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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  • Donald Fisher

    I certainly agree that he should be classed with liberal theologians. Taking only his concept that man’s sense of dependence on God is the source of religion (and is shared by all religions, not only Christianity) places him in that category, as far as I’m concerned.

  • Joshua Penduck

    A quick, curious question (from a Brit): who was the British theologian making the lecture?

    • rogereolson

      Graham Ward. And let me reiterate, it was a wonderful lecture. I just disagreed with his claim that Schleiermacher was not a liberal theologian.

  • David Rogers

    Could you give a little more explanation for “a functional Christology only”?

    • rogereolson

      That Jesus merely represented God or was the paradigm of true humanity in devotion to God, etc., etc., but not God in an ontological sense (preexistence, second person of a Trinity, etc.).

  • Donald Morrison

    always helped by your blogs, I have found bishop John Vincent Taylor writings very helpful , especially his Christlike God book , where would u place his theology , is it liberal in your definitions , thank you

    • rogereolson

      I, too, loved that book. I don’t know enough about his overall theology to categorize him, but that book didn’t seem liberal to me. Now John Shelby Spong is liberal!

  • Marshall

    Would you let Schleiermacher celebrate communion at your church??

    While on the topic, is your objection to Unitarianism (yesterday) that it is not incarnational? (My parents were UUC, so I suppose I am post-liberal, although I feel at home with what you claim for post-conservatives.)

    • rogereolson

      I would oppose Schleiermacher celebrating communion in my church. (Although I have no say about it.) Not because of his denominational affiliation but because, in my opinion, he was not at all orthodox in even the broadest sense (Christologically).

      • Not to mention the fact that dead people shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate communion until after the resurrection. I would be firm on this one. 🙂

  • Thanks Roger. Great post. I think you are completely right about academics making outrageous claims. The fact is that we are drawn to the outrageous, so it’s the easiest way to make a name for yourself.
    My take on Schleiermacher is that he was wrestling with with his own faith personally as he found himself rejecting portions of the Bible and Orthodoxy in order to remain faithful to what he thought was intellectually necessary. I think he had had a legitimate encounter with God and he could never simply abandon that. But yet he could no longer accept many of the propositions of traditional Christianity. It seems to me that his lectures to the “cultured despisers” was an attempt to pass on his answer to others in the same situation. Having come through a major period of doubting in my own Christian walk, I can attest to the power and attractiveness of his solution.
    The problem is that, apart from accepting some of the basic propositions of traditional Christianity, it is highly unlikely that someone will have this sort of experience with God. So those who come often him are either converts from conservative Christianity or dry academics who deny the power of God. I’m with you that I could possibly be convinced that Schleiermacher was not a liberal theologian in the same sense as Harnack and others, but there is no doubt that he was THE key transitionary figure for the development of the later 19th century liberal establishment.

  • John I.

    My understanding is that Schleiermacher came from a pietistic background–Moravian, I believe–hence his focus on feeling. I see his separation from “Evangelical” faith arising chiefly from the fact that he dethrones the Bible as the authoritative source for capital “T” truth and for our beliefs. He put “feeling” or inward impressions and sensations on par with the Bible. It was by elevating feelings that he could say that true faith is a sense of ultimate or total dependency on God.

    By putting feelings on par with the Bible as understood via grammatical-historical interpretation he achieved what he believed was a better foundation for faith. That is, in an age when rational criticism seemed to be dethroning the Bible as a possible source of truth (various kinds of Biblical criticism are in view here), the only “safe” bet was one’s internal feelings (assuming, I guess, that they would not “lie” to oneself). One could have an immediate, direct, experience of the divine, a.k.a. God-consciousness (I suppose this is somewhat like Plantinga’s sensus divinatus).

    Schleiermacher’s theology is almost entirely subjective in orientation and source of authority, in contrast to evangelical theology that is (allegedly) objective in seeking its source of authority in the Bible, though it also requires a real subjective experience of Jesus.

    A subjective orientation also freed Schleiermacher from dependence on tradition and theological statements / declarations (especially Reformed and Lutheran), allowed him to develop his own ideas without much restraint from the words of scripture. Consequently, he could see in the stories of Jesus the kind of God-conscious that he himself felt–he then speculated that Jesus would have had what he had, only more perfectly. If this is true, and if ultimate dependence on God is all that is required for salvation, then there is no necessity for Jesus to be divine. Redemption is fully and only personal; all that one can testify to is one’s personal experience–one cannot make declaratory objective truths that are applicable to all, everywhere and for all time.

    Consequently Barth criticized Schleiermacher heavily (Barth, of course, believed in the proclamation of the Word, “kerygma”), and was involved in debates with Wobbermin who tried to further develop Schleiermacher’s ideas and psychological orientation during the interwar period. Barth wrote this about Schleiermacher: “To anticipate, nothing remained of the belief that the Word or statement is as such the bearer, bringer, and proclaimer of truth, that there might be such a thing as the Word of God. Schleiermacher knows the concept of the kerygma, but naturally a kerygma that only depicts and does not bring, that only states or expresses and does not declare. Truth does not come in the spoken Word; it comes in speaking feeling.”

    So, my understanding of Liberal theology is that it always accepts the findings of the current age as a given, as having a better epistemic basis than the statements of the Biblical text. With that must go the placing of trust in and on a different religious foundation. This can only be a subjective foundation. Now with Schleiermacher and those raised in a Christian context, this subjectivity has a Christ orientation and Christ content, but later liberal thinkers using the same basic methodology could see more equivalence with other religious experiences.

    Or am totally off my rocker?


    • rogereolson

      I don’t see anything wrong in that exposition of Schleiermacher and liberal theology. The only thing I would add is that he and most Christian liberals I know who have not become out-and-out unitarians (or worse) are inconsistent. When pushed to explain or defend something they still often appeal to Scripture and Christian tradition. But, overall, their methodology opens the door to those being simply two of several sources and norms of theology. Whenever there’s a perceived “real” conflict between “the best of modern thought” and Scripture and/or tradition liberals will go with the best of modern thought and discard portions of Scripture and tradition.

  • John I.

    I think it might also be possible to say that for Schleiermacher, an experience with God was still an experience with an “Other”, an “I-Thou” experience as Buber would say. However, for some later Liberal Theologians this experience with an “Other” does not seem to be necessary. One’s experience can be with an undefinable numinous enlightening. All religious can share in this, with each tradition shaping this experience in its own way–and so some religions frame the experience as being an “I-Thou”, while others don’t. But both approaches are subjectively valid: cf. John Hick, The Myth of Christian Uniqueness.

    I’m not sure that Schleiermacher would have said that Christian uniqueness is a myth.

    But even though there are differences between Schleiermacher and later developers of his ideas, I’m not convinced that these differences are enough to put Schleiemacher in a different category, or to put him on the evangelical side of the line in a hypothetical evangelical-liberal theological continuum.


    • rogereolson

      Right you are. That was my complaint about the British theologian’s claim that Schleiermacher was not a “liberal theologian.” Sure, he was not liberal in exactly the same way, say, Harnack was or Hick is. But his theological method constituted a Copernican revolution in theology that made the defections of later liberals from even broad (Christological) orthodoxy inevitable.

      • John I.

        AAAH, I’m getting it.

      • John I.

        So, if someone took a bounded set approach to Liberal theology, with a checklist of beliefs for inclusion in that set, they could construct an argument that Schleiermacher is in (or out) depending on their approach to the set.

        A centred set approach might yield a different result.

        An evolutionary approach would trace a current Liberal theologian, or set of them, back in time looking at the preceding changes, until a line was connected to Schleiermacher.

        A methodological approach would look at the fundamental methodologies, because it is methodology that drives what one finds in scripture, and how one answers religious questions. The beliefs and other characteristics are just the symptoms or phenomena that arise or proceed or result from the methodology.

        So, if we want to understand why someone ends up there, or in some other place, rather than here, we must understand how that person is undertaking their journey: i.e., their method. Someone might adopt Liberal theological beliefs without really understanding why they do, and that is just a shallow adoption, a going with the flow of the current zeitgeist. But those who are reflective, who make the paths in the woods, are those who undertake their journey in a particular way (looking for moss on the north side of trees, following streams to the source or mouth, following star patterns, wandering aimlessly, looking for glades and clearings, etc., if I might press the analogy).

        • rogereolson

          Yes. I agree.

  • Matt Marston

    Are you familiar with Kevin Hector’s article “Actualism and Incarnation: The high Christology of Friederich Schleiermacher? It was in the IJST in 2006. He makes a more extensive case than Ward, though I’m not sure he pulls it off. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that article.