Johann August Wilhelm Neander (January 17, 1789 – July 14, 1850), was a German theologiaan and church historian.
Johann August Wilhelm Neander belonged to a Jewish family and originally bore the name of David Mendel. He changed his name to Neander when he became a believer in Yeshua in 1806. A German Lutheran, he studied with F D. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) in Berlin, but soon switched his interest from speculative theology to church history.
After a year of teaching in Heidelberg (1812), he returned to Berlin as professor of ecclesiastical history (1813). Here he attracted many students not only by the quality of his scholarship but also by the spirit of piety he brought to his work and the interest he showed in the personal aspects of history. From the first he wrote extensively on historical themes, beginning with biographical studies of significant figures like Julian the Apostate (1812), Bernard of Clairvaux (1813), John Chrysostom (1822), and Tertullian (1824). Turning to a whole movement, he offered a history of Gnosticism in 1818. When F C. Baur and D. F Strauss introduced a rationalistic interpretation of the New Testament and early Christian history, he strongly opposed them. He wrote a Life of Christ (1837) in answer to the theory purported by Strauss in Life of Jesus (1835-1836) that the Gospel record is simply a myth in historical dress. With the maturing of his scholarship, Neander began to put together his more detailed monographs in broader historical works. His history of the apostolic age came out in two volumes under the title History of the Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles (1832-1833). Even before the publication of this work he had launched his most ambitious project, A General History of the Christian Religion and Church, which came out in six volumes beginning in 1826 and ending only after his death in 1852. Both these larger works were translated into English, the latter appearing in five volumes (1882) and the former in two volumes (1887-1888).
Neander had considerable influence not only in his own church and country but also further afield through the combination of scholarly excellence and personal interest that he achieved in his teaching and writing. This influence lived on in the American and English-speaking world through the historical work and writing of Philip Schaff (1819-1893), who studied and taught with Neander in Berlin prior to his appointment to Mercersburg in 1844. A basic conviction of Neander was that church history is not just an academic pursuit but part of the mission and ministry of the church.
Neander, Auguste. On the 17th of July in the year 1850, an imposing funeral cortège slowly wended its way through the streets of Berlin, attended by a Royal carriage and by numerous Government officials, clergymen, professors and students of the Universities of Berlin and Halle, assembled to pay their last tokens of respect and esteem to the distinguished man who was being carried to his final resting-place. Along the whole route from the residence of the deceased to the cemetery, a distance of two miles, immense crowds of people thronged the streets, filling all windows, doors, and available places of observation. Before the hearse were carried the Bible and Greek Testament of the man who had done more than any of his contemporaries to keep alight in Germany the torch of pure and undiluted Christianity. The whole scene was a striking tribute to the worth and work of the eminent professor and Church historian, Auguste Neander, who for thirty-eight years had exercised unbounded influence in the domain of theology, not only in the University of which he was a distinguished ornament, but also throughout Europe. And this man was a Christian Jew, whose conversion and devotion to Christianity were destined to be fruitful in great results, the end of which we have hardly seen to-day.
David Mendel, to give him his original name, was born at Göttingen of poor Jewish parents on January 10th, 1789. He was a scion of the famous Mendel family, connected by descent with the great Jewish reformer Moses Mendelssohn, whose successful efforts to elevate and uplift his then degraded race ended in all his descendants eventually embracing the Christian faith. In the words of a modern Jewish historian, whose love of truth led her to place on record what must have cost many a regret to avow:—”As we read the story of the wise and liberal philosopher, who broke through the barriers and let in the light of learning and of social countenance on mediæval benighted Judaism, we shall see that the very children of the emancipator were dazzled by the unaccustomed rays, that his sons wavered and his daughters apostatized, and that in the third generation—only the third—the fetters which degraded were called degrading, and the grandchildren of Moses Mendelssohn, the typical Jew, were Jews no longer.”
Young David Mendel received his early education at the gymnasium or public school at Hamburg, it being his parents’ intention to bring him up in the legal profession, in which, there is very little doubt, he would have become distinguished. In 1806, however, having, through the influence of two fellow-students, Chamisso the poet and another named Neumann, embraced the Christian faith, he determined to devote himself to the study of theology, and thenceforth the whole course of his life was altered. At his baptism he had taken the Christian names of Johann Auguste Wilhelm, after those of his two friends, to which he added a new surname, Neander, or the “new man,” and the new aims of his life were thus expressed in a letter which he wrote to the pastor who had baptized him: “My reception into the holy covenant of the higher life is to me the greatest thing for which I have to thank you, and I can only prove my gratitude by striving to let the outward sign of baptism unto a new life become, indeed, the mark of the new life proclaiming the reality of the new birth.”
Auguste Neander, as he was thereafter known, now entered the University of Halle, where he studied Christian dogmatics under the celebrated Professor Schleiermacher, whose speculations in doctrinal theology verged very closely upon heterodoxy, and who is pronounced by an authority to have been “the greatest theological writer that Germany has produced since Luther, and, indeed, he may be called the founder of modern rationalism on its better side.” Intercourse with this erratic and brilliant genius produced no perceptible taint of rationalism in the mind or scholarship of the scarcely less brilliant pupil, whose public teaching contrasted so powerfully with that of his erstwhile master. “It was a sad and singular sight,” wrote the biographer of Neander, “to behold his former teacher, Schleiermacher, a Christian by birth, inculcating in one lecture-room, with all the power of his mighty genius, those doctrines which lead to the denial of the Evangelical attributes of Jesus Christ, whilst in another his pupil Neander, by birth a Jew, preached and taught salvation through faith in Christ the Son of God alone.”
When Neander left Halle he repaired to his birthplace, Göttingen, to pursue his theological studies in the university of which Planck was at that time the leading spirit. It was there that Neander acquired the practice, so conspicuous in his writings, of taking nothing for granted and digging deep to the very origines of things. It was this invariable reliance solely on first hand and primitive information which makes his literary work so valuable. In 1811 Neander became a private “coach” at Heidelberg, in the university of which he was appointed a professor of theology in the following year. Youthful as he still was, his fame had by this time spread far and wide, and within a few months he was elected to a similar position in the recently founded University of Berlin, which the King of Prussia desired to elevate to the foremost rank among the sister universities of his kingdom, and to make a great centre for the teaching of theology. There Neander remained till the day of his death, fully justifying his selection as one of the leading lecturers in that seat of learning.
The foregoing are the chief events in an otherwise uneventful career, entirely passed as scholar and tutor within the sheltered seclusion of university life. It has been said that such an atmosphere makes for self-indulgence. Of course, it may easily degenerate into this state. And yet how many university dons could we name, whose saintly and scholarly lives, long hours spent in teaching, and nightly burnings of the midnight oil give the lie to such a sweeping assertion! That it was far from being the case with Neander the following slight sketch of the man himself, his labours and his writings, will abundantly demonstrate.
Neander was of an exceedingly lovable disposition, humble-minded, retiring, pious and zealous. He was as simple as a child in the ordinary and every-day concerns of life, eccentric and singular beyond description, absent-minded to the last degree, and generous to a fault. His charity was unbounded. His wants being few, he could give the bulk of his income to others. The proceeds from the sale of his numerous works were devoted to philanthropic and missionary purposes. He could never keep any loose cash in his pocket, or turn away his face from any poor man. If he did not part with the well-worn coat off his back it was because he preferred to bestow the new one hanging in his wardrobe.
His industry was prodigious. Being a single man, for he never married, he could devote all his time and energies to his calling—which was that of scholar, writer, and lecturer. He was never ordained, and so never preached in the ministerial sense of the word; but he never lectured without teaching Christianity in its practical as well as doctrinal and historical aspect. Religion was never obscured by theology. His lectures were attended not merely by under-graduates and students, but also by leading professors of his own and other universities—Protestants and Romanists alike sitting at his feet. Three lectures a day he invariably gave, and those on different subjects. To the students he was a father and a counsellor, ever ready to bestow, though never eager to thrust, his advice upon all who sought it. He was universally beloved for his kindness of heart and his gentleness, and respected and admired for his talents, scholarship, and teaching powers.
The supreme object of Neander’s life, studies, and labours, is thus concisely stated by himself in the preface of the first edition of his magnum opus: “To exhibit the history of the Church of Christ as a living witness of the Divine power of Christianity, as a school of Christian experience, a voice sounding through the ages, of instruction, of doctrine and of reproof, for all who are disposed to listen.” Neander was not merely the historian of the dead past or laudator temporis acti. To him the past was indeed great, eloquent, and glorious, but he regarded it chiefly as the beginning of a greater present and a more glorious future, and as the foundation of the stately building of the Church that is being reared throughout the ages. He had unquenchable faith in the abiding presence of Christ in His Church, and of its consequent power to mould and transform the world. The parables of the leaven and of the mustard seed were pregnant with meaning to him, and in his history he elaborately traced the process of development in the past centuries—a process which amounted to a steady and ever forward progress, even furthered by all attempts to hinder it. And this, because Christianity is a Divine power which descended from heaven at the Incarnation of Christ, and gave a new character to the life of the human race.
We can well understand how exhilarating and energising such teaching as this must have been when directed, as it was of set purpose, to counteract the then new-fangled doctrines of Schleiermacher, and more especially of Strauss, who in his “Life of Christ” had sought to eliminate from Christianity all that was Divine, and therefore to destroy its regenerative power on the hearts and lives of mankind.
To Neander, then, a Christian Jew, an immense debt of gratitude is due from all who hold the Catholic faith undefiled. He stemmed for a time the tide of Rationalism which threatened to engulf in its turbid waters not only Germany, but the whole of Christendom. His aid was expressly chartered to undo the harm caused by the speculative teaching of Strauss. When others would have suppressed the latter’s work by force, Neander, discountenancing such carnal weapons, boldly and mercilessly met his heresies by the issue of his own “Life of Christ.”
We have already dwelt upon his two greatest works. We can only barely mention the others. They were, to give them their titles in English—”The History of the Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles,” “Biographies of Julian the Apostate, St. Bernard and St. Chrysostom,” “Anti-Gnostikus, Development of the Gnostic System,” “Memorabilia from the History of the Christian Life,” “Unity and Variety of the Christian Life,” numerous essays contributed to religious periodicals, and “Memoirs of the Proceedings of the Berlin Royal Academy of Sciences.”
Neander’s restless activity doubtless shortened his life, and death overtook him before the work which he had set himself to do was done. He had completed his “General History” only to the middle of the fourteenth century. He died whilst dictating a page of this unfinished history, with the words, “I am weary; I must sleep; good night;” upon his lips. To another famous historian, Bede, it was granted to see, but only just to see, the completion of his labours. When dying, the amanuensis who wrote for him his translation into Saxon of the Gospel according to St. John, said: “Master, there is but one sentence wanting.” Bede answered: “Write quickly!” and when the sentence was written, he replied: “Thou hast the truth—consummatum est,” and with the Gloria Patri upon his lips, he breathed his last. Neander’s work is like a broken column, and yet who shall say it had been better otherwise? Surely not those who believe that “man is immortal, until his work is done.”
The supreme object of Neander’s life and labors was to tell the story of the Church of Christ, and he produced a work that earned him the title of champion for evangelicalism in Germany. In writing his Life of Christ, he set out to counteract the theology of Schleiermacher. In this work, he demonstrated the validity of the scriptural record in an attempt to stem the tide of higher criticism. He had many other works to his credit, which have been translated into English. Some of them are The History of the Planting and Training of the Christian Church by the Apostles and biographies of Julian the Apostate, Bernard, and Chrysostom. An unfinished work, which has not been translated into English, is his Life of the Apostle Paul . It is said that he died while dictating a page of his General History, which had to be completed from his notes after his death. As he died, he said, “I am weary; I must sleep. Good night.”
Prayer: Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who has given us men and women of wisdom and insight, to show us your ways and help us to understand the true heavenly wisdom of our Messiah Yeshua. Amen,