Early Life. Friedrich Schleiermacher was born in Breslau, Lower Silesia (now Wroclaw, Poland). His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all pastors in the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition. A decade after Friedrich’s birth, his father, a chaplain in the Prussian army, experienced a pietistic awakening after coming into contact with a Moravian community, a German Protestant sect. He and his wife were so impressed with the Moravians that in 1783 they sent Friedrich to a Moravian school in Niesky, near Gorlitz. There he studied ancient languages, mathematics, and botany, as well as acquiring an appreciation for the importance of a transforming, inner religious experience. When he was sixteen, he entered the Moravian seminary in Barby. A young scholar with keen intellect and great curiosity, Schleiermacher smuggled into his dormitory philosophical books forbidden by the Moravian schoolmasters and read them surreptitiously. In 1787, against his father’s wishes, he left the seminary and entered the University of Halle, where he explored the teachings of the great ancient and modern philosophers, becoming particularly impressed with the insights of the German critic of rationalism Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). After failing one section of the examination to become a Reformed minister in 1790, Schleiermacher worked as a tutor for several years before passing the examination in 1794. Schleiermacher then was ordained and served for several years as an associate pastor in a Reformed Church in Landsberg. In 1796 he moved to Berlin to become a hospital chaplain. In Berlin, Schleiermacher was introduced to a circle of poets and philosophers that included Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829), a leading member of the budding Romantic movement. Schlegel encouraged Schleiermacher to begin his writing career, as a poet as well as a theologian.
On Religion. In 1799 Schleiermacher anonymously published his first book, Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verachtern (On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers), a Christian apologetic addressed primarily to young Berlin intellectuals who were dissatisfied with both orthodox Christian theology and the rationalism and moralism of Enlightenment thought. Schleiermacher argued that they were not rejecting true religion, for authentic religion was not a collection of dogmatic teachings, a Kantian system of ethics, or a philosophy deduced from abstract metaphysical reasoning. On the contrary, Schleiermacher insisted, true religion was a “taste for the infinite” that was grounded primarily in feelings and was only secondarily concerned with belief systems and actions. Few of Schleiermacher’s contemporaries embraced this work with enthusiasm. Most Romantics disapproved of its Christian tone, while church authorities criticized its pantheistic leanings. Yet, modern scholars recognize that this work is the origin of provocative ideas that characterize Schleiermacher’s profound and influential mature thought.
Pastor and Teacher. In 1802 Schleiermacher became pastor of a small congregation in Stolpe, Pomerania, where he worked at translating Plato’s dialogues and continued writing poetry. In 1804 Schleiermacher began his teaching career when he became a professor of ethics and pastoral care at the University of Würzburg, a newly formed liberal institution that embraced students of all sects and included both Protestants and Catholics on its faculty. Later that year he accepted a call to become the first Reformed professor at the predominately Lutheran University of Halle, a position that he held until the school was disrupted by Napoleon’s invasion of Halle in 1806. Schleiermacher made his way to Berlin, where he lived for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life, serving as a successful preacher at Holy Trinity Church. In 1809 he married a young widow, Henriette von Muhlenfels. That same year, he was appointed to a professorship of theology at the University of Berlin, where he became dean of the theology faculty in 1810. An ardent patriot and German nationalist, Schleiermacher called for independence from the French as the first step in achieving a unified Germany. He also advocated merging the German Reformed and Lutheran branches of the Prussian church, although this union, he insisted, must not be imposed by state authorities.
Major Works. During his years in Berlin, Schleiermacher also wrote his most influential works. The class lectures that he delivered between 1819 and 1832 at the University of Berlin were not published during his life-time, but later they were reconstructed from students’ notes and published in 1864 as Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus). In these lectures, Schleiermacher presented Jesus as fully human, but distinct from all other human beings in his consciousness of God’s presence within him. In his study of the Gospels, Schleiermacher stressed the differences between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)—which were given that name because the are remarkably alike in structure, content, and wording—and the Gospel of John, which is arranged differently from the others. Unlike most New Testament scholars before or since, Schleiermacher argued that John provided more insight into the life of Jesus than did the Synoptics. His arguments that the Synoptic Gospel writers drew on two common sources, a narrative and a collection of sayings of Jesus, paved the way for future New Testament scholars to formulate the widely accepted “two-source hypothesis” that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were independent works, each based on two earlier texts, the Gospel of Mark and a lost collection of Jesus’ sayings commonly referred to as the “Q_source.”
The “Father of Modern Protestant Theology.” In addition to his New Testament scholarship, Schleiermacher wrote his widely acclaimed Der christliche Glaube (The Christian Faith), published in two volumes in 1821 and 1822. In this work Schleiermacher developed more fully his idea that the heart of religion was the intuitive awareness of a power beyond humankind, without which meaningful existence was impossible. For Schleiermacher, Christian doctrines were important because they expressed a community’s immediate awareness of God, but these historic verbal formulations were not eternal, unchanging truths that could be derived from rational knowledge. Following Kant, Schleiermacher insisted that humans cannot objectively know God in himself, but only as he is in relationship to humanity. To Schleiermacher, sin was the claim to self-sufficiency, and it is original in the sense that this tendency is common to all. Through sin, humans become alienated from God and come to fear him as judge, knowing that they are deserving of His wrath. Grace, however, is the antithesis to sin; it is the consciousness of being in harmony with God. Grace comes to believers through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the perfect being who fully realized the consciousness of God within himself, and through whom the community of faith becomes aware of its need for and its union with God. The Holy Spirit, according to Schleiermacher, is the consciousness of God in Jesus Christ operating through the community of the Church, which itself consists of those in whom the consciousness of God is dominant. Schleiermacher’s assertion that humanity is dependent, weak in body and spirit, and in need of forgiveness and grace is in many ways a restatement of historic Protestant Christian beliefs; yet, his approach to theological thinking was innovative because his starting point for constructing Christian theology was not the Bible, creeds, ethics, or reason but rather the living experiences of those who found redemption in Jesus. By interpreting Jesus as the bearer of a perfect God-consciousness, Schleiermacher attempted to insulate Christianity from the criticisms of the secularized intelligentsia of his day, not by appealing to Enlightenment rationalism or to Kantian morality, but by showing that religion is a universal human experience, which philosophy and science must recognize. For this contribution to religious thought, Schleiermacher has been labeled the “father of modern Protestant theology.”
Dawn DeVries, Jesus Christ in the Preaching of Calvin and Schleiermacher (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1966).
Julia A. Lamm, The Living God: Schleiermacher’s Theological Appropriation of Spinoza (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).
Edward T. Oakes, ed., German Essays on Religion (New York: Continuum, 1994).