1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Teller, Wilhelm Abraham

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TELLER, WILHELM ABRAHAM (1734-1804), German Protestant divine, was born at Leipzig on the 9th of January 1734. His father, Romanus Teller (1703-1750), was a pastor at Leipzig, and afterwards became professor of theology in the university. He edited the earlier volumes of a Bibelwerk (19 vols., 1749-70) which was designed as an adaptation for German readers of the exegetical works of Andrew Willet, Henry Ainsworth, Symon Patrick, Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry and others. Wilhelm Abraham studied philosophy and theology in the university of his native town. Amongst the men whose influence mainly determined his theological position and line of work was J. A. Ernesti. Teller's writings present rationalism in its course of development from biblical supernaturalism to the borders of deistical naturalism. His first learned production was a Latin translation of Benjamin Kennicott's Dissertation on the State of the Printed Hebrew Text of the Old Testament (1756), which was followed the next year by an essay in which he expounded his own critical principles. In 1761 he was appointed pastor, professor of theology and general superintendent in the university of Helmstedt. Here he pursued his exegetical, theological and historical researches, the results of which appeared in his Lehrbuch des christlichen Glaubens (1764). This work caused some commotion, as much by the novelty of its method as by the heterodoxy of its matter, and more by its omissions than by its positive teaching, though everywhere the author seeks to put theological doctrines in a decidedly modern form. In 1767 Teller, whose attitude had made his position at Helmstedt intolerable, was glad to accept an invitation from the Prussian minister for ecclesiastical affairs to the post of provost of Kölln, with a seat in the supreme consistory of Berlin. Here he found himself in the company of the rationalistic theologians of Prussia — F. S. G. Sack (1738-1817), Johann Joachim Spalding (1714-1804) and others and became one of the leaders of the rationalistic party, — and one of the chief contributors to C. F. Nicolai's Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek. Teller was not long in making use of his freer position in Berlin. In 1772 appeared the most popular of his books, Wörterbuch des Neuen Testamentes zur Erklärung der christlichen Lehre (6th ed., 1805). The object of this work was to recast the language and ideas of the New Testament and give them the form of 18th-century illuminism. The author maintains that the Graeco-Hebraic expressions must not be interpreted literally, but explained in terms intelligible to the modern mind. By this lexicon Teller had put himself amongst the most advanced rationalists, and his opponents charged him with the design of overthrowing positive Christianity altogether. In 1786 the author became a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. The “Wöllner edict” of July 9, 1788, for the enforcement of Lutheran orthodoxy, and Teller's manly action, as member of the consistorial council, in defiance of it (cf. his Wohlgemeinte Erinnerungen, 1788), led the Prussian government to pass upon him the sentence of suspension for three months, with forfeiture of his stipend. He was not, however, to be moved by such means, and (1792) issued his work Die Religion der Vollkommeneren, an exposition of his theological position, in which he advocated at length the idea, subsequently often urged, of “the perfectibility of Christianity,” — that is, of the ultimate transformation of Christianity into a scheme of simple morality, with a complete rejection of all specifically Christian ideas and methods. This book represents the culminating point of German illuminism, and is separated by a long process of development from the author's Lehrbuch. In the same year he published his Anleitung zur Religion überhaupt und zum Allgemeinen des Christenthums besonders; für die Jugend höherer und gebildeter Stünde aller Religionsparteien. Teller died on the 9th of December 1804. Besides his contributions to the Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek, he edited a popular and practically useful Magazin für Prediger (1792-1801).

See W. Gass, Geschichte der protestantischen Dogmatik, iv. pp. 206-222; P. Wolff, art. in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (ed. 1907); Heinrich Döring, Deutsche Kanzelredner des 18ten und 19ten Jahrh., p. 506 seq.; Edward Pusey, Causes of the Late Rationalistic Character of German Theology (1828), p. 150; and cf. the article in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie.