Should a professor be barred from teaching theology students if he renounces Christianity? This is what could happen to radical theologian Gerd Ludemann, professor of the New Testament at the prestigious University of Gottingen in Lower Saxony, Germany.
The Confederation of Protestant Churches, which has a say in who is appointed to teach at the faculty, wants the state education ministry to remove the professor from his post. It claims a theologian who has renounced the faith does not belong in a faculty that trains future ministers and religious instruction teachers.
But Professor Ludemann wants to keep his post despite having launched a fiercely critical attack on core Christian beliefs in a series of controversial academic publications. He says he will fight his case in the constitutional court if necessary.
Ludemann hopes his case will end the denominational stranglehold of German university theology. "I want to make theology a free academic discipline," he says. "I don't think faith, piety and scholarship should be mixed. University faculties should only pursue the study of religions. The education of ministers should be carried out in seminaries."
Ernst Kampermann, a senior church official, argues that the church is simply acting in line with the traditional tie between Germany's official churches and university theology departments. While the state employs and pays its professors, the faculties are denominationally linked to either the Catholic or Protestant churches. The church authorities approve academic appointments.
"We do not want to deprive Professor Ludemann of his post, or prevent him saying what he likes, but this is not the right place," said Mr Kampermann, who added that the tenured professor could be transferred to a philosophy faculty.
Ludemann, aged 52, has long been a thorn in the side of Germany's Lutheran church. In his book Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity, published in 1995, he argued that the heretics were right and that the Christian church had conjured up a supernatural Jesus to further its own cause. In The Virgin Birth? (1997) he claimed that Jesus was born after Mary was raped.
In his latest book, The Great Deception, he goes even further, arguing that the resurrection was "a pious hoax" created by Jesus's apostles to "ward off despair after the shock of Good Friday". The book begins with a provocative farewell letter to Jesus in which he writes "your body rotted in the tomb" or else was "devoured by jackals". It claims Christian intellectuals today are engaged in a cover-up, reluctant to admit the extent to which the man Jesus has been falsified and overpainted by his followers.
Ludemann says he is only asking the kind of questions posed by many Christians today. "Teachers of religion tell me the questions I am asking are the same that their pupils ask. A modern person cannot believe in Jesus descending from the clouds but every Sunday they are told it."
He has come to embrace a private religion that honours the mysteries of nature and the subconscious. He believes this kind of faith will represent the future in a post-Christian era.
Now the Church's fight to remove him is turning into a battle over the balance of power between church and state. The German newspaper Die Welt commented: "If the church wins, then it would make a mockery of academic freedom I It would raise serious questions about whether theological faculties should have the right to exist in state universities."
The case is likely to take some time to reach a legal conclusion. Meantime, the Church can expect little respite from its troublesome professor. Ludemann is writing a book on the case with the provocative title In the Stranglehold of the Church.