Schleiermacher the Theologian: The Construction of the Doctrine of God. By Robert R. Williams. Fortress Press, 1978. 196 pages.

Robert Williams derived his motivation for writing Schleiermacher the Theologian from discoveries made while writing his PhD dissertation for Union Theological Seminary. Williams records that encounters with Schleiermacher’s theology were predominately viewed through a “Hegel-Barth interpretation” which portrayed Schleiermacher “to epitomize virtually all that can go wrong theologically.” (ix) Williams himself was captured by this reading of Schleiermacher until he encountered the work of Edmund Husserl. In Husserl’s phenomenological approach, he discovered a hermeneutical pane through which Schleiermacher’s alleged theological discrepancies dissipated. Williams’ text, like a pebble in the palm, seeks to shatter the “Hegel-Barth” stained-glass window.

In terms of audience, Williams presumes his reader to be familiar with Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith. The early employment of Schleiermacher’s term “Whence” exemplifies this presumption. “Whence” makes an appearance in the introduction, but awaits clarification until the first chapter. The assumption of familiarity extends to Barth’s interpretation of Schleiermacher as well. While discussing Schleiermacher’s doctrine of omnipotence, Williams raises Barth’s threefold critique followed by convincing rebuttal, but does not elaborate Barth’s reasoning and evidence. However, Williams does not presuppose such familiarity with Husserl. When he intends to substantially employ a technical term or concept of Husserl’s, e.g., Urglaube, Williams offers aid to his reader.           

Williams structures his iconoclasm in two parts thereby mirroring The Christian Faith. In “Part One: The Religious A Priori,” Williams, through deft use of Husserl, shows that Schleiermacher’s keystone, the feeling of utter dependence, is a pretheoretical concrete awareness from which abstract conceptualization arises; hence, he rebuffs assertions that Schleiermacher is practicing a sentimental psychology. The first part also initiates Williams’ thesis that Schleiermacher conceives God to be a “coincidence of opposites” thereby drawing Nicholas of Cusa into the conversation. Williams holds that Schleiermacher, independently, yet comparatively, perceives God to be simultaneously absolute inwardness and absolute vitality. Expressing Schleiermacher’s view, Williams writes, “God has no opposite, but is his own opposite. God is thus bipolar: he is like the world and related to it, but qualitatively other than the world. Conversely, he is qualitatively other than the world, but related to it and immanent in it.” (69) The two poles of absolute inwardness and absolute vitality provide the framework for “Part Two: The Doctrine of God.”

Part two, in tandem with The Christian Faith, is subdivided into those attributes of God that are accessible to the generic religious consciousness and those made determinate by Christian consciousness. Assigning the divine attributes distinguishable in the generic religious consciousness to the two poles of God, Williams finds God’s absolute inwardness expressed in the doctrines of eternity and omnipresence, and God’s absolute vitality to be witnessed in the doctrines of omnipotence and omniscience. Within the determinacy of Christianity, God’s absolute inwardness finds expression in love while absolute vitality is evidenced in wisdom. The divine attribute of love has its acme in the Incarnation and creation is divine operative wisdom. The supremacy of love and wisdom is clear since “Schleiermacher has built divine love into the very structure of his theology, for creation and redemption form a single unified order which has its basis and arrangement in the divine love. God creates in order to love.” (128) On account of the determinate Christian expression, the limitations of generic religious consciousness are revealed and supplemented.

Continuing to parallel the structure of The Christian Faith, Williams engages the Trinity in the final stages of his investigation into Schleiermacher’s conception of God. Williams recognizes that “Schleiermacher never formulated constructively his own views on trinity” and that “his remarks in the Glaubenslehre [The Christian Faith] are very tentative;” but, Williams claims that “trinity is, as Schleiermacher says, the very cornerstone of Christian doctrine, including the doctrine of God.” (151, 139) In light of the precision that saturates the structure and content of The Christian Faith, it is unclear why Schleiermacher would fail to make a pellucid presentation of the lynchpin of his dogmatics. At this point, Williams’ interpretation of Schleiermacher’s theology may overreach.  

Williams’ boldest interpretative move is found near the end of the text when he opines that Schleiermacher’s bipolar characterization of God in conjunction with a two-stage creation logically translates into God being both mutable and immutable. Williams perceives the immutable element to be divine love, God’s “motive in creation and redemption,” while omnipotence reflects the mutable attribute, “which changes in its exercise relative to the stages of creation.” (183) Williams admits he had “to tug and pull a bit” for this reading, but since Schleiermacher does not expressly state such, it remains for the critical reader of Schleiermacher and Williams to judge. (186)

While reading Schleiermacher the Theologian one senses the bramble that Williams as elected to cut through. The bramble is not caused by convolution or confusion in Schleiermacher’s thinking, but instead manifests the intellectual boundaries that Schleiermacher is pressing. Schleiermacher imbues the theological vocabulary he has inherited with new meaning and it swells like a balloon whose rupture is imminent. Williams parses Schleiermacher’s conceptions, elaborates their distinct elements, and then effectively reconstitutes them with the aid of other thinkers. Williams does not bask in naiveté; he recognizes that some of Schleiermacher’s theological conceptions may be contradictory. However, one gains a sense of the respect Williams has for Schleiermacher as he penetrates the surface of apparent contradictions to discover if they truly exist. Williams assumes Schleiermacher’s mental vastness, and, therefore, searches for cohesion prior to hastily concluding convolution. For one who feels caught in a bramble of confusion when reading Schleiermacher, a careful engagement of Schleiermacher the Theologian will promote release and clarity.

Brice Tennant
Boston University

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