Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Why the Adolf Schlatter Renaissance?

It is close to astonishing to witness the Renaissance in the study of the life and work of Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938). But why is he so significant? Why are people like James D.G. Dunn, Markus Bockmühl, Robert Morgan and many others referring so positively to him? Apart from his 439 published pieces, and Kittel's first volume of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament dedicated to him, Schlatter has, in the words of Robert Yarbrough "staying power". Yarbrough explains:

"Over thirty books by Schlatter still in print (more than any other theologian of his era) attest to the staying power of his scholarship.  His contribution was many-sided.  He was far ahead of his times in stressing the importance of Jewish backgrounds for understanding Jesus and the early church, an insight vindicated by discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and championed in Schlatter’s train today by the likes of Martin Hengel and Markus Bockmühl.  His arguments for the validity of theological concerns in critical exegesis,  rejected by liberalism of the day, retain importance and mark Schlatter as a forerunner to Barth.  Yet unlike (at least the early) Barth, Schlatter insisted on a Jesus of history, attested to by Scripture, as of equal importance with the saving Christ of faith.  Schlatter sided with Brunner in the latter’s tiff with Barth over natural theology (although he rejected neo-orthodoxy’s neo-Kantian doctrine of revelation); he feared that Bultmann’s proposals set the stage for a slide toward atheism.  In sum, Schlatter modelled an independence of thought and fidelity of Christian faith that are still suggestive in academy and church today. For those who understand Christian faith not only in academic but also in pastoral terms, Schlatter’s contribution may be gauged by the large number (and continuing heritage) of ministers and students he encouraged.  His somewhat fiery free spirit still inspires, as well: Tübingen’s first woman theological licentiate, Lydia Schmidt, pointed to Schlatter’s encouragement in learning and belief.  (Other professors at the time fought against women’s presence in the university.)  Paul Schneider, the first Christian minister to be martyred by the Nazis (Buchenwald, 1939), experienced his conversion from liberal to historic Christian convictions through interaction with Schlatter’s dogmatics, and in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906-45) last working library the only other author so richly represented and consulted was Luther. Schlatter’s example of rigor in thought, creativity in formulation, courage in expression, and artlessness in practical service amply justify the apparent renaissance in Schlatter studies currently underway" (Robert Yarbrough, “Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938) as ein Lehrer der Kirche (a Teacher of the Church)”, Scripture Seminar, April 2004).

I am currently reading Adolf Schlatter's The History of the Christ. The Foundation of New Testament Theology (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 1997), translated by Andreas J. Körstenberger.
As I'm working my way through it, I sense parallels with i.e. NT Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1996), and also Paul Barnett's Finding the Historical Christ (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2003).

I really like the way in which Schlatter takes serious the dominant liberal theories of his day and how he deconstructs them. His chapter on the resurrection is a good example. Remarkably close to Edward Schillebeeckx's view, Schlatter describes one theory for the Easter faith like this: 
"The disciples entered the Easter account in a mood oscillating between despair and hope, unable to give up their faith in view of Jesus' earlier words and deeds, and unable to retain it in view of his death; and from these waves of emotions visions emerged that ended all doubt, experiences of high value for the disciples although they were found merely in their own subjective realm" (377). 

After describing at some length the various narratives and resurrection reports, Schlatter states: 
"If the disciples had looked for the basis of their faith in Jesus to the internal movements of their soul, the church would have turned into a gathering of mystics who spent their time trying to produce within them the ecstatic condition by which the Christ would become visible also to them. The idea, however, that it was Christianity's calling to enhance its emotions to such a degree that it would culminate in a vision of Jesus wherein the assurance of salvation was rooted or completed is not interwoven with early Christian history. The disciples always and solely, by a sober use of the idea of truth, understood faith in such a way that what happened showed them what God was and did, so that the objectiveness of an accomplished fact would present the basis for their conviction and the goal for their will ... The Easter account did not create the effort in the disciples to retreat into their inner lives and to seek there the revelation of God that world history denied them. Conversely, their lives rather received its basis and its power from the event that came to them externally ... If the disciples' conviction of having seen Jesus once more subsequent to his death was derived from visionary states of being, the consequences of this process would have had to be revealed in the entire state of piety. As a result, we would have received in the place of Christianity a religion in which the individual elevated himself to God one way or another" (379).