Gerd Lüdemann's Homepage
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By Rob Simbeck
The whispers are those that go with fame. "There he is,"
says one student, pointing across the courtyard. "That's Gerd
Lüdemann?" asks another. The venue is the convocation picnic
kicking off the new semester at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The people
pointing and craning their necks are about to spend the year in
preparation for the ministry or a degree in biblical literature, or in
pursuit of some self-defined goal. The man they are regarding with a
touch of real wonder used to teach here. He is still a visiting
scholar who maintains a home in Nashville, researches in the
Vanderbilt library and speaks both locally and across two continents.
He is famous-or notorious, depending on one's predisposition-for
saying what every liberal biblical scholar has heard and what a not
insubstantial number believe: that many of the claims of classical
Christianity, including its cornerstone, the Resurrection, are pious
fluff that simply don't hold up in the face of modern historical
research and post-Enlightenment sensibilities. They are, to take it a
step further-and Lüdemann always does-part of what he calls "The
It is possible to believe as he does and yet flourish in
modern-day liberal theology. Lüdemann, in fact, is adamant that a good
percentage of his colleagues do just that, dissembling so that they
may keep their jobs and careers. It is not possible, though, to drive
the point home as baldly and forcefully as he has for nearly a decade
and escape unscathed. Few of his colleagues believe in the physical
resurrection of Jesus, but hardly any take that belief to its logical
conclusion, at least not publicly. Lüdemann does.
"The body of Jesus," he has said many times,
"rotted in the tomb, if it was not eaten before then by vultures
That utterance alone was not enough to jeopardize the job he has
held since leaving Vanderbilt-a professorship at Göttingen University,
a German institution long synonymous with the best of modern-day
biblical scholarship. But his statement that what passes for modern
Protestant thought is "bankrupt" has embroiled him in a
tempest that is beginning to spin little twisters across the West. He
maintains that theology as practiced by present-day Christian churches
is as dead as Jesus when he was taken down from the cross.
"The hallowed precincts of church and theological tradition
often stand directly opposed to the human sense of truth," he has
said. "If no bridge can be built here, then all is up with the
credibility of theology and the church, and for all their apparent
splendor, both are heading for rigor mortis."
What is needed, he says, is fearless and rigorous historical
investigation, unencumbered by creed or edict and followed to its
conclusion, no matter what the cost or consequence. Perhaps not
surprisingly, Lutheran church officials in Germany decided a few years
ago that a man with such views should not be instructing would-be
ministers of the gospel. Since 1994, they, Lüdemann and the university
have been involved in a complex dance of charges, public statements,
court dates and faculty votes that have left Lüdemann a member of the
theology department but with restrictions that have reduced his clout
and university standing considerably.
For years now, his battle to teach as a non-theist in a Christian
setting has been a rather remote matter, the stuff of university
debate and the German-language press. All that may be about to change.
The April issue of the journal Religion, which is to theology what
Nature is to science, will feature a symposium on the Lüdemann case
that will become the core of a book called Faith, Truth and Freedom:
The Expulsion of Professor Gerd Lüdemann From the Theology Faculty of
Göttingen University. The dean of Göttingen and world-class academics
from Europe and the U.S.-including Vanderbilt Divinity School
professors Amy-Jill Levine and Douglas A. Knight, and former
Vanderbilt Divinity professor and Jesus Seminar founder Robert
Funk-will weigh in on what some see as a pivotal showdown over
academic freedom and the very nature of theological inquiry.
There is no doubt the Lüdemann case has touched nerves across the
U.S. and Europe. It raises many questions, including whether an
otherwise qualified non-theist can teach the Bible and whether
historical research done under the influence of a church can be called
a legitimate academic undertaking. It has renewed concerns over the
fact that there are unspoken litmus tests that an academic must pass
to teach in an American theological institution-one had better not be
too liberal in a conservative institution, nor too conservative in a
It has not been an easy road. Lüdemann is now teaching classes
students have no reason to take-the area in which he teaches doesn't
offer a major, and students would be hurting their advancement by
getting close to someone who is a thorn in the university's side.
Lüdemann is paying the bulk of his own quite sizable legal costs,
selling a life insurance policy to help do so. With the exception of
his sister, no one in his family shares his views. He has long been
the object of the animosity of the church. Friends and colleagues have
sometimes been hostile to his approach, if not his reasoning.
The German university system, which mixes church and state, makes
the matter more complicated than it might be in the United States.
Göttingen dean Reinhard G. Kratz, in a paper for the symposium,
maintains that the church can require professors in such a setting to
serve its interests, and that Lüdemann's actions made the school's
withdrawal of his right to instruct ordination candidates a mere
Many of those contributing to the symposium agree that there are
split interests and rights. "It seems appropriate for Professor
Lüdemann 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," says Stephen B. Presser, a
professor of legal history and business law at Northwestern
University. "Professor Lüdemann's 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 theology."
"All I have claimed," counters Lüdemann, "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. 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 religion, not lead them astray into servitude
toward an old superstition, no matter how modern it may claim to
While William Shea, professor of American Christianity at St.
Louis University, grants that Lüdemann is "a professor who will
not dodge and weave," he adds that "he is now paying the
price. You do not say goodbye to Christianity and expect applause from
Christians. Compassion perhaps, applause never."
Yet this case is relevant to America, in that theologians here
have found their jobs in jeopardy for the same reasons that Lüdemann
has. "There have been many cases involving confessional
schools," says Knight, "where a conservative church has seen
to the firing of faculty members who don't hold to the party line.
That has happened entirely too much in the last two decades in our own
country for us to feel indifferent toward what is occurring now in a
major European university."
There are parallels in liberal American institutions as well,
Levine points out. "Those schools which profess the ideal of open
inquiry also often do not want faculty who are too Christian,"
she says. "Church membership is fine, but active proselytizers
for a particular brand of (usually Conservative) Christianity are less
But if Lüdemann's fellow theologians disagree with him and
sometimes regard him as someone too eager to seek the spotlight, they
don't for a moment doubt his intelligence or his intellectual motives.
"He did not invent this issue," says Knight. "It goes
back to [German theologian Rudolf] Bultmann and others before him. But
Gerd asked the question in a very radical form and stayed with it even
in the face of church opposition. He is saying, 'If we say it among
ourselves, why don't we say it out loud?' "
All content is © Rob Simbeck 2002.
Editor's Note: The full text of this abridged version originally
appeared in the February 28, 2002 issue of Nashville Scene. Visit:
The book Faith, Truth, and Freedom edited by Jacob Neusner will be
published in April 2002 by Global Publications. The symposium talks
will appear in the April 2002 issue of Religion (Academic Press).