Saturday, October 11, 2014

Eminently Forgettable?

Entering a Lutheran college and seminary environment in the early 1970s inevitably led to a review and discussion of some of the 20th century theologians whose names increasingly show up in obituaries now.  Most recently, it was Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014).  He was, with so many others, German, and like some others, Lutheran (at least he claimed to be).  I well recall a class with Dr. James Childs in which the theology of Pannenberg was part of the curriculum.  There were some good things about this fellow but there were also some questionable things.  Overall, we do not even use the same vocabulary in theology today as many of the 20th century theologians once spoke.

Thankfully I did not invest much in the texts for those or other courses related to most of the 20th century theologians who are now mostly forgotten.  Some of them left some impact but many of them have had their theology thoroughly discredited.  Some of them were severely dated and their contributions to Christianity overall were hindered by their captivity to a particular time and perspective.

You don't hear much about Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, Yves Congar, Adolf von Harnack, Hans K√ľng, John Macquarrie, Jurgen Moltmann,  John Murray, the Niebuhrs, Francis Schaeffer, Paul Tillich, Gerhard von Rad, Geerhardus Vos, etc. etc. etc..  Sure, their names come up in footnotes but they do not dominate discussions the way they did when I was in college.  I think that is a good thing.  Even Karl Barth does not have many adherents -- at least not in the way everyone was talking about him 40-50 years ago. In contrast, for example, there were not so many voices talking about C. S. Lewis and now everyone is talking about him.

My point is simply this.  We are not always able to see clearly in the moment.  Newness is hardly an ingredient in the staying power of theologians or their theologies.  In fact, things come and go rather quickly on the stage of theologians.  In contrast, there is great staying power among those whose works have stood the test of time and been judged worthy by those of many generations.

In the end, I think that this is the surprise of history -- who did we talk about incessantly at one point in time only to have forgotten a few generations later!  In this particular age, confessional Lutheran theologians are experiencing a rebirth of interest and availability (especially in English).  What we have found in my own small sphere of interest is that those who more faithfully received and passed on the faith to those who followed ended up growing in stature over time.  In contrast, those whose theological enterprise was a disconnect with the folks before them ended up fading into the annals of history and our memories.  It just goes to show you that faithfulness endures in more ways than one! 

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Or, the failure to discuss the major theologians of the 20th century may mean that the state of Christian intellectual life has fallen so low that these theologians are simply not comprehensible to anyone raised in the contemporary culture. No one talks about Melanchthon or Chemnitz either. When C.S. Lewis, helpful as a purveyor of devotional Christianity as he is, is treated as if on a par with actual theologians, the problem is exposed.

Anonymous said...

You readily list by name over a dozen theologians who have presumably "ended up fading into the annals of history and our memories," yet you name not a single one of the confessional Lutheran theologians that you say are "growing in stature." Why is that?

That in your "small sphere of interest" you find admiration for some theologians and not others says more about your sphere of interest than about the theologians themselves, does it not?

And what does the "stature" of some person or idea among today's minds prove, really, in any circle? Even heresies have their adherents. And the total number of Lutherans in the world amounts to only about 1.1% of the population.

Interest in this or that writer or philosophy surges and ebbs. Ideas come and go and come back, or not. Surely what counts is their merits. What counts is whether they convey wisdom and truth.

Janis Williams said...

Wisdom and Truth must have a norm, and that norm is Scripture. Whether a theologian is interesting, or wise, seemingly must compared to that norm.

Popularity is not equivalent to truth. Because a theologian has a dated philosophy or even promulgates heresy does not mean everything said or written by them is wrong. Yes, even heretics have followers, and the majority of the Church was Arian to start, yet one theologian (with a small sphere of influence) armed with the Truth changed history. Like so many churches today, numbers do not equal right.

Yes, we as Lutherans may have a small sphere of influence, but Truth often has few followers.

William Tighe said...

IIRC, Pannenberg was a strong opponent of the acceptance of homosexual pseudogamy by Lutheran churches. On the other hand, he was a strong proponent and advocate for WO, and I think in the 80s went out of his way to urge the Roman Catholic Church not to condemn that practice.

I used to confuse Pannenberg with Moltmann, even though the latter is Reformed, not Lutheran, and favors both WO and ecclesial acceptance of homosexual practice and "partnerships," although he has spoken out against terming such partnerships marriage.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Pastor Peters is thinking about the publication of the theological works of Johann Gerhard, Martin Chemnitz, additional Luther's Works, and a host of other works available in English for the first time from CPH and selling surprisingly well.