Authority and Bible in Schleiermacher’s Theology—more from Daniel Pedersen

In my last post post, I talked about my preferred approach to relating the introductory sections (§§1-31) of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith to his concrete theological claims later in the book. A great advantage of my approach is that it offers a better way to understand how Schleiermacher meant his method and dogmatic particulars to relate. In other words, this approach makes Schleiermacher’s method more understandable.

In this post, I want to stick with the theme of Schleiermacher’s introductory sections. This time, however, I want to say something about the why of Schleiermacher’s introductory sections. I am convinced that we don’t really understand what Schleiermacher is up to unless we understand his motives. In this post, I will say something about one motive in particular: the search for an adequate authority.

One story we could tell about §§1-31 of The Christian Faith is that they were a thought experiment. Or that these sections were the product of whimsy. Or they were merely a codification of Schleiermacher’s personal convictions. On any of these stories, or those like them, Schleiermacher had no reason, or only private reasons, for his approach to dogmatics. Schleiermacher's basic commitments risk being arbitrary.

Some of Schleiermacher’s admirers and some of his critics would like this to be true, at least in certain ways. His admirers benefit by not having to defend the introduction: “That’s just how he does dogmatics,” one might say. And, on this view, Schleiermacher neither can be, nor should be, defended more than that. On the other hand, his opponents can simply denounce his method, and the rest, as wrong-headed from the start; or they could stage arguments against his starting points from their consequences without a view to the intrinsic or comparative merits of those starting points.

This approach is too easy in both cases. It is lazy, even. Looking to Schleiermacher’s motives helps us continue and deepen the conversation. It also makes his difficult work more intelligible. This can be a boon to new students, especially.

Among his many motives, the issue of authority figures prominently in making sense of what Schleiermacher is up to. In what follows I will set up this problem and show (briefly) how Schleiermacher’s emphasis on consciousness aims to solve it.

Many Christians think biblical authority is the ground of Christian faith. Christians believe what we believe because the Bible says so. It is the sole relevant authority. It is not only a necessary authority, but a sufficient one.

This is a noble and traditional view. But there is a problem: in reply to the claim that I, as a Christian, believe what I believe because of scripture’s authority, someone can always ask me why I believe in scripture’s authority in the first place? Despite its earnest, child-like but why?!? form, this is a serious and pressing question.

It is a serious question because it very quickly reduces my first answer to something else. That is, any good answer to the question—and there are some good answers—does so at the cost of abandoning my initial claim.

To show what I mean, here are two ways that conversation could go:
Daniel: I believe what I believe on the Bible’s authority.

Danielle: But why do you believe that?

Daniel: The Bible is trustworthy because it tells me it’s trustworthy; and I can believe it because it tells me that I can, and should, believe what it says.

Danielle: That explanation is viciously circular. You have not really answered my question at all. The answer you give really means either: 1) I don’t have a good reason to believe in biblical authority; or 2) I just do believe in it, and I don’t need to offer you any more reason than that. If 2), you'd have to give me more reasons for that claim, and so on.

What Danielle has done here is to force me to concede that either my belief in biblical authority enjoys some other ground or grounds or to refuse to answer the question. The latter option is no good: I haven’t succeeded because I have declined to even try.

But, of course, an astute reader will notice that this doesn’t mean I have to ditch biblical authority. I have an out. But that is where Danielle can press me again:

Daniel: I believe in biblical authority for a variety of reasons. For instance, the Bible seems to explain past and future occurrences best; trustworthy people have told me it is trustworthy; it is a traditional view that the Bible is authoritative, and so on.

Danielle: Those might all count as good reasons. But notice: you have now grounded biblical authority in something else. That does not mean the Bible is not authoritative, but it does mean it isn’t the end of the line, as you had originally claimed.

What Danielle has now done is to force me to revise a number of my original claims about biblical authority. The Bible is not my sole authority because I believe at least some relevant things, namely biblical authority itself, on other grounds. And because it is not sole, it is not sufficient. The Bible fails to explain at least one really important thing: namely, why I look to the Bible for explanations in the first place.

How does this connect to the introductory sections of The Christian Faith? Well, Kant had given a similar argument when Schleiermacher was a young man. Kant had shown that the version of biblical authority I began by defending wouldn’t do. And Schleiermacher knew that argument and took it to heart.

Instead, Schleiermacher sought warrant for Christian faith in a different, though related, source: the Christian consciousness of redemption. It is our experience of redemption that authorizes our belief in it. It is then our experience of redemption which, in turn, gives credence to outside attestations of that experience, like scripture, the confessions, and more.

In fact, for Schleiermacher, consciousness does not merely ground the Christian consciousness of redemption, but a range of our most basic beliefs. It is consciousness of our (relative) freedom which authorizes our belief in that freedom. It is consciousness of being part of a world which authorizes our belief in a universal nature system. And although their objects (God, the world, etc.) are different, and so the species of consciousness is different in each case, they all share this basic structure: we have beliefs about things because we are aware (conscious) of them; and we are aware of them because we have experienced them.

I don’t have time to fully explain, let alone defend, Schleiermacher’s alternative account here. But that is not my goal in any case. My point is simply that a good deal of the work §§1-31 are supposed to do is to provide a different basis for Christian belief, since grounding that belief in biblical authority alone won’t do. This goes some way to explaining why he sets up his dogmatics in this way. It also means that anyone who wants to argue against Schleiermacher’s account of authorities will have to show how their alternative is superior to Schleiermacher’s; and, specifically, how their alternative account does not reduce to an unworkable notion of biblical authority or how, in an effort to avoid the same pitfalls, it doesn’t simply repeat Schleiermacher’s solution in different dress.

[Ed. note: Dr. Daniel Pedersen is a postdoctoral researcher. His book, The Eternal Covenant: Schleiermacher on God and Natural Science, is scheduled to appear in print in late 2017.]


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Thanks, Daniel, for another superb and stimulating post. I realize it was your purpose to explicate -- or to begin to explicate -- Schleiermacher's account of religious authority rather than to defend it. But please allow me to pose a couple questions about how he might answer some rejoinders:

Some folks who defend the notion of the Bible as an independent source of revelatory authority claim that some such "objective" source of norms (note my quote marks) provides ballast against the solipsism of individual religious experience. Schleiermacher, I think, has an answer from within his account: the Christian consciousness of redemption is communally constituted and mediated (have I put that accurately?). So far, so good. But then one might come back with the problem of the parochialism of any particular religious community -- its ostensible right to authenticate is own witness from its own resources. Put another way: How can we answer the charge that Christian religious experience reflects the problem of individual experience writ large? Put yet another way, to get back to your point contrasting FS's starting point with that of the biblicist: Can Schleiermacher offer us a way around the problem of circularity in religious authority? Or maybe circularity is just the nature of the beast -- Christian faith is a confessional matter, after all -- and we shouldn't worry so much about it?

Some biblicists worry about the charge of vicious circularity quite a bit and thus seek some sort of extrinsic authority to back up the biblical claims (and show here how that process works). Others care a lot less about it. And still others care about it not at all -- or at least pretend not to care about it (which I once did on this very website), when in fact we find it quite worrisome. So how, in your view, might a Schleiermachian begin to allay such worries?
Daniel said…

Thank you very much, I am happy, as always, to contribute. And you ask an excellent question--or handful of questions. Let me take a stab at them and see if my answer satisfies. If not, feel free to keep pressing me.

First, in regard to your question about parochialism. You are indeed right that Schleiermacher thinks the Christian consciousness of redemption is mediated across time and space by communities and traditions. This already provides a check. And, indeed, this involves an important and legitimate use of biblical authority, along with other authorities. However, there is another side to Schleiermacher's theology which is rarely touched: namely, that he give very detailed, very controversial, very philosophical arguments for how he thinks the Christian consciousness of redemption can be legitimately explained, and against views he thinks are untenable. Some of these arguments are staged using intra-Christian beliefs as premises, some are arguments from premises shared with other monotheistic religions, and some are publicly available first principles that do not derive from the specifically Christian consciousness of redemption at all. I don't have space to flesh these out here, but I do in great detail in my book. The point though is that these provide a check both by nesting Christian claims within broader communities of accountability, and, very importantly, by having coherence and non-contradiction as absolute back-stops. If you cannot think it, it cannot be true--whether you claim the Christian consciousness of redemption authorizes it or not. So Schleiermacher has this very democratic, very historicized account of authority, but also is much more insistent on rational inspection than many of his defenders and detractors have recognized. As he says in the Speeches, "The religious person need not know fully, but they cannot know falsely."

That covers the issue of contestability, I think, but you also ask a very important question about circularity and grounds for Christian belief.

On this second point, let me say that I don't think Schleiermacher is driven by the tradition of epistemology that assumes skepticism is a genuine option. In his philosophical works, Schleiermacher dismisses the idea out of hand. And that is why I framed the issue as one of authority first, and warrant and belief second. I take it that Schleiermacher is mostly concerned with the right ordering of *explainer* and *thing-to-be-explained*. On my reading, Schleiermacher is substituting the consciousness of God and world in place of the bible as the phenomena to be explained. The bible can help us do that explaining, of course. But the Bible as supposed thing-to-be-explained isn't the real end of the line; and inquiring into biblical authority helps us see that. But why doesn't that criticism apply to experience in the same way? Well, because there are good reasons to think that you cannot get behind experience, that it lives up to its role as ultimate explanandum--unlike biblical authority. In other words, if you go with consciousness, there are promising reasons to opt for 2) (in my dialogue with Danielle), reasons that biblical authority does not have access to, or at least cannot access as naturally.

Daniel said…
Last, let me throw in a brief contrast with Thomas Aquinas to make this more clear. Thomas says that testimony is the least reliable form of authority--unless it is the Bible, because then it is God talking and God is perfectly trustworthy. The Bible, then, despite deriving its authority from testimony is the *most reliable* authority. I take it what Schleiermacher is up to is saying, "Wait, that is a much more difficult case to make than Thomas maybe thought. What would the place of the Bible and other authorities look like if we didn't make this ad hoc exception?" The result is something like Plato and Aristotle's views of the sciences, just like Thomas held, applied to theology in the same way it applies to, say, celestial mechanics. I hope that example helps more than it hurts.
Fascinating. You're proving to me that I need to reread this material -- with your book in hand, when it comes out. Your first set of comments suggests to me that FS is the sort of thinker who likely would have been nonplussed by Feuerbachian critiques of religious consciousness. Or at least he'd have some resources for meeting such attacks. And that would make sense, given that you say his account of religious experience as authority is not reductionist but rather philosophically complex. From your first post, I was inferring (probably incorrectly) that where you were headed was an account that flipped the cart/horse question in FS's method -- the confessional commitments governing the use of the transcendental methods laid out in the intro rather than vice versa. (It's been a while since I've looked at it, but that was how I was taught to see the point of the Letters to Luecke). Now in light of your recent comments I'm thinking my first take was a bit too simplistic, that the intro and the material expositions are more mutually informing. That is, if I'm reading you correctly here.
Daniel said…
Scott, Again, that is too kind of you. I hope the book proves worthy.

In the meanwhile, yes, absolutely, Schleiermacher would have been utterly unimpressed by Feuerbach (on many counts). To doubt our consciousness of God is analogous to doubting that we live in a world, or that we are selves.

In connection to the first post, allow me to clarify: I champion using Schleiermacher's contentful explication of doctrine to aid us in determining the *meaning* of his introduction. That does not mean that the confessional commitments govern the intro, *or* vice versa. I take it Schleiermacher is attempting to secure mutual accountability between different authorities, and, at the same time, between principles and content. So again, yes, mutually informing. Exactly right. Though I hasten to add that it is also not so simple as the intro providing the principles and the body of the work the content. The introductory material also turns out to contain quite a bit more concrete content and philosophical detail than most admit or recognize--much like if how I claim to be conscious of being part of a world that already both presumes and implies a great deal--and the meat of the theology also includes some bold and enormously important first principles, some of which are specifically Christian, some of which are fully public.

Daniel, I am glad you referred to testimony in your note on Aquinas and FS. I am not sure of the connection between consciousness of redemption and testimony, but it seems as if both the Old and New Testimony are not offering just an expression of their consciousness of redemption. Rather, they are referring to another "thing to be explained," namely, a redemptive act of God. I am thinking here mostly of the apostolic testimony to the word, deed, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible becomes a trustworthy testimony or witness to that act. Christian tradition and the historical community of believers are apostolic in the sense that they carry out the apostolic project of explaining the act of reconciliation and redemption in Christ. They remain faithful to that biblical testimony. We have every right to examine whether the biblical testimony is faithful to the event to be explained. I would carefully suggest that Christian theology needs to preserve the event nature of our theology, and that one can do so by focusing upon the apostolic testimony to that event. If FS is focusing only upon internal consciousness of redemption, it seems as if he is divorcing that consciousness from the uniqueness of the event biblical testimony seeks to explain.
Daniel said…
George, Thanks for taking the time to craft a reply. Let me see if I can address your comment and maybe even allay your concerns.

The first bit of good news is that Schleiermacher agrees with you that the witness of the Bible absolutely refers to, and is, in a strong sense, *caused by* the redemption accomplished in Christ. That is an important point to clarify and I'm very grateful you brought it up.

Your second claim, however, runs into the problems posed by the argument in my dialogues above. You say, "the Bible becomes a trustworthy witness," and so on. That is fine. Schleiermacher agrees. But *why* it is trustworthy? To say it's trustworthy because it "remains faithful" does not yet answer the question. You have simply repeated the claim *that* it is trustworthy, not answered *why* it is trustworthy. Schleiermacher's answer to this problem is to ground the authority of scripture in the consciousness of redemption.

Next, some more good news. His position is as far from divorcing our consciousness of redemption from Christ as you can get. Schleiermacher, as above, thinks that Christ *causes* our consciousness of redemption. And he has a very strong notion of causality to back this up. This consciousness is Christ's power made manifest. In other words, our consciousness of redemption *is* Christ's own redeeming work.

Last, it is very tempting to think that consciousness maps onto some notion of "internal." DO NOT BE TEMPTED BY THIS ERROR. To be conscious is to be awake versus asleep, aware versus unaware, *not* something related to internal states. Recall that Schleiermacher thinks we are conscious of being part of a world. To be conscious of the world is to be aware that there is such a world, as opposed to unaware of it. Our consciousness of the world reliably tracks or grasps the actual state of affairs. And, just like redemption, the way this happens is that the world *causes* our consciousness of it. Far from divorced, our consciousness is in intimate connection with the world--and, for Christians, with Christ's powerful God-consciousness.

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