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The Prism of Time and Eternity: Images of Christ in American Protestant Thought from Jonathan Edwards to Horace Bushnell.

Both the title and subtitle of this chiefly descriptive study of American Christology take their form from the subject of the final chapter, Horace Bushnell, whose attempt to replace a dogmatic Christ with a romantic divinity mediated through the imagination seems in the light of this study simply woolly. The trouble is that after the sheer comprehensive all-round brilliance of Jonathan Edwards, for whom the dogmatic, intellectual and aesthetic are all of a piece, it is downhill much of the way, and would be in almost any story that began with him. That is not a doctrinal judgement, for despite an overall movement in the direction of modernism, there are in this interesting review major figures representing a more traditionalist position, Hodge and the most interesting Nevin among them. In fact, there are not many theological assessments in this book, the author chiefly expressing oblique opinions by the rather irritating and rather patronizing observation to the effect that 'he established to the satisfaction of his own mind' (as if it might be someone else's mind or conclusion that he was establishing). Yet it is a theological history, telling a tale of a major series of christological thinkers, not indeed chiefly in terms of their response to the patristic christological debates -- one mark of the story is the patronizing of the past even by those who should know better -- but with more attention to conceptual matters than the title may suggest.

Heralded in the introduction as `a modest contribution to a wider understanding of the religious experience of the American people', it is rather more than that, having more to say about the thought of Edwards and his successors than such a claim might suggest. There is much discussion of the relation between the person and work of Christ, and of the growth of that Unitarianism which was so characteristic of America. This is an interesting book, which for its price could have been better produced and copy-edited --if only to remove the confusion of `principle' and `principal', though they are not alone. Above all, it demonstrates the interesting relation of the general and the particular. Here we have the same kind of concerns as those which animated the -- to us -- more famous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century debates, but taking unique American form. There is too a demonstration of the perennial importance and interest of Christology, where, also, universal concerns recur in the particular circumstances of their time and place.

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Author:Gunton, Colin
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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