Nietzsche's Protestant Fathers

A Study in Prodigal Christianity

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Thomas R. Nevin
  • New York, NY: 
    , October
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Nietzsche’s Protestant Fathers: A Study in Prodigal Christianity, Thomas R. Nevin outlines the thought of four Protestant thinkers who influenced German philosophy and theology prior to Friedrich Nietzsche. Each of these thinkers—Martin Luther, Jacob Boehme, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing—contributed concepts that resemble aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Their conceptual innovations “shaped three great sea changes in Western thought and spirituality: the Reformation, the ‘mechanical’ revolution, and the Enlightenment” (1). Nevin traces how these influences may have impacted Nietzsche’s thought, with emphasis on his critiques of Christianity. 

Each chapter consists of thorough, heavily-cited research, often grasping for its thesis. The chapters begin with biographies of the different thinkers, followed by an analysis of their thought and contribution. Nevin’s analyses are framed by what he terms the heterodox element to each thinker’s work. Luther, for instance, “denied Christ by denying Christ’s first and indispensable law for his followers ... to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind,” through an emphasis on faith over love (6, 23). Boehme argues for “the location of evil in the Christian God” (116). Leibniz overemphasized “metaphysical reasoning” to defend faith, which led to a further (detrimentally) critical reflection on faith (140). This culminated in the Enlightenment thought of Lessing, whose rationalism “buries Jesus, once and for all,” and, by promoting him to the title of “Great Teacher … rolls an immovable stone over his tomb” (235). 

Nevin ends the chapters with a brief section relating on how the thinkers influenced Nietzsche. The Boehme chapter best exemplifies the tenuous nature of the book’s thesis. There is scant evidence that Nietzsche read Boehme, thus Nevin spends multiple paragraphs speculating as to how Nietzsche might have encountered Boehme’s work. The best argument suggests that “it cannot be ruled out that Nietzsche learned of Boehme from within his Pietist family” (115). However, Nevin reports that Boehme influenced Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and Arthur Schopenhauer—all of whom more directly impacted Nietzsche’s thought. While Nevin’s research offers a concise, well-documented presentation of Boehme’s biography and intellectual contributions, one has to wonder how this chapter contributes to the book’s argument. 

Despite an inconsistent thesis, Nevin’s Christian perspective provides cohesion for the critical analyses throughout the book. In the preface, Nevin states that his book “is addressed chiefly to Christians, but not exclusively” (ix). Nevin determines the apostasies committed by the various thinkers through comparison with an uninterrogated “Johannine theology,” which each thinker uniquely ignores. This includes Nevin’s critique of Nietzsche, claiming that he “forgot—deliberately, it may be—that agape, the love-root and fuel of Christian praxis, is the keynote of Johannine testimony” (61). Nietzsche’s continued philosophical influence extends this “forgetting,” as Nevin laments that “it is remiss of Nietzsche’s anti-Christian enthusiasts to remain uninformed of what Christian praxis requires” (267). One might wonder whose“Christian praxis” Nevin intends here, but that question remains unanswered beyond an apparently self-evident theology gleaned from the Gospel of John. 

The theological perspective behind Nevin’s arguments also shades his analysis of Nietzsche. Nevin argues that Nietzsche “did not altogether leave Christianity behind,” and since he was baptized in his youth, “he was sealed as a Christian. A bad Christian he might have become, but a Christian” (2). Like his forbears analyzed throughout the book, Nietzsche is a “prodigal” Christian who misses the mark of orthodoxy, but nonetheless remains attached to the Church. This view obviously contradicts Nietzsche’s actions and words but it is fair to speculate, to an extent, on Nietzsche legacy given the multiple articulations of that legacy. With this in mind, it is helpful to note how Nevin treats Nietzsche’s relationship with his sister, as well as his relation to anti-semitism (and later Nazism). 

Nevin references Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche only a handful of times but those references are typically positive. For instance, Nevin defends “Nietzsche’s sister, whom bien-pensants unflaggingly put down, despite the abundant if sometimes fondly warped testimony she affords” (56). On the final page, Nevin refers to Elizabeth by Nietzsche’s pet name for her, “Lama” (274). Ostensibly, Nevin wants to reclaim Elizabeth’s image given that she downplayed Nietzsche’s apostasy, which would align with Nevin’s argument. In Nietzsche’s Sister and the Will to Power: A Biography of Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche (University of Illinois Press, 2003), Carol Diethe provides a significantly different view of Elizabeth’s relationship to Nietzsche. According to Diethe, the siblings grew apart, partly due to Elizabeth’s marriage to an avowed anti-semite with whom Nietzsche clashed. When Nietzsche fell ill in the last years of his life, Elizabeth forged portions of Nietzsche’s works—particularly the collection of unfinished manuscripts that became The Will to Power—as well as some letters including references to her as “Lama,” which Nietzsche had employed less often after their relationship soured. 

It is curious that Nevin praises Elizabeth while he hints at connections between Nietzsche and the Third Reich. Nevin writes: “that Nietzsche became an anti-anti-Semite out of fear and resentment of Wagnerians and German chauvinists eager to endorse him and his books does not put him at a convincing distance from die Nazi Verbrecher” (271). As Diethe argues, it was Elizabeth who brought Nietzsche to die Nazi Verbrecher (evidence of which includes a picture of Elizabeth personally meeting Hitler at the Nietzsche home/library). Nietzsche’s anti-semitism should not be dismissed nor glossed over, but the topic deserves a more thorough historical analysis than Nevin supplies. 

Nietzsche’s Protestant Fathers offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and works of some of the thinkers who preceded Nietzsche. While the overarching argument suffers from some significant continuity issues, Nevin presents a succinct and well-articulated analysis of the life and work of Luther, Boehme, Leibniz, and Lessing. There is knowledge to be gained from reading Nietzsche’s Protestant Fathers, but readers would do well to consult Nietzsche’s own writings as well as other supplementary research into the life and thought of this influential philosopher.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Laminack is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
April 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas R. Nevin is Professor Emeritus at John Carroll University and a Life Member of Clare Hall at Cambridge University. His previous books include The Last Years of Saint Therese (2013) and Therese of Lisieux (2006).


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