The Life of Jesus. By Friedrich Schleiermacher. Fortress Press, 1975. 481 pages. $14.95.

Review by Alex Froom (2011) | Review by Thurman Todd Willison (2009)

Schleiermacher’s biography of Jesus of Nazareth is prefaced by an exploration of the primary questions and historical problems inherent to the writing of any biography: what is the relationship between historical facts about an individual’s life and the connection of those facts with a narrative telling of the essence of the individual?  What is the process through which an historian goes in order to discover those facts?  What is the process of determining the meaning of a person’s life for readers of the biography?  Schleiermacher is ultimately concerned with determining Jesus’ essence: that inward part of Jesus that would have been the same if the circumstances had been different (8).  It is only through being able to imagine Jesus in our circumstances that Jesus--or any historical individual--could be meaningful to us today.

Therefore, the task of the biography is to draw from the historical facts and the narrative of the life of Jesus the essence of the man--how he would behave under the circumstances confronting Christians who come after Christ (9).  Operative in Schleiermacher’s analysis is his understanding of the relationship between the individual and the community.  Every individual acts upon the common life and alters it to a greater and lesser extent.  Likewise every common life acts upon the individual to shape and influence the individual (12).  Schleiermacher takes Jesus to be an individual who had a particularly strong acting influence on the common life of his people, and determines that for Jesus to be meaningful to people now, Jesus must have had some knowledge of God that expands beyond his time and place and the environment that brought him up (14).  This in turn leads Schleiermacher to a central question regarding the nature of Christ: what, if anything, sets Christ apart from other human beings?  And if something is unique to Christ, how can this be accounted for through such a sociological and historical critical method of biographical construction?

Who Christ was/is in relation to other human beings is also complicated by the fact that scripture and all of the Christian tradition has different, varying, and ever-developing conceptions of Christ’s nature; whom Christ was to his disciples was different from whom Christ became and has become to other followers.  How do we determine what Christ actually did and said, and what was done to him and said about him?  Schleiermacher’s interest, therefore, is in the historical and the theological; though it gives rise to a host of questions related to textual criticism and pioneers the method of historical analysis of the historical Jesus, The Life of Jesus is not a purely historical critical work.  With all these complications in hand and the eagerness to determine the transferable essence of Christ, Schleiermacher divides Christ’s life into three sections: his life before his public appearance, his public life until his arrest, and from his arrest to his ascension.

Jesus’ life before his public ministry entails his birth, boyhood and development of the God-consciousness (or: relationship with the divine), his baptism, and the temptation.  In his exploration of the facts of the birth narrative, Schleiermacher raises concerns in textual interpretation and confronts contradictions in differing accounts from Matthew and Luke.  Schleiermacher engages in historical questioning in order to make theological statements about the nature of Christ to all human beings and to engage with prominent theological problems.  This is the sort of theological activity Schleiermacher conducts that would scarcely be found in textual criticism today.  For example, regarding supernatural birth, he draws on the birth narratives to determine that Christ is not free from hereditary sin because of the absence of the cooperation of human beings in Christ’s birth; rather, the absence of hereditary sin in Christ can only have come through a positive divine act imparted to Jesus (59).  Likewise Schleiermacher engages the question of how the God-consciousness could have developed in Christ as a human being (79).  While Christ must have been conscious of his peculiar relationship to God, if we propose that this consciousness was in him in an original way, we stray toward docetism (81).  Thus the God-consciousness must have developed in Christ over time.  In fact, the divine was present in Christ in a way similar to how the divine could be present in any human being (86-87).  Christ came to relate the messianic idea to himself (130) through the development of the God-consciousness and determined that his mission was to communicate himself (123) to impart knowledge of God to all human beings (132).

Schleiermacher’s exposition of Jesus’ public life takes the form of the outer and inner sides of Jesus’ life: the locality and external relationships on the one hand, and the teaching and the foundation of a community on the other (156).  Through analysis of the synoptic gospels and strong preference to the fourth gospel (170), Schleiermacher constructs an understanding of Jesus’ daily life (182) and the meaning and import of miracles.  Schleiermacher’s attempt to make sense of miracles is perhaps the point at which his inquiry becomes most unsatisfying.  While he wishes to discard the necessity of miracles for Christian faith, he remains concerned about the integrity of the miracles and the biblical witness to them.  Thus, he defends their validity by contributing to Christ an “ability to anticipate” natural events and claims that other miracles, like the resurrection, were not intended to be understood as factual (210).  The final period of Jesus’ life is understood by Schleiermacher to be one action by Christ, entailing the Lord’s Supper, the death, the resurrection and the ascension.  Schleiermacher’s struggle with miracles persists into this section, and he contends that the resurrection and ascension are only “explanations and ideas” and are not intended to be factual historical accounts (476).

Schleiermacher’s commitment to determining Christ as meaningful coupled with his historical and naturalistic questioning produces a text that fails to live up to today’s standards for historical critical analysis.  He allows his concern for preserving the peculiar identity of Christ to inform his every move and inquiry.  And yet, Schleiermacher effectively raises all the questions of textual, literary, source, and form criticism that have yet to surface and formalize in biblical scholarship in the 19th century.  Schleiermacher demonstrates again his ability to tread upon dangerous theological ground out of a commitment to understanding the Christian faith from the starting place of human immediate self-consciousness rather than from divinely revealed information to be worn by the believer.


Alex Froom
Boston University

Friedrich Schleiermacher has often been credited with giving the first public series of academic lectures on the life of Jesus, and one finds a clue for why he might have felt compelled to do so in a statement that he makes in his third lecture in reference to criticism against his earlier work The Christian Faith, specifically the criticism that he had sacrificed the “peculiar dignity of Christ” (13) by conceiving of Christ as subject to historical conditioning. Indeed, Schleiermacher’s lectures can be understood fundamentally as a direct rebuttal of this criticism. For Schleiermacher, it is true that Jesus was a historically conditioned individual, in the sense that Jesus lived and developed “under the power of his common life,” (8) but it must not be forgotten that “common life stands under the power of individuals” (12) and thus Christ’s peculiar dignity is not threatened if it can be shown that the inner ground of his absolute knowledge of God was capable of directly influencing (without being influenced by) the common conditions that Christ shared with others in his historical context. (14-15)

Schleiermacher’s meticulous attempt to hold in tension this notion of Christ’s inner ground [defined as that which makes possible a “forecast” of a man’s actions “under different coefficients” and “under other operative circumstances and forces” (9)] with an unflinching appreciation for historical conditioning is the driving hallmark of this massive and extensive collection of lectures. One particularly commendable feature of this work is that Schleiermacher never succumbs to the temptation to simply assert a static union between the divinity (understood as unique salvific dignity) of Christ and the humanity of Christ in order to meet orthodox criteria. Schleiermacher is not satisfied with such easily embraced contradiction and thus pushes for a consistent dynamic engagement with both poles, “leaning sometimes more to the one side and sometimes more to the other.” (33) This dialectical wrestling match between the fidelitas maintenance of Christian significance and the fearless pursuit of historical inquiry, accompanied with Schleiermacher’s staunch refusal to cave to easy dogmatic solutions, frames the discussion of each and every lecture topic.  It should be noted that one particularly useful tool that Schleiermacher employs to navigate this tension is an analogy he develops between the inner of life of Christ and the inner life of the Christian who acts according to the “inner divine principle” of the Holy Spirit. (33) In both cases, an individual “deed” or “action…must be able to be apprehended in its historical connection in a purely human way” while nevertheless conceived “as the expression or effect of God which was internal.” (34) As one will see, Schleiermacher is always faithful to attend to the tension present in this analogy in that his analysis of the life of Jesus explicitly focus on the actions of Christ while never losing sight of the divine inner principle from which they have sprung.

Schleiermacher organizes his lectures according to three periods of Jesus’ life: 1) The Life of Christ Before His Public Appearance, 2) The Public Life of Christ until His Arrest, and 3) From the Arrest to the Ascension. Schleiermacher immediately reveals in his discussion of the first period of Jesus’ life just how he intends to approach the controversial question of miraculous and supernatural events in history when he demonstrates his willingness to entertain the notion of a purely natural conception of Christ, with Joseph as the biological father, since such a conception could not be shown to effect whether one has the “indwelling of the divine.” (56) Similarly, in his discussion of the second period, Schleiermacher is willing to explain certain miracles, such as Jesus’ calming of the storm, as simply a sensitivity to nature and an “ability to anticipate,” which is “closely bound up” with nature’s effect on the body. (210) Schleiermacher is also willing to leave “inexplicable” the miracles that are harder to account for since knowledge of nature is limited and does not necessitate supernaturalist interpretations in order to account for its mysteries. (28) In the discussion of the third period of Jesus’ life, Schleiermacher does not shy away from interpreting miraculous events like the resurrection and ascension as resting not on “actual specific reports” but rather on “explanations and ideas that were not meant to be taken as factual.” (476)

What is important to note in all this however is that Schleiermacher is immensely careful never to attribute deception to Jesus by suggesting that Jesus allowed his disciples to believe in a supernaturalist account of miracles while all along knowing the naturalist explanation to be true. And in the same way that Jesus did not deceive in his miracles, Jesus did not deceive his disciples in his teachings by allowing them to prioritize earthly and political community formation over the spiritual type that he intended to inspire.  It is true that some disciples went on to get Jesus’ teachings wrong in this regard, but not as a result of willful deception on Jesus’ part. If Christ could be said to have so deceived his disciples in any such way, he would “cease to be an object of reverence,” (30) and this, for Schleiermacher, would bring to an end any further need to study the life of Jesus.  Remember, for Schleiermacher the peculiar dignity of Christ is what is at ultimate stake in his discussion of Jesus’ life, and though Schleiermacher is willing to imaginatively construct his interpretations of Scriptural events in ways that best facilitate the widest breadth of honest historical inquiry, the dignity of Christ, as one who possessed a totally unique and original inner grounding of the absolute consciousness of God, is the boundary that Schleiermacher is staunchly unwilling to cross in his study of the life of Jesus.

This strikes me as the most glaring weakness in Schleiermacher’s work. The peculiar dignity of Christ is given a priori significance in Schleiermacher’s lectures, and it exists as more of a boundary to historical study rather than as a result of honest inquiry. And yet there is simply no way to honestly dismiss any deception on Christ’s part when considering the presentation of the Biblical witness. Though I can see how it would have undermined Schleiermacher’s entire project to consider Christ as a deceptive personality, it would have only been consistent with his methodology to admit the fact that common to the historical/social life that Jesus necessarily participated in is the use of language that is inherently flawed and deceptive in its communicative capacity.  While it is true that Jesus may have never intended to deceive in his use of inherently deceptive language structures, one certainly could never discern the inner workings of Christ’s motivations from any known available data. This is where Schleiermacher’s analogy of the Holy Spirit might be his most useful tool. For what we might be able to say at most is that the Christian’s experience of the inner workings of the Holy Spirit is intuitively so free of deception that the Christian feels warranted in expanding by analogy this sense of purity back to the founder of the Christian community. That in itself is a pretty bold and imaginative leap of reason, but it is the only reason that Schleiermacher can seem to get a grasp of in order to secure what he is most unwilling to sacrifice, the peculiar dignity of Christ that historical inquiry must not be said to compromise.

Thurman Todd Willison
Boston University

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