Remembering an All-But-Forgotten, Extremely
Influential Theologian: Christoph Blumhardt
by Roger Olson
March 29, 2015
Much to their credit, a few historical theologians are trying to revive memory of German theologian-evangelist Christoph Blumhardt. My friend and co-author Christian Collins Winn (Bethel College, MN) is one of them. (He and I collaborated on our recently published book Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition [Eerdmans, 2015].) In my opinion, however, Blumhardt is one of those great Christian thinkers and leaders who has been pushed to the deep background and only remembered (vaguely) by some as an influence on Karl Barth’s theology. However, even some books about Barth and his theology neglect to mention Blumhardt who deserves much more credit for helping launch theological renewal in the twentieth century.
Christoph (1842-1919) would consider it a disservice to himself not to mention his father Johann (1805-1880). The father was catapulted to fame in Germany and the Christian world by the story of his months-long exorcism of a demonic spirit possessing a young woman. Johann was a fairly ordinary Lutheran pastor in Southwestern Germany when she was brought to him by a friend. He did not consider himself an exorcist and had hardly given a thought to the subject of demon-possession but discerned that this young woman’s problem was supernatural. He was reluctant to engage in exorcism but agreed to pray for her. Eventually the demonic spirit left her and she was miraculously freed from spiritual bondage to evil. The elder Blumhardt went on to found a Christian retreat center for spiritual counseling, prayer and healing that became famous not only in Germany but also in Great Britain and America.
Christoph grew up in that atmosphere under the influence of his famous father and eventually took over his father’s ministry moving the retreat center to Bad Boll. It still exists although much changed. Now it is an ecumenical center for peace studies.
Christoph Blumhardt was a phenomenon in his own lifetime, much revered and criticized. He refused to fit into any traditional religious category and eventually surrendered his ministerial credentials in the state church under tremendous pressure from the tradition-bound hierarchy. Christoph was, like his father, a renowned exorcist and “faith healer.” (I prefer the term “divine healing evangelist” because in that tradition it is God who heals, not the person who prays. “Faith healing” is a journalistic term that does not do justice to that tradition’s beliefs.) People came from all over the world to Bad Boll to meet Blumhardt, hear him preach, receive spiritual counseling and advice from him and to be prayed for. He was widely regarded especially in Germany as a prophet, evangelist and political activist.
Blumhardt (from here on when I use that name I mean Christoph) picked up his personal motto from his father: “Jesus is victor!” This was the prophetic phrase declared by a woman present at the end of the famous exorcism carried out by his father over months. Blumhardt believed and taught that the future Kingdom of God is breaking into history through Jesus and the church. He believed and taught that miracles ought to be expected signs of this presence of the future. But he also believed socialism is the social order of the Kingdom of God and that Christians ought to model socialism in the church and state. He joined the Socialist party and became a member of parliament for a few years. He was also a universalist and pacifist. He believed that “Jesus is victor!” also means that God’s coming Kingdom through Jesus will eventually be all inclusive.
Barth gave Blumhardt credit for influencing his theology and social views. But Barth was not alone in being strongly influenced by Blumhardt. Scholars writing about Jürgen Moltmann almost always refer to two major influences on his thought—Barth and Bloch (Ernst). However, Moltmann himself credits Blumhardt with being the single most influential person on the development and direction of his theology. (See “The Hope for the Kingdom of God and Signs of Hope in the World: The Relevance of Blumhardt’s Theology Today” in Pneuma 26/1 (Spring, 2004). Donald G. Bloesch used Blumhardt’s motto “Jesus is Lord!” as the title of his little book on Barth’s theology and referred to Blumhardt many times in his writings.
My long time readers will already know how influenced I am by theologian Emil Brunner on whose Dogmatics I cut my “theological teeth” in seminary. Brunner dedicated Volume 3 of Dogmatics (The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation) to Blumhardt: “This book is dedicated to Christoph Blumhardt. It was he, the prophetic witness to Jesus, who in the days of my youth by direct personal contact and, later, through men like Kutter and Ragaz, rooted me deep in the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. I have always loved and honoured him as one of those in whom the divine light shone forth, and in gratitude I regard my theological work as the harvest of his sowing.”
What did Barth, Bloesch, Brunner and Moltmann have in common that they might have inherited from Blumhardt? The answer is obvious: their Christological concentration. But it is better expressed as their “concentration on Jesus.” Some people talk endlessly about “Christ” but rarely mention “Jesus.” The difference may seem subtle, but it’s not to a true Pietist. One can believe in and talk about “Christ” as (for example) “the New Being that appeared in Jesus” while pushing the living Jesus, our contemporary (as Kierkegaard put it), to the background. Blumhardt believed Jesus is alive and busy wherever God’s people invite and allow him to be busy—bringing in the Kingdom on earth among us. Barth, Bloesch, Brunner and Moltmann all developed Christocentric or “Jesus-centered” theologies that, like Blumhardt’s theology, were infused with Pietism without Quietism. (Yes, I know Barth was highly critical of Pietism, but I am convinced his critiques of Pietism were aimed at a particular German expression of Pietism in his time and place and not at Pietism in general. He was very appreciative of Zinzendorf, for example, calling him a modern father of the church.)
All four of those theologians drew from Blumhardt their Jesus-centered hermeneutic of Scripture that relativized the Bible as witness to revelation with “revelation” being Jesus. Brunner’s “I-Thou encounter” is usually traced back (as a concept) to Martin Buber and Ferdinand Ebner, but I recognize it as just as much or more influenced by Blumhardt. When I first encountered Brunner in seminary I detected a certain “spirit” or “ethos” that resonated with my Pentecostal-Pietist spiritual formation. I now realize that ingredient in Brunner’s theology was Blumhardt in him.
We need a rediscovery of Blumhardt in contemporary theology.