Christ in the University
Edmund Schlink's Vision
Matthew L. Becker

For the past decade, I have regularly taught a course on Christians in Nazi Germany, a topic that seems more relevant today than when I started. One of the theologians we examine in that course is Edmund Schlink (1903-1984), who taught ecumenical theology at Heidelberg University after the Second World War. Since this year marks the seventieth anniversary of Schlink’s professorial lecture, I decided last summer to focus my own such lecture on his. Despite its age and the particularities surrounding its origin and delivery, his inaugural lecture still speaks meaningfully to the contemporary situation of a church-related university. His vision is worth re-visiting.

SchlinkAlthough less well known than some other German theologians of that period—one thinks especially of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Rudolf Bultmann—Edmund Schlink was nevertheless one of the most important Protestant theologians in the middle decades of the last century. He became a Lutheran pastor in December 1931, about a year before Hitler came to power. For nearly forty years, Schlink taught at Heidelberg, where he advised numerous doctoral students and wrote many essays and books. For more than twenty-five years, he was the leading German Protestant in the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. He co-founded the oldest official dialogue between Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians, the German one that still meets periodically. He helped to found two ecumenical journals, Ökumenische Rundschau (Ecumenical Review) and Kerygma und Dogma, both of which continue today. He was as conversant in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology as he was in the Lutheran Protestant tradition. That expertise played an important role in his helping to bring the Russian Orthodox Church into the World Council of Churches in 1961. At the Second Vatican Council, he served as the official observer from the Protestant Church in Germany. His 830-page Ökumenische Dogmatik (Ecumenical Dogmatics), on which he worked for more than forty years and which he completed just one year before his death, is the most ecumenically significant dogmatics text published by a Lutherantheologian in the twentieth century. I am currently working on an English edition of this important work.

Yet Schlink came to the study of theology in a roundabout way. Following the German custom of hearing lectures from the best professors at a variety of universities, he initially studied mathematics and physics at Tübingen, Kiel, Vienna, and Munich. This academic focus made sense, since his father had been a professor of aeronautics at a technical school in Darmstadt, where Schlink had grown up. Later, however, he began to study the social sciences, mainly because he was more and more interested in the question, “Was ist der Mensch?” —“What is a human being?” (Engelhardt, 7). So he completed his first doctorate, not in physics but in clinical psychology at the University of Marburg. At that time, however, in 1927, he suffered a crisis of meaning that led him to leave Marburg, where he could have become a professor of psychology, in order to work as a hired hand on a Silesian farm (Skibbe 19).

During that year of milking cows and cleaning out barns, pietistic Christians from the local village influenced him deeply. Conversations with a Lutheran pastor there and with one back in Darmstadt led him to spiritual renewal and a reawakened Christian faith. From this point on, he was determined to pursue theological study. He first went to the University of Münster, where in 1931 he completed his second doctorate, this time under the direction of the most famous systematic theologian of that period, Karl Barth. Schlink became one of the few Lutheran theologians at the time to take Barth’s Reformed theology seriously as a key resource for contemporary reflection. He did so as he worked on his Habilitationsschrift, a second doctoral dissertation (which in effect was his third dissertation) that qualified him to teach in a German university. He completed this in 1934 at the University of Giessen.

In these early years, Schlink also served several Lutheran congregations, mostly in the Frankfurt area. During this time, he aligned himself with those Christians in opposition to the so-called Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”) who were trying to align the Protestant churches in Germany with Hitler’s National Socialism. The Deutsche Christen saw no contradiction between the Nazi swastika and the cross of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Deutsche Christen brought these two symbols into close relationship, as one can see in their flag. Against the Deutsche Christen, Schlink publicly defended the 1934 Barmen Declaration, which was largely written by Barth. This confession explicitly condemned the racist heresy of the German Christians. Schlink worked to strengthen those congregations that had adopted this declaration as their own. The principal means of his resistance was his mouth—that, and his tireless pastoral care. His actions of resistance—which, as Skibbe emphasizes, were of a different kind from the routes taken by Barth and Bonhoeffer—were nonetheless sufficient to get him into trouble with Nazi officials. The Nazi Ministry of Culture fired him from his initial position at Giessen, and the Gestapo later closed down Bethel Seminary near Bielefeld, where he had also been teaching (Eber 24). Schlink’s preaching troubled the Gestapo, since they deemed his sermons subversive to the Nazi state. The Gestapo banned him twice from speaking in public and they threatened him with prison (see Skibbe 27-28, 43). Through a complex set of circumstances that I will not go into here, he was always able to avoid this latter consequence. Between 1941 and the end of the war in 1945, he served—illegally—as a pastor to a Lutheran congregation of the Confessing Church in Bielefeld.

Schlink suffered personally during this period as well. In 1936, only four years after he married, his wife died suddenly, leaving him to raise their two young daughters. A few years later he remarried. Irmgard Oswald was one of his students, whom he had asked to type the manuscript of his book on the theology of the Lutheran Confessions. In the course of their collaboration, they would occasionally take breaks, during which time they would make music together. She played the piano, he the violin. She liked Mozart, he preferred Bach. This music-making led to marriage, and then to two additional children. One of these is the retired law professor and famous author Bernard Schlink, whose semi-autobiographical novel, The Reader, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film of the same title. (I learned a couple of years ago that Frau Schlink was not a fan of the novel or the film. In her words, “the story hit too close to home.”)

In 1946, Edmund Schlink joined the faculty of Heidelberg, the oldest university in Germany. Its several buildings sit in the shadow of the famous castle there, along the Neckar River. The official entrance to the university is the neue Aula, the new lecture hall built in the early 1930s, whose auditorium was the venue for Schlink’s 1947 lecture. (On that occasion, it was full to capacity.) Above the entrance to the building is the university’s ancient motto, Dem Lebendigen Geist, “To the Living Spirit.” The figure of Athena, goddess of wisdom, stands over the portal. For centuries, important scholars at Heidelberg had defended the principle of intellectual freedom. During the Weimar years (1919-33), the university had made room for many differing political and philosophical positions. Large numbers of international students were welcomed. While some faculty there already embraced National Socialism in the 1920s, others, particularly in philosophy and the social sciences, defended Germany’s experiment with liberal democracy.

That experiment failed. After Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, Nazi ideologues completely took over Heidelberg, as they did all other universities in Germany. Younger scholars and many university students began to express more strongly their anti-republican, racist, anti-Semitic, nationalist, and imperialist convictions. According to Steven Remy, by the end of that fateful year Heidelberg was firmly in the control of professors who supported Hitler’s aims. The ancient motto of the university now became “Dem Deutschen Geist,” “To the German Spirit.” A German eagle replaced the figure of Athena. In effect, the rallying cry became, “Let’s Make Germany Great Again.” Heidelberg quickly transitioned into Hitler’s showcase university, a major center for the propagation of his ideology. By pressuring the university’s administration, students were able to have faculty members they deemed anti-Nazi removed from their positions. In that first year, administrators dismissed 59 of the 214 faculty for “racial” or political reasons (“Universität Heidelberg: 625 Years – A Brief Chronology”). Members of the Party now filled all key positions, and the university was completely coordinated to Nazi ideals and policies. This was the situation for twelve long years.

Because Nazi ideology had so corrupted Heidelberg, the university’s denazification and reconstruction after the war were difficult. Between 1945 and 1949, the university functioned under the military government of the U.S. Army. The rebirth of the university occurred largely through the work of the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who had been fired in 1937 because he was married to a Jewish woman, and through the actions of a small group of other Heidelberg professors who had been fired or had been relatively non-cooperative with the regime.

Along with his colleagues Hans von Campenhausen (professor of early church history) and Martin Dibelius (New Testament scholar), Schlink helped to rebuild the theology faculty. In the thirty years that he served there, Heidelberg became perhaps the leading place to study Protestant theology in the world. Its faculty included such other notable theologians as Günther Bornkamm (New Testament), Heinrich Bornkamm (Reformation history), Wilhelm Hahn (practical theology), Peter Brunner (systematic theology), and the Old Testament scholars Gerhard von Rad and Claus Westermann.

Schlink’s principal contribution was to make Heidelberg a center for ecumenism and ecumenical theology. Toward this end, he founded an ecumenical institute there, the first of its kind in the world. This institute—whose building was paid for in large measure by American contributions—attracted some forty international students each year, including many from the United States. Among these was Dale Lasky, who taught theology at Valpo for several decades.

Schlink renewed Heidelberg in another significant way, namely, by fostering interdisciplinary dialogue across the faculty. In 1947 such interdisciplinary dialogue was almost non-existent. But his lecture that year helped pave the way for an annual faculty-wide conference, which was always hosted by the Heidelberg theologians at a nearby bar and restaurant. The goal of this daylong conference was discussion about a topic of wide-ranging interest. For example, that first conference in 1947 examined the relationship between theology and the natural sciences. Subsequent topics included the problem of nuclear weapons, the German legal system, universal human rights, and racism. Whatever the chosen issue, two professors, one theologian and one non-theologian, presented formal papers. Participants then discussed these papers over beer and wine. Unfortunately, these conferences ended shortly before Schlink retired in 1971. Part of the reason for this was the fact that the university had simply become too large. (Today it has more than sixty full-time theology faculty, nearly 900 theology students, and several thousand other professors teaching approximately 30,000 students.)

scepterIn 1947, however, only about 4,500 students attended Heidelberg University. The theme of Schlink’s inaugural lecture that year was “Christ and the faculties,” and its organizing object was the university’s scepter. Fashioned in the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the scepter’s design goes back to 1388, just two years after Heidelberg’s founding. Since 1492, the scepter has functioned as the highest symbol of authority in the university. It is usually carried by the rector at all official ceremonies. (I suspect that to be elected rector there one must first prove that one can lift the thing!) When not in use, it is kept in the university’s museum. On top of the heavy, gold-covered silver staff is a stylized, open-sided cube, a miniature room in which the twelve-year-old Jesus is teaching four figures who sit in a semi-circle. The four figures are not the elders in the Jerusalem Temple but the four faculties of the university: philosophy, law, medicine, and theology. None of these four figures sits higher or lower than any of the others. None stands over against the others as their teacher. Neither does the church fill this role. Rather, Christ alone is teaching from an open Bible—the Hebrew Scriptures—and the four faculties are listening to him on an equal plane. Christ is thus represented as the teacher of the university as a whole. Neither theology nor philosophy is the queen of the other disciplines, since they, too, are merely individual figures in a semi-circle of four. Only in listening to Christ’s word do the four faculties receive their unifying center. That was Schlink’s thesis.

It is worth noting, too, that none of the four disciplines is listening solely to what Christ is teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures. Each discipline has its own focus and responsibilities in relation to Christ. In this perspective, neither a medieval Aristotelian-scholastic theory of science nor a nineteenth-century idealistic theory of science nor a twentieth-century naturalistic/materialistic theory of science is finally able to create a unity within the university as a universitas totum. Instead, that unity is grounded in a transcendent, theological vision of reality that holds Christ to be the one in whom God the Creator and humankind as a whole are reconciled and unified. In this vision, Christ is both the incarnate word of God and the one in whom human beings have their ultimate fulfillment, since he is the savior of all. According to Schlink, this scepter of Heidelberg thus “wishes to express to all of the university faculties the necessity of an attitude of listening to Christ and of learning from him. And through its permanent form, the scepter wishes to proclaim to all coming generations that not only true theology but also the right way of engaging in legal, medical, and philosophical scholarship is impossible without this hearing” (125). Schlink himself noted how strange and radical this assertion is, when that which the scepter represents in its crown is no longer understood to be viable in our modern, pluralistic age, but is seen as merely “an aspect of a long-lost medieval age” (126).

How can Jesus Christ be the teacher of all of the university faculties today, whose number is no longer a mere four but has grown to include many more, and whose participants include non-Protestant Christians, members of other religions, and non-religious faculty and students? Just what does this Jesus have to teach a modern university? What can be learned from a man who 2,000 years ago wandered around from rural village to small hamlet in his native Palestine, who was the friend of tax collectors and prostitutes, and who was the fierce critic of academic theologians (like me!) and pious legal scholars? What can be learned from someone who announced the in-breaking of God’s reign and yet ended up executed as a blasphemer and criminal, and whose followers reported he had appeared to them after his death (127)? What can scientists, law and medical professors, and philosophers learn from this Jesus? After all, Jesus himself was no scientist. He did not write any books. He gave no lectures on the philosophy of nature or on historiography, nor did he engage in legal disputes, not even with the Jewish legal scholars of his day. How is Jesus a teacher for all disciplines in the university today? These were Schlink’s questions, and I would contend they remain living questions today, at least in an institution that is formally grounded in a specific Christian tradition of faith, freedom, and scholarship.

Before answering these questions, however, Schlink acknowledged how over the preceding three centuries Christian church leaders had tried to hem in the emerging natural sciences, most infamously through the Inquisition and the trial of Galileo. In Schlink’s view, this was largely due to medieval church politics and a wrong-headed combination of Aristotelian traditionalism and scholastic theology. But Schlink then asked, must listening to the voice of Christ necessarily be a hindrance to scholarly work? He thought not, but he was very clear to stress that Jesus has actually very little to teach us, even if that little is crucial and central to the identity of a university like Heidelberg.

For example, Schlink noted, when the Gospel of John testifies that Jesus is the truth, it means something entirely different from contemporary scientific and philosophical theories about the concept of truth. According to John, Jesus reveals the unverifiable reality of God, a reality that is only recognizable in faith. Similarly, when Luke describes Jesus as a doctor in relation to sickness and healing, he in no way presents Jesus as a medical professor. The sicknesses that Jesus addresses are sins, and the ultimate healing he provides are the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life (126). Moreover, when Paul teaches that the righteousness of God has appeared in Jesus Christ, he means something different from secular justice in the scholarly field of law, for the gospel is the divine promise of acquittal for sinners (127). So Christ has very little to teach us, and there is much to learn from sources beyond him. Still, what he teaches is essential.

Schlink also minimized Christ’s role in the university by stressing the limitations of the philosophy and theology faculties. While philosophy, and not theology, generally held sway as the unifying center of German universities into the nineteenth century, that center, too, did not hold. Instead, tensions and outright divisions occurred between the natural sciences, on the one hand, and the social sciences and the humanities, on the other. Theology was even further sidelined, taking on a more defensive posture, while philosophy was reduced to being merely an individual discipline of less and less importance to doctoral students. (It is interesting to note, as Schlink did, that by the end of the nineteenth century, those who received a Ph.D., a “doctorate in philosophy,” in whatever field, rarely actually studied philosophy!)

In place of theology and philosophy, German universities turned to various secular ideologies as a way of unifying the scholarly disciplines. For example, Schlink pointed to so-called scientific positivism. While granting that this ideology or worldview (Weltanschauung) helped to refine scholarly methods that have led to amazing advances in knowledge, he criticized features of this ideological perspective that go beyond the actual practice of the empirical sciences to make judgments about reality as a whole. He was particularly critical of all materialistic and deterministic worldviews, which he held to be inherently reductive, atomizing, and potentially de-humanizing. He was troubled by the inherent necessity in the diverging ideologies of the nineteenth century and early-twentieth century to move from conclusions about empirical data to the positing of sweeping, all-encompassing claims about reality in toto. He did not need to stress this point, since his audience in 1947 was painfully aware of how a political ideology had overtaken all German universities and had forced them into submission. (It is surprising that Schlink did not refer to a similar dynamic that was then occurring in East German universities, where Marxism was beginning to dominate.) In Nazi Germany, this kind of ideological take-over was the case not just in law and medicine, but also in biology, anthropology, sociology, and political theory, not to mention the technical sciences in service to the German military, and yes, philosophy and theology, too. All of this resulted in what Schlink called “the forced unity of the political-ideological university” (133):

All these ideological worldviews are directed against the work of the faculties, for they make the researchers blind to those areas of reality which do not correspond to the individual ideology…. Materialism makes the researcher blind to the distinctive features of life and of human beings, of human community, and of religion; ideological biology [Biologismus] does no less with respect to the spiritual in the widest sense (133).

 In Schlink’s view, all such ideological worldviews hinder the pursuit of true, scholarly knowledge and lead to the subversion of scholarly work. Such worldviews not only become “the enemies of the university” but “of life itself” (133). As Schlink noted in passing, “Every ideological understanding of human beings cannot avoid having an actual effect on education, the medical treatment of the sick, and political decision-making. Ideologies rule as tyrants and as demonic powers, about which the Bible speaks” (133).

Schlink feared that what had happened to German universities in the 1920s and ’30s could happen again. He thought that such a development was a necessary result of modern materialistic, positivistic, atheistic ideologies in scholarly work, and that such ideologies, to the extent that they remain viable, pose an ongoing threat to all universities and to human beings. (One could rightly push back against Schlink at this point by noting how religious ideologies, as totalizing worldviews, can also pose a threat to the academy and to its principle of intellectual freedom.)

So what counsel did he provide to ward off such ideological tyranny? Interestingly, he made use of assertions about the sciences by his faculty colleague, the atheist Karl Jaspers: “Scientific knowledge is not knowledge of being. For scientific knowledge is particular, directed to certain objects, not to being itself…. Scientific knowledge cannot provide any goals for living. It does not set forth any valid values. It cannot lead as such. Science cannot answer the question about its own meaning. The fact that science exists is based on impulses which can no longer be scientifically proven to be true and necessary” (133-34, quoting from Jaspers’ book, Die Idee der Universität, 18 [my translation]). These take us to what Jaspers called Grenzfragen, “boundary questions,” the very questions that had disrupted Schlink’s own study of physics and psychiatry and had led him to a Silesian farm. Schlink agreed with the atheist Jaspers that the natural and social sciences are incapable of fully answering questions about the normative principles of jurisprudence or about the ethical responsibilities in the practice of medicine or in the execution of the theoretical and technical sciences. Like Einstein, Schlink held that the natural and social sciences are incapable of fully answering the day-to-day moral and religious questions that arise in actual human living. He stressed, for example (134), that the historical investigation of human rights does not provide an answer to the questions, “What is justice? What are human rights?” Nor does the history of ethics provide an answer to the normative questions, “What is good?” “What is evil?” In Schlink’s view, none of the natural and social sciences can fully or ultimately answer these questions, or others, such as the basic ones, “What is the human being? What is the meaning of human being? What ties humankind together in a human community?” These scientific discoveries and technological advances cannot protect individuals from existential angst and the threats that are arrayed against them, especially the threat of suffering and death, but also the threat from totalizing secular (and, I would add, religious) ideologies. The latter, moreover, need not be so obvious as Nazism or Marxism. Ideologies can work in a more subtle fashion, as happens when universities become nothing more than supermarkets of fragmented knowledge for individual capitalist consumers with no attention to larger questions of worldview, ethics, religious belief, and human meaning. (After twenty years of teaching Christian theology to undergraduate students in a pluralistic church-related university, I remain convinced that this line of inquiry is the best way for them to enter into theological reflection, regardless of their [ir]religious background.)

Precisely in relation to Grenzfragen—and really only at this point—Schlink thought that Christ has something crucial to teach modern universities for the sake of human good and human community. He quoted the 13th-century Franciscan theologian Bonaventure to make the same point. In contrast to Thomas Aquinas, who saw a positive role for the philosophy of Aristotle in the task of theology, the scepter of Heidelberg depicts Bonaventure’s Christocentric vision of the university, grounds the faculties in Christ and his teaching, which frees them to be open to the complex realities of the world, and which leads them to be corrected by these same realities, including the reality of God and the claim of the First Commandment (140). Bonaventure’s vision, as interpreted by Schlink for his post-war audience, is particularly on guard against the intrusion of sinful, distorting ideologies in scholarly activity, but it also stresses that the gospel of Jesus Christ speaks directly and meaningfully to existential angst, human fears, threats, suffering, and death. Schlink’s vision, which is really a re-articulation of Bonaventure’s, thus sets forth the need for the university to make room for what Christ teaches about sin, grace, forgiveness, love, and justice. Schlink explicitly appealed to the scepter as an abiding visual reminder of this need.

Even if one refuses to trust Christ’s teaching for what it might illuminate about one’s self and the world, the teaching of Christ still summons all members of the university to be united in service to the good of all human beings. This is the summons to be honest and humble about one’s serious limitations and to recognize the need for ongoing change. While many other religious figures in history have offered the same summons, Schlink thought that a university that is grounded in the Christian tradition should concentrate on how it is voiced by Jesus Christ. In this respect, Schlink made two basic theological assertions.

First, Christ breaks open and disrupts the ideological worldviews, philosophical systems, intellectual positions, and theological constructs that people erect to shield themselves from the infinite, the unpredictable, death, and the threat of God (136). Christ destroys all idols, all false gods that human beings fabricate, including, I would add, idols that Christians themselves construct in Christ’s name. Christ then takes hold of individuals in a saving way and frees them to see the reality of this world clearly, with all of its difficulties and complexities. Schlinck writes:

 Christ sets people free so that they can persist in their inquiries and their researching… He makes us free because in him God reaches out to us, from whose hand no power can snatch us. Hidden in God, people no longer need to deceive themselves, for they no longer need to fear anything, truly anything, any reality outside of God. This is true since “everything is yours, but you are of Christ and Christ is of God” (1 Cor. 3.22f.). It is not the case that the natural and social sciences come to a stop where faith begins. Rather, it is just the opposite: “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” (136-37)         

Schlink’s second assertion is this: Christ commands us to respect all human beings equally as creatures of God, “for Christ is not for me alone but for all” (137). Everyone is my neighbor. In Christ God, the creator is revealed not only as “my creator but as the creator of all human beings” (137), as the creator of the world, of the universe. Every human being is precious to God. So there is no distinction between peoples, races, nations. Christ thus leads the faculties of the university to be concerned for all, especially the weak, the suffering, the marginalized, the poor, the forgotten ones in this tumultuous world. Christ teaches the university not to become enslaved to ideologies or to grow weary in the task of ongoing thinking and researching or to be blinded by idolatry and self-glorification. By forgiving and freeing human beings from sin and all fears, Christ directs the faculties into service for others.

To be sure, there is no such thing as “Christian astronomy” or “Christian mathematics” or perhaps even “Christian philosophy.” Christ does not provide whatever results are given through scholarly research; these are the result of patient, careful, critical, rational work. Christ “places the researcher in his light and frees the researcher for the single-minded, cool-headed realism in which the given legal, medical, philosophical, and scientific disciplines do their work” (137-38). The starting point for that research is, however, crucial, at least in a university that is grounded in the Christian tradition. This starting point is the freedom that Christ establishes. Even the theology faculty at such a university must continually test and evaluate its findings against the Scriptures and their witness to Jesus Christ, and to do so in light of historical and philosophical understanding and in dialogue with the other university disciplines, including those that study Christianity and the other world religions from non-theological perspectives.

Schlink ended his lecture by raising two more questions. First, “In what way does Christian theology serve the other university disciplines?” (139); and second, “In what way do the other faculties serve theology?” (141) With respect to the first question, Schlink underscored his minimalist position. To be sure, he noted, knowledge in the humanities and the social sciences would be imperfect in important respects if the phenomena of religion, including Christianity, found no adequate scholarly consideration in a university. He held, however, that the role of theology in relation to non-theological disciplines is restricted to questions about ideology, worldview, the nature of reality as a whole, the reality of God, the acting force of God, the word of God, and about basic human, religious, and ethical questions that arise in both theology and the other disciplines. While theology can address these issues and questions in dialogue with the other faculties, it cannot supplant or interfere with actual scholarly research. “The Bible as the word of God is a light to our way, not a lexicon for all the possible contents of science” (142).

Conversely, while the non-theological disciplines can help theology in testing and clarifying its knowledge, they cannot prove or demonstrate the truth of Christian faith or supplant the basis of theology in the reality of God and of God’s own acting and addressing. The conviction of Christian faith only comes from the reception of God’s revelation in the prophetic and apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. Even though knowledge in faith does not displace the knowledge gained through philosophy, the sciences, law, and medicine, it can and often does influence it. Such a dialogue between theology and the non-theological disciplines invites mutual criticism, especially when the intrusion of ideology interferes with the epistemic processes and supposed conclusions in the sciences and theology, or when science presupposes the rejection of the reality of God and God’s word, or when theology interferes with the epistemic processes and valid conclusions in the sciences. For Schlink (following Bonaventure [1221-74]), the path to true knowledge and wisdom involves both the light of cognition-knowledge in the sciences and the light of God’s critical and life-giving Word. In this vision, one that I think can only be carried out in a university that is grounded in the Christian tradition, both of these lights are necessary for a fuller knowledge and wisdom. The scholarly disciplines receive their status and position in relation to Christ and relate to one another in a semi-circle, as in the Heidelberg scepter.

Schlink’s response to his second question is also quite simple. Beyond providing helpful non-theological knowledge and insights in relation to the data of the Christian religion—all done in faculties beyond theology—if the non-theological disciplines in the university do not call Christian theology and its claims to account on a scientific and scholarly basis, then they too are not fulfilling their service to the university as a whole (141). But there needs to be respectful, critical dialogue for the sake of mutual understanding. Otherwise, the university breaks apart into a chaotic plurality that lacks true community (142). Given his love for music, it is not surprising that at this point Schlink offered an analogy from that domain: a university is operating best when each of its disciplines has its part to play, the sum of which should resemble the polyphony of a symphony (143), not the cacophony of Wall Street. We might extend this analogy further by suggesting that a religiously-grounded university has its distinctive tune to play, a tune that contains all sorts of contrapuntal notes, but whose underlying cantus firmus stems from a specific religious tradition and confession that give the tune its structure, central focus, key themes, and abiding identity.


While I have already hinted at some weaknesses in Schlink’s vision, let me conclude by identifying three abiding strengths. First, Schlink highlighted the challenge that Christian theology faces when it seeks to relate the teaching of Christ to the other truths discovered in the university. Schlink’s actual approach was to allow the light of God’s law, as interpreted and applied by Christ, to expose the radical darkness of sin and evil in human life and creation, to expose the working of God apart from the gospel, so that the light of Christ’s gospel—his gift of forgiveness and Easter—dispels the darkness revealed by the law. Following Bonaventure, Schlink held that the lumen cognitionis sensitivae (the light of knowledge from the senses) and the lumen cognitionis philosophiae (the light of knowledge from philosophy) are ultimately illuminated most profoundly by the one lumen superious scripturae (the light from the higher Scripture)—that is, by the voice of Christ, the Incarnate Word, that speaks both law and gospel from the Scriptures (145-46).

Second, Schlink sought to combine a commitment to Lutheran confessional theology with ecumenical openness. The connection to a specific church and confessional tradition is essential for defining the nature, purpose, and character of the specific educational institution as a whole—the cantus firmus and basic melody of the tune that is played there—yet individuals are invited to share their own gifts and character. Perhaps they will riff on the melody, engage in the give-and-take of a jam session, solo now and then, and add their contrapuntal notes to make for a much more richly textured musical offering. Grounded in Christ and the specific confession of his church, Schlink remained open to new theological insights and sought points of agreement with others for the sake of fostering unity in the church and the academy.

Finally, Schlink displayed and encouraged an attitude of intellectual humility within the university. Yes, he returned again and again to the cantus firmus and made sure that the basic theological melody of the Lutheran Confessions was sung and heard in his university, but he also welcomed different tunes and humbly sought harmonies with them. He did so on the basis of Luther’s theology of the cross. The humility that grows from that theological insight is a key feature of how he went about doing academic theology. He stressed that all human knowledge, including his own, is limited, fragmented, easily distorted by the power of sin and evil, but also forgiven and renewed by the crucified and risen Christ. Schlink taught and proclaimed Christ crucified, a stumbling block to all religious people and foolishness to all academics.


Matthew L. Becker is professor of theology at Valparaiso University. He is the author of Fundamental Theology: A Protestant Perspective (Bloomsbury, 2015), the editor of Nineteenth-Century Lutheran Theologians (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016), and the editor and principal translator of the six volumes in the Edmund Schlink Works project (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017--). On February 16, 2017, he delivered his professorial lecture, which served as the basis for this essay.

Works Cited

Drüll, Dagmar, ed. Über Heidelberger Universitätsämter 1386-2013. Wiesenbach: Volker Thewalt Verlag, 2013. http://www.uni-Heidelberg.de/md/uniarchiv/druell_01.pdf Accessed 12 March 2017.

Eber, Jochen. Einheit der Kirche als dogmatisches Problem bei Edmund Schlink. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993.

Engelhardt, Klaus. “Foreword to the German Edition.” Ecumenical and Confessional Writings (The Coming Christ and Church Traditions and After the Council). Volume One of Edmund Schlink Works. Edited by Matthew L. Becker. Translated by Matthew L. Becker and Hans G. Spalteholz. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017.

Jaspers, Karl. Die Idee der Universität. Berlin: Springer, 1946. An Abridged English Translation: The Idea of the University. Translated by H.A.T. Reiche and H.F. Vanderschmidt. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.

Remy, Steven. The Heidelberg Myth: The Nazification and Denazification of a German University. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Schlink, Edmund. “Das Szepter der Universität Heidelberg: Christus und die Fakultäten.” In Ausgewählte Beiträge: Kirchenkampf – Theologische Grundfragen – Ökumene. Volume 2 of Schriften zu Ökumene und Bekenntnis. Edited by Ursula Schnell. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010.

“Weisheit und Torheit.” Kerygma und Dogma 1/1 (1955), 1-22.

Skibbe, Eugene. A Quiet Reformer: An Introduction to Edmund Schlink’s Life and Ecumenical Theology. Minneapolis: Kirk House Publishers, 1999.

“Universität Heidelberg: 625 Years: A Brief Chronology.” http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/university/history/chronology.html. Accessed on 14 March 2017. Kerygma und Dogma 1/1 (1955), 1-22.

Copyright © 2019 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy