The German Roots of Nineteenth Century American Theology

Article by   July 2014
aubertgermanroots93.jpgAnnette G. Aubert. The German Roots of Nineteenth-Century American Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 402 pp. $74.00.  

In this volume, a revision of her doctoral dissertation at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), Annette Aubert aims to recover the central influence that German sources played in the development of nineteenth-century American theology. She does so by presenting a detailed summary of the German Mediating Theology (GMT) and exploring how it might have registered in the thought of Charles Hodge, dean of the Princeton school of Reformed orthodoxy, and Emanuel Vogel Gerhart, successor to John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff at Mercersburg Seminary. The result is a modestly new take on the well-known Hodge, a solid introduction to the neglected Gerhart, a very helpful anatomy of GMT, and an unwitting prequel to one of the tempests raging on the current American Reformed scene. Aubert might not achieve her goal of placing German theology back squarely in the center of American religious historians' interest, but she does manage to show that the current followers of John Piper and N. T. Wright have ancestors they don't know about--whether or not they are fulfilling Karl Marx's great quip that everything in history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. 

On its own, Aubert's title promises too much. Her volume ignores most of "nineteenth-century American theology," in particular the various New England, Roman Catholic, and Southern schools that dominate the historiography. Nor, in terms of the context which, she acknowledges, surely shapes theological reflection, does Aubert consider industrialization, the Civil War, Darwinism and other forms of contemporary evolutionary thinking. German sources and influences are germane to many of these, meaning that the book's title offers a case that can but, per the argument rendered here, still remains to be made. What the book does attempt, however, is worth doing precisely by its restricted compass. Some of the most creative work in mid-nineteenth century American theology was carried out by "border state" theologians--from New Jersey, lower Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Missouri--in ventures which, in the domain of religion, mirrored contemporary efforts in politics to  find a middle way between extremes North and South. Hodge and Gerhart count in this number, and the German sources upon which they called provided fresh resources for their work. Moreover, the two theologians in question marked out two key options in the Reformed tradition as it stood in the mid-nineteenth century, and that tradition was still more central and influential in American culture than any other particular religious stream. Certainly, there were more Methodist, Baptist, and Roman Catholic believers on the scene, but varieties of Calvinism still held the lead in formal theological construction.

After surveying the modes by which German ideas were transplanted to the United States, Aubert's book proceeds to outline how the methodological and substantive innovations of Friedrich Schleiermacher revolutionized theology as a discipline for the next hundred years. She then presents a detailed anatomy of the GMT--its common themes and character, its principal figures, and its diverging schools--as an attempt to refract traditional systematic theology through Schleiermacher's new framework so as to turn the master's initiatives to a more, if generically, evangelical purpose. These two chapters, if not worth the very steep price of the volume, will be very helpful to graduate students preparing for comps, professors needing refreshers for lectures and articles, and generally interested readers who want something less than a book-length treatment of what was one of the great constructions of nineteenth-century Protestant culture and, indeed, a powerful influence not just on American theology but American thinking more generally. 

Aubert's second section is constituted of two chapters given respectively to Gerhart's theological method and understanding of the atonement, and two more treating Hodge on the same topics. These delve into great detail on the two thinkers but deliver somewhat less than might have been hoped for. In particular, each figure is treated pretty much on his own without the comparisons and mutual interrogations that would have brought them into a genuine dialogue. Further, the reader needs to postulate the logic at work on each side and the contrary premises that led Gerhart and Hodge to their dramatically different conclusions within the same body of Reformed concerns. Put simply Gerhart, along with the GMT, was a genuinely historical thinker, emphasizing the shaping power of context on ideas and the real development of doctrine over time. Hodge saw truth as essentially static or recurrent in its details as well as principles. Gerhart was an Idealist in his epistemology, postulating the constitutive power of the (collective) mind; Hodge was a Baconian realist, thinking to induct things as they actually are from the facts on the ground objectively considered. Gerhart was organic in ontology and method, Hodge more atomistic. Again, the book establishes that these respective sets of axioms were so but doesn't show them as supplying the connective tissue of the two theological projects.

So how does Aubert render the two theological systems, and which does she prefer? On the face of it, there's much to predict that Hodge is her man. First of all, there's her degree from Westminster Seminary, the institution founded as a continuation of "old Princeton." Consider as well her method. Aubert's book is absolutely thick with citations--no less than 1461 endnotes for 225 pages of text, many of them supplying additional quotations to supplement those already given in the text. In fact, Aubert treats quotations as Hodge does "facts"--pile them up literally and in quantity and you've proven your case. The method bogs down the argument--and the reader--without necessarily clinching the point. On the other hand, the notes and bibliography are a goldmine for the student searching out the contours and details of the GMT; here's all the map you need. 

More significantly, Aubert takes Hodge at his word that he worked simply as an exegetical theologian, taking the Bible for what it says as opposed to Schleiermacher et al. who, according to the Princetonian, imposed "philosophy" on the text and so distorted it--in fact, effected a theological system that amounted to "a rejection of the gospel" (quoted, p. 194). In fact, as her exposition of Hodge's method, and of various commentators upon it, amply demonstrates, Hodge brought his own philosophical and interpretive apparatus to bear upon his exegesis and theological construction no less than did his rivals. Hodge's were traditional--as none less than Richard Muller observed, "in form and method, a revival and modernization of the Reformed orthodox scholasticism of the seventeenth century" (p. 170)--but they were still imposed on rather than arising from the text itself. As Aubert notes, Schleiermacher devised a new method by which to render theology "scientific" per the criteria of the nineteenth-century research university, namely, the dictate that every system proceed from a "central dogma" to the completion of the entire edifice. Hodge held to the traditional locus method instead. But in fact his atonement theory of representation, imputation, and penal substitution was so controlling for Hodge as to amount to his own "central dogma," determining everything else in his system.  

Whatever her own predilections might be, Aubert is eminently fair in representing Gerhart's system in its own right. Here the control principle was frankly announced on GMT standards: an organic Christology emphatic about the significance of the Incarnation as inserting a "new life principle" into human history, into which principle as embodied in the crucified and resurrected Savior believers are engrafted into a new union for everlasting life. Paul's first and second Adams here play not as counters in an abstract legal exchange in the eyes of a God whose honor, pace Anselm, needs to be satisfied, but as the fountains of a life that had become detached from and resistant to God in the first instance, but was now restored to living unity with him in the second. Clearly, Gerhart--and his Mercersburg teachers Nevin, Schaff, and Frederick Rauch--were bringing a very different set of assumptions to the theological enterprise from Hodge's, but they were also bringing Scripture to the effort. More precisely, Gerhart as much as Hodge was building from the Bible but reading it with different glasses and so focusing on different texts. For Hodge certain passages in Romans trumped; for Gerhart, Colossians. John was central for Gerhart and the GMT, with the prologue to that gospel, especially v. 14, framing their entire understanding of Scripture. When Hodge turned to that literature, after thorough saturation in Paul, he fixed upon I John 4:10. Not that Gerhart neglected Paul. Proceeding from I Corinthians 15 he emphasized Christ's resurrection as being the point of the whole gospel, of the whole biblical saga; Hodge said little of the resurrection, seeing the legal transaction effected upon the cross as the last word. 

So, there's your Piper v. Wright argument a century and a half ago, but back to Aubert's book. She hopes to convince others of the central importance of German theological discourse for its nineteenth-century American counterpart. That case is made, if only for two of a much broader range of thinkers so influenced at the time. For Hodge she hopes this understanding casts him in a broader light as a more nuanced theologian. I'm less convinced on this point. Yes, Hodge attested to the necessity of the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our coming to a true understanding of Scripture, but given all his other attestations to Baconian empiricism and Common Sense Realism, it's not clear to me how, or that, Hodge really integrated these two commitments. Yes, Hodge read copiously in German sources, but finally in reaction against most of them. Schleiermacher was entirely, and the GMT largely, a foil for his counter-assertions, examples of errors to be warned against, not positive instructors for theological progress. The German thinking Hodge did use positively, Aubert demonstrates, came from the eighteenth-century biblical exegesis of Gotthilf Zachariä and the confessional theology of Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, and there's real question about the extent to which these figures shaped Hodge instead of merely supplying reinforcements for what he already thought. 

On the other hand, there is no doubt that Nevin, Schaff, and Gerhart were deeply beholden to the GMT and the fresh air it blew onto an American religious scene that had spiraled down the shafts of English Puritanism and Continental scholasticism to the point of asphyxiation. In these circumstances, Nevin wrote, the German historical sensibility arrived as the breath of virtual rebirth, showing a new life in Christ that contemporary revivalists could only talk about. Aubert's book shows how Gerhart made of that inheritance a full systematic theology that has much to contribute to our own reflection today.  

James D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), and editor of Antirevivalism in Antebellum America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006).
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