Modern Era


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The modern period in theology runs from 1799. In this module we are also having a contemporary section, so we will deem that it ends in 1969, and much of this period is dominated by German thought. The defining feature of modern Protestant theology is its willingness to criticise the Bible and the received tradition distance itself from the tradition. Roman Catholic theology has a very different history, with an openness to critical theology only coming to full expression after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), with brief, unsuccessful movements in the 1820-30s, 1890s-1900s and 1940s-50s. In Eastern Orthodoxy, theology becomes once more a respected discipline, despite holding to a resolutely non-critical attitude to the Bible and the Church Fathers.

Another feature is the relative lack of influence from the state, which means that church history has limited application to theology in this period. The major impact came from peace and war:

European Peace - modern Protestant theology arose in Germany in a period of peace after the Napoleonic Wars. It was also a time of increasing national prosperity, which led to well funded universities, and individual prosperity (for the middle and upper classes), which created a new readership. European nations could maintain this peace, because they fought their wars in the struggle for Imperial power over the rest of the globe.

First World War - this was really a European and not a world war, indeed much of it remained in Belgium and Northern France. Nonetheless, it was a cataclysmic event, as powerful Imperial powers (Britain and France) clashed with the rising power which had largely missed the boat in terms of colonialism (Germany). The end result of the war was a politically weakened Germany (source of much of the theology of the period), a strengthening of Imperial power, and the rise of communism.

Second World War - this was truly a world war, which brought the beginning of the end to Western colonial rule. The most important impact on theology was the horror of the Holocaust (or Shoah), especially the impact that it had on German scholars who continued to dominate theology for two more decades. The other major impact was the consolidation of communism and the consequent development of the Cold War. This split in Europe divided Germany done the middle, with the most Lutheran areas now in East Germany. This net results of these events was to encourage a left of centre emphasis in theology.

End of Colonialism - gradually non-European nations through off the shackles of European rule. This was often accompanied by anti-Christian attitudes, but also encouraged the development of non-European ways of doing theology.

Revolutionary Fervour - the 1960s witnessed violent (but unsuccessful) revolts in Europe, which further entrenched the political radicalism in theology.

There were three main phases in modern Protestant theology

Liberalism - the willingness to reject the tradition inspired by new developments in the study of history, science and philosophy. This lasted until the First World War in Germany, but lasted much longer in Britain, where it had not begun until about 1860 and did not weaken until the 1980s.

Neo-Orthodoxy - a reaction against the excesses of liberalism, whose optimistic progress centred theology was shattered by the events of the First World War. This phase included both conservative thinkers (e.g., Karl Barth) and those making a lesser break with liberalism (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer). This had little impact on Anglican theology, due to the late development of liberalism, despite Charles Gore's best efforts to stem the liberal tide.

Radicalism - the radical political atmosphere of the 1960s was matched by radical views in theology. This was not only radical in terms of politics, but also in relation to the tradition, even to the point of proclaiming the Death of God.

The process was different in Roman Catholicism:

Catholic Liberalism - very briefly there was a Catholic attempt to engage with Protestant Liberalism, but is was stopped by the Vatican. This was centred around the Catholic Faculty at Tübingen, probably because it was the first European university to have both Catholic and Protestant faculties.

Catholic Modernism - primarily associated with the French Biblical Scholar Alfred Loisy, and the Irish theologian George Tyrrell. This movement picked up where the Tübingen School left off, but was much more radical, demanding critical freedom. The result was the silencing of Loisy, the excommunication of Tyrrell (possibly because he was a convert from Anglicanism), and the institution of the Modernist Oath, by which all priests and office-holders had to swear that they repudiated Modernism.

Neo-Scholasticism - another result was the requirement placed on all Catholic theologians to research into Aquinas. Hence Neo-Scholasticism, which was the systematisation of Thomas and his fellow medieval scholastics for a 19th and 20th Century church.

New Theology - this French movement of the 1940-50s concerned itself with historical theology and reacted against the medievalism of the neo-scholastics. It was suppressed, although one of the younger members of the movement, Yves Congar, would later return to favour and inspire the

Second Vatican Council - this consolidated moves that were already happening to encourage Catholic thinkers to engage with critical theology, non-Catholics, and non-Christians. This spelt the end for neo-scholasticism.

Orthodox theology - the West remains largely ignornat of this despite the best work being produced by Russian exiles in Paris.

Evangelical Theology - this had little impact until the moves from the 1950s onwards to re-engage with mainstream theology. In a more conservative climate, there are now a considerable number of Evangelical scholars respected for their contribution of all theology, included the author of the core texts, Alister McGrath.



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