The German Radical Theologians: Why did they happen and what is their relevance today?

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by Neil Godfrey

The second chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? is an interesting discussion by fellow Aussie Roland Boer titled “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer”. (The link is to Australia’s University of Newcastle tribute page to Roland Boer as one of their “research achievers”.) It is easy to see where Leftie Red Roland is coming from with a quick glance at his blog, Stalin’s Moustache. There he has a most informative page, Marxism and Religion: Annotated Reading List, in which readers can survey the relationship between Karl Marx and Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach — two persons at the heart of his chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? One also learns of his penchant for “arresting titles” (beside words like “Lenin nudist” and “psychic terror”, “German pestilence” is right at home), and that he enjoys occasional sparring with Jim West, author of the first chapter of this book that I discussed in the previous post.

So what is Roland Boer’s essay about?

  1. Why German philosophy and public debates about human, political and economic justice were so entwined with theology and especially the Gospels in the early decades of the nineteenth century;
  2. What was the importance of
    1. Ludwig’s Feuerbach‘s theory that God and religion were “mere” projections of the best in human beings;
    2. David Strauss‘s demolition of the orthodox understanding of the Gospels and argument that they were really mythical stories;
    3. and Bruno Bauer‘s radical sceptical approach to the New Testament along with his radical politics and militant atheism.
  3. What messages from all of the above might be found relevant today.

So let’s begin. I outline the core of Boer’s argument as I understand it.


Context: Politics and the Bible

Wilhelm III (top) and Wilhelm IV

Germany in the early 1800’s was not a single state but a geographical amalgam of independent states like Westphalia, Prussia, Rhineland, etc. Napoleon had recently imposed revolutionary French laws and bourgeois republican hopes. After Waterloo the Prussian monarchy sought feverishly to turn back the anti-monarchic and and anti-clerical tide and reassert a “Christian state”. The devout Calvinist Friedrich Wilhelm III, moving with a tide of Pietist revival throughout Germany, united the Prussian Calvinist and Lutheran churches (the Prussian Union) with himself, Christ’s representative on earth, as the ecclesiastical head. His son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV was even more reactionary in his efforts to restore pure Christianity, with the king and aristocracy as its rightful head, and with his undoing of laws that had earlier granted some room for democratic and anti-church impulses. (The Kaisers had a direct say in university appointments. Bruno Bauer was quickly removed from his academic post and literally put out to farm.)

The political and religious debates were primarily channeled through beliefs about Jesus. And what generated the most controversy of all was that study that threatened to undermine the various beliefs about Jesus — biblical criticism.

The cutting edge of the most radical debates came from the Young Hegelians, “who met in the small Hippel Café in Berlin from 1837, drank copious amounts of alcohol, perused pornography and debated Hegel, politics and the Bible into the early hours.” The flavour of the political and philosophical debates in Germany at this time is best understood by noting that key members of the Young Hegelians were also theologians: David Strauss, Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach.

Young Hegelians


Why was the Bible so important for these debates?

Saint-Simon, founder of French Socialism

A significant branch of French socialism claimed to be a revival of the communist principles upon which the earliest Church was founded. Saint-Simon, its leading thinker, rejected all the supernatural trappings of religion and argued for a “return” to Christianity’s core founding principle of “brotherly love” and care for the poor. Moral visions of human progress towards a more compassionate society without any appeal to heaven or Jesus overflowed into Germany and raised alarm among the imperial, aristocratic and church powers.

Germany itself was a landscape of deeply contentious religious feelings: Roman Catholics and Protestants (themselves divided between Calvinists and Lutherans). The rival faiths had in their fractious relationship dug themselves into deeply conservative and mutually antagonistic positions.

Add to this the Pietistic revival of the early nineteenth century that swelled as a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and “godless” republicanism. The difference in Germany, however, was that this Pietism that valued one’s “inner walk with God” and “the priesthood of all believers” was at this time taken up by the aristocracy, too. It was no longer an exclusively bourgeois movement that could sometimes threaten the state. This deeply religious sentiment came to embrace God’s imperial regent on earth who, as pointed out above, also had the final word on university appointments.

So within this deeply conservative conglomeration of German states, the intellectual debates over politics, reason, secularism and religion were generally worked out through the Bible itself. Roland Boer thus creates a picture of biblical criticism being of keen interest and relevance to a wider audience than the theologians themselves. Biblical criticism was propelled to the status of a major study with potentially far-reaching national consequences and German theologians became world leaders in the discipline, a leadership that continued until many of its leading figures moved to the USA before the Second World War.

"Fünf-Brüder-Bild" (Persönlichkeiten...
So-called “five brothers-image” with figures of Württemberg Pietism


Feuerbach’s Divine Projections

Ludwig Feuerbach, by August Weger (1823-1892)
Ludwig Feuerbach, by August Weger (1823-1892) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So Roland Boer portrays what was probably the most influential work of the day, Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity [link is to the online text], as an assault upon biblical, political and philosophical thinking of the time.

Feuerbach argued that God was a projection of humanity’s subjective nature [the quotations are from the online text, not Roland’s references or translation]:

The pure, perfect divine nature is the self-consciousness of the understanding, the consciousness which the understanding has of its own perfection. (The Essence, ch. 2)

From the Wikipedia article:

Feuerbach shows that in every aspect God corresponds to some feature or need of human nature. “If man is to find contentment in God,” he claims, “he must find himself in God.” (See also The Essence)

This human projection, God, is believed to be superior to us and that we are all accountable to him.

God is the most subjective, the very own being of man, but set apart from himself. That means that he cannot derive his actions purely out of himself, or that all good comes from God. The more subjective, the more human God is the more man exteriorises his subjectivity, his humanity, because God is in reality the exteriorised self of man which he, however, reappropriates. As the activity of the arteries drives the blood into the extremities, and the action of the veins leads it back again, as life basically consists in a constant systole and diastole, so is it also in religion. In the religious systole man’s being departs from itself into an outward projection; man disowns, rejects himself; in the religious diastole his heart again embraces his rejected being. God alone is the being whose actions originate within himself, whose activity flows out of himself – thus operates the repelling force in religion; God is the being who acts in me, with me, through me, upon me, and for me; he is the principle of my salvation, of my good sentiments and actions, and hence my own good principle and essence – thus operates the attracting force in religion. (The Essence, Intro. 2)

Religion, at least the Christian religion, is the expression of how man relates to himself, or more correctly, to his essential being; but he relates to his essential being as to another being. The Divine Being is nothing other than the being of man himself, or rather, the being of man abstracted from the limits of the individual man or the real, corporeal man, and objectified, i.e., contemplated and worshiped as another being, as a being distinguished from his own. All determinations of the Divine Being are, therefore, determinations of the being of man. (The Essence, Into. 2)

Note that mankind diminishes himself through his belief in God.

Religion is the disuniting of man from himself; he sets God before him as the antithesis of himself (The Essence, ch. 2)

Karl Marx took Feuerbach’s argument and extended it to mean that religion was the sign of mankind’s more complete alienation from itself in the world. The major difference, of course, between Feuerbach and Marx was that Feuerbach believed in humanity’s redemption should come through a proper understanding of religion (including the doctrine of sin), while Marx argued for the need to change the oppressive conditions under which we live.


Strauss and Myth

Since writing the following I have come to suspect I have overstated Strauss’s real reliance on Hegelian philosophy. Wider reading has led me to understand that Strauss later confessed to deploying a fractured view of Hegel’s ideas in his work.  (16th August 2012)
Portrait of David Strauss.
Portrait of David Strauss. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Feuerbach’s book was published in 1841 but its ideas were being worked out through the 1830s. Into the tense conservative religious world of Germany was launched “no so much a book, [but] a bomb”: Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined).

As soon as it was published the theology department at Tübingen sacked its author, David Strauss. Strauss had no further hope of a university or church appointment in Germany. In 1839 he was invited to take up a chair in Dogmatics and Church History at Zurich (Switzerland) — the invitation was allowed to pass the Zurich authorities on its third attempt — but when he arrived the protests were so hostile that the government pensioned him off instead.

Strauss was attacked not only by the religious conservatives. Even his fellow Young Hegelians such as Bruno Bauer attacked him for misrepresenting Hegel, whose philosophical system formed the structure of the book’s argument.

Intruding here on Roland Boer’s discussion, but for the benefit of those not familiar with Hegelian thought, the relevant concept here can be simplified into a model that describes the “nature of things” as the working out of a thesis and antithesis into a synthesis:

A thesis [situation, state of affairs] contains internal contradictions that express themselves as an opposing Antithesis. A conflict ensues until a Synthesis is reached.

Thus Strauss’s book argued that the Gospels contained stories of the fabulous and supernatural [thesis]; against this, in story after story in the Gospels, Strauss pointed to the opposing, naturalistic or rationalist explanation [antithesis]. So when the Gospels speak of Jesus walking on water (a fiction, or crude myth), the rational critic can set up the antithesis of this myth by claiming the original authors misunderstood or misrepresented what had happened and that Jesus really was walking on a hidden sandbar. But Strauss argued that in each case such an antithetical rationalist explanation of the myth-fiction actually missed the point of the original story.

So on the one hand we have a story that is at face value clearly not true. On the other, we have a credible explanation but one that misses the entire point of the original. The synthesis was worked out when Strauss argued that the Jewish authors were drawing upon mythical traditions about the messiah and were using these Jewish mythical traditions to portray Jesus as the Messiah. The evidence for this is poetic and prophetic language throughout the Old Testament and Gospels. This concept of myth (a positive meaning distinct from its popular meaning of something entirely fantastical) was said to be the natural language of pre-scientific peoples expressed ideas about life and their religion.

As Boer sums it up: Strauss set up the respective supernatural explanations found in the Gospels, negates each one with the naturalist explanation, and then resolves the conflict by offering a mythic (in the positive sense) interpretation. Strauss is re-establishing on a transcended level that which has been destroyed critically.

The Speculative Christology

In his concluding dissertation in The Life of Jesus Strauss went to Jesus’ jugular in a section titled “The Dogmatic Import of the Life of Jesus“, subsection #150, “The Speculative Christology”. Departing (again) from specific quotations used by Boer, I copy the following from the text of Strauss’s online translation. One can see where Strauss is taking the reader as to the nature of Jesus Christ himself.

Kant had already said that the good principle did not descend from heaven merely at a particular time, but had descended on mankind invisibly from the commencement of the human race; and Schelling laid down the proposition: the incarnation of God is an incarnation from eternity. . . .

When it is said of God that he is a Spirit, and of man that he also is a Spirit, it follows that the two are not essentially distinct. To speak more particularly, it is the essential property of a spirit, in the distribution of itself into distinct personalities, to remain identical with itself, to possess itself in another than itself. Hence the recognition of God as a spirit implies, that God does not remain as a fixed and immutable Infinite encompassing the Finite, but enters into it, produces the Finite, Nature, and the human mind, merely as a limited manifestation of himself . . . .

If God and man are in themselves one, and if religion is the human side of this unity: then must this unity be made evident to man in religion, and become in him consciousness and reality. . . .

This is the key to the whole of Christology, that, as subject of the predicate which the church assigns to Christ, we place, instead of an individual, an idea; but an idea which has an existence in reality, not in the mind only, like that of Kant. In an individual, a God-man, the properties and functions which the church ascribes to Christ contradict themselves; in the idea of the race, they perfectly agree. Humanity is the union of the two natures . . . . .

The Life of Jesus not only undermined “any verifiable historical record of Jesus of Nazareth” and thereby undermined the very foundations of every Church’s assumptions about the Bible and Christianity itself, it also undermined the religious ideology that upheld the entire monarchical and aristocratic system. The King was, after all, Christ’s representative on earth and God had ordained the rulers as his agents. Note, in particular in the above quotations, the way Strauss equated Christology not with a particular man in history but with all of humanity who came to an enlightened understanding. Now that was a politically dangerous idea. One that could fuel democratic spirits.

Roland Boer suggests that Strauss may not have foreseen such far-reaching consequences of his ideas given his “own dismay and surprise at the massive reaction” his work engendered.

Strauss felt the pressure enough to revise his work significantly by the third edition. By then he was prepared to grant that Christ had been an extraordinary aristocratic type of soul after all, even capable of performing certain kinds of “miracles”. He had been hoping to return to a teaching position. But his backpedaling was only temporary. In the fourth edition he returned to his hard-hitting arguments.

Strauss may well be seen as inevitably expressing the tensions of his time despite himself. The Life of Jesus “gave clear expression to the struggles within Germany between the liberal, democratic movements and the forces of reaction which waged a consistent campaign against Strauss and the liberals.”

Biblical criticism had the potential to undermine the theological foundations of Prussia’s “Christian State” itself. It fed into the longstanding tensions between Catholics and Protestants. The Crown and conservative papers in turn savagely attacked Strauss and the Young Hegelians.

Relevance today?

Strauss’s relevance for today? We are seeing in scholarship today a return to appreciating the mythical nature of the narratives in the Bible. (Compare the themes of my previous two posts covering the Introduction and chapter 1 of Is This Not the Carpenter?

But Roland Boer invites readers into another dimension of this question of myth. While myth is generally seen as a sublime way of expressing noble truths, Boer hints that myths also play “a double game, operating with a fair degree of cunning and subterfuge.” Here he footnotes to his book, Political Myth: On the Use and Abuse of Biblical Themes, (or as a Google book, and reviewed here).


The concluding post in this series will address Roland Boer’s discussion of Bruno Bauer and a general discussion of what lessons he sees for today from the adventures of these three pestilential fellows.


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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “The German Radical Theologians: Why did they happen and what is their relevance today?”

  1. As additional background information see the section in Wikipedia’s article on Arthur Drews, Origins of the Christ Myth theory: From Hegel, Feuerbach, Bauer, and Marx to Drews
    [http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Arthur_Drews&pe=1&#Origins_of_the_Christ_Myth_theory:_From_Hegel.2C_Feuerbach.2C_Bauer.2C_and_Marx_to_Drews Origins of the Christ Myth theory]

  2. Neil, thank you , your posts are very informative. Germany up to the second world war had a radical rationalist mystical messianic philosophical culture which expressed itself in various contradictory versions, from Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, through to Bloch and Benjamin and Heidegger.

    A continual issue within liberal critical thought was a strongly left wing political dimension. Although rejected by Nietzsche and Heidegger, some of the earlier messianists, especially Marx, saw the popular front of socialism as the path of salvation. In such a polarised environment, it is hardly surprising that a conservative state would suppress ideas it saw as allied to socialism.

    There often seems to be a natural alliance between radical theology and left wing politics. That is understandable as both are highly critical of current dominant systems, but it is not clear what the basis for the alliance really is.

    1. Not sure if I understand what you mean by “messianic philosophical culture”. The nineteenth century is sometimes said to have been marked by a belief in progress — of material civilization as well as as of possible human cooperation, higher values and aspirations — not only in Germany but across France, Britain and the US too.

      As for some of the leading names in the mythicist challenge today, I am hard pressed to find one who has publicly indicated left wing political leanings. For most part it’s been the opposite. But there are those on both wings of politics who see themselves as the ones under siege.

      But in my own case I often find myself reflecting on my own positions, religious and political and other, and question myself for any suspicions of irrational bias informing my own judgments. In my own case I find it is easy to question dominant systems (religious or political) because of my own conclusions about my own identity as a human being in relation to all others. Power over others must always be called upon to justify itself. There are many powers in our culture that can and do indeed justify their functions. But there are also many that cannot. It is the responsibility of those who are in a position to do so, I think, to call for public accountability.

      1. The term “radical theologians” encompasses a range of views, generally united by their interest in reason and evidence as a basis for assent to claims. I am less familiar with Strauss and Bauer than with the more philosophical strand flowing through Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, and all of this material is complicated. It is worth noting in this context the thinking of Benjamin and Bloch on Marxism and Messianism, as a line of ‘radical German theology’ that picks up much more of the political links, as discussed for example at
        There is also the insane political messianism in German culture seen in Nazism, with its apocalyptic visions of a new heaven and new earth. which has done much to poison debate on German philosophy, as for example through Popper’s critique of historicism.

        Where the diverse strands of German philosophy key into the mythicist question is on the question of historical materialism, which provides the methodological framework for mythicist research. Rational thinking has a basic assumption that scientific evidence is the basis of knowledge, and rejects a priori the concept of an interventionist God as conflicting with all real evidence. Traditionalism rejects this rational view in favour of a faith based approach to transcendental authority. The conflict between reason and faith has traditionally roughly mapped to the political divide between left and right, with liberal and radical theology perceived as left wing, although obviously such simple polarities are muddied in practice. It is important in using words such as ‘radical’ to understand the perceived political associations that inform public understanding, and that serve as a rough rule of thumb in the sociological topology assumed by public prejudice. So while historical materialism can be regarded by scholars as just a sound method for rigorous scientific analysis, publicly it carries the Marxist baggage of association with class war and socialism.

        German philosophy long exercised a leadership in world thought, especially through the nineteenth century. In considering the ongoing influence of such earlier times, it is useful to note Keynes’ famous remark to the effect that men of action unconsciously apply the teachings of previous thinkers, filtered through popular culture. The mythicism debate around Strauss and Bauer presents a distillation of the concealed trends today, especially in the brittle conservative reaction they received. Orthodoxy and the Establishment learned from the political debates of the nineteenth century that the best way to suppress new research is to ignore and marginalise it. Debate only encourages growth of dissent. Amongst the weaponry of the modern inquisition we therefore see ignoring, mockery and distortion as chief tools. The debates of the nineteenth century showed that tradition cannot win by using the methods of reason, as its beliefs are irrational, but tradition can readily set the terms of public debate and control the oxygen of legitimacy. It is important to understand these earlier phases in the cultural debate. The repetition of historical tragedy does not have to be farce, as in Marx’s Brumaire, but rather can learn the constructive lessons from the original reception of new ideas.

          1. Thanks Neil for sharing Boer’s fascinating and informative essay. His argument is very germane to assessing the relevance today of the radical theologians, partly because Boer gets it so wrong, and partly because his analysis shows how the influence of the radicals can be traced in large part through the socialist movement with its world-shaping historical impact..

            While Boer is full of good information about how Marx and Engels related to Bauer, his essay completely misses the messianic core of Marxism. A movement that had as its slogan ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’, and that preached an eventual utopian paradise led by the revolutionary zeal of the communist party as vanguard as the proletariat – this whole idea is utterly eschatological, messianic and millennarian. The millennarian essence of Marxism is why the communists celebrated the Anabaptist Munzer and the peasant revolt with their transformative messianic dreams of a new heaven and a new earth. Why Boer would wish to deny the essential core of the communist ideology is surprising in one sense, but understandable in view of the ironic derision and distancing so widely practiced among the intelligentsia in regard to the perceived irrationality of millennial ideas.

            The most communist text in the Bible is the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, where the saved are defined as those who see Christ among the least of the world. Works of mercy are proposed to each according to need, with the appearance of Christ on the clouds of heaven an obvious inspiration for the communist revolution. But this same chapter also contains the most capitalist line in the bible, to those who have will be given, which would do Hayek and Friedmann proud. Here we see a real dialectic to chew on.

  3. From David Strauss (1835) and Bruno Bauer (1840-1) to William Wrede (1901) and Albert Schweitzer (1906), the consequences of German Historical Criticism have been dramatic: it has spawned a profound skepticism towards the validity of the New Testament, which can never dissipate.

    Arthur Drews, who capitalized on this movement to produce his Christ Myth (1909-12), outlined these consequences in “The Witness of the Gospels”, Part IV of The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus:

    1) First of all, (Ch. 12) a general skepticism about the validity of the New Testament:

    “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, either in the actions or words of Jesus, that has not a mythical character or cannot be traced to parallel passages in the Old Testament or the Talmud. Historical criticism resolves all details of the Gospel story in mythical mist and makes it impossible to say that there ever was such a person”.

    A disappearing shadow in the mist was the accepted image of the times for the vanishing “historical Jesus”, recently rejuvenated by the new image of the disappearing smile of the Cheshire Cat.

    2) And, even more dramatic, a loss of substance and meaning in the figure of the “historical Jesus” (Ch. 8):

    “But what [a liberal theologian] leaves intact of the personality and story of Jesus is so meagre, and so devoid of solid foundation, that it cannot claim any historical significance.”

    The human Jesus of liberal theologians, found by reduction and elimination of supernatural and other unwanted features, is so bloodless, so unsubstantial, so meaningless, that it could have never induced the emotional fervor of a new spiritual movement, let alone a new religion. That the cult of Jesus replaced the cult of Mithras is not due to a superior personality, but to extraneous and historical circumstances, like for instance, the early death of Emperor Julian.

    Albert Schweitzer and his liberal theologians were reduced to share the Romantic belief in the extraordinary power of Jesus’s personality. Schweitzer idolized Jesus as the most influential personality of all time,

    “Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery.”

    Interestingly, this was also the belief of Albert Einstein, raised in the same German Romantic culture as Albert Schweitzer.

    ” No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

    Both Alberts were inveterate Romantic historicists.

  4. Since writing the above notes on Strauss’s debt to Hegel in “The Life of Jesus” I have come to suspect I have overstated Strauss’s real reliance on Hegelian philosophy. Wider reading has led me to understand that Strauss later confessed to deploying a fractured view of Hegel’s ideas in his work. I’ve added a correction in the post.

  5. And since no data, no information or idea is truly anonymous, but has some kind of historical source, I was also wondering: Where did Boer find the tidbits about the Young Hegelians “perusing pornography”? I’ve read quite a lot about the period, and never encountered this fact mentioned.
    Can we easily imagine Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and young Karl Marx passing around poorly printed underground sheets? One member would be the provider and would bring the stuff for the others’ “perusal”. Possible, but hard to imagine. Would love to know the opinion of another expert historian of the period who’s studied the German archives.

    Marx always reminisces about Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, but never mentions this activity. Neither does Engels, always proper Victorian and “grand-bourgeois” industrialist wearing the ”character mask” of the proletariat lover.

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