Posted On March 11, 2011

Friedrich Schleiermacher: Father of Liberal Theology

by | Mar 11, 2011 | Church History

In this paper on Friedrich Schleiermacher, I will discuss how Friedrich was raised, the schools he attended, and who was influential to the formation of his theology as well as what impact he made on his era as a Pastor, theologian and philosopher. In tracing his background, thought, education, and the influences upon his life my goal is to answer the question, “How did the efforts to defend God or the Scriptures result in the breakdown of or attacks on Christian thought?”

Friedrich was born in 1768 in Breslaw, the son of a Prussian Army Chaplain. Early on in his life, his father became a Pietist and became interested in Moravian theology. Friedrich was sent off at the age of fifteen to a boarding school run by the Moravians. The warmth of the Moravians devotions made a great impression upon their young student; especially their belief that true religion is concerned not with outward form, or with doctrines but with an inner, personal experience of Christ.[1]

Friedrich enjoyed the devotional nature of the Moravians as he was growing up, but he began to have the feeling that the Moravians would not allow him the intellectual freedom to grow. As a ten year old child Schleiermacher had been unable to sleep, as he was tormented about the Calvinist doctrine of atonement.  During his teens his worries increased, and the Moravians would not allow him to grow intellectually or to pursue his questions about his faith. As his questions grew so did his worries; until finally he was unable to accept what his teachers taught him.  Schleimacher would leave the Moravian school and go to study at the University of Halle.

While at the University of Halle, he studied the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant helped to provide a philosophical framework for both biblical criticism and modern liberal theology. The views of Kant when combined with Schleimacher, Hegel, and Ritschl, created a philosophical backdrop background favorable to a critical approach to the Bible.

During his time at the University of Halle, he became a Reformed Pastor, teaching the children of the Prussian court. He was a warm social person who enjoyed friendship and especially the company of women. His approach to theology was relational and thus he highly valued the friendship around him.

In 1799, Schleimacher published a book that would make him famous. He was tired of the Enlightenment attacks on religion as outmoded superstition, so he planned a brilliant counterattack to put religion back into intellectual discussion. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers achieved this and more: it set out a completely new approach to religion, brilliantly sidestepping the old futile argument of the Enlightenment and setting the stage for modern theology. The genius of his work lay in his insight that religion need not be one human activity among others, to be accepted or rejected, like sports or politics; rather, it lies at the heart of all human endeavor. The cultured despisers by rejecting religion in favor of rational, enlightened humanism were shooting themselves in the foot. To be religious, he argued is part of what it is to be human.[2] His book was very popular and it helped him in 1802 to become a Professor at University of Halle, as well as one of its university preachers.  For the last twenty five years of his life he lived in Berlin, where he was minister in Holy Trinity Church and Professor of theology at the University of Berlin.[3]

His major work was “The Christian faith according to the fundamentals of the Evangelical Church systematically set forth”, which first appeared in 1821-1822 and then, in a thoroughly revised edition early in the 1830’s. In this book he set out to explain the meaning of feeling that he did not fully undertake in his Speeches. In the Christian faith he clearly shows that this is not a sentimental “feeling,” nor a passing emotion or a sudden experience, but is rather the profound awareness of the existence of the One on whom all existence depends-both ours and that of the world around us. Thus, it is not an undefined or amorphous feeling, for its clear and specific content is our absolute dependence on God. Such feeling is not based on rational faculties nor on moral sentiment but it does have significant consequences both in rational exposition and in ethical responsibility.[4]

In his work Schleiermacher located religion in the level of self-consciousness. In doing so he accomplished several things at once. First, he protected religion against the advance of Enlightenment rationalism. As science made great strides forward, it increasingly displaced religion as the explanation for the world. But for Schleiermacher, religion and science perform totally different functions to begin with. Science is part of “knowing” and religion is part of “feeling.” They are quite distinct. Religion is not about knowledge of the scientific kind. No atheistic arguments can topple God, and no advances in scientific knowledge, even if they succeed in explaining the entire universe perfectly, can remove the need for him. We need not deduce God rationally; we experience him as part of our self-consciousness, and nothing can ever take that away.[5]

Schleimacher theology revolved around feelings, and to him anything that cannot be shown to relate to feelings of dependence has no place in theology.  An example of this can be found in his view of Genesis which he did not think was historically accurate. To him if the stories of Moses were true then pieces of information would never been articles of faith for our feeling of absolute dependence does not gain thereby either a new content, a new form, or clearer definition. The same principle ca also be applied to his view of angels Satan, and the rest of his theological system. For the same reason, the traditional distinction between natural and the supernatural should be set aside, not because it opposes modern science but rather because that distinction limits our feeling of dependence to those events or places in which the supernatural is made manifest. By thus insisting that religion is different from knowledge, he could interpret the central doctrines of Christianity in such a way that they did not contradict the findings of science.[6] Schleimacher’s theology has its focal point Christ. He maintained that redemption is by grace through Christ and that in Jesus Christ human nature reached perfection. The experience of redemption by the individual involves a response in faith and love which is regeneration, justification and sanctification. This means the birth and growth in believers of the experience of God which comes through Jesus Christ.[7] He believed that our Christology begins neither in Christ’s humanity nor his divinity, but rather both his humanity and divinity are derived from the irreducible fact of the believer’s consciousness of salvation. He would say that our understanding of this vital doctrine began with our personal experience. In doing so he placed our understanding of Christ solely on our conscious of redemption through him.[8] Schleimacher’s theology began, not with the Bible, a creed or revelation, but with personal experience with what happens to the individual and community.

Schleimacher is considered the father of modern and liberal theology. In tracing his life throughout this paper, I have attempted to show his theology for what it is so one can see clearly his strengths and his errors.  Schleimacher based his theology on feeling, and this was his attempt to set religion on a new foundation apart from reason. By grounding his theology in the believer’s experience of God he avoided the difficulty of metaphysics. By doing this, however he also lost the ability to make objective claims about God.  The other main weakness of his theology was his insistence that salvation somehow comes from one’s feelings rather than the fact of Christ’s death on the Cross for the sins of the world.

The Book of Romans presents Salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection. In the first three chapters of Romans Paul reveals that the only rectification for sin is by believing in what Christ did on the cross. In chapters 4-5 of Romans, Paul discusses the meaning of justification in the lives of Abraham and David. By doing this he establishes that justification by faith has always been the pattern for salvation. In Romans 6-8 Paul rests sanctification in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection alone. By doing this he shows how one can grow in his or her spiritual life by understanding Christ’s death and resurrection. In chapters 9-11 Paul discusses Israel’s salvation and the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, and in chapters 12-16 are Paul’s final thoughts on the practical implications of his teaching and his conclusion. The point of the book of Romans is that salvation is not based on one’s feeling(s), but in what He did on the cross. It is through the cross that man can know God so that he/she can go out and serve God by His enabling grace.

A Christian’s experience of Christ unlike what Schleiermacher suggests does not regulate our experience of Him. One’s experience of God must be rooted in the Truth of Scripture, for that is how God has chosen to reveal Himself. Liberal theology has at its root a fallacy since it places the role of one’s feelings over the knowledge of Truth. This not only places the concept of salvation on the same level as one’s feelings but also displaces the foundation of the Christian faith. Schleimacher’s weakness lies in building his theological system upon a faulty premise- mainly his own thinking.

Biblical theology bases its authority upon the Scriptures as the supreme authority for faith and practice. It [biblical theology] does not esteem itself highly but rather exalts Christ. Proper understanding of Scripture will lead one to have a high view of it. A high view of Scripture means one believes that it is inspired, inerrant, and authorative for faith and practice. If one does not have a high view of Scripture, then it is likely that he or she will have a low view of Christ.

As people were during the Enlightenment, they are skeptical of a weak Christianity that doesn’t place the weight of salvation upon Christ. Faith is based in the fact of Christ’s death for the world’s sins, which means it rises or falls on the doctrine of justification. People are justified by faith in Christ which should naturally lead to transformation in all of life. Salvation is not about knowing or feeling, or any other outward action, for salvation is by grace through faith, so that faith is grounded in grace and expressed outwardly by grace.

Bibliography

Gonzalez, Justo L, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, no. 2 (New York: HarperCollins, 1985).

Hill, Jonathan, History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

LaTourette, Kenneth Scott, A History of Christianity Reformation to Present, no. 2 (Peabody: Prince Press, 2000).


[1] Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 227.

 

[2] Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 229.

[3] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity Reformation to Present, no. 2 (Peabody: Prince Press, 2000), 1122.

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, no. 2 (New York: HarperCollins, 1985), 287.

[5] Jonathan Hill. History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 233.

[6] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, no. 2 (New York: HarperCollins, 1985), 286-287.

[7] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity Reformation to Present, no. 2 (Peabody: Prince Press, 2000), 1124.

[8] Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 238.

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2 Comments

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    This is an insightful article. Thank you so much for writing it.

    Reply
    • Your welcome Stan, I’m glad you found it helpful. I wrote this paper for one of my church history classes in Bible College.

      Reply

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