Johan Ernst Gunnerus and the Quest for the Soul in the Eighteenth Century


  • Friedemann Stengel Halle University



body and soul, Enlightenment, Esotericism, freedom, immortality, Pietism, pre-established harmony, theology


The Norwegian bishop, theologian, philosopher, political scientist, and naturalist, Johan Ernst Gunnerus, can be regarded as one of the most significant proponents of continental European culture in eighteenth-century Norway. The eighteenth-century debate on the meaning and locus of the soul, considered the most central scholarly debate of the ‘Century of Enlightenment’, clearly exemplifies Gunnerus’ own entanglement in contemporaneous philosophical and theological debates. While delineating his position within it, the present article seeks to shed light on its crucial dimensions and arguments, while also illuminating its impact on the transmission of traditional Christian ideas. Theological-philosophical concepts underwent dramatic transformations – in particular, on the question of the immortality of the soul – that also extended to anthropology, eschatology and the divine doctrine. Positioning Gunnerus within this debate demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of scholarly interactions on topics that today might be deemed purely theological. Their vigorous resistance to dogma and barriers to autonomous thinking form a salient feature of the Enlightenment era. In contextualizing Gunnerus’ doctrine on the soul, it becomes clear that classifying theologies and philosophies according to clear-cut categories like ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Pietism’, or ‘Esotericism’, prunes the complexity of the debates and implicates far-reaching perspectives of the Enlightenment discourse in notions generated in the centuries thereafter.






Peer-reviewed articles