Theological rationalism

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Theological rationalism is a theological variant of rationalism , which refers to a rational interpretation of the Christian or Jewish religion and takes a position opposite to supranaturalism , but also to mysticism .


The first forerunners of theological rationalism can be found in the 16th century with Daniel Hoffmann and the Helmstedt Aristotelians Johannes Caselius , Cornelius Martini and Jakob Martini (among others). The actual rationalistic roots then lie with Erasmus von Rotterdam , Herbert von Cherbury , Pierre Bayle , Giambattista Vico and John Locke . Reason and the belief in revelation are increasingly at odds here. Linked to the criticism of tradition is the search for onenatural (i.e. reasonable) religion , since reason is no longer understood as God-given but as natural. César Chesneau Dumarsais (1676–1756) saw reason, which should be characterized by the fact that it is self-sufficient, that which was grace for Augustine , i.e. H. the illuminating light for man.

Developments in the first half of the 18th century

In the requirement of a reasonable illumination of Revelation, three groups can be distinguished:

In Germany , the first Rationalist found in Lorenz Schmidt , "strove for the [...] the transformation of Christianity into a system moral and religious knowledge [...]" (Hirsch).

In the more conservative transition theology , the compatibility of revelation and reason was placed in the foreground. The biblical writings were increasingly moved into the realm of the historical, but without establishing a historical-critical foundation. In the theological Wolffianism (in the narrower sense), led by Sigmund Jakob Baumgarten (1706–1757), rationalistic principles were then applied to dogmatics as a whole. The disclosure has been presented in a closed, sanity resistant system. Similar endeavors were found in the Reasonable Orthodoxy of Switzerland . In physical theology the (rationalistic) proof of the existence of God was seen in the miracles of his creation .

Developments in the second half of the 18th century

The most important current at the beginning of the second half of the 18th century, neology , was initially based on a supernatural understanding of revelation. Its most important representative was Johann Salomo Semler (1725–1791). A sharp distinction was now made between the Bible and dogma . The inspiration doctrine has been dropped. Only those truths of Scripture that are comprehensible to all reasonable people should remain valid . This was followed by the elimination of the so-called "discoloration".

The important Enlightenment writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing turned against neology with the argument that it only reveals that which is accessible to reason even without revelation. Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock , Johann Joachim Winckelmann , (the early) Johann Gottfried Herder , Christoph Martin Wieland and the Enlightenmentists Friedrich Nicolai and Moses Mendelssohn aimed in the same direction . The work of the philanthropinists and the publication of Wolffenbüttel fragments also had consequences. Finally, Kant's thesis was used (against his philosophy) that every belief is "a mere rational belief that can be communicated to everyone for conviction". The development culminated in Enlightenment theology .

In naturalism any revelation was fought. Its most important representative was Hermann Samuel Reimarus . The radicalization of neology, however, was found in Christian rationalism (also: rationalism vulgaris ), which Immanuel Kant received where he found himself on the basis of the Enlightenment (and did not go beyond it). The historical revelation was now considered to be merely indirect and natural. Biblical teachings were to be adapted where they could not be made comprehensible to reason, in order to advance the moral and religious perfection of man.

The counter-movement to rationalism was then found in the (older) supranaturalism , which is associated with the names Gottlob Christian Storr (1746-1805) and Franz Volkmar Reinhard (1753-1812). Here again the belief in a supernatural revelation was postulated. In addition, the rationalistic supranaturalism (also: supranatural rationalism), mediating between rationalism and supranaturalism, emerged , in which Christianity was a reasonable religion , but had its origin in the direct divine revelation, the meaning of which is in turn understood as an educative. Rationalist supranaturalism had such a significant attraction, especially in conservative circles, and made a decisive contribution to overcoming rationalism.

Enlightenment theology began just as supernatural, but had to give up the fundamental Reformation principles in the defense of Christianity . Its main theme is piety , which sees in God the loving Father and in Christ the wise teacher of virtues. The most famous representative was Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–1769). Enlightenment theology was then found in a freer form in Berlin . In Josephinism grew a Catholic backlash.

Another resistance to neology then formed in Sturm und Drang , against rationalism in romanticism . Both attitudes rebelled against intellectualism and moralism in the respective forms of theology. Contrasts also emerged in German idealism with its speculative dogma interpretation. An explicit theological opposition to rationalism then prepared the theology of awakening , which knew how to use the main deficit of rationalism, its lack of meaning in history, when its concept failed where history was present: with the French Revolution in 1789 and the fall of Prussia in 1806/07 .

In the last decade of the 18th century, Pietism was able to regain ground. Until then, it had always remained present in south-west Germany, including the Reformed communities in Westphalia and the Lower Rhine . He was now given wings by the Sturm und Drang . First of all, Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788), Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801) and Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling († 1817), but also (by effect, not by affiliation) Matthias Claudius († 1815) ). Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) should also be mentioned here, with reservations, but hardly to be underestimated in terms of effect. In addition, the Moravians developed their effect under Nikolaus von Zinzendorf's successor , August Gottlieb Spangenberg (1704–1792), formerly head of the American branch of the Brothers Union . Johann August Urlsperger (1728–1806) worked in the southwest . The orthodoxy was formed again, for example, Johann Melchior Goeze († 1786), directed against the "Wolffenbüttel'schen fragments," but also against Goethe total occurred Werther and the theater.

Development since the 19th century

From about 1790 the last offshoots of the Enlightenment theology were found. The maxim was now to take nothing to be true but what, according to clear and unquestionable reasons of reason, can really be taken to be. The teaching of Christ and his apostles was seen as true because it was based on the rational and moral nature of man ( Johann Friedrich Röhr ). In contrast to this, the supranaturalism of this time believed that God imparted knowledge in an immediate and supernatural way, which as such was simply above reason ( Wegscheider ).

In this way, rationalism was able to maintain itself between pietism and orthodoxy , but it could hardly gain any space. The university presence also decreased. The revival theology allied himself for the sake of opposition quickly with the Neuorthodoxie ( August Neander , Gottfried Menken , August Tholuck etc.). With Reinhard's famous New Year's sermon of 1800 the rediscovery began Lutheran doctrine of justification that Christoph Friedrich Ammon still under the rational mind a "sinister dogmatic extravagance of a large and bold but sometimes unilateral Spirit ( sc. Luther )" called. The important theological concepts of sin and grace were just as difficult to grasp rationalistically , which is why the newly emerging restorative theologies were initially theologies of experience .

In Reinhard followed Claus Harms ' theses 1817 and finally A. Hahn requirement according to church exclusion of rationalists (Leipzig debate). Rationalism, which had almost become the state religion, continued to lose ground. The drastic rejection of everything rational and the advocacy of an uncritical doctrine of faith created a gap within Christianity. Only in individual associations (Protestant associations, the Positive Union, etc.) and in dogmatics was rationalism able to survive to some extent.

Romanticism , awakening theology and restorative theology increasingly equated rationalism with enlightenment in its criticism. The historical occupation grew out of the criticism ( Barthold Georg Niebuhr , also with the Brothers Grimm and Leopold von Ranke ). Even with Hegel there was a (atheistically understood) rationalism in opposition to every philosophy . Wilhelm Dilthey , Ernst Troeltsch and Emanuel Hirsch were accepted in the affirmative , but now without the sharp contrast to empiricism . For Dilthey, for example, rationalism was the course of work in which layers of dogmatics that have developed historically are removed one after the other. Rationalist ideas were then taken up again under the influence of Søren Kierkegaard , whereas the dialectical theology that emerged in the 1920s ( Karl Barth , Rudolf Bultmann , Friedrich Gogarten , Emil Brunner and others) again asserted a priority of revelation over reason.


  • Erhardt Hansche: Johann Friedrich Röhr (1777–1848) and theological rationalism (subtitle: A contender for evangelical truth and a rational, active faith), 4th heavily revised edition, Berlin in July 2011,

See also