Adolf Schlatter: A Model of Scholarship

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One of my scholarly and personal heroes is Adolf Schlatter (note that in recent years, Schlatter has been charged with anti-Semitism in some of his writings; however, the issue is too complicated to be adequately discussed here). At a time when Adolf Harnack espoused his liberalism, and Rudolf Bultmann eclectically appropriated David Friedrich Strauss’s mythological approach and Martin Heidegger’s existentialism, Schlatter stood firm in his advocacy of a biblical-theological, salvation-historical reading of the Bible and a high view of Scripture.

In the foreword to The History of the Christ in 1920, Schlatter wrote, “The knowledge of Jesus is the foremost, indispensable centerpiece of New Testament theology.” This stands in marked contract to Rudolf Bultmann, who opened his famous two-volume New Testament Theology thus: “The message of Jesus is a presupposition for the theology of the New Testament rather than a part of that theology itself.”

In his approach to hermeneutics, Schlatter was ahead of his time and uttered timeless principles such as these:

It is the historical objective that should govern our conceptual work exclusively and completely, stretching our perceptive faculties to the limit. We turn away decisively from ourselves and our time to what was found in the men through whom the church came into being. Our main interest should be the thought as it was conceived by them and the truth that was valid for them. We want to see and obtain a thorough grasp of what happened historically and existed in another time. This is the internal disposition upon which the success of the work depends, the commitment which must consistently be renewed as the work proceeds. (History of the Christ, 18)

In a day when interpretation increasingly becomes an exercise in reader response, or when texts are said to have a life of their own apart from the intentions of the author who willed them into being, Schlatter’s hermeneutic of perception, that is, of perceive listening and apprehension of the words of another, speaks a powerful message. Much of the contemporary interpretive confusion arising from undue subjectivism could be avoided if Schlatter’s words were heeded.

Also timeless if Schlatter’s emphasis on Jesus as the center of the biblical message read as a whole. This conviction is fleshed out compellingly in his 2-volume New Testament Theology, entitled respectively, The History of the Christ and The Theology of the Apostles. It also underlies Schlatter’s final work, a devotional called Do We Know Jesus? which he wrote in his old age during the last year of his life.

In this his final work, the 85 year-old Schlatter penned the following words, just shortly before the outbreak of World War II:

Do we know Jesus? If we no longer know him, we no longer know ourselves. For in our ancestral line, he is at work with unrivaled power. Compared to him, what is a Hildebrand become one with his sword, or a Krimhild burning with passionate lust? The condition of our inner lives and of our national community proves that the things Jesus built into this world are both present and at work among us. This is not obscured even by the numerous antichrists among us. For precisely when they, with blazing wrath, seek to suppress any memory of Jesus, their thoughts and intentions are inevitably shaped by the One they combat as their enemy.

It is on account of this raw courage, and this power of prophetic insight, that Schlatter, though dead, still speaks to us today and challenges us to engage in a hermeneutic of perceptive insight and humble confidence, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

For material on Schlatter see his two-volume theology, The History of the Christ and The Theology of the Apostles (Baker, 1997 and 1998). See also his biblical theology presented in devotional form, Do We Know Jesus? Daily Insights for the Mind and Soul (Kregel, 2005); “Schlatter Reception Then and Now: His New Testament Theology (Part 1),” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3/1 (Spring 1999): 40–51; and the entry on Schlatter in The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (ed. G. T. Kurian; Blackwell, 2011).


  1. As far as the claim, “His sharpest words are directed toward the supposedly objective scientific method being used by the bible scholars of his day,” that is true. But the words were sharp because the scholars in their vaunted “presuppositionless” exegesis were submerged in subjectivity, not because they were objectifying, or even concerned with, the message of the biblical text, which they in large measure rejected. In this Koestenberger is quite correct. As far as evangelicals being interested in Schlatter, he was a confessing Christian in the German university, an increasing rarity already at that time. It’s not surprising, is it, but rather something wise and helpful when Christians are alert to how great thinkers of other eras upheld faithful and intellectually grounded witness to the gospel.

  2. Dr. Kostenberger,

    You are certainly right in saying that Schlatter’s method turns away from our subjectivity toward the message of the biblical text…BUT, he also recognizes the inescapable role of the subjectivity of the interpreter plays. His sharpest words are directed toward the supposedly objective scientific method being used by the bible scholars of his day. He makes it very clear that the subjectivity of the interpreter (their “Lebensakt”) shapes and grounds their interpretive activity (their “Denkakt”). This cannot and should not be avoided, in fact our own experiences of faith play a positive role in helping us generate analogies that help us appropraite the message of scripture. True, Schlatter says we should start by paying attention to the message of the text, but that emphasis on objectivity is relative, never absolute. Our own subjectivity is operative throughout the interpretive process…it just should not rule the process. I am intrigued that evangelicals are so attracted to Schlatter. His view of knowledge, and his views of scripture, are in fact sharply critical of the doctrine of inerrancy, and the American evangelical tendency toward a fairly empirical epistemology.

  3. Dr Kostenberger,

    That man Schlatter. Reading his work crystallizes the work of Christ into a format that is hitherto unknown. I am equally fond of his monumental contribution to evangelicalism and the stand he took against liberal higher-criticism in his contemporaries.

    That he rates as my absolute favorite NT author is without theological dispute – thanks to your worthy effort in translating such compelling and Christ-honoring work. I am sure there are more like myself who have taken the time to become better acquainted with a great exegete – as Robert W Yarbrough insist in ‘Still Sovereign’.

    In time more will come to know this obscure, though intellectual scholar.

  4. Isn’t this the same Schlatter who signed the 1914 manifesto supporting Kaiser Wilhem’s war machine? How can we applaud pursuit of “the historical objective” when this approach has little resistance to Kulturprotestantismus?

  5. Andreas,

    Excellent post. I remember reading (I think) your article on Schlatter in some dictionary of evangelical theologians of the 20th century when I was an undergrad(forgive me if I’m wrong!). The recent “evangelical discovery” of Schlatter has certainly been illuminating and it goes to show that Barth and Bultmann were not the only contructive voices coming out of Germany in the 20th century. I wonder how Schlatter will be described and evaluated in Baird’s history of NT research? I always thought Schlatter’s primary contribution from our point of view was his biblical theological approach and being, in some ways, a forerunner to the apocalyptic school of Kasemann and company on Paul.

  6. “The message of Jesus is a presupposition for the theology of the New Testament rather than a part of that theology itself.”

    I think this is a partially true statement. The Gospel that Jesus preached (of the imminent Kingdom of God) is absolutely a presupposition to the NT. This is clearly seen by the fact that there is no definition statement for the phrase Kingdom of God. When looking at prophesies and intertestimonial writings the phrase Kingdom of God takes form. This is a cultural phrase and it’s meaning is known by those before Jesus, and after him in that Jewish culture.

    That isn’t the part that is wrong. Jesus did not come to create a new religion. The part that is wrong, in my opinion, is that it is not a part of the theology. It most definitely is. It is the centerpiece of the theology (Seek first the Kingdom of God). It is the force of judgement. It is the force of the Christian motivation. It is Christ’s destiny to be the King. His very titles; son of God, son of Man, Christ (Messiah) are both connected vigorously to this idea of Kingship.

    The centerpiece of the Bible isn’t so much Jesus the person, as it is the Messiah, the King – who is so central because the Kingdom of God is God’s ultimate salvation plan! You don’t find pictures of the 1st century Jesus in prophesies all that much. You see a King, ruling with a rod of iron.

  7. Dr. Köstenberger,
    Thank you for this post on Schlatter. I was exposed to him significantly under the tutelage of Tom Schreiner and Mark Seifrid during PhD studies at SBTS. What a wonderful NT Theology. Given what he was saying and when he was saying it makes Schlatter that much more of a hero. After using the library’s for some time, I finally acquired my own copy of his NT Theology at ETS last fall, and it has rarely left my desk. Thank you for the excellent translation—you have helped NT professors and students immensely by having done that. Now, could you translate Hofius for the rest of us? Ha ha.

    Many thanks,
    Barry Joslin

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