MODERN CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, by Christopher Ben Simpson

Published on June 20, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

T&T Clark, 2016 | 400 pages

Reviewed by Nathan A. Finn

Introduction

For the most part, evangelicals see the value of systematic theology. Many evangelicals also appreciate historical theology, especially the Church Fathers, the Reformers, the Puritans, evangelical pioneers such as Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, and the development of doctrine in particular denominational traditions. Of less apparent interest to evangelical pastors and even many scholars is modern theology. Many seem content to assume that Schleiermacher was liberal, Barth was somewhat less liberal (but probably still not trustworthy), Bonhoeffer wrote some helpful material on discipleship, and Old Princeton remains iconic theological conservatives who affirm biblical inerrancy.

Several introductions to modern theology are available on the market. Roger Olson’s The Journey of Modern Theology (IVP Academic, 2013) is a highly readable (if often simplistic) narrative survey, while James Livingston’s two-volume Modern Christian Thought (Fortress, 2006) provides a more scholarly introduction to the era. Modern Theology: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2012), by Rachel Muers and Michael Higton, offers a useful one-volume scholarly introduction, while Mapping Modern Theology (Baker Academic, 2012), edited by Kelly Kapic and Bruce McCormick, offers a thematic treatment that is structured according to the various heads of doctrine. With so many options available, do we really need another textbook introduction to modern theology? I would suggest we need this one.

Christopher Ben Simpson’s Modern Christian Theology stands out for the way it strikes a delicate balance. On the one hand, it is written at such a level that it provides a useful entryway into the modern theology for readers whose only serious exposure to theology is an introductory course or two. On the other hand, more than any other similar survey, Simpson’s book interprets the development of modern theology within the context of the history of modernity, which itself developed from views that began to emerge in the late-medieval era. The result is a book that deserves widespread adoption in university and seminary courses on modern theology and merits a place on the shelf for pastors who are serious about engaging with theology in their ministries of preaching and teaching.

 

Summary

Omnipresent in the background of Modern Christian Theology is philosopher Charles Taylor, author of the widely acclaimed A Secular Age (Belknap, 2007). Following Taylor, Simpson argues for three versions of secular that build upon one another as changing conditions of belief give rise to a declension in belief and practice and ultimately result in the retreat of religion from public life. Simpson suggests there were theological developments behind the first wave of modernity as the commitment to transcendence that characterized the pre-modern world, the so-called classical synthesis, was undone by scholastic nominalism and voluntarism, competing Reformation-era theologies, and ultimately the wars of religion in the early 1600s.

The mid-seventeenth century marked the beginning of the second stage of modernity and the further advance of secularity. Enlightenment rationalism, an emphasis on human autonomy, the rise of biblical criticism, and Deism further undermined the classical synthesis, while the emerging evangelicals reacted by doubling down on the transcendent in the form of revival. Kant emerged as the leading theologian who attempted to re-envision theology while accepting many of the assumptions of Enlightenment philosophy, anticipating theological modernism. Schleiermacher soon came onto the scene, synthesizing advances in critical scholarship with a Romantic emphasis on experiencing the transcendent, resulting in a fully modernist theology. Hegel offered an alternative account of modernism that was more philosophical, biblical critics questioned the historical and scientific veracity of Scripture, and mediating theologians who attempted to synthesize insights from both Schleiermacher and Hegel advanced modernist theology. With the turn of the twentieth century, modernist or liberal theology reached its zenith in German theologians such as Ritschl, Harnack, Herrman, and Troeltsch, among others. At the same time, Marx and Nietzsche demonstrated that what Simpson calls “exclusive humanism” was now a viable option—Taylor’s final version of secular, secularity.

Not everyone embraced modernist theology or made peace with the validity of secularity. Nineteenth-century confessional conservatives such as the Princeton theologians and high churchmen such as the Oxford Movement and especially John Henry Newman responded to modernism by emphasizing orthodoxy, tradition, and transcendence. Vatican I went even further by rejecting modernism entirely and emphasizing magisterial authority. Søren Kierkegaard became a critic of organized religion and advocated existentialism as an alternative to modernism. Into the twentieth century, Neo-Orthodoxy or dialectical theology provided an alternative between traditional orthodoxy on the right and modernism on the left. A full chapter is devoted to Barth while the more existentialist and progressive Bultmann and Tillich comprise the subject of another chapter. Catholic theologians focused on theological retrieval through a Neo-Scholasticism that renewed interest in Thomism and the Nouvelle Théologie, rooted in France, which looked to the Patristic and early medieval eras for inspiration. Conservative Protestants in America continued to be anti-modernism, whether stridently (Fundamentalism) or moderately (evangelicalism), while a sizable minority opted for the hyper-transcendence of Pentecostalism.

The latter chapters of Simpson’s survey focus on different theological movements and traditions. Following the lead of the Nouvelle Théologie, Catholics finally embraced modern theology, albeit critically, through Vatican II. Karl Rahner and Hars Ur von Balthasar were the key figures in this transition. (The more progressive Hans Küng is a curious omission from discussions of modern Catholicism.) Liberation theologies emphasized the priority of contextualization in theology and elevate praxis over theory. Revisionist and secular theologies such as Process theology, the Death of God theologians, and postmodern theology pushed the boundaries to the far left of the classical synthesis and sometimes away from historic Christianity itself, while Postliberal and Postsecular theologies attempted to reframe classical Christianity for a post-critical and postmodern cultural context where secularity was increasingly the norm. In this way, these movements echoed responses by Neo-Orthodoxy to modernist theology two generations earlier.

 

Evaluation

Modern Christian Theology should become a preferred textbook among many evangelicals who typically opt for either Olson or Kapic and McCormack. Unlike Olson, whose narrative is a mostly non-contextual survey of thinkers and traditions, Simpson frames recent historical theology in the context of modern intellectual history. Also unlike Olson, Simpson engages with up-to-date secondary scholarship on the subjects he treats. But like Olson, and unlike Kapic and McCormack, Simpson frames his book as a narrative rather that arranging it around doctrinal loci. This allows for a more substantive treatment of individual thinkers and particular theological traditions.

Simpson’s engagement with Charles Taylor is a helpful contribution to how the story of modern theology is told, as is his less extensive, but still significant interaction with Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 2009) and Michael C. Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford University Press, 2010). Modern Christian Theology is a groundbreaking survey in that it accepts the emerging scholarly consensus about the intellectual origins of the modern era, secularism, and the role theology and philosophy played in modern and eventually postmodern thought. This is another decided advantage of Simpson’s book over similar textbooks currently popular in evangelical circles.

Unfortunately, Modern Christian Theology is absolutely plagued by errata such as misspellings, punctuation errors, and missing words. I was surprised that a publisher of T&T Clark’s reputation would allow such a frankly distracting amount of these sorts of peccadillos to make it into the final draft. More troubling, Simpson, who is writing from the perspective of the Stone-Campbell tradition, sometimes misrepresents evangelicalism and fundamentalism. I’ll limit myself to two examples. First, Simpson argues that eighteenth-century evangelicalism, and especially the revivals, represented a rejection of the Enlightenment. However, most scholars agree that the Enlightenment profoundly shaped the earliest evangelicals. Furthermore, the Enlightenment was not a uniformly skeptical movement; there was a non-rationalist, believing version of the Enlightenment that appealed to thinkers such as Edwards and Wesley. (The latter also imbibed of Romanticism.) Second, Simpson states that the Princeton theologians authored The Fundamentals and suggests that fundamentalists embraced Dispensational theology; the first claim is incorrect and the second is far too simplistic.

Every survey suffers from errors, underdevelopment, and misinterpretations. That is why books of this sort must be supplemented with primary source readings and the best secondary studies. Simpson gets far more right than he does wrong. Modern Christian Theology will become a standard textbook, and rightly so. Despite some shortcomings, I recommend it as the best single-volume introduction to modern theology.

 

Nathan A. Finn is Dean of the School of Theology and Missions and Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition at Union University in Jackson, TN.

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Modern Christian Theology

T&T Clark, 2016 | 400 pages