at the emerging research universities.

But it was not only a matter of survival in the strict economic sense that might today send chills down the backs of humanists of many different stripes. If theology was going to matter, it needed to reform intellectually. It needed to become scientific, wissenschaftlich (from the German word for science, Wissenschaft, which includes not only the natural sciences but also the social and human sciences). Theology had to adapt to society, learn from the other disciplines, and try to take less of its own history at face value. It is this reformist impulse that defines nineteenth-century theology as “liberal.” Theology’s liberalism was a product of its learning how to be scientific: justifying itself according to principles of internal organization and method, and defending its presuppositions and fundamental assumptions.

At the founding of the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1810, the question put to theologians was: in what sense are you the peer to philosophers, philologists, historians?

For the past two hundred years of Christian theology, few issues have been debated with such passion as the status of theology as science. This fact comes as news to many people, even some who work within the field of academic theology, perhaps because the traditional narrative describes how the despisers bested the advocates of wissenschaftlich theology. As a result, students in America’s top divinity schools, seminaries, and even a handful of religious studies departments are likely to encounter a version of theology that shrugs off this sobriquet, preferring instead a “church dogmatics” that holds itself accountable to the intellectual principles found exclusively within faith communities.

Ernst Troeltsch, the sage of Zachhuber’s account, predicted this divide. In his 1908 essay, “Half a Century of Theology,” Troeltsch characterized theology since the eighteenth century as a drifting-apart. While the historical disciplines of church history and biblical studies embraced the wissenschaftlich standards shared by other disciplines in the humanities, the normative disciplines of systematic and practical theology increasingly came to discover a different set of standards. These allegedly new principles included the epistemic value of faith, the authority of biblical scriptures, and the unique experience of the church in the last two millennia. Nothing could have been more regressive, so the wissenschaftlich theologians thought, to theology’s coming of age.

The institutional challenges posed to the theologians of the nineteenth century were part of a more general modernization of higher education during this period. Just as we are experiencing the early tremors of a different sort of university modernization today, brought on by the disruptive power of the internet, so too does every age fear institutional change. Our university mottos reflect this fear, even anticipate it; semper eadem, the Latin epigraph declaring Trinity College Cambridge “always the same,” is one revealing example. But all administrators seem to intuit Newman’s paradoxical wisdom: the university must change to stay the same. In that sense, theology’s newly adopted critical discourse was its practitioners’ plea for continuity.

Theology’s anxiety with its institutional context, discovered both in its isolationist temptations and its accommodationist enticements, is deeply embedded in its history. A theologian’s need to re-think her method can become as neurotic as a film director’s need to explain his cinematography. But neuroses have their advantages. In this case, theology’s concern for the shape of its discipline provides important continuity: from Irenaeus of Lyons’s insistence on the bishop’s authority to interpret scripture in the second century, to Thomas Aquinas’s resolve to integrate the insights of Aristotle into thirteenth-century theology, to our present epoch’s curiosity with the techniques of Michel Foucault.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, Palais Universitaire, Strasbourg. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Friedrich Schleiermacher, Palais Universitaire, Strasbourg. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The great German theologian, philosopher, and philologist Friedrich Schleiermacher provides the opening scene for Zachhuber’s story. Schleiermacher was challenged to defend theology’s place in the new German research university. His response would influence the course of modern theology. Schleiermacher proposed retaining the traditional structure of a university system, one single institution that held the three professional disciplines of theology, law, and medicine in a single universe of knowledge. Philosophy would provide the gravitational force by which all of the disciplines stayed in their orbit. Theology, law, and medicine would not only benefit from the exchange with philosophy, but any professor of these disciplines who did not actively contribute to philosophy did not deserve their place in the university. Schleiermacher’s scheme, while successfully maintaining a place for theology in the university, arguably made theology subservient to philosophy. For this, Schleiermacher earned his reputation as the “father of modern liberal theology.”

Yet modern theology was more than its power struggle with philosophy: history was courting theology on the side. According to Zachhuber, history and its early methodological disputes indelibly stamped theology with its “modern” label. While something like history as an account of the past had been written since antiquity, history as an academic discipline with enunciated methods was a product of the eighteenth century. The central idea of the Enlightenment was the supremacy of reason over, in particular, tradition and religion. But Enlightenment historiography not only wanted to rid its narratives of myth; it also demanded systematic coherence. The historian had to relate the individual events in such a way that they become plausible to the reader. History was the demystification of the past. And history now wanted to demystify theology.

But forbidden love has its problems, and history was no exception. How could historical events, contingent as they are on specific circumstances and contexts, shed any light on theological truths that transcend the messy particulars? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s discussion of this problem gave rise to the name by which it would be known: Lessing’s Ditch. But his solution to bridging the gap between contingent history and necessary truth is rather more influential than most appreciate. Lessing suggested that a grand narrative could bridge this duality. A grand narrative seeks to provide an account of the relations between the events of history that provides a rationality for the succession of social systems and gradual development of social conditions. All this grand narrative needed to demonstrate was, of course, that speculative insights were the work of divinely ordained history.

Not to be outdone by history’s challenge, the German philosophical tradition gave rise to Idealism. Idealism is best understood as a reaction to Immanuel Kant’s distinction between “things in themselves” and the realm of “appearances.” The empirical realm, governed as it is by physical laws, could be recorded by a chronicler, a philosophical stamp-collector; but to account for a priori truths required transcendental philosophy, and theology was not up to the task. There were two major responses to Kant consequential to the development of theology. First, Schleiermacher, in essence accepting Kant’s denial of proper cognition to theology, sought to ground theology in feeling. And second, denying Kant his distinction between “things in themselves” and the realm of “appearances,” Idealists sought to demonstrate that philosophically interpreted history could yield truth. Although Kant’s most famous Idealist heir, G.W.F. Hegel, wrote the authoritative synthesis of philosophy and history, it was Friedrich Schelling, Hegel’s sometime roommate at the University of Tübingen, who translated Idealism into a philosophical history that theologians would embrace.

Thus theological historicism was born. For its first steps, Idealist philosophy of history held theology’s hand, giving it some philosophical assurance for its discernment of supposedly stable ground as it walked the historical paths. This process of historicization had become common currency. Public discourse and rational inquiry were increasingly reconstructed as historical development or evolution, and theology reflected this reality. All of the protagonists of Zachhuber’s account actively engaged in historical research. History would not only cleanse theology of its mythical impurities, but also would provide it with a method that was both acceptably philosophical and promisingly theological. In a fateful turn, theology had found its queen: historicism would offer a way to unite historical research and theological truth. Or so nineteenth century theologians hoped.

In academic theology, there are two major thinkers who define modern theology: Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics are the building blocks for any modern systematic theology thought to deserve the name. Yet, we often ignore what happened between the two, the effects of Schleiermacher, the influences on Barth. Zachhuber’s dense book attempts to fill in the decades between the 1830s and the early 1900s by narrating the development of the Tübingen School and its successor, the Ritschlian School, the two most consequential theological movements in nineteenth century Germany. For this offering alone, Zachhuber’s book deserves to be read.

In the Tübingen and Ritschlian Schools, Zachhuber finds not only the defining thinkers between Schleiermacher and Barth, but also two schools of thought that reacted to the methodological challenge of uniting philosophical speculation and historical research. The methodological challenge gives narrative coherence to Zachhuber’s account, and it is also the point from which he contests the dominant narrative of modern theology as birthed from an Idealism shorn of its historical program. The standard account is told from the vantage point of philosophy. Modern theology was forged in the Kantian fires and hammered into shape by Schleiermacher, after which philosophers started to polish the rough-hewn work of theology. It was not until the early twentieth century that theologians obligingly returned to buff up their statue, at which point a whole generation of theologians disenchanted by the attraction to this sort of Wissenschaft promptly declared the collective work of the nineteenth century an idol. While the influence of post-Kantian philosophers on modern theology cannot be diminished, it is a mistake, Zachhuber thinks, to overlook the theological works of this period and their historical program. Zachhuber focuses on two theologians of this period who have not received sufficient attention in Anglophone theology: Ferdinand Christian Baur and Albrecht Ritschl, founders of the Tübingen and Ritschlian schools respectively. Anglophone readers can’t be entirely blamed for their unfamiliarity with the works of these nineteenth-century theologians, as neither has benefited from any serious efforts of English translation. (Even where they are translated, Zachhuber admits, they prove challenging reading.)

Zachhuber characterizes the Tübingen School, under the tutelage of Baur, as a response to the growing tension within theology in its institutional setting. Unlike Schleiermacher’s pragmatic concession to philosophy, Baur’s solution was to attempt a reconciliation of historical and systematic theology in a speculative interpretation of history, which sought to determine the eventual significance of historical events. This neo-rationalist program rests, however, on principles of positivist historicism, a project that presupposes the dualism of objective facts and subjective interpretation. History emerges as presuppositionless (Voraussetzungslos in Baur’s German), and philosophy, when applied to what emerges, acts as a kind of normative truth-maker of history.

Espionage is a fitting analogy for Baur’s concept of the relationship between history and philosophy: in the Tübingen school, the historians are the Field Ops who unearth previously unknown contacts and information about hitherto secret events, and the philosophers are Control who receives them at the station, where he can appropriately assess history’s findings within the sanitized environment of analytic rigor necessary for normative truth claims. Just as in a John Le Carré novel, the unity between Field Ops and Control builds on their antagonism. The relationship works despite itself. Similarly, in Zachhuber’s construal, the Tübingen School cultivates — indeed requires — its tensions. On the one hand, Baur’s philosophy of history is underwritten as a single discipline by Idealism’s unity of history and truth; on the other hand, its method is premised upon a cleavage between history and truth.

Ritschl and his followers attempted to chart a different course. An early and enthusiastic disciple of Baur’s at the University of Tübingen, Ritschl broke with his master by the time he published the second edition of his doctoral thesis on the early Catholic Church. Yet at the same time, Ritschl began to embrace post-Idealist philosophies of historicism. This liberated him from grand narratives but mired him in the difficulties of attempting to derive universal truth claims from now specifically Christian histories. Whereas Baur embraced the speculative interpretation of history as the history of reason, Ritschl limited the interpretation of history to the history of Christianity. Ritschl’s strategy for procuring universal truth-claims out of specifically Christian sources was to opt for a theory of religion that privileged Christianity as the absolute religion. While Baur’s ruin was the failure of a universal history of reason, Ritschl’s was more local. Ritschl failed to hold together historical and systematic theology in a unified wissenschaftlich theology.

Ritschl, like Baur, envisioned systematic and historical theology as a unified speculative movement. Zachhuber claims that Ritschl failed because he could never shake the central tension between Baur’s ideals and his method. It would be hard to blame this completely on Ritschl’s lack of insight or intellectual verve, as Idealism had been eclipsed by a neo-Kantianism that gave the objective account of history and the subjective interpretation their own distinct kinds of validity. But Ritschl’s failure was more consequential for the discipline of theology as a whole, as it decisively privileged history as the more scientific discipline. It is unsurprising, then, that the Ritschlian school produced some of the most adept historians of Christianity but no great philosopher. The modern discipline of History of Christianity was first realized in the works of Ritschl’s disciples. It is ultimately Ritschl’s failures and the success of his historian pupils that persuaded Troeltsch to declare the problem of historicism as the problem for a scientific theology.

Disciples matter. It is instructive to see the differing fates of Baur’s Tübingen students and Ritschl’s disciples. Baur was a teacher, drawing students to the famous medieval university in southern Germany that would lend its name to their school of thought. But his pupils had very little success securing permanent positions in German universities. Ritschl, on the other hand, had few actual students. He was not a charismatic man or even one who found networking remotely tolerable. Yet his disciples included luminaries of late-nineteenth-century German theology, including Wilhelm Herrmann and Adolf von Harnack. Herrmann would go on to teach Karl Barth, the dominant theological voice of the twentieth century, and Harnack went on to write the authoritative History of Dogma.

The differing fates of Baur’s and Ritschl’s disciples cannot be solely a matter of their respective leader’s personality. Yet, reading Theology as Science one would be excused for thinking it was all a matter of more or less well-argued positions within Idealist philosophies of history. The absence of any real historical context lessens the force of Zachhuber’s otherwise well-argued book. In the intervening years between the 1840-50s and the 1870-80s, German society had changed. The Protestant churches had a weaker hold on university appointments (though they were not without influence). But more critically, Germany had begun to imbibe the fruits of its economic success, preferring the malted barley of industrial expansion to the fermented grapes of theological dispute. German industry and its martial effects inebriated its citizenry, who would have otherwise followed the slow maturations of theological disputes. The side effects were not altogether unsalutary. Theology was allowed more freedom, and Ritschl’s disciples, some of whom were just as radically revisionist as Strauss, would find teaching posts where they would observe and, as in the case of Harnack, take part in the imperium of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Zachhuber’s challenge to historians of twentieth-century Christianity and its German sources is that they can scarcely understand the logic of Karl Barth without the nineteenth century. For Barth, the price of academic respectability was too high to pay. It robs theology of its theological character. Yet Barth is still a puzzle. While it would be hard to imagine his almost monomaniacal focus on the Word of God without the previous generation’s dedication to the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, Barth’s Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century is a searing indictment of liberal theology’s historicist inclinations.

Zachhuber’s gambit is that even the fiercest opponents of wissenschaftlich theology cannot liberate themselves from it. “Recent attempts to break new ground and change paradigms in a variety of theological fields have, if anything, served to highlight more strongly to what extent all aspects of theological work during the past 150 years have been under the sway of this nineteenth-century movement.” This fact, sobering and encouraging as it is in turns, is Zachhuber’s central insight. No matter how persuasively today’s theologians denounce wissenschaftlich theology for its part in the bloody twentieth century, they still participate in a theology that learned to be academic in the nineteenth century.

At the end of Zachhuber’s book, the possibility of reconciliation between theology and the university hangs in the air. In final programmatic suggestions, Zachhuber calls for a theology that “consciously relinquishes the claim to a prior, external verification of its basic assumptions; in other words, a non-foundationalist theology.” The confessional character of such a theology is to be limited to the presupposition of the church as Christian faith’s “historical-social form,” while the concept of religion is to be used hermeneutically, aiding “the interpretive task and internal communication between members of this faith community.” Despite the sophistication of Zachhuber’s program, and the adeptness with which he deploys the categories of “confession,” “faith,” and “religion,” it is nonetheless tempting to historians and other non-religious humanists to sacrifice theology for more general respectability for the humanities in the twenty-first century university. This will remain a fact of university existence for theology for the foreseeable future.

But Zachhuber hopes that his fellow humanists will catch the genealogical reality of the contemporary university’s angst. Both in its medieval foundation in Paris and in its modern re-structuring in Berlin, the university has been defined by religious animation and antagonism. If history is any guide, university reform is likely to happen on campuses where theology meets the sciences. Mr. Jefferson’s university, which struggles with the paradox of hosting theologians in America’s largest religious studies department and honoring its resolutely secular founding, is precisely this kind of institution. Whether history will turn on that particular irony is anybody’s guess.