Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Subversive Sublimities: Undercurrents of the German Enlightenment, ed. Eitel Timm (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1992), pp. 58-69. Copyright © 1992 Priscilla Hayden-Roy.


The rise of rationalistic moral theology in the 18th century reflects the prevailing assumption of Enlightened thought that moral concepts were the privileged hermeneutical telos of the "coarse" or sensate language in the Bible and Christian dogma. The theological school known as neology supported this view and proposed an exegetical strategy for extracting the "pure" moral sense from the "coarse" or sensate text. In 1772 the Berlin neologian Wilhelm Abraham Teller (1734-1804) published a programmatic guide to this exegetical strategy, a dictionary entitled Wörterbuch des Neuen Testaments zur Erklärung der christlichen Lehre. I would like to discuss here a critical response to Teller's dictionary, written by the Württemberg pietist, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782). Oetinger, a member of the clergy in Lutheran Württemberg, was a leader of the speculative wing of Wurttemberg pietists who were influenced by Jacob Bohme, the cabala, alchemy, and even Swedenborg. In this article I discuss the background and implications of Oetinger's notion of sensate language, its connection to hermetic and theosophical traditions of the 18th century, and its polemical function as an alternative to the rational discourse of moral philosophy. I will then draw some parallels to developments in late 18th-century aesthetic philosophy.