This last week’s class got into the influences of Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. We talked about their personal projects and how the political aspects of their theologies before, between, and after the World Wars. Culture, for Bultmann, was something that was filled with myths and contextually limited language seeking to express the pure theological truths of the gospel. For Tillich, religion was the bedrock reality of every culture. He believed culture, with its social structures, languages, and norms, was simply the expression of the fundamental coherence that religion explicitly or implicitly shouldered in the collective mind of the people.

Bultmann and Tillich were both critical of the German project of Classical Liberalism, the idea that religion, and Christianity particularly, existed for the psychological self-actualization of human beings and humanity. This was an intuitive and experiential truth that could not be refuted, but only supported and recognized. Theological common sense, if you will permit the joke, for those of the right educational and intellectual caliber. This was achieved either by following or creating philosophies via Kant, or through historical critical work, such as Bultmann’s creation of form criticism.

Here, though, is where my thoughts began to wonder in class. While Bultmann and Tillich sought to refine German Classical Liberalism with their critiques, they themselves were German Classical Liberals none the less. They could not get beyond the culture and language of its ideas.  For them still, the individual’s experience of the gospel is primary. There is a heavy dose of self-actualization, whether by psychological or political means. Both, also, make use of German philosophy and historical critical methods extensively to create their points, ideas, and theories. The theologies of Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann are no less implicated! They, too, strongly critique the past forms of German Classical Liberal while still being wrapped up in the cultural and educational milieu of Germany.

It then struck me how many of these German theologians moved to the USA after WWII. They took up posts for teaching at many of the most prestigious theological schools, such as Harvard, Union Theological, University of Chicago, and others. Today, mainline Protestantism is awash with German Classical Liberalism. Fundamentalism created entire schools to combat German Classical Liberalism, but over the last one hundred years much of Fundamentalism, which has become Evangelicalism, has just become an adversarial twin rather than a substantive alternative.

While American ‘progressive’ Christians often tout the idea that they reject ‘white theology’ or in some way are deconstructing it, the truth is that the creators and promoters of contemporary or liberationist theologies are often deeply steeped in German Classical Liberal thought, particularly that of Jurgen Moltmann. As another student in the class pointed out, there is also the strong influence of Karl Marx throughout liberationist theologies. The reality is that most theologies which claim to be on behalf of minorities or oppressed ethnicities are fundamentally white European theologies and philosophies to their core.

There is likely no way for modern theology to escape the shaping effect of the German Classical Liberal project. Even if we attempt to incorporate and correctly critique it according to studies of the patristic era, medieval theology, or theology from the eastern orthodox churches we will be perceiving, interpreting, and understanding all of it through the German Classical Liberal cultural lens we have inherited. It would be like thinking Christians could escape the teaching of male theologians, or the historical influence of Catholic theology, or the political and theological effects of the Reformation. All of these types of people and contexts have changed the way we think theologically and how construct the ethics to enact that theology in our contemporary contexts. There is no going back. There is only moving forward, towards King Jesus who is calling us into a future that is more and more conformed to him as the Image of God. Even this, if only we are willing to identify those parts of ourselves that are inhibiting our growth in God, both as individuals and as a people. Yet, this too is an idea that has been shaped and taught by German theology. An idea I believe is worth keeping.

If you are interested in the twists and turns of modern theology, I would recommend picking up Roger Olson’s illuminating tome on the subject, aptly named, The Journey of Modern Theology. While on the larger side, it is an enjoyable read that is broken down into small digestible sections and extremely informative. I’ve turned to it a number of times over the last few years to refresh myself on where particular influences in modern theology come from and how it affects us still to this day. If we are doomed to be Germans, we ought to know our history of why!

Posted by Justin Gill


  1. This is an interesting thought, for sure, and I agree that we should know our history, which includes the knee jerk reactions of fundamentalism. Machen’s work on the Reformed side, and Scofield’s on the dispensational have deep marks (scars?) in the theology of the Midwest, even if unrecognized by most. There is a dangerous cocktail of Lutheran “fully sinner/fully saint,” mixed with once saved always saved dispensationalism, and then splash on a little Calvinist predeterminism to try and bind it all together. Something in dispensationalism’s view of the people of God and Israel interweaves throughout all of that a (un)healthy dose of nationalism. All of that to say that on all sides we need to understand our history, and much more our faith.

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    1. Dr. McKnight pointed out in a Facebook comment that we cannot forget all of the other theological influences that came into America through the Puritans, England’s empiricism, and France’s individualism. I agree that all of these are significant. The Great Awakenings, also, played a key role for us as we moved towards the Civil War. I do think, though, that there is an importance that needs to be given to German Classical Liberalism on account of its recent and currently pervasive presence in American theologies after the World Wars. In the reconstruction of the social fabric of second half of the twentieth century, Classical Liberalism theology was given a new prominence distinct from the first encounter at end of the 19th century, which created the Fundamentalist response.

      But this is just one of the latest historical lens we inherent, and like you and Dr. McKnight point out, we should look to understand all of our historical baggage to understand how we have come to believe the things we believe now.



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