Book Review: Die Erlanger Theologie

Editor's Note: As an extra for the Eastertide 2013 issue of LOGIA, we are posting this book review from the Eastertide 1997 edition of LOGIA. If you'd like to purchase a copy of all the back issues of LOGIA, please click here. Die Erlanger Theologie (no. 67 in Einzelarbeiten aus der Kirchengeschichte Bayerns). By Karlmann Beyschlag. Erlangen: Martin-Luther-Verlag with the Verein für bayerische Kirchengeschichte, 1993. 295 pages.

Since the nineteenth century, the theological faculty at the University of Erlangen has been the citadel of confessional Lutheranism. In the 1940s and 1950s, students from America and other foreign countries streamed to Erlangen, attracted by the world theological leadership of its university.

But after the deaths of Elert and Althaus, a reaction set in the theological faculty as well as in the Lutheran churches of Germany. The teachings of Karl Barth, the Barmen Declaration, and the “Confessing Church” began to suppress confessional Lutheranism. Principles of the Union Church, including intercommunion and open communion (Leuenberg Concord), were accepted by the Lutheran churches. A much less talented group of theologians replaced the great ones at Erlangen. Several of these sought notoriety by denouncing Elert and Althaus. In 1971, they succeeded in having the traditional subscription of the Lutheran Book of Concord abolished at Erlangen. Since then, Erlangen has been the launching pad for attacks upon the Lutheran Church and its symbolic books. The special target of their assaults has been the Lutheran distinction of law and gospel and the doctrine of the two realms.

The significance of this new book is that Karlmann Beyschlag, a pupil of Elert and Althaus, has written both a brilliant historical work and a strong defense against many falsehoods that have been leveled against these stalwart Lutherans.

The author begins by delineating the background of Erlangen theology, stemming from the Awakening Movement of the nineteenth century. Important impulses came from Christian Krafft, Carl von Raumer, and the earlier thinker Johann Georg Hamann. He then gives sketches of the most important theologians at Erlangen.

First is Adolf von Harleß (1806–79), who was both an important scholar and a powerful church leader. As theologian he was the founder of Erlangen theology and one of its most important writers; as churchman and friend of Löhe he was able to separate the Lutheran and Reformed parts of the Protestant state church and to create a confessional Lutheran church in Bavaria (33–57). Next, Beyschlag discusses the greatest Erlangen theologian of the nineteenth century, Johann Christian Konrad von Hofmann (1810–77), giving a brilliant presentation of his complicated thought. Hofmann made a deep impression upon several Americans, including the Dubuque theologian Johann Michael Reu.

Within the scope of this theology came the “Erlangen School,” a movement that built upon the theologian’s personal experience of salvation and emphasized the Lutheran Confessions. Beginning with Harleß and explicated through Höfling, Hofmann, Thomasius, Delitzsch, Theodosius Harnack, von Zezschwitz, Schmid, and Frank, the movement spread from Erlangen to the universities of Leipzig, Rostock, Greifswald, and Dorpat. The “Erlangen School” as a specific theological movement ended with the death of Frank in 1894, but another important theological program was to appear at Erlangen in the twentieth century, building upon the earlier movement.

In a separate chapter, Beyschlag characterizes a group of church historians at the university who did not really belong to the “Erlangen School” movement, especially Theodor Zahn, Albert Hauck, and Reinhold Seeberg. He then discusses three other important historians: Gustav Plitt, Theodore Kolde, and Karl Schornbaum.

In chapter 7 he presents “the second blossoming of Erlangen theology” (143–203). This movement began with the criticism of the old “Erlangen School” by a pupil of Frank, Ludwig Ihmels. Without rejecting the importance of the religious certainty of the theologian, Ihmels warned that not human experience but divine revelation must be the true basis of a sound theology (143–145). Beyschlag names three great men in the rebirth of Erlangen theology: Otto Procksch, Werner Elert, and Paul Althaus.

The Old Testament scholar Procksch, who was a very strong teacher as well as writer, renewed Hofmann’s conception of Heilsgeschichte. Unfortunately, Procksch’s important theology of the Old Testament was not published until after his death (1950), so that it was already superseded by the fine work of his pupil Walter Eichrodt (148). Procksch is remembered equally for his firm confessional Lutheranism and for his determined stand against the Nazi movement.

Beyschlag ranks Elert and Hofmann as the two most important Erlangen scholars in the past two centuries. He describes Elert as “the totally unclerical man who, in his outward appearance, looked more like a general in civilian clothing than a theologian” (151). Elert, “like all intellectual giants,” was “an uncommonly complicated character, who was just as easily offended as he was polemically feared” (151–152). He cites the remark of Trillhaas: “Elert had not a single friend with whom he had not at least once had a sturdy fight” (151).

Elert’s early writings were historical and systematic, and were largely devoted to Luther, Melanchthon, the Lutheran Confessions, and subsequent developments in the history of theology. In some way or other, the distinction of law and gospel took an important place in all these writings. ((A balanced evaluation of Elert appears in the new monograph by the Icelander Sigurjon Arni Eyjolfsson, Rechtfertigung und Schöpfung in der Theologie Werner Elerts, no. 10 in new series of Arbeiten zur Geschichte und Theologie des Luthertums (Hannover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1994).)) After 1945 he turned increasingly toward his long-projected history of dogma; however, except for the volume on church fellowship and several important essays, this work lay uncompleted at his death, after which Wilhelm Maurer and Elisabeth Bergsträßer edited an additional volume from the materials that he had left. ((Since Werner Elert is of special interest to American readers, we present here his principal writings. The first major work of Werner Elert, written while he was still head of the Old Lutheran seminary in Breslau, appeared in 1921 under the title Der Kampf um das Christentum; this was an investigation and evaluation of recent philosophy and apologetics, mainly of the nineteenth century. In 1924 appeared the first edition of his Die Lehre des Luthertums im Abriß, which was translated and published by Charles M. Jacobs under the title An Outline of Christian Doctrine, 1927; the second German edition, 1926, was greatly revised and enlarged. Elert’s chief work was his two-volume Morphologie des Luthertums, 1931, of which volume 1 was translated by Walter A. Hansen and published by Concordia Publishing House as The Structure of Lutheranism, 1962. The first edition of his dogmatics, Der christliche Glaube, appeared in 1940; parts of this have been published in English by Concordia Publishing House. His Das christliche Ethos followed in 1949 and was translated and published as The Christian Ethos by Carl Schindler, 1957. The last work that he prepared for publication was Abendmahl und Kirchengemeinschaft in der alten Kirche, hauptsächlich des Ostens, 1954, translated by Norman E. Nagel and published by Concordia Publishing House under the title Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries. This book interprets communio sanctorum in the Apostles’ Creed as a neuter, i.e., as the participation in the sacraments, and it presents a spirited case for closed communion. An important essay by Elert, Gesetz und Evangelium, 1948, was translated and published by Edward H. Schroeder as Law and Gospel, 1967. Posthumously appeared Der Ausgang der altkirchlichen Christologie, 1957, edited by Maurer and Bergsträßer.)) Elert had a revolutionary concept: whereas previous historians had traced the “beginnings” of a dogma, proceeding chronologically from an early date and working downward, Elert proposed starting with the outgoings or conclusion of a churchly dogma, tracing it back toward its beginnings. Thereby Harnack’s speculations that the development of dogma was the hellenization of Christianity could be refuted by showing instead that the completed dogma represented the dehellenisation of Christian doctrine (176–177).

Before taking up Althaus, Beyschlag briefly characterizes some other important men on the faculty: the Old Testament scholar and widely-respected Rechor magnificus Friedrich Baumgärtel, the church historian and Luther scholar Hans Preuß, the “high Lutheran” church historian Hermann Sasse, the Reformation scholar Wilhelm Maurer, the multi-faceted historian and Luther scholar Walter von Loewenich, the art historian Fritz Fichtner, and the practical theologian Eduard Steinwand, who was also important for his work in the eastern churches (178–181).

Beyschlag gives a thorough presentation on the theology and personality of Paul Althaus (182–203). Althaus taught systematic theology, New Testament, and the theology of Luther. ((The most important works of Althaus are as follows: Die Prinzipien der deutschen reformierten Dogmatik im Zeitalter der aristotelischen Scholastik, 1914. Die letzten Dinge. Lehrbuch der Eschatologie, 1922. Grundriß der Ethik, 1931; 2nd ed., 1953. Die christliche Wahrheit. Lehrbuch der Dogmatik 1947; 3rd ed. 1952. Die Theologie Martin Luthers, 1962. Translation by Robert C. Schultz, The Theology of Martin Luther, 1966. Die Ethik Martin Luthers, 1965. Translation by Robert C. Schultz, The Ethics of Martin Luther, 1972. Althaus also edited a commentary, Das Neue Testament Deutsch, 12 vols., for which he wrote Der Brief an die Römer, 1936; 7th ed. 1953. An important part of his work is also reflected in the volumes of collected sermons which he delivered as University Preacher at Erlangen.)) His systematic theology was characterized by his emphasis upon the First Article (Althaus held “a theology of Creation,” 190–194), a theology marked by the contrast between the original revelation (Ur-Offenbarung) and the revelation of salvation (Heilsoffenbarung), “in which the creator will of God included almightily the revelation of salvation” (191). In the discipline of ethics, this theological concept was expressed in a “theology of orders” (Theologie der Ordnungen). These orders were a part of God’s creation: marriage, family, community, government, and cultural development (199). Althaus did not spare criticism of the Nazis. Referring to Althaus’s Theologie der Ordnungen, 1935, Beyschlag cites Althaus: “Also in the Third Reich, our critical ethics of orders cannot resign and rest at ease,” and then Beyschlag adds: “There now follows a public catalog of vices which is so close to reality that one at least wonders that the book was not immediately forbidden. For under this ‘critical ethics’ falls not only the ‘autonomous legality’ of the state and the economy, but also the idolatry of folk, race, destruction of law, and also eugenics, euthanasia, ‘the destruction of unworthy life,’ etc.” (201). In his “creation theology,” Althaus came into fundamental conflict with Karl Barth. Since the death of Althaus, the followers of Barth, of the old Bekennende Kirche, and of the Union Church have leashed a merciless attack upon both Althaus and Elert for rejecting the Barmen Declaration. ((An example is the attack by Arthur C. Cochrane, a Presbyterian professor of theology at a Lutheran seminary, The Church’s Confession under Hitler (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), in which he attacks confessional Lutheranism en masse and takes the intolerant position that only Reformed theology is allowable. He feels that everyone must accept the theology of Barth and the Barmen Declaration. More moderate are the criticisms of Robert P. Ericksen, Theologians under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch (New Haven: Yale, 1985). Totally irresponsible and intellectually weak are the attacks on Elert and Althaus by the Erlangen professor Berndt Hamm, “Schuld und Verstrickung der Kirche. Voruberlequngen zu einer Darstellung der Erlanger Theologie in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus,” in Kirche und Nationalsozialismus, ed. Wolfgang Stegemann (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1990), 11–55. Both Ericksen and Hamm lack what American historians call “a historical frame of reference”; instead, they judge and condemn past scholars on the basis of notions contemporary with our time. Ericksen, however, does not write with the malicious invective found in Hamm.))

In view of the attacks upon Elert and Althaus and the allegations that they supported Hitler and National Socialism, Beyschlag presents an excursus, “The Erlangen faculty and the Kirchenkampf ” (160–170). He specifically deals with their statement on the “Aryan Paragraph” and the “Ansbach Resolution” and shows that the former actually protected Jews and that the latter was leveled against the German Christians as well as the Barmen Declaration. He points out that during the long period in which he was dean of the theological faculty (1935–1943), Elert managed to stave off attempts of a Nazi takeover, that he protected professors and students alike from the state, and that Erlangen remained almost the only “intact” theological faculty under National Socialism. In Appendix 8, Beyschlag reprints Elert’s “Report regarding the deanship of the theological faculty of Erlangen 1935–43” (266–286). He wonders why this Report, which obviously clears Elert’s reputation, was officially suppressed for many years. He points out that, in spite of severe pressure over many years that as theological dean he must join the Nazi party or at least the German Christian Movement, Elert stubbornly refused throughout; that not a single Nazi was able to become a regular professor of theology at Erlangen; that Elert as dean and at considerable personal risk protected 40 or 50 students (including Jews) who had been denounced before the Gestapo (161–162; see also 279).

Beyschlag’s book is important for American readers for two reasons. (1) This book is an excellent resource for learning about the confessional Lutheran theology of Erlangen that dominated scholarship in Germany the past 150 years, a subject about which many younger theologians in America are not well informed. (2) Confessional Lutheranism, which has seriously declined since the death of Elert (a decline brought on partly by the dominance of Karl Barth, the Barmen Declaration, and the Union churches, with their attacks upon the Lutheran distinction of law and gospel), receives an important defense in Beyschlag. This book needs to be widely read in America. It is to be hoped that it will be made available in an English translation.


Lowell C. Green

State University of New York at Buffalo

Buffalo, New York