Becker’s Self-Giving God (Review Article)

By Karl Wyneken

What will be the result if a gifted and erudite German Lutheran theologian on one of the more conservative mid-19th century German Lutheran faculties embraces notions such as the following? Consider—

His desire, as he puts it himself, is “to teach old truths in a new way.”

The overwhelming focus of his theology is on the study of the Scriptures; nevertheless, he will also maintain that his personal experience of conversion and regeneration is the essential precondition for his work as a theologian.

Theology, he contends, needs to be grounded in a more wholistic, integral understanding of the biblical story of redemption, or Heilsgeschichte (the term may have been his invention and certainly owes its popularization to him), in contrast to the long tradition of the piecemeal, proof-texting, deductive methods of scholastic dogmatic theology.

He suggests that understandings of Christ’s atoning work other than the metaphor of a forensic transaction whereby the deity’s need for satisfaction is “paid off”can convey its meaning equally well if not better than that traditional Anselmic imagery.

He expands the concept of the self-emptying (“kenosis”) of Christ into a self-giving that is in a sense true of the Trinitarian God as a whole: God self-differentiates, and this action as a whole is to be seen as the expression of God’s gracious accommodation in order to relate to the human creation in love.

We hope your curiosity is piqued to find out how this eminent Erlangen professor, Johannes C. K. von Hofmann (1810-1877), impacted the theological thinking of his own day and exerts an influence that continues to our own time. If so, we heartily recommend this study, a published version of the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago.

The Erlangen School of Theology

Theology at Erlangen, where Hofmann served from 1838 to his death (except briefly at Rostock, 1842-1845), is in itself an interesting topic. The “Erlangen School” was noted for its concern for the historical Lutheran Confessions, indeed, for the 19th century recovery of a more historically genuine Confessionalism, sometimes dubbed Neo-Confessional Lutheranism. This was not, by and large, a merely repristinating theology, reproducing the scholastic orthodoxy that stressed faith as cognitive assent to collections of accurate propositional truths.

Yet neither were the Erlangers altogether unaware or totally dismissive of emerging streams of thought, however troubling for historic Christianity. Hofmann was hardly alone in his desire “to teach old truths in a new way.” Yet neither were insights and ideas from such movements as German Romanticism and Idealism to be adopted uncritically and in toto, even if they kept employing the language of Christian faith though often in a largely equivocal sense, as did Hegel, for instance. Critical historicism, as advanced for example by David Strauss, was even less appreciated.

The “Erlangen School” may be thought of as occupying a somewhat “mediating” or centrist position on the increasingly turbulent and polarized spectrum of mid-19th century German Protestant theological thought. Within this centrist circle Hofmann was in many ways the central and dominating figure, a mediator among mediators.

Hofmann – Misunderstood and/or Forgotten

That may help explain why Hofmann, a scholar of monumental intellect and encyclopedic learning, held by some to be one of the towering giants in the history of theology, has nevertheless suffered the fate that has befallen him. As Becker puts it, he was misunderstood—or even misrepresented—in his own day by opponents on either side of him. And subsequently he has been to a considerable extent ignored, or at least more than is fair to him.

Becker’s passion, we quickly learn, is to demonstrate that this fate is unjustified and needs to be rectified. And indeed, we believe that he makes a convincing case: Hofmann’s contemporaries as well as their successors could, and should, have put a better construction on his thinking. Moreover, his contributions to discussions that are very much with us to the present day deserve greater recognition and appreciation.

A middle position risks incurring the ill will of the polar opposites on either side. Their assessments may even come out as oddly and wildly contradictory. In Hofmann’s case, for example, orthodoxy’s repristinators, some of them his own colleagues, tended to look upon his advocacy of a wholistic biblical theology over dogmatic traditionalism as a capitulation to the rationalistic Enlightenment. Meanwhile, to those attuned to the era’s Idealism, Romanticism, and such, Hofmann may have been dismissed as a hopeless biblicist and reactionary.

A further example of how Hofmann was misunderstood, in some cases perhaps even intentionally misrepresented, is the way his detractors have often accused him of espousing a theological method that was overly subjective, reliant on personal feeling and existential experience, and unduly influenced by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Critics such as the Missouri Synod’s Francis Pieper have dubbed it an ich-theologizierende, ego-theologizing approach. It is true that Hofmann was the product of a rather Pietistic background and of the German Awakening movement as well. True also, he regarded the experience of personal regeneration as essential for the theological discipline, as a familiar quote puts it: “I the Christian am for me the theologian the unique material of my scholarly activity” (pp. 18, 45, 47). Becker, however, makes a (to us) convincing case that this criticism of Hofmann is not all that well-founded.

This can perhaps be seen in Hofmann’s use of the word Tatbestand, a term possibly of his coinage, or at least uniquely his in the usage he makes of it. The German means the “actual situation,” the “given condition,” the “present reality.” The individual person’s Tatbestand might be understood rather subjectively or existentially, in isolation from anything else. But Hofmann by no means thinks of it in isolation. Rather, the Christian’s Tatbestand is all of that which makes the Christian a Christian. And this necessarily includes the historical background from which the person, the context into which he emerges and matrix in which he finds himself. This “given, matter-of-fact situation,” Becker explains, is always mediated to the individual by the working of the Spirit through the Scriptures and in an historical community and its sacramental activities (12, et passim). It is an experience of the self, though not “self-generated,” as it is grounded outside the self. This grounding will be in the story of God’s redemptive work (Heilsgeschichte) as recorded and mediated by Scripture and by the Spirit’s ongoing work in the community of God’s people.

Hofmann was an early, possibly even the first, theologian who made extensive use of the term Heilsgeschichte. To the Idealist philosophers who were able to discern great patterns and strides of progress in history, it is possible to think of all history as “redemptive.” The biblical era might be just one facet. However, this is clearly not Hofmann’s vision or what he understood as “Salvation History.” Rather it is God’s loving action throughout the history given in the biblical account that culminates and centers in Jesus Christ, thus giving coherence to and making an integrated whole of that history. This in turn is what stands at the center of all history and gives that Weltgeschichte its meaning and value.

“Kenosis” and the Trinity

Becker’s major thesis is expressed in his book’s title: The Self-Giving God and Salvation History. This, as we alluded to above, centers on how the concept of kenosis, often restricted merely to Christ’s self-sacrificial “emptying,” can be expanded to include the whole revelation of the Trinitarian Godhood. God self-differentiates (might “-diversifies,” we wonder, be a suitable translation of the German?) in order to demonstrate God’s love for God’s creation and the entire work of the Trinity is to reveal God’s love. In this, Becker maintains, Hofmann anticipated some of the Trinitarian reflection that has blossomed forth in relatively recent times and continues to engage theologians even yet in our day.

What got Becker’s theological “hero” into more trouble perhaps than anything else may be what his detractors detected as possible tampering with time-honored views of the nature of Christ’s redemptive work. Here, too, Hofmann may have anticipated future developments, particularly the “Christus Victor” emphasis popularized in the 20th century, for example, by Gustav Aulen. Hofmann’s opponents had an objection that appears to be along lines similar to their concern about his purportedly undue “subjectivity”: any competition to the traditional Anselmic satisfaction imagery could possibly be seen as a threat to its “objective” nature. The transforming effect of Christ’s redemptive work might then lie more in its subjective apprehension, or the “moral influence” of it, thinking developed more acutely by later theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl. However, if we understand Becker’s analysis correctly, there would appear to be no compelling reasons to hold Hofmann accountable for this—even if it is reported that Albrecht Ritschl, for instance, was a great fan of Hofmann’s writings (xvii; cf. 240).

One possible spin-off from this debate (as we see it) is that a reduced emphasis on Christ’s work narrowly as the payment of a forensic penalty in satisfaction could be seen by some as diminishing the seriousness God’s wrath, which in turn could detract from the seriousness of sin. Becker refers several times to a Law-Gospel debate that arose some 40 years ago and included some American Lutherans, such as Robert Schultz, who had studied at Erlangen under Werner Elert, and Gerhard Forde. Both published studies on the subject (26-28, 199ff). Becker does not explicate this in great detail, but there appears to be something of a connection between this debate and earlier criticisms of Hofmann. (Again, our interpretation, and we plead lack of expertise, but encourage the interested reader to explore this further).

“Old Truths Taught in a New Way”

Becker goes to considerable effort to examine and appraise Hofmann’s relationship to the often tumultuous philosophical as well as theological currents of his day (e.g. Ch 5., “Excursus: Hofmann and German Idealism,” which examines his thought in relation particularly to Ranke, Hegel, and Schelling). Hofmann had had little formal training in philosophy but had made himself very well informed in it. In fact, he was at home in many disciplines, including secular subjects. But one needs to bear also in mind that his dominant interest in teaching and writing had actually turned very strongly to biblical studies, and these comprise a major portion of his literary output. Moreover, as he devoutly affirmed of himself, his own Tatbestand was very powerfully a product of the biblical revelation. Becker’s concluding appraisal in this Excursus is that

This combination of the biblical world and the world of the mid-nineteenth century led Hofmann to seek to make the biblical world understandable to his generation, even though he evidently did not realize just how close some of his theological conceptions were to the reigning Zeitgeist. . . . That Hofmann engaged the philosophical ideas of his era and even utilized such ideas to explicate the content of his biblical faith marks him as similar to other creative, classic theologians who did the same thing in their era. But his engagement with these ideas also ought to make him important for contemporary theology since the issues he found important are still with us today: questions about theological method (including hermeneutics), questions about the historicality of the Christian Tatbestand, and the question of God’s being in relation to the world of becoming. Perhaps Hofmann’s contemporaneity may, in part, be attributed to the influence of German Idealist thinkers both on his world and on our own. (119)

Summary and Concluding Observations

The following summary of the book’s contents will give an idea of the portions we have touched on, plus some that we can’t get to in this review. The book is arranged in three major parts:

Part I, “situating” von Hofmann, looks at his life and work (pp. 3-15) and basic interpretations of his theology (16-28).

Part II discusses his theological method, subdivided into the object of theology (31-58), his hermeneutics (59-88), an excursus on Hofmann and German Idealism (89-119), and an evaluation and criticism of Hofmann’s method (120-131).

Part III takes up Hofmann’s doctrine of God. Its first two subsections are “Trinitarian Historicality: The Self-Determining God” (135-158) and “Trinitarian Historicality and the World of Becoming” (159-172). Following these are chapters on “A New Way to Teach Old Truth: Trinitarian Kenosis” (173-203), “The Future of Humanity: The Church in the World” (204-219), “The Future of God: Heilsgeschichte and Weltgeschichte” (220-232), and a concluding “Evaluation and Criticism of Hofmann’s Doctrine of God” (233-257).

This study should be of interest and worth to both the general, more casual reader as well as to those who are specialists. The expert in the modern history of theology will not wish to be uninformed of this study’s findings and its attempt to “rehabilitate” this once brightly shining theological light, and to demonstrate the influence he has had on subsequent theological thought.

But also the more generalist type of reader will find that it will further his/her education in theological developments since roughly the post-Enlightenment era, through the struggles and ferments of the 19th century, and anticipating some 20th century developments with ramifications that extend to our own day, such as current discussions concerning hermeneutics, theologies of hope, and renewed interest in reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity.

The mechanics of the book are excellent. It is well-organized and written in a style that is clear and easily understood, even when the subject matter per se may tend somewhat to the dense.

The author, who just within the past year accepted a teaching position at Valparaiso University after a number of years at Concordia University, Portland, has a grasp of the subject matter, command of a vast volume of pertinent literature, both primary and secondary, and a skill at communicating it that is little short of phenomenal.

We hope the quality of this sample of Dr. Becker’s theological writing is a worthy foretaste of much more that is to come.

Pastor Karl Wyneken
Editor, 
DayStar Arising
Fresno, CA

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