Obituary: Oscar Cullmann

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The Independent Culture
OSCAR CULLMANN, the Protestant theologian and New Testament scholar, was one of this century's ecumenical pioneers. A lay member of the (Lutheran) Church of the Augsburg Confession of Alsace and Lorraine, he became involved in dialogue with Catholic and Orthodox as far back as the 1920s - long before it became fashionable.

His openness to Christians of other denominations helped forge a true ecumenical spirit in the theological faculty of Basle University, where he taught from 1938 to 1972 as Professor of New Testament and Ancient Christian History.

Born in Strasbourg in 1902, he studied at the university there and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He taught at Strasbourg University from 1927 to 1938 before being appointed to Basle, where he spent the bulk of his time until he retired at 70. He showed a great commitment to the students, running a hostel for theological students with his sister Louise. In 1968- 69 he served as Rector.

From 1948 he also served as Professor of Protestant Theology at the Sorbonne, as well as teaching courses at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris and at the Waldensian seminary in Rome. But his greatest influence came from his guest lectures around the world and his writing. In his long career he completed more than 100 titles (one of which describes the origins of the Christmas tree).

Among his more influential works were Christ and Time and Baptism in the New Testament (both published in English translation in 1950), Salvation in History (1967 in English) and The Christology of the New Testament (1959 in English). His last book was Prayer in the New Testament (1994).

Cullmann argued that what is most distinctive about the New Testament is its view of time and history. Running through the course of world history has been a relatively narrow stream of sacred history, at the key point of which is Jesus Christ. He believed this provided the clue to understanding the whole of history.

He also wrote a number of works focused on a theological understanding of ecumenism. Many of these concerned relations between the Protestant and Catholic Churches, such as Catholics and Protestants: a proposal for realising Christian solidarity (British publication 1960) and Vatican Council II: the new direction (1968).

Cullmann's views, especially on the role of St Peter, outlined in his book Peter - Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (1952) were well received in the Vatican. At a time when contacts at the highest level were unusual, he was received by Popes Pius XII, John XXIII and, above all, Paul VI. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth used to say teasingly, "Oscar, on your gravestone it will say, `Here lies the adviser to three popes'!" Cullmann's conversations with Paul VI gave rise to the plan for an ecumenical institute in Jerusalem, founded at Tantur in 1972.

Cullmann had attended the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 as an observer and had recorded his impressions of the Council. Thirty years later, in 1993, he was the first Protestant to receive the Pope Paul VI Prize, presented to him by Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan.

Despite his firm commitment to ecumenism, he was not a supporter of a new "World Unity Church" to bring together all Christians. His 1986 book Unity Through Diversity, which summed up his lifetime experience, argued instead for a "community of autonomous churches".

As he declared in 1972, ecumenism aimed at fusing the churches would

not only destroy the true unity in the Holy Spirit, but would lead Christians of different denominations to the temptation to abandon the foundations of their faith and to seek the principle of unity outside this faith. . . Only an ecumenism that respects the diversity of charisms can unite us in Christ, while at the same time leading the Christian churches of all denominations back to the sources of the Christian faith.

The current troubles of the World Council of Churches, where many Orthodox Churches have been questioning their continued membership over the perceived liberal Protestant agenda of the organisation, demonstrate how timely Cullmann's message remains.

Felix Corley

Oscar Cullmann, theologian: born Strasbourg, Germany 25 February 1902; Professor of New Testament and Ancient Church History, Basle University 1938-72; died Chamonix, France 16 January 1999.