The Freedom of the Christian Theologian: Reflections on a Historical Predicament

“Where there are state theological faculties, the right of self-governance of each religious community has to be respected when its theology is the object of its confessionally controlled instruction. The office of a professor with a theological faculty may therefore be bound by its confession. It is not and may not be the duty of a state, which is from a religious standpoint neutral, to judge the confessional conformity of theological instruction. This is rather the right of the confessional community itself.” German High Court (Federal Constitutional Court), 2009.

By R. Joseph Hoffmann
 Chair of CSER, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion,
Co-Chair (with Robert M. Price and Gerd Luedemann) of The Jesus Project. Goddard College
March 2009


In 1520, Luther wrote his famous treatise The Freedom of a Christian, his “last ecumenical gesture towards Rome before his bombastic exit from Catholicism.”1 It is one of his most lyrical pieces of theological reflection, polemically subtle, and invested with his belief that the Christian life is one of absolute freedom resulting from absolute service to the Gospel. Its most famous passage used to be known by just about everyone who studied the Reformation era in college:    

   “A Christian is the most-free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every-one.”

Luther takes this paradox—Paul’s in a resituated form—to mean that earthly authorities, priestly pomp, and doctrines unfounded in scripture--make no claim on conscience. “One thing and one thing alone is necessary for life, justification and Christian liberty: that is the most Holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ.” The treatise is Luther’s Dignitatis Humanae, a dissertation on human nature and human freedom: popes, princes, nobles, paupers, men, and women share in an “equally paradoxical nature.” The reality of freedom (though not freedom pure and simple) is inherent in the nature of the paradox.

It may appear odd that the central trope of this discourse sounds almost like a model for the American Declaration’s “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The phrase originated with John Mason, adapted from John Locke, and read in its June 12th, 1776 form, “That all men are by nature equally free and independent… [and thereby entitled to] the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness.” No one should be surprised to find Reformation ideas, in a secularized form, still nagging the language of citizens and advocates of political enlightenment. Indeed, throwing off the shackles of papal authority in favor of the relative autonomy of a faith-based conscience was Luther’s greatest theological achievement, in the same way that throwing off the arbitrary dictates of monarchy became the landmark of the French and American revolutions. Christians in their protestant formulation in the sixteenth century and the new class of “citizens” in the eighteenth had more in common than their rhetoric would lead us to believe.2 And the movement that spread from that point outward successively challenged various other authorities—tyrants, the prerogatives of kings, regimes, religion itself (especially of the Catholic variety) and the Bible. The extent to which “modern democratic” government and ideas like equal rights, liberty of conscience, and academic freedom can be traced to the debates and competing theologies of the Reformation needs to be better known, but it is nonetheless available as a continuum of thought and part of the process of secularization.

The case of Luther--once Catholic, then “Protestant,” never secular--is an interesting point of comparison in the current debate about theological freedom in German universities and the recent case of Professor Gerd Lüdemann of Göttingen. The University was founded at the highpoint of the German enlightenment in 1737 (by British king George II, as it happens) but retained the same academic arrangements with respect to theology as German universities founded much earlier--the medieval foundation at Heidelberg (1386), for example, or at Tübingen (1477). According to that arrangement, and depending on the location of the university, the teaching of theology was carried out by a faculty supported by Protestant (Evangelische) or Catholic authorities. In certain cases— Catholic-minority Tübingen for example—theological study was maintained by separate Protestant and Catholic faculties. In other cases—as at the relatively young university in Catholic-majority Regensburg , the former academic home of Joseph Ratzinger after his withdrawal from Tübingen, only a Catholic faculty existed. This arrangement descends from late Reformation political efforts to conform education (including theological training) to demographic realities. Historically, it dates from the Peace (Truce) of Augsburg (1555) between the forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the forces of the protestant Schmalkaldic League which determined the religious makeup of Germany. The German university is an abiding symbol of the political influence of religion in shaping the modern state, an enshrined compromise.

This memorandum of sixteenth-century history points to a tension in the German system of theological education, especially in relation to university education in the rest of Europe and in North America. The modern European and American university (and their spawn) are normally thought of as bastions of free inquiry and secular, scientific approaches to learning. They are driven by the idea of research as “progress” and the belief that progress is the result of innovation and discovery.

Given this scholarly emphasis on innovation and an ingrained impatience with tradition, it is hardly surprising that theology had become the poor sister of academe by 1900. Theology can feign progress, as though it were a social science or a school of literary analysis, but its central postulates are rooted in documents and world-views two thousand years old. That is a challenge that no other field of inquiry confronts, even those who also deal with ancient texts and ideas. Archaeology and classical studies, for example, do not regard artifacts as axioms, and they approach their sources through the lens of modern inquiry, not as revealed truth in need of explication—which most Christian theologians still regard as their task to do.3 Many modern and “radical” theologians, to be sure, would say that the task of theology is to refine its approach to the past and is thus always engaged in redefining its premises, but there is small question that the status of its core beliefs is tied to the past in a significantly different way than is the case with other disciplines. Theology, in short, is a funny business.

In the United States, the study of “theology,” a word that evoked a particular denominational polity, was excluded from public higher education as a matter of principle--though the desirability of instruction in “religion” was given ambiguous one-line mention in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that established education throughout the central regions of the country.4 Theology as a field of study was respectfully sequestered from the epicenter of learning in the most prestigious private universities as a cluster of divinity schools concerned with training a well-educated ministry. Catholic and various protestant colleges and universities struggled with the balance between theology-based and history-based teaching about religion according to the dictates of sponsoring boards and denominational mandates, and later (beginning at Harvard in 1939) the academic study of religion was established as a “separate department of knowledge,” separate, that is, from theology.5 On the whole, generalization being the nether part of accuracy, the American educational system with regard to theology was a benign reflection of the complexity of the American religious quilt. But in public higher education, it was given no standing in relation to any church or denomination.

Theological education in England was less complex. Only in 1854 were Catholics admitted for degrees in Oxford6 (women in 1920), and grudgingly in the same period the rule that college fellows—essentially the entire teaching body of the University—must remain unmarried to hold their fellowships was relaxed, except for chaplains and theologians. Only in 1996 were colleges—formerly theological halls--at Oxford other than Anglican foundations admitted to full collegiate status in the university. Theological education at the ancient universities was always robustly parochial, and it evolved, like the monarchy, into a state of accepted irrelevance. The British solution to how theology relates to the university curriculum as a whole (in those places-- fewer and fewer, as the century wore on--where it was entrenched), is a reflection of the simplicity evoked by a one-Church system forced to come to terms with a multi-faith society.

Theological discourse in Britain, especially since the last decade of the twentieth century, has largely been about “religious inclusiveness” and pluralism rather than doctrine. The role of the theologian, at least within the established Church, is characterized by a particular (some might say excessive) freedom: atheist theologians are not unknown, both outspoken and clandestine, and for every conservative theologue like N.T. Wright, there is a Daphne Hampson to remind them that they are wrong. The English tradition is one based on medieval notions of indulgence and grace rather than freedom and rights, but the practical effect is a respect for tradition in those places where symbolism counts--Oxbridge, Durham, Edinburgh, for example--and a disuse of it in those places where it has never existed, as in sectors of the University of London and the universities founded after 1890.


The situation outside Germany makes the “German situation” especially problematical. Germany is perceived as a modern liberal democracy, more science-friendly than the United States, more prone to be skeptical of religion and religious truth claims, less ecclesiastically grounded than France and the United Kingdom. For cultural reasons as well, having to do with the role of the academy and the professoriate in abetting National Socialism, Germany has found it important to emphasize the forward-looking nature of its educational system. The declining influence of religion in German life combined with a pronounced secularism of a system that bears few traces of the historical monasticism of the British tradition seems enviably centered on “Wissenschaft” and freedom of inquiry.

And yet, in 1979 the Swiss theologian Hans Küng was deprived of his license to teach Catholic theology in the University of Tübingen. He was immediately appointed “Professor of Ecumenical Theology,” a post created ad personam by the University as a pragmatic way of complying with the German university’s strict tenure rules as well as of mollifying the Vatican. This was done despite the fact that Küng’s work, to that point, had primarily focused on a critique of Catholic doctrine, especially that of papal infallibility, and the failure of the Second Vatican Council to implement theological reform. 7 Bluntly put, Küng’s reputation had been based almost exclusively on activity in a field with a prescribed agenda and established limits of inquiry, while his reassignment, required by his rejection of that field, was based on a reputation he had yet to establish. If his dismissal had been of a more mundane variety—the sacking of an auto worker for not following the boss’s orders, for example—the claim that he was building an inferior engine would not have saved him. But academe is not General Motors, and Küng’s claim that he should be rescued by the University for denying the authority of an outdated magisterium prevailed in Tübingen if not in Rome. The University’s pragmatic solution did not involve the German courts, did not violate Küng’s civil rights under the German Constitution (in fact aided in his celebrity) and resulted in resounding support from Catholic liberals and Protestant ecumenists quick to point the finger of blame at the Vatican—especially at Küng’s former confederate Joseph Ratzinger. Amidst the din, the systemic issue--Why should this situation arise at all in a university context?—went unanswered. The category error was not spotted: If a university is defined as a collection of faculties dedicated to pursuing methods and approaches to the “truth,” what is the entitlement of theology--defined as an explication of truths available through faith rather than inquiry—to stand alongside them?

Like many “radical theologians” of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies of the last century, Küng did theology as one might do any other abstract subject, with the view that progress is possible through discourse and argumentation. If paradigm shifts existed in the sciences and social sciences, it was plausibly argued, why not also in theology? But like much of the theology of that era, on both the Protestant and Catholic sides, the arguments were strangely vacant—as though a geophysicist had been employed by the university solely for the purpose of denying flat earth theory. Had the discipline of theology, at least as practiced by cutting-edge theologians, become merely the practice of challenging its own premises, self-immolation passing as scholarly construction? The high visibility of the protagonist in the Küng case disguised the fact that it was the status of theology as a “discipline” that was on trial. This was not Luther redivivus. It was new light on a question that had escaped detection for two hundred years. Significantly at the time, the Protestant onlookers at Tübingen and elsewhere maintained that the whole affair had arisen because of the peculiarity of the Catholic system of teaching and its subservience to church authority. Jürgen Moltmann assessed the significance of the Küng case for Protestants in an article titled "Hans Küng, Rome and the Gospel" in Evangelische Kommentare. He noted that the procedural methods of the Roman church raised serious questions about human rights in the Church, and also that the action of Rome has essentially destroyed the basis for ecumenical discussions on the nature of papal authority and primacy. Implicitly at least Moltmann suggested that what happened to a Catholic professor of theology could not have happened to a Protestant, a distinction marked out in the nature of the profession and in the protestant faculties’ greater respect for freedom and “human rights.”8


The case of Gerd Lüdemann is the same and different. For one thing, Lüdemann, who was appointed Professor of New Testament in the Theology Faculty at Göttingen in 1983, belonged to a well-established tradition of liberalism in the interpretation of scripture. German Protestant theology had given the world, before 1900, David Friederich Strauss, who was one of the first to call attention to the basic mythological foundations of the Gospels, and Bruno Bauer, the controversial “father” of radical biblical criticism. The earlier twentieth century saw a swing from the nineteenth in the form of neo-orthodoxy on the theological side, followed by a new approach to myth, derived largely from Heidegger’s philosophy and studies of ancient literature, in the work of Rudolph Bultmann and the Marburg school, which in turn spun out its own generation of new radicals and theorists: Ernst Käsemann (Tübingen), Günther Bornkamm (Heidelberg), Ernst Fuchs (Marburg), Erich Dinkler (Bonn), and Hans Conzelmann (Göttingen).

The ethos of biblical studies in Germany in the late twentieth century however began to differ markedly from developments in North America, which came less and less under the spell of Bultmann and his students and more and more interested in literary analysis, new theoretical approaches of a specifically non-confessional variety, archaeological study, and document history. Combined with the new style was a selective disuse, if not an abandonment, of theological approaches, and of the hybridized form of “doing” New Testament work perhaps most evident in the work of Bultmann himself and Hans Conzelmann. The new style was typical in the United States where (despite its historical practice of reflecting European trends) found itself thrust into the forefront of the non-parochial study of “early Christian literature” at Harvard, Claremont, and Chicago. This should not be taken to mean that Germany was unaware of these developments, opposed them, or failed to maintain a robust presence in the field of New Testament studies. But German theology and biblical study was no longer the engine it once had been, and for the first time had become the academic backwater of the disciplines now strongly dominated by the United States and (increasingly) innovative departments like the University of Sheffield in England, Utrecht in the Netherlands, and the University of Copenhagen.

Lüdemann’s specific “offenses” were of a theological variety but based on his skills as a biblical exegete.9 He described the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke not as tinctured by myth but as “pious fairy stories.” He denied the historicity of the resurrection accounts, Paul’s conversion, the divinity of Jesus, and the Lukan account of the beginning of Christianity in the Book of Acts. None of these “denials” was especially unusual among biblical theologians. What apparently brought Lüdemann into the limelight was the public nature of his denials, his willingness to speak openly as a protestant theologian on matters often confined to titters in professional meetings, and a pugnacious impatience with his detractors. In a variety of essays for popular magazines of a specifically atheist variety and the press, Lüdemann represented aspects of the Gospel as being a source of division and intolerance and in response to the “popularity” of the gnostic “Gospel” of Judas, claimed that the church had invented the story of Jesus’ betrayal. And after pronouncing himself (in qualified terms) an unbeliever, nonetheless he maintained that it was perfectly possible to be a theologian and an atheist or agnostic at the same time.10

Lüdemann was removed from his post following protests by the Church of Lower Saxony, the President of the University refusing to designate him a Professor of New Testament. As with Küng, a pragmatic solution was tried: to re-designate him—Professor of the History and Literature of Early Christianity. Unlike Küng, Lüdemann appealed the solution in the courts, claiming that his academic freedom had been infringed simply because the results of his research were not acceptable to the Church. After ten years of appeals, the German High Court (Federal Constitutional Court) ruled in February 2009 that although there was no question that his academic freedom had been affected by removing him from the confessional teaching of New Testament, the right of the Church to self-government outweighs the academic freedom of the individual and justifies interference:

“Where there are state theological faculties, the right of self-governance of each religious community has to be respected when its theology is the object of its confessionally controlled instruction. The office of a professor with a theological faculty may therefore be bound by its confession. It is not and may not be the duty of a state, which is from a religious standpoint neutral, to judge the confessional conformity of theological instruction. This is rather the right of the confessional community itself.”11

In effect, though some have emphasized the difference between the Lüdemann and the Küng-cases, including Lüdemann himself, their situations arise from similar causes. The case of Küng may seem rather more clear-cut because of the dogmatic nature of the Roman Catholic tradition, its conception of the structure of the magisterium (reinforced by John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor), and its practice of licensing theologians. Less well known however is the strong tradition in Germany of the “Konfession”—the doctrinal pacts forged by Protestants in revolt against Rome in the sixteenth century, and still surprisingly powerful measures of fidelity to protestant Christianity. In effect, to renounce the confession and its core beliefs, as Lüdemann did, was the equivalent of resignation latae sententiae. Luedemann’s self-exclusion for teaching outside the confession demanded recognition and action within the context of protecting the position if not endorsing the ideas of a renegade teacher who denied the basic tenets of the confession. But the penalty for this denial was only possible because of the German High Court’s oxymoronic claim of “neutrality,” on the one hand saying that matters of belief cannot be decided by the courts, on the other that denial of beliefs can have dispositive effects if they are not upheld within institutions where the confessions have entrenched rights and privileges.

The Lüdemann and Küng cases are hence not very different despite their “Protestant” and “Catholic” morphology. And their similarity is worth marking. Theologians have every “right” to speculation and construction and to inform the belief and practice in their respective communities. The dissonance between the study of theology and of other modern disciplines, however, is not just a difference of subject matter but a difference of presupposition, and it is unlikely that the occasional relocation of a confession-denying professor does much to illuminate the issue at the core of the relationship between theology and its others.

It is also worth marking how much things have changed since Luther’s day. The young friar whom Frederick III, the founder of the university at Wittenberg, called “his little professor” understood that a free conscience had a price. The price for Luther was not to be “relocated,” even if that had been possible, and he himself had made appeals to higher authority inferior to the sovereignty of freedom. The price was to live with the results of his confidence—a self-imposed penance which, given his stature in a university whose reputation he had almost singlehandedly created, illustrated the second form of freedom Luther had written about in his 1520 treatise on Christian liberty.


1 John Witte, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), p. 78.

2 The intellectual background is sketched in Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1989), but without significant attention.

3 The literature offering typologies of the theologian’s task is vast. The “progressive” trend and other schools of inquiry are discussed in L. LeRon Shults, The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999). Representative of the view that biblical theology is essentially a process of rearticulating beliefs nascent in scriptural texts, see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

4 “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Northwest Ordinance, Article III.

5 For the history of the division at Harvard, see G.H. Williams, The Harvard Divinity School (Boston, Beacon, 1954). For the reasons leading to the founding of the Princeton Seminary, see Lefferts Loetscher, Facing the Enlightenment and Pietism: Archibald Alexander and the Founding of the Princeton Theological Seminary (New York: Greenwood, 1983).

6 “The Queen’s Government and the University,” Rambler II (ns) (September, 1854), 189-90. The initial reaction was to discourage students from taking advantage of the new “permission” granted by the Government.

7 It is now possible to trace the steps in the Küng case because of the publication in Germany of a full documentation of all the letters, resolutions, and theological statements involved, beginning with Küng’s "Appeal for Understanding" in January 1978 and concluding with his public statement on April 10, 1980. The book, published on May 21, is titled The Küng Case: A Documentation (Der Fall Küng: Eine Dokumentation, edited by Norbert Greinacher and Herbert Haag [Munich: R. Piper & Co. Verlag]).

8 In addition to creating the field of Ecumenical Theology at Tuebingen, Küng has continued to play an adversarial role in relation to the Vatican and especially toward the current pope, his former Tuebingen colleague, Benedict XVI. See, e.g., The Tablet (5 March 2009), “Cardinals defend Pope against Küng.”

9 Selectively, the books which led to Luedemann’s dismissal included: Virgin Birth? The Real History of Mary and her Son Jesus (=English edition of Die wirkliche Geschichte von Maria und ihrem Sohn Jesus), London/Harrisburg 1998; The Great Deception. And what Jesus really said and did (= English edition of Der große Betrug. Und was Jesus wirklich sagte und tat), London 1998 (Amherst: Prometheus 1999; with a Preface for the American edition S. ix-xx). Jesus after 2000 Years. What he really said and did, (= English edition of Jesus nach 2000 Jahren) London: 2000,

10 Das Unheilige in der Heiligen Schrift. Die dunkle Seite der Bibel, Lüneburg 2004 (= Third edition of Das Unheilige in der Heiligen Schrift. Die andere Seite der Bibel. Stuttgart 1996); Die Auferstehung Jesu - Fiktion oder Wirklichkeit? Ein Streitgespräch zwischen, Carsten Peter Thiede und Gerd Lüdemann, Gießen 2001; Paul: The Founder of Christianity, Amherst, N.Y. 2002; Die Auferweckung Jesu von den Toten, Ursprung und Geschichte einer Selbsttäuschung, Lüneburg 2002; The Resurrection of Christ - A Historical Inquiry, 2004; Intolerance and the Gospel Selected Texts from the New Testament, Amherst, Prometheus Books - 2006

11 Federal Constitutional Court – Press Office Press Release no. 14/2009, 18 February 2009.

Decision of 28 October 2009 – BvR 462/06.

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