An Almost Forgotten 20th Century Christian Theologian: Christoph Blumhardt

An Almost Forgotten 20th Century Christian Theologian: Christoph Blumhardt March 25, 2018

An Almost Forgotten 20th Century Christian Theologian: Christoph Blumhardt

Christoph Blumhardt was born in 1842 and died in 1919. He was a German Lutheran minister raised in a family steeped on “Baden-Württemberg Pietism”—a particular type of German pietism. His father Johann was also a Lutheran minister. Both father and son were famous in Germany, throughout Europe and Christoph in America and throughout the world. Their fame began with a months-long exorcism carried out by Johann. This was unexpected; Johann did not consider himself an exorcist. The story of the exorcism has been well-documented and created quite a stir in Germany after it was revealed. When the exorcism was complete, the young woman who was delivered cried out “Jesus is victor!” and that became the Blumhardts’ motto.

Johann founded a Christian retreat center at Bad Boll, Germany to which numerous people came for physical healing, exorcism, spiritual direction and formation, and even infilling of the Holy Spirit. Neither Blumhardt was ever part of the Pentecostal movement as such, but some Pentecostals, especially Pentecostal scholars, look back to them as forerunners of the movement. (To the best of my knowledge, however, speaking in tongues did not play any role in their ministry or among their followers.)

Unlike many European Protestants of their time, the Blumhardts believed in miracles. And many people who came to their retreat claimed to have experienced supernatural healings there. (The retreat center at Bad Boll still exists but has changed dramatically; it is now an ecumenical center for dialogue between Christians of various denominations and traditions and between adherents of various religions.)

Christoph took over leadership of the retreat center and ministry from his father and became more famous than his father ever was for various reasons. He became a well-known traveling evangelist who preached revivals throughout Europe. Many of his sermons have been translated into English are available in edited volumes published by especially Plough Publishing House.

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Christoph Blumhardt is noted for his strong emphasis on the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God from the future in various manifestations. His emphasis as on the “already-ness” of the Kingdom of God even though he always acknowledge that, ultimately, only God can bring about the fullness of his kingdom of earth.

Blumhardt was visited by many American healing and “higher life” evangelists around the turn of the century (1900-1901). Through them he became well-known in America as a European counterpart to the great healing revivals taking place in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—before Pentecostalism really took off with the Azusa Street Revival in 1906.

But Blumhardt was also a theologian, politician and social reformer. He was a pacifist who opposed war and refused to support Kaiser Wilhelm’s declaration of war in 1914. He was a premillennialist who believed the coming Kingdom of God on earth serves as a critical principle for contemporary Christian witness and practice. In other words, for him, the future earthly rule of Christ is not “pie in the sky by-and-by” and Christian ethics of premillennialism is not escapism (“lifeboat ethics”). It is a strong impetus to Christian social reform now.

Blumhardt had to surrender his Lutheran ministerial status when he joined the Social Democratic Party and was elected to the Württemberg parliament. He as a socialist but not a communist.

Finally, about Blumhardt’s theology, he was a universalist; he believed that end the end hell would be emptied.

So, here we have one man who embodied these characteristics: Christian evangelist and revivalist preacher, “faith healer,” exorcist, spiritual director, retreat center leader…wait for it…socialist reformer and politician, pacifist, universalist. He fits no known category.

During his lifetime and long afterwards Blumhardt was famous especially in Germany and Switzerland but also in America. There can be no doubt about his influence on (among others) Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Jürgen Moltmann. Brunner dedicated his third volume of his Dogmatics to Blumhardt and mentioned in the second volume the miracles at Möttlingen and Bad Boll. (Möttlingen being the town where Johann Blumhardt’s healing and exorcism ministry began.) Brunner names Christoph Blumhardt as his spiritual mentor. Barth’s “Christocentric method” in theology owes much to Blumhardt. Moltmann wrote an article in Pneuma (the journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies) in which he specifically named Blumhardt as one of his three greatest influences.

Why has Blumhardt been largely forgotten (except for a few Christian scholars who know about him and his influence)? For one thing, not a lot of his writing has been translated into English; that is in the works. For another thing, and I think this is the main reason, he is impossible to pigeon-hole, to categorize, even to understand—in terms of how one person could embody such seemingly (to most people’s minds) contrary features. I believe we have a tendency to dismiss and forget people we cannot categorize, people who stand alone and break out of all known categories.

There is a small revival of interest in Blumhardt led by evangelical Christian scholars who are also interested in Pietism. I look forward to the day when a complete biography of Christoph will be published in English (there is one of Johann). I would like to use my blog to increase anticipation of such and interest in this amazing man and his ministry and influence.

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