Reviews

Dawn DeVries. Jesus Christ in the Preaching of Calvin and Schleiermacher. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. 115 pages.

In this book, DeVries argues that “Schleiermacher’s understanding of preaching as, in effect, an incarnational event that re-presents the person and work of the Jesus of history may be seen as a genuine development of Calvin’s notion of the sacramental Word, a development that made possible a relative indifference to doubts about the historical facts of the life of Jesus (2).” Having noticed a surprising absence of research on how the preached Word functions within Calvin’s doctrine of the Word of God and the neo-orthodox misinterpretation (of Barth and Frei) of Schleiermacher’s theology of the Word, she aims to fill in this scholarly gap and correct relevant misunderstandings through a comparison of Calvin and Schleiermacher. Her conclusion is that “Schleiermacher’s method may be seen as formal parallel to Calvin’s method (4),” and that he was a theologian in the Reformed tradition (8).

In chapter two, DeVries analyzes “Calvin’s notion of the sacramental Word, giving particular attention to the ways in which he speaks of the real presence of Christ in the church’s proclamation (3).” As she explains, Luther used the Augustinian teaching that “the Word is the seed of regeneration” as the basis for his theory that “the grace of God primarily through the preaching of the Word, secondly through the sacraments (15).” Along the same lines, “Calvin frequently states that the Word and the sacraments have same purpose or office: to offer and present Christ, the function of the preached Word as analogous to the function of sacraments, and both are instruments of divine grace (17).” “Thus the preached Word not only conveys Christ, but also continues Christ’s living presence in the World (19).” Calvin insisted that Word and sacrament can be separated, yet the reformed tradition gradually came to treat preaching as more important than sacrament.

In chapter three, DeVries  “explores Calvin’s own method of ‘administering’ the sacramental Word in his sermons on the Synoptic Gospels, to illustrate Calvin’s homiletic strategy for dealing with the Gospel narratives, for further comparison with Schleiermacher’s sermon on the same texts(3).” Calvin does not pay attention to the narratives of the Gospels because he takes the historicity of the narratives for granted; thus, he looks constantly for the “doctrine” contained within them, perceiving them as the means by which Christ makes himself present in Calvin’s own day, in many cases criticizes the Roman Church (27). Again, his strategy of interpreting the Gospel textsemphasizes the presence of Christ in the proclamation (41).

In chapter four, DeVries analyzes Schleiermacher’s theory of preaching, and shows that he holds firmly to same understanding of the Word as the Reformers, and demonstrates his parallels with Calvin’s concept of the sacramental Word (4). His incarnational view of preaching relates to Calvin’s concept of the sacramental Word (48). Schleiermacher uses religious language as a broader term than preaching or sermon “to refer to the subject matter of the theory (53),” and defines its two functions of communication: its social function as cultivating and expanding the true religion, and its representational function as expressing the encounter with the Infinite (49). Religious language has rhetorical, representational, and mutual or reciprocal attributes (50). The coherence of religious speech includes objectivity, which regards its content, and subjectivity, which refers to the task of producing and receiving such speech (54). Religious language must be a living representation, not dry formulas and dogmatics (56). Religious speech is the result of a dialectical process between experience and reflection (56-57). According to Schleiermacher, religious speech must be prose, not poetry; its language must be colloquial; and its communicative representation must be a personal act, i.e., preacher should embody and personify the Word with analogies drawn from daily life (58). Preaching itself is analogous to the person of Christ, which is an incarnational event. “Like Calvin, he sees the preached Word as the best instrument for communicating the presence of Christ, as the primary means of grace (65).”

In chapter five, DeVries uncovers the homiletic strategy Schleiermacher uses in dealing with the Gospel narratives and concludes that his method is formally parallel to Calvin’s (4). The source of his faith is the two forms of the proclamation of Christ: Jesus’s own self-proclamation, and the representation of him in all Christian preaching (72).

In his sermons on Jesus’ life before his baptism, Schleiermacher treats the stories as if the events the Gospels record really happened, through focusing on the meaning of the texts without discussing their historicity (73). His entire interest is focused on the inward history of the present-day life of faith and its external supports (79).

Most often, Schleiermacher preaches on Jesus’ public ministry by  drawing a picture of Jesus based far more on Christ’s teachings rather than His miracles (79). He attends to the details of the  miracle narratives in order to discover their meaning with regard to saving faith, thus treating the miracles as symbols.

However, he almost never mentions historical difficulties in his sermons, signaling that he believes the events to be true. According to DeVries, “in spite of material differences in their interpretation of the texts, Calvin and Schleiermacher have remarkably similar homiletic strategies (89).”

In the last chapter, DeVries compares the different ways in which Calvin and Schleiermacher describe the person and work of Christ. In Calvin’s system, there is a coherence problem between Christology and soteriology because he puts the historical sacrifice of the God-man at the center of salvation. Schleiermacher, on the other hand, presupposes that faith is always the effect of the preaching of Christ, and puts the Word itself at the center, thus providing a more coherent connection between Christology and soteriology. Therefore, Schleiermacher revises Christology, making its subject neither the historical Jesus nor the “ideal Christ” of the church’s dogma, but the Christ who is present in the Word (9). Finally, DeVries gives credit to the Reformed theology of the sacramental Word for freeing “preachers from the historian’s constraints and [allowing] them to treat the putatively historical narratives of the Bible as themselves the disclosure of the present Christ (104).”

DeVries’ arguments that Schleiermarcher developed Calvin’s sacramental Word theology while remaining parallel with the Reformed homiletic strategy of preaching are convincing. Yet her argument that Barth’s criticism of Schleiermacher’s theology (for its absence of objective revelation (6)) and Frei’s (that Schleiermacher had no means for making sense of the narrative structure of the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels (7)) are not convincing. Both Barth and Frei depart from the Reformer’s thoughts, because both Calvin and Schleiermacher treat the Word of God as central, yet from different perspectives. For Calvin, the Word of God means the Truth, but for Schleiermacher, the Word of God functions as the center of the “plausibility structure” of Christianity, as a religion.

Mark C. H. Shan
Edited by Catherine Hudak
Boston University
2009

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