Augustus H. Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness

Grant Wacker writes this little book on A. H. Strong not so much as a biography in the traditional sense, but as an intellectual biography. He traces the inclinations of Strong from the standpoint of Strong’s progressive tendencies which he sees reaching their zenith at the turn of the century and digressing from that time to the end of Strong’s days.

The mode that Wacker uses is Strong’s sense of historical consciousness. This term,”historical consciousness,” is Wacker’s euphemism for modernism. Modernism is the quintessential form of thought that incorporates the concept of a historical consciousness. This historical consciousness is the sense that events, thoughts, and, to a large degree, perceived reality are progressing toward a goal. As such, the general course of history is one of betterment. The ideas of yesterday are replaced by the better ideas of today which will, in turn, be replaced by the even better ideas of tomorrow. In short, historical consciousness is the cult of the ever progressing present and the ever hopeful future.

To be sure, Wacker has Strong caught in a dilemma. Strong wants to remain open minded toward the scholarship that has developed up to his day. This fact is evidenced in a good many articles in Christ and Creation, Philosophy and Religion, and his two volumes of Miscelllanies. Strong constantly wages a campaign that all the new ideas somehow be reconcilled with the old ideas.

Strong’s dilemma happens precisely at the point of his acceptance of monism, which happens to be the overarching philosophy du jour for his time period. In the course of his mid-to- late career, Strong argues for a newer and better philosophical-theological nexus, the proper use of higher criticism, theistic evolution, an accommodating of criticism view of inspiration, and the progress of doctrine.

Interestingly, most orthodox theologians would agree with the progress of doctrine. Strong, however combines the power of the progress of doctrine with an almost Thomistic view of natural revelation in order to provide a modern theological outlook that is at once modern and orthodox. In the end, both the modernity and the orthodoxy are strained. Wacker argues that this dilemma winds down to a stress on orthodoxy toward the end of Strong’s life. Apparently, the end game of modernism proved to be too much of a “second Unitarian defection” for Strong’s taste. Ironically, the most progressive edition of Strong’s magnum opus, his Systematic Theology, carries with it the sternest warning against the theologically progressive.

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