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)


The sufficient ground of the perfecting of the church lies in the Holy Spirit as its common life-principle. That perfection implies, on the one hand, the expansion of Christianity over the whole earth and the disappearance of all other religious communions with their opposing and contaminating influences; and, on the other hand, it implies that the church ceases to take the world into itself. That is to say, that the present increasing conflict with sin which is characteristic of the church militant--owing to the consciousness of sin which is continuously being renewed by the propagation of the race--gives place to that condition in which the church has assimilated the world, that is, the church triumphant.

But our Christian consciousness is unable to set forth as its immediate self-expression the condition of the perfected church because it is without analogy in our experience and would exist under conditions entirely unknown to us. Strictly speaking, therefore, there can be no doctrine of that state. Yet the biblical prefigurations of the future life have received so much attention in the church that we are under the necessity of inquiring as to their source. None of the New Testament utterances on this subject can become to us articles of faith to be received on authoritative testimony because, surpassing our powers of apprehension, they constitute no description of our actual self-consciousness, and consequently they may have a place in a doctrinal system (Glaubenslehre) only in so far as they concern the person of the Redeemer and our relation to him.

Now, although faith in the persistence of the human personality after death, or, to use the common expression, in the immortality of the soul, is found universally and prevailed in the time of Christ and his apostles, it is not on that account entitled to a place in Christian doctrine. How, then, came this faith to be united with our Christian religious conscience? There are two possible ways: either it was discovered by intellectual processes and became objective truth, or it was originally given in and with the immediate self-consciousness with or without connection with the fundamental God-consciousness. If in the former way, then the doctrine pertains to the sphere of the higher natural science and depends on scientific investigation. But scientific study on the contrary often gives rise to opposition to the belief in immortality, The so-called rational proofs of immortality are nothing more than attempts to relate this belief to the body of scientific knowledge. To give these arguments a place in our Christian doctrine is to base dogmatics on philosophy. As to the other possibility, while there is a denial of immortality which is connected with atheism, on the other hand there may be a renunciation of personal continuance which springs from a view of Spirit as creative and self-expressive. On this view individual souls may be a product of the transitory action of Spirit and there fore themselves transitory. This is quite compatible with the supremacy of the God-consciousness, the purest ethics, and the highest spirituality. Conversely, immortality may be postulated out of a selfish interest in the sensuous life where morality and religion are only a means to enjoyment. It is evident therefore that faith in personal continuance is not essentially connected with the God-consciousness.

The true Christian ground of the assurance of immortality lies in faith in the Redeemer himself. His confidence in his own personal continuance is seen in his promises of a reunion with his followers. He could say these things only as a human person, and on account of the sameness of human nature in him and in us the same confidence is valid in our case. Faith in the Redeemer demands the immutability of our connection with him. In that life-union with him lies the true Christian assurance of personal continuance. In this way we see that he became the mediator of immortality, not only to those who believe in him, but to all without exception. For if immortality had not pertained to human nature, then a union of the divine being with human nature constituting such a personality as that of the Redeemer would not have been possible.

Faith in the continuance of our personality is naturally accompanied by an effort to represent that state in some of the forms of the imagination. The attempted solution of the problem how to represent the church in its perfection and at the same time the state of the souls of men in the future life, appears in the ecclesiastical doctrine of "last things." But it is impossible to combine the two in one harmonious representation. The perfection of the church, i.e., an end of development (which comports with the idea of retribution), supposes a state of the individual soul entirely unlike the present; on the other hand, the supposition of a state of the individual soul like the present, i.e., a state of progressive development (which harmonizes with the idea of personal continuance), annuls the perfection of the church.

Accordingly, the doctrines relating to this point are of less value as dogmatic than those already treated. They rest upon our power of anticipation, which is incompetent to construct a harmonious representation of the future state. On that account we cannot ascribe to the confessional articles on this question the same dignity as to those already treated. They may be designated Prophetical Articles. Continuance of personal existence as the abolition of death appears under the representation of the resurrection of the body. The perfection of the church, as conditioned on the one hand by the exclusion of the unbelieving from further influence upon the church, appears under the representation of the final judgment, separation of believers and unbelievers. As contrasted on the other hand with the "church militant," and implying the exclusion of imperfection in believers, it is presented as eternal blessedness. The condemnation of unbelievers not being a matter of Christian experience is no separate article of faith. Finally the comprehension and necessary condition of the whole is presented under the representation of Christ's return (157-59).


The Synoptists report sayings of Christ before his death to the effect that he will come again at the fall of Jerusalem. Though he is not represented as repeating such promises personally to his disciples in his resurrection communications with them, they were unable to conceive that those promises had been fulfilled. Similarly, after the destruction of the city the literal interpretation of his words was inconsistently retained, and even though in later times Chiliasm has been mostly abandoned, still the view that he will return in person at the end of the present condition of the earth has continued almost universal to the present time. Apart from this literal interpretation we have no biblical guarantee of his personal return or of a universal separation of the good and the bad; and yet no representation of these events is possible, for every attempted definite image of the event dissolves, and in lieu of a physical presence we are able to retain only his powerful activity in relation to world-affairs.

It is evident, then, that the Christian consciousness of union with Christ is not satisfied with his spiritual presence in the church in the midst of our present condition of growth and change. In order to the realization of our personal continuance in union with him and, at the same time, of the perfection of the church, there is predicated an exercise of the sovereign power of Christ that puts an end to the propagation of the race and to the mingling of the good and the bad, so that by one sudden leap the church, heretofore subject to a wavering growth, becomes perfect. Accordingly the second coming of Christ is conceived as a return to judgment, and the permanence of the union of the divine essence with human nature in Christ becomes the guarantee that this nature will not be subject to that dissolution which would result from cosmic forces. Thus the imagery of the doctrine results from the interest in personal continuance, but its certainty rests on the perfection of the church (160).


The consciousness of the union of the body and soul in our personality renders it impossible for us to represent to ourselves the immortality of the soul apart from a bodily existence, without giving up the identity of our personal life before death and after. The continuity of self-consciousness seems impossible apart from memory, which, like other mental functions, appears dependent on bodily relations, so that the existence of the soul under entirely different physical relations would be inconsistent with its continuous self-identity. But the conception of the similarity of the present and the future life is, on the other hand, inconsistent with the perfection of the church. So that on this ground we are under the opposite necessity of conceiving the nature of the future world as different from the present, the body being conceived as immortal and sexual distinctions as lost; other wise the conflict between flesh and spirit, and there fore sin fulness, would remain.

The incompatibility of the representation of future personal continuance with the representation of the perfected church further appears in the abortive at tempts to offer a representation of the intermediate state and to adjust its relation to the resurrection state and to the general judgment. We conclude that it is impossible to present a definite and consistent representation of the connection between the present and the future life.

There remains as the essential content of this article: (1) the ascension of the risen Redeemer is only possible if there lies before all human individuals in the future life a renewal of organic life connected with our present state; (2) the unfolding of a future state is conditioned on the divine power of Christ and on cosmical changes effected through the universal divine world-government, though the representation of these changes is a problem never perfectly to be solved by men (161).


The fundamental idea underlying Christ's representation of the Final Judgment is the total separation of the church from the world so far as the perfection of the former excludes all influence of the latter. But to suppose that this means a total separation between believers and unbelievers is to conceive wrongly the distinction of the visible and the invisible church, inasmuch as it overlooks the fact that the influence of the world upon the church consists mainly in the fleshly character which inheres in believers even till death. Besides, a sanctification effected by such a sudden deliverance destroys the continuous nature of personal consciousness and introduces a magical element into sanctification, thereby compromising the value of life-fellowship with Christ. Further, such a separation of believers from unbelievers seems intended to secure the happiness of believers rather than their perfection, inasmuch as it is only by the contact of believers with unbelievers that many perfections of the former come to manifestation. Yet even that happiness would be destroyed by the pain which arises from sympathy with the lost. Finally, the contemplation of the righteousness of God, as exhibited in the final rejection of unbelievers, could afford no counterbalancing satisfaction, because the element of arbitrariness is thereby introduced into the idea of God.

That which is of value in the idea of the final judgment is: (1) that perfect fellowship with Christ renders all evil non-existent for us, even in the presence of wickedness; (2) that if we are to conceive of the church as perfect while a portion of the human race remains excluded from the workings of its spirit, this is because that portion of the race is proof against it and consequently continues out of all contact with it (162).


The condition of believers after their restoration to life may be conceived under two forms: (1) a sudden, but unchanging possession of the Most High; (2) a gradual elevation to the Most High but, like the development of Christ, without retrogression or conflict. But the attempt to give a representation of the two states introduces peculiar difficulties. The former annuls the connection with the present life and implies, in the equally perfect state of all believers, the want of that mutual influence which is involved in a perfect life and necessary to its externalization. The second would involve disharmonies and waverings with the consequent dissatisfaction and consciousness of imperfection, which in a free existence is consciousness of guilt. Indeed the outcome is a view of the future life as in all essential features a repetition of the present. The problem therefore remains unsolved.

What, then, is that which we receive in that future life? The common answer is, that eternal life consists in the vision of God. But wherein does that consciousness of God differ from the present? In its immediacy in contrast with the mediate character of the present? But this is hardly consistent with the preservation of the personality. So that, from which ever side the problem is approached, it seems that we must remain uncertain as to the manner in which the state which is the highest perfection of the church can be obtained and possessed by an immortal personality (163).


It has usually been assumed that the figurative discourses of Christ which are supposed to refer to those who die out of fellowship with him represent them as in a state of permanent unhappiness. (See Matt. 25:46; Mark 9:44; John 5:29. ) But an examination of the connections (Matt. 24:30-34; John 5:24, 25) and of passages with an opposite representation (I Cor. 15:25, 26) throws doubt upon this view. Moreover, eternal condemnation cannot be conceived apart from such a condition as either implies spiritual progress on the part of the damned or unhappiness on the part of the blessed. Accordingly, the milder doctrine that through the power of the redemption at some time there will be a universal restoration of all human souls possesses an equal right.

NOTE.--All attempts to develop the idea of the individual future life and its relations to the present life out of the idea of the perfection of the church and its relation to the unperfected church, or to make a place for the perfected church by means of the idea of the future life, turn to myths, i.e., a historical presentation of the super-historical, or to visions, i.e., an earthly presentation of the super-earthly. "These were every where the forms of the prophetical, which in its higher meaning made no claim to produce a knowledge in the proper sense, but is only determined to shape principles already acknowledged into motives of action."

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