Schleiermacher on the Mercy of God

Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart; New York, NY: T & T Clark / Continuum, 2006), §85.1: 353.

I post this not because I agree with it (in broad strokes, I don’t), but because part of it struck me as particularly well done. That is, I found myself in awe of the power of the author’s mind even as I disagreed with the content it produced. The argument is superb, even if the system presupposed is finally not convincing. I have included a few notes in []’s.
§ 85. To attribute mercy to God is more appropriate to the language of preaching and poetry than to that of dogmatic theology.

For one thing, preaching and poetry can afford to be less precise in their use of anthropopathic terms. And mercy is certainly such a term in a pre-eminent degree, since in the human sphere we apply it exclusively to a state of feeling specially evoked by the sufferings of others and finding outlet in acts of relief. Such helpful ministration is, no doubt, an ethical activity, but here it is conditioned by a sensuous sympathy, namely, the pain produced in us by hampered conditions in the lives of others; and, in fact, if the help tendered does not spring from such a feeling we do not call it mercy. In this sense mercy is the counterpart of ‘kindness,’ i.e. the helpfulness in which the correlative sensuous sympathy, namely, pleasure in some furtherance of life in the case of others, plays a part; and here, too, help given without such feeling behind it would not be called kindness. Thus neither of these qualities, as so understood, can be applied to God without our bringing Him under the antithesis of the agreeable and the disagreeable.
[N.B. – Bringing God under any sort of creaturely antithesis, like ‘the agreeable and the disagreeable,’ is a big mistake as far as Schleiermacher is concerned.]
And even if we were to overlook this and use the two terms solely of the respective acts of helpfulness, yet it would be out of keeping with the character of teleological (ethical) religions [Christianity being of this type] were we to admit, in a rigorously formulated system of doctrine, a divine causality bent upon a sensuous furtherance of life simply as such. Nor can the difficulty of finding a place for the conception of mercy in God be due to our looking for it at this particular stage of our inquiry. For, as mercy obviously presupposes evil and the consciousness of evil, the discussion of it could not well come before that of evil; while, again, as mercy always implies some degree of separateness between the two parties involved – for within a closer group, as between father and children, we do not speak of mercy – the objects of God’s mercy cannot be those who are already enjoying, and in so far as they are enjoying, their part in redemption.
[The power of this last sentence can be missed if one does not know that the consciousness of evil and sin for Schleiermacher arises only in connection with the consciousness of redemption. So, we can talk about mercy only if we are already conscious of evil, and we can talk about evil only if we are conscious of redemption, but mercy is not properly discussed with reference to redemption because mercy implies a separateness between God and humanity that is not present within redemption. Thus, with two masterful sword-strokes, Schleiermacher cuts away any possibility of speaking of God’s mercy, at least within his system.]


JohnLDrury said…
Genuis! I'm with you in not buying the argument, probably b/c I have a different notion of the relation between the language of piety and the language of dogmatics. But this kind of subtle argument is exactly what we should all aspire to.

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