"The Word of God should be the measure"

"The Word of God should be the measure": An interview with Eta Linnemann

A well-known theologian shares her concerns about the historical-critical method and its implications for ecclesiastical theology.

Frank M. Hasel, Ph.D., is dean of the Theological Seminary at Bogenhofen, Austria, and teaches systematic theology and biblical hermeneutics. He is also the director of the Ellen G. White Study Center at the seminary.

Author’s Note: Eta Linnemann, ThD, well-known theologian and New Testament professor, presented two public lectures and four seminars for the theology students and faculty at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen in Austria, in October 2007. In those lectures the 81-year-old theologian passed along, in a compact form, her theological legacy. Linnemann studied under such well-known Bible critics as Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Fuchs, Ernst Käsemann, and Friedrich Gogarten in Marburg, Tübingen, and Göttingen universities in Germany. She held an honorary professorship at the well-known Philipps University in Marburg before she experienced her personal conversion at the height of her academic career. From that time on, she became convinced that Jesus actually lived, and that the widely propagated atheistic method of historicalcritical theology presented an inaccurate picture of Jesus and the content of the Bible. She distanced herself from this method and pointed out the weak premise upon which it is founded. She joined an independent Evangelical Church. At Bogenhofen she addressed us as brothers and sisters in Christ, and also wished to be addressed the same way.

Frank M. Hasel (FH): Sister Linnemann, in your books and lectures you repeatedly mention the historical-critical method. In your opinion what are the consequences of this method for the believer and ecclesiastical theology?

Eta Linnemann (EL): Normally I do not use the term historical-critical method. I prefer to speak about historical-critical theology. The term historical-critical method1 is an expression used by those who practice it. Already, in my earlier articles, I pointed out that although it claims to be a scientific method, in reality, it is not scientific. One consequence of historical-critical theology2 is the destruction of faith. This might sound harsh to some, but I have seen this in the lives of dozens of students. Often they commence their theological studies as devout individuals, but later, as a result of the historical-critical theology, they are no longer able to be a pastor. What is even worse, there are pastors who, because of such theology, do not even know that humans are lost and we have to be born again. And what they themselves do not know, they cannot pass along to their church members.

It could be that someone as an infant may have been brought to baptism, may even have attended children’s church services and later may have lived on the margins of church life, but in the end, be lost because there was never an awareness of the necessity of rebirth. That is the worst of it. Apart from that, we can see Sunday after Sunday, in every church where historical-critical sermons are preached that those churches are empty. And those churches that still have members, become emptier. On the other hand, one makes the following observation: wherever God’s unadulterated Word is preached, people are attracted. This has nothing to do with the question of denominations. Wherever a pastor is found who knows Jesus personally and really preaches the pure Word of God, there you have a full church.

A historical-critical preacher provides stones to the congregation instead of bread. These stones can be beautiful and rhetorically polished stones; they can be interesting stones. But what do I do with stones? They are not suited for spiritual food.

In addition, historical-critical theology deals selectively with the Holy Scriptures. With this method it is possible at anytime to avoid being personally affected; for instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, when it is claimed that parts of the sermon are “secondary” or that Matthew or Luke were not the original writers. This method prevents the Word of God from saying what it actually does say.

FH: How do you explain that among evangelical theologians there are some who advocate a moderate use of the historical-critical method? These theologians are not all unbelievers, are they?

EL: That is correct. The situation is more complex. On the one hand we have those who have lost their faith through their course of study. On the other hand, there are those who perhaps have already received Christian teaching, and who also have a supportive congregation who prays for them. These are able, more or less, to pull through. However, in certain areas compromises are made. For example, some believe that the pastoral letters are not from Paul, or the Johannine letters are not written by John, nor was Revelation written by him, and of course, the five books of Moses were not written by Moses. But one still believes in the resurrection, perhaps even the virgin birth, also in the second coming of Jesus. When you are a real evangelical, you believe this. However, some brokenness remains because one has compromised in many single issues whilst continuing to cling to other points of faith.

FH: How do you explain that?

EL: Actually, this is not surprising. Just imagine: as a student you arrive at the university or seminary. The professor at the lecturer’s desk is a master in the field and very good. Within their respective fields these people are quite brilliant. Also, by a wide margin, the professor is the absolute authority. And then it is officially stated from the lecturer’s desk that certain things are thus and so—even when much of what is said cannot be confirmed in every detail but simply reflects the general consensus.

One simply accepts many things because the professor has said it. What is not learned from the professor is learned from older students. It is inevitable that during the course of one’s studies one becomes accustomed to hearing much that does not harmonize with one’s beliefs and that has really not been fully examined. Then one graduates and even is unaware of all the instances where certain compromises have been made. This often remains hidden from oneself. Man is a rascal! He is of the opinion that when one still continues to believe in the resurrection and perhaps in the virgin birth, and is still convinced that the Bible is the Word of God, then everything is still OK.

The graduation of one’s studies also brings satisfaction. The theological exams have been passed, and what one has learned contributes to the experience of personal success. With that, a student is duty bound, unless of course, they are prepared to make a clean break and turn from all this, but then he would stand there naked, so to speak. What do academically trained pastors have to offer if they say “No” to all that they have learned in the course of their studies? Haven’t they been hired as pastors on the basis of their academic studies? They would have to admit, in the truest sense of the word, a conversion experience, a foundational conversion of their thinking. A certain brokenness prevails: they no longer feel free to speak clearly on certain topics, partly because they no longer clearly know, and partly because they are no longer convinced about it, and so they lack power and authority.

FH: In your lectures you stress the importance of using the intellect and that one should also study the Bible in an attitude of faith. Would you briefly outline the best way a converted, Bible-believing theologian should work?

EL: First of all, one should keep in mind that we do not have any wisdom on our own. When we think that we know everything, and we approach the Bible with such an attitude, we will soon be headed in the wrong direction. Without a humble attitude, one cannot practice theology. After all, we are ultimately dealing with the Word of God, and this cannot be dealt with in a purely academic manner. Naturally, there is also the question of guidance: what does God want that I should do now? Somehow, someway, the Lord will let you know this.

FH: What advice would you give to a theological seminary?

EL: First, they should really, without any reservation, take students who have already been born again. I would accept no one as a theology student with the idea that they will be converted some time. There should be unity in spirit. This is the context for spiritual growth. Furthermore, I would not recommend that students pick and choose from the university prospectus what they like best during a semester. If time and money are to be used effectively, a unified curriculum is needed. Otherwise, you have some lectures that are attended by only one or two students, while other lectures are overcrowded. That is not helpful.

Secondly, I believe an engaging spiritual life, where students can participate in a united manner on campus is important. This means, of course, that each individual has their own personal quiet time, but also that there are opportunities as a group to grow spiritually.

Then I believe practical work is important. Theology students should not live in an ivory tower. They should also learn in practical terms to carry responsibility in various areas. Good theology and practical experience in the churches should go hand in hand. I would recommend that by the second semester, at the latest, during the summer vacation, students should gather practical experience in children’s camps, for instance. They should also have the opportunity to engage in practical work during their studies. After three to four years of study, I would suggest a longer period of practical work, something like an internship, in which students can publicly prove themselves. Such an internship should not only teach the practical aspects of work, but should also engage the student under the leadership of experienced mentors and expose them to appropriate literature. I have written a manuscript about such a concept for theological seminars. I have been impressed by the training here at Bogenhofen, and I am also happy that here church history has not been neglected in the theological training. It is very important to learn from history and not to repeat earlier mistakes.

FH: Now a personal question: Do you have a motto in your life that has made an impression on you and sustained you?

EL: Some of the first words that came to me after I had given my life to Jesus were: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

FH: This is not the first time you have visited with Seventh-day Adventists. You have been invited to various churches. Is there something that you have learned to appreciate about Seventh-day Adventists?

EL: The very first contact I had with Seventh-day Adventists was through Gerhard F. Hasel,3 who, on the occasion of a visit to the United States, had invited me to speak at a conference. He then also invited me to Andrews University where I spoke with theology students and faculty over a period of days. What I learned to appreciate is the high percentage of bornagain Christians and that one can take it as a rule that amongst Adventists one normally deals with born-again Christians. This gives me the freedom to come to Adventists and serve them. I do not agree with all that Adventists believe, as you know, but I believe that it is important to have unity in essential things. That means we know that our Lord Jesus died for us on the cross of Golgotha, and we are in agreement in our attitude toward the Holy Scriptures. That is so important for me, and, therefore, I enjoy visiting with Adventists. There are also born-again Christians amongst the Catholics. By this I do not say that every Catholic is born again, indeed not, but there are some among them, and those I treasure. One can feel whether or not someone is truly a brother or sister in Christ. Since I was born again I feel this inner assurance, and one notices it when this is missing.

FH: Sister Linnemann, thank you very much for this interview. I hope that your new book that recently came off the press, Was ist glaubwürdig—Bibel oder Bibelkritik?4 (What Is Credible—The Bible or Biblical- Criticism?) (Nürnberg: Verlag für Theologie und Religionswissenschaft, 2007), will be a blessing to many people.

1 In this approach “research is conducted ut si Deus non daretur (‘as if there were no God’). That means the reality of God is excluded from consideration from the start. . . . Statements in Scripture regarding place, time, sequences of events and persons are accepted only insofar as they fit in with established assumptions and theories.” Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 83–88; quoted in Kairos Focus, “Theology and the ‘Enlightenment,’ ” Kairos Initiative,

2 According to Linnemann in “historical-critical theology, critical reason decides what is reality in the Bible and what cannot be reality. . . . Due to the presuppositions that are adopted, critical reason loses sight of the fact that the Lord, our God, the Almighty, reigns.” Ibid.

3 Gerhard F. Hasel was a professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States until his death in 1994.

4 This book has not yet been translated into English.



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Frank M. Hasel, Ph.D., is dean of the Theological Seminary at Bogenhofen, Austria, and teaches systematic theology and biblical hermeneutics. He is also the director of the Ellen G. White Study Center at the seminary.

July 2008

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