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Theology Professor Fights Ouster From Post Teaching Prospective Ministers
By Rob Simbeck
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 6, 2002; Page B09
A German theologian who rejects the Virgin Birth and Resurrection,
yet calls liberal Protestant theology "bankrupt," is
fighting for the right to continue to teach would-be ministers, in a
case that has drawn attention from religion scholars as a test of how
far academic freedom should extend.
Gerd Luedemann, a biblical scholar who argues that the
Resurrection was "a pious self-deception" by Jesus's
followers, faults his liberal colleagues for believing as he does but
not speaking out. Their re-interpretation of basic Christian dogma for
a modern audience, he says, amounts to "worshiping a bloodless
Germany's Goettingen University, where Luedemann has taught for
two decades, declared in 1998 that he had disqualified himself from
teaching ministerial students because of his views. Luedemann has sued
to reclaim his full teaching status and will present his case in a
German civil court next month.
The dispute is the focus of a new book, a collection of essays by
American and European religious academics in which some support his
legal battle and others criticize it.
Even in an era when the ultra-liberal Jesus Seminar has gained
headlines for denying the Resurrection and questioning the veracity of
New Testament statements attributed to Jesus, Luedemann stands out.
"The body of Jesus," he has said often, "rotted in
the tomb if it was not eaten before then by vultures and
Luedemann, a member of the Jesus Seminar who is living in
Nashville while on a semester's leave from Goettingen, has sovilified
liberal Protestant theology that he is quoted approvingly by some
fundamentalist Christian scholars.
He has called "contemptible" liberal attempts to
redefine Christian doctrine in metaphorical terms and recently told a
Swiss periodical that taking seriously the proclamation of Jesus as
Lord of the world means "you would probably have to be a
fundamentalist . . . [or] give up Christianity for the sake of
Such comments bring I-told-you-so's from many conservative
Luedemann "has discovered . . . that historic Christianity
and Liberalism are indeed two separate, incompatible religions,"
Paul A. Hartog wrote last year in the Faith Pulpit, a publication of
Faith Baptist Theological Seminary in Iowa.
Colleagues at the Jesus Seminar generally agree with Luedemann's
assertions about New Testament texts, especially thenon-historical
nature of the Nativity and Resurrection stories, said Marcus J. Borg,
a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and one
of the Seminar's best-known apologists. But Luedemann may have gone
too far even for the Jesus Seminarians.
"As I understand Luedemann's position, he thinks that these
stories were meant literally and factually," Borg said. "And
because he can't accept them as literally factual stories, he thinks
honesty requires that we abandon them to the fundamentalists and
"I disagree. I would say, 'There's no reason to let the
literalists have these stories.' "
Luedemann counters that "most of them [the stories] were
meant literally and thus should remain in a museum."
"If the fundamentalists grab them, it is fine with me. A
scholar has the duty to respect the text as it is and as it was
meant," he says.
Goettingen University, an early seat of the modernist theology
that has swept Western Christianity over the last century, hired
Luedemann in 1982. Just 36 at the time, he was a rising star in the
field of biblical criticism, having established himself as a careful
and prolific historical scholar at Duke University, McMaster
University in Ontario and Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville.
His early writings on the New Testament and early Christianity
brought him international recognition, as did a commentary on the
historical value of the Acts of the Apostles. His later work, on the
Resurrection, heretics and the Virgin Birth, moved him to the edges of
Luedemann became convinced, along with other liberal scholars,
that most of the comments attributed to Jesus involve later church
doctrine and were put in His mouth by the writers of the Gospels
– a process Luedemann calls "pious but unscrupulous."
The culmination of Luedemann's argument came with the 1998
publication of his book "The Great Deception: And What Jesus
Really Said and Did." It includes his "Letter to
Jesus," a dramatic farewell in which he sheds his ties to Jesus.
Attempts to oust Luedemann had begun earlier, and publication of
"Deception" gave critics the boost they needed. In 1996, in
the face of Luedemann's increasing disavowal of Christianity, German
Protestant officials had begun calling for his removal from
hisprofessorship of theology. In 1998, his Goettingen colleagues
The university renamed his chair, giving him dominion over a
shadow department and taking away his only assistant.
The collection of symposium-style essays about the case, released
this week by Global Publications at State University of New York in
Binghamton, is called "Faith, Truth, and Freedom: The Expulsion
of Professor Gerd Luedemann from the Theology Faculty at Goettingen
The university's action is a "significant event in the
academic study of religion in the universities of the West," said
Jacob Neusner, the Bard College, N.Y., professor who assembled the
essays. At stake, he said, "is the intellectual integrity of the
One Luedemann supporter, Douglas Knight, a Divinity School
professor at Vanderbilt University, said in an interview that a key
aim of the symposium is "to come to the defense of a fellow
academic who has been mistreated by a system that has tried, if not to
silence him, then at least to move him off to the side."
Voices sympathetic to Goettingen's position are also present in
"It seems appropriate for Professor Luedemann to practice his
scholarship in a way that doesn't involve a responsibility for
preparing people to minister to those of a faith to which he no longer
subscribes," writes Stephen B. Presser, professor of legal
history and business law at Northwestern University. His "right
to academic freedom ought to be viewed as guaranteeing him no more
than a place in his university, but not on the faculty of
The years of conflict have taken a heavy toll, said Luedemann, a
congenial conversationalist with a rumpled appearance similar to that
of Garrison Keillor.
His status as a pariah discourages students from taking his
classes. His legal and other costs have risen to five figures, and he
has sold a life insurance policy to help meet them. With the exception
of his sister, no one in his family, including his wife of 32 years,
shares his views.
Luedemann said he felt increasing frustration as he took his
growing concerns to colleagues.
"All in all," he said, "I got the impression that
some lacked the seriousness which is required to be a theologian or
just did not want to be bothered. Political correctness was probably
also involved and possibly a wisdom that I just did not and still do
"Thus I felt terribly lonely and continued my rocky journey,
keeping always in mind that yes is yes and no is no."
Yet Luedemann also has been heartened by a small number of friends
and colleagues who have "deep sympathy" for his struggle.
"Had not Jack Neusner offered an opportunity to speak
publicly about the whole mess, I would have been willing to stay quiet
and wait for the decisions of the courts," said Luedemann, whose
essay on the dispute is included in the new book.
At bottom is the quest for historical truth and its place in the
modern university, he said.
"All I have claimed is that the pursuit of theology as an
academic discipline should not be tied to the confession [of faith],
and that if it is, it is not a true academic discipline."
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