Schleiermacher on the authority of the Bible

According to Schleiermacher, the authority of the Bible cannot be the foundation of Christian faith. The notion that it is, he says, is more often implied than asserted, for instance by how books of doctrine and confessional documents present the doctrine of Scripture. Nevertheless, we need to get this misconception out of the way. So, he asks, if faith in Christ is to be established on the basis of the Bible’s authority, how is the authority of the Bible itself to be established? It can’t be by rational demonstration, for two reasons. First, such an approach would introduce an inequality in how Christians come to faith: there would be a class of Christians who are themselves capable of following the chain of reasoning that demonstrates the authority of the Bible, and there would be those who have to accept its authority on trust. But this would be “incongruous with that equality of all Christians which the Evangelical [i.e., Protestant] Church proclaims, and would, as in the Church of Rome, demand from the laity an unqualified and submissive trust in those who alone have access to the grounds of faith” (The Christian Faith, §128.1). Second, even if a proof of Scripture’s authority was forthcoming, the resulting faith would “not be a genuine, living faith at all” because someone could possess it without feeling the need for redemption or being in “living fellowship” with Christ.

Furthermore, if there can be no distinctions between classes of Christians in terms of how they arrive at their faith (in order for it to be the same faith), this principle applies across time too. In other words, the way that contemporary Christians come to faith can be no different, in principle, from how the first Christians came to have faith in Christ. And, clearly, their faith was not based on the authority of Scripture since the New Testament didn’t exist. (S. considers and rejects the possibility that the first Christians’ faith was based on the authority of the Old Testament in that they perceived Christ to be the fulfillment of the OT prophecies. Rather, he says, they came to believe in Christ first and then went back to the Scriptures and found that they foretold him.) The first disciples’ faith originated in the personal encounter with Jesus himself. It “sprang from Christ’s preaching of Himself, [and] so in the case of others faith sprang from the preaching of Christ by the Apostles and many more” (§128.2). Therefore, Christian faith is not of necessity bound up with the belief that the books of the Bible posses a special status; this faith “may rest on any other sort of witness that is accomplished by real perception of Christ’s spiritual power–may rest, that is, simply on oral tradition” (§128.1).

“Thus,” he says, “in order to attain to faith, we need no such doctrine of Scripture, and the attempt to force unbelievers into faith by means of it has had no success” (128.2). It is only when we already have faith in the message about Jesus that we properly come to ascribe a special status to the New Testament witness.


One thought on “Schleiermacher on the authority of the Bible

  1. That’s indeed one of the classic questions that I think especially atheists (and perhaps simply theists) seem to struggle with when approached with Christianity. It appears to be circular logic! Doug Wilson (I know, controversial) once said something along these lines:

    If I was asked “why do I believe the Bible is true” I would answer “Because it says so in the Bible.” However if I was to ask you “Why do you believe in Reason?” you would turn around and give me a reason.

    I think it’s an important tenet of the Christian faith that the Holy Spirit bears witness in our hearts that Scripture is true. I know “it’s just Faith” would be a trite way to answer, but in so many ways, it is.

    I love how the Westminster Catechism phrases it:

    “How doth it appear that the Scriptures are the word of God?”

    “The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God.”

    PS. Check out Schleiermacher in Logos Bible Software:

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