Reader's Guide to Schleiermacher's Christian Faith

Summary and Commentary from Frank Cross

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George Cross, The Theology of Schleiermacher

Conclusion: The Divine Trinity (170-72)

Our whole apprehension of Christianity stands or falls with the union of the Divine Being with human nature, This union appears first in the person of Christ, and by virtue of it the idea of redemption is concentrated in his person. It appears also in the common spirit of the church, and by virtue of this, the church bears and propagates the redemption through Christ. These are the essential elements of the church doctrine of the Trinity. The defense of the doctrine has been moved by the religious interest--the concern to conserve the absolute character of the redemption by rejecting the idea of subordinate divinities in Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is confirmed by the fact that those parties in the church which have denied the Trinity have held an entirely different view of the redemption on all sides of it.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the keystone of the whole structure of Christian doctrine with respect to this essential point: the equivalence of the divine nature in Christ and in the spirit of the church with the divine nature in itself.

But to the further elaboration of this dogma in the creeds and confessions the same value cannot be as signed. In these the union of the divine with the human in Christ and in the Spirit of the church is referred back to an eternal separation within the Supreme Being in dependently of these two acts of union. Then the member of this separated Being who was designated to the union with Jesus is named Son; and the same process taking place in reference to the Holy Spirit, the other member is called Father. In this way arose the description of God as a unity of essence with a trio- of persons. But such a separation within the Supreme Being is no expression of a religious consciousness and never could be.

Such a doctrine of the Trinity cannot be made to rest upon the Logos-doctrine of John's Gospel, for this logology has seemed to afford support to the Arian and Athanasian formulae alike, and its interpretation is not settled. If such a doctrine was in John's mind, why did he not set forth a similar statement concerning the Holy Spirit, especially since he mentions the Spirit so frequently in his gospel, and why did he offer no caution against polyolatry?

Nor can this doctrine be framed from the statements of Christ and his apostles as a combination of authoritative testimonies concerning a supersensuous fact. That would be just as little a doctrine of faith (Glaubenslehre) in the original and proper sense of the word as are the doctrines of the resurrection and the ascension. Moreover this supposedly transcendental fact does not affect our faith in Christ or our fellowship with him.

NOTE.--A doctrine of the Trinity derived from universal conceptions, or a priori, could have no place in Christian doctrine, even if there were a verbal coincidence, and could render no service to it. Such a doctrine in itself would not be of a religious character for its source is different.

The difficulty of conceiving each of three persons as equal to two others and to the divine essence is beyond the compass of thought. If the Godhead of all three DC less than the one supreme Essence, then our life-fellowship with Christ and our participation in the Holy Spirit are no fellowship with God, and all that is most valuable in Christianity is altered. If each be equal to the others, the difficulty is to find the rule for the distinction of the persons without the introduction of some elements that involves inequality. This is manifest in the Catholic statements of the doctrine. Similar contradictions appear in the canons which have been offered for the representation of the relation of the triplicity of persons to the unity of the Essence. If we assume triplicity we do not reach the unity, and if we assume the unity there is no room for triplicity. We possess no analogies whereon to base such a representation. The ecclesiastical doctrine, therefore, can furnish no support to the fundamental truth of Christianity.

The same difficulty arises when we attempt to relate each and all of the three persons to the divine causality. The dogmaticians have felt this, for they all assume the divinity of the Father and attempt to prove that of the Son and the Spirit, which shows that notwithstanding formal orthodoxy they actually follow Origen in holding that the Father alone is absolutely God and that Son and Spirit are God only by participation.

The traditional trinitarian formulae come to us from a time when the great mass of Christians were recently recruited from heathenism. It was a very easy matter for echoes of heathen thought to steal in when the question of plurality or distinction in God was discussed, and it is just as natural to find that the definitions presented in those earlier times should be quite unsuited to later times when a mingling of heathen elements is no longer to be feared. If the value of the doctrine lies in the affirmation that God is in Christ and in the common spirit of the church, then there arises the problem how to relate the peculiar existence of God in another to his existence in and for himself and in relation to the world in general. But there is no prospect of obtaining a formula which will be sufficient for all time inasmuch as, since we have to do only with that God-consciousness which is given in our self-consciousness and with the world-consciousness, we have no available formula for the expression of the existence of God in himself as distinct from his existence in the world, and we are driven to borrow the desired formula from speculation; but that is to be untrue to the nature of dogmatics. And inasmuch as all our dogmatical expressions for the relation of God to the world are unavoidably anthropomorphic, how can we expect to avoid the same defect when we approach the complicated problem of distinguishing the peculiar (personal) existence of God in Christ as an individual and his existence in the church as a historical whole from the omnipotent presence of God in the world in general, of which the other two are yet only parts?

It is evident that the solution of the problem of the Trinity can be only approximate and progressive. Interest in it must rise ever afresh. We can expect no final statement. It will remain a problem. The customary placing of the doctrine of the Trinity at the head of the dogmatical system gives the misleading impression which, nevertheless, the history of the church contradicts, that the acceptance of this doctrine is the indispensable condition of faith in the redemption and in the founding of the kingdom of God in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Such a procedure results in making speculation rather than the Christian consciousness the basis of Christian doctrine.

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