Hans W. Frei’s Public Theology

Christ, Providence, and History: Hans W. Frei’s Public Theology

Tanner, Kathryn

Christ, Providence, and History: Hans W. Frei’s Public Theology. By Mike Higton. London and New York: T & T Clark International, 2004. xi + 287 pp. $59.95 (paper).

Hans Frei, an Episcopal priest and professor of theology in the Religious Studies Department of Yale University, was the author of two major books, The Identity of Jesus Christ and The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, before his untimely death in 1988 at age 66. A well-known scholar of modern biblical hermeneutics and a first-rate intellectual historian of modern European Christian thought, Frei was a leading figure (with his colleague, George Lindbeck) of the so-called Yale School of theology, and a major formative influence on a generation of Yale doctoral students in theology (of which I was one) throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Frei’s writing was always dense and subtle-some have complained, elusive and obscure. Higton does the scholarly community (and one might hope the theologically interested general reading public) a great service then by providing the best overall introduction to Frei’s achievement yet written. Concentrating on Frei’s early work (primarily the two books mentioned above, Frei’s doctoral dissertation on revelation, and his major articles on H. Richard Niebuhr and David Friedrich Strauss), Higton, in very lucid and engaging prose and with great sensitivity to the written record, convincingly demonstrates the coherence and enormous significance of Frei’s project as both a historian and a theologian.

Higton sees Frei’s work throughout his life as responding to the question of faith and history pointedly posed in the nineteenth century by David Friedrich Strauss and again in the twentieth by Ernst Troeltsch: Can Christian faith in Jesus Christ do full justice to modern historical sensibilities? Frei, Higton thinks, found an answer by reversing the terms of the question (which asked after faith’s conformity to standards set by historical inquiry) and by showing, instead, faiths own internal demand for an honest recognition of history in all its complexity, contingency and variety.

The keystone of Frei’s effort here is his treatment of the way the identity of Jesus Christ is rendered by the gospel narratives in all its unsubstitutable particularity as any fully historical person would be, who he is being displayed there in what he does and what befalls him throughout the many occurrences and interactions of a public kind with others that constitute his life and death. The universal significance of this Jesus for faith brings attention to the vagaries and unpredictable trajectories of history more widely, through forms of typological reading that see hints and intimations of the story of Jesus’ life in events of both past and present. Nothing easily summed up or generalized, a typological reading sets events of history next to the story of Jesus to unpredictable effect, and in that way permits a kind of Jesus-centered discernment of what remains the still mysterious course of God’s providence both before and after him.

This historically sensitive faith in Jesus as a very particular person, who is in this very odd way of world historical significance, forms the theological backdrop for all Frei’s work as a historian. What is it about modern theology that makes this historically sensitive faith in Jesus difficult to perceive? One answer (among many others that Higton teases out of Frei’s work) is the temptation to think of one’s identity as a matter of private inferiority. Accordingly, one searches futilely for the depths of Jesus’ consciousness of both himself and God behind the gospel narratives that concentrate in the main on his fully public life, the complex occurrences and interchanges of his life with and for others. And one is further tempted to see Jesus’ effect on others, his wider influence on the world, in terms of a sequence of very similar seeming disembodied heart-to-hearts, one consciousness present to another in ways that conform characters to God independently of their quite disparate public lives. Frei the theologian and Frei the historian are seamlessly interwoven here on Higton’s telling. What Frei was trying to get at becomes much clearer thereby, along with its potential importance for theology today.

Higton is not just a fine interpreter of Frei s work but shows himself a promising theologian in Frei’s own mold. In the course of a quite thorough and nuanced historical accounting of Frei’s writings, Higton manages to push Frei’s work significantly further on a number of counts. He very helpfully develops what sets off a modern form of typological reading from premodern varieties and extends the public concerns of Frei’s theological outlook in an overtly political direction.


University of Chicago Divinity School

Chicago, Illinois

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Spring 2006

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