Protestant theology
in the 20th century

Protestant thought and research can be divided into three periods in the twentieth century.

Up until the late twenties

That period merely prolonged the 19th century but did not bring about anything new or different. The influence of symbolic-fideism advocated by Auguste Sabatier (1839-1901) and Eugène Menegoz (1838-1921) was great. Both professors at the Theology Faculty in Paris they gave doctrines a symbolic value and refused to consider them as absolute. During that period, Wilfried Monod (1867-1943) developed a theology of the Kingdom which ruled over the “social Christianity” movement. For Monod, suffering in the world was against God’s will. Christ had to defeat hostility and to conquer the world in order to make it God’s Kingdom.

From the 1930s until the 1970s

  • The Doctrine of God's Word by Karl Barth © S.H.P.F.

A new generation of theologians appeared in Germany and broke away from the previous one. WWI was a turning point as it put an end to optimism and confidence in progress and human abilities. Many a theologian deemed trying to link culture and gospel an error. The gospel in fact interpellates, questions and endangers human realisations. Salvation cannot stem from what is best in it, but requires the intervention and revelation of a “wholly other” God. There were several trends in the movement. The prevailing one was represented by the Swiss Karl Barth who wrote extensively, in quantity and quality. His definite opposition to Nazism also weighed in his favour.

As early as 1930 the “new theology” rapidly spread all over France, but was hotly questioned by the liberals, as well as by the orthodox considered as outdated – both trends however survived. Barth’s influence was obvious in the way Pierre Maury (1890-1956), Roland de Pury (1907-1979), Jacques Ellul (1912-1997) and Roger Mehl (1912-1997) inspirited French protestant theology after WWII.

A movement called “biblical renewal”, similar -but not identical – to “barthism”, and mainly led by Suzanne de Dietrich (1891-1981) also developed. This trend suggested reading the Bible and looking for God’s message, without ignoring its historical aspect. Oscar Cullmann (1902-1999) deemed the History of salvation the key notion in the New Testament – the revelation is not just part of History, but History itself.

Other trends and theologians were marginalised over that period, such as the poorly accepted research on the New Testament and on ethics performed by Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).

After the 1970s

New theological trends appeared in French Protestantism.

For instance the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), imprisoned by the Nazis, were studied. He advocated “non religious Christianity” to help human beings rather than be imposed on them. The “theologians of god’s death”, mostly Americans, radicalised this notion barely outlined by Bonhoeffer. In their opinion the core of the gospel holds a call for a thoroughly human life and not a statement of a transcendent God.

Likewise “demythologisation” was being studied. According to Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) the New Testament was based on the mythological categories of the antique world, quite different from ours. The essence of the evangelical message should be discovered through this outdated mythology.

The works of Paul Tillich (1886-1965) were translated into French. He sought to associate philosophy with theology but not to interweave them. While claiming the respective autonomy of the gospel and of the culture, he tried to link them.

The liberation theology from South America, was introduced and supported in France by Georges Casalis (1917-1987), who pleaded in favour of basing theological thought on actual experience rather than on a priori doctrines. Contextualised theologies took into account the various cultures, be they African, Caribbean, Oceanic…as well as everyday conditions of women, urban living, occidental secularisation, economic swindling. This theology encouraged definite left wing political commitment – cf Church and powers, a document published by the French Protestant Federation in 1971.

As for bible studies they mostly dealt with narration after a short-lived structuralist endeavour – i.e. analysing the literary structure of the texts – but were not restricted to a “biblical tale” aspect. It was based on the primacy of language that defines actions and determines what we do and who we are. Human beings build up their identity through stories. Thus the Bible should be narrated rather than be subjected to doctrinal comments.

Paul Ricoeur (1912-2005), a protestant philosopher, but not a theologian belonging to any trend, worked a lot on language and suggested a deep, encompassing and complex reflection on biblical hermeneutics – the art of interpretation of the Scriptures.

During the last twenty years of the century, a neo-Lutheran trend appeared, often polemical and engaged in the “theology of the cross”, viz. God was revealed in his weakness and defeat and powerlessness but not in his glory and power. The movement got very close to some trends in psychoanalysis, humanities and philosophical reflection on sciences. At the same time the American theology of the Process was introduced which renewed the liberalism themes, considering God first and foremost as a transforming agent.

Incidentally neo-calvinism claimed and renewed its heritage. “Evangelical” trends also developed, calling themselves “evangelic”. They had a strong and simple message, and generally did not contribute much to theological reflection.

At the end of the twentieth century, French Protestant theology could be characterised by four notions

  • No leading currents or clear-cut trends, but rather scattering, without set guidelines but with lots of openings. More than ever before, Protestantism offered theological pluralism rather with never-ending debates than rare violent oppositions. Theological reflection experienced periods of research and tentative efforts rather than categorical statements and controversies.
  • At the end of the century some issues of the beginning of the century, put aside during the second half because of more urgent matters, were brought up again, namely the worth of other religions, the link with culture, the ties between faith and humanities, the part left to spirituality.
  • Protestant theological research was no longer a secluded process. It became intercontinental in spite of distance and language barriers. It also became very “ecumenical”. Catholics and Protestants closely worked together and had frequent debates. Confessional differences remained, but no longer prevented theologians from working together.
  • The twentieth century offered vast theological resources. Protestant Churches, mainly Reformed and Lutheran, were concerned with making new notions available to the largest possible number of worshippers. Theological education became one of its main targets.
Author: André Gounelle

Associated tours

  • Theology in the 20th century

    Theological thought and research in the 20th century can be divided into three periods: up until the late 1920s, from the 1930s to the 1970s, and since the 1970s.

Associated notes

  • Paul Tillich (1886-1965)

    Paul Tillich was born in eastern Prussia in 1886. He was a Lutheran and a bright student in theology and philosophy, and then became a pastor in a working class...
  • Karl Barth (1886-1968)

    The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) was an outstanding protestant personality of the 20th century. His work questioned many a certainty. It also influenced several generations of pastors, especially in France....
  • Process Theology

    Process theology was influenced by the English philosopher and mathematician, Alfred Whitehead. It was Professor André Gounelle who made known this theology in France – according to which God is...
  • Liberation Theology

    Emerging at the end of the 1960s, in Catholic circles in Latin America, Liberation theologies developed widely. They denounced the oppression of which the poor were victims. These injustices had...
  • Dietrich Bonhœffer (1906-1945)

    Dietrich Bonhœffer was a protestant German pastor and theologian, and also the co-founder of the confessing Church. He was opposed to the growing Nazi influence on protestant German churches. He...