Schleiermacher – The Christian Faith (§86-120)

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Schleiermacher is often seen as something of an antagonist in modern theology. The trenchant criticisms of Karl Barth and other theologians of the so-called neo-orthodox movement have left the reputation of the great 19th century German Dogmatician – to that time without modern equal – somewhat tarnished.  I was, coming myself from the theological milieu which looked askance at Schleiermacher, thoroughly unprepared for how great Schleiermacher’s works is. Really, this was a misjudgement.  Karl Barth, in his own Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, says that Scheleiermacher’s own remarks about Fredrick the Great apply to the theologian himself: Schleiermacher founded not a school, but a whole era. I once met the claim, made in fact in the preface to this work, that Schleirmacher’s The Christian Faith is a superior to Calvin’s Institutes with some credulity. Now, however, I’m not so sure. In retrospect, I probably should not really have been surprised by Schleiermacher’s brilliance, given even Barth’s reverence for the master, but I certainly did not expect his The Christian Faith to be as great as it is.

Schleiermacher covers a lot of dogmatic ground in his work, but I want to concrete on what I found the most interesting part of my portion of the readings: his conception of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth in §97:

For Schleiermacher, the doctrine of the virgin birth is one that he views with some suspicion. In fact, he questions both its (i) historicity and (ii) its dogmatic utility, but without simply discounting the doctrine altogether.

i.) Schleiermacher notes that the New Testament witnesses to the virgin birth are scarce. The stories are not referred to any in apostolic work outside their mention in the birth narratives in the gospel. Because all indications lead one to assume that the apostolic and early church did either not know or place any great emphasis on the idea of a virgin birth, Schleiermacher sees no reason to place any historical emphasis on the doctrine either, and says that one can certainly “believe in Christ the redeemer without believing in his supernatural conception in this sense” (404).

ii.) Schleiermacher’s critique of the dogmatic value of the Virgin Birth is even more scathing. First, he takes cognisance of the theological position that states that sin is inherited. Christ, because he was not being produced through sexual generative power, does not inherit sin. Schleiermacher observes that Christ would still inherit sin, in this rather venereal view of transmission, through his connection with his mother. Of course, certain segments of Roman Catholicism have postulated that Mary was herself born sinless (the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception). Schleiermacher notes the infinite regress involved with this tenuous position. Because, he says, there has been no tradition postulating a series of sinless mothers from Mary backwards, this doctrine is therefore dogmatically superfluous.

The only grounds one has, Schleiermacher says, for holding this doctrine is related to one’s doctrine of scripture. That is, on how one interprets the New Testament, and not on any theological foundations relating to Christ’s divinity or sinlessness. Schleiermacher also rejects two corollaries that have arisen related to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. The notion that Mary remained a virgin all her life is to be rejected as baseless, and we must also reject the notion that the doctrine of the virgin birth is to be taken as some sort of condemnation of sexuality as such, “as if its satisfaction was something sinful and productive of sin” (406).

What do other people think of Schleiermacher’s view of the virgin birth given its place in the Creeds? And, furthermore, what of the dichotomy he establishes between a Virgin birth in the particular sense, and supernatural birth in the more general sense?  Schleiermacher says, “Similarly anyone who cannot accept them [the biblical accounts of the virgin birth] as literally and historically true is still quite free to hold the doctrine proper of the supernatural conception. But if it is superfluous to set up a doctrine of the virgin birth proper, it is also inadvisable to do so, for this involves one all too easily in investigations of a purely scientific character which lie outside our sphere” (406). I, for one, think Schleiermacher is veridical; the doctrine of the virgin birth is not gynaecological.

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13 Responses to “Schleiermacher – The Christian Faith (§86-120)”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    My thoughts:

    i) Although I agree that the historical evidence is scare, I don’t think that’s ground to dismiss the doctrine.

    ii) I found this critique much more convincing. The virgin birth is such an awkward doctrine. First, it seems to glorify this puritanical view of sex and women that is completely determined by patriarchal biases. Second, I can’t help but being confused by the whole idea that God has to play all these tricks (i.e. move the Virgin to conception by the Spirit) to avoid the blemish of sin. Does God have to conform to these rules? Can God not do that which She wills? I find the idea that God took the lowly and transformed it into greatness so much more compelling than the idea of some Herculean, mythical birth.

    He seems to be largely on the right track. Even those evangelicals who worship the Bible as inerrant could get behind this. If your view of Scriptures compels you to affirm the doctrine then so be it. But I think it is quite crude to make it some precondition for faith in Jesus as the Christ.

    Schleiermacher’s commentary on the virgin birth further strengthens my belief in the uselessness of this doctrine (although Pannenberg’s Jesus: God and Man silenced all my doubts).

    Some other thoughts:

    On page 399-400 he suggests that we should establish the doctrine of Christ apart from the doctrine of the Trinity. He writes “either the three Persons must, like human persons, be individuals existing independently by themselves, or Christ as man was not such an independent individual – an assertion which gives us a complete docetic picture of Him. It is, therefore, much safer…to establish the doctrine of Christ independently of that doctrine of the Trinity.” Thoughts?

    Regarding creedal affirmations, Schleiermacher also dismisses the Descent into Hell because of its weak Biblical basis.

  2. John Anngeister Says:

    Just finished para 90 p.370 this morning, more than a full week behind schedule.

    I still count January’s reading a great stride forward in my theological studies and my book is full of margin notes and underlining which will need review and meditation.

    Not so much as to doctrine but as to the whole ruling concept of God-consciousness and experience-based theology, I feel I have entered the ‘mother lode’ with this book. But I think I’ll have to hash it out on my own blog after finishing the whole.

    Thanks for carrying through; I will continue at 25 pages per day if possible and note all comments here until the group moves to Hegel, at which point I will rejoin the pack and set Schleiermacher aside for a later finish and an immediate close re-reading.

  3. John Anngeister Says:

    Another day, another 25 pages, and Jeremy I think the issue of Christ and the Trinity is illuminated at p.395. S. points out that the use of the phrase ‘unity of nature’ has been avoided by the church in discussions of the Trinity (‘unity of essence’ being used instead). This breaks down when, in the doctrine of the Son as incarnate, there is resort to the concept of his two natures. He claims such a ‘nature’ (though divine) doesn’t fit back into the formulas used for Persons of the Trinity (who are united in their essence).

    “… If we now carry over into the doctrine of the Trinity the explanations which are usually given of the word ‘Person’ in the doctrine of Christ … then the three Persons must have an independent anterior existence in themselves; and if each Person is also a nature, we come almost inevitably to three divine natures for the three divine Persons in the one Divine Essence.”

    This is not standard criticism of the Trinity that I have seen. It’s got a new feel, and I am not sure if Schleiermacher has found sufficient contradiction between the two doctrines to warrant a dogmatic separation. But it looks like he has, and that would be fine with me – I see no threat to the essence of Christianity if Jesus is viewed as the incarnation of a divinely pre-existent but not infinite Deity. I think his subordination to the Father (and the Trinity if need be) makes him more understandable as time-space Redeemer.

    Still I suppose one could bring in a concept like kenosis to plead that the kinds of contradictions which Schleiermacher finds between Christ and Trinity were only apparent. But that would require a lot of rhetoric to hide its logical emptiness.

    I don’t have time to actually study the pages you cite, but they are first up for tomorrow morning.

    • A.J. Smith Says:

      @John (and Pearl): How do you mean “infinite” anyway? Do you mean that a la process theology? And can you flesh out how his subordination makes him more comprehensible as a space-time. (This could be my orthodox Trinitarianism speaking).

      • John Anngeister Says:

        I worship God ‘in simple’ as one and accept the truth of his existence as perfected in a relation that is the real, absolute Trinity, infinite and eternal, beyond time and space.

        However, I cannot imagine how that level of Deity ‘shows up’ in time and space. Therefore, if a theologian has a point about a categorical difference between the essence of the three persons in the Trinity and the two natures of a ‘Son’ of the Trinity who is ‘in’ the Father and of origin in the Father, it doesn’t threaten my worship of God to entertain the idea that my Redeemer is subordinated to Father, Eternity and Infinity in order to get the job done.

        By more comprehensible I mean easier than imagining that the Absolute Infinite and Eternal God dinks around with points of light in interstellar space.

        The main thing I think is real worship of God in unity of essence and knowledge of his nature as revealed through and in the Son.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    “I see no threat to the essence of Christianity if Jesus is viewed as the incarnation of a divinely pre-existent but not infinite Deity. I think his subordination to the Father (and the Trinity if need be) makes him more understandable as time-space Redeemer.”

    I guess this all depends on what you understand the essence of Christianity to be.

    I think kenotic language is helpful to understand Christology. I just recently finished The Christian Faith, and I don’t remember if he touched on it. If anyone recalls his discussion of kenotic Christology let me know.

    • John Anngeister Says:

      Let’s just say I don’t understand the essence of Christianity to comprise any set of doctrines. It’s a relationship.

    • P. McElheran Says:

      “. . . if Jesus is viewed as the incarnation of a divinely pre-existent but not infinite Deity.”

      Not an infinite Deity? a lesser god, then? The Council of Chalcedon (to clarify the Nicene Creed) declares Jesus to be fully human and fully divine – two natures but one nature not overwhelming the other.

      • Jeremy Says:

        We know what the creeds say. It appears that John does not find that doctrine to be the “essence of Christianity”. I take it you disagree, right?

      • John Anngeister Says:

        It’s a Schleiermacher thing really. Does Chalcedon speak of ‘natures’ or of ‘essences?’ An accurate answer to that would be more in keeping with the subject.

        I don’t like the ‘lesser God’ connotation because Jesus himself said the Son was ‘in’ the Father.

        But Jesus does not say that the Son is a proper ‘object of worship’ – he seems always to be deferring to his Father (and our Father) as the object of worship – certainly the object of his worship. So do we worship the Trinity as a whole or in parts or do we worship the Trinity ‘in’ the Father? What’s Chalcedon say? And if it is fit that we worship the infinite, how then can the Son, if not an object of worship, be considered infinite?

  5. Jeremy Says:

    A relationship between the individual believer and God? How does Christ factor into that relationship?

    • John Anngeister Says:

      Well how quickly we descend to doctrines – but you are right to show how unavoidable they are. Here’s my best shot:

      1. Christ factors into the relationship because he (and only he) somehow made the relationship universally available (at Pentecost) whereas before (we may assume) it was available only to the wise and good, by their adherence to their religious codes and/or by their resolve to find God.

      2. Secondly, Christ somehow enters into this freer relation with God and man in some role as regulator or teacher or savior since Pentecost. Note I do not say ‘since the cross’ or ‘since the resurrection.’

      Explanations are difficult, and I have been pleased to hear suggestions from Schleiermacher as to how all this is possible or explainable, and to learn a few things in the process, but I do not agree with him in all points.

  6. Jeremy Says:

    I see. I think we’ve had this conversation before, to some extent. I suppose I think Christianity is more doctrinal and political where you seem to take it to be more individualistic and relational..

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