Book Review: Ferdinand Christian Baur and the History of Early Christianity

Ferdinand Christian Baur and the History of Early Christianity. Edited by Martin Bauspiess, Christof Landmesser, and David Lincicum. Translated by Robert F. Brown and Peter C. Hodgson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

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Throughout the course of their theological studies, it is likely that many American Lutheran pastors and academic theologians have come across the name Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860). It is also likely that some have even heard of Baur’s dialectical interpretation of the Petrine and Pauline division within early Christian history. It is unlikely, however, that many have had the opportunity to read any of Baur’s theological writings, or any secondary literature about Baur. Until the last decade, only a handful of Baur’s texts had been translated into English and most of these translations, dating from the late nineteenth century, were out-of-print. Additionally, until the recent decade, there were only a handful of monographs dedicated to Baur, the foremost being Peter C. Hodgson’s Formation of Historical Theology: A Study of Ferdinand Christian Baur (Harper & Row, 1966). Since 2010, thanks in part to the efforts of Hodgson, a renewal of interest in Baur has taken root in German and English scholarship. Hodgson and Robert F. Brown have translated some of Baur’s texts into English, specifically his History of Christian Dogma (2014), Lectures on the New Testament (2016), and Church and Theology in the Nineteenth Century (2018). In addition to these translations, there has been an increase in interest regarding Baur and his legacy. Ferdinand Christian Baur and the History of Early Christianity, originally published in German in 2014 by Mohr Siebeck, presents some of the most recent English and German scholarship over Baur. Comprised of fifteen essays divided into three sections, this work is too voluminous to permit a comprehensive analysis. The rest of this review only examines some of the volume’s essays. The lack of attention given to the remaining essays is no indication of substandard scholarship, but only reflects the constraint of space.

Part I opens with Ulrich Köpf’s essay (3–44), which probes the relationship between Baur as the founder of the so-called Tübingen School and its most infamous student, David Friedrich Strauss. As a former student of Baur, Strauss exhibited deep respect and admiration for his former professor. But after the publication of Strauss’s controversial Das Leben Jesu (1835), Baur began to distance himself from Strauss and the severe criticism that his historical-critical interpretation of the Gospels solicited. Baur had grown frustrated by those scholars who not only identified Strauss with Baur, but who also believed that Strauss had become the better historical theologian. Baur defended himself by not only arguing that he had not learned anything from his former student, but that his historical scholarship was both more methodologically rigorous and conservative than that of Strauss. Beyond showing Baur’s own critique of Strauss’s purely “negative” criticism of the Gospel texts—in contrast to his own historical criticism that focused on the specific “tendency” of each Gospel—Köpf illustrates the personal pain that Strauss felt from the criticism and renunciation by his former professor, whom he considered his theological father. Notger Slenczka (45–66) returns to the debate between Baur and Johann Adam Möhler, his colleague of the University of Tübingen, but of the Catholic theological faculty. In this debate, Baur argued that the ecclesiological consequence of the “Protestant principle”—namely of the autonomy of the subject and the immediacy and freedom of faith—was a “transformation” of the relationship between the individual subject and God, which, through faith, had become immediate and free, absent the mediation of the institutional church. In Baur’s interpretation, Protestantism displaced the institutional church as the concretization of the unity of God and humanity, replaced instead with an inward relationship between the individual and God that has a corresponding realization in humanity as a whole. In the final essay of part I (67–79), Martin Wendte pursues the question of Baur’s Hegelianism. Wendte illustrates the complicated nature of Hegel’s influence, showing that although Baur was not a strict follower of Hegel, nevertheless, Baur held that Hegel’s dialectical interpretation of history was corroborated by a close reading of the primary sources; that is to say, in his study of Christian dogma Baur was convinced that “the entire history of dogma displays a unitary movement of spirit, which in dialectical fashion arrives at a synthesis encompassing all differences, a synthesis that finds its historical expression in Hegel’s work” (75).

Consisting of nine essays, the second part of this work investigates the various aspects of Baur’s writings on the New Testament and early Christianity. While all of these essays are exceptional, permit me to draw attention to a handful. In his essay “Baur and the Creation of the Judaism-Hellenism Dichotomy” (96–115), Anders Gerdmar examines one of Baur’s most popular contributions to New Testament scholarship, the Judaism-Hellenism dichotomy, embodied in the figures of Peter and Paul. Gerdmar illustrates that even though the strict Judeo-Hellenistic dichotomy that Baur imposed upon the New Testament is no longer supported by contemporary New Testament scholarship, nevertheless, the extent of the impact of Baur’s dichotomous model was so great that even to the present day it has become a standard interpretation of party relationships in the New Testament. Christof Landmesser’s chapter “Ferdinand Christian Baur as Interpreter of Paul” (147–76) examines Baur’s protracted reading of the Pauline literary corpus and the theological picture of Paul that emerges from his textual analysis. Landmesser shows that Baur’s scholarship was the product of his meticulous textual historical-critical reading, combined with his idealistic interpretation of historical development, whereby, through the triadic movement of dialectic—for which Baur was indebted to Hegel—history attests to the “unfolding” of the Spirit of God (the Absolute) that is realized in human self-consciousness. According to Baur, the culmination of this divine-human development was expressed in Paul’s theology of justification and reconciliation, where oneness between God and the human subject is internally achieved through Christ and the Spirit. Through this teaching of the relationship of oneness between God and humanity, Baur believed that Christianity was the culmination of the development of the history of religion as the absolute religion. In his essay “Belief in Miracles as the Gateway to Atheism” (261–86), Stefan Alkier explores Baur’s position on the possibility of biblical miracles. Alkier contextualizes Baur against the debate between naturalism and supernaturalism, where adherents of naturalism denounced miracles because they feared that miracles undermined an understanding of God whose omnipotence was demonstrated by God’s ability to perfectly regulate and order creation through laws that require no miraculous intervention, while supernaturalism held that naturalism’s depiction of God was wholly impersonal and restricted by empirical reality. Similar to naturalism, Baur rejected the possibility of miracles, because he held that belief in the possibility of the miracles threatened to unsettle Christianity from its historical context, rendering Christianity unhistorical, and removing it from the divinely ordered dialectical development of history. Therefore, it was necessary for Baur to place Christianity within the empirical order of nature, divorced from an understanding of God who works miracles, whom Baur interpreted as a God of “caprice and chance,” like “an absolutist despot who has no truck with law and order” (276). 

The volume concludes with three essays that examine the breadth of Baur’s influence. James Carleton Paget inquirers into the fickle reception of Baur in Britain, arguing that even though Baur’s work received much criticism and was overwhelmingly dismissed, his work, nevertheless, managed to influence the shape of English New Testament scholarship (307–54). In his essay “The Similarity of the Two Masters,” Daniel Geese compares Baur’s understanding of history with another famous German church historian, Adolf von Harnack (355–71). In this thoughtful essay, Geese asserts that although both historians maintained different conceptions of the “essence of Christianity,” one is still able to identify in both men and interpretation that was, in part, driven by an idealistic vision of history. In the final essay (372–89), Birgit Weyel shows that even though Baur was not a practical theologian, his scholarship and his preaching affected the discipline of practical theology, in terms of subject and method. 

Even though many readers of LOGIA would find Baur’s scholarship objectionable—and rightfully so—I commend this volume to their reading. Baur was one of the most significant biblical scholars of the modern era. But Lutheran pastors and scholars should be familiar with his work, not simply because of its historical import. In reading Baur’s scholarship, one will see that there is still significant continuity between Baur’s opinions and those of modern biblical scholarship. More importantly, however, Baur believed that it was impossible to engage in the work of history—including biblical scholarship—without philosophy. That is to say, Baur held that the work of each historian is, in part, dependent upon the historian’s presuppositions. Although we have moved beyond Baur’s Hegelian reading of history, Baur forces us to consider the question, what are our historical presuppositions?

James Ambrose Lee II
Concordia University Chicago