Friedrich Schleiermacher. By Stephen Sykes. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971. 51pp. $1.25 (paper).

Review by Derrick M. Muwina, 2011 | Review by Roy L. Smith, 2009

Stephen Sykes, formerly Dean of St. John’s College, Cambridge has written a rather short but comprehensive volume on Friedrich Schleiermacher. This volume is an easy read can serve as a good introduction to Schleiermacher. The volume is arranged in three chapters covering Schleiermacher’s life, thought and significance sequentially.

Sykes starts by offering the reader a survey of the social and political changes in Europe and the Americans such as the industrial revolution, the American civil war and Napoleon’s annexation of Prussia, events that doubtlessly had an impact on Schleiermacher’s theological outlook. In Germany, the Enlightenment ideas led to the development of “rationalist orthodoxy” and “an attempt to purge Christian doctrine of untenable superstitions and present the faith in a form palatable to the skeptical intelligentsia” [4]. The Christian faith from which Schleiermacher operated had undergone two major revolutions that broadened the intellectual horizons; the Renaissance and the Reformation. In addition to these movements, the implosion of Christendom and fragmentation of theological unity precipitated a deep skepticism in the authority of theological proposition.

When Schleiermacher was only ten years old, his father was drawn to pietism, “a form of which emphasized an emotionally powerful devotional life and as sense of intimate fellowship with Christ nourished by a discipline of meetings for prayer and Bible study ” [5]. Hence Schleiermacher grew into pietistic leanings. However, at seminary he was disillusioned and after confessing to his father the crisis he was facing, he left the movement.

Even though Schleiermacher took up several posts after his seminary exams, his contact with Romantics in Berlin had a profound impact on his thinking. Sykes, argues that contrary to popular belief Schleiermacher’s association with Romantics such as Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) was not caused by his loneliness or the fact that he was largely an unknown theologian. Rather, Schleiermacher was drawn to the Romantics from a genuine interested of intellectual interaction. The influence of his interactions with Romantics led to two publications, On Religion whose first edition appeared in 1799 and directed mainly to his associates among the Romantics. The Soliloquies were published in 1800 and The Christian Faith was published in 1821/22.

Schleiermacher’s life was not without personal crises. Once he fell in love with a married woman whose marriage was non-existence but elected to stay with her husband. A couple of years later, he married a much younger widow whom he is said to have loved with much tenderness. His political views created a few run-ins with the authority on account of his strong anti-despotism stance.

Schleiermacher’s life can be divided into two sections. The first, 1796-1806 is his contact and time sent among the Romantics. The second, 1806-34, or the main period was time away from the Romantics and when his publications and teachings were directed more towards Christians. Around 1806 Schleiermacher’s thinking underwent drastic change. The division, according to Sykes follows the style, intended audience and treatment of Christian themes between On Religion and The Christian Faith, the latter intended for “the cultural despiser” with the former directed towards Christian believers.

But did Schleiermacher really experience a change of mind that in fact the two works belong to separate spheres? In On Religion, Schleiermacher seems to have been of the mind that “religion” is more important than Christianity, hence the charge from his critics of reducing the status of Christianity. He did not pay much special attention to Christology at all. However, in Christian Faith, he seems to bring Christianity more to the center and pays particular attention to Christology. While this contrast might prove troubling to some readers of Schleiermacher, it seems a more a matter of style and not anything else. The two works are interrelated.

Schleiermacher’s contemporaries did not receive his work positively. Schleiermacher was opposed to views on God that tended to separate God as working outside the universe and a force “working through the medium of the universe.” [19] His critics charged him with pantheism and argued that his view of God in On Religion was analogous to Spinoza’s pantheism. Schleiermacher, argued that his purpose in On Religion was to demonstrate why some people apportion personality to God while some do not. This he explained was because their minds are oriented differently.

The notion that Schleiermacher had abandoned the supernatural altogether seems untrue. While Schleiermacher did not directly address the subject of God in On Religion, he nonetheless laid a foundation on which a Christian doctrine of God can be developed. Part of the problem for his critics is that Schleiermacher chose an indirect method partly for his audience. His audience was not the ordinary church folk, rather, wealthy people exposed to literary and philosophical movements in German Idealism, skeptics who had outgrown the need for a second better life. These were in Schleiermacher’s terms, the “cultured despisers of religion.”

The second reason for the indirect method was that Schleiermacher was more interested in the experience of God rather than theological propositions of God as creator, love, etc. In his view “the experience of God involves warmth, spontaneity, and personal involvement” [21]. Thus Schleiermacher was least interested in dry theological dogmas.

Religion in Schleiermacher is but one way to talk about God, a limited way at that. In On Religion, Schleiermacher wanted to convince his readers that God was more central to the daily experience. Schleiermacher argues that humans can know the being of God through contemplation, “religion is contemplative” [25]. Here Schleiermacher is not attempting to remove religion “from the areas of knowing and doing into a private world of pious feeling.” [25] He is still very much a theologian, he has not abandoned his position as theologian and he sees his role as one who “mediates” one that interprets God to humanity like the prophets in the Bible. To what extent Schleiermacher viewed himself as some sort of prophet remains unknown.

In the second half of chapter 2, Sykes looks at Schleiermacher’s Christology and ecclesiology. Schleiermacher was a great critic of the church and his opponents often pounced on his views on the church as a denial of the centrality of Christianity. Schleiermacher seems to have left room for other religions since as already shown, his definition of religion stretched beyond Christianity. On the Church, Schleiermacher believed that religious communities ought to be communal because humans are social beings.

Schleiermacher’s Christology and ecclesiology hinged on at least three points. First, that the church is an educational community teaching and conveying the message of Christ and Christ himself. Christ’s own preaching was a form of self-communication and the church should continue in that activity. It follows that since the message about Christ is not like mathematical formulas, the church can only communicate Christ from the experience of redemption.

Secondly, Christological prescriptions of the church should be subjected to continual criticism. Doctrinal statements that lacked devotion troubled Schleiermacher greatly. However, this does not mean that he had rejected all manner of doctrine. Rather, “His constructive Christology is argued for both the traditional creedal statements and from the Biblical testimony.” [39] The third point is that “Christ redeems man [sic] by the power of his consciousness of God.” [40] The divinity of Christ is the God-consciousness that Christ had developed undisturbed from childhood. Thus, Christ is fully human like all humans, but differs from other humans in his possession of a higher God-consciousness. Christ mediates the universal consciousness of God to all humanity and therefore all souls shall be redeemed at their own time.

Schleiermacher’s theology took a serious hit when in 1914 a group of German theologians signed a document supporting the war policy of the Kaiser which coincided with the high-tide of Schleiermacher’s theology in German. Prominent critics of his, such as Karl Barth, argued that Schleiermacher’s theology had outlived its usefulness. Others such as Paul Tillich appropriated Schleiermacher in their approaches. While Schleiermacher had his critics, he dominated German and Western Protestant theology and despite the many attacks on his theological stance some terms him “the father of modern theology.” [44]

The implications of his theology are far reaching. In a post-enlightenment world where both the Bible and the authority of the church stand challenged, Schleiermacher’s insistence on human experience provides a foundation on which a theological rationale for belief God can be grounded. Schleiermacher’s broad approach to religion opens doors through which we can view religions experience as a global phenomenon, thus a phenomenology of religion.

The downside to Sykes volumes is that published in 1972, Friedrich Schleiermacher is a bit dated. Other works on Schleiermacher have since appeared to which persons interested in the thought of Schleiermacher might want to turn. However, as a quick guide, this book is still useful. The size of the book is both its strength and weakness. Moreover, while easy to read and covers Schleiermacher’s thought fairly, Sykes does not interrogate Schleiermacher’s theological positions adequately. Hence, it should be treated as Sykes wanted it to be; merely a short introduction. The list of books on Schleiermacher at the end of the book is helpful in pointing to the reader detailed sources.

Derrick M. Muwina
Boston University

In Friedrich Schleiermacher, Stephen Sykes delivers a major contribution to modern readers to understand basic thoughts of Schleiermacher.  As a clergy (the Church of England Bishop of Ely) and a scholar (the former Principal of St. John’s College), Sykes recognizes the importance of rereading the master work of  theologians, and if there must have a figure from the nineteenth or twentieth century in the history of Christian thoughts, then, no one is more important than Schleiermacher (vii.).  Sykes offers a complete but concise overview of Schleiermacher’s major theological themes.

Sykes divides his book into three sections.  Section one presents a brief account of Schleiermacher’s life, including his family, educational background and the social condition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Section two details Schleiermacher’s theological thoughts about God, the Church and Christ through a deep study on his major writings On Religion and The Christian Faith.  Section three offers key texts to review Schleiermacher as the major contributor to modern liberal theology.

Section one starts with the introduction of Schleiermacher (1768 – 1832). Sykes presents the life of Schleiermacher in two periods, the Romantic Period (1796 – 1806) and the Main Period (1806 – 1834), in order to give his readers the precise background information of the time that Schleiermacher lived in.  Within this setting, Sykes highlights the feature of the Age of Enlightenment, an age also called the Age of Reason.  It promoted intellectual interchange and appealed for more rational thoughts in order to uncover the truth of human life. One dominant feature at this time was to open the discussion area of religion and reason, in particular, seeking more philosophical and scientific reasons on the Christian faith.  The philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) and various German Romantic thoughts not only played a dominant element in the revival of philosophy, art, and literature, but it also made “an indelible impression of modern thoughts and modern theology” (4).  At the time in which Schleiermacher received his education, for better or worse, he was vastly influenced by these thoughts and deeds. 

Section two focuses on the two thoughts of Schleiermacher: the Doctrine of God, the Church and Christ.  Sykes marks all the important perspectives on Schleiermacher’s thoughts and presents it in a very clear way.  Regarding Schleiermacher’s doctrine of God, Sykes summarizes three major points, which are as follows: 1) “The testimony to the being of God lies in man himself” (24).  2) “God is present for men in an awareness of the underlying unity of all individual experiences” (26).  3) “God is present for men in the awareness of having been placed here, here and now, in all our relationships, without our having willed it” (28).

For the notion of the Church and Christ in Schleiermacher, Skyes outlines another three points which are:  1) “The Christian Church is an educational community in which is conveyed not merely a message, but Christ himself” (35).  2) “Ecclesiastical formulae concerning the person of Christ need to be subjected to continual criticism” (37).  3) “Christ redeems man by the power of his consciousness of God” (40).  

Through Sykes’s summaries, we read that Schleiermacher’s Christology always came from a mediator’s standpoint.  For what is dealt with Schleiermacher here is not merely ‘the Church’, but Christ itself; the doctrine of the Church is that it is “a communion inspired by the Holy Spirit and learning of Christ, in which every member is an essential part” (40).  Guided by Sykes, we also review Schleiermacher’s classical notions on contemplation, intuition, absolute dependence, experience, feeling, and how these notions interrelate with each other.

One unique work in Sykes’s book is his attempt to contrast Schleiermacher’s thoughts by concentrating upon two main books, On Religion and The Christian Faith.  By first noticing that Schleiermacher seemed to write the books to different readers, Sykes indicates that On Religion was obviously designed for so-called ‘cultured despisers’; The Christian Faith was clearly designed for Christian believers (17).  Therefore the question that Sykes tries to deal with is whether the two works represent two irreconcilable points of the view of Schleiermacher (17).

By keeping this question in mind, Sykes further spells out another contrast of these two books.  In the speeches On Religion, “Schleiermacher appears to make Christianity of less importance than what he defines as religion” (17).  On the contrary, in The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher turned to systematic Christian thoughts, and Christ became central, therefore human consciousness of God needed to be mediated by Christ (16).

In Sykes’s reflection, these contrasts truly create a gap in the fundamental consistency between Schleiermacher’s different theological approaches of his two major writings.  As he stated in the beginning of this section, “Should what [Schleiermacher] says in the latter book be understood in the light of what [Schleiermacher] says in the former, or vice versa” (18)?   So, what is the reason for such a change?  Why a man in his early writing claims that “God is not everything in religion, but one, and the universe is more” (O.R. 54) and later becomes a very ‘God-center’ person?  Sykes did not present his direct and conclusive answers to the question.  However, he still provides a very thoughtful perspective by citing another scholar, Dr. Martin Redeker, who believes that in Schleiermacher’s main period, along with his teaching at Halle, there is “a perceptible change takes place in Schleiermacher’s attitudes, brought him into a closer and more inward relationship with Christian doctrine and piety and altering some of his philosophical attitudes” (16).

Section three, in a profound sense, can be seen as the most impressive part in Sykes’s book.  In this last section, Sykes briefly compares Schleiermacher with the later theologians in the nineteenth and twentieth century, such as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rudolf Otto.  In so doing Sykes indicates whether they are Schleiermacher’s admirers or detractors, and believes that Schleiermacher’s theological themes effectively dominated the German Protestant theological sense as well as for modern liberal theology (44).  In this sense, Sykes concludes that Schleiermacher can be seen as the father of modern theology. 

As a great historical figure, Schleiermacher is the first person “to turn his mind to the problem of the future development of theology in the modern environment” (44).  His broad and instructive thoughts deeply influence not only his academic followers but also anyone who is willing to seek the truth of religion and the beauty of the creator.  At this juncture, Sykes’s book undoubtedly is one of the most readable books among many Schleiermacher’s study books.

Roy L. Smith
Boston University

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