Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher

1768-1834. German theologian. Of Silesian Pietistic background, he in his student days rejected the narrowness of Pietism,* but in later life regarded himself as a Pietist, only of a higher order. He studied at Halle and was ordained in 1794. In 1796 he became minister of the Charité Hospital, Berlin, and in this period he was drawn into the circle of Romantic writers who constituted the intellectual avant-garde of the time. Returning as a professor to Halle (1804), his next years were overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars and the revival of German nationalism. From 1809 Schleiermacher was minister of the Dreifaltigkeitskirche in Berlin. The closing of the University of Halle led to the foundation of a new university at Berlin. Schleiermacher played a leading part in its foundation and in the establishment of its theological faculty, in which he was a professor. He was the first dean of the faculty, and for a time rector of the university. He was instrumental in bringing Hegel* to Berlin, though their relationship became strained through differences of outlook. Schleiermacher was a great supporter of German national unity and a leading advocate of the scheme to unite the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia. He preached regularly and wrote voluminously. His writings embraced systematic theology, hermeneutics, philosophy, translations of Plato, and ten volumes of sermons.

Schleiermacher's first major work, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799; ET 1894), is sometimes regarded as a theological expression of Romanticism. As an apology for Christianity in the post-Enlightenment world, it was neither a restatement of biblical orthodoxy nor a refurbishing of enlightened moralistic religion. It defined religion as “sense and taste for the infinite” and sought to show that life without religion is incomplete.

In many ways the work anticipated Schleiermacher's fuller statement of belief, The Christian Faith (1821; 2nd ed., 1830-31; ET 1928). Schleiermacher sought to avoid the alternatives of an orthodoxy based on revealed truth and a natural theology based on abstract speculation. He adopted a positive approach to religion based on a descriptive analysis of religious experience. He sought to analyze the essential elements in Christian experience and show how they were related to the main articles of Christian faith. The basis of religion is neither activity nor knowledge, but something which underlies them both: the continuum of feeling or awareness which we call self-consciousness. The common factor of religious experience is the feeling or sense of absolute dependence. This concept became not only the key to understanding religion, but the criterion for assessing the teaching of the past and the means of reinterpreting Christianity for modern man.

Sin is seen as essentially a wrongful desire for independence. The orthodox two-natures doctrine of Christ is replaced by the picture of a man in whom dependence was complete. It was his profound experience of God through his sense of dependence that constitutes an existence of God in him. On account of it, Jesus is able to mediate a new redemptive awareness of God to humanity. The same approach was elaborated in the posthumously published lectures on Einleitung ins Neue Testament (1845) and Das Leben Jesu (1864). Although he was ostensibly empirical, the question may be asked whether Schleiermacher was empirical enough: whether his concept of religion was not in fact too narrowly defined and used in an arbitrary and unrealistic manner. The result is that Christian doctrine is forced into the straitjacket of a preconceived system.

Schleiermacher's influence extended far beyond his disciples who made up the school of Mediating Theology (Vermittlungstheologie) in the mid-nineteenth century. To Karl Barth* he epitomized the liberal approach to religion which dwelt upon man rather than God. He has found renewed following among twentieth-century radicals. In many respects his method, his view of God and of man, and his Christology anticipated those of Paul Tillich* and J.A.T. Robinson.

T.N. Rice, Schleiermacher Bibliography (1966). See also Theology and Church (1962), pp. 136-216; R.R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion (1965); SJT 21, 3 (1968) and Journal for Theology and the Church 7 (1970) for articles on his relevance today; S. Sykes, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1971); M. Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought (1973).