Theologie in Umbruchzeiten: Rostocker Theologie in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts ed. by Hermann Michael Niemann
November 12, 2019, marked the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University of Rostock, the first to have been established on the Baltic coast. Modeled after Erfurt, its faculty was mostly Roman Catholic until 1542. Two decades later, reforms were instituted that required all faculty to be Lutheran. David Chytraeus (1531–1600), a co-author of the Formula of Concord, who taught theology at Rostock for half a century, had the most significant early impact on its ethos and orthodox character. In his wake, the university became a bastion of mediating-conservative Lutheranism. Then followed more than a century of theological decline, when university faculty downplayed the importance of seeking doctrinal truth, and the institution became a mere territorial school for Mecklenburg. It only underwent a revival of sorts in the mid-nineteenth century, when such notables as Theodor Kliefoth, Otto Krabbe, Johannes von Hofmann, and Franz Delitzsch helped to restore its theological luster. [End Page 480]
To help commemorate the sexcentenary, Hermann Niemann, who has taught Old Testament and biblical archaeology at Rostock since 1993, edited a collection of essays that carry that university’s theological story forward into the twentieth century. While the book claims to be focused on the first half of that century, the analysis actually extends from the end of the nineteenth century through the upheavals of World War I, the Weimar Republic, and National Socialism, and then into and even beyond the forty years of communist dictatorship. As a whole, the book furnishes a unique and concentrated perspective on the nature and character of conservative German- Lutheran theology and biblical scholarship before, during, and after the Nazi period.
After a brief introduction by Irmfried Garbe, which sets the scene mostly through charts and lists of facts and figures about students and faculty (ca. 1880–1950), each of the four central chapters (three of them previously published) examines the life and scholarly activity of a key theologian who taught at Rostock, providing a window into larger issues and problems. The four figures are the Old Testament scholar Ernst Sellin (1867–1945), the systematic theologians Paul Althaus (1888–1966) and Friedrich Brunstäd (1883–1944), and the Old Testament scholar Gottfried Quell (1896–1976). A shorter fifth chapter—co-written by Niemann and Gunnar Lehmann, and which is placed between the chapters on Sellin and Althaus—offers an overview of the development of Rostocker biblical archaeology from the days of Delitzsch up to Niemann’s own contributions. The book also contains several interesting photos, especially relating to Althaus, Brunstäd, and Quell.
Although Althaus taught at Rostock for less than six years (1919–1925), Gert Haendler’s analysis of him spans his whole life and attends as much to Mecklenburg as it does to his post-Rostock years in Erlangen. Haendler, who taught church history at Rostock between 1961 and his retirement in 1989, does the same for Brunstäd, who succeeded Althaus and whose posthumously published Theology of the Lutheran Confessions is probably his most well-known work. Both of these chapters build on Gotthard Jaspers’ [End Page 481] monumental 2013 biography of Althaus, which has led some to re- evaluate Althaus’ conservative-Lutheran theology, especially in light of Althaus’ years in Rostock—and, by extension, to do the same for Brunstäd’s. It was during their time in Rostock that these theologians deepened their distinctive theological commitments, in the wake of World War I and in view of the threats they saw in modernity, for example, political ineffectiveness in the Weimar Republic, cultural nihilism, atheistic socialism and communism. Particularly helpful are personal assessments of these controversial theologians by former students and colleagues, as well as by German scholars of the Kirchenkampf.
The longest chapter, which takes up more than a third of the book, is a biographical sketch of Quell, who studied under Gerhard Kittel and who taught at Rostock, Leipzig, and eventually Berlin. Quell was an original, apparently often uncouth, sometimes difficult. But, as his monographs, essays, and sermons show, he was an outstanding Old Testament scholar (see, for example, his book on true and false prophets, his exegetical work on Isaiah 53, the Psalms, and Job) and a passionate theologian of broad learning. His scholarly focus was the theology of the Old Testament, but he addressed himself to related theological issues, for example, the nature and limits of the biblical canon. By studying his life’s work, one gains some insight into how he sought to remain faithful to Christ during the fifty-six years of totalitarian dictatorship under which he lived, and moved, and had his being. One witnesses a confessional Lutheran theologian who did not so much talk about the scriptures as think theologically with them. Indeed, that was and is a principal concern of all these Rostockers. [End Page 482]