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God and History: Aspects of British Theology, 1875-1914.

To explore the relation between the new understandings of history and faith during the late-19th and early-20th centuries is a daunting task, especially in Britain where the impact of German hermeneutics was so telling. Hinchliff's analysis throws a penetrating beam of light into the forest of scholarship in that period. He illumines a fascinating trail that perceptively identifies many similarities and differences of ideas whose variety could all too easily overwhelm the non-specialist. Because his book does not attempt to survey all of the relevant literature it does not constitute a comprehensive account of British theology at the turn of the century. Yet his limited selection of theologians, each astutely located in historical context, enables him to investigate such a difficult terrain in a manageable fashion. In that selection (as suggested by the word "aspects" in the sub-title) H. reveals his own interests while avoiding the danger of idiosyncracy.

One effective way of glimpsing the multi-layered nature of this book is to view the basic theme of faith and history through the lens of doctrinal development that pervades most of the theological movements H. discusses. After an introductory explanation of historical and religious understanding in 19th-century Britain, sketched insightfully in the context of the question of causality in history and the rise of the historical-critical method, H. turns to John Henry Newman's concept of doctrinal development (1845, revised 1878) to sketch the problem of relating history and theology. While dubious of the rigor and impact of Newman's argument, H. accurately describes Newman's view as analogous to organic development (as distinct from finding some minimal persistent core) and applauds Newman's sensitivity to interpretation as arising from his awareness of the contingency of history (as distinct from Pusey's resistance to development in theology). But H. argues persuasively that it was the idea of development, not Newman's theory, that interested many of the later theological movements in Britain.

In Liberal Protestantism, Benjamin Jowett, the master of Balliol and the perceived leader of Oxford's theological liberals took up the topic of doctrinal development by examining how the Christian religion had changed. Influenced by Thomas Arnold's appeal to common sense as the means of interpreting the text of Scripture, Jowett argued that we do not arrive at a preserved set of dogmas. H. carefully notes that Jowett's propositional statements in belief were merely hints for exploration, not truths as suggested by Newman's theory. For Jowett, H. claims, interpretation resulted in rationally justifiable belief that both fits with experience and is distilled from the historical form of revelation. With these views on interpretation and development Jowett had a significant influence upon the work of the British Idealists (who, in turn, distanced themselves from the orthodox intuitionism of the common-sense approach).

H. also succinctly contrasts the liberal view of tradition that characterized Oxford with the more conservative view of relating history and tradition that characterized Cambridge, especially the "Cambridge Triumvirate" of Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort, each associated with Trinity College, and Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury (1883-96). H. indicates shrewdly that although all were concerned with the principles and methods of textual criticism, they remained convinced that theological questions could somehow be settled by appealing to history, thereby running the danger of making history serve preconceived theological truth.

The British Idealist movement, influenced especially by Thomas Hill Green in Oxford and Edward Caird in Glasgow, both professors of moral philosophy, tried to free religion from its historical context by studying religion philosophically. In a fascinating analysis H. highlights Caird's argument that the science of religion required an understanding of development (the developing way the human mind conceived of religion) as the yardstick for distinguishing the transitory and permanent in religion so that the history of dogma, not the history of Jesus, enshrined religious truth. It was precisely the connection between history and dogma, especially using history as the measure for the truth of theology, that concerned Catholic Modernism. Here H. examines the thought of John Acton, with the rejection of ecclesiastical authoritarianism that characterized his liberal Catholicism, as the forerunner of Modernism. Appropriately, to justify his argument he shows how Acton approached the development of doctrine by understanding Christianity as a history rather than a dogmatic system. Like the modernists, he recognized the importance of submitting dogmatic tradition to critical historical inquiry.

Even the finest studies have limitations, and perhaps the most noticeable weakness in this work is the dearth of connections between British and German scholarship of the day. However, H. serves the reader well by providing a helpful chronological table, an interesting list of suggestions for further reading, and an excellent index of names and topics.
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Author:Magill, Gerard
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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