Pauck, Wilhelm

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PAUCK, WILHELM (19011981), was a German-American historian and theologian. Born in Westphalia, Germany, on January 31, 1901, Pauck was reared in Berlin, where his father taught physics. He studied at the universities of Berlin and Göttingen, taking his licentiate in theology at Berlin in 1925 with a dissertation on Martin Bucer. The decisive influences on his intellectual development were two Berlin professors of renown, Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Holl. It was Troeltsch who first turned him to the study of theology and impressed upon him the nature of Christianity as a historical movement that must be interpreted by means of the historical method. From Holl he received magisterial instruction in Reformation history and theology, above all in studies of Martin Luther. He also heard lectures by two other giants of modern Protestant thought: Adolf von Harnack (at Berlin) and Karl Barth (at Göttingen).

Pauck came to the United States in 1925, was ordained to the ministry of the Congregational Church in 1928, and became an American citizen in 1937. His teaching career, which bore remarkable fruit, spanned fifty years: at the Chicago Theological Seminary and, chiefly, at the divinity school and history department of the University of Chicago (19261953); at Union Theological Seminary, New York City (19531967); at Vanderbilt University (until 1972); and as professor emeritus at Stanford University (until 1976). He died in Palo Alto, California, on September 3, 1981.

Pauck's thought has been aptly described as an ellipse with two foci, one in the Reformation interpretation of the Christian gospel and the other in the modern historical understanding of reality. This dual commitment led him to reject two strategies that he considered equally ahistorical: either a simple "repristination" of Reformation theology (as attempted by Protestant neoorthodoxy) or a facile "accommodation" of the Christian tradition to modernity (as practiced by radical theological liberalism). His own approach to the Reformation was at once critical and conservingthe latter because Reformation religion was biblical and evangelical and thus foundational to authentic Protestantism; the former because the permanent truth of the Christian gospel cannot be identified with any of its temporary historical forms, all of which are necessarily relative to their immediate contexts and thus must be constantly refashioned in response to new historical situations. Hence Pauck maintained that the future of Protestantism lay with the historical-critical interpretation of Christianity articulated by such premier liberal theologians as Troeltsch and Harnack, rather than with the traditional "dogmatic" viewpoint espoused by the neo-orthodox theologians, especially Barth.

Pauck's writings, distinguished by the vast learning and literary felicity evinced by them, moved with ease from the Reformation era through nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism to contemporary theology. Two collections of his seminal essays are of special importance: The Heritage of the Reformation (2d ed., rev. and enl., 1961) and From Luther to Tillich: The Reformers and Their Heirs, edited by Marion Pauck (1984). His preeminence as a Luther scholar is displayed in his new edition and translation of Luther's Lectures on Romans with a masterly general introduction (1961). Other representative publications are Das Reich Gottes auf Erden: Utopie und Wirklichkeit (The Kingdom of God on earth: utopia and reality, 1928), a still valuable study of Bucer; Karl Barth: Prophet of a New Christianity? (1931); Harnack and Troeltsch: Two Historical Theologians (1968); and, in collaboration with his wife Marion Pauck, Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought (1976).

Pauck's most important achievement and enduring legacy is that he transmitted to North America the great tradition of Reformation scholarship that had emerged in his native Germany during the first half of the twentieth century. Famed as a virtuoso lecturer and a wise director of graduate students, he trained, at Chicago and New York, two generations of the leading American historical theologians and Reformation scholars. Thus, through his writings and classroom teaching, Pauck exercised an extraordinary influence on American Protestantism, enabling it to recover its Reformation roots in a form suited to its contemporary situation.


For additional information, see Marion Pauck's "Wilhelm Pauck: A Biographical Essay" and "Bibliography of the Published Writings of Wilhelm Pauck," in Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia, 1968), in which there appears also Pelikan's "Wilhelm Pauck: A Tribute." Other tributes to Pauck and appraisals of his career are collected in In Memory of Wilhelm Pauck (19011981), edited by me (New York, 1982). Pauck's thought, in midcareer, was considered by David Wesley Soper in Major Voices in American Theology, vol. 2, Men Who Shape Belief (Philadelphia, 1955), pp. 9801111.

New Sources

Kingdon, Robert M. "Reformation Studies." In Century of Church History, edited by Henry W. Bowden, pp. 98118. Carbondale, Ill., 1988.

Pauck, Marion Hausner. "Reinhold Niebuhr, Wilhelm Pauck, and Paul Tillich: Public and Private." Union Seminary Quarterly Review 53, nos. 12 (1999): 2945.

Pauck, Marion Hausner. "Wilhelm Pauck: Church Historian and Historical Theologian 19011981: Précis of a Memoir." Zeitschrift für neuere Theologiegeschichte 6, no. 1 (1999): 5068.

David W. Lotz (1987)

Revised Bibliography