Getting to Know Friedrich Schleiermacher (4): The Church, Eschatology, and the Trinity

Yesterday, we looked at Schleiermacher’s theology of God, Sin, Redemption, and the person of Christ. Today, we will examine his views on the church, eschatology, and the Trinity.

The Church

The last section of his systematic theology is on the church.  This breaks down into three sections—the origin, existence, and perfection of the church.  On the churches origin, he speaks of election and the Holy Spirit.  Concerning election, Schleiermacher vacillates.  On one hand, from the vantage point of the decree (which he speaks about but doesn’t really fit his system) God is the causal agent of all things in the world and thus he causes the election of those in the church, but on the other, as the one who knows all things, he elects based on future knowledge. Schleiermacher seems confused on this matter, and this is one the stress points of his system.  Concerning the Holy Spirit, Schleiermacher denies any deity to the Holy Spirit; instead, the spirit is the common spirit of the church.  The shared experience and feeling of Christ unites the church, and thus there is this universal spirit.

On the existence and practice of the church, Schleiermacher lays out six aspects of practice that are organized with the three offices of Christ.  So the church focuses on the Word of God and preaching as a means of the prophetic office; the church performs baptism and the Lord’s Supper in conjunction with Christ’s priestly office; and the church is invited to pray in the Lord’s name and exercise the keys of the kingdom in conjunction with Christ’s royal office.  In all of these, Schleiermacher reformulates doctrine.  So for instance, communion is not an ordinance laid down by Jesus, it is man’s demonstration of need for grace and the expression of his Godward dependence.  Likewise, prayer for Schleiermacher is not to a God who is outside of space and time; rather, prayer is the inward longing for God and his kingdom to be exercised in the world.


Finally, on the perfection of the church, there is no true doctrine.  It is only an idea.  Since doctrines are those things which church communities experience and record, there has not yet been an experience of a perfect church, and thus what the historical theologians have described as eschatology are merely conjectures.  He renames these doctrines “articles” and offers very scant evidence for them.  Instead, with great agnosticism, he states that we cannot know for sure what the resurrection, intermediate state, and the final judgment will be like.  In the end, he qualifies the doctrine of heaven and hell, to insist that in some way, all men will be reconciled and perfected.  In this, his view of election and universalism are similar to Karl Barth, who is one of Schleiermacher’s greatest critics.

The Trinity: An Appendix

Finally, in an appendix, Schleiermacher relegates the doctrine of the Trinity.   Its position there shows Schleiermacher’s connection with church history—it would be impossible to be a Christian theologian and not talk about this central doctrine.  And yet, because of his Kantian presupposition, he decides that the Trinity is neither practical, nor knowable.  And thus should be mentioned but not greatly used.

While, all these features of Schleiermacher’s theology mentioned above and over the last few days require a great deal more consideration, it is a start.  Tomorrow, we will look at how we should evaluate this theological giant whose shadow still looms until today.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Getting to Know Friedrich Schleiermacher (3): Theology Proper, Sin, Redemption, and Christ

Yesterday, we began to review the liberal theological approach of Friedrich Schleiermacher; today we will examine Schleiermacher’s view on theology proper, sin, redemption, and the person Christ.

Theology Proper

For Schleiermacher, God is unknowable.  Again, Kant’s influence is most evident in theology proper and cosmology.  He states that God is creator, and then defines creation as an ongoing preservation.  Because the world is absolutely dependent on God, he becomes the eternal, omnipotent cause of all things. These are the two greatest attributes of God, with omniscience and omnipresence working as corollaries (of omnipotence).   John Cooper has described Schleiermacher as a panentheist, and for good reason.  He does not make a clear distinction between Creator and creature: man is so dependent upon God, that the boundaries of God and human blur.  This is odd because of how Schleiermacher appropriates the phenomenal-noumenal divide.


Schleiermacher defines sin as a lack of God-consciousness.  He rejects a historic fall, and makes sin the product of every single individual.  Though a Reformed preacher, he does not address the issues of Covenant theology, and the imputation of Adam’s sin to all the human race because of his federal headship.  But he says enough to know that he denies the imputation of guilt to the human race.  Instead, he explains that in every man there is both animalisic and sensual desires and also a God-consciousness.  Both of these exist in humanity.  Sin is the employment of the former and the ignorance or disuse of the latter.  In the case of Jesus, he was ‘sinless’ because he was always conscious of God.

Based on his view of God, the cosmos, and sin, Schleiermacher has a hard time explaining the origin of sin.  Since God is causal in all ways, he will assert that God is responsible for sin; but then he takes that back to say that evil in the world is the result of sin, and that sin originates with men who do not absolutely depend on God.  In the end, he brings an unsatisfactory answer that God caused sin in the world in order to bring about grace, which for Schleiermacher is a large consideration.


In time, redemption begins with the conviction of sin which is the experience of pain over a lack of God-conscience.  It is not caused by the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), as much as it is encounter with the perfect Christ.  Since Christ as a perfect man reveals what true God-consciouness is, the message about Christ reveals to men how men have failed to be God-dependent.

Key for the idea of redemption is regeneration.  Like nearly all technical terms in Schleiermacher, regeneration is the corporate idea of regenerating all of humanity.  Like a pebble thrown into a pond, Christ, as the first true man, has the effect of bringing regeneration to all the human race.  He asserts that regeneration happens one-by-one, but it is more a force that hits the whole world that individuals being converted by God.

Christ himself is a Redeemer, but not as the divine Son who dies on the cross to pay for the sins of the world.  Rather, he is an utterly unique man, one who is perfectly God-conscious, who functions much like a charismatic, political figure (or Joel Osteen) who inspires people to live a more God-dependent life.

As it concerns sin and redemption, it is interesting to see the way Schleiermacher selectively chooses to interact with church history.  Under this loci, he denies Manicheeaism because sin and evil are not simply perceived; they are a real things.  And he also rejects Pelagianism, because man cannot save himself.  He needs effectual grace, which is deposited in the soul of a man in his election—which is another convoluted doctrine to be mentioned below.


For Schleiermacher, the person of Christ is never considered metaphysically.  Again, there is nothing metaphysical in his work.  He is a functional savior, who is part man, part God.  The God-part is simply the God-consciousness that he perfectly exhibits.  In this way, his nature just like the rest of humanity.  Schleiermacher admits that Christ could have sinned-there is nothing naturally impeccable about him—but he did not sin because he perfectly embodied dependence on God.  Schleiermacher is concerned heretical views of Christ—namely Docetism and Ebionism but he does not see how his own views contradict Chalcedonian Christology.

The Cross of Christ

On the Atonement, Schleiermacher advocates a moral exemplar view.  His work is prophetic not priestly.  Jesus shows the world his great love for God and his willingness to die in order to show how far he was willing to show his love for men.  However, he rejected Catholicism’s “wounds-theology” which focused too much on the suffering of Christ.  He also denied vicarious substitution (penal substitution), because it made God look like the one who ordained the death of his Son (which he did, Isa 53:10; Acts 2:23), and because it required retributive justice—something that Schleiermacher opposed, as is evidenced again in his assertion of eventual, universal salvation.

Schleiermacher’s doctrine of salvation is also reworked.  While maintaining language like justification by faith and union with Christ, his understanding of faith is not belief in some objective work done by God in Christ. Rather, it is the subjective appropriation or (self-generated) feeling that one is a child of God.  Once again, Schleiermacher shows incredible consistency in wrapping every doctrine around the personal subject.  Likewise, sanctification for Schleiermacher is never positional.  It is only progressive.  In one section, he makes a Romans 7-like case for an interior struggle for Christians, but this struggle is not the flesh and the Spirit (aka Paul), but the wrestling between God-consciousness and sense-experience.

Tomorrow, we will look at Schleiermacher’s view on the church, eschatology, and the Trinity

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Getting to Know Friedrich Schleiermacher (2): Introduction to The Christian Faith

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.

The Bible

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