Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy 200th Birthday, Johannes von Hofmann!

This past December 21st marked the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Johannes Christian Konrad von Hofmann (1810-1877), perhaps the most significant conservative Lutheran theologian of the nineteenth century and certainly one of the most impressive Protestant theologians of the past two hundred years. (Please note that his family name has one "f" and two "n"s.) He served as a professor of theology at the University of Erlangen for over thirty years. Without question he was the most prolific theologian during those decades:  In addition to writing numerous essays and addresses, he published a two-volume (740 pages) work on biblical prophecy and fulfillment, a three-volume summary of biblical theology (nearly 2000 pages), and a 17-volume commentary on the whole of the New Testament (approximately 2 million words on nearly 6,000 pages) that was incomplete at the time of his death. For over thirty years he also edited the monthly journal, Zeitschrift fuer Protestantismus und Kirche, in which many of his essays were published.

This uncommon professor was actively involved in each of the so-called three "publics" of theology analyzed so well by my teacher David Tracy (The Analogical Imagination): society, the academy, and the church. Hofmann lectured and wrote on a range of topics in the three disciplines of theology: systematic theology, historical theology (both OT and NT exegesis and church history), and practical theology. Karlmann Beyschlag, whose own book on the Erlangen tradition of Lutheran theology is so informative, calls Hofmann the one "genius" in that tradition. Hofmann's most famous student, the New Testament scholar Theodor Zahn, used similar language.

Aside from his impressive scholarship, Hofmann was elected provost (Rektor) of the university six times, he served for seven years in the Bavarian Parliament as a representative of a liberal-progressive party, he engaged in welfare relief for widows and orphans, and he organized and funded a local orphanage. While he and his wife did not have any children of their own, they served as surrogate parents to many and regularly hosted university students. Hofmann and his wife liked to discuss the spiritual classics (e.g., Augustine's Confessions, Thomas a' Kempis, Pascal's Pensees, etc.) with students at their home every Tuesday during the semester. Frau Hofmann took an active part in these theological discussions.

Although Hofmann was undoubtedly influenced by his own most important teachers at Berlin and Erlangen, such as Hegel, Schleiermacher, and especially von Ranke, he set his own course and differed in significant ways from the German idealists of his time. Without question, he was the center of a loosely-related group of theologians who all taught or studied at Erlangen. This group, sometimes called "The Erlangen School" but more accurately described as "the Erlangen Tradition," stressed similar themes in theology, such as the importance of the actual experience of baptismal regeneration, the certainty of personal faith, the historical-critical appropriation of the Lutheran confessional writings, and an organic-historical view of the development of the Bible, the church, and the church's confessions.

As the principal figure in this complex theological tradition, Hofmann's significance resides in his response to what is perhaps the premiere question of modern Christian theology: What is the proper relation of Christian faith and experience to historical knowledge?  On the one hand, as a post-Enlightenment theologian, Hofmann struggled to interpret an historically-oriented faith in response to the nature of history and the critical methods used by historians when they conduct historical investigation.  On the other hand, as a post-Enlightenment theologian of faith, Hofmann was concerned to define the nature and basis of Christian faith itself. How, if at all, are God, personal faith, and history related?

The publication of David Friedrich Strauss's Leben Jesu in 1835 heightened Hofmann's awareness of the crisis that critical-historical consciousness posed for faith in Jesus Christ. As a serious student of history he knew it was impossible for the Christian scholar simply to turn a blind eye on historical scholarship and take refuge in a traditional scholastic-orthodox doctrine of scriptural inspiration and infallibility, as the Berlin biblicist E. Hengstenberg had done. For Hofmann the problem was how to interpret the basic "facts" of biblical revelation correctly without succumbing either to "unhistorical" biblicism/dogmatism or to the radical skepticism of historicism (Historismus).

In view of these problems, he sought to understand and express his Christian faith by means of a theological method that would correlate a systematic analysis of the Christian experience of baptismal/ecclesial regeneration and personal faith with an historical investigation of the Christian scriptures. He thought that by articulating the unity between experiential faith and historical investigation he could continue “to teach the old truth but in a new way."

A number of recent historians and philosophers of hermeneutics, both philosophical and theological, have concluded that Hofmann helped to provide a positive re-orientation for all later hermeneutical discussion. According to Joachim Wach and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hofmann's unique understanding of the "hermeneutical circle" correctly acknowledged that the interpreter's own faith commitments deeply shape the interpreter's understanding of whatever he/she is seeking to understand. In other words, the interpreter's "pre-understanding" of the text significantly informs his/her "post-understanding."

In my library is a copy of Hofmann's Der Schriftbeweis that was once owned and well-used by the Yale Bible scholar, Brevard Childs. The marginalia in this copy show that Hofmann was a big influence on Childs' understandings of the nature of the biblical canon. This is yet further proof that the Erlanger's influence has extended far beyond his native land and time.

Happy Birthday, J. C. K.!

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