Engaging Anders Nygren

by Elder M. Lindahl

While we were enjoying a delicious Swedish Christmas dinner, my son-in-law, Jeff, asked about the subject of my doctoral thesis. Finishing the meatball I was chewing and stalling a bit to organize my thoughts, I responded, “I translated some of the early writings of Anders Nygren.” Though I added a few general comments for clarity, Jeff was not satisfied. “Dad, couldn’t you just put your thesis into a single paragraph?” Thankfully, the table conversation changed, and the festivities continued. His challenging question, nonetheless, became lodged firmly in my consciousness. What follows is an attempt, though not in a single paragraph, to expand a bit on my research experience.

Mention the name Anders Nygren (1890-1974) and Readers will often know of his classic work on love, Agape and Eros, A Study of the Christian Idea of Love. In these volumes, Nygren describes agape as love which is spontaneous and unmotivated by any value in the object. In contrast, eros is love, including sexual attraction, which is described as human desire or preference. With Philip S. Watson’s translation of Nygren’s work on Christian love, the key terms became familiar in the 50s and still linger today in general and theological usage.

In addition to this, a few will know that Anders Nygren was a Professor and a Bishop at Lund in Sweden. Others will know of his Commentary on Romans or his The Essence of Christianity, and a few might know he was an internationally-known churchman who gave lectures at the University of Chicago, the Ecumenical Institute in Evanston, Illinois, and the University of Minnesota.

But few know about Nygren’s early work in philosophy. That’s not surprising with respect to the English-speaking world because these pages are mostly still in Swedish. Further, only a few scholars have spent time uncovering the philosophical methodology which supports Nygren’s distinguished theological lectures, essays, and books.1

I came to know of Nygren’s writings in classes I had at North Park Seminary with my esteemed Professor Donald Frisk. He often talked about the Lundensians–Anders Nygren, Gustaf Aulén, Ragnar Bring, and others. My doctoral committee at Northwestern University accepted an exploration of Nygren’s philosophical foundations as a thesis project. A sabbatical leave I had from North Park in 1963-64 permitted me to have personal contact with Professor Nygren and to do research on his ideas.

Muriel and I, with our then three children, Kristine, Wesley, and Paul (Renee was born later), crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Gripsholm, a Swedish ocean liner, and lived in an apartment on Dragarbrunsgatan in Uppsala. Our children attended Swedish schools during part of this time. Muriel handled the shopping and meal preparation. Her Dad, Carl Gunnar Johnson, was an immigrant, so we had contact with many of her aunts, uncles, and first cousins. Karl Olsson, Nils William Olsson, Carleton Peterson, my brother David, and others visited us. Our family enjoyed Advent, Christmas, and a week skiing together in Åre.

Almost every weekday for six months, I read Nygren’s untranslated early work in the philosophy of religion at Carolina Rediviva Library in Uppsala. The center of my study was Nygren’s published doctoral thesis, Relgiöst Apriori, 1921. I also attended graduate seminars, and discussed Nygren with other graduate students.

Nygren’s early philosophical writings are substantial. The titles in English (my translation) of some are: Metaphysical Philosophy’s Meaning for the Science of Religion, 1918; The Basic Problem of the Philosophy of Religion, 1921; The Scientific Foundation of Dogmatics with special Consideration of the Kant-Schleiermacher Problem, 1922; Philosophical and Christian Ethics, 1923.

In the Spring of 1964, we moved to a lovely beach house in Bjäred on the Oresund near Lund. This put us closer to the home of Professor Nygren and his charming, gifted, and gracious German wife, Irmgard Helene Luise Brandin Nygren, at Helgonavägen 10. In 1920, he met Irmgard in Germany where he was studying with Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) and Rudolph Otto (1869-1937). Irmgard, a student of Troeltsch, helped Nygren when he was working on his dissertation.

Nygren was a man in his middle 70s with a large build and average height. Though excellent in Swedish, Latin, Greek, German, and French, he never seemed comfortable in English which he began to study around age 50. He was a kind, friendly, pleasant, and solicitous gentleman who was always in good humor. He was an old world scholar, trained in the current theological and academic traditions, who was determined that I would come to understand his views.

Professor Nygren and I would meet in his large, book lined study. We faced each other across his massive desk, glasses of saft (a fruit drink) nearby. We would talk back and forth, using both Swedish and English as we worked through the pages of his old books, my fresh translations, and my comments to which he would give his responses. Our weekly sessions lasted an hour-and-a-half. Although the material we were discussing was more than 40 years old, Nygren defended his old writings skillfully, clearly, and determinedly.

He may have wondered about me, a Covenanter who had problems with the idea of a State Church, a pietist and all, studying his ideas, but I never felt any problem. He gave me copies of several of his books, and was always the gracious host willing to give me his time and attention. I translated some of his writings into American English. On one occasion, Professor and Mrs. Nygren invited our whole family to their home for a lovely dinner.

And what, briefly, did I find in my research? Nygren follows Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as well as some Southwestern German Neo-Kantians.2 To summarize Nygren’s early philosophy, one might think of these four dimensions or contexts of meaning: Science, Ethics, Aesthetics, and Religion.

In science, Nygren following Kant begins with the physical world, the realm of the senses, and contends there must necessarily be an apriori category or categories from which we can tell whether our assertions about the phenomenal (the physical) world are true or false. Aproiri categories, like time and space, are present, or valid, before one starts to speak or think. They are indispensable and necessary. The concept of apriori knowledge runs through all the four dimensions or contexts of meaning.

A second human context of meaning is the ethical, the moral law within. Again, Nygren, like Kant, insists that there must necessarily be an apriori category, the good in this case, for any talk about right or wrong to be possible and meaningful. Kant makes the religious dimension an adjunct of the ethical. Religion for Pietist Kant is taking one’s duties as Divine commands.

Kant summarizes the first two contexts of meaning, the physical world and ethics, thus: “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Nygren agrees.

The third dimension, the aesthetic, also requires a controlling category, an apriori, something there before we start, and here it is the beautiful. There is no language about beauty or ugliness without first having a formal idea of beauty.

Where Nygren disagrees with Kant is in the handling of the religious dimension. Against Kant, Nygren argues that religion is not reducible to ethics. Nygren contends that the religious use of language is unique, sui generis, it involves a special context of meaning. There are times when humans claim that the three dimensions (science, ethics, and aesthetics) entail values which hold or have status in a world beyond. For talk about things and events above and beyond space and time to be possible and meaningful at all, something must be there before we begin, a religious apriori must be assumed. Nygren identifies this basic religious category as the Eternal. He disagrees with those who define religion as myths or human constructions.

Central to Nygren’s thought is his insistence that metaphysics, the area of philosophy which attempts to explain the nature of being and reality, is absolutely separate from religion. Metaphysical speculation, e.g., working with a question like, “Why is there something rather than nothing?,” when blended with either philosophy of religion or theology, distorts rather than clarifies what is knowable through scientific or scholarly research. God may or may not come into the picture depending on the religion one is studying. Nygren formulates a critical philosophy of religion, one which starts with examining the actual languages of the world religions rather than with doing metaphysics.

Nygren understood the existing world religions as different ways to give content, (flesh and blood) to the empty religious apriori form, the Eternal. Through what he calls Motivforskning, motif research, the basic idea or the underlying theme of each faith, theology, or religion, can be located, identified, and expressed. The basic ideas, beliefs, and emotions of any particular religion are its central motif or grundmotiv. For example, the grundmotiv of the Christian faith is agape which gives shape and structure to all the rest. Motif research continues to be a significant part of the Nygren legacy.

Nygren’s thought is insightful and helpful. In my dissertation, I challenge Nygren’s attempt to create a philosophy of religion without metaphysics. I also try to develop other aspects of his position. His way of relating science, ethics, aesthetics, and religion has been a part of my thinking since my study with him. Currently, I am working on developing a closer connection between aesthetics and religion to overcome a limitation in Nygren’s position, as I see it, and in my own thinking.

I continued to work on Nygren’s thought after I returned to the States and to teaching at North Park. It was a unique privilege to meet and engage such a fine, distinguished teacher like Professor Nygren, a towering figure in 20th century theology. His ideas continue to impact my thinking.

Thanks, Jeff, for asking about my research. It was a challenge to rethink and rearrange this dusty material. Your tough request moved me to reflect and write down some old, fading memories.

1. 1. See Thor Hall, Anders Nygren, Waco: Word, 1978, for an excellent English presentation of Nygren’s thought.

1. 2. In contrast to the Marburg Neo-Kantians who worked with logic and epistemology, Nygren, in line with the Baden or Southwest German School, used the central idea of value.

Elder Lindahl (d. 2015) was a well-known North Park University professor and long-time contributor to Pietisten.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl