David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), the German historian and the most controversial Protestant theologian of his time, was one of the first to make a clear distinction between Jesus the historical figure and Jesus the subject of Christian belief.
David Strauss was a highly intelligent student at the famous Tübinger Stift, the school at which G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Hölderlin, and F. W. J. von Schelling had studied. As a theologian, he employed the dialectical method of Hegel. In 1835-1836 he wrote the book on the subject which was to concern him for the greater part of his life, the Life of Jesus. His main thesis was that the Jesus of biblical writings is not the real Jesus of history but a person transformed by the religious consciousness of Christians. Therefore, he stated that the basis of Christian belief and theology cannot be explained by scientific methods since Christianity is not based upon historical knowledge but upon a myth. Furthermore, it is impossible to analyze the life of Jesus under the aspects of a historical person and save his divine nature.
This book was a challenge to the entire Protestant theology of the time, and Strauss became intensely involved in polemics and discussions. Due to his reputation he was unable to obtain a teaching position at any university. He defended his theological position in many pamphlets, yet began to compromise to satisfy his critics. However, in a new book, Christian Doctrine in Its Historical Development and Its Struggle against Modern Science (1840-1841), he again stressed the scientific point of view in evaluating the Bible, the Church, and dogmas. He was convinced that the positions of Church and science could not be unified.
After 1841 he separated from his wife, withdrew from theology, and began a career as a writer. He concentrated on biographies of poets from southern Germany and history. Among his elegantly written biographies we find essays on A. J. Kerner, Eduard Mörike, J. L. Uhland, C. F. Schubart, and Voltaire. During the French-German war in 1870-1871, he corresponded with the French historian Ernest Renan. These letters were published and publicly discussed.
In 1864 Strauss again tried to cope with the problem of the life of Jesus but in a more moderate way. He accepted many of the arguments of his earlier enemies. But this new Life of Jesus was not challenging and did not attract the same attention as his work of 1836. In 1872 he again attacked the basis of Christian theology. His last book, The Old and New Faith, ordered his thoughts under four questions: Are we still Christians? Have we still religion? How do we conceive the world? How do we arrange our life? He denied that Christianity had any relevance for a modern, educated man. For religious feelings he substituted worship of the universe. The world should be understood in a scientific and materialistic way. Human life should be ordered by a concern for the good of man. This book was rejected almost unanimously by friends and opponents. The most famous attack was led by Friedrich Nietzsche. This reaction was the disappointment of Strauss's last years. He died in Ludwigsburg, the place of his birth, on Feb. 8, 1874.
Further Reading on David Friedrich Strauss
Recommended for the study of the life and thought of Strauss are the relevant chapters in the following works: Sidney Hook, From Hegel to Marx (1936); Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, translated by W. Montgomery (1948); Karl Barth, Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl, translated by B. Cozens (1959); and Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-century Thought, translated by David E. Green (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Cromwell, Richard S., David Friedrich Strauss and his place in modern though, Fair Lawn, N.J., R. E. Burdick 1974.