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The American Theological Society: 1928-1972

By George F. Thomas, Princeton University

I suppose that Roger Hazelton asked me to reminisce a bit about the American Theological Society on this occasion because some of the members older than myself are no longer active and others came into the Society after I did. However, the fact that I entered the Society as early as 1928 does not qualify me to reflect, as Roger wanted me to do, on the “trends” and “shifts of interest” that have occurred in the group during the last forty-four years. I have a poor memory and can seldom remember the proper place of an incident in the long series of years that stretches back to the distant past. All I can do, therefore, is to offer a few general impressions of the Society during this period.

First, I want at least to mention the names of some of the men who were members before I came in and whom I knew and respected in their old age. William Adams Brown and Douglas Macintosh entered the Society in 1912, Rufus Jones in 1913, Henry Sloane Coffin and James Bissett Pratt in 1916, John Baillie, Edgar Brightman and Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1920, W. E. Hocking in 1921, Angus Dun and W. K. Wright in 1922, Wilmon Sheldon in 1923, Morton Enslin in 1925, Seelye Bixler and Robert Calhoun in 1926, and Edwin Aubrey and Robert Wicks in 1928. I imagine few of you have known many of these men, but they have meant much to those of us who did know them and they have contributed much to the religious life and thought of this country during the last half century. The Society would not be what it is today if they had not gone before us and helped to shape it.

When one recalls the names of these men as well as others from those earlier years, one is reminded of the remarkable breadth of interest and diversity of outlook of this Society from the beginning. It has included not only theologians in the strict sense of the term but also many whose primary interest and competence have been in philosophy of religion, Biblical literature, church history, ethics, and other fields. Although this diversity has sometimes made it difficult for us to understand those whose way of thinking differed radically from our own, it has been one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Society. In a day when specialists in one field find it very hard to talk with and learn from specialists in other fields, theologians in this Society have learned to listen to philosophers, philosophers to theologians, and both to Biblical specialists and church historians. This has not always been easy but it has been very stimulating and fruitful. As an example, during a whole generation when many theologians were critical of philosophy and many philosophers were hostile or indifferent to theology, the Society was able to bring together philosophers and theologians who were willing to talk with one another. Both, I think, learned from the encounter, although sparks were sometimes generated in the heated discussions between them.

It has been a great advantage to us in our meetings that we have had Biblical specialists and church historians among our members. In our programs we have usually, as at this meeting, tried to balance systematic or constructive papers on the subject under discussion with papers on the Biblical basis and/or the historical development of thought on the subject. As one who is neither a Biblical scholar nor a historical theologian, I have been especially grateful to members such as John Knox, Cyril Richardson, and Wilhelm Pauck, to mention only a few, who have helped me to ground my theological thinking on the Biblical foundation and historical development of our theological tradition.

Despite the diversity of interests and approaches represented in the Society, it must be confessed that until recent years we have been mainly a Protestant Christian group. Fortunately, in recent years we have become more ecumenical. Since 1965 a number of Orthodox and Roman Catholic members have come into the Society and since 1967 several Jewish thinkers have become members. The discussions will be greatly broadened and enriched by these and other representatives of the Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish traditions, and it is a pleasure to note that several of them are serving as critics of the two papers presented at this meeting.

I do not need to remind you how greatly we have profited by the presence among us, for shorter or longer periods, of a considerable number of European members. From Great Britain have come in the earlier years such men as John Baillie and H. H. Farmer and in later years George Hendry, John Hick, and John Macquarrie. Although some of these men perched only briefly among us before flying back to their native lands, others of them are still with us. From Germany have come a number of others, especially after Hitler’s rise to power. These have included Paul Tillich, who was a member of the Society from 1935 until his death, and, among others, Otto Piper, Richard Kroner, and Wilhelm Pauck. To these men and to those from other countries such as George Tavard from France and Nils Ehrenstrom from Sweden we are indebted for keeping us in touch with currents of thought in Europe, and saving us from American parochialism in our thinking.

As I said at the beginning, my memory is too weak to describe even the major “shifts of interest” in the Society during the last forty four years. Everyone knows, of course, that Liberalism was dominant in Protestant circles during the first two decades of the Society’s history. With the entrance of Reinhold Niebuhr in 1929 and of Richard Niebuhr in 1931, a more orthodox theology began to make its influence felt, and with the coming of Paul Tillich a few years later we were stimulated by a type of philosophical theology that was neither liberal nor  orthodox. But the Society has never been completely dominated by any one type of theology, and many different theological positions ranging from the far Left to the far Right have been ably represented. With the coming of Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish members, there will be a still greater diversity of theological views in the future. The lack of agreement among us may sometimes make us uncomfortable, since nothing can be taken for granted in our discussions and no consensus can be expected before the eschaton. But this situation reflects the diversity of theological perspectives in our religiously pluralistic society.

Finally, despite the differences between us, one of the most valuable things about the Society has been the many friendships it has made possible for each of us. The hospitality of Union Seminary, including the privilege of holding our discussions in an excellent room, has contributed greatly to this and we have all been grateful for it. Our meetings have drawn together many of us who have come year after year and have enabled us to work together at the common task of seeking the truth about God and our relation to Him, to our fellows, and to the world. I, for one, am profoundly grateful for the privilege of sharing for so long with so many good friends in this common task.