Introduction to Christian Ethics. By Friedrich Schleiermacher. Translated by John Shelley. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989.

In Schleiermacher’s text Introduction to Christian Ethics, John Shelley is the translator of the text and introduces the Christian Ethics in the first chapter where Schleiermacher distinguishes theology and Christian ethics.  Though the two disciplines are often related with each other, they also take on different meanings.  Shelley writes, “As conceived by Schleiermacher, theology and ethics are closely related parallel disciplines.  Strictly speaking, they are independent, with neither being derived from the other” (24-5).  In the discipline of theology, theology is focused more so on ideas being formulated for teaching on faith.  Moreover, Christian ethics tends to focus on the teachings of moral behaviors, but uses theology as a reference.  In the German language, the words Glaubenslehre means “faith instruction” and Sittenlehre means “teachings on morals.”  Schleiermacher’s concept of “absolute dependence” deals with instruction of theology and putting the theology into practice by action.  According to Shelley, Schleiermacher organizes the Christian Ethics around the Christian consciousness.  Shelley writes, “The experience of religious pleasure or joy resides in the consciousness of power that brings one’s physical instincts and uniquely personal longings under the dominion of the Spirit” (28).

Schleiermacher first starts off his Introduction to Christian Ethics describing how theology and ethics are closely related to one another.  Schleiermacher writes, “As one looks at the history of theology, it is clear that the fashioning of Christian ethics as a separate discipline can be regarded as something recent” (33).  There relation to one another was due to the fact that prior to the Protestant Reformation, theology and Christian ethics were one discipline.  Theology and Christian ethics feeds off of each other.  Christian ethics uses the teachings of theology to correct their moral behaviors.  Christian ethics seeks to instruct the moral behavior through a Christian interpretation.  Schleiermacher points out that many theologians use Scripture for their theological ideas but fail to use Scripture in the same way for morality.  Schleiermacher writes, “The same theologians who use a number of biblical texts in their dogmatic works use very few appeals to Scripture in their discussions of morality” (49).   Schleiermacher raises the question, “Is Scripture more sparing in moral than in theological concerns” (49)?  Scripture usage should be just as important to Christian ethics as the Scripture is used in theological circles.

In relation to Christian ethics, Schleiermacher makes the argument that no other doctrinal books should come before the Scriptures.  Christian ethics should primarily get their instruction first from the Scriptures.  Not to exclude doctrinal books, but doctrinal books should not be equally as important as Scripture.  In the text, Schleiermacher is having a clash between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church over the equality of Scripture v. doctrinal books.  The Catholic Church sometimes upholds other doctrinal books over the Scriptures to guide Christian ethics as opposed to the Protestant tradition upholding sola scriptura; “scripture alone.”  Schleiermacher writes:

The doctrinal books, therefore, are evidence only to the extent that we can still accept their interpretation of Scripture.  It is no different in Christian ethics.  However, the fact that the doctrinal books do not give us appropriate substitutes for matters not addressed by Scripture does not result so much from their having been set in direct moral opposition to the Catholic Church. (61)

Schleiermacher makes clear that the doctrinal books should be used in light of the Scriptures who hold the authority over Christian ethics.  Some of the Catholic Church’s traditions and doctrines are seen as more important than the Scriptures.  Schleiermacher is arguing from a Protestant standpoint, that no tradition or doctrinal book should come before the Scriptures.

Schleiermacher also mentions that the Holy Spirit and being led by the Spirit plays a crucial role at Christian ethics.  Schleiermacher states:

If we conceive the task of Christian ethics as assembling those propositions which are actually followed as a result of the operation of that Spirit, then we see how the form of law is unsuitable for this content.  As Peter said: “You are not under the law.” (63)

Schleiermacher’s notion is that as Christian ethicist, Christians are not bound by the law to live their lives under the law.  As part of the new covenant with Christ, Christian ethics are not bound by the law of the old covenant.  Christian ethics does have the option of being governed by the law.  Schleiermacher writes, “However, one is free to put oneself or another under the form of law where it is necessary” (63).  The law should not pigeonhole Christian ethics down, but the Christian ethics should have the freedom to be guided by Scripture and be led by the Spirit.  Since Scripture helps rationalize and interprets the moral behavior of Christian ethics, we now turn to what Scripture should Christian ethics adhere to?

Schleiermacher considers both the Old and New Testaments on figuring out which one carries more weight to towards Christian ethics.  Given the fact that the type of ethics that are used is Christian, more weight would be cast upon the New Testament or also referred to as the Christian Scriptures.  Schleiermacher writes, “The true essence of Christianity and the way in which redemption should be conceived in moral terms is this: The will of God arises within us through communion with Christ” (65).  The driving message of morality for Christian ethics should be love.  “Love is a disposition, and a disposition can never be commanded” (65).  Not only should love drive ethical instruction of Christian morality, but also the Holy Spirit.  “The principle of all Christian ethics, upon which rests everything that is to be presented in Christian ethics, is none other than the pneuma hagion [Holy Spirit]” (66).  The Holy Spirit gives Christian ethics its guidance into how to live a moral life.  When Jesus left His disciples, He promised them that the Comforter would come afterwards and be with the disciples and to teach them how to love a moral life in the absence of Jesus until He returns again.

In conclusion, Schleiermacher makes distinctions in the text that theology is helpful to Christian ethics by clarifying their faith beliefs.  The two disciplines run parallel to each other in ways that theology articulates ideas on the Christian faith and Christian ethics takes those ideas and puts them into practice.  Christian ethics uses theology to help formulate ethical beliefs for Christians to go out and live moral lives unto God.


Sean Barley
Boston University

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