Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1961
The 19th century and just before it, was a time of great revolution in Europe. Think politically – the French Revolution (1789). Think scientifically – Charles Darwin. Think philosophically – Immanuel Kant. Think theologically – Schleiermacher. Think biblical studies – Bauer and the Tubingen School. All of these revolutionary changes brought challenges to the Christian Church. It was a time of turmoil and adaptation for the Church. In fact, we are still dealing with the consequences of these changes even today in the early 21st century.
As a conservative evangelical, the battle against liberal theology, which entered the Church to a large extent during this period, is of great interest and concern to me personally. In reading this book it became obvious that most 19th century theologians like Strauss and Baur were influenced more by philosophy than by the Bible. The author of The Church in an Age of Revolution, Alec R. Vidler, a Church of England priest and Cambridge scholar, explains it this way
“Whereas Strauss had attributed the Gospel narratives to the unconscious, mythologizing activity of the collective Christian imagination, Baur explained their variety as a result of a conscious and purposeful interpretation of the life of Jesus. … At bottom both Strauss and Baur saw Christianity not as the outcome of particular, concrete events, but as part of an ideal, evolutionary process, and their handling of the historical data seems to have been controlled by their philosophical presuppositions.”
It was during this period that many intelligent young Americans went to study theology in Europe, especially in Germany. Naturally, they brought back their liberal ideas to the seminaries where they would eventually teach, thus influencing all of the mainline denominations in the United States.
Personally, I love talking to interesting people and reading biographies of great people, so what I enjoyed the most about The Church in the Age of the Revolution was learning about men like Soren Kierkegaard (1813 -1855) whose father was a Lutheran Pietistic pastor. The author devotes an entire chapter to the life and teachings of Kierkegaard. What makes him especially interesting is that his thought was the product of experience, his own very peculiar experience. Vidler writes:
In his own time he did indeed make a great, if baffling, impact on his own country, Denmark, and although he had some followers in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century, he made no general impact on European thought until after the First World War. Since then, his life and character and writings have been more studied and discussed than perhaps those of any nineteenth century thinker. He has been credited with responsibility for what is called ‘existentialism’ and having given a decisive impetus to the theology of crisis. … His voluminous works, which were written in Danish and so were inaccessible to most of his contemporaries, have now been translated into other languages, including English, and a vast literature has grown up around and about him.
Naturally given my theological persuasion, I especially enjoyed reading about evangelicals like the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon in London (1834-1892.) The author Alec Vidler, who was not an evangelical, writes this about Spurgeon:
“In the Free Churches (i.e. non state churches) Charles Spurgeon, who stood out as the principal apostle of biblical inerrancy, the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement, and Calvinism, was moved to launch an attack on heretics with the fold in what was known as the “Down Grade” controversy, which was a sure sign that broader views were gaining ground among evangelicals.”
Should you read this book? Here is my thinking – often we American evangelicals are very provincial. We think most Christians elsewhere look like us. We don’t understand the tremendous variety there is in Christendom, so it is my conviction that if we want to reach educated people in the world, speaking intelligently to them we need to understand the flow of history, especially the history of the Christian Church. Therefore, I would indeed recommend to you The Church in an Age of Revolution as a well-researched and insightful book.
Though I had studied church history in seminary and was fairly familiar with the Reformation, the Puritans, Pietism, the history of the Church in the United States of America, and the missionary movement around the world, I learned so much more from this book. Looking at Christianity in the nineteenth century in its various forms globally – Protestantism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, the author greatly expanded my horizons.