Wette, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht De
Wette, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de an eminent German theologian and critic, was born Jan. 12, 1780, at Ulla, near Weimar, where his father, John Augustin, was pastor. He began his pursuit of learning at a time when German literature was in its highest glory, and in a region where its foremost representatives sojourned. In the school at Buttstadt he was greatly embarrassed by lack of money. Thence he went to the gymnasium at Weimar, where Bittiger was rector and Herder ephorus. His theological course was taken at Jena, where Griesbach, sand still more Paulus, exercised a stimulating influence over him, and developed in him a taste for independent study of the Scriptures.
De Wette's earliest essay in literature was a critical dissertation on the book of Deuteronomy (Jena, 1805), and his next, Contributions to New- Test. Introduction (Beiträge zür Einleitung in das N.T.). In these works De Wette abandoned the attempt to explain the miracles of Scripture as natural occurrences, and took the ground that they are mythical events. To establish this position he undertook to show that the historical books of the Bible are of much more recent origin than ecclesiastical tradition teaches; that especially the Pentateuch is composed of fragments, the earliest of which originated in the time of David, and the latest, the book of Deuteronomy itself, in the reign of Josiah; and that many persons were engaged in the compilation of these books. As J. S. Vater, of Halle, had just published similar opinions, De Wette was obliged to revise' his book and delay its publication until 1806, when the first volume of Beitrdgein's Alte. Test. appeared. The second volume appeared in 1807, and was remarkable for its development of the theory that the Chronicles are not drawn from the same source in which the books of Samuel and Kings originate; but that the writer of the Chronicles had made use of Samuel and Kings so far as they could serve his purpose, and had arbitrarily altered and made additions to them in the interests of the Levitical hierarchy; and for the manner in which these conclusions are made to react upon the credibility of the Pentateuch. He nevertheless persisted in maintaining the sacredness of the Scripture histories, even in their mythical form, and insisted that no miserable pragmatism should be allowed to destroy their sacredness. He declared truth to be the great law of history, and the love of truth to be the historian's first qualification; but truth was for him an ideal, poetic abstraction, which had no place either in the rationalism or the supernaturalism of those days. His views upon this subject are given in the article Beiträge zür Charakteristik des Hebraismus, in the Studien, which he edited in common with Creuzer and Daub (1807). He places himself on the side of those who believe in revealed religion, and regards Christ as the true Redeemer and the central fact in revelation.
In 1807 De Wette became professor of theology at Heidelberg after having served as tutor at Jena, and having received the doctorate of philosophy. In 1811 he published a commentary on the book of Psalms (editions in 1823, 1829, and 1836), in which he denied the Davidic authorship of a number of psalms previously ascribed to David; applied the references made in certain psalms, by the current exegesis, to the person of Christ to less distant historical events; and assigned a later date than was usually assumed to the Psalms generally. He was himself constrained to feel that his work was not conducive to devotional effects, and subsequently modified many of its statements, besides writing a supplement on the devotional exposition of Psalms (Heidelb. 1837). He demands a strictly scientific exposition, and emphatically denounces all "play of pious ingenuity." Christ is, in his view, not foretold as a historical personage in the Psalms, though many ideal descriptions are there furnished which may be utilized for Christological purposes. In 1810 he was called to the then newly founded University of Berlin, where Schleiermacher became his colleague and his colaborer in the endeavor to secure a theology which might satisfy the demands of both faith and science, though they differed widely as respects the application of methods. Schleiermacher insisted on a strict separation of philosophy from theology, yet persistently made use of philosophy; De Wette, on the other hand, proceeded from the theistic standpoint of Kant's criticism, and also coincided with Jacobi in his theory of the feelings in religion. In methodology he wholly followed the philosophy of Fries. Knowledge and faith are by him sharply distinguished from each other the former being a matter of the understanding, and being concerned with finite things only. Infinite things are to be apprehended by faith acting under the form of feeling (devotion, enthusiasm, resignation). The religious consciousness is accordingly aesthetical in character. The infinite is symbolically manifested in the finite, and the historical revelation must be conceived of, in consequence, as a symbol. This he held to be true of miracles also.
De Wette's critical labors, in this period of his life, extended beyond the limits of exegesis and reached over into systematic theology. In 1817 he published the Lehrbuch der hist. krit. Einleitung in die kanon. u. Apocryph. Bücher des Alten Test., which may be regarded as the consummation of his critical progress. It passed through seven editions, and was rated by De Wette as the most finished of the productions of his pen. In 1826 the complementary Einleitung in das Neue Test. appeared (6th ed. 1860). Earlier than both of these Introductions was his Lehrbuch der heb. jüd. Archäologie, etc. (Leips. 1814, 1830, 1842); and earlier still the Commentatio de Morte Jesu Christi Expiatoria (1813). In this, his first book in doctrinal theology, he assailed the orthodox view of the atonement from a new direction. He represented the death of Jesus as the unavoidable consequence of his moral action, and as unexpected, but grandly met when it was at hand. The philosophical principles on which De Wette's theological system was built are developed best of all in his little work Ueber Religion u. Theologie, etc. (Berlin, 1818 and 1821). The first part of his book on Christian doctrine appeared in 1813, and was devoted to Bible doctrines and pervaded by the principle of "historical development." In 1816 he published part 2, on ecclesiastical doctrines. In Bible doctrine he distinguished between Hebraism and Judaism in the Old Test., aid the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of thee apostles in the New. Church doctrine was not, to his thinking, a finished product, which could undergo no alteration and be developed no further; he saw in it simply a bond of union which binds together those who are members of the Church, but which deserves the attention of the theologian despite every advance that may be male. The presentation of Church doctrine however, in these books, was simply that of the Lutheran Church. The author's own system was not given to the public until 1846. In 1819 the Lehrbuch der Logmatik w as followed by a Christliche Sittenlehre (Christian Ethics) in two parts, the former of which contained the system of ethics, and the latter the history of ethics. In this book De Wette turned aside from the beaten track, in that he did not regard Christian ethics as a mere aggregation of moral prescriptions, but as a life having its root in a Christian disposition if the heart. His views in this field are still further exhibited in the article Kritische Uebersicht der Ausbildung der theolog. Sieileadre in der einagel. luth. Kirche seit Caliatus, in the Theolor. Zeitsckrift of 1819 and 1820 (edited by himself, Schleiermacher, and Licke). His published views upon this subject fairly reflected his own theological character. He combined in himself most intimately the scientific and the practical ethical character. His whole being was enlisted in the endeavor to work a moral renovation of the German people, and a restoration, on a large scale, of a Christian community in the land. Unable to use this pulpit, he drew up a number of pamphlets and articles for periodicals (1815-19), which were very influential and became quite popular. This constant endeavor to introduce his ethical views into the relations of practical life brought upon him the censure of the government on the occasion when the Erlangen theological student Karl Sand, a member of the Jena Burschenschaft as well, startled the German world by assassinating the dramatist August von Kotzebue under the impulse of an enthusiastic patriotism (March 23, 1819). Kotzebue had been strongly opposed to the success of the liberal movement then being made. De Wette addressed to the mother of this misguided youth a paper in which he condemned the murder as illegal, immoral, and antagonistic to all moral law, but at the same time characterized the motives from which the action sprang as a most encouraging sign of the times; in explication of which idea he afterwards adduced Jean Paul's judgment of Charlotte Corday. In consequence of having written this letter he was, despite the intervention of the academical senate in his behalf, dismissed from his professorship by command of the king. Oct. 2, 1819. He declined a sum of money offered him in compensation, and retired to Weimar to undertake an edition of Luther's writings (Luther's Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedeunken), of which vol. 1 appeared in 1825, and the final volume (5) in 1828. A supplementary volume was published by Seidenmann in 1856. This was the first comprehensive and complete edition of Luther's works ever published, and was of itself sufficient to earn for its author the fame of scholarship. In 1822 he published the didactic romance Theodor, oder des Zweiflers Weihe, to which Tholuck replied in 1823 with his Wahre Weihe des Zweiflers.
In 1821 measures were taken by St. Catharine's Church in Brunswick to secure De Wette as its pastor; but, before the arrangement was completed, a call to the theological professorship of Basle was extended, which he accepted. Here he not only taught to the great satisfaction of students, but also lectured in weekly evening assemblies where the cultured people of the place were his constant auditors. In this way he covered a course of ethics, and another on the nature, manifestations, and influence of religion; both of which were published (Berlin, 1823 sq and 1827). He also gave himself steadily to pulpit labor, in which he had never regularly engaged during his earlier years, and published: five volumes of sermons (1825-29), which were supplemented by a sixth volume published after his death (1849). He was, however; simply a teacher in the pulpit — never an orator; and yet the pulpit reacted upon the lecture-room, and led him into the study of theoretical homiletics, the fruit of which appears in his valuable work Andeutungen fiber Bildusag u. Berufsthitigkeit der Geistlichen; etc. He also attempted catechetical works, but without gaining the popular ear. During De Wette's stay at Basle the practical element in his character was more energetically developed, and introduced a noteworthy change in his religious life. He learned, in contact with different people, to appreciate various forms of religious manifestation which had formerly repelled him, and his polemical tendency gave way to an irenical disposition as his years advanced. He instituted a Griechenverein in 1825, whose object was the advancement of the moral and religious welfare of the newly liberated Greeks, and aided in the founding of a branch Gustav Adolf Verein for Switzerland (Protestant. — kirchl. Hülfsverein). He was charged, in consequence, with being a convert to ecclesiastical orthodoxy; but there is abundant evidence that he never changed the views he had adopted in earlier life. He persisted in advocating the utmost independence in theological thinking, and in regarding religion as a life rather than a creed; but testified that he knew "that none other name under heaven is given among men whereby we must be saved but that of Jesus, the Crucified One." In addition to his professional employments, De Wette took an amateur interest in art. He did not condemn the drama as immoral, and had even published a drama of his own construction (Berlin, 1823), though moral considerations prevented him from visiting the theatre. He loved music and the formative arts, and impressed their importance on the thought of his students. He wrote a second romance, and published it in 1829 (Heinrich.Melchthal, oder Bildung u. Genmeingeist [2 vols.]). A visit to Rome in the winter of 1846 was largely devoted to the study of ecclesiastical art, and gave birth to the attractive book Gedanmken iiber falerei u. Baukunst, besonders in kirchl.
Beziehung (Berlin, 1846). De Wette's chief occupation, however, was, always theology, and his years at Basle were fruitful in theological publications from his hand. He thoroughly revised his version of the Bible, wrote the Einleitung is NV., constructed a mass of text-books and articles for periodicals, and crowned his exegetical labors especially with the Kurzgefisstes exeget. Handb. zum N.T. (3 vols. in 11 pts. 1836-48). He possessed in an unusual measure the power of condensed yet precise statement, and evinced it here as in all his works. This commentary was, contemporary with Strauss's Lebeun Jesu, and the author did not hesitate to avow, in his preface to Matthew, his sympathy with Strauss in that writer's opposition to old and new "harmonistics," and in his advocacy of an idealistic and symbolical interpretation of the miracles of Scripture, though he believed that Strauss had gone too far in giving up the historical Jesus. De Wette was twice invited back to Germany, once to become pastor of St. Peter's in Hamburg, and again to accept a professorship at Jena, but declined to return thither. He died, after a brief illness, June 16, 1849. His likeness in oil by Dietter, and his bust by Schlth, ornament the aula at Basle.
Concerning De Wette's life and works, see Hagenbach (for many years his colleague), Leichenrede (Basle, 1849), and Akadem. Geddchtnissrede (Leips. 1850); Schenkel (a pupil of De W.), De W. u. d. Bedeutung seiner Theologie, etc. (Schaffhausen, 1849); Lucke, De W., zur freundschaftl. Erinnerung (Hamb. 1850); Thillden, in Nekrolog der Deutschen, 1849, p. 427 sq.; Brocklhaus, Conversations-Lexikon, s.v.; Biographie Universelle, s.v. With reference to his theology, see Baur, Kirchengesch. d. 19ten Jahrhunderts (Tüb. 1862), p. 212 sq.; Kahnis, D. innere Gang d. deutsch. Protestantismus (Leips. 1860). Respecting De Wette's merits as a critic and expositor, see the various introductions to Scripture, particularly Bleek's, and the commentaries. — Herzog. Real-Encyklop. s.v.