Gerrish, Brian A. A Prince of the Church – Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1988. 75 pp. $11.00 (paper).

Review by Derrick Muwina (2011) | Review by Jennifer Coleman (2009)

Gerrish’s book is one among the many biographies that study various aspects of Schleiermacher specifically, tracing his personal development, aims and ideas as they related to his ministry as a pastor and a scholar. Gerrish aims to present Schleiermacher to non-professional theologians in an accessible manner. As such, Gerrish argues that Schleiermacher was a pastor with deep commitments towards bringing faith alive to the ordinary Christians inundated by dry and irrelevant doctrinal propositions. Gerrish’s interest here is a positive appraisal of Schleiermacher’s status as the father of modern liberal theology and he attempts to show that Schleiermacher is not dead and that those who predicted his demise were wrong.

In chapter one Gerrish lays our three arguments. First, he argues that Schleiermacher “has a secure place among the very few giants of Christian thought” in the class of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Calvin [20]. So huge is his presence on the theological landscape that even his fiercest critic, Karl Barth, respected him greatly. The second arguments Gerrish makes is that Schleiermacher merits a place as a Church theologian. [20]. Schleiermacher’s method of doing Dogmatics may not readily dispose it to homiletical uses, but his Dogmatics offers a rich resource for preachers to “understand the dynamics of the religious consciousness and so will possess the “technical” means to represent it and nurture it” [21].

Unlike Barth, who insisted on a separation of Schleiermacher’s works from his sermons, Gerrish argues that Schleiermacher’s theology was grounded on reality, the lived experiences of people, and as such suitable for homiletics and pastoral applications. Gerrish’s third goal is to show that contrary to the criticism from neo-orthodox theologians that Schleiermacher “had broken the line of succession running back to Luther and Calvin,” Schleiermacher belongs to the Reformation tradition as much as Luther and Calvin [22].

From this starting point, Gerrish traces Schleiermacher’s early influences among the Moravians, his father’s spiritual awakening when Schleiermacher was nine and the mother’s role in sending him to learn from the Moravians. Among the Moravians, Schleiermacher grew in skepticism towards the Bible and other matters of faith. At seminary, his doubts reached a critical point. He confessed his doubt to his father who disowned him and left the Seminary. Later, he reconciled with his father but we know little about that. Schleiermacher seemed grateful of the experience he had with the Moravians since it was there that he “awoke to the consciousness of the relations of man to a higher world” [26]. His little piece, The Celebration of Christmas: A Conversation encapsulates Schleiermacher’s conviction that theological reflection only makes sense in spontaneous piety. 

In chapter two, Gerrish concentrates on Schleiermacher’s Christology. He argues that Schleiermacher wrote The Christian Faith to explore the dogma of Christ with a primary concern for his relationship with Christ: the influence of the Moravians. In The Christian Faith Schleiermacher “put Christology on a new footing” by comparing Christianity’s doctrine of Jesus of Nazareth as redeemer and the other monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam. Here Schleiermacher was attempting “to hold the church’s Christological formulas to strict agreement with the Christian self-consciousness” and thus probe the usefulness of dogmas and Christological formulas that he felt had lost their relevance [38].

Gerrish notes that three historical developments shaped Schleiermacher’s world. The growing anti-church sentiments during the Age of Reason, developing questions about the relationship between Christianity and other religions, and knowledge about Christ. Prior to Schleiermacher, Enlightenment critics had charged that most dogmatic positions of the church such as the two natures of Christ could not stand up to logical examination. For example, was Christ both human and divine, did Christ have two wills, and if so two personalities? Schleiermacher thought that the critics were right and his response was to develop a coherent and logical Dogmatics of Christ and close the “credibility gap” that had opened between Church dogmas and the spirit of the enlightenment [40]. Schleiermacher argued that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person a unique person on account of his special relationship with God, or higher “God consciousness” and it is this “unique God consciousness that enables us to affirm the presence of God in Christ without the two-natures doctrine” [49, 53].

In the third chapter, Gerrish attempts to give a fuller explanation of Schleiermacher’s Dogmatics. Gerrish argues that Schleiermacher’s dogmatics is really one dogma, that is Schleiermacher tries to relate everything to the redemption effected by Jesus of Nazareth. However, Schleiermacher’s theology does not ensue from this one center, as Richard R Niebuhr suggested that Schleiermacher’s theology was not “Christo-centric” but “Christo-morphic” [53]. Following that Schleiermacher argued that a Christian has a general awareness of God and a special relation to Christ. The general awareness or “original revelation” is common to human consciousness and this Schleiermacher called “pious feeling” [54]. Here Schleiermacher argues that even though the Christ determines what the Christian knows about God, to be conscious of God is common to all human beings.

However, Schleiermacher’s view is not without complications. How can he claim that God consciousness is common to all human beings when scientific inquiry suggests that belief in God is entirely optional? Moreover, Schleiermacher not only rejects the pantheistic view of God in favor of a view of God as “the life within” he also rejected the widely accepted view that God breaks into the world from the outside [62]. And because of this genius, science could not damage his God-consciousness doctrine.   

Schleiermacher is not an easy theologian to study. Those reading Schleiermacher for the first time will find his theology if not his style intimidating. However, Gerrish presents a picture of Schleiermacher that is easy to grasp. Gerrish presents Schleiermacher as a pastor-theologian whose main concern was with antiquated dogmas that did no align with the Christian self-consciousness. His works were aimed at pastors/theologians engaged in transmitting the essence of the Christian faith. In addition, Gerrish was writing to contemporary evangelicals and arguing that at the heart of evangelicalism is a liberal and critical attitude towards church tradition. Like Schleiermacher, Gerrish hoped that his evangelical readers would embrace a similar spirit that “it must be the duty of the church to test the adequacy of its doctrines to its inner life” [37]. This aim largely dictates the tone and style Gerrish adopts.

Sadly, Gerrish omits the influence of Romantics on Schleiermacher. Unless the reader knows something of the time Schleiermacher spent among the Romantics and the impact they had on his thinking, it would be nearly impossible to get that information from Gerrish. Gerrish advantages Schleiermacher’s experience with the Moravians more than anything else. However, the “friends” of Schleiermacher who prompted his writing of The Celebration of Christmas, were in fact Romantics but Gerrish does not mention that. Overall it is a fair introduction to Schleiermacher.  

Derrick Muwina
Boston University

Gerrish’s brief book on Schleiermacher will strike some, particularly academic theologians, as a sort of “Idiot’s Guide to Schleiermacher.” For others, particularly the “town and gown” (11) audience for the three lectures that comprise the three chapters of this slim volume, the book makes available the essence of Schleiermacher’s thought to people who would never, for a variety of reasons, undertake to slog through the actual writings of this “Prince of the Church.”

Gerrish writes to and for those outside the academy. He maintains that lectures to “nonspecialists” are “a challenge to the academics to see how far they have really gotten their ideas clear, and whether they know their whole subject well enough to go straight to the heart of the matter.” Gerrish knows his subject matter very well. He also elegantly achieves the goal he sets for himself, i.e. to assist liberal and conservative believers, and those in between, better understand Schleiermacher. (13)

Going straight to the heart of the matter, Gerrish efficiently transports the reader to those Schleiermacher destinations on his itinerary. The drawback is that arrivals and departures are somewhat abrupt, like those of air travel; one cannot appreciate the true distance and terrain traveled between destinations. And of necessity some important destinations are omitted. Understanding Schleiermacher truly, requires travel by foot through the dense environs of Schleiermacher’s texts – On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, The Christmas Dialogue, The Christian Faith, and Schleiermacher’s other writings and sermons. Gerrish’s text is also useful for those taking that journey; it can serve as a guide and an extended foreword. In fact, Gerrish wrote the foreword to the 1999 paperback edition of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith (H. R. Mackintosh, J. S. Stewart (eds), New York: T&T Clark Ltd., 1999).

Taken together, the three chapters (or lectures) describe in broad strokes the problem presented by science to late eighteenth-century theologians: what survives of God given the laws of nature and discovered scientific truths? (54-63) Many got hung up on one or the other horn of the perceived dilemma posed by science, i.e., God as watchmaker who set the world in motion and is now on permanent “Sabbath rest (58),” versus God as occasional active intervener in the affairs of humanity. At the extreme poles, the choice was framed as that between atheism and pantheism. Gerrish explains that Schleiermacher moved between those poles. He describes Schleiermacher’s shift towards but not into pantheism, while impressively communicating some of the subtlety, creativity, and imagination Schleiermacher brought to his task.

Gerrish describes Schleiermacher’s Christology as combining universal, personal access to God, with the particular revelation of God’s presence in Jesus, in a manner that permits the reader to understand the basic claims of Schleiermacher’s theology. He notes the rough spots and gaps in Schleiermacher’s theology and offers an introduction to the more prominent of Schleiermacher’s critics and adherents. For Gerrish, the goal is to make Schleiermacher understandable to regular folk. Although Gerrish’s own view is that Schleiermacher’s genius makes him the “father of modern theology” and a “Prince of the Church,” his book makes it possible for the reader intelligently to disagree.

Jennifer Coleman
Boston University

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