Reviews of

James Carleton Paget, “The Reception of F. C. Baur in Victorian Britain”

In Biblical Criticism, Cambridge, F. C. Baur, James CARLETON PAGET, Peter Malik, SEMINAR REPORTS on February 25, 2012 at 11:25 pm

This is a report on a paper presented by Dr. James Carleton Paget, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies, and Fellow and tutor of Peterhouse, at the New Testament  Seminar, Cambridge, 21 February 2012.

The list of forthcoming papers in the New Testament Seminar at Cambridge can be found hereRBECS is also on facebook, here.

Everyone familiar with the work of Dr. James Carleton Paget is aware of his formidable grasp of the history of biblical interpretation in general, and the 19th century biblical scholarship in particular. Therefore, it was a real treat to hear him present on this particular topic at the Senior NT seminar at the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge. What follows is a brief reflection on the main issues raised by Dr. Carleton Paget, whose paper covered an incredible breadth of information with, I should add, his typical eloquence and unparalleled sense of humour.

First of all, the reception of and reaction to Baur’s work in the Victorian Britain was in many ways analogous to the reception of German theology in general. This was due to several factors. Not only was the knowledge of German amongst English divines limited, but when German theology actually made its way to English theological circles, it was frequently mediated via conservative lenses (and thus often not presented in toto). Thus, one may observe both negligence due to the linguistic barrier (partially caused by the 19th century move away from the use Latin in theological writing) and the fear of German critical scholarship. The words of S. Davidson’s 1st ed. of his Introduction to the New Testament (1848-51) are rather illustrative: ‘Let us arm ourselves before it [Baur’s biblical criticism] comes and destroys us!’

However, over the years one may observe a progressive desensitisation from the feared German criticism and F. C. Baur, the main proponent thereof. In his essay on the state of theology in Germany (1857), M. Pattison seems to be more appreciative of Baur’s views: Christianity is a historical religion and Baur is to be commended for his emphasis to read early Christian literature historically. Pattison was nevertheless critical of Baur’s Hegelian dialectic, which allegedly caused him to pay too much attention to Christian thought, while neglecting Christian life and practice. Another critical observer of Baur’s was William Jowett, one of the forerunners of English liberal scholarship; his works exhibit interaction with and critical reception of F. C. Baur, not just mere rejection stemming out of apologetic concerns or ignorance (or both). Still more interesting is reaction of B. F. Westcott: Baur’s contribution to our understanding of the early Christianity is indeed commendable, but the diversity of the primitive Christian movement is in fact a proof of authenticity of its documents and doctrines, not otherwise.

It is not surprising that a bulk of the presentation dealt with the venerated J. B. Lightfoot and his stance toward Baur’s scholarship. It is notable that with New Testament commentaries such as that of Jowett on Galatians, there was a growing interest in the epistles of Paul in the 19th century Britain. Strikingly, Lightfoot chose to commence his commentary series by the epistle to the Galatians–a letter which in Baur’s view betrays a great deal of evidence for the existence of competing streams in the early Christianity. Lightfoot concludes his commentary with a dissertation called ‘Paul and the Three’, where he argues that even though the ‘pillar’ apostles of Jerusalem had distinct emphases from Paul, they were nonetheless in general agreement with him. Furthermore, Jewish Christianity later on became marginal, and so it should not be regarded as an opposing stream in an ancient battle for prominence. Significantly, Lightfoot in his publication of Apostolic Fathers argued for rather early dating of the documents, which even further unveiled the nature of his great enterprise–to demonstrate historically that the apostolic tradition was early and authentic. Even without mentioning Lightfoot’s explicit statements such as ‘Tübingen views are too extravagant’, one need not think too hard to glean that in a way Lightfoot engaged in a systematic refutal of the views put forward by F. C. Baur and the Tübingen school. It is ironic, however, that although J. B. Lightfoot expressed such strong disagreements with the German critical scholarship, his historical, critical approach to the study of the Christian origins was in some ways quite similar to that of his opponents.

Generally, F. C. Baur’s views gained much greater appreciation amongst British theologians in the 1870s, of which the clearest example is J. J. Taylor, a unitarian scholar. In his work on the gospel of John, he betrays a rather heavy dependence of Baur’s reconstruction of early Christianity and explicitly pays homage to Baur’s views as an expression of theological richness. However, even though Baur finally did get some wider recognition at this point, his influence was short-lived. When Baur’s views at least gained some acceptance in Britain, they were already passé in his homeland. Baur’s own followers were correcting his propositions, and with the the rise of Adolf von Harnack, whose views were (unlike Baur’s) generally accepted rather quickly, the name of F. C. Baur lost its general prominence even more significantly.

In conclusion, James Carleton Paget argued that the overall appreciation of F. C. Baur was never manifested on a full scale in the Victorian England, and his work seems to have been neglected and not addressed in its entirety. Baur’s critics were rather selective in what they addressed, their tendency was to focus on his most distinctive views such as his reconstruction of 2nd century Christianity, late dating of the Pastorals, etc, while his ‘deeper level’ questions remained unanswered and his overall contribution to the critical study of the early Christian literature ignored. In the words of the presenter, there was much more to F. C. Baur than his ‘fragile reconstruction of Christian origins.’ Baur asked questions that are now taken for granted, yet he was one of the pioneering personas to do so when it was not common and comfortable. One of the questions for further reflection was whether all subsequent NT scholarship is ‘a series of footnotes to Baur.’ When asked this very question back in the Q & A time, JCP seems to have hinted at an affirmative answer.

Peter Malik
University of Cambridge

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