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Reimarus, Hermann Samuel


REIMARUS, HERMANN SAMUEL (16941768), German theologian and philosopher. Son of a scholar, grandson of a clergyman, student and son-in-law of J. A. Fabricius (one of the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy of the time), Reimarus was for much of his life a professor of Oriental languages at the Hamburg academic Gymnasium. He lived during the period of the German Enlightenment, amidst the evolving discussion of the relation between reason and revelation.

Reimarus's public religious views belong to that stage characterized by the philosophical synthesis of Christian Wolff: (1) revelation may be above reason but not contrary to it, and (2) reason establishes the criteria by which revelation may be judged, namely, necessity and consistency. Publicly, Reimarus argued that the demands of a natural religion of reason only and those of Christianity agree with or complement one another. Natural religion, he contended, lays the ground for Christianity. These public views were set forth most succinctly in his Abhandlungen von den vornehmsten Wahrheiten der natürlichen Religion (Essays on the Principal Truths of Natural Religion; 1754). At his death, a colleague would eulogize him as a defender of Christianity.

Reimarus's private views of religion were not known even to his wife. They were part of the rationalism that contended that the criteria of reason judge revelation to be false. Revelation is at odds with reason and must be displaced. Natural religion, he believed, replaces Christianity. Reimarus recorded his private views in a secret manuscript he entitled Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes (Apology for or Defense of the Rational Worshiper of God), three copies of which remain. Of the thirty-seven works that he wrote, this one alone has brought him renown. In it he accepts Wolff's contention that the two criteria of necessity and consistency must be satisfied by any alleged revelation before its genuineness can be accepted. He then sets out to show (1) that it is possible to describe the origins of Christianity as entirely natural (not miraculous and therefore not necessary) and (2) that any supposed revelation is filled with contradictions (not logically consistent). Reason thereby undermines the claims of the alleged Christian revelation. Seven fragments of this manuscript were published by G. E. Lessing between 1774 and 1778. Of these the two most influential were the sixth, "On the Resurrection Narratives" (1777), which declares the revelation of the resurrection false on the basis of contradictions, and the seventh, "On the Intentions of Jesus and His Disciples" (1778), which draws a distinction between the message and intention of Jesus and that of the early church.

Reimarus has influenced contemporary thought indirectly through Lessing, David F. Strauss, and Albert Schweitzer. The fragments of the Apologie caused Lessing to break with the eighteenth-century assumption that religious truth depended on the historicity of certain alleged events in scripture. Lessing's position, in turn, influenced Kierkegaard, who maintained that Christian truth is established independently of one's estimate of the historical origins of Christianity by God's act in the moment, though history occasions that moment. The fragments also caused Lessing to come to grips with the need for source criticism of the Gospels.

The fragments played a role in Strauss's struggle to establish a mythical view of miracles. Strauss used Reimarus to show that Christianity was not supernatural. As a result, Reimarus confronts the modern reader with the question of the historicity of the miracles.

The fragments also influenced Schweitzer in his work in the area of eschatology. Schweitzer turned to Reimarus to support his view that Jesus' orientation was eschatological, that Jesus expected an imminent end of the world, and that the delay of the Parousia was the main problem of early Christian theology, beginning with Jesus himself.


Grappin, Pierre. "La théologie naturelle de Reimarus." Études germaniques 6 (1951): 169181.

Lundsteen, A. C. Hermann Samuel Reimarus und die Anfänge der Leben-Jesu Forschung. Copenhagen, 1939.

Sieveking, Heinrich. "Hermann Samuel Reimarus, 16941768." Zeitschrift des Vereins für hamburgische Geschichte 38 (1939): 145182.

Strauss, David F. Hermann Samuel Reimarus und seine Schutz-schrift für die vernunftigen Verehrer Gottes. 2d ed. Bonn, 1877.

Talbert, Charles H., ed., Reimarus: Fragments. Translated by Ralph S. Fraser. Philadelphia, 1970. Includes my critical introduction (pp. 143).

Charles H. Talbert (1987)

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