Anders Nygren

Anders Nygren (1890-1978) was a leading representative of the so-called Lundensian school of theology. He was professor at the University of Lund, Sweden, then bishop of Lund. An important figure in the ecumenical movement, he served as president of the Lutheran World Federation.

Anders Nygren was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, on November 15, 1890, the third son of Samuel Nygren, then principal of the Elementary Teachers College and inspector of elementary schools in that city, and his wife Anna Maria. The parents were devout church people, yet open to the cultural and intellectual movements of the time. It was in his father's library that Anders found the books that introduced him to philosophy and theology; it was under his father's guidance that he became involved in the church and interested in the theological debates of the time.

At his father's death the family moved to Lund, where young Nygren attended first the cathedral school, then the university. It was philosophy of religion and the methodology of theology that primarily engaged his interest. His primary teacher was Gustaf Aulen, a student of Nathan Soderblom of Uppsala. Through these influences Nygren was led to study Kant and Schleiermacher, Troeltsch and Otto.

Upon graduation in 1912 he was ordained and assigned to a succession of churches in the Gothenburg Diocese. Here he continued his studies, writing a doctoral dissertation on the philosophical issues involved in the theoretical definition of the nature of religion. The book was entitled The Religious Apriori.

When Nygren presented his dissertation at the University of Lund in 1921 he was immediately made docent (lecturer) in philosophy of religion. Here he was soon joined by Ragnar Bring, a young philosopher of religion who was also a student of Aulen. Together these two young men developed a program to establish theology—especially the discipline of systematic theology—as an acknowledged and respectable academic enterprise within the modern university.

The following decade Nygren produced several important books, one on the scientific foundations of systematic theology, another on philosophical and Christian ethics. In 1924 he became professor of systematic theology, a post which he held until 1948, when he was made bishop of Lund Diocese. Bring became professor in 1933 as Aulen's successor. Aulen, Nygren, and Bring were the three scholars forming the triumvirate called "the Lundensian school of theology."

Nygren's years at the university were filled with teaching, research, and writing. He wanted to do theology in a respectable scientific manner, and to this end he applied the method he had developed—what he called "motif-research"—in a series of historical-critical investigations of basic Christian concepts. His primary focus was agape—the Christian concept of love. In seeking out the essence of Christianity, Nygren researched the New Testament, the theology of the early fathers, and the entire history of Christian doctrine to find the unique character of agape. He also was interested in the contrasting concept of eros.

These studies resulted in a two-volume work, Agape and Eros, first published in 1930-1936 and later in four other Swedish editions, two English editions, two Japanese editions, and translations into six other languages. The work is ranked as one of the classics of Christian theology and is certainly one of the most noteworthy theological books of the 20th century. He also wrote a major theological commentary to Paul's Letter to the Romans.

Nygren's influence expanded rapidly when he became an early participant in the ecumenical movement. He represented the Church of Sweden at the Faith and Order Conference at Lausanne in 1927 and at Edinburgh ten years later. He was influential in directing the ecumenical movement to the central points of the Christian message; for Nygren, "the way to unity is the way to the center." He continued to make this point within the World Council of Churches (WCC) at Amsterdam (1948) and Lund (1952), where he served as chairman of the European Section of the Theological Commission on Christ and His Church. This commission was charged with working out the Ecumenical implications of baptism in the struggle for Christian unity. The commission had serious difficulties reaching consensus, until Nygren guided the discussions to the christological foundations for baptism. Many of Nygren's emphases can still be found in the convergence document on "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry," which was adopted by Faith and Order in 1982 for study and response by the WCC member churches.

Nygren's period as bishop of Lund (1948-1959) was also a productive time. He travelled widely, spoke on many subjects—from philosophy to theology to ethics and Christian practice—and wrote incessantly. He served as president of the Lutheran World Federation and spoke on behalf of his denomination both internally and in ecumenical conversations. A series of lectures on Christ and His Church was translated and published in England, Germany, America, and Finland. He received honorary degrees from colleges and universities in Hungary, Germany, Scotland, Canada, and the United States.

In his retirement, from 1959 to his death in 1978, Nygren remained in Lund and returned to his first love, philosophical and theological studies. He found that the newer trends in the analytical study of philosophy could be utilized in the preparation of his own magnum opus, Meaning and Method, Prolegomena to a Scientific Philosophy of Religion and a Scientific Theology. The book was published in England and America in 1972 and became recognized as the crowning point of Nygren's theoretical production. The work secured for Nygren a central place in the philosophical and theological debate of his time.

Unfortunately, toward the end of his life Nygren's health failed him. Bedridden and physically dependent, he was still mentally sharp and received a great many visitors who desired to discuss his work. After his death his papers were located in the University Library at Lund.

Anders Nygren was a complex personality, with interests and commitments that spanned scholarship and preaching, the academy and the church, Lutheranism and the ecumenical movement, science and piety, single "motifs" and systematic theology, and philosophical and biblical studies. Nygren was a modern thinker, but he was not a modernist. He was concerned with fundamentals, but he was not a fundamentalist. He was clearly a liberal theologian, but he did not espouse theological liberalism. He was a critical scholar, but he did not subscribe uncritically to philosophical criticism. In some respects he was radical, in others conservative. He had a keen interest in scientific thought, and yet he was committed to the search for the essence of Christian faith.

With all these elements flowing together and being brought into harmony in his own life and thought, it is only "meet and right" that Anders Nygren was honored with the inclusion of his biography in the series "Makers of the Modern Theological Mind."


Further Reading on Anders Nygren

The biography included in the series "Makers of the Modern Theological Mind," Anders Nygren, was written by Thor Hall (1978, 1985). A scholarly survey of Nygren's thought is The Philosophy and Theology of Anders Nygren, edited by Charles W. Kegley (1970). Nygren's major works are summarized in "The Nygren Corpus: Annotations to the Major Works of Anders Nygren of Lund," by Thor Hall, in Journal of the AAR 47:2. The definitive study of the Lundensian school of theology is Thor Hall's A Framework for Faith (1970). Also helpful is Nels F. S. Ferre's Swedish Contributions to Modern Theology (1967). Some more negative reviews of Nygren are those by Van A. Harvey in Religious Studies Review 1:1 and Gustaf Wingren in Theology in Conflict (1958).