Barth on the Incontestable Greatness of Schleiermacher’s “Christian Faith”

Karl Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24 (Dietrich Ritschl, ed.; Geoffrey W. Bromiley, trans.; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company): 189-90. Bold is me; italics is Barth.
The incontestable greatness of the Glaubenslehre consists in good part of the fact that in spite of its bulk of over a thousand pages is can be easily surveyed because it is well arranged, and it is well arranged because it simply develops a single thought. Older dogmatic works like Augustine’s Enchiridion, Bonaventura’s Breviloquium, Aquinas’ Summar, Calvin’s Institutes, and Zwingli’s Commentary on True and False Religion, not to speak of Melanchthon’s Loci, cannot even remotely compare with it in this regard. In them the material constantly bursts with invisible force out of the confines of the system that no doubt the authors had before them as an ideal. The adopted order, even if it is skillfully worked out as in the Scholastics, is more or less accidental, and there is a constant need to show the reader why this or that part of the material is necessary. The closest to the Glaubenslehre in this regard is a small but famous work from the Reformation period, namely, the Heidelberg Catechism with its three sections on man’s misery, redemption, and gratitude, but even here the four main catechetical materials which, with more or less justification, are introduced unsalted and undivided into the three divisions see to it that anything that might be called a system is not in fact present. But a system is present in Schleiermacher, and it is so in almost suspiciously brilliant fashion, one might say, if one compares it with the unsuccessful efforts of the older masters. The material is forced into a mold. We now know why we must speak about this and this and this in dogmatics, and why we must do so in precisely this context; this is the charm of the work. There is no place for anything contingent, strange, or indigestible in the statements of the Bible or the dogmas of the church. A sizeable dwelling in early Victorian style has been erected on the meadow that was strewn with erratic blocks, and it has been built of the very same stones, but now trimmed and shaped. Spirit has looked at nature, and invaded, conquered, and subordinated it. But is it not suspicious that this could be done so completely, or almost completely? Are the statements of the Bible and the church no more than natural forces which like steam and electricity were simply waiting for the research and reflection and the shaping hand of men to serve their destiny, that is, that of men? Was this triumph possible without all kinds of reinterpretations, truncations, wrestlings, and jugglings? Does not the waxlike pliability which those statements that were so hard in the hands of the ancients have now suddenly acquired indicate that, while their wording remains the same, they have undergone a change of substance which has made them different from what they once were? Was the lack of success in the systems of the ancients only a sign of their lack of skill and not perhaps a sign of their greater objectivity relative to the material? The difference is this. To get to know the content of their dogmatics we have to travel with them up and down across all kinds of clefts and racing streams through a wilderness of forest or mountain, whereas with Schleiermacher we have only to look around for a panoramic view and we can see everything, even if only, unfortunately, in succession – and he suggests at times that we should be able to do it with a single, comprehensive, central look.


Andrew Esqueda said…
Travis, this is a great quote. I think it is a very good thing that current Barth scholars are bringing Barth's appreciation of Schleiermacher to the fore. Schleiermacher is all too often painted in a negative light.
Jon Watson said…
That's a great quote, written in Barth's ever-charming and philosophical manner.

Speaking of Schleiermacher, his works are now available at Logos Bible Software.

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