Werner August Friedrich Immanuel Elert (19 August 1885 — 19 November 1954) was a German Lutheran theologian and professor of both church history and systematic theology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. His writings in the fields of Christian dogmatics, ethics, and history have had great influence on modern Christianity in general and modern Lutheranism in particular.
Elert was born on 19 August 1885 in the village of Heldrungen in what is modern-day Thuringia, but he grew up in northern Germany. His parents were August Elert and Friederike, née Graf, Elert. After attending the Realgymnasium in Harburg and the Gymnasium in Husum, he studied theology, philosophy, history, German literature, psychology and law in Breslau, Erlangen, and Leipzig. He earned doctorates in philosophy and theology at Erlangen.
In 1919 Elert became Director of the Old Lutheran Theological Seminary in Breslau. In 1923 he was appointed to the Chair of Church History at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen, now University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. With the death of Philip Bachman in 1932 he was appointed to the chair of Systematic Theology. In the academic year 1926/27 he was rector of the University and in 1928-29 and 1935-43 Dean of the Theological Faculty.
As a young man and Lutheran pastor he had supported the constitutional monarchy. Like many other conservative Germans in 1933, he hoped that the government of Hitler would overcome the political, social, and economic problems that had become acute during the Weimar period. While he never joined the Nazi Party, he did exhort Christians to be obedient to the Hitler government on the basis of Romans 13:1-7, First Peter 2:13-17, and Luther's explanations to the Fourth Commandment and the Fourth Petition of the Lord's Prayer. Only late in the 1930s did Elert become disillusioned with the regime. During the Second World War his only children, two sons who served as officers in the German army, were killed in hand-to-hand combat on the Eastern Front. That the sons of several other theologians at Erlangen also died in the war affected him deeply.
Because of Elert's conservative, traditional Lutheran understanding of government and his other theological convictions, especially regarding the distinction between the law and the gospel, he opposed what he perceived to be the theological errors in the Barmen Declaration. This 1934 statement of the so-called Confessing Church sought to counter the influence of Nazi ideology in the German Protestant churches. Elert thought the document did not acknowledge how God legitimately works in the world apart from the revelation of Jesus in the gospel, of how the law and the gospel are two different words of God, and of how God works in the world in more than one way. Elert attributed these errors to the influence of Karl Barth, the principal author of Barmen and Elert’s central theological opponent. Although Elert was also critical of the so-called German Christians, who freely and unabashedly mixed Nazi ideology with their understanding of Christianity, he also opposed Barth and the Confessing Church.
After the war, Elert acknowledged his political misjudgments. He also joined a liberal political party.
Elert retired in 1953. He died in Erlangen on 19 November 1954 in his 70th year due to complications following an operation.
His former home in Erlangen, Hindenburgdamm 44, is now a theological study house "The Werner Elert Home," owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria.
Elert’s scholarly activity may be divided into five periods: 1910-21 (the philosophy of history and the defense of the Christian faith in relation to nineteenth-century philosophy and theology), 1922-32 (Lutheran confessional theology), 1932-40 (political theology and dogmatics), 1940-1949 (ethics), and 1950-1954 (history of dogma). Each of the first four periods ended with the publication of a major work that brought historical and systematic concerns into relation with each other. This relationship is also evident in his final project, which remained incomplete at his death.
One central issue in Elert's theology is the distinction between “the hidden God” and “the revealed God,” which also entails the distinction between the law of God (centrally articulated in the Ten Commandments) and the gospel about Jesus. This distinction, or set of distinctions, had been debated in Germany for nearly a century prior to Elert’s arrival at Erlangen, but he reinvigorated the discussion, especially over against the formulation of "gospel and law" by Karl Barth.
For Elert human existence is not fully explored theologically until it is exposed as sin, as alienation from God, as under God’s condemnation. The psychological and sociological analyses that he provided in his work sought to demonstrate the inescapable transcendent threat that ultimately confronts every human being. He wanted to expose existential dread for what it truly is. In view of fate, human suffering, and evil, he also acknowledged that skepticism and atheism are live options that must be explored and understood for what they reveal about Christ-less human existence. In Elert's view, “fate" (Schicksal), suffering, evil, and death push one either to unbelief—or to the cross of Jesus and his cry of dereliction ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?").
While Elert explored and articulated the experience of sinful human beings under the judgment of God, which is revealed through the law and which human beings encounter in their daily lives, he stressed that Christian faith has only to do with the revelation of God’s mercy and forgiveness in and through Jesus the Christ, who reconciles sinners to God. His merciful work cancels out the validity of God’s law and wrath. Thus the gospel is the goal of the distinction between the law and the gospel. Law and gospel are two messages of God that are rightly related only when the gospel is heard as God’s ultimate word for a person so addressed by both law and gospel.
Following Martin Luther, Elert held that the written law is an historical announcement that only applied to the ancient Israelites, and thus it cannot be transferred without further ado to other peoples and ages, although in his ethics he did present positive applications of the Ten Commandments in both personal and corporate life. More than mere legislation, the divine law is the means for God’s ordering and preserving creation as well as his means for judging and punishing sinners who fail to do the will of God. In this view, the divine law is always accusatory toward human beings, simply and solely because the law’s divine demands cannot be kept fully by human beings who remain sinners unto death.
Elert’s central theological assertion is that the divine wrath in the law is contradicted by the divine mercy in the gospel, which in turn creates, renews, and recreates faith, and establishes and reestablishes human freedom and love under the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Abendmahl und Kirchengemeinschaft in der alten Kirche Hauptsächliche des Ostens [Lord's Supper and Church Fellowship in the Early Church Mainly of the East], (Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1954): translated by Dr. Norman E. Nagel: Werner Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, Norman E. Nagel, trans., (St. Louis: CPH, 1966).
- Der Ausgang der altkirchlichen Christologie: Eine Untersuchung über Theodor von Pharan und seine Zeit als Einführung in die alte Dogmengeschichte [The Outcome of the Christology of the Early Church: An Investigation of Theodore of Pharan and His Times as an Introduction to Early History of Dogma], (Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1957): edited and published posthumously.
- Das christliche Ethos [The Christian Ethos], (Tübingen: Furche-Verlag, 1949): translated by Carl J. Schindler: Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos, Carl J. Schindler, trans., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957).
- Der christliche Glaube [The Christian Faith], (Hamburg: Furche-Verlag, 1940; 2d ed., 1941; 3rd ed., 1955): the chapters on the Lord's Supper and the Last Things were published as monographs in "The Contemporary Theology Series": Werner Elert, The Lord's Supper Today, Martin Bertram and Rudolph F. Norden, trans., (St. Louis: CPH, 1973) and Werner Elert, Last Things, Martin Bertram and Rudolph F. Norden, trans., (St. Louis: CPH, 1974). The remainder of the work was translated by Martin Bertram and Walter R. Bouman in 1974 but remains unpublished.
- "Gesetz und Evangelium" in Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade: Abwandlungen des Themas Gesetz und Evangelium. Munich: Evangelischer Presseverband für Bayern, 1948: translated by Edward H. Schroeder as Law and Gospel. Facet Books: Social Ethics Series—16. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.
- Der Kampf um das Christentum. Geschichte der Beziehungen zwischen dem evangelischen Christentum in Deutschland und dem allgemeinen Denken seit Schleiermacher und Hegel [The Struggle for Christianity: History of the Relation between Evangelical Christianity in Germany and General Thought Since Schleiermacher and Hegel], (Munich, 1921).
- Morphologie des Luthertums [The Shaping of Lutheranism], (Munich: C.H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1931–32):
- Volume 1: Theologie und Weltanschauung des Luthertums hauptsächlich im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert [The Theology and World View of Lutheranism Mainly in the 16th and 17th Centuries]: translated by Walter A. Hansen: Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism: The Theology and Philosophy of Life of Lutheranism Especially in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Walter R. Hansen, (St. Louis: CPH, 1962).
- Volume 2: Soziallehren und Sozialwirkungen des Luthertums [Social Doctrine and Social Effects of Lutheranism]
- Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism, Walter A. Hansen, trans., (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1962), ix.
- Werner Elert, Rudolf Rocholls Philosophie der Geschichte, Abhandlungen zur Philosophie und ihrer Geschichte, no. 12, (Leipzig: Verlag von Quelle & Meyer, 1910), 139.
- As a source for his early and student years, see "Elerts Eintrag in das Goldene Buch der Universität Erlangen vom 5. Januar 1927," published in Thomas Kaufmann, "Werner Elert als Kirchenhistoriker," Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 93 (1996), 236–238.
- Bayer, Joachim, Werner Elerts apologetisches Frühwerk (Berlin, de Gruyter, 2007) (Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann, 142).
Matthew L. Becker, "Werner Elert in Retrospect," Lutheran Quarterly 20 (Autumn 2006), 249-302.