A Criticism of my Church
by Gerd Lüdemann
from his 1996 book
The Unholy in Holy Scripture: The Dark Side of the Bible
This chapter is above all a critical contribution to the discussion which has begun in Germany about the legitimacy of radical historical criticism in the framework of academic theology and the church. But it may also be of interest to English readers, since in the Anglo-Saxon world, too, the question of the relationship between history, faith, church and theology has still not been clarified.
1. Never has so much importance been attached to theological education -- and never has the Word of God been so lacking in savour, power and fruit as now. The reason for this does not lie with the preachers, who are in the service of the church and are dependent on their employers; for the most part they are men and women of good will. The real reason is the untenability of the supposition that the ‘Word of God' is preached from the pulpit at all.
2. The church which bases itself on the Word of God has built on sand. This follows, first, from the history of the canon, i.e. from the human way in which the collection that makes up the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments, came into being. Secondly, talk of the Bible as Word of God has become obsolete as a result of the way in which the dogma of inspiration has been taken off its hinges by historical criticism. Thirdly, the unity of the earthly and risen Jesus, which represents an important basis for the notion of the Bible as Word of God, is outdated because the resurrection appearances to his disciples are to be derived from visions which can be explained in purely psychological terms and which can be understood as interpretations of the life of Jesus.
3. The churches should take a creative break, and dispense with preaching the ‘Word of God' for at least ten years. Think of all the things that are preached about! If everything preached up and down the country is God's Word, then how are we to explain its almost complete lack of effectiveness?
4. As in all spheres of life, so too in religion, the consequences of this knowledge must be drawn, and if necessary that must lead to its complete transformation. That applies above all to the historical evidence that Jesus decayed and did not rise bodily. For the church, the physical resurrection is nevertheless still an indispensable requisite, so that we can say with Christoph Türcke that the skeleton in the closet of the church is the risen Son of God.
5. Theology and church must be liberated from their entanglements with each other -- for the good of theology and for the good of the church. Theology cannot be done as church theology, but only as free, scholarly theology. Only then is it in a position to make its contribution to the demystification of the world. The church is not just based on rationality, but primarily on a religious community experience which takes place at the grass roots. Singing and celebrating has priority there. Only this makes possible the necessary communication with other churches of the ecumene. The church must become more aware of itself; it can make decisions on the basis of its practice and need not artificially resort to theological formulae to demonstrate its orthodoxy.
6. The claim to privileged knowledge is the besetting evil of the theology of both confessions and both churches. This has contributed to their lack of credibility and their speechlessness in dealing with outsiders -- who are in the majority. Anyone who refers here to revelation is simply doing what the present-day sects also practise.
7. Protestant theology owes its reputation and its right to exist within German universities to the ruthless application of historical criticism. Along with many other contemporaries who engaged in historical criticism, a scholar like Adolf von Harnack, who as a culture Protestant and a liberal theologian is no longer taken seriously, did more for the ongoing existence of theological faculties in a secular state (cf. von Harnack 1923) than those in today's church who despise him and his like suspect.
8. Theology and the church will have a right to exist in the future only if they offer the public what is required of them in modern society. Within the framework of a demonstration of the need for them, the historical truth of the statements that they confess in the creed must be tested, and if the result is negative these statements must be firmly dropped. There is no necessity for theology and the church to exist. Theology must again link up with the great historical, philological and philosophical achievements of liberal theology.
9. If theology is to be recognized as an academic discipline there must be an end to its confessionalizing. That should be easier to achieve in Protestantism than in Roman Catholicism. Furthermore this demand needs to be made not only for organizational and economic reasons, but also for political reasons, since our state is confessionally neutral. In the new theological faculty there should be research into all religions including the Christian religion. Though theology and the church actually exist, they do not necessarily have to. All of them should be put to the critical test. Practical training of clergy is a matter for the Christian churches and the other religious communities, and not for the universities.
10. Theology and the church often live on the fact that no one takes them seriously any more. This alone ensures their survival in times which are politically relatively stable, and this survival is secured in law by partisan agreements between state and church. But we should not fool ourselves: for many thinking people and today's culture, the church and theology are no longer a challenge. They lead a life of their own, often dig themselves in against unpleasant criticism, and thus stiffen into death in apparent splendour.
11. The church is called on to hear Jesus' voice for better or worse in his authentic words. This includes a readiness to distinguish ruthlessly what Jesus really said from what he did not say, and to question one's own tradition in the light of the authentic sayings of Jesus. Here a living memory is more than mere repetition of the words of Jesus.
12. If I am not repudiated by historical evidence or a clear reason, I am compelled by the historical facts that I have cited to maintain my protest against the hypocrisy of the Protestant Church, its confessions which are still pronounced today, and the actions of its officers which are grounded on the ‘Word of God'.