Who Are These Blumhardt Characters Anyhow?
Their faith is that world history is the story of God's effort to establish his kingly rule and make all things new in the kingdom.
by Vernard Eller

This article was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on December 14, 1966. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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The editorial concerning the 50th anniversary of the death of Christoph Blumhardt that appeared in the July 30 Century was a nice little squib. However, the sentence to the effect that Blumhardt "inspire[s] cultic response from followers and receives occasional footnotes from influential people" made us cultic followers mad as hops. I have volunteered to step forward, because I already have been called things worse than that--by Martin Marty even, that cultic follower of Rosenstock-Huessy. ("A brilliant conservative" Marty said. "Brilliant"--preposterous!)

Cult or not, the Blumhardt club is a nice bunch to be in. A couple of years ago I started something of a campaign to get Blumhardt materials published in English. As a consequence I have in my file letters of enthusiastic support from Karl Barth (via his secretary), James Luther Adams (who also invoked the blessing on my campaign of his departed colleague Paul Tillich), Franklin H. Littell and (perhaps not quite as enthusiastically) Harvey Cox--brilliant and cultic conservatives all. At the moment, however, I would be happy to trade all this top drawer enthusiasm for a few competent translators. True, I have had expressions of interest from publishers--Princeton, Scribner's, Doubleday, John Knox--and editors in a couple of these houses even have tried their own hand at translating some of the materials. But as it turned out, the fellow who was ready to take the bull by the horns and start publishing Blumhardt on his own was the official printer for the Students for a Democratic Society headquarters in Chicago. He thought Blumhardt would be good for some of the not so brilliant, not so conservative cultics of that organization to read while they sat in jail.

I. The Neo-Orthodox Debt to the Blumhardts

Yet, in one sense, the Century editorial is correct in describing the Blumhardtian interest as confined to a handful of followers and occasional footnotes. The Blumhardts (father and son) have not yet proved able to cross the Atlantic ocean, or even the English channel (for reasons we shall get to in due course). However, if the continental scene is taken into account the picture is quite different.

Emil Brunner's father was converted by the younger Blumhardt (Christoph), and Emil himself at any number of points, admitted his dependence on Blumhardt's thought.

Eduard Thurneysen, the pastor half of the pastor-theologian team with Karl Barth, studied under Blumhardt at Bad Boll back in 1904; and it was he who later introduced Barth to the Blumhardtian literature. In 1926 Thurneysen published a popularly written little introduction to the Blumhardts. This has been reprinted as recently as 1962. It needs to be translated. In a book of his that has been translated, A Theology of Pastoral Care, Thurneysen gives major attention to the Blumhardts' contribution as pastoral counselors.

Karl Barth named the Blumhardts (along with Kierkegaard) as the progenitors of the neo-orthodoxy movement and claimed a Blumhardtian motto "Jesus is Victor," as the touchstone of his own work. During his career Barth wrote three essays about the Blumhardts (plus two quite lengthy notices in his Church Dogmatics). The earliest of the essays--read and approved by Christoph Blumhardt himself--appeared in 1916, some years before the neo-orthodoxy awakening. It, along with a Blumhardt sermon constitutes a slim volume just published, Action in Waiting--by far the best Blumhardt "opener" yet available in English. The second essay, which came in 1919, has recently been put into English as an item in the sourcebook The Beginnings of Dialectical Theology (edited by James M. Robinson). The third essay was a chapter in the German version of Barth's history of 19th century theology, written in 1947. The Swiss did not outgrow the Blumhardtian influence.

Paul Tillich was particularly attracted to who James Luther Adams describes as "the religio-socialist element" in Blumhardt. This element, by I way, explains the relevance of Blumhardt for the S.D.S. and points toward another tie-in we shall make a bit later.

James D. Smart's two books on the origins of neo-orthodoxy--the sourcebook Revolutionary Theology in the Making and the historical analysis The Divided Mind of Modern Theology--both give an accurate picture of the Blumhardtian role.

The one neo-orthodox giant we cannot name here is Rudolf Bultmann. Barth quotes Bultmann as saying, "The stories of Blumhardt are an abomination to me." To which Barth adds the understatement, "But this is to speak in a way which at least requires some interpretation."

II. Cullmann, Bonhoeffer, and Ellul

Up to this point I have probably given the impression that the prime significance of the Blumhardts was as forerunners of the neo-orthodox movement--which movement, every with-it theologian now seems obliged to point out, is long gone, defunct, kaput, over and done with (that is not quite true, though I shan't try to stop them from saying it). But my story has just begun.

In my reading I kept hearing Blumhardtian overtones where the name was not mentioned, not even "occasional footnotes." For example, Oscar Cullmann's whole concept of Heilsgeschichte carries a Blumhardtian bouquet. So once when the opportunity presented itself I put the question directly to Cullmann: "Do you know the Blumhardts, and is your thought influenced by them?" His face lit up like a Christmas tree. "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes," he said.

But the Blumhardt aroma, if I may so put it, came through to me more strongly in Bonhoeffer than in Barth, Brunner, Thurneysen and Cullmann put together. Yet not so much as one mention of the name could I discover in the whole Bonhoefferian corpus. Obviously in this instance I could not put the question directly, so I did the next best thing: when the occasion presented itself I put it to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's confidant, biographer and nephew-in-law. Bethge assured me in unequivocal terms that Bonhoeffer was thoroughly familiar with the Blumhardtian literature and that it could be accounted a major influence in his thought.

Scholarly documentation soon came to the support of authoritative opinion in this instance. Gerhard Sauter of the theological faculty at Göttingen, although he has not been published in English as have Moltmann, Pannenberg and Metz, is as authentic a formulator of the contemporary theology of hope as any of them. His doctoral dissertation, Published in 1962, is a study of the thought of the Blumhardts traced through the work of Barth and Bonhoeffer and then projected into what since has become known as the theology of hope. This book is the scholarly treatment of the Blumhardts that is crying for translation.

There undoubtedly are other secret Blumhardtians who should be exposed. A prime suspect is that eminent French social analyst, professor of jurisprudence and lay theologian Jacques Ellul. If his little book The Presence of the Kingdom was not bred out of Blumhardt, the only explanation of it is that Ellul is himself Blumhardt redivivus.

III. The Bruderhof

Now we are ready for the next link; and it should be said that as we have been tracing up this chain the Blumhardtian impress has been increasing rather than diminishing. Bonhoeffer came closer to the nitty-gritty than Barth did; the theology of hope than either of them. In Sauter the connection was made explicit, but it must be present in the others as well. Moltmann knows Blumhardt: as editor, he chose Barth's 1919 essay on Blumhardt for The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology, and in personal conversation he has admitted the influence. I have so far had no opportunity to nail Pannenberg or Metz.

The Blumhardts are staying on top of the newest developments, too. The "political theology" of Metz and Moltmann--so nicely introduced to Century readers by Frederick Herzog (July 23)--is simply a natural outgrowth of the theology of hope. It is foreshadowed in Blumhardt and ultimately can be rooted nowhere except in his "religious-socialist element."

It is, however, not only among theologians that the Blumhardt memories have been kept alive all this time. The Blumhardts walk among the Christians in Germany. As Franklin Littell put it, "They had a massive effect on the development of the lay apostolate in German Protestantism." As mentioned above, Thurneysen's popular little book of 1926 is on the market in a modern edition. With an even better record than that, the definitive biography of the elder Blumhardt, done by a close associate in 1887, has gone through some 20 printings up to the present day (and it ought to make just as interesting reading in English as in German). The four-volume set of the complete works of the younger Blumhardt is still selling in German bookstores 50 years alter his death; for how many theologians can the same claim be made?

In this country it is a lay group of German immigrants that has been carrying the Blumhardt torch (as much as it has been carried). That is what moved the Century to speak of "cultic followers" when in fact those immigrants represent simply the branch office of a widespread German phenomenon--the Society of Brothers (Bruderhof), an experiment in Christian community founded in Germany in the early 1920s. The teachings of the Blumhardts very soon became influential upon the group, but it is not a "Blumhardt church" in any sense; it looks to Eberhard Arnold as its founder and inspiration. The Bruderhof was expelled from Germany under Hitler and, after the war, wound up in this country--although its German origins are still very evident. But beyond doubt, the greatest collection of Blumhardt materials outside Germany resides at Rifton, New York, in the archives of the Plough Publishing House, which is a service arm of the Bruderhof.

What little of Blumhardt we do have in English comes from Rifton. Action in Waiting, the already mentioned little book containing the Barth essay and the Blumhardt sermon, is Plough’s most recent production. In 1963 Plough published a larger book, Christoph Blumhardt and his Message. The first half of it is a not too well written introduction; the second, excerpts from Christoph's talks and sermons. Fragments of his writings appear in other Plough books. But these, plus the scattered notices mentioned earlier, constitute the Blumhardt bibliography in English. At present the urgent interest of the Society is to get an established publisher into the game; the Plough books do not make enough even to cover the cost of manufacture.

IV. Reasons for Blumhardtian Obscurity in America

If the Blumhardt phenomenon is as extensive and important as I have suggested, why has it been such a well kept secret in this country? Language barrier, obviously; but other things too. One may be the fact that the normal time for the interest to have sparked across the Atlantic--roughly, the time of Blumhardt's death and Barth's discovery of him--happened to coincide with the years of World War I, when all sparking was of a somewhat more violent nature.

However, the Century put its finger on a more fundamental consideration when it spoke of the Blumhardts' not fitting any of the conventional slots. They were not literary men whose work would come over via the route of a Goethe or Thomas Mann. Nor, as we shall see, were they recognized members of the scholarly community whose works would travel the university route. The normal route for work such as theirs did not open up because (the Century notwithstanding) they had not the sort of cultic following that would form a church and bring the teachings along to the New World (as happened with Swedenborg or Zinzendorf).

Still, if German theology has been impregnated with Blumhardtian influence right down to the present day, why is there not more notice of it in the literature? I think I know why; I have learned something of the answer from my own experience. For one thing, sermonic or devotional works simply do not quote well in theological treatises; they never have. For another, theologians seldom have any real reason to cite, quote or footnote the Blumhardts. Nine times out of ten such notices serve the purpose of mustering authoritative support for a point of view; and although they have carried all sorts of influence, the Blumhardts represent no scholarly authority whatsoever. Karl Barth penetrated to heart of the matter when he wrote, way back 1916:

We cannot read [Blumhardt] as we are wont to read our books and articles. [He] puts forward no guiding principles. He produces no historical and psychological deductions. He neither reasons nor discusses; he talks neither politics nor philosophy. There is no probing into problems or drawing conclusions, or building systems.... Friendly but aloof, he passes by the dogmatic and the liberal, the "religious-ethical" and us socialist theologians.... He does not want to say anything brilliant, let off any fireworks, or strike any blow: he simply tells us the divine truth in the world as it meets him.... Shall we take exception to the fact that Blumhardt has given a book of devotions rather than a hook on problems? I am glad about it if only for this reason, that we already have much literature on problems but hardly a single book like this which we can share in unmitigated joy with all sorts of simple people who also want to hope I with us. (The rest of us have a very roundabout way of talking and writing.) My other reason is the conviction that our cause, our hope, is at the moment be served better with prayers than with treatises. Our dialectics have come to a dead end, and if we want to become healthy and strong, we have to start from the beginning become like children.

Now as in 1916, the very "weakness" that has prevented the Blumhardts from becoming known in the English-speaking world is their strength. If translations of their writings were available, some of the most valuable insights of German theology--from Barth and Brunner through Bonhoeffer up to the theology of hope and political theology--would become accessible to myriads of readers who simply have neither the background nor the ability to read the theologians themselves. (Read Barth's 1916 essay and see if it does not sound much more post-Barthian than Barthian; it actually is pre-Barthian.)

V. A Father and a Son

Johann Christoph

Christoph Friedrich

This brings us to the title question (which I have been evading as long as possible): Who are these Blumhardt characters anyhow? It is going to be very difficult to capsulize their character and thought; many of the terms used to describe them will be downright misleading.

There were two of them--J. C., the father (1805-1880) and Christoph, the son (1842-1919)--who taught and counseled at a kind of religious retreat they directed at Bad Boll in the province of Württemberg in southern Germany. The son's is the more developed thought, but the work of the two men is so inextricably intertwined that they tend to get treated as one. Both were Lutheran pastors, although both came into such tension with the church that for all practical purposes the relationship was broken. They came out of the left-wing piatist tradition that was prominent in Württemberg thus represent something of the radical Reformation perspective.

The father's career as an obscure pastor in an obscure German village was entirely unexceptional--until, in 1842, he had to deal with a counseling situation: a young girl in his parish who suffered a disorder which he interpreted to be of a class with the demon possessions of the New Testament. He worked with her for a couple of years, his approach being, "Lord Jesus, help me. We have seen long enough what the devil can do. We now desire to see the power of Jesus." The battle suddenly climaxed with a miraculous cure and a strange voice speaking, "Jesus is Victor!"

The event triggered a pentecostal revival that swept the Countryside (O.K.: "a celebrative experience of interpersonal relations that resulted in a church renewal reminiscent of that described in Acts"--would you buy that?). Naturally, this put Blumhardt at odds with the church authorities. So after a few years he set up the retreat center at Bad Boll where he could be his own man and do his own thing. Upon his death his son Christoph succeeded him as "house father" and continued the Bad Boll program until his own death in 1919.

I know how all this sounds and the Sort of associations it calls forth. All I can say is that it has a quite different ring once one gets below the surface. So keep in mind that this is a story which no less a person than Karl Barth defended and applauded, and that the Blumhardts were men whom the greatest theologica1 minds of modern Germany have been open enough to listen to and learn from. "Faith-healing fanatics!" Put it that way if you like, but faith-healers of a rare sort who shied away from overemphasizing the practice on the grounds explained by the son:

In our attitude toward God, in a great deal of prayer and religion, there is a lie which turns everything in the direction of exploiting the mercy and grace of God so as to make the Savior become our servant.... It is God’s honor which we now must exalt in our own persons, both physically and spiritually. In the foreground must be the concern not for our own well being but that God may come into his well being, into his prerogatives on earth.... Leave for a time your begging before God and first find the way together with us. Let us seek how we can do right by God in recognizing our guilt and by truly striving for his justice and his kingdom on earth. Turn your inner self to a new direction. Do not look at yourselves and all your suffering; look at the suffering of God, whose kingdom has been detained for so long because of the false spirit in men.

(I should not want to accuse Bonhoeffer of plagiarism; but my goodness: religionlessness, deus ex machina) turn to the world, participation in the suffering of God--it must be perfectly obvious who his teacher was.)

Basically, the faith of the Blumhardts is that world history is the story of God's effort to establish his kingly rule and make all things new in the kingdom. Their testimony is to the newness that has already happened and is even now happening through Jesus Christ. Their challenge is for men to participate in this newness and devote themselves to its cause.

This was the faith that led the younger Blumhardt into his "political theology"--and more, into actual involvement with that much maligned workers' movement the Social Democratic party, upon which ticket he was elected to a six-year term in the Württemberg legislature. Even after he backed off from the movement (as earlier he had backed off from faith healing), he was willing to say that potentially it "could further the thoughts of Jesus in the life of the nations more than any other movement." As he wrote:

In the social movement there lies an all-embracing concern for the pure human life, the general concern that men be helped. This has been accepted by wide ranks of the people and is an echo of Cod's desire that all men he helped. Christianity [i.e., in its historical embodiment as the church] has never given as conclusive expression to this principle which comes from Jesus.

But at the same time, out of his intimate experience in the party and in the legislature, Blumhardt was forced to enter a disclaimer:

The social movement as we see it today still belongs to the world which will pass away. It does not represent the fellowship of mankind that one day will come through the Spirit of God. In too strong a defense of prevailing opinions there is a thrust which disrupts the pure service of God. The attempt to carry my idea of God into earthly things cannot take root at a time when men are filled with the hope that they and they alone can create a blissful humanity. Now they first must run aground on the rock of earthly things if they ever are to experience higher things.

In contradistinction to the old social gospel, this is precisely the very much teeter-tottering, dialectical relationship between the kingdom and the world that we are getting today from Ellul, Metz, Moltmann, and Frederick Herzog's introduction to political theology." It brought Blumhardt out at a position of "action in waiting" (as the Plough book title has it) or "wait and hasten" (as the Century translates it):

I wish we could live completely in the promise: for the promise is something substantial from God himself. Again and again it renews our strength, our hope, and our experience.... We want to be a people which, of concern over the misery in the world, is able to say first of all and always, "Thy kingdom come!" ... Waiting is a great strength. Waiting is a great deed.... Let us arise in the knowledge that a Christian is a helper in this hope, full of the strength of waiting.... A truly waiting people, true Christians who wait for the day of God's mercy upon all men, may gently spin the thread and twine it about the nations, tying them with our faith and preserving them for the day of Jesus Christ. What a coming of Christ that would be if many Christians were to say, "I too want to do something; I want to have a strength in quiet, through my waiting for the sake of others."

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Copyright (c) 1969, The Christian Century