This book, as its authors maintain, is indeed a comprehensive introduction to the theological developments in Western Europe between 1600 and 1800. This period has not been given due attention by the modern authors in the history of Christian theology. Generally Reformation theologies receive a great deal of attention, and after that, the nineteenth century theologies. For the period in between, particular confessional theologies and individual theologians are studied, but efforts in bringing together the diverse ideas that shaped their world and set the directions for the future developments are rare. The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology attempts to fill this gap—and does it very effectively.
The authors are aware of the colorful diversity of the theological ideas in this period, and they do justice in bringing out them efficiently. The essays in the book deal with several theological developments, many of which are not often discussed in the modern theological discourses. The book, in forty-two essays under seven sections, discusses Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran theologies as well as many other theological movements, Western Christian theological responses to other religions and other traditions, and finally, Christian theological uses of and influences on philosophical trends during this period. Key topics covered include scripture and exegesis, God, Trinity, ethics, sacraments, church-state relations, ecclesiology, and eschatology. A significant feature about this book is that some of the often-neglected theological movements—Socinianism, Jansenism, Moravinianism, Arminian, and Remonstrant theologies—and many individual theologians who are hitherto have not received much focus are well discussed and their ideas succinctly summarized.
The initial three chapters in part 1 clearly convey the way in which the volume is arranged: the importance of the context and the various kinds of engagements that early modern theology has had with the other; diverse sources and methods of theologies which cannot be reduced to a few confessional traditions; and the theological developments that cannot be detached from the state formation and political developments during this period. Indeed, in some way, these three chapters set the directions for the entire book.
To begin with, what happened in other contexts is important for the theological developments in Western Europe. It is then fitting that the book begins with a chapter on theological developments in the non-European world. Further, a complete section is allotted to the discussion of the Western theologies and their connections with other religions, traditions, and churches. The chapters on other religions and their influences in shaping the development of the early modern theology are especially appreciable: this is not something one often comes across in works dealing with theologies—or history of theologies—in medieval and modern Europe.
Second, the diverse ideas and sources of the theology in this period are crucial to understanding and discussing the theological developments in this period, and this book clearly establishes how the mainline confessional traditions—Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran—alone are not sufficient to understanding the theologies of this period. Thus, many theological movements other than the above three are focused upon, hundreds of pages of theological literature is studied, and numerously neglected theological writers are brought to light here. Also, this book shows that the various kinds of interactions within and between the many traditions/confessionalities and multiple directions in theologizing are important: there was not a single approach—even within a particular confessional tradition. Thus, the connections and debates that may be polemical or complementary, but which are also important for understanding the theological developments are underlined. The book shows that this period did not only involve conflicts between many confessional traditions, but also engagements and ecumenical efforts, which are not generally the focus of theological writings about this period.
Lastly, the theological developments in early modern Europe cannot be detached from the formation of nation-states and the idea of nationalism, or from other socio-economic realities. Almost all of the essays in the book take this aspect seriously, and as a result, the idea of the confessional state is discussed throughout. Further, what is also significant about this period is the highly sophisticated philosophical developments and advances in science, which made huge impacts on theology—theology reciprocated this influence—and the last section has excellent chapters on this.
A crucial idea that runs throughout this book is that theological developments in this period are not simply creedal formulations, doctrinal developments, or forms of dogmatic theology. Many individual essays emphasize this point. One important aspect of this is how theology developed in the light of the everyday experiences of the people–be it Pietism, Neology or other forms. This volume is significant in emphasizing how practical concerns in everyday Christian life in the early modern period were vital in the process of theologizing. This is remarkable, not because this idea is new but rather, this aspect is often sidelined in works studying these theologies in the past. It is fitting that the book ends with a chapter in Neology to bring out how theological developments cannot be disconnected from the everyday life experiences of ordinary Christians.
One of the developments that is not given enough attention in this book however, is the various counter-Enlightenment theologies—or, at least, the influences of counter-Enlightenment on theologies—during this period, particularly those prevalent in Britain, France, and Germany. The essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s anti-theological theology in France (chapter 38) does fall within this framework, however, similar trends in other places are not sufficiently dealt with. Also, Romanticism was an important movement influencing theology in this period, but not enough attention is paid to it—even though it is dealt with in some individual essays. Similarly, given that this is also the beginning of colonial expansion, how the theological developments in early modern Europe contributed to empire formation might also be interesting—particularly for those struggling to understand the connection between theology and empire. But, as with any volume of this sort, given the enormous amount of theological developments, literature, resources, and authors, one cannot expect everything in a single work.
No doubt, this volume is an excellent handbook for theologians and students who want to understand the early modern period, especially those looking for an understanding of the neglected theological movements and authors. Anyone wanting to understand the modern theology and contemporary issues, not only in Western Europe but also in other parts of the world, cannot ignore The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology which concisely offers a huge amount of resources in less than seven hundred pages.
Muthuraj Swamy is dean of the faculty of theology at the Union Biblical Seminary at Serampore University, India.
Date Of Review:
May 19, 2017
Ulrich L. Lehner is Professor of Religious History and Historical Theology at Marquette University.
Richard A. Muller is P.J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin College.
A.G. Roeber is Professor of Early Modern History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University.
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