Reactions To Confessional Orthodoxy In The Nineteenth Century

By the time that Vatke's Biblical Theology was published, the theological mood in Germany was moving strongly against the type of criticism represented by him and de Wette, criticism that resulted in radical reconstructions of the history of Israelite religion that were at variance with the picture presented in the Old Testament itself. The reunion of Lutheran and Reformed Churches in some parts of Germany occasioned by the defeat of Napoleon, and the 300th anniversary of the Reformation (1817) and the Augsburg Confession (1830) focused attention on Christian doctrine. In some quarters reunion was opposed and a Lutheran Old Prussian Union was formed. At the same time, a revival movement was gaining strength that emphasized the traditional doctrines of the fall of mankind, redemption only by the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, and the need for personal acceptance of salvation. The net result of these tendencies was that the all-encompassing approach of theologians such as de Wette was replaced by a return to seeing the Old Testament as a key element in dogmatic theology. It was the Old Testament, after all, that narrated the Fall of the human race in Genesis 3 (de Wette had denied the historicity of the Fall); and it was the Old Testament (according to the new orthodox piety) that foretold the atoning death of the messiah that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The ascendancy of confessional orthodoxy in Germany from roughly 1830 to 1865 put the theological use of the Old Testament back to where it had been in Germany a hundred years earlier; and yet, even within this confessional orthodoxy there were theologians moving in new directions. One of these was Johannes Christian Konrad von Hofmann (1810-77) who was a professor at Erlangen from 1845 until his death (Rogerson 1984:104-11). As a student in Berlin, Hofmann had studied history under Ranke, and had gained a lifelong interest in what causes events in history and how events are connected. He had also, directly or indirectly, been influenced by the later philosophy of Schelling. The combination of his historical, philosophical and theological interests resulted in an interpretation of the Bible in terms of Heilsgeschichte (salvation history).

Hofmann believed that the purpose of the creation was to enable the eternal Trinity to have fellowship with the human race. This desire was consummated in the Incarnation and the new possibilities of divine/human fellowship which the Incarnation initiated. History was the process through which God created and sought fellowship with the human race. If God had not wished to create a human race and to have fellowship with it there would be no history. Although Hofmann owed something to Schelling's later philosophy for his understanding of why creation had happened and what history was, he believed that it was only the Bible that contained the record of the divine search for human fellowship. Further, the Bible could only be properly understood by those who had experienced new birth in Christ. They had entered into the fellowship with God which was the purpose of creation, and they could read the Bible as the record of a progressive series of events that had reached its goal in the fellowship that faith in Christ made possible.

This position entailed the following approach to the Old Testament. First, Hofmann accepted and used historical criticism in order to understand and illuminate each historical period described in the Old Testament. Second, he did not allow historical criticism to question the accuracy of the Old Testament record. If it was the account of God's successive actions in history which climaxed in the Incarnation, then it was privileged and beyond criticism. Heilsgeschichte was God's history, and could not be questioned. Third, Hofmann broke with traditional orthodoxy in a number of ways. He did not accept that prophecies in the Old Testament predicted the coming of Christ. Prophets spoke to the people of their own times (Hofmann's historical interests are foremost here). It was Scripture as a whole that was prophetic, as each stage in the divine direction of history led to the next stage, culminating in the coming of Christ. For orthodox scholars, this historical interpretation of prophecies put Hofmann into the company of the 'rationalists'. He was also non-orthodox in his view of the Fall and the atonement. The Fall did not occasion the Incarnation as a remedy for it, and the purpose of the atonement was to assist the human race to overcome its self-alienation which prevented it from receiving what God offered.

Hofmann was criticized by his contemporaries for virtually denying free will to the human race. If Old Testament history was entirely driven by God's reaching out to the human race, where did human choice come in? Also, by regarding the Old Testament as containing a series of stages, each of which was preparatory to the next until the climax was reached in Christ, Hofmann in effect made the Old Testament little more than proof that there had been a goal attained. The Old Testament was virtually obsolete. However, it is easier to condemn Hofmann from the point of view of hindsight than to appreciate that he was attempting a synthesis of the dominating critical, philosophical and theological concerns of his day.

A contemporary and friend of Hofmann, Franz Delitzsch (1813-90), attempted a similar synthesis, albeit with much more orthodox results (Rogerson 1984:111-20). Once again it was the speculative and idealist philosophy of that period that provided the general context for Delitzsch's scholarship. Delitzsch relied upon the work of Anton Günther, a Catholic priest, who attempted to use speculative philosophy as a foundation for articulating theology. His work was greeted with suspicion by his church, and in 1857 it was condemned.

There are some similarities between Günther's position and that which Hofmann adopted. The creation was an act of love on the part of God the Holy Trinity and the aim was to establish fellowship with the human race. Humans were also a trinity in unity—spirit, nature and humanity. However, Günther's view of Old Testament history was much more realistic than that of Hofmann. It was a dialectic between human misuse of freedom and divine attempts to win over the human race to responsible behaviour. The giving of the law, the provision of a sacrificial system and the establishment of the Hebrew theocracy were the institutional framework in which the divine/ human dialectic was worked out.

This thoroughly orthodox-looking position enabled Delitzsch to produce a series of commentaries that are still not without value for their thoroughness and insights. However, his dependence on Günther led to his most singular work, his System of Biblical Psychology (Delitzsch 1855). This maintained that the Bible (especially the Old Testament) reveals truths about the nature of God and about the physical, spiritual and emotional constitutions of humans. In itself, this is an unexceptional claim; but as worked out by Delitzsch it takes some strange forms. Thus, an examination of Hebrew words describing God's glory showed that God was threefold in his self-revealing nature, while the account of the creation of humanity in Genesis 2:7 reveals how, in a human being, the divine spirit relates to human emotions and energies. To modern readers the book seems distinctly odd; but it is making a claim that is similar to a claim that would be made by the 'biblical theology' movement of the twentieth century. This was that the Hebrew language and the way that it described the nature of God and of humanity were a privileged source of knowledge about reality; that it was divine revelation about reality and not simply the culturally shaped understanding of reality of a small ancient people.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
The Path To Positive Thinking

The Path To Positive Thinking

Finally, The Ultimate Guide To Changing Your Life Forever... Get Your Hands On The Ultimate Guide For Live Improvement Through The Art Of Positive Thinking And Let It's Magic Change Your Life Forever! Discover How Ordinary People Can Live Extraordinary Lives Through The Power Of Positive Thinking

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment