Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Wilhelm Martin Leberecht De Wette

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DE WETTE, WILHELM MARTIN LEBERECHT (1780- 1849), a distinguished German theologian, was born on the 12th January 1780, at Ulla, near Weimar, where his father was clergyman. After receiving his preliminary education at a local school he was sent to the gymnasium at Weimar, a town which was then at the height of its literary glory. Here, as he himself testified in glowing terms many years later, he was much influenced by intercourse with Herder, who as " ephorus " frequently visited the gymnasium and examined the pupils. In 1799 he entered on his theological studies at the university of Jena, his principal teachers being Griesbach and Paulus, from the latter of whom more than any other he derived the tendency to free critical inquiry which characterized him as an expositor. Herder and Paulus were thus in some sense his spiritual fathers, but the relationship was entirely one of spirit and airn ; in method arid results he occupied an independent and almost solitary position among German theologians. Having taken his doctor s degree, De Wette at once com menced, according to German custom, the career of a " privat-docent " at Jena, which, however, he was not permitted to continue long. In 1807 he became professor of theology at Heidelberg, and in 1810 he was transferred to a similar chair in the newly-founded university of Berlin, from which he was dismissed in 1819 on account of his having written a letter of consolation to the mother of Sand, the murderer of Kotzebue. The letter was defensible, though it drew a distinction between the morality of the deed and of the doer which many were not prepared to admit, and a petition in its author s favour was presenter! by the senate of the university. The king, how ever, proved inexorable, and a decree was issued not only depriving De Wette of the chair, but banishing him from the Prussian kingdom. He retired for a time to Weimar, where he occupied his enforced leisure in the preparation of his edition of Luther, and in writing the romance Theodoroder die Weilie des Zioeiflers (Berlin, 1822), in which he-describes the education of an evangelical pastor. Dur ing tin s period he made his first essay in preaching, and proved himself to be possessed of very popular gifts. An invitation to a pastoral charge in Brunswick was under hi* consideration, when the offer in 1822 of the chair of theology in the university of Basel, which had been re organized four years before, opened up to him a still more congenial sphere. Though his appointment had been strongly opposed by the orthodox party, De Wette soon won for himself a position of great influence both in the university and in the community of Basel. He was early admitted a citizen, and received many proofs of the esteem of his fellow-townsmen ; and the university owed much of its recovered strength, particularly in the theological faculty, to his individual efforts. He died on the 16th June 1849, being rector of the university at the time. De Wette s chief work as a theologian was in the department of biblical criticism and exegesis, though he made valuable contributions to other branches of theology. In fact his range was unusually extensive, and he did much by precept as well as by example to widen the limits of theological culture. He had considerable poetic faculty, and wrote a drama in three acts, entitled Die Entsagung (Berlin, 1823). He had an intelligent interest in art, and devoted much attention to ecclesiastical music and architecture. As a biblical critic he is sometimes classed with the destructive school, but his position was unique, and cannot be accurately defined by merely referring him to a leader or a school. In the work of interpretation he strove to keep himself entirely free from dogmatic prepossessions, and he was fearless in recognizing and grappling with difficulties ; but he was prevented by his deeper spirituality from identifying himself with the hard and uncompromising rationalism of Paulus, and on the other hand his unfettered critical method separated him distinctly from the supernaturalist or strictly orthodox school of interpreters. Thus it has happened that each school has classed him with the followers of the other, as he himself predicted would be the case in the preface to his Christliche Sittenlehre. His works are generally admitted to be marked by great exegetical skill, unusual power of condensation, and uniform fairness. Accordingly they possess an element of permanent value which is little affected by the progress of criticism. The following is a list of the most important of them :— Bcitrage zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament (2 voln. 1806-7) ; Commcntar uber die Psalmen (1811), which has passed through several editions, and is still regarded as of high authority ; Lehrbuch der Hebrdisch-jildischen Archccologie (1814) ; Ueber Religion und Thcologie (1815), a work of great importance as showing its author s general theological position ; Lehrbuch der Christlichen Dogmatik (1813-16) ; Christliche Sittenlehre (1819-21) ; Einleitung in das Neue Testament (1836); Religion, ihr Wcsen, Hire Erscheinungs- form, und ihre Einfluss auf das Leben (1827); Dns Wesen des Christlichen Glaubens (1846); and Kurzgefasstcs cxcgeti-srhcs Hand- luch zumNeucn Testament (1848). De Wette also edited Luther s works. See Hagenbach in Herzog s Real-Encyclopadic, Liicke s W. M. L. De Wette, ziir frcitndschafllichcr Erimicrung (IS50), andSchen- kel s W. M. L. De Wette und die Bedeutung seiner Theologie fur unsere Zeit (1849).