Essay / On This Day

Happy SchlatterDay

Today (August 16) is the birthday of Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938), a great conservative New Testament scholar from a few generations ago.

If you haven’t heard of Adolf Schlatter, it’s time to update your notes. You’re missing out on the Schlatter revival! It’s in full swing, with plenty of good stuff finally available to read in English.

Way back in a 1979 article in Crux, Ward Gasque lamented that Schlatter was “not well known in the English-speaking world, although he authored scores of books, including commentaries on every book in the New Testament and hundreds of essays, rivaling both Ferdinand Christian Baur and Rudolf Bultmann for bulk and erudition. Only one of his books and one essay have been translated into English.”

As late as the early 1990s, when I was in seminary, there were only a few scraps of Schlatter in English. The hints that could be gathered about his work were enticing: any seminarian neck-deep in Wrede, Bultmann, Bossuet, Schweitzer, Harnack, and company couldn’t help looking around and wondering if there hadn’t been some rigorous German scholars working along more promising lines, or reaching more traditional conclusions, during the past 150 years. But even when we read all the fine print in Kummel’sNew Testament Introduction, which reported on critical opinions so encyclopedically that it even included the “Jesus-was-the-code-name-for-a-magic-mushroom” theory, we couldn’t generate a reading list of promising conservative exegetes from the time period when the turf of modern New Testament scholarship was being divided up. There was always a reference here or there to Schlatter and a handful of his ilk, but who was actually going to wade into that stuff auf Deutsch?

But by the late ’90s, Schlatter’s New Testament Theology had appeared in English, in the two volumes translated by Andreas Kostenberger. His Romans commentary appeared in English, and even a biography and the daily devotional book that he wrote in his 80s. Plus there is now a good helping of scholarly assessment of his work. Andy Naselli provides a linked list of Robert Yarbrough’s Schlatter publications.

It’s an interesting, if not unprecedented, comeback: A host of translations and scholarly engagements with a scholar from the first decades of the twentieth century. A virtual discovery, for the English-speaking world, of a scholar that never quite had his say during the epic battles of yesteryear.

It would have been great if his works had been made available in translation back in the days when the Bultmann-&-Company industry was keeping all the English presses churning day and night. There was a whole other side to German biblical scholarship that we just didn’t hear about. As a result, American seminarians thought the situation was a lot starker than it really was. A few Schlatter books and a few dozen articles would have provided a more balanced view.

But instead his work went into a kind of time capsule for the English-only world, and Schlatter’s approach to New Testament theology is curiously appropriate for the twenty-first century. Schlatter had considerable philosophical chops, and had studied with Friedrich Nietzsche. When the New Testament guild of his day made sweeping pronouncements about the absolute necessity of methodological atheism, Schlatter was in a position to point out that those demands were nothing like the objective, disinterested, universal standards they claimed to be. He used his philosophical savvy to re-direct attention to the New Testament texts themselves, and produced a body of interpretive work that continues to speak with power.

At least now that it’s in English, it speaks with power to us. Go pick up some Schlatter, and enjoy the insights of this biblical-studies Rip Van Winkle.

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