Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Christ, Providence, and History: Hans W. Frei's Public Theology

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Christ, Providence, and History: Hans W. Frei's Public Theology

Article excerpt

Christ, Providence, and History: Hans W. Frei's Public Theology. By Mike Higton. London and New York: T & T Clark International, 2004. xi + 287 pp. $59.95 (paper).

Hans Frei, an Episcopal priest and professor of theology in the Religious Studies Department of Yale University, was the author of two major books, The Identity of Jesus Christ and The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, before his untimely death in 1988 at age 66. A well-known scholar of modern biblical hermeneutics and a first-rate intellectual historian of modern European Christian thought, Frei was a leading figure (with his colleague, George Lindbeck) of the so-called Yale School of theology, and a major formative influence on a generation of Yale doctoral students in theology (of which I was one) throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Frei's writing was always dense and subtle-some have complained, elusive and obscure. Higton does the scholarly community (and one might hope the theologically interested general reading public) a great service then by providing the best overall introduction to Frei's achievement yet written. Concentrating on Frei's early work (primarily the two books mentioned above, Frei's doctoral dissertation on revelation, and his major articles on H. Richard Niebuhr and David Friedrich Strauss), Higton, in very lucid and engaging prose and with great sensitivity to the written record, convincingly demonstrates the coherence and enormous significance of Frei's project as both a historian and a theologian.

Higton sees Frei's work throughout his life as responding to the question of faith and history pointedly posed in the nineteenth century by David Friedrich Strauss and again in the twentieth by Ernst Troeltsch: Can Christian faith in Jesus Christ do full justice to modern historical sensibilities? Frei, Higton thinks, found an answer by reversing the terms of the question (which asked after faith's conformity to standards set by historical inquiry) and by showing, instead, faiths own internal demand for an honest recognition of history in all its complexity, contingency and variety.

The keystone of Frei's effort here is his treatment of the way the identity of Jesus Christ is rendered by the gospel narratives in all its unsubstitutable particularity as any fully historical person would be, who he is being displayed there in what he does and what befalls him throughout the many occurrences and interactions of a public kind with others that constitute his life and death. …

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