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Johann Adam Mohler

Theologian, b. at Igersheim (Wurtemberg), April 6, 1796; d. at Munich, April 12, 1838

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Mohler, JOHANN ADAM, theologian, b. at Igersheim (Wurtemberg), April 6, 1796; d. at Munich, April 12, 1838. The gifted youth first studied in the gymnasium at Mergentheim, and then attended the lyceum at Ellwangen, where he applied himself primarily to philosophical studies. In 1815 he turned to the study of theology, and, after leaving the theological college at Ellwangen, went to Tubingen to continue his studies in the university there under the learned professors Drey and Hirscher. In 1818 he entered the seminary at Rottenburg on the Neckar, was ordained priest on September 18, 1819, and was sent as curate in charge to Weilderstadt and then to Riedlingen. In 1821 he became Repetent (tutor) in the Wilhelmstift at Tubingen, and for more than a year devoted himself almost exclusively to classical literature, particularly to earlier Greek history and philosophy. In this way he acquired the keenness and clearness of judgment, delicacy of diction, skill in exposition, and fine sense of the aesthetic which distinguish all his writings and discourses. Soon, the theological faculty at Tubingen offered him a place as tutor (Privatdozent) in church history, to prepare for which he visited the leading German and Austrian universities, meeting there the best-known Catholic and Protestant theologians and pedagogues Niemeyer, Gesenius, Planck, Schleiermacher, Marheineke, and in particular Neander, who made a powerful impression on the young man.

Thus equipped, he began his lectures, and soon published his first book under the title “Die Einheit in der Kirche oder das Prinzip des Katholizismus, dargestellt im Geiste der Kirchenvater der drei ersten Jahrhunderte” (Tubingen, 1825). It was hailed with enthusiasm, and gave brilliant evidence of the profound knowledge and the remarkable penetration of the young scholar. He was indeed a child of his time, and betrayed certain Febronian views and some sympathy with the pseudoreformism of the day, which the Hermesians later cast up to him, and which he often regretted. His book, nevertheless, was not merely a highly intellectual, but also a highly moral act, and that for many readers, like Chateaubriand’s “Genie du christianisme”. Through the whole work there breathes, as it were, a new spirit, “which seems to herald a rejuvenescence of the Church and of theological science”. There is here no shallowness or special pleading: one hears the accents of fresh, living, full Christianity, such as the author’s profound study of the church Fathers had revealed to him. For him the church unity is twofold in character: a unity of spirit and a unity of body. The former is, first, the mystical unity in the Holy Spirit, which binds all the faithful in one communion; then the mental unity of doctrine, i.e., the comprehensive expression of the Christian mind in opposition to the manifold forms of heresy, and finally unity in multiplicity, i.e., the preservation of individuality within the unity of all the faithful. The unity of the body of the Church reveals itself first in the bishop, in whom is visible the unity of the diocese; to this correspond the wider circles of the metropolitan system and the council of the entire episcopate, and finally the Roman primacy, whose gradual development Mohler illustrates from the history of Christian antiquity and of the Middle Ages. Immediately after the appearance of his book Mohler was offered a place in the University of Freiburg; he refused it, and as a result was appointed extraordinary professor at Tubingen in 1826. After he had, two years later, declined another offer from Breslau, he became at Tubingen ordinary professor in the theological faculty, which conferred on him the Doctorate of Theology. Not long before, he had published his second work: “Athanasius der Grosse and die Kirche seiner Zeit im Kainpfe mit dem Arianismus” (Mainz, 1827). It is a pleasing and lively portrait of the great Bishop of Alexandria, the champion of orthodoxy amid the great ecclesiastical conflicts of the fourth century. He portrays him as the hero of his time, with a character that contrasts favorably with the gloomy attitude of Arius and the vacillating weakness of Eusebius of Caesarea. About the same time (Tubingen theologische Quartalschrift, 1827-8) he depicted in a similar masterly way one of the great figures of the Middle Ages, St. Anselm of Canterbury, as monk, scholar, and defender of ecclesiastical liberty.

His study of ecclesiastical life in early and medieval times led naturally to an examination of the distinctive differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. The results of his investigation he published in “Betrachtungen fiber den Zustand der Kirche im funfzehnten and zu Anfang des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts” (Gesammelte Schrif ten, II, 1-34). He concludes that the Reformation, really necessary in the sixteenth century, did not take place in the right way, but took on rather the character of an entirely revolutionary movement, by which the tranquil development of the medieval Church, with all its good elements, was disturbed and an end put to ecclesiastical unity. In connection with these investigations he began as he had seen done in the North German universities and as his Protestant colleague at Tubingen, Professor Baur, had done lectures on the antithesis between Protestantism and Catholicism, or, as is usually said, on symbolism. By this term are meant, in this connection, the distinctive notes of a given ecclesiastical communion, also certain set formulae, legally consecrated, and in a general way expressive of Christian faith or of certain fundamental dogmatic ideas; or again, especially since the Reformation (or rather since the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries), the confessions of faith that constitute the form or rule of belief for the faithful of any religious denomination. In this way symbolism, being the science of creeds, is a theological science that compares one religious system with another on the basis of their creeds, and thus demonstrates the truth or falsity of a particular creed. While symbolism or, as it is now usually called, comparative symbolism has not long been recognized as a special theological science, there are traces of it even in earliest Christian times. The Reformation created the conditions amid which it grew to maturity; and its first representative was probably the Protestant professor, Leonhard Rechtenbach, in his “Encyclopaedia symbolica” (Leipzig, 1612). It is true that, in his opinion, the office of symbolism was merely to make one acquainted with one’s own symbolic books, without paying any attention to those of another denomination. The founder of scientific symbolism in its modern sense was the Gottingen professor Planck in his “Abriss einer historischen and vergleichenden Darstellung der dogmatischen Systeme unserer verschiedenen christlichen Hauptpartheien” (Gottingen, 1796), the first effort at a real comprehension of all Christian creeds in their distinctive characteristics. Marheineke went farther in his “Christliche Symbolik oder historisch-kritische and dogmatische komparative Darstellung des katholischen, lutherischen, reformierten, and socinianischen Lehrbegriffes” (Heidelberg, 1810-13). Planck and Marheineke have found imitators, though of less importance, who continue down to the most recent times to treat this from the Protestant standpoint.

For Catholics such studies had naturally had less attraction. When a student at Tubingen, Mohler had heard lectures on symbolism, and had later met many Protestant theologians. He was the first Catholic writer to develop this idea, and became the founder of this science among Catholics through his classical work, “Symbolik oder Darstellung der dogmatischen Gegensatze der Katholiken and Protestanten nach ihren offentlichen Bekenntnisschriften” (Mainz, 1832; 13th ed., 1904). He demonstrated that there could be no incompatibility between what was truly rational and what was truly Christian, both finding their sole, direct, and entirely adequate expression in Catholic dogma. He showed also how Catholic doctrine held the middle course between the extremes of Protestantism, e.g., between a supernaturalism and pietism that denied the rights of reason, and a naturalism and rationalism that rejected absolutely the supernatural. With great clearness he exhibited the contradiction between Catholic and Protestant principles; for instance, in the doctrine of Christian anthropology. On this basis he proved that other differences of doctrine regarding the Fall of Man, the Redemption, the sacraments, and even the Church, were only logical consequences of the anthropological views of the leaders of the Reformation. Contradictory as it may seem, it was Mohler’s irenic nature that impelled him to publish this work. He was persuaded that a knowledge of the real character of the great religious conflict, based on the genuine and original documents, was a necessary preliminary to any definite appeal to the tribunal of truth. Such investigations seemed to him important, not only for theologians, but also for every true scholar, the truth being nowhere so important as in matters of faith. The work was enthusiastically received, and went through five editions in six years. An English translation by James Burton Robertson appeared in London in 1843 under the title “Symbolism; or Exposition of Doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants, as evidenced by their Symbolical Writings” (reprint, London and New York, 1894), and the work was also translated into French and Italian. “What many had thought and felt, but could not clearly understand, much less adequately express, was brought out by Mohler with marvellous insight and in the clearest way” (Kihn). His German diction was also perfect.

The “Symbolik” acted like an electric spark, and stirred up many both in and out of the Church. Naturally, Protestant theologians took up the gauntlet. Marheineke replied with moderation in his work, “Ubber Dr. J. A. Mohlers Symbolik” (Berlin, 1833), and Nitzsch in his “Eine protestantische Beantwortung der Symbolik Dr. Mohlers” (Hamburg, 1835). On the other hand his Tubingen colleague, Professor Baur, abused Mohler in a prolix rejoinder, “Der Gegensatz des Katholicismus and Protestantismus, nach den Principien and Hauptdogmen der beiden Lehrbegriffe. Mit besonderer Ri cksicht auf Dr. Mohlers Symbolik” (Tubingen, 1834). Mohler replied with “Neue Untersuchungen der Lehrgegensatze zwischen den Katholiken and Protestanten. Eine Verteidigung meiner Symbolik gegen die Kritik des Herrn Prof. D. Baur” (Tubingen, 1834; 5th ed., with introduction and notes by Schanz, Ratisbon, 1900), to which Baur again replied in the same year. In his reply Mohler was able to state with greater clearness certain points of difference, and to deal more profoundly with certain doubts and criticisms. These additions were edited anew by Raich in “Erganzungen zu Mohlers Symbolik aus dessen Schrift: Neue Unterschungen” (Mainz, 1889; latest ed., 1906). This controversy with Baur made Tubingen disagreeable to Mohler, and he decided to seek some other academic center. The Prussian Government sought to attract the celebrated theologian to the Catholic theological faculty at one of its universities. Negotiations were begun and Mohler was not unwilling to go to Bonn. But Professor Hermes, who had Archbishop Spiegel on his side, prevented the execution of this design. Dellinger, his intimate friend, was meanwhile active m his behalf at Munich, and through his influence Mohler was appointed to the Catholic theological faculty at that university to lecture on the exegesis of the New Testament.

He began at Munich with lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, but in the next term he added lectures on Church history and patrology. His intercourse with professors of like mind raised his spirits, and his health, which had failed at Tubingen, improved. He devoted himself with fervor to the preparation of a history of monasticism, with the intention of setting forth the immeasurable influence of the Benedictine Order on Western civilization. While he cherished a warm attachment for the sons of St. Benedict, he was of opinion that the suspension of the Society of Jesus was not, historically speaking, to be regretted. His plan, however, was never realized. After a mild attack of cholera in 1836, he was stricken with a pulmonary ailment which compelled him to cease lecturing and seek health or alleviation at Meran in the Tyrol. After the condemnation of Hermesianism by Gregory XVI, the Prussian Government sought again to secure Mohler for Bonn, hoping perhaps that this would help to allay the controversies that had arisen at Cologne. His love of peace, however, and his delicate health caused him to refuse. Early in 1838 the King of Bavaria bestowed on him the Order of St. Michael, and on March 22 made him dean of the cathedral of Würzburg. Mohler never took up this office, however, for he died a few weeks later in the prime of life, not yet forty-two years of age, deeply lamented by king and people, regretted by his friends and by all who knew him. A monument, subscribed for by almost all Catholic Germany, adorns his grave in the cemetery at Munich, with the inscription: “Defensor fidei, literarum decus, ecclesiae solamen” (Defender of the faith, ornament of letters, consolation of the Church). The clergy of Wurtemberg erected another monument to his memory at his birthplace, at the dedication of which in 1880 his disciple and successor in Tubingen, Bishop Hefele of Rottenburg, paid a noble tribute to his fame.

Mohler, as Kihn has well shown, had an uncommonly attractive personality. He was an ideal priest, almost perfect in stature and comeliness, deeply pious and of childlike modesty, with a heart full of affection and gentleness, penetrated with the desire for peace in personal intercourse and for the restoration of harmony between the different creeds. He exercised a peculiar fascination over all who approached him, and men of every belief and party confidently turned to him on all manner of questions. He charmed his hearers by his dignified bearing, his kindly, intelligent eye, his classic diction, and his ripe knowledge. It may be said that he gave new life to the science of theology; also, and this is greater praise, that he reawakened the religious spirit of the age. He was, in the judgment of a Protestant (Realencyklopadie fur prot. Theol., 2nd ed., IX, 662 sqq.), an epoch-making mind and a brilliant light of the Catholic Church; while, according to the same writer, the Evangelical Church, to which he owed much, had to thank him for fresh stimulus and for what it learned from his fine, keen exposition of ecclesiastical development. After his death Dellinger edited most of his minor writings in “Gesammelte Schriften and Aufsatze” (2 vols., Ratisbon, 1839-40). They are numerous, the most noteworthy being “Beleuchtung der Denkschrift fur die Aufhebung des den katholischen Geistlichen vorgeschriebenen Celibates”, in which he refutes with great earnestness the opponents of priestly celibacy, and proves the sublimity of the virginal life from the idea of the Christian priesthood, from reason, and from the New Testament. Other important studies are: “Hieronymus and Augustin im Streit fiber Gala-ter 2, 14” (I, 1 sqq.); “Ueber den Brief an Diognetus” (I, 19 sqq.), “Fragmente aus and fiber Pseudoisidor” (I, 283 sqq.), ripe fruits of his studies of the Fathers and Church history. He was always greatly devoted to such studies, and in his lectures often drew attention to the literary treasures of Christian antiquity. To him they stood as the unbroken series of witnesses to the doctrine, worship, and constitution of the Church the successive evidences of her many victories, as he puts it in the introduction to his “Patrologie oder christlichen Literargeschichte”, the first volume of which, dealing with the first three centuries, was edited by Rei thmayr with additions of his own (Ratisbon, 1840). Less important is the “Kommentar uber den Romerbrief” (Ratisbon, 1845), also edited by Reithmayr after Mohler’s death; it is difficult to say how much of it is Mohler’s own work. The same may be said of the “Kirchengeschichte von J. A. Mohler” (3 vols., Ratisbon, 1867-8; index vol., 1870), laboriously compiled from class notes by the Benedictine Pius Gams, and later translated into French.


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