Otto Pfleiderer’s Gifford Lectures from 1894 are published in two distinct series of ten lectures which represent the two volumes of the work. Volume I focuses on the Philosophy of Religion, examining aspects of relevance for the discussion of natural religion, and Volume II focuses on historical developments within Christianity, presenting major stages and thinkers in the history of the church. Each of the books is divided further into different lectures which can be read as sections standing on their own, yet they from also a cohesive unit in their consecutive progression.
The first volume on Philosophy of Religion consists of ten lectures/chapters, whereby the last four lectures are equally divided across two topics. The contents of this volume are an introductory chapter (I), which provides the reader with an entry to Pfleiderer’s overall argument which is rooted in the faith that, “in obedience to God man finds his true freedom; out of the humility which overcomes itself grows the courage which overcomes the world.” (1:35) This is then followed by chapters on religion and morality (II) and religion and science (III): With regards to the question of the relationship between religion and morality, Pfleiderer reframes the question by arguing that, “the beginnings of all social customs and legal ordinances are directly derived from religious nations and ceremonial practices,” (1:37-38) maintaining, thus, that the origin of morals lie in religion. The same can be said about science, and Pfleiderer is conscious of the opposition between the two, yet he is also looking forward to a time, “when they will be united in the harmonious worship of God in spirit and in truth.” (1:101). The subject matter changes in the three consecutive chapters, where Pfleiderer examines “The Belief in God: its origin and development” (IV), “The Revelation of God in the Natural Order of the World,” (V) and, “The Revelation of God in the Moral and Religious Order of the World.” (VI). The first book concludes with two chapters (VII and VIII) on the religious view of man, covering “His essential Nature and Actuality” (VII) and “The Religious View of Man,” (VIII) respectively, as well as two chapters (IX and X) on the religious view of the world, examining, “Idealism and Naturalism,” (IX) and “Optimism and Pessimism,” (X) respectively.
The second volume also consists of ten lectures/chapters, whereby chapter I gives in this case an introduction to the whole volume and the remaining nine chapters explore different stages of the historical development of Christianity. The first chapter gives some of the reasons why a historical account of a religion had been difficult for a long time: “all interest in a higher thorough study of the Sacred Scriptures was lost; men supposed they knew beforehand what was everywhere to be found in them – namely, just as the mysteries of revelation, the sum of which was already possessed in the dogmatic system.” (2:5) Pfleiderer credits here particularly Strauss and Baur and their research into the dating and interdependence of different parts of Scripture. This influences his subsequent chapters on “The preparation of Christianity in Judaism” (II), “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” (III), “The primitive Christian Community, and the beginning of the faith of the Church” (IV) and the two chapters on “The Apostle Paul” – “His Theology” (V) and “His Apostolic Activity” (VI). With this awareness, Pfleiderer also examines Jewish and Christian Hellenism (VII), before dedicating the remaining three chapters of the volume to different parts of Church history, writing on “The Christianity of the Alexandrine Church Fathers,” (VIII), “The Christianity of Augustine and of the Roman Church,” (IX) and “The Christianity of Luther and of Protestantism” (X) respectively. Every one of these chapters offers an insightful overview of different important aspects during that time period and invites the readers to further research on topics that interest them.
Overall, Philosophy and Development of Religion impresses with the range of topics covered in the chapters and the set of lectures is undoubtedly an impressive achievement. To the reader today, some of the claims might be problematic or incomplete. Pfleiderer himself is aware of this and nowhere does he claim to be infallible or complete in his analysis. Yet, this is not to distract from the great accomplishment that this series of lecturers offers to the reader – both to the initial audience, as well as to the reader today. As Pfleiderer himself states at the conclusion of Book II: “However our opinions in regard to details may differ…we may confidently hope that the spirit of truth, promised by Christ to the pious children of God, will guide us into all truth.” (2:356). For the achievement of this goal, this series provides an excellent platform.