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)

Second Half: The Variable Elements of the Church Owing to Its Coexistence with the World (148-56)

If everyone who receives the spirit of Christianity retained no longer any of the characteristics of his former life, but became receptive solely of the common spirit of the church, then the separation between church and world would be absolute and their influence be merely that of reciprocal opposition and enmity. But though the true ego of the regenerate man is that of delight in the divine will, his new birth is no instantaneous transformation of his whole being. Worldly elements inhere in all those who constitute the church; so that church and world are not spatially and temporally separated. At every empirical manifestation of human life both appear. Where faith and a communion in faith are found, there also are sin and a communion in universal sin fulness. Only by abstraction can the church be isolated. The workings of the church, which consist in the union of the Holy Spirit with human nature, constitute a coherent and co-operative whole, but Invisible, because never in empirical separation from the world. The totality of the connected operations of the Spirit constitutes the Invisible Church. These same operations as connected with reactionary elements of sin which appear in the lives of the regenerate constitute the Visible Church. Within the visible church, church and world coexist.

Hence, while the whole truth of redemption be comes the believer's possession through the communication of Christ's perfection to him, and while a present guidance into the truth is assured by the consciousness of sonship with God in a life- fellowship with Christ, the reaction of his former state affects his conceptions of life and his activity of will, so that there is, on the one hand, only a gradual transformation of his ideas, and this involves inevitably a degree of falsity in all external expressions of this inner truth; and, on the other hand, only a gradual change in the direction of his life-energies occurs, and this involves a certain degree of impurity of motive. This, of course, pertains to the communion as well as to the individual. Hence the twofold contrast between the invisible church arid its empirical manifestation in the visible church, the contrast in thought and in action: to wit (to mention these features in the reverse order), while the invisible church is one, the visible church is divided: and while the invisible church is infallible, the visible church is subject to error. The invisible church must be one, for the spirit is one, and since the communion of the Spirit is just the self-recognition of the Spirit, the invisible church must be wherever this self-same Spirit is, i.e., throughout all Christendom. The universal impulse to externalize the common consciousness in determinate forms results in variety, difference, and separation, as a consequence of the antitheses antecedently existent among men, such as arise from difference of speech, nationality, political and geographical relations, civilization, and many other inner and outer conditions. In this way arise different church societies (communions). But these in no wise involve a destruction of communion with other Christians. Particular separations may arise through the workings of the Spirit as they lead to a perception and rejection of worldly elements which appear in the church, or they may arise from the opposite cause. In the former case the separations are only apparent. For the Spirit is always a principle of unity. It is the mind of the flesh that separates in reality.

But at the same time, owing to the unlimited power of attraction possessed by the love of Christ in those persons in whom the Spirit dwells, there can never arise in one communion the desire that another communion may be annihilated; but there must ever arise efforts to express the oneness of spirit in attempted unions. There is always the implicit acknowledgment that all these separated communions form, potentially, according to divine arrangement, a larger communion capable of including all Christians when the necessary conditions are present. If two professedly Christian communions have nothing in common, then one or both is un-Christian. But such a total annulling of this communion is impossible so long as both hold to their historical connection with the revelation proclaimed in the Gospel and no other revelation is acknowledged as the basis of their origin. Hence even heretics are in the church after all. Present differences and divisions in the Christian church are only relative and destined to disappear in the final realization of unity.

The invisible church is infallible, but the visible church is liable to error. Here we consider truth and error only in the religious sphere. In the activity of the pious consciousness truth and error are always mingled, because the persistence of sensuousness renders our conception of the aim of the church and our relation to it more or less impure and false. Every one finds the source of error in himself, and therefore believes it is always present in some degree in all. But, on the other hand, with the confession of Christ the truth is ever present. Hence there can be no church-communion which is entirely destitute of it.

The same must have been true of the early church and of the apostles as individuals; but the whole church and the whole truth being in the common spirit, the false tendencies of the individuals naturally annul one another, and hence the church invisible possesses the whole truth and is infallible. This allows, how ever, that every partial-church can err even in its official presentations. Nor would an individual church at any one point of time possess the whole truth, for every period has its one-sidedness, which a later time corrects. Therefore no doctrinal statements, even if unanimously offered, would express final and perfect truth. Everyone must test them for himself and acknowledge them as Christian in so far as they harmonize with his personal religious consciousness or with Scripture. The improvement of public doctrine becomes not only a personal duty but also a right in the exercise of which he is to suffer no limitation.

The gradual improvement of the church's doctrine will be a consequence.

Now the error existing in every part of the church being an error in relation to the truth which it possesses, the degree of error must be gradually diminished, the more the Holy Spirit in the church appropriates the organism of thought in its members. This is wrought out through the influence of the whole church upon the individual members in its public services, and through the influence of all those who are specially endowed with a clear Christian consciousness. We may conclude, therefore, that all error is finally to be banished.

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