Home Veröffentlichungen 1998 Veröffentlichungen 1998 Christianity Untrue, Says Teacher
   Gerd Lüdemann's Homepage
 Recent Interviews/Press Releases
 Veröffentlichungen 1998

This theology is not an academic discipline

A plea for faculties which pursue research into all religions


At the beginning of March 1998, as a professor of New Testament on a state faculty, I declared publicly that I was no longer a Christian. Thereupon, several church organizations as well as groups lacking any ecclesiastical affiliation suggested to me that I should transfer to the philosophy faculty and thus make room for a successor who was a believer. I refused to do this, because my analysis of the New Testament still follows the same scholarly criteria and because in Germany the theological faculties have traditionally been places for scholarly research into Christianity. Since this refusal I have increasingly become the target of church sanctions, and now even my own colleagues are calling unanimously for me to be transferred to another faculty, in spite of the state's establishment of an additional parallel chair in New Testament. The decision now lies with the president of Göttingen University.

The events I have described are unique in German Protestantism. They nurture the suspicion that the theology being done in Germany is not an academic discipline at all. Clearly, it cannot be, because it is governed by a confessional approach. In view of this patent contradiction, in view of the dramatic decrease in church attendance and the declining place of Christianity in culture and education, and perhaps especially in view of the seemingly exotic claim of Christian doctrine that Jesus as God's Son suffered for the sins of the world, thereafter to rise incorrupt - in view of all these it is the more puzzling that the theological faculties, ironically divided into Protestant and Catholic branches, are still thought to be an indispensable element of the German university.

The reunification of Germany has not led to any far-reaching changes in this untenable situation, which is based on agreements between the two dominant churches and the state. Like the GDR government previously, the several state governments have in principle respected the existence of state theological faculties, and recently have made generous agreements with the churches – even though in the new federal states only about one third of the population belongs to a church. This support for theology as a discipline is unparalleled anywhere else in the world, especially in its financial aspect, and can be explained only by the long-standing influence of the church. But that is no help: as the following remarks show, the very foundations of present-day academic theology are crumbling.

Most academic theologians begin with two presuppositions. First, theology is a discipline related to the Bible perceived as the word of God. Second, theology assumes the truth-claim of Christian talk of God. Given these axioms, does theology deserve to be called a scholarly discipline?

Since both assumptions are articles of faith, which on critical investigation prove to be empty, the question must be answered with a firm negative. First of all, the Bible is the word of man, and second, it contains a considerable number of different images of God. From a purely scholarly perspective one must ask which God people are to agree on. When the issue comes down to truth claims, the theologian may argue from faith and with greater insight. But that has nothing to do with scholarship; we must not confuse the lecturer's desk and the pulpit.

Furthermore, no one can accede a professorial chair in the German theological faculties without a baptismal certificate and the assent of the respective churches: a Jew cannot be called to a chair in the theological faculties or even gain the necessary qualifications; being unbaptized, he or she can neither take the qualifying examination nor earn a doctorate by scholarly work on the Jew Jesus. The status of the faculties may be guaranteed by law, but sooner or later the anomalous situation will call for changes in legal protocols, and a radical transformation of the existing theological faculty will necessarily result. There are two reasons why this will happen.

The first is purely academic: theologians of the two Christian confessions approach texts in the same way, employing philology, historical criticism and comparative religion.

The second is a matter of social policy. In the next few years Germany will increasingly become the homeland of members of other religions. If one follows the legalistic logic, these religious communities, as public corporations, likewise deserve to have their own theological faculties. In that case, in the future we would have not only Protestant and Catholic, but also Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist faculties – perhaps even faculties of Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. It must be clear to everyone that this would be not only financially impossible, but in terms of scholarship as anachronistic as the present Christian faculties. For scholarly research into Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist faith can no more be Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist than criminology can be criminal. Science and scholarship eschew presuppositions and recognize a duty to objective truthfulness.

In this matter, the present situation in German theology is unhealthy, if only on legal grounds. By law, the Roman Catholic Church can block the appointment of disapproved lecturers, and even exclude candidates it deems undesirable. And now, in my case, the Protestant Church has claimed the same right for itself.

The need to transform the theological faculties can be seen also in the increasing unification of Europe. The German situation is unique, and in the long term cannot survive in the European Community. In other European countries, as in North America, people are following the discussion in Germany - once the Mecca of scholarly theology – with amazement and dismay. The clear and present remedy is for far-sighted politicians to prune back the dead branches and permit scholarship to bear its appropriate fruit.

The requirement of the hour is a new faculty of theology or religious studies, one which delves into all religions of the past and present. This faculty would include members of the traditional Protestant and Catholic faculties – in considerably reduced numbers – along with the occupants of chairs in the history of religion, religious studies, and, where appropriate, philosophy. The practical and doctrinal training of clergy is the task of the Christian churches and other religious communities; it is not the business of the university.

(Translated from the German by Dr. John Bowden and edited by Tom Hall)

Frankfurter Rundschau: 4 December 1998

Copyright © Gerd Lüdemann
Last updated on April 22, 2020
Home Veröffentlichungen 1998 Veröffentlichungen 1998 Christianity Untrue, Says Teacher
Impressum - Datenschutz