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Lundensian Theology


Lundensian Theology (Wesley J. Wildman, 1988)
(This dictionary article is from my first year of graduate school at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. It is posted here for my students, unchanged from the original, so that they can feel good about picking on me for the errors they find and for my ignorance of bibliographic conventions. If they agree to post their juvenile material in public, then it is only fair that I post mine, too.)

Lundensian Theology

Wesley Wildman, Graduate Theological Union, 1988.

"Lundensian" is a term used to describe the theological approach which originated in the University of Lund, Sweden, between the two world wars. Gustaf Aulén, Anders Nygren and, to a lesser extent, Ragnar Bring are the theologians whose work best serves to give definition and focus to the phrase "Lundensian theology". In preparation for an exposition of the chief features of Lundensian thought, we will give brief consideration to the context out of which it arose.


The connections between theological scholarship and the church are unusually strong in Sweden, and the lines of influence run in both directions. On the one hand, academic theologians are frequently bishops of the Church of Sweden, and fully involved both in the life of the national church and on the wider ecumenical front. On the other hand, the character of the Church of Sweden has exercised a powerful influence over Swedish theology. It is a Lutheran church whose highest administrative body is the Swedish Government. More importantly, in Swedish Lutheran piety there is an unusually strong religious conservatism born of valuing highly both the Lutheran heritage and the Christian religious experience.

Lundensian theology emerged from the encounter of this profound conservatism with the equally profoundly disturbing currents of nineteenth century liberalism. It was, by virtue of the nature of its leading figures, a joint attempt by church and academy both to preserve what had always been felt to be the deepest and best values of Christianity, and to respond constructively to the critiques which lay at the heart of liberal thought: critiques from history, literary criticism, psychology, sociology, history of religions, science and philosophy.

The crisis for Sweden came rather later than for most of the rest of Europe, but liberal currents were strong by the beginning of the twentieth century. In theology, it is the theological faculty of the University of Upsala and the names of Nathan Söderblom and Einar Billing which are most important. In what was a very tense and emotional crisis for the Church of Sweden, and at some personal cost, these two theologians paved the way for the more balanced mediation between conservative and liberal forces which was to be achieved in the post-war reaction against liberal thought at the only other Swedish theological faculty: Lund. The pattern of influence from Upsala at the turn of the century to Lund in the twenties is hard to trace, not least because neither of Söderblom and Billing were able to bring their work together into a unified system. However, even apart from the fact the Gustaf Aulén was a student at Upsala under Söderblom and Billing, there is enough continuity of thought to make the genesis of Lundensian theology more complex and less focussed exclusively in Lund than it might otherwise be. Indeed, Aulén and Nygren claim especially Söderblom as a source of the Lundensian system. This is because, in spite of the many differences which exist between them, many emphases are shared: the typological approach to religions, the uniqueness of God's revelation in Jesus Christ, the view of history as continuous and dramatic revelation, the rejection of the possibility of metaphysics, and the centrality of ecclesiology, among others.

Two other factors in the genesis of the Lundensian system should be mentioned here. One was the vigorous renewal of Luther studies, influenced by Ritschl's interest in Luther, especially in Sweden where Luther was accorded an almost absolutistic authority by almost all theologians as well as the Church of Sweden. Finally, there was the influence of continental dialectical theology, though less its explicit content than its general character as a constructive response to theological and cultural crisis.

This is the context within which Aulén and Nygren forged the Lundensian system. It stands for a rejection of the relativity of historicism while embracing biblical criticism and historical research. It represents a simultaneous insistence on radical separation of philosophy and theology, and on the autonomy of theology as a scientific, descriptive, anti-metaphysical discipline which seeks to discern and express the thematic heart of Christianity. Above all, it is a theology which reaffirms historic Christianity over against the fuzzy ambiguities and alleged religious paucity of liberal thought.

The theological work of Aulén is better known than that of Nygren in the English reading world. After Aulén became recognized internationally with the books Christus Victor (Swedish: 1930, English: 1931) and The Faith of the Christian Church (Swedish: 1923, English: 1948), his books were translated almost as soon as they appeared in Swedish. Nygren, on the other hand, is best known for his Agape and Eros (Swedish: Pt1-1930 Pt2-1936, English: Pt1-1932 Pt2-1939), and few of his books have been translated into English. Nygren's work is extremely wide ranging, however, and his contribution to the philosophy of religion is highly important. An overview of the work of both will be offered in what follows.

Gustaf Aulén (1879-1978)

Aulén was educated in Kalmar, on the south-east coast of Sweden, and at the University of Upsala, just north of Stockholm, where he took his doctorate in 1907. From 1907 to 1913 he was an assistant professor at Upsala after which he became a professor of dogmatics at the University of Lund for 20 years. In 1933 he was appointed to be bishop of a diocese just west of Stockholm, and left his position at Lund. As a bishop, he continued his theological research, was especially active in liturgical reform, and was at the forefront of the involvement of the Church of Sweden in ecumenical affairs. He retired from the bishopric in 1952 at 73 years of age, and returned to Lund. Here he once again devoted himself to research and writing, until his death at almost 100 years of age.

What is the object of theology? For both Aulén and Nygren, it cannot be God. Rather it is the Christian idea of God. Aulén inherited the deep suspicion of the capacity of reason to penetrate the most significant aspects of religion which was characteristic of his teachers at Upsala, Söderblom and Billing. Idealist metaphysics was a foolish and dangerous mistake. Theology was the systematic study of the idea of God in Christianity's history. In this way, while rejecting metaphysics, Aulén drew together the history of ideas and systematics in the most intimate way - a way which encouraged both historical and biblical critical research.

But if Aulén was prepared to accept that everything susceptible to theoretical knowledge had be realized in history, he was by no means in bed with protestant liberalism. Where late nineteenth century liberal theology sought to discover the salvific significance of Jesus through historical reconstruction of his life, Aulén simply reasserted with Paul and Luther that salvation was through faith alone. After all, the conclusions of historical research could never form the basis for religious faith; the former were inherently relative and uncertain, while the latter required certainty. Liberal protestantism's morbid fascination for trying to base faith on incongruous foundations of various sorts was precisely that feature which robbed it of spiritual vitality, according to Aulén. At this point what is needed is not better historical tools, and certainly not vain idealist metaphysics, but rather the simple proclamation of the classical Christian message, a call to faith which lays bare the reductionist tendencies of historicism and which demands that the religious experience be recognized and judged for what it is: a distinctive and autonomous aspect of being human.

Nygren was to give a systematic account of the religious a priori which of necessity underlies this view of faith, but it was present in Aulén's early work and is one of the characteristic strains of Lundensian theology. Aulén was to reassess his view of the relation between faith and history as time went on. As the five editions (all containing substantial revisions) of The Faith of the Christian Church demonstrate, he gradually came to think of faith and history as rather more interdependent than was the case in his early work. But in so doing, he himself perhaps moves away from the center of the Lundensian system.

Also present in Aulén's work from the earliest days is his willingness to study history thematically, to discern periods and motifs. This tendency is especially evident in Christus Victor where, as in earlier works, classical Christianity is thought to be expressed in the thought of Irenaeus and again in Luther, whereas in medieval scholasticism and even Lutheran Orthodoxy the purity of classical Christianity becomes obscured. This kind of approach owes a great deal to Adolf von Harnack's analysis of the history of Christian thought as degenerating after the early church, except that Aulén is rather more generous to Luther and makes a quite positive affirmation of the anti-gnostic fathers.

The question of the ground for such thematic analysis must be asked, since both Aulén and Nygren (in Agape and Eros) are frequently criticised for simply imposing thematic content and unity where there is none. To begin with, the premise of this method is that any religion is in a simple minded sense an organic, and therefore a very complex, unity - just because of the feature of identifiablity, if for no other reason. The task of theology is to exhibit that unity in a systematic, scientific way, so as to make clear what lies at the beating heart of a religion. Theology seen in this way might as well be called systematic history. Thus far, the answer does not avoid the major criticism. But then it must be remembered that theology thus construed is a scientific discipline. That is, hypotheses intended to exhibit the intelligibility of the history of a religion and its ideas are advanced and tested against historical data, leading to modification of the hypotheses and further testing as insights change. Thus theology is not theoretically wedded to the conclusion that there will always be discernible unity or thematic relatedness. Both Aulén and Nygren would claim, however, that - as a matter of contingent fact - themes and periods can be helpfully discerned, and that to the eyes of faith this is not the least bit surprising, since history is itself the unfolding story of God's revelation and is thus unified at its very center. This would not be advanced as a point of theoretical justification for thematic research, however! Rather, it is one of the many consolations of Christian faith.

Before moving on to Nygren, it is important to emphasize the importance of Luther to Aulén. His affirmation in Christus Victor of the classic theory of atonement, in which the significant and decisive action in the atoning death of Jesus is divine and not human, is in essential features a reaffirmation of Luther's position. Aulén sees in the religious genius of Luther the force of classic Christianity: sola gratia, sola fides. Yet with all this, Aulén's theology was popular among all traditions and not merely Lutherans. This is consistent with Auléns vision of Luther as belonging to the universal church, and not merely to Lutheranism. In fact, Aulén went so far as to suggest that there were many ways in which Lutheranism had moved far away from Luther. Here we see another strain of Lundensian thought: it's concern with the church (a long standing tradition at Lund) and its amenability to ecumenism. Nygren and Aulén, as well as Söderblom and Billing, were extremely active in both spheres.

Anders Nygren (1890-1978)

Nygren grew up in Gothenburg, western Sweden, the son of a well educated and deeply religious family. When his father died in 1905, the family moved to Lund where Anders attended university, studying chiefly philosophy and theology. In 1912 he was ordained in the Diocese of Gothenburg and worked as a parish minister for almost 9 years before travelling to Germany for a year's study. In 1921 he was appointed to teach in the philosophy of religion at the University of Lund, and three years later became professor of systematic theology, focussing on ethics and the philosophy of religion. He retired from that chair in 1948 and was appointed bishop in the diocese of Lund. He was appointed as the first president of the Lutheran World Federation while still a professor at Lund. Like Aulén, he was active in both ecumenical affairs and in resisting Nazism before the second world war. After he retired from the bishopric in 1959, he remained active in research and writing for some time, before dying at nearly 90 years of age in the same year in which Aulén died.

Much of what was said of the thought of Aulén above could equally well be said here of Nygren. After all, their substantial agreement was what made the appellation "Lundensian theology" appropriate in the first place. They did, however, emphasise different aspects of the Lundensian system. The irony of Nygren is that he is perhaps best known for a work that is quite misleading if it is taken to be typical of his thought. He was essentially a philosopher of religion, a borderline thinker much like Paul Tillich. He was also, like Aulén, an exegete of great ability, a skillful historian, a gifted theologian, and an influential and effective churchman pastorally, nationally and internationally. Although Agape and Eros is a masterful study in the history of ideas and in systematic theology as the Lundensians were apt to understand it, Nygren's most significant contributions are in the philosophy of religion. Here it is that the theoretical background for the Lundensian system is developed. In what follows, the discussion will concentrate on Nygren's philosophical work rather than any other of the numerous facets of his thought, lest the super-structure of the Lundensian system be focussed on in this paper at the expense of its impressive and powerful infra-structure.

Nygren was clearly aware of the problems facing theology even in his earliest doctoral work on the religious a priori. What is it that makes theology a distinctive discipline? What about ethics and aesthetics or, for that matter, science? Nygren believed that the problem faced by the first three disciplines were the result of a way of thinking that was obsessed with science and was determined to assess every sphere of human activity by standards that had proved successful in the natural sciences. His intuition from an early age was that this was "stupid", to use his word. That is, it is the result of looking at the world through blinkered eyes and refusing to broaden one's vision.

Accepting Kant's strictures against theoretical knowledge of the noumenal, and his insight that reality as it is experienced by humans is far richer than analysis of the phenomenal realm can ever explain, Nygren adopts Kant's method of transcendental deduction or, less opaquely, the logical analysis of presuppositions. In this way Nygren identifies four contexts of meaning within human experience: science (corresponding to the question of truth/falsity), ethics (the question of good/evil), aesthetics (the question of beauty/ugliness) and religion (the question of the eternal). Each one of these areas of meaning is independently autonomous in the sense that it must be understood according to its own nature and not that of another area of meaning, or it will simply appear incoherent.

There are two important consequences of this transcendental deduction of the category of the context of meaning referred to as the eternal. First, it leads to Nygren's view of faith as a priori and therefore as independent of history. Second, as we have already seen, it flows into the view of theology which we characterised earlier as systematic history, which view both justifies theology's claim to be scientific and grounds the motif research method of Lundensian theology. By this sophisticated and powerful line of argument, Nygren protects religion and the theological enterprise (as well as ethics and art!) from science and philosophy. The line between them is sharply drawn; indeed, Nygren uses philophical tools to make the distinction! Philosophy has therefore become essentially linguistic analysis for Nygren, a point he himself emphasizes with the help of Wittgenstein's work later in his life.

The Inheritance of Lundensian Theology

The Lundensian system is a powerful one, and owes much of its strength to the imagination and passion of Aulén and Nygren. Other theologians carried on the Lundensian tradition, most notably Ragnar Bring, the successor of Nygren in the chair of systematic theology at Lund, whose focus is especially on motif research. Later theologians at Lund have found much to disagree with in the Lundensian system, particularly Gustaf Wingren who carried on a sustained and lively debate with Nygren up until the time of Nygren's death. The influence of Lundensian theology has been profound, inspite of energetic criticism. In north western Europe, and amongst the pastors and laity of the Church of Sweden particularly, the Lundensian spirit and approach continue strongly. What is the source of the power of the Lundensian theology? Perhaps it lies most of all in a characteristic which it shares with the theologies of the Apostle Paul and Luther: its capacity to retain at its core the simple,powerful message of the God of agape.



1923: The Faith of the Christian Church (First Swedish edition published in 1923 as Den allmneliga kristna tron. Fourth Swedish edition (1943) translated into the first English edition in 1948 and again in 1954. Fifth Swedish edition (1960) translated into the second English edition by Eric H. Wahlstrom in 1961, published by The Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia.)

1930: Christus Victor (Olaus Petri Lectures of 1930 published only in Swedish as Den kristna fˆrsoningstanken, which may be translated as The Christian Idea of the Atonement. Abridged English version produced by A. G. Herbert in 1931 as Christus Victor. First Macmillan paperback edition in 1969. First Collier edition in 1986 by Macmillan, New York.)

1947: Church, Law and Society (Hewett Lectures of 1947 published in 1948 by C. Scribner's Sons.)

1956: Eucharist and Sacrifice (First 1956 Swedish edition Fˆr eder utgiven translated into English in 1958 by Eric H. Wahlstrom and published by Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia in 1958 and 1960.)

1959: Reformation and Catholicity (First 1959 Swedish Edition Reformation och Katolicitet translated into English by Eric H. Wahlstrom in 1961. Published in 1961 by Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia.)

1970: The Drama and the Symbols: a book on images of God and the problems

they raise (First Swedish edition translated into English by Sydney Linton in 1970. Published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia.)

1976: Jesus in Contemporary Historical Research (First Swedish edition Jesus i nutida historik forskning translated into English by Ingalill H. Hjelm in 1976. Published in 1976 by Fortress Press, Philadelphia.)


1930-36: Agape and Eros (Part 1 published in Swedish in 1930 as Den kristna krlekstanken genom tiderna. Eros och Agape. Translated and abridged by A.G. Herbert in 1932 as Agape and Eros: A study in the Christian idea of love. Part 2 published in Swedish in 1936. Translated in two volumes by Philip S. Watson as Agape and Eros: The history of the Christian Idea of Love; volume 1 first published in 1938, volume 2 in 1939. Full translation into one English volume by Philip S. Watson. Published in 1953 by SPCK, London.)

1949: The Gospel of God (First Swedish edition published in 1949 as Herdabrev till Lundsstift. Translated in 1951 by L. J. Trinterud and published in 1951 by SCM, London.)

1955: Christ and His Church (First Swedish edition published in 1905 as Kristus och Kyrka. Translated in 1956 and published in 1956 by Westminster Press, Philadelphia.)

Secondary Material

Nels F.S. Ferré. Swedish Contributions to Modern Theology (with special reference to Lundensian thought) (Originally published in 1939 by Harper & Brothers. Harper Torchbook edition published in 1967 by Harper & Row, New York.)

Gustaf Wingren, Theology in Conflict (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958)

Charles W. Kegley, The Philosophy and Theology of Anders Nygren (Southern Illinois University Press, 1970)

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