Shepherds of the Empire: Mark Correll on German Fundamentalism

Actually, Mark would say "fundamentalism" is a pretty misleading word to describe his subjects.  Mark Correll is Chair of the History, Politics, and Geography Department at Spring Arbor University, and my colleague (I'm known as Mark "the Lesser" around campus).  Correll's recent book is entitled Shepherds of the Empire: Germany's Conservative Protestant Leadership, 1888-1919 (Fortress, 2014).  It's received strong endorsements from the likes of David Bebbington, Gary Dorrien, and Mark Noll.  When not counseling Lord Vader on his serious anger issues, Correll's pastor-theologians were busy interrogating, erecting, and erasing boundaries between "believing" (conservative) and "critical" (liberal) church leaders, between the church and the imperial German state, between theological conservativism and political radicalism, and between seminarians and clergy.  His book is a wonderful addition to religion and politics studies that place theological controversy and reform at the center of nation-state building.  It would also make for excellent comparisons and contrasts with George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture.  Correll offers some interesting reflections on American and German Christianity in his following guest post.   

Mark Correll

I am a product of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. The churches I have attended, my undergraduate university, and my current employer all bear the imprint of this century-old conflict. In many cases the wound is still fresh and the conflict is still fought. I recall a poignant moment as a graduate student when I introduced my interest in modern German theology to a trained historian visiting our church. He told me that he was not much familiar with the theology of my dissertation, but he knew that Albrecht Ritschl’s theology arrived straight out of hell. While I am confident that I would have never drawn such distinct lines, the origin of my project was immersed in this thinking. At the beginning of my graduate studies, I told my advisor confidently that I was seeking to show that Germany secularized because Germany’s churches liberalized (in my mind liberalization was code for losing contact with spiritually genuine doctrines). Being informed by a far richer mind, greater life experience, and his own battle scars from the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, my advisor warned me to not be so confident that I would find any such evidence.

I’m exceedingly grateful for his warning. It began the long process of redefining my assumed fault lines when interpreting Germany’s own lively debate about the means and meaning of modern epistemology and historical method. It also showed that the early pugilists of the American fundamentalist/modernist debate were terribly selective and ethnocentric (excepting elements of the Lutheran churches) in their adoption of ideas and theology from Germany. By the end of the long nineteenth century, the sharp divides in theological interpretation that marked the American church of the period had been worn away. These extremes were bridged by a group known as mediating theologians (Vermittlungstheologen) who rejected the extremes of literalism on the one hand and speculative Hegelian thought on the other, and who limited themselves to careful historical study using the best techniques of the field. Surprisingly to Americans, these self-defined mediating theologians included Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack as well as the figures of my study: Adolf Stoecker, Martin Kähler, Adolf Schlatter, and Christoph Blumhardt whose theology would be acceptable to American fundamentalists, even if not exactly embraced by them.

The perceived threat of critical scholarship to living faith by these conservative theologians was no less acute than it was to American fundamentalists, however differently they may have responded. Faced with a similar concern over the continued faith of the nation, the theologically conservative church leaders developed a two-pronged attack on unbelief. First they sought to engage critical scholarship at the universities. Many of the leading conservative theologians tried to defend belief in the supernatural even in an age of enlightened skepticism. Yet, unlike their American counterparts, affirmation of Scripture’s supernatural records was not their main focus. Instead they developed a hermeneutic of belief. These theologians argued that Christianity’s obligation to faith was not fulfilled through affirmation of the Bible’s factuality, but through obedience to the Bible’s commands. This obedience generally presupposed an act of faith that accepted the Bible’s narratives as essentially factual, but the onus did not lie on conservatives to prove the historicity of the Bible’s miracles – only to discern true Christian obedience from the Biblical texts.

The second attack against unbelief was political. Conservative Christians (conservative both in their politics and their theology) controlled the church synod. They defrocked pastors who refused to affirm the historical creeds of the church and limited liberal pastors’ advancement through the church hierarchy to Dekanates and Bishoprics. Likewise the conservative church leaders exercised their muscle with the Prussian Culture Ministry and the Kaisers to ensure that each major theology faculty had at least one conservative professor of theology, plundering the most conservative faculties of Greifswald and Erlangen in the process. The result of this was that German university seminaries never experienced the cloistering effects of the American fundamentalist/modernist controversy. The other political attempts were less focused and less unified ranging from Adolf Stoecker, who founded the Christian Social Party that tried to use a foothold in parliament to attack perceived enemies of traditional faith: socialism, freethinking, and predatory capitalism (which Stoecker saw embodied in Germany’s wealthy Jews) to Christoph Blumhardt who joined the Socialist Party in Germany to try to bring the worldview of a worker’s party in line with Jesus’s preaching of compassion for the poor. Most churchmen, however, found themselves in the middle waxing nostalgic for a pre-industrial Germany where family bonds and the village church helped give order to Germans’ lives.

Already at the advent of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, cultural editorialists were christening the American Century and historians were identifying possible elements to explain American exceptionalism. It is useful to reflect on how the twentieth century was also the German Century, with historians lining up to see what dysfunctional elements led to the unique German modernization (Sonderweg). These kindred cultures and kindred Christianities uphold mirrors of each other. Only by realizing the creative, dynamic actions of these societies and representative churches can we gain a full understanding of each.


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