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Church Wants to Stop Him from Training Students for Ministry
By Ray Waddle, Religion Editor, The Tennessean
[This article was originally published in The Tennessean, August
29, 1998, pp. 1B-2B.]
Gerd Luedemann no longer believes in Christianity, and he suspects
a lot of Christians secretly agree with him.
The difference is that Luedemann, a noted author here and in
Europe, is going public with his disbelief. The other difference is he
teaches the New Testament in a school in Germany that trains
ministers, and he wants to continue there despite threats by the
churches to kick him out.
"People know Christianity is not true, but they won't address
it publicly," Leudemann, a German who lives part time in
Nashville, said last week.
"It's the skeleton in the closet. But I want to get the
discussion going. That can only happen if you don't mind being
Luedemann, 52, is a friendly man with a Web site,
www.gwdg.de/ gluedem/, and a twinkle in his eye even as he declares
traditional Christian belief is no longer possible.
He insists liberal Christianity is dishonest when it does not
admit its skepticism about the faith's miraculous claims. He thinks
anybody who wants to be a serious Christian ought to take up
His hunch is that many other churchgoers feel what he feels but
don't admit it – a deep disconnection between the miraculous
world of Sunday morning Bible teaching and the daily world of rational
laws of nature and social change.
"Liberals are dishonest if they think the Bible is on their
side," said Luedemann, who taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School
for three years in the early 1980s and still has research privileges
"The Bible is against democracy, against tolerance, against
He has come to embrace a private religion that honors the
mysteries of nature and the subconscious. He believes his kind of
mystical piety is the wave of the future in a post-Christian era.
Luedemann has been called a publicity-monger; he's a scholar who
doesn't shy from notoriety. He's written several books that question
or attack core Christian beliefs, such as Jesus' Resurrection and his
He happily appears as the token religious skeptic on local talk
shows and national TV documentaries.
His latest book, however, has gotten him in hot water with the
Lutheran churches that underwrite his teaching job at the University
of Gsttingen in Germany.
The book, The Great Deception, argues the Resurrection was a pious
hoax created, intentionally or not, by Jesus' apostles.
"Great Deception - it's an ugly title, but if it's true, why
not tell the truth?" said Luedemann, a family man who was a
passionate Christian preacher as a teenager and later considered
joining a monastery. "Let's not deceive people."
The book opens with a "Letter to Jesus" in which
Luedemann bids farewell to the beloved Jesus of his youth, urging the
Redeemer to free himself from the confusions and conflicts of the
modern church and return to the first century.
"You proclaimed the future kingdom of God, but what came was
the church. Luedemann writes. "Your message has been falsified by
your supporters for their own advantage, contrary to the historical
The "case of Luedemann" has stirred unease in Germany,
triggered debate about the limits of academic freedom and raised
questions about the aims of liberal theology.
The historical-critical methods of theology he teaches in Europe
are the bread and butter of the most prestigious seminaries in the
United States, too, including Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Luedemann argues that liberal theology pretends to affirm belief
but is based on skeptical methods of scholarship that deny miracles
and strip the Bible of supernatural origins.
"It sucks the blood out of the gods and in the end prays only
to symbols," be said.
The Vanderbilt Divinity dean says Luedemann is
"marvelously" provocative but guilty of "arrogant
presumption" if he thinks people can't be Christian unless they
embrace every traditional creed.
"I'm a great believer that the spirit of God is very active
in the world today," Dean Joseph Hough said. "What Jesus
revealed was an extraordinary sensitivity to the presence of the
Spirit. His message is that anxiety is misplaced because God is trying
to create loving opportunities for people in the world."
Hough said Luedemann's analysis assumes Christian belief is static
and unchanging, but that only puts limits on how God reveals himself
"People are perceiving God in new ways all the time,"
Hough said. "All those things in the ancient creeds - the
Resurrection, the Virgin Birth - are being reaffirmed and
reinterpreted all the time. More than 50% of the people I know believe
most of that, but they reserve the right to interpret it the way they
Luedemann is also a member of the famous, or infamous, Jesus
Seminar, which has declared many of -the New Testament words of Jesus
were probably made up by later writers.
Luedemann said the Jesus Seminar vainly tries to
"modernize" Jesus, turning him into a wandering philosopher
instead of respecting him as a first century figure who is now out of
Luedemann said he still views Jesus as a deeply moving figure, one
of the world's great religious teachers. But he argues Jesus' grieving
disciples, and then hundreds of others, suffered hallucinations after
his death and called it the Resurrection.
One local conservative scholar, Michael Moss of Lipscomb
University, applauded Luedemann for saying what conservatives have
long suspected, that liberal theology "cuts the guts out of the
Gospel itself by jettisoning the miracles from the story."
Moss argued against Luedemann's dismissal of the Resurrection.
"There were so many witnesses," said Moss, associate
dean of' Lipscomb's College of Bible and Ministry. "What do you
do with those folks? It's wishful thinking to say they all had the
same hallucination. That can't explain why they were willing to
sacrifice their lives later to tell the Gospel."
Meanwhile, a legal conflict is brewing in Germany between the
Protestant church conference and the government over Luedemann's
faculty position at Gsttingen.
The church conference has a say in who gets to teach on the
theology faculty, but Luedemann's tenured salary is paid by the state.
In a statement released last month the church organization said
Luedemann had in effect disqualified himself from teaching
ministers-in-training because of his views against the faith. The
churches want him off the faculty. Luedemann would remain a university
professor there but would be isolated, without students or classes.
Luedemann said he wants to continue on the theology faculty,
teaching the technicalities of ancient languages and Bible text
analysis, and challenging students.
"It's a 'scientific' approach to the texts. My beliefs
wouldn't matter," he said.
At Vanderbilt, Hough was asked hypothetically if it would be
appropriate for such a nonbelieving scholar to teach at Vanderbilt or
other modern divinity schools.
"I wouldn't rule it out in principle because he's a fine New
Testament scholar, despite some naive personal assumptions," he
said. "But we can't have teachers renouncing Christianity in the
classroom. If he had no sympathy for our mission to train Christian
ministers, he'd have to decide whether he could teach in such a
Luedemann said people owe it to their integrity to seek truth and
risk abandoning cherished beliefs.
"Why are we educating people?" he asked. "Is it
just a hobby? Are we interested in truth? It's cynical to say that
society can't tell the truth to itself
"We live only once. We have to have the courage to seek the
knowledge of who we are."
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Last updated: Friday, 02-Oct-98 16:59:28 MDT