Solving the “Gretchenfrage” of the Son of Man problem with Eugene Boring

The title of this post is intentionally misleading. It aims to raise one’s hopes that this post will unlock the great mysteries associated with the interpretation of the “Son of Man” expression in the Gospels. Though it can, of course, do nothing of the sort, I hope that it will resolve a minor “Son of Man” problem that for me at least had remained a mystery until now, namely the problem of making sense of the title of Anton Vögtle’s 1994 book Die “Gretchenfrage” des Menschensohnproblems (3rd edition 1997).

Whenever I had read Vögtle’s title, I had wondered about the precise meaning of “Gretchenfrage”. It was clear that it meant something about the “question of the Son of Man problem”, but I remained completely in the dark about what it meant beyond that. Fortunately, Eugene Boring shed some light on this matter for me in a helpful note in his translation of Udo Schnelle’s Theology of the New Testament. It reads as follows (p. 150, n. 274):

“[To ask the ‘Gretchen question’ is to ask about someone’s deepest religious or political convictions; from Goethe, Faust, I.—MEB]”

In my further attempts to determine the precise meaning of the term, I found the following explanations:

The Redensarten-Index defines Gretchenfrage as “eine wesentliche Gewissensfrage” (a fundamental question of conscience) and as “die entscheidende Frage” (the decisive question).

Wiktionary provides a number of definitions, among which [1], [2], [3], [4] and [5] could all be relevant for Vögtle’s usage. In other words, it might convey the nuance/connotations of  [1] evoking the usage in Faust, [2] weighty/significant, [3] pertaining to religion, [4] calling for a decision, and/or [5] tricky/difficult and therefore hard to answer.

Finally, Jeremy Gray suggests that the “Gretchen Question” is comparable to the English expression “where’s the rub”?, which is if nothing else a brilliant attempt to convey the force of a Goethe reference with the help of an allusion to Shakespeare!

[And Ben Simpson noted in his comment on this post that “the Collins Dictionary defines this as the “sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.”]

In the end, I still remain somewhat uncertain about how exactly this phrase should be translated. In other words, should the translator simply write the “Gretchen question” or should an attempt be made to signal the meaning of this phrase? If the latter, how should this be done? Would the “decisive question” or the “all important question” or the deeply penetrating question” or the “crucial question” or the “fundamental question” of the Son of Man Problem be adequate? Or would a more expansive solution like “the decisive yet difficult question of conscience that calls for a decision” be required to convey something of the possible range of nuances?! Given the depth of meaning of the term, I suspect that it may be best to retain the phrase the “Gretchen question” as Eugene Boring has done, perhaps with an explanatory footnote.

For some other links that touch on the “Gretchen question”, see here and here and here and here and here and here.

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For two interviews with me about the Baylor-Mohr Siebeck Series, see Clifford Kvidahl and Michael Hölscher.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! In an effort to provide a sense of regularity and predictability for this blog’s readership, I plan on writing a new post each Monday. So hopefully I will ‘see’ you again in a week’s time. Best, Wayne.