Reader's Guide to Schleiermacher's Christian Faith

Summary and Commentary from Frank Cross

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George Cross, The Theology of Schleiermacher




While the consciousness of sin is a personal experience, it relates not merely to the individual but embraces the collective life of mankind. It is as a member of the body of humanity, as a participant in its common life, that he is conscious of sin and unblessedness. To this universal condition testify the confessions, offerings, purifications, and penances in all religions. While these are usually aimed at the avoidance of punishment rather than the extinction of sin their inevitable failure to remove unhappiness amounts to an expression of an inclination toward Christianity as that religion in which is found a Redeemer in whom appears the substance instead of the shadow. Moral development of the peoples tends in the same direction, because with moral progress there is a sharpening and intensification of the dissatisfaction connected with moral failure. And although for the distinctively Christian consciousness there is an acknowledgment of the unavoidability of sin and an assurance of its gradual disappearance, these convictions are the outcome of the growing power of the God-consciousness and are consequently accompanied by a more painful sense of the need of redemption and of the hopelessness of its removal by the personal efforts of men, because these efforts must partake of the sinful character of that common life of humanity from which they issue. Hence in Christianity the pre-eminent worth of redemption and the supreme place of the Redeemer.

The Christian experience of a growing dominancy of the God-consciousness and, in the same degree, of a growing blessedness, is not owing to any definite form of activity or of conditions, such as devout meditation or ascetic practices (for these have content of happiness only in so far as they contribute to the performance of those activities which one's vocation calls for), but it is owing to participation in a new community which springs from the divine operation. That is to say, the Kingdom of God has come and the collective life of this new community constitutes it. This new life in men is by faith referred to Jesus Christ as its author, which is the same as to say that in him the kingdom of God appears. This Christian experience has indeed its source in Christ, but it never exists apart from the Christian community. The acceptance of the former with a denial of the latter involves separatism and fanaticism and is destructive of the essence of Christianity, because, in supposing that an individual could have, as it were, Christ for himself alone, it annuls the definite historical continuity of Christianity and renders an actual propagation of the activity of Christ impossible. The reverse attitude, i.e., the acceptance of the communal character of Christianity, with a denial of the necessity of a reference to Christ personally, makes his historical appearance only a link in a chain of prophets, supposes that the new community could arise out of the old sinful collective life of humanity, and involves a denial of the universality of sin. It is to say, as does the Roman Catholic church in effect, that Christ is Redeemer because the church has constituted him such.

If we ask: In what way specifically is the redemption wrought by Christ? the answer is: By an impartation of his sinless perfection through the communion founded by him. The affirmation that Jesus possessed sinless perfection does not admit of proof in the ordinary sense. The Scripture proof fails because, uncertainties of meaning aside, all it can show is that this was the original form of Christian faith. The proof by reference to miracles and prophecies fails because it could only show how the primitive Christian faith arose and, besides, it is purely external. Our proposition is not to be understood as equivalent to an assertion that at a time when the consciousness of sin both as personal and collective was powerful in many men, all that was necessary was that a moral pre-eminence should fitly exhibit itself in a public life in order to bring about an ascription to such an. individual of the desired sinless perfection as the only possible succor of men. For this is as if it were said that faith had constituted Jesus the Redeemer. It would involve a gradual diminution of the certainty of his value as we become farther removed from the original impression of his person, and it would make room for the expectation of another to whom that perfection might be ascribed more worthily. But our meaning is that the acknowledgment of that perfection is the work of Jesus himself and that out of that acknowledgment arises the new collective life which is therefore founded by Jesus; the action of this new communion reproduces the same faith and is itself therefore just the operation within the communion of that personal perfection of Jesus. If it be objected that an impartation of sinless perfection through a body, in every member of which there are manifestations of the universal sinfulness, is impossible, the answer is: these manifestations are the still remaining expression of that collective life which was controlled by sin before the new life appeared in the midst of it, and the impartation of the absolutely powerful God-consciousness in Christ (in the historical Christian communion) is as yet inner experience received by an impression from without. In regard to this experience there are two statements to be made: (1) from the image of Christ, which subsists in that Christian society with which the individual comes into contact, as its collective act and its collective possession, he receives an impression of the sinless perfection of Christ which, on the one hand, gives rise to a perfect consciousness of sin in himself, and, on the other hand, removes his unblessedness; (2) within this Christian society, in spite of all its errors and sinful manifestations, there is an ever-working inner impulse toward the true and good; this is from Christ, and in spite of all reactions will ever increasingly manifest itself outwardly. These two elements constitute a true impartation of the perfection of Christ.

The existence of this illimitable power of the God-consciousness in Christ and its operation within the human race may be regarded as supernatural or as natural, according to the point of view taken. In view of the human race constituting a collective life which naturally propagates sin, this communication coming from a power without it is a supernatural work. But in relation to the Redeemer himself the existence of this new collective life is no miracle but the normal working of that supernatural power in its assumption of natural ethical forms and in its appropriation to itself of the material surrounding it. Similarly of the individual's transition from the old collective life into the new; in relation to his former life the change is of supernatural origin, because it arises from a source beyond that old life; but in respect to the new life it is a natural event because it is its normal mode of activity. In the initiative divine activity is the supernatural, but by virtue of the living human receptivity the supernatural takes on historical, natural form. But the perfect connection between the old stage of human existence and the new stage brought in by the advent of the Redeemer lies only in the unity of the divine thought.

Now sin, in and for itself, is non-existent for God and no object of his counsel; so also a redemption merely in reference to sin can be no object of the divine counsel. But since sin consists in the inability to realize the God-consciousness, therefore the sin-consciousness (which has been shown already to be one with sin) as a necessary condition of the receptivity of the God-consciousness is a good in relation to the highest development of human nature. Without it there would have been no living receptivity for the impartation of Jesus gift. Without it that full development of man which appears in the perfect ascendancy of the God-consciousness in the self-consciousness would not take place; and hence, redemption from sin may be designated as the completion of the creation of human nature. But this means that Christ, by virtue of that absolutely powerful God-consciousness which is his original endowment, enters with creative power into the course of human history to stimulate human nature to a perfect consciousness of its sinfulness and to an assimilation of his own perfection. With the bringing of his activity under the law of human development there is assured its gradual extension over the whole race. And since to the religious consciousness creation and preservation are at bottom equivalents, we conclude that the whole race of man has been ordered and preserved with reference to the impartation of the sinless perfection of Christ--the whole race from the beginning has a relation to the Redeemer.

The unfolding of the consciousness of grace in the same framework as was used for the unfolding of the consciousness of sin will accordingly complete the dogmatic (86-90).

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