What Am I Reading? Kevin Vander Schel on "Embedded Grace" - Schleiermacher on the Supernatural-Become-Natural

I don't win many things. I'm not good at playing the lottery (especially since I never play it), and I've never won a round of Monopoly. But the Center for Barth Studies made me a winner, at least once: I entered the winning photo caption for a KBC contest on Facebook and, for this willingness to embarrass myself, was rewarded with this superb monograph by Kevin M. Vander Schel. (Neither the shout out nor the review were obligatory, but I always like to give a hat tip to anyone who sends me a free book.) I was rewarded even more when I finally made some time recently to read it.

Embedded Grace: Christ, History, and the Reign of God in Schleiermacher's Dogmatics by Kevin M. Vander Schel (Fortress, 2013).

It is an academic monograph, of course, based on Vander Schel's doctoral dissertation at Boston College; nonetheless, this erudite -- yet not overly long -- study is eminently readable, even for the non-Schleiermacher expert (of course, some background in modern theology is helpful).Embedded Grace has numerous strengths.
It is, first of all, a first-rate piece of scholarship in historical theology that illuminates fascinating developments in post-Enlightenment German Protestant thought. In that vein, Vander Schel gives a concise and lucid synopsis of a crucial debate in European Protestant theology of the early 19th century -- the debate between the enlightened rationalists who located religious experience in a universally accessible and utterly natural principle of reason, on the one hand, and the supernaturalists who reasserted a unique and unsurpassable revelation codified in the inspired biblical texts, on the other hand. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), profoundly shaped both by his Moravian pietist upbringing and his readings in critical modern research after Kant, emerges as a kind of mediating figure between these extreme positions -- or perhaps better, as an advocate for an innovative third way that honors the concerns of both rationalist and supernaturalist while seeking to transcend the limitations of each school.

Moreover, Vander Schel focuses on the Berlin prodigy's mature work, which he takes to have an integrity in its own right, however it might reflect Schleiermacher's earlier work in the philosophy of religion and Platonic philosophy. He offers a close reading of the main argument of Schleiermacher's dogmatic magnum opus, The Christian Faith (1821), and he shows how these doctrinal concerns ramify in his largely neglected lectures on Christian ethics (which must be distinguished from earlier work in philosophical ethics). Schleiermacher's abiding concern in his later work, as Vander Schel interprets it, was to restate the essence and uniqueness of Christianity in a way that did not contradict the burgeoning natural and human sciences. His solution was to change the terms of the debate, by seeking to recast the "supernatural" in terms of the advent of the unique Savior Jesus within the flux of sinful human history. The sinless piety of Jesus (interpreted as perfected God-consciousness, an utter openness to the divine Spirit sufusing all the activities and passivities of life), cannot be accounted for on strictly natural terms within the process of human development. Jesus' perfection is, thus, "relatively supernatural" -- the one miracle allowed in Schleiemacher's account, albeit the one fact upon which the one decree of God in creation and consummation is seen to subsist.

Vander Schel takes seriously Schleiermacher's often ignored insistence that his dogmatics follows a logic of its own -- a logic that stems from concrete, social Christian experience -- that cannot be simply derived from the general anthropological considerations sketched in the prolegommena.
As Scheiermacher confided to his friend Dr. Lücke, he debated revising the topical order of The Christian Faith, to emphasize that the system as a whole is grounded upon and flows from the collective Christian experience of redemption in Jesus Christ: Schleiermacher insists that the introduction, which sketches a phenomenology of religion as absolute dependence (harkening back to the Speeches on Religion of 1799) and the first part of the dogmatics, which traces the relationship between Creator and creature, are propadeutic moves that find their true meaning in the concrete and collective experience of redemption as conquest of sin within Christian communities. In other words, the (arguably) high Christology of Jesus as the one who incarnates utter openness to the divine presence is the confessional dog that wags the apologetic tail, and not vice versa.

Critics from the right and left, from Schleiermacher's day until now, have criticized (or perhaps praised, as in Barth's case) Schleiermacher's Christocentric focus on a unique Savior as an incongruity that threatens to unravel his system. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), for instance, complained that asserting the Savior's supernatural uniqueness, even in an attenuated form, thwarted the theologian's claim to fully embrace critical historical research. Vander Schel writes:

This observation [by Strauss] touches on the tension at the heart of the present study. Within Schleiermacher's dogmatic theology, the historical appearance of Christ that inaugurates the Reign of God signals the one true miracle of the created world and indeed the miracle of miracles. Yet this affirmation does not -- as Strauss judges -- indicate a point of oversight or inconsistency in Schleiermacher's theology, as if revealing and accidental invasion of transcendence into an otherwise immanent historical system. Instead, Schleiermacher's description of Christ's appearance and surpassing influence in history signals the fundamental relationship underlying his dogmatic vision throughout: the divine redemptive activity of Christ tranforming the natural and historical world from within, bringing creation to is completed fulfillment and perfection (pp. 223-224).

On the contrary, Vander Schel argues: The explication of the figure of Jesus, the new Adam who initiates a new mode of Christian living within the bonds of finite existence, is the linchpin that unites and permeates the system as a whole. By forming a community of discipleship centered on his unique and irreplaceable piety, Jesus initiates a movement that aims to transform humanity from the ground up, building the reign of God on earth. Whether one ultimately accepts, rejects or critically modifies Schleiermacher's revisionist account of Christian faith, Vander Schel at least has made a strong case for the internal coherence and perspecuity -- even beauty, I'd go so far to say -- of the great Berlin theologian's systematic theology.



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