Herrnhut, and its original and old inhabitants must remain in a constant bond of love with all children of God belonging to the different religious persuasions—they must judge none, enter into no disputes with any, nor behave themselves unseemly toward any, but rather seek to maintain among themselves the pure evangelical doctrine, simplicity, and grace.

Brotherly Union and Agreement at Herrnhut, 1727


This article is the first in a projected series of essays on the rise of public theology. Whereas theology in the common mind is a purely ivory-tower exercise, often skewered as the work of counting angels on heads of pins, the historical reality is a far richer story of social engagement. Recent decades have produced numerous prescriptive calls for an intensified social consciousness among theologians, with lively debates on what limits or parameters such ventures should observe.[1] Here I take on the more modest (but no less daunting) task of highlighting several figures who have shaped the ways theology has engaged with public debates, policies, and historical developments affecting persons not merely as believers but as citizens. My focus shall be on developments in the modern era, beginning with the late Enlightenment period. Fruitful engagements with public theology from earlier periods could be, and indeed have been made, but such would require an expertise in those periods that, alas, I do not possess. So to start this venture with great trepidation, I introduce the reader to the father of modern liberal theology, Friederich Schleiermacher. In order to do so, a foray into his early formative tradition is required.

The Pietist Movement, and its eighteenth-century expression in the Christian experimental society of Herrnhut under the leadership of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), had a profound impact on Prussian theology and society in the subsequent periods of Enlightenment and Romanticism. It was in this community that a bright lad named Friederich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) spent a formative portion of his youth. In 1783 his parents agreed that he along with his sister and his brother should be enrolled in the Moravian boarding school at Niesky.[2] The ideal of combining orthodox evangelical faith with a spirit of tolerance and openness, however, was difficult to maintain during the German Aufkärung, when ancient pieties often gave way before the challenges of science and rational skepticism. The ostensibly reasonable solution to lingering ecclesiastical tensions, namely religious toleration, was implemented not in a smooth linear trajectory but in fits and starts, and with localized variations.

Whereas Prussian ruler Frederick the Great (regnant 1740–86) promoted an enlightened despotism allowing of relative freedom of thought and religious diversity, a long-delayed orthodox reaction occurred shortly after his death. A reining in of a lax and latitudinous attitude toward religious tolerance took the form of a restrictive edict in 1788 from the new king, Frederick William II, nephew of Frederick the Great. His brief reign, 1786–97, caused a theological storm amongst Prussia’s liberal academics and clerics.

Meanwhile, the emphasis on rationality and duty, so thoroughly defended by the great Königsberg philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), began to lose its appeal for Friederich Schleiermacher during the 1790s. Influenced by the Romanticism of poets such as Goethe, whose embrace of an emotional Stürm und Drang took a place of prominence in expressing the human condition, Schleiermacher embraced intuition (Gefühl) or feeling as the centerpiece of a newly constructed, tolerant theology. “In this romantic emphasis on feeling Schleiermacher found his clue for reconstructing Christianity so that it would not conflict with the fundamental spirit of his increasingly modern culture,” writes Roger Olson.[3] This paper briefly introduces the social, cultural, and philosophical influences on Schleiermacher as a public theologian, exploring the paradox of his radical inward turning toward subjectivism while simultaneously crafting a Christian theology and praxis keenly conscious of public perception and approval. It also pays attention to policies of religious toleration at a formative period in his life, something inadequately explored in the extant literature on Schleiermacher’s thought.

The Pietist Phase

Schleiermacher was born in 1768 to a family of Reformed preachers. Raised in the pietistic sect known as the Moravians, Schleiermacher appreciated the contemplative life and the quietude of prayer and meditation. Their theology was conservative, and “their emphasis upon personal, inward experience as against formal conformity to external doctrinal norms, was to be an important ingredient in that loosening of intellectualism which, on the philosophical and cultural level, was to mark the end of the Enlightenment.”[4] In Moravian school he experienced a religious conversion, embracing the love of the Savior that was emphasized in the heart-religion of the Pietist tradition. Yet while in seminary, the precocious Schleiermacher began to entertain doubts about the orthodox interpretations of his upbringing. He dropped out and enrolled at Halle, once a bastion of Pietist teaching but by this era a hotbed of rationalism under the influence of philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Over his lifetime, Schleiermacher had many publics. Beside his authorial endeavors, he served as a hospital chaplain in Berlin. With the rise of the newly established University of Berlin, he became a founding member of its theology department in 1810 and served there throughout his later life. He also was a renowned prince of the pulpit, serving as preaching pastor of Trinity Church from 1808 until his death in 1834. His ordination was with the Reformed church, which would join with Prussian Lutheranism in the Evangelical Church of the Union, founded by King Frederick William III. The king and the theologian both promoted an effort in 1817 to unite the Reformed and Lutheran churches of Prussia.

On a return visit to the Moravian community of his youth, Schleiermacher said, somewhat cryptically, “I may say that I have become, after all, a Pietist again, only of a higher order.”[5] The inwardness of Pietism, though shifted in Schleiermacher’s theology away from its emphasis on biblical orthodoxy and toward ideas gleaned from the heterodox Benedict Spinoza and the movement known as Romanticism, fostered a unique contribution to a tolerant consciousness of religious intuition.[6] The need for tolerance became clear during a critical culturally formative period in Schleiermacher’s philosophy and theology. This tolerance was primarily about various sects of Christianity, with some consciousness of Jewish concerns as well. Here we turn to a discussion of the Edict of 1788 and the circumstances of its ultimate demise as it relates to Schleiermacher’s life and work.

The Edict of 1788 and Its Effects

Upon the death of Frederick the Great, a broadly tolerant ruler who embraced the spirit of the Aufklärung, his reactionary successor, Frederick William II, gained the throne in 1786. The state-supported Lutheran church had suffered neglect under the policy of enlightened absolutism. As the new king’s first major decree, the Edict of Religion of August 9, 1788, sought to restrain religious proselytizing under the guise of the rhetoric of toleration. His minister of religion, Johann Christoph Wöllner, was charged with overseeing the administration of the edict’s demands. The king and his minister of religion shared membership in the Rosicrucians, a secretive religious organization opposed to Freemasonry as well as religious liberalization in Prussia. Under Wöllner freedom of academic thought and even of the press was restricted for a time, at least in some locations. Toleration of the Jews, however, increased during William Frederick II’s brief reign.[7]

In the king’s edict he invoked the memory of his grandfather, Frederick William I (regnant 1713–40), to promote and reestablish the Protestant faith in Prussia. The edict sought the “ancient and primitive purity” of the church and called for the repression of “infidelity and superstition,” as well as “the corruption of the fundamental truths of the Christian religion.” It also lamented the loose morals that had accompanied the rise of infidelity. Positively, the document promised “full liberty of conscience,” including “tranquility and security in the persuasion which they have embraced.” In order to do this, the edict mentioned three recognized confessions (Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic), as well as Herrnhuter, Mennonite, and Bohemian Brethren designated as “tolerated sects.” Other sects designated as “harmful groups seeking to proselyte” received harsh rebuke.

The greatest sin under this edict was “proselyting,” the meaning of which was somewhat ill defined. Individuals were allowed to follow their consciences and change their religion. But such change of allegiance had to be announced officially to the state, and religious persons were urged to keep their views to themselves. Thus, implicitly, such a policy discouraged such changes from ever occurring in the first place. Abstention from spreading novel religious views “or seeking to convince others” or to cause anyone to “waver in their beliefs” was a core demand of the king’s edict.

The wedding of interests of the state and of the established religions is clear in the rationale set forth for the “Ecclesiastical Department” (Ministry of Religion). “But our Ecclesiastical Department must hereafter take care,” the document warned, “that there be not held under the name of a religious assembly other meetings hurtful to the Christian Religion and to the State; means by which might be adopted by new teachers and other dangerous men to gain adherents and make proselytes, which would be a great abuse of toleration.”[8]

Especially disfavored groups were named: Socinians, Deists, and Naturalists. These groups purveying “miserable errors long since refuted” were faulted for “diminishing the authority of the Bible” or “rejecting it entirely.” The actual influence of such groups was then, and remains even now, notoriously difficult to quantify. A spirit of paranoia and reaction seems to permeate the document, and its enlisted enforcers faced a Sisyphean task. Another group, vaguely labeled “these pretended apostles of Philosophy,” the document forbade to spread “their disordered ideas” and thus to modify the Christian religion.[9]

The distinction between public and private beliefs rose to the fore in the Edict of 1788 and set the stage for the tensions between inner experience and outward conformity to doctrinal positions that would characterize Schleiermacher’s approach to theology. Feigning magnanimity toward conscience, the edict allowed that “in other respects we freely grant to the Ecclesiastics . . . a liberty of conscience equal to that of our other subjects, and are very far from constraining them in the smallest degree with regard to their internal conviction.” The wording quickly turned to vigilance toward such convictions that might draw the cleric “into risks and dangers,” and the edict enjoined such a minister of religion to “resign a charge which . . . he feels himself incapable of fulfilling.”[10]

The edict, predictably, provoked a flurry of pamphlets of protest, leading Wöllner’s Ministry of Religion to seek largely ineffectual government efforts at censorship. Special power was vested in the Lutheran and Calvinist consistories for this task. As early as December 1788, a censorship edict was promulgated to check pamphleteering criticisms of the edict’s new restrictions.[11] Traditionalists cheered the edict, and several heterodox preachers left their pulpits due to lay pressure. Strongest opposition to the edict however came from well-placed clergymen in Berlin.

One historian argues that far from the edict evincing a mere orthodox reaction, it was instead an effort by the new ruler to use religion as a strategy to maintain public order. Its goal was “to consolidate the existing confessional structures and thereby safeguard the pluralist compromise struck at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.” The problem with the new sects was not just their religious speculation or even their theological rationalism, but with their promotion of a political ethos that challenged or constrained the authority of the sovereign.[12] Use of religion to undergird political power was a time-honored, if unseemly, tradition that extended back much earlier than the Enlightenment era. If anything, the Enlightenment context of the Edict of 1788 rendered it especially susceptible of suspicion and resistance. The rationalist free-thinking genie would not return to the ecclesiastical bottle.

By 1794, Frederick William II, angered by Wöllner’s inability to bring liberal clergymen and academics to heel, promulgated a flurry of more, still futile, edicts pressing for more fulsome enforcement. In 1797 the king died, and his son, the far more tolerant Frederick William III rebuked the Ministry of Religion and ended the enforcement of the edict. His statement to Wöllner shared with Friederich Schleiermacher’s nearly contemporaneous 1799 Speeches to the Cultural Despisers an emphasis on the inner life and conscience of the believer:

Personally, I reverence religion and carefully obey its blessed precepts and would not for worlds rule over a people who had no religion. But I know also that it is and must remain an affair of the heart, of the feelings, and of individual conviction and may not be debased into a senseless mummery by methodical compulsion if it is to further virtue and righteousness. Reason and philosophy must be its inseparable companions, then it will stand by itself without the need of the authority of those who would presume to force their creeds upon future ages and prescribe to coming generations how they should always think.[13]

I wish to suggest here that at least part of the explanation for Schleiemacher’s turn toward the inner, subjective dimension of religious belief was a social context of tawdry top-down state meddling in matters of belief and conscience. Such efforts to force compliance in religious matters set many of Schleiermacher’s friends and associates against religion in general, irrespective of the confessional/creedal distinctions of the denominational options. His student and friend Friederich von Schlegel (1772–1829) was a case in point.[14] The interplay of ideas and especially profound feelings that characterized the German Romantic movement under the influence of figures like Goethe and Schlegel forms our next piece in the puzzle of Schleiermacher’s unfolding thought. Viewing his theology through the lens of the triumph of the romantics over the rationalists during this period, one can discern the forces impelling the shift in modern continental theology toward liberalism and, eventually, indifference, in matters religious.

The Influence of the Romantics

Romanticism has been described as “a journey into the inner feelings and passion which constituted the soul and which were to be regarded, ultimately, as a microcosm of the infinite life with which they were in continuity.”[15] Romanticism was a development in literature and the arts that in many ways functioned as a reaction against the dry, arid rationalism that so characterized the Enlightenment period of European intellectual history.[16] While acknowledging the difficulty of formulating a precise definition of romanticism, Bernard Reardon emphasizes the role of individuality. “The stress here laid on the rebellious or fugitive character of the individual imagination, the yearning for solitude, the cultivation of private emotions, is unmistakably romanticist: Romantic literature and art are full of these features,” Reardon notes.[17] Consistent with this trend, it was in the inner experience of reality that Schleiermacher stressed the importance of the encounter with the divine. Under this view, the universe is divine and an expression of the totality of being. Religion is the human means of apprehending this “whole” upon which the individual is fully and truly dependent.[18]

Even Immanuel Kant, against whose thought much of Romanticism did battle, impressed an influence on the movement through his distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. One interpreter calls this the “romantic seedling” whereby Kant resolved the tension between the seen and unseen via faith or intuition. Then it became the task of Fichte and Schleiermacher to develop such a notion as a faculty in human experience that transcends mere logic. Whereas Fichte disdained religion in this project, Schleiermacher defended religion vigorously as a legitimate enterprise for moderns, as it could bring a needed wholeness or integration to what it means to be fully human.[19] This conviction impelled Schleiermacher to address those who had become alienated from religious faith. At first, he set forth the plea anonymously, but his fame as its author has been widely acclaimed from his time forward.

Speeches to Cultured Despisers

Experiencing a crisis of faith while a student at the University of Halle, and unsatisfied by the tutelage of Immanuel Kant, Schleiermacher reacted against both evangelical orthodoxy and rationalism by embracing the romantics. Developing a profound friendship with the German poet, playwright, and philosophe Friederich Schiller (1759–1805) enabled Schleiermacher to appreciate culture and the arts in a profound way. Thus, by the late 1790s, when he noticed that his cultured friends in the salons of Berlin wanted little or nothing to do with religion in general and with Christianity in particular, he decided to compose his most important work, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Prior to its anonymous publication in 1799, it had to go through censoring by his ecclesiastical superior, Friederich Sack, a process which caused Schleiermacher considerable annoyance. Sack found Schleiermacher’s warm embrace of Spinoza and elements of pantheism quite unsettling and indeed unchristian. The process sparked tensions between Schleiermacher and his mentor.[20] Once published, however, the Speeches became a cultural sensation in the heart of Prussia.

One Schleiermacher biographer describes the cultured despisers as “the educated, artistic, and philosophical habitués of the Berlin salons who, if they gave religious belief any consideration, did so only to dismiss it as an obsolete stage of human development.”[21] Yet in publishing these speeches, by the age of thirty Schleiermacher had developed notoriety as an original thinker who could speak to a new generation raised with a profound commitment to religious tolerance. The following brief synopsis of key themes introduces the reader to Scheleirmacher’s bold enterprise.

At the outset, Schleiermacher acknowledged that he had set himself a difficult task. The cultured despisers were successful in this world and satisfied with the life of secularity. They were deeply suspicious of religious claims, of creeds, and of ceremonies. Schleiermacher admitted:

To priests, least of all, are you inclined to listen. They have long been outcasts for you, and are declared unworthy of your trust, because they like best to lodge in the battered ruins of their sanctuary and cannot, even there, live without disfiguring and destroying it still more. All this I know, and yet, divinely swayed by an irresistible necessity within me, I feel myself compelled to speak, and cannot take back my invitation that you and none else should listen to me.[22]

Schleiermacher famously distinguished between the temporary outward appearances and trappings of religion and its inner and lasting core or essence. “Religion never appears quite pure,” he conceded. “Its outward form is ever determined by something else. Our task first is to exhibit its true nature, and not to assume off-hand, as you seem to do, that the outward form and the true nature are the same.”[23] Building on analogies between theological reflection and other sciences (i.e., modes of disciplined knowledge), Schleiermacher sought to make religion accessible to his skeptical contemporaries. Yet unlike the rationalistic theologies of the Enlightenment, Schleiermacher rooted religious experience not in rational knowledge but in the experiential realm of intuition or feeling (Gefühl). “The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal.” Theologian Roger E. Olson writes that the German Gefühl is untranslatable and that the frequent English translation “feeling” is inadequate. In an effort to shed light on the term, Olson describes it as “the distinctly human awareness of something infinite beyond the self on which the self is dependent for everything.”[24] Karl Barth wrote: “human self-awareness, determined namely as pious self-awareness, was doubtless for Schleiermacher the central subject of his theological thought.”[25]

This emphasis traced back, at least in part, much further than the period of the Enlightenment to the Reformed Church’s progenitor, John Calvin. Calvin famously penned the following description of a closely related concept in his Institutes: “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.”[26] Schleiermacher, however, accentuated the intuitive over the cognitive dimension of this tradition of awareness of the divine, thus departing from Calvin’s stern emphasis on orthodox exactitude. Man is inherently religious, and homo religiosus captures an inescapable feature of the human condition. Yet this theological shift in starting with humanity and moving toward God, rather than the reverse, was a radical departure from the Calvinistic emphasis on the centrality of divine sovereignty and supernatural decrees. In the humanistic culture created by the Enlightenment, however, it is understandable why Schleiermacher took so readily to this approach.

The term “immediate” is key here. Sectarian dogmas, creeds, religious rituals, church architecture were all secondary for Schleiermacher, and even at times distracting. Such mediation was also not necessary. “Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering,” he wrote, echoing the organic language of Hegel and his school. “It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling, only as such an existence in the Infinite and Eternal,” he pled, reiterating the nonmediated character of genuine religion. “Where this is found religion is satisfied, where it hides itself there is for her unrest and anguish, extremity and death.” For Schleiermacher, this immediate intuition is the beating heart of religion, of which religious ceremonial must find an authentic expression or must be cast aside. “Wherefore it is a life in the infinite nature of the Whole, in the One and in the All, in God, having and possessing all things in God, and God in all.” This wording shows the influence of Benedict Spinoza, the Jewish pantheistic (or, panentheistic) philosopher whose monism influenced Schleiermacher from late 1780s on. Schleiermacher insisted: “Yet religion is not knowledge and science, either of the world or of God. Without being knowledge, it recognizes knowledge and science.” In other words, though subjective, religion too can partake of its own form of detachment or objectivity and can serve as a test for other forms of experience in the world. Thus religion is legitimated and cannot be abandoned, even by urbane and cultured intellectuals such as Schleiermacher’s friends in Berlin. “In itself it is an affection, a revelation of the Infinite in the finite, God being seen in it and it in God,” Schleiermacher declared, moving deeper into the realm of a subjective abstraction that placed the individual at the center of reality.[27]

As evidence of the decisiveness of this turn to inner consciousness, the feelings, and the intuitions of his readers, the following quotations are offered. Note the recurrence and prominence of the second-person pronoun as Schleiermacher made his almost desperate appeal to the cultured despisers among his contemporaries:

But I must direct you to your own selves. You must apprehend a living movement. You must know how to listen to yourselves before your own consciousness.[28]

From within, in their original, characteristic form, the emotions of piety must issue. They must be indubitably your own feelings, and not mere stale descriptions of the feelings of others, which could at best issue in a wretched imitation.[29]

You are a compendium of humanity. In a certain sense, your single nature embraces all human nature. Your Ego, being multiplied and more clearly outlined, is in all its smallest and swiftest changes immortalized in the manifestations of human nature. As soon as this is seen, you can love yourselves with a pure and blameless love.[30]

Severing religion as feeling from rational principles on one hand or from morally right actions on the other, Schleiermacher is able to preserve religion’s self-sufficiency and its integrity against the criticisms of reason and ethics. This makes religion irreducible and thus defensible once again in an intellectual age dominated by Kantian rationalism and stern moral duty. Religion conceived in this way happily evades the theological squabbles of orthodoxy, the factionalism of rival creeds, and thus implicitly holds the key to uniting humanity once again. Even the effort to name God would be bypassed within Schleiermacher’s notion of religion, as he proclaimed: “the aim of all religion is to love the World-Spirit and joyfully to regard his working, and fear is not in love.”[31] Similarities to the zeitgeist of Schleiermacher’s contemporary Hegel were suggested in this rhetorical move, though the personal pronoun (“his working”) kept the phrase from embracing a full-blown pantheism. It is also important to note, with Reardon, that “God” for Schleiermacher “is not an object of knowledge at all, since he is the transcendental ground of all knowledge as of all action.”[32]

On the other side of the religious spectrum, Schleiermacher has been compared to the American theologian Jonathan Edwards, who made religious affections central to his own interpretation of the Reformed tradition. They were united in the conviction “that theology can unite the affectional and rational dimensions of human nature and therefore need not subsist either upon mere semantic and logical conventions nor upon esoteric and incoherent attestations of mystery.”[33] If Schleiermacher’s insights brought together ideas expressed by figures as diverse as Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Jonathan Edwards, it can be seen as the distillation of the varied fruits of eighteenth-century religious thought.

As he reached his conclusion, Schleiermacher clarified and contrasted his view of religion with traditional understandings of it. It is here that the relationship of the subjective turn to the problem of multiple religions, and the task of toleration, came into focus. “Whence do these dogmas and doctrines come that many consider the essence of religion?” Schleiermacher queried. “Where do they properly belong?” he asked. He interrogated the dogmatic impulse further, asking: “And how do they stand related to what is essential in religion?” The answer, again, for Friederich Schleiermacher, was the inward turn: “They are all the result of that contemplation of feeling, of that reflection and comparison, of which we have already spoken.”

Next, Schleiermacher intoned: “Miracles, inspiration, revelation, supernatural intimations, much piety can be had without the need of any one of these conceptions.” In taking them out of the arena of rational debate and in recentering them in the realm of feeling, Schleiermacher, at least to his own satisfaction, could preserve them. “But when feeling is made the subject of reflection and comparison, they are absolutely unavoidable,” he insisted.[34] Under this radical recentering in the subjective, then, these categories could be rehabilitated, but not in a way that would satisfy traditionalists and conservatives in the established denominations.

In the ensuing centuries, the rise of “comparative religions” would follow Schleiermacher’s lead, seeking ecumenical common cause by validating the subjective appropriation of the divine in inner experience, beyond the reach of critical analysis, clashing dogmas, or the traditional wrangling of apologetics. Each in its turn, Schleiermacher remade miracles, revelation, inspiration, and grace in terms of intuitive feelings and subjective experiences. A thoroughgoing modernist, Schleiermacher resorted to what C. S. Lewis would eventually call “chronological snobbery.” The following statement also shows that Schleiermacher in 1799 was still, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, a child of the Enlightenment and not fully a romantic, for the romantics valorized the medieval in all of its ceremonial splendor. “Every sacred writing is in itself a glorious production, a speaking monument from the heroic time of religion, but, through servile reverence, it would become merely a mausoleum, a monument that a great spirit once was there, but is now no more,” Schleiermacher assured his cultured readers.[35] The ensuing decades, however, would contain real-world experiences both of the world and of the church. These would lead to a more cautious statement of at least some of his views.

One Step Back from Subjectivity

Richard R. Niebuhr helpfully points out that far from promoting a radical individualism, Schleiermacher saw the community of faith as essential. While the individual is “an end-in-himself,” he is nonetheless “an agent who participates in a number of social orders: the family, the nation and state, the institutions of learning, the church, and free associations.” With Herder, Schleiermacher made a distinction between nation and state, and he resisted reducing the nation to merely statist prerogatives. Niebuhr notes that: “The doctrine of Schleiermacher’s ethics is that the state is the organizational expression of this unity” (shared language, culture, tradition, culture, etc.) and has “no moral right to expand beyond the geographical limits” of the state.[36] Further, “it is in the church and free society that the inner individuality of the single person assumes a more significant part.” Of these, the church constitutes “the final community of personal individuality, for the religious is the highest grade of feeling.”[37] Pastoral consciousness always remained the decisive feature in Schleiermacher’s assessment of the social order.

The maturation of Schleiermacher’s thought may further be discerned by a reading of his magnum opus, The Christian Faith, published in 1821–22, then revised in 1830. While still promoting religion as a feeling of absolute dependence on the Absolute, Schleiermacher offered a more considered and important role for the corporate experience of that feeling. He also had to consider the impact of Christ, albeit a significantly altered version of the Savior that other Christians would find hard to recognize.

Schleiermacher acknowledged the importance of various religions throughout history as such were manifestations of efforts, albeit partial, to express the inner impulse or intuition of religion in concrete ways through ritual and doctrine. But Christianity was, for Schleiermacher, the fullest expression of the religious intuition because of the person of Christ. Here a sheer latitudinarian indifferentism is not an adequate description of his thought. In denying traditional doctrines such as Christ’s divinity (as expressed in the classic creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon) and the bodily resurrection, Schleiermacher instead centered Christ’s value in his role as Redeemer. But how could Christ be a redeemer absent the cardinal doctrinal truths that had historically grounded his redemptive authority and power? For Schleiermacher, what really mattered was that Christ was the only human who achieved a pure and perfect God-consciousness within history. Thus Christ’s example, when followed, could enable his followers to gain a closer proximity to that consciousness in their own subjective experience. What distinguishes Christianity from other religions, therefore, is not God-consciousness itself but the unique example of the Redeemer offered by the church. In Christianity “the redeeming influence of its Founder is the primary element,” and the church (“communion”) exists to communicate and propagate the redeeming activity of its Founder. Schleiermacher could then try to preserve some uniqueness for Christianity among the world religions. He could aver that, “There is no other way of obtaining participation in the Christian communion than through faith in Jesus as the Redeemer.”[38]

Schleiermacher rejected the Enlightenment approach to religions. Enlightenment thinkers sought to reduce all religions to a shared natural religion, shorn of all supernatural elements and specific doctrines. This was a religion bound by human reason. Enlightenment thinkers reduced religion to a common denominator accessible to universal reason. Olson summarizes this perspective thus: “piety always expresses itself in some concrete form of religious life and through some religious community.” Further, theology is a “reflection on religion” and “always a reflection on some particular form of religious life in light of God-consciousness.”[39] Schleiermacher operated out of a more robust historical consciousness than had some leading lights in the Enlightenment, who wanted to rationalize and naturalize religion.

Schleiermacher acknowledged that Christianity itself was divided due to failures to appreciate the unity possible in the apprehension of pure God-consciousness in the feeling of absolute dependence upon the Absolute. The paradoxical nature of the church is the tension between its existence in the world and its existence in God. For Schleiermacher the difference between the visible and the invisible church was the key to understanding the task of living in the modern age. “Each visible part of the Church . . . is a mixture of Church and world; and only if we could isolate and collect the effects of the divine Spirit in men, should we have the Church in its purity.”[40] Only the invisible church could be completely pure, the visible church, due to universal sin, contains an admixture of the sanctified and the unsanctified. The visible church as a sociological reality is divided; unlike the united invisible church. Yet despite its flaws, the visible church is still the means by which the invisible church is mediated. Thus outward aspects of church life such as the sacraments are visible connections with the invisible church. The unity of the invisible church is identified with “the innermost consciousness and impulses of believers,” which are “the presence and living movements of the Spirit itself.” Particular forms of outward expression of the Spirit, however, can bring division in the visible church when individuals place too much emphasis on self-love.[41] Wherever this happens, those who are aware of the problem have an obligation to seek out unity once again. Each sect of the visible church still represents a part, imperfect though it may be, of the invisible church due to the confession of Christ and the Spirit.[42]

Yet Schleiermacher went so far as to claim there are some divisions in the visible church that are not due to mere worldliness but can be the work of the Holy Spirit.[43] The uniting of Prussian Reformed and Prussian Lutheran churches during this period had its impact on Schleiermacher’s writings about the difficulty of achieving unity in the realm of the visible church. “The application of this may be difficult,” Schleiermacher warned, and “when several communions separated from each other exist side by side in Christendom, it must be left to criticism to decide on which side the disuniting principle is entrenched.”[44] Schleiermacher believed creeds to be byproducts of a divided visible church, and thus “not pre-eminently fitted for the ascertainment of truth.” He rejected the notion that creeds could not be subjected to reform. He saw the visible church as duty-bound to reform its public doctrine.[45]

In Schleiermacher’s mature thought we may discern a shift from mere subjectivity to a vital intersubjectivity. The difficulty is figuring out how (then and now) two persons or two religious communities, having their own inner religious experiences, can be confident that, when they try to articulate those experiences, they are even speaking about the same essential reality as their religious interlocutors. It seems that dogmatic theology, with elements of rational discourse, past articulated creeds, and doctrinal debates and formulations, might actually be needed in some form after all. Indeed, many mystics believed their experience of the divine was authentically informed by such cognitive resources in past eras. Genuine religious intuitions and truths conveyed dogmatically need not be mutually exclusive or antagonistic, as, for example, could be instanced from the tradition of Catholic medieval mysticism.


Recent debates at Wheaton College, a bastion of North American evangelical theology, over whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, show that the tension between particularism and pluralism has not abated since the time of Schleiermacher.[46] Would efforts to ground mutual understanding in intuition rather than theology move such a discussion toward resolution or toward an even deeper and more intractable division? The ghost of Schleiermacher haunts questions such as this.

Karl Barth (1886–1968), reputed to have been one of Schleiermacher’s harshest critics, nonetheless believed an understanding of his thought to be indispensible to modern theology. Barth acknowledged the public nature of Schleiermacher’s central concern, expressed in terms of his passion for “the movement of civilization.” Thus Barth criticized any attempt to make of Schleiermacher a mere isolationist mystic. So in describing the theologian’s view of prayer, Barth insisted that “He prays because he wants to work; he is a mystic because without mysticism there could not be any civilization.”[47] Further, far from being an ivory tower theologian unconcerned with social issues, Schleiermacher anticipated many of the same social reforms envisioned a century later in the “social gospel.” His sermons called upon the rich to acknowledge their obligation to the poor, and he promoted social insurance, social services as a right, shortening of work hours, and other social concerns. Strains of patriotism can be discerned in his sermons, especially after the Napoleonic invasion of Prussia, when French troops were quartered in Schleiermacher’s own home, and the University of Halle was taken from Prussia and made the possession of Westphalia. In 1807 Schleiermacher moved to Berlin, and there, at the center of cultural and political power, promoted a unified Germany. His 1808 tome Thoughts on German Universities also helped set the pattern for German higher education, so influential throughout the Western hemisphere.[48] The key metaphor for this unity was not mechanism but biology. One political historian writes: “The political theory of the Enlightenment was finally overthrown by Schleiermacher’s concept of the State as an organism into which the nation has developed in the course of history.”[49]

Schleiermacher’s influence on religious thought cannot be overstated, though not all the developments toward the subjective approach can be laid at his doorstep. Reardon specifies his influence upon theologians Auguste Sabatier, Ernst Troelsch, and Rudolf Otto a century later.[50] Further, the shift from theology to psychology, represented by William James and his Gifford Lectures, published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience, encapsulates a century of development after Schleiermacher. Here the emphasis was not on the ultimate unity of the religions but on celebrating the diversity and plurality of experiences. Fragmentation, more than unity, has been the legacy of the inward turn. More negatively, Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo found that religious experiences could be explained in terms of an asocial form of neurosis.[51]

In the twenty-first century, one finds the latitudinarian ecumenism where politely critical tolerant acceptance has been displaced by endorsement of difference via interfaith worship practices or interfaith dialogues.[52] One also encounters the intensely feelings-oriented ministries of neo-evangelical megachurches.[53] On both ends of the spectrum, the long reach of Schleiermacher’s recentering of theology in intuition may still be felt—or perhaps even known.


Dennis L. Durst is Associate Professor of Theology at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky



[1] See James K. A. Smith, “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?” Calvin Theological Journal 47 (2012): 122–37; Colin Marshall, “What Language Shall I Borrow?: The Bilingual Dilemma of Public Theology” Evangel 24 (Summer 2006): 45–52; Charles Mathewes, A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 160–80; Miroslav Volf, ed., A Passion for God’s Reign: Theology, Christian Learning, and the Christian Self (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).

[2] Keith Clements, Friederich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology, Making of Modern Theology, ed. John de Gruchy (London: Collins, 1987), 15.

[3] Roger E. Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 134.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] B. A. Gerrish, “Schleiermacher, Friederich Daniel Ernst,” in Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings, et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 644–46; Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s. v. “Evangelical Church in Germany”; Richard R. Niebuhr, “Schleiermacher, Friederich Daniel Ernst,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 7:316–19.

[6] Schleiermacher studied Spinoza intensively in the mid 1790s, though only secondhand through reading texts about Spinoza’s thought. See Albert L. Blackwell, Schleiermacher’s Early Philosophy of Life: Determinism, Freedom, and Phantasy, Harvard Theological Studies 33 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 123–27.

[7] H. W. Koch, A History of Prussia (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993), 148.

[8] J. F. Maclear, ed., Church and State in the Modern Age: A Documentary History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 32.

[9] Maclear, Church and State, 33.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600–1947 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006), 269.

[12] Ibid., 270.

[13] Guy Stanton Ford, “Wöllner and the Prussian Religious Edict of 1788, II,” American Historical Review 15 (April 1910): 509–25.

[14] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), s.v. “Schlegel, Friederich von.”

[15] Clements, Friederich Schleiermacher, 13.

[16] Here is a sample passage from Goethe’s famous early novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, indicating romantic themes of the aesthetics of the natural world and the experience of the infinite in the human soul: “I throw myself down among the tall grass by the trickling stream; and, as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz of the little world among the stalks, and grow familiar with the countless indescribable forms of the insects and flies, then I feel the presence of the Almighty, who formed us in his own image, and the breath of that universal love which bears and sustains us, as it floats around us in an eternity of bliss; and then, my friend, when darkness overspreads my eyes, and heaven and earth seem to dwell in my soul and absorb its power, like the form of a beloved mistress, then I often think with longing, Oh, would I could describe these conceptions, could impress upon paper all that is living so full and warm within me, that it might be the mirror of my soul, as my soul is the mirror of the infinite God! O my friend—but it is too much for my strength—I sink under the weight of the splendour of these visions!” (J. W. von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, trans. R. D. Boylan [1774; Project Gutenberg, 2009], http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2527/pg2527.txt).

[17] Bernard M. G. Reardon, Religion in the Age of Romanticism, Studies in Early Nineteenth-Century Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 3.

[18] Ibid., 4.

[19] Crane Brinton, “Romanticism,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 7:209. Karl Barth observed of Schleiermacher that, “He wanted in all circumstances to be a modern man as well as a Christian theologian.” Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History (1932; repr., Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1973), 433.

[20] See Blackwell, Schleiermacher’s Early Philosophy of Life, 115–22.

[21] Clements, Friederich Schleiermacher, 22.

[22] Friederich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958), 2.

[23] Ibid., 33.

[24] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), 544.

[25] Barth, Nineteenth-Century Theology, 458.

[26] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I.3.1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 44.

[27] Schleiermacher, On Religion, 36.

[28] Ibid., 41.

[29] Ibid., 48.

[30] Ibid., 79.

[31] Ibid., 65.

[32] Reardon, Religion, 44.

[33] Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion: A New Introduction (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 143.

[34] Schleiermacher, On Religion,, 87–88.

[35] Ibid., 91.

[36]Niebuhr, Schleiermacher, 129.  See also Isaiah Berlin, “Herder and the Enlightenment,” in Aspects of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Earl A. Wasserman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), 47–104.

[37] Niebuhr, Schleiermacher, 130–31.

[38] Friederich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963), 1:57, 68.

[39] Olson, Modern Theology, 137.

[40] Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, 2:676.

[41] Ibid., 2:680.

[42] For a discussion of the challenge of pluralism within Christianity, see Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church, exp. ed. (New York: Image, 2002), 130–51.

[43] Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, 2:683.

[44] Ibid. See also Barth, Nineteenth-Century Theology, 452.

[45] Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, 2:690.

[46] Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Here’s What Evangelical Experts on Missions and Muslims Think of Wheaton’s ‘Same God’ Debate,” Christianity Today, January 19, 2016, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/january/do-muslims-christians-worship-same-god-wheaton-hawkins-ems.html. See Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2012).

[47] Barth, Nineteenth-Century Theology, 437.

[48] Clements, Friederich Schleiermacher, 28–29.

[49] Reinhold Aris, History of Political Thought in Germany from 1789 to 1815 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1965), 303.

[50] Reardon, Religion, 55.

[51] Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, trans. A. A. Brill (New York: Moffat, Yard, 1918), 122.

[52] The key defender of inclusivism in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century ecumenics is John Hick. See John Hick, “Is Christianity the Only True Religion, or One among Others?,” 2001, http://www.johnhick.org.uk/article2.html.

[53] Chris Lisee, “Megachurch ‘High’ May Explain Their Success,” The Huffington Post, August 20, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/20/megachurch-high-may-explain-success_n_1813334.html