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The following "Preface to the U.S. Edition" of my book "The Great Deception" (1999) summarizes the events that led to the ongoing dispute with the Confederation of Protestant Churches in Lower Saxony, the Education Minister of Lower Saxony and the University of Göttingen.
Preface to the U.S. Edition1
The natural reationship of theology to religion is not one of friendship, but of hostility Theology can be called the satan of religion. Theology cannot create a religion but at best supports and strengthens a religion which one has from elsewhere. For that reason it can also cost religion.
The publication of the American edition of this book gives me the opportunity to sketch out its context within the situaton of theology and the church in Germany.
After periods of teaching and research at McMaster University (1977-1979) and Vanderbilt University (1979-1982), since 1983 I have had a chair in New Testament in the theological faculty of the University of Göttingen. Since its foundation in 1737, the University of Göttingen has been famous for its interest in history, and that is particularly true of the theology that has been practiced here. Many of the Göttingen theologians, such as Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), were pioneers of historical criticism and are still of intemational importance today: Emil Schürer (1844-1910), Walter Bauer (1877-1960), Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979), Emst Käsemann (1908-1998), and Hans Conzelmann (1915-1989), to name only a few, also occupied a chair in New Testament in the theological faculty. Then, about a century ago, the so-called History of Religions School started in Göttingen, which is again enjoying increased intemational popularity. Some of the works from this school have only recently been translated into English. Here I would mention only Johannes Weiss, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes, 18923; William Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evange1ien;4 and Ernst Troeltsch, Writings on Theo1ogy and Re1igion, ed. Robert Morgan and Michael Pye, 1977.
The term History of Religions School5 is used to describe a group of German Protestant theologians from the end of the Wilhelmine empire, most of whom were New Testament scholars. Their main conviction was that religion is not something fixed; it develops and is subject to human history. The History of Religions School was not a theological school in the sense of following an individual whose ideas were taken up and developed. Rather, in a lengthy process of development lasting around fifteen years, it emerged from the shared life and work of young theologians who from 1886 gained their Habilitations (a second doctorate that a candidate in the German university system must normally complete), primarily in Göttingen.
This group around Albert Eichhom (1856-1926) and Williarn Wrede (1859-1906) also included the students Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), Heinrich Hackmann (1864-1935), Alfred Rahlfs (1865-1935), and Johannes Weiss (1863-1914). They were soon joined by Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920), Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), and Wilhelm Heitmüller (1869-1926). Their uncompromising concem with early Christian texts in a strictly historical spirit, subject to no dogmatic compulsions, soon led to charges that they were radicals. The effect that their "radicalism" had on students emerges from the following letter by an eyewitness:
Hardly had I become active when Wilhelm [viz. Lueken6] took me for a walk to Rohn's [viz. in Göttingen]. On the way he told me that Strauss's Leben Jesu7 was very tame; now people were going much further. I was dumbfounded. The people around Bousset seemed to me to be a horde of iconoclasts who wanted to smash everything to pieces....Certainly, the elite stuck to Bousset. Just as one misses the creaton in Darwin's creation, so I missed the Holy Spirit in Bousset's Bible. It was all human work, and moreover it stank of forgeries. I became very disturbed that the first letter of Peter was said not to have been written by the apostle.8
I see myself as being in the tradition of this school and practice a strictly historical exegesis of the New Testament in the framework of the religions of the Hellenistic period. My monographs on Simon Magus,9 the chronology of Paul,10 and anti-Paulinism in early Christianity,11 and a commentary on the historical value of the Acts of the Apostles,12 are evidence of this and have brought me intemational recognition. But in the course of my investigation of the resurrection of Jesus,13 of the heretics in early Christianity,14 of the unholy in Holy Scripture,15 of the virgin birth16 and finally, in the present book, of the many words and actions of Jesus which have been put into his mouth or attributed to him only at a later stage, I have come to the following conclusion. My previous faith, related to the biblical message, has become impossible, because its points of reference, above all the resurrection of Jesus, have proved invalid and because the person of Jesus himself is insufficient as a foundation of faith once most of the New Testament statements about him have proved to be later interpretations by the community. Jesus deceived himself in expecting the kingdom of God. Instead, the church came; it recklessly changed the message of Jesus and in numerous cases tumed it against the mother religion of Judaism.
When I made public the consequences of my historical insights and said goodbye to Christianity with a "Letter to Jesus" (see below, pp. 1-9), the Confederation of Protestant Churches in Lower Saxony applied to my superior, the Education Minister of Lower Saxony, and called for my immediate dismissal from the theological faculty.* Under pressure from the church, my own colleagues, the members of the Göttingen Theological Faculty, endorsed this request in two statements. The first was published on 27 April 1998.
At the invitation of the Dean, on 22 April 1998 an extraordinary session of the Collegium of Professors of the Theological Faculty of Göttingen was held at which Professor Lüdemann explained his public statements about his "renunciation" of Christianity.
Subsequently the members of the Collegium present unanimously passed the following resolution:
We respect the personal decisions which stand behind Professor Lüdemann's statements.
However, we dispute that these statements are the necessary conclusions to be drawn from scientific insights. Although our teaching and research as professors of the theoIogical faculty differs widely, we ho1d Christian faith and science te be essentially compatible. lt is also one of the tasks of the theological faculty to train future pastors and teachers of religion with scholarly responsibility in accordance with the principles of the Protestant churches. Therefore, we call upon Professor Lüdemann to reflect upon his membership in the theological faculty, going beyond considerations of tactics and practicing the truthfulness that he always calls for. In our view, in making statements of his kind, Professor Lüdemann is in flagrant conflict with the character and tasks of a theological faculty.
The second resolution, addressed to the President of the university, was composed on 19 November 1998 and runs:
At the session of the professors of the theological faculty of Göttingen on 18 November 1998 it was resoved:
1. In that Professor Dr. G. Lüdemann has fundamentally put in question the intrinsic right of Protestant theology at the university, he has terminated his membership in the faculty of Protestant theology....
Consequently, the professors have passed the following resolution:
Point 1 gives rise to serious objections to Professor Lüdemann's continuing membership in the theological faculty. The teachers therefore recommend the President to work toward the incorporation of his chair into another faculty. The professors are concerned to arrive at a solution which makes it possible for Professor Lüdemann to continue his scholarly work.
This resolution was passed with fifteen votes in favor and one abstention.
The dispute has come to an end for the time being with a letter from the President of the University of Göttingen dated 17 December 1998. This confirmned my membership in the theological faculty, but at the same time renamed my chair in New Testament. lt is now a chair in the "History and Literature of Early Christianity." The aim of this renaming is, on the one hand, to withdraw me from the training of pastors in the theological faculties and, on the other, to continue to guarantee the freedom of research to which I have a right, protected by law, as a professor of theology appointed by the state.
At the same time the Ministry of Education in Lower saxony has established a new chair for New Testament in the theological faculty in Göttingen in order to meet the conditions of the treaty between the churches of the Confederation of Protestant Churches in Lower Saxony and the state. Whether the Confederation, which had called for my immediate withdrawal from the theological faculty with all the consequences that would follow, is in agreement with this solution remains to be seen. And, too, I have the legal right to lodge an objection to the renaming, since it is bound up with a reassessment of my chair. In other words, I will certainly lose research money and posts which will then benefit my successor as Professor of New Testament.
At this point American readers must be informed about the complicated legal basis on which the existence of theological faculties in Germany is based.
The existence of theological faculties in Germany is guaranteed by treaties between the state and the Christian confessions. The theological faculties are responsible for the training not only of future pastors, but also of teachers of religion, since in German schools the Protestant or Catholic religion is a regular subject of study. Anyone who wants to pass a theological examination must be a baptized member of one of the great Christian confessions. The same is also true for future professors. Whereas in the Catholic sphere a call to a professorship is possible only if the church gives its assent, the treaties between the Protestant churches and the state recognize no veto corresponding to the Catholic right. The treaties between the Protestant churches and the state also differ from the corresponding agreements on the Catholic side in the further detail that it is no longer possible to object to a professor after his appointment. So in the Catholic sphere there have been, and are, quite a number of subsequent objections to professors (the best-known case is that of Hans Küng), which result in a transfer of the professor concerned to another faculty and a new appointment to the chair of a professor more acceptable to the church. All that was previously unknown in the Protestant sphere; my case is the first of its kind in the history of the Protestant theological faculties in Germany.
I regard the strict confessional division within academic theology, and also the close connection between theology and the church which goes with it, as artificial. In my view it is an intrinsic contradiction for academic theology on the one hand to claim the epithet "scientific" for itself and on the other hand immediately to bind itself to the goals and principles of the church. Of course, the amalgamation of the church and academic theology in the Protestant sphere has been a long time in the making. Only recently (1995), an oath dating from the year 1848 was reintroduced into my faculty after a lapse of some thirty years. Since then any newly appointed professor and any new lecturer must take the following oath: "I commit myself to presenting the theological disciplines honestly, clearly and thoroughly in agreement with the principles of the Evangelical Lutheran church." In my view, to tie theology to the church in this way goes against its claim to be a scientific discipline.
This bond with the church is also abundantly clear in the statement by my colleagues quoted above. This says on my renunciation of Christianity: "We dispute that these statements are the necessary conclusions to be drawn from scientific insights. Although our teaching and research as professors of the theological faculty differ widely, we hold Christian faith and science to be essentially compatible." From a purely scholarly perspective, the following serious objections to the statement arise:
First, the content of the scientific insights which have led me to renounce Christianity must be discussed.
Secondy, the statement that faith and science are essentially compatible needs to be complemented by a statement about the result of my scientific investigation of Christianity, which is the issue here. Instead of this, my colleagues claim in advance something that needs to be proved. This fatally recalls a sentence from the Catholic Anti-Modernist Oath of 1910: "At the same time I reject the error of those who claim that the faith presented by the church could conflict with history and that the Catholic dogmas...cannot be made to accord with the real origin of the Christian religion."17
So initially the issue is not the general one of whether Christian faith and scholarship are essentially compatible, but the concrete one of whether belief in the resurrection of Jesus today is compatible with the fact that Jesus rotted away and was not raised.
In this connection it would be useful to recall Max Weber's classic article "On the Inner Call to Scholarship."18 This rightly states: "Any theology adds some specific presuppositions for its work and thus to justify its own existence" (336). A Iittle later Weber aptly remarks that any theology which wants to remain true to itself calls for the sacrifice of the intellect (338f.), simply because it must presuppose "revelation." For the great sociologist, "such a sacrifice of the intellect in favor of an unconditional religious surrender...is morally something quite different from that avoidance of the simple intellectual obligation to honesty which arises when one does not have the courage to become clear about one's own ultimate position, but makes this obligation easier by weak relativization" (338f.).
Unless my impression is mistaken, the statement made by my colleagues is guilty of the last charge, or comes suspiciously close to it. For what is the weak confession that Christian faith and science are essentially compatible, if not an avoidance of the obligation to be honest? As we can see from the example of Max Weber, most scholars regard it as impossible for Christian faith and science to hold together without a sacrifice of the intellect.
Now my colleagues showed respect for my decisions but at the same time called on me to go beyond tactical considerations and to reflect on my own membership in the theological faculty, practicing the truthfulness that I call for. To be specific, they wanted me to leave the faculty voluntarily. As I did not do this, six months later, under increased pressure from the church, they sent a recommendation to the President of the university to remove my chair from the theological faculty.
The change of tactics relates to my statement that I wanted to continue to remain in the theological faculty but no longer as a Christian professor. This decision is based on my firm intention to bring to bear the best traditions of free Protestant theology and to reestablish the critical principle within the confessional theological faculties, which have become so anemic. My colleagues evidently do not recognize the possible tension¥not to say the possible contradiction¥between scientific judgments and judgments of faith. For in their view only those may belong to the faculty who can accept the basic statement of the Christian faith or the church. I regard this as a preliminary decision which it is impossible for a scholar to make, and which in the last resort derives from Roman Catholic thinking (see the above text on the Anti-Modemist Oath).
At the same time it should be remarked that in their research and teaching, most of my colleagues have long since left the principles of the church behind them but (want to) attach themselves to this tradition by symbolic interpretation and other interpretative skills. Hardly one of them shares the eschatological presuppositions of the church's tradition, and very few expect, for example, the return of Christ in judgment. To keep quiet about this could similarly be described as a tactic.
So it is high time to talk about theology and its content, and that can be done only in the form of a discussion about the historical foundations of Christian faith and without any tactics, even at the risk of having openly to repudiate the principles of the Evangelical Church, i.e., the confessional writings.
As long as theology remains in the university, it has to research and inform, not reveal and preach; to bring people to maturity in matters of re1igion, not lead them astray into servitude towards an old superstition, no matter how modern it may claim to be. To quote Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903) free1y, theology must remain a relentlessly honest investigation of the truth, evading no doubts, and papering over no gaps in the tradition. A remark by Bertrand Russell still applies without qualification to its maturing and ongoing development:
Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver with cold after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.19
Göttingen, January 1999
1 I am grateful to my friend Dr. John Bowden for also translaming this preface.
2 Franz Overbeck, Werke und Nachlass, vol. 5 of Kirchenlexicon. Texte. Ausgewäh1te Artikel J-Z (Stuttgart and Weimar: Verlag J. B. Metzler, 1995), p. 580.
3 English translation: Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, ed. Richard Hyde Hiers and David Larrimore Holland (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, and London: SM Press, 1971).
4 English translation: The Messianic secret in the Gospels (Cambridge: James Clarke 1971).
5 Cf. Gerd Lüdemann and Alf Özen, "Religionsgeschichtliche Schule", TRE 28 (1997): 618-24 (with bibliography).
6 Wilhelrn Lueken (1875-1961) was a pupil and friend of Wilhelm Bousset.
7 David Friedrich Strauss's (1808-1874) work Das Leben Jesu (2 vols, 1835-1836; second edition 1838-1839), famously translated by George Eliot, reissued as The Life of Jesus critically Examined, ed. Peter C. Hodgson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1972, and London: SCM Press, 1973), was basic reading for the history-of-religions school. Rudolf Bultmann still planned to dedicate the first edition of his book Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (The History of the synoptic Tradition, 1921) to the memory of D. F. Strauss, but refrained from doing so for tactical reasons.
8 Letter from Karl Woebcken to Emil Lueken, 25 May 1956 (Lüdemann Archive).
9 Gerd Lüdemann, Untersuchungen zur simonianischen Gnosis, GTA 1, 1975; cf. id., "The Acts of the Apostles and the Beginnings of Simonian Gnosis," New Testament Studies 33 (1987): 420-26; id. (with Martina Janssen), Suppressed Prayers. Gnostic Spirituality in Early Christianity (London: SCM Press, and Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1998).
10 Gerd Lüdemann, Pau1, Apostle to the Gentiles, Studies in Chronology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, and London: SCM Press, 1984).
11 Gerd Lüdemann, Opposition to Paui in Jewish Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).
12 Gerd Lüdemann, EarIy Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts. A Commentary (London: SCM Press, and Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).
13 Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus. History, Experience, Theology (London: SCM Press, and Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).
*I deal with this conflict separately in my book Im Würgegriff der Kirche. Für die Freiheit der theologischen Wissenschaft (In the Stranglehold of the Church. Toward the Freedom of Theological Science)
(Lüneburg: KIampen Verlag, 1998).
14 Gerd Lüdemann, Heretics. The Other Side of Early Christianity (London: SCM Press, and Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
15 Gerd Lüdemann, The Unholy in Holy scripture. The Dark Side of the Bible (London: SCM Press, and Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
16 Gerd Lüdemann, Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and Her Son Jesus (London: SCM Press, and Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1998).
17 Translation following Hermann Mulert, Anti-Modernisteneid, freie Forschung und theologische Fakultäten. Mit Anhang: Der Anti-Modernisteneid, lateinisch und deutsch nebst Aktenstücken (Halle, 1911), p. 43. The Latin text runs: "Idem reprobo errorem affirmantium, propositam ab Ecclesia fidem posse historiae repugnare, et catholica dogmata, quo sensu nunc intelliguntur cum verioribus christianae religionis originibus componi non posse."
18 Max Weber, Soziologie. Wissenschaftliche Analysen. Politik, Kröners Taschenbuchausgabe 229, 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1968), pp. 311-99. Page references are given in the text from this point on.
19 Bertrand Russell, "What I Believe," in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed., with an appendix on the "Bertrand Russell case," by Paul Edwards (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 43.
Copyright © Gerd Lüdemann
Last updated on April 22, 2020