Söderblom, Nathan

views updated May 08 2018


SÖDERBLOM, NATHAN (18661931). Swedish churchman, theologian, Luther scholar, ecumenical pioneer, and historian of religions. Lars Olaf Johnathan Söderblom was born into a deeply religious family in Trönö, Hälsingland Province, Sweden. His father, a fervent evangelical preacher, was pastor of the Trönö parish and led his family in a life of devotion, study, discipline, and hard work. In 1883 young Nathan entered the university at Uppsala as a candidate in classical and Oriental languages but later changed to work for a degree in divinity. The theological faculty in Uppsala at the time was immovably conservative and literalist; it had been little touched by the German theology reigning on the European continent. Söderblom in consequence was disappointed with his divinity studies.

The outstanding events of the university years for him were the discovery of biblical criticism, his acquaintance with the theology of Albrecht Ritschl, and his participation in the Student Missionary Society. The new biblical criticism posed an acute crisis for Söderblom; while he enthusiastically welcomed its methods and insights, it threatened the conservative Swedish view of the Bible as a literal revelation. Söderblom resolved his difficulties through Ritschl's broad view of a dynamic revelation not confined to the literal words of the book. His attitudes in these matters earned him a reputation as a dangerous liberal, an accusation that would plague him all his life and that probably accounts for his failure to become a docent upon graduation. It was his participation in the Student Missionary Society and a consuming concern for Christian missions that first stimulated Söderblom's interest in non-Christian religious experience and laid the basis for his work as historian of religions.

In 1893 Söderblom was ordained and served for a time as chaplain in the Uppsala mental hospital, but in 1894 he accepted an appointment as pastor to the Swedish legation in Paris. In addition to pastoral duties, Söderblom cemented a close relationship with the Protestant Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne. Auguste Sabatier, A. and J. Réville, and Léon Marillier in particular exerted strong influence on his thinking, and he continued the study of Iranian languages that he had begun earlier. In 1899 he published in Paris Les fravashis, a short but erudite study of a type of spiritual beings in ancient Iranian religion; his Sorbonne doctoral dissertation, La vie future d'après le Mazdéisme, followed in 1901, establishing him among the leading Iranologists of Europe.

In 1901 Söderblom was invited to a professorship in Uppsala. The chair was in theology, but under Söderblom it became, practically speaking, one in the history of religions. The strong Swedish tradition in history of religions had its beginning with this appointment. Söderblom was a popular teacher who also rapidly became a decisive influence in the church as a leader of a general revival of religion and theology in Sweden. In 1912 he was appointed to the new chair of the history of religions in Leipzig which he held jointly with that of Uppsala. His most important contribution to the theory of the nature of religion, Gudstrons Uppkomst (2d ed., Stockholm, 1914), and his books The Nature of Revelation, translated by Frederic C. Pamp (Oxford, 1933), and Natürliche Theologie und allgemeine Religionsgeschichte (Stockholm, 1913) belong to these years. The German connections also enabled him to carry out his work of reconciliation among Christians of the belligerent nations during World War I.

In 1914 the Swedish king chose Söderblom to replace J. A. Ekman as archbishop of Sweden. The first four years of his tenure coincided with World War I, and even while the fighting continued, Söderblom pleaded for a conference between Christians of the two sides. His interest in ecumenical matters had begun in his student days, and it continued through the Lambeth Conference of 1905 and the agreement between Anglicans and Swedish Lutherans concluded in 1922. The culmination for Söderblom was the great Stockholm conference of 1925 on life and work, of which he was a principal mover. His work among the combatants in World War I and his efforts toward Christian unity were the principal bases for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize that he received in 1930. The last of many honors bestowed on him was the Gifford lectureship for 19311932. He delivered the lectures for 1931, published as The Living God (1933; reprint, 1962), but he died before he could complete the series.

The central element in Söderblom's thought, as apparent in his work both as theologian and as historian of religions, was the concept of revelation. He held that revelation is dynamic, not confined to the words of the Bible but also to be seen in nature, history, and genius. Neither is it the exclusive possession of Christianity, for he believed there to be revelation wherever genuine religion is found. Nevertheless, he also held to the inherent religious superiority of Christianity over other traditions and believed that he could prove this superiority through purely disinterested and scientific study of the history of religions. His effort was thus to gain a concrete grasp of the world's religions in all their historical diversity and richness but also to demonstrate the merits of Christianity as the climax of the revelation of the living God to human beings.


There is a full-scale biography of Söderblom by his most famous student, Tor Andrae, Nathan Söderblom (Uppsala, 1932). A short biographical account, as well as a preliminary bibliography of Söderblom's writings, is to be found in Nathan Söderblom in Memoriam, edited by Nils Karlström (Stockholm, 1931). Söderblom's theological thought is ably expounded in Charles J. Curtis's Nathan Söderblom, Theologian of Revelation (Chicago, 1966).

New Sources

Bråkenhielm, C.R., and G.W. Hollman. The Relevance of Theology: Nathan Söderblom and the Development of an Academic Discipline: Proceedings from a Conference held in Uppsala, April 1416, 2002. Uppsala, 2002.

Hallencreutz, Carl F. "The American Influence on Nathan Soderblom and the Legacy of His Ecumenical Strategy" Svensk Missionstidskrift 85, no. 1 (1997): 1623.

Sharpe, E.J. Nathan Söderblom and the Study of Religion. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990.

Charles J. Adams (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Söderblom, Nathan

views updated May 29 2018


Lutheran archbishop, historian of religion, theologian, leader in the ecumenical movement, principal promoter of the life and work movement; b. Trönö, Sweden, Jan. 1, 1866; d. Uppsala, July 12, 1931. Son of a Pietist pastor, he was ordained a Lutheran minister (1893), and served as pastor of the Swedish congregation in Paris from 1894 until he received his doctorate from the Sorbonne (1901), where he specialized in the study of comparative religion, especially Persian religion. From 1901 to 1914 he was professor of the history of religions at the University of Uppsala and also at Leipzig University (191214). From 1914 to 1931 he was archbishop of Uppsala and primate of the Church of Sweden. His engaging personality won him a very wide circle of international friendships, also among Catholics, whose liturgy and piety appealed to him, although he was sharply critical of the "Roman system." As a theologian he was much influenced by Louis sabatier, ritschl, and other Liberal Protestants and to some extent by proponents of Modernism, such as loisy, tyrrell, and Von hÜgel. His ability, industry, and outstanding oratorical qualities made him the leading force in the Swedish Church and in European Protestantism, despite conservative opposition. His intervention in behalf of war prisoners and displaced persons during World War I and his advocacy of peace won him the Nobel peace prize (1930).

Söderblom's interest in Christian reunion began during his student years and increased during a visit to the U.S. (1890) and journeys elsewhere. He sought the cooperation of all Christian denominations in solving social problems and in serving society without consideration of doctrinal differences. Largely because of him the Universal Christian Council on Life and Work came into being. This movement formed one of the two main streams that in 1948 merged in the world council of churches.

Söderblom's numerous writings, few of which have been translated into English, include La Vie future d'après Mazdéisme (1901), Humor och Melankoli (a study of Luther, 1919), and Einigung der Christenheit (1938). His translated books include The Nature of Revelation (1933), Christian Fellowship (1923), and The Living God (1933).

Bibliography: n. karlstrÖm, ed., N. Söderblom in memoriam (Stockholm 1931), with bibliog. p. katz, Nathan Söderblom: Ein Führer zur kirchlichen Einheit (Halle 1925). t. andrae, Nathan Söderblom (Berlin 1938), originally pub. in Swed. r. rouse and s. c. neill, eds., A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 15171948 (London 1954).

[s. j. miller]

Nathan Söderblom

views updated May 14 2018

Nathan Söderblom

The Swedish churchman Nathan Söderblom (1866-1931) was an important leader in the ecumenical movement for the unification of Christian Churches. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930 for his efforts in the area of international understanding.

Theologically and intellectually the life of Nathan Söderblom was characterized by tensions. His father was a fervent Pietist minister of Swedish yeoman stock, and his mother came from a liberal Danish background. Nathan Söderblom was born Lars Jonathan Söderblom on Jan. 15, 1866, in Trönö (Hälsingland). As a young man, he pursued theological studies at the University of Uppsala. During the period he was minister of the busy Swedish church at Paris (1894-1901), Söderblom earned his theological doctorate at the Sorbonne (1901). Returning to Sweden, he became professor of the history of religion at Uppsala, and from 1914 to 1931 he served as vice chancellor of the university. After becoming archbishop, Söderblom never lost sight of the many Swedes who had emigrated to the United States. When he visited the United States in 1923, this concern and his ecumenical mission caused some friction. Such crises of modernity notwithstanding, Söderblom's scholarly and intellectual achievements were considerable. His quest for the uniqueness of Christianity was grounded on theological competence within the Christian tradition as well as on an application of the canons of historical criticism to the study of both Christian and non-Christian religions.

Söderblom had first established himself as a promising scholar in the history of religion through the publication of his dissertation, La vie future d'après le Mazdaisme. Many other books followed. In 1914 he published Origins of Belief in God, in which he summarized the involved and heated debate on this subject. As an alternate route to evolution, he outlined an inquiry into the psychological prerequisites of religion. His clear distinction between high gods and m onotheism and his rejection of protomonotheism have become part of scholarly tradition. In his emphasis on the holy as the basic constituent of religion, he anticipated Rudolf Otto. On the theological side, Söderblom viewed the uniqueness of Christianity in its character as a religion of historic revelation, against the mysticisms of infinity, pantheisms, and deisms. According to Söderblom, the tension between the transcendence and the nearness of God, between His perfections and His presence, and between ethics and religious experience inherent in this dynamic concept found its original unity in the person of Jesus Christ. This ensured the redemptive rather than the arbitrary character of history. Moreover, Söderblom overcame the then prevalent notion that a personal god belonged to an obsolete, earlier, and less ethical stage in religion. He emphasized that the center of Christianity was neither doctrines nor institutions but the person of Jesus Christ.

Söderblom died in Uppsala on July 12, 1931.

Further Reading

The best biography of Söderblom, which also gives an idea of the scope of his mind, is Bengt Sundkler, Nathan Söderblom: His Life and Work (1968). □

Söderblom, Nathan

views updated May 14 2018

Söderblom, Nathan (1866–1931). Christian archbishop of Sweden and pioneer of the Christian ecumenical movement. He was appointed archbishop in 1914, and he committed himself to the task of reconciliation between nations that had been at war, involving the Churches in working for peace and justice. This led to a necessary quest for common ground in this ‘work of the Kingdom’. This work was recognized by the award of the Nobel peace prize in 1930.