Nathan Söderblom

The Swedish churchman Nathan Söderblom (1866-1931) was an important leader in the ecumenical movement for the unification of Christian Churches. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930 for his efforts in the area of international understanding.

Theologically and intellectually the life of Nathan Söderblom was characterized by tensions. His father was a fervent Pietist minister of Swedish yeoman stock, and his mother came from a liberal Danish background. Nathan Söderblom was born Lars Jonathan Söderblom on Jan. 15, 1866, in Trönö (Hälsingland). As a young man, he pursued theological studies at the University of Uppsala. During the period he was minister of the busy Swedish church at Paris (1894-1901), Söderblom earned his theological doctorate at the Sorbonne (1901). Returning to Sweden, he became professor of the history of religion at Uppsala, and from 1914 to 1931 he served as vice chancellor of the university. After becoming archbishop, Söderblom never lost sight of the many Swedes who had emigrated to the United States. When he visited the United States in 1923, this concern and his ecumenical mission caused some friction. Such crises of modernity notwithstanding, Söderblom's scholarly and intellectual achievements were considerable. His quest for the uniqueness of Christianity was grounded on theological competence within the Christian tradition as well as on an application of the canons of historical criticism to the study of both Christian and non-Christian religions.

Söderblom had first established himself as a promising scholar in the history of religion through the publication of his dissertation, La vie future d'après le Mazdaisme. Many other books followed. In 1914 he published Origins of Belief in God, in which he summarized the involved and heated debate on this subject. As an alternate route to evolution, he outlined an inquiry into the psychological prerequisites of religion. His clear distinction between high gods and m onotheism and his rejection of protomonotheism have become part of scholarly tradition. In his emphasis on the holy as the basic constituent of religion, he anticipated Rudolf Otto. On the theological side, Söderblom viewed the uniqueness of Christianity in its character as a religion of historic revelation, against the mysticisms of infinity, pantheisms, and deisms. According to Söderblom, the tension between the transcendence and the nearness of God, between His perfections and His presence, and between ethics and religious experience inherent in this dynamic concept found its original unity in the person of Jesus Christ. This ensured the redemptive rather than the arbitrary character of history. Moreover, Söderblom overcame the then prevalent notion that a personal god belonged to an obsolete, earlier, and less ethical stage in religion. He emphasized that the center of Christianity was neither doctrines nor institutions but the person of Jesus Christ.

Söderblom died in Uppsala on July 12, 1931.

Further Reading on Nathan Söderblom

The best biography of Söderblom, which also gives an idea of the scope of his mind, is Bengt Sundkler, Nathan Söderblom: His Life and Work (1968).