Last week, I took up most of the week to lay out the life and theology of “the father of liberalism,” Friedrich Schleiermacher. Today, I will briefly evaluate his legacy and suggest how Bible-believing Christians can learn from this heterodox theologian.
In the end, Schleiermacher’s work has had long ranging effect. He has been labeled the father of liberalism and rightly so. While much of his doctrinal content has been overturned, his experiential, community-oriented methodology carried the day in the nineteenth century and beyond. In his work, one can find theological seeds for future schools of thought. His views on Christianity and world religions anticipates Wilhelm Bousset and Adolph Von Harnack’s conception of the history of religions. The authority that he gives to experience and the local community mesh with postmodern theology. Likewise, his emotive experientialism have many evangelical followers today. As Mark Coppenger put it a few years ago: “Donald Miller [author of Blue Like Jazz] is Schleiermacher with a soul patch.”
In general, there is great need for evangelicals to know of Schleiermacher today because so many are unconsciously imbibing his brand of liberal theology. Just this week, I watched a children’s video that sang about Jesus resurrection—something Schleiermacher denied—and its chorus was a testimony that the reason why we believe in the resurrection: I feel him in my bones, I feel him in the air, I feel . . . I feel . . . I feel . . .”
CCM: Guitar-Led God-Consciousness
Without knowing it, evangelicals who love the fundamental doctrines are eroding the foundation on which they stand, when they appeal to feelings instead of God’s word. Popular hymns, written by men who would repudiate his doctrinal views, are yet sung in Baptist churches all over the country. At Easter many Bible-believing churches will sing songs like “He lives” which finishes the chorus with this question and answer: “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.”
Moving beyond mere anecdotal evidence, Keith Johnson reports the research of Robin Parry. He observes,
In a study of trinitarian content of twenty-eight worship albums produced by Vineyard Music from 1999 to 2004, Robin Parry discovered only 1.4 percent of the songs explicitly named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together, 8.8 percent addressed two of the divine persons, 38.7 percent addressed only one person, and 51 percent could be described as “you Lord” songs. . . . This reality stands in stark contrast to someone like Charles Wesley, who wrote hundreds of hymns that are explicitly shaped by (and expressing) a trinitarian grammar. (Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism, 212).
Sadly, Friedrich Schleiermacher could sing right along. Contemporary Christians have imbibed the spirit of Schleiermacher, and perhaps the only way to fight against his feelings-based religion is to become more aware of his brand of theology, so that we might preach, pray, and sing about the objective work of the Triune God, recorded in Scripture, than to merely seek greater religious experiences. As Johnson rightly concludes, “Not every song needs explicitly to name the three persons . . . but a proper ‘trinitarian syntax’ should shape the composition of worship songs” (212).
Friedrich Schleiermacher: A Needed Foil for Our Generation
In the end, Schleiermacher is a good reminder that we are always one generation away from liberalism, and hence we need to continue to contend for the faith—not the feeling—once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Evangelicals by definition–at least David Bebbington’s definition–are a people whose theological convictions would not accept Schleiermacher’s explicit denegration of the Trinity, the Bible, and the person and work of Jesus (to only name a few). However, as the evangelical left continues to espouse new theological aberrations, it is proof that liberalism methodology (based on religious experience) will in time produce liberal content.
Thus, evangelicals need to ask themselves if and where they might practice some of the same feelings-based religioun that are systematically articulated in Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith. The goal is not to study in detail the works of someone whose convictions contradict orthodoxy; the goal is to ask how our own views about God, the world, sin, and redemption may mirror Schleiermacher, and then to ask for wisdom from God, what the genesis of that doctrine is?
For most, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s works are not the direct cause of such subjective thinking, but neither is Declaration of Independence the direct reason why Americans are willing to fight for personal liberty. Rather, in both instances, it is not the reading of old works that impact most people, it is the breathing of the air that others who have read the works have expired. Culture is created not only by the thinkers, but by their popularizers, and today it is popular and trendy to hold to a non-descript God-consciousness. In the name of ecumenism, pluralism, and spiritual uncertainty, clear articulations of the gospel are papered over by broader, blander forms of religion.
In Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith, we have such a display of what hyper-subjective Christianity is and becomes. Hopefully, as people are introduced to his thought, they will be more aware of their own liberal(izing) tendencies, and be willing to turn from it to the explicit gospel of Jesus Christ. Only when we do that will we have the promise that the next generation might hear the gospel in all its beauty and truth, instead of passing onto them a shell in which they fill in the terms with their own experience.
I would never commend Schleiermacher on its own, but as a means to seeing the liberal trends and tendencies resident in evangelicalism, it is a helpful foil.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss