Sohm, Rudolf

views updated


SOHM, RUDOLF (18411917), was a German Lutheran jurist and church historian. Rudolf Sohm was a member of the law faculties at Göttingen, Freiburg, Strassburg, and Leipzig universities and published in the fields of Roman and Germanic law and of canon law and church history. As a renowned jurist he entered into the controversy regarding the character of authority and organization in the primitive Christian community. In 1892 he published the first volume of his masterwork, Kirchenrecht (Canon law); the second volume was published posthumously in 1923. Sohm was politically active and in 1896 he helped Friedrich Naumann found the National-Sozial Partei (not to be confused with the later Nazi Party).

In Kirchenrecht, Sohm argued that the early church had no legal constitution. He claimed that "ecclesiastical law stands in contradiction to the nature of Ecclesia." Legal concepts, he believed, are completely inappropriate when considering the early church, which was informed by a power of a different order. This power he called "charisma" (from Gr., charis ), which is "a gift of grace" imparted by the Holy Spirit. In Paul's view (1 Cor. 12:428), the gifts of grace are manifest in the congregation as well as in apostles, prophets, and teachers. The congregation had the "gift" of acknowledging charismatic leaders; the community was not a democracy but rather a "pneumatocracy." In his interpretation Sohm found that the community gave special status to the teacher whose charismatic gifts were exercised in conjunction with scripture and sacraments.

The development of a legal order within the church was a "fall" away from authenticity. This "fall" brought about the heresy, or apostasy, of Roman Catholicism and of bureaucratized Lutheranism. The fall away from the authentic church appeared in the development from the charismatic power of the individual Christian leader to the authority of the Christian official (in possession of legal and tenure rights), thence to a Christian corporation with legal and coercive control over individual salvation. This "fall" occurs because the unregenerate "natural man" is a "born Catholic" who seeks legal authenticity and a guarantee of salvation and who desires what is tangible and visible, providing pomp and circumstance that appeal to the senses. This "natural man" relies upon "small faith" bound to ecclesiastical law, that is, bound to the past. The true church is invisible and, as Martin Luther asserts, is oriented to the believers' life with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit, a regenerating power. Faith in the invisible church is a protection of the freedom of the gospel and against the absolutizing of the authority of the visible church.

Sohm has been severely criticized for having no concept of church order, for example, by his admirer Ernst Troeltsch in Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (1912). On the other hand, Emil Brunner was considered Sohm's disciple (see Brunner's Missverständnis der Kirche, 1951); Karl Barth spoke scornfully of Brunner as "only a follower of Sohm." Sohm's work has exercised a significant influence on biblical studies and on studies in ecclesiology and in the critique of tradition. Max Weber appropriated, generalized, and secularized Sohm's concept of charisma, thus almost entirely transforming it.

See Also



Adams, James Luther. "Rudolf Sohm's Theology of Law and the Spirit." In Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, edited by Walter Leibrecht, pp. 219235. New York, 1959.

Haley, Peter. "Rudolf Sohm on Charisma." Journal of Religion 60 (1980): 185197.

Sohm, Rudolf. Outlines of Church History (1888). Boston, 1958.

New Sources

Köhler, Wiebke. Rezeption in der Kirche: begriffsgeschichtliche Studien bei Sohm, Afanas'ev, Dombois und Congar. Göttingen, 1998.

James Luther Adams (1987)

Revised Bibliography