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Schleiermacher's Christology Revisited: A Reply to his Critics

  • Jacqueline Mariña (a1)


It has often been remarked by Schleiermacher's critics that his surprisingly high Christology is an awkward interlude in what may otherwise be described as a transcendental philosophy of religion. Schleiermacher's brief intoxication with Romanticism as evidenced in the Speeches, the undeniable influence of Schelling and Spinoza upon his early intellectual development, and the fact that The Christian Faith begins with a general description of the God-consciousness, all contribute to the suspicion that The Christian Faith is primarily an attempt to harmonize Christianity with the prevailing cultural thought forms of the day. This is, for instance, the way that Barth describes Schleiermacher's project: first and foremost, he understands it as an enterprise in apologetics.



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1 Barth, Karl, The Theology of Schleiennacher, ed. by Rilsclil, Dietrich and trans, by Bromiley, Geoffrey W., (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), p. 205.

2 This is, no doubt, a familiar critique of Schleiermacher's system and is discussed by Redeker, Martin in his book, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, (trans, by Wellhauser, John, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), p. 151.

3 Quoted from The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History, by Strauss, David Friedrich and edited by Keck, Leander E., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), p. lii.

4 Brunner, Emil, too, criticized Schleiermacher on a similar point in his book Die Mystik und das Wort. Der Gegensatz zwischen moderner Religionsauffasung und Christischen Glauben, (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1924). As Brian Gerrish has noted, ‘The cardinal point in Brunner's critique is … his pervasive assumption that, for Schleiermacher, what is specific in Christianity cannot belong to Christianty's essence, but only to the mode of its historical manifestation. The essence is to be found precisely in the universal concept of religion, of which the specifically Christian is simply an accidental individualization — and, Brunner adds, insignificant with respect to value.’ Gerrish, Brian, Tradition and the Modem World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 24.

5 Feuerbach, Ludwig, The Essence of Christianity, (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1924). As Brian Gerrish has noted, ‘The cardinal point in Brunner's critique is … his pervasive assumption that, for Schleiermacher, what is specific in Christianity cannot belong to Christianity's essence, but only to the mode of its historical manifestation. The essence is to be found precisely in the universal concept of religion, of which the specifically Christian is simply an accidental individualization —and, Brunner adds, insignificant with respect to value.’ Gerrish, Brian, Tradition and the Modem World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 24.

6 A good deal of work has been done in the past twenty years to correct the view that Schleiermacher was simply an innovater attempting to reconcile Christ and culture at the expense of what is specially Christian, particularly by Brian Gerrish. See, for instance, the following: ‘Friedrich Schleiermacher on the Task of Theology’, in Tradition and the Modern World; chapter 12 of The Old Protestantism and the New (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); A Prince of the Church: Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modem Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). An older, but no less noteworthy study is Richard R. Niebuhr's Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion: A New Introduction (New York: Charles Scribner's sons, 1964).

In his essay in Tradition and the Modem World, Gerrish leaves open the question of ‘the viable bridge between Schleiermacher's concept of religion and his positive dogmatics’ (p. 35). In other words, how are we to relate Schleiermacher's philosophy of consciousness with his analysisof concrete Christian experience and his Christological statements? Here Gerrish solves the problem of the ‘bridge’ through an analysis of Schleiermacher's claim that the feeling of absolute dependence as analyzed in part one of The Christian Faith is an abstraction from the concreteness of Christian experience. While the analysis offered in this paper does not conflict with Gerrish's, it moves beyond it in offering an explanation of the internal theological logic governing Schleiermacher's position, which allows him to work through the intrinsic connections between human consciousness in general and his high Christological statements.

7 Schleiermacher, Friedrich, The Christian Faith, second German edition, English translation. Mackintosh, H. R. and Stewart, J. S., eds, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), hereafter cited as CF;§ 2, 1; p. 3.

8 Ibid., § 15; p. 76.

9 Redeker, , Schleiermacher, p. 117.

10 CF.§ 13, 2; p. 67.

11 See McGrath, Alistar E., The Making of Modem German Christology from the Enlightenment to Pannenberg, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) p. 39.

12 CF,§18;p. 85.

13 This is Lindbeck's, George characterization of this position in his book The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), p. 21.

14 An informative discussion of Schleiermacher's view of the relationship between religious feeling and religious belief can be found in Brandt, Richard B., The Philosophy of Schleiermacher (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), pp. 184197.

15 Cf, § 17, 2; p. 84.

16 The idea of the sustaining activity of God, is of course, closely related to the notion of the divine causality, and already in an essay that appeared in 1962, Van Harvey noted that ‘what Schleiermacher called the divine causality (die göttliehe Ursachlichkeil)’ is ‘the central [notion] in the Glaubmslehre, and it contains the key to his method, his doctrines, and his errors’. In ‘A Word in Defense of Schleiermacher's Method’, The Journal of Religion, Vol. XLII, No. 3, p. 153. More recently, Michael Root, noting the centrality of this notion to Schleiermacher's theology, traces both the continuities with, and departures from, the tradition of Schleiermacher's understanding of the relationship between Cod and world. Of particular interest is his analysis of what he calls the ‘overdetermination’ of Schleiermacher's concept of the relation between Cod and world, and the tension in which this overdetermination stands to a more narrative type of theology. ‘Schleiermacher as Innovator and Inheritor; God, Dependence, and Election’, Scottish Joumal of Theology. Vol 43, pp. 87–110. Both Harvey and Root understand Schleiermacher's conception of the relation between God and world differently from me.

17 CF, 7sect; 38, 2; p. 147.

18 Ibid., $51; p. 200.

19 Ibid., $51, 1; p. 201.

20 Ibid., $51, 1; p. 201.

21 Ibid., $ 51, 1; pp. 201–202.

22 Ibid., $ 38, 2; pp. 147–148.

23 Ibid., $ 94, 3; p. 389. As Michael Root notes, the doctrine of the original divine decree fleshes out, so to speak, that of absolute dependence: henceforth the latter must be understood as part of the ‘absolute teleological orientation of all toward redemption’. This is because the ‘single decree encompasses creation and redemption and, most importanlly.orders the former in relation to the latter’. ‘Schleiermacher as Innovator’, p. 93. Cf. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion, p. 214.

24 CF. $ 22, 2; p. 99.

25 Ibid., $ 97, 3; p. 409.

26 Ibid., $ 97, 4; p. 411.

27 Ibid., $ 97, 2; p. 401.

28 Ibid., $ 97; p. 398.

29 Ibid., $ 97, 4; p.411.

30 Van Harvey, for instance, notes that absolute dependence refers to ‘;the absolute causality (or God) working in and through what Schleiermacher calls the universal nature-system or world. God acts upon and determines the consciousness in and through the system of secondary causes’. This way of putting the matter equates the effects of God's absolute causality with those of the system of causes in the naturesystem, thus making it virtually impossible to distinguish the influence of God from that of the world. The same mistake is made by Boyer when he offers the analogy of an experimenter who acts on a system as a whole, but never on particular events within that system in order to explicate Schleiermacher's understanding of the relation of God to the world. Bruce L. Boyer, ‘Schleiermacher on the Divine Causality’, Religious Studies, 22, 113–123. The fact that Schleiermacher emphasizes over and again that it is, in particular, through our feeling of spontaneity that we come to the consciousness of absolute dependence should alert us to the fact that absolute dependence on God is something very different from our receptivity to things in the world. [CF § 49, 1; § 4, 3] While our receptivity to intra-worldly effects is a condition of the possibility of our limited spontaneity in that the world is the pre-given arena in which we are to act out our freedom, the world should not be confused with the correlate of absolute dependence. In fact, Schleiermacher notes that to ‘leave the divine causality as the only one’ is to hold what has ‘already been shown to be destructive of the feeling of absolute dependence’ [CF § 49, 1]. If we are conscious of the feeling of absolute dependence through awareness of our limited spontaneity, that is, our consciousness of ourselves as acting independently of intra-worldly effects, then there is not one uniform way in which God relates to the world. He sustains the nature-system, but he also sustains each individual insofar as s/he is a free agent and is thus independent of intra-worldly causes. Insofar as we arc free, God does not act upon us simply by acting upon the world as a whole. See also Williams, Robert R., Schleiermacher the Theologian (Phildelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), in particular pp. 3238.

31 CF. § 4, 3; P. 16.

32 That this is the case for Schleiermacher can be inferred from numerous passages. For instance, Schleiermacher characterizes revelation in the following way: ‘… every original ideal which arises in the soul, whether for an action or for a work of art, and which can neither be understood as an imitation nor be satisfactorily explained by means of external stimuli and preceding mental states, may be regarded as revelation’. Ibid., § 10, 3; p. 51; see also § 13, 1; pp. 62–63; and § 93. 3; p. 381.

33 Schleiermacher writes: ‘… no one can doubt that the results of free activity take place in virtue of absolute dependence. What is certain, moreover, about the accompanying self-consciousness is that we are only capable of the feeling of absolute dependence as freely acting agents — that is to say, that we are conscious of our freedom as something which is received and is gradually developed in a universal system. Therefore in every religious experience of free self-activity the self-consciousness must contain both the feeling of absolute dependence and the relative feeling of freedom.’ Ibid., § 49, 1; p. 190.

34 Ibid., § 4, 4; p. 16.

35 Ibid., § 4, 3; p. 15.

36 As Brent Sockness notes, according to Schleiermacher ‘If Christians are truly redeemed … then something quite new and powerful must have entered into the history of fallen humanity that is productive of its redemption. Jesus … is a “miraculous fact”, which is to say that his spiritual life cannot be explained by his environment.’ Journal of Religion, Vol. 72, No. 3, July 1992, p. 375.

37 CF. $ 94, 2; p. 387.

38 In his lectures on The Christian Faith Barth counsels his students: ‘Do you not agree that it is really worthwhile to read this introduction sentence by sentence before turning overcredulously and overdocilely to The Christian Faith? And might it not be that we can find consolation for being forced to stop here in the confidence that in these twelve sections we have perhaps in some sense come to know the whole of this version of the Christian faith?’ Barth, Karl, The Theology of Schleiermacher, p. 243.

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