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19. Liberal Theology: A gospel for Modernity

The Enlightenment

In his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) defined the concept as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s incapacity to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude [Dare to Know]! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’—that is the motto of enlightenment” (EoC 2:96).

Kant’s philosophy taught the limits of human reason in answering questions about God. For Kant (Critique of Practical Reason), religion is not grounded in reason but in ethics. As humans are by nature moral, so Kant argued, our innate moral sense proves the existence of God. Klusendorf comments that, “Kant takes a bizarre leap—we must act as if an objective moral lawgiver exists (i.e., God) and trust our transcendent minds (or universal ego) to get at the truth. While morals themselves may not be objectively knowable, at least our transcendent minds are universally so. Problem is, does Kant really know this, or is he trapped behind his own sense perceptions?” (97).

The French Revolution 1789

During the French Revolution in 1789 there followed an attempted Dechristianization of the French Republic. According to Francis Schaeffer, this can be seen as the logical extension of the materialist philosophies of some leaders of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and others. French revolutionaries like Antoine-Nicolas De Condorcet were explicit in their rejection of God and Christianity and in fact all theistic religion. “There is no religious system of superstition,” De Condorcet argued, “that is not based on ignorance of the laws of nature. The creators and defenders of such folly did not foresee the progress of the human intellect.”

A Cult of Reason was promoted in France which manifest in the Festival of Reason held in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November 1793. The Cathedral’s Christian altar was dismantled and an altar to Liberty was installed and the inscription "To Philosophy" was carved in stone over the cathedral's doors.

De Condorcet like thousands of other supporters of the Revolution, was eventually murdered by the Revolutionary leaders. Between June 1793 and the end of July 1794, there were some 16,594 official death sentences in carried out in the enlightened French Republic. “Children of the Enlightenment do not, of course dwell overly on the dreadful acts undertaken in its name when the Enlightenment first became a living historical force in France: all perished, all – Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks, Head after head, and never heads enough, for those that bade them fall” (Berlinski, 18).

F. Schleiermacher: A new Gospel for a new world

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) was born into this culture of enlightenment and reason's revolt against tradition and the Church. Raised in a Christian home in Germany he was sent to study at a Moravian school. The culture here was strict, moral, theologically conservative and pietistic (Pietism stressed the experience of God over reason and dogma). While living and studying with the Moravian brethren, he began to doubt conservative Christian Dogmatics. The Moravians refused to admit any weaknesses in their theology, or the merits of Enlightenment criticisms. The answer “simply believe” convinced young Schleiermacher that they were unable to answer serious objections. Having wrestled with his doubts for several months he eventually wrote a painful letter to his father confessing his rejection of conservative Reformed Theology:

Dearest Father: Faith is the regalia of the Godhead, you say. Alas! dearest father, if you believe that, without this faith, no one can attain to salvation in the next world, nor to tranquillity in this—and such, I know, is your belief—oh! then, pray to God to grant it to me, for to me it is now lost. I cannot believe that He, who called Himself the Son of Man, was the true, eternal God : I cannot believe that His death was a vicarious atonement, because He never expressly said so Himself; and I cannot believe it to have been necessary, because God, who evidently did not create men for perfection, but for the pursuit of it, cannot possibly intend to punish them eternally, because they have not attained it.

However, young Schleiermacher did not regard himself as having rejected his faith or God, rather he saw himself as rejection the traditional orthodoxy of his church that no longer seemed to offer answers to modernity’s reason. Schleiermacher embarked on a dazzling career as a theologian and academic in Germany and would become the most important theologian in Europe since Calvin.

Schleiermacher’s Theology:

In 1799 he published an important work, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. In this work he attempted to win the educated classes back to religion, which he defined romantically as ‘a sense and taste for the infinite’. Schleiermacher contended that religion was based on intuition and feeling (Anschauung und Gefühl) and independent of all dogma, he saw its highest experience in a sensation of union with the infinite (ODCC: 1474).

True religion, in Schleiermacher’s theology, was not based primarily on a form of knowledge (contra Rationalists and Reformed Dogmatics) and not in a system of morality (Kant) but in Gefühl ‘feeling’ (On Religion, 22). Schleiermacher offered a synthesis of Pietism’s stress a personal connection to God over dogma and theology and Romanticism’s disregarded for cold reason as dehumanizing. “I have become a Moravian again,” Schleiermacher wrote to a friend, “only of a higher order.”

Schleiermacher’s most important theological work was entitled “The Christian Faith” (Der christliche Glaube). God was defined by Schleiermacher as that being upon whom man feels utterly dependent. Sin is man’s attempt to be independent, when he should be dependent and Redemption is the restoration of man’s true dependence on God (Brown, 612). The essence of religion is when “we are conscious of ourselves as absolutely dependent or, which intends the same meaning, as being in relation to God” (§4). Anything that does not relate to the feeling of dependence has not place in Christian theology. The Feeling of Absolute Dependence on God does not derive from knowing but from an immediate existential relationship. This radical theology replaced any speaking objectively of God as impossible and centred the Christian faith on the human consciousness rather in Scripture and the revelation of God through Jesus Christ.

Redefining the Christian Faith

Much of what Schleiermacher writes is nothing less than a radical redefinition of classical Christian terms with radically new meanings. When he writes of Miracles he does not intend to pose any conflict with the scientific rationalism of his day. Schleiermacher was determined to avoid any collision between Christian doctrine and natural science or historical research and criticism. A miracle was just another name for every religious experience. Consequently, he held that “we must learn to do without what many are still accustomed to regard as inseparably bound to the essence of Christianity,” whether it be “the concept of Creation itself, as it is usually understood,” or “the miracles in the New Testament” (§ 60–61, 65) (EoC 4:858). "Every dogma that truly represents an element of our Christian consciousness can be so formulated that it remains free from entanglements with science.” (§61, §64).

Christ for Schleiermacher is not the same Christ confessed in the Historic Creeds of the Church or as the Bible declares Him. “The Redeemer," Schleiermacher writes, "is the same as all human beings by virtue of the self-same character of human nature, but he is distinguished from all other human beings by the steady strength of his God-Consciousness, a strength that was an actual being of God in him” (§94). Christ’s importance is that He had absolute God consciousness (§121). There is no Incarnation in the Biblical sense. The Historical Creeds, Schleiermacher argued, are time bound and cannot remain unchanged or unchallenged in the modern era (§135). “The facts regarding Christ’s resurrection and ascension and prediction of his return to judge cannot be set forth as genuine components of the doctrine of his person” (§99). Likewise the Bible is not the infallible word of God but the work of men who attempt to describe their experience of God.

Schleiermacher and the Birth of Modern Protestant Theology

Schleiermacher set about rethinking and reconstructing both the method and the content of Christian theology in response to the various challenges posed by the Enlightenment (Wyman, 853). Finding rationalistic forms of Christianity (such as deism) to be religiously inadequate and Protestant orthodoxy to be unable to meet the Enlightenment’s critique of the credibility of supernaturalism and its scepticism about religion and Christianity, Schleiermacher sought new ways of interpreting the Christian faith and relating it to modernity (Wyman, 853). All the official impulses and movements of the centuries since the Reformation find a centre of unity in Schleiermacher: orthodoxy, pietism, the Enlightenment (Barth).


The critique of neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth (d.1968) on Schleiermacher is important to consider. Barth contended that Schleiermacher confused anthropology with theology, concentrating on piety and God-consciousness of human beings instead of God and God’s revelation in Jesus Christ (Gockel, 198).

“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” (Barth, The Word of God & the Word of Man, 195-96).

The redefinition of the central doctrines of Christianity cannot be viewed as doctrinal development in the Reformed sense. Schleiermacher represented a deviation from orthodoxy not a development. The pursuit of a modern Jesus to fit into modernity’s worldview will invariable be reductive and unbiblical. Christ and the Gospel proclamation did not conform to Jewish theological expectation nor the gentile philosophical presuppositions of their day. The Christ of Schleiermacher’s theology, like all modern attempts at reconstructing Jesus, “bears a striking resemblance to a cultivated modern Christian who knows how to deal liberally with educated people in any position, who repels nobody, who has a clever word for everybody. In short, he bears a striking resemblance to Schleiermacher himself” (Barth, 105).


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