“What Is the Matter With German Theology?”

Under this headline the prominent Protestant monthly of West Germany, Evangelische Kommentare, ran a series of articles that invited leading theologians to give their views on German theology. The series, now available as a book, created quite a stir. It reveals a general feeling of crisis, depression, and resignation. Peter Stuhlmacher, the New Testament scholar of Tübingen who succeeded Ernst Käsemann, declares his discontent with the outcome of the whole demythologization debate and calls for a “post-critical exegesis of Scripture.” Just as startling is the contribution made by Gerhard Ebeling, senior theologian of Zürich University, and one of the past allies of Rudolf Bultmann. His response to the question posed is well worth our attention, both as a signal and because of its substance.

Ebeling concentrates on the need to relate theology to life, a focus oft neglected in much theology. He labels much current theology “unproductive productivity” where the essence of theology has evaporated into either abstractionism (“a sublime reflection of reflection”) or the journalistic craze for the latest ideological fashion. Efforts to reform the study of theology have been of no avail: theology has tended to become subject to alien interests because it has lacked its own sense of direction.

In contrast, Ebeling has a solid touchstone of theology in his basic distinction between world and God, between our visible life and our eternal life. To think and live under the perspective of eternity is the unique property of faith. But this, Ebeling observes, has constantly been ignored. The Christian concepts of sin and of hope have been reinterpreted in a secular manner, and a secular optimism ...

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