Volume 33 - Issue 2

The Longing of Love: Faith and Obedience in the Thought of Adolf Schlatter

By Dane C. Ortlund


Despite a small flurry of attention over the past decade, Adolf Schlatter (1852–1938), Tübingen professor of New Testament and author of more than 440 written works, remains one of the most neglected yet illuminating theological voices of the past one hundred years. This paper seeks to be one small window into his thought by explicating Schlatter's understanding of a critical topic in Christian theology and living: the relationship between faith and obedience.

Despite a small flurry of attention over the past decade, Adolf Schlatter (1852–1938), Tübingen professor of New Testament and author of more than 440 written works, remains one of the most neglected yet illuminating theological voices of the past one hundred years.180 This paper seeks to be one small window into his thought by explicating Schlatter’s understanding of a critical topic in Christian theology and living: the relationship between faith and obedience.

The Value of Studying Schlatter

In spite of some valid criticisms of his work, both in his day and ours—his prose, for example, is often frustratingly prolix181—Schlatter is valuable on a number of fronts. I will explore just one and mention a few others before getting on with the immediate purpose of this essay.

First, Schlatter conscientiously confronted the rationalist-idealist framework dominant since Kant instead of getting swept along in its current, choosing a hermeneutic fueled by empiricism, realism, humble perception (Wahrnehmung), and, fundamentally, a willingness to accept the historical veracity of the biblical text. He believed observation (Beobachtung) must inform judgment (Urteil), not vice versa. In this Schlatter sought to critique German contemporaries whose critical presuppositions fueled a view of the Bible not as divine revelation but, by separating theology from history, as another example of the human spirit constructing its own conscience-alleviating faith system. J. P. Gabler, William Wrede, and Ernst Troeltsch, for example, each in his own way, rejected the idea that a coherent New Testament “theology” was even possible.182

Seeking to navigate the Scylla of blind naiveté and the Charybdis of critical unbelief—both equally haunted by contaminating presuppositions—Schlatter employed a methodology that included both open-minded historical investigation (against the biblicists of his day, who viewed him as suspiciously scientific) as well as respect for and submission to Scripture (against the critical academic establishment, which viewed him as suspiciously ingenuous).183 While the latter earned him no small amount of academic ostracism during his most fruitful years, the courage and fortitude with which Schlatter stood for the veracity of Scripture and the historical claims in which it is rooted must not only be admired from a distance but emulated in our own day. For while twenty-first-century skepticism no longer emerges from the rationalism of the Enlightenment and scientific method of Modernism but rather from the experience and relevance coveted in Postmodernism and Post-postmodernism, both cultural frameworks downplay the Bible’s historical testimony—the former because it is unreliable, the latter because it is irrelevant.184

Other strengths of Schlatter could be mentioned: (1) a conviction ahead of his time that Paulinism is rooted fundamentally not in Hellenism but Judaism;185 (2) a reformational worldview (opposite Barth’s increasingly influential exclusive focus on the person of Christ in humanity’s redemption) that saw all of creation as included in God’s redemptive scope;186 and (3) a submissive humility to match his penetrating intellect—a reverence for God and his Word that was not muffled by but rather flourished in the demands of academic labor.187

In short, Schlatter provides fresh yet levelheaded insight into current New Testament studies, a world of exploding scholarly proliferation and specialization that quickly produces a bewildering sense of academic vertigo for aspiring neutestamentlers seeking to get their bearings.188 Our own concern is to explore the connection between coming into relationship with God utterly apart from human contribution, yet in such a way that a changed life inevitably emerges. How do a new creed and a new ethic coalesce? Robert Yarbrough writes that Schlatter “carefully criticized post-Reformation theology for succumbing to intellectualism and failing to move beyond the admittedly all-important doctrine of faith alone to the equally crucial ethical results of vital faith.”189 My goal here is to ask how Schlatter did this without overreacting and falling into a moralism unfaithful to the appropriately cherished Reformation cry of sola fide.190 We begin with some straightforward statements by Schlatter on the strong union he sees between faith and obedience, probing the various ways he united these two aspects of Christian experience. This will climax in a discussion of what Schlatter held to be fundamental in the connection between being saved apart from works and yet never without them. The primary text on which we depend throughout is Schlatter’s two-volume New Testament theology,191 written at the pinnacle of an industrious teaching career stretching across one hundred consecutive semesters.

Perspectives on the Unity�of Faith and Obedience

Schlatter speaks of the confluence of faith and obedience in various ways, time and again hammering home the organic connection between the two. To get at his thought, we will categorize these under the following rubrics: general unity, salvation-historical unity, canonical unity, authorial unity, existential unity, and supernatural unity.

1. General Unity

Schlatter explicitly connects faith and obedience in comments he makes on no fewer than seven key New Testament figures: Jesus, Paul, John, Peter, Luke, James, and the writer to the Hebrews. We begin, then, by simply noting that (not how) Schlatter persistently sought to unite faith and obedience.

Jesus called people to obedience, though without eradicating the calling to receive rather than earn one’s place in God’s kingdom. He invited people to become his disciples by extending both promise and demand.192 He ought not to be seen as an ethical teacher only; rather, “the founder of the formula ‘sola fide’ is Jesus; he said: ‘only believe’ (Mark 5:36); but we do not properly understand his call to faith if we mean that he expected nothing from people, and that nothing worked in them besides pure faith.”193 Paul agrees. Because a believer is one who has exchanged fear for faith, says Schlatter of Paul’s theology of justification, “he runs toward the goal with all his energy, because the grace that now justifies him grants him what is perfect, running, not plagued by doubt, but in the assurance that Christ’s death and life are available for him.” Faith that does not express itself in ethical action is not faith. Hence Paul refused to allow God’s grace and our faithfulness to be viewed as if one could thrive in the absence of the other.194

John too weds faith and obedience. “By assigning to faith the power to make someone a child of God,” says Schlatter of John’s thinking, “faith is not made the sole act of the community so that it does not need to obey, love or keep Jesus’ commandment but instead must merely believe. The idea that there was a legitimate devotion which consisted merely in believing did not exist for Jesus’ disciples and would have separated them from him completely if it had entered their minds.”195 Peter too joins the chorus of those refusing to detach belief from the will. “There is no felt tension between faith and works” in 1 Peter, says Schlatter.196 “Since the community only believes in Jesus when it also obeys him, Jesus’ words are passed on to it in order that it may live as he demanded.”197 Luke agrees by arranging his material in such a way that one detects an underlying unity between going to Christ for forgiveness and going to him for guidance in dutiful living.198 No discussion of this topic is complete, of course, without the witness of James, for whom Schlatter felt a special fondness. Since James “conceives of faith as confidence in God that has become assurance and conviction, faith exists for him only when it controls a person’s actions.” The epistle to the Hebrews concurs—this document “lacks the occasion to expose the contrast between faith and works. Rather, it is the remarkable quality of faith that it provides man’s entire conduct with its rightness, because it grounds it in the divine activity.”199

Schlatter clearly saw biblical unity between trusting in God for salvation and living a certain way, detecting such unity in several New Testament writers. Yet how did he substantiate such harmony? This brings us to our second rubric.

2. Salvation-Historical Unity

Faith and obedience have been linked throughout the story of God’s redemptive acts on behalf of his people. It is not a unity introduced in the New Testament.200 In The History of the Christ, Schlatter describes the work of the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ death: “If a new community should be established apart from Israel, free from any doctrine of merit, by the proclamation of divine rule brought to all, the question immediately arose whether God’s will had changed and whether his Law was subject to alteration.” Schlatter answers in the negative: “Jesus did not speak of two wills of God, of which the one required obedience from Israel while the other permitted sin for Christianity. Rather, now and in the future, God’s grace would reveal itself in the same unity with righteousness.”201

In both the Old Testament and the New, God manifests himself in mercy and holiness, calling his people to receive grace and to live in light of this grace. God has always called people to changed lives and he has always rooted such change in his own unilateral mercy. This heilsgeschichtliche harmony is conspicuously distinct from the salvation-historically disjunctive sentiment of Luther, according to whom

the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commandments and promises. Although the commandments teach things that are good, the things taught are not done as soon as they are taught, for the commandments show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it. They are intended to teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability. That is why they are called the Old Testament and constitute the Old Testament. . . . [T]he promises of God belong to the New Testament. Indeed, they are the New Testament.202

3. Canonical Unity

Schlatter sees unity within the biblical text not only in moving from one testament to another but in moving from one biblical witness to another. Without muting the various individual emphases of the biblical teachers, he detects throughout Scripture a unity of concern that belief and ethics stay together.

Jesus and Paul, for example, share a fundamental conviction on this issue. Did Jesus preach a message of obedience and Paul one of faith? No, says Schlatter. For both Jesus and Paul, “the perfection of divine forgiveness is expressly attested by both the removal of guilt and the establishment of a will that is subject to God.”203 Jesus and John the Baptist, too, are of one mind. The two “remained in close agreement,” since for both, “justice and grace [are] united in God’s rule.”204 The Gospel writers cohere among one another as well, despite emphases distinct to each. For instance, as in Matthew, “in John, too, faith determines an individual’s ethical conduct and following Jesus entails the forsaking of evil, even though John does not use the term ‘repent.’ If that were taken to show that Jesus actually never called to repentance, so that faith should perhaps replace Jesus’ moral demands, this would be a gross distortion of his word.”205 And the apostles? Both John and Paul “unite with the perfection of divine grace the inviolability of ethical norms, thus uniting with assurance the ethical claim that requires from the believer attention to his conduct.” And John agrees not only with Paul but with Peter.206 As he looks from one New Testament author to another, then, Schlatter finds that they unite faith and obedience in their various contexts in ways that show consistent underlying cohesion.

4. Authorial Unity

Schlatter also explores the thought-world of each canonical writer as a literary entity in himself to ask what sort of unity was thought to exist between trusting God for salvation and obeying him. John serves as an example. Observing carefully Jesus’ interactions in the third and fourth chapters of his Gospel—with Nicodemus in John 3 and with a Samaritan woman in John 4—Schlatter sees these two stories working together to show the inseparability of word and deed in the life of the believer. Jesus called Nicodemus to repentance because “he did not do the truth he knew. By requiring obedience for truth to be present, Jesus lent profound and clear expression to the concrete call to repentance that demanded from the individual the entire will that turned into action.”207 Nicodemus needed to add appropriate obedience to belief. The woman, on the other hand, was in need of proper belief: “You worship what you do not know,” Jesus told her (4:22). And so in the course of the conversation, Jesus revealed to the woman who he was.208 She was mistakenly directing her faith on the place of worship rather than the person to be worshipped (4:20). The Pharisee lacked proper works, the Samaritan proper faith. In this way Schlatter sees John commending a discipleship in which belief and obedience feed one another.

The Tübingen professor detects a similar authorial union in Matthew, as miracles and teaching conspire together to join the object of one’s faith with the manner of one’s life, respectively. “While the Sermon spells out Jesus’ demands, Jesus’ signs portray what Jesus grants. Jesus’ aim in the Sermon was the disciples’ complete obedience; his signs call for complete faith.”209

5. Existential Unity

Having seen Schlatter’s union of faith and obedience through salvation history, the New Testament canon, and individual New Testament authors, we turn from the text to the individual. We consider faith and obedience first from our point of view (existential unity), then from God’s point of view (supernatural unity). Regarding the former, Schlatter says this of Jesus’ message:

The relationship between faith on the one hand and conversion and obedience on the other was . . . firm, since Jesus granted unconditional validity to the demand for repentance. If this requirement was rejected, faith was impossible, since the one who disputed his demand could not trust him. He could trust only by agreeing with Jesus when he rejected his own conduct and by seeing in his offer of repentance the extension of divine grace.210

Here we come to an important theme in Schlatter. In yielding oneself to Jesus for forgiveness, one necessarily yields oneself to a new kind of life. To trust Jesus is to obey him, in the sense that if one is “trusting” him to save from judgment without a life of repentance and ethical transformation, it is quite plain that one is not in fact trusting him. This is particularly clear in Jesus’ relations with his disciples as he called them to himself, a calling that included both forgiveness and attendant labors. Schlatter resists the notion that faith comes first and then leads subsequently to obedience. Rather, though growth in godliness will be gradual, both exist right from the start. Faith and obedience are two dimensions of a single gift.211 Schlatter sees this existential unity in other New Testament writers, too, such as Peter, for whom “celebration and labor are one.”212 As with Jesus, faith and obedience do not coalesce simply by virtue of logical order.

I underscore this because it does not fall neatly in line with what we find in much Reformed dogmatics. John Murray, for example, writes:

When we think of the application of redemption we must not think of it as one simple and indivisible act. It comprises a series of acts and processes. To mention some, we have calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification. These are all distinct, and not one of these can be defined in terms of the other.213

Schlatter, on the other hand, insists that the turning of the self over to God concomitantly includes not only the object of one’s trust but also the direction of one’s will. Schlatter confounds our Protestant sensibilities time and again, such as when he says that it is only those who obey who can exercise faith (rather than the other way round).214 Concerning the interplay between justification and sanctification—and unveiling a possible influence on the later writings of KÃ?¤semann, Stuhlmacher, and Jüngel—Schlatter says:

Paul’s juxtaposition of justification and reconciliation with God’s sanctifying work does not suggest that he conceived of the divine gift as divided in parts, such as that justification made help possible without actually granting it, so that it required sanctification as the second exercise of divine grace in order to make that grace effective. Paul sees in God’s justifying verdict that divine will that removes everything that separates us from God and grants as our aim everything that is assigned to us.215 Schlatter resists traditional reformed categories and sequences. Justification, he says, is not a verdict relevant only for one’s status before God; it is a reordering, energizing reality, which itself “produces obedience.”216 For Schlatter, “faith always entails obedience, not in such a way that it results as its consequence, but such that man subjects himself in faith to the truthfulness and righteousness of God.” A person is able, consequently, “through his false attitude of the will, to prevent faith in himself and to be unbelieving.”217

We are almost ready to turn to the fundamental reason Schlatter is able to say this. But one more important nexus of unity still remains—this time one that does indeed stand in the stream of Reformed thought over the last half millennium.

6. Supernatural Unity

What I am calling supernatural unity is close to existential unity, but whereas the latter looks at faith and obedience from a human perspective, the former does so from a divine perspective. We might call existential a sensible or rational unity (though difficult to fully comprehend) and supernatural an internal or mysterious unity (though coherent). Supernatural unity brings faith and obedience together due to God’s spiritual operation on the human heart.

Schlatter speaks of the way Jesus grounded his ethical exhortations not in an external motivation but by “God’s gift.”218 Interpreting Paul, Schlatter pinpoints God’s union of the believer with Christ as a key to understanding this supernatural unity of faith and works. “Through union with Christ, the ethical question has already been determined.”219 A life-giving bond has been created between Christ and the Christian: “God in the creative power of his grace unites the believer with himself.”220 Ethical transformation is consequently inevitable. Stated differently, grace itself informs ethical practice. With James, for example, grace is “that will of God which determines his entire dealings with us. For this reason, not in spite of it, ethical norms become absolute, so that there is no part of God’s promise where they are not in operation.”221

John too unites trust and obedience due to supernatural working, pointing to the very nature of God and the resultant nature of the Christian.

Through what God is, Christian existence likewise takes on the mark of perfect being. But in both instances this does not result in a depreciation of action. Action rather becomes significant because the nature given to the believer effects corresponding actions and preserves them. The Christian’s sin does not disregard merely a commandment; it severs the real union in which he stands with God. Therefore it results in death. Likewise, love is rooted in the effective union with God in which the believer lives, and because love preserves this union, it grants him eternal life.222

Throughout the New Testament, then, the vital connection between the believer and God renders impossible a faith in him void of moral transformation. When faith came, so too did a will that loves God and hates evil.223 Yet even in this last statement on John, Schlatter speaks of something other than faith or obedience that flows from and connects us with God, and here we pinpoint the fundamental link between faith and obedience in the thought of the Tübingen professor.

The Linchpin of Love

Each of the above loci of unity move us along the road of understanding Adolf Schlatter on faith and obedience. Yet none has brought us to the final destination. Here we come to the crucial link in the unification of trusting God to save one from judgment and hell utterly apart from our obedience, on the one hand, yet living with moral responsibility on the other. This link, I propose, is love, by which Schlatter refers neither solely to emotions nor the will, but to both.224

He sees this all through the New Testament. “When Jesus spoke out against the concept of merit,” he says, “he did not attack God’s commandment. He fought the notion of merit because and to the extent it distorted love and intermingled it with selfishness, not because he denied the will or depreciated ethical obligations.”225 Love is the bottom line in New Testament ethics, yet not only in ethics—also in broader questions of soteriology and the relation between faith and works.226 This is echoed in the testimony of the beloved disciple himself. “The means by which the ethical result is reached and resistance against evil is achieved is in John precisely one’s position of faith.” Yet this faith is then couched in terms of love:

When he presented Jesus’ preaching of repentance simply by revealing why faith became impossible for Israel, this was not because his ethical will was weaker, his rejection of sin set aside, or the sanctity of the divine will obscured in his view of God. It was due rather to the fact that, for John, Jesus linked separation from evil and grounding in love directly with the existence of faith.227

Faith and obedience are both established in the new impulse of love, directed up to God and out to others.228 Faith without love is not true faith.229 And obedience that is loveless, external conformity is not obedience. Consequently, neither faith nor obedience, conceived in isolation, exhausts what Jesus taught it meant to follow him.

The piety Jesus gave to his disciples did not merely consist of receiving or of working but of both, and this in such a way that one was conditioned by the other. Only by what the disciple received was he able to do his work, and only by doing his work did he possess what he received.230

Again, love is the key: “Thus he acted according to the great commandment.”231 For Peter, too, love is foundational. First Peter “takes as its theme that the community is to exercise love even in the face of suffering. It is impossible to separate the doctrinal element from the epistle’s ethical pronouncements.”232

What then about Paul? “Will grounded in faith is love,” says Schlatter.233 The Christian life is typified by “that faith which lives by his grace and that love which does all for him.”234 Paul refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a faith that lacks love.235 Perhaps Schlatter’s crucial statement on love’s supreme role is this:

Paul related love to Christ and God with the same determination that he did faith. Love’s desire is to live for him. It is erroneous to consider only faith to be the decisive religious phenomenon in Paul, while assigning love to ethics. To the contrary, Paul entirely preserved Jesus’ concept of love. . . . In Paul, too, love determines a person’s entire conduct both toward God and toward one’s neighbors.236

Saving faith animates the whole being, the entire inner life, such that one’s newfound desire is to live for God. Schlatter had made the same point elsewhere: “the longing of love was fulfilled simultaneously with the desire of obedience.”237 Here we have come to the heart of Schlatter’s understanding of faith and obedience in the life of the Christian. “Love’s desire” or “the longing of love” is the key to why faith and obedience can never be divorced without proving to be false. If one has been brought to trust savingly in Christ for forgiveness, the love with which this faith has emerged is the love that energizes transformed living.

Many more statements could be drawn upon for further support of this conviction of Schlatter’s. Love is the ethical umbrella to all virtue in Colossians and Ephesians, says Schlatter, as well as in Romans and Galatians.238 And love provides the key to Schlatter’s reconciliation of Rom 3 and Jam 2. Romans portrays God alone as responsible for every dimension of salvation, yet James complements this by insisting that faith alone is not our righteousness if we count on inactive faith to save. Faith must be lived out in “obedience and love.”239 How then do belief and action relate?

Perfect love is generated by the collaboration of both movements of the will. . . . This love protects the gift of the one to whom it yields, praises his goodness, and rests in it, while simultaneously providing our will with the full power for giving everything we are and have to him.240

In short, the reason faith and obedience can never be separated is not because faith causes obedience (for Schlatter it is just as true that obedience causes faith) but rather because each is rooted in joy-filled love. The movement of the heart in which one casts oneself on God for acquittal from guilt is the same movement of the heart that simultaneously lives no longer in self-directed interest but other-directed love toward God and others.

Tweaking the Reformation?

Schlatter empathized with, and was a son of, the movement sparked by Luther. He was no Catholic. Yet he believed the reformers—particularly Luther—did not go far enough.241 Schlatter appreciates and appropriates the Lutheran revivification of the justification of an individual solely by God’s grace and mediated solely through faith, but sees this as problematic if not further filled out. While the reformers assiduously affirmed that a life of obedience necessarily accompanies true saving faith, Schlatter tended to think this was underemphasized. Luther’s distaste for the epistle of James exemplifies this, a letter for which Schlatter possessed a special affinity. Dintaman argues that Schlatter felt an uncomfortable tension between his soteriology and that of the Reformation, and Luther in particular, believing that Luther’s emphasis on the unilateral initiative of God’s grace in justifying “had the effect of overemphasizing the passivity of the believer in faith and the Christian life. He saw a tendency in Luther toward an egoistic perversion of faith where the justification of the individual is made the center of personal and theological concern.” Schlatter himself, writes Dintaman, “believed the New Testament went on to see the fulfillment of the Christian life in the Spirit’s creation of a community of love and service.”242

Benjamin Schliesser comments similarly that for Schlatter, faith

is not to be associated with quietism or tranquility, that would result in the inclination to withdraw from own [sic] thinking, willing, and doing. . . . Schlatter seeks to correct a misunderstanding of Reformation theology that originated—in Schlatter’s perception—already in Luther’s own faith: the one-sided emphasis on the calming, salvation-giving function of faith, which does not release adequately its active component.243

In other words, the Reformation reclaimed the receptive dimension to faith without equally realigning the attendant reality of the active dimension to faith—a forgivable error, perhaps, in light of the excesses of sixteenth century Catholicism, but an imbalance nonetheless.

There is an important insight here for twenty-first century Protestantism. While the Reformation was desperately needed to recover the truth of justification before God utterly apart from human performance, this may have had the accompanying negative effect of reinforcing a conceptual distinction between trusting God to forgive and trusting God with one’s actions. For the New Testament and for Schlatter, one either trusts God or does not. This eases consternation over biblical statements such as exhortations to “obey the gospel” (Rom 10:16; 2 Thess 1:8; 1 Pet 4:17), in which obedience and God’s good news to sinners might appear to be awkwardly fused—awkward, that is, if (as Schlatter suspects) we are unduly influenced by an unhealthy post-Reformation impulse to shave the “gospel” down to a word of love-vacuous pardon only. In New Testament Christianity, Schlatter suggests, to love God’s mercy is to love and embody mercy itself; to love God’s grace is to love and embody grace itself; to love God’s patience is to love and embody patience itself.

Yarbrough makes the point with verve, locating Schlatter’s critique of the Reformation in the centrality of love.

As a New Testament scholar and incisive analyst of intellectual history, Schlatter argued that the Protestant Reformation had not gone far enough. It correctly repudiated the merit theology of medieval Roman Catholicism. But it failed to move far enough in the positive direction of full-orbed love for God, a love that expressed itself in joyful, and where necessary costly, obedience.244

In the reformers’ striving to rectify the self-focused merit-theology of Catholicism, they may have replaced it with an equally self-focused mercy-theology of Protestantism. Merit-theology focused on human performance; mercy-theology focused on human need; both focused on humanity. Schlatter calls us to a God-directed soteriology in which grace not only forgives (negatively) but empowers (positively). Sin, on the other hand, renders love impotent by instilling fatal self-consciousness.245 One does wonder, however, if Schlatter would have experienced an equal level of discomfort with Calvin, instead of interacting primarily with the Lutheran strand of the Reformation.

Kennen Wir Jesus? (Do We Know Jesus?) was the last work Schlatter produced and is helpful at this point. Reflecting on the call of Galatians 5:6 to exercise “faith working through love,” he asks, “Can it be of significance to us if we appropriate what the Reformation brought to the church?” Schlatter concedes: “Certainly, if Luther assists us in coming to faith.” But he then qualifies this concession:

But why is faith all that matters to God? It is not simply that faith makes us confess true belief, nor is it that faith fills us with great joy and lifts us to praise of God. Rather, faith makes us active. In what way? It turns us aside from what we ourselves are and do. It is the repudiation of our own work and the renunciation of our sinful desire. If faith were any less powerful, it would have no saving force. It makes us active by combining with love, and if love is in us, it governs what we do.

Consequently, “Christ recognizes faith as valid when the believer acts in such a way that it is clear he is being directed by love.”246 This is why, according to Schlatter, Paul called love greater than faith in 1 Corinthians 13:13, and it also prompts Schlatter to define sin in terms of lovelessness.247

Faith and Obedience: Inseparable yet Distinct

Are we left, then, with a works-plagued gospel after all? Is not making active love necessary in justifying faith precisely what compromises the good news and its unmitigated exclusion of human performance? It may at first seem so, an accusation that is not helped by Schlatter’s conspicuous lack of reference to the aid of the Holy Spirit in obedience. While he does address the Holy Spirit at the end of The Theology of the Apostles, he gives this important topic a paltry five pages.248

Schlatter recognizes the danger of a works-infected gospel—even if that work is love—and avoids it. In a particularly illuminating passage concerning the relation of love to justification, he clarifies that love in no way contributes to the ground for justification.249 Love is essential to the faith that justifies, yet it is simply this faith as faith—that is, the outward bent of the heart divested of every trace of personal moral contribution, even that of love—that justifies. “[R]epentance requires that we consider not our love, but rather our faith, to be our righteousness.”250

More broadly, it will be comforting to those who consider themselves heirs of the Reformation to know that Schlatter at times sounds quite Lutheran indeed. With the coming of Christ, he says, “The divine demand and the divine gift, and the Law and the Christ are distinguished as never before, and the distinctives of faith over against work and of believing over against seeing and knowing reveals its profundity.”251 Paul and Peter therefore agree that the Mosaic law must no longer control their relationship to God.252 Rather, candid acknowledgment of need is the only prerequisite for the reception of grace.253 Paul in particular drew out the distinction between faith and obedience; he knew that he had received divine mercy only by faith,

because it is solely in Christ that he has everything, that is, God with his righteousness is interceding for him and his life granted to him. From now on, he recognizes a clear contrast between Christ and the Law. . . . As a result, faith and works are separated, and an intermingling of both became inconceivable for him.254

While Schlatter could say in one breath, “Paul never conceived of the Christian solely as believer but always also as the one who loves, knows, works, suffers, and hopes,” he never neglected the truth arising from Luther’s ardent desires and importunate beatings against Paul that “the distinction between faith . . . and works is nowhere blurred.”255 Luther’s ghost is not wholly banished in the writings of Adolf Schlatter. Lest we see Schlatter as neglecting appropriate distinction between faith and obedience in his zeal to emphasize the union of these two elements—as some recent writers appear to have done256—let us note the valid distinction of which Schlatter repeatedly speaks. Faith and obedience are inseparable, yet not indistinct.257 Schlatter did not lose sight of sola fide. Rather, he reminds us that the fides that saves is of a very particular (living) quality—namely, it loves.258


The dissemination of Schlatter’s influence was stunted with the thousands killed in the wars of the first half of the twentieth century who had sat under his teaching, but recent interest has begun to bring his writings back from the grave. One reason to be thankful for this is the centrality of love in the writings of this theologian. For Schlatter, “the longing of love” weds faith and obedience, yet without compromising the reformers’ rightly ardent concern to protect justifying faith from any encroaching human contribution.

But this is more than an academic question. If the Church is to fulfill its commission, Schlatter’s “agapocentric” vision must be resurrected no less than the Lord whose rising rendered such love possible. This was the conviction of Paul, who declared to a mightily gifted church that “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13); of John, who pronounced that “anyone who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8); of James, who made loving one’s neighbor equivalent with fulfilling the whole law (Jas 2:8); of Peter, who exhorted his readers that they “above all, keep loving one another earnestly” (1 Pet 4:8); and of Christ himself, who proclaimed that the greatest commandment was that of love (Mark 12:28–31).259

  1. Recent attempts to redress this dearth include: Stephen F. Dintaman, Creative Grace: Faith and History in the Theology of Adolf Schlatter (New York: Peter Lang, 1993); Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Schlatter Reception Then: His New Testament Theology,” SBJT 3 (1999): 40–51, who also translated Schlatter’s NT theology text (see below); and Werner Neuer, Adolf Schlatter: A Biography of Germany’s Premier Biblical Theologian (trans. Robert W. Yarbrough; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996). Neuer has also produced a more comprehensive biography: Adolf Schlatter: Ein Leben für Theologie und Kirche (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1996). Siegfried S. Schatzmann has translated Schlatter’s Romans: The Righteousness of God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), and Peter Stuhlmacher is frank about his debt to Schlatter: “Adolf Schlatter’s Interpretation of Scripture,” NTS 24 (1978): 433–46; Historical Criticism and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); Jesus of Nazareth—Christ of Faith (trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993). Gerhard Maier is an example of a modern New Testament scholar working in the tradition of Schlatter, as evidenced in his Biblical Hermeneutics (trans. Robert W. Yarbrough; Wheaton: Crossway, 1994). Yarbrough himself has done as much as anyone in recent years to promote the relevance of Schlatter for current New Testament studies; aside from translating Neuer’s shorter biography and Maier’s work, a few of his contributions to Schlatter studies include “Adolf Schlatter’s ‘The Significance of Method for Theological Work’: Translation and Commentary,” SBJT 1 (1997): 64–76; “Biblical Authority and the Ethics Gap: The Call to Faith in James and Schlatter,” Presb 22 (1996): 67–75; and “A Milestone in the History of New Testament Research: Review Essay,” JETS 46 (2003): 299–308.
  2. See, e.g., William Baird, History of New Testament Research, Volume Two: From Jonathan Edwards to Rudolf Bultmann (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 374.
  3. Troeltsch in particular seems to be in view in Schlatter’s celebrated piece “Atheistic Methods in Theology” (trans. David R. Bauer in Neuer, Germany’s Premier Biblical Theologian [211–25]). For Schlatter’s interaction with Wrede, see Robert Morgan, The Nature of New Testament Theology: The Contribution of William Wrede and Adolf Schlatter (London: SCM, 1973), and Yarbrough, The Salvation Historical Fallacy? Reassessing the History of New Testament Theology (Leiden: Deo, 2004), 83–117.
  4. See Stuhlmacher, “Schlatter’s Interpretation of Scripture,” 434, 444.
  5. Particularly helpful in this regard is the work of Edgar V. McKnight (Post-Modern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader-Oriented Criticism [Nashville: Abingdon, 1988], 79–87), who examines Stuhlmacher’s realistic hermeneutics, drawing on earlier insights of Schlatter.
  6. W. Ward Gasque, “The Promise of Adolf Schlatter,” Evangelical Review of Theology 4 (1980): 26; Yarbrough, “Adolf Schlatter,” in Bible Interpreters of the 20th Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices (ed. W. A. Elwell and J. D. Weaver; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 68–69; KÃ?¶stenberger, “Schlatter Reception Then,” 48; Neuer, Germany’s Premier Biblical Theologian, 109; Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996), 360–61.
  7. Dintaman, Creative Grace; Yarbrough, “Adolf Schlatter,” in Historical Handbook of Major Bible Interpreters (ed. D. K. McKim; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 522–23.
  8. Gasque, “Promise of Schlatter,” 28–29; Yarbrough, “Schlatter” in Bible Interpreters, 67–68; KÃ?¶stenberger, “Schlatter Reception Then,” 49.
  9. On which see Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
  10. Bible Interpreters, 65.
  11. Schlatter was explicitly aware of this danger. See his The History of the Christ (trans. Andreas J. K�¶stenberger; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 158.
  12. History of the Christ; The Theology of the Apostles (trans. Andreas J. K�¶stenberger; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998). These were originally published in 1923 and 1922, respectively.
  13. History of the Christ, 311; see also 237; Theology of the Apostles, 32.
  14. Der Glaube im Neuen Testament (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1927), 99.
  15. Theology of the Apostles, 287.
  16. Ibid., 148.
  17. Ibid., 64.
  18. Ibid., 66.
  19. Ibid., 332; see also 88ââ?¬â??89.
  20. Ibid., 350; see also 346.
  21. In the generation after Schlatter, Oscar Cullmann in particular picked up on Heilsgeschichte as a controlling hermeneutic, an interpretive framework that can be traced back beyond Schlatter to J. C. K. von Hofmann. See Cullmann’s Christ and Time (trans. Floyd V. Filson; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964) and Salvation in History (trans. Sidney G. Sowers; New York: Harper & Row, 1965).
  22. History of the Christ, 332ââ?¬â??33.
  23. “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (ed. Timothy Lull; 2d ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 395ââ?¬â??96. For an engagement by Schlatter with the alleged dualism of Lutheranism, see his Das christliche Dogma (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1977), 224ââ?¬â??25.
  24. Theology of the Apostles, 295; see also 291; Glaube im Neuen Testament, 395ââ?¬â??97.
  25. History of the Christ, 99ââ?¬â??100; see also 127.
  26. Ibid., 202. Repentance is critical to Schlatter’s understanding of authentic faith—see, e.g., Glaube im Neuen Testament, 331ââ?¬â??69.
  27. Theology of the Apostles, 179, 61.
  28. History of the Christ, 139.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Theology of the Apostles, 68.
  31. History of the Christ, 201ââ?¬â??2.
  32. Ibid., 107; see also 334.
  33. Theology of the Apostles, 57.
  34. Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 79ââ?¬â??80. Cf. also, e.g., Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 536; W. Robert Godfrey, “Faith Formed by Love or Faith Alone?” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2007), 274.
  35. History of the Christ, 89. Murray, conversely, states that sanctification “finds its basis in justification.” He later comments, “Sanctification is not the first step in the application of redemption; it presupposes other steps such as effectual calling, regeneration, justification, and adoption” (Redemption, 104ââ?¬â??5, 177). Schlatter feels no compunction to follow a traditional ordo salutis. See, e.g., Theology of the Apostles, 251.
  36. Theology of the Apostles, 248.
  37. Ibid., 249; see also 229.
  38. Ibid., 279.
  39. History of the Christ, 239; see also 361.
  40. Theology of the Apostles, 312. Union with Christ is a pervasive theme throughout this volume (see also, e.g., 229, 235, 245, 248, 312, 320).
  41. Ibid., 238.
  42. Ibid., 95; see also 100.
  43. Ibid., 147 (emphasis original). See also History of the Christ, 253.
  44. Glaube im Neuen Testament, 367ââ?¬â??69.
  45. Theology of the Apostles, 399ââ?¬â??400.
  46. History of the Christ, 154 (emphasis added).
  47. See Baird’s comments in New Testament Research, 376.
  48. History of the Christ, 202.
  49. On self-love (“die Eigenliebe des Menschen”), see Schlatter’s Erlauterungen zum Neuen Testament: Band 7: Die Briefe an die Galater, Epheser, Kolosser und Philemon (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1963), 23; idem, Erlauterungen zum Neuen Testament: Band 8: Die Briefe an die Thessalonicher, Philipper, Timotheus und Titus (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1964), 92.
  50. Glaube im Neuen Testament, 371.
  51. History of the Christ, 238.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Theology of the Apostles, 62.
  54. Ibid., 237.
  55. Ibid., 261.
  56. Ibid., 281ââ?¬â??82.
  57. Ibid., 282; see also 200, 292.
  58. History of the Christ, 292; see also 294, 360.
  59. Theology of the Apostles, 312.
  60. Ibid., 99ââ?¬â??100.
  61. Ibid., 100. See also History of the Christ, 245.
  62. Schlatter, Rückblick auf meine Lebensarbeit (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1977), 174ââ?¬â??75; Yarbrough, “Ethics Gap,” 72ââ?¬â??75. Cf. Schlatter, Das christliche Dogma, 599ââ?¬â??600.
  63. Creative Grace, 152.
  64. Benjamin Schliesser, Abraham’s Faith in Romans 4: Paul’s Concept of Faith in Light of the History of Reception of Genesis 15:6 (WUNT 2/224; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2007), 15. We remember, however, that it was Luther himself who insisted, in the preface to his Romans commentary, that faith “changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them” (Luther’s Works [ed. Helmut T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960], 35:370).
  65. Yarbrough, “Ethics Gap,” 72.
  66. Das christliche Dogma, 223.
  67. Do We Know Jesus? (trans. A. J. K�¶stenberger and R. W. Yarbrough; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 516. Cf. Stuhlmacher, Gerechtigkeit Gottes bei Paulus (FRLANT 87; G�¶ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966), 97.
  68. Theology of the Apostles, 237. For an extended discussion of God’s love, see Schlatter’s Das christliche Dogma, 195ââ?¬â??198. Augustine, too, as is well known, makes love the key to keeping faith and obedience together (On Faith and Works [trans. G. J. Lombardo; ACW 48; New York: Newman, 1988], 28ââ?¬â??29).
  69. Ibid., 368ââ?¬â??372. Maier concludes that Schlatter did indeed neglect the Holy Spirit (Biblical Hermeneutics, 355). The Spirit is given a more prominent role in the believer’s faith in Der Glaube im Neuen Testament (e.g., 365), but even there the treatment is not adequately integrated.
  70. Theology of the Apostles, 237ââ?¬â??38.
  71. Ibid., 238 (my translation).
  72. Ibid., 28.
  73. Ibid., 64.
  74. Glaube im Neuen Testament, 352ââ?¬â??55, 394ââ?¬â??97.
  75. Theology of the Apostles, 298; cf. 411. See also the strong statements made in Schlatter’s comments on Phil 3:4bââ?¬â??8 (Thessalonicher, Philipper, Timotheus und Titus, 91).
  76. Theology of the Apostles, 320. See also, e.g., the very Lutheran-like statements in his lay-level exposition of Gal 1 (Galater, Epheser, Kolosser und Philemon, 24, 28).
  77. E.g., Victor Paul Furnish, Ethics and Theology in Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968), 184ââ?¬â??85; Don B. Garlington, Faith, Obedience, and Perseverance: Aspects of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (WUNT 79; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1994), 18ââ?¬â??19; Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 122, 138.
  78. Glaube im Neuen Testament, 381.
  79. A point made repeatedly by St. Augustine (e.g., On Faith and Works, e.g., 37, 45ââ?¬â??46).
  80. I am grateful to Dr. Hans Bayer for his helpful interaction on an early draft of this paper.

Dane C. Ortlund

Dane Ortlund is executive vice president for Bible publishing and Bible publisher at Crossway in Wheaton, Illinois, USA.

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