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Möhler, Johann Adam


MÖHLER, JOHANN ADAM (17961838), German Roman Catholic theologian. Möhler was born on May 6 in Igersheim, Germany, near Mergetheim, about fifty miles from Stuttgart. Having determined to become a priest, he entered the seminary at Ellwangen, which seminary was incorporated by the government of Württemberg into the University of Tübingen in 1817. Möhler was ordained in 1819, and after a year in parish work he returned to Tübingen, to continue his studies in classical philology. Because the seminary authorities experienced continuing difficulty finding a suitable instructor in church history, Möhler found himself appointed privatdocent in church history in 1822 and instructed to prepare himself as best he could. He was given leave in 18221823 to travel to various German universities, the high point of his trip being brief contacts with Johann August Wilhelm Neander, Philipp Marheineke, and Friedrich Schleiermacher in Berlin. In the summer of 1823, Möhler began to teach church history, patristics, and canon law at Tübingen. He also contributed articles and reviews to the Tübinger theologische Quartalschrift, founded in 1819 by his principal mentor, Johann Sebastian Drey.

Möhler's first major work appeared in 1825: Einheit in der Kirche, oder Das Prinzip des Katholizismus, dargestellt im Geiste der Kirchenväter der drei ersten Jahrhunderte (Unity in the Church, or the principle of Catholicism, as presented in the spirit of the fathers of the first three centuries). Following the path of Drey's interest in, but by no means full acceptance of, the views of Schleiermacher and Schelling, Möhler in effect locates the Romantic concern for the organic unity of man with man and man with God in the writers of the first Christian centuries. This unity is traceable to the working of the inner spirit of the church, although, like Drey, Möhler retains a clear distinction between the divine and the human. (It should be noted that throughout his theological career Möhler tended to a somewhat Jansenistic view of the anticipatory, or initiating, role of divine grace.) Möhler differed with what later in the century would be standard Roman Catholic teaching in his conception of the church: the outward forms of Christianity are simply produced, as needed, by the spirit, with no assurance that the forms thus produced will always be the same. He wrote, for example, that "the Church is the body belonging to the spirit of the faithful, a spirit that forms itself from inward out." This and similar expressions earned Möhler the mistrust of those German Catholics who lived under Prussian rule, frustrating his attempt to move to one of the Prussian universities. Later some Catholic commentators, such as Edmond Vermeil, saw in Möhler a progenitor of modernism. In 1827 Möhler's Athanasius der Grosse und die Kirche seiner Zeit (Athanasius the Great and the church of his time) appeared, in which he criticizes Schleiermacher's Sabellianism and his tendency to blur the God-man distinction. In the following year Möhler was made professor ordinarius and doctor of theology.

With Marheineke's Institutiones symbolicae as his apparent model, and answering to the renewed German interest in the doctrinal differences arising from the Reformation, Möhler published in 1832 the first of five editions of Symbolik, oder Darstellung der dogmatischen Gegensätze der Katholiken und Protestanten (Symbolics, or presentation of the dogmatic differences of Catholics and Protestants). The title refers not to religious symbols but to the Latin symbolum, that is, creedal statement. His characterization of Protestant churches drew a number of sharp replies from that quarter, the most significant being the work of his university colleague (on the Protestant theological faculty) Ferdinand Christian Baur, Der Gegensatz des Katholicismus und Protestantismus mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Herrn Dr. Möhlers Symbolik. Besides these two works in their various editions, Möhler and Baur each addressed an additional book-length reply to the other, Möhler's Neue Untersuchungen and Baur's Erwiederung auf Möhlers neueste Polemik. It would appear that the controversy upset both the peace of the university and Möhler's health, with the result that Möhler moved to Munich, where he began teaching in the university in 1835 and where he died on April 12, 1838. His lectures on church history, patristics, and Paul's Letter to the Romans were published posthumously.

Möhler's Symbolik is divided into two books. After an introduction, book 1 compares Roman Catholic with Lutheran and Reformed teaching in the areas of original sin, justification, the sacraments and the church, and eschatology. Book 2 takes up "the smaller Protestant sects," namely, those of the radical Reformers, Quakers, Pietists, Methodists, Swedenborgians, Socinians, and Arminians. Möhler's conception of comparative dogmatics goes far beyond merely recording divergent views. It is necessary, he writes, "to decompose a dogma into the elements out of which it has been formed and to reduce it to the ultimate principles whereby its author had been determined." On the other hand, it is also necessary that all "parts of the system be viewed in their relation to the whole, to the fundamental and all-pervading idea." Whereas the spirit of the church led Catholicism, as a collectivity, to produce Catholic dogma, the teachings of the reformers were their individual productions. In Luther's mind and teaching, remarks Möhler, there was only "the inordinate pretension of an individuality which wished to constitute itself the arbitrary centre round which all should gather." In this apotheosis of the human, Schleiermacher is "the only genuine disciple of the Reformers." (Interestingly, Baur basically accepted Möhler's assessment of Protestantism. What he objected to was Möhler's denial of Protestantism's right to doctrinal development.) Paradoxically, the germ of Luther's error lay in his theological anthropology, in his understanding of original sin, wherein the total loss of human freedom leads to the affirmation of universal divine necessitation. Viewed systematically, Protestantism displays the fatal flaw of the disappearance of the merely finite human. By 1832 Möhler had sufficiently mastered church history to recognize and accept fundamental theses of the Council of Trent: synergism in justification and good works, and the positive, outward role of Jesus Christ in the institution of the church and the seven sacraments.

In its immediate effect Möhler's work was a noteworthy contribution to increased self-respect and intellectual respectability among mid-nineteenth-century German Catholics. The long-term effect of Möhler's work arose less from his polemical thrusts than from his essentially Romantic vision of the place of Christ in the church. If the whole life of Jesus Christ is "one mighty action," then "the Church is the living figure of Christ manifesting himself and working through all ages. He is eternally living in his Church, and in the sacrament of the altar he has manifested this in a sensible manner to creatures endowed with sense." Möhler's interest in the organic nature of reality and in the dignity of the human as a finite symbol of the divine can be traced, for example, in M. J. Scheeben's The Mysteries of Christianity (1865) and Henri de Lubac's ecclesiological studiesand ultimately in papal and conciliar documents, namely, Pius XII's Mediator Dei and Mystici corporis and the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican II.


Works by Möhler

Die Einheit in der Kirche, oder Das Prinzip des Katholizismus. Edited by Josef Rupert Geiselmann. Cologne, 1957. Contains extensive commentary by the editor.

Gesammelte Aktenstücke und Briefe. Edited by Stephan Lösch. Munich, 1928.

Symbolik. 2 vols. Edited by Josef Rupert Geiselmann. Cologne, 19601961. Translated by James Burton Robertson as Symbolism (London, 1843). Contains Geiselmann's extensive commentary.

Most of Möhler's other writings have been published in photographic reprint (Frankfurt, 1968).

Works about Möhler

Baur, Ferdinand Christian. Der Gegensatz des Katholicismus und Protestantismus nach den Principien und Hauptdogmen der beiden Lehrbegriffe mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Herrn Dr. Möhlers Symbolik. 2d ed. Tübingen, 1836.

Chaillet, Pierre, ed. L'église est une: Hommage à Möhler. Paris, 1939.

Dupuy, B. D. "Schisme et primauté chez J. A. Möhler." Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 34 (1960): 197231.

Fitzer, Joseph. Moehler and Baur in Controversy, 183238: Romantic-Idealist Assessment of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. American Academy of Religion Studies in Religion, no. 7. Tallahassee, 1974.

Geiselmann, Josef Rupert. Die katholische Tübinger Schule. Freiburg, 1964.

Goyau, Georges. L'Allemagne religieuse: Le catholicisme. 2 vols. Paris, 1910.

Vermeil, Edmond. Jean-Adam Möhler et l'école catholique de Tubingue, 18151840. Paris, 1913.

Joseph Fitzer (1987)

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