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Adolf Schlatter: A Model of Scholarship

One of my scholarly and personal heroes is Adolf Schlatter (note that in recent years, Schlatter has been charged with anti-Semitism in some of his writings; however, the issue is too complicated to be adequately discussed here). At a time when Adolf Harnack espoused his liberalism, and Rudolf Bultmann eclectically appropriated David Friedrich Strauss’s mythological approach and Martin Heidegger’s existentialism, Schlatter stood firm in his advocacy of a biblical-theological, salvation-historical reading of the Bible and a high view of Scripture.

In the foreword to The History of the Christ in 1920, Schlatter wrote, “The knowledge of Jesus is the foremost, indispensable centerpiece of New Testament theology.” This stands in marked contract to Rudolf Bultmann, who opened his famous two-volume New Testament Theology thus: “The message of Jesus is a presupposition for the theology of the New Testament rather than a part of that theology itself.”

In his approach to hermeneutics, Schlatter was ahead of his time and uttered timeless principles such as these:

It is the historical objective that should govern our conceptual work exclusively and completely, stretching our perceptive faculties to the limit. We turn away decisively from ourselves and our time to what was found in the men through whom the church came into being. Our main interest should be the thought as it was conceived by them and the truth that was valid for them. We want to see and obtain a thorough grasp of what happened historically and existed in another time. This is the internal disposition upon which the success of the work depends, the commitment which must consistently be renewed as the work proceeds. (History of the Christ, 18)

In a day when interpretation increasingly becomes an exercise in reader response, or when texts are said to have a life of their own apart from the intentions of the author who willed them into being, Schlatter’s hermeneutic of perception, that is, of perceive listening and apprehension of the words of another, speaks a powerful message. Much of the contemporary interpretive confusion arising from undue subjectivism could be avoided if Schlatter’s words were heeded.

Also timeless if Schlatter’s emphasis on Jesus as the center of the biblical message read as a whole. This conviction is fleshed out compellingly in his 2-volume New Testament Theology, entitled respectively, The History of the Christ and The Theology of the Apostles. It also underlies Schlatter’s final work, a devotional called Do We Know Jesus? which he wrote in his old age during the last year of his life.

In this his final work, the 85 year-old Schlatter penned the following words, just shortly before the outbreak of World War II:

Do we know Jesus? If we no longer know him, we no longer know ourselves. For in our ancestral line, he is at work with unrivaled power. Compared to him, what is a Hildebrand become one with his sword, or a Krimhild burning with passionate lust? The condition of our inner lives and of our national community proves that the things Jesus built into this world are both present and at work among us. This is not obscured even by the numerous antichrists among us. For precisely when they, with blazing wrath, seek to suppress any memory of Jesus, their thoughts and intentions are inevitably shaped by the One they combat as their enemy.

It is on account of this raw courage, and this power of prophetic insight, that Schlatter, though dead, still speaks to us today and challenges us to engage in a hermeneutic of perceptive insight and humble confidence, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

For material on Schlatter see his two-volume theology, The History of the Christ and The Theology of the Apostles (Baker, 1997 and 1998). See also his biblical theology presented in devotional form, Do We Know Jesus? Daily Insights for the Mind and Soul (Kregel, 2005); “Schlatter Reception Then and Now: His New Testament Theology (Part 1),” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3/1 (Spring 1999): 40–51; and the entry on Schlatter in The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (ed. G. T. Kurian; Blackwell, 2011).

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