Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Johann Adam Möhler (1796-1838)

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 Adam Möhler was a Catholic theologian and Church historian, a representative figure of the Catholic Tübingen School. Möhler was born on May 6, 1796 in the village of Igershein near Würzburg. He attended the Catholic seminary at Ellwagen on 1813. After completing his studies at Tübingen, he was ordained as a priest on 1819. In 1820 he returned to Tübingen to study classical philology (Livingston 1997). In 1822, Möhler was appointed as Privatdozent in Church history also at Tübingen. As part of the appointment, Möhler was awarded a travel stipend by the government which allowed him to visit other universities and libraries throughout Germany. This travel stipend allowed Möhler to visit the University of Berlin where he attended lectures by Schleiermacher, Marheineke, and Neander. In the summer of 1823, Möhler began lecturing in Church history, patristics, and canon law (Fitzer 1974). Möhler remained at Tübingen until 1835, when he accepted a chair in theology offered to him by the government of Bavaria. In 1836, Möhler contracted cholera and although he survived this illness it caused a significant deterioration in his health. As a consequence in 1837, Möhler contracted influenza. He then moved, for medical reasons, to southern Tyrol where he remained until the autumn of that same year. Shortly after resuming his academic responsibilities at Munich, Möhler fell ill again. This time his pulmonary infirmity turned lethal. Möhler died on April 14, 1838 (Robertson 1844).

Although his life came to an end at such a short age, in his early forty’s, Möhler left behind a significant intellectual contribution. Möhler’s three main publications are, 1. Die Einheit der Kirche (The Unity of the Church) (Tübingen, 1825), 2. Athanasius der Grosse (Athanasius the Great) (Mainz, 1827), and, 3. Symbolik (Mainz, 1832; ET Symbolism, or Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences…New York, 1844). In addition, Möhler contributed scores of historical essays to the Tübinger Theologische Quartalschrift (Tübingen Theological Quarterly Review). These essays were collected by Döllinger who published them in two volumes (Robertson 1844). His lectures were also posthumously collected and edited by Reithmayr, who was a professor of theology at the University of Munich (Robertson 1844).

The Catholic Tübingen School

Perhaps the best way to understand the significance of Möhler’s work is to place him in the context of the Catholic Tübingen School. It is essential, in order to understand the development and trajectory of this school of Catholic theologians, to grasp the nature of state-church relations in the German-speaking lands. According to Livingston, state-church relations in the German states of the early nineteenth century were characterized by a form of Gallicanism (Livingston 1997). Gallicanism is the term given to a set of ideas espoused by French theologians in the course of the seventeenth century. Specifically, it refers to the ideas incorporated into the Declaration of the French Clergy of 1682 (Degert 1909). Essentially, Gallicanism calls for the “restraint of the pope’s authority in the Church in favor of that of the bishops and the temporal ruler” (Deget 1909). According to Livingston, in the German states this understanding of state-church relations was referred to as Josephism or Febronianism (Livingston 1997). One of the consequences of this doctrine was that the government exerted considerable influence not only in the appointment of bishops but also in the intellectual life of the Church.

In agreement with the prevailing doctrines of state-church relations, the king of Württemberg created in 1812 a Catholic seminary in Ellwagen. However, in 1817 the seminary at Ellwagen was transferred to the University of Tübingen, as part of a broader reorganization of the latter institution (Fitzer 1974). In this way the Catholic faculty of three at Ellwagen came to be part of a larger Protestant faculty, marking the start of a prodigious intellectual effort that has come to be very influential in twentieth century Catholic thinking.

Johann Sebastian von Drey

At the heart of the Catholic Tübingen School was Johann Sebastian von Drey (1777-1853), its founder. Drey received his seminary training in the diocese of Augsburg and was ordained as a priest on 1801. On 1812 Drey became one of the three resident faculty at Ellwagen, teaching history of dogmas, and apologetics (Livingston 1997). Later on, in 1817 Drey joined the faculty of  Tübingen as part of the institutional transfer of the Catholic seminary from Ellwagen. Throughout these years Drey was teacher and mentor to Möhler, and to his own successor Johannes Evangelist von Kuhn (1806-1887), among others (Livingston 1997). At Tübingen, Drey helped establish in 1819 the Tübingen Theological Quarterly Review, which became the main intellectual forum for the Catholic Tübingen School (Fitzer 1974). Drey’s major published work was his Apologetik (1847).

Perhaps, the main contribution of Drey to the Catholic Tübingen School was his understanding of history and his historical method. Drey saw in history the work of “eternal necessitation” (Drey as quoted in Livingston 1997). Drey took recourse to the Romantic philosophy of F.W.J. Schelling to propose an organic and developmental view of history. In contrast to the Deist position which limited divine activity to creation, Drey focused in the “continuous becoming of history” as the realm of divine activity (Livingston 1997). Furthermore, in contrast to the rationalists, Drey rejected a notion of history as “the work of subjective freedom” (Drey as quoted in Livingston 1997). Instead, Drey was a super-naturalist for whom the events of history mediate God’s revelation. That is, revelation takes a positive character as mediated through history. Theology is thus called to discern which historical manifestations give expression to God’s revelation and which are merely contingent.

Drey’s understanding of history and of the task of theology constitutes the backbone of Möhler’s theology and historical analysis. Just that for Möhler, the Church-tradition becomes the focus of historical and theological attention. Assuming Drey’s concept of history, Möhler’s view of tradition incorporates the notions of change and revelation. For Möhler the development of doctrine is an undeniable historical fact. Moreover, it is a meaningful fact in that it mediates revelation. Yet not all doctrinal changes mediate revelation. As Drey, Möhler conceives of the task of theology as the discernment of the eternal from the contingent in its historical manifestations. In this sense a source of concern for Möhler was the period of the Reformation. If history mediates God’s revelation, then how can we account for the schismatic consequences of the events that took place during this period? Were the doctrinal expressions of this period contingent historical manifestations or did they mediated divine revelation? This is the subject matter of Möhler’s Symbolik. Möhler proposes that the question can be approached by means of the scientific study of symbols or confessions.

2. Works (Selected List)

Die Einheit der Kirche (1825; The Unity of the Church); Athanasius der Grosse (1827; Athanasius the Great); Symbolik (1832; ET: Symbolism, or Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences…, 1844).

3. Themes


4. Outline of Major Works


In the introduction to Symbolik, Möhler defines symbolism as the study of the doctrinal differences of Catholics and Protestants as they found expression in public confessions (Möhler 1844, 93). Möhler argues that a mere narrative of the historical events of the sixteenth century cannot provide an explanation of the doctrinal differences between both parties. Instead, the methodological task is to “decompose a dogma into the elements out of which it has been formed” (Möhler, 93). The first step in carrying out the analysis of dogma is to compare the symbols or public confessions of both Catholics and Protestants.

Möhler’s recourse to symbols as the primary sources of his inquiry is very significant. For Möhler symbols are characterized by their quality as public confessions of specific communities. The fact that symbols give public expression to the innermost theological understanding of specific communities makes them authoritative expressions. Möhler sustains that in the case of the Reformers a qualitative distinction must be made between symbols and opinions. The opinions of the Reformers were crucial for the course of the events taking place during the sixteenth century. Yet, Möhler acknowledges that the opinions of each of the reformers are not coterminous with the public confessions or the symbols adopted by each of the respective communities (Möhler, 97).

Möhler’s distinction between public confession and private opinions reflects his understanding of the Church. According to Livingston, in his earlier work, The Unity of the Church, Möhler described the Church as the community that through the work of the Holy Spirit “forms itself from inward out” (Möhler as quoted in Livingston 1997). Hence, the institutional aspects of the Church are expressions of the inward presence of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. Accordingly, symbols or public confessions are authoritative precisely in the same degree that they are expressions of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. In his Symbolik, Möhler attached greater authority to the decrees of the Council of Trent than to papal pronouncements (Möhler, 106).

This distinction between public confessions and private opinions is highly significant in Möhler’s work. Since the institutional aspects of the Church are expressions of the inward presence of the Holy Spirit, or expressions of the community which in the Holy Spirit “forms itself from inward out”, then public confessions mediate revelation. However, this is true only as long as doctrinal expressions flow from the community. Private opinions do not meet this condition precisely due to their private nature. In this sense, the public confessions of Protestants enjoy higher authority than the private opinions of the Reformers. However, the Reformers stand in a unique relation to the Protestant communities, argues Möhler. The Reformers stand as originators or “creators” of these communities (Möhler, 98). Hence, their private opinions carried a heavy weight in shaping the public confessions of the Protestant bodies. What Möhler concludes is that Protestant doctrines need to be assessed against, not only the common heritage of the Scriptures and the first four ecumenical councils, but also against the dogmatic tradition as preserved within the Roman Catholic Church (Möhler, 95).

Again, Möhler is consequent in attributing a higher level of authority to the public confessions of the Roman Catholic Church. If the institutional aspects of the Church give expression to the workings of the Holy Spirit through history, then these expressions must stand one to each other in an organic relation. These expressions must display a pattern of continuous organic development. This point comes across clearly when Möhler contrasts the role of public confession in the Catholic Church against private opinions in the Protestant bodies:

It is otherwise with individual Catholic theologians. As they found the dogmas, on which they enlarge, which they explain, or illustrate, already pre-existing; we must in their labours accurately discriminate between their special and peculiar opinions, and the common doctrines declared by the Church, and received from Christ and the apostles. As these doctrines existed prior to those opinions, so they can exist after them, and can therefore be scientifically treated without them, and quite independently of them. This distinction between individual opinion and common doctrine pre-supposes a very strongly constituted community, based at once on history, on life, on tradition, and is only possible in the Catholic Church (Möhler, 99).

Hence, the analysis of symbols allows the theologian to discern that which constitutes revelation and that which is mere historical contingency. The first thing that needs to be decided is whether the doctrines expressed in the Protestant public confessions stand in continuity with the historic and organic development of the Church.

Do Protestant confessions finally stand the test of historic continuity? The answer to this question needs to remain open in light of the reception of Möhler’s work. Möhler clearly places himself at the center of the Catholic-Protestant controversy and accordingly his conclusions are not very favorable towards Protestantism. In the nineteenth century many Catholics (like James Burton Robertson who translated Symbolic into English) were very receptive to his work. They saw Möhler as engaged in an effort to debunk Protestants. However, more recently Möhler has received a more positive reception from both Catholics and Protestants who understandably see in his work a mediatory attempt between both traditions (Webster 1988).

5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Möhler, Johann Adam. 1844 [1832]. Symbolism, or, Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences Between Catholics and Protestants, as Evidenced by Their Symbolic Writings. Translated and with an introductory essay by James Burton Robertson. New York: E. Dunigan.

Degert, A. 2008 [1909]. "Gallicanism". Transcribed by Gerard Haffner. In The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI. Robert Appleton Company. 31 December 2008,

Fitzer, J. 1974. Möhler and Baur in Controversy, 1832-38: Romantic-Idealist Assessment of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. AAR Studies in Religion. Number Seven. Missoula, Montana: University of Montana Printing Department.

Livingston, James C. 1997. Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenmnet and Nienteenth Century. Volume I. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

McGrath, Alister E., ed . 1993. "Mohler, Johann Adam". In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 384-85.

Webster, J. B. 1988. "Möhler, Johann Adam". In Sinclair B. Fergunson, David F. Wright and J.I. Packer, eds. New Dictionary of Theology. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 439.

7. Internet Resources

Catholic Encyclopedia article on Möhler

Catholic Encyclopedia article on Gallicanism

On Johann Adam Möhler's Symbolik, by Anton van Harskamp, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

8. Related Topics

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

Vatican II (1962-1965)


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Rady Roldán-Figueroa (2000).


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