Franz Pieper vs. the “selfie” theologians: a review of Matthew L. Becker’s 2003 article “Hofmann as Ich-theologe?”

02 May
Friedrich Schliermacher, "selfie theologian" par excellence

Friedrich Schliermacher, “selfie theologian” par excellence

(hear about the “squirrel selfie” gone wrong yesterday?  Yes, I digress…)

I recently read a very interesting 2003 Concordia Journal article by Matthew Becker about the 19th c. Lutheran theologian Johann Von Hofmann – as well as some other related pieces. What follows is my reaction to Becker’s article.

Franz Pieper, the author of the Christian dogmatics still used to train Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LC-MS) pastors today, was a rather plainspoken and direct man (I am not saying he was “unsophisticated” – just that he saw the importance of speech that would be readily understood not just by academics). Contra Becker, it is not that Pieper’s view of 19th century theologians like Friedrich Schliermacher and Johann Von Hofmann – men he characterized as “Ich-theologes”, or “theologians of the self” – was wrong. Even purportedly biblical and confessional men like Von Hofmann – whatever excellent points and insights they might have raised (points and insights, I might add, that others had also largely been able to note from other perspectives) – were certainly lacking key elements of Christian proclamation in their approach.* I suggest that Pieper’s way of putting things simply lacked the kind of careful detail and complex nuance that some persons come to appreciate or perhaps even need.

Franz Peiper

Franz Pieper

To fill in the gaps a bit more, Pieper was right that the fundamental error of these men was replacing the sole “objective authority of the Scripture” with the “subjective views of the theologizing subject”, but there are other ways to say this. After all, we can and should admit that it is inevitable that theology must “end in subjectivity”, that is the person, the personal subject – and here we generally think of the human subject. That does not however mean that God Himself, the Creator, does not do theology (that is engage in discourse about God) Himself, for He puts His very words – words about His world, Him, us, and what He has done and is doing – in our hearts and on our lips (I also note that He himself took on human flesh, studied, and took into Himself the Scriptures that had been given to God’s people!). Further, we can talk more or less objectively about this matter, that is, the ontological fact that reality is, at rock bottom, personal in just such a way. This means that rightly discerning – and intimately knowing – these personal “objects” about which God speaks is the most fundamental thing about life – for it is only in this way that we may intimately know the Foundational Object itself, the Tri-personal Being, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, through the Personal Object of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Son of God made human flesh.

Christ and His words are both “brought to remembrance” and actively meditated on in the Christian by the Holy Spirit, and this Word – including both the “Logos” and His words, particularly the Scriptural message – echoes throughout time in the ears of the saints. Here, contra Von Hofmann, the Christian Bible is not merely a witness to the “given state of affairs” in the Christian, the reality of what Von Hofmann called the Tatbestand**, but is primarily that very Word of God, wielded by the Church, that creates witnesses to the Triune God and His work in history. And as this all plays out on the ground in space and time it should go without saying that the content of the Scripture’s message must be determined by the author, not the receiver – even as again, we must simultaneously maintain that we all must engage in interpretation, more or less badly!

One aspect of this interpretation includes the fact that the Bible is not only a “historical record of God’s communion with humanity”, but certainly contains “timeless doctrines” as well (see Becker, 271). Von Hofmann, having studied under Hegel, should have realized the fundamental weakness of his teacher: with Hegel, you can never simply rest in a simple, timeless statement about what is true – even as one grows into an understanding of a statement’s full implications.That kind of false viewpoint is pure acid to the Christian faith, as all notions of any kind of permanence (at least going beyond the sub-atomic level and the conceptions of the “laws of nature” we have) – substance, essence, laws, etc – are eliminated and subsumed by the ever-evolving “world spirit” (though note Becker’s insight in the footnote here as well as Armin Wenz’s observation in his superb LOGIA article “Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World”, where he notes how easily new “objective, normative truths” which “dare not be criticized or questioned in any way” [p. 17] are created).  In the name of articulating the “living reality” of Christian faith and an “organic-historical view” of the same, the real and substantial core of Christian proclamation is in fact removed.  I suggest that it makes the task of the theologian of the cross – who “calls the thing what it actually is” – more difficult when we can proclaim nothing in heaven or earth as either being fundamentally unchanging or having some real sense of permanence.

According to Matthew Becker, Hofmann “recognized the legitimacy of David Hume’s (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) critiques of traditional theological knowledge” (267) – and seeking to preserve the Christian faith in the halls of the academy, he would re-imagine Christian theology taking into account their critiques. What Hofmann ultimately ended up doing was insisting that “Christianity is primarily ‘a matter of historical experience’ that is understandable only by means of personal faith in the living God” (281). This will sound familiar to anyone familiar with the currents of 20th century theology. It is true that Hoffman’s focus on the “Christian self” here*** was far more refined and careful than that of someone like Descartes. And yet this fact remains: starting with and building one’s system around the self in any sense is a doomed project, however much one may believe the academic atmosphere might demand it. One can sympathize with Hofmann’s desire to re-formulate – perhaps very faithfully! – the Christian message, but in his efforts, he, like so many modern theologians since that time, has removed the teeth of the Christian message. Again, in the end, his approach literally eliminates all substantial proclamation in the Church.

Johann Von Hofmann, coiner of the term "salvation history" and, according to Barth, the greatest conservative theologian of the 19th century.

Johann Von Hofmann, coiner of the term “salvation history” and, according to Barth, the greatest conservative theologian of the 19th century.

Elsewhere, Becker notes that the fundamental questions for the 19th century Hofmann were those of modern theology as well: “What is the proper relation of Christian faith and experience to historical knowledge?” and “How, if at all, are God, personal faith, and history related?” Hofmann was dealing with the more critical approach of the Enlightenment towards the topic of theology but also towards what counted as history – real historical knowledge – as well. While Kant and Hume and other prominent Enlightenment men may not be entirely dismissed – for their insights often are important – their own accounts of what constitutes human knowledge should be received in skepticism, and not only by Christians!  Kant’s, Hume’s, and others’ critiques, then and now, simply do not warrant a wholesale re-casting of Christian theology but rather vigorous and intelligent confrontation.

As Jack Kilcrease notes in his article “Heilsgeschichte and Atonement”, for LOGIA, “[Peiper’s critique of Hofmann is in “a qualified sense generally on target”]… for Hofmann the ultimate source of all authority is human religious experience and not the word of God”.***** Hofmann failed in his attempt to “update” the Christian faith for the modern era, to, as he said, “teach the old truth but in a new way”. Instead, he, like Schliermacher, simply gave us a shallow selfie.  

What a recent commentator on Nicholas Carr’s blog Rough Type said makes a lot of sense:

“Today we are just a shadow of our future selves if we are in Him. Outside Him we decline into a selfie waiting to be deleted.” (from here)

It makes sense that we remain in Him by always keeping the focus off and outside of ourselves***** – whether we are talking about history, the simple proclamation of the Gospel facts (see the book of Acts), or, indeed, the discipline of theology itself.


*For instance, the Christian church is not to proclaim events like the resurrection of Jesus Christ as something that we have experienced to be true – that is, as something that is a “given reality” only insofar as they are “mediated through and interpreted within the community of God” (Becker, 272).  I may not understand how a man like Hofmann can think that the certainty of faith is independent from history (p. 291 – How is a simple Gospel truth like “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” not completely one with profane history?) and yet can still be understood to uphold the importance of history to Christianity, but I know that the Church proclaims such an event as simple history, even if it is something akin to local history, or what scholars today label “microhistory”. Passages found in Acts 2, 3, and especially 17 and 26 clearly show us that this is how the early church proclaimed the Christian message. Hofmann, we are told in Becker’s book about him, sees salvation history “not [as] a part of world-history, but rather world-history is a part of salvation history” (xix). How does this cause anything but confusion regarding God come in the flesh? To be fair, here is more from Becker: “’Heilsgeschichte [Nathan: that is “salvation history”] is the meaning of world history, since ultimately world history will be encompassed within the self-fulfillment of the triune God. Jesus Christ is “the end of history” that has been disclosed “in the center (Mitte) of history.’ Thus, Jesus Christ is the focus of all of history, which is itself grounded in the Trinity. For Hofmann Heilsgeschichte is trinitarian and Christocentric (and thus inclusive of all reality), whereas Cullmann understood Heilsgeschichte as a distinct and narrow process within history, whose “center” (Mitte) is Christ.” (188, Lutheran Quarterly article, “Appreciating the Life and Work of Johannes v. Hofmann”). It seems to me here we have a case of not doing theology “from below” enough – that is, being on earth, and thereby being limited in our knowledge due to what God has revealed to us.

** Becker in his Lutheran Quarterly article, “Appreciating the Life and Work of Johannes v. Hofmann” regarding the Tatbestand: “Tatbestand, i.e., that which makes the Christian a Christian. …it is an experience of the self, grounded outside of the self….. Christian religious experience is never merely a subjective or individual experience but an experience of Christianity, the Christian experience.” Further in his book on Hofmann Becker writes: “[the] communal and ecclesial nature of the experience dictates that the understanding of this experience be compared with and, if necessary, corrected by the understanding of the experience in Scripture and by other Christian theologians” (21).

***Hofmann: “I the Christian am for me the theologian the object of knowing” (quoted in Becker 276). Becker also writes “he sometimes described the object of Christian theology as ‘the present factual situation (Tatbestand) of community (Gemeinschaft) between God and humanity mediated in Jesus Christ’” (p. 268). Whichever one really should be the object of theology in Von Hofmann’s mind, it seems strange that God Himself and His words would not be seen as the primary object. What is so tragic about Von Hofmann’s views is that so much of what he says really does make sense to a degree (and some of his observations and insights are profound indeed) – as with lots of theology, it is what gets left unsaid that ultimately presents the problems. The wrong frame ultimately gives us insufficient results.

****Kilcrease, Heilsgeschichte and Atonement, LOGIA XXII, 2, speaking of Peiper, Christian Dogmatics, 1:6. Mark Mattes’ evaluation of Hofmann per Becker is decidedly different. More Kilcrease from the same article: “For Peiper, Hofmann’s emphasis on religious experience and abandonment of the inerrancy of the Bible made his theology hopelessly subjective. This is the case even though Hofmann had clearly attempted to anchor the subjectivity of religious consciousness in the objectivity of history and community… (speaking of Peiper, Christian Dogmatics, 1:6)”

***** As Issues ETC. host Todd Wilken has noted, when you are courting a woman, and her father asks you what you find compelling about his daughter, you don’t talk about what she does for you – how she makes you feel and such.  You talk about her, her character, her qualities, who she is.

Modified selfie pics: ;


Peiper pic:

Hofmann pic from Wikipedia


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Posted by on May 2, 2014 in Uncategorized


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