Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion. By Richard R. Niebuhr. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964. 259 pages. $5.95.

Review by Alexander Froom, 2011 | Review by Thurman Todd Willison, 2009

In his contribution to scholarship on Friedrich Schleiermacher, Niebuhr critically engages those aspects of Schleiermacher’s theological thinking which he finds agreeable.  While Niebuhr shares in some criticisms of Schleiermacher’s thought--namely, Schleiermacher’s “misplaced” fear of anthropomorphism in his doctrine of God and his failure to adequately carry out the implications of his own definition of dogmatics (16-17)--Niebuhr’s task in this book is to explain what he considers to be the most “critical” (3) facets of Schleiermacher’s theological thinking and to sort out the “misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Schleiermacher” (9) in doing so.

Niebuhr responds to some of the scholars whom he thinks have not grasped fully some of the nuance in Schleiermacher’s theological style.  For example, Niebuhr criticizes Holger Samson for oversimplifying Schleiermacher’s arguments about the relation of God and Christ and the role of the divine spiritual principle in Schleiermacher’s understanding of the nature of Christ.  Samson condemns Schleiermacher because he employs philosophy in his primary dogmatic concepts of God-consciousness and the church.  While Samson’s claims may be correct, Niebuhr takes issue with them because they are written in a “clearly tendentious” manner (9), seeking simply to dismiss rather than engage Schleiermacher’s ideas.  In light of this, Niebuhr feels that Schleiermacher’s theological style and the dogmatics to which his style gave birth are not taken seriously by other Protestant scholars.  Niebuhr admires Schleiermacher’s ideas, but seeks only to present his thinking “for what it is” (6).

Niebuhr therefore constructs detailed summaries of and engagements with Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical style and its dogmatic outcomes, especially those pertaining to the nature of human knowledge, the function of theology, the nature of religion, and the nature and meaning of Christ.

In Part One, Niebuhr develops an introduction to elements of Schleiermacher’s style through discussion of The Christmas Eve and a variety of philosophical foundations for Schleiermacher’s dogmatics.  From The Christmas Eve he draws the systematic foundations that operate in Schleiermacher’s ethics and theology in the future (66).   It is in The Christmas Eve that Schleiermacher declares his especially Johannine christology--that the Logos is found in “finite, sensible” human nature and that by this we recognize our humanity.  Because Christ is the way in which we understand human beings, to be in Christ is to be connected to all human beings, those with us, those who came before us, and those who will come after us.  This leads into Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology: the church is the “perfected humanity of Christ,” the essence of which is found in family and community.  The church is the self-consciousness of human beings; when the birth of Christ is celebrated, this self-consciousness regenerates itself in a community of individuals (66-67).  All this is representative of Schleiermacher’s insistence that what is natural ought not be divided from what is supernatural--his insistence that the religious impulse of human beings (and their subsequent self-realization) is somehow connected to the humanity and divinity of Christ.  And Niebuhr begins his book drawing these themes from The Christmas Eve because he intends to display them throughout the work, as manifesting in Schleiermacher’s dogmatics.

Before moving into a discussion of Schleiermacher’s views on theology, religion, and Christ, Niebuhr presents a variety of hermeneutical concepts with which Schleiermacher wrestled.  He presents them by raising them, demonstrating the way in which they give rise to one another in Schleiermacher’s thought process, thus attempting to display the trajectory of Schleiermacher’s theological development.  Hermeneutics is defined as “the discipline of understanding correctly the content of the discourse of another person” (77).  This process propels Schleiermacher, and Niebuhr, into technical explanations of speech, language, the self, and the morality of interpretation, all of which call into question the nature of human knowing, willing, and being, what Niebuhr terms “the circle of self-consciousness” (100).  For Schleiermacher, the act of willing pervades being, and willing conditions thinking, and thinking knowing.  Schleiermacher is convinced that the human being is an analogue of the divine world and therefore has the capacity to govern itself (95), which involves ethics with human agency, and ultimately leads into a discussion of suffering and doing, or the determined nature of human existence in contrast with the part of human existence that is free, facing an open future (108).

The dichotomy of suffering and doing (receiving and acting) is one of many noted by Niebuhr.  A prominent dichotomy is that of the community and the individual.  The individual attains a sense of unified self only over against the other individual; likewise the individual attains a sense of a unified self through the building of this self by the communities of which the individual is a part.  Because of this, Schleiermacher maintained that the freedom of an individual is grounded in the existence and participation in the community.  This essential polarity is a hallmark of Schleiermacher’s thought which plays itself out in his Christian dogmatics.

Niebuhr proceeds to a description of Schleiermacher’s understanding of the nature of theology: “reflection upon and clarification of believing experience” (139).  Theology is the manifestation of human self-consciousness in relation to the entire structure of communally inherited traditions.  This is explicated in Niebuhr’s presentation of Schleiermacher’s conception of the preaching of Jesus Christ.  Preaching is not only the means of presenting ideas but it is Christ’s mode of transport for the expression of his own identity before God.  Preaching is an act through which Jesus Christ imparts himself to the hearer of the Word and is therefore the presence of Christ in the church (146-147).

Niebuhr sees great importance in Schleiermacher’s work regarding the term nature and he offers a clear summation of Schleiermacher’s logic surrounding it.  Essentially, Schleiermacher seeks to solve the problem of the natural/supernatural dichotomy by offering a clarification of the term nature.  To determine the natural is to analyze the standards by which natural is measured; Schleiermacher does this not by accepting the Christ of the Bible as normative, but by taking the Christ of the Gospel of John to be “the illumination of and the revealer of a ‘larger’ system of nature” (164).  Theology is the manifestation of self-realization on the communal level; this is exemplified by Jesus Christ and demonstrated by him in his preaching, relating, willing, suffering, and doing.  Because of Schleiermacher’s insistence that theology is a fundamentally human experience, and therefore natural, this is the way in which he relates theology to the divine life--through Jesus Christ, the Man-in-himself.

In Part Two, Niebuhr turns the corner when he gets to the question for which all the prior treatment of Schleiermacher has been preparation.  This is the question at which Schleiermacher receives the most polarized of responses: What is more important for Schleiermacher, the definition of religion as arising out of the human experience or the particular character of Christianity over against other religious phenomena?  According to Niebuhr, Schleiermacher’s stance on the nature of religion asks his readers to accept a “position that in effect betrays the distinctive character of Christian faith” (175).  Does a reader of Schleiermacher treat Christianity as one religion among many or accept Christ as redeemer and Christianity as therefore supreme?  Interestingly, it never occurred to Schleiermacher that the category religion threatened the idea of Christianity.

Niebuhr closes his book on Schleiermacher with presentations of Schleiermacher’s conceptions of sin, human nature, and non-Christian religion, all of which are informed by his Christology.  Religion is the word for the condition of human existence (211); it is the natural human predicament that gives rise to religion.  If, therefore, the problem of religion is the problem of human nature, then different religions are the different manifestations of human -self-consciousness in light of the problem of the human condition (235).  Commitment to a particular religion does not prevent one from questioning one’s own religion’s relationship to “other forms of piety” (235).

It is at this point in the book that a reader realizes the combining of Niebuhr’s voice with Schleiermacher’s and questions Niebuhr initial aims.  Though Niebuhr states clearly that he does not agree with all of Schleiermacher’s theological positioning, he confesses early on that he possesses reverence for Schleiermacher’s work.  Though Niebuhr notes some instances at which he disagrees with Schleiermacher, they are only reserved for material Niebuhr felt ought to have been developed further.  Niebuhr claims that he seeks to display Schleiermacher’s theology “for what it is” so that it can be utilized and negotiated by Christian theologians.  But Niebuhr never takes a step back to look at Schleiermacher’s theology and ascertain how it can be utilized by theologians.  It would have helped Niebuhr’s presentation if he had maintained some distance between himself and Schleiermacher.  Instead, Niebuhr’s voice subsumes with that of Schleiermacher; it is difficult to distinguish their disparate voices.  Niebuhr’s work is a thorough and detailed presentation of Schleiermacher’s significant theological starting points and contributions but lacks critical distance and causes the reader to wonder what Niebuhr may be leaving unsaid.

Alexander Froom
Boston University

One gets a clear sense from reading Richard R. Niebuhr’s “Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion” that Niebuhr sees himself as engaging in a rescue mission of sorts, one that entails retrieving a fair appraisal of Schleiermacher’s theology from what Niebuhr explicitly describes as the “Barthian captivity of the history of modern Christian thought.” (11) Niebuhr is careful to confess from the outset that he does not share the Protestant discomfort with Schleiermacher that he finds to be so typical of his era and to be the result of the unfortunate dominance of neo-orthodox polemics, but he is also adamant to denounce the notion that he aims to be an unabashed apologist for Schleiermacher’s thought, recognizing that an uncritical bias toward Schleiermacher “will do no more to further the cause that theologians serve” than will a prejudice against him. (6) Still, Niebuhr certainly sees his task as one that intends to provoke an enriched appreciation for Schleiermacher amongst an audience that has been, in his view, stifled in a context of misinterpretation. Thus, Niebuhr is fundamentally interested in maintaining a positive, appreciative tone toward Schleiermacher that is amenable to his overall purpose while still sustaining a critically reflective methodology that refuses to give Schleiermacher a free ride. To his credit, Niebuhr is actually quite successful at striking the necessary balance between these two aims.

Niebuhr structures the work by focusing on four distinct “moments’ in the development of Schleiermacher’s theology, each of which is understood to represent a “significant characteristic” of Schleiermacher’s system of thought. (4) The first moment, focusing on Schleiermacher’s understanding of “religious and Christian affective states,” is represented by The Christmas Eve: A Dialogue, a work that “sets out to evoke the basic mood and life-feeling in which the members of the Christmas assembly are caught up.” (41). The Christmas Eve is an admittedly unusual choice on Niebuhr’s part since it is chosen over the better known early work On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. But Niebuhr considers his choice to be the more appropriate one for his task since it represents a “more mature…chastened Schleiermacher…already engaged in intense systematic thinking and in teaching theology.” (4)

The second moment, focusing on Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics, and the third moment, focusing on Schleiermacher’s ethics, are both treated concurrently within a single chapter. This is partly because Schleiermacher himself lectured on these topics concurrently, and Niebuhr feels that the integration of these topics is itself a significant feature of Schleiermacher’s theology. Niebuhr points out that for Schleiermacher, “the act of interpreting appeared…to be something personal and creative as well as scientific….rooted in the constitution of man as an ethical agent.” (79-80) Thus, Schleiermacher wove his hermeneutics and his ethics together to reflect what Niebuhr calls their “dialogical interdependence” (106), an interdependence that cannot be avoided since humans cannot interpret their speech to one another except as social-historical, personal selves who suffer, feel, and creatively influence one another as ethical beings.

Finally, the fourth moment, focusing on the nature of religion, of theology, and of Jesus of Nazareth’s relationship to both, is represented by Schleiermacher’s magnum opus The Christian Faith. Perhaps Niebuhr’s most unique contribution to the study of Schleiermacher comes in his discussion of the fourth moment, when he coins the term Christo-morphic to describe the interplay between religion, theology, and Christ that has often been the key point of misinterpretation for so many Schleiermacher scholars. For Niebuhr, it is a mistake to assume that Jesus Christ is the “Archimedean point by means of which The Christian Faith moves all the other doctrines of theology before the reader’s view.” (211-212) To the contrary, Christ, in Schleiermacher’s theology, is “not the absolute center about which everything else revolves,” but is rather “only one among a plurality of objects of theological knowledge.” (212) Thus, Schleiermacher, according to Niebuhr, should not be hastily judged, as he has so often been (especially by the Barthian school), on his failure to be properly Christo-centric in his theology, because Schleiermacher did not think in terms of Christo-centrism but rather in terms of Christo-morphism, the latter term signifying more closely the notion that Christ came to earth to form persons and not merely to provide them with an objective epistemological axis. Christ, as the redeemer, exhibits the ideal form of humanity and, as a social-historical being, has done the work of informing and reforming humanity with his unique God-consciousness “mediated through Scriptures, preaching, and the Holy Spirit,” thus making Christ “paramount and central as the agent who reforms and shapes anew the Christian’s relations to God, the world, and himself.” (211-213)

Two important consequences follow for Niebuhr from this understanding of Schleiermacher as a Christo-morphic theologian. First, Schleiermacher deserves to be appraised as one who is actually closer to the Reformed tradition of Augustine and Calvin than is Karl Barth. For Schleiermacher appreciated, along with Augustine and Calvin, the dynamic interrelatedness between human beings and the orders of their existence, a relatedness that must always be “personally and historically appropriated (197),” in other words semper reformandum. Schleiermacher’s notion of Christ as the historically embedded reformer of humanity seems, for Niebuhr, to better reflect this Reformed impulse than does Barth’s notion (as Niebuhr understands it) of Christ as “the sole objective center…of knowledge.” (212)

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Schleiermacher’s Christo-morphic theology has a decided effect on his understanding of the relationship between Christianity and other religions. Since, as Niebuhr points out, the emphasis of a Christo-morphic theology is that religion “can be grasped only through an understanding of the full historical identity of the particular religious faith that gives concrete form to the inquirer’s own self-consciousness,” it follows that the inquirer into religion “must seek out the relations in which other religions stand to his own by examining them as they appear in the historical unity of his own religious self-consciousness.” (230) In other words, in Schleiermacher’s Christo-morphic theology, one cannot understand Christianity from a privileged standpoint in which all other religions are deemed to be “false,” for these other religions are irrevocably intertwined with the historical reality that forms Christianity. Niebuhr writes, “It follows that the man who finds himself Christianly determined and formed must renounce the practice of drawing absolute distinctions of truth and falsity between the various religions; for it is only in the light of what positively informs his own religious consciousness that he is able to recognize piety elsewhere.” (231)

One gets the sense that Niebuhr saw great promise in his coining of Christo-morphism as a rubric through which to better appreciate Schleiermacher’s theology. In hindsight, it does not seem as if the term ever really caught on. One explanation for this is that the term, though a useful one for explaining key components of Schleiermacher’s Christology, lacks a certain amount of punch in that it doesn’t completely capture the sense in which Christ must still be central to Christianity even in Schleiermacher’s revised model. One also gets the sense that Niebuhr truly hoped to free his theological context from its Barthian grip by critically casting Schleiermacher’s theology in a more judicious light. In this case, though Barth’s theology and the criticisms against Schleiermacher that Barth voiced are still quite prevalent today, Niebuhr can claim some success. Schleiermacher is more fairly appraised and given a more subtle reading because of Niebuhr’s work, and the volume remains useful as a detailed analysis of key texts in Schleiermacher’s canon. It is particularly interesting to see how Niebuhr compares Schleiermacher to thinkers such as Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, and Kierkegaard, for these comparisons bring Schleiermacher away from the far left branch of theological liberalism that he is so often associated with and places him more sympathetically within the tradition of his own Reformed heritage. Moments of sympathetic re-appropriation of Schleiermacher’s thought such as is found in these comparisons are what make Niebuhr’s work a pleasure to read and an enduring and valuable critical study. 

Thurman Todd Willison
Boston University

The information on this page is copyright 1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use text or ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you have corrections or want to make comments, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.