How “liberal” is Schleiermacher?

Before I started reading him, I had some preconceptions about Schleiermacher, owing in large part to his reputation as the father of “liberal” theology. But the more I read him, the more convinced I am that those preconceptions were wrong.

First, I had assumed that Schleiermacher built his theology on the foundation of a “generic,” supposedly universal human religious experience. Yet he’s quite explicit that Christian dogmatics is essentially a reflection on the specifically Christian experience of being redeemed by Christ. The famous “feeling of absolute dependence” is, it seems, an explication of this experience, not a more foundational concept from which it is derived. It does seem that Schleiermacher regarded human beings as having an innate capacity for religious experience, but the content of Christian religious experience is not derivable from this.

Second, I was under the impression that Schleiermacher regarded doctrines as mere “expressions” of subjective religious experience without cognitive purchase on reality. This now seems completely wrong to me. It’s true that he says that dogmatics is an elaboration of Christian religious experience, but this seems to mean that dogmatic theology should make statements that, ultimately, derive their authority from Christians’ experience of redemption in Christ. We might put it this way: Christian dogmatic theology is the collection of statements about God and the world that must be true if Christian religious experience is valid or veridical. This method actually seems quite similar to the one used by many of the early church fathers–the debates over, for instance, the two natures of Christ were driven by considering what must be the case for Christ to be our redeemer. This is not “subjectivism” in some pernicious sense; rather, it roots theological reflection in the Christian experience of being saved by Jesus.

Both of these points seem closely related to the overall purpose of Schleiermacher’s dogmatics: he’s writing theology for the church, not as an exercise in free-floating speculation. In many ways, he seems close to some of the “post-liberals” who have so stridently criticized the liberalism Schleiermacher is said to have inaugurated. That said, I’m only through the first volume of The Christian Faith, and I’m not at all confident that I’ve fully grasped what Schleiermacher is doing. So consider these some provisional thoughts.

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3 thoughts on “How “liberal” is Schleiermacher?

  1. I’ve wondered that…but then, Lee, you ask a lot of interesting questions and you don’t need to suffer so when you are having fun doing this instead… BTW, I’d love your feedback on my paper… I’ll send next week…

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