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Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology
Baylor University Press, 2004
234 pp., $39.95
The Liveliest Way with Dissenters
In Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology, Timothy Larsen, professor of Theology at Wheaton College, has brought together nine journal articles and three previously unpublished pieces to show how it is "only by drawing close enough in to see [the] very human struggles between beliefs and practices that one can gain a truer understanding of the nature of Victorian Britain's contested Christianity." Apropos that contest, Larsen makes a persuasive point when he says that if one were to credit most accounts of Victorian Christianity, "no free Churchmen ever had a theological thought worthy of a second look." The essays in his book demonstrate otherwise. Well-researched and provocatively argued, his book deserves a wide readership. Some of the dissenting figures he covers include D. F. Strauss, Bishop Colenso, Joseph Barker, Charles Bradlaugh, and Thomas Cooper. Since none is exactly a household name, some background may be in order before considering what Larsen makes of them.
David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74) was a German theologian and disciple of Hegel. In Leben Jesu (1835), which George Eliot translated into English in 1846, he set out to show that the New Testament was a tissue of myths, which might yield historical but not supernatural truth. The book caused a good deal of controversy when it first appeared in English and is now seen as a milestone in New Testament criticism. Strauss may have willy-nilly introduced the notion that the Christian religion is based on myth, but it is worth noting that in the book's preface he assured his readers that "the author is aware that the essence of Christian faith is perfectly independent of his criticism. The supernatural birth of Christ, his miracles, his resurrection and ascension remain eternal truths, whatever doubts may be cast on their reality as historical facts." One cannot divorce the miraculous from the historical. Still, this was a sensible qualification, even if he repudiated ...