Old Dead Guys Notes #11: Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher
Notes #11 Friederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher
John Wiers, PhD 2020
- 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 skepticism.
- 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 in Romanticism.
- 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 Enlightenment influence.
- 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 in Prussia 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 procession passed.
- 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 Pietism.
- 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 orthodoxy.
- He believed that science and theology could never conflict because they operated in completely different spheres.
- 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 point.
- 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 denies it.
- 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 worshipped Christ.
- 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 and he is martyred for his perserverance.
- 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 necessary.
- 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.
IX. Schleiermacher’s influence
- As the theological founder of Protestant liberalism, S falls under H Richard Niebuhr’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 pietisticly inclined orthodox thinkers. Orthodox Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge, was a theologian 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. Hodge 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 present papers.
- 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 is.
- 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.
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