I. A. (Isaak August) Dorner.

Dorner on the future state, being a translation of the section of his System of Christian doctrine comprising the doctrine of the last things, with an introduction and notes online

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Online LibraryI. A. (Isaak August) DornerDorner on the future state, being a translation of the section of his System of Christian doctrine comprising the doctrine of the last things, with an introduction and notes → online text (page 1 of 10)
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Future State

Translation op the Section op his System
of Christian Doctrine




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Author of "Orthodox Theology of To-Day, " "Old
Faiths in New Light," etc.








1917 U

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Printing and Bookbinding Company

201-213 East 12th Street




The course of recent theological discussion
Las called general attention to Dorner's es-
chatology. To many these words designate
some vague and portentous form of German
speculation, which should be kept with all
possible pains from corrupting the sources of
New England theology. Men like the fervent
Tholuek, the profound Mliller, and the learned
Dorner, may be good enough Christians for
Germany, but not for New England ! Dor-
ner's last great work, the ripe fruit of a ripe
rnind, may be profitable for the " state church "
of Prussia, but it should hardly be tolerated
in the free churches of America! Such sus-
picions and fears of good men among us, how-


ever, may be in part accounted for and par-
doned in view of the fact that their knowledge
of the master- work of this master-mind among
theologians has been mainly derived from such
fragmentary and imperfect statements, and
even misrepresentations, of Dr. Dorner's theo-
logy as have found their way into the religious
papers, and upon the platform, in this country.
It seems to me to be a timely work, there-
fore, as it is a grateful task, to bring one por-
tion, at least, of Dorner's " System of the Doc-
trine of Christian Faith " — that portion now
particularly under discussion — before many
American readers, who otherwise would still
be dependent only upon the crude and second-
hand reports of his eschatology which I find in
general circulation among us. His whole sys-
tem of theology has been translated in Clark's
Foreign Theological Library; but the four
volumes of this translation may be beyond
the inclination or the reach of many who
might be glad to study for themselves his
views upon the special subjects around which
of late the tides of theological discussion have
been rising. If the possession of this portion


of Dorner's theology shall lead any to make
themselves acquainted, even at some cost, with
his whole system of faith, I shall have accom-
plished a double purpose, and I believe a
double good, by this endeavor to put into
their hands this concluding chapter of his
great work.

I should be doing Dr. Dorner, however, an
injustice should I publish as a tract for the
times his chapter upon eschatology, without
seeking through an introduction to put it in its
own proper perspective, and to indicate the
general principles of Dorner's reasoning
through which we should approach this portion
of his system. This seems all the more neces-
sary since American readers are perhaps too
much inclined to go up to the master-works of
German scholarship as some tourists enter a
foreign gallery, note-book in hand, armed with
certain stock questions, and then hurry away,
imagining that they understand a great statue
or painting. Dorner's reasonings are living
outgrowths from his principles of faith, and
his conclusions need to be apprehended and
discussed not merely as so many logical quan-


tities of thought, but they should be understood
and estimated in the light of the principles in
which they have grown to be what they are.
No one can read with sympathetic thorough-
ness many pages of Dorner without becoming
aware of the force and subtlety of his reason-
ing ; but he will also perceive that he is not
led by mere logic, or gradually pressed into
some predetermined conclusion by an adept in
theological dialectics. Dorner knows nothing
of the method by which conclusions are first
deftly interwoven into definitions, and then
logically deduced from those definitions. His
pages are free from the intrigues of verbal
logic, as well as from the assumptions of axio-
matic science; his supreme object throughout
seems to be to perceive the truth in all sys-
tems, and to present, in the consistency of the
highest ethical principles, what he finds to be
the real contents of Christian faith. His
writings illustrate a remark of Newman in
his essay on Development, that logic is neces-
sary for the statement and communication of
truth, but that other qualities also are neces-
sary for the discovery of truth. It is this calm,


truth-loving, and truth-seeing spirit of Dorner
that renders his thinking not only at times
wonderfully suggestive and stimulating, but
also an invaluable help and guide for students
who would think their way through the heart
of the most difficult problems of theology. A
humble, truth-loving spirit, combined with af-
fluent and comprehensive theological learning,
and a simple, reverent faith — the genuine child
of Luther's reformation — together with rare
gifts of philosophic insight and power to dis-
cern the inner relations and real development
of theological beliefs, have rendered Dorner,
these many years, pre-eminent among the evan-
gelical teachers of Germany.

A recent critic of .Dorner, in a theological
review published in this country, asserts that
Dorner s system has no centre. It is con-
ceivable that his system might possibly make
that impression upon one approaching it from
the outside, with no sympathy for, and conse-
quent power to understand, its inner spirit ;
for it is indeed true that Dorner recognizes in
Protestantism two cardinal principles, and
would prove faithful to both in all his dog-


matic construction, viz., the formal and the
material principles, Scripture and faith. His
theology revolves, a well-rounded sphere, upon
these two poles — Scripture and faith. But it
has one centre — Christ. It has one supreme
law — Christianity. God in Christ, absolute
Christianity, the self-revelation of God in
Christ, — these words mark what Dorner ever
recognizes as the real contents both of Scrip-
ture and faith, and consequently as the centre
and summation of all theology. I know of no
passage in modern theological literature so
thoroughly satisfactory and so helpful as is
the exposition which Dorner has given in his
" History of Protestant Theology," of the rela-
tive independence and the real unity of these
two cardinal principles of the Reformation —
the Scripture and faith. The same thorough
conception of the sources of Christian theology
pervades his " System of Christian Doctrine."
Both faith and the Scripture, he insists, " have
the same origin in the Holy Spirit, which pro-
ceeds from Christ, — how can they disturb or
be hostile to one another ? " 1 Faith and the

'His., p. 243.


Scripture are respectively the Christian sub-
jective and objective principle of knowledge,
while the real principle of Christianity is God
in Christ and the Holy Ghost. 1 Dorner's con-
ception of faith, like Luther's, is one of intense
Christian realism. Its object is not the word
of God, but the Christian revelation, or God
in Christ. It is not exact, and may be mis-
leading, to say that Dorner makes the historical
Christ, still less Christ as attested by miracles,
the object of faith, and to contrast this with
some vague conception of faith as the recep-
tion of a so-called " essential Christ." No one
has more clearly recognized than Dorner the
preparatory imperfection of a merely historic
faith, or more clearly indicated the way from the
Jesus of the Gospels to faith in the self-reve-
lation of God — faith in absolute Christianity.
What Dorner does say in his very first proposi-
tion in his doctrine of faith, is this : " Faith
through which Christian experience is gained,
and which must precede scientific knowledge
and demonstration, has indeed in all its forms
an unmistakable resemblance, for it will be in

1 Glaubenslehre, I. , s. 155 f . and note.


some way an appropriation of what Christian-
ity objectively is." 1 Faith, that is, he regards
as union with objective Christianity. Faith is
the appropriation of the real contents of Chris-
tianity. There may be both " an historical and
an ideal-divine side to Christianity," and differ-
ent subjective positions may be assumed to
these different aspects of it ; but he will lay
the chief weight "neither upon the historical
nor the ideal side," but "both factors," he holds,
"may be conceived and appropriated as stand-
ing in inner unity, and interpenetration." 2

In accordance with this fundamental con-
ception of faith as a real appropriation of
Christianity, he proceeds to its scientific inves-
tigation and development, — his own language
may best show how : " The Christian doctrine
of faith has to proceed, indeed, not absolutely
productively, but rather reproductively ; yet
not on that account merely empirically and by
reflection, but also constructively and pro-
gressively. The Christian illuminated spirit,
through faith and its experience united with
the objective Christianity, upon which faith

1 Glaubenslehre, I., s. 16. 2 Ibid., I., s. 64.


knows that it is founded, and which is con-
firmed by the sacred Scripture and the bibli-
cal faith of the Church, has to bring its relig-
ious knowledge to systematic settlement and
unfolding." * His method or principle of pro*,
ceclure is further indicated in the following
passage : " For exegetical theology the imme-
diate subject is the sacred Scripture; for his-
torical theology, the history of the Church ;
but for the dogmatic and propositional (the-
tische), the subject is faith with its contents
appropriated from the sacred Scripture, by
which it has continually to show itself to be
Christian. The supreme fact in this contents
of faith is the Christian idea of God. From
it, as the highest unity and truth, are all state-
ments of faith, and all Christian truths, imme-
diately or mediately to be derived." 2 Through-
out Dorner's development of the Christian
idea of God appears one of the most distinc-
tive and pervasive elements of his thinking — its
predominant ethical spirit. His system might
almost be said to have its being in pure Chris-
tian ethics. One rnicrht illustrate this charac-

1 Glaubenslelire, I., s. 155. "Ibid., s. 157.


teristic by quotations taken almost at random
from his discussion of the moral nature of
God, the Trinity, or the divine attributes.
Righteousness is essentially grounded in God's
being as love. " All in God is for love."
" Knowledge even is perfect in God first
through love." God, that is, possesses his
own omniscience for the sake of his absolute
love, and his knowledge is perfect as the pure
wisdom of love. " God has absolutely his un
changeableness through and in his ethical na
ture, from which he cannot and will not fall.'
Dorner's discussion of the divine unchangeable
ness, in the light of supreme Christian ethics,
is one of the most original and fruitful contri
butions to modern theology. Conceiving of it
thus, as ethical unchangeableness, he harmo-
nizes it with the living relations into which God
enters in history, and can even admit that con-
sequently the atonement does not merely effect
a change of the relations of the world toward
God, but also that "the world, since Christ
really belonged to it, has a different worth for
God, which before Christ it did not have — the
actuality of the reconciliation of the world


through Christ has for God a worth, which
before Christ for God himself did not really
exist." 1 This vital ethical element in Dorner's
thought is the strength and health in which
Christian theology now needs above all to be
revived. In reading Dorner we realize that
Christian thought, as well as life, has primar-
ily to do, not with abstractions of attributes,
or extra-divine necessities of government, but
with the living God — with principles of order
and with laws of administration only as these
are the manifestations and outgoings of Him
who is the supreme moral good — whose gov-
ernment is his ethical, personal conduct of his

Since in Christianity there is realized a su-
preme ethical idea of God, which faith may
apprehend, for which indeed faith is the spiri-
tual eye, it follows — so Dorner would assume
— that we must determine what is Scripture,
and interpret God's Word, and also construct
Christian theology, in harmony with, and under
the supreme influence of, this real, absolute
Christianity, or God manifest in Christ. Chris-

1 Glaubenslehre, I. , s. 445.


tianity can be read scientifically only in its own
pure light. Any one who has once grasped this
controlling principle of Dorner's theology, any
one whose own theological thought has been
uplifted into this pure ethical element in which
Dorner's reasonings live and have their being,
will need no explanation of Dorner's dogmatic
hesitancy when he finds himself unable to re-
concile facts of history, or texts of Scripture,
with that which faith has already learned to
deem Christlike and most worthy of God.
Dorner would teach as a Christian dogma that
only which can be made an integral part of
faith ; for it is the object of theology to develop
and show in their harmony the real contents of
faith. It is not enough for a Christian doc-
trine that it be apparently contained in the
Scripture; it needs also to be recognized as
Christian by faith, as sooner or later all the
contents of revelation will become also part of
the life of faith, for both are of God. Faith
wrought in the soul by the Holy Ghost is
"the eye for that which is Christian in the
Scripture." Both are works of the Spirit,
having the same essential contents ; and the


object of Christian theology is to bring out
into the Christian recognition of Christian ex-
perience that which is given for faith in the
Scripture. Only in part may this idea of
Christian theology be realized under our jDres-
ent limitations of ignorance and sin ; yet only
as theology succeeds approximately, at least,
in this, is it worthy the name of Christian
theology — is it a Christian solution of the
problems of life and destiny. Where theology
must .fall evidently short of this, dogmatism is
certainly not yet a work of faith, and it may
be a hazardous interpretation of Scripture.

Dorner's discussion of eschatology is in gen-
eral consistency with the principles already
described ; it is closely connected with the
view of the absolute nature of Christianity,
and the universal importance of Christ, which
in his discussion of the doctrine of sin and the
atonement he has maintained with great force.
In his endeavor to reconcile the fact of origi-
nal sin with the claims of jmre justice we
meet with the thought that eveiy man's final
worth and fate will be determined not on the
plane of the law upon which the individual


with the inheritance of human sinfulness is
compelled to start, but upon the higher plane
of grace to which Christ's work has lifted up
the race, and upon which any human being,
notwithstanding; his inheritance of man's sin-
fulness, may come to a free personal decision
for good or evil ; and consequently no man will
be finally judged until he shall have definitely
rejected the manifestation of God's love in the
offer of Christ, or, in other words, shall have
committed the sin against the Holy Ghost,
whom Christ has sent — the sin against the
Spirit of the Christian revelation. This is
only saying, in other words, that the last judg-
ment shall be for all a Christian judgment.

In this profound and comprehensive discus-
sion of the doctrine of sin Dorner does not ques-
tion or overlook its ill desert, as he recognizes
also an ethical necessity in God for the punish-
ment of sin apart from grace. The view which
Dorner maintains of the nature of the divine
righteousness, particularly in its juridical as-
pects, 1 as well as his frequent discriminating
assertions of the guilt and punishment due sin

1 Glaubenslehre, I., s. 24.


under the law, should have been sufficient to
prevent any critic, who has read these por-
tions of his work, from charging him with con-
fusing law and grace. On the contrary, he
has carefully distinguished between these dif-
ferent stages of man's history, and the different
degrees of sin corresponding to each of them.
If the question be asked, whether character
may not become permanent under the opera-
tion of natural laws of habit, and upon the
plane of the law, a student of Darner would
answer: Free, moral personality (for which
God created man) can be fully developed out
of the generic state, or race-connection, and
can be finally self-determined in good or evil
only through the actual choice or rejection of
the supreme ethical good. Until free self-
determination is reached in view of the final
good ; until in the approach of that supreme
good the definitive crisis comes to the individ-
ual, human character may indeed be sinful and
worthy of punishment, but it cannot have
reached its final form and permanence. Its
guilt, before that last sin of unbelief, is not ir-
redeemable, nor is its punishment final doom.


Everything up to that absolute personal deter-
mination, is still provisional and preparatory ;
the generic and the individual sin and guilt
are not yet thoroughly separated, and the in-
dividual person, is, therefore, not yet fully
ripe for judgment. So, also, the atonement of
Christ may avail vicariously for the individual
in whom the sin of the world, which is his by
nature, has not yet become his personal sin
against the Holy Ghost through his rejection
of the good in its absolute revelation. 1 On
the other hand, any one who borrows from
Julius Miiller his principle of the develop-
ment of the depraved will under natural law,
and the tendency of sin toward final permanence
of habit, should, also, in all ethical thorough-
ness, adopt Muller's general premise, and hold
to a prior, free, self-determination in some pre-
existent state. Either that, or Dorner's view
of final, free, personal decision, under the reve-
lation of the supreme good, is the only logical,
thoroughly ethical, alternative. They may
follow " scientific methods " in theology, but
they build on a slippery slope, half-way be-

1 Glaubenslelire, II. , s. 627 ff.


tween freedom and fate, who fail to ground
their systems of "clear ideas" upon one or
the other of these postulates of the two great-
est of modern theologians. It is hazardous
to borrow spasmodically, here a little and
there a little, from German thinkers. Their
theologies are apt to be ethical, as well as
logical, wholes.

This entire discussion of the nature, devel-
opment, and definitive judgment, of a moral
personality, should proceed under what Dor-
ner would call the regulative Christian idea
of God. It is true that man's sin is wor-
thy of punishment; and nature may offer room
enough for man to ruin himself forever, but it
may not be large enough for God to work out
upon its plane, and for all men, his whole work
of love. The ultimate question is not, what
may a man under the law justly claim as a legal
right, but what God, as he has revealed himself
in Christ, may be satisfied in doing for all men.
Dorner would hold that God can be self-satis-
fied in no instance with anything less than a
judgment upon the plane of grace — a Christian
judgment. What we should seek to learn and


to think is always, what is most worthy of
God — which is identical with the question what
is most Christian. We cannot know God, as
we may, in his relations to any of his creatures,
if we are content to study his thoughts and
ways simply upon some preparatory or pro-
visional stage of his conduct of human history ;
but we must read all God's thoughts, and to-
ward all men, in the light of the last perfect
revelation of God, that is, in view of absolute
Christianity. This is coincident, therefore,
with the question what does absolute Christian
ethics — the ethics of the regenerated Christian
consciousness — the ethics of faith, measuring
itself by the objective Scriptures, — lead us to
think or to believe upon these dark problems
of sin and destiny % After recognizing the fact
of sinfulness as our inheritance, Dorner re-
marks : " But here new problems open, and it
is for us so to state the doctrine of the gen-
eral inborn evil tendency, or the general need
of redemption, that neither personal moral
freedom, and the truth of the conception of
guilt, nor the ethical idea of God shall suffer


In working out this problem he reaches one
conclusion which will not seem foreign to
New England thought: "The definitive worth
and the final destiny of the individual are
bound to his personal decision." 1 But what is
necessary to this decision, that is, necessary
not merely for man to come to a self-determi-
nation, but for God as declared in Christ to be
willing to leave him alone in his determina-
tion \ What on pure ethical grounds is ne-
cessary for the final worth and judgment of
man ? In view of the Gospel Dorner does not
hesitate to answer as follows : " From the ob-
jective side this, — that the good should be
placed before the eyes in its full clearness and
truth, not simply as the voice of conscience or
as an ordinance, but in its brightest and most
attractive form, as the personal love, in order
that the decision for or against it may receive
decisive importance. Subjectively, besides the
knowledge of this good, there must be full
freedom of decision from out one's own proper
personality." 2 Further, he affirms that " this
subjective and objective possibility of free

1 Glaubenslehre, II., s., 159. 2 rbid., 174.


decision is now given from God through
Christianity as the absolute religion." If any
sin before Christ, he maintains, could be de-
cisive unbelief, then the word would no more
be true that Christ has power to overcome all
sin before him ; " the sin previous to Christ
would in some be beforehand stronger than
grace." " So, then, from the true standpoint,
that is, from Christianity, is it to be said : So
long as the Gospel, which must come to all be-
fore the judgment, 1 has not come inwardly near
man, consequently has not yet been rejected, he
may deserve punishment, and remain without
Christ in increasing unhappiness; but neither
has there been given to him the definitive con-
demnation, nor its opposite, but he is still as it
were in a provisional condition. — In comparison
with the sin which has known Christ and re-
jected him, is all previous sin preparatory; how-
ever condemnable in itself and punishable, yet
it is only a stage (moment) in the process which
has for its goal to make ripe for the judgment.
. . . From this position of Christ, as he
who brings the crisis (decisive test), and only

1 Matt. xxiv. 14.


against whom the highest guilt can be incurred,
it does not, however, follow that sin before
Christ was not in the proper sense sin ; was
not laden with guilt and punishable, although
in different degrees and measure, and therefore
was not in need of atonement. But from this,
ripeness for eternal salvation or perdition
cannot proceed. The definitive worth, or un-
worthiness, of the person cannot come forth, so
long as it still stands in an undecided process,
and the crisis lies before it." 1 I will quote but
one more sentence from this part of Dorner's
work : "As little as the sinful creature can have
a right to God's grace and to liberation from
punishment, so, on the other hand, the adminis-
tration of grace and of punishment is not ar-
bitrary ; rather it is bound to ethical laws, and
since undoubtedly the sin is more grievous,
more worthy of condemnation, which rejects
with contempt and scorn even the highest
manifestation of love, the forgiving, yes, even
the atoning love, so is it also in accordance
with righteousness that the judgment should

1 Glaubenslehre, I., s. 177.

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Online LibraryI. A. (Isaak August) DornerDorner on the future state, being a translation of the section of his System of Christian doctrine comprising the doctrine of the last things, with an introduction and notes → online text (page 1 of 10)