The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought

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Editor(s): 
Joel D.S. Rasmussen, Judith Wolfe, Johannes Zachhuber
Oxford Handbooks
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2017.
     736 pages.
     $150.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198718406.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Oxford Handbook series is a new and special kind of academic publication, one that combines encyclopedic coverage of a topic with exploratory assessments by scholars who are experts in their respective fields. Joel Rasmussen, Judith Wolfe, and Johannes Zachhuber’s The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought covers the intellectual history of Christian thought during the “long 19th century.”

The editors and contributors together have decisively demonstrated that the still-dominant “secularization thesis,” which posits the gradual secularization of Europe and North America, is a complete fabrication. “Christianity, in both Europe and North Americas, not only endured as a vibrant intellectual tradition within an increasingly pluralistic world, but also contributed decisively to a wide range of conversations, movements, and transformations across all spheres of modern intellectual, cultural, and social history” (1). In short, Christianity remained a force to be reckoned with, often adopting and adapting the intellectual and social changes at the end of the 19th century.

But the nagging question is, of course, how Christian was the “new theology” of the century? That is, many of the “Christian” thinkers discussed in this collection ultimately rejected orthodox, historical Christian creeds and practices. Thus, in what sense did traditional, historical Christianity remain influential? For instance, Rasmussen begins the volume with an essay on the “transformation of metaphysics,” which correctly points out that metaphysics was never completely rejected by Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich W. J. Schelling, and others, but rather “transposed” or “concealed” under new philosophical guises (11–34). Can one justifiably maintain that this “concealed” metaphysics is congenial to Christian orthodoxy? One may have doubts.

Nevertheless, the volume does succeed in providing succinct accounts of, for example, the political transformations of the century (35–52). Zachhuber also offers a compelling discussion of the “historical turn” in 19th-century Christian thought (53–71). Despite the qualifications of the introduction, David Lincicum, in his entry on “criticism and authority,” correctly observes “that a general pattern of secularization remains,” especially in the case of biblical studies (83). Other highlights of this volume include Lor K. Peason’s section on gender, and how she brings out the often-neglected “gendered dimensions of theological categories” of such thinkers as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Ernst Troeltsch (143–59). Also informative are articles on the novel, poetry, theater, painting, music, and architecture. Peculiarly, though, there is only one image throughout these chapters devoted to “Christianity and the arts.” It would have been more helpful to see more concretely the changes in Christian art.

In another section, aptly titled “Christianity and Christianities,” Annette G. Aubert offers an especially insightful account of the rise of modern Protestantism and its attempt to redefine religion. The final section, “Doctrinal Themes,” is perhaps the most valuable. There one finds Richard H. Roberts discussing new conceptualizations about God. This is followed by Robert Morgan reexamining the Christologies of Schleiermacher, David F. Strauss, Ferdinand C. Baur, Albrecht Ritschl, Martin Kähler, and others. Shao Kai Tseng clarifies the ecclesiologies of (perhaps surprisingly) Kant, Schleiermacher, G.W.F. Hegel, and figures of the Oxford Movement. The volume concludes with a penetrating and complex essay by Wolfe on “new configurations of eschatology” (676). Although one may contend against her assessment of Norman Cohen’s work on millennialism and wish that Eric Voegelin’s discussion on modern gnosticism would have been included her analysis, Wolfe is correct in emphasizing the radical immanentization of the eschaton in the 19th century.

Together these chapters demonstrate the vitality of Christianity during what has often been called the Victorian “crisis of faith.” At the same time, much of this vitality was an attempt to ease tensions between science and faith, modernity and tradition, heterodoxy and orthodoxy. This resulted in accommodations that transformed the faith to such an extent that theologians such as J. Grehsam Machen in the 1920s found the “new theology” of Christian modernism totally unrecognizable, “a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.” In this sense, secularization has never truly been about the eradication of religion, but rather the emergence or concealment of a new theology—or, more precisely, the replacement of one particular theology with another. This collection of essays therefore offers a glimpse of how the Christian faith gradually changed over the long 19th century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is historian in residence in the George L. Mosse Program in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joel D. S. Rasmussen is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University and a Fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford. 

Judith Wolfe studied literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and first literature and then philosophical theology at Oxford. She is now Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of St Andrews.

Johannes Zachhuber studied theology in Rostock, Berlin, and Oxford where he earned his DPhil in 1997. He is the Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology and a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. 

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