The Debate On Comparative Religion -- By: Henry Goodwin Smith

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 059:236 (Oct 1902)
Article: The Debate On Comparative Religion
Author: Henry Goodwin Smith


The Debate On Comparative Religion

Henry Goodwin Smith

Lane Theological Seminary

Shall, the study of comparative religion be included in the theological curriculum? This question is arousing one of the most significant religious debates of the day. In Europe the arguments are conducted somewhat on national lines, and, strangely enough, Germany is contending against the progressive position. More strangely still, Harnack, perhaps the chief advocate of the scientific, historical method, as applied to the facts of the Christian religion, is opposing the recognition of the claims of the same method, when applied to religion in general.

In his Rectoral address before the University of Berlin, in August, 1901,1 Harnack presented three arguments why the theological faculty should not be altered or enlarged so as to include the historical study of general religion.

It adds point and interest to note the fact, that, hardly a year before, at the Congrès dHistoire des Religions, in Paris, Jean Réville, after recording the progress of the study of the history of religions recently in Holland, France, England, Belgium, Switzerland, and the United States, exclaimed, “Would that we could say as much for Germany! Perhaps one is surprised that we have not yet spoken of that classic home of universities. But, alas! we have almost nothing to say about the instruction in the history of religions in the German universities, for the very simple reason that there is none… . Carefully searching the programs of the German universities, one finds courses there on every subject except on the history of religions.” M. Réville proceeds to point out, somewhat unsparingly, that the manual on the subject, in vogue in Germany, is the work of a Hollander, de la Saussaye, and that the important annual review of the topic in the Theologische Jahresbericht has been intrusted successively to a Swiss, a Hollander, and a Dane.2

Although he makes no reference to Réville, Harnack recognizes “the loud voices that declare the theological program too short and scientifically unsatisfactory.” The “Rector Magnificus “begins by conceding

that the abstract theory demands such an extension of the curriculum. Religion, as elementary and abiding, is a universal concept and has universal expression. The completest induction possible is desirable. Moreover, the same historical method, which alone is justifiable in the study of Christianity, continually leads out to the broader related facts of history. The historical method recognizes on...

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