Schleiermacher: Victor and Villain


The most influential theologian of the nineteenth century is often called the father of modern liberal theology or even the father of modern hermeneutics. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was born in Germany in 1768. He was raised in Reformed Calvinism and educated in Niesky, Barby, and Halle. He would later become a theologian and philosopher that made lasting impressions on thought.

While at the University of Halle—in the early 1800’s—Schleiermacher started a translation of Plato that would become a standard in German literature. In 1809 Schleiermacher returned to his birth country—Germany—where he helped to found a new university—University of Berlin. One of his more famous students was David Strauss who wrote the highly controversial The Life of Jesus Critically Examined.

During tenure at Halle he also became familiar with the writings of Immanuel Kant. Kant was the opposite of objective rationalism to subjectivity, wherein God is beyond the access of reason. Schleiermacher would later write his famous work, “On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.”

Today this work could be considered an apologetic against the criticisms of the Enlightenment. His work proclaimed that reason and objectivity are only a part of man and that feeling and emotions played a crucial role. Soren Kierkegaard was also a contemporary with Schleiermacher and their philosophies share affinity from Kantian revolution.

Making Sense, Since the Enlightmenment:

Philosopher Paul Tillich noted that Friedrich D.E. Schleiermacher attempted a “great synthesis in the theological realm.” To understand Schleiermacher one must understand the age or time in which he lived or the time in which he developed his epistemological structure. Schleiermacher stood out in his time because he was one who believed that a true philosopher could be a true believer. He was influenced by Pietism as he attended Moravian schools but was torn from those roots by questions from the French Enlightenment of the 17the Century. Schleiermacher was a Romanticist, existing just after a time when many “intellectuals had completely given up on Christianity as hopelessly outmodeled, irrational and superstitious.”
This sounds much like current times but then the only room for intellectual high-ground must be proven to be rational. Given this, Schleiermacher would go on to produce theological or religious works that constantly attempted to reconcile two opposing views:

1. Classical Protestantism
2. Enlightenment Criticism of the Seventeenth Century

It was not his objective to destroy or weaken true religion. It was his objective to prove its worth and value. To revive what was viewed as dead religion. Schleiermacher was one of the theologians that sought to bring respectability back to religion; to provide ample criticisms of the Enlightenment itself.

Experience Rules:

Schleiermacher may have erred in his fervor to rationalize his own subjectivism. It was the goal of his writings to “win the educated classes back to religion. Contending that religion was based on intuition and feeling and independent of all dogma.” The traditions and practices of Christianity only arise from expressions of monotheism. In his view, however, Christianity was not the only monotheists or the only “way”. In his work the Reden über die Religion Schleiermacher supports his thesis that “emotional experience forms the basis of religion, a conviction to which he adhered despite modifications contained in his later works. He considered creeds to be the expression rather than the foundation of religious experience,” In some sense, creeds are necessary but must be consistent with Biblical understanding. During the Enlightenment much of the violence can be attributed to revolt against dogma of the Catholic system that dominated France. Creeds then must be coherent for clear theological understanding.

Schleiermacher and Sabellianism:

Schleiermacher was also such a one who would defer conversation about the Trinity. In his scholarly work, God, Revelation, and Authority, Carl F. H. Henry notes that Schleiermacher “had an affinity for Sabellianism.” Sabellianism has been a common label, with modified forms, that has been placed on those who reject or press the envelope, so to speak, concerning the Trinity. I am not certain if Schleiermacher held this view, but Sabellius is said to have believed in patripassianism—meaning the Father suffered on the cross. Sabellius also believe that the manifestations of God appear in succession. He would deny a“trinity of essence and the permanence of the trinity of manifestation; making Father, Son, and Holy Ghost only temporary phenomena, which fulfil their mission and return into the abstract monad.”

The text of Scripture is quite clear though that it was the Son of God who suffered, died, and rose again. Sabellius did however reject the Trinity and his view has some affinity with that of Oneness theology held by many Pentecostal organizations, e.g. UPCI, ALJC, PAW.

Schleiermacher speaking of the Trinity, wrote, “there must still be in store for it (the doctrine of the trinity) a transformation which will go back to its very beginnings” Rightly so, his dissatisfaction with the Trinity was apparent.

Horace Bushnell:

The Britannica Encyclopedia links Schleiermacher to another antagonist of the Trinity—Horace Bushnell (1802-76). Bushnell attended Yale Divinity School and served as a pastor and theologian in New England. He lectured at Harvard frequently. Britannica notes, “Bushnell stood between the orthodox tradition of Puritan New England and the new romantic impulses represented by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and especially Friedrich Schleiermacher.”

Like Schleiermacher, Bushnell’s beliefs and influence is varied. “Bushnell's book on Christian nurture has exerted more influence on theories of Christian education among Protestants than any other work of recent times. His ideas on religious language anticipated much that is now being said about the crucial role of myth, symbol, story, and paradox in the discourse of the religions of the world.”Bushnell is also accredited for soundly refuting the prevalent Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards and for his essay on “Science and Religion”, published in 1868, that indicates his resistance to Darwinian evolution.


Mathematics can be used for error and truth. This is reason enough for us to conclude that reason cannot be alone. Descartes cogito ergo sum does illustrate us as conscious beings capable of reason and rationality. This does not mean that organic matter is all that we are. Philosopher Mark Woodhouse has noted that “A neurophysiologist, while establishing correlations between certain brain functions and the feeling of pain, begins to wonder whether the “mind” is distinct from the brain.” This makes us aware of the belief that man is material and immaterial. Man is made in the image of God and therefore, even unregenerate, can exhibit the fingerprints of His Creator.

Religion is passive and static in society if it is a mere subjective feeling. Our feelings and emotion must not be ignored but they must be mitigated. Just as extreme rationalism is unwise, so is pure subjectivism. Schleiermacher helped weave Kantian subjectivity into Protestant theology. Germany and general hermeneutics have suffered from the influence of the victor over Enlightenment. In his stridence for victory he vilified what is sacred. Schleiermacher would later no longer hold the Scriptures as being infallible and to him “Christianity is not the only true religion, but the most complete.”

Apparently rationalism had taken a large influence upon free thought during the 17th Century. This era only pushed the proverbial snowball over the edge of the cliff. It was a hard jolt though because Romanticism screams to us that many had forsaken even the use of reason in theology and Scripture. To some Christianity was not intellectually honest. Today, Richard Dawkins would call us "stupid", and he means that quite literally.

The great atheist turned Christian C.S. Lewis, who wrote and debated during the early 19th Century, was compelled to state:

“To be ignorant and simple now - not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground - would be to throw down our weapons, and betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.“

To every man an answer. I think Schleiermacher thought he was doing that, in a way. His theology perverted sound doctrine in some areas and possibly gave precedence for future dialog on matters like the Trinity. Indeed Tertullian, the one to coin the Latin term trinitas, (Trinity) notably held revelation above reason. In fact, Norman Geisler and P.D. Feinberg note, “It is true, nonetheless, that Tertullian exalted revelation above human reason. In one famous passage he cried out: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the academy and the church?”

There is danger in allowing revelation to exceed reason just as much as there is a danger in reason exceeding revelation. The two should be inseparably woven to complement each other.


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2) Tillich, Paul. A History of Christian Thought. Copyright © 1967, 1968 Hannah Tillich. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. pg. 388
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10) Woodhouse, Mark B., A Preface to Philosophy, Wadsworth Publishing. Pp. 25-26
11) Mr Stephen Priest "Schleiermacher, Friedrich Ernst-Daniel" The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press 2005.
12) Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory. Harper Collins Publishers. pg. 50
13) Geisler, N. L., Feinberg, P. D., & Feinberg, P. D. (1980). Introduction to philosophy : A Christian perspective (262). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

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Adversus Trinitas

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