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1912-1962

American Theological Society Centennial Meeting, March 30, 2012

The Past: 1912 - 1962, Opening Remarks by Karlfried Froehlich

When my teacher Oscar Cullmann in Basel suggested that it would be good for me to spend a post-doc year in the United States, I asked another one of my teachers, Karl Barth, for his opinion. Barth said: "I don't think this is a good idea. In theology, they are always fifty years behind!" Well, that was in 1958, only a couple of years after Barth's oldest son Markus moved to the US and started teaching at Dubuque, and five years before Kartl Barth's own trip to the US--exactly 50 years ago this spring. I did not heed his warning and went anyway, landing at Drew upon Cullmann's recommendation. Fifty years behind? No, Drew was an exciting place under the leadership of Barney Anderson who presided as Dean over a faculty that counted among its members Will Herberg, Carl Michalson, John Dillenberger, Bard Thompson, Stan Hopper, Ray Hart. There was a fervent interest in the newest theological developments on the Continent. Within two years of my arrival, we had the first of two famous Consultations on Hermeneutics. Before the second Consultation, I was sent with Stan Hopper to visit Martin Heidegger in the Black Forest to ask him for a paper. Heidegger promised to send one but was afraid to undertake the trip across the ocean himself, by air as a matter of principle, by boat because of the danger. Instead, Hans Jonas was there from New York City. Gerhard Ebeling, Heiner Ott, and Fritz Buri flew in from Switzerland. The discussions were fascinating. Schubert Ogden, Van Harvey, Paul Van Buren, Bill Hamilton, and our own Bob Funk were passionate participants, and the entire campus was bathed in a intellectual and theological euphoria. Fifty years behind? Very soon I realized that I was in a different America than I expected, I was exactly where the action was, just as Cullmann had predicted.

When Barney Anderson nominated me for membership in the ATS in 1985, it was an exhilarating experience to encounter the best of American theology through its living representatives and in the lore of their predecessors whose memory was evoked time and again during the sessions. The tradition of these meetings goes back to the spring of 1912. It began with a conversation at Heidelberg in 1911 between Douglas Macintosh of Yale and Eugene Lyman, then of Bangor Seminary. Macintosh, a brilliant Canadian theologian and philosopher, gained notoriety in 1931 when the Supreme Court denied his application for US citizenship on the grounds that he claimed the right to "selective conscientious objection" to military service "in each and every war". Lyman became a much respected religious leader at Harvard and later a professor of Philosophy of Religion at Union Seminary in New York City. The subject of their conversation was the idea of creating a society for the discussion of theological problems. The two approached the formidable William Adams Brown of Yale and Union Seminary - theologian, academic statesman, and social activist - who took the initiative to contact a large group of scholars in the Northeast and called a first meeting for April 8, 1912 at Union Seminary. Fourteen scholars were present at that two-day affair which elected Brown as the first president and drafted the first Constitution of the Society. For decades, New York City remained the place where the annual meetings were held, and Union Seminary regularly hosted the event.

Among those who were first contacted, Princetonians were conspicuously absent. Princeton, the citadel of Presbyterian orthodoxy, had spearheaded the heresy trial of Charles Briggs in 1893 over which Union Seminary severed its own connection with the Presbyterian Church. William Adams Brown himself was accused of heresy at the General Assembly one year after the first meeting of the Society but escaped condemnation. The first scholar from Princeton to be admitted to the ATS was George F. Thomas of Princeton University in 1928. The second was John Mackay, the new President of Princeton Seminary after the shake-up at the seminary in the late 1920s. Mackay's election to the Society in 1937 signaled the beginning of a new era in the relationship. Since then, many Princeton colleagues have joined the Society. Since the early 1990s, Princeton replaced New York City as the regular venue for the annual meeting, probably more for the superiority of the physical arrangements than anything else, and since 1996 the archives of the Society are part of the Special Collections of Princeton Seminary's Library.

At the first conversations about the formation of the Society in 1911 and 1912, a number of reasons were adduced for the desirability of such a forum. They all proved to be prophetic of the history of the Society:

1. "The promotion of fuller acquaintance and fellowship among those working in the same field and with so many interests in common." Already in a brief report on "The ATS 1928-1972", George Thomas pointed to his own and other members' experience of seeing, hearing, and interacting with the group of colleagues as one of the greatest benefits of membership. Friendships could be formed, dialogues furthered, and interaction on a personal level deepened. It is, I would say, still the real joy of these meetings every year.

2. "The stimulation of constructive thought that might be expected from the discussion at close range of topics of common special interest." Indeed, the records of papers, responses, and discussions in the archives document in a fascinating way the early appearance of numerous ideas and approaches which subsequently became important in the broader theological discussion of the time.

3. "The fact that in the presence of the changed situation confronting modern Christianity denominational theological differences are in many cases coming to seem less important, while there have emerged new problems which are common to all communions and which can be discussed in eirenic spirit." Since 1965, members of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish communions have been elected to membership in the ATS. Today, the criterion of religious affiliation plays no decisive role in the election of new members, and all contribute equally to the program and the leadership of the Society.

4. "The shift and emphasis now taking place from historical-critical to constructive problems." It seems to me that this shift was not a one-time phenomenon but has repeated itself time and again. The papers of our panels II and III at this meeting show the persistence of the tension.

5. "The possibility of suggesting fields that ought to be worked up afresh in the general domain of systematic theology." And not only in "systematic theology"! Of course, such new fields were opened up with the appearance of systematicians like Barth, Bultmann, or the Niebuhrs during the Society's first fifty years. But again, the papers of our panels II and III show how wide-ranging they have become in more recent times and will have to become in the future.

It seems that the American Theological Society had a mission and a vision from the beginning, and the seeds that were sown did bear much of the hoped-for fruit. By the same token, the seeds of those fruits in turn are constantly ripening and, one hopes, will continue to grow and produce. 

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