The Poet Prophets of the Old Testament & Jochen Klepper 1903-1942, by JW Rogerson 

by
02 November 2018

John Barton on insights from a scholar into the Bible and Christian life

 

JOHN ROGERSON, who died on 4 September (Gazette, 21 September), was among the leading Old Testament scholars of his generation. His interests ranged into linguistics and philosophy, as well as social anthropology and the history of (especially German) scholarship. He will be greatly missed, not only for his vast knowledge and skills, but also for his kindly personal engagement with fellow scholars and students, and his active Christian ministry.

These two short books, published in the month he died, will give some impression of the breadth of his concerns to the reader new to his scholarly work, and, to those who knew him, a reminder of how much we have lost.

The Poet Prophets of the Old Testament is a set of lectures given in connection with a celebration of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and, therefore, concentrates on the poetic aspect of biblical prophecy. Rogerson traces the rediscovery of biblical poetry by Robert Lowth in the 18th century, and shows how recognising the poetic character of prophecy opens it up for the modern reader. In dialogue with some modern German philosophical thought, and also with Coleridge, he presents the biblical prophets as pre-eminently poets, speaking not of the future, but of the challenges of an “eternal now”.

In a chapter on the “servant songs” in Isaiah, Rogerson shows how the suffering of the servant can be seen as on behalf of his people — whether or not he is identified with Jesus. In a striking passage, however, he argues that Jesus is not vindicated by the existence of such prophecies; rather, the prophecies are vindicated by Jesus’s use of them to refer to himself. This is in keeping with the strongly Christological character of Rogerson’s thought, and its emphasis on the newness of the revelation in Christ alongside that in the Old Testament.

Jochen Klepper is a study of a little-known German novelist and poet of the National Socialist era in Germany, who, with his Jewish wife and daughter, committed suicide in 1942, seeing what was coming. In introducing Klepper to a British readership, Rogerson summarises his works — every one of which he had read — but also reflects on Klepper’s Lutheran understanding of both life and art.

Klepper argued for the production of specifically Christian literature. By this he meant not what English-speakers often understand by “Christian novels”, but, rather, works that illustrate the truth that the human being is both a sinner and yet justified by the grace of God: works that refrain from passing judgement on the characters in the story, leaving that to God alone.

A fascinating feature is how influenced Klepper was by the daily short biblical readings, Losungen, that were and still are read every day by many German Protestants and treated as mottos for the day ahead. Rogerson tells us that it was his own use of the Losungen that led him to encounter Klepper, one of whose poems was printed as a commentary on a particular biblical text.

This led him (characteristically) to thorough research on Klepper, and also to reflection on how the Bible can shape a life. The book encapsulates many of Rogerson’s themes: the place of the Bible in the Christian life, theological and political thought in Germany, and literature and life. It introduces a writer who clearly deserves to be better known in the Anglophone world.

It would be foolish to suggest that these short books do complete justice to John Rogerson’s thinking, which spanned far more than the themes covered here. Nevertheless, both books are quintessential Rogerson in their concern for showing the relevance of the Bible — and particularly the Old Testament — to the life of a Christian.

Rogerson was committed to the broad-church tradition in Anglicanism, and both books illustrate this concern in their liberal understanding of the Christian tradition and its open approach to the Bible. They also remind us how little mutual influence there is, theologically and ecclesiologically, between England and Germany: a gap that Rogerson did more than most to try to bridge.

 

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.

 

The Poet Prophets of the Old Testament
J. W. Rogerson
Beauchief Abbey Press/Lulu £8.99
(978-0-9935499-6-0)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
 

Jochen Klepper 1903-1942: Christian poet and witness in troubled times
J. W. Rogerson
Beauchief Abbey Press/Lulu £8.99
(978-0-9935499-7-7)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

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