Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Johann Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Johann Wilhelm Herrmann was born in 1846 in Melkow, Prussia. His father and maternal grandfather were both pastors. According to the son, Wilhelm’s father “understood Schleiermacher’s theology well, and the religious life of peasant people still better”(R. W. Stewart, 1904). After receiving his preliminary education at the gymnasium in Stendal he left for University in 1866. As a student he attended Halle for four years, where under the direction of Fredrich Tholuck (1799-1877) the faculty was said to have possessed the temper of warm Evangelism (Julius Müller and Martin Kähler were also on the faculty). Tholuck reflected the pietism of a humble believer who had developed a sincere admiration for the theology of Hegel. As mediating theology became more articulated it emerged as an approach which stood between the extremes of the theological landscape, namely the advanced Hegelians, the sturdily orthodox, the Pietists, and the radical liberals (Latourette, 16-38). By the time Herrmann arrived for his studies at Halle, Tholuck had become a respected mediating theologian known for his dedication to his students. His sincere approach to theology and his genuine affection for his students made a lasting affect on Herrmann, who during his studies stayed for two and a half years as a house guest of the professor. Upon finishing his studies Herrmann left Halle to serve in the twenty-sixth infantry during the Franco-Prussian war. At the end of the war Herrmann served as a private tutor for two years for a family near Magdeburg.

After applying for recognition as a Privat-Docent in 1874, Herrmann was given his first appointment to Halle in 1875. During this time at the home of Tholuck, Herrmann first met and began his friendship with Albrecht Ristchl (1822-1889), professor at Göttingen from 1864-1889 (Welch, 45-5). After four years Herrmann left Halle and became professor of systematic theology at Marburg where he remained, in spite of three calls elsewhere, from 1879 until his retirement in 1916 (Voelkel, 1971, xv). According to Van Pelt, Herrmann from the beginning was recognized as the leading personality at Marburg. "He was a scholar of rare attainments, and yet when the name of Herrmann is mentioned, it is not learning that one thinks of. When Herrmann is named one thinks of a glowing spirit, of a mind of great freedom and originality, and of a faith intense, sure, and joyous" (Van Pelt, 1922, 972).

2. Works (Selected List)

Der Verkehr des Christen mit Gott (The Communion of the Christian with God, 1886); Die Religion im Verhältnis zum Welterkennen und zur Sittlichkeit (Religion in Relationship to Knowledge of the World and Morality, 1879), Ethik (1901), Christlich-protestantische Dogmatik (1906).

3. Themes


4. Outline of Major Works

The Communion of the Christian with God

In The Communion of the Christian with God, Herrmann seeks to establish that the experience of communion with God is the basis for authentic Christian faith. With this understanding the task of the theologian as he sees it is to elucidate the experience that grounds Christian faith. He explains to the reader up front that if he were a better preacher his task might be different. But as a theologian it is not his project to explain doctrine or sell dogmatic arguments in order to evangelize. Herrmann here hopes to better appreciate a process and not to sell that process directly by the subtle force of fear that arises from proscribing faith as law. Only an experience that takes place within the individual will have the effect of transforming that individual's life. No external force, whether social or psychological, can provide the necessary fulcrum to inspire one to turn freely toward God.

Herrmann views the church as a gathered community made up of the priesthood of all believers. Together with scripture, the tradition of the community helps elucidate and guide believers but the church should not obstruct potential believers by requiring confessional statements. Such confessional requirements are in Herrmann's view not only burdensome but in their deterring quality, counter to the Christian message. The revelation found in scripture is quite distinct from doctrines that purport to be based upon the authority of scripture. Doctrines are constructions of persons from their readings of scriptural revelation but they are not the revelation themselves. We ought to regard the creeds of the church as the creative expressions of other believers. Therefore, the religious community helps mediate to believers the picture of Jesus but it should not attempt through the imposition of doctrine and confessional requirements mandate how one is to understand that picture. To do otherwise in the presence of those who do not yet have the personal experience on which to base their faith is to demand that intelligent people become foolish before joining the community.

Herrmann viewed scripture as authoritative but in a quite different manner than Martin Luther. His understanding of the misuse of scripture was similar to his frustration about the confessional requirements that had come to characterize many Protestant churches. According to Herrmann the relation of Luther's conception of scripture had emerged in a context where one could assume that all were Christians. In this context Luther was reported to have said that he would no longer argue with any man who did not recognize scripture as the Word of God. Herrmann writes, “If we were now to take such a course it would be very convenient and very pleasing to the flesh, but it would be utterly fruitless.” He goes on to declare, “We ought rather to say that we will argue with every man....” (108). I believe this statement embodies three important elements of Herrmann's position in Communion; it is an attack against the false complacency of confessional theology, it is an attack against those who have made in idol out of the idea of sola scriptura, and it is a call for sincere evangelism. Scripture has authority to guide believers who have been impacted by Jesus, but it does not have authority to mandate belief for the unbeliever. Herrmann has the practical understanding that no compelling reason exists for non-believers to view the New Testament as authoritative in any way. His rejection of Luther's claim is made on behalf of those who cannot bring themselves into a community that appears so alien from their experience. To those within the churches disturbed by his position he indignantly proclaimed that Christianity could not be obtained "so cheaply"(77). In the end it seems Herrmann viewed scripture as an element of tradition that was handed down from those believers who had first felt the impact of Jesus on their lives. Scripture and tradition are mediators that should not be confused with or elevated above the chief end--namely the communion of the Christian with God.

We have stated above that Herrmann's understanding of the theological task is that its service is to help elucidate how this communion takes place. His entire theological system was based upon the individual's experience of communion with God. In the first chapter of Communion, Herrmann rejects the aims of mysticism on the grounds that it uses Jesus as a mere mediator to be transcended en route to an encounter with God beyond the particulars of history. His main critique is that mysticism discards Jesus and thus separates people from God. How can one be sure of what they are experiencing when they seek the ineffable? Thus while it is based on individual religious experience and potentially packaged in Christian terms, mysticism is not what Herrmann is after. For him, it is the life of Jesus that provides a positive vision of God for the Christian. Instead of the boundless imaginative nature of mysticism, Herrmann claims that it is through encountering the portrait of the historical Jesus that one is lead to communion with God.

The indispensable role Jesus plays in Herrmann's understanding of communion is not easily grasped in a quick reading of his work. On the one hand, his understanding of salvation depends on the historical reality of Jesus' life. One comes to encounter the moral force of Jesus through the tradition in general and the gospel narratives in particular. The Bible, he writes introduces us to a marvelously vivid personal life that compels us to self-examination (6). Conversion is made complete when that person moving in their freedom joyfully surrenders to the compelling God-consciousness of Jesus, thereby recognizing him as Lord and attempting to follow in his moral example. On the other hand he believes that Lessing's thesis (and thus joins Kierkegaard in declaring) that "no historical judgment however certain it may appear, ever attains anything more than probability"(72). Thus we cannot depend upon the biblical Christ as the basis of our salvation (80). But if salvation depends on understanding the person of Jesus in history, by way of the tradition and the New Testament, and if those accounts are historically conditioned, how does his system hold together?

The hinge upon which Herrmann's argument swings is the claim that the inner moral life of Jesus shines through the portrait held by the church community. This picture of Jesus is not a doctrinal equation. The narratives that remain conditioned by history are only a piece of this portrait. This presentation of Christ leaves some room for the individual to have their own authentic experience. To defend the validity of this faith, that is not vulnerable to the increasing challenges of biblical criticism (it had been fifty years since Strauss published Leben Jesu), Herrmann appeals to the tangible transformations that take place within Christian persons. In a way he agrees with those who might object to this by admitting that his explanation is not self-evident to all. But his argument is consistent. The perspective that assists his empathy towards the critical thinking non-believer is informed by his understanding of the transformation that occurs when one experiences Jesus. His explanation that real lives are transformed re-frames the issue and implicitly asks the non-believer, how do you explain the fact that this portrait of Jesus leads many to personal transformation? Jesus has the power to shine through the details, he says, just look at the living examples of morally upright Christians. What Herrmann finds even more compelling is that such Christians can be found in spite of obsolete ecclesiastical forms and obstructive teaching (10). The portrait of Jesus found in Christian community can not convince one to believe, but it can affirm what individuals experience before that portrait. For those yearning for deliverance from a meaningless world, Herrmann maintains, in that portrait they will encounter the savior.

In summary, Herrmann's Communion maintains that the experience of communion is the basis of all Christian faith. This individual experience takes place when one allows the portrait of Jesus to speak through its contingencies to one's desire for a moral life that contains meaning. This portrait of Jesus comes through both scripture and tradition and its meaning becomes understandable within Christian community. Doctrines or dogma can be joyful expressions that reflect aspects of the internal experience but as external elements they can only become a hindrance to the growing number of people beyond the churches. Communion with God is not found in the way of the mystics, who fail to account for the historical. Communion is not found by adhering to defined doctrine or established scriptural interpretation that runs the risk of making faith into law. One comes to believe solely by experiencing the power of Jesus' within one's own existence. Once an individual comes face to face with the portrait of Jesus found in the Christian tradition, one becomes aware of the need for a savior. In Herrmann’s Communion, salvation is offered through Jesus by way of the fact that he is the true portrait of a moral human life.

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

It is hard for us today to view Herrmann without mentioning those that came after him. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the legacy of Wilhelm Herrmann is how quickly this influential theologian became overshadowed by two of his former students. Indeed it is hard to go back in time to see an accurate picture of Wilhelm Herrmann that is not cast in the shadow of either Karl Barth or Rudolph Bultmann. Nonetheless, at the time of his death in 1922, “Wilhelm Herrmann was the most revered and influential systematic theologian in Germany" (Van Pelt, 1925, 867). In addition to his highly regarded teaching career Herrmann made frequent contributions to the Die Christliche Welt and worked from 1907 to 1917 with Martin Rade as an editor for Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche.

With their emphasis on the connection between the religious and the ethical, Herrmann and Adolf Harnack came to be considered as theological heirs to Ritschl. Also apparent in Herrmann’s thinking is the influence of Kant’s understanding of religious knowledge. And last but not least, there are distinct elements of Schleiermacher’s theology in Herrmann’s thought, particularly in his christology. Having been impressed with the critical nature of Ritschl’s thought as a student, having become the most prominent faculty member at Marburg, and being a German theologian in the nineteenth century, it seems quite possible that we could make too much of these connections. That said, like each of them, “coming to terms with the scientific world was what Wilhelm Herrmann’s entire career was about”(xix, Voelkel 1971).

6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Barth, Karl. 1962. “The Principles of Dogmatics according to Wilhelm Herrmann (1925).” In Theology and Church: Shorter Writings 1920-1928. Translated by Louise Pettibone Smith. With an introduction (1962) by T. F. Torrance. New York: Harper and Row Publishers. Translated from the German Die Theologie und die Kirche, 1928.

Carlston, Charles E. 1968. “Biblicism or Historicism?: Some Remarks on the Conflict Between Kahler and Herrmann on the Historical Jesus.” Biblical Research 13 (1968):26-40.

Cubillos, Robert Hernán. 1990. “Herrmann’s Communion of the Christian with God: Contributions to an Evangelical Perspective on the Importance of Experience and the ‘Inner Life’ of Jesus?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (1990) 179-88.

Deegan, Daniel. 1966. “Wilhelm Herrmann: A Reassessment.” Scottish Journal of Theology 19 (1966): 188-203.

Dorrien, Gary. 2000. The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology: Theology Without Weapons. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Furgusson, David. 1990. “Meaning, Truth, and Realism in Bultmann and Lindbeck.” Religious Studies 26 (1990) 183-198.

Herrmann, Wilhelm. 1904. Faith and Morals. Crown Theological Library. Translated by Donald Matheson and Robert Stewart. G. P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 1904.

Herrmann, Wilhelm. 1971. The Communion of the Christian with God: Described on the basis of Luther’s statements. Edited and with an introduction by Robert T. Voelkel. Lives of Jesus Series, ed. Leander Keck. Philiadelphia, PA: Fortress Press. Based on the second English translation of Der Verkehr des Christen mit Gott [1886] by J. Sandys Stanyon of the fourth German edition of 1903.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. 1959. The Nineteenth Century in Europe: The Protestant and Eastern Churches. Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers.

Sockness, Brent W. 1992. “Ethics as Fundamental Theology: The Function of Ethics in the Theology of Wilhelm Herrmann.” In The Annul of the Society of Christian Ethics 1992. Boston, MA: The Society of Christian Ethics.

Sockness, Brent W. 1992. “The Ideal and the Historical in the Christology of Wilhelm Herrmann: The Promise and the Perils of Revisionary Christology.” Journal of Religion 72 (1992): 366-88.

Van Pelt, John R. 1922. “Wilhelm Herrmann” The Methodist Review 105 (1922): 972-975.

Van Pelt, John R. 1925. “Herrmann’s ‘Dogmatik.’” The Methodist Review 108 (1925): 867-74.

Voelkel, Robert T. 1968. The Shape of the Theological Task. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press.

Welch, Claude. 1985. Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 2: 1870-1914. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

7. Internet Resources

Philos Website article on Herrmann (in German)

Wikipedia article on Herrmann

8. Related Topics

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834)

David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874)

Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889)

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)

Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884-1976)

Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Protestant Liberalism


Edited by Derek Michaud, incorporating material from Jason Donnelly (2000).


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