Emory Law News Center

Witte receives honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University
By Patti Ghezzi | Emory Law | May 3, 2017

John Witte, Jr. has received an honorary doctorate in theology from Heidelberg University in Germany.

Witte, Robert W. Woodruff University Professor, McDonald Distinguished Professor, and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory, has strong ties with Heidelberg, one of the oldest universities in the world. He grew up with the Heidelberg Catechism, and he spent a semester at the university as a von Humbolt-Stiftung Fellow in 1999 researching his first major book on law and The Reformation, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge University Press, 2002), under the guidance of theologian Wolfgang Huber and others. For the past 15 years, Witte has worked closely with Heidelberg Professor Michael Welker, whom he describes as a “brilliant scholar of the weightier matters of the law and fundamentals of theology.” He has also worked with Heidelberg’s leading church historians, Professors Christoph Strohm, and Jan Stievermann.

“It’s especially gratifying that this ancient, world-class theology faculty would honor a mere jurist, despite Martin Luther’s warning that ‘jurists are bad Christians,’ ” Witte said in his acceptance lecture on February 8. “But Christian jurists and theologians have, in fact, been working closely together as the leaders of this global law and religion movement – along with growing numbers of Jewish and Muslim scholars and specialists in Asian and traditional religions.”

Witte used the lecture to map the field of law and religion studies, which now has some 28 journals and 58 academic centers worldwide.

Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion is the oldest such center in the world, and draws on more than 90 Emory faculty and a network of 1,600 scholars. Witte has directed the Center since 1987, and has led a dozen major international projects on democracy, human rights, and religious freedom; marriage, family, and children; and law and Christianity. Under Witte’s direction, the Center has attracted some $25 million in project funding from the Pew, Ford, Lilly, Luce, McDonald, and Templeton foundations as well as individual donors. Together, these Center projects have yielded more than 300 volumes of scholarship.

Witte has published 250 articles, 17 journal symposia, and 30 books – half of which were published by university presses at Cambridge, Oxford, or Columbia. His work has been translated into 15 languages. He serves as editor of the Cambridge Law and Christianity book series, editor of the Emory Studies in Law and Religion series, and coeditor of the Journal of Law and Religion. 

He has won many teaching awards, including the University’s Emory Williams Award, two Crystal Apple Awards, and the University Scholar Teacher Award. Students have voted him Most Outstanding Professor at Emory Law a dozen times.

Witte has delivered more than 350 public lectures around the world, including recently the Franke Lectures at Yale, the Jefferson Lectures at Berkeley, and the Cunningham Lectures at Edinburgh.

Law and religion have been at the heart of his scholarly work and teaching. In his speech he invoked his mentor Harold J. Berman: “Without law at its backbone, religion gradually crumbles into shallow spiritualism and social insignificance; without religion at its heart, law slowly slides into empty formalism and sometimes brutal tyranny.”

Robert B. Ahdieh, Vice Dean of Emory Law and K. H. Gyr Professor of Private International Law, noted that Witte is only Emory’s second recipient of a Heidelberg honorary doctorate. Thomas Buergenthal, a former judge of the International Court of Justice, received the honor in 1986. “The University of Heidelberg is one of the top universities in the world,” Ahdieh said, adding that the university was founded in 1386, and its theology faculty is second to none. “This is a great honor for John and for Emory University.”