Reader's Guide to Schleiermacher's Christian Faith

Summary and Commentary from Frank Cross

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George Cross, The Theology of Schleiermacher


Section I. Description of the Religious Consciousness, so Far as the Relation between God and the World Is Expressed in It

Only when we feel ourselves to have a place in that organic whole we call Nature, or, as otherwise expressed, only when we are conscious of belonging to that unity which we call the world, with its division into parts universally related to one another, do we recognize our absolute dependence upon that higher infinite unity we call God. Our absolute dependence on God involves the absolute dependence of the world also. Hence the doctrine of the world from the view point of religion is summed up in the proposition: The totality of finite being exists solely by dependence on the Infinite,

The creeds express this doctrine in the twofold form of the creation and the preservation of the world by God. Were not the use of these terms already established it would suffice to designate the whole relation of the world to God by either of them. If creation, instead of denoting a divine activity which began and ended at a definite point, were used to designate the continuous and uninterrupted activity of God in the world, it would include the idea of preservation. Or if, for example, we think of the species in connection with the individual existences embraced in it, the creation of the individuals is just the preservation of the species and the latter would include the former. In this way they become fairly interchangeable. The only distinction between these two conceptions is that the former adds to the latter the conception of a beginning of the relation of dependence. However, we have no consciousness of a beginning of existence, but only of a continuous existence, and therefore Christian dogmatics can produce no special doctrine of creation, but has only a negative interest in it. That is, dogmatics supplies the rule that no doctrine of creation can be accepted as Christian which is inconsistent with the world's complete and continuous dependence on God, as, e.g., the doctrine of a pre-existent material which was the subject of God's formative activity, or the doctrine of a commencement of divine activity at creation, both of which limit the dependence of the world to a circumscribed period, And, on the other hand, our discipline occupies a position of freedom in relation to scientific investigation. For example, for dogmatical purposes it is immaterial whether the account of creation given in Genesis be in accordance with the facts or not, or whether we have in this book an inspired account of the manner in which the world came to be; for in any case these an; questions of cosmology or of a doctrine of the Bible. Dogmatics is only concerned with those matters in so far as they stand related to religious feeling. The pious self-consciousness underlying the doctrine of creation is satisfied with that doctrine, (1) as expressing the idea of the world's origination through God, so long as God is not thereby brought into the relation of antithesis or limitation; (2) as referring the world's origin to divine activity, so long as it is not viewed as similar to human activity; (3) when it views the origin of the world as time-filling and conditioning all change, with out the divine activity itself being made thereby temporal.

The doctrine of preservation more suitably sets forth the fundamental religious consciousness. It has been pointed out already that the highest development of the self-consciousness involves a consciousness of our being a part of the articulated world-whole, and this again is a condition of the highest development of the God-consciousness. Hence the highest knowledge of the world and the highest knowledge of God are interdependent, being a twofold expression of one and the same self-consciousness. Scientific and religious conceptions of the world are not antagonistic but complementary. The divine preservation of the world and universal natural causality are one and the same thing viewed from different standpoints. The affirmation of our religious consciousness that all that affects us exists in a relation of absolute dependence on God falls into line with the intuition that all is conditioned and determined by the world-order. If the common idea were true that the religious and the scientific view of things are mutually exclusive and that when the religious consciousness is more lively the scientific activity will be correspondingly weaker, and conversely, then the growth of scientific knowledge would result in the gradual extinction of piety, and the interests of religion would be opposed to all research and further extension of knowledge--altogether in contradiction with the truth that the impulse to world-knowledge and the impulse to seek God are both essential to the human soul. Now, it is quite true that the unusual and stupendous events in nature stimulate the religious feeling most thoroughly, but that is not because of the obscurity of their relations with other phenomena, but just because they manifest the most clearly the subjection of all human existence and activity to universal potencies and by this stimulate our sense of dependence. But this itself is just the most perfect admission of the universality of the world-order. Apart from this admission the religious consciousness could not be connected with every natural event.

NOTE.--The distinction between general and special preservation is opposed to the universal interests of religion, and so also is the distinction between preservation and co-operation, for they imply the operation of forces which do not proceed from God. To add to these the idea of divine government is to make further confusion, for it introduces the antithesis of means and end to God, which implies a difference in the degrees of the immediacy of the relation of things to God.

Because of the prominence which is given to the subject, particularly in apologetic writings, it is pertinent to apply the principles here enunciated to the subject of miracles. It is commonly supposed that an event which lies outside the fixed order of nature and which cannot, therefore, be accounted for by natural causality, has a special religious value because the divine causality is demanded for its explanation. But this is to suppose that the religious sphere lies outside of the universal order of relations, making the religious synonymous with the arbitrary and exalting the quality of arbitrariness to the rank of a divine at tribute. Nay, it does more: it separates God from the world and makes a religious view of the world impossible. It is destructive of science and of religion too.

If it be urged that the Christian belief in the hearing of prayer and the new birth demands a belief in miracles it may be replied here (though these subjects are to be treated later) that our view relates prayer to the divine preservation so that the prayer and its fulfilment or non-fulfilment are only parts of the one original divine order of things. As to the new birth--if the revelation of God in Christ is not something absolutely supernatural then Christian piety cannot require that anything which coheres with that revelation, and issues from it, be absolutely supernatural. Yet it is to be noted that our knowledge of the relations of the physical and spiritual is too limited to warrant a denial of the historicity of certain remark able events related in the New Testament. But this is a question for scientific investigation and not for dogmatics.

The operation of influences which constitute limitations upon our life is not to be denied. There is a difficulty in connecting them with God. for it seems to make him the source of evil, including the morally bad. While dogmatics has nothing to do with the origin and continuance of evil as an existence, but has only to show how it consists with universal dependence, a reference to the difficulty just mentioned is justifiable. If we divide these life-limiting forces into two classes: natural evil, by which human existence is partly annulled, and the bad, by which human activity is partly overcome in a conflict with others, the one class of opposing forces representing the totality of the powers of nature and the other class the entire combination of human activities; then it may be pointed out that the very forces of Nature which further individual human existence up to a certain point are also those which limit and extinguish it. The same double effect is seen in the operation of social influences. It will appear, then, that the furthering and the limiting of life are mutually conditioned. The personal existence of the individual is conditioned by the very influences which limit him. Accordingly it becomes plain that evil and good do not occupy two separate spheres, but both taken together constitute the world as it is. That is to say, evil is not for itself as such ordained by God, because it never exists by itself but only in relation to the good, of which it is a condition. All this is true, whether we speak of the "mechanism of nature" or of "free causes." Both belong to the universal order of nature, the cosmos.


The idea of these spiritual existences is brought over from the Old Testament into the New Testament and occurs in the popular discourses of Jesus and the Apostles. But whatever may have been their attitude toward the prevalent belief in such beings, it is to be observed that they give us no didactic utterance on the subject. Also, the creeds, while referring to such beings, for the most part elaborate no doctrine of angels or of a devil. And this is natural. For while there is nothing impossible in the idea, dogmatics as such has no positive concern with it. Our discipline is only interested to prevent an injury to the religious feeling through the direction of faith to an activity other than God's, or through the idea that the fixed order of Nature may be interfered with or abrogated by other beings, and thus the absolute relation of God to the world be compromised.

As to bad angels, every attempted doctrinal representation of them is full of self-contradictions. As to the doctrine of a supreme bad spirit called the devil, whatever may be the source of the idea--whether in the belief in a servant of God who announces the evil doings of men, or in oriental dualism with its doctrine of absolute evil, or in the Jewish view of the angel of death--it can have no place in Glaubenslehre (a doctrine of faith). For if there is a personal actual existence absolutely opposed to God, a religious view of the world is impossible and faith in the Redeemer is compromised. For if the devil be a part of the world-whole, then God as absolute causality is not present to the whole of existence, the totality of experience cannot be referred to God, and religion ceases to be fundamental to human nature as a part of the totality of being. And if, on the other hand, the devil be not a part of that articulated totality we call the world, then the unity of the universe in relation to God is destroyed, our dependence on God ceases to be absolute, God is no longer absolutely God. Hence also, the redemption by Christ is compromised. For if the devil be not included within its sphere, our redemption is not complete, for the totality of being ceases to be subordinate to Christ. He becomes only a help against a power from which he does not afford absolute protection. A belief in the devil can be by no means a condition of faith in God or in Christ; nor may we discuss his influence within the kingdom of God. The doctrine of angels or of a devil is a question of cosmology, and not of theology. Such a doctrine cannot be a Christian dogma, because it cannot be an expression of the Christian consciousness. Moreover it is sure to fall into contradiction with growing scientific knowledge. Yet as long as men are conscious of the influence of inexplicable evil forces it is proper and necessary that the idea be utilized in religious communications of a practical and liturgical character (32-49).

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