Canon Law in the “Century of the Individual”: Revolution and Continuity


Constructing Law and Revolution



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Constructing Law and Revolution
Rudolf Sohm
Long before Charles Homer Haskins and his Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, scholars had struggled to make sense of the rise of the urban schools and their dialectical method of analyzing canon law and theology. Already in the early nineteenth century, Savignys fundamental work on Roman law was considered a triumph both of scholarship and romantic nationalism, a work of Geist in the broadest sense. Something of the heroic was woven into the mantle Savigny passed on to successors like Rudolf Sohm.9

Sohm (1841-1917) came to prominence in the young Reich.10 A Protestant, he first achieved recognition in 1872 for his political/ecclesiological views.11 To Sohm, the modern church--regardless of confession--was an unavoidably legally-defined corporation under the State,12 a view that certainly did not hurt him in his subsequent academic career. By 1892 he was professor in Leipzig, where he published his Kirchenrecht.13 It rested on distinctive historical periodization, dividing church history into the early church, Catholicism, and the Reformation. He concluded that canon law could only be worldly law, for the ecclesia, the Body of Christ guided by the Holy Spirit, could not be a legally-constituted community. To Sohm, the body of Christ was no corporation.14

Sohm faced his share of critics.15 He was unafraid to take on Adolf Harnack, whose emphasis on the Hellenization of the early Church Sohm rejected in favor of his thesis that legal/institutional concepts transformed the charismatic community into Catholicism.16 Sohm also drew support for his periodization of Church History from Ernst Troeltsch's work on the social teaching of the Church.17 Like Sohm, Troeltsch had emphasized a sharp Post-Pauline transition from the primitive community of faith and spirit (pneuma) to sacramental order under the bishops.




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