The Philosophy and Theology of Anders Nygren [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 25 (2):379-380 (1971)
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Anders Nygren is widely known among English-speaking readers for his subtle and scholarly analysis of the forms of love, Agape and Eros, first published in 1930. Important facets of his far-ranging thought, however, have remained largely inaccessible to those who do not read Swedish. The present volume is a significant step in reducing that inaccessibility. Nygren's work is treated by seventeen different contributors in essays grouped under the following headings: Philosophy of Religion, Motif Research, The Meanings of Love, Systematic Theology, Ethics, and Cultural and Ecumenical Concerns. Yet the book is more than merely a Festschrift. Over ten years in preparation, it aims at criticism as well as interpretation; and it includes an introductory "intellectual autobiography" by Nygren himself, a concluding response by Nygren to each of his critics, and a complete bibliography chronicling the 372 items published by Nygren from 1918 through 1970. Nygren's investigations fall on both sides of the line between philosophy and theology. The interest which unifies these inquiries is the philosophy of religion. "It is above all in the philosophy of religion that the great decisions are finally made." Nygren's earliest work was an attempt to establish the philosophy of religion on a purely scientific basis. It was in this regard that he developed his characteristic method of "motif research." Just as the supreme theoretical, aesthetic, and ethical categories are the true, the beautiful, and the good, respectively, so the supreme religious category is the eternal. All these categories are merely formal, however, and one must turn to the particular for content. Now, content in the theoretical domain consists of factual relationships; but content in the remaining three, "atheoretical," domains consists of the values or "fundamental motifs" which have been chosen from among a limited number of basic alternatives by a given historical group. The scholar forms a hypothesis regarding the fundamental motifs of the group in question; and if this hypothesis is verified by historical research, it then serves as a principle for organizing additional data concerning the group. Thus, the philosopher-historian of religion studies groups in an effort to determine their answers to the question, "What is the eternal?" It is chiefly in this domain that Nygren has applied his method, concluding, for example, that "agape" and "eros" are the characteristic Christian and Greek answers, respectively, to the fundamental religious question. Nygren maintains that this approach provides the means for treating the religious question systematically while simultaneously respecting the vast historical diversity of specific religious content. Just as the method of motif research is central to Nygren's work, so the discussion of that method and its applications constitutes, in effect, the central matter of this book. The project is carried off well. Nygren's final commentary is especially welcome, confirming or correcting positions presented by the contributors as his, and accepting or rejecting positions advanced by the contributors as their own.--J. M. V.



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