Reviews

Friedrich Schleiermacher on Creeds, Confessions and Church Union: That They May Be One. By Friedrich Schleiermacher. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Iain G. Nicol. The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004. 265 Pages. $109.95.

It may just turn out that Friedrich Schleiermacher is very much alone in the class of successful ecumenists. While best known as an academic theologian for his authorship of The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher was also an ecclesiastical bureaucrat, and it was largely as a result of his efforts that the reunion of the Reformed and Lutheran churches was effected in Prussia, if not solidified, by the end of the first third of the nineteenth century. The letters, sermons and addresses compiled so skillfully into this volume by Iain Nicol span the years 1817-1830. Coming almost exactly three hundred years after the crucial events of the Protestant Reformation, this span represents the crucial years leading up to the aforementioned union.

These documents are of interest to contemporary readers in two respects: first, for what they reveal about the historical person of Schleiermacher and the evolution of his thought, and second, for their foreshadowing of some central issues in the modern ecumenical movement. Both of these respects will be treated here.

The first thing to acknowledge about what these documents reveal about Schleiermacher is that their diversity of tone and style, bespeaking their diversity of context and circumstance, reflects the diversity of roles Schleiermacher inhabited. The opening text is an official declaration arising from his role as bureaucrat and including all of the “we declare,” “we confirm,” and “hence” clauses proper thereunto (21-27). The second text is a sermon in which Schleiermacher fulfills the pastoral role. He appropriately begins by addressing “My devout friends” (29) and invoking God’s blessing (31). It is important to note that Schleiermacher does not water down his theological commitments in his sermons, as evidenced by the very first sentence of this one:

My devout friends, from time immemorial it has been acknowledged that on specific occasions it is necessary and uplifting to recall the memory of great events, not only to rescue from oblivion those matters the immediate traces of which have indeed been dispersed and made to vanish as the times have changed, but also to heighten and revive anew the feeling of that which is still ever present and which continues to have its effects, and it is this latter point that defines the purpose of the great festival of these days (29, emphasis mine).

For Schleiermacher, every feeling includes within it the feeling of absolute dependence, and so too the feeling to be had in celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Reformation includes the religious self-consciousness.

While the tone of the addresses and sermons are entirely appropriate to their contexts and the roles out of which they arise, the tone of the letters comes as quite a shock. The anger and resentment expressed toward their addressees can hardly be contained by the usual gracious forms of letter-writing, which instead come across as sarcastic and ironic. For example, with regard to Mr. Harms Theses, Schleiermacher says,

To put it briefly, with their to-ing and fro-ing about shared and local deficiencies, about things near and far, about matters known and unknown to the author; with their half-truths expressed in oracular sayings, and their riddles that are not worth the trouble to solve, with their motley style with its blending of mannerisms, and with their straining after luster and wit, these Theses have made very little impression on me, save for the regret of seeing that here the author, who otherwise has already produced so many fine things, has acted rashly and in error (68).

In his supplement to the letter to Mr. Ammon, Schleiermacher is even more vehement, especially as Ammon has attempted to hold him to a double standard of Schleiermacher having read and remembered everything Ammon wrote but Ammon having forgotten everything he ever read by Schleiermacher (155). Schleiermacher concludes the supplement by twisting the sword he has impaled Ammon upon:

Indeed, a friend has already comforted me with the thought that now I can simply relax from defending myself against false authorship by referring people to Mr. Ammon. If he has forgotten the book, then indeed I must bear the responsibility, but if he has remembered it, then I can confidently decline it (160).

There are three points to be made in regards to the relevance of these texts for the modern ecumenical movement. First, Schleiermacher seems prescient in his insistence that the diversity of belief within communions is often greater than the diversity of belief between them. This is especially clear in his letter to Ammon, who wants to insist that confessional agreement precede joint communion (106-8). In Schleiermacher’s day the principle points around which the diverse views were oriented were rationalism (and irrationalism) and naturalism (and supernaturalism) (94-5). (This is also the principle around which he forms his arguments in “On the Proper Value and Binding Authority of Symbolic Books”). His sociological approach to this concern is perhaps more profound for modern ecumenists who must struggle with transdenominational confessions taking precedence, and in some cases structurally undermining denominational unity and loyalty.

The second point flows from the first. If starting from a unity of belief is impossible, then the only other option is to start from a unity of action, in this case a joint communion and eventually a reunion of the churches. Here Schleiermacher tends toward a proto-pragmatism of the Jamesian variety:

In our case the one method [unity of belief] has never proved successful; why should we not simply proceed to the other and begin with a deed (110).

Schleiermacher is open to the charge of sacrificing the means to the ends. The modern ecumenical movement has been clear that mutual recognition of Eucharistic practice is not possible without having come to terms with confessional differences. On the other hand, Schleiermacher is in good company with Augustine, who believed that Christians first put on the clothes of a Christian and only then learn what being a Christian means. So too, from Schleiermacher’s perspective, the churches must enact their communion before they can learn what it means to be one.

The final point that arises from these texts is that the union Schleiermacher was orchestrating was very clearly between two Protestant denominations. Schleiermacher is clear that he sees little possibility of rapprochement with Catholicism. In fact, time and again he draws out the closeness of Reformed and Lutheran confessions in light of the disparity with Catholicism (i.e. 74-86). It is a worthy question to ask whether Schleiermacher could have been as successful in staving off the critics of union had Catholicism not been present as a foil. Clearly, in this regard the modern ecumenical movement is a vastly different project in which the union of all Christian churches is pursued.

Lawrence A. Whitney
Boston University
2009

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