Appreciating Johannes von Hofmann*
By Matthew Becker
*The following essay is based partly on the introduction to my book, The Self-Giving God and Salvation History: The Trinitarian Theology of Johannes von Hofmann (New York: T&T Clark, 2004).
Johannes Christian Konrad von Hofmann (1810-1877) has been properly identified as “the greatest conservative theologian” of the nineteenth century and one of that century’s “most impressive figures.” The most important historian of modern theology calls him the chief confessional Lutheran theologian of his day and “one of the most powerful and vigorous biblical interpreters” in the nineteenth century. Hofmann’s biographer does not exaggerate when he calls him “one of the most original minds in the history of theology in the nineteenth century.” He certainly was among those theologians Barth had in mind when he wrote: “[I]n dealing with the theologians of the 19th century, at least with the best among them, we are faced with a type of person that merits our highest respect. This in itself is reason enough for our listening to them even today.”
Hofmann was born in Nueremberg on December 21, 1810, and raised by his mother in an atmosphere of Lutheran Pietism and the German Religious Awakening. Central to his early life were daily family devotions and the weekly divine services, typically two per Sunday. These spiritual experiences deeply shaped Hofmann’s life. Later, as a student at the Gymnasium (classical secondary school), Hofmann was introduced to a particular synthesis of Pietism and Christian Humanism.
Hofmann’s early life developed within the larger movements of German political “restoration” and cultural Romanticism. It was a time when liberalism within Germany was beginning to emerge and attract attention. This turbulent period was marked by the “sense of ‘groundlessness’ in the European community after the decline of the aristocratic ethos.” The birth and transformation of ideologies in Europe contributed to the uncertainties of the period. Hofmann was especially attracted to the poems of Novalis and Schiller, and to the depiction of human life in the Pensées of Pascal and the plays of Shakespeare. The combination of striking political events (such as the Napoleonic wars, the year 1815, and the Restoration) with the profound movements in early-nineteeth-century German thought and literature exerted a decisive influence on many young Germans, Hofmann included.
Hofmann’s interest in history awakened in the Gymnasium, but it grew when he went off to the University of Erlangen in 1827. Here he also began the study of theology, largely because of the wishes of his mother. At that time the seventeen-year-old came under the influence of Christian Krafft, a Reformed pastor and associate professor of theology, and Karl von Raumer, professor of natural history and pedagogics. These professors had not been as influenced by Rationalism as had most of the rest of the Erlangen faculty at that time; instead they were advocates of the piety that had been emerging from the Religious Awakening. Reflecting on his first two semesters in Erlangen, Hofmann later remarked, Krafft “led me to the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” and “converted me to the living God.” Raumer had a particularly profound effect on Hofmann’s spiritual development: “It was Raumer who taught me to know my sins.” He became Hofmann’s mentor and Seelsorger. Not only did he lead Hofmann out of the nationalistic Burschenschaft (student duelling fraternity) to which Hofmann belonged, but he made sure that Hofmann was properly introduced to the best in German philosophy, theology, and literature. Yet, despite these significant influences, and balanced by his strong interest in history, Hofmann developed as a “personality capable of independent, self-directed study.”
From 1829 to 1832 he lived in Berlin and worked as a private tutor, while he also attended the university. He was evidently unimpressed with both Georg Hegel (1770-1831) and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), despite the alleged dominant influence of these two giants on the budding theologian. (Ernst Hengstenberg [1802-1869] had little influence on him.) Hofmann remarked in a letter to his friend and one-time colleague, Franz Delitzsch (1813-1890), that he had attended Schleiermacher’s lectures on “New Testament Introduction” but that he “could only endure the course through midterm and never heard him lecture again.” Apparently, Hofmann was troubled by what he considered to be Schleiermacher’s inattention to historical facts and biblical details. In this same letter, though, Hofmann also stated that “as a graduate student (Repetent) in systematic theology I read [Schleiermacher’s] Glaubenslehre, which pleased me because of its very consistent procedure though I found myself generally disagreeing with him.” In his later writings, Hofmann acknowledged the importance of Schleiermacher’s reconceptualization of the theological disciplines, though he also carefully distanced himself from the latter’s theological method and conclusions. Kantzenbach’s general remark holds true:
[E]ven though Hofmann could learn nothing from Schleiermacher’s exegesis, he was influenced by Schleiermacher’s systematic and methodological perspective. Hofmann as a student and assistant professor occupied himself intensively with Schleiermacher’s theology.
Hofmann makes clear to Delitzsch that only later in his life did Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Schleiermacher, and Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) become important for his thinking. Here, too, Hofmann states that Hegel’s philosophy of history “ruined in me all taste for his philosophy.” The thinkers who seem to have exercized an early influence on Hofmann’s understanding of God included Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), and Johann Hamann (1730-1788).
Hofmann’s attitude toward Schleiermacher and Hegel was most likely determined to a large degree by his favorite professor, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), whose lectures Hofmann called “his daily pleasure.” The influence of Ranke’s seminars ensured that Hofmann’s theological concerns would have a largely historical focus. Indeed, for a time, due to the influence of Ranke, Hofmann thought seriously of giving up theology altogether in order to pursue only historical studies and politics as his life’s vocation. Raumer, when Hofmann asked about this, dissuaded him from this option. Nevertheless, the stamp of Ranke is clearly evident on Hofmann’s earliest works.
In October, 1832, after being in second position among the theology students during his first years, he received the rare mark of “superior” (vorzueglich) on his examinations, and was given an overall very appreciative evaluation by his professors. Despite receiving such a high mark in theology, Hofmann did not become a pastor. Instead he became a teacher in an Erlangen Gymnasium, where he taught primarily history, but also Hebrew, Latin, and theology. During this time he occasionally preached from Krafft’s pulpit. (Later, after becoming a salaried professor of theology at Erlangen, he also served as university preacher.)
The improvement in Hofmann’s financial situation allowed him to marry Charlotte Lahmeyer in 1835. In August of this same year he completed his philosophical dissertation on the war of Antiochus IV (“Ephiphanes”) against Ptolemy VI. On the basis of this work, and his defense of the theses attached to it, he was allowed by the university to lecture on history in the philosophy department as a non-salaried university professor (Privatdozent). In this period (1835-1838) Hofmann also worked as a graduate student (Repetent) in theology and wrote his theological dissertation on Psalm 110, which allowed him to lecture on theology. His primary scholarly interests in this period were the history of Old Testament prophecy and Old Testament history.
Although he was promoted to the position of associate professor (extraordinarius) in 1841, the next year he accepted a call to teach theology at the University of Rostock. Here he not only participated in matters of practical theology, but he also began his custom of hosting a “theological tea” for his students one afternoon each week at his home. The purpose of these gatherings (in which Frau Hofmann also took part) was to engage in informal theological discussion about matters that fell outside of the regular university curriculum. Hofmann used these occasions to analyze pressing theological issues, but also to engage such classics of the spiritual life as Augustine’s Confessions and Pascal’s Pensees.
After teaching in Rostock for three years, he accepted a call back to Erlangen, where he was made full professor (ordinarius) of theology–lecturing mainly on the Old and New Testaments, but also on Christian ethics, dogmatics, and theological encyclopedia. Here he remained until his death, just one day before his sixty-seventh birthday. According to colleagues who were present at his death, Hofmann died as he was reciting the twenty-third Psalm in Hebrew.
The Center of the Erlangen School
Hofmann taught theology at Erlangen for nearly thirty-five years (1838-1842, 1845-1877). During this time he became the acknowledged center of what some have called “the Erlangen School.” This complex theological tradition centered in a circle of professors whose ideas and actions were defined broadly on the basis of the experience of baptismal regeneration, the certainty of personal faith, a critical appropriation of the Lutheran confessional writings, and an organic-historical view of the development of the Bible, the church, and the church’s Confessions.
Hofmann stood out in this circle for many reasons, not least because he was its most prolific author. In addition to writing a number of articles and smaller texts, his three main writing projects were the two-volume Weissagung und Erfuellung, the two-volume Der Schriftbeweis (“Scriptural Proof”), and the unfinished, eleven-volume commentary on the whole of the New Testament. Another important work from this period, Hofmann’s lectures on biblical hermeneutics (originally delivered in 1860 but published posthumously in 1880), is the only significant theological hermeneutics written between Schleiermacher and Joachim Wach (1898-1955) and the only text of his that has been translated into English.
During this second Erlangen period Hofmann entered, as the Germans say, “the Bluetezeit” of his career, when he also became “the acknowledged head of the entire university faculty.” On six separate occasions he was chosen to be Rektor (vice-chancellor) of the university, a dignity that he was given more times than any other professor in the history of the university. (The Bavarian king always served as chancellor.)
As the principal figure in the Erlangen theological tradition, Hofmann’s significance resides in his response to what is perhaps the premiere question of modern Christian theology: What is the proper relation of Christian faith and experience to historical knowledge? On the one hand, as a post-Enlightenment theologian, Hofmann struggled to interpret an historically-oriented faith in response to the nature of history and the critical methods used by historians when they conduct historical investigation. On the other hand, as a post-Enlightenment theologian of faith, Hofmann was concerned to define the nature and basis of Christian faith itself. How, if at all, are God, personal faith, and history related?
The publication of David Friedrich Strauss’s Leben Jesu in 1835 heightened Hofmann’s awareness of the crisis that critical-historical consciousness posed for faith in Jesus Christ. As a serious student of history Hofmann knew it was impossible for the Christian scholar simply to turn a blind eye on historical scholarship and take refuge in a traditional scholastic-orthodox doctrine of scriptural inspiration and infallibility, as Hengstenberg had done. For Hofmann the problem was how to interpret the basic “facts” of biblical revelation correctly without succumbing either to “unhistorical” biblicism/dogmatism or to the radical skepticism of historicism (Historismus).
In view of these problems, Hofmann sought to understand and express his Christian faith by means of a theological method which would correlate a systematic analysis of the Christian experience of baptismal/ecclesial regeneration and personal faith with an historical investigation of the Christian scriptures. Hofmann thought that by articulating the unity between experiential faith and historical investigation he could continue “to teach the old truth but in a new way.” In contrast to the majority of his Lutheran colleagues (especially beyond Erlangen), who continued to understand the Bible as an infallible textbook of doctrines, and in contrast to skeptics, like Strauss, who could not affirm the essential historical “facts” of the biblical revelation, Hofmann argued that the Bible is the record of the triune God’s saving activity in history. Similar to his teachers, Ranke and Hegel, and similar to Schelling, Hofmann asserted that the Bible is “the monument of a history,” a history of divine redemption or Heilsgeschichte.
Christianity, then, is not a matter of subscribing to ahistorical doctrines, nor does it seek to perpetuate “fictional myths”; rather, it is a personal experience, a Tatbestand, a “given situation” or a “given subject matter” mediated to the individual Christian by the risen Christ through the documents (Scripture) and sacramental activities of an historical community (the Church). Hofmann’s peculiar form of fides quaerens intellectum led him to define theology as that discipline which is born out of the Christian theologian’s own desire to understand and give expression to this Tatbestand, i.e., that which makes the Christian a Christian.
For Hofmann the term Tatbestand attempts to unite the uniquely personal experience of individual Christian faith with that which has created and established that faith. Hofmann, therefore, used the word Tatbestand to provide a more “objective,” if also dynamic, grounding to his personal experience of regeneration and faith. He stressed that the experience which the theologian analyzes is not “self-generated”; rather, it is an experience of the self, grounded outside of the self. According to Hofmann, systematic theology does not provide a “description of the Christian religious-pious feeling,” as in Schleiermacher’s theological program, but rather gives “a development of the simple Tatbestand that makes the Christian into the Christian.” The Tatbestand of Christianity distinguishes Christianity from that which is non-Christian.
Thus, according to Hofmann, Christian theology in the post-Enlightenment period is primarily the “self-expression” or even the “self-unfolding” of the Christian theologian’s understanding of the personal-historical relationship between God and humanity in Jesus Christ. Hofmann thus exemplified that he was attempting to rethink Christian theology in light of the “aims of the new epoch” of modernity. These “aims” centered in the desire to find an adequate synthesis of subjective freedom and natural necessity, i.e., to find a solution to the problem of uniting radical human autonomy with the world of nature. While Hofmann believed that the “self-expression” of his Christian faith has its origin in the trans-subjectivity of the triune God’s own “Self-expression,” the fact that Hofmann spoke of Christianity as a matter of “self-expression” and “self-unfolding” indicates he was thinking within “the new epoch,” marked by “the expressivist turn” or “the turn to the self.”
In light of this new epoch, Hofmann’s redefinition of the theological task led him to break with the Lutheran Orthodox tradition and to formulate a revisionist understanding of God (specifically the triune God’s activity in history), of the person and work of Jesus (the kenosis or “self-emptying” of the second person of the Trinity in Jesus), and of the authority and purpose of the Bible (i.e., as the witness to God’s actions in history).
Neglect and Misunderstandings of Hofmann’s Theology
Unfortunately, even though Hofmann’s importance has been registered, he has suffered benign neglect and widespread misunderstanding, especially in the English-speaking world. A few scholars, if they do recognize Hofmann’s contribution, incorrectly categorize him with the confessionalists Hofmann opposed, as though he too had “reactionary tendencies” that led him “to refuse entirely to face the challenge to theology of scientific criticism.” However, labels such as “biblicist,” “repristinator,” or “confessionalist” do not adequately define Hofmann’s theological program, nor do they account for Hofmann’s strident criticisms of both Hengstenberg on the one hand and Strauss on the other. Hofmann’s trinitarian understanding of kenosis alone is sufficient to distinguish him from the usual categorizations of theologians between Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889).
Analyses of Hofmann’s work concentrate on three main aspects of his theology that have been of importance to post-eighteenth-century Christian theology: (a) his theological method (especially the role of experience in theology) and his biblical hermeneutics; (b) his understanding of the Bible as a witness to God’s redemptive activity in history (Heilsgeschichte); and (c) his understanding of the atonement of Christ as the central event of this divine redemptive activity in history.
(a) Hofmann’s Theological Method
Many scholars accuse Hofmann of overstating the place of subjectivity in theology. In this typical interpretation, Hofmann is guilty of trying to deduce the entire content of salvation out of his personal experience of regeneration. A chief “proof-text” for this typical interpretation is the following statement by Hofmann (often the only quotation of his to be cited in the standard surveys of nineteenth-century theology):
Theology is a truly free scholarly discipline (Wissenschaft), free in God, only when precisely that which makes a Christian to be a Christian, his own independent relationship to God, makes the theologian to be a theologian through disciplined self-knowledge and self-expression, when I the Christian am for me the theologian the unique material of my Wissenschaft.
Many have concluded on the basis of their exegesis of this passage and similar ones that the influence of speculative idealism fooled Hofmann into thinking he could begin theological reflection with his spiritual experience and develop from that experience an entire theological system. Though Theodor Kliefoth (1810-1895) was the first to raise this charge against Hofmann, a host of others have done the same. For example, Hofmann’s colleague, Delitzsch, argued that
…no theologian can draw out of his consciousness of faith, out of the life of faith as such, the whole variety of the past, present, and future of salvation and develop that into an extensive doctrinal system, even if only in outline-form. If the Bible is not directly involved as the cause of its formation, such a doctrinal system at the very least needs to prove that only the Bible, as divine revelation, stands behind the doctrinal system as its normative authority.
Likewise, within American Lutheranism, Francis Pieper (1852-1931) singled out Hofmann as the main perpetrator of what Pieper called “Ichtheologie.” Others who have leveled similar criticism include Paul Tillich, Barth, and their students.
Careful consideration of Hofmann’s entire literary corpus indicates, however, that this typical interpretation of Hofmann’s theological method is inaccurate. Most of those who have analyzed Hofmann’s theological method have themselves overstated the place of “subjectivity” in his thought. Perhaps part of the difficulty is that Tillich and others appear to have interpreted Hofmann’s theology through the lens of Hofmann’s younger colleague, Franz Frank. Frank’s theology, however, was not oriented to history nor to divine revelation in history but solely to the rebirth and conversion experience of the individual Christian, the fundamental fact of Christian experience which, for Frank, is the origin and content of the Christian certainty. In several places Hofmann asserted that the experience of baptismal regeneration is never self-generated but is mediated by the church into which one is incorporated through the means of grace. Christian religious experience is never merely a subjective or individual experience but an experience of Christianity, the Christian experience. So the purpose of the doctrinal system is not to show how the Christian religious experience occurs, since clearly the experience presupposes the mediation of faith through the Spirit’s use of the church’s means of grace. Hofmann emphasized, rather, that on the basis of the Christian Tatbestand, through which faith is received from outside of oneself, an independent statement of that particular and historical faith is possible. The Tatbestand of Christianity, the “given facts of the matter” within the ecclesial situation of the Christian, preserved Hofmann from slipping into an alleged subjectivism or solipsism.
Furthermore, Hofmann was not concerned to provide “a rational proof” for his Christian faith, only to understand it in order to give it correct expression. What looks like “begging of the question” (petitio principii) is actually just another form of the well-known hermeneutical circle along which all interpreters find themselves: One has a pre-understanding of the text one is to understand which one cannot avoid bringing to the text. Through one’s encounter with the text, one discovers this pre-understanding confirmed to a certain degree, yet never to the point that one’s pre-understanding is simply confirmed in toto. For Hofmann Christian experience by its very nature leads the Christian theologian into historical exegesis in order to compare one’s own experience with the experience of the historical community which precedes and conditions that experience. Precisely because Christian experience is communal and ecclesial, and because Scripture belongs to the ecclesial community, the Christian has a necessary relationship to Scripture which is given through the experience. 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. This is one of the main points in Hofmann’s defense against the charge of subjectivism.
While Hofmann was not a repristinatory “biblicist,” neither was he determined by a rigidly historicist orientation. His historical perspective was tempered by his concern to take seriously the inescapable pre-understanding that every interpreter brings to the text and to reckon with the hermeneutical implications that a particular religious perspective creates for the interpreter of biblical texts. Unlike many biblical interpreters, Hofmann acknowledged that the interpreter’s personal participation in his knowledge and understanding, in both its discovery and its validation, is an indispensable part of interpretation itself. In light of these concerns, his thought appears quite up-to-date next to post-Heidegger, post-Gadamer and post-Ricoeur concerns about the historicity of language and the historicality of the biblical interpreter.
If the main criticism against Hofmann is that his theological method is subjectivistic, the other prevailing view is that his understanding of Heilsgeschichte is dependent on an idealistic notion of developmental progress that is at odds not only with traditional Christian doctrine but with history itself:
But instead of rejecting the perspective of the philosophy of history as a whole and distinguishing faith from all world-historical conceptions, in order to base it on the eschatological ‘verbum incarnatum’ alone, Hofmann retains his ties with Hegel and clings to his historical-philosophical point of departure.
According to Wendebourg, Hofmann’s theology of history is based on certain “world-historical concepts” taken from Hegel, Ranke, Schelling, and Schleiermacher, and thus Hofmann’s “Heilsgeschichte” is “the result of two utterly contradictory conceptions of history, one aprioristic” (Hegel), the other “historical” (Ranke). This interpretation of Hofmann has also been repeated by others, such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, who accuses Hofmann of “delimiting,” “ghettoizing,” and “severing” an “inner” redemptive history (Heilsgeschichte) from an “outer,” “ordinary,” secular history (Historie). Pannenberg understands Hofmann to be saying that Heilsgeschichte does not really belong to “history” as most historians understand and practice it, especially since Hofmann was unwilling to utilize historical criticism to its full extent and since he based his own historical investigations on a pre-conceived idealistic “organic-whole.” Pannenberg’s reading of Hofmann contends that Hofmann’s theology of history is untenable due to its pre-critical limitations.
One needs to note that Pannenberg and others seem to equate Hofmann’s understanding of Heilsgeschichte with that of Oscar Cullmann’s (1902-1999), when they accuse Hofmann of making Heilsgeschichte an inner, hidden part of all history. But for Hofmann, in contrast to Cullmann, Heilsgeschichte is a more comprehensive category than “world history” (Weltgeschichte), since Heilsgeschichte is comprehended within a trinitarian framework. Indeed, for Hofmann, Heilsgeschichte 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.
The focal point of Hofmann’s conception of “history” is his understanding of trinitarian kenosis, that the eternal God has become historical by “emptying” God’s self into Jesus in order to reconcile the whole world to God. According to Hofmann, world history can only be understood properly within the historical self-giving of the triune God who is love. “Salvation history” (Heilsgeschichte), therefore, is not separate from history but ultimately embraces and fulfills all history within itself. “If it is true that all things, great and small, serve to bring about the unification of the world under its head Christ, then there is nothing in world-history in which something divine does not dwell, nothing which remains necessarily alien to prophecy.” Thus, “[t]he self-presentation of Christ in the world is the essential content of all history.”
Therefore, similar to Pannenberg’s own conception of history, Hofmann’s conception of Heilsgeschichte is not part of world history but is rather inclusive of all history. World history is a part of Heilsgeschichte because the unity and meaning of history will become apparent to all only at “the end of history.” Thus, both Hofmann and Pannenberg speak of “universal history” within the context of the Trinity, of “the end of history” which has been revealed in “the middle of history.” Furthermore, Hofmann (similar to Pannenberg) attempted to reconceptualize the nature and methodology of historical investigation in light of properly theological categories, though one must stress that Pannenberg, at least in principle, has a greater appreciation than did Hofmann for the possibilities of empirical-criticial historical investigation to ascertain and evaluate historical facts.
While Hofmann’s standpoint shares at least formal similarity to Schelling’s and Hegel’s totalistic views of history and though he, like they, thought that the course of history is rational and intelligible, for Hofmann it is the eschatological gift of the Spirit at work in the life of the Christian-in-community which grants this hopeful possibility. Hofmann viewed world history in light of its eschaton, but that eschaton was present to him only through the gift of faith and hope. Thus, Hofmann waited in the posture of expectant faith in the eschatological Christ, “the end of history in the midst of history,” who is nonetheless present with his Church.
The final area of interest in Hofmann’s theology concerns his creative reinterpretation of the atonement of Christ, which some have considered Hofmann’s most significant achievement. According to Reinhold Seeberg (1859-1935), Hofmann was the only contemporary theologian, other than Schleiermacher, upon whom Albrecht Ritschl really depended. Ritschl’s own massive work on justification and reconciliation was written partly in response to the controversy over Hofmann’s ideas about the atonement. Thus it is not an exaggeration to say that “Ritschl took over a whole line of development from Hofmann which developed into a new period in theology.”
Gerhard Forde places Hofmann at the beginning of a debate about the atonement of Christ (and about Luther’s interpretation of the atonement) that extended into twentieth-century discussions of Barth’s theology and those European Lutherans responding to him. Forde stresses that the atonement controversy was really about the place of “law” within Lutheran theology. He observes that Hofmann’s approach to the atonement was grounded in a critique of the traditional view that God’s wrath must be appeased through the vicarious satisfaction of Christ before God can be merciful toward humanity. Hofmann began with the affirmation that God is self-giving love and this led Hofmann to reinterpret the traditional teaching about Christ’s atonement. The law of God is historical and not eternal, and thus Christ is able to overcome the threat of the law through his own history.
While Forde has great respect for Hofmann’s critique of the traditional-scholastic Lutheran doctrine of vicarious satisfaction and its legalistic framework, he is critical of the logic of Hofmann’s understanding of Heilsgeschichte, in which the wrath of God is really less than what Forde thinks it is. Since Jesus knew the divine plan apparently in advance, he knew its outcome, and consequently his suffering on the cross was not a radical suffering of divine wrath in himself. Since “at all times [Jesus] preserves his relationship to God he cannot suffer ‘what man should have suffered’–the desolation of ultimate defeat and despair. The atonement then appears as the working out of the divine plan which was from the outset a foregone conclusion.” Hofmann is faulted for replacing the juridical-legalistic framework of the traditional orthodox doctrine of vicarious satisfaction with his own “scheme of Heilsgeschichte.” While Hofmann has correctly criticized the legalistic framework as being incapable of fully accounting for the divine love, he himself diminished the power of the law in the Christian’s existence since he understood the divine law to be merely “a part of a historical dispensation.”
Forde acknowledges his indebtedness to the study by Robert Schultz, which also examines the relation of law to gospel in nineteenth-century German theology, though Forde disagrees with Schultz’s conclusion that Hofmann’s theology was basically destructive for Lutheran theology. In contrast to Forde, who maintains that Hofmann’s criticism of the traditional understanding of the atonement allowed the debate over law and gospel to begin afresh, Schultz criticizes Hofmann for neglecting the problem of the opposition of the law to the gospel in his concern for an historical development of salvation. Forde, however, notes that Schultz does not seem to appreciate the untenable situation that Hofmann faced at the time. As long as Lutheran Orthodoxy remained tied to a seventeenth-century understanding of vicarious atonement, it would remain largely doomed to theological irrelevance. Part of Hofmann’s significance resides in his critique of this traditional scheme, even if his own creative response is also problematic from a theological perspective that seeks to take seriously the proper distinction between God’s law and God’s gospel.
Unfortunately Forde did not examine Hofmann’s understanding of trinitarian kenosis, which offsets Forde’s judgment that Hofmann’s christology tends toward docetism. Furthermore, Hofmann did not think the divine law was “only a part of a historical dispensation,” which has no relevence or impact within the Christian’s life. Hofmann explicitly stated that insofar as the Christian remains a sinner, he stands under the judgment of God’s law (though Hofmann denied a “third use” of the law). Nonetheless, according to Hofmann, the Christian’s ultimate hope is grounded in Christ’s triumph against the forces, including the historical wrath of God, that oppose God’s eternal will of love. In other words, Christian hope is grounded in the atonement of Christ, who removes the historical wrath of God against sinful humanity. Hofmann opposed the concept of the historical wrath of God against human sins with the eternal will of God’s love realized in the kenotic self-giving of Christ.
Johannes von Hofmann was “a successful teacher, a highly esteemed conversationalist, a friend of music and literature.” His most famous student, Theodor Zahn (1838-1933), provides a helpful portrait:
I do not remember ever being bored in one of his lectures during the three semesters of my study in Erlangen. To imitate him was never a desire on my part, and he never encouraged that kind of thing either, i.e., to collect students about himself to repeat and propogate the formulas of the master. I consider it to be one of the happiest divine providences of my life, however, that I was able to have a continuous good relationship with this uncommon man from the day I met him to his death. In conversation with students he was as discreet as he was casual. He refused invitations to the parties of the academic community in principle, not only to save time and labor, but especially because he wanted to remain equally accessible to all students. If one visited him during his office hour, in order to desire advice on private study or enlightenment about a problem touched on by him in one of his lectures, he did not refuse this.
In addition to his university responsibilities, many other activities filled Hofmann’s life as well. He was active in both ecclesiastical and civic/political endeavors. In union with Johann Wichern he conducted welfare work and social ministry and was active in several missionary societies. He was a regular contributor to (and later editor of) Zeitschrift fuer Protestantismus und Kirche (1846-1876), a major confessional Lutheran theological journal, and a contributor to Wochenschrift der Fortschrittspartei in Bayern, the magazine of the liberal political party in which he was a leading participant. From 1863 to 1869 he served in the Bavarian Parliament as a representative of this “Progressive Party,” whose main political goals were the formation of German national unity and a defense of the separation between church and state. (Hofmann rejected the notion of a “Christian state,” which he considered to be a contradiction of terms and contrary to the Christian distinction between law and gospel.) Needless to say, Hofmann’s development as a political liberal (who favored a constitutional monarchy) was not in step with the majority of German theologians at this time.
Hofmann deserves to be more widely understood and appreciated, especially among theologians in America. Clearly he was “an uncommonly active and many-sided man…” He is a good example of that “encyclopedic” theologian who is actively involved in what David Tracy calls “the three publics of theology: society, academy, and the church” and the three disciplines of theology: systematic, historical (exegesis and church history), and practical-ethical. While some of the stereotypes of Hofmann’s theology need to be viewed with skepticism, some aspects of his doctrine of God are of surprising contemporary importance and may offer a modest contribution toward a doctrine of God that affirms God’s self-giving in and through the kenosis of Jesus.
Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History, trans. Brian Cozens and John Bowden (Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1973), 610, 608. See also Barth’s comments on Hofmann in his essay, “Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century,”The Humanity of God, trans. John Newton Thomas and Thomas Wieser (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1960), 25-26.
Emanuel Hirsch, Geschichte der neueren evangelischen Theologie im Zusammenhang mit den allgemeinen Bewegungen des europaeischen Denkens, 5th ed., 5 vols. (Guetersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1975), 5:424.
Paul Wapler, “Die Theologie Hofmanns in ihrem Verhaeltnis zu Schellings positiver Philosophie,” Neue kirchliche Zeitschrift 16 (1905):707. See also Paul Wapler, Johannes von Hofmann. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der theologischen Grundprobleme, der kirchlichen und der politischen Bewegungen im 19. Jahrhundert (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1914).
Karl Barth, “Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century,” 17.
His father died when Johannes was quite young. Hofmann was ennobled in 1855 for his university and political services, and from that time onward he was Johannes von Hofmann.
Terry Pinkard, Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 269.
Wapler, Johannes von Hofmann, 14.
Walther von Loewenich, “Johannes Christian Konrad von Hofmann: Leben und Werk,” Rede anlaesslich einer Akademischen Gedenkfeier des theologischen Fachbereichs zum 100. Todestag von Hofmanns am 20. Dezember 1977, Erlanger Universitaetsrede 3,1 (Erlangen: The University of Erlangen, 1978), 2.
Friedrich Kantzenbach, Die Erlanger Theologie: Grundlinien ihrer Entwicklung im Rahmen der Geschichte der theologischen Fakultaet, 1743-1877 (Muenchen: Evang. Presseverband fuer Bayern, 1960), 180.
Theologische Briefe der Professoren Delitzsch und v. Hofmann, ed. D. Wilhelm Volck (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1891), 37-38.
Kantzenbach, Die Erlanger Theologie, 181.
Theologische Briefe, 37-38. Friedrich Schelling had taught at Erlangen during most of the 1820’s, though he had just left for Munich when Hofmann entered the university in 1827. Consequently, Hofmann had no personal contact with Schelling then (or later). Even so, Schelling’s influence was still evident at Erlangen. Schelling himself had been active in various circles of the Erweckungsbewegung, and for a time had even served as president of a Bible society and a mission society. Kantzenbach remarks, “That Schelling supported these activities gave buoyancy to the religious life of Erlangen, particularly to the youth” (Friedrich Kantzenbach, “Schelling und das bayerische Luthertum,” Zeitschrift fuer bayerische Landesgeschichte 36 :127).
Hofmann and Delitzsch, Theologische Briefe, 38.
This dissertation, which he completed in 1838, challenged the messianic interpretation of Psalm 110, even though Hofmann also defended its Davidic authorship. He did not have to defend the theses attached to his dissertation since he already enjoyed a favorable reputation with the theology faculty. See Kantzenbach, Die Erlanger Theologie, 182.
Karlmann Beyschlag, Die Erlanger Theologie (Erlangen: Martin-Luther Verlag, 1993), 81.
The literature on the Erlangen theological tradition is extensive, but in general see Philipp Bachmann, “Die Stellung und Eigenart der sogenannten Erlanger Theologie,” in Festgabe fuer Theodor Zahn (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1928), 1-17; Beyschlag, Die Erlanger Theologie; Martin Hein, Lutherisches Bekenntnis und Erlanger Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert, Die Lutherische Kirche, Geschichte und Gestalten, Band 7 (Guetersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1984); Robert Jelke, “Die Eigenart der Erlanger Theologie,” Neue kirchliche Zeitschrift 41 (1930):19-63; Hermann Jordan, “Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Erlanger theologischen Fakultaet,” Beitraege zur Bayern Kirchengeschichte 26 (1920):49-68; Kantzenbach, Die Erlanger Theologie; Max Keller-Hueschemenger, Das Problem der Heilsgewissheit in der Erlanger Theologie im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Ein Beitrag zur Frage des theologischen Subjektivismus in der gegenwaertigen evangelischen Theologie (Berlin: Lutherisches Verlag, 1963); Hans Poehlmann, “Die Erlanger Theologie: Ihre Geschichte und ihre Bedeutung,” Theologische Studien und Kritiken 80 (1907):390-433, 535-563; Klaus Sturm, “Die integrierende Funktion der Ekklesiologie in der lutherisch-konfessionellen Dogmatik des Erlangen Kreises” (Th.D. diss., Erlangen University, 1976); and Friedrich Wilhelm Winter, Die Erlanger Theologie und die Lutherforschung im 19. Jahrhundert (Guetersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1995).
In addition to Hofmann, this Erlangen circle included Adolph von Harless (1806-1879), J. W. F. Hoefling (1802-1853); Gottfried Thomasius (1802-1875); Heinrich Schmid (1811-1885); Franz Delitzsch (1813-1890); Theodosius von Harnack (1817-1889); Gerhard von Zezschwitz (1825-1886); and Franz von Frank (1827-1894).
See Johannes von Hofmann, Weissagung und Erfuellung im Alten und im Neuen Testamente, 2 vols. (Noerdlingen: C. H. Beck, 1841, 1844); idem, Der Schriftbeweis, 2 vols., 2d ed. (Noerdlingen: C. H. Beck, 1857-1860); and idem, Die heilige Schrift Neuen Testaments zusammenhaengend untersucht, 11 vols., 2d ed., ed. W. Volck (Noerdlingen: C. H. Beck, 1896). Part two of Der Schriftbeweis was divided into two books. The actual number of books that comprise Hofmann’s commentary on the New Testament is seventeen (approximately two million words on 5,910 pages).
See Johann von Hofmann, Interpreting the Bible, trans. Christian Preus, intro. Otto Piper (Minneapolis: Augsburg,1959). This is not a complete translation of Biblische Hermeneutik, ed. Wilhelm Volck (Noerdlingen: C. H. Beck, 1880). Preus’ dissertation on Hofmann’s hermeneutics helped to bring Hofmann to the attention of American biblical scholars in the mid-twentieth century. See Christian Preus, “The Theology of Johan [sic] Christian Konrad von Hofmann with Special Reference to His Hermeneutical Principles” (Th.D. diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1948).
Martin Schellbach, Theologie und Philosophie bei v. Hofmann. Beitraege zur Foederung christlicher Theologie (Guetersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1935), 26. See also Theodor Kolde, Die Universitaet Erlangen unter dem Hause Wittelsbach 1810-1910 (Erlangen: A. Deichert, 1910), 372-397.
David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben jesu (Tuebingen: Osiander, 1835). Strauss was born in 1808 and died in 1874. The second edition of this classic work appeared in 1836. A third edition appeared in 1838. George Eliot translated the fourth edition into English: David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, trans. George Eliot, ed. Peter Hodgson (Ramsey, NJ: Sigler Press, 1994).
See Johannes von Hofmann, Schutzschriften fuer eine neue Weise alte Wahrheit zu lehren, 4 parts (Noerdlingen: C. H. Beck, 1856-1859).
Hofmann, Der Schriftbeweis, 1:25.
Ibid., 1:10, 12-13.
Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 15, 17. See also idem, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 368-390. Taylor describes the growing sense of the importance of “self-expression” and “the unfolding of self” in the late-eighteenth century, but also the need for the positing of some kind of cosmic subjectivity that would provide the unity between human individuals and the natural world.
Peter C. Hodgson, The Formation of Historical Theology (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 85.
The most exhaustive analyses of Hofmann’s theology by American scholars are Gerhard Forde, The Law-Gospel Debate (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1969), 12-78; and Matthew Becker, The Self-giving God and Salvation History (New York: T & T Clark, 2004)
Hofmann, Der Schriftbeweis, 1:10. “I the Christian am for me the theologian the object of knowing” (Johannes von Hofmann, Theologische Ethik, ed. H. Rutz [Noerdlingen: C. H. Beck, 1878], 17).
Theodor Kliefoth, “Der ‘Schriftbeweis’ des Dr. J. Chr. K. von Hofmann,” Kirchliche Zeitschrift 5 (1858):635-710. This article was reprinted with five additional parts as Der Schriftbeweis des Dr. J. Chr. K. von Hofmann (Schwerin: Otto, 1860). This “review” of Hofmann’s text is 560 pages!
Hofmann and Delitzsch, Theologische Briefe, 45.
Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3 vols., trans. Theodore Engelder (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950-1953), 1:116. The real “villains” in Pieper’s dogmatics are Schleiermacher and Hofmann. Following Pieper, John T. Mueller likewise dismisses Hofmann as “the father of modern subjective theology (Ichtheologie)” who “denied Christ’s vicarious satisfaction and taught the pagan theology of salvation without the redemptive work of Christ” (John T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934], 3).
See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951-1963), 1:42; Barth, Protestant Theology, 610; Eberhard Huebner, Schrift und Theologie (Muenchen: Chr. Kaiser, 1956), and idem, “Hofmann, Johann Christian Konrad v.,” in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd ed., ed. Kurt Galling (Tuebingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1962), 3:421-422; George Lindbeck, “Confessions as Ideology and Witness in the History of Lutheranism,” Lutheran World 7 (1961):393-394; Carl Braaten, “Prolegomena to Christian Dogmatics,”Christian Dogmatics, ed. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 1:16-17; and Braaten, “A Harvest of Evangelical Theology,” First Things 63 (1996): 45, where Braaten includes Hofmann in Lindbeck’s “experiential expressivist” type, discussed in George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 16-17, 31-32.
This is certainly the case with D. Erich Schaeder’s analysis of Hofmann’s and Frank’s theological methods. For Schaeder, Hofmann’s and Frank’s methods are identical. See Schaeder, Theozentric Theologie: Eine Untersuchung zur dogmatischen Prinzipienlehre, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1914-1916), 1:24-35. Schaeder misunderstands Hofmann’s notion of Tatbestand when he describes it only as “an inner Tatbestand which lies in the conscience or experience of the Christian as an objective, inner fact which the Christian bears in himself” (ibid., 29). This is to confuse Hofmann for Frank. Schaeder does not account for Hofmann’s explicit intention to ground the transpersonal Christian Tatbestand in the self-giving, triune God.
See, for example, Hofmann’s dogmatics lectures of 1842, wherein Hofman repeatedly affirms the mediation of faith through the church’s means of grace, especially Holy Scripture. These lectures have been handed down in two distinct but overlapping forms. Wapler includes a summary of part of these lectures as an appendix to his biography (Wapler, Johannes von Hofmann, 379-396). Wapler’s summary, however, is inferior to a more complete transcription of Hofmann’s lectures by Christoph Luthardt. Luthardt’s nearly complete transcription was published in two parts in Zeitschrift fuer kirchliche Wissenschaft und kirchliches Leben 10 (1889):39-53, 99-111.
Thielicke makes a similar point. See Helmut Thielicke, Modern Faith and Thought, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 240.
On the positioning of the interpreter, with reference to Hofmann’s importance, see Hans Frei, The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 180.
See Christoph Senft, Wahrhaftigkeit und Wahrheit. Die Theologie des 19. Jahrhunderts zwischen Orthodoxie und Aufklaerung (Tuebingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1956), 87-123. According to Senft, Hofmann’s understanding of the relationship between the religious experience of faith and the interpretation of biblical texts makes him a nineteenth-century theologian of abiding importance to modern theology (along with Schleiermacher, Baur, and Ritschl). Senft sees the abiding significance of Hofmann in two of his hermeneutical principles: (1) The Bible is not a textbook of church doctrines, but an historical witness that is independent of the church and the academy; and (2) In order to interpret the Bible as word of God the interpreter cannot be indifferent or antipathetic toward the biblical text but needs to recognize that that text calls for a living faith that will affect how the text itself is interpreted. Senft is particularly impressed that Hofmann took the historicality of revelation hermeneutically seriously. Hofmann seeks an “explanation of the Christian faith, the presupposition of which ‘lies outside us’ yet not outside us in a legal sense, but in such a way that what lies outside us is revealed ‘experientially’ as its own history” (ibid., 105). Senft correctly shows that Hofmann came to this position as a result of grappling with the disintegration of the dogmatic unity of the Bible by historical criticism, though Senft himself is critical of Hofmann’s understanding of faith. According to Senft, Hofmann should have understood faith as a radical response to the proclaimed word of God. One should note, in passing, that Senft’s study has been particularly influential on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s understanding of theological hermeneutics. Gadamer concludes, following Senft, that Hofmann’s response to historical criticism helped to provide a positive orientation for all later hermeneutical discussion. See Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed, trans. by Joel Weinscheimer and Donald Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1998), 330-332. Senft’s criticism of Hofmann ought to be tempered by the fact that Hofmann understood his Christian existence as an existence created by means of the word of God extra nos. For Hofmann faith is also a response to the living word of the gospel and not merely a “certain possession” in itself.
Ernst-Wilhelm Wendebourg, “Die heilsgeschichtliche Theologie J. Chr. K. v. Hofmanns in ihrem Verhaeltnis zur romantischen Weltanschauung,” Zeitschrift fuer Theologie und Kirche 52 (1955): 64-104; here 82. See also Ernst-Wilhelm Wendebourg, Die heilsgeschichtliche Theologie J. Chr. K. v. Hofmanns kritisch untersucht als Beitrag zur Klaerung des Problems der “Heilsgeschichte” (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1953); and the earlier study by Gustav Weth, Die Heilsgeschichte. Ihr universeller und ihr individueller Sinn in der offenbarungsgeschichtlichen Theologie des 19. Jahrhunderts (Muenchen: Chr. Kaiser, 1931). For an earlier study that is at odds with Wendebourg’s thesis, see Guenther Flechsenhaar, Das Geschichtsproblem in der Theologie Johannes von Hofmanns (Giessen: O. Kindt, 1935).
Wendebourg, “Die heilsgeschichtliche Theologie,” 81. Forde also uncritically accepts Wendebourg’s judgment that Hofmann “has a view of history borrowed from German Idealism” (Forde, The Law-Gospel Debate, 74).
Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Redemptive Event and History,” in Basic Questions in Theology, vol. 1, trans. George Kehm (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), 15-80; here 15 and 41.
See also especially Karl Steck, “Die Idee der Heilsgeschichte: Hofmann, Schlatter, Cullmann,” Theologische Studien und Kritiken 56, ed. Karl Barth and Max Geiger (Zollikon: Evangelischer Verlag, 1959); and idem, “Johann Christian Konrad von Hofmann (1810-1877),” in Theologen des Protestantismus im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Martin Greschat (Berlin: W. Kohlhammer, 1978), 99-112. Not only does Steck repeat the Barthian criticism that Hofmann’s theological method is subjectivistic, he does not always sufficiently distinguish Hofmann’s understanding ofHeilsgeschichte from Cullmann’s, particularly with regard to the trinitarian-kenotic framework within which Hofmann situated his conception.
See especially Hofmann’s dogmatics lectures of 1842, which are grounded in an explicitly trinitarian framework. For analysis of Hofmann’s trinitarian thought in these lectures, see Becker, The Self-giving God and Salvation History.
Hofmann, Weissagung und Erfuellung, 1:39-40; idem, Der Schriftbeweis, 1:35, 54-55.
Cullmann himself was critical of Hofmann’s theology of history, which Cullmann thought was the result of Hegel’s influence on Hofmann. See Cullmann, Salvation in History, trans. Sidney Sowers et al. (London: SCM Press, 1967).
Hofmann, Weissagung und Erfuellung, 1:7.
In addition to Flechsenhaar’s study, see Otto Procksch, “Hofmanns Geschichtsauffassung,” Allgemeine ev.-lutherische Kirchenzeitung 43 (4 Nov 1910): 1034-1038, 1058-1063. My own reading of Hofmann’s theology of history coincides with Flechsenhaar’s and the interpretation by Procksch, who called Hofmann “the greatest Lutheran theologian of the 19th century” (ibid., 1034).
Hirsch, Geschichte der neueren evangelischen Theologie, 5:427.
Reinhold Seeberg, Die Kirche Deutschlands im neunzehnten Jahrhundert, 2d ed. (Leipzig: Deichert, 1904), 270.
Martin Kaehler, Geschichte der protestantischen Dogmatik im 19. Jahrhundert, ed. E. Kaehler (Muenchen: Chr. Kaiser, 1962), 212.
Forde, Law-Gospel Debate, 72.
See Robert Schultz, Gesetz und Evangelium in der lutherischen Theologie des 19. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1958), 110-120.
See, for example, Johannes von Hofmann, “Lutherische Ethik,” Zeitschrift fuer Protestantismus und Kirche 45 (1863):253-256; idem, Theologische Ethik, 78ff.
Friedrich Mildenberger, “Hofmann, Johann Christian Konrad v.,” Theologische Realenzyklopaedie, ed. Gerhard Mueller (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1986), 15:477.
Theodor Zahn, “Lebenserinnerungen Theodor Zahns, 1838-1868,” ed. Friedrich Hauck, Zeitschrift fuer Bayernskirchengeschichte 20 (1951):92-93. See also Theodor Zahn, Johann Chr. K. von Hofmann. Rede zur Feier seines hundertsten Geburtstages in der Aula der Friederico-Alexandrina am 16. Dezember 1910 gehalten (Leipzig: Deichert, 1911), 16-19.
See Wilfried Behr, Politischer Liberalismus und kirchliches Christentum. Studien zum Zusammenhang von Theologie und Politik bei Johann Christian Konrad von Hofmann (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1995). Behr’s is the only extensive treatment of the relation of Hofmann’s theological/ethical orientation to his political world-view and activity. While Hofmann denied that there should be such a thing as “a Christian state” or “Christian politics,” he did emphasize that political responsibility develops as an ethical responsibility of one’s Christian life.
Barth, Protestant Theology, 602.
See David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 3-98.
3 thoughts on “Appreciating Johannes von Hofmann*”
Thank you for this fair and informative article. It provides a a detailed depiction of this complex man and some keys to the core of his thought.
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Thank you for this article. Well done and much appreciated.