Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (November 21, 1768 – February 12, 1834) was a German theologian, philosopher, and biblical scholar known for his attempt to reconcile the criticisms of the Enlightenment with traditional Protestant Christianity.
He also became influential in the evolution of Higher Criticism, and his work forms part of the foundation of the modern field of hermeneutics.
Because of his profound effect on subsequent Christian thought, he is often called the “Father of Modern Liberal Theology” and is considered an early leader in liberal Christianity.
The Neo-Orthodoxy movement of the twentieth century, typically (though not without challenge) seen to be spearheaded by Karl Barth, was in many ways an attempt to challenge his influence.
Born in Breslau in the Prussian Silesia as the grandson of Daniel Schleiermacher, a pastor at one time associated with the Zionites, and the son of Gottlieb Schleiermacher, a Reformed Church chaplain in the Prussian army, Schleiermacher started his formal education in a Moravian school at Niesky in Upper Lusatia, and at Barby near Magdeburg.
However, pietistic Moravian theology failed to satisfy his increasing doubts, and his father reluctantly gave him permission to enter the University of Halle, which had already abandoned pietism and adopted the rationalist spirit of Friedrich August Wolf and Johann Salomo Semler.
As a theology student Schleiermacher pursued an independent course of reading and neglected the study of the Old Testament and of Oriental languages.
However, he did attend the lectures of Semler, where he became acquainted with the techniques of historical criticism of the New Testament, and of Johann Augustus Eberhard, from whom he acquired a love of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.
At the same time he studied the writings of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, and began to apply ideas from the Greek philosophers to a reconstruction of Kant’s system.
Schleiermacher developed a deep-rooted skepticism as a student, and soon he rejected orthodox Christianity.
Brian Gerrish, a scholar of the works of Schleiermacher, writes:
In a letter to his father, Schleiermacher drops the mild hint that his teachers fail to deal with those widespread doubts that trouble so many young people of the present day.
His father misses the hint. He has himself read some of the skeptical literature, he says, and can assure Schleiermacher that it is not worth wasting time on. For six whole months there is no further word from his son. Then comes the bombshell. In a moving letter of 21 January 1787, Schleiermacher admits that the doubts alluded to are his own.
His father has said that faith is the “regalia of the Godhead,” that is, God’s royal due.
Schleiermacher confessed: “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 tranquility 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.”
At the completion of his course at Halle, Schleiermacher became the private tutor to the family of Friedrich Alexander Burggraf und Graf zu Dohna-Schlobitten (1741–1810), developing in a cultivated and aristocratic household his deep love of family and social life.
Two years later, in 1796, he became chaplain to the Charité Hospital in Berlin. Lacking scope for the development of his preaching skills, he sought mental and spiritual satisfaction in the city’s cultivated society and in intensive philosophical studies, beginning to construct the framework of his philosophical and religious system.
Here Schleiermacher became acquainted with art, literature, science and general culture. He was strongly influenced by German Romanticism, as represented by his friend Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel.
This interest is borne out by his Confidential Letters on Schlegel’s Lucinde, as well as by his seven-year relationship (1798–1805) with Eleonore Christiane Grunow (née Krüger) (1769/1770–1837), wife of Berlin clergyman August Christian Wilhelm Grunow (1764–1831).
Though his ultimate principles remained unchanged, he placed more emphasis on human emotion and the imagination. Meanwhile, he studied Spinoza and Plato, both of whom were important influences. He became more indebted to Kant, though they differed on fundamental points. He sympathised with some of Jacobi’s positions, and took some ideas from Fichte and Schelling.
The literary product of this period of rapid development was his influential book, Reden über die Religion (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers) and his “new year’s gift” to the new century, the Monologen (Soliloquies).
In the first book Schleiermacher gave religion an unchanging place among the divine mysteries of human nature, distinguished it from what he regarded as current caricatures of religion, and described the perennial forms of its manifestation.
This established the programme of his subsequent theological system. In the Monologen he revealed his ethical manifesto, in which he proclaimed his ideas on the freedom and independence of the spirit, and on the relationship of the mind to the sensual world, and sketched his ideal of the future of the individual and of society.
From 1802 to 1804, Schleiermacher served as a pastor in the Pomeranian town of Stolp. He relieved Friedrich Schlegel entirely of his nominal responsibility for the translation of Plato, which they had together undertaken (vols. 1–5, 1804–1810; vol. 6, Repub. 1828).
Another work, Grundlinien einer Kritik der bisherigen Sittenlehre [Outlines of a Critique of the Doctrines of Morality to date] (1803), the first of his strictly critical and philosophical productions, occupied him; it is a criticism of all previous moral systems, including those of Kant and Fichte — Plato’s and Spinoza’s find most favour. It contends that the tests of the soundness of a moral system are the completeness of its view of the laws and ends of human life as a whole and the harmonious arrangement of its subject-matter under one fundamental principle.
Although it is almost exclusively critical and negative, the book announces Schleiermacher’s later view of moral science, attaching prime importance to a Güterlehre, or doctrine of the ends to be obtained by moral action. The obscurity of the book’s style and its negative tone prevented immediate success.
In 1804, Schleiermacher moved as university preacher and professor of theology to the University of Halle, where he remained until 1807, quickly obtaining a reputation as professor and preacher; he exercised a powerful influence in spite of contradictory charges which accused him of atheism, Spinozism and pietism.
In this period he wrote his dialogue the Weihnachtsfeier (Christmas Eve: Dialogue on the Incarnation) (1806), which represents a midway point between his Speeches and his great dogmatic work, Der christliche Glaube (The Christian Faith); the speeches represent phases of his growing appreciation of Christianity as well as the conflicting elements of the theology of the period.
After the Battle of Jena he returned to Berlin (1807), was soon appointed pastor of the Trinity Church, and on May 18, 1809 he married Henriette von Willich (née von Mühlenfels) (1788–1840), the widow of his friend Johann Ehrenfried Theodor von Willich (1777–1807).
At the foundation of the University of Berlin (1810), in which he took a prominent part, Schleiermacher obtained a theological chair, and soon became secretary to the Prussian Academy of Sciences.
He took a prominent part in the reorganization of the Prussian church, and became the most powerful advocate of the union of the Lutheran and Reformed divisions of German Protestantism, paving the way for the Prussian Union of Churches (1817).
The twenty-four years of his professional career in Berlin began with his short outline of theological study (Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums, 1811), in which he sought to do for theology what he had done for religion in his Speeches.
While he preached every Sunday, Schleiermacher also gradually took up in his lectures in the university almost every branch of theology and philosophy — New Testament exegesis, introduction to and interpretation of the New Testament, ethics (both philosophic and Christian), dogmatic and practical theology, church history, history of philosophy, psychology, dialectics (logic and metaphysics), politics, pedagogy, translation and aesthetics.
In politics Schleiermacher supported liberty and progress, and in the period of reaction which followed the overthrow of Napoleon he was charged by the Prussian government with “demagogic agitation” in conjunction with the patriot Ernst Moritz Arndt.
At the same time Schleiermacher prepared his chief theological work Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche (1821–1822; 2nd ed., greatly altered, 1830–1831; 6th ed., 1884).
The fundamental principle is that religious feeling, the sense of absolute dependence on God as communicated by Jesus through the church, and not the creeds or the letter of Scripture or the rationalistic understanding, is the source and basis of dogmatic theology.
The work is therefore simply a description of the facts of religious feeling, or of the inner life of the soul in its relations to God, and these inward facts are looked at in the various stages of their development and presented in their systematic connection. The aim of the work was to reform Protestant theology, to put an end to the unreason and superficiality of both supernaturalism and rationalism, and to deliver religion and theology from dependence on perpetually changing systems of philosophy.
Though the work added to the reputation of its author, it aroused the increased opposition of the theological schools it was intended to overthrow, and at the same time Schleiermacher’s defence of the right of the church to frame its own liturgy in opposition to the arbitrary dictation of the monarch or his ministers brought him fresh troubles.
He felt isolated, although his church and his lecture-room continued to be crowded.
Schleiermacher continued with his translation of Plato and prepared a new and greatly altered edition of his Christlicher Glaube, anticipating the latter in two letters to his friend Gottfried Lücke (in the Studien und Kritiken, 1829), in which he defended his theological position generally and his book in particular against opponents on the right and the left.
The same year Schleiermacher lost his only son — Nathaniel (1820–1829) — a blow which, he said, “drove the nails into his own coffin.”
But he continued to defend his theological position against Hengstenberg’s party on the one hand and the rationalists Daniel Georg Konrad von Cölln (1788–1833) and David Schulz (1779–1854) on the other, protesting against both subscription to the ancient creeds and the imposition of a new rationalistic formulary.
Schleiermacher died at age 65 of pneumonia on February 12, 1834.