Getting to Know Friedrich Schleiermacher (1): The Making of Friedrich Schleiermacher

Between the Reformation and John Calvin and the modern period of theology and Karl Barth, it is arguable that Friedrich Schleiermacher was and is the most influential Protestant theologian.  Like Newton in physics, Darwin in biology, Freud in psychology, Schleiermacher’s approach to religion and theology served to introduce a whole new system—what would in time be called ‘liberal theology.’  Though, he did not found a school, his influence has been more far-reaching, as theologians ever since have imbibed his methods or reacted to this proposals.  In what follows, we will consider the historical context from which Schleiermacher arose and the contribution of his systematic work, The Christian Faith.

I will argue that in different ways the three previous centuries of Christian and philosophical thought—conservative and liberal—had an impact on Schleiermacher.  We will take these centuries in turn.

The Protestant Reformation’s Impact on Schleiermacher

The sixteenth century was one of tumult and revolution.  In an era that was dominated by the political and intellectual influence of the church, the Protestant Reformation was cataclysmic—not to church alone, but to Western civilization at large.  Thus, when Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli sought to bring about reform in the Catholic Church, it affected everything.

Though, more than two centuries removed, Schleiermacher was a child of the Reformation. While he would become the father of liberalism, he was a Reformed preacher and professor.  From 1809-34 he preached regularly at Trinity Church. He was the son of military chaplain and both grandfathers were Reformed ministers.  By association, therefore, he was an heir of the Protestant Reformation.  The emphasis on preaching, the ‘denomination’ of which he was apart, and the place of the Bible and theology that occupied his classroom teaching all demonstrate that he was working against the backdrop of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.  In The Christian Faith he often used language borrowed directly from his more conservative forebears—speaking of union with Christ and justification by faith.  However, as it will be demonstrated below, any orthodox term that Schleiermacher might use is redefined by his subjective system.

In the seventeenth century, Protestant Scholastics sought to systematize the doctrines coming out of the Reformation.  These systems frequently appropriated the tools of philosophy to explain various doctrines, and while some have noted (wrongly) that theology hardened during this time, it is true that the proclamation of the sixteenth century became the analysis and systemization of the seventeenth century.  Carrying the DNA of protest in its blood, the seventeenth century church continued to think deeply about theology.  They set up many schools and sought to educate their clergy.  These ecclesial colleges would house many of the theologians and philosophers in the next century, when these churchmen began to turn away from Sola Scriptura towards more rationalistic approaches to the Bible.  Schleiermacher’s professorship and pastorate would benefit from these logistical realities.

The Enlightenment

While Schleiermacher was an offspring of the Reformation, and while he followed in the footsteps of those who aimed to systematize theology, his greatest influences come from the eighteenth century Enlightenment.  Often described as the “age of reason,” the Enlightenment saw a radical shift in Western thought.  While the Western tradition of philosophy had always been ‘rational’—in that it had always sought to think and explain the universe through the use of the mind—it had simultaneously (since the inception of the church) given authority to the Bible as the Word of God.  In the Enlightenment this all changed.

Philosophers began to question the assumptions of the Bible, and the authority given to Scripture and tradition was replaced with an authority given to man.  Man was now the standard by which to judge all things.  This was the inception of the modern era of philosophy and thought.  Whereas in the past, questions of metaphysics were primary, now questions of epistemology were of greatest import.  And in the eighteenth century, numerous voices arose to explain how we know anything.

In the United Kingdom, Berkeley, Locke, and Hume arose to argue that knowledge comes by way of empirical evidence.  Through observation of the universe, we learn what is and what is not.  Generally speaking, man cannot explain anything more than he can observe and conclusively prove.  So, Hume would deny miracles because what appears to be true is only appearance, we cannot conclusively prove that the miracles of the Bible were divine because there could be another naturalistic answer.  Likewise, by reason of analogy, since miracles do not occur today, it is untenable that they would be true in ancient days.

On the other side of the English Channel, continental rationalists (Spinoza, Leibnitz, and Descartes) argued that all knowledge is based on mental cogitation.  We cannot trust sense experience, because man’s senses have been known fail.  So for instance, Descartes sought to find an ultimately basic belief, something that could be ‘proven’ without a shadow of a doubt.  What he concluded was that he knew that he was thinking, therefore he existed: “I think therefore I am.”

These two streams of thought—the British Empiricism and Continental Rationalism—dominated the eighteenth century.  Even as Schleiermacher’s Romanticism stood against rationalism, he could not escape the a-theistic Sitz Em Leben of his day.  Thus, his methods of interpretation would be anti-supernaturalistic (a presupposition that became common place in the Enlightenment and among Deists) and regularly historical-critical (a method of studying Scripture, pioneered by Semler, which reduced the Bible to a document composed by men, whereby interpreters battered the text with questions such that the unity and theological message of the Bible was exchanged for philological studies on words and historical studies on minor sections of Scripture).  N. B. His critical interpretation of the Bible does not show itself in The Christian Faith because dogmatics is bifurcated from biblical studies.  As another effect of the Enlightenment, systematic theology was disjointed from exegetical theology.

Still, there is one other influence in the eighteenth century that stands above the rest: Immanuel Kant.  Kant sought to bridge the gap between Britain and the Continent, by espousing a view of knowledge that was essentially empirical (i. e. men learn by sense experience), but that incorporated a rational explanation for how men process, or categorize, the data they encounter.  He posited that inherent to the mind’s of men were a certain number of categories (such as time and space), which functioned as means of processing information.

One of the categories in Kant’s system is that of the noumenal realsm—a realm of existence that lay outside the bounds of human sense-perception.  As a kind of empiricist, Kant argued that men could only know or come to find out that which occurred in the world around them—that which they could experience with the senses.  He called this phenomena.  By contrast, the noumenal realm was undiscoverable.  Hence, if God existed, he existed in this spiritual-noumenal realm where men could not attain knowledge.  This divide would be the primary influence which shaped Schleiermacher.  His entire systematic theology sought to solve this problem—how does man who lives in the phenomenal world, experience God who dwells in the noumenal realm.   As we will see, Kant’s divide caused Schleiermacher to turn theology away from God towards the subject of man.

Romanticism and Pietism

Closer to home—domestically and chronologically—were two schools of thought, which directly impacted Schleiermacher.  The first was Pietism. Schleiermacher grew up the son of a Reformed military chaplain.  At the age of ten, Schleiermacher’s family experienced a great evangelistic revival when Moravian visited eastern Prussia.  Much like later Wesleyan’s, the Moravians called for a heartfelt piety that was rooted in experience.  This pietistic influence continued for the young Schleiermacher when he went to a pietistic school at the age of fourteen. In short, his home life was filled with experiential Christianity, which would shape his later theological writings.

In 1796, Schleiermacher moved to Berlin to serve as a hospital chaplain.  There in Berlin he fell in to a group of young artists, writers, and philosophers who were reacting against the cold rationalism of the eighteenth century.   This group, led by the likes of the Schlegel brothers would be the prominent voices for what became known as Romanticism.  Instead of seeking knowledge through the use of the mind, this group urged for feelings, emotions, and experience as the source of all knowledge.  This fit very neatly with Schleiermacher’s pietism, and gave philosophical credibility to his earlier ‘faith.’  Still, many of these cultured men and women were unbelievers.  Thus, through the prompting of others like Schlegel, Schleiermacher wrote On Religion: Speeches to Cultured Despisers in 1799 as an apologetic for the Christian Faith.  Of course, what for him was the Christian Faith was radically different from the doctrines of his father, or previous generations of the Reformed Faith.

With his literary work, Schleiermacher launched out into a world of explaining the Bible, theology, philosophy, ethics, and hermeneutics.  He taught New Testament exegesis, theology, and ethics for decades at the University of Berlin.  His output include commentaries on many books of the New Testament, a substantial work on hermeneutics, and a posthumous work on the life of Christ.  Schleiermacher was a theological giant, and though his Reformed theology is worlds apart from John Calvin or Michael Horton, whose work ironically carries the same title, The Christian Faith, it is without a doubt that he has had an impact on the church that continues to this day.

Tomorrow, we will begin to look at his theology.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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  1. Pingback: The Making of a ‘Theologian’: Twelve Ways to Grow in Grace and Knowledge of the Lord | Via Emmaus

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