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Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst


Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) (Holly Reed, 2004)

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834): Progenitor of Practical Theology (John Tamilio III, 2002)

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) (Chijen James Wu, 2000)

Friedrich Schleiermacher: The Father of Modern Protestant Theology (Peter Heltzel, 1998)

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (Charles Demm, 2000)

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834)

Holly Reed, 2004


Life & Context

Upon even a cursory review of Schleiermacher’s writings, one cannot maintain a neutral stance on his theological presentation. Some have found his work to be problematic and troubling in its focus and tenor, while others have found it to be expansive and liberating. Almost everyone who has written on Schleiermacher has indicated his profound influence through the reformulation and rethinking of theological propositions, which has earned him the title “the father of modern theology.”

Schleiermacher was born into a religious family within the Reformed, Calvinist, tradition. His father served as a Prussian army chaplain. Schleiermacher attended Moravian schools, where he was influenced by the pietism of the Moravians. Their piety called for an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, and focused on one’s personal experience of God and how to make that an active, visible reality in daily life. Though the young Schleiermacher began to study at the Moravian seminary, against his father’s wishes he left the seminary and enrolled for study at the University of Halle in 1787. It was there, perhaps for the first time, that he began to read writers such as Kant and Spinoza. Despite his enthusiastic engagement with Enlightenment thinkers, Schleiermacher did go on to receive ordination, though not without a reconceptualization of his relationship to pietism and his community of faith. At one point he wrote his father: “…I may say that after all I have passed through I have become a Moravian again, only of a higher order.” (Livingston, 94)

In 1796, at the age of twenty-eight, Schleiermacher was called to serve as the chaplain at the Charity Hospital in Berlin. During his years in Berlin he associated with a variety of literary and social circles that placed him in the midst of the growing movement now known as Romanticism. Essentially, Romanticism, at its height between 1780 – 1830, was a theological movement reacting against the rational theology of the Enlightenment. Romanticism did not merely seek to replace or discredit previous thinking: Romanticism sought to expand the boundaries and limitations imposed by a rigid captivity to rationality and empiricism. Romanticism cannot be characterized by a single writer or school of thought, and it took different directions in different locations. But Romanticism did uphold a willingness to return meaning and value to imagination and mystery; it acknowledged the diversity of human experience in all realms of existence; and it validated both individual and corporate experience as a source of belief and meaning.

While participating in the cultured, literary groups that espoused these sorts of Romantic ideals, Schleiermacher was encouraged to write a book. Though he was always warmly welcomed into these avant garde milieus, Schleiermacher was a puzzle to his friends. Here he was, a Reformed pastor eagerly associating with Christians and Jews alike who had jettisoned organized religion as irrelevant and restrictive, and he shared many of their sentiments! In 1799 he answered their request for a book, and published On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. On Religion was revised in 1808 and again in 1821, when explanatory notes were added. On Religion was written as an apologetic piece aimed at those people (like his friends) who had left religion behind.

After the failure of a passionate romance, Schleiermacher left Berlin in 1804 and became a professor of theology at the University of Halle, which he had once attended. His tenure there was short, however, because Napoleon defeated Prussia in 1806 and Halle was taken out of Prussian hands. As a strong patriot and political activist, Schleiermacher did not remain in Halle; he returned to Berlin in 1807. During this time he collaborated with Friedrich Wilhelm III to make Berlin the new intellectual center of Prussia, and to open a new university. In 1809 Schleiermacher accepted a call to preach at Holy Trinity Church in Berlin, a position that gave him great public exposure and prestige. It was also the year he married. In 1811 he was appointed to the chair in theology at the newly formed University of Berlin, and he also published A Brief Outline of the Study of Theology. It was in this book that he elaborated upon his position of theology having three distinct divisions. The three divisions of theology are philosophical theology, which has as its purpose the identification of Christianity and its distinctive form of religious self-consciousness; historical theology, which relates the church to the teachings and traditions of the church throughout history; and practical theology, which has as its intention the instruction of church leaders. Dogmatics is considered by Schleiermacher to be a part of historical theology because it deals with church as it connects with history. Traditionally, dogmatics was more likely to be found as a branch of philosophical theology. But Schleiermacher contended that dogmatics needed to be firmly embedded within the church because its purpose is to serve the church. Because of its historical context and specific purpose, dogmatics must also be reflective of the contemporary, situation and it must relate the consciousness of God to the particular community it serves (Duke & Fiorenza, 3).

During these years in Berlin Schleiermacher lectured and wrote on an astounding array of topics, including all the divisions of theology he had delineated, New Testament, hermeneutics, and psychology. He was also active in forming the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed churches, which created the United Church of Prussia, and he remained involved in the political arena. It was also during these years that he wrote his greatest theological piece, The Christian Faith (1821-1822; second edition, 1830). There were other significant writings as well, though none of equal stature to The Christian Faith. Schleiermacher died in 1834 after a brief illness, and many of his writings were published posthumously.



Schleiermacher was seeking to communicate to a generation of readers who felt liberated from the bonds of religion with no need to return to such corrupt or archaic forms. He was also writing to believers who were questioning and wondering and seeing a way to understand their faith in light of the ongoing “progress” of Enlightenment thinking and its effects on cultural developments. Schleiermacher did not write to these two groups simultaneously. To the first group he addressed his first work, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultural Despisers, published anonymously in 1799. It was an apologetic, laying forth the definitions and values of religion in the particular form of Christianity in his contemporary context. He was, in turn, cajoling and coercive, and always passionate. He would lead his readers along, acknowledging the many flaws and damning consequences of religion, only to propose a fresh new way of looking at “the facts,” the agreed upon characteristics and attributes of human experience. This particular group of readers – the “Cultured Despisers of Religion” – are also, frequently, a part of the Romantic movement, which while despising religion was seeking alternative visions to the cold, mechanical facts and limitations of reason and empiricism. Into this arena Schleiermacher introduced his refreshingly new vision of religion as a feeling: “Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling, only as such an existence in the Infinite and Eternal.” (On Religion, 36) He goes on to say: “…true religion is sense and taste for the Infinite.” (On Religion, 39) Schleiermacher is arguing against religion as mere “knowing,” which would characterize the rational approach of doctrinal orthodoxy, and would fall within the realm of speculative theology. Nor is religion simply “doing,” which is a critique of religion-as-morality, natural religion and behaviors associated with Pietism. Instead, Schleiermacher places religion in the realm of feelings, making it an interior, personal experience with an element of the unknowable and the mysterious. He will go on to argue in the fifth speech of On Religion that this interior feeling will be expressed in determinate forms – a particular religious context – because humans are social creatures and feelings are not abstract and disembodied and will therefore be experienced in a definite form. Religion, or feelings, cannot be experienced abstractly; only specifically. Nor can they be totally divorced from knowing and doing: they exist together, though it is feeling that is properly the arena of God consciousness. God-consciousness is the feeling of absolute dependence upon God. In The Christian Faith Schleiermacher goes on to say “The feeling of absolute dependence, accordingly, is not to be explained as an awareness of the world’s existence, but only as an awareness of the existence of God, as the absolute undivided unity.” (The Christian Faith, 132)

These particular themes remain constant in Schleiermacher’s later writings. When he switches to his dogmatic approach, Schleiermacher continues to operate out of a context that is affirming the mystery and unknowability of some things, as well as the value of non-empirical feelings. He will maintain the claim that religion is part of human experience accessed through feelings, and he will describe and analyze this existence – but he does so within the embrace of human limitations.

This particular approach is embodied in the structure and even the title of the second German edition of The Christian Faith. Interestingly, the 1960 German edition of The Christian Faith does not include all the information Schleiermacher included on the 1928 edition’s title page, and none of the information is included in the English translation. The English translation of the full German title of what we know as The Christian Faith is “The Christian Faith presented as a coherent whole according to the principles of the Evangelical Church.” In the middle of the 1828 title page is a Latin quotation from Anselm stating “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe so that I may understand…For anyone who has not believed will not experience, and anyone who has not experienced will not understand.” (Gerrish, vi) Both the title and the quotation contextualize The Christian Faith for his audience. If On Religion was an apologetic for non-believers, this is to be a document for the church. Schleiermacher assumes a level of belief and familiarity with the doctrines he is about to present. Nonetheless, he defines his terminology laboriously, for he is using familiar words in very new ways. Despite his attempts to define his language and method in The Christian Faith (most notably through the lengthy Introduction to explain his understanding of dogmatics), Schleiermacher is frequently misunderstood or disagreed with. He is variously accused of pantheism, of anti-intellectualism, of writing an anthropology rather than a theology, of forfeiting human freedom for the sake of absolute dependence, and of being essentially non-Christian in his presentation of Christ in what critics often view as an ancillary position.

Misunderstandings of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith are frequently due to an erroneous judgment about its structure. Schleiermacher was not making a linear presentation, nor did he view faith as linear. There was not necessarily a particular, logical progression to faith or to verbal descriptions about it. In his two letters to Friedrich Lucke printed in a popular journal of his time in 1828 as a way to preface and comment on the second edition of The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher notes that the three parts of The Christian Faith could be presented in any order, but he chose the current one so that the best would be saved for last: he wanted the message about the Redeemer to come last rather than earlier, so the ending would not be anticlimactic! (Duke & Fiorenza, 55-60) As it is, the Introduction provides the methodological foundation, Part I develops themes of natural theology common to all religions, and Part II offers revealed Christian theology. This structure reflects Schleiermacher’s understanding of Christian religious self-consciousness, with Part I reflecting the consciousness of God through “absolute dependence,” and Part II reflecting the “antithesis of sin and grace.” He moved from a more general relationship of God to the world to a more specific relationship found in Jesus Christ.

Having defined religion as “a sense and taste for the Infinite” in On Religion, Schleiermacher now goes on to define his concepts more precisely in the Introduction to The Christian Faith. His definitions include the following:

  • Piety: “3. The piety which forms the basis of all ecclesiastical communions is, considered purely in itself, neither a Knowing nor a Doing, but a modification of Feeling, or of immediate self-consciousness.” “4. The common element in all howsoever diverse expressions of piety, by which these are conjointly distinguished from all other feelings, or, in other words, the self-identical essence of piety, is this: the consciousness of our absolute dependence, or which is the same thing, of our relation to God.”

  • Absolute Dependence: “32. Every religious and Christian self-consciousness presupposes and thus also actually contains the immediate feeling of absolute dependence, as the only way in which, in general, one’s own being and the infinite being of God can be one in self-consciousness.” “33. This feeling of absolute dependence, in which our self-consciousness in general represents the finitude of our being, is therefore not an accidental element, nor a thing which varies from person to person, but is a universal element of life; and the recognition of this fact entirely takes the place, for the system of doctrine, of all so-called proofs of the existence of God.”

  • Christianity: “11. Christianity is a monotheistic faith of the teleological type, and is essentially distinguished from other such faiths by the fact that everything in it is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth.”

  • The Need for Christ: “14. There is no other way of obtaining participation in the Christian communion than through faith in Jesus as Redeemer.”

  • Doctrine: “15. Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech.”

  •  Dogmatics: “19. Dogmatic Theology is the science which systematizes the doctrine prevalent in a Christian Church at a given time.”

Schleiermacher’s intent is to reposition the dogmatic task in such a way that there is room for diversity, change (within the bounds of orthodoxy!), and independent thought and action. In doing so he walks a thin line on a number of orthodox issues, and his critics contend that he slips over the edge on many of them. For example, Schleiermacher is accused of being anti-intellectual in his emphasis on piety and feeling over reason. Schleiermacher, however, would not deny the need and value of “knowing:” he simply would not give it primacy over feeling. His concern was to enforce the fact that human knowing is limited and does not have access to all there is to know. We are not God, and our abilities are not as broad or deep. In terms of the elimination of human freedom by the definition of absolute dependence, Schleiermacher would defend freedom as compatible with dependence. Yet this freedom is only partial, because absolute dependence would imbue a constant “immediate self-consciousness” that mediates our relationship between the self and God. His emphasis is on relationship and he rejects the urge to dichotomize freedom and dependence.

Throughout his writing Schleiermacher continuously holds in tension the polarities that characterized Christianity in his time…the tensions between knowing/doing, emotion/reason, individualism/communalism, dependence/freedom, experience/tradition, speculation/empiricism, diversity/unity. Trying to stop the reduction of religion to a set of cold facts or to a quaint historic reliquary, Schleiermacher faithfully seeks to contextualize the faith in order to serve the community of faith right where it is at the present moment. It is a task he would encourage even now, for as he said, “Dogmatic Theology is the science which systematizes the doctrine prevalent in a Christian Church at a given time.”



Gerrish, B.A. “Schleiermacher,” The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought. Edited by Adrian Hastings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000

Livingston, James C. Modern Christian Thought: Volume I, The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997

Redeker, Martin. Schleiermacher: Life and Thought. Translated by John Wallhausser. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973

Schleiermacher, Friedrich D.E. The Christian Faith. Edited by H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart. London: T & T Clark, 1999

________. The Christian Faith in Outline. Translated by D.M. Baillie. Edinburgh: W. V. Henderson, Publisher, 1922

________. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultural Despisers. 2nd ed. Translated from the 1st German ed. of 1799 by Richard Crouter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

________. On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr. Lucke. Translated by James Duke and Francis Fiorenza. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834): Progenitor of Practical Theology

John Tamilio III, 2002


I. Life and Thought

Hailed by many as the father of modern theology and dubbed by others as a Prince of the Church, a term he coined to describe one “who knows how to do theology in the service of the community,” Schleiermacher is a pivotal figure in the pantheon of modern western theologians and possibly the first practical theologian (Christian 1979, 31).  His writings (over two and a half dozen of which have been translated into English) span the spectrum of the practical and scholarly subdivisions within Christian religious studies, save Old Testament, which he claimed does not “share the normative dignity or inspiration of the New” (Schleiermacher 1999 ed.: 608).  To truly appreciate Schleiermacher’s thought, and the contribution it has made to modern western theology, one must examine the world into which he was born and the influence his upbringing and education had on him.

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was born on 21 November 1768 in Breslau, Silesia, Prussia into a family of Reformed (Calvinist) ministers.  He was also born at the height of the Enlightenment — an age whose definition is elusive, but has been aptly characterized by Schleiermacher scholar Stephen Sykes as having a three-fold agenda: “a strong confidence in the powers of human reason and natural enquiry to uncover truth in every field; a preparedness to open the area of discussion of religion beyond the categories of Christianity and Paganism to include the possibility of discovering a religion ‘natural’ to humanity; and pronounced educational and social aims designed to release the promise of development towards an enlightened order of society” (Sykes 1971: 2-3).  Whether accepted or rejected (both seem to be the case at various times in Schleiermacher’s work), the objectives of the Enlightenment, coupled with the teachings of pietism, had a profound influence on Schleiermacher’s thought.

Both of Schleiermacher’s parents, Gottlieb and Katharina-Maria, were raised in clerical families.  Gottlieb was a Prussian court chaplain and a member of the Herrnhuter — the Movarian Brethren pietistic community.  In 1778, Gottlieb decided to have his three children (Charlotte, Friedrich, and Carl) educated in the Movarian school.  In 1785, Friedrich enrolled in the Movarian Seminary at Barby to begin his formal theological education.  Although Friedrich benefited greatly from the pietistic foundation laid by the Movarian Brethren — later in life he would to refer to himself as a pietist “of a higher order” — they soon became the object of his rebellion.  Schleiermacher had difficulty subscribing to many of their teachings, particularly the atoning sacrifice of Christ.  As a result, he left Barby two years later (1787) to enroll in the University of Halle to study philosophy.  This decision seriously fractured Schleiermacher’s relationship with his father — a split that was not reconciled until 1794, shortly before Gottlieb’s death.

At Halle, Schleiermacher’s horizons spread.  He was greatly influenced by both Enlightenment thought and Romanticism.  C. W. Christian tells us that during this time, Schleiermacher read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, “encountered the critical theologies of Wolf and Semler,” and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the latter having as profound an effect on Schleiermacher as the dialogues of Plato, of which Schleiermacher was to become a noted translator (Christian 1979: 33).  Interestingly enough, it was during this period that Schleiermacher suffered greatly from self-doubt and skepticism.  Schleiermacher biographer and critic Martin Redeker refers to this time (i.e. the winter of 1789/1790 in Drossen) as “by far the lowest point in Schleiermacher’s personal history” (Redeker 1973: 17).

Things soon changed, however.  Schleiermacher entered a professional life that personified the crux of his thought.  A product of the Reformation, he became a scholar-pastor.  After spending a year with his maternal uncle Samuel Stubenrauch (another scholar-pastor), “Schleiermacher took the first theological examination prescribed by his church, doing well or excellently in all subjects except dogmatics, and a post was found for him as tutor in the family of Count Dohna in Schlobitten, East Prussia (1790 to 1793)” (Gerrish 1987: 108).  His experience with the Dohna family made a deep influence on him and, as a result, his theology, having witnessed the faith that unites people in spite of doctrinal differences.  “After the second and final examination, in which his performance in dogmatics was again undistinguished, he assumed an assistant pastorate at Landsberg (Gorzow Wielkopolski, 1794-1796)” (Gerrish 1987: 108).  During this time, he also became chaplain at Charité Hospital in Berlin (1796).  This was a formative period in Schleiermacher’s intellectual life.  He formed a friendship with Friedrich Schlegel, became increasingly influenced by the Romantics, began his translations of Plato’s dialogues, and published (anonymously) “what even today remains his best-known writing” — his first book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Christian 1979: 35).

Renowned Schleiermacher scholar B. A. Gerrish tells us that Speeches is “often said to have inaugurated the modern period in Christian thought” (Gerrish 2000: 644).  Speeches is a work of apologetics, which Schleiermacher aimed at his friends to show that feeling (as associated with Romanticism) is of primary importance to religion over Enlightenment rationalism.  “Religion is something antecedent to beliefs and dogmas, which only arise out of second-order reflection on religion” (Gerrish 2000: 644).  In the vein of Kant, Schleiermacher argued that it is impossible to known God through reason, but feeling, that which is fundamental to the universal human condition, is the means by which we can experience God.  In the “Second Speech” (of five), Schleiermacher maintains that religion is a mingling of the theoretical and the practical:

Religion is for you at one time a way of thinking, a faith, a particular way of contemplating the world, and of combining what meets us in the world: at another, it is a way of acting, a peculiar desire and love, a special kind of conduct and character.  Without this distinction of a theoretical and practical you could hardly think at all, and though both sides belong to religion, you are usually accustomed to give heed chiefly to only one at a time (Schleiermacher 1958 ed.: 27).

Schleiermacher proceeds by examining “both sides” of religion, yet, as Gerrish tells us, in Schleiermacher, “religion is an indispensable ‘third’ in being human, alongside knowing and doing, and the humanity the Romantics so eagerly cultivated is diminished whenever religion is neglected and despised” (Gerrish 2000: 644).  These thoughts were to find a deeper and more mature expression in his later work.

In 1804, Schleiermacher served a brief tenure as a professor and preacher at his alma mater, the University of Halle.  In 1809, he returned to Berlin where he became pastor of Trinity Church.  While serving as pastor of Trinity, Schleiermacher was also appointed professor of theology and dean of the theology faculty at the University of Berlin (1810).  Part of his duty as dean was “to structure the theological curriculum.  The program he designed was given the title Brief Outline of the Study of Theology when it was first published in 1810, and serves as an excellent introduction to his subsequent works,” in particular the piece that is regarded by many as “one of the most significant theological achievements of modern Protestantism”: The Christian Faith, Presented Systematically According to the Principles of the Evangelical [Protestant] Church, or what Schleiermacher often called his Glaubenslehre (“doctrine of faith”) (Christian 1979: 35, 36).  Whereas Speeches is an outstanding work of Christian apologetics, The Christian Faith is a supreme work of Protestant dogmatics.


II. The Christian Faith

First published in 1821-1822 and revised shortly before his death in 1830-1831 to dispel misunderstandings spawned by the original, The Christian Faith outlines Protestant theology in two parts with an introduction equal in length to the first part.  All three segments will be examined carefully in order to grasp the full scope of Schleiermacher’s argument.

In this work, which many compare to John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536-1559) for its contribution to Reformed thought, Schleiermacher begins by distinguishing the cognitive from the visceral: knowing God intellectually and experiencing God affectively.  The latter is the foundation of Schleiermacher’s systematics.  Religious experience is grounded in a feeling of absolute dependence on God.  Absolute dependence is both the “primary datum of religion” and the way in which we are “to be in relation to God” (Christian 1979: 81, 86).  This is a precognitive experience.  Schleiermacher explicates this by distinguishing the reciprocal nature of experience: Insichbleiben (abiding-in-self) and Aussichheraustreten (passing-beyond-self).  In sum, we are influenced by external reality and our existence influences (however slight) the world.  This, the subjective abiding-in-self that is influenced by the external world and the objective passing-beyond-self that affects the world, corresponds respectively to Schleiermacher’s categorization of knowing and doing.  However, “true piety” is the realization that we depend on something (i.e. God) that does not dependent on us (Christian 1979: 81).  This not only lies at the heart of his theology, but, for Schleiermacher, it also proves the existence of God.  Absolute dependence is evident in all religions, though most supremely in the redemptive work of Christ.

Two other foundational elements of Schleiermacher’s thought need to be unpacked at this point.  First, for Schleiermacher, faith is not the experience of isolated individuals, but rather the lived experience of a faith community.  Second, theology — the best that our limited language can do to express reality (let alone the experience of faith) as deconstructionists would later argue — should reflect the experience of a specific community, hence The Christian Faith’s status as a classic of Reformed theology.  This has led Schleiermacher’s critics to label him a relativist, yet Schleiermacher maintained that the shared experience of faith must not only be coherent, but also “true to the faith from which it springs” (Christian 1979: 93).

Referring to The Christian Faith as a work of theology is somewhat problematic, because, as Christian tells us, “the greatest significance of Schleiermacher for modern theology lies less in the substance of his thought than in the revolution he brought about regarding the nature and method of theology” (Christian 1979: 88).  The Enlightenment subjected all history and thought to critical scrutiny, including religion.  On what legs could Christianity stand if its pillars — historical witness, Scripture, theology, the creeds, and so forth — were shown to be errant?  Schleiermacher answered this question by offering a new approach to theology that emphasized the practical over the theoretical without sacrificing reason for faith.  In any event, if the skeleton of The Christian Faith is methodological, its flesh is still laden with doctrinal content.

It is pertinent to note at this juncture, as Gerrish does, that “The Christian Faith does not present the whole of Schleiermacher’s theology, but only one division of his dogmatics” (Gerrish 2000: 644).  In the “First Part of the System of Doctrine,” Schleiermacher develops his doctrine of creation, in the second his doctrine of redemption.

The opening to part one reflects the opening of Genesis: “the world was created by God, and…God sustains the world” (Schleiermacher 1999 ed.: 142).  This is not so much a scientific observation as it is a faith claim: humanity is utterly dependent on the God who creates and sustains life in every epoch.  This is evident in the interdependence of nature and the timelessness of the omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient God.  In section three, Schleiermacher provides the segue to the often neglected “Second Part of the System of Doctrine.”  Here he posits the claim that “The universality of the feeling of absolute dependence includes in itself the belief in an original perfection of the World,” which includes nature and humanity (Schleiermacher 1999 ed.: 233).  In other words, in their conception God created humanity and nature for perfection.  The reality of sin and the need for redemption provide the basis for the subsequent section.

Sin, in Schleiermacher’s system, much like faith, originates not just in individuals, but also (and especially) within community.  Intimately connected to evil and having its source inside and outside of the self, sin is defined as “a positive antagonism of the flesh against the spirit” and “a derangement of our nature” (Schleiermacher 1999 ed.: 271, 275).  Our actual sin, rooted in original sin, can only be removed by redemption through the fully human and fully divine Christ “through the communication of His sinless perfection,” which humanity assimilates by being assumed by Christ in his “God-consciousness” (Schleiermacher 1999 ed.: 361, cf. §100 and 101).  Humanity is as conscious of this need as it is of its sinfulness.  Redemption, according to Schleiermacher, is the second act of creation — the completion of it.  Redemption in Christ is achieved through an act of conversion (which is achieved through repentance) and justification (which is achieved through faith in Christ).  This, in turn, results in the believer’s sanctification: a life that reflects the “perfection” and “blessedness” of Christ.  Yet, as mentioned above, this life is corporate.  This leads to Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology.

The Church is the corporate life of predestined, “regenerate individuals” who “form a system of mutual interaction and co-operation” (Schleiermacher 1999 ed.: 532).  Predestination is not blind election, but rather God foreseeing faith in those whom he elects.  Believers are then driven, having been assimilated by the Holy Spirit, to grow with one another in sanctification.  The Church becomes the perfect reflection of Christ on earth, with each individual being an integral part of it.  The Church, however, is not an isolated gathering of pristine souls.  It must live in the world yet maintain its identity.  This is accomplished through the marks of the Church: reading and proclaiming the inspired Word of God as found in the canonized New Testament, a public ministry rooted in the Word of God, initiation into the salvific life of the Church through baptism (followed by an act of confirmation for baptized infants), spiritual strengthening and reaffirmation of life in Christ by sharing his body and blood in his Supper, administration of church identity (“the Power of the Keys”), and prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.  Through such acts, the Church, both visible (the imperfect and divided branches of the Church) and invisible (the infallible and united Church Universal), is a reflection of the consummated Church at the end of time when Christ will judge the living and the dead and the Church will be fully separated from the world “in a state of unchangeable and unclouded blessedness” (Schleiermacher 1999 ed.: 717).

Schleiermacher ends The Christian Faith with a brief discussion of the difficulty of accepting the reality of damnation and a slightly longer treatment of the Trinity (the co-existent and mutually inclusive God as eternally three-in-one).  He also ends this work by leaving a tremendous legacy for Christian theology.


III.  Schleiermacher’s Legacy

Schleiermacher died of pneumonia on 12 February 1834, shortly after he revised The Christian Faith.  He left behind a wife, Henriette von Mühlenfels (twenty years his junior and the widow of his friend Army Chaplain von Willich), and was predeceased by their son, Nathaniel, who died at the age of nine from diphtheria.  Schleiermacher’s death may have “moved the entire population of Berlin,” as Redeker tells us, but his life and work changed the course of modern Christian theology (Redeker 1984: 212).

Schleiermacher’s contributions to modern western theology are immense.  Although he would be considered an inclusivist by today’s standards, his insights into ecumenism and religious pluralism were novel.  He can also be considered, in many respects, a patriarch of practical theology.  His focus on religious experience as a precursor to dogmatics paved the way for much of the mediating work that is being done in this burgeoning field.  This proposition needs to be unpacked a bit further.

Schleiermacher’s theology and methodology had a profound impact on the development of practical theology as a formal, theological discipline.  Ray S. Anderson makes a similar claim in his recent study, The Shape of Practical Theology (2001: 24).  Likewise, in his series of lectures on Schleiermacher, B. A. Gerrish states that “no theologian has ever insisted more emphatically that ‘the crown of theological study’ (to say in his own words) is practical theology” (Gerrish 1984: 20-21).  Proposing a comprehensive definition of this discipline is difficult (in part because it is still in the process of self-definition as its critics and adherents maintain), but a good working one is that practical theology “deals with contextual religious research, i.e., the practices in which people engage that indicate their intersection with the sacred, or the holy, or their ultimate concern, whether or not these practices are formally organized as a religious body” (Burch 1999: 19).  This, in many respects, cuts to the heart of Schleiermacher’s thought.

Simply put, Schleiermacher believed, as mentioned above, that theology is second-level reflective activity on the lived experience of faith, particularly communal faith.  “He concerned himself with facts and phenomena — with real, live religion, not simply with ‘God’ as a philosophical construct.  He understood Christian theology to be (in his terms) ‘empirical,’ not ‘speculative’” (Gerrish 1984: 21). I have illustrated the development of this thought (above) in the two works for which he is best known: his first book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), and the text that many claim inaugurated the modern period in western theology, The Christian Faith, Presented Systematically According to the Principles of the Evangelical [Protestant] Church (1821-1822).  In his shorter and lesser-known fictitious colloquy, Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas (1805), this point is illustrated more dramatically.

In this work, which Wilhelm Dilthey claims is “the best introduction to the study of Schleiermacher’s dogmatics,” three women reflect on their joyful memories of Christmas and the maternal love that Mary had for the baby Jesus (feeling) (Redeker 1984: 84).  This is followed by the more laborious talk of the men, who debate (from a historical-critical perspective) the meaning of the incarnation (thought).  The entire company is then brought back into the festive spirit when one of the guests draws them to the piano for a sing-a-long (Schleiermacher believed that “music [and the other arts] is a more basic medium of religious expression than the spoken word”) (Gerrish 1984: 28).  Stephen Sykes claims that Christmas Eve “begins to show some of the fruit of [Schleiermacher’s] increasing attention to the problems of Christian doctrine” (Sykes 1971: 11).

In light of all this, it is easier to see that Schleiermacher’s theology is the careful marriage of experience and Christology.  For Schleiermacher, Christ is the one who supremely embodies “God-consciousness” and redeems humanity “by drawing men and women into the power of his own awareness of God” (Gerrish 1984: 48).  This is expressed by what he believed is universal to the human condition and all religions: “absolute dependence” on God.  As controversial as this claim was (and is), it enabled Schleiermacher to 1. resurrect Christian faith at a time when Enlightenment thought buried its authoritative foundations and 2. to unite the practical with the theoretical.

It is safe to assume that Schleiermacher’s influence on Christian theology will extend far into the post-modern era.


Bibliography and Works Cited


Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst.  Brief Outline of the Study of Theology. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1850.

-----. The Christian Faith.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999 edition.

-----. Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890.

-----. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultural Despisers. 2nd ed. Translated from the 1st German ed. of 1799 by Richard Crouter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.


Anderson, Ray S.  The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Browning, Don S.  A Fundamental Practical Theology: Descriptive and Strategic Proposals.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Burch, Sharon Peebles.  Collective Absolute Presuppositions: Tectonic Plates for Churches.  New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1999.

---.  “Practical Theology and the Seminary,” from Boston University School of Theology Focus, Winter/Spring 1999.  (NB: this is the Burch source cited above.)

Christian, C. W.  Friedrich Schleiermacher.  Waco: Word Books, 1979.

Funk, Robert W., ed.  Schleiermacher as Contemporary.  New York: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Gerrish, B. A.  A Prince of the Church: Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

---.  “Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst,” from The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 13, ed. in chief Mircea Eliade.  New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1987, pp. 108-113.

---.  “Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst,” from The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, eds. Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 644-646.

Redeker, Martin.  Schleiermacher: Life and Thought.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.

Sykes, Stephen.  Friedrich Schleiermacher.  Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971.


Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834)

Chijen James Wu, 2000

It is very true that most modern Protestant theologians consider Friedrich Schleiermacher the “Father of the Modern Protestant Theology.”  Schleiermacher’s bountiful theological legacy, which has influenced the later Protestant theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, earns this prestigious title for him.  He is truly a great theologian because he has rescued the Protestant theology out of an era that religion was coming to demise so to speak.  As he has pointed out in his speeches on religion, “I do not chime in with the cry for help of most of them concerning the demise of religion” (Schleiermacher 2000, 4).  It is apparent that he simply, at that time, did not agree with the allegation that the demise of religion has come as the cost of Enlightenment.  By disproving the allegation, he successfully paved a new path for later Protestant theologians to reconstruct the so-called “modern Protestant theology.”  He made theology possible in the face of philosophy, history, and science that were prevailing in the Romantic Movement of the nineteenth century.  As a result, modern Protestant theologians often regard him as the most important theologian between John Calvin and Karl Barth (Livingston 1997, 93).  Nevertheless, Schleiermacher earned his reputation in not only the Protestant circle but also the Catholic circle.  As B. A. Gerrish has pointed out, “Shortly after Schleiermacher death . . . a leading Catholic theologian testified that . . . he along could be compared with Thomas Aquinas” (Schleiermacher 1999, v).  Without a doubt, Schleiermacher’s theology has developed into a significant theological legacy that inspires the later theologians in both circles. 

This article seeks to present Schleiermacher’s theological system in his most mature theological work, namely, The Christian Faith (second edition, 1830).  To this end, a thematic approach adopted in this article is required for this presentation.  Nevertheless, to deal with Schleiermacher’s theological system, we must briefly discuss his contemporary philosophical context, namely, Kant’s philosophy and Romanticism.  It is evident that Kant’s philosophy and the Romantic Movement profoundly influenced Schleiermacher’s theology.

Kant’s Philosophy and the Romantic Movement

Kant’s philosophy was in particular attractive to Schleiermacher when he became a student at Halle University in 1787.  Although he read some of Kant’s philosophy before his matriculation at the university, he devoted himself to study Kant’s philosophy during his student years at the university (Redeker 1973, 14-16).  Kant’s three critiques were significant to Shleiermacher’s thinking system.  Schleiermacher found Kant’s threefold category of the human faculties completely persuasive.  Nevertheless, he did not agree with Kant’s identification of religion with morality.  He found Kant’s approach to religion stemmed from his second critique, The Critique of Practical Reason.  This critique led Kant to study religion in terms of ethics or morality.  Schleiermacher, instead of following Kant’s approach, selected the third category of Kant’s critiques as his own approach to religion, namely, The Critique of Judgment.  He found the significance of aesthetic sensitivity in the third critique, and therefore he highlighted it as the ground of religion.  Apparently, Schleiermacher intended to keep Kant’s paradigmatic framework intact, while he sought another approach to religion than Kant.  As a result, Schleiermacher was able to identify religion with a quality of feeling rather than morality as Kant had proposed (Capps 1995, 7-13).

In addition to Kant’s philosophy, the Romantic Movement was another factor that influenced Schleiermacher’s thought.  According to Claude Welch’s analysis, one aspect of the Romantic Movement boldly underlined the concept of individuality.  This emphasis shaped individual’s concept of self in relation to the world.  The primary relation of individual to the world was no longer through the noble structure of reason but through the immediacy of individual feeling.  It is worthy of note that the word “feeling” calls attention to the sensuous impulse as well as aesthetics.  Hence, the empirical and aesthetic approaches in examining the world were vital characters of Romanticism.  Another aspect of the Romantic Movement was its concern for history.  This emphasis rendered a new perspective for the contemporary study of religion.  Some philosophers of this era argued that studying history provides another ground for studying religion.  Historical facts were the foundation of religion.  Religion could only be accessible in history; it must itself constantly become living history.  Consequently, they argued, the history of the divine revelation was only present in the history of humanity.  Neither was God an object discovered by rationality alone, nor standing in opposition to human beings.  Rather, God existed in relation to human beings throughout the human history.  The final, but not the least, aspect of the Romantic Movement was its emphasis on diversity.  Diversity was set in contrast to uniformity. This emphasis allowed human beings to seek for various imaginative expressions of their experiences (Welch 1972, 52-55).

Based on the above discussion, it is not difficult to identify some Kant’s philosophical and Romantic elements in Schleiermacher’s theological system.  Now let us turn to the thematic approach of the work, The Christian Faith.

The Christian Faith

In this section, I divide the Christian Faith into two subsections, namely, the work and its theological meaning (dogmatics).  Apparently, Schleiermacher presents his theological view on the Christian faith in a systematic arrangement throughout The Christian Faith.  There are four sections contained in the work, dogmatics, the Christian religious affection, the Christian faith, and the doctrine of Trinity.  In the first section (i.e. introduction), he defines what the Christian theology should be and how to formulate a Christian theology.  In the second section (i.e. the first part of the dogmatic system), he explains how one’s religious self-consciousness is contained in one’s religious affection in terms of the human condition, the doctrine of God, and the constitution of the world.  In the third section (i.e. the second part of the system), he explicates how the religious self-consciousness becomes the existential facts by examining one’s dialectic structure of self-consciousness of sin and grace.  In details, he also explains these facts in terms of the human condition, the doctrine of God, and the constitution of the world.  Without a doubt, this section boldly signifies the main thought of the work.  The final section (i.e. conclusion), he revises the ecclesiastically formed doctrine of Trinity into his anthropological views on Christ and the Holy Spirit.  In short, as we have seen, the concept of “self-consciousness” is boldly set in tone in his theological construction. 

We have briefly analyzed the structure of this work.  Consequently, we may find that Schleiermacher’s purpose for writing this work was simply to present the Christian faith “as a coherent whole according to the principles of the evangelical [Protestant] church” (Schleiermacher 1999, vi).  Accordingly, the Christian faith should be coherent with the principles of the church.  In fact, dogmatics is about the principles of the church.  In this sense, dogmatics explains the Christian faith not only in terms of the individual sense of feeling but also in terms of the social communion of the church.  Schleiermacher defines the character of the Christian faith as follows: “Christianity is a monotheistic faith, belonging to the teleological type of religion, and is essentially distinguished from other such faiths by the fact that in it everything is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth” (Schleiermacher 1999, 52).

In short, we can briefly summarize the above definition in the following way: one’s self-consciousness of faith in Jesus as the Redeemer (Schleiermacher 1999, 68).  For Schleiermacher, the Christian dogmatics ought to affirm this Christian faith.  Moreover, he also considers piety a form of the Christian faith.  Piety is “a modification of feeling,” a feeling of absolute dependence.  Yet, feeling is neither a knowing nor a doing, but self-consciousness which links the other two categories (knowing and doing).  A feeling of absolute dependence is an immediate self-consciousness of being in relation with God.  Not only does piety portray a personal character, but also a communal character, for this religious self-consciousness forms the foundation of the ecclesiastical communion with Christ (Schleiermacher 1999, 5-26).  Thus, the church, as the ecclesiastical communion with Christ, becomes a historical medium of redemption.


For Schleiermacher, the dogmatic theology is merely a branch, not the whole, of the Christian theology.  It is to systematically illustrate the Christian faith by using the “dialectic character of language.”  This linguistic character elevates the dogmatic theology to a field of scientific discipline that ultimately seeks the ecclesiastical interests by explaining the doctrines (Schleiermacher 1999, 78-88, 118).  Building up a system of dogmatics is a theological discipline, we can only proceed to construct or respond to the dogmatics within the church context (Schleiermacher 1999, 3).  In other words, Dogmatics emerges out of the church where the account of “the Christian religious affections set forth in speech” (Schleiermacher 1999, 76).  Thus, dogmatics is a confessional theology, not an apologetic theology.  It is impossible for the Christian theology to begin with natural reason since the Christian religious affection only emerges out of the Christian experience.  In this sense, the starting point for constructing a Christian theology must be a Christian experience of redemption in Jesus.  For Schleiermacher, this experience is to which all Christian doctrines should refer.  Apparently, Schleiermacher’s theology is then fundamentally Christo-centric (Livingston 1997, 100-101).

According to Schleiermacher, we can never know God as He is in Himself; rather we can only know God as He is in relation to us.  In other word, we can know God through our self-consciousness of the relation between God and us (Schleiermacher 1999, 52).   All the divine attributes in a Christian dogmatics should refer themselves to this religious affection, this feeling of absolute dependence.  Yet, how do we feel our absolute dependence on God?  There are two modes of apprehending this dependence in Schleiermacher’s theology.  First, we can feel God in our experience of the world or nature.  The feeling of absolute dependence is a universal element of life, and which urges us become conscious of our creatureness.  In other words, we become conscious that we are part of the world (Schleiermacher 1999, 133-138).  Second, we can feel God in our antithetic consciousness of sin and grace.  This antithesis of sin and grace characterizes our religious form of self-consciousness (Schleiermacher 1999, 259).  These two modes elucidate Schleiermacher’s theology on human condition, the doctrine of God, and the constitution of the world (cosmology). 


Christology is the center of Schleiermacher’s dogmatic theology.  He interprets the person and the work of Christ from an anthropological perspective.  This makes him turn away from the traditional interpretation of Jesus Christ.  Nevertheless, before we enter the further discussion of his Christology, we ought to briefly analyze his antithesis of sin and grace.  For Schleiermacher, the antithesis of sin and grace is a crucial structure of dialectics in building up the facts of the religious self-consciousness.  This antithesis characterizes Schleiermacher’s understanding of human sin and the redemptive activity of Jesus Christ.  Sin, for Schleiermacher, is present as a state of man.  We experience our sin in a state that a conflict between our sensuous nature and spiritual nature hinders our inner God-consciousness (Schleiermacher 1999, 271).  This conflict separates us from God, this is what we call sin.  On the contrary, we are conscious of fellowship with God and know that it rests upon a communication from the redeemer, this is what we call grace (Schleiermacher 1999, 262).  Grace is our religious self-consciousness of blessedness.  The reason that we can know sin is our feeling of grace.  Grace stands in opposition to sin.  Hence, Schleiermacher relates sin to its antithesis grace to explain our religious self-consciousness.  As Jesus Christ presented in his perfect consciousness of God, grace convicts us how we have obscured our God-consciousness through our sin.  By rejecting the ancient concept of sin (caused by the Fall of Adam), Schleiermacher stresses that the power to recognize our sin comes from Jesus Christ not from Adam (Livingston 1997, 102).  Accordingly, this power to recognize sin characterizes our self-consciousness of grace.  In short, grace comes from the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

The person and the redemptive work of Christ are inseparable in the discussion of Schleiermacher Christology.  For Schleiermacher, Christ, the Redeemer, is similar to all human beings “in virtue of the identity of human nature, but distinguished from them all by the constant potency of His God-consciousness, which was a veritable existence of God in Him” (Schleiermacher 1999, 385).  Jesus Christ perfectly realizes his God-consciousness in his earthly life span.  In this sense, we can speak of Jesus’ perfection and sinlessness.  Thus, Jesus Christ is an exemplar that shows the ideal humanity to all.  We can also understand Jesus in a way that he is a mirror in which we see our true image and measure, for he has brought something new into humanity and the world.  Yet, Schleiermacher also argues that we are not able to produce perfect humanity by our own consciousness since our religious self-consciousness had infected by sin.  Thus, we need a mediator who is the medium for the communication of God’s redemptive power.  The redemptive work of Jesus Christ signifies this communication between God and human beings.  In this sense, Christ is both exemplar and redeemer  (Niebuhr1964, 226).  In terms of the work of Christ, the redemptive work of Christ includes two modes of activities.  First, the redeemer assumes the believers into the power of His God-consciousness (redemptive activity); second, the redeemer assumes the believers into the fellowship of His unclouded blessedness (reconciling activity).  Accordingly, the center of Christ’s redemptive work shifts from the crucifixion to the incarnation by which something entirely new entered human history and is forming a new humanity and a new world (Schleiermacher 1999, 425-438).

The Trinity

For Schleiermacher, this doctrine is not an immediate concern about the Christian self-consciousness.  It does not relate to the feeling that is integral to the Christian experience of dependence.  It presents a combination of Christology and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the church.  Although Schleiermacher does not include this doctrine in the main body of the work, it does not mean that he thought this doctrine is unimportant.  For Schleiermacher, this doctrine signifies the union of the divine essence with human nature, both in the personality of Christ and in the common spirit of the church (Schleiermacher 1999, 738).  In the above discussion of Christology, we have seen that Schleiermacher identifies Jesus Christ as a truly man, but one thing makes him distinctive from other human beings are his constant potency of His God-consciousness (Schleiermacher 1999, 385).  This is Schleiermacher’s anthropological Christology.  In order to explain the doctrine of Trinity, Schleiermacher also employs an anthropological doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the church.  That is to say, Schleiermacher examines the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the context of the Church in which believers share their communion with Christ.  Schleiermacher argues “the Holy Spirit is the union of the Divine Essence with human nature in the form of the common Spirit animating the life in common of believers” (Schleiermacher 1999, 569).  In other words, animating the believers’ common religious life is a form of the work of the Holey Spirit.  An anthropological Trinity has come to existence by Schleiermacher’s theological interpretation.


Works Cited—Primary Sources

Schleiermacher, Friedrich D.E. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultural Despisers. 2nd ed. Translated from the 1st German ed. of 1799 by Richard Crouter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

________. 1999 [1830]. The Christian Faith. 2nd ed. Edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart. With a Forward by B. A. Gerrish. Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd.

Works Cited—Secondary Sources

Redeker, Martin. 1973 [1968].  Schleiermacher: Life and Thought.  Translated by John Wallhausser.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Welch, Claude.  1972. Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Vol.1, 1799-1870.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Livingston, James. 1997 [1988]. Modern Christian Thought. 2nd ed. Vol.1, The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Niebuhr, Richard. 1964. Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion: A New Introduction. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Friedrich Schleiermacher: The Father of Modern Protestant Theology

Peter Heltzel, 1998

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1786-1834), the German philosophical theologian, was a "critical realist" working among post-Kantian idealists. He is truly the greatest Protestant systematic theologian after John Clavin (Niebuhr 1978, 6). This article seeks to provide commentary on his most mature theological writing, namely the second edition of The Christian Faith (1831). In On Religion: Addresses in Response to its Cultured Critics (1799) Schleiermacher posits his theory of piety as a basic, universal religious experience when writing to his sophisticated friends. He developed the doctrinal implications in a cogent, coherent whole in The Christian Faith. A thematic approach to this work will be taken here to elucidate the theological thinking of Schleiermacher, with a brief discussion of his conception of theology, theological education, theological method and Christology, with some brief concluding remarks on his legacy.

The Experience of God: The Brilliance of Schleiermacher

At the root of Schleiermacher’s theological achievement was a reconception of religion. For him religion is primarily neither morality (contra Kant) nor belief or knowledge (contra Hegel) but an immediate self-consciousness or feeling of absolute dependence on God. The roots of faith are pre-moral and pre-cognitive, and this religious consciousness is common to all people, though very variously recognized and expressed. While the God of Kant (the absolute or unconditioned God) is present through our sense of moral obligation, God is present as an immediate dynamic relationship that grasps our whole being in the theology of Schleiermacher. However, it should be noted that Schleiermacher does not systematically exclude knowledge and morality from the realm of religion, rather he argues that "the experience of absolute dependence" should be the primary emphasis of religion. This experience is transferred and embodied in religious communities like Christianity.

Christianity is the specific form of the God-consciousness shaped through Jesus Christ and the community of faith in him. The church (or Christian community) is foundational to the experience of God which works itself out in a moral, thoughtful life of love. (Schleiermacher 1994, Fourth Speech, 147-209). This was a view of religion which had an integrity of its own in the subjective realm of feeling or consciousness, but which yet could be reflected upon and discussed intellectually in theology and could inform the whole of practical living. Schleiermacher’s theory of religion offered an idiom through which all of Christian doctrine could be expressed afresh.

Schleiermacher’s Conception of Theology

Theology for Schleiermacher involved drawing out the doctrinal implications of this "feeling of absolute dependence." This feeling was analyzed in three different ways: philosophically, historically and pastorally. Thus, Schleiermacher divided the theological encyclopedia into three different disciplinary topics: philosophical theology, historical theology and practical theology. These three types of theology were implemented in the theology department at the University of Berlin, of which Schleiermacher was cofounder with Humboldt (1808-1810). Schliermacher’s threefold model of theological education at Berlin would have a major influence on university theology curriculums in America at the turn of the century (Kelsey 1993, 52-65).

Theological study began for Schleiermacher with a more general philosophical analysis of the "feeling of absolute dependence" within the world religions. According to Schleiermacher, Philosophy of Religion (Schliermacher 1928, 31-52) should replace Natural Theology (after the critiques of natural theology by Hume and Kant) as a preamble to systematic theology. Although Brunner criticizes Schleiermacher for his "catholicizing" traits such as the corruption of theology by philosophy (Gerrish 1978, 21), Tillich rightly points out that Schleiermacher never clearly related this borrowed philosophical truth with theological truth (Tillich 1951:1/30). Regardless, this move by Schleiermacher was a major curricular breakthrough for connecting traditional theological studies with the soon-emerging study of the world religions.

Historical-critical study dominated the intellectual scene of the early nineteenth century. Schleiermacher appropriated this historical methodology to be the interpretive key of his theological encyclopedia, for he saw the subject of theology as the life of church unfolding in history. For Schleiermacher expanded the discipline of historical theology; he thought it encompassed the entire development of the Christian religion, incorporating in its purview the Bible, the subsequent history of Christianity, and the dogmatic theology of the contemporary church. By this inquiry into the rise and development of Christianity, historical theology aimed to discern the historical essence of Christianity and to exhibit that essence as the substantive unity of theological studies. Historical knowledge of the church, in sum, was the requisite knowledge for practical leadership of the church, built upon "the realization that this community, regarded as a whole, is a historical entity, and that its present condition can be adequately grasped only when it is viewed as a product of the past" (Schleiermacher 1966, 26). Once pastors fully understand the past, then they are prepared to minister in the present. It was practical theology (or training in the actual preaching, teaching and shepherding of the parish to pious living: pietatis praxis) which Schleiermacher saw as the most important of the three, calling it the "crown" of theology.

Schleiermacher’s Theological Method

While broadly in the Reformed tradition (for he saw TCF to be a dogmatics of united Church including both Lutheran and Calvinist communions) of systematic theology, Schleiermacher made many innovations in his theological methods. One major methodological difference from traditional reformed theology was Schleiermacher’s starting point. Schleiermacher started with religious experience, with religious feeling, and then worked his way up to God. Part of the reason for his anthropological starting point was his apologetic posture in On Religion. To his sophisticated, skeptical friends, Schleiermacher posed the question, what if it could be shown that religion in general and Christianity in particular are not inimical to humanity but essential to its true fulfillment? Schleiermacher answered strongly in the affirmative.

For Schleiermacher asserting religious experience as the primary source of theology rather than authoritative propositions about God was the only way he saw as a possible solution to the pressing problematic of his day, the impasse between rationalism and orthodoxy. Orthodoxy viewed theology as reflection on supernaturally revealed truths and thus practiced a "theology from above." Enlightenment theology (deism), viewed the enterprise as reflection on rational thoughts about God, engaged in a type of "theology from below." Schleiermacher believed the Enlightenment rightly rebelled against authoritative theology which stifled human creativity and confused the church’s dogmas about God with God himself, but the deist alternative was too sterile and bland. So in the spirit of Goethe, Schleiermacher set out to paint a new portrait of God, by painting a picture of human experience of God. For Schleiermacher, theology is human reflection on human experience of God. In the broadest and most general sense theology is simply human reflection on religion, that is, on piety.

In The Christian Faith Schleiermacher defines theology as the attempt to set forth the Christian religious affections in speech. Although The Christian Faith has many formal similarities to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion such as the division between God the Creator and God the Redeemer, Schleiermacher innovates in the way he treats these doctrines. In Schleiermacher all of the traditional doctrines correspond with the experience of God. He writes, "Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech" (Schleiermacher 1928, 15/76). Thus, Schleiermacher is drawn to doctrines that pattern and bring form to our God consciousness such as Christology. The doctrine of the Trinity on the other hand is not found very helpful by Schleiermacher for explicating our experience of God. One wonders if he had a more modern pyscho-social anthropology (e.g., Volf 1998) if the Trinity could have played a more central role in his dogmatics. However, there was a broader move toward a radical monotheism through the Deism and Romanticism of Schleiermacher’s day that prevented him from this insight.

Schleiermacher’s reconstruction of the doctrine of God has been one of his most controversial contributions to modern theology. It was determined by the pious God-consciousness of Christian people, their feeling of absolute dependence on God. According to Schleiermacher, the attributes of God are not to be taken as actually describing God. To "describe" is to limit and divide, thereby taking away from God’s infinity and implying a dependence of God upon the world. In the place of the traditional understanding, he offered what has become a classic reformulation: "All attributes which we ascribe to God are to be taken as denoting not something special in God, but only something special in the manner in which the feeling of absolute dependence is to be related to Him" (Schleiermacher 1928, 50/194). In other words, talk about God is always talk about human experience of God. Such statements describe not God-in-himself but a certain mode of experiencing God. In drawing out the implications of the experience of total dependence, Schleiermacher concluded that God is the all-determining reality, the ultimate cause of everything—both good and evil. God is the one who acts, but can not be acted upon.


Although Schleiermacher begins with "the feeling of absolute dependence," this feeling is brought to fruition in the life of Christ. For Schleiermacher the feeling of being totally dependent is squarely placed on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for one’s relationship with God. Because that experience is fundamentally an experience of God mediated in and through Jesus Christ, all doctrines must be centered around and related to him and his redemptive work (Schleiermacher 1928, 29/125). Schleiermacher criticizes the classical doctrine of Jesus’ two natures (human and divine) as illogical (Schleiermacher 1928, 96/391ff.). According to Schleiermacher, the ideal God-consciousness that Jesus posses is sufficient to express what Christians call his "divinity."

In the beginning of The Christian Faith when Schleiermacher develops his theory of religions, he has some very prejudicial readings of non-Christian religions, and like Hegel argues that Christianity is the consummate religion. Schleiermacher writes: "Christianity is a monotheistic faith, belonging to the teleological type of religion, and is essentially distinguished from other such faiths by the fact that in it everything is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth" (Schleiermacher, 1928, 11/52) For Schleiermacher, it is only Christianity that can properly interpret and deliver true God-consciousness because Jesus Christ was the only person who ever achieved complete God-consciousness.

Redemption in Christ is a central motif in Schleiermacher’s theology, but it transcends a traditional view of the atonement. Somewhere in his early education he began to develop doubts about certain of the key doctrines of orthodox Protestantism. In a letter to his father he expressed skepticism about the substitutionary doctrine of atonement—that Christ suffered at the hands of God the just punishment for human sin. Schleiermacher’s principle argument against substitutionary atonement is similar to Kant: for someone to vicariously suffer for someone else’s wrong doing is immoral. This act does not undo the prior guilt. So when he gets to the work of Christ (Schleiermacher 1928, 425-475), Schleiermacher does not want to reduce Christology to the atonement. While Kant subsumes the man Jesus (our moral archetype) into the work of Christ, Schleiermacher reasserts the necessity of the historical Jesus to enact our redemption.


The influence of Schleiermacher on modern theology can not be overestimated. His powerful account of religion’s validity rooted in the dynamics of awareness of God has influenced many subsequent theologians including Soren Kierkegaard (Kierkegaard 1946, 18; cf. Crouter 1994, 205-225). After Schleiermacher theology must take account of what is actually felt as the experience of God’s activity in human awareness. God’s activity in human awareness had been a major motivational force in many contemporary theological movements including feminism, Pentecostalism, and liberation theology.

From the vantage points of these contemporary movements, Schleiermacher is often viewed as a great mediator, if not the Father of mediation theology (Welch 1974, 61). Schleiermacher tried to reassert religious consciousness in a post-Kantian world which was skeptical of such a project. Schleiermacher’s theology was in part an attempt to answer Kant’s critique of religion while accepting the limitation he placed on reason. Schleiermacher’s project challenges all systematic theologians to craft their theology creatively in the thought forms of the day.



Schleiermacher, Friedrich D.E. 1966. Brief Outline on the Study of Theology, Trans. Terrence N. Tice. Atlanta: John Knox.

________. The Christian Faith. 1928. Ed. by H.R. Mackintosh; J.S. Stewart. Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark. Tr. Of the 2nd German ed. of Der Christliche Glaube, 1930-31; 1st German ed., 1821-22.

________. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultural Despisers. 2nd ed. Translated from the 1st German ed. of 1799 by Richard Crouter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Gerrish, Brian. A Prince of the Church: Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology. 1984. Philadelphia: Fortress.

________. Tradition and the Modern World: Reformed Theology in the Nineteenth Century. 1978. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kelsey, David. 1993. Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Niebuhr, Richard R. 1963. Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion. New York: Scribner.

Tillich, Paul. 1976. Systematic Theology, 3 Vols. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1951, 1957, 1963. Phoenix paperback ed.

Welch, Claude. 1974. Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 1: 1799-1870. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974.

Volf, Mirslov. 1984. After Our Likeness: The Trinity as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. 14 Vols. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1951-1963. Tr. Of Die Kirchliche Dogmatik. Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1932-1952.

_____. Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History. trans. B. Cozens and H. Bowden. London: SCM, 1972. Tr. Of eleven chapters of Die Protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert. Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1932-1952.

Crouter, Richard. "Kierkegaard’s Not so Hidden Debt to Schleiermacher." Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte. 1/2(1994):205-225.

Dembski, William A. "Schleiermacher’s Metaphysical Critique of Miracles." Scottish Journal of Theology. 49/4 (1996):442-465.

DeVries, Dawn. Jesus Christ in the Preaching of Calvin and Schleiermacher. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1996

Fiorenza, Francis S. "Schleiermacher and the Construction of a Contemporary Roman Catholic Foundational Theology." Harvard Theological Review 89 (4:1996):175-194.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Seabury, 1975.

Hardy, Daniel W. "The English Tradition of Interpretation and the Reception of Schleiermacher and Barth in England," Barth and Schleiermacher. Beyond the Impasse, edited by J. Duke and R. Streetman. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1988.

Kant, Immanuel. Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. New York: Harper and Row, 1960.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Concept of Dread. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946.

Makintosh, Hugh Ross. Types of Modern Theology, Schleiermacher to Barth. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937.

Mariña, Jaqueline. "Schleiermacher’s Christology Revisited: A Reply to His Critics." Scottish Journal of Theology 42/2 (1996):177-200.

Sonderegger, Katherine. "Must Christ Suffer to Redeem? The Doctrine of Vicarious Atonement in Schleiermacher and Baeck." Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte. 2/2 (1995):175-192.

Williams, Robert R. Schleiermacher the Theologian: The Construction of the Doctrine of God. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher

Charles Demm, 2000


Friedrich Schleiermacher assumed many prominent roles in his lifetime; he was a Reformed preacher, a theologian, a university professor and dean, a nationalist, a government official, and a husband and father.  His many activities have generated many responses that are often wildly disparate in nature. Schleiermacher has been called not only the ‘Father of Modern Theology’, but also a mystic, and a heretic. Yet even Karl Barth, no wide-eyed fan of Schleiermacher, considered him the falls over which every preceding Christian theologian has had to navigate. Before we cast our own vote either way, a glimpse at Schleiermacher’s personal life and era will provide background to his thought.

On November 21, 1768 Friedrich was born to Gottlieb and Katharine-Maria Schleiermacher. He was the second of three children, and the fourth generation of Reformed pastors in his family. His paternal grandfather Daniel Schleiermacher (b.1695) was a Reformed pastor of ill repute. A pastor in Elberfield (Western Germany) he associated with Rhenish sectarians. Parishioners brought charges of witchcraft and sorcery against Daniel for reasons lost to history forcing his wife and son (Friedrich’s father) to testify against him. Fleeing to Holland Daniel escaped prison, but he never again served a pastoral office. Gottlieb (b.1727) earned a theological degree from the University of Duisburg when he was nineteen. He was employed as teacher until 1760 when he became chaplain in royal Prussian army during the Seven Years’ War. Both Friedrich’s maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were court chaplains at the Reformed cathedral in Berlin (Redeker, 1973, 6-7).

As a royal chaplain, and the only Reformed pastor in his province, Gottlieb spent much of the year traveling among the garrisons. During these trips he also served the pockets of Reformed communities in the region. During these years Gottlieb had grown anxious over the tensions that had developed between Reformed orthodoxy and the ideas of the Enlightenment. In 1778 Gottlieb encountered a Moravian community while visiting soldiers in Gnadenfrei. Witnessing the life and worship of this community stirred a pietistic reawakening in Gottlieb. So impressed were they that Gottlieb and his wife decided to have their children educated by the Moravians (Redeker, 1973, 8). As we have read in the Speeches Schleiermacher dated his spiritual awakening to this period.

Run much like a monastery, the Brethren frowned upon contact with the outside world. As a result, Friedrich would never again see his parents. His mother died in 1783, but Schleiermacher continued to correspond with his father until Gottlieb’s death in 1794. Schleiermacher blossomed during his stay with the Moravians. The pietistic curriculum had two prominent features. First, it sought the development of an inner experience of the Christian message. It was hoped that each student would have his own personal experience of sin and grace. Second, it offered a humanistic education that taught its students Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English, mathematics and botany. Swimming and skating, however, were strictly forbidden (Redeker, 1973, 10).

In 1785 Schleiermacher entered the secluded Moravian Brethren’s theological seminary in Barby. It emphasized personal piety and censored modern belles letters and philosophy. Schleiermacher and his precocious friends, however, did manage to smuggle in works by Goethe, Kant, and Wolff.

Like his father before him, Schleiermacher’s orthodox belief was shaken by the enchroachment of Enlightenment ideas. In the correspondence between father and son Friedrich’s growing disillusionment can be traced. When the son complains to his father that orthodox teaching have failed to cure his doubts, the father failed to recognize his son’s earnest struggle. Finally, in a letter dated 21 January, 1787 Friedrich dropped a bombshell admitting to his father that he no longer believed in Jesus’ divinity. His father’s reply was swift and damning. He disowned his son (temporarily) accusing him of having a false pride and an unholy love for the material world (Redeker, 1973, 14; Gerrish, 1984, 25). Unfortunately, the complete correspondence, available when Dilthey published some of Schleiermacher’s letters in Aus Schleiermacher’s Leben: in Briefen has been lost, making the exact details of the reconciliation unknown because Dilthey only published a portion of the letters.

The two would eventually reconcile, but Friedrich’s decision to enter the University of Halle in 1787 further upset his father. He immersed himself in the reading of Greek philosophy and Kant. Schleiermacher’s time at Halle, however, was limited to only two years, as he was pressed to take the Reformed theology exams by his father. At this time Schleiermacher also became a private tutor to Count Dohna’s family. He instructed the children in French, mathematics, history, geography, ethics, philosophy, and religion. Schleiermacher also fell in love with their seventeen-year-old daughter Friederike. Unfortunately, she died of tuberculosis at a very young age, their mutual affection remaining a secret, no doubt due to the social barriers between a countess and a tutor.

From 1794 to 1796 Schleiermacher became an associate pastor in Landsberg. And in 1796 he accepted the position as pastor of the Charite Hospital in Berlin. His arrival in Berlin would open a new chapter in Schleiermacher’s life. In Berlin Schleiermacher entered the newly formed salon society, a circle of Berlin romantics, poets, and high society who gathered to throw off the yoke of the Enlightenment, in favor of new ideals and a greater appreciation of art and culture. The home of Henriette Hertz, a young widow, became one of the centers of the new salon society. Schleiermacher and Henriette were soon the talk of society. She defended Schleiermacher whenever he was criticized for his vocation and beliefs. Redeker admits that their affection was indeed strong, but described it as a relationship “on a high intellectual plane” (Redeker, 1973, 27). Schleiermacher’s own thoughts, however, may lead the reader to disagree with Redeker. In a letter to his sister Charlotte, Schleiermacher’s denial of romantic feelings for Henriette seems strained. He writes:

“It is a close and heart-felt friendship, having nothing to do with man and woman…if I were to consider only the externals, then she is not all that attractive to me, although her face is incontestably very lovely and her full queenly form so much stronger than my own. But I always find it so laughable and absurd to imagine us both free and in love and married that I can only get over my amusement with real effort” (Rowan, 1860, 7).

Through his connection with Henriette Schleiermacher met and befriended Friedrich Schlegel, a leading proponent of the Romantic movement. How much influence Romanticism had on Schleiermacher’s writings has remained a subject of debate. Since Schleiermacher’s writings reflected the death of the traditional image of a supernatural God, he was also criticized for being both a mystic and a pantheist. Schleiermacher’s ecclesiastical superior, August Sack, asked if he were even Christian (Gerrish, 1978, 19).

It was Schlegel who pushed Schleiermacher to begin his literary career. In 1799 when he was thirty years old Schleiermacher anonymously published On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. The work provoked outrage from many sides. Goethe’s reaction was typical of the romantic salon, approving the first half of the Speeches, while rejecting the latter half for its Christian tone. And Church authorities grew increasingly suspicious of Schleiermacher and his association with Romantics like Schlegel who was seen as immoral and a threat to all that was sacred to the older generation.

The same authorities and society were scandalized by Schleiermacher’s open courtship of  Eleonore Grunow, an unhappily married wife of a Berlin clergyman. Redeker admits that Schleiermacher’s opinion of marriage changed with age. But the young pastor firmly believed that if a marriage thwarted a person’s individuality, it was no marriage at all. What kind of relationship they had is not certain. Redeker says that Schleiermacher’s greatest intention was to “assist this woman, who was frequently tormented by depressions and anxieties, to freedom and inner peace through understanding…” (Redeker, 1973, 72). In the end Eleonore remained with her husband, while Schleiermacher left Berlin to accept a poorly funded position as court chaplain in Stolp, a provincial town in Pomerania. Redeker maintains that his departure was voluntary.

After a two year pastorate in Stolp (1802-04) Schleiermacher was given a professorship in ethics and pastoral care at the University of Wurzburg. It was a new institution of learing that was dedicated to equality of rights for all confessions and included both Roman Catholic and Protestant on the faculty. Yet, Schleiermacher’s tenure at Wurzburg was short lived. He was  called away by the crown to become the first Reformed professor at the University of Halle which dismayed many of the entrenched Lutheran faculty who viewed him as a mystic and heretic. The crown wanted Halle to be on the vanguard of a burgeoning movement that moved beyond the limitations of the Enlightenment. Interestingly, Schleiermacher was given a much warmer reception by the non-theological faculties (Redeker, 1973, 76).

Schleiermacher’s passion for nationalism was stirred by political events when Halle fell to Napolean’s army in 1806. While many fled for Berlin, Schleiermacher remained behind until the University Church was appropriated as storehouse for grain in September 1807. While Goethe and Hegel cheered on Napolean’s defeat of the Prussian state, Schleiermacher was an outspoken critic, repudiating Napolean as a foreign conqueror and dictator. Returning to Berlin Schleiermacher became politically active in Berlin, as an official in the State’s department of education from 1808-1814. In this capacity Schleiermacher helped restructure the educational system. He also became editor ‘The Prussian Correspondent’ a newspaper which published four times a week. From this position Schleiermacher called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, which drew the ire of the state censor and the suspicions among the ultra-conservatives. Hegel even charged Schleiermacher as a revolutionary against the King.

In this period Schleiermacher finally found a woman with whom he could marry without scandal. In 1809 Friedrich married Henriette von Muhlenfels, a young widow with one child from a previous marriage. Nathanael, their one child together, would die of diptheria in 1829 when he was nine years old.

Schleiermacher was chosen to be a professor and founder of a new state University in Berlin in 1810 to fill the vacuum created by the close of Halle. Schleiermacher’s guiding hand not only gave shape to Berlin, but to the structure of future universities. His influence is most visible in three areas. First, he created a space for the burgeoning field of science within the university. Second, he tied teaching together with new research. Third, professors were given the autonomy to carry out their research and teaching assignments. Schleiermacher felt that the state was best served, not by stifling innovative ideas, but by granting the University independence, as long as it sought the idea of truth (Redeker, 1973, 94).

Schleiermacher’s influence on the Church in Germany was equally great. Independent of Schleiermacher, there was a movement in Prussia towards the unification of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches, led by the King and Queen. Since he was Reformed and she was Lutheran, they were pained by the fact that they could not celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. This quest for union was not without its share of difficulties, however. Heated debate centered on the shaping of a new liturgy, the wording of the new constitution, and the role of the state in the entire process. The union occurred in 1817 on the anniversary of the Reformation. But Schleiermacher was not satisfied. He pressed for a new harmony between the confessions, but not a union of the two. He was completely against the state-directed imposition of liturgical and dogmatic rules on individual communities. The king retained the right to design the new constitution, which led Schleiermacher to utter his famous reply, “The Reformation still goes on!” A resolution was not reached until 1829, when the crown allowed congregations to follow their previous orders of worship (Redeker, 1973, 198). This debate colored the writing of Schleirmacher’s opus The Christian Faith which was first published in 1820-21.

Schleiermacher’s untimely death came in February  1834. Burdened with a cold Schleiermacher continued his usual teaching and administrative duties until it developed into a case of pneumonia. He died in his bed February 12 surrounded by his family after celebrating the Lord’s Supper. When the news spread throughout Berlin there was a massive outpouring of grief. It has been reported that between 20-30,000 people attended the funeral.

On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers

(Refer to Oman’s 1894 trans. of the 3rd ed. [1821].)

First Speech: Defense

Schleiermacher’s intended audience for his first book was the salon society of Berlin. Its circle included a strange mix of people: aristocrats, artists, Jewish women, and young clergymen. One of the circle’s many interests included a concern for individual spiritual self-improvement. In the wake of the Enlightenment orthodox religion no longer offered a possible avenue for cultivation. And yet the Enlightenment’s own quest for a rational religion was too sterile for many of the cultured elite. It was to this disaffected crowd that Schleiermacher offered his apology. Their goal was to build up a rich, creative life on earth, and they were endowed with both the education and the leisure to create such a life. They had many interests, ranging from the arts and sciences to ethical issues, so they zealously pursued authorities from these many fields. They were interested in everything, but religion, Schleiermacher protested. Hoping to deflate this belief in humanistic self-imrovement, Schleiermacher argued that a person could not be fully human without also being religious. Therefore, whatever world the cultured attempted to create by its own merits would be hollow, if religion were excluded. The salon society had been too hasty in their rejection of religion by confusing its outward forms with its essence. Popular opinion viewed religion as a fearful acceptance of the external authority of the church. In the final assessment, religion was believed to orbit around two views: a belief in providence and immortality (Schleiermacher, 1821, 14-15). In a move that shocked both the cultured and the orthodoxy, Schleiermacher echoed the disgust felt by the cultured at those who blindly followed ecclesiastical dogma and creeds. He agreed with them that dogma had been a source of unnecessary suffering and harm, but Schleiermacher had a radically different view of dogma and the role doctrine should play in a community. He wrote that religion did not begin with theological systems, but with an internal feeling he labeled ‘religion’. This feeling or intuition signaled the ‘Infinite’ and ‘Eternal’, and it was an essential element in human nature (Schleiermacher, 1821, 16). Failure to realize this fact would undermine every attempt at self-improvement. In fact, this sense of the Infinite within the individual was the inspiration behind the creative achievements so cherished by the salon set. People needed to regain the ability to hear the Deity who continuously revealed itself by roaring within our hearts (Schleiermacher, 1821, 17).

Second Speech: The Nature of Religion

In the second speech Schleiermacher reiterated his claim that religion is not yet known if the person’s understanding is based on either memories or preconditions. Knowledge derived from either one would distort and corrupt the religious feelings. In the second speech Schleiermacher wanted to strip away these mistaken assumptions and replace these false images with a definition that cut closer to the essence of religion (Schleiermacher, 1821, 27). Despite the majority view, religion was something other than right thinking or right actions. Religion did not derive from quantity of knowledge, Schleiermacher wrote, nor could God be found at the apex of science (Schleiermacher, 1821, 35). He was also opposed to equating moral action with religion because morality is manipulative by nature, while religion remains passive. It does not instigate action instead religion is moved by the Infinite that stands against the finite creature (Schleiermacher, 1821, 37). Piety can be equated with neither of these two spheres, yet as a third facet it is indispensably interrelated to them. Only when there is unity among knowledge, action, and piety can human potentiality be achieved. Each sphere is distinct, but each in interwoven. To understand how they are related, Schleiermacher asks his reader to ponder a moment in his/her life. Feeling derives from the sensations of the World. These feelings are the exclusive domain of religion. Knowledge begins to occur when we think about these feelings. Our moral life is triggered when we begin to impress ourselves on these moments. When this happens the individual is linked to the Infinite, granting him/her contact with the universal.

Once the unity of knowing, doing, and feeling had been established Schleiermacher proclaimed that the “chief point” of his speech had been made. He then proceeded to write another sixty pages, discussing several topics that have influenced the future shape of theology and the academic study of religion.

  1. Scientific knowledge is not religion, but it is permitted, even welcomed, to investigate religion (its history and dogma).

  2. Schleiermacher acknowledges the plurality of religions in the world. Each is a distinct expression of the one religion.

  3. Scleiermacher’s reading of Scripture differed from his contemporaries. For example, the creation story is interpreted as a “sacred legend”, rather than literal truth (Schleiermacher, 1821, 72).

Third Speech: The Cultivation of Religion

In this speech Schleiermacher takes a closer look at the current state of religion. Despite its present state, Schleiermacher believed religion could be glimpsed within the material world. As an example, Schleiermacher described a child’s capacity to experience joy when confronted by the mysteries and marvels of the world. This feeling was nothing less than religion, Schleiermacher wrote. If the child were allowed to follow his/her interests, religion would naturally blossom from within. But, too often these nascent stirrings were crushed, separating the individual from feelings of the Infinite. Foes of religion, Schleiermacher continued, are not the cultured, but middle class promoters of practicality and discretion. They object to the use of imagination because they conclude that it produces nothing of tangible value. Quiet contemplation was considered to be idle folly. For Schleiermacher this worldview strips the religious element from life leaving only a small, barren existence, which is less than human (Schleiermacher, 1821, 126-28).

Schleiermacher conceded that the middle class presently held the field, but he remained confident that their position would crumble in time. Thus, Schleiermacher was able to offer an expression of gratitude to the ‘cultured’. Their activities and their critique of the status quo had unintentionally begun to reinvigorate true religion.

Fourth Speech: Association in Religion, or Church and Priesthood

In the fourth speech Schleiermacher repeats the common perceptions of religion among the salon set. Some viewed religion as simply an absurdity, while others believed it to be the root of evil in the world. Rather than confront their perceptions, Schleiermacher sought to “subject the whole idea of the Church to a new conclusion, reconstructing if from the centre outwards…” (Schleiermacher,1821,148). He drives home the point that if there is to be religion at all, it must be social, as we are social creatures by nature.

Since we are finite creatures our experience of the Infinite will always be incomplete. Thus, we naturally desire to communicate our experiences to others, and in turn remain open to the experiences of others, for these additional representations give us a fuller picture of the world. However, much of the originality of the experience is lost in the process, so no communication is ever pure. But those freely bound together in piety are both priests and laity. A person who is blessed with talents in certain areas is a ‘priest’ to the community, but only in this specific role. So the person is also part of the ‘laity’ in areas where he/she does not excel (Schleiermacher, 1821, 153). Schleiermacher set particular parameters for these free associations:

  1. There should be no proselytizing, nor any belief that salvation exists only for the ‘insiders’.

  2. There should be no limits placed on the individuality of the pious. Creeds cannot be forced upon others.

  3. Every new doctrine based on religious feeling is a new revelation. In the 1799 edition the young Schleiermacher seemed to advocate opening the Canon to make room for new revelations, but the older Schleiermacher backpedaled from this position in 1821.

  4. There should be a strict separation of Church and State, for the State pollutes religion by imposing on it its own interests.

Fifth Speech: The Religions

Only in the last speech does Schleiermacher show his hand to his readers: the particular religion they need is in fact Christianity. He had previously shown that a confessional religion was unavoidably impure. He also hoped that they would accept, and even embrace, the reality of pluralism as a natural consequence due to space and time. Schleiermacher goes so far as to say that Jesus was not the only mediator, nor necessarily the last mediator (Schleiermacher, 1821, 248).

He disposes of natural religion in short fashion. It professes to be all things positive religion cannot be: liberating and pure. But, Schleiermacher protests that natural religion not only fails to correspond to reality, as it does not begin with an original fact, it also denies the true individuality in people, unlike positive religion. And it is easily corrupted by machinations of the State.

The truly religious person is a historical person. The sum of religion and the religious culture is always greater than the individual. But religion is not bound historically produced dogma rather, it is found in the pious who realize that they lack a complete picture of the Infinite (Schleiermacher, 1821, 238).

All finite creatures need a higher mediator. For Christians Jesus Christ is the mediator, for he alone did not require mediation. Interestingly, however, Schleiermacher did not claim that Christ could be the only mediator. So, Schleiermacher concludes this important first work with the possibility that something even better might come in the future.

Brief Bibliography

Sources and Translations

Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst, Aus Schleiermachers Leben in Briefen. Edited by Ludwig Jonas and Wilhelm Dilthey. 4 vols. Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1853-63.

_____. The Christian Faith [1820-21] Translated from the 2nd German ed. Edited by H.R. MacKintosh and J.S. Stewart. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.

_____. The Life of Jesus. Translated by S. MacLean Gilmour. Edited by Jack C. Verheyden. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

_____. The Life of Schleiermacher, as Unfolded in His Autobiography and Letters. Translated by Frederica Rowan 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1860.  This is a translation of the first two volumes of Aus Schleiermacher Leben in Briefen.

________. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultural Despisers. 2nd ed. Translated from the 1st German ed. of 1799 by Richard Crouter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

_____. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Translation from the 3rd German edition of 1824 by John Oman (1958). Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

_____. Servant of the Word: Selected Sermons of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Translated and edited by Dawn DeVries. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

Secondary Sources

Gerrish, B.A. A Prince of the Church: Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

_____. Tradition and the Modern World: Reformed Theology in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Redeker, Martin. Schleiermacher: Life and Thought. [1968] Translation by John Wallhauser. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.

Tice, Terrence. Schleiermacher Bibliography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. This work contains 1,928 entries of primary sources and secondary literature dating up to 1966.

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