German Idealism's Trinitarian Legacy
The influence of German Idealism in the field of systematic theology has long been recognized, yet its reception in theology has stirred great debate and criticism, especially in the Anglo-American context. It is in this context that Dale Schlitt has written German Idealism’s Trinitarian Legacy, a dense book on the subject that rewards a methodical reading.
Schlitt lays out two purposes for the book. On the one hand, this is an intellectual history, undertaken through close readings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and the various inheritors of their tradition. On the other hand, Schlitt does not seek to put these theologians in an ideological box. His purpose is not reduction, but celebration of the particular way that post-Kantian German Idealism has influenced modern theology in fruitful ways (7), an influence that should be acknowledged and reflected upon for further constructive thinking on the doctrine of the Trinity. He succeeds rather well with both of these purposes.
Schlitt’s presentation proceeds in four parts. Part 1, “The Idealist Trinitarian Adventure,” begins with a brief introduction to the thought of J. G. Fichte, whose triadic structure of subjectivity is crucial to the work of the absolute Idealists Hegel and Schelling. Chapter 1 is a lucid presentation of Hegel’s triadic structure of logic and reality itself, which represents the trinitarian dynamic of God who is the true Infinite. One highlight of this chapter is the tightly argued section (20-22) in which Schlitt lays out Hegel’s connection of the speculative presentation of logic with the self-relationality of subjectivity, and its archetypal form in the Trinity—the unfolding of self-donating and tri-personal loci of subjectivity. Chapter 2 covers the work of Schelling and his idea of the intersubjective God who is the process of realizing greater unity through history, focusing on such themes as freedom, unity, ground, and potency. Schlitt does an admirable job of unfolding Schelling for English readers who are generally less familiar with Schelling’s writngs.
Part 2, “Early European Testimonials to Idealist Influence,” moves forward in the nineteenth century to examine the immediate successors and receivers of the tradition of German Idealism. Chapter 3 covers the great right Hegelian, Philipp Marheineke. Here is one of the few weaknesses in the work; Schlitt only spends five pages on Marheineke, which is unfortunate given Marheineke’s seminal importance in mediating the thought of Hegel, as well as Schelling—as Schlitt helpfully shows—to theology in the nineteenth century. Chapter 4 deals with I. A. Dorner, probably one of the most recognized of trinitarian theologians of that century. Schlitt distinguishes Dorner for his “ethical Trinity,” which is an attempt to conceptualize the Trinity in terms of divine activity among the three “modes of being” of the personal God, a terminological development that becomes important for twentieth-century theology. Schlitt concludes this part by introducing Vladimir Solovyov in chapter 5, constituting one of the book’s most interesting chapters. Schlitt clearly documents Solovyov’s appreciation for the concerns of Hegel and Schelling, and his development of Schelling’s intersubjective Trinity, that “the three modes of divine being were, each in its own way, an inclusive whole from the beginning” (101).
In part 3, “German Idealist Family Resemblances,” Schlitt covers three of the giants of the twentieth century. Chapter 6 deals with Karl Barth, specifically Church Dogmatics I/1. Schlitt’s presentation is standard but helpful in drawing the connection between Hegel’s triad and Barth’s Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness (123). Chapter 7 summarizes Karl Rahner, and Schlitt’s presentation is standard here too, though he dwells well on the idea of God’s self-gift of communication to man (146). Chapter 8 on Wolfhart Pannenberg may also be one of the best of the book. Schlitt makes use of Pannenberg’s concrete statements about the Idealists to demonstrate the inheritance and development those concepts have undergone. Schlitt presents the Idealist influence on Pannenberg without reducing Pannenberg to being a Hegelian. Helpful here is Schlitt’s recognition of the concrete ways that the tradition of Schelling in general has flowed into Pannenberg’s thought, which is underappreciated.
Part 4 covers “American Idealist Echoes,” the faint ways in which American theologians have echoed the Idealism that has come to America in the way of American interpreters of that tradition, or through some of the modern theologians discussed in this book. The first is Robert Jenson in chapter 9, where Schlitt demonstrates the shift in narrative and Jenson’s reception of the Augustinian-Hegelian notion of the personal God in three divine identities (210). Chapter 10 summarizes Catherine Mowry-LaCugna’s seminal work God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (HarperCollins, 1991), in which she famously develops Rahner’s Rule further and the influence of Idealism here clearly comes mediated via Rahner. Schlitt attends to Joseph Bracken, SJ, whose process thought echoes some Idealist tendencies in chapter 11. The final chapter analyzes Schlitt’s own contribution to the reception of the Idealists, though some of his analysis seems better suited to the conclusion itself with its summary and prospectus concerning Idealism’s influence. In the end, though, Schlitt masterfully accomplishes his two-fold purpose.
There are inevitably issues that crop up in a work of such an intellectual history. I have noted examples of such problems in the section on Marheineke and the conclusion already, but there were also minor issues including the ambiguity of just how Schlitt understood the concept of “becoming” deployed by Eberhard Jüngel in citation of Barth (124).
Even with these issues, Schlitt’s book is a monumental achievement of learning in the tradition of trinitarian thought. He is fair to every thinker in both his presentations and analyses, and he succeeds in celebrating Idealist thought while not reducing these thinkers into a one-dimensional plane of thought. That is no small task in an intellectual history explicitly about one aspect of the tradition. For these reasons, and the achievement in accounting for the influence of the rich German Idealist tradition, this book is highly commended to all students and professors of dogmatic and historical theology.
Mark P. Hertenstein is a M.Div. candidate at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
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