Reader's Guide to Schleiermacher's Christian Faith

Summary and Commentary from Frank Cross

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George Cross, The Theology of Schleiermacher



In a statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, as has been already pointed out, we cannot begin with some principle externally given and then develop from it by a dialectical process a system of doctrines; but since Christianity is a modification of the self-consciousness, Christian doctrine will be the expression of that self-consciousness and all alleged doctrines of Christianity must be tested by the same. In the course of history a great number of these in a more or less systematic form have already appeared, It is necessary, therefore, to find a rule for the testing of them and then a principle according to which they may be arranged and combined in an articulated system.


The Christian religion is historical in character, Christian piety arises in no individual independently, but is propagated in the Christian communion and through it. This communion, comprehending many individuals, is, by virtue of its common inner character, a truly unitary life; it is one moral person existing under conditions of spiritual sickness or health. The fundamental basis of this communion is the peculiar essence of Christianity, and this once ascertained, we may then distinguish from it that which springs from an alien source; that is, what is heretical may be separated from what is of the church. Now, since the peculiar nature of Christianity consists in this, that all pious impulses are referred to the redemption which comes from Jesus of Nazareth, the rule is herewith supplied for the detection of heresy in doctrine: to wit, by ascertaining the different ways in which the essence of Christianity may be contradicted while the appearance of it is retained. We hereby obtain at the same time a rule for the detection of error or defect in our own apprehension of it.

There are two ways of annulling the essence of Christianity while accepting the reference of the impulses of religion to Jesus redemptive activity as its basis, namely, by a wrong view cither of human nature or of the nature of the Redeemer. The result is that in neither is there implicated a participation in true Christianity. In the former case heresy arises when the redemption is accepted, but cither man's need of it or his capacity to receive it is implicitly denied. Of those heresies which arise from a defective view of man's nature, Pelagianism, implicitly denying man's need of redemption, while admitting the full capacity of his nature; and Manichaeism, implicitly denying man's capacity for redemption while admitting his need, are respectively the types embracing all.

The second class of heresies arises when the redemption is accepted but Christ's ability to effect it is implicitly denied. This also occurs in a twofold manner, either by a denial of Christ's pre-eminence over all other men, or by a denial of his essential likeness to them, If Christ is the Redeemer, i.e., if he is the definite point of commencement of a constant and living, and therefore unhindered, activity of the God-consciousness in such a way that all others have part therein only through him, he must have an exclusive and peculiar dignity among men, and at the same time must possess an essential likeness to them. When the former is so exclusively emphasized that the latter seems a mere appearance, the heresy is of the docetic type; when the case is the reverse, the heresy is of the ebionitic type. Opposition to the essence of Christianity in any other form is not heretical but antichristian.

NOTE.--Supernaturalism is often akin to Manichaeism and Docetism, and Rationalism to Pelagianism and Ebonitism.

The evangelical dogmatician must assume the additional task of developing the antithesis between Protestantism and Catholicism into clear consciousness and of establishing it in a formula. For, just as the peculiar nature of Christianity is not to be found in an abstract conception of religion and religious communion, so also, since the religion of the individual and his relation to Christ does not arise or continue in him independently of the Christian communion, the peculiar nature of Protestantism is not to be discovered in a general conception of Christianity. For the Reformation was no mere reform of abuses; it was a point from which proceeded a peculiar formation of the Christian communion, a communion antithetical to Catholicism. To state the same thing somewhat differently: Just as Christianity is a phenomenon in history, an empirical fact, and its existence and character cannot be deduced from abstract conceptions of religion in general; so also Protestantism is a historical phenomenon and likewise is not to be deduced from the abstract conception of Christianity. The historical facts cannot be made to correspond with dialectical processes. The central point of opposition between the two communions can best be discovered by inquiring for those qualities in the one church which are the chief ground of objection in the other. The principal Roman Catholic accusation against Protestantism is that it is destructive of the ancient historic church and is incapable of building up an unbroken and enduring communion, but is ever fluctuating and ever tending to dissolve into mere individualism. On the other hand, Protestantism makes its chief objection to Catholicism that it robs Christ of his honor by laying all stress on the idea of the church and referring every thing to it, and that thereby Christ is subordinated to the church. Each accuses the other of slighting the Christian principle, but in an opposite way. The antithesis is capable of being stated briefly, thus: Protestantism makes the relation of the individual to the church dependent on his relation to Christ; Catholicism makes the relation of the individual to Christ dependent on his relation to the church. In Protestant dogmatics, therefore, the conception of the relation of the individual to Christ is primary and fundamental.

NOTE.--There is no sufficient obstacle to the union of the Lutheran and Reformed churches since their doctrinal disharmonies do not rest on a fundamental difference in the religious frame of mind or a difference in morality and ethics, but they are solely an affair of the schools.

From the inherence of Christian piety in a communion it follows also that a statement of doctrine is not the mere independent opinion of an individual, but is an expression of the peculiar religious consciousness of the Christian communion in which he lives and upon which he also reacts. Thus there comes to light a characteristic of Protestantism dogmatics: it is not an inventory of doctrines finally determined; but the free play of the individual factor in religious life and reflection is combined and interrelated with the common life and doctrine of the ecclesiastical body in which he inheres and which has itself come into existence by this very activity of individuals. Protestant dogmatics possesses both an ecclesiastical character and individual peculiarity and originality, and consequently not only is but ever is becoming. The process of the transformation and development of doctrine which began at the Reformation is to go on, unhindered, indefinitely.

NOTE.--The terms orthodox and heterodox have no validity in Protestant dogmatics.

Christian dogmatics and Christian ethics are best treated separately, because, while both are expressions of a Christian religious frame of mind, and while in their combination they present the whole reality of the Christian life, the former represents a static modification of human nature, the latter represents its activity (21-26).


There already exists in ecclesiastical creeds, confessions, and doctrinal formularies a mass of professedly Christian doctrines, (a) Each one of these separate doctrinal propositions admits of a critical test; then the consistency one with another of all these is to be tested in order to unite all the truly Christian doctrines into one integral system. Every doctrine must conform to the following conditions: (1) It must be confessionally true, i.e., it must be a true expression of the Christian consciousness in some given church communion; (2) it must be scripturally true, i.e., it must be a genuine expression of that piety which appears in the New Testament; (3) it must be scientifically true, i.e., it must be logically consistent with other true expressions of the Christian faith and also with the facts of the objective consciousness; the terminology of dogmatics must be strictly scientific. These three tests are to be applied in the order named. Or, to put it in a word, Christian dogma must be the self-consistent expression, dialectically exact and in systematic form, of the common continuous Christian consciousness and in harmony with the unity of human nature. That conformity with some Protestant confession is made a test prior to conformity with the New Testament is not prejudicial to the latter, because, in addition to the fact that the Protestant church symbols themselves are professedly based on the Scriptures and the necessity of going back from the creeds to the Scriptures would arise only in case their interpretations of the latter are suspected, there is the further consideration that no individual opinion, purporting to be Christian, which does not possess apparent homogeneity with the expressed consciousness of a historic communion can be considered worthy of being called a dogma.

That dogmas must be based on the New Testament rather than the whole Bible follows from what has been said of the relation between Christianity and Judaism. Moreover, if a doctrinal statement can be shown to rest on the New Testament no additional weight can be given it by a further reference to the Old; while, if it be supported by the Old Testament alone, it cannot claim to be Christian. Further, it is quite inappropriate and misleading to import the very expressions of Scripture into a doctrinal system, for this is to overlook the difference between scientific language and the free, popular, and rhetorical usage in the Scriptures. Isolated texts are to be used only when they evidently issue from the same body of pious excitations as those which are expressed in the dogmatical propositions.

(b) The range of Christian dogmatics is deter mined by the consciousness of redemption. Within this consciousness lies a fundamental antithesis. On the one side is the need of redemption, a repression and limitation of the God-consciousness, a felt inability to erect the feeling of absolute dependence into a position of supremacy over all the activities of life. On the other side is the certainty of redemption through Jesus Christ, i.e., the God-consciousness is now put into a commanding position in all the energies of life, and this power to hold all in subjection to the religious feeling is referred to Christ. This does not imply that the consciousness of the need of redemption has disappeared; it may indeed be more vivid; but it is now specifically Christian.

Consequently, all professedly Christian doctrines must conform to the demand that they have their source in the Christian consciousness of redemption. Thus it is impossible for Christian dogmatics to take over from so-called "natural theology" descriptions of a religious consciousness common to all men, or the results of speculative theology, however true these may be in themselves. Nor can this be done with doctrines of the person of the Redeemer, relating to a time anterior or posterior to, or apart from, his redemptive activity, or with doctrines of a state of humanity in which men no longer feel the antithesis implied in redemption, since those doctrines are not expressions of the Christian consciousness, whatever else they may be. Nor again can the discoveries of science in any field whatever or the products of meta physical speculation, all of which may be independent of the higher self-consciousness, be accepted as elements of a Christian doctrinal system until they have been reinterpreted from the standpoint of the Christian religious experience. According to this view no assertions of mere historic fact or of speculation about this Redeemer himself are entitled to a place in Christian doctrine.

Since all Christian piety rests upon the appearing of the Redeemer, nothing that concerns him can be set forth as distinctly Christian doctrine which does not stand in connection with his redeeming causality and is not capable of being referred back to the original impression which his existence made.

(c) As regards the framework in which dogma is to be exhibited: Since religion is in the last analysis the feeling of absolute dependence, and since that higher consciousness comes into actual supremacy over the sensuous consciousness in the Christian experience of redemption, Christian dogmatics will naturally commence with a description of the distinctively Christian consciousness. But since, as has been shown, the feeling of absolute dependence is inseparable from a world-consciousness over against which a God-consciousness stands, Christian dogmatics will also present a doctrine of the world and a doctrine of God from the standpoint of redemption.

We shall treat the historic confessional statements under these three heads and in the order indicated. This order of discussion differs from that which has been the rule among dogmaticians. They have given the question of the being and nature of God the first place in the order of topics, but our method is more in harmony with the requirements of science and the needs of the religious spirit (27-31).

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