The Theological Method of Friedrich Schleiermacher

Paul Derengowski, ThM



Friedrich Schleiermacher, “the father of modern theology,” is perhaps the most influential Christian theologian of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the affects of his teaching continuing even to the present.  Of course such high praise is not to discount others such as Rudolph Bultmann or Karl Barth, but it simply recognizes that of all the high-profile theologians and writers in recent church history, no one has shaped the intellect and course of the Christian church quite like Schleiermacher.  The question then becomes why?  What was it about Schleiermacher’s theological insight which would garner him such recognition?  Do most Christians even know who Friedrich Schleiermacher was, let alone realize the effect he posthumously has upon their ecclesiastical way of thought and practice?  If it was understood the deleterious nature that his method has had upon Christianity, even though many have lauded him as a genius, would that matter today?

The object of this paper is to examine Schleiermacher’s theological method.  Although it is not likely that a new rock will be uncovered which provides the key to a comprehensive understanding of his thought—given that many books, articles, and dissertations have already been written on the subject—a fresh examination of his primary material will be offered to hopefully help the reader to see not only where he was coming from when he developed his theology, but also why many in contemporary Christianity are influenced by him, and yet do not even realize it.  The primary sources to be used throughout this investigation are Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith, Brief Outline of the Study of Theology, and On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured DespisersThe Christian Faith will serve as the main source document, since Schleiermacher provides not only an explanation of his method in relatively clear terms in it, but also a step-by-step sketch of his method.  Statements relative to theology proper (i.e. Theology, Christology, Bibliology, etc.) will only be made in reference to Schleiermacher’s methodology.  Therefore, without further introduction, let us begin with Schleiermacher’s understanding of Dogmatic Theology as he as defined it.

Dogmatic Theology Defined

Before delving into Schleiermacher’s method he first sets out to define what his method is applied to, namely Dogmatic Theology.  The dogmatic approach to theology is different from either Historical or Systematic Theology, at least according to him, in the sense that it was not only more philosophical or rationalistic, but that it did not necessarily apply to the common people as a pursuit. 1

Dogmatic Theology was for the educated, while biblical theology was for those led by faith.  Schleiermacher makes the distinction more obvious by arguing that:

Theology is not the business of all who belong to a particular Church, nor in so far as they belong to it; but only when and in so far as they have a share in the Guidance of the Church: so that the contrast between such persons and the mass [of Church Members], and the prominent appearance of Theology, are matters each of which implies the existence of the other [emphasis his]. 2

It is because Schleiermacher takes a dogmatic approach to theologizing that his final product is often abstract and difficult to follow.  At the outset, though, he attempts to define his particular brand of dogmatic theology by associating it with preaching, distinction, commonality, exclusivity, and revelation.

Dogmatic Theology and Preaching

Even though Schleiermacher was a professor at the University of Halle, and went on to found the University of Berlin, the affect of his upbringing by his chaplain father, and more so his grandfather, left an indelible mark on his conscience to preach, particularly on the subject of ethics. 3  Therefore, when we turn to his dogmatic method it is not surprising to discover that preaching leads the way.  Of course preaching is seen in the context of the Christian Church, even though many of his addresses were performed inside the Academy.  According to Schleiermacher,

the dogmatic procedure has reference entirely to preaching, and only exists in the interests of preaching, all who busy themselves therewith must be assumed to possess the relevant faith, if they are to offer anything profitable, because otherwise it would be a case of a professed reference and relation without any real congruity. 4

Preaching must be done with conviction along with a “rigorous coherence and inward harmony,” meaning that pronouncements made purely of a historical nature without taking into account connections to the Church would “involuntarily betray a weakening of the conviction.”

Dogmatic Theology and Distinction

Although Schleiermacher was an adherent of unity in the Church, he drew a definite distinction between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  To him the two entities had nothing in common when it came to dogmatics and doctrine, and any attempt to avoid the contradiction between the belief systems would only result in a statement which would not benefit either.  Interestingly, though, as exclusive as he attempted to be between Protestantism and Catholicism he would waver by apologizing, “But as regards the treatment of Evangelical Dogmatics, what follows is that in those portions of doctrine which the formula can be most directly applied, the greatest care must be taken not to carry the antithesis too far, lest we should fall into un-Christian positions.” 5  In other words, he argues that there is something quite distinct between the two systems of thought, yet the distinction is not so definite as to disallow something of Christian character to exist in the Roman Catholic way of thinking.  Communion and commitment ultimately become the point of departure, which will be discussed in more detail when he actually discusses his dogmatic method.

Dogmatic Method and Commonality

“Now ‘the prevalent doctrine’ is not by any means to be taken as signifying merely what is expressed in (confessional) Symbols,” writes Schleiermacher, “but rather all doctrines are dogmatic expressions of that which, in the public proceedings of the Church…can be put forward as a presentation of its common piety without dissension and schism.” 6  In Schleiermacher’s dogmatic method there is a commonality in doctrine which is promoted in the Church.  It is not that there cannot be doctrinal novelty or improvement, but that which is produced should attain a similarity with ecclesiastical piety.  That which fails to promote the religious ideal, but is instead an act of private confession, may not necessarily be untrue, nor non-influential, rather it is simply inconsistent and lacks commonality with the concept of Dogmatics.

Dogmatic Method and Exclusivity

Schleiermacher proceeds to sharpen the lines of demarcation between what he considers are the requisite characteristics of Dogmatic Theology and other forms of theological thinking by asserting that “when a presentation of Christian doctrine lacks one of the above characteristics, it no longer falls within the real field of Dogmatics.”  Dogmatic Theology, stated otherwise, must pertain to preaching, must show a distinction between Protestant and Roman Catholic theologizing, while maintaining an ecclesiastical coherence which promotes a common piety.

Once again, it is not that other religious works have not made their contributions, but in Schleiermacher’s estimation they either “lack historical attitude,” “they inform us only about the individual, or one isolated fragment of the whole,” or they “are concerned only with particular points of doctrine.”  Worse yet, if they do include those attributes which Schleiermacher deems as necessary, those doing the work are mostly “one-sided” in their treatment.  He sees those engaging in one-sided dogmatic aberrations as those who eventually produce static, arbitrary, or purely rational work which is devoid of faith.  Therefore Dogmatic Theology is defined exclusively through its emphasis on preaching, it distinctiveness from Catholicism, and its ecclesiastical coherence.

Dogmatic Theology and Revelation

As a postscript to Schleiermacher’s dogmatic method he speaks of the importance of revelation, although not in the same sense that Evangelical Christianity would normally consider the subject.  For most orthodox Christians think in terms of General and Special revelation, or that which deals with God’s revelation as it appears in nature and in the Bible, when discussing how God makes himself know to humanity.  Such is not the case with Schleiermacher.  Instead, Schleiermacher sees “only one source from which all Christian doctrine is derived, namely, the self-proclamation of Christ.” 7  He further explains that “there is only one type of doctrine, for, whether more perfect or less perfect, it all arises out of the religious consciousness itself and its direct expression.”  It’s not that Schleiermacher completely abandoned the Bible when it came to discerning God’s revelation, for he would postulate that the New Testament was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that it is “authentic, and as a norm for Christian doctrine [it is] sufficient.” 8 But despite such lauding Hodge would not agree with Schleiermacher’s theory of revelation as being anything more than mysticism.  He wrote of Schleiermacher’s biblical view that,

The Scriptures, as a rule of faith, have no authority.  They are of value only as a means of awakening in us the religious life experienced by the Apostles, and thus enabling us to attain like intuitions of divine things.  The source of our religious life, according to this system, is the feelings, and if this be the characteristic feature of Mysticism, the Schleiermacher doctrine is purely Mystical. 9

Brown would later write concerning Schleiermacher’s view of the Bible that “Schleiermacher felt that he could no longer treat the Bible as a narrative of divine interventions and a collection of divine utterances.  But it was a record of religious experience, and the idea of religious experience was a key which Schleiermacher grasped with both hands.” 10  It is with this subjective view of revelation in mind that we now turn to Schleiermacher’s dogmatic method proper.

Method of Dogmatics

Schleiermacher devotes a whole chapter in his The Christian Faith specifically to method, which denotes his awareness of just how important the subject of method was to him.  He begins by laying down a couple of fundamental rules to pave the way for the remainder of how he intends to proceed.  First off he argues that dogmatic method begins with the self, and with that it relies holistically on both individual and corporate emotions to provide security for the doctrine conceived.

Method Begins with Self

In order to delineate good theology from bad theology Schleiermacher proposes that “the Christian self-consciousness must be already developed in the community before really dogmatic elements come to be formed, and it is only through the fragmentary, and perhaps chaotic, presence of these, that the task of making an orderly connexion arises.” 11  It was noted earlier that Schleiermacher was not an advocate of biblical authority when it comes to doctrinal development.  With his stress upon the self as the starting point for theology Schleiermacher attempts to do away with the speculative, even though in the end his theology amounts to nothing more than speculation.  Schleiermacher wants order amid continued flux, but has chosen perhaps the worst starting point of all the achieve it: the individual self.  The reason for this is because Schleiermacher believes that the self is not only the source of theological thought, but is in direct contact with “the Deity” as the self acknowledges its dependence upon the “Universe” by “passing-beyond-self” through pious acts (feeling) of doing.  Not only is such an assumption good dogmatic theology, it is good religion as well.

The self, though, can act either by itself, which is not the ideal, or in the company of others.  When acting by itself the only precaution needed is to make sure that what is propagated does not violate previously established doctrine.  Otherwise, one can bring together “all expressions of religious emotion which had developed” elsewhere and then “place the methods,” both individual and corporate, “side by side” and combine them for security purposes. 12 The outgrowth of Schleiermacher’s dogmatic method, in other words, is to not only assure that one is engaged in true religious feelings and emotions, but that through a unity of community those feelings and emotions turns one away from what is typically considered religious by worldly standards. 13  From the self, along with its emotions and feelings, Schleiermacher then turns to a polemical argument against heretics in his quest to select dogmatic material suitable for his method.

Method Eliminates Heresy

Schleiermacher takes an interesting, but unusual, methodological turn when he decides that “In order to build up a system of doctrine, it is necessary first to eliminate from the total mass of dogmatic material everything that is heretical, and to retain only what is ecclesiastical” [emphasis added]. 14  By heretical he means those beliefs or doctrines which have been influenced by alien or outside ideas, and doctrines developed not strictly through inward contemplation and emotion, and yet still wish to be recognized as Christian.  To him such beliefs or notions are “diseased.”  Curiously, though, not all religious emotions are pure either, and must work themselves out in accord with already received Christian doctrine.  And since that is the case, then not everything considered heresy at first may not indeed be heretical at all.  The goal here is to detect those foreign influences and then eliminate them, but not to the point where the proverbial baby is thrown out with the bathwater.  Schleiermacher is walking a very line of distinction on this point.

What Schleiermacher proposes as the means to heretical detection is the Christian formula he has devised which revolves the idea of piety or feeling.  That is not to say that Schleiermacher’s system is purely subjective, since he believes that the Christian has outside help from “God” as the sole source upon which the Christian depends.  Through this two-fold heretical detection system Christians should not only be able to eliminate doctrines “traced to a foreign source,” but safeguard against the intrusion of faulty beliefs in the first place.  According to Schleiermacher,

For new heresies no longer arise, now that the Church recruits itself out of its own resources; and the influence of alien faiths on the frontier and in the mission-field of the Church must be reckoned at zero so far as regards the formation of doctrine, though there many long remain in the piety of the new converts a great deal which has crept in from their religious affection of former times, and which, if it came to clear consciousness and were expressed as doctrine, would be recognized as heretical. 15

Natural Heresies Defined

An expansion on the most prominent heresies and what they represent becomes Schleiermacher’s next point of developing a viable dogmatic theology.  To him “The natural heresies in Christianity are the Docetic and the Nazarean [Ebionitic], and Manichean and the Pelagian.”  Yet, as is customary, what Schleiermacher means by these particular entities and what history has said about them are two different things.  The reason being that he has redefined them to fit into his overall dogmatic scheme, since Schleiermacher wishes to couch his argument in repeated dualisms.  For example, Docetism is actually an extension of Gnostic thought and heretical Judaism whereby a distinction was drawn between God and Jesus, along with a denial that the latter possessed a material body. 16  Schleiermacher redefines Docetism to promote an almost pantheistic relationship between Christ and humans.  To him there cannot be any difference between Jesus’ humanity and those in need of redemption, otherwise “His participation in human nature vanishes into a mere appearance; and consequently our God-consciousness, being something essentially different, cannot be derived from His, and redemption also is only an appearance.” 17  The Nazareans or Ebionites, as reported by Origen, were those “who either acknowledge with us that Jesus was born of a virgin, or deny this, and maintain that He was begotten like all other human beings.” 18  Schleiermacher, though, revises the historical meaning of Ebionism to emphasize Jesus’ humanity to the exclusion of his deity whereby he not only could not remain (or even be) the Redeemer of humanity, but that he would also need to be redeemed himself.  Fundamental to Schleiermacher’s thinking is the balance in all humans between their human natures and a spark of the divine, or the “feeling of Freedom” and the “feeling of Dependence.” 19  Jesus, in other words, could not be more human than divine without risking his position as the Redeemer, and humans forfeiting their opportunity at absolute God-consciousness or redemption.

When one turns to Manichaeism and Pelagianism one discovers the same kind of convoluted redefining of terms to further perpetuate Schleiermacher’s condemnation of specific heresies.  Manichaeism was a Gnostic-influenced religion which existed in the third century A.D., whose founder, Mani, advocated a dualistic philosophy which pitted Light against Darkness.  Mani argued that Jesus was simply another prophet of whom Mani argued that he himself was the last in a succession of prophets which included Buddha, Zoroaster, 20 and Jesus. 21  Schleiermacher opines that Manichean influence is actually a thwarting of the human potential to realize absolute dependence in all human states of consciousness.  This is done by convincing the person that receiving redemption’s influence is either unnecessary or impossible, or that redemption is only possible “after a complete transformation” which annuls the “fundamental formula” leading to the feeling of absolute dependence.  Pelagius, on the other hand, espoused absolute freedom of the human will, which had the power not to sin or posse non peccare.  Although Adam fell, his sin did not affect his progeny to the point where humans could not, through God’s “natural grace,” seek their own redemption by matter of personal piety and choice. 22  Schleiermacher sees Pelagianism, though, as one’s human ability to counter “the entry of the God-consciousness” whereby a person experiences redemption on his own.  No Redeemer is needed.  It is merely something common to all, if not equally shared by all. 23 Again, what Schleiermacher wishes to point out is the need for a balance between absolute Freedom and absolute Dependence if anyone is to truly experience redemption or piety in their Christian walk.

Differentiate East vs. West

Another aspect of Schleiermacher’s theological method entails more apologetic delineation between not only the Eastern and Western churches of his time, but more particularly between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  To him the differences cannot be ignored, even though his effort to differentiate between the Eastern and Western churches turns sarcastic and his input becomes less than constructive.  In fact, he actually sees very little difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Latin West because of all the “individuals fragments” that the East continues to embrace.  What those “individual fragments” are he does not explain.  Instead he insinuates that the Easterners are basically anti-intellectual dolts, and then turns to the subject of the Roman Catholic-Protestant antithesis, which is really what he wanted to discuss in the first place.

Schleiermacher tell us that, “A system of doctrine drawn up at the present time within the Western Church cannot be indifferent to the antithesis between Roman Catholic and Protestant, but must adhere to one or the other.” 24 Clearly he is correct to argue that there are doctrinal differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but instead of elaborating on just what those differences are at this point, he asserts the need to develop a “mediating formulae in the controversial doctrines” whereby the antithesis between the two systems of thought are abrogated.  To Schleiermacher it is incumbent upon the Protestant to demonstrate where the antithetical themes are yet to be exposed, mainly as they involve those which lack definition.  For definition in doctrine reduces the tension which currently exists between the old Roman formula and the current Protestant formula which Schleiermacher sees as “consciousness.”

It is interesting to note, though, that as adamant as Schleiermacher is to show the divide between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, those such as Francis Schüssler Fiorenza remain unconvinced that Schleiermacher’s theology, namely Protestant, is necessarily that different from the system which he criticizes.  Alluding to John Dewey, Nelson Goodman, and American pragmatic philosophy she labels Schleiermacher’s method a product of “Broad Reflective Equilibrium.” 25 By doing so she argues that Schleiermacher’s theology is foundational as it borrows and revises from propositional ethics, philosophy of religion, and apologetics, particularly as seen in his introductory comments to his Glaubenslehre, which “can be correlated with specific divisions of Roman Catholic fundamental theology.” 26 In fact, “If one compares Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre with Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith,” Schüssler continues, “then it is not simply the introduction or even the introductory sections of dogmatic method, but the whole Glaubenslehre that correlates with Roman Catholic foundational theology.” 27 Therefore, Schleiermacher stresses the need to distance his Protestant method and doctrine from the very system of thought which he emulates.

The Protestant–Catholic Divide Elaborated

Refocusing his attention on which member is more dependent on Christ, as opposed to which member is more dependent on the Church, Schleiermacher expands the discussion of the Roman Catholic–Protestant dichotomy by asserting that those belonging to the former rely on the Church, while the latter rely on Christ.  Demonstrating his Reformed background, however, Schleiermacher is critical of Protestantism’s failure to effectively reach out to Roman Catholicism in an effort to overcome its foibles.  He opines that such failure reflects a willingness to accept Catholicism’s corruptions into the Protestant Church, and that regardless of how much the Roman Catholic Church might seem to move in the direction of Protestantism for reconciliation, any possible reunion is impossible, because the movement is only cosmetic.  Peculiarity between the two institutions and uniqueness through the lapse of time will not permit it.  Moreover, as Schleiermacher tells us in his own words, “Some things in the Evangelical Church may point to earlier periods, and some to later; but its self-producing unity is of a kind which did not formerly exist, though there may have been individuals whose religion was analogous to it.” 28

Since Schleiermacher sees a wide divide between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and that the Protestant theologian should make the non-relationship between the two apparent, he concludes that now is the time to create the formula which makes the distinction obvious.  The formula should not be done haphazardly, since too much is at stake.  “Un-Protestant matter” had already crept in and accepted as Protestant doctrine, which is another reason that now is the time to do something about it.  Nevertheless, amid the urgency, whatever formula is produced can only be “provisional,” mainly because of Protestant inactivity up to this point.

Reflecting back upon the Reformation Age and the Reformers in particular, Schleiermacher struggles to find a connection between the diverse groups in the then Protestant movement and the purificatory aim to which they strove.  He concludes, though, that connection is found in the person of Christ.  Once again, the Protestants chose to ascribe all things to Jesus, while the Roman Church chose to ascribe all things to itself.  And while accusations of insufficiency may be hurled at one another, 29

Schleiermacher is firm that to ascribe honor to the Church is to both dishonor and subordinate Christ to the Church’s authority.

Although Schleiermacher reiterates the fact that his formula of recognition and service between Christ and the Church demonstrate just where Protestants and Catholics fall in the grand scheme of theological thought, he cautions not to be too zealous to carry the formula too far.  To do so would be “un-Christian.”  Schleiermacher is careful to safeguard the development of doctrine, some of which may have a close affinity to that which Catholicism represents.  If one were to overstress the antithesis which exists between Catholicism and Protestantism, then one might also damage the Protestant development of doctrine in the process.  Nevertheless, Schleiermacher wishes to also point out that the religious communion in any setting, be it Catholic or otherwise, which serves to highlight the Church has more in common with early Judaism and Heathenism than does the religious communion which serves to highlight the person of Christ. 30

Protestant Peculiarity

In the world of Schleiermacher’s development of doctrine nothing is absolutely firm or established, particularly when it comes to expressing that doctrine in its finality.  To him there is always a new, if not “peculiar”, way which should be striven for in order to make previously held doctrinal positions that much more explicit and understood.  Previous confessions are not necessarily understood in the same way by subsequent generations of Protestants.  Instead, their contributions are parts of a greater whole, of which later generations may contribute their part as well.  Common doctrine is not lacking among Evangelicals, which provides a unifying point of reference for them.  Yet, even though such commonality exists, a comprehensive grasp of that doctrine has not been attained.

To help solve the pursuit of doctrinal clarity among Protestants Schleiermacher proposes a two-fold theory in the development of systematic dogmatic doctrine: common matter and peculiar matter.  Common matter is that which is not only common to all Protestants, but serves to purify the faith outwardly, as was seen in the Reformation Age and the Reformer’s stress of sola scriptura.  Peculiar matter is more subjective in nature as it deals with one’s personal feelings.  Oman has argued that Schleiermacher’s critics have misunderstood him at this point, since Schleiermacher is not talking about feelings which have been divorced from that which has been universally recognized before by Protestants, but that those “peculiar feelings or intuition” are those in contact with the universe which “creates all experience of reality.” 31  By relying on one’s peculiar feelings or intuition one is able to not only bring clarity to previous established doctrine, but achieve a greater sense of understanding for oneself.  Schleiermacher warns, however, “But even the most lively originality cannot aim at anything higher than to set the common doctrine in the clearest light; just as, again, for the common element there is no higher aim than to encourage the peculiar and original development of doctrine without disturbing the communion, by establishing as definitely as possible the Protestant character of the system.” 32  Common and peculiar matter, therefore, must interact, or as he puts it, “interpenetrate” one another in a mutual back-and-forth exchange, all of which results in a more definitive understanding of doctrine.  Failure to interact or interpenetrate will only result in a stagnant repetition of past understanding of Christian thought or a doctrinal belief which looks “ultra-modern.”

Amid the quest for Evangelical Dogmatic peculiarity Schleiermacher also warns to beware of being too hasty in classifying beliefs or persons that often fall under the rubrics of orthodox and heterodox.  The rationale for his caveat is the belief that due to both uncertainty in orthodox doctrinal clarity and the progressive nature of heterodox statements, which at first might seem unacceptable to previously accepted Evangelical norms, the two over a course of time may actually exchange places.  This is not to say that truth becomes error and error becomes true.  What he means is that unless something is definitively Evangelical or heretical, then because of the pursuit of definiteness in Christian thought, that which was commonly held as orthodox may fall by the wayside, as that which was once heterodox helps to explain a previously held position better than before.  Therefore, rather than render a final judgment of “heretic” toward those who espouse a divergent doctrinal point-of-view, it is better to simply attribute such divergences to temporary misunderstanding on both sides of the isle.  For through the mutual exchange of ideas within the Church setting such misunderstandings will eventually subside.

Of Christian Doctrine & Morals

Schleiermacher concludes his elaboration on the selection of dogmatic material by informing the reader that the source for the Science of Christian Doctrine is none other than religious emotion.  Not only does it affect doctrine, but morals as well.  “[E]very religious emotion is essentially a modification of human existence,” argues Schleiermacher, “and if it is understood as a quiescent state, there arises a proposition which belongs to the Science of Christian Doctrine.” 33  In other words, emotion provokes a change in human behavior which ultimately is to be credited to the study of Christian Doctrine.  Of course, such modifications in behavior equally affect Christian morals, unless the modification happened to a non-Christian.  Then the credit should be given to that which is of a more rational, special, or practical field of interest.

Christian Doctrine and Morals, however, cannot be construed as separable.  “For it is inconceivable that a man should everywhere and always have in his self-consciousness the emotions which are expressed in the doctrines of the Christian faith, without also acting, everywhere and always, in the way set forth by Christian morals.” 34  Schleiermacher sees a problem, though, that has developed over the course of time.  Ethical behavior became more the interest of the Christianity community than doctrinal development, the line was blurred between doctrine and ethics, and hence a separation has occurred.  Although he proposes to divorce ethical propositions from his study of Christian Doctrine, he knows that it is impossible, since doctrine leads to ethical action, and ethical action is ultimately tied to Anshauung and Gefühl or perception and feeling, both of which contribute to the balance discussed earlier between the feeling of Freedom and feeling of Dependence.  Nevertheless, despite the obvious imbalance, he proceeds to the formation of his dogmatic system.

Dogmatic Formation

Propositional Approval

Schleiermacher proposes as a starting point in his dogmatic formation an appeal to the Protestant confessions first, and then to Scripture.  The reason is to maintain some kind of continuity with what is clearly Christian and Protestant.  Although he is not specific as to which confessions he is alluding to, both Lutheran (most likely Augsburg) and Reformed (most likely Helvetic and Westminster) are on his mind.  Scriptural appeal—and that in a limited sense, to be discussed later—is only made should there be any dissatisfaction with what the confessions have to say, even though there may not be a general consensus of agreement on just what the Scriptures are saying.  Whatever the case, the confessions are seen to rely on Scripture for their authority, even though the confessions are relied upon as authoritative in the development of doctrine.  Later on Schleiermacher will depart from this appeal by affirming, “In our exposition all doctrines properly so called must be extracted from the Christian religious self-consciousness, i.e. the inward experience of Christian people.” 35

Confessional statements are only as good as they serve to promote what “can be really essential to Protestantism,” asserts Schleiermacher.  This position recognizes that there are both minor and major differences in the statements, which is acceptable.  Yet, when addressing the subject of doctrine, it is only when they agree that they are beneficial to the whole community.  Those who authored the confessions certainly never claimed perfection in what they wrote, but still maintained that there were certain beliefs and characters which were heretical in their assumptions, and hence the confessions are beneficial.  According to Schleiermacher, in order to prevent excising what appears to be conflicting doctrinal statements, we should “have regard to the spirit than cling to the letter” and “we must apply the exegetical art to the letter itself, in order to make a right use of it.” 36  Hence, a keen sense of intuition should be exercised before casting a disparaging judgment against what might appear to be an erroneous teaching, as well as determining what Scripture is saying to inform our doctrine.

Schleiermacher offers an explanation about Scriptural usage in doctrinal development by intentionally shunning the Old Testament because of its irrelevance upon the New Testament Church.  That which is Jewish or Heathen is Jewish or Heathen, while that which is Christian is Christian. 37  Therefore, when one considers the Old Testament’s value in the development of Protestant doctrine, one must regard it simply as “superfluous.”  Of course, the Old Testament may be used in a polemical way to denounce Roman Catholicism, but other than that it is another text for another time for another people.

So as not to confuse what Schleiermacher is trying to achieve dogmatically, he proposes three different kinds of dogmatics, only one of which he implicitly embraces.  The first is Scriptural Dogmatics which entails the development of doctrinal belief based solely on the Scriptures as their source and authority.  While such a dogmatic may seem admirable, in reality the fixed nature of Scripture in time and space, the potentially flawed nature of one’s hermeneutic, or the lack of interaction between a person and the New Testament all add to the inadequacy of such an approach to Protestant doctrine.  Another kind of dogmatics is equally inadequate, except in a different way, and that is Symbolical Dogmatics.  The reason is proves fatal to the doctrinal endeavor is that is relies solely on the confessional statements as authoritative, and not at all upon the Scriptures.  It approximates to what Roman Catholicism does, which by default assures its rejection from Protestant consideration.  It is Scientific Dogmatics that Schleiermacher seems to champion, since it entails the already recognized principles of Protestantism which have been coupled with subsequent theological concepts and ideas, and are backed by the Symbols and Scripture, that contributes to one’s religious self-consciousness and adds to the Protestant spirit.  Although certain “speculations” might appear scientific, when compared to what already exists, they would not fall under the Christian rubric.

The Science of Dogmatics

The means by which Schleiermacher has chosen to convey his theological method is through the use of dialectic: an “inner-outer dialectic” to be specific, which Tice states “lay at the foundations of his presentation of the self as constituted interactively through and through, of the self as at once, interactively, body-mind/mind-body, and of perception and feeling as necessary roots of both thinking and action.” 38  The interactions which shape his Dogmatics, though, come with the precise use of language, since what he calls “didactically religious” or homiletical or poetic language cannot endure the more scientific language found in theological dogmatics.  Dogmatic language assists one in understanding the original propositions found in the religious self-consciousness, whereby antithetical distinctions may be drawn between God and the world, good and evil, the free and the bound. 39  Failure to attend to the language distinction not only compromises dogmatic production, but precipitates faulty theological zeal and unwarranted philosophical hope.  Worse yet, philosophical theologizing lends to community confusion due to the abstract nature of the message being produced, as well as a non-understanding of just where the theologian has started his argument.

In order to promote Schleiermacher’s dialectic scheme he asserts that a systematic arrangement be made of that which he wishes to communicate.  In this sense it almost sounds as if a systematic theology is being proposed, except that is not the case.  Dogmatics will not allow such a schematic, even though Schleiermacher acknowledges the need for order.  In Schleiermacher’s words, “Dogmatics has simply the fundamental inner fact of Christian piety which it postulates; and what it has to arrange consists simply in the different modifications of this fact which emerge, according to its differing relations with the other facts of consciousness.” 40  Systematic arrangement, in other words, is not about what can be seen outwardly, but is experienced inwardly as it seeks to unite to the whole of multiple perspectives.  What is necessary, though, is precision in dialectical language to achieve the goal. 41

Aside from developing a system of Dogmatics that uses dialectics to distinguish itself from other religious disciplines of study (i.e. homiletics and poetry), Schleiermacher makes it perfectly clear that his dialectical method seeks to “get rid of all traces of the Scholastic mode of treatment, by which philosophy (transformed as it was by the spread of Christianity) and real Christian Dogmatics were frequently mingled in one and the same work.” 42  Schleiermacher at this point is definitely showing his anti-Rationalist and pro-Romanticist colors, since he sees no use in allowing previous religious expressions to continue to cause conflicts in the Christian community, even to the point of causing some to leave the faith.  His dialectical formula is his solution to the problem, with any remaining arguments unassociated with Dogmatics to be left to that of Apologetics.

Religious Self-Consciousness Versus Redemption

There is a universal God-consciousness that resides in all human beings to one extent or another.  Discovery of that God-consciousness is found in the feelings of men and can be known even prior to becoming a Christian.  In fact, even after one becomes absolutely dependent upon the Redeemer, that person often retains his pre-Christian religious feelings that eventually led him to his redemption.  Those prior religious feelings, though, will never have complete sway or control over the Christian, even though they may be distinctly identified.  Schleiermacher alludes to the Christian-Jewish-Islamic paradigm as an example of the “three great communions” of monotheistic influence, which when one becomes a Christian through universal persuasion, may maintain a sense of Fetishism (Judaism) or Polytheism (Islam).  Eventually, however, exceptional Christian monotheism will win over the Christian convert through the feeling of absolute dependence, which cannot be experienced in the other two religious ideologies, even though they may espouse a partial sense of God-consciousness in them.

Christian redemption, then, is in direct antithesis to what is found in any other religious system, even though prior beliefs may exist which may be similar to Christianity.  They will simply facilitate a more complete transference through a modification of one’s religious self-consciousness, which is typically expressed outwardly in moral behavior.  Whatever remaining antithetical religious beliefs there might be are transformed into Christian beliefs due to their genuine dogmatic expression and their relative association with Christianity.  The evidence of this is seen that in development of Christian doctrine is also the development of Christian morals.  One cannot have the one without the other, and Christian morals are often seen in non-Christian religions.

Established Propositional Christian Doctrine

Schleiermacher suggests that Christian doctrine may be defined along the lines of three propositional statements: (1) as descriptions of human states; (2) as conception of divine attributes and modes of action; (3) as utterances regarding the constitution of the world. Moreover, “all three forms have always subsisted alongside each other.” 43  Here Schleiermacher sets the inner human experience as the precedent for determining dogmatic understanding of the other two states.  In his Glaubenslehre he calls the latter two “derivative” of the former, and that they do not express anything that is not already expressed in the human state, meaning “they could be dispensed with altogether…that our doctrine of faith will eventually learn to manage without them.” 44  According to Fiorenza, his analysis is an effort “to eliminate the scholastic rubbish cluttering theology and confront such objectionable doctrines.” 45  In other words, human feelings and emotions become the sole arbiter of the truth about not only human beings, but God and the universe as well.  Schleiermacher makes this clear when he wrote,

Finally, not only is the feeling of absolute dependence in itself a co-existence of God in the self-consciousness, but the totality of being from which, according to the position of the subject, all determinations of the self-consciousness proceed, is comprehended under that feeling of dependence; and therefore all modifications of the higher self-consciousness may also be represented by our describing God as the basis of this togetherness of being in its various distributions. 46

Even though Schleiermacher’s propositional formula is firm in his own way of thinking and that outside alien influences are unwarranted—such as those precipitated by scholastics, metaphysics, and purely objective observation—he is also certain that the human proposition by itself, as the means to developing Christian Dogmatics, “would be left isolated and without any historical support.”  The reason for the less-than-optimistic conclusion is because of language.  Current religious systems have been developed through the use of rhetoric and hymnic terminology, and current dogmatics has subsequently been formed out of those systems.  Add to that metaphysics and science, and the fundamental dogmatic form of allowing human feelings and emotions to lead the way has been forgotten.  Stated otherwise, once again, if human feelings and emotions are not understood to take sole precedence in the development of Christian doctrine, and “superfluous” statements about God and the world are allowed to stand via objective or scientific observations, then whatever doctrinal claims that are concluded cannot be authentic expressions of Christian thought.

Religious Affections

Last, Schleiermacher reiterates the flawed nature of how dogmatics in the past has taken shape.  Rather than starting with human affections, and then following through with statements about God and the world based on those affections, the Christian religion, in essence, has gotten it backwards.  Therefore, to correct the error he proposes to base his future work, which is also a trilogy in dogmatic thought about Philosophical, Historical, and Practical Theology, 47 on the human-God-world model.

From the proposed model based on human affection Schleiermacher argues that the doctrine of God’s attributes can be understood in its totality by merely considering what the human soul is saying, not only about itself, but about how it intuitively feels about God in absolute dependence, or as William Martin puts it, “The essence of religious life, then, is seen to be the development of this feeling of dependence, or God-consciousness.” 48  Conversely, for the human to deny the intimate relationship between the soul and God, only to then express God’s attributes in purely objective terms, is typical of what other theological or scientific disciplines have done in the past.  It separates man from God, rather than unites man to God.  His system strives to show the connection between God and man as it is expressed in man’s absolute dependence upon God for his revelation and understanding.  And from that unity comes the doctrinal declarations which have their affect upon the Church, which in turn affect the world.


It was mentioned in the Introduction that Friedrich Schleiermacher has had a tremendous effect upon theological thought since he came on the religious scene in the eighteenth century.  After a perusal through his method in his paper it behooves us to conclude this paper by answering the questions related to why.  Why was Schleiermacher’s method so appealing both during his day and in the current state of religious thought?  The short answer is simply that he provided a response to the intellectualism of his day that the people could relate to.  The modernism of his times had all but squeezed God out of the picture, and subsequently long after Schleiermacher had left this earth in death, his system provided hope amid the hopelessness that inevitably resulted from man’s attempt to make sense of life and the universe by himself.  When one turns to today, Schleiermacher’s influence continues, with the exception that few people even know about it.  They simply act out what he preached and taught when he was alive, namely to rely on one’s feelings, emotions, and intuitions as the foundation for truth.  What is seen in the explosion of the acceptance of relativistic thought and political correctness, both in and out of the church, may not necessarily be exclusively attributed to Schleiermacher, but being the liberal, theological giant that he was, along with the necessary time to allow his philosophical outlook on truth to fully mature, he certainly may be largely credited for his contribution to the explosion.

Does this mean Schleiermacher was totally off base in his Dogmatics?  Not at all.  As he intimated, all religious systems have their nuggets of truth, which is what makes them appealing to certain kinds of people.  Moreover, certain theologians are better at expressing their thoughts than others. 49  Schleiermacher certainly makes one think through what it means to be reliant upon God in a significant way that others have lost because of their reliance upon archaic or erroneous ritual.  Also, his stress upon devotion to Christ, as opposed to the Church, are admirable.  Unfortunately, Schleiermacher’s method ultimately is nothing new.  For despite all the allusions to sole reliance upon God, at the end of the day what Schleiermacher advocates is a sole reliance upon self and an eternal trust upon human feelings and emotions as the guides unto God and godliness.  Such a method not only repeats the infamously rhetorical question, “Has God said?” but it opens up the individual to philosophic, moral, and spiritual questions that a person cannot answer, but if one would, one be foolhardy to then proceed with it to its logical end.  So, Schleiermacher had his nuggets of truth as well.  But a few nuggets amid a mountain of confusion, vagary, and outright error, culminating in self-worship, is hardly something worth staking one’s theological livelihood, much less eternal welfare, upon.


  1. William Shedd defined Dogmatic Theology in the following way: “Dogmatic theology, properly constructed, presents dogmas in the first sense, namely, as propositions formulated from inspired data.  It is, therefore, biblical, not ecclesiastical in its substance.  There is no difference between it and the so-called biblical theology in this respect.  If a dogmatic system imports matter from uninspired sources–say a school of philosophy or a theory in physics–and makes it of equal authority with what it gets from the Scriptures, it is a spurious system.  No tenets can be incorporated into systematic theology, any more than into exegetical, that are contrary to revelation.  The only difference between biblical theology and dogmatic theology is in the form.  The first examines the Bible part by part, writer by writer.  The last examines it as a whole.  Should biblical theology examine the Bible as a whole, it would become systematic theology.  It would bring all the varieties under one scheme.  The so-called higher unity to which the exegete endeavors to reduce the several types of biblical theology is really a dogmatic system embracing the entire Scriptures.”  William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed., edited by Alan W. Gomes (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003), 48.

    Wayne Grudem simply says that Dogmatic Theology is “Another term for ‘systematic theology.”  Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1240.

  2. Friedrich Schleiermacher, translated by William Farrer, Brief Outline of the Study of Theology (Eugene: WIPF & Stock, 2007), 92.
  3. “Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <>.
  4. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 1:88.
  5. Ibid., 1:107.
  6. Ibid., 1:89-90.
  7. Ibid., 1:92.
  8. Ibid., 2:597, 604.  Schleiermacher was not as generous in his evaluation of the Old Testament, though, claiming that while the OT has its place in the Bible because the NT appeals to it, and because of the historical connection to Judaism, “the Old Testament Scriptures do not on that account share the normative dignity or the inspiration of the New” (2:608).  This is quite the statement, given the repeated allusions to and quoted by Jesus from the Old Testament, as well as the Apostle Paul’s assertion that “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), which he could only be speaking of the Old Testament.
  9. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint 1977), 1:66.
  10. Colin Brown, Philosophy & The Christian Faith (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1968), 110.
  11. The Christian Faith, 1:94.
  12. Ibid. 1:95.
  13. Schleiermacher, in his first of five speeches against his detractors, wrote in regard to religion, “I ask, therefore, that you turn from everything usually reckoned religion, and fix your regard on the inward emotions and dispositions, as all utterances and acts of inspired men direct.”  Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers [1893], translated by John Oman (London: Kegan Paul, Trübner & Co. Ltd., 1893), 18.
  14. The Christian Faith, 1:95.
  15. Ibid., 1:96.
  16. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), 5 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1971]), 1: 83, 89.
  17. The Christian Faith, 1:99.
  18. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), S.v. “Origen Against Celsus,” 5.61.  Irenaeus tells us that the “Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates” (Adv. Heresies, 1.26), both of whom were Gnostics.  Finally, according to the church historian Eusebius, the Ebionites “had poor and mean opinions of Christ.  They held him to be a plain and ordinary man who had achieved righteousness merely by the progress of his character and had been born naturally from Mary and her husband.  They insisted on the complete observation of the Law, and did not think that they would be saved by faith in Christ alone and by a life in accordance with it…Wherefore from these practices they have obtained their name, for the name Ebionites indicates the poverty of their intelligence, for this name means ‘poor’ in Hebrew.”  Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, with an English translation by Kirsopp Lake, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, reprint 1953), 1:262-63.
  19. The Christian Faith, 1:13-14.
  20. R.C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (New York: Phoenix, 1961), 183-84.
  21. Justo Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, 3 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, [1971]), 2:18.
  22. Augustine, who was Pelagius’ greatest rival, record Pelagius as saying, “‘Whosoever makes a right use of this’ (that is, rightly uses his freedom of will), ‘does so entirely surrender himself to God, and does so completely mortify his own will, that he is able to say with the apostle, ‘Nevertheless it is already not I that live, but Christ liveth in me;’ and ‘He placeth his heart in the hand of God, so that He turneth it whithersoever He willeth.'”  Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), S.v. “Saint Augustin’s Anti-Pelagian Works,” 1.24.
  23. The Christian Faith, 1:98-99.
  24. Ibid., 101.
  25. Schüssler defines Reflective Equilibrium in a rather abstract way by stating that, “It acknowledges that one starts with initial commitments, be these considered moral judgments, linguistic practice, or such, but that these are then related to principles and theories in such a way that the latter are in part independent of the commitments so that they can modify them and yet are also dependent upon them in such a way that they are susceptible to revision.”  Francis Schussler Fiorenza, Foundational Theology (New York: Crossroads, 1984), 302-303.  A much better definition would be ” as usually conceived, a coherence method for justifying evaluative principles and theories…The idea, then, is that justified inferences and principles are those that emerge from a process of mutual adjustment, with principles being revised when they sanction inferences we cannot bring ourselves to accept, and particular inferences being rejected when they conflict with rules we are unwilling to revise.  Thus, neither principles nor particular inferences are epistemically privileged.  At least  in principle, everything is liable to revision.”  Robert Audi, Gen. Ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (United Kingdom: Cambridge, 1999), 782.
  26. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, “Schleiermacher and the Construction of a Contemporary Roman Catholic Foundational Theology,” Harvard Theology Review 89/2 (1996): 193.
  27. Ibid., 194.  Rahner seems to confirm Schüssler’s conclusion, for in the introduction to his Foundations of Christian Faith, and in concert with Vatican II’s decree on Priestly Formation he writes, “The decree calls for an intrinsic integration of philosophy and theology.  The overriding thematic task of such a theology is to concentrate the whole of theology on the mystery of Christ.  This whole theology should be presented to the students in an introductory course of sufficient duration, a course in which the mystery of Christ will be presented in such a way that the meaning, the interrelationship, and the pastoral intent of theological studies will become clear to the student right at the beginning of his studies in theology.  The course should help him to deepen the roots of his personal and priestly life as a life of faith, and to permeate it with this faith.  Therein lies the meaning of this introduction for his Christian as well as for his theological and priestly existence.”  Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978), 3.
  28. The Christian Faith, 1:104.
  29. Harvey makes an interesting observation that one of the reasons why Schleiermacher had a difficult time aligning his theological ideas with the Reformers such as Calvin and Luther was because of the liberties he took in not only redefining terms, but introducing terms like “consciousness,”, “piety,” and “feeling” as substitutes for the Reformed idea of “faith.”  Van H. Harvey, “A Word In Defense of Schleiermacher’s Theological Method,” The Journal of Religion, 42/3 (July 1962): 153-54.

    I will add that Schleiermacher’s lack of writing clarity, where he often introduces terms and expressions without explicit definition of what he is talking about, makes it extremely difficult at times to know just what it is that he is wanting to convey.  It is almost as if he assumes that the person(s) he is speaking with is sitting in the same room with him as he writes.  In other words, he writes as a casual conversationalist rather than as an author whose knows that he is using abstract ideas and concepts that need repeated clarification in order than an unknown or distant reader might understand.  And when that occurs, he regularly leaves the reader confused and in the dark, having to either re-read three, four, or five times what it was that Schleiermacher just wrote, or to simply give up and move on without comprehension or understanding.

  30. The Christian Faith, 1:107.
  31. John Oman, The Natural & The Supernatural (Great Britain: Cambridge, 1931), 27.
  32. Ibid., 1:110.
  33. The Christian Faith, 1:111.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid., 1:265.
  36. Ibid., 1:115.
  37. Schleiermacher writes, “The truth rather is that the relations of Christianity to Judaism and Heathenism are the same, inasmuch as the transition from either of these to Christianity is a transition to another religion…Now if Christianity has the same relation to Judaism as to Heathenism, it can no more be regarded as a continuation of the former than the latter: if a man comes from either of them to Christianity, he becomes, as regards his religion, a new man” (The Christian Faith, 1:60-61).
  38. Terrence N. Tice, Schleiermacher (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 22.
  39. The Christian Faith, 1:118.
  40. Ibid., 1:121.
  41. It is as this point that Schleiermacher refers back to a discussion found earlier in The Christian Faith which alludes to the inner-outer dialectic.  What is absolutely stunning is his equation of Christian piety with “any particular faith” and “every individual religion” enroute to his Dogmatic statement.  He wrote, “For every man has in him all that another man has, but it is all differently determined; and the greatest similarity is only a diminishing or (relatively) vanishing difference…But the discovery of this differentiating matter in any individual existence is a task which can never be perfectly, but only approximately, discharged in words and sentences…But if we must make an attempt at some kind of general statement, in order that the apologist of any particular faith may be the less likely to fall into error, we should be content with saying this: in every individual religion the God-consciousness, which in itself remains the same everywhere in such an especial way that only thereby can it unite with other determinations of the self-consciousness; so that all other relations are subordinate to this one, and it communicates to all others its colour and its tone” (1:47).
  42. Ibid., 1:122.
  43. Ibid., 1:125.
  44. Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher, On the Glaubenslehre, translated by James Duke and Francis Fiorenza (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981), 70.
  45. Fiorenza, “Schleiermacher and the Construction of a Contemporary Roman Catholic Foundational Theology,” 186.
  46. The Christian Faith, 1:126.
  47. Brief Outline, 103.
  48. William C. Martin, “Religion for Its Cultured Despisers—A Study in the Theological Method of Schleiermacher.”  Restoration Quarterly 13/2 (1970): 99.
  49. Karl Barth thought that Schleiermacher was one of the worst around when it came to communicating theology.  He blasts Schleiermacher by writing, “With all due respect to the genius shown in his work, I can not consider Schleiermacher a good teacher in the realm of theology because, so far as I can see, he is disastrously dim-sighted in regard to the fact that man as man is not only in need but beyond all hope of saving himself; that the whole of so-called religion, and not least the Christian religion, shares in this need; and that one can not speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice…The very names Kierkegaard, Luther, Calvin, Paul, and Jeremiah suggest what Schleiermacher never possessed, a clear and direct apprehension of the truth that man is made to serve God and not God to serve man.  The negation and loneliness of the life of Jeremiah in contrast to that of the kings, princes, people, priests, and prophets of Judah—the keen and unremitting opposition of Paul to religion as it was exemplified in Judaism—Luther’s break, not with the impiety, but with the piety of the Middle Ages—Kierkegaard’s attack on Christianity—all are characteristic of a certain way of speaking of God which Schleiermacher never arrived at.”  Karl Barth, The Word of God & the Word of Man (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 195-96.

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