John Wilson’s Introduction to Modern Theology: A Review

John E. Wilson, Introduction to Modern Theology: Trajectories in the German Tradition (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). x+286 pages. ISBN: 978-0-664-22862-0

The work of the eighteenth-century Königsberg-born philosopher Immanuel Kant set a new direction for philosophical and theological enquiry up until our day. Because of Kant, theological behemoths like Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher were able to propose new form to the increasingly important conversations between religion and reason, and revelation and experience. So attractive and dominating were these new forms that no Protestant theologian in nineteenth-century Germany could think without them. Moreover, late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany witnessed one of the most creative and prodigious outputs in theological work in any period before or since.

In this introduction, Professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary John E. Wilson invites us on a survey of the German theological tradition beginning with Kant, and proceeding via Hegel, the Mediating Theologians and the Ritschlians, through to Bonhoeffer, the Niebuhr’s and Rahner, among others, purposing to demonstrate lines of continuity and trajectories in the German Protestant traditions since Kant.

Commencing with a useful historical overview of the political and social context from the French Revolution until those fertile decades following WWII, Wilson proceeds to devote chapters to many of the leading shapers of the German schools. Each chapter mostly stands alone and is given to introducing readers to the key writings, grammar (Wilson helpfully attends to key German words and explains them) and contributions of various theologians in an accessible though learned way. The chapter on post-liberal American theologian Paul Tillich was particularly helpful, not least because Tillich represents a revival in the basic pattern of nineteenth-century mediation theology (both in its method and in a return to its sources in German Idealism) but in a radically new context, but also because Tillich’s writing does not represent theological literature in its most reader-friendly form. One who provides help with reading Tillich’s map is never unwelcome.

While Wilson’s grasp of the literature is encyclopaedic in its scope, in not a few places the work is (over)dominated by questions of epistemology and on the relationship between religion and science. Other equally-important features of the tradition are all but ignored. For example, apart from the briefest of mentions in the context of Moltmann’s christology, there is an absence of discussion on nineteenth-century kenoticism. Another disappointment for this reviewer is that while Wilson traces the tradition’s tributary from Germany to the USA, the German tradition’s influence throughout other parts of the world is ignored. A concluding chapter which recapitulates the sweep undertaken, offers some critical reflection on the tradition and some suggestions for possible direction is also sadly lacking from this study (as is a bibliography). Consequently, the reader is left with the clear sense that while Hegel is (deservedly) no doubt the titan whose voice refuses to be silenced, she holds in her hands an unfinished manuscript.

These reservations aside, this volume is a valuable introduction to the theological landscape of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology, not least for that burgeoning array of scholars undertaking work on Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Ebeling, Bonhoeffer, or on those German theologians who emerged in the 1960’s and whose theological output remains underappreciated – Sölle, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Heidegger, Ott and Jüngel, in whom the tradition reaches its most satisfying evolution.

2 thoughts on “John Wilson’s Introduction to Modern Theology: A Review

  1. How is Moltmann underappreciated? Any appreciation is overappreciation surely…

    Miss you big guy – I’m up next week. Will HAVE to meet up!

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  2. Jon, Moltmann’s theological contribution is over-appreciated by some, and under-appreciated by most. While there is (encouragingly) a growing stream of work appearing that engages with Moltmann’s theology, there is still heaps that deserves to be done. And I (for one) very much look forward to seeing that happen.

    Gee, I at least thought you’d be pleased with the final 10 words of my wee review.

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