Church and Theology in the Nineteenth Century

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Ferdinand Christian Baur
Peter C. Hodgson
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , March
     544 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume adds to the impressive resurgence of books by or about Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860), one of the most prominent German Protestant theologians between Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth. Beginning with his artful 1966 study of Baur (The Formation of Historical Theology, Harper & Row), Peter Hodgson has been an indefatigable transmitter of Baur’s thought to Anglophone audiences, and his latest contribution, forged in collaboration with Robert Brown, continues that legacy. 

In the latter portion of his career, Baur lectured regularly on the history of Christianity and the Church and published the first two volumes of these lectures in 1853 and 1859. His son published the third and fourth volumes, which were basically finished, shortly after his death, and his son-in-law, Eduard Zeller, published the fifth volume in 1862, which required considerably more editorial effort. In the final volume, Baur reviews the state of German theology and its churches from 1800 to “the present time.” The translation by Hodgson and Brown is fluent and accurate, even if the editorial hand is a bit uneven (it confuses some points about the late Schelling but is superb in tracing Baur’s Hegelianism).

Those who presuppose Baur as the equipoise archetype of the German professor will have this impression overturned. Baur burns hot with outrage, lament, frustration, and perplexity. His take on Friedrich Tholuck’s negative review of Strauss’s Life of Jesus gives a foretaste; Baur calls it “tasteless pathos of the most shallow tirades and rants … a masterpiece of charlatanism and pettifoggery” (337). Baur offers dozens of similarly frank assessments despite gesturing towards objective historical Wissenschaft. This makes for enjoyable reading. Who knew Baur could be fun?

Since space constraints forbid properly unpacking the many delightful and piercing insights Baur provides, both into his own thinking and into his century, the rest of the review is lamentably selective. First, although Baur divides the century according to political events—1800 to the Congress of Vienna, 1815 to the July revolution of 1830, and then the Sattelzeit—Baur makes a compelling case that theology drives the most important developments in the Church: “We cannot consider the changes in outer church life without finding their true and authentic ground in the prevailing theological views and orientations, in the revolution that religious and dogmatic consciousness underwent in one aspect or another of different epochs” (1–2). Baur privileges the role that individual theologians play, along with the philosophers and intellectuals that contributed to this revolution of consciousness. Not just Kant and Hegel, but Schiller and Goethe too receive their own subsections.

Even if one expected Baur to carry all of the confessional biases one would have expected from a Protestant theologian at the time, it is still striking how easily Baur dismisses Catholic theology and the state of Catholicism as a whole. This judgment is reflected in his dismissal of the possibility of any intellectual life growing out of Catholicism. Baur’s praise of Johann Hug’s work runs thusly: it “is a work that could as easily been written by a Protestant theologian” (26). In his review of Protestant intellectuals in the first part he writes, “It must appear as highly significant that all those heroic figures who were the major leaders of this great intellectual movement belonged to the Protestant Church.” Baur explains: “Protestantism in its innermost nature is the principle of autonomy” (37). A few pages later, Baur cannot contain his hostility to the Romantics, who flirted with Catholicism and exalted medieval (Catholic) Europe. It was flight from reality that led them to Catholicism (51). 

In his treatments of Catholicism (17–35, 107–43, 226–315), Baur focuses primarily on external affairs. For Baur, the magisterium of the Catholic Church so powerfully undercuts the internal forces mentioned above that there is almost no point in covering individual theologians. In these sections, Baur focuses his assessment on external factors. Baur’s assessment of the Society of Jesus would make Pascal blush: “All the activities of the Jesuits have only one motive, their own advantage, and no other purpose than the endless expansion of their power” (226). When Baur briefly treats Georg Hermes and Anton Günther, both of whom received Vatican censure, he minimizes Hermes’s theological creativity by declaring it could only come from “the spirit of the German science that proceeds from Protestantism” (266), and derides Günther’s submission to magisterial correction: “In viewing such proceedings, all thinking Christians may count themselves fortunate in not being subject to such a regime” (271).

The one Catholic theologian whom Baur does treat on equal footing is his old Tübingen nemesis, Johann Adam Möhler, whose Symbolikin 1832 attempted to lay out the scientific deficiencies of Protestantism, to which Baur wrote a book-length response. In these pages (287–95), Baur begrudgingly admits that Symbolik turned the Protestant genre of symbolics on its head by laying out the superior position of Catholicism. Most interestingly, Baur cites D. F. Strauss’s observation that Catholic and Lutheran orthodoxy stand in far closer proximity than Lutheran orthodoxy and what one might call liberal theology.

Baur’s take on Protestant theology here should correct some scholarly judgments that have not engaged these lectures. However much Baur voices definitive disagreement with Schleiermacher and Strauss, he respects how seriously they took the call of the times to reconfigure theology beyond the confines of orthodoxy, and to reject the shallow supernaturalism of the previous generation. Other leading figures from whom Baur learned a great deal, most notably Neander and Schelling, failed to do so, and receive a more tepid appraisal. Strauss and Schleiermacher, along with Hegel, command Baur’s respect as thinkers, like himself, who drove forward understanding of consciousness thinking through its encounter with the spirit. In Baur’s judgment Hegel surpassed Schleiermacher: “Hegel’s philosophy of religion is the necessary progression if, with thoughtful consideration, one has also simply gone on to where Schleiermacher himself had been unwilling to go” (324). This explains why Baur himself, although he owed his most substantial early breakthrough to Schleiermacher, ultimately sided with Hegel, as his own expostulations in his final writings make clear.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Grant Kaplan is Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ferdinand Christian Baur (June 21, 1792–December 2, 1860) was a German theologian and scholar who initiated the Protestant Tübingen school of biblical criticism.

Peter C. Hodgson is the Charles G. Finney Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He has authored or edited over thirty books, including volumes about or translated works by F. C. Baur, G. W. F. Hegel, and George Eliot. His titles include Winds of the Spirit (1994) and Liberal Theology (2007).


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