Book Review–Introduction to Modern Theology by John E. Wilson

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The following review was published in Anglican Theological Review.  90.2 (Spring 2008).

Introduction to Modern Theology: Trajectories in the German Tradition by John E. Wilson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 286 pages. $29.95 (paper)

John E. Wilson’s new introductory text on the past two centuries of German theology will give readers an insightful overview of modern Christian doctrine.  There is no area of modern theology that escapes the influence of German nineteenth and twentieth-century theological thought; therefore, Wilson’s book is an important contribution to religious studies literature.  He organizes the book chronologically around a thorough list of influential theologians and gives each one a digestible section that could either be read individually or in sequence.  The book will be a good survey for graduate students to get an overall sense of the German theological tradition.  Other well-informed readers might find this book a useful reference to refresh their memory regarding any of the included theologians.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a period or stream of thought.  The first chapter provides a historical overview of Germany, and Wilson draws relevant connections between historic events and their impact on German thought.  The second chapter devotes much attention to Kant and discusses the formative period in modern German thought.  Wilson also includes sections on Hegel, Schleiermacher and others in chapter two.  The following chapters are about mediation theology, Ritschlianism and liberal theology, antecedents of dialectic theology, dialectic theology, post-liberal American theologians, and German theologians emerging in the 1960s.

Each chapter gives space to the most prominent theologians in each respective school of thought.  Wilson does not presume to provide an exhaustive list of German theologians, so some readers might find the list incomplete.  However, Wilson is careful to cover the most important contributors making economic use of the space he has available, recognizing the individuality of the various theologians.  In the Preface, he writes, “Understanding theology is a matter of understanding the language of its concepts” (ix).  He illustrates this important point by including heterogeneous viewpoints.  For instance, among the six theologians within the chapter on mediation theology, Wilson writes about August Tholuck and Julius Müller as primary examples of the school of thought, but he also includes F. C. Baur as an example on “the left wing of mediation theology” (118).

In chapter four, which is devoted to Ritschlianism, Wilson begins with the neo-Kantian thought of F. A. Lange and Hermann Lotze before writing about Albrecht Ritschl and his successors.  American readers will likely appreciate Wilson for including a section on Walter Rauschenbusch in order to connect Ritschlianism in Germany with American theological development.  Chapter five is about the antecedents to dialectic theology, and chapter six is devoted to dialectic theology, giving prominent attention to Barth, Brunner, and Bonhoeffer.  Dialectic theologians “agreed with their Neo-Kantian and Ritschlian teachers on the impossibility of a scientifically valid philosophical metaphysics, but in almost all other areas they were quite critical of them” (171).  Dialectic theology was a break with the past, but it was in dialogue with the earlier schools of thought, including giving more attention to Kierkegaard than the previous schools had given him.

The final two chapters are about post-liberal American theologians and emerging German theologians of the 1960s, respectively.  Just as the early chapters point to the development of dialectic theology, the last two chapters trace developments out of dialectic theology, illustrating the importance Wilson gives this brand of theology.  The book ends slightly abruptly, but for the purpose implied in the title, Introduction to Modern Theology, it is quite useful and a valuable contribution to the literature.

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