Considered the “father of modern”, i.e. liberal, theology. He was the first serious Protestant theologian to call for radical restructuring of all areas of theology in light of the post-Enlightenment ethos.
Although he has been followed by very few in all the details of his theology, the various reconstructions of Christian theology he set forth have been hugely influential among many– cf. a 3 volume work on the reception of S’s thought in American alone.
He is difficult to understand, as are many German theologians are, but just a couple of years ago there was a new translation of his major work, Christian Faith, by Terrence Tice, one of the leading S scholars.
What is important in understanding S, is his background both in Pietism and the effects of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment that swept over Europe, especially France and Germany and the intellectual movement known as Romanticism that was a reaction against the Enlightenment.
We will focus on S’s revolution in theological method which led to his radical recasting of so many doctrines.
Pietism is important
because it was the orthodox theological milieu that S was raised in.
Pietism was officially a movement that arose by that name in Germany, but it has roots in English Puritanism– some have claimed that Dutch translations of English Puritan works were the conduit to the European Continent that triggered Pietism– and counterparts to the Evangelical revivals in American and Great Britain under Whitefield, Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and others. There were a number of points of cross-fertilization.
Edwards is a good example of a Pietist trajectory in his emphasis of true religion being a matter of holy affections.
On the European continent Pietism mainly was a reaction against a sterile form of Protestant orthodoxy, primarily Lutheran, but Reformed in some places, that only emphasized sound doctrine and produced elaborate systems of orthodox theology that seemed detached from the real spiritual life of ordinary Christians.
Many have objected that these are caricatures of Protestant Orthodoxy, but Pietism tended to go to the other extreme and almost over-emphasize the importance of the heart. However, none of them rejected the importance of at least basic orthodoxy.
Notable continental Pietists included A Francke, P Spener and Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Z’s Moravians were the most well-known Pietist group.
Although the Enlightenment has its roots in
English Deism and continental skepticism, it took its definitive and more
radical forms in France and Germany.
The 16th and early 17th century had been a time of great religious conflict that led to numerous wars and this led many to seek a religious belief that was “above the fray” so to speak.
British Deism was an intellectual movement that arose in the latter part of the Puritan era in England and claimed to be “reasonable” religion.
It arose mostly out of the radical Arminian wing of High Church Anglicanism and sought to develop a rational form of Christianity.
Its followers claimed that they were developing a simple, rational faith that was a “natural religion” common to all men and devoid of the overlay of “superstition” that doctrinally orthodox Christians believed in. Miracles were suspect because they were non-rational. The uniqueness of Jesus was usually downplayed.
The universe was a rational whole that was accessible to rational thought.
The Deists ended up with a “religion’ that consisted of a few basic tenets: God as creator, the existence of a moral law that we should follow, God rewarding those who obey and some sort of immortality after the grave. Most scholars today argue that most of them were actually 2nd or 3rd rate thinkers, but they shook things up with their writings.
Deism’s most authoritative statement was Matthew Tindal’s Christianity As Old As the Creation.
John Locke was a rational thinker who somewhat bridged the gap. He used a rationalistic style in arguing against the Deists and mostly upheld orthodox Christianity, but advocated a pure empirical method which would be used for anti-orthodox ends by thinkers such as Hume and Kant.
With the concurrent rise in Newton’s new science and his and Descartes’ new math, the idea of the world as a giant machine running according to natural law became popular.
Scottish philosopher David
Hume would take this further, developing a kind of skepticism that went
beyond earlier versions, and argued that such ideas as causation, for
example, are simply not provable. All we can know, Hume says, is
that we observe, most of the time, one thing happening after another
certain thing happens.
Hume would use his
radical empiricism– we only know anything from our senses– to argue
against traditional proofs for the existence of God– he was an
agnostic– and against all miracles. He especially turned this on
the resurrection of Jesus. His
basic argument was that since it is such an unlikely happening by normal
experience– our only true test– we shouldn’t believe it happened.
Skepticism and rationalism
become more and more entangled. One person’s dogmatism became
another persons’ skepticism.
Different thinkers chose to be skeptical about different things.
Thomas Hobbes, for example, combined both rationalism and
On the European
continent, France became a hotbed of Deistic thinkers who called
themselves Enlightened and had mottos about daring to think
critically. Key thinkers were Voltaire, D’ALembert, and
D’Hollenbach– who eventually became a hard-core atheist.
While politically the French
Revolution was their outcome, they injected a strong dose of skepticism
about Orthodox Christian beliefs into the European intellectual climate.
In Germany, this peaked in the
work of I. Kant (1724-1804), the quirky professor in East Prussia– now a
part of Poland– who wrote several critiques in the realm of
epistemology– how we know. Kant argued that we can only know the
phenomenal world– essentially the natural world– and can’t know really
know the noumenal world– i.e. the world of the supernatural. Thus revelation was by definition ruled
out. Along with his motto of “dare to use your own reason,” Kant
said that he destroyed knowledge to make room for faith.
Kant said that Enlightenment
meant “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.”
Kant argued that although we
can’t “know” anything about the supernatural, we must posit it for moral
reasons because we have an intuition of right and wrong. Operating
from the principle that ought implies can, Kant deduced that we can
believe that God exists and that he must reward good and punish evil, but
we can say nothing more than that because we can’t really know anything
about God. This was developed in his book by the title: Religion
within the Bonds of Reason Alone.
For Kant, religion had one
sole purpose, to provide moral foundations for society. His famous
Categorical Imperative was a secularized version of the Golden Rule.
Kant’s thinking has been
immensely influential in many philosophical and theological circles and
it would play a large role in S’s thinking.
Both British deism and
continental rationalistic Enlightenment thought brought a reaction in the early
19th century known as Romanticism.
Romanticism reveled in
“feeling” by which they meant not irrational emotions, but deep human
longings and appreciation for beauty in nature.
Romanticism took many forms–
Beethoven was the most influential musical example and Goethe, Wordsworth,
Shelley, etc are literary examples- but above all there was an emphasis on
feeling and emotion.
Many Romantics reacted against
the emphasis on universal truths and emphasized nationalistic ideas.
Many of the great movements to unify the Germans and Italian peoples, for
example, had nationalistic roots.
A number of key Romantic
thinkers in philosophy, especially in Germany, such as Schelling, Fichte,
and Hegel advocated forms of pantheism.
V. Schleiermacher’s life
He was the son of a
Reformed army chaplain and was born in Silesia, a part of East Prussia that is
now a part of Poland.
His father had been converted
to a Pietistic outlook through contact with Moravians and his father sent
him to Moravian schools where he was taught an orthodox version of the
faith with a strong pietistic devotional element that emphasized a
personal relationship with Christ as savior and Lord.
While studying in their
schools, he found their teaching too narrow and transferred to the University
of Halle, a school founded by Pietists, but which had come under
While at Halle he read widely
in philosophy both modern and ancient, and became a world-class Plato
scholar. He also imbibed a great deal of Kant’s work and the
rationalistic skeptical pantheism of Dutch Jewish philosopher, B. Spinoza
as well as the works of the English Deists.
S took a post as a tutor to a
noble family and in 1794 was ordained in the Prussian Reformed church and
took a church in Berlin.
While in Berlin he came into
contact with the leading intellectual thinkers of German Romanticism and
reveled in the lively cultural life of Berlin.
His first book. Speeches on
Religion to Its Cultured Despisers was a sort of apologetic work to
those who had strongly imbibed Enlightenment thinking and would attempt to
set religion on a Romantic foundation and proved to be quite popular.
He found the company of women
more congenial than most men, once claiming that he wished he had been
born a woman because women felt more deeply than men.
He did fall in love with a
married woman- another pastor’s wife– and the church authorities found
him a church outside of Berlin lest he break up the marriage.
Eventually he returned to the
University of Halle where he taught all theological subjects except the
Old Testament, only leaving when the University was closed by the
disruption of the Napoleonic Wars.
He moved back to Berlin
in 1807 where he pastored the influential Trinity Church It was officially
a Reformed congregation, but it became a union congregation–
Reformed/Lutheran under his leadership and he worked hard to bring about
the Prussian Evangelical Union that united most Reformed and Lutheran
congregations under a vague loose creed in 1817.
At age 40 he married a widow
with 2 children and they had 6 children together.
He developed a reputation as a
powerful preacher who spoke on glowing terms about Christ. When he
died thousands lined the streets of Berlin to mourn him as the funeral
He also was instrumental in
founding the University of Berlin in 1810 and taught theology– again all
fields except Old Testament– until his death in 1834. He also
served as dean of faculty and rector for a number of years.
VI. His theology
A major departure from
orthodox theology, but one that built on the Enlightenment, Romanticism and
In fact he once claimed that he
was simply a Pietist of “higher order.” His father didn’t agree and they were
never really reconciled about his theological departures from
He believed that science and
theology could never conflict because they operated in completely
Above all it was his
theological method, built on a combination of Pietism and Romanticism that
dictated the shape of his theology.
He sought to develop a
distinctly Christian theology that would replace the vague moralistic
religion of Kant.
VII. His method
S defined religion as a
sense of absolute dependence on God, which he rather vaguely defined. It
wasn’t so much a feeling as an intuition somewhat analogous to Jonathan
Edwards’s Religious Affections, but unlike Edwards who said it was from God’s
grace and through divine revelation, S said that it was natural to all men and
the root of every religion.
The German term is Gefuhl,
which many have claimed is actually not easily translated. The closest
English equivalent would be ”deep inner awareness.”
S then argued that theology was
not the rational development of doctrinal propositions from scriptural
revelation– traditional Protestant orthodoxy– but rather rational
reflection on human religious experience, i.e. the sense of absolute
dependence upon God.
S then took this starting point
and argued that every doctrine of the Christian religion must be rethought
in light of this starting point.
Christianity has its own unique
form of Gefuhl, based on Christ and was the highest form of Gefuhl.
There was an evolutionary process in world religions and it had reached
its peak in Christianity.
S’s theology basically took up
an anthropological and humanistic, rather than theological starting
His major work is titled Christian
Faith and is an organic argument flowing from his main principle.
VIII. The results
of his recasting of Christian doctrine.
The Bible, for S,
is a record of human religious experiences and not a divine revelation.
The Old Testament was completely rejected as “sub-Christian.” Gefuhl
actually stands in judgment over the Bible, although he professed great regard
for the New Testament as a record of Gefuhl.
The Bible is not inspired, but
rather it is inspiring, although not absolutely necessary
God is seen in an almost
pantheistic manner as someone who indwells everything, but is neither
creator nor providential sustainer in any classic sense.
God does not intervene in this
present existence because if he were to do so, it would mean that he had
created an imperfect world.
The doctrine of the Trinity, S
claims, is irrelevant to our sense of absolute dependence and is relegated
to an appendix since it seems as if he doesn’t really know what to do with
it. S treated it as basically a useless doctrine.
Sin is redefined as lack of
complete absolute dependence upon God and redemption is reawakening a
sense of such absolute dependence. It is essentially God
forgetfulness. He rejects any
notion of Original Sin and never discusses moral evil. Society had corrupted us to lose our
sense of absolute dependence.
We are hard-wired to seek God.
Sin is undeveloped human nature.
Christ is the redeemer because
he is the one who comes from God and has perfect absolute
dependence. Jesus is just like us except for his perfectly developed
God-consciousness. Although S is
quite fuzzy on the deity of Christ, most have argued that he ultimately
He clearly has no interest in
the classic discussions of Christ’s nature and person. In spite of his
exalted language about Christ it isn’t clear if he ever actually
Christ’s death is irrelevant to
our salvation other than as an example of what perfect dependence on God
can lead to. His virgin birth and resurrection are also irrelevant
to absolute dependence and therefore not literally true, nor are any of
the miracles attributed to Christ. Christ’s death is essentially
when his God consciousness doesn’t fail.
Redemption is Christ, in his
person, conveying somehow– S is very vague here– to us Christ’s sense of
Absolute Dependence and we imbibing it and becoming dependent ourselves.
The Church is important because
it is the community that encourages our God consciousness.
Petitionary prayer is not
S has no real future
eschatology because none is needed because no one is cursed. God has no
wrath, which is a primitive idea.
A vague immortality after
life is all that is possible.
As the theological
founder of Protestant liberalism, S falls under H Richard’s generic
criticism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom
without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
He even made strong impressions
on pietistic inclined orthodox thinkers. Orthodox Reformed
theologian, Charles Hodge, who taught at Princeton Seminary for most of
the 19th century and taught his orthodox Calvinism to half of the
theologically trained ministers in the US during his tenure there, was a
graduate student in Germany for 2 years in the early 19th century.
Hodge heard S preach on many
occasions while he studied in Berlin and was impressed with his warm
evangelical sounding piety, but remarked that much of S’s theology was a
bit incomprehensible to him. Yet later in his perfectly orthodox Systematic
Theology, Hodge claimed that he expected to see S in heaven. It
seems as if Hodge’s piety trumped his orthodoxy here.
The American Academy of
Religion has a whole group devoted to S and at the annual meeting members
He rejects orthodox
doctrine at almost every possible point.
As we will see later in J.
Gresham Machen’s argument we ultimately must decide between Christianity
and Liberalism as laid out by S.
Yet he is a warning for
evangelicals who are drawn to language of a personal relationship with
God, it is possible to speak warmly in those terms and deny almost every
orthodox doctrine. Hodge seems to have been snookered by this and if
a fine theologian like Hodge can be, we must be aware of how easy it
His method, even if not his
exact conclusions, are still used by most liberal theologians and the
ever-changing nature of such theologies shows us that it is always
changing to “keep up with the times,” so it is ultimately a dangerous way
of doing theology.