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Got God?

Gerd Lüdemann

Andrew Piper
Reprinted with permission from Lingua Franca, July/August
2000, pp. 9-11.

Should a professor who has publicly stated "I am no longer a Christian" be allowed to teach theology?

For the last two years, the German theologian Gerd Lüdemann has been quarreling with his university and his church over this question. Lüdemann sparked the controversy in 1998, when he published a shockingly frank "Letter to Jesus" in the German weekly Der Spiegel. Addressing the Savior himself, Lüdemann wrote: "You weren't without sin and you aren't God's son. You did not return because your resurrection did not even take place but was only a pious wish. That is certain, because your body rotted in the tomb-that is, if it was put in a tomb at all and was not devoured by vultures and jackals." A month after "Letter to Jesus" appeared, Lüdemann's fellow theologians at the University of Göttingen issued a statement urging his removal from their department. They found him "in flagrant conflict with the character and tasks of a theological faculty." In response, Göttingen's president, Horst Kern, recommended that Lüdemann be moved out of the theological faculty into the Institute for Special Research; that his chair be renamed "Professor of the History and Literature of Early Christianity"; and that he lose the assistant professorship tied to his chair and all rights to administer exams or supervise dissertations. Although he would still be allowed to teach, students would not receive credit for his courses. And if Lüdemann rejected his reassignment and insisted on remaining with the theology faculty, his research funds (more than fifteen thousand dollars per year) would be cut nearly in half. Outraged, Lüdemann took the case to court.

Since 1983, when his tenure began at Göttingen, Lüdemann has been adept at stirring up controversy. Although he follows a venerable scholarly tradition of trying to locate a credible, historical Jesus, Lüdemann has met with considerable resistance from his peers. In 1996, after speaking to Der Spiegel about abolishing the confessional element in theology, he lost the right to administer theological exams for those wishing to be ordained by the Evangelical (Protestant) Church–an umbrella group of Protestant denominations. Since then, Lüdemann has written a number of books in which he sets out to provoke: Heretics, The Unholy in Holy Scripture, and The Great Deception. (His next book, Jesus After 2000 Years, will be published by Prometheus this fall.) All of these works dwell on inconsistencies among biblical witnesses, power struggles between early Christian leaders, and the contrast between the person of Jesus and the figure of Christ. Lüdemann consistently aims to replace a theology based on faith with one based on historical knowledge. As he states flatly in Heretics, "The Bible is the word of human beings."

Does Lüdemann's daring brand of theology warrant removal from his department? Since theology departments at state universities in Germany work under negotiated treaties with the Evangelical and Catholic churches, it just may. Under these treaties, the universities agree to perform educational functions for the Church–such as administering exams and conferring degrees–and the Church gets a say in the hiring process of professors. In its treaty, the Catholic Church retains an explicit right to fire Catholic theology professors. (In 1980, the theologian Hans Küng lost his university post at Tübingen after challenging the doctrine of papal infallibility.) Although the Evangelical Church does not enjoy this right, it can make recommendations to the university regarding such matters. Indeed, in January of this year, a paper issued by the university made it clear that the Evangelical Church was demanding Lüdemann's dismissal.

And for Lüdemann, this was bad news. In a series of preliminary hearings last fall, the courts came down against him, stating that if the Church recommended his dismissal, the university could comply without violating his rights as a civil servant. It is, the court continued, "an affair of the Church alone–not of the religiously and philosophically neutral institutions of the state of Lower Saxony–to judge [whether Lüdemann] is authorized to represent the theology of this confession." Lüdemann appealed, but in February Lower Saxony's higher regional court rebuffed him. In effect, the court ruled that Lüdemann had altered the basic elements of his contract by renouncing his faith in Christianity.

What happens next? Lüdemann says that he must wait for the courts to make their final rulings, which could take up to four years. But because the courts have already ruled against him in preliminary hearings, he concedes, "the cards don't look so good."

Nonetheless, Lüdemann's intention to take his case before the German equivalent of the Supreme Court may stir up a national debate. As Gerhard Besier, a professor of church history at the University of Heidelberg, wrote in the German newspaper Die Welt, "The case of Lüdemann could become the case of theology," with the intimate partnership of church and state forced to undergo an uncomfortable reexamination. Meanwhile, Americans may be corning to the rescue. At the end of March, Die Welt published an open letter of protest by the Jesus Seminar, a group of mostly American fellows (Lüdemann is among them) dedicated to "renewing the quest for the historical Jesus." "The task of western culture," wrote the fellows, "is to critically engage our Christian past. To exclude this challenge completely from the theological curriculum would make a farce of the discipline."

Letter of Concern from American Friends

Article from 1998 Internet Infidels Newsletter

© Copyright 2000 by the Society of Biblical Literature, Decatur, GA. All rights reserved under both Pan American and international copyright conventions. No reproduction of any part may be made without the prior written consent of the copyright holder.

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