Was Schleiermacher a liberal theologian? (If not, who would be?)

Was Schleiermacher a liberal theologian? (If not, who would be?) September 22, 2012

I recently attended a lecture by a leading British theologian who is NOT generally considered “liberal.” The subject of the lecture was the urban roots of modern theology and the focus was on Schleiermacher and Berlin. It was very informative about how the Berlin of that time shaped Schleiermacher’s theology. The speaker admitted that Schleiermacher was the father of modern theology and that he did not believe in the resurrection, but he claimed that (I quote) “Schleiermacher was not a liberal theologian.”

During the discussion time that followed the lecture, I asked the speaker to expand on that claim and he did–very gladly. He said that his is something of a personal campaign–to clear up the misconception that Schleiermacher was a liberal theologian. The only liberal theologian he mentioned was Rudolf Otto. The reason, he said, that Schleiermacher was not liberal and Otto was is as follows (so far as I understood him correctly).

Otto, in typical liberal fashion, following nominalism, insisted on a sort of “gap,” as it were, between the universal religiousness of humanity (numinous experience, the experience of “the Holy”) and particular religion. All particular religions and religious experiences, according to Otto and liberal theology, are nothing more than concrete expressions of the higher and more important numinous experience of God or the infinite.

Schleiermacher, the speakers said, did not allow such a gap. For him, Gefuehl (the feeling of utter dependence on God or the infinite) and Christian experience of redemption through Christ are inseparable. Christianity is not merely one religious expression, equal with all others, of the “numinous” as in Otto.

That’s all he said about the subject.

Here are my thoughts about the speaker’s claim.

First, it’s very possible that if he and I had more time to talk about it, enough light would come forth from our conversation that I could go away saying “Well, that’s a valid way of looking at things.” (But I doubt it.)

Second, it seems to me what was going on is simply a case of two (or more) different definitions of “liberal theology.” Maybe in Britain (although I don’t think so) everyone defines “liberal theology” so narrowly.

Third, admittedly, “liberal theology” applied to Schleiermacher is something of an anachronism (as another listener pointed out in the discussion), but it’s a valid one. To the best of my knowledge, “liberal theology” was coined later and applied backwards to Schleiermacher because he set in motion a trend, a trajectory that led indirectly, if not directly, to Classical Liberal Protestant Theology (Ritschl, Herrmann, Harnack, et al.).

But I’m not at all convinced that Classical Liberal Protestant Theology would be “liberal” in the speaker’s sense, either. It seems to me the speaker was thinking of, for example, John Hick’s “religious pluralism” as the paradigm of liberal theology. (He mentioned Otto, I suspect, because of the similarity between his and Schleiermacher’s views of religious experience as the essence of religion, as opposed to dogmas.)

I, for one, do not want to join the speaker’s campaign to correct the widespread belief that Schleiermacher was a liberal theologian. Perhaps his accommodations to modernity were not as complete as someone else’s, but, for a professional theologian of that time, his was more complete than others’.

Scholars of modern theology look back to the 19th century and make distinctions among liberal theologians such as “Unitarian” versus “evangelical liberalism.” In other words, “liberal theology” is a spectrum.

The standard I have used for determining who is “liberal” theologically comes from Delwin Brown who, in his dialogue with Clark Pinnock (published as Theological Crossfire) stated very clearly that IF there is any conflict between the Bible and traditional Christian orthodoxy (even broadly defined, one the one hand and modernity, on the other, he will always go with “the best of modern thought.” I certainly see Schleiermacher doing that, however pious a Christian he remained personally.

The reason this is important to me is that I wrote the chapter on Schleiermacher in Stan Grenz’s and my 20th Century Theology book (InterVarsity Press, 1992) and I have re-written and updated it for my forthcoming revision and expansion of that book (also IVP). Both times (and elsewhere) I have treated Schleiermacher as the father of not only “modern theology” but also “liberal theology.”

As anyone who has read Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers and Christian Faith knows, the German theologian practices theology “from below”–from human experience of God. According to him all doctrines are nothing more than attempts to put religious affections into speech. They are foreign, alien to the essence of religion and even of Christianity. He radically reconstructs traditional Christian doctrines in the light of modernity. Jesus is the original and ideal (model, paradigm) of God-consciousness.

Most shockingly, perhaps, the British theologian lecturing on Schleiermacher, said that Schleiermacher’s theology was “incarnational.” The implication was that liberal theology isn’t. Schleiermacher’s Christology doesn’t strike me as incarnational. There is no appreciation for and one even finds rejection of the language of hypostatic union. Worse, it does not seem that Schleiermacher thought Jesus Christ is different in kind (ontology) from the rest of humanity. The difference is one of degree. (Perhaps, being very generous, we could say that for him the difference is such a one of degree as to become on of kind.)

My own “take” on Schleiermacher is that he was trying to make religion and Christianity acceptable to their modern cultured despisers by accommodating to their sensibilities and worldviews. Whatever would conflict with modernity had to be left behind. The way Schleiermacher did that was to radically reinterpret orthodox doctrines; rarely did he simply, outrightly reject them. But what comes out the other end of the reconstruction machine is hardly recognizable as incarnation.

Schleiermacher allowed that there may be “miracles” in history, but they are not instances of the absolutely supernatural. No such thing is knowable or possible. In other words, they would be unusual signs and wonders built into the processes of nature by God in advance. (He was a divine determinist who rescued God’s character by means of universalism.)

If Schleiermacher’s theology was not liberal, I don’t know what “liberal theology” means–unless one arbitrarily and quite in contrast to the whole common scholarly usage of that term simply redefines it to exclude Schleiermacher. That is what I suspect the British theologian was doing.

Two things may be said about that. First, perhaps (and I suspect this to be the case) the British theologian wants to include Schleiermacher in his own theological project and claim him for it. Second, perhaps (and again I suspect this to be the case) he was playing the game so common in scholarly circles of making an outrageous claim and then backing it up, when challenged, by redefining terms. That happens a lot.

So who really cares what Schleiermacher was? Does it even matter whether he, or anyone, is “liberal?” It’s a concept I don’t think we can totally discard; the cure for its overuse and misuse is proper use. Major scholarly treatises exist on liberal theology; it isn’t only a subjective pejorative term. Many people gladly consider themselves liberal (theologically). I mentioned Delwin Brown above. Gary Dorrien has been trying to rehabilitate liberal theology (as a salutory concept and category) for years.

“Liberal theology” is one thing, perhaps the main thing, evangelicals (broadly defined) do not embrace. The only worse thing, in the overall milieu of Christian theology, is dead orthodoxy (IMHO). But, of course, nobody owns that.

Liberal theology as maximal accommodation to the claims of modernity (Welch’s definition) is alive and well. It’s a broad category and therefore not all liberal theologians are like. There are genuine differences among them. Here are the criteria I use in determining if someone is liberal theologically: 1) “The best of modern thought” established as the supreme norm for Christian belief (whether implicitly or explicitly), 2) a functional Christology only, 3) denial of the supernatural and miracles, 4) universalism (although this can also appear among non-liberals), 5) Scripture treated as a “Christian classic” and “inspired insofar as inspiring” (illumination theory of inspiration), 6) the “essence” of religion/Christianity reduced to ethics, 7) all major world religions said to be paths to God and salvation.

One does not have to display all seven criteria to be liberal, but these constitute the general “template” I apply to a theologian (or church or organization) to determine whether it is more liberal theologically than orthodox or conservative or evangelical. Certainly Schleiermacher displayed most of them and perhaps all of them to some degree.


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