Christian History: Meet the Moderns – Friedrich Schleiermacher

You can’t talk about stodgy dead people forever! Now I get to talk about more recent dead people! Yay!


In a previous entry I talked much about the variety of different worldviews that now impose on Christianity and shifted the grounds of its foundations. Theologians found rationalism, science, and postmodernism attractive; nowadays, we would call the product of their ideas “liberal Christianity”. No one represents that label more accurately, for better or worse, then Friedrich Schleiermacher.

A new Christianity was needed, one that conformed to culture. Schleiermacher himself believed this a necessary element, for we needed to see Christianity in a new light to appeal to modernity. Schleiermacher, with his account of religion and theology separated, would usher in the era of “liberalism”, a paradigm that sought to excise whatever elements prevented Christianity from gaining a foothold in the modern world. Even if the authors in question do not consider themselves as such, it is true that they sacrifice traditional Christian authority and beliefs for a new conception of faith. In that sense did the liberal movement reduce Jesus’ stature by the divisions they imposed.

Schleiermacher was the first to apply the Christianity to a more “reasonable”, Enlightenment friendly framework. He was the son of a Reformed army chaplain, a Pietist who
eventually rejected his upbringing. Why was Pietism bad? Philip Jakob Spener saw, in his time of the 1600s, a moral decay in the German Lutheran Church. Thus, he specifically sought six reforms:

1. the earnest and thorough study of the Bible in private meetings, ecclesiolae in ecclesia (“little churches within the church”). If it sounds like “small groups”, you are right on the money.
2. the Christian priesthood being universal, the laity should share in the spiritual government of the Church
3. a knowledge of Christianity must be attended by the practice of it as its indispensable sign and supplement
4. instead of merely didactic, and often bitter, attacks on the heterodox and unbelievers, a sympathetic and kindly treatment of them
5. a reorganization of the theological training of the universities, giving more prominence to the devotional life
6. a different style of preaching, namely, in the place of pleasing rhetoric, the implanting of Christianity in the inner or new man, the soul of which is faith, and its effects on the fruits of life.

In other words, a felt and experienced religion needs to complement mere knowledge. You can imagine the parallels with modern faith and religion, I imagine; it does sound very similar to most evangelical churches, yes? I had realized this when studying theology, and found myself very concerned. Did this form of Christianity naturally lead to a diminished form of Scriptural authority? Apparently so! For Schleiermacher, religion is more than merely theology and ethics, knowledge and action, knowing and doing the right thing. As Schleiermacher says,

Piety cannot be an instinct craving for a mess of metaphysical and ethical crumbs.

However, his solution strikes a mythical, experiential tone: true religion is feeling, sense and taste for the infinite.  Schleiermacher puts this idea in very different words:

The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the in nite, and of all Temporal things in and through the Eternal.

As a result, Schleiermacher say that religion is distinct from knowledge and action – religious language, in that sense, has the role of putting these “feelings” into a communicable form. Theology, then, is knowledge of religion, but not the thing itself, necessary for reflection about religion. So, does Schleiermacher here cleave theology from religion. This rhetorical move, as in the title of Schleiermacher’s famous book On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, protects Christianity from the claims of irrationality by redefining the terms of religion. It’s something akin to the common refrain “It’s all about Jesus” – while it may be true in some sense, the Bible contains more than just what Jesus did and said. Affirming the primacy of one thing means other elements will be left by the wayside to support one cultural mindset over another, and that’s exactly what happens here.

Schleiermacher, however, makes “belief” a foreign idea to religion, as the felt experience is just accepted, not believed. Can one have faith in a feeling alone? What is the content of that feeling? A new Christianity needs formation because of some outside influence; thus, Christian theology becomes a recollection of individual human religious experience rather than an account of God’s revelation of God’s self. The obvious anti-authoritarian strains are here; Christianity no longer accepts the Bible as normative, which means Christianity is not tied to an external norm that arbitrates conflict. The sharp division here surely rescues Christianity from its critics, but it keeps the form at the cost of the content. Schleiermacher begins this trend of “surrendering” what parts of the Christian faith could not be “defended”, and the liberal Christian trend of giving up doctrines that are “indefensible”.

Schleiermacher, as well, tries to place Christianity only in the realm of experience – the New Testament is no longer a historical account, but an account of human experience. To do otherwise, would “set limits on the Holy Spirit.” So doctrine and dogma must also conform to this experience. But this effort is faulty at the outset, for making humans the criteria and the norm is to tailor belief and faith to personal notions, vivified by “religious feeling”. Any person could have an experience, but how does one know whether the experience is genuine? Is there any rubric for “defective” religious feeling? The impulse to prune doctrines because we cannot see their value seems quite dangerous in this understanding – it represents all the  problems that the Christian theologians of the past worked so tirelessly to avoid.

Jesus, furthermore, was not divine in the traditional sense; rather, dignity can only be ascribed by what He did, not who Jesus is. A low view of Jesus’ work will lead to a low view
of His person. Schleiermacher also takes an almost “glossed-over” view of human sinfulness. The death of Jesus and the Resurrection remain superfluous because Jesus’ actions during life made Him a perfect and sinless human being who demonstrated the feeling of being “dependant” on God, perfect “God” consciousness. Schleiermacher, like many theologians of his time, accepted the “apparent death theory”, that Jesus was, in fact, dead. How can Christianity be Christianity without Christ? As H. Reinhold Niebuhr described liberal theology,

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

The impact’s lost. What’s the point of accepting Christ if, for example, God forgives atheists who lead moral lives? I am highly skeptical, at the least! There’s a point where tolerance works, but another point where tolerance is just brownie points in an unbelieving world, or achievement points in a game. It’s a fancy number and makes you feel good, but you can’t convert them into real currency. I’m not sure of the purchasing power in these outreach efforts. Will it bring people to Christ, or merely make them feel fine the way they are? Even the book that discusses faith versus works (James isn’t well-liked by the Reformers, as you may imagine) says this:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

James 3 keeps us reigned in, so to speak. We need to talk straightforwardly, without any pretense as to offense. I’m sorry, but telling someone their family member died in the most compassionate way possible isn’t love; it is, to put it bluntly, deception. It’s avoiding the issue, and trying to avoid the core of the situation. So it is in Christianity: stop trying to disguise it. We put a veil over what’s clear in Scripture in some misguided attempt, and it may turn out all for naught. One must wonder how an unbelieving world responds to 1 John 3:

See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. 2 Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. 7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; 8 the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.

11 For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; 12 not as Cain,who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous.

13 Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.