Schleiermacher, Friedrich

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SCHLEIERMACHER, FRIEDRICH (17681834), German Evangelical theologian, philosopher, and pedagogue. His reappraisal of the task and content not only of Christian dogmatics but also of the whole of Christian life, faith, and theology earned him the title "church father of the nineteenth century." His distinctive approach to Christian doctrine also gave him an importance for the beginnings of nontheological ways of studying religion, and as an eminent figure in church, academy, and society he influenced public life and culture in Germany well beyond the circle of professional theologians.

Life and Works

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was born on November 21, 1768, in Prussian Breslau, Lower Silesia (now, as formerly, Wrocław, in southwestern Poland). His father, Gottlieb Schleiermacher, was a Reformed pastor and a chaplain in the army of Frederick the Great. Previously a thinker of the "enlightened" variety, Gottlieb Schleiermacher encountered the Herrnhutian community (stemming from the Moravian movement) at Gnadenfrei and underwent a spiritual reawakening. Five years later (1783) his fourteen-year-old son Friedrich attended the Herrnhutian Pedagogium at Niesky (17831785) and then the community's theological seminary at Barby (17851787).

The impress of Herrnhutian Pietism on Schleiermacher was permanent. Many years later (in 1802) he recalled that in the Brethrens' circles he first awoke to humanity's relationship with a higher world, acquiring the religious tendency that carried him through all the storms of skepticism. He professed himself "a Herrnhutian of a higher order" (Schleiermacher, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, sec. 5, vol. 5, 1999, p. 392). But the time of his experience among the Herrnhutians ended in crisis and break. In the seminary he and a group of friends smuggled in forbidden works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, Christoph Martin Wieland, and others. Doubts grew about the truth of the dogmatic doctrines of community until Schleiermacher confessed that he could no longer believe in the divinity of Christ and in his vicarious sacrifice (Schleiermacher, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, sec. 5, vol. 1, 1985, p. 50).

Schleiermacher moved on to a period of study at the now rationalist University of Halle (17871789), followed by a brief stay (17891790) with his maternal uncle Samuel Stubenrauch, who had exchanged a professorship at Halle for a pastorate in Drossen (Osno). Schleiermacher took the first theological examination prescribed by his church, doing well or excellently in all subjects except dogmatics, and he accepted a post as tutor in the family of Count Dohna in Schlobitten, East Prussia (17901793). After the second and final examination, in which Schleiermacher's performance in dogmatics was again undistinguished, he assumed an assistant pastorate at Landsberg (Gorzów Wielkopolski, 17941796), where he remained until his move to Berlin.

Direct evidence of Schleiermacher's thought in the period between matriculation at Halle and arrival in Berlin (17871796) is provided not only by sermons and letters published later, but also by a series of unpublished manuscripts, mainly on ethical subjects. They remained virtually unknown until Wilhelm Dilthey included them in part in an appendix to his life of Schleiermacher, published uin 1863. They subsequently became accessible in the first volume of Kritische Gesamtausgabe (1983). They show Schleiermacher above all struggling with Kantian philosophy, discussing key ethical issues as the highest good, freedom, and the value of life. Against Kant he contends that moral experience may ground the ideas of God and immortality. He particularly maintains that "transcendental" (as distinct from merely psychological) freedom is not contained within the requirements of morality. Moreover, through Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi's writings on Barukh Spinoza and the following debate on pantheism, Schleiermacher had become acquainted with the philosophical perspectives of Spinoza. This reflection led him to some of his earliest thoughts on the concept of the "individual," on the notion of feeling or self-consciousness, and to the first shape of the "paradigm of inherence" that joins together Kant's transcendental perspective and Spinoza's ontological view. This philosophical frame increasingly formed the striking features of Schleiermacher's intellectual world.

It is not difficult to trace lines of continuity from these early philosophical beginnings to Schleiermacher's first books. And one must not underestimate the extent to which he was also drawing inspiration, like so many of his contemporaries, from the ancient Greek philosophers. Yet in his Monologen (1800) he viewed his intellectual progress after leaving the Herrnhutian community almost as a second conversion brought about by a revelation that did not come to him from any philosophy but from his experiences and views he encountered within the Romantic circle of Berlin. Indeed he had fallen in with the group of intellectuals that gathered around Friedrich Schlegel (17721829), with the journal Athenäum as the organ of their new Romanticism. "I discovered humanity," Schleiermacher wrote, "and knew that henceforth I should never lose it" (Schleiermacher, Kritische gesamtausgabe, sec. 1, vol. 3, 1988, p. 16) His first two major books, written when he was Reformed chaplain at the Charité Hospital in Berlin (17961802), were the fruits of this revelation.

The first book, Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern (1799; On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, 1988), introduces a radical shift in the comprehension of religion, understood as an indispensable aspect of full humanity. The second one, Monologen: Eine Neujahrsgabe (1800; Soliloquies: A New Year's Gift, 1926), is its ethical counterpart in the form of the author's deep meditations on the course of his own inner life. Herein the conviction finds expression that each person is meant to represent humanity uniquely in his or her own way. Not the outward, physical world but the free spirit within is the primary reality, and the world is its creation. Those who have learned to look within, to the domain of the eternal and the divine, can even enjoy in imagination what they cannot attain in fact. For those who instead are acquainted with merely looking outside, old age itself is only a self-inflicted evil, and Schleiermacher promises that he at least will remain young until the day he dies.

Because of tensions and personal splits within the Romantic circle, Schleiermacher moved from Berlin and, for two years (18021804), served as pastor in the East Pomeranian town of Stolp (Slupsk), in what was then West Prussia. He began to carry out alone the project previously agreed upon with Schlegel of translating Plato's dialogues (the first volume, containing an important programmatic introduction, appeared in 1804), and he published his first strictly philosophical work, Grundlinien einer Kritik der bisherigen Sittenlehre (Outlines of a Critique of Previous Moral Philosophy) in 1803. Schleiermacher then received a call for the first, brief stage of his career in the academy. A previous call to the new University of Würzburg, in Bavaria, lost all attractiveness when the Prussian authorities invited him to return as professor and preacher at his own university, Halle. In his lectures at Halle (18041806), which ranged widely from philosophical ethics and hermeneutics to theological encyclopedias, New Testament exegesis, church history, dogmatics, and Christian ethics, Schleiermacher's intellectual system began to take shape. His little book Die Weihnachtsfeier: Ein Gespräch (1806; Christmas Eve: A Dialogue, 1967) gave clear evidence of a fresh approach to traditional Christian beliefs, taking its point of departure neither from dogma nor from the biblical story, but from the fact of the Christian community and its experience of redemption.

The work begun in Halle had to be resumed in Berlin. In 1806 Halle was taken by Napoleon's troops, and its university was closed. Schleiermacher remained for a while, preaching, translating Plato, and writing a commentary on 1 Timothy. But the next year (1807) he went back to Berlin, where he became active in politics as a German patriot and a constitutional monarchist. In a succession of appointments he became a civil servant in the Department of Education (1808), Reformed pastor at Trinity Church (1809), and finally professor at the new University of Berlin (1810). At various times in the climactic stage of his career (18101834) he also served as a member of the commission for organizing the University of Berlin, columnist for Der preussische Correspondent, dean of the theological faculty (four times), rector of the university, and secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences (of the philosophical section, which then was changed by Schleiermacher into the historical-philological section). In addition, as a leading ecclesiastical statesman, he became embroiled in controversies over the union between the Lutherans and the Reformed, and over the liturgy, constitution, and confession of the union church.

The thirty-three volumes of Schleiermacher's collected works (Friedrich schleiermacher's sämmtliche Werke, 18341864) disclose the extraordinary breadth of his intellectual activities. In his lectures at Berlin he continued all the subjects he had taken up at Halle and ventured into so many new ones (including dialectics and life of Jesus research) that every branch of theology except Old Testament is represented in the first division of the collected works and every branch of philosophy in the third. Ten volumes of sermons make up the second division. Schleiermacher's correspondence and the incomplete translation of Plato's dialogues (six volumes) were not included, and a great deal of manuscript material remained unpublished, some of which is included in the new edition of his works (Kritische Gesamtausgabe). And yet Schleiermacher did not leave a completed system. He died of pneumonia in the midst of his labors on February 12, 1834. Besides, he always felt more at home in speech than in writing. Most of the volumes in the Sämmtliche Werke had their origins in the spoken word; many of them represent lectures never revised for publication by Schleiermacher, who neither preached nor lectured from a full manuscript. Of the finished works most important for religious studies, the first book, Über die Religion, was cast in the form of addresses, and Der christliche Glaube (18211822/18301831; The Christian Faith, 1928), the ripest fruit of the mature period, grew out of his lectures on dogmatics.

Interpretation of Religion

In On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, Schleiermacher pursues an anthropological theory of religion, aiming at recognizing the transcendental constitution of religious experience. According to this theory, religion is constituted as a specific region of human experience. Religion is an experience that men and women have; the whole subject takes part in an experiencing that is not enclosed within the circle of subjectivity but is referred to another term (as it were, outside the subject himself or herself), namely to a reality that gives up itself to be experienced. Eighteenth-century debates between deists, skeptics, and rational theists commonly presupposed on all sides that religion is a system of factual beliefs alleged to have immense moral significance. At issue was which beliefs are essential to religion, whether or not the essential beliefs are rationally defensible, and whether or not they really have the beneficial consequences attributed to them. The Christian apologist was expected to show that Christian beliefs were essential and true, or at least could not be refuted, and that civic virtue would collapse without them. Kant's critical philosophy undercut the debate by moving the idea of god out of the domain of theoretical knowledge and giving it the status simply of a moral postulate. But against traditional paradigms for the comprehension of religion (fundamentally, the rationalistic and the supernaturalistic ones), Schleiermacher introduced two theoretical shifts.

The first shift contends the supernaturalistic stance. With this shift Schleiermacher states that religion is essentially an experience; that is, a lived experience. It involves the subject with his or her innermost fibers. Therefore it cannot be brought back to external, extrinsic motives or factors, like news or information (a notitia Dei), doctrines or a doctrinal corpus, moral or social patterns, traditions or communities. As experience religion deals with reality, namely with the unique reality an individual is dealt. It has to do primarily neither with the conceptual order nor with projections of one's moral striving. It brings one into direct contact with a peculiar reality; that is, a specific region of reality different from all other regions. Religion then does not endure any other purpose or being in function of other realities than that it brings about. Instead, it owns an inner principle, a proper ground, of which one has to highlight the peculiar constitution. With the second shift, Schleiermacher contends the rationalistic stance. Therewith he states that religion is essentially and ultimately demarcated from any other relationship with reality within human experience. It is a specific, peculiar way to get in touch with reality, a way a person cannot generate out of himself or herself. It is so specific and peculiar that it encloses, carries, and establishes the contact with a "total other" reality. In this alternative understanding one seeks religion within an original connection of existence; that is, within a fundamental, existed connection. In this connection, two existing subjects or terms relate to each other in an asymmetrical relationship. It is then an experience that decentralizes the human subject engaged in it. This originally existing relationship makes up a peculiar experience of reality that is provided with an irreducible intentionality of its own.

Consequently, what the cultured despisers despise, according to Schleiermacher, is not religion but dogmas and usagesonly the husks and not the kernel, a mere echo and not the original sound. But what the defenders of religion defend is not religion either, since they make of it a mere prop for morals and social institutions. Religion has a sphere of its own, which it can maintain only if it renounces all claims on anything that belongs either to knowledge or to morality. To make the idea of God the apex of science, for instance, is not the religious way of having God. And to make religion a matter of good behavior is to miss its true, passive nature: it is not human activity but being acted upon by God. If human nature is not to be truncated, religion must be allowed to take its place as an indispensable third alongside knowing and doing.

Two results of great importance stem from this paradigm constructed by Schleiermacher. First, it allows one to overcome the critical judgment; that is, the judgment that affords the suspicion with which rationalism (or the despisers of religion) approaches religion and its manifestations. In this perspective the reality of religion is brought back to what does not actually constitute it. In contrast, Schleiermacher sets to work and enhances a "heuristical reason," one that establishes, or tries to focus on, the genealogical instance that constitutes religious experience and accounts for its peculiar reality and the specific mode of its experiencing as well. It highlights the framework of religion as an actual experience of humans, and thus explains why religion is a decisive, indefeasible component of the human, historical world. Second, it takes into account historical, positive, inidividual religionsreligions that are provided with a principium individuationis of their own; it distinguishes them from each other and shows them as ethical realities that belong to the lived experience of individuals. This includes two peculiar features of this comprehension of religion. On the one hand, one is engaged in accounting for the historicity and individuality of religions. In other words, it is a question of understanding why the framework of religious experience is contracted into the historical plurality of religions and into a complex phenomenology of the individual religions themselves. According to Schleiermacher they are all entitled to equal dignity insofar as they all fulfill the original structure of religious experience and contract it into a specific historical province of human ethos. On the other hand, one sets up an exercise of critical reason that is able to discriminate, within the complex phenomenology of individual religions, what is authentic in them and what is inauthenticthat is, mixed up in them, substituting or surrogating some of their authentic elements.

In this paradigm for comprehending religion, Schleiermacher points out four main moments or steps. The first step leads to the comprehension of the historical-positive elements that occur at the heart of religious experiences. It includes the exercise of both critical and heuristical reason. The first aims at discriminating authentic from inauthentic elements. It is an inescapable moment of every investigative approach to religions. The second aims at an insight into the individuality and essential features of a given historical form of religious experience. If one does not grasp the proper core, the essence, of an individual historical religionof a historically lived religionone cannot get appropriate criteria for testing how its features are shown to be authentic or inauthentic, or even for assessing its historical development. This is the criterion the fifth speech points out as decisive for determining the nature and content of a given religion and, specifically, of Christianity as an historical religion.

The second step consists of a comparative theory of religions. Given the historical-positive individuality of religions, as well as the transcendental structure of religious experience (according to the paradigm established by Schleiermacher with the Speeches on Religion), a comparative approach is necessary in understanding religion. Still it gets neither a leveling nor a competitive meaning. Its purpose, rather, is to set out the values (not only in doctrines but also in worships, morals, and experiences of salvation) embodied in the single religions compared. While this approach makes use of analogies between religious phenomena, it does not establish a premier rank or subalternity among religions. It has, rather, at the same time a critical and an evaluating function. The first allows one to recognize specific differences that prelude the highlighting of the individuality of each historical-religious formation. The second is engaged in recognizing the elements that validate the specificity of a religious formation, thus clarifying its essential character that makes up its historical reason for being. The latter accounts for its very historical trajectory or evolution, for the history of a religion is precisely connected with the circumstances of its actual evaluation. Within the third speech such a comparative approach is based upon the effort to tackle the main factors influencing the historical life of religion, namely creativity and free communication of one's own religious life. At the same time it leads to a threefold typology of religions, which anticipates the one worked out in the introduction to The Christian Faith.

The third step focuses on the thematization of the essence of religion. This is perhaps the most specifically philosophical feature of this paradigm for understanding religion. It encloses two moments. First is the highlighting of the constituting structure of religious experience (namely the religious a priori) that accounts for such an experiencethat is, for the constitution of that region of human experience underlying the historical phenomenology of religious facts. Second is the focusing on the reasons why such a structure is contracted into a plurality of individual formations; they are all constituted by that transcendental structure but still are different from each other as inalienable and untransferable individuals. Uniquely, in this context, religion (as a condition of possibility that warrants such an experience as the one of the relationship with the Universum ) shows itself to be meaningful for human beings and their history. This is indeed the main argument of the second speech. Here Schleiermacher argues that religion, in its transcendental core (insofar as it is the "function" that brings about and determines the "systems" of religious experience and belief) sets up a relationship with a term (called Universum ) that withdraws from humans' finite experience and accordingly calls into question what people do and are and experience, even though it is to be apprehended as that which makes sense of the ultimately human conditionas that which fulfills human existence.

The last step unfolds a theory of religious communication. Within this human experience, religion is linguistically set up in a communication. This brings about a community that is shaped by both symbolizing and organizing elements, though with the prevalence of the former. Communication is not an accidental, superfluous, accessory moment of religious experience, but communication belongs to religion's innermost nature and is enclosed within the sources of its concrete constitution. This is the constituting reason of the particular formation of religious experience that is community (church, generally speaking). Community accounts for both the individuality of a religious formation and its historicity. It also accounts for free, responsible, and creative adhesion, or membership, of single individuals who, within community, are linked up by bonds of reciprocal communication. As is well known, community and communication are the main theme of the fourth speech.

Schleiermacher's first book offered much more than a shrewd, ad hominem defense of Christianity; it inaugurated a fresh stage in the critical analysis of religion. The importance of his search for a distinctive religious category is acknowledged even by those who reject his findings. He not only exposed the urgent need to reconceive the task of theology, he also opened the way to more profound and sympathetic treatments of the psychology and history of religion than either traditional theology or freethinking critiques had been able to achieve. Christian theologians and freethinkers had agreed in treating the study of world religions as the anatomy of a sickness (the difference being that the freethinkers were not inclined to make Christianity an exception). Schleiermacher looked at religions as manifestations of human wholeness. Misunderstandings of Schleiermacher's position have sometimes been occasioned by his own language. He did not really mean to move religion out of the domains of knowledge and morals and to confine it within the domain of the emotions. He expressly denied that he intended any such separation. By "intuition and feeling" he meant the immediate, prereflective self-consciousness that cannot be confined to any single department of human selfhood but underlies the whole of it. Neither did he fall into a psychologism that would shut the religious subject up in its own subjectivity. For all his interest in the imagination, his theory of religion is marked by a strong sense of the reality of the transcendent, even though he thought it impossible to have the transcendent as an object.


The impressive influence of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics was first brought out by Dilthey. Hermeneutics is a twin discipline of criticism, each a sort of technical skill (i.e., they rule a practice). Both are conceived and practiced by Schleiermacher not only in his exegetical work within the field of the New Testament; they rule his whole effort in the field of ancient philosophy, as witnessed by his translation of Plato. That is why hermeneutics falls within the fields of both philosophy and theology. Fundamentally, it understands the spoken or written word as free creative expression of the union between nature and reason (the core of the ethical process). Thus hermeneutics is based upon general principles (that pertain to philosophy) and induces special trends, according to the philological or exegetical treatment of texts handed over by tradition. "Hermeneutics as art of understanding does not exist yet generally, but only in several hermeneutical practices" (Schleiermacher, 1974, p. 75). Schleiermacher's contribution aims at framing a general hermeneutics as ground for special hermeneutical practices. Therefore he puts this general frame into shape through two theses. The negative one states, "Misunderstanding grows out by itself and in every point one must want and strive for understanding" (Schleiermacher, 1974, p. 82). The positive one says we have to "reconstruct [Nachkonstruiren] the historical and divinatoric, objective and subjective of a given speech" (Schleiermacher, 1974, p. 83).

Thus Schleiermacher articulates both theses into four canons ruling hermeneutical practice. He distinguishes between grammatical and psychological or technical interpretation (Schleiermacher, 1974, p. 77) that on the other side is open to comparative or divinatory methods (Schleiermacher, 1974, p. 105). Every oral or written witness is a subjective act of speakers, but at the same time is embedded in an overindividual, objective, linguistical context. The grammatical interpretation (Schleiermacher, 1974, pp. 86103) discloses the objective sphere of language. The psychological interpretation (also called "technical," because a skill is involved) aims at the subjective act and attempts to grasp "the principle that causes the writer to be in motion" (Schleiermacher, 1974, p. 103). This double hermeneutical approach is joined together with another double perspective. One might address a linguistic act in its peculiarity by approaching it through comparative means; that is, in comparison with other similar (semiotic) phenomena. This is a comparative process. Texts might also be grasped from the insidethat is, in a congenial wayinasmuch as they are caught in an immediate act of understanding. Here the divinatory approach is at stake.

These four perspectives of interpretation are connected with each other, even though they show specific affinities. The grammatical interpretation matches to a greater degree the comparative approach, while the psychological matches the divinatory. The ultimate purpose of interpretation is "to better understand an author than he was able to give account of himself" (Schleiermacher, 1974, p. 138). Since, to an author, a lot remains unconscious that must be set out to understand his work, the interpreter brings a surplus of understanding in his or her interpretation. That is why the process of interpretation remains unfinished and is able to achieve its goal only approximatively. Even the hermeneutical "circle" (Schleiermacher, 1974, p. 86) is to be solved only at the initial stages. Indeed the comprehension of a single point always presupposes an understanding of the whole, but this is to be gained only by working through the single points (Schleiermacher, 1974, p. 144).

In connection with general hermeneutics, Schleiermacher constantly gave lectures on criticism. In comparison with hermeneutics, criticism gets its start in the suspicion that what is present does not meet the original state of matter. This disagreement took place either through mechanical errors or through free actions. Consequently, Schleiermacher articulates criticism into two main parts (doctrinal and historical) that echo the traditional distinction of a lower and a higher criticism. Critical endeavors aim at determining the original state of matter both from a historical viewpoint (the historical event witnessed) and through philological means. Both philological and historical criticism make use of external and internal signs to ascertain the congruence with the original state. Schleiermacher held that it is difficult to draw a boundary between higher and lower criticism. The first one determineslargely by approximation, and therein seeks the congruence of internal and external evidencewhat pertains to the original fact or state historically witnessed. External evidence probes for the closeness of analyzed elements to its core. Internal evidence probes for their agreement with such a core. The task of lower criticism is to separate out, as accurately and convincingly as possible, the original reading of a text. It is actually an endless task. Exactly the same sort of criteria is to be applied to any kind of text. The critical specialist uses every scrap of available evidence. Even in service of a theological aim, criticism does not rely on dogmatic rules. Exegetical inquiry is comprised of both hermeneutics and criticism. According to Schleiermacher they are thoroughly interdependent. Hermeneutic, as the craft of interpretation, is a historical and philological enterprise, and as such is conditioned by linguistics and criticism. At the same time hermeneutical principles exert a decisive influence both upon the operations of criticism and upon the finer perceptions of linguistics. The effect is on the operations of criticism. In no way does proper hermeneutical effort obviate critical principles. Indeed Schleiermacher suggests that, as a form of historical criticism, while making its own distinctive contributions, hermeneutics relies upon the exact standard of textual criticism.

Schleiermacher's importance within the field of hermeneutics goes back to his conception of a general theory of interpretation. This had considerable influence on philosophical discussion. He constantly thought of New Testament hermeneutics and criticism as a special case of general doctrine and method; within this frame he exercised his manifold exegetical and philological practice concerning both New Testament and ancient philosophy. In the context of the revival of hermeneutical issues in the twentieth century, above all through Martin Heidegger's "hermeneutics of Dasein," Schleiermacher's hermeneutics gained new importance. Schleiermacher was acknowledged as a "classic of hermeneutics," even though more of a philosophical than of a theological sort. Still the influence of his hermeneutical theory and activity persevered, along with some reductive perspectives. Already Dilthey had laid stress on the psychological interpretation. His emphasis brought about misunderstandings, causing the loss of the connection between hermeneutics and criticism, grammatical and psychological interpretation, and the link that united general with special hermeneutics applied to the New Testament. Under the heading of "doubtfulness of Romantic hermeneutics," (Gadamer, 1965, part 2, sec. 1) Hans-Georg Gadamer holds that Schleiermacher lays all the stress on the psychological interpretation, and consequently, gets rid of the objective understanding. On this point the subsequent investigations brought about necessary corrections, pointing to Schleiermacher's contribution in linking up general and special hermeneutics, hermeneutics and criticism, grammatical and psychological interpretation.

Philosophical System

It is worth highlighting Schleiermacher's philosophical thinking, as it provides the framework of his intellectual activities. In his doctrine of science, the Dialektik (Schleiermacher, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, sec. 2, vol. 10, 2002, pp. 12), Schleiermacher is searching for the highest knowing as a transcendental ground that has to function as the condition of possibility for the unity of thinking and being. The relation of thinking with being has to rely on this transcendental ground. On the other hand, the original unity of thinking and being accounts for the various representations that are different in their content. Here Schleiermacher refers to the immediate self-consciousness (or feeling, in this precise meaning) and understands it as showing an analogy with the transcendent ground. This is the pivotal point of his research, even though it withdraws from every knowing effort. In the second, formal part of his search, Schleiermacher investigates which technical rules are needed to overcome, still only approximately, the difference in thinking toward the unity of knowing. Basing his work upon a theory of construction and combination, he develops the rules of connection from which he derives a system of sciences: ethics, physics, and historical and natural sciences.

Moreover Schleiermacher has addressed ethics, setting out the principles and structures of reason's action upon nature. Here he does not stick to individuals and their faculties but also encompasses the sound forms of ethical process in their framework. In this manner he articulates ethics as a doctrine of goods, virtues, and duties. While the doctrine of goods treats the objectivations of reason that are brought about by ethical subjects, the doctrine of virtues has to show the "forces" on which individual activities rely, and the doctrine of duties treats the resultant modes of human behavior. Schleiermacher understands every unity of reason and nature as "good"; accordingly the variety of goods is formally divided into four spheres: political community (state), social community, science community, and religious community (church). Only the set of all four spheres together makes up the "highest Good," which in its turn is approached in our ethical endeavors as the end of the ethical process.

Reinterpretation of Dogma

The ethical notion of church, as one of the four "goods," provides the formal framework for Schleiermacher's theology. Religiosity (or piety, Frömmigkeit ) then gets its natural place within the development of ethical life. Some of the ground traversed in the Speeches is covered again in the introduction to his theological masterwork, Der christliche Glaube (The Christian Faith). In this work, Schleiermacher began with religiosity as a general human phenomenon and defined the irreducible essence of religion as "the feeling of absolute dependence" (§ 4). A little introspection will show, according to Schleiermacher, that consciousness of self and world are a reciprocal relationship, that is, a mutual or relative dependence. But a second look reveals one's own immediate self-consciousness as coming in its entirety "from somewhere else" (§ 4.4). This deeper consciousness cannot arise from the influence of the world because humans exercise a counterinfluence upon the world and consequently are relatively dependent on it; it is precisely an immediate self-consciousness that encompasses both self and world together as absolutely dependent. God is then the origin (the "out of") of this immediate self-consciousness or feeling. In the feeling of absolute dependence, God is actually experienced in the only possible way, and to be conscious of being absolutely dependent is to be conscious of being in relation to God.

Schleiermacher explained it in a letter on The Christian Faith to his friend Friedrich Lücke, "What I understand by 'religious feeling' is the original attestation of an immediate existential relationship" (Schleiermacher, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, sec. 1, vol. 10, 1990, p. 318). This feeling, however, simply draws the transcendental frame of religious experience. Actually, it comes about concretely in the manifold elements or "stimulations" (Erregungen) of lived experience, which show themselves within the context of objective or sensible consciousness in its ever different features. That is why, among other things, the limits of one's own consciousness of God have to be overcome through a reciprocal communication that forms the base of a religious community (church). The religious community is defined as the community in which, within determined limits, an ever-renewed circulation of religious self-consciousness takes place and an orderly, harmonious promotion of religious stimulations is made possible. The task of a philosophy of religion (in Schleiermacher's meaning) is then to set out the individual differences of each single church and each religion. In this frame Schleiermacher understands Christianity as a teleological trend of religiosity that belongs to Monotheismus. Teleologic means here that in Christianity the concern with ethical tasks dominates with the idea of the kingdom of God. All the features of Christian religiosity are referred to the impulse originally caused by Christ, the founder, each time linked up with further historical development.

In his Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums: Zum Behuf einleitender Vorlesungen (1811/1830; Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, 1966), Schleiermacher exemplarily presents his views of what Christian theology is and how the work of theology as science can be seen as a whole. Here theology is defined as "positive science" that directly refers to actual historical experience within a set of given social relations (church) and to serve a practical function (the leadership of the Christian Church). Every theological discipline may be regarded as a contribution to the understanding of the essence or distinctive nature of Christianity. The general form of this understanding, as compared with the nature of other religious communities, is supplied through "philosophical theology." Such a discipline points to the features that distinguish community both from outside (apologetics) and within itself (polemics). The norm or the essential core of this understanding is clarified through a series of historical studies, whose whole is called "historical theology," which begins with "exegetical theology," continues with "church history," and ends with "historical knowledge of the present condition of Christianity" (dogmatics and statistics) (Schleiermacher, 1811/1830, § 85, 2: 1, 2, 3). The application of this understanding is contained in "practical theology." The whole of Christian theology is contained in these three overlapping areas.

Dogmatics then is a feature of historical theology focusing on the present state of the Christian community and its actual experience. Thus the object of the knowledge that constitutes The Christian Faith is the particular way of being conscious of God that takes its bearing from the central historical fact of the "redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth" (§ 11). Most properly, dogmatics is about religious consciousness, but it is also the theologian's task to develop out of religious consciousness such conceptions of God and the world as are implicit in it and can be understood as representations of it. Schleiermacher executed the task in two parts: the first presents the religious self-consciousness that is presupposed by the specific mode of Christian faith, and thus does not yet set forth the opposition on which pivots the experience of redemption; the second presents such a self-consciousness taking into account the opposition upon which turns the whole experience of redemption. They are respectively the doctrine of creation-preservation and the doctrine of redemption. Here Schleiermacher pioneered a genuinely modern reconstruction of Christian belief immune from the devastating effects of eighteenth-century natural science and historical criticism.

The doctrine of creation, which Schleiermacher takes up in part one of The Christian Faith, is reconceived as an attempt to thematize the feeling of absolute dependence. "Creation" is not about a particular divine act (or series of divine acts) in the primeval past, but is instead about the creature consciousness that is a universal phenomenon of human existence in every time and place. The doctrine of creation is therefore indistinguishable in content from the doctrine of preservation: it is concerned with what can be said of the continuous divine activity on the basis of the religious consciousness of absolute dependence. The question of a temporal beginning of the world and humankind is irrelevant to dogmatics. If it nevertheless intrudes, it tends to give rise to misrepresentations of God's activity, as though it were akin to the activity of a human craftsperson. Schleiermacher finds a corresponding misrepresentation in the interventionist view of Providence, which pictures God as one cause or one agent (albeit preeminent) interacting with others, arbitrarily suspending the progress of natural events or undoing the effects of human behavior.

Schleiermacher's God does not intervene in the closed causal system of nature (as viewed by modern natural science) but is identified as its timeless and spaceless groundthis is the meaning of the eternity and omnipresence of the divine causality. That God is "omnipotent" does not mean that he can do whatever he pleasesthat he can even interrupt a course of events he did not approve and make things turn out differently than they otherwise would. This would imply that, even if only for one fleeting moment, some chain of events had slipped outside the divine causality, whereas the proper sense of "omnipotence" is exactly that God's power does and effects allnot, however, in the same way finite causes do and effect things. God is omnipotent in the sense that the entire system of nature rests on his timeless and spaceless causality; the world is as it is solely by virtue of "the divine good-pleasure" (§ 120.4). Schleiermacher supplies similar treatment for other divine attributes. One does not call the divine omnipotence "omniscient" or "spiritual" because God has a consciousness like one's own or because he is a kind of sentient world soul, but because the feeling of absolute dependence is unlike a feeling of dependence on blind and dead necessity. There is simply no better way to denote this difference than to contrast the dead and the blind with the living and the conscious, conscious life being the highest thing humans know.

Schleiermacher held that the consciousness of absolute dependence is present in every actual religion and that the doctrine of creation articulates it in a monotheistic form that is not peculiar to Christianity. In Christianity, however, creature consciousness is contained within the consciousness of redemption through Christ: it is as believers in Christ that Christians are aware of themselves as God's creatures. In this experience of redemption, according to Schleiermacher, the purpose of divine omnipotence is made known as the purpose of omnipotent love. The kingdom of God established by Christ must extend its influence throughout the world.

The figure of Christ makes up the core topic of the second part of The Christian Faith. He was the second Adam, the completion of the creation of humanity, and there was an actual existence of God in him. To be sure, the way Christ works upon Christians, as Schleiermacher sees it, may be compared to the personal influence of a strong, historical personalityexcept that his influence is now indirect, mediated through the community he established. But the work of Christ, which is nothing other than the imparting of his own sense of God, is nonetheless unique, because it radiates out from one who possessed a uniquely powerful, indeed perfect, consciousness of God. Only this affirmation answers to the Christian consciousness that dogmatics seeks to describe. And although Schleiermacher did not shirk the historical problems of the New Testament, as his lectures on the life of Jesus demonstrate, he clearly believed that dogmatics could and should deduce its Christological affirmations directly from the Christian consciousness: he asked what Christ must have been like if one is to account for his perceived effects upon the Christian community.

Schleiermacher's Legacy

The historical importance of Schleiermacher is hardly in question, but, from his own day on, it has been hotly disputed whether or not his approach and his positions amount to permanently fruitful gains in the history of religious thought. Theologically he has been assailed from both the left wing and the right. The left-wing critics have been more impressed with his approach to historical science. In his focusing on the Christological problem from the Jesus of history to the Christ of faith, as David Friedrich Strauss pointed out, in Der Christus des Glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte. Eine Kritik des schleiermacherschen Lebens Jesu (1865), Schleiermacher seems to have known in advance what he wanted to find in the Gospels, namely the Savior of his Herrnhutian piety.

The theological right objects that Schleiermacher made the initial methodological blunder of beginning with human experience and then moved on to force the Christian revelation into a preconceived theory of religion. Historians of religion, on the other hand, are more likely to reverse this line of criticism and object that, despite his good intentions, Schleiermacher's treatment of religion remained incorrigibly Christian and dogmatic. All this, of course, would not necessarily imply the unfruitfulness of his approach as a venture in the fields of religious studies, Christian theology, and, last but not least, philosophy. One might sum up his contributions in these areas in the following way: he introduced a new paradigm for understanding religion, made experience into the principle of theology, and settled dialogue as the basic condition of human, truth-productive efforts.

See Also

Empiricism; Hermeneutics; Phenomenology of Religion.


In the nineteenth century Schleiermacher's works were published in thirty-three volumes in three sectionsTheology, Sermons, and Philosophyas Friedrich Schleiermacher's sämmtliche Werke (Berlin, 18341864). In the late twentieth century a collection in five sectionsWritings and Drafts, Lectures, Sermons, Translations, and Lettersbegan publication, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, edited by Hans-Joachim Birkner et al. (Berlin, 1980). Dialektik, in two tomes, is in sec. 2, vol. 10. Other important editions by Schleiermacher include Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums: Zum Behuf einleitender Vorlesungen (Brief outline of theology as a field of study; Berlin, 1811; 2d ed., Berlin, 1830); Der christliche Glaube: Nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche im Zusammenhange dargestellt (The Christian faith: Systematically presented according to the principles of the evangelical church; Berlin, 18211822; 2d ed., Berlin, 18301831); and Hermeneutik, edited by Heinz Kimmerle (Heidelberg, Germany, 1974).

The Edwin Mellen Press has undertaken an English edition of Schleiermacher's works with the series Schleiermacher Studies and Translations, including Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, translated by Terrence N. Tice (Lewiston, N.Y., 1990); The Christian Household: A Sermonic Treatise, translated by Dietrich Seidel and Terrence N. Tice (Lewiston, N.Y., 1991); On Freedom, translated by Albert L. Blackwell (Lewiston, N.Y., 1992); On the Highest Good, translated by H. Victor Froese (Lewiston, N.Y., 1992); Luke: A Critical Study, translated by Connop Thirlwall (Lewiston, N.Y., 1993); On What Gives Value to Life, translated by Edwina Lawler and Terrence N. Tice (Lewiston, N.Y., 1995); Reformed but Ever Reforming: Sermons in Relation to the Celebration of the Handing Over of the Augsburg Confession (1830), translated by Iain G. Nicol (Lewiston, N.Y., 1997); Letters on the Occasion of the Political Theological Task and the Sendschreiben (Open Letter) of Jewish Heads of Households, translated by Gilya G. Schmidt (Lewiston, N.Y., 2001); Brouillon zur Ethik (1805/1806): Notes on Ethics (1805/1806), translated by John Wallhauser and Edwina Lawler; Notes on the Theory of Virtue (1804/1805), translated by Terrence N. Tice and Edwina Lawler (Lewiston, N.Y., 2003). Other notable translations of Schleiermacher's writings and lectures include The Life of Jesus, edited by Jack C. Verheyden, translated by S. Maclean Gilmour (Philadelphia, 1975); Hermeneutics: The Handwritten Manuscripts, translated by James Duke and Jack Forstman (Missoula, Mont., 1977); On the "Glaubenslehre": Two Letters to Dr. Lücke, translated by James Duke and Francis Fiorenza (Chico, Calif., 1980); On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, translated by Richard Crouter (Cambridge, U.K., 1988); Introduction to Christian Ethics, translated by John C. Shelley (Nashville, Tenn., 1989); Christmas Eve: Dialogue on the Incarnation, translated by Terrence N. Tice (San Francisco, 1990); Occasional Thoughts on Universities in the German Sense: With an Appendix regarding a University Soon to Be Established (1808), translated by Terrence N. Tice and Edwina Lawler (San Francisco, 1991); Dialectic; or, The Art of Doing Philosophy, translated by Terrence N. Tice (Atlanta, 1996); Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings, translated and edited by Andrew Bowie (Cambridge, U.K., 1998). Some important older editions are The Christian Faith, edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart from the second edition (New York, 1963); and Schleiermacher's Soliloquies, translated by Horace Leland Friess (Chicago, 1979).

A brief introductory study of Schleiermacher is B. A. Gerrish, A Prince of the Church: Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology (Philadelphia, 1984). See also, from the point of view of religious studies, Burkhard Gladigow, "Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834)," in Klassiker der Religionswissenschaft: Von Friedrich Schleiermacher bis Mircea Eliade (Munich, 1997). More detailed introductions are Hermann Fischer's accurately updated Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (Munich, 2001); Richard R. Niebuhr's Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion: A New Introduction (New York, 1964); Kurt Nowak's Friedrich Schleiermacher: Leben, Werk, und Wirkung (Göttingen, Germany, 2001); and Martin Redeker's Schleiermacher: Life and Thought (Philadelphia, 1973). Studies of particular aspects of Schleiermacher's thought are Christian Albrecht, Schleiermachers Theorie der Frömmigkeit (Berlin and New York, 1994); Christian Berner, La philosophie de Schleiermacher: "Herméneutique," "Dialectique," "Éthique" (Paris, 1995); Albert L. Blackwell, Schleiermacher's Early Philosophy of Life: Determinism, Freedom, and Phantasy (Chico, Calif., 1982); Martin Diederich, Schleiermachers Geistverständnis (Göttingen, Germany, 1999); Wilhelm Dilthey, Aus Schleiermachers leben. In briefen, vol. 14 (Berlin, 18581863); Jack Forstman, A Romantic Triangle: Schleiermacher and Early German Romanticism (Missoula, Mont., 1977); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen, Germany, 1965); Marlin E. Miller, Der Übergang: Schleiermachers Theologie des Reiches Gottes im Zusammenhang seines Gesamtdenkens (Gütersloh, Germany, 1970); Giovanni Moretto, Etica e storia in Schleiermacher (Naples, Italy, 1979) and Ispirazione e libertà: Saggi su Schleiermacher (Naples, Italy, 1986); John Sungmin Park, Theological Ethics of Friedrich Schleiermacher (Lewiston, N.Y., 2001); Gunter Scholtz, Die Philosophie Schleiermachers (Darmstadt, Germany, 1984) and Ethik und Hermeneutik: Schleiermachers Grundlegung der Geisteswissenschaften (Frankfurt am Main, 1995); Markus Schröder, Die kritische Identität des neuzeitlichen Christentums (Tübingen, Germany, 1996); Sergio Sorrentino, Schleiermacher e la filosofia della religione (Brescia, Italy, 1978) and Ermeneutica e filosofia trascendentale (Bologna, Italy, 1986); Craig Stein, Schleiermacher's Construction of the Subject in the Introduction to "The Christian Faith" (Lewiston, N.Y., 2001); David Friedrich Strauss, Der Christus des Glaubens und der Jesus der Geschichte: Ein Kritik des schleiermacherschen Lebens Jesu (Berlin, 1865); John E. Thiel, God and World in Schleiermacher's Dialektik and Glaubenslehre: Criticism and the Methodology of Dogmatics (Bern, Switzerland, and Las Vegas, 1981); and Robert R. Williams, Schleiermacher the Theologian: The Construction of the Doctrine of God (Philadelphia, 1978). Important collected works are Hans-Joachim Birkner, ed., Schleiermacher-Studien (Berlin and New York, 1996); Günter Meckenstock, ed., Schleiermacher und die wissenschaftliche Kultur des Christentums (Berlin and New York, 1991); Ruth Drucilla Richardson, ed., Schleiermacher in Context (Lewiston, N.Y., 1991); and Sergio Sorrentino, ed., Schleiermacher's Philosophy and the Philosophical Tradition (Lewiston, N.Y., 1992).

B. A. Gerrish (1987)

Sergio Sorrentino (2005)

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