Essay / Theology

Claude Welch, 1922-2009

Claude Welch, eminent historian of nineteenth-century theology, died on November 6.

Claude was an institutional pillar of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where I got my PhD. In their obituary, the GTU lists his terms of service to the school. He was Dean and President from 1971 to 1982, and Dean from 1982 to 1987. I’m confused about when he supposedly retired, or what his emeritus status meant, because he apparently kept teaching and advising at will until 2006 when he moved to Illinois. When I was there in 1995, he was co-teaching the doctoral seminar on 19th century theology, and it was a whirlwind tour of the most important figures in that phase of history. We went as far back as Jonathan Edwards, actually (early 18th century), but Claude camped out in the major figures of 19th century Protestantism. That largely meant liberal theology at its best, from Schleiermacher to Troeltsch. And “liberal theology at its best” is not a bad description of Claude’s work. In class, he was quiet but imposing. He could deflate an over-excited doctoral student with a brief question. That wasn’t always good; the seminar I was in sometimes felt like a dysfunctional family where some of the kids were afraid to talk. But usually Claude’s interrogations –skeptical, quizzical, probing– were equal parts encouragement and admonition. He couldn’t help being intimidating sometimes, because he just knew everything about the subject at hand. He had been thinking hard about it since the 1940s, Fulbrighting his way around the world, teaching at Princeton and Yale and being president of the American Academy of Religion. How were doctoral students supposed to catch up with the Welch train in a semester?

Claude literally wrote the book on 19th-century theology, and our survey of primary texts was supplemented by his own two-volume Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, a remarkable accomplishment. Claude provides chapter after chapter of fair reporting, deep analysis, mastery of the sources, and attention to detail. It’s the kind of introduction to a subject that carries you very far into the subject.

Claude once described himself as “a washed-up systematic theologian who got lost in the nineteenth century.” The “washed up” part is a nod to the fact that his early doctrinal commitments were in a Barthian direction, and focused on the doctrine of the Trinity. In his doctoral work and the subsequent book, Claude Welch successfully predicted that there would be a revival of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity in coming decades. His 1952 book In This Name forecast “a renewed and growing interest in the trinitarian conception” of God (p. viii), as a reaction against the premature 19th-century dismissal of the doctrine. This was not a common opinion at the time; Welch was taking a chance in making the prediction. In 1969, NHG Robinson said that Welch’s prediction “could scarcely have proved wider of the mark,” since in Robinson’s estimate “the trinitarian concept has disappeared in all but name from the prevailng articulations of the Christian faith.” But Robinson was watching the wrong indicators (Bultmannians and anglo-empiricists), and Welch’s prediction has come to pass in a remarkable way, as one of the major stories of late twentieth century theology. What enabled Welch to predict the return of the Trinity was not just his historical instincts, but his lively theological awareness. Only a fool would think Christianity was going to keep moving forward without the doctrine of the Trinity; Claude saw that there was a great deal of foolishness and not enough trinitarianism in mid-twentieth century academic theology.

The “lost in the nineteenth century” part indicates where he settled down. Claude Welch taught, by word and example, that if you want to come to grips with 20th century theology, there is no avoiding the major decisions that were made in the nineteenth century. I think he was right. If you really grasp what was going on in the period between Schleiermacher and Troeltsch, there are few things truly surprising about the course of theological thought in the twentieth century. And so far, that holds true for the twenty-first as well.

It’s all in Welch. Goodness me, what are they teaching in divinity schools these days?

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