CHURCH CONFLICTS: The Cross, Apocalyptic, and Political Resistance. By Ernst Käsemann. Foreword by James H. Cone. Edited by Ry O. Siggelkow. Translated by Roy A. Harrisville. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021. Xxxiv +237 pages.
There is an apocalyptic thread running through the New Testament. It’s there in the Gospels, in the letters, and of course, you will find it in the apocalypse itself, the Book of Revelation. Some have deemed apocalyptic theology too dangerous to handle. This has led to efforts on the part of some to either remove or downplay this dimension of the biblical story. I wonder, though, if it is possible to do this and retain the full meaning of the New Testament. Recognizing the dangers inherent in this form of biblical literature, at least with regard to the way it is used by some millennialist groups, if we were to do this would we end up domesticating Jesus and the Christian movement? In other words, because some groups misuse this material, should they have the last word? These are questions that have been on my mind of late, especially as I begin a co-authored project focused on eschatology (that is, the doctrine of last things).
In the course of my readings on eschatology and apocalyptic theology, I re-encountered the work of Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998), the late German New Testament scholar and theologian who might be best known for his break with his mentor Rudolph Bultmann. In large part that break had to do with differing understandings of the apocalyptic vision within the New Testament. For Käsemann, Bultmann’s emphasis on the individual and the eternal now was too narrow a vision, one that did not provide a foundation for active engagement in the world.
Having taught New Testament at the universities at Mainz, Göttingen, and Tübingen, besides having published a few commentaries, much of his work came in the form of essays and speeches. Over the years many of these essays have been translated into English, with Church Conflicts being the most recent attempt to make Käsemann’s work available in English for a new generation. This volume contains eighteen essays that cover a variety of topics, but often these essays and speeches have an apocalyptic or eschatological dimension. As he engages with the apocalyptic dimension of the biblical story, Käsemann emphasizes a form of discipleship that is rooted in the person of the crucified Nazarene.
This collection of essays offers us Roy Harrisville’s translation of the first volume of Käsemann’s Kirkliche Konlikte. This volume was published in German in the 1980s and is comprised of essays, lectures, Bible studies, meditations, and sermons that Käsemann delivered in some form from the 1960s to the 1980s. Volume 2 of this collection was earlier published by Eerdmans under the title On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene. Why it took so long to bring out the first volume in the series is unknown. Nevertheless, both of the original volumes are now available in English, making Käsemann’s important work more available to the English-speaking world.
The period in which these essays emerged was a time in which Käsemann became a well-known figure in ecumenical circles. It was also a period in which he was drawn into supporting the student movements of the late 1960s. Finally, this was the period during which his daughter was tortured and killed by the ruling junta in Argentina. Needless to say, all of this, plus his own history of navigating the years of the Nazi rule and its aftermath, contribute to a somewhat radicalized form of theology that has deeply embedded apocalyptic elements. That reality is reflected in the words of James Cone, who provides the foreword to this book. Cone reveals that Käsemann alone among the European theologians understood him. As Cone noted: “He was a man of my own mind and heart and wrote concretely about what I was trying to express in my own situation” (p. viii).
The editor, Ry O. Siggelkow, has provided the reader with a most helpful introduction to the book. He helpfully introduces the reader to Käsemann the person as well as the theologian. This introduction of Käsemann helps set the essays in their historical context. We learn of Käsemann’s origins, his ministry in a mining region among working people before World War III, his initial welcome of Hitler’s message, and his later rejection of it. As one who has read Bonhoeffer’s works and many of the biographies, it is instructive to note that these two German theologians were born in the same year. Bonhoeffer is the more famous, in large part due to his martyrdom, but while Käsemann’s life took different turns from Bonhoeffer’s life, there are intriguing parallels here that need to be considered.
It is difficult to pick out a particular essay or essays to take note of. Each one has its context and purpose. However, as one reads the essays it’s possible to discern his strong commitment to the message and life of Jesus. Though a biblical scholar of note he was committed to the church, especially its ecumenical dimension. While committed to the unity of the church he was quite upfront about the diversity of theologies, confessions, and such that existed from the beginning. Interestingly, it is here that Käsemann broadened the meaning of Bultmann’s program of “demythologizing.” He embraced Bultmann’s thesis that the ancient modes of thought cannot be repristinated in the present, but he also wanted to radicalize the theses he took from Bultmann. He writes “Texts must be demythologized because and insofar as both humanity and the world require a continual demythologizing.” But he goes further: “The gospel demythologizes and de-demonizes earthly conditions, thus also our views and the text that makes them known. We find ourselves a battlefield between God and idols, continually tempted not to let ourselves be formed by Christ after the image of our Lord, but to form ourselves and the world around us to our own will.” (pp. 17-18). It is the emphasis on the crucified Nazarene that permeates the book.
Coming away from the book, though I may not agree with him on all points, I found him to be provocative and instructive. His engagement with apocalyptic elements in the New Testament serves as a helpful reminder that the Christian faith is deeply apocalyptic and to set it aside undermines the message of Jesus. That James Cone would say that Käsemann was the only German/European theologian to truly understand him is telling. It serves as a reminder that Käsemann had discovered a key element in the Christian story, an apocalyptic element, that cannot be set aside. That he and Moltmann share a commitment to reclaiming the apocalyptic and eschatological elements of the gospel is also important. It is also instructive at a time when we are wrestling with the implications of white supremacy and white privilege that Käsemann, whose writings present in this volume date to 1982 and before, speaks clearly about the distortions of Christianity that are rooted in the White Man. Thus, he writes in an essay titled “The Proclamation of the Cross of Christ in a Time of Self-Deception” (1974): “Demythologization of humanity means repentance for the Christian.” (p. 161).
As I read these essays the thought came to mind. What would have happened to Christian theology if Bonhoeffer had lived? Could Käsemann’s work offer hints? After all, they were peers, though interestingly, they came from very different backgrounds. So, is Käsemann the more radical and even the more germane theologian? I would encourage you to read and consider the possibilities. The message here is ultimately a call to discipleship, a call to follow a Jesus whose message was itself radical.
Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest “Second Thoughts about the Second Coming: Understanding the End Times, Our Future, and Christian Hope” coauthored with Ronald J. Allen. His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at www.bobcornwall.com.