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 2. The Nature of the World in Relation to Redemption. Doctrine of the Church (113-63)

First Half: The Essential and Permanent Features of the Church (127-47)

If our Christianity is to be the same as that of the first disciples, it must arise like theirs from the influence of Christ. But since his influence is no longer an immediate, personal one, we are in need of a demonstration of the identity of our Christianity with that which appears in their presentation of the personality of Christ. For this we are dependent on the Scriptures of the New Testament. They show that from the influence of Christ himself and from his disciples testimony about him there actually proceeded the church-forming activity promised by him. They also complement the immediate utterances of Christ, because we can refer the ordinances and acts of his first disciples to the teachings and expressed will of Christ as their source. They are thus the work of the Spirit of Christ which is the common spirit of the church. With the loss of the original oral testimony the Scriptures remain the only original authority. But they would become a dead inheritance, did we possess these only and were the ever self-renewing activity of the church wanting. Thus the living testimony of the church and the Scriptures are the two elements indispensable for the historical identity and the truth of faith. Moreover, since the immediate personal influence of Christ is wanting, the institution and renewal of life-fellowship with Christ must issue from the church and be referred to its acts--that is, such acts as can be referred to Christ himself. For, on the one hand, the church is his organism and all her essential activities are the image of Christ's activities, and, on the other hand, all that is effected by them is the progressive actualization of redemption in the world, and therefore her activities are just the continuation of the activities of Christ.

It is true that there are many Christian churches mutually opposed in varying degrees. Their differences concern not the reality of a common life-fellowship with Christ, but the relations between the outer forms which represent it and the inner fellowship implied in them. The most important question as to all these differences is, whether they are grounded in these spatial and temporal differences which appear in the spiritual nature of men and are therefore unavoidable, or whether they are grounded in the world's attack upon the church and are therefore defects. But amid all the divisions of the Christian communion its universal self-identity appears in a triple manner: the testimony of Christ, the formation and preservation of life-fellowship with Christ, and the reciprocal relation of influence between the individual and the whole. The first of these is exhibited in the Scriptures and the ministry of the Divine Word, and these, as constituting the church's immediate presentation of Christ, are an image of his prophetic activity. The second is furnished in baptism and the Supper, and these represent his high-priestly activity. The third appears in the office of the keys and in prayer in the name of Jesus, and these represent Christ's kingly activity (127).

1. Holy Scripture.--The Scripture of the New Testament is a work of the Holy Spirit as the common spirit of the church, and forms only a particular instance of the universal testimony of the church in its presentation of the image of Christ to men. The written word possesses, however, a superiority over the original word which was merely spoken, not in its higher authoritativeness, but in that it furnished a means of testing our present testimony of Christ by that which was originally given. Yet this word is to be viewed as no dead possession (legal conception), but as an ever self-renewing activity of the church in its work of awakening faith in Christ by its presentation of him to the world.

It is faith in Christ which gives rise to reverence for the Scriptures, and not the converse. For, if faith in Christ is to be made to repose on the authority of the Scriptures, then that authority itself can be established only by an appeal to the reason common to all men. That is to say, faith is made dependent on a scientific demonstration of the authenticity, accuracy, and truth of the Scriptures, and those who are in capable of making the necessary investigation are dependent on external authority. Faith is subordinated and proportioned to intelligence or ability. Believers are graded in two classes as in the Romish church. Moreover, on these terms a man might become a Christian without a felt need of redemption--without repentance and a change of mind. Such a faith could never issue in a life- fellowship with Christ. Even the apostles proceeded not from the interpretation of the Old Testament to faith in Christ, but first, stimulated by the Baptist's testimony, rose to faith in Christ by witnessing his words and deeds and then proceeded to interpret the Old Testament in this new light. Accordingly, while it is proper to refer to the Scriptures for the sake of showing that an article of faith is an original element of Christian piety, yet a doctrine does not necessarily pertain to Christianity because it is taught in the New Testament, but rather owes its place in the New Testament to its relation to Christianity. The opposite view would make dogmatic theology a collection of individual propositions without inner connection. Herein lies the justification of our bringing forward a doctrine of the Scriptures at this point.

It is Christ's Spirit as the common spirit of the communion which gives utterance to itself in the historical and epistolary writings of the New Testament, and each one of these writings is an utterance of that Spirit, so far as it represents the common spirit in which all the writers participated. Thus it comes that the Spirit of Christ as a living presence in the Christian communion is the source of a decision between canonical and apocryphal works and is also the ground for a continuous and never-ending adjudication upon the character of the various contents of these same works. At the same time these Scriptures, as the first members of the series of presentations of Christ, are the norm of all subsequent presentations of him, inasmuch as they stand as the presentation of the person of Christ by those who, of all those whose writings we possess, stood nearest to Christ, and who were thus protected by the purifying influence of the living remembrance of the whole church from those dangers to their faith which arose out of their earlier Jewish forms of thought and life. But the peculiar spiritual endowment which came in this way to these apostolic men does not involve a distinction between the spiritual quality of their acts and that of their writings, as if they were animated and impelled by the Spirit in a lesser degree in the one case than in the other. Neither are the sacred books to be regarded, on account of the apostolic endowment, as demanding an exegetical and critical treatment peculiar to themselves. For just as in the doctrine of the person of Christ, so also in regard to the Scriptures, the activity of that spirit which operates in the church exhibits itself as an inner (the divine) expressing itself organically through an outer (the human). Similarly the narrative and epistolary portions of the Scriptures stand in a common relation to the apostolic office.

The selection of the individual books for the Canon is to be regarded as proceeding analogously with the selection and combination of the historical elements. We are not to conceive of a definite and final decision given by apostolic authority, but of the gradual adjudication upon extant works, professedly Christian, by the Spirit which was common to the whole church. While, therefore, the Scriptures are to be subject to the freest investigation, the self-recognizing activity of the Holy Spirit in the church warrants the statement that the various books of the New Testament were given by that Spirit, and the collection of the same has been made under his guidance.

The Scriptures of the Old Testament cannot be allowed to claim the same dignity. The spirit of the Old Testament is not the spirit of the New, because it is the spirit of law. Its place in our Bible and the customary use of it in Christian teaching are owing partly to the manner in which Christ and his apostles and the early Christians in general made reference to it when as yet the Canon of the New Testament had not been formed, and partly to the historical connection between the Christian church and the Jewish synagogue (128-32).

2. The ministry of the Divine Word.--The preaching of Christ was a presentation of himself. The preaching of the Christian communion is the presentation of Christ. But since this communion is the image of Christ, its preaching is also self-presentation. Self-presentation is self-communication to those who are receptive of it, and therefore we may say that the common spirit of the communion, which is just that which constitutes it a communion, communicates itself as the Spirit of Christ to those who assume a receptive attitude toward it. This Spirit which Christ him self communicated is the Holy Spirit which gave the Scriptures, and thus the self-communication of the Christian communion is a supplying of the Divine Word and must always submit to the test of conformity with the Scriptures.

Now each member of the communion, in his participation, to some degree, in this work of self-communication, seeks to present only that in himself which is of Christ, and to that degree he is an organ of the divine word. The influence of the members is mutually exercised and it is exerted through all the various activities of life without any definite plan or conscious arrangement. But owing to difference of temperament, talent, outer circumstances, and breadth of Christian experience, these activities of the members, both upon one another and upon the world, vary in degree and extent, some members being prevailingly active and others prevailingly receptive. And inasmuch as the common spirit of the communion must find expression in the orderly public assembly and the organized work of the Christian society, it becomes necessary, so as to secure an orderly and regular ministry, to set some individuals formally apart to the public service of the Divine Word. They can perform this only when they represent the communion as organs of its common spirit. And therefore they are to be designated to their office by the act of each several communion in which they inhere. Yet, of course, the occupants of church offices are not to be considered as exhausting its spiritual activities so as to preclude the spontaneous exercise of his gift on the part of each member of the formation of religious associations within the church. If the whole of the Christian communion could express itself in the doctrines and rules which the church sets forth and which these ministers as organs of its spirit declare, then these doctrines and rules and the public preaching of them would be free from error. But spatial and temporal relations render this impossible. Hence the necessity of binding the public ministry of the word to the Holy Scriptures (133-35).

3. Baptism.--Baptism is an act of the church by which it signifies its will to receive an individual into its communion. The common spirit of the communion being Christ's spirit, its act of reception succeeds upon, and takes the place of, Christ's personal act of choosing individuals for his fellowship during his ministry, and it occurs as an act of faith in his promise, which is attached to the baptismal act. Therefore, since communion with Christ, regeneration, and justification are fundamentally one, the act of baptism is to be regarded as indicating the exercise of God's justifying .activity upon the individual baptized and as conveying the assurance of this possession. Were the whole church present and represented in the act, because of the activity of the Holy Spirit in all its fulness within the church, the highest canonical authority would attach to its decree: the baptismal act and the new birth would absolutely coincide. This, of course, is not demonstrably the case, and therefore there is no absolute coincidence between the administration of baptism and the extension of Christian fellowship.

The act of baptism has an inner and an outer side. The inner side is the spiritual intention to receive the baptized into the communion from which issue all the operations of the Spirit which effect the new birth, and the outer side is the physical act through which the intention is conveyed. Hence it is not correct to say that the baptism is conditioned by the new birth, because that is to presuppose an activity in the church prior to being received in it, which is ab surd. On the contrary, then, we must say that the new birth is conditioned by baptism, that is, when baptism is taken to be the final act in that series in which the church expresses its will to extend itself, which it can do only by receiving new members. Accordingly it is through baptism rather than through the fluctuating experience of sanctification that we become personally assured of possessing the new birth. But of course this assertion is to be understood not in reference to the mere external act but the motives which underlie it. This assertion of the validity of the act in view of the intention is not to be understood as referring to the definite consciousness of the administrator, but as referring to the church, whose act it is. Hence its validity for the entire church, even though it be administered by one of the relatively opposed societies into which the church is divided. For in all of these the ordinance is referred back to Christ's own institution (Matt. 28:19, 20; Mark 16:16). The baptized accepts the church's intention, and hence his faith is necessary to the fulfilment of that intention. His faith is the individual act of self-appropriation of the perfection of Christ, but with it there is also the appropriation of the blessedness of Christ which is enjoyed only in the communion of believers. He who believes will enter this fellowship. This is done in baptism, which is properly called the seal of divine grace. Yet the absence of faith at the time on the part of the person baptized does not in validate the act or render necessary the repetition of it on the rise of faith; but the reception into the communion remains incomplete, just as it does also when faith exists but baptism has not been performed. In the former case the baptism looks forward to a faith yet to be exercised; in the latter case it looks back. Therefore it is true, in both cases, that baptism as the act of receiving the individual into the communion conveys the title to participation in the perfection and blessedness of Christ which is the essence of the Christian communion.

Thus infant baptism is valid, but only when respect is had to a confession of faith, to be made consequent upon perfected instruction, as the final act pertaining to that instruction. Though there are no traces of infant baptism in the New Testament, it is justifiable on the grounds of the necessities of the church and the demands of the parental feelings of those who are members thereof (136-38).

4. The Supper.--Beginning with a baptism properly administered the Christian has an experience of blessedness in Christ. But the development of this consciousness is not steady and uninterrupted; hence arises the necessity that our consciousness of blessedness should be confirmed and strengthened. Christian blessedness, outwardly regarded, is a communion with other believers; inwardly regarded, it is a communion with Christ, a personal (individual) attitude toward him. These are coincident and reciprocally operative. Against both of these two sides of the Christian life, the repressive influence of the world is continually at work. Hence arises the necessity for private meditation on the one hand--for hereby the believer excludes the influences of the world by presenting Christ to himself out of the Scriptures--and for public divine service on the other for the mutual fellowship of believers is strengthened and stimulated by the exhibition of a common Christian love. And this at the same time both expresses and comprises the fellowship of each one of them with Christ. To this latter, the public divine service, the Supper belongs.

Christians do experience in the Supper a peculiar strengthening of their spiritual life, and have done so ever since the time of its institution by Christ. In it Christ is presented to them. In the public gathering of the church as such, he supplies a participation in his flesh and blood. In this connection two questions arise: (1) How does the Supper as a supplying of the flesh and blood of Christ relate itself to that purely spiritual participation which he himself declared to be necessary? (2) How docs the Supper as a constituent part of public divine service distinguish itself from other parts of the same?

To begin with the latter: The Supper is distinguished from all other kinds of public worship in that, while in other forms of worship the degree in which the different members of the communion are actively or receptively related to one another varies according to their gifts and their place in the communion, in the Supper all the members are similarly placed in a receptive relation to the blessedness of Christ. The administrator is nothing more than the organ of Christ's institution. The inworking of this blessedness in the case of each believer proceeds solely and immediately from Christ himself, through the word of institution in which the redeeming and communion-forming love of Christ is presented and ever operates as a stimulus to piety. The peculiarity of the Supper is this individual and exclusive immediacy of presentation of Christ, this independence, in its working, of all changing personal conditions and relations.

In regard to the former question: In that discourse of Christ where he speaks of the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood he had neither the Supper nor another definite action in mind, but he referred to the periodic renewal of our fellowship with him. The Supper lends itself naturally to such a description, In the Supper each member is conscious of a sympathy with all the others, so that as he knows that the others more closely unite themselves to Christ in it, he feels that he also is more closely united there by to them all. Thus each member represents to the others the whole society, and indeed the whole Christian communion. But this spiritual benefit is dependent on the definite observance of the rite which has been blessed and sanctified through the word of Christ. In and for itself there is nothing incomprehensible in the ordinance.

Consequently the teaching of the Roman Catholic church is false when it affirms both that the union of the elements with the body and blood of Christ is accomplished and that the spiritual benefit is attached to the elements of the Supper through contemplation and veneration of them, apart from the act of participation; for this is to make its effect of a magical character. Those sacramentarians are also in error who see in the elements only a representative image of spiritual participation. We hold, on the contrary, that the response to Christ's invitation to spiritual eating and drinking of himself is so actualized in the Supper through the word of institution, that believers find spiritual participation assured to them in the sacramental act which, when rightly administered, is an unfailing means of access to it. Similarly we reject the view of those who deny the connection between the Supper and spiritual participation in Christ and regard it as a command of Christ to be observed for all time in the church, simply as a testimony or confession. For in the first place this view robs the Supper of its pre-eminence as a public service; and in the next place it destroys its identity at all times. For in its original institution there were none present to whom the disciples could give their testimony, and there have always been other means by which the members of the church recognize their mutual faith. Any view of the Supper is defective which fails to see in it a renewal of the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, that is, of fellowship with Christ, which is subject to interruptions by the consciousness of sin. Thus as baptism by uniting us with the body of Christ introduces the consciousness of regeneration (the certainty of forgiveness), so this repeated presentation of Christ in the Supper by the whole society of believers confirms the certainty of forgiveness by strengthening and restoring the interrupted consciousness of regeneration. This is ministered in the Supper by the assembled community of faith, for union with Christ (which is forgiveness) is not to be thought of apart from the union with believers (139-42).

5. The office of the keys.--If the church were a perfect whole with nothing of the world in it, so that every individual within it would be a perfect organ of the common spirit, then the will of the whole church would be the will of every individual member. But since this is not the case, and since there arises in every individual some opposition to the will of the common spirit of Christ, that will comes to him as law. Where the individual member is definitely not subjected to it, then the church counts him as not truly a member. This legislative and judicial activity of the church is simply the perpetuation of the legislative and administrative power of Christ, which inheres in the church by virtue of its possession of his spirit; it is an exhibition of his kingly activity.

Every new subjection of an individual life to this activity of the church is a new acquisition achieved by its common spirit. Then the church, by extending to the individual the God-consciousness which is to supply to him the law of his spiritual life, first affords to him an entrance into the communion and afterward as signs to him his definite and proper place within it.

The church, then, according to Christ's own utterances, has the power of binding: that is, it deter mines through command and prohibition what may or may not be done; and of loosing: that is, of leaving certain matters to be determined by the individual. The limit of this power of the church is assigned by the necessity of preserving the common mind or feeling; as when, for example, some individual member does that which, if left unreproved, would damage the well-being of the others, or when some individual places the persons of others in contempt by setting himself above them so as to try to make his personal act or thought the will of the common spirit.

But just because this kingly activity of Christ in the church is living and abiding, there can be no decree which is final and valid for all time, but these must ever be subject to amendment. Hence also, there can be no ban of final exclusion from the church or abandonment of effort to bring the individual within its communion (144, 145).

6. Prayer in the name of Jesus.--The church's historical progress in the world is opposed by obstacles without and within: without, by the opposition of that part of the world which the church has not yet taken possession of and assimilated; within, by the worldly elements remaining in each of its members. Hence the church's common consciousness is of its imperfection. Now the longing to realize the aim of Christ's mission being a living and abiding element of the church's life, this, conjoined with the consciousness of imperfection, implies on the one side a sense of need and on the other side a presentiment of what is necessary to the fulfilment of that aim. All progress in this direction is ascribed through the God-consciousness to the divine world-government, and is expressed in thankfulness or resignation according as it is realized in some particular or not. But so far as the matter appears undecided it is expressed in prayer, i.e., an inner connection between the God-consciousness and the wish directed toward the best end.

It is inevitable that the thinking subject should outline in many forms the manner in which the fulfilment of its aim appears possible. Hence the particular petitions in prayer. The judgment of each individual as to what particular occurrences would contribute to the end in view is, of course, defective and of uncertain value. Those of them who possess a gift analogous to the prophetic are therefore adapted to exercise a special influence on the whole body in the direction of its petitions. Beginning with Christ himself there have appeared from the earliest times individuals in whom the personal motives have been excluded and who possessed that foresight which qualified them in an eminent degree as organs of the common will of the church in respect to prayer.

True prayer, which is always united to an interest in the kingdom of God as the church's end, is the expression of the common spirit of the church in respect to its needs; i.e., it is an activity of the Holy Spirit in the form of anticipation and desire.

To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray in the matters which concern him (Angelegenheiten), or (which is the sane) in his mind or spirit. That prayer is therefore a prayer in the name of Jesus in which those who pray occupy his relation to the kingdom of God, i.e., they pray in accordance with his government of his church. The whole church being a perfect reflection of Christ, that only is a prayer in the name of Jesus which has underlying it the total consciousness of the church, i.e., a prayer whose content has reference to the whole state of the church. This is the common prayer of the church on all occasions. Such prayer is always heard. This is the prayer of faith--not a separate faith that the prayer will be heard--but faith in the permanence and supreme worth of the kingdom of God which Christ founded. Every particular petition is heard so far as it agrees with this norm.

Consequently, prayer is not the exercise of an influence upon God. Such a view of prayer postulates a reciprocation between the creature and the Creator, represents its effect as empirical (akin to magical), and contradicts the fundamental thesis of this work. Prayer and its fulfilment have a common basis in the character of the kingdom of God. For prayer is that Christian anticipation which is developed out of the whole activity of the divine spirit, and its fulfilment is an expression of the governing activity of Christ in relation to the same object. In this sense we may say that neither one can be without the other, for both grow out of the same divinely ordered conditions. Thus true piety and true prayer always go together (146,147).

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