Academic Theology in the Third Reich

Academic Theology in the Third Reich May 2, 2013

Those Americans who know Bonhoeffer tend to think about the church and theology under Hitler through Bonhoeffer’s experience. That is, harassed, spied upon, arrested, secretly tried, and eventually murdered. Bonhoeffer’s experience was not the norm for German theologians and pastors though neither was it atypical. Other kinds of experiences are known:

Some capitulated to National Socialism, to racism, to German culture as a relentless machine of superiority, to technology as the future, to human life as utilitarian, economic success regardless of its implications, shutting down alternative voices, and the destruction of nature. Some turned their theology into a tool for the National Socialists, led by the “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen, and some turned their academic work into the same (Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch). On this read R.P. Ericksen, Theologians under Hitler and S. Heschel, The Aryan Jesus.

Some capitulated by refusing to withstand and so became complicit. Some later confessed complicity; some didn’t.

Some resisted and died, like Bonhoeffer. Some resisted and escaped, like Karl Barth. Some were stained by sins under Hitler and then resisted and were imprisoned but confessed, like Martin Niemöller, while others were stained and survived, but never confessed, like Martin Heidegger. On philosophers under Hitler, see Hitler’s Philosophers by Yvonne Sherratt, a book I have not yet read.

Others resisted and survived. It is perhaps my ignorance of all the machinations or my familiarity of the stories of Bonhoeffer and Niemöller but I have always wondered how anyone could survive under Hitler without complicity in National Socialism. The story of Rudolf Bultmann is one such story, and Konrad Hammann’s full biographical study of the development of Bultmann’s theology is a singularly important achievement. The book is called Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography.

Do you read Bultmann? What do you think his seminal contributions were? 

Bultmann’s mother was a pietist, Bible-reading and praying Lutheran; his father was a liberal and Bultmann’s own theological development flowed from his father’s side while his existentialist theology might be seen as a development of his mother’s pietism.

Bultmann was a professor for a while in Breslau and then Giessen before setting up shop at Marburg from 1921-1951. It was at Marburg that Bultmann became famous, mostly for three major projects: History of the Synoptic Tradition, his magnum opus on the origins and developments of the gospel traditions and which unleashed form criticism, and his famous Jesus book that was always at the bottom of so much his thinking. His many essays on hermeneutics leading to his existentialism and “de-mythologizing” projects. And his John commentary that both established new lines of critical and theological thinking and set the course for many shifts and criticisms in Johannine studies for years to come. Following his career at Marburg Bultmann published his famous Theology of the New Testament, where he famously argued that Jesus’ proclamation was the presupposition but not part of the theology of the earliest Christians.

Theologically he was closer to dialectical theology and Karl Barth earlier in his career, but Bultmann’s theology moved away from Barth’s theological approach because Bultmann’s existentialism and de-mythologizing project took over his approach. It is Bultmann’s existentialist approach that made him so powerful in his day and so irrelevant in our day.

Bultmann’s wide-ranging academic life was filled with heated debate, and Hammann brings this out with candor and clarity — disputes arose over his skepticism about the historical element of the Gospels, his existential interpretation of Jesus (reading the Bible is about discovering authentic existence rather than learning objective things about God), his radical rearrangements of the Gospel of John but most especially his denial of historical elements in such things as miracles and resurrection and atonement in his de-mythologizing project. From the early 1950s until the end of his life (1976), Bultmann dealt routinely with letters of opposition from pastors and readers. German Lutheran pastors, of the more orthodox side, frequently opposed Bultmann in public and worked to have his voice silenced. Bultmann’s entire mission was to render the NT meaningful to those who had embraced the Enlightenment’s scientific understanding of reality.

Hammann has an extensive study of Bultmann’s time under Hitler and I would summarize it in one word: courage. I was impressed with Bultmann’s courage. He opposed National Socialism, he did so intelligently and passionately but he never did get in trouble with Hitler, which I cannot explain. Others perhaps can. His wife, Helene, was called in for interview but nothing turned up against her either. But there is very clear evidence that Bultmann not only resisted through the Confessing Church’s various statements but also in his writing, his lectures, his student interactions, and his personal life.

Though Lutheran and two realms in his theology of politics, which to his fault became a defaulting ecclesial non-involvement in the post World War II years when it came to such things as nuclear buildup, Bultmann knew National Socialism was evil and had to be resisted. He despised what Hitler was doing to Jews and he both supported his Jewish students (like Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt) and did what he could to help them escape. He pleaded with his friend Martin Heidegger (from whom Bultmann curiously distanced his ideas though one suspects their ideas were interdependent) to confess but Heidegger never did. He opposed Kittel’s support of the Aryan Paragraph. He focused too much on the Aryan Paragraph for the church and not enough for the State.

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  • Rodney Reeves

    This may be hard for the twenty-something crowd to believe, but there was a time (1970s) when we debated who was the greatest theologian of the 20th century: Barth or Bultmann?

  • scotmcknight

    Rodney, I remember those days. Bultmann is history; Barth rules the theological airwaves today. Speaking of which, in those same days others thought both Bultmann and Barth were heretics. Today evangelicals see Barth as one of their own… no?

  • Rodney Reeves

    Exactly. Back then, in my context, “neo-orthodoxy” was a pejorative term and we spoke of dialectical theology as a mixed blessing: correction of classical liberalism yet suspiciously absent of a “grounded” approach to Scripture. I would have thought, in our so-called “post-modern” world, both Bultmann and Barth would have fared well. I can’t figure out why Barth is the champion.

  • Greg Martin

    Fascinating. What writings would you suggest as a starting point for understanding the core theologies of both Bultmann and Barth? And is Heidegger even seriously discussed today?

  • scotmcknight

    Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, is his life-time book.
    Barth, Church Dogmatics (endless in pages)

  • Greg Martin

    Looks like I have my work cut out for me. Thanks so much for the recommendations.

  • Tony Springer

    Thanks for the bibliographic and biographic review. When I started theological studies in the late 70’s, you needed to start with Bultmann in both NT and theology. Many Bultmanniacs led the charge, especially some in the Jesus Seminar. I think that we hear more about Barth, because most disciples of Bultmann have moved on from Bultmann’s agenda to postmodern ones. And you are correct to note that some evangelicals have made Barth one of their own. I even know of some Evangelicals became more Reformed by reading Barth (as a possible interaction/reaction).

  • Rodney Reeves

    To answer your question, Scot. I’ve wondered if Bultmann’s conclusion that the historical Jesus as a scholarly construct being unnecessary for faith has influenced me to a greater extent than I realize.

  • This may be too simple but both B & B boys were trying to articulate how God “speaks” to the contemporary world. Bultmann’s answer, a theology couched in existential philosophy and conceptuality ran its course and has not endured (except as a powerful statement of some of Paul’s theology). Barth, meanwhile, has proven responsive to and creative in terms of the themes and dynamics of both postmodernity and science.