Recovering Neglected Theologians #2: The Blumhardts
A Guest Post by Christian T. Collins Winn, Asst. Prof. of Historical and Systematic Theology, Bethel University. Dr. Winn has an upcoming book on the Blumhardts’ influence on the theology of Karl Barth.
and Christoph Blumhardt (1842-1919)
Johann Christoph Blumhardt and his son Christoph Blumhardt would certainly qualify as “neglected theologians.” Both Blumhardts, charismatic pastors from southwestern Germany (Württemberg), managed to be two of the most influential “theologians” of the later half of the nineteenth-century without anyone, at least not anyone in the English speaking world, really knowing about it. But don’t take my word for it, listen to Emil Brunner speaking about the origins of what has come to be called dialectical theology: “The real origin of the Dialectic Theology is to be traced, however, not to Kierkegaard, but to a more unexpected source, to a place still farther removed from the main theological thoroughfare-to the quiet Boll of the two Blumhardts.”
Rhetorical hyperbole you say? Perhaps, but given that not only Brunner and Moltmann, but Karl Barth, Eduard Thurneysen, Friedrich Gogarten, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Cullman, Paul Tillich and Gerhard Sauter all claim to have been influenced, or at the very least, to have known the thought of the two Blumhardts with some intimacy, a strong case can be made that the “pastors from Boll” had an important role in shaping the theological imagination of one of the most creative generations of Protestant thought in recent memory. This fact alone warrants the Blumhardts far more attention than they have received.
Unfortunately, there has been a dearth of available texts in English. That situation is currently being remedied through a partnership between Wipf & Stock Publishers and Plough Publishing that will produce a multi-volume collection of Blumhardt materials, with the first volumes appearing in 2009/2010. In anticipation of the forthcoming source material, I want to offer a three-fold argument for why the Blumhardts’ deserve our attention. First is what I would describe as the particular mode of their theology, which I will describe as “kerygmatic theology.” The second is to do with some of the particular proposals found in the proclamation of the Blumhardts. And finally, is the particular historical-ecclesial-spiritual-theological nexus that they inhabit. Before turning to these I should offer a brief outline for those of you who have never heard of the Blumhardts.
Johann Christoph Blumhardt became famous in Germany because of sensational events that unfolded in the small village of Möttlingen where he was the parish pastor. According to church documents as well as eye witnesses, for the better part of two years (1842-1843) Blumhardt found himself dealing with a purported case of demonic possession. Gottlieben Dittus, a parishioner, approached him complaining of strange events happening in the night. Blumhardt was initially repelled by the woman. Nonetheless, he would be drawn into a struggle whose dramatic crescendo and dénouement came with the shriek of the alleged demonic power that “Jesus is Victor!” This phrase would become the watchword and theological thematic for both Blumhardts in their respective ministries.
Over time, Blumhardt reflected on this episode in dialogue with Scripture and the tradition of Württemberg Pietism in which he was rooted. In light of his reflections, the phrase “Jesus is Victor” became shorthand for the inbreaking power of the Kingdom of God to liberate humanity from spiritual and physical bondage. Though the elder Blumhardt would increasingly emphasize the social dimensions of the kingdom, it was his son Christoph who would develop this aspect fully. In brief, Christoph Blumhardt came to the conviction that though his father had recovered a hope for the kingdom of God as made concrete in real physical transformation, he had not seen that the full expression of this hope included the transformation of the social conditions of humanity. While for the elder Blumhardt, “Jesus is Victor” had implied the healing of the body, for Christoph it implied the healing of the body politic. In contradistinction to his father, he began to envision the struggle with the powers and principalities in explicitly social and political terms. The powers against which Jesus struggled, and over which he would triumph, were now those structures which oppressed humanity and curtailed human flourishing.
These insights led the younger Blumhardt into the Social Democratic Party, which he would eventually represent in the regional legislature (1900-1906). In socialism, Blumhardt believed that he discerned a hope for a transformed world that was remarkably similar to the hope that the kingdom of God represented, and because the established church had consistently aligned itself with the status quo, Blumhardt argued that the atheist Socialists were more Christian than the Christians. However, after only 2 years of work he began to have serious doubts, not about the ideals of socialism, but rather about the practical platform and turbulent party politics he experienced. Though he would remain committed to socialism until his death in 1919, even remaining a member of the party and continuing to consult leading figures in Swiss socialist circles, Blumhardt became less sanguine about human attempts to bring the kingdom into the world: though they were an imperative, they were nonetheless flawed, awaiting the coming of Jesus to bring their hopes to fulfillment.
The Blumhardts deserve our attention, first, because of the particular mode of their theologizing. The Blumhardts together should be described as “kerygmatic theologians.” This refers first to the lyrical, aphoristic, and sermonic quality of their theological ruminations. The Blumhardts’ oeuvre is nothing more than a vast collection of sermons, table-talk, letters, poetry, hymns, pastoral counseling, biblical commentary, autobiographical and biographical reflection, and a few public speeches. So far as I know, there is no single text written by either Blumhardt that could be described as a theological treatise.
“Kerygmatic theology” also refers to the non-systematic character of their thought. One will find in their work theological themes and theses that stand in dialectical tension with no attempt by either Blumhardt to find resolution, or sometime even recognize the tension. The descriptor “kerygmatic” then, evokes the sense of a loosely connected set of theological convictions that when assembled represent a relatively coherent theology, while at the same time referring to persistent gaps, aporia, and even downright contradictions that reside within the overarching unity.
“Kerygmatic theology” also evokes the practical, earthy everydayness that marks most of their reflection and writing. Their theology was forged in the heat of battle, whether pastoral, political, or personal, which gives it a fresh quality and electric verve that still comes through today. Their thought retains a spiritual intensity that continues to feed those in need of nourishment.
This “kerygmatic” quality gives their thought both provisional and irreducible qualities. The provisional character refers to the constant need for theological supplementation, extension, elaboration and clarification which confronts the reader of their works. The irreducible character was certainly rooted in the peculiar experiences that shaped both their ministries, but should also be applied to the theological slogans by which they sought to crystallize their reflections on those experiences (especially “Jesus is Victor!” and “Thy kingdom come!”). They understood themselves as witnesses of the inbreaking kingdom of God, and their witness and subsequent theological reflection retains its original irreducible character. One either takes it seriously in all its strangeness or one does not.
Both of these qualities serve as invitation to think with the Blumhardts about the kingdom of God, firing the theological imagination, even if we find ourselves revising or moving beyond their thought. This is one of the reasons why these two obscure idiosyncratic figures became objects of fascination and inspiration for many of the 20th century’s theological luminaries.
My second reason for recommending the Blumhardts for consideration is the actual content of their thought. Their theology presents us with a complex of potent thematics that is too varied and interwoven to go into in any depth here. Nonetheless, it includes: a wide ranging consideration of eschatology and the kingdom of God; an illuminating discussion of the interrelation of prayer, human action and the coming of the kingdom; their different approaches to the doctrine of the apokatastasis ton panton [“restoration of all”]; the elder Blumhardt’s reflections on God’s judgment and dynamic nature, his thoughts on the relationship between eschatology, history, and pneumatology, and his pastoral reflections on embodiment and affliction; the younger Blumhardt’s “eschatological Christology”, his critique of Christendom in the context of missions and society, and his theoretical and practical work for a religious or prophetic socialism. All of these themes, and many more, surface across the writings of the Blumhardts, often in such different and illuminating combinations that they continue to provide food for thought.
Finally, the Blumhardts are worth taking seriously because they have been the source of inspiration of widely divergent movements. From Pentecostalism to liberation theology, from dialectical theology to the Keswick holiness movement, the Blumhardts have proven to be figures with extraordinary theological flexibility and fecundity. This makes the Blumhardts worth reading and thinking with not because they provide a foundation on which to build a kind of ecumenical integrated theology. Rather, they are important because they provide a common ground at which many different theological traditions meet, draw sustenance, and find that they have far more in common than not.
 “Continental European Theology,” in The Church Through Half a Century, ed. by S. M. Cavert and H. Van Dusen (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1936), 141.
 “The Hope for the Kingdom of God and Signs of Hope in the World: The Relevance of Blumhardt’s Theology Today,” Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, 26/1 (Spring, 2004), 4.
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