February 12 – Friedrich Schleiermacher

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

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Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian thinker

Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was unquestionably the most influential Protestant theologian of the nineteenth century, so much so that he has been called ‘the father of modern Protestant theology’. The word ‘modern’ here is a technical term. It does not mean the latest, but rather is a synonym for, in this case, a new theological system made necessary by the widespread collapse of classical theology initiated by the human centred strictures of the European Enlightenment, which had reduced religion to the knowledge of God in terms of arguments for his existence, or more exactly, to natural theology and to morality.

To this end, Schleiermacher began his apologetic (‘apologetic’ is a positive word meaning ‘making a statement on behalf of’) endeavour by publishing a book he called “ On Religion, Speeches to its Cultured Despisers” (1799). Here, he attempted to win back the educated classes to a serious encounter with religion, which he defines as ‘a sense and taste for the infinite’, a foundation independent of all theological dogma. He contended that religion was based on intuition and ‘feeling’, by which he meant not subjective emotion but an experience of ‘absolute dependence’, the impact of the universe upon us in the depths of our being which transcends subject and object. In this respect, Schleiermacher wanted to affirm that although Christianity is the highest of the religions, it is not the only true one.

In 1809 he became Dean of the theological faculty in the newly founded University of Berlin. By this time he was recognised as a stirring and convincing preacher. From 1819 he was chiefly occupied with his most important work, “The Christian Faith”. The title is significant; not “The Doctrine of God”, since what is positively given in the world is the Christian faith as such. That is to say, for Schleiermacher you do not first have to decide about the truths or untruths of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Rather we find Christianity given as an empirical fact in history, and only then do we have to describe the meaning of its symbols.

When he explains why he thinks Christianity is the highest manifestation of the essence of religion, Schleiermacher says it is because Christianity has two defining characteristics. The first is what he calls ethical monotheism, namely a dependence on God as the giver of the law which reveals the goal towards which we have to strive. The second is that everything is related to salvation by Jesus of Nazareth. Since this One possesses the fully developed religious consciousness, he does not need salvation. So he qualifies supremely as being the Saviour.

The import of Schleiermacher’s theology is that he subjects Christianity to a concept of religion which at least in intent is not derived from Christianity but from the whole panorama of world’s religions. Two significant consequences follow from this foundation, both exemplifying what are essentially the presuppositions of Modernity. First, his method is always to move from the general to the particular, and second, he insisted that knowledge and action are consequences of religious experience; they are not the essence of religion. It is readily apparent how successful Schleiermacher has been since these principles continue to inform modern Protestant liberal Christianity, despite their being radically called into question by the prevailing theological concerns of most of the twentieth century.

Contributed by Bruce Barber