He has been called “the great reformer of theology at the beginning of the nineteenth century”1; he has also been called “a philosophic enemy of the faith of the church.”2 After his death he was praised by his colleague Neander who declared: “With him will once begin a new period in the history of the church.” This eulogy has been repeated by no one less than Karl Barth who wrote: “In the field of theology it was his age”, and ‘“In him we have to do with a hero only rarely given to Theology”.3 One of the historians of liberal theology has called him “the second great theologian of German Idealism” (after Herder), but also (much to his regret) “a church-father of Evangelical Theology”,4 Last hut not least, Abraham Kuyper has spoken of his “noble passion to give back to religion its honor and to theology its scientific self respect”, although he adds, that his efforts ended in a complete failure.5

Who was this man whose influence is still strongly felt in our time and of whom Barth exclaims: “Nobody can say today whether we have already really conquered him, or whether we are not still essentially children of his age—in spite of all our loud and fundamental protest”?6

Background and Training

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiennacher was horn in 1768 as the son of a German Reformed army chaplain. His immediate background was both Prussian and Calvinistic; his first name was the same as that of the revered ruler of his father Friedrich the Great, “der alte Fritz”, while his parental faith was that of the Reformed churches, then much under the influence of rationalism and supranaturalism, the first of which tried to develop a ‘natural religion’ and the second tried to defend the old doctrines by means of reason.

His parents sent him to a school of the Moravians (or Herrnhuter Brethren) in Niesky. From there he went to t

he Moravian Seminary in Barby. These Moravians, who distrusted all doctrinal forms but clung to the Bible as the Word of God, were characterized by a unique Jesus-mysticism. Schleiermacher did not feel at home in these circles. Their horizons were too narrow for him, although he appreciated their mystic tendency. Years later he called himself a “Moravian of a higher order.”7

In 1787 he went to the university of Halle where he was introduced to the philosophy of Kant. It was Kant who criticized any reasonable approach to God but tried to reserve a place for religion as a postulate of reason. Instead of the knowledge and service of God he insisted on listening to the voice of duty, thus replacing religion by morality. Another influence worked very strongly on the young Schleiennacher after he went to Berlin in 1796. Here he met several representatives of the Romantic School. This was a reaction against the Rationalism and Classicism of the former period and stressed the value of feeling, of intuition and phantasy. This movement often shifted from religion to aesthetics and admired the church, especially, the Medieval church, much as men may admire one of the beautiful paintings of Rembrandt.

A Message for His Times

In the climate of Romanticism and intended as an appeal to his Romantic friends Schleiermacher published in 1799 his justly famous book: On Religion, addresses to its cultured despisers. 

In this book Schleiermacher directs himself to the cultured men of his day who had become skeptics by the merciless criticism of Rationalism or dreamers by the strange adventures of Romanticism. His opening words are: “It may be an unexpected and even a marvelous undertaking, that anyone should still venture to demand from the very class that have raised themselves above the vulgar, and are saturated with the wisdom of the centuries, attention for a subject so entirely neglected by them.” These words indicate. an “apology,” and as a matter of fact this book is an Apology of the Christian faith. But it is also more. Schleiermacher tries to provide a new foundation for that religion which is so much despised. He does not find such a foundation in human reason or in human morality but in human feeling and intuition. He writes: “In order to make quite clear to you what is the original and characteristic possession of religion, it resigns, at once, all claims on anything that belongs either to science or morality…Your feeling is piety in so far as .it is the result of the operation of God in you by means of the operation of the world upon you.”

Once the great philosopher Descartes had said: “I think, therefore I am.” It is as if we hear Schleiermacher saying: “I feel, therefore I am religious.”

This realm of feeling is very broad; it includes all sensations which we experience. Therefore Schleiennacher exclaims: “What is a miracle? Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant.—What is revelation? Every original and new communication of the Universe to man is a revelation.—What is inspiration? It is simply the general expression for the feeling of true morality and freedom.—What is operation of grace? The whole life of the pious simply forms a series of operations of divine grace.” And he concludes his second speech from which these quotations are taken with these words: “The usual conception of Cod as one single being outside of the world and behind the world is not the beginning and end of religion. The true nature of religion is neither this idea nor any other, but immediate consciousness of the Deity as He is found in ourselves and in the world.” Therefore it is no more than consistent, that Schleiermacher in this work of his youth denies the exclusivity of Christianity, He writes; “In all ways the Deity is to be contemplated and worshiped. Varied types of religion are possible.”

Theological Position

It would carry us too far afield to consider the further course of the life of Schleiennacher in detail. During the Napoleonic oppression he was a fiery patriot who stirred his congregation in Berlin by his courageous sermons. At the same time he was dean of the theological faculty of the newly founded University. His main doctrinal work was published in 1821–1822 under the title; The Christian Faith according to the principles of the Evangelical Church. In this book he tries to adapt his original ideas more or less to the traditional doctrines of the Protestant churches. A liberal critic has declared: “In the Christology he became a supranaturalist, in exegesis he remained a rationalist, and it is this undecided shifting between two different points of view which created all the numerous vaguenesses which are characteristic for the old Schleiermacher.”8

However, the fundamental ideas of Schleiermacher remained the same.

He defines the essence of religion as the feeling of being absolutely dependent on God. The central place is given to Christ, not by reason of his Divinity but because our God-consciousness is imperfect while his was perfect. Sin means our lack of God-consciousness. Grace means communication with Christ who redeems us by giving us back the feeling of absolute dependence.

We cannot know Christ by means of the Bible, since it is only a human book. We know Christ only through the religious experience of others, first the apostles and then the Christian community founded by them. Thus the Church with its common experience becomes the source of our Christian faith. Dogmas are the expression of that common religious experience. Therefore some of them should be modified, as e.g. the doctrine of original sin, which does not refer to the first sin of our first parents, but to the fact that the whole human race is involved in sin. Other dogmas should be accepted only for the sake of their belonging to the common experience of the church even if one can not claim having experienced them personally, e.g. the dogma of the Trinity. Schleiermacher, however, does not retain much of this doctrine, explaining it in such a way that there is a unity of God and man both in the person of Christ and in the communal spirit of the church.

Although the Bible is not an inspired book, Schleiermacher points to the fact that its authors were inspired (dynamic inspiration). As a matter of fact this inspiration does not essentially differ from that present in all believers. Nor do all parts of Scripture share in it in the same measure. The Bible is both divine and human; it is not the revelation itself but the document of revelation. a fallible book in which we can find the truth.

The Impact of Schleiermacher

The influence of Schleielmacher’s theology has been immensely great. Bavinck rightly stated: “All the theology after him is dependent upon him.”9 His closest followers were the theologians of the so-called Mediating-theology (in Holland the ‘Ethical’ Theology), who were neither entirely liberal nor entirely orthodox. Riischl and Herrmann underwent his influence, but so also did Harnack and Troeltsch, All these men took their pOint of departure in human experience, in the human subject, in the human consciousness; and they dismissed the authority of the Bible as the infallible Word of God.

Reformed theology in its pure form consistently protested against this subjectivism. Especially Kuyper, Bavinck and Machen criticized its fallacies, The loudest protest, however, resounded in the voice of the dialectical theology since 1918. Emil Brunner condemned the Schleiermacher-theology in his Mysticism and the Word (1924). Although Karl Barth did not quite agree with this criticism, be also reprimanded this theology in no uncertain terms as a heresy as dangerous for real Christian theology as the old gnosticism.10

Yet this does not alter the fact that today a book such as Robinson’s Honest to God and the notion widely disseminated in mission theologies that all religions possess some-thing of the spirit of Christ stem from the climate which Schleiermacher created.

How Shall We Evaluate Him?

Schleiermacher was a brilliant theologian, an indefatigable preacher, a man in touch with life and men of his own time, a truly modem man. He had lively national and social interests. He pleaded for social insurance and shorter working days in a time in which evangelical leaders did not recognize their necessity.

His was a courageous act to defend the despised religion against rationalism, and he was right in his conviction, that religion is more than common sense, that it is not to be equated with reasoning, acting or willing.11

It is most deplorable, however, that Schleiermacher did not really conquer rationalism (as a matter of fact he showed himself to be friendly to the rationalists in the church to the end of his life). He failed to return to the objective authority of the Word of God but took his point of departure in the feeling of the human subject. Christian doctrines are, according to him, “conceptions of the Christian’s pious situation of his soul expressed in reasonable terms.”12 If he were not hemmed by his idea of the common experience of the historical Christian community, his theology might be characterized as a special domain of psychology. A German liberal scholar praises the “psychologism of his dogmatics” in these words: “He describes the pious situation of the Christian congregation without any dogmatic normativity and eliminates all that cannot be experienced and has no meaning as far as psychology is concerned, as e.g. the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension and the coming again of Jesus Christ.”13

William C. Fletcher is therefore correct when he completes his sympathetic sketch of Schleiermacher in a short chapter entitled, “Commentary on Schleiermacher: Feuerbach.” Feuerbach was the atheistic materialist who greatly influenced Karl Marx. Fletcher states: “For all the blasphemy of this man’s ideas, Feuerbach was merely carrying out to its logical conclusion the method on which Schleiermacher had built his entire theology.”14 All we can speak of is our human feeling. All our speaking of God is but a projection of our human ideas into the universe. God is man’s objectification of himself.

Because Schleiermacher did not restrict himself to his personal experience, however, but resorted to the common experience of the Christian church, he succeeded to some extent in escaping complete subjectivism. However, that common experience of the church is shifting sand. It brought Schleiermacher in the neighborhood of Rome, as Bavinck reminds us, “Schlciermacher has strongly supported Rome by his reversal of the relation between Scripture and church. Every one who abandons the standpoint of the Reformation promotes unconsciously the upbuilding of Rome.”15

Schleiennacher abandoned the idea of the absoluteness of Christianity. He was averse to calling Buddhism, Islam or any primitive religion false. All religions share the experience of religious feeling, and among them the Christian religion is the highest. In the same ~ay the different branches of Christianity represent different stages of religious feeling, yet they arc essentially one. According to Schleiermacher there is no legitimate reason for continued separate existence of the Protestant denominations. When the modern ecumenical movement draws up its family-tree, it should write the name of Schleiermacher on one of the roots.

We end with a word of Karl Barth: “The question how it has been possible that Schleiermacher himself was not frightened by this result, that he could be of the opinion as he really was -that he did not destroy the theology of Reformation, but that he took it up and continued it, that he did not observe that his result put a question-mark behind the decisive condition of all Christian theology in a way in which it was not done since the days of the old gnosis—this question is a problem which we cannot solve!”16


1. C. A. Briggs. History of the Study of Theology II, 1916, p. 186.

2. G.J. Vos. Groen van Prinsterer en zyn tyd I. 1886. biz. 43

3. K. Barth. Die Prot. Theologie 1m 19. Jahrhundert. 1947. S. 379,380.

4. W. Nigg. Gescb. des religiOsen Llberalismus. 1937. 5. 132,137.

5. A. Kuyper. Enc. der H. Godgeleerdheid III, bIx. 348–356.

6. K. Barth, o.c. S. 380.

7. From a letter, quoted by A. Graham Wanting, in his Introduction to ‘On Religion.’ 1955, p.X.

8. Nigg, o.c. S. 137.

9. H. Bavinck. Gereformeerde Dogmatiek 14, 1928, blz. 140.

10. Barth, o.c. S. 389,423.

11. Bavinck, o.c. blz. 487,488.

12. The Christian Faith, par. 12.

13. Kari Aner. Kirchengeschichte IV, 1931, 5. 160.

14. William C. Fletcher. The Moderns. 1962. p. 33.

15. Bavinck, o.c. biz. 438,439.

16. Barth, o.c.S. 423.

Often mention is made in books and articles of outstanding men who have helped to shape the theological and philosophical thought of our times. To many readers such men are little more than names. In a series of short articles something of their life and position and influence will be presented.

The first of these, on Schleiermacher who more than anyone else has set the stage for theological thought during tIle past central and a half, is presented by Dr. Louis Praamsma, formerly professor of Church History at Calvin Seminary and presently serving the Christian Reformed Church at Fruitland, Ontario.