Lessing and Modern Protestant Theology

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The first thing to bear in mind when considering Lessing's theology or philosophy of religion is that he was neither a theologian nor a philosopher by profession. He states his relationship to theology as follows: "I am a dilettante in the field of theology, not a theologian. I have never taken an oath to uphold any particular system."14 In apparent endorsement of his statement, hardly ever does he receive serious treatment in textbooks on the history of Protestant theology.15

Lessing's relationship to philosophy is similar. Wilhelm Windelband gave Lessing high marks as "the only creative mind in German philosophy between Leibniz and Kant,"16 but there are few books on the history of philosophy that contain more than passing remarks about Lessing.17

But as our study will shortly demonstrate, Lessing's contribution to both theology and philosophy was immense. Lessing as theologian or philosopher of religion was, in the profundity of his thought, far superior to ordinary Enlightenment thinkers. Indeed, he foreshadowed some of the significant theological and/or philosophical ideas that several great thinkers were later to advocate, thinkers such as Schleiermacher, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Troeltsch.18 According to Walter Nigg, Lessing was "the first thinker" who "took a look at the difficult situation of Christianity in modern times" and "examined the traditional theological foundations with respect to their durability in order to make them capable of being newly established, despite their evident cracks."19 Lessing's famous dictum regarding double truths, namely, that "accidental truths of history can never become the proof for necessary truths of reason," was presented as a result of his thorough examination of the theological situation of his age. The metaphor of "the ugly broad ditch" (der garstige breite Gmben), which he invented to describe the gap between the two kinds of truth, has functioned as "a kind of code, or shorthand, signaling 'the problem' of faith and history" in modern theology.20

As far as Lessing's significance for the history of philosophy is concerned, the problem of his "Spinoza confession" is of supreme importance. The "Spinoza controversy" (Spinoza-Streit) between Moses Mendelssohn and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, which initially began in the summer of 1783 as a private quarrel over the deceased Lessing's "Spinozism," eventually engaged almost all the best minds of late eighteenth-century Germany. Wizenmann, Herder, Goethe, Kant, Hamann, Reinhold, and other eminent thinkers took part in the dispute. It thus led to the "pantheism controversy" (Pantheismus-stmt), a significant dispute that was to shape the main contours of nineteenth-century philosophy. This controversy is all the more important because it raised the problem of "the dilemma of a rational nihilism or an irrational fideism,"21 a central concern of Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.

When we take the above points into consideration, there is considerable warrant for calling Lessing, as Gottfried Fittbogen once did, "the founder of modern Protestantism."22 In fact Ernst Troeltsch, usually regarded as "the last great proponent of modern Protestantism," also regards Lessing as one of the thinkers who rendered substantial service in the formulation of "a new concept of Protestantism."23 The following quotation epitomizes Troeltsch's view of Lessing: "Here again it was Lessing who, in his famous saying that the search for truth was preferable to the unsought possession of it, gave a typical characterization of modern religious feeling. In doing so he picked out precisely that thread in the web of Protestantism that the modern world is still eagerly weaving into its fabric."24

In yet another essay on theology and science of religion in the eighteenth century, Troeltsch counted among the "fathers of modern theology" such thinkers as Hamann, Jacobi, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. In Troeltsch's view these thinkers of idealist outlook are non-theologians who propelled theology forward" (die Theologie treibende Nicht-Theologen).25 Borrowing this phraseology, I venture to assert that Lessing was the very first of the "non-theologians who propelled theology forward." Unquestionably, in eighteenth-century

Germany, no lay thinker propelled theology forward more powerfully than Lessing. Accordingly, he may perhaps best be regarded as a typical example of what Troeltsch called "theology that does not belong to the guild" (die m%unftige Theologies)}26 The historical theologian Leopold Zscharnack, editor of one volume of Lessing's theological and religious-philosophical writings27 and author of the monograph Lessing and Semler,, seems to endorse my judgment when he states:

Among lay thinkers during the time of the German Enlightenment, no one took greater part in the efforts of traditional ecclesiastical theology to come to terms with the modern spirit than Lessing, and no one was more engaged in ecclesiastical-theological questions than he. Unlike Herder, who was a professional theologian, Lessing was neither a minister nor a theologian by profession. Nevertheless, first as editor and literary critic, then as librarian of the ducal library at Wolfenbuttel, he rendered great service to theological inquiry and became, along with the general superintendent at Weimar, the theologian among German classicists. In this capacity, he emancipated intellectuals from the yoke of the traditional church with greater success than anyone else. On the other hand, he was also able to hand over to them, and to preserve for them, historical respect for its great intellectual and cultural heritage.28

It is certain, then, that any serious study of the history of modern theology cannot and ought not to disregard Lessing. Far from being a mere "dilettante in the field of theology," he was a "special admirer or lover of theology." In this character he engaged in theology with the utmost love and admiration for its subject matter. His seemingly humble self-appraisal, namely, that he was a Liebhaber der Theologie und nicht Theolog, should be taken, therefore, in the sense of his having a special appreciation and love for theology.

It may be possible to construe this self-appraisal as an ironic expression of his assurance and pride that he, though not a theologian by profession, engaged in theology with greater devotion and seriousness than any professional theologian. In fact, in his fragment Bibliolatry (1779), Lessing compared himself to Ion, the hero in Euripides' tragedy who worked as a servant at the temple of Apollo in Delphi. Said Lessing: "I, too, am at work, not in the temple but only near it. I, too, merely dust the steps beyond which the holy priest is content to sweep away the dust from the interior of the temple. I, too, am proud of this trifling work, for I know best in whose honor I do what I do."29 In this quotation we can discern Lessing's serious commitment to theology, however humble his self-appraisal may seem to be. We agree unreservedly with Martin Haug when he says, "Lessing was not a theologian; but he belongs, in the essential part of his thinking and his literary activity, to the history of theology."30

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