Yesterday, we looked at the life of Friedrich Schleiermacher; today we will begin to explore his aberrant theology as articulated in his 760-page The Christian Faith.
The Christian Faith
The Christian Faith is the mature expression of Schleiermacher’s theology. Published in 1831, it showcases his views on every major doctrine of orthodox Christianity, but what is apparent from start to finish is that Schleiermacher has created from the recesses of his own experience a version of Christianity that is different in every area of theology. In this way, reading his theology is much like approaching the thought-world of J.R.R. Tolkien. In Middle Earth, much of the language and experiences are similar to our world, but the place, the people, and the story is yet distinct;; likewise, in Schleiermacher, much of the language is the same but the whole project is something other than Christianity. As J. Greshem Machen will say a century later, when Schleiermacher’s liberal theology had come into full blossom: Liberalism is not another kind of Christianity, it is another religion.
To get a handle on Schleiermacher’s doctrine, the rest of this essay will outline a number of his key doctrines and give commentary along the way.
Like many systematic theologies today—which ironically take their shape from Schleiermacher’s work—Schleiermacher begins with a lengthy prolegomena. In this section, he lays out his central organizing principle that religion is one of absolute dependence on God. Against the likes of Descartes, he denies religion based on intellectual rationalism; and against the likes of Kant, he rejects religion as simply an ethical imperative. Instead, following his pietistic roots and Romantic presuppositions, he calls for a religion that is based purely on feelings and experience. He qualifies that this is not an individual experience, but a shared experience among those who have found absolute dependence and God-consciousness through the man Jesus Christ.
Schleiermacher explains the relationship of Christianity with the other world religions. Prefiguring the history of religions school, he articulates a view of Christianity that arose from other previous religions that also experienced God-consciousness. He contrasts Christianity with Islam and Judaism, which he likens to fetishism (or idolatry). While recognizing the fact that Jesus was a Jew, he strongly divides Judaism and Christianity. By the end of his work, he makes an exclusive claim for Christianity, but one that will engulf the whole world. One wonders what today’s pluralistic culture would think of this liberal theologians exclusivity? It is equally shaming that so many evangelicals today are gladly inclusivistic, when the father of liberalism is blatantly Christ-centered.
For Schleiermacher, the Bible is not divinely inspired; rather is was written by inspired men—much like Bach, Beethoven, or Shakespeare were inspired composers/authors. And it is not an authoritative source for theology. The Bible is simply a recollection of the church’s experience with Christ. This explains why the OT is unimportant. Nothing of value is found in it that is not contained in the NT. And since Judaism was a parochial religion, it is more akin to idolatry that a universal religion of Jesus Christ. In Scripture, he delineates three types of speech: poetic, rhetorical, and descriptive didactic. Only the last is good for theology; and the last is little used in Scripture. Thus, Schleiermacher relegates all NT exegesis to biblical studies. In his classroom, Schleiermacher taught through all the NT numerous times, but in The Christian Faith, biblical exegesis is absent. This is comes about because of his views of how to do theology—doctrines are simply the articulate description of Christian experience, and thus they do not depend on Scriptural exposition or appeal.
In the end, Schleiermacher’s view of Scripture encapsulates the deistic views of his era. Since God cannot speak across the phenomenal-noumenal divide, we do not have a verbally inspired Bible. Experience becomes authoritative, but because experiences differ, the doctrines will shift over time. In this way, Schleiermacher prefigures the postmodern mood of the contemporary church. His theology is worked out today in all sorts of parochial theologies (e.g. black, liberation, feminist, etc).
Stop back tomorrow when we will look at Schleiermacher’s view on theology proper, sin, redemption, and the person Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss