Biographies from Church History: Part 3 of 3, F.D.E Schleiermacher

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a German Protestant theologian early in the nineteenth century and is commonly referred to as the founding father of liberal protestantism.[1] His theological approach emphasized the role of “feeling” and “expression” of one’s religious self-consciousness.[2]

800px-friedrich_daniel_ernst_schleiermacher_2Schleiermacher was born into a devout Christian family, and his father was a Reformed pastor with Moravian Pietism tendencies which emphasized personal faith, spiritual experience and devotional life. When Schleiermacher grew up, he attended a Moravian pietism seminary but became dissatisfied with the pietist theology, and so he transferred to the University of Halle to study philosophy. Later he became a pastor, professor and political activist spending most of his days in Halle and Berlin.[3]

Schleiermacher was dissatisfied with the pervading rationalism of his time, and so he was influenced by Romanticism, which emphasized feeling as over against reason. Thus, Schleiermacher in his first major work, entitled Speeches on Religion to the Cultured Among the Despisers, argued against religion as a scheme of knowledge or as a structure of morality.[4] From his perspective, “Religion is grounded neither in pure nor in practical or moral reason, but rather in Gefühl—a German word that is best translated…as feeling.”[5]

In his subsequent work entitled The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher expands his ideas concerning feeling by identifying feeling as being aware of the existence of the infinite and as being dependent upon the divine. This “feeling of absolute dependence” is the consciousness of dependence and is the foundation of personal existence and of Christian Theology. From this perspective, theology seeks to explain the implications of the feeling of dependence in the areas of the self, the relationship with the world and the relationship with God. Thus, everything in theology should be shown to be related to the feeling of dependence and if it does not, then it is not to be included in theological inquiry. [6]

Schleiermacher’s approach is a church theology approach emphasizing the feeling of the cooperate religious life. In other words, “the feeling of dependence takes a specific form in each religious community. The purpose of religious bodies is to communicate to others and to future generations their constitutive experiences, so that they may share the same feeling.”[7] According to Schleiermacher, the knowledge of God is revealed through the Christian community’s experience of redemption rather than through revealed propositional doctrine. With this perspective, he emphasizes the religious self-consciousness and de-emphasizes the objective nature of religious thought. Schleiermacher “gives priority to questions of meaningfulness rather than truth and locates the text’s referent in subjective consciousness rather than objective states of affairs.”[8] In summary, Schleiermacher theology posits that “the reality of God is located in human historical experience.”[9]

friedrich_daniel_ernst_schleiermacherAnother major work of Schleiermacher was his Hermeneutik which presented his method of interpretation. Schleiermacher emphasized the role of preunderstanding and the significance of linguistic and psychological aspects in the interpretive process.[10] “Preunderstanding enables the interpreter to grasp the text’s outward linguistic grammar and meaning as well as to penetrate the inward psychological dimensions of the text. By preunderstanding, the reader enters the inner structure of the writer’s own consciousness.”[11] According to Schleiermacher, behind every text there is a human experience and readers understand the writer’s human experience by bringing their own experience or preunderstanding to the text. Thus, readers should strive to understand the writer’s life and experience while connecting their own history which produces an interpretive backdrop for textual meaning.[12]

Schleiermacher was very influential during his day when the “despisers of religion” and romanticism had pushed theology out of societal discourse. His theology has influenced Protestantism to the present day, and so his life and thought is important to consider. The church should examine the strengths and weaknesses of Schleiermacher’s theology and the liberal theology that followed. Schleiermacher is an important voice in history, but his views should be critically examined by all Christians.

[1] González, The Story, Vol. 2, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 31, “Schleiermacher’s Theology.”     [2] Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 333. [3] J.B. Webster, “Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst (1768-1834)” in New Dictionary of Theology (NDT): Historical and Systematic, edited by Martin Davie et al. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), EPUB edition. [4] González, The Story, vol. 2, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 31, “Schleiermacher’s Theology.” [5] González, The Story, vol. 2, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 31, “Schleiermacher’s Theology.” [6] González, The Story, vol. 2, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 31, “Schleiermacher’s Theology.” [7] González, The Story, vol. 2, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 31, “Schleiermacher’s Theology.” [8] Webster, “Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst (1768-1834)” in NDT EPUB edition. [9] Webster, “Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst (1768-1834)” in NDT EPUB edition. [10] David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2003), 104-105. [11] Clark, To Know, 105.              [12] Clark, To Know, 105.

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