Bahrdt, Carl Friedrich (1740 or 1741–1792)

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Carl Friedrich Bahrdt, probably the most widely read German theologian except for Martin Luther, was born in Bischofswerda in the electorate of Saxony. He held professorships and lectureships of theology, biblical studies, Christian ethics, classical languages, and many other subjects at the universities of Leipzig, Erfurt, Giessen, and Halle. He was the headmaster of a boys school, or Philanthropinum, in Marschlins in Switzerland and established his own Philanthropinum in Heidesheim while he was at the same time Superintendent (the highest ecclesiastical official) in the domains of Count Carl of Leiningen-Dachsburg. In his last years, he was an innkeeper near Halle. He died at Halle.

Bahrdt was always at the center of a controversy. In his early days he wrote in a fiery orthodox vein, but very soon he seems to have been started on the road to "enlightenment" by suddenly learning that the language of I John 5:7, did not, when subjected to philological scrutiny, constitute proof of the doctrine of the Trinity. He was still further dismayed to learn that the passage was considered by some excellent scholars to be an interpolation. Bahrdt then set out to find undoubted philological support for the orthodox Lutheran system of theology, and instead found that his doubts continued to increase, until by the end of his life he had arrived at a fully rationalistic concept of natural religion.

The high points in Bahrdt's "Rationalist's Progress" are his four-volume paraphrase of the New Testament, Neueste Offenbarungen Gottes (Riga, 17731774), his confession of faith, Glaubensbekenntnis, veranlasst durch ein Kaiserliches Reichshofratsconclusum (1779), and his fictionalized life of Jesus, Briefe über die Bibel im Volkston (Halle, 17821783) and Ausführung des Plans und Zweckes Jesu (Berlin, 17831785). Bahrdt's New Testament paraphrase was up-to-date, intelligible, fluent, and coherent, but it was also a propagandistic vehicle for his heretical views. His enemies were thus enabled to secure, in 1778, a decree barring him from all ecclesiastical offices in the Holy Roman Empire and adjuring him to recant. Bahrdt immediately published his confession of faith, stating in clear and succinct language what he did and did not believe. Through discarding beliefs that he felt could not endure the acid test of rational examination, Bahrdt was left with a Jesus who was a mere product of his life and time. In this almost completely naturalistic view, the teasing question was, "In what way did Jesus obtain his amazing wisdom?" In order to give a hypothetical answer to this question, Bahrdt produced his fictional life of Jesus, the culmination of his development and the first work of its kind. It took the form of a series of weekly letters about the Bible, written in a popular vein, and tried to demonstrate how Jesus might have learned and built up his teachings from the writings of Greek sages, which Providence could have put into his hands through his association with Hellenistic Jews. These first letters were continued in a series on the execution of Jesus' plan and purpose, in which Bahrdt advanced the theory that Jesus founded a kind of Freemasonry to aid him in his purpose to destroy superstition, eliminate all positive religion, restore reason to its rightful rule, and unite people in a rational faith in God, Providence, and Immortality.

See also Luther, Martin; Rationalism.


Bahrdt, C. F. Dr. Carl Friedrich Bahrdts Geschichte seines Lebens, seiner Meinungen und Schicksale. Berlin: Bei Friedrich Vieweg, dem Älteren, 17901791.

Brewer, John T. "Gesunde Vernunft" and the New Testament: A Study of C. F. Bahrdt's Die neuesten Offenbarungen Gottes. PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1962.

Flygt, S. G. The Notorious Dr. Bahrdt. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt, 1963.

Schweitzer, Albert. Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1913.

Sten G. Flygt (1967)