Introduction to Modern Theology

To this point, I have attempted to present the theological developments within the Christian church in a systematic manner. I will now address theology in the modern era from the very late 19th century to the present. The theological developments that I will address are not necessarily formal theology or Christian.  Many of the persons are not typically thought of as theologians. Leo Tolstoy was a writer, primarily known for his novels; Henry Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead were philosophers; Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were civil rights leaders; Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx and Matthew Fox are Catholic theologians. It may seem odd that as a Protestant, I have been most moved by Catholic theologians (perhaps that is less odd when one considers that each exceeded the comfort zone of the Catholic church.) I was influenced greatly by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but perhaps I have been most drawn to him because of a Methodist minister who quoted him for the statement, “Sin and sin boldly, but love Christ more boldly still.” Having been drawn to him for that, I was to discover that he was also, in a manner, a civil rights leader. He co-founded the Lutheran Confessing Church in Germany during the Nazi era, he participated in the failed plot to kill Hitler, and he was executed only 23 days before the end of the Second World War. I was later to discover that the quotation which the pastor attributed to him was actually his quote of Luther. Although these persons are not generally associated with Christian theology, yet, their ideas, their actions and their faith have had great significance to me as a Christian.  The following is a thematic outline of how we will precede with the subject of modern Christian theology.

Christianity as a Way of Life: By Their Fruits You Will Know Them

Christian Theology: Many Paths; One Great River

Science and Religion

Religion and Evolution

Teilhardian Synthesis: Omega Point


Post Reformation: Dualism, Protestant “Awakenings” and Revivals, Scientific Prowess – and Doubt

Following the Reformation, theology became less important than Protestant fervor, buoyed by “right belief.”  Many of the early Protestants were called “Enthusiasts.”  With Luther’s emphasis upon direct revelation from the Bible to the reader, without the requirement of a priestly mediary to interpret it, and with the emotional atmosphere of Protestantism, there developed in Protestantism the notion of “biblical inerrancy:” i.e., the notion that not only is the Bible inspired by God, but that its statements are to be taken literally as “The Truth.”  Whereas Catholics tend to see the Bible stories as such, with truth beyond the mere words, Protestants focused on “Truth” revealed in the Bible, when “rightly understood.”  Various interpretations of the Bible, taken as absolute, often became the basis of yet another Protestant faction.  In short time this developed into Biblicism, or in effect, the worship of the Bible.  For English speaking peoples, the King James Version for a long time was not only divinely authorized, but was itself literally “the Word of God.”

Rene Descartes, recognized as “the Father of Western Philosophy,” took the lead, paving the way for the Scientific Revolution.  He also is credited as the father of analytical geometry.  There could be no science without the tools of mathematics.  Without mathematical developments, particularly those of Descartes, Newton would have no language to formulate his laws of motion.  He also introduced the West to notions of human emotions, which gave rise in music to the Doctrine of Affections, i.e., the notion that music, its scales, its keys, and its melodic and harmonic elements, can evoke specific emotions.  Whereas Medieval society had been oriented toward the Church, the Renaissance was discovering the power of the human spirit and of the mind. That was expressed by Descartes in the famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”

Descartes was no threat to Christianity, neither to Catholicism nor to any of the Protestant sects.  Mathematics, seeming to be a purely intellectual activity and discipline, would hardly threaten Christian doctrine, whether Catholic or Protestant.  Neither was Newtonian physics a threat as was Galileo.  By Newton’s time, theconcept of the solar system was well established and accepted.  Nor was he a threat to either the Catholic or the Protestant churches – not because he was openly compliant with either, but because he held his hereticall views secret; for example, he believed that the notion of the Trinity had corrupted the Church.  In matters of physical bodies in motion, he revealed certain laws of motion which permitted humankind to work more effectively within that physical environment.  But to newton’s world was a dualistic, part scientific and part the fanciful world offairies, goblins, devils, and angels.  He was equally adaptable to object of experimentation and to divinations.  These physical and spiritual worlds were entirely separate; the one did not affect the other.  Christianity in all its forms was happy with Newton as they knew him.  He laughed their Bible stories of creation, and of wondrous, supernatural works, unscathed.

Without the algebraic foundations built by Descartes, Newton’s development of calculus, necessary to express the laws of  motion in mathematic terms, would have been impossible.  Newton, although dependent upon the mathematical foundation built by Descartes nonetheless loathed him.  At times he even refused to acknowledge the name of Descartes or his contributions.  Newton was a strange admixture of great mathematical and scientific achievement, and, within his private world, of strange experiments in alchemy and crucibles.  He was fiercely puritanical and utterly intolerant of those who disagreed with him.  And yet, he also had a humble side, as expressed in his own assessment of his achievements: “I do not know how I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Unitarianism and Universalism arose in reaction to Protestant fervor and Biblicism, and to notions of the Trinity held by both Catholics and Protestants.  In general, they would deny the “godhood” of Jesus, but would tend to see him as a great prophet of God.  They also would likely see spirit as bound up with matter; a function of matter, rather each holding a separate domain.

Whereas, theology floundered in a dualistic Newtonian world, philosophy took the lead in the post-Protestant and post-Catholic Counter-Reformation era.  Prior to the American constitutional convention in 1787, Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.  In it, he epitomized his philosophy: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe . . .  the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”  Whereas the Newtonian system addressed bodies in motion within a great machine operating on cause and effect, and s into motion by a creator God, Kant  addressed the moral duty of humankind, which also subsumed the freedom to act upon that duty.  Knowledge of such a duty is not based upon any empirical knowledge, he held, but rather may come to humanity “a prior:”  every person with the ability to think, thinks about things according to the natural structure of the mind.  Such a notion was consistent with the notion of Natural Law, which was also consistent with Christian notions of being created in “the image of God” and living in a world called into being by God’s words, “Let there be…”

Kant’s philosophy went beyond rationality and empiricism to elevate the human spirit; so much so that nothing existed except that the mind first perceived it.  For him, the mind had no limits.  The human mind was, one might say, made in the image of the Absolute Mind.  As God’s words, “Let there be . . . ,”  had the power to call all physical existence into being, so, the human mind could call things into existence.  Hegel’s great contribution to philosophy was his perception of the world as a dynamic process in which all is related.  His dynamic view of the world has been reaffirmed repeatedly, notably in 20th century philosophy of Bergson, Whitehead, and, perhaps by a different route, Teilhard deChardin.  For Hegel, moral right consisted in harmony between the individual will and the Universal Will.  Therefore, good is the “realization of freedom, the absolute final purpose of the world,” and a concomitant moral duty to others.  There were some dangers in Hegel’s philosophy in that, for example, Nazi Germany claimed it as inspiration for its Superman Theory; however, it also demonstrated the danger that arises from dualism.

The great utilitarian, Bentham, was a contemporary of Kant.  The moral law for Kant looked beyond the utility of a moral act to obedience to the command of good will: good will for its own sake.  A more modern expression of that principle is that of Gandhi: “The truth has its own reward.” Bentham, however, was seeking an objective measure of moral acts through utilitarian principles, governed by his maxim, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.  It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as determine what we shall do.”  In contrast to Kant’s notion of right action in good will for its own sake, Bentham argued the opposite: morality is directly dependent upon the consequences.  Bentham was greatly influenced by the work of John Stuart Mill.  He took that utilitarianism in new directions.  He adopted the ancient epicurean notion that although man lives for pleasure and avoidance of pain, not every pleasure is desirable.  Sometimes pleasure must be eschewed for a greater pleasure.  For Bentham, such pleasures could include those of aesthetic, intellectual and imaginative achievements, and moral sentiments.  He also taught that healthy pleasure extends beyond the individual: acts are good or right insofar as they produce happiness not only for the individual but also for the whole of society.  In that way, he acknowledged our moral duty not only to ourselves but to society.  In his philosophy there is a place for altruism.

Auguste Compte was also a contemporary of John Stuart Mill.  He applied science to human society.  In a time when Biblical criticism, i.e., a study of the texts of the Bible, their authenticity, their contexts and significance to the writer and the original audience, it may have seemed to some that sociology had become the new religion, stripped of super natural elements: “Just the facts, ma’am.”  He saw no need for divine providence; rather, humankind is the measure of all that is.  The progress of humanity would require a stable family.  Its success would depend upon the cultivation of altruism and love.

Whereas other philosophers of the 19th century saw great hope for the advancement of humankind and of society, Friedrich Nietzsche prophesied the collapse of traditional values.  When, at the end of the century, the world was wildly optimistic of mankind’s powers to regulate human conduct and to utilize the powers of nature in the interest of all, Nietzsche saw a world of power gone crazy: a world of competing politics and vicious war: “This world is the Will to Power – and nothing else.”

Despite Protestant zeal, intellectual society had passed from Newton, who saw a marvelous world constructed by God and set into motion, to agnosticism.  With emphasis upon the material aspect of existence to the exclusion of the spiritual, it was natural, also, to exclude the idea of the ground of all spiritual being, God.  And so, Nietzsche announced the death of God.  Far from reveling in that prophecy, Nietzsche feared the consequences when humankind came fully to realize the implications of the death of God.  If man is the measure of all that is, and if the value of life is of no greater significance than the biological processes composing it, then there is no purpose to life: hence, Nihilism.

In the late 19th century, Darwin applied scientific observation to life in the tropics.  From those observations, he compared species, their similarities, their differences, and their habitats.  He noticed that although the life forms may bear remarkable similarity, yet, there were certain characteristics of life in different habitats which seemed to make that habitat friendly to that particular life form and unfriendly to others the.  From that, he developed the notion of evolution.  Whereas the early 19th century philosophers were wor interest saying the powers of the individual, of the individual’s duty to society, and the power of society in the becoming of the world, at the end of the 19th century Darwin was applying science to life forms: biology.  Darwin noted that, however life began, it clearly changed, or evolve, in response to  environmental changes,  or it died, as evidenced by fossils found in areas about the world that would be unfriendly to life found there today, such as great fish on the Nebraska Plains.  It was clear to Darwin that life participates in its own development from its simple beginnings to the most complex of all creatures, the human being.

Protestantism, with its emphasis upon individualism, may have abandoned the stringency  of Catholic creeds, but it replaced them with the demands of their own forms of orthodoxy, or “right belief.” Whereas Catholic emphasis on the individual within the Church, and Protestantism, in its various factions, came to emphasize in the 20th century, at least, the question, “Are you saved?”  Among the intellectuals, by the end of the 19th century it was popularly believed that humanity was at the threshold of knowing all things.  That which Kant might have seen as the ultimate creation of the mind, Auguste Compte might have seen as the triumph of social progress, and Darwin might have seen as the culmination of the evolutionary process, and Nietzsche anticipated as the ultimate end of the Will to Power: Nihilism.

The Aftermath of Protest and Humanism

Toward the end of the 15th Century, the ancient classics were re-discovered, they and new thinking were made available to all with the education sufficient to utilize it; the merchant class was rising, expanding the population of those who were able to benefit from political and material power; through the printing press books and pamphlets became widely available to a greater band of society, beyond the privileged aristocracy; , commerce was expanding throughout the Mediterranean and Europe as far as India; and a wider segment of society found and shared the benefits of this new learning and wealth available to it. One of the results of that growth was more effective communication, a broader distribution of wealth, and the greater broadcast and receipt of ideas. Also, concomitant with those benefits, came an increase in dissatisfaction with the way things were and the power to express and to act upon it.

There had been divergent streams of religious zeal and splits from the church, as has been discussed to this point. But now, dissatisfaction with the church, its privileges among its own as against the public, and it’s growing wealth at the expense of its congregations and lower class protest became more visible, more effective and more broadly cast. Will Durant writes in his Story of Civilization, The Renaissance, at page 569, “enlightenment is of minorities, and emancipation is individual; minds are not freed en masse.”

The former rules of social and moral order were changing. Will Durant notes at page 571:

The church might have sustained the supernatural sanctions provided by the Hebraic Scriptures and the Christian tradition, if her personnel had lived lives of decency and devotion

Of personal sanctity, Will Durant says at page 573, “no saint can be trusted to speak of human conduct without indignation.” To do so was not without cost. Durant writes,

In 1478 Galleotto Marcio was condemned to death for writing that any man who lived a good life would go to heaven whatever his religion might be; but Pope Sixtus IV saved him.

Such a notion was complicated when Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517 on the door of the all Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That resulted in a split, which itself, splintered into many smaller sects the whole of which is generally referred to as Protestantism. Within what remained of the Catholic Church, it was cleansed by a Counter Reformation. I have found a graphic and timeline at quite helpful:

Luther’s break with the Catholic Church and the multitudinous fractures that immediately followed are usually seen as a tremendous split from the Catholic Church. Although there are some distinguishing practices, it appears to me that there is yet more similarity between Catholicism and Protestantism than is suggested by the proponents and adherents of each. It is remarkable how such minutia create such large chasms.

In my posting concerning the consolidation of authority within the Roman Catholic Church, I noted that Augustine not only influenced Catholic theological thinking as redirected by the Council of Nicaea, and forming the basis saw the band invigorating Catholic Aristotelian scholasticism, but that many of his notions were later adopted by Protestants. Certainly, among my more fundamentalist friends, I note Christian language that is taken directly from the Confessions. Doing some more research at this writing, I note that I am not the first to see the great influence that Augustine has had upon Protestantism. I note at, an article entitled, “How Augustine Became the Father of Not Only Roman Catholicism but also…… Evangelicalism! That post refers to the “Roman Catholic website New Advent, in which was posted the article, ‘Teaching of St Augustine of Hippo.’” Of the mutual reliance of Protestants and Catholics upon Augustine, it’s cites the following:

Luther and Calvin were content to treat Augustine with a little less irreverence than they did the other Fathers, but their descendants do him full justice, although recognizing him as the Father of Roman Catholicism.

There is no doubt that Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430AD) became the major theological ‘heavyweight’ whose writings largely influenced and fashioned not only Roman Catholicism, but also Protestantism, and – through that route – modern evangelicalism.

Because I do not see great substantive theological differences among Roman Catholicism, Greek orthodoxy and the various Protestant denominations. I will refer the reader to Adam Hamilton’s Christianity’s Family Tree, published by Abington Press. I believe he were than adequately articulates the fundamental differences among them. I consider it to address the practical differences in a respectful manner. He has also published other books that might be of interest to the reader, particularly, Christianity and World Religions. I find his purposes to be quite consonant with my own purposes in this blog site, and articulate. In his introduction, he states,

. . . The aim of this book is not to critique the various churches and traditions weevil study. Neither is it to compare and contrast them. Instead my aim is to help you learn from your brothers and sisters of other denominations so that your faith might be enriched and that we might be more authentic and effective disciples of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, fine theological distinctions do not interest me.

Philosophy in the Flesh, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson addresses myviewfew of such distinctions. I gather from their book that unless our ideas can relate to us and our world in concrete ways, “in the flesh,” they lack any significance to the life in the flesh which we must live. I see theology to be simply philosophy as applied to religious, or metaphysical, notions. I believe that Jesus addressed that when he was asked by his disciples to judge others who are doing good works but not in his name: good fruits and good works marked the life within the kingdom of God, not logical constructs based upon disembodied premises.

More significant to me are the beliefs that help us relate to the world in which we live and produce good fruit. Eric Fromm addresses that. He notes in his book, Fear of Freedom, which I had purchased in the 60s under the title, Escape from Freedom that healthy human life requires a balance of individuation and relatedness, freedom and a sense of social responsibility, indeed, dependency. Although we have some very basic, primal dependencies, such as the need for food and sleep, or of an infant upon its mother, the individual personality is significantly affected by its social circumstances.

There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual.

European and American history since the end of the Middle Ages is the history of
the full emergence of the individual.

I am again reminded of Eric Fromm’s definition of religion: that which gives us a sense of orientation and an object of devotion. A healthy religion will help the individual and its society to orient itself in a way that dynamically balances individual and social freedom with individual and social responsibility. I relate to that in a way that acknowledges that while the specific orientations and objects of devotion may change, beyond that, “you will know them by their fruits.” I see the humanism of Eric Fromm as consistent. Historically, that began with the conditions of the late Middle Ages, giving rise to a new social orientation that respected the value of human life and, as I perceive it, the holy revealed and shared through it.

Eric Fromm discusses the origins of contemporary religious orientation and devotion:

[It begins in] the cultural scene in Europe during the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. In this period the economic basis of Western society underwent radical changes which were accompanied by an equally radical change in the personality structure of man. A new concept of freedom developed then, which found its most significant ideological expression in new religious doctrines, those of the Reformation, Any understanding of freedom in modern society must start with that period in which the foundations of modern culture were laid, for this formative stage of modern man permits us, more clearly than any later epoch, to recognize the ambiguous meaning of freedom which was to operate throughout modern culture: on the one hand the growing independence of man from external authorities, on the other hand his growing isolation and the resulting feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness. Our understanding of the new elements in the personality structure of man is enhanced by the study of their origins, because by analysing the essential features of capitalism and individualism at their very roots one is able to contrast them with an economic system and a type of personality which was fundamentally different from ours. . . .

Of the Reformation and its significance for the contemporary individual and society, Eric Fromm writes:

The Reformation is one root of the idea of human freedom and autonomy as it is represented in modern democracy. However, while this aspect is always stressed, especially in non-Catholic countries, its other aspect–its emphasis on the wickedness of human nature, the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual, and the necessity for the individual to subordinate himself to a power outside himself–is neglected. This idea of the unworthiness of the individual, his fundamental inability to rely on himself and his need to submit, is also the main theme of Hitler’s ideology, which, however, lacks the emphasis on freedom and moral principles which was inherent in Protestantism.

Following the splintering of the Protestant movement, there were a number of “awakenings,” revivals, and restorations.  With Newton we find a view of God as the great machinist or watch maker, creating the world and then stepping back to watch it a run.

I see much of religion, from its earliest times, as a response to the wonder of spirit and matter, and their relationship. Is man fundamentally corrupt because of “the sin” of Adam, or is he reflective of “the image of God;” what is God: more than what you see, or above all that you see and experience? What is the significance of life; what is the significance of death; what is left after death? To what degree is present life derived from prior life?


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Martin Luther’s Protest

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483. His parents were severe disciplinarians. His father beat him so severely and regularly that they became bitter enemies. Nor was the physical abuse limited to that of his father: for stealing a nut, his mother beat him until he bled. Of the affect of abuse upon Luther, Will Durant writes in his The Story Of Civilization, The Reformation, at page 341:

The picture of deity which his parents transmitted to him reflected their own mood: a hard father and strict judge, exacting a joyless virtue, demanding constant propitiation, and finally damning most of mankind to everlasting hell.

Nor was the abuse limited to his home. In school he was once flogged fifteen times for a grammatical error. Throughout his life, Martin Luther saw not only angels, but devils and witches, as well. That he also absorbed from his parents’ influence.

His father sent him to the university at Wittenberg to study theology and philosophy. There, he began the study of law but shortly thereafter he abandoned the law to commit his life to a monastery. Will Durant notes at page 342 the turmoil of Luther’s life and its contradictions:

Vigorous to the point of sensuality, visibly framed for a life of normal instincts, and yet infused by home and school with a conviction that man is by nature sinful, and that sin is an offense against an omnipotent and punishing God, he had never in thought or conduct reconciled his natural impulses with his acquired beliefs. . . . The conception of God that had been given him contained hardly any element of tenderness; the consoling figure of Mary had little place in that theology of fear, and Jesus was not the loving son who could refuse nothing to his mother; He was the Jesus of the last judgment so often pictured in the churches, the Christ who had threatened sinners with everlasting fire. The recurrent thought of hell darkened a mind too intensely religious to forget it in the zest and current of life.

One day in about 1508, Luther was struck by the text in Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by faith.” As he pondered it and considered the Catholic abuse of indulgences and related excesses, he came to believe, “saved by grace and not by works, lest any men should boast” to mean that one can be saved only by becoming “justified” by faith in Christ as atonement for man’s sin. Unlike the Catholic Church, he saw no need for a priest or other mediator; rather, one could be saved directly by faith in Christ and in his atoning power.

By 1537, he had developed his theological understanding of justification to the point that he formalized it in what became known as The Smalcald Articles. In the second article he set out the core of his statement of beliefs:

The first and chief article is this,

That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4, 25.

And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1, 29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53, 6.

Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3, 23 f.

Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3, 28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise v. 26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.

Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4, 12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53, 5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.

I have previously noted of Augustine that many Protestant notions have been derived from him. Luther was that vehicle. Luther became particularly acquainted with Augustine when he was appointed as professor of theology at the monastery at Wittenberg. In addition to his own notion of justification, Lutheran borrowed from Augustine the notion of predestination, i.e., that God knew before creation those souls who would be saved by the sacrificial act of Christ, and those who would be condemned to eternal damnation.

A fellow professor of theology at the University of the Wittenberg, known as Carlstadt, wrote about that same time a “little book,” upon which Will Durant comments at page 352 as follows:

exalting the Bible over popes, counsels, and the traditions, and the Gospels over the Epistles; if Luther had followed this last line, Protestantism might have been less Pauline, Augustinian, and predestinarian.