Gerhard Von Rad as a Theologian of the Church

Article excerpt

Gerhard von Rad was both a professor and a preacher. He understood and taught the Old Testament as a text to be preached and closely connected with the New Testament to form a theological basis for Christian faith.

Without doubt Gerhard von Rad is one of the most important and most influential OT scholars of the twentieth century. "His lectures in Göttingen and Heidelberg were pilgrimage sites-there was something magical about his spoken and written word that was able to touch many."1 This is how Rudolf Smend describes von Rad's impact on his contemporaries. I would like to expand this picture by adding one element: Gerhard von Rad's remarkable charisma was also based on the fact that he was a man of the church. In the following, I would like to highlight three aspects of what I mean when I refer to von Rad as a "theologian of the church."

First, this title means that von Rad was regularly active as a preacher. He knew exactly to what end he was doing exegesis. In his essay "Gerhard von Rad als Prediger und Predigthelfer,"2 Christian Möller emphasized correctly that von Rad must be understood as a "translator" who moved back and forth between the horizons of the biblical texts and the modern contexts of his listeners. His exegesis allowed the texts to retain their otherness, yet it brought them into the political realities of the present. This was true for his many sermons during the era of the "Third Reich" as well as during the student uprisings in the years following 1968.

"Theologian of the church" also means that Gerhard von Rad was very well aware of the fact that it was his job to prepare future ministers and religious educators. What he was able to learn from his historical-critical analysis of the OT is exactly what he communicated in his teaching, namely, that the text was intended as a sermon that pointed to a life replete with lifelong learning.

A third aspect of "theologian of the church" is defined by the fact that von Rad himself was a committed Christian. Without devaluing the Jewish heritage-he was one of the few who responded to Benno Jacob early on and continually studied the works of Martin Buber -he always understood the OT in close connection with the NT. According to his tradition-historical approach, the OT continually moved beyond itself in ever increasing promises towards fulfillment-a fulfillment that he as a Christian saw in Jesus Christ. He understood the Bible as a whole-the entire canon of the Old and the New Testaments-as an historical and theological continuum.

Thus von Rad achieved a constructive synthesis of scholarship and ecclesial practice. This synthesis was greatly furthered by the remarkable clarity of his language in writing and in speech. For von Rad, clear communication was a major part of good scholarship. His beautiful writing style succeeded in making OT scholarship accessible on a popular level. For approximately two decades, von Rad thus succeeded in making OT studies the leading theological discipline in Germany.


Who was this man? Allow me a brief review of the main stages and primary publications of his life. He was born on October 21,1901, in Nuremberg to upper middle-class parents. He spent his childhood in this city, attending a boarding school in Coburg for the later years of his high school education. From 1921-1925 he studied theology in Erlangen and Tübingen. He then became a vicar in several congregations. He completed his doctoral studies in 1928 in Erlangen under the tutelage of Otto Procksch. His dissertation was a completely textcentered study of the people of God in Deuteronomy, Das Gottesvolk im Deuteronomium (BWANT 47; Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1929). In 1930, he habilitated under Albrecht Alt in Leipzig with a theological study of Chronicles, Das Geschichtsbild des chronistischen Geschkhtswerks (BWANT 54; Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1930). While working as an associate of Alt from 1930 to 1934, he wrote Die Priesterschrift im Hexateuch: Literarisch untersucht und theologisch gewertet (BWANT 65; Stuttgart: W. …