Miracles according to Schleiermacher

Schleiermacher treats miracles in part 1, section 1 of The Christian Faith under the more general heading of God’s creation and preservation of the world. He argues that the “interdependence” of finite beings in the world is fully compatible with each thing’s dependence on God at each moment of its existence. God is not one finite cause among others, but of an entirely different order of causality. God undergirds the entire order of nature, but does not appear within that order as one cause interacting with others. This seems similar to the traditional Thomistic distinction between “primary” and “secondary” causes.

He then goes on to argue against the conception of miracles as events that violate, interrupt, or overturn the causal order of finite beings (or what he often calls the “interrelatedness of nature”). That is, he denies that a miracle is a direct act of God that bypasses or dispenses with finite causality. Rather, God acts in and through finite things. Schleiermacher makes the familiar argument that if God had to intervene in nature to achieve the divine purposes, it would be a sign of a defect in God’s ordering of the world. “It follows from this that the most perfect representation of omnipotence would be a view of the world which made no use of such an idea” (47.1). He also maintains that such events would “destroy the whole system of nature” (47.2) in that they would break the link between past and future events. For Schleiermacher, such a view of miracles undermines the feeling of absolute dependence of every thing on God because it shows that the order of nature does not reflect God’s will–since God, by hypothesis, has to intervene in order to make the order of the world conform to his will. Moreover, Schleiermacher points out, we have no way of knowing that any purported miraculous event doesn’t have some deeper natural explanation that we’re simply not aware of.

“In this way,” he concludes,

everything–even the most wonderful thing that happens or has happened–is a problem for scientific research; but, at the same time, when it in any way stimulates the pious feeling, whether through its purpose or in some other way, that is not in the lest prejudiced by the conceivable possibility of its being understood in the future. Moreover, we free ourselves entirely from a difficult and highly precarious task with which Dogmatics has so long laboured in vain, i.e. the discovery of definite signs which shall enable us to distinguish the false and diabolical miracle and the divine and true. (47.3)

Schleiermacher’s view strikes me as very Reformed (not surprising, consider that he was a Reformed churchman). After all, if God orders everything that happens, why would God need to act outside of ordinary means to bring about his purposes? But it also makes me wonder how much the “feeling of absolute dependence” is itself filled with content that is specific to Reformed Christianity. Suppose instead we took the signature Christian religious experience to be something like “a feeling of being absolutely valued, or loved”: would that, using Schleiermacher’s method, yield a different understanding of God’s omnipotence (and thus also of miracles)?

Even still, I think Schleiermacher’s argument has merit. For example, many miracle stories in the Bible don’t seem to require us to view them as all-out suspensions or violations of the causal order. Often they seem to involve God working through created means (such as the faith that is deemed to be required to make some of Jesus’ healings efficacious). Schleiermacher also seems correct that an event can have religious significance without us being able to say definitively that it occurred “outside” the causal nexus. In fact, it’s not at all clear how we’d ever be in a position to make that judgment definitively.

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One thought on “Miracles according to Schleiermacher

  1. I think it would depend on your understanding of dependence. If it is absolutely on the will of God, a will that is Love according to tradition (i.e., creatio ex nihilo might best be understood as creatio ex amore), then there need not be a difference per se. Dependence, such as the clay in the potter’s hands, can be one of complete rest in the One Who Is, who according to the only place in Christian Scriptures where “Is” is outlined, is the One Who Is Love. I didn’t realize how dependent my own thinking on trust/faith was upon Schleiermacher, whom I’ve never read.

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