Friday, May 29, 2015

Althaus in Marsh's Bonhoeffer Biography

Earlier this year I was asked to lead a public discussion of a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Strange Glory, by Charles Marsh (Knopf, 2014). I told the people who had gathered in the Community Room of Valpo's Christopher Center that I generally enjoyed the book and had gained some new insights as a result of reading it, especially about Bonhoeffer’s time in the U.S. and his friendship with Eberhard Bethge. I did, however, find Marsh's speculations about Bonhoeffer's supposed homosexuality less than convincing and his characterization of Bonhoeffer's relationship with Bethge--which Marsh describes as tending in a "sexual" direction--unsupportable. Others have criticized Marsh on this score as well. As one friend of mine--who is himself a Bonhoeffer scholar--recently stated to me: "...There can be profound and enduring friendship, such as Bonhoeffer had with Bethge, without turning it "sexual..." When I spoke with Bethge a few years before he died and asked him about his relationship to Bonhoeffer, he simply replied, "He was my best and closest friend."

My own appraisal of Marsh's book basically coincides with the analysis that my friend Jim Nuechterlein (former Valpo professor of American studies and political thought, current senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, former editor of Valpo’s The Cresset and an editor at large of First Things) offered in his review that was published in the Oct 2014 issue of The New Criterion: http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-ambiguous-witness-of-Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-7962)

Unfortunately, Marsh's book contains several factual errors, particularly regarding another German Lutheran theologian from that era, namely, Paul Althaus (1888-1966).

These errors occur on pages 190-92, 215, and 439-40.

I contacted Prof. Marsh by email, but he has not replied.

What are these errors?

Contrary to what Marsh asserts on p. 190, Paul Althaus was never a member of the Nazi Party. He was never a "zealous Nazi" (p. 215). He never expressed an interest in attending the Barmen Synod. He never taught at Goettingen University. He never held a distinguished chair there. (Marsh has apparently confused Paul Althaus for Emanuel Hirsch.)

Between 1925 and his death in 1966 Althaus taught at Erlangen University, which Marsh correctly notes at the bottom of p. 142. But contrary to Marsh's claim, Althaus never "broke abruptly" (p. 191) with the so-called “Confessing Church,” since he never was a member of that dissenting group. He did not sign the Barmen Declaration nor did he join those who did. For confessional reasons he and the other key Erlanger theologian at that time, Werner Elert, could not support that Declaration because they thought it contained theological errors, e.g., they thought the document confused the law and the gospel and that its first two theses contradicted its fifth thesis. For Althaus and Elert, God works in two differing ways (“two kingdoms”), one way through creation and history (law, justice, retributive action, etc.) and the other through the gospel and the means of grace. These two ways need to be rightly distinguished from each other. These are matters that both theologians thought were muddled in Barth's document.

(Elert and Althaus did have an influence on the final draft of that Declaration. Bavarian Lutherans at Barmen insisted on adding that fifth thesis, which was not original to Barth's draft. The fifth thesis reflects the Lutheran concern to distinguish properly between law and gospel and to seek to maintain the proper distinction between the two conflicting ways in which God operates in the world.)

Paul Althaus
Contrary to what Marsh states at the top of p. 191, Althaus and Elert also opposed the Deutsche Christen and the formation of a single  Reich Church. They sought to defend the confessional integrity of the Bavarian Lutheran Church, which remained relatively "intact," unlike the so-called "destroyed" state churches elsewhere in Germany that had been taken over by the DC. Althaus and Elert explicitly rejected the Deutsche Christen claim that the unity of the church was constituted by "blood relations." For Althaus, the unity of the church is grounded in baptism, the gospel, and the unity of faith, i.e., the articles of faith exhibited in the Lutheran Confessions.

While Elert and Althaus acted foolishly and without foresight by signing the Ansbacher Ratschlag (a 1934 document that rejects the Barmen Declaration's Barthian understanding of divine revelation and affirms both "the Leader" and the National Socialist state as "good government"), they signed a revised version of that statement out of concern for Lutheran theology, not out of a concern to support Nazi racism or the Deutsche Christen. Nevertheless, when they saw how that document was being used by the Deutsche Christen, they distanced themselves from it.

Althaus cannot possibly be described as "more an opportunist than a quisling" (p. 192), nor is his theology accurately described on that page. Like many post-World-War-One German theologians (Bonhoeffer included), the Versailles Treaty was understood to be an unjust, vindictive punishment. As a monarchist, Althaus was troubled by the abdication of the Kaiser and the political and economic chaos that frequently erupted during the Weimar period. He was fearful of a Communist revolution and thought that Weimar democracy led to social chaos and ethical relativism. Like many conservative German-Lutheran nationalists, he longed for a central leader who could get past the seeming ineffectiveness of Weimar democracy. So Althaus was a conservative German nationalist and a conservative German Lutheran, who took seriously Luther's explanations to the Fourth Petition of the Lord's Prayer, the Fourth Commandment (which includes obedience to governing authorities), the First Article of the Creed (which in part spells out the creaturely domains or orders by which the Creator preserves creation in order to make human life and flourishing possible), and the so-called "Table of Duties" in Luther's Small Catechism.

Contrary to Marsh’s assertions, Althaus did not argue that the Word of God is "understood more effectively through the lens of 'general revelation' than 'specific,'" nor did he prefer "to emphasize God's self-revelation in history, nation, race, and culture rather than the primacy of Jesus Christ" (p. 192). Althaus would never have written such a sentence nor would he agree that "God's word to humanity 'equals the situation at any given moment... Obedience toward God consists of accepting one's allotted position in life as handed down by years of tradition" (p. 192). Instead, Althaus wrote that God's will is bound up with the two conflicting ways in which God operates in creation. (Robert Ericksen does not give the full context of this quote, but in any case Marsh has not accurately reflected what Ericksen himself wrote on p. 100 of his book, Theologians Under Hitler [Yale, 1985], the apparent source for much of what Marsh writes about Althaus. The key term here is "God's will," not "God's Word.") 

According to Althaus, these two conflicting ways in which God operates in the world are always mixed, and yet they must always be distinguished for the sake of eliciting faith in God's gracious promises. Law and gospel are thus to be distinguished in the will of God. What Althaus wrote about "nation, race, family, history," etc., fits under "law," not "gospel." 

The gospel was the preeminent concern of Althaus, since the gospel is the sole, sufficient basis for faith. If one examines his sermons from this period, one will see that he always emphasized the gospel of Jesus Christ as God's final word to the sinner, never "history, nation, race," or "culture." Althaus thus emphasized the gospel over against "the law."

For Althaus and Elert, “the orders of creation” had their own independent, unconditional, static, and absolute structure and authority for every human being who lives inescapably in them. These orders, the prevailing structures in society, were affirmed and accepted in such a way that their justification, permanence, and general validity were taken for granted. In his situation, Althaus was convinced that a single "Leader" for Germany was the best constituted form of government for the German "Volk" (a vision which, for Althaus, contained anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic elements, views that we rightfully criticize and reject today).  

Despite Bonhoeffer’s rejection of Elert’s and Althaus’s understanding of “the orders,” Bonhoeffer himself did not reject the teaching that there are certain specific “orders of preservation” by which God preserves this fallen, disturbed world and allows people to live in it in relative peace and safety.  For Bonhoeffer, “the orders of preservation” do not have an independent status or authority and cannot properly be understood as existing independently of the First Commandment or from any limiting contact with Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom.  Moreover, Bonhoeffer taught, in a way that both Althaus and Elert did not (at least not before 1936) that “the orders of preservation” could become demonic and idolatrous, and that the fallen world in which the orders existed adversely affected them. Much more so than Althaus and Elert (again, at least prior to 1936), Bonhoeffer recognized how even the “orders of preservation” could become anti-Christ and anti-human.

By the end of 1935, however, Althaus was gradually coming to see Nazism quite differently from how he had viewed it in 1933. Several scholars now recognize how he eventually adopted his own critical position over against the Nazi regime. So it is quite misleading to state unequivocally that he had given "National Socialism religious respectability" (p. 440). That might have been true in 1933-34, but much less so after 1935.

A new biography of Althaus provides a much more nuanced account of Althaus' political conservatism/nationalism than Ericksen was able to do in his one chapter on Althaus. For those who are interested, I highly recommend the 430-page book by Gotthard Jasper: Paul Althaus (1888-1966): Professor, Prediger und Patriot in seiner Zeit (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), esp. pp. 276ff. (Jasper is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and was that university's Rektor  between 1990 and 2002.) Jasper demonstrates that Althaus was privately skeptical about Hitler and the Nazi Party already prior to 1933 (see p. 215ff.).


For those who cannot read German, there is also the essay by Hans Schwarz, “Paul Althaus (1888-1966),” which appears in Twentieth-Century Lutheran Theologians, ed. Mark Mattes (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), pp. 136ff.

To be sure, Althaus made a terrible, naive political misjudgment about the events of 1933-34 (in this he was no different from many other conservative German nationalist academics, pastors, and priests) and he publicly endorsed the National Socialist "movement" between 1933 and at least 1936, but he wasn't a member of the Nazi Party. He didn't support the Deutsche Christen nor did he support rabid Nazis and their violence against others. He gradually came to see the error of his earlier support of Hitler and the national socialist movement.

Paul Althaus' theological understanding of "Volk" was wrong. The racist elements in that vision should be condemned. On that point, Marsh is right.

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    1. Good Insights. See you on the 20th.

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