Thomas Albert Howard. Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Thomas albert howard's Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University is a lucid introduction to the under-explored role of theology in the development of the modern university or, in time, to the research university as it came to be known in the United States. Those who have read George Marsden's The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) and Mark Schwehn's Exiles from Eden (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) may come away thinking that Howard's book is in some ways a prequel to these two texts. On one level, Howard's book is a first-rate contribution to German intellectual history. On another level, Howard's book provides a welcome sense of context to scholars seeking to understand the origins of the institutional and vocational crises respectively described by Marsden and Schwehn.
One larger argument or motivating impulse running through much of Howard's work is his conviction that historians have failed to recognize the role of theology in the development of the modern or liberal understanding of the university and of the academic vocation. This theme emerges from the very beginning and runs through the course of Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University. In the introduction, Howard explains that "In treating Protestant theology and university development together, I aim to remedy a scholarly oversight and suggest ways in which debates about both phenomena might be fruitfully reconsidered" (7).
The more specific concern of this book is "the development of Protestant university theology from an apologetic, praxis-oriented, confessional enterprise in the post-Reformation period to one increasingly 'liberal,' expressive of the ethos of modern critical knowledge, or Wissenschaft" (7). The transformation took place primarily during the nineteenth-century—the age of German Idealism and influential figures such as Immanuel Kant, J. G. Fichte, F. W. J. Schelling, G. W. F. Hegel, and Friedrich Schleiermacher, to name but a few. Howard writes that "since theology, in the eyes of its critics, properly belonged to a vanishing world, [the University of] Berlin's theologians were all the more determined to confer upon their discipline new legitimacy" (198). This sense of legitimacy was sought by bringing the spirit of Wissenschaft to the study of theology, particularly in terms of the methods such scholars chose to employ. This led to what Howard calls the "Janus-faced reality" of the German academy—one which witnessed simultaneously an "...institutional diminution and influential acclaim of German academic theology" (7). Theologians continued to be marginalized within major German universities, but, after accepting the critical scientific approach of the German academy, they gained a new influence that allowed them to transform the study of theology and the academy in places such as the United States.
Howard's own methodology is that of intellectual history. He certainly provides enough detail in the form of dates, places, and institutions which define this era of history; however, his ability to engage the primary sources of this age is what gives his book its lucid quality. Howard is able not only to grapple with the full complexity of the works of such philosophers and theologians but to work with them in such a way as to make them accessible even to individuals coming to them for the first time.
Beyond its significance as a contribution to the field of German intellectual history, Howard's book provides a useful prequel to the arguments made by Marsden (1994) and Schwehn (1993) in their respective books. Marsden's The Soul of the American University offers elaborate detail concerning how religious identity went from being a matter of central concern to a matter of peripheral concern at best in the American academy. While Marsden offers that he cannot come to exact terms with the influence of the German academy on the American academy, he nonetheless argues that the German academy had a decisive influence on the symbolic understanding of academic excellence held by American scholars. We know that, during the nineteenth century, many students went to Germany to complete their education. In addition, several of these students became leaders within many of America's leading colleges and universities. Howard contends that "The country destined to absorb the most extensive influence from German universities was neither Great Britain nor France, but the United States" (363).
If the institutional identity of the American academy changed, perhaps this reflects prior changes in the nature of the academic vocation. Schwehn's Exiles from Eden diagnoses the troubled nature of the academic vocation in the United States by seeing it through the conceptual framework of Max Weber's understanding of science as a vocation. Howard offers an understanding of how such a sense of vocation originally developed. Again, his text goes to great lengths to explore the origins of the notion of Wissenschaft and how it came to be embodied not only by scholars in Germany but also by scholars who came from the United States to Germany to complete their education. According to Howard, "The list of distinguished Americans who spent time in German universities reads like a survey course in nineteenth-century American intellectual history" (363). Through these individuals and the influence they eventually held, the academic vocation in the United States migrated towards that of Weber's understanding of science as a vocation, even if it was refracted through the prism of American pragmatism.
Thomas Albert Howard's book stands on its own merits as a significant example of intellectual history. However, his book also stands as a necessary prequel to Marsden's exploration of institutional identity and Schwehn's exploration of the academic vocation. In either case, Howard's commendable effort is essential reading for anyone concerned about the past and thus the future of both theology and the university.
Indiana Wesleyan University