Book Review: The Erlangen School of Theology: Its History, Teaching, and Practice

A review of: The Erlangen School of Theology: Its History, Teaching, and Practice. By Lowell C. Green. Fort Wayne, Indiana: Lutheran Legacy Press, 2010. Review by Mark Mattes.

There is no question that Erlangen Theology has impacted North American Lutheran thinking. The wide reception of Werner Elert in the United States, for example, testifies to this. However, to my knowledge, there has been no comprehensive overview and evaluation of Erlangen Theology in English. Lowell Green provides this service in this book, a systematic and comprehensive study of the leading Erlangen theologians. Here one encounters the work of nineteenth-century giants such as Hofmann, Harless, Loehe, Delitzsch, Seeberg, and Zahn. We also encounter twentieth-century luminaries such as Elert, Althaus, Procksch, Sasse, Preuss, Maurer, von Loewenich, and Kuenneth, thinkers with whom Green himself studied in his graduate work at Erlangen from 1952-1955. There is no question that these theologians profoundly impacted Green’s personal theological development and he seeks critically and appreciatively to convey their work. From the start, he acknowledges weaknesses in their approaches, such as Hofmann’s inability to articulate that the atonement propitiates God’s wrath or Thomasius’ “kenotic Christology,” which weakens the union of Christ’s two natures; yet Green is convinced that the strengths of Erlangen Theology outweigh its weaknesses. Indeed, Green defends Erlangen theology as a resource to help Lutheranism not “dissipate within a flood of generic Protestantism” (23).


Erlangen Theology’s importance lies in the fact that in the mid-nineteenth-century it broke with the ideals of Protestant Liberalism that had challenged the authority of Scripture and the role of the Confessions as the true interpretation of salvation. For the Erlangen theologians, the Bible is the norm of theology and the Book of Concord is the true scriptural exposition of Christian doctrine (21). Green notes that these university theologians were the first in Germany to break with theological liberalism. They cut a path that sought to be faithful to Scripture and the Confessions, but the adequacy of these ways is mixed. Some were more successful at breaking with liberalism than others; many had a hard time shedding the Schleiermacherian tendency to ground theology in personal experience, even when they maintained that Scripture is the standard for truth in theology. Hence, Green notes that we cannot accept everything that they wrote (22).

For Green, Erlangen is best seen as a method and not an institution (28). As such, it was indebted to the nineteenth-century renewal movement (Erweckungsbewegung, 28), intense exegesis of the Scriptures, and the renewed study of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. The reason why experience was important for these thinkers was that it was seen as an antidote to Rationalism’s reduction of truth to what reason can certify and science can verify. Given his upbringing in the American Lutheran Church (1930), Green is sensitive to how Erlangen Theology was critically received by the faculty at Wartburg Seminary, especially by J. Michael Reu and his disciples. Green notes that Erlangen Theology officially came to an end in 1969 when the Erlangen theological faculty voted that its faculty was no longer required to be committed to the Book of Concord (37).

Green’s critical reception of Erlangen Theology includes the following. First, early Erlangen theologians were concerned with liturgical renewal, responding to losses in liturgics due to Pietism and Rationalism. In particular, Hoefling is to be acknowledged for his work in liturgics. In spite of his improvements, he failed fully to affirm worship as primarily God’s service to us. Instead, he sought to balance the theme of sacrifice (our prayer and praise to God) with that of sacrament (God’s generous giving in word and sacrament). Also, he developed the transference theory of ministry, which assumes that all leadership rests in the people’s sovereignty and is delegated to leaders (79)—a view that seems to have its roots in the political philosophy of Rousseau.

Second, in response to traditional theories of the verbal inspiration of Scripture and as sensitive to the nineteenth-century insight that consciousness is historical, both Hoefling and Hofmann developed a theory of Heilsgeschichte, or saving history. In this perspective, it is not the Scripture itself that is verbally inspired but instead the self-revelation of God is found in history, to which Scripture bears witness. Following von Ranke’s theories about history, Hoffman claimed that history does nothing less than diachronically trace the steps of God in human affairs (111). For Hofmann, it is not Scripture itself that is inspired but instead Scripture’s content, the witness to God’s acts of deliverance of his people in history (113). In spite of his rejection of verbal inspiration, Hofmann counter-intuitively rejected much higher criticism (119).

With respect to inerrancy, Hofmann argued that it extends only to matters of faith and not historical or scientific affairs (121). In a critical assessment, Green notes that the Heilsgeschichte approach is indifferent to matters of law and gospel. Hofmann was blind to the fact that God works not only salvation but also condemnation and judgment in history. This error led him to deny that Christ’s atoning death was effectual because it bore God’s wrath. For Hofmann, Christ is a victim of his enemies, not a bearer of God’s anger against sin (124).

Third, Green faults Thomasius for following Melanchthon’s view of God that separates divine volition from divine knowledge, a view so very different from Luther’s in De servo arbitrio where this distinction is not made. Likewise, Green objects to Thomasius’ famous kenosis doctrine, in which God empties himself of his divinity in the incarnation of the Logos, because it cuts short Christ’s divinity (141). Green sees this attempt to describe the self-limiting of God the Son as a remnant of Rationalism (143, 145).

Fourth, Harless is credited with having retrieved Luther’s view of law and gospel (101) while Harnack is acknowledged for having rediscovered Luther’s view of the deus absconditus and the deus revelatus (169) as well as Luther’s view of God as above the law (deus ex lex) (170).

Fifth, with respect to Elert’s dogmatics, the term Schicksal or fate is best seen as referring to “givens” such as our hair or eye color and not some pagan connotation of fate (253). Elert rejected any political view of Christ as seen in Greek theology (258-60) and which creeps up in Barthian and political theologies where law and gospel are unified. Likewise his stance on closed communion is to be affirmed.

In conclusion, Green has done a remarkable task here, summarizing highly complicated material in a readable manner. Helpfully, the book includes a table of Erlangen works in English. If history had been different, and if Green had been called to the chair of systematic theology at Wartburg Seminary, how different today would the direction of that school be? What impact might it have had on The American Lutheran Church (1960) or the ELCA (1988)? There is no question that Green has critically evaluated the Erlangen theologians so as to see where they can augment confessional Lutheran theology and where confessional Lutherans need to back away from them.

Mark Mattes
Grand View University
Des Moines, Iowa