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Adolf Schlatter (16 August 1852 – 19 May 1938) was a world-leading Evangelical theologian and professor specialising in the New Testament and systematics at Greifswald, Berlin and Tübingen. Oxford scholar Robert Morgan suggests that Schlatter is the only "conservative" that ranks among the likes of F.C. Baur, William Wrede and Rudolph Bultmann in terms of genius and academic output. Schlatter has published more than 400 scholarly and popular pieces during his academic career. In his work "The Nature of New Testament Theology. The Contribution of William Wrede and Adolf Schlatter", Robert Morgan writes: "Schlatter ... was considered a conservative, and is perhaps the only 'conservative' New Testament scholar since Bengel who can be rated in the same class as Baur, Wrede, Bousset and Bultmann" p. 27. There has been a Schlatter Renaissance in the English-speaking world since the second half of the 20th century with scholars like Andreas Köstenberger and Robert Yarbrough taking the lead. Yarbrough rediscovered Schlatter, the latter being one of the leading evangelical voices in Germany, at a time when classical liberalism literally swept through large section of the Lutheran theological faculties of Germany.
Schlatter, born in St. Gallen to a pietistic preacher, studied philosophy and theology in Basel and Tübingen between 1871 and 1875, gaining his post-doctoral teaching qualification (Habilitation) in 1880. The process leading up to the latter qualification was in fact a relatively complex and dramatic phase in Schlatter's career. As we will see below, significant events during this time illustrate how dominant, bias and discriminating liberal paradigms in German universities were at the time. Robert Yarbrough explains:
"Standing between Adolf Schlatter and completion of his doctoral dissertation (Habilitation) in Bern, Germany, was a mountain range of unforseeable obstacles ... Schlatter was ... shaken by the hostile reception from professor Nippold. But he was not easily deterred ... After submitting his dissertation ... Schlatter had to wait to be granted the privilege of taking an imposing battery of exams ... Since the faculty was anything but thrilled with Schlatter’s application, the exam procedure they decided on was intentionally quite strict: in addition to oral examinations in five subjects, Schlatter would have to write eight assigned essays under supervised conditions! Only if he passed all of these ‘magna cum laude’ ... would the faculty be willing to confer on him the right to lecture ... these regulations were ... never applied to anyone else after that! ... Schlatter was able to sit his exams in December 1880 ... he passed in praiseworthy fashion according to faculty resolution. His overall mark of ‘magna cum laude’ was never bested in subsequent decades ..." p. 71-84.
In 1888, he became a lecturer at the University of Berne. Between 1893 and 1930, he held professorships in Greifswald, Berlin, and Tübingen, the latter where he eventually died after a very productive and successful academic career.
From 1897, he was co-editor, alongside Hermann Cremer, of a magazine called Beiträge zur Förderung christlicher Theologie (Articles for the Promotion of Christian Theology).
Schlatter became particularly well known for his analysis of the New Testament, which was accessible to a broad audience. He was adamant about the manifestation of God in nature and in Jesus Christ, and this conviction led him to a criticism of the theophilosophical ideas of German idealism. His down-to-earth interpretation of the Bible also brought Schlatter into conflict with the contemporary school of thought in the Evangelical Church in Germany. In addition, Schlatter worked towards the development of a theory of knowledge with which he could reconcile his religious convictions.
Becoming professor in Berlin in the 1890's saw Schlatter famously became the academic "counterpart" of the famous Adolf von Harnack. The latter in later times acknowledged Schlatter's sharp mind and penetrating ability to critique his work, even expressing sorrow when Schlatter left Berlin for Tübingen. One significant event in the Berlin years that caused great tension, not just in Berlin, but in the whole of liberal Germany is worth mentioning. Robert Yarbrough describes this event as follows:
"In 1895 Adolf Schlatter took part in a Protestant convention producing a declaration decrying the overwhelming dominance of theological liberalism on theological faculties in Germany at the time. To Schlatter’s surprise a storm of protest arose among his Berlin colleagues, who felt that the declaration was damaging to the status and high honor of the professional office. Even after a lively faculty meeting, however, Schlatter could not bring himself to regret his involvement in the convention saying: ‘For me the choice stands sharply defined: God’s believing community or professional colleagues? And my decision was as clear as the choice ... faith is more than knowledge, and church more than faculty’". p100.
Schlatter had a deep impact on numerous students (see the discussion about Dietrich Bonhoeffer below). His approach to faith, science and biblical criticism was a breath of fresh air for numerous theology students, giving them hope in an otherwise anti-supernatural intellectual environment, where all that remained of the New Testament was a "historical Jesus" offering the highest moral ideals for society.
Schlatter's role in the time of the Third Reich is subject of a scientific debate. According to Robert Yarbrough's condensed English edition of Werner Neuer's 933 page German biography of Schlatter, the latter belonged to the Christlicher Volksdienst (Christian Public Service Party), who followed with concern the strengthening of the Nazi Party at the end of the Weimar years. In fact, already in 1931 Schlatter commented critically on the view of man and ethic of the Nazi movement in a personal letter to his son Theodor, February 8, 1931. Yarbrough's description of what followed the latter is very insightful:
"After Hitler forcibly seized power in January 1933, Schlatter's fears grew increasingly strong. He bemoaned the 'strangulation of the [German] parliament' that resulted from the Act of Enablement ... and the disregard for the existing legal order by the 'almighty' Nazis: 'They have assumed a power that no one in Germany ever possessed until now' ... He was especially troubled by the militarization of the GErman populace and the way it was being 'trained and nurtured for war' ... For the church Schlatter feared the worst ... He feared a church that would be totally conformed to the state, 'a so-called church ... whose role would be to work with the state and for its interests' and which would amount to little 'more than window dressing' (June 26, 1933)" p149.
According to historian Saul Friedländer in his Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945, Schlatter belonged to a "hard core of Jew haters" who considered the Nazi anti-Semitic laws too mild. Friedländer claims that the latter comes from a popular 1935 pamphlet by Schlatter, Wird der Jude über uns siegen? Ein Wort für die Weihnacht [Will the Jew be Victorious Over Us?: A Word for Christmas] that regrets the "favorable situation" of the Jews in contemporary Germany. However, a careful read of the latter reveals that Schlatter nowhere made the claim that he was a "hard core" "Jew hater" as Friedländer claims. In fact, Werner Neuer and Robert Yarbrough who studies the same pamphlet in detail have convinsingly shown that Schlatter was in fact warning Christians against the unbiblical racism and power of the Nazi regime,. The latter seems to make sense because the booklet was forbidden and confiscated by the Gestapo and set on the list of damaging and undesirable writing. Though his advocates are correct in arguing that Schlatter was confronting Nazi racism, what in fact Schlatter did was employ a widespread anti-regime polemic finding currency at the time: the “Nazi as Jew” concept. According to Stephen Haynes, “If a dominant characteristic of interwar religious discourse was its penchant for stigmatizing the Nazi enemy with a ‘Jewish’ stain, then anti-Nazi authors knew instinctively that jewifying National Socialism would strengthen their case with the average German.” (Stephen R. Haynes, “Who Needs Enemies? Jews and Judaism in Anti-Nazi Discourse,” Church History 71, 2002). Schlatter’s tract firmly situates him in the anti-Jewish spirit of the period, and on pp. 14–15 his key point was clear: the Jewish priests’ and teachers’ national selfishness (nationalen Eigensucht) was no different from those who knew nothing higher than the racial soul; for both thought in a fashion that was completely Jewish (vollständig jüdisch). The Gestapo certainly sought to confiscate any material that would equate the regime with the Jews. A careful reading within historical context shows that Schlatter’s final work Do We Know Jesus? works within this same framework of paralleling Jesus’s and the disciples’ struggles with the Jews to the church’s struggle with Nazism. (Do We Know Jesus? Daily Insights for the Mind and Soul, trans. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Robert Yarbrough. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005. See p. 567 for Schlatter’s most direct statement in this matter.)
Anders Gerdmar reflects on the complexity of Schlatter's attitude: Although he was undoubtedly anti-National Socialist (he strongly criticised Nazi neo-paganism, racial myth, the cult of the Fuehrer and he never supported the National Socialist party) and despite his positive view of the salvation-historical Judaism, he "indirectly and directly" legitimized "the oppression of Jews. It is beyound our power to judge whether he understood it or not". In 2012, James E. McNutt published his understanding of the manner in which Schlatter's criticism of Nazism functioned in tandem with his views of the Jewish people.
Coming to an "objective" understanding of Schlatter's view of the Jews, the Nazi Party and Hitler himself, continues to be discussed and researched by many. Two factors that has not received enough attention in these discussions are:
1) Schlatter was more than 80 years old when the Nazi party took power. He was an old man in the final stages of his life. Despite this, he did what almost none of his more "liberal" colleagues in i.e. Berlin did: he openly criticized the Reich. Although of advanced age, Schlatter's mind and energy peaked during the 1930s, witnessed to by the publication of his magisterial Gottes Gerechtigkeit - a classic commentary on Paul's Romans letter (Romans: The Righteousness of God, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann,Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995). Despite his criticism of the regime Schlatter's attitude toward aspects of Nazi ideology remain ambivalent. To many of his contemporaries he problematically embraced views held by the "Deutsche Christen (German Christians)who identified their faith as one with the goals of the Reich. Weeks after the Jewish boycott of early April 1933, Schlatter could attach his signature to a public statement affirming: "We are full of gratitude to God, that he as the Lord of History has given our people in Adolf Hitler the Fuehrer and deliverer from deep trouble." (Gerdmar, p. 278.) Schlatter refused to denounce the "Aryan Paragraph" which would remove Protestant clergy of Jewish descent from their pulpits, stating that: "At this time, fellowship with the compatriots (Volksgenossen) is more important than fellowship with Jewish Christians." (Gerdmar, p. 283). Furthermore, as Werner Neuer has pointed out Schlatter refused to sign the Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church in 1934, since to embrace God’s revelation apart from the Volk would force him to “close his Bible and separate his faith from his very being".(Neuer, p. 750) Primary source research reveals Schlatter's close personal and professional relationship to Gerhard Kittel, whose anti-Semitic publications forced his removal from his teaching position following the war.(For Kittel see, Robert Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler. Yale University Press, 1985.) Schlatter’s daughter testified that Kittel and her father worked closely together in reading and editing each other's work, and despite differences with regard to aspects of Nazi policy, Schlatter “accompanied Professor Kittel on the road that he had to walk, up to the very last days before his death in May 1938.” (Gerdmar, p. 516) Overlooked in Werner Neuer’s biography is the fact that while actively involved in Walter Frank’s antisemitic Reichsinstitut, producing work supporting Nazi propaganda, Kittel was invited to be the memorial speaker at Schlatter’s funeral.(Ericksen, p. 70, 74).
2) According to Martin Rumscheidt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, later executed for his involvement in trying to assassinate Hitler, was greatly inspired by Schlatter:
“Schlatter provided a perspective on ‘the world’ which later sustained Bonhoeffer’s theology of the world. Schlatter also conveyed a sense of the ‘authority’ of Scripture which diverged significantly from the prevailing liberal-Protestant view of the Bible as a ‘source-book for religious ideas’ to be found not in but behind the text ... one must recognise it also in Bonhoeffer’s later life, where it appears at the heart of his faith that results from having been captivated and convinced by the word of Jesus ... it was the Reformed professor of New Testament who implanted it in the young student to the extent that it became an essential part of Bonhoeffer’s epistemology and, finally, of his whole theological existence. Indeed, it was Schlatter’s approach to the Scriptures which ... shaped Bonhoeffer’s critique of Bultmann’s programme of ‘demythologisation’ in his prison letters” p. 52. John W. De Gruchy, The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1999). Bonhoeffer's admiration, however, diminished in 1933, following Schlatter's scathing critique of Bonhoeffer's early draft of what eventually would become the "Bethel Confession." Contrary to Bonhoeffer’s wishes, church leaders submitted the draft for review by some twenty experts throughout Germany including Adolf Schlatter. Schlatter rejected the draft due to what he saw as an illegitimate separation of the confessions from a distinct German expression. He published the seminal points of his rejection in a pamphlet entitled “The New German Character in the Church.” ( Die neue deutsche Art in der Kirche (Bethel: Verlagshandlung der Anstalt Bethel, 1933). Attitudes such as Schlatter’s led Bonhoeffer to quit the project, and he voiced his frustration later by asserting: “We will have to be very much on our guard against letting the struggle get us entangled in false questions and false themes. I need only recall theological writings of the last two years – and from our side too! - Althaus’s German Hour of the Church, Heim, even Schlatter, The New German Characteristics in the Church – to make my point.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No RustySwords, trans. Edwin Robertson and John Bowden (New York: Harper Row, 1965), p. 310.). However, Schlatter's constant critique of the Nazi view of man, and the dangerous route taken by Hitler and the Reich provides a counterbalance to the later critique of Bonhoeffer. Also to be remembered is that Schlatter never propagated physical harm to the Jewish people.
Archives of Schlatter's work, as well as a foundation dedicated to him, are situated in Stuttgart. In Tübingen, the "Adolf Schlatter House" in Österbergstrasse is named after him, as is the "Adolf Schlatter Home" in Recke.
As indicated in the beginning, there is without a doubt a revival in Schlatter studies in the USA, with the likes of Andreas Korstenberger en Robert Yarbrough taking the lead. A serious of lectures on Schlatter, given by Yarbrough at Covenant Seminary in 2007, can be listened to here: http://andynaselli.com/bob-yarbrough-mp3s-on-adolf-schlatter-and-the-future-of-christianity
Over the past decade in particular, more and more evangelical biblical scholars in Germany, Britain and North America has looked to Schlatter for inspiration. His evangelical theology, world-class academic contributions, as well as his spirituality is greatly admired.
- Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 volume 1(New York: HarperCollins, 1997), pp. 165-166.
- Neuer, Werner: Adolf Schlatter. Ein Leben für Theologie und Kirche, Stuttgart 1996, S. 757–761
- Liste des schädlichen und unerwünschten Schrifttums, December 31, Leipzig, 1938, p. 128. online publication of the list of damaging and undesirable writing
- Anders Gerdmar: Roots of theological Antisemitism. German Biblical interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann, Leiden 2009, S. 253-326, here 326
- "A Very Damning Truth: Walter Grundmann, Adolf Schlatter, and Susannah Heschel's The Aryan Jesus" Harvard Theological Review 105.3 (2012) 280-301.
- Vom Dienst an Theologie und Kirche, Berlin, Furche Publishing
- Der Dienst der Christen in der älteren Dogmatik, 1897 (republished as Der Dienst des Christen in 1999)
- Evangelium und Dienst am Volk, Gotha, 1932
- Drei Predigten aus ernster Zeit
- Haering, Theodor von, Stuttgart (Steinkopf), 1918
- Die Geschichte des Christus, Stuttgart, 1921
- Die Gründe der christlicher Gewißheit, Calwer Vereinsbuchhandlung, 1917
- Am Leiden teilnehmen, Berlin, 1934
- Die Apostelgeschichte, Berlin, 1961
- Der Brief des Jakobus, Calwer Vereinsbuchhandlung, 1932
- Die Briefe an die Galater, Epheser, Kolosser und Philemon, Berlin, 1962
- Die Briefe des Petrus, Judas, Jakobus, der Brief an die Hebräer, Berlin, 1965
- Johannes Jürgen Seidel (1995). "Adolf Schlatter". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 9. Herzberg: Bautz. cols. 232–235. ISBN 3-88309-058-1.
- Adolf Schlatter in the German National Library catalogue
- Summaries of modern research literature about Schlatter
- Dr. Robert W. Yarbrough's Lecture Series on Schlatter followed by a list of his publications on Schlatter
- "Schlatter, Adolf". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.