More of de Wette’s charm

Because my last post on de Wette was so interesting to some, I thought I’d post some more of his ideas and comment upon them. The point here is to demonstrate that, if anything, de Wette’s proposals were not critical in the true sense, that is, demonstrative of rational discernment, but are rather the result of deep-seated prejudices which are reflected in all his work, root and branch.

de Wette proposes that Hebraismus, his label for the religion of the Patriarchs and Moses as a discrete entity separate from later manifestations of Israelite religion (which, however, includes the Prophetic strain), becomes the intellectual source of life

from which Christianity, and after the killing of it in Catholicism, true Christian Protestantism has come forth, and with Christianity and Protestantism, the scholarly spirit of the new European culture. (Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism, 80; quoting de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik, 59-60)

So, we see de Wette equating here “original religion,” Hebraismus, the best of Israelite religion, with earliest Christianity, with Protestantism (the German strain, of course), and European scholarship (again, German, of course). He does not neglect to declare Catholicism “dead,” in the same way that he declares Judaism dead. He describes Judaism elsewhere as “degenerated, petrified Hebraismus” (Gerdmar, 81; quoting de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik, 114). Presumably, Catholicism is thus conceived by de Wette as a degenerate, petrified Christianity. In this sense, he sets up the equation of Judaism (Hebraismus’ degenerate successor) with Catholicism (Christianity’s degenerate successor), and Christianity (Hebraismus’ revival) with Protestantism (Christianity’s revival). Just as dead Judaism was followed by living Christianity, so dead Catholicism is followed by living Protestantism, which finds the flower of its expression in scholarship, namely, de Wette’s own!

We find here not only blatant apologetics, but the classical early Enlightenment attachment to historical cyclicism, a long discarded practice in historiography. There is likewise here a heavy-handed admixture of pure Romanticism: the contrast of the spontaneous, vivacious, ruleless Hebraism, Christianity, and Protestantism (liberal German Protestantism, mind you, not that conservative stuff) in opposition to rote, dead, rule-laden, Judaism and Catholicism. This “freedom is life” and “restriction is death” motif is a core concept of Romanticism, if not the core concept.

This entire dialectic of de Wette’s is, of course, arrant nonsense. The equation of liberal German Protestantism with early Christianity is unbelievably stupid, in addition to being purely offensive. If anything, as we all well know nowadays, and as is described in the writings of the New Testament itself, we should without question equate early Christianity with Judaism. The first generation of Christians were considered Jews by outsiders, whatever distinctions may have been made in Christian and Jewish circles, as seen in Claudius’ expulsion of all Jews from Rome for arguing over Chrestus/Christus (arguments dissociating this from Christian-Jewish controversy are unconvincing). A clear distinction is, however, recognized by late AD 64, with Nero’s specific targeting of Christians and not Jews as culpable for the great fire that had just swept through the city (conveniently clearing a nice swath for the construction of Nero’s Golden House and its grounds). Labelling both Judaism and Catholicism as dead is both thoroughly offensive and entirely stupid, displaying only a colossal ignorance of the spiritual life of these two traditions.

But, after all, de Wette is quite obviously not after truth, but “truthiness.” All this work of his was politically motivated to provide a religio-philosophical justification for republican plans to unite the German-speaking lands into one nation-state, with liberal German Protestantism as the state religion, and liberal German Protestant scholarship as its intellect.

Utilizing the very same early Christian and Jewish sources that de Wette used, we nowadays come to radically different conclusions regarding early Christianity’s makeup. It is likewise obvious to all observers that neither Judaism nor Catholicism is lifeless and moribund. Seeing his success in this aspect of early Christian history, one can summon no confidence in de Wette’s treatment of Israelite history. The only truly rational expectation is to find him treating the evidence selectively in order to establish his point, constructing a case so that the ultimate goal of his dialectic (which is the supremacy of liberal German Protestantism) is established. This requires that he posit the devolution of true religion, Hebraism, into Judaism, false religion. His view of history as cyclical will permit nothing else, for it must match his understanding that the living, true religion of Christianity devolved into the false, dead religion of Catholicism. Then, just as Protestantism revived true religion, so Christianity must have done so. This is exactly what de Wette has done, completing the cycle, and proving, by his extension of this historical dialectic, that liberal German Protestantism is the ultimate of all religious expressions.

And it is this dialectic, this so-called critical ordering of history, that de Wette describes as “historical-critical.” The name has stuck. So it is used and adapted by Wellhausen and later authors. But its origin lies as the label for de Wette’s forcing history into his own mold. It is neither historical, nor critical.

Next up in our tour of liberal Protestant German anti-Jewish scholarship: Julius Wellhausen.