Semler, Johann Salomo
Semler, Johann Salomo a German theologian in the latter half of the 18th century, who became notorious as the founder of the modern school of so called historical critics of the Bible. He was born in 1725 at Saalfeld, where his father held the office of deacon; and from his earliest childhood came under the influence of the pietism of Halle. In obedience to its urgent exhortations, he formed the habit of earnest prayer. His student life at Halle, where he matriculated in 1743, was spent amid similar surroundings, but he failed to obtain peace of mind. He was specially attracted towards Baumgarten (then professor) on account of his massive learning, but appears to have been even too little influenced by the Wolfian logical schematism of that scholar. He devoured books without digesting them, and obtained, as a principal result of his studies, a suspicion which subsequently became the fundamental idea in his theology — namely, that a difference exists between theology and religion. In 1750 he was made a master, and soon afterwards began the congenial work of editing the gazette of his native town; but in the following year he was called to the chair of history at Altorf, and six months later to a theological chair at Halle. He delivered lectures on hermeneutics and Church history; and ere long reached the conclusion that "the historical interpretation really belongs to the first century as representing the sum and contents of the conceptions of that age, and must be distinguished from the present application of Scripture, as correctly interpreted, to the instruction of Christians of today." His discoveries were submitted to Baumgarten, who encouraged him to continued independence of thought, but warned him that he would thereby arouse the opposition of a class of people who might work material injury to his prospects.
On the death of Baumgarten, in 1757, Semler became the most prominent member of the faculty at Halle, and enjoyed an unequalled popularity despite the confusion, and even barrenness, of his deliveries. As he became bolder in the presentation of his views, he was violently opposed by the orthodox party — periodicals were filled with invectives, and ministerial associations entertained charges against him; but all this served only to increase his popularity, until none of his colleagues could venture to dispute his preeminence, though the list included such names as J.G. Knapp, Nösselt, and Gruner, J.L. Schulze, A. Freylinghausen, G. Chr. Knapp, and A.H. Niemayer. In 1779 he wrote a reply to the Wolfenbüttel Fragmentist, however, and also a critique of Bahrdt's Confession of Faith (Antwort auf das Bahrdtsche Glaubensbekenntniss), in which he zealously contended for the doctrines of the Church and thereby undermined his position. His friends at once charged him with duplicity, and the government, acting through the minister Zedlitz (the patron of Bahrdt), deprived him of the directorship of the theological pedagogical seminary, on the ground that his recent course had destroyed his hold on the confidence of the public. A number of writings from his pen, devoted, on the one hand, to the promotion of free thought, and, on the other, to the defense of churchly orthodoxy, were issued in the period immediately following, and did much to intensify the opposition raised against him from every side; and when he became a believer in alchemy, in the last years of his life, it was accepted by many as a proof of impaired vigor in his mind. He died in 1791.
Semler's criticism was directed against two points: (1) the traditional view with respect to the canon of the Bible; and (2) the ordinary treatment of Church history, particularly that of the earlier period. His merit consists in having destroyed many errors in consequence of his investigations, and in having opened the way to more correct opinions.
1. Semler's Exposition of the Canon. — The traditional view regarded the canon as constituting a unit which is everywhere equally inspired; and this view had been shaken in his own mind by the studies of R. Simon Clericus, and Wettstein, and also by his own investigations. He became convinced that the opinions of recent times did not correspond with those of the earlier ages, and that theological views are subject to constant changes (his desultory mind was incapable of attaining to the idea of a progressive development in theology). With respect to the canon, he came to think that the original idea was not that of a fixed norm of doctrine which should be binding for all ages, but rather that of "a catalog of the books which were read in the assemblies of Christians." These books were brought together through the force of accidental considerations rather than in pursuance of a definite plan. The early Christians decided to accept as divine those books of the Old Test. (whose canon was already variously established by the Palestinians, the Samaritans, and the Alexandrians) which should be found in the Septuagint translation, the latter being regarded as inspired; and as the enumeration of canonical books belonging to the New Test. varied in the early Church, the bishops, for the sake of uniformity, agreed upon a definite number of books which should be used as a canonica lectio in the worship of the Church. Semler's investigations into the character of the Old and New Test. texts likewise contributed to overturn the traditional idea of the inspiration of the Scriptures; for while that theory assumed that the text of the Bible had descended unaltered through the centuries to us, he urged that the Holy Spirit had himself caused a revision of the Scriptures by the hand of Ezra, and that it could not be supposed, in the face of historical and diplomatic data, that an extraordinary divine supervision had been exercised over copyists. He insisted, further, that the Scriptural writings show on their face that they were not intended to be a norm of doctrine for all men, since the Old Test. was written for Jews whose religious apprehension was but limited, the Gospel by Matthew for extra Palestinian Jews, that by John for Christians possessed of Grecian culture. He argues that it was necessary to accommodate the teachings of Christianity to the needs of these various classes, which explains the appeal to miracles and the use of "stories" by Jesus and some of the apostles — the σάρξ, according to his opinion — and the emphasizing of the πνεῦμα by Paul. The latter apostle sought to adapt his writings to the Jewish modes of thought so long as he entertained the hope of gaining over the Jews in considerable numbers to the new religion — the Epistle to the Hebrews being an illustration; but he eventually abandoned this hope, and so became the first to make Christianity a religion for the world. The Catholic epistles, finally, were intended to unite the two ancient parties of Christendom — the Jewish and the more liberal Pauline. The very beginnings of the historical criticism thus present in outline the results attained by the most recent Tübingen school. With respect to the Apocalypse, Semler regarded it as a sort of Jewish mythology — "the production of an extravagant dreamer" — and wrote much to demonstrate its unfitness for the place it holds in the canon.
Having postulated the theory of accommodation by which the Old Test., and much of the New, lost their authoritative character, Semler was obliged to show what, if any, element of binding truth remains to Christianity after all that is merely local and temporary has been stripped off from the Bible. He finds it in "that which serves to perfect man's moral character," but declares that even this cannot be comprised in any definite set of truths, since different individuals are stimulated to virtue by different portions of the Scriptures. Whatever develops a new and better principle, that leads to the veneration of God in the soul, is Christianity; and that is inspired or divine which convinces readers "that they know more respecting spiritual changes and perfections, and are able to derive more actual profit from such changes, than before." He contends that there is such a thing as objective truth in Christianity, but that there can be no definite test to indicate whether any individual has apprehended it or not, since the decision can only be the expression of a moral judgment. He even thinks that nothing more than a difference in the form of expression is involved when the higher moral truths of Christianity are characterized as a revelation, or as a progressive development of the natural reason (see Schmid, Die Theol. Semlers, p. 167).
It is evident that Semler's theories remove the last distinctions between Christianity and Naturalism or Deism; but he nevertheless protests vigorously against being classed with Naturalists, and it was zeal against Naturalism that had led him to enter the lists against the Wolfenbüttel Fragmentist and the Confession of Bahrdt, though he had previously (in 1759, in his introduction to Baumgarten's Glaubenslehre, p. 51-57) reduced the distinguishing peculiarity of Christianity to a better morality. The solution of this contradiction must be found in the distinction Semler made between private religion and the publicly acknowledged teaching of the Church. He was open to religious impressions, given to prayer and the singing of religious hymns, and earnestly engaged in efforts to promote a Christian morality. He assured his students that an inward power, the peculiar privilege of those who possess a Christian knowledge of God, shall be realized by those who form the habit of prayer, and urged them to make the trial. It was, doubtless, owing to these consequences of his early religious training that he condemned all interference with the authoritatively established doctrines of the Church, though his separation of the faith of a private person from the teaching of the Church is open to the suspicion that he was too servile to sacrifice material prosperity in order to uphold a privately recognized truth. He asserted that a private scholar has the right to defend new opinions in the department of his labors; but that, as a teacher appointed by superior authority, it is his duty to follow the beaten track, when required, or else to resign his office. And it is certain that he thus expressed his serious convictions, and that his views in this respect grew out of his religious temperament.
2. Semler's Researches in Church History produced less durable results. He lacked the necessary qualities for thorough work in this field — a philosophical and profoundly Christian spirit, a philosophical and religious pragmatism, and especially an unbiased judgment. He brought to light an abundance of new material, however, and became the father of the history of doctrines; while his restless scepticism contributed towards a more satisfactory settlement of many incidents, and prepared the way for more unprejudiced views respecting many historical phenomena. His faults are, that he is incapable of rising to the conception of a historical development, and therefore prefers the arrangement by centuries; that he has no philosophical apprehension of dogma; and that he gauges past centuries by the tests of his own time — e.g. enlightenment and tolerance, liberality and morality. Being convinced that the character of private religion must necessarily differ with the multitudes of individuals, he is continually outraged to find all independence of private thought repressed by the power of the Church. Lacking a profound faith himself, he naturally stamps every appearance of mysticism as fanaticism; and as he is never able to escape the suspicion of priestly cunning and despotism, the impression derived from his survey of Church history is but dreary at the best. The martyrs were people "whose minds were unsettled, monks and hermits were madmen, the bishops chiefly intriguers, Augustine keen and crafty, Tertullian highly odd and fanatical, Theodoret superstitious, Bernard sanctimonious." Pelagius alone (whose Epp. ad Demetriadem he published with notes in 1775) meets with his approval. His method, too, was chaotic and confused. resulting in lengthy prefaces and numerous additions, appendices, and supplements to his works, most of which suffer, in addition, from the absence of indexes, and even of tables of contents. He tells us, however, that he was accustomed to deliver four or five lectures per day; and yet he managed to write no less than one hundred seventy-one books, though but one or two of them passed into a second edition.
The views of Semler on the canon of Scripture and connected subjects are developed in numerous works, prominent among which are the
Abhandlung vom freien Gebrauch des Kanons (1771-75, 4 vols.): — with which connect his Neue Untersuchungen über die Apocalypse (1776): — Vorbereitungen zur Hermeneutik (1760): — Briefe zur Erleichterung der Privat-Religion der Christen (1784): — Von freier Unters. des Kanons: — Erklärung über theol. Censuren: — Vorbereitung auf die königl. grossbritt. Aufgabe von d. Gottheit Christi (1787): — On Church history, Selecta Capita Historioe Ecclesiasticoe: — Versuch eines Auszugs aus. d. Kirchengeschichte: — Commentarii Historici de Antiquo Christianorum Statu: — and Neue Versuche die Kirchenhist. d. ersten Jahrh. mehr aufzuklären.
Sources. — Semler's Selbstbiographie (1781, 2 pts.); Eichhorn, Leben Semlers in the Bibliothek, pt. 5; Tholuck, Verm. Schriften. 2, 39; Schmid, Die Theologie Semlers (1858). SEE RATIONALISM.