How to Understand Schleiermacher's Theology—A guest post by Daniel Pedersen

Anyone who has read the first one-hundred or so pages of The Christian Faith knows that it is rough going. While all of Schleiermacher’s writings are sophisticated, and so difficult, the introductory sections (§§1-31) of that work might be the most taxing.

This is a problem. Many, or even most, courses on Schleiermacher only read the introduction (along with the Speeches and some other works). This can make studying Schleiermacher frustrating, and so discourage folks from reading further into the meat of his thought.

This heavy emphasis on Schleiermacher’s introduction also implies, or at least suggests, that Schleiermacher’s work is, first and foremost, driven by method, by a set of rules or procedures; that what Schleiermacher did was come up with these rules and then, like a computer program, let them run. If so, his readers should repeat the process to really understand him. And that means getting his method right first.

Now, I won’t disagree that method is important to Schleiermacher’s theology. He does, after all, devote more than 100 pages to introducing the work, and some of that is on method. But I think the usual way of reading Schleiermacher has the tail wagging the dog.

What I also want to do is to give readers, including beginning readers, a strategy to read The Christian Faith that does not bog them down in those introductory sections. The strategy is simple, but powerful: determine Schleiermacher’s meaning by looking to his use.

Nothing could be more ordinary than determining something’s meaning by looking to its use. A dictionary writer looks to how competent speakers and writers use a word when composing definitions. A judge looks to legal precedent, the history of a law’s application, when determining a law’s meaning in a new case. I suggest reading Schleiermacher this way.

In the concrete, this strategy looks like this. First, get a quick familiarity with Schleiermacher’s introductory sections. Skim them if you have to. Simply read the section headings. Just don’t get bogged down. Second, pick a topic of interest, say, Christology, or, one of my favorite topics, the divine attributes. Go see what Schleiermacher has to say about that topic in that section. Repeat for other sections until you have a grasp of what Schleiermacher broadly has to say on the major common places. I say “broadly” because no one can understand Schleiermacher fully in one pass. The more in-depth you want to get with him, the more you repeat the whole process.

But ok, you now have at least a basic idea of what he thinks about creation, Christ, the church, and whatever else. Now, in order to better understand his introduction, you must supply a premise. That premise is this: that Schleiermacher knew how to apply his method, and did so well all, or at least most, of the time. In short, you give him the benefit of the doubt.

Step three, then, is easy, but all-important. If Schleiermacher mostly, or always, used his method well; and if, as he claims, you can only make dogmatic claims that are authorized by his approach, then you can infer that his method must, minimally, authorize the particular claims he makes. That might sound trivial, but a surprising number of mistakes Schleiermacher’s readers make could be avoided if they followed this rule.

Here is a quick example: God’s omnipotence.

The traditional reading goes something like this. Schleiermacher seems to have a lot to say about God’s omnipotence. Some of it is remarkably specific, remarkably philosophical, and remarkably different from what some other theologians have claimed. It seems Schleiermacher has many definite thoughts on the matter. BUT WAIT! According to what we learn in §§1-31, dogmatics can’t authorize such claims. In fact, according to those sections, we can’t even say anything about God. We must have read Schleiermacher wrong on God’s omnipotence.

I think this is a mistake. A big mistake. And my approach avoids the problem.

Instead, the reading on my approach goes like this. Schleiermacher has much to say about God’s omnipotence. Some of it is philosophical, etc. He has many definite thoughts on the matter. All claims in his dogmatics must follow from, or at least cohere with, §§1-31. Therefore, Schleiermacher’s detailed, concrete, sometimes highly philosophical, sometimes unusual claims about God’s omnipotence are authorized, or even necessitated, by his introductory sections.

What makes this important, besides understanding Schleiermacher as best we can, is that both Schleiermacher’s critics and his friends have made the above mistake. In consequence, I think many people get Schleiermacher wrong on some important points. And this should matter to you whether you want to defend him or criticize him. If I am right, since many of his friends and critics have made at least some important mistakes, that means the field is wide-open for students and scholars to engage Schleiermacher anew.

Finally, the approach I advocate makes Schleiermacher more accessible to new students. The usual approach where his method is read against his detailed claims results in frustrating “gotcha” moments where, students are told, Schleiermacher didn’t really mean what he said because of this or that methodological rule. In contrast, the approach I advocate means you can be confident you are not being duped. And that means the hard work you put into understanding Schleiermacher— and it is hard! —is not in vain.

[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 so much for this excellent post, Daniel. I'm intrigued by your practical proposal that we interpret FS by use -- that is, that we see his interpretations of specific doctrines as informing how he uses his theoretical framework in the early sections. And this procedure, as you suggest, flips on its head a common way of misreading him. Very helpful indeed!

My question is this: Given that an emphasis on the use of language in theology is very common in contemporary constructive work -- for example, among theologians, say, influenced by Anglo-American linguistic philosophy, how might you see Schleiermacher as contributing to those conversations about theological method today? Thanks!
Daniel said…
Scott, Thanks for your feedback. And I'm glad you found this intriguing. Thank you also for your question. Let me take a very quick stab at a preliminary answer.

Most importantly, I would emphasize in regard to the philosophy of language, that getting that topic right is important. I think many approaches to language create more problems than they solve. So I would not advocate just any ole account of language and I don't think a focus on language *in itself* helps us understand Schleiermacher better.

But there is another interesting side to this: that Schleiermacher himself thought a lot about language and how we understand each other. He describes hermeneutics very basically as "the art of avoiding misunderstanding." That implies that understanding is not only possible, but the norm; that we should *expect* to understand each other. The best way to do this, according to Schleiermacher, is dialogue. It is the ordinary conversation that is archetypical for his account, not a highfalutin theory of interpretation. My hope is that we approach Schleiermacher in the way he said we should approach every text, every speech, every conversation.

Finally, let me answer your specific question about his contemporary contribution. If Schleiermacher is right on this - and I think there are good reasons to think he is - then there is nothing special about language or meaning in theology. His method is specific insofar as it regards a specific thing, God, and particular authorities, like the God-consciousness, tradition, and scripture. To follow Schleiermacher on this, then, would be to actually focus *less* on language. He simply doesn't doubt that understanding is possible. But he has lots of things to say in virtue of the special subject-matter and proper authorities of theology. I hope Schleiermacher's contribution is to return us to those latter conversations.

Thanks again for your comments and questions Scott. I hope that helped!
Indeed, thanks! So does this sound like a reasonable takeaway, on your reading?

1.) The special concerns and commitments of the Christian theologian mobilizes certain uses of language -- uses that are specific to the context of the theologian within the community of faith.

On the other hand...

2.) The language of theology is still everyday language. In other words, theological claims are neither so esoteric nor so restricted to the community of faith (and its culture, practices, symbols, etc.) that a charitable interlocutor from outside the fold can't engage and understand what the theologian is saying. For example, I can speak meaningfully about the Eucharist, say, with a Buddhist without her having to be immersed in the practice herself. Or something like that.

Am I getting you?
Daniel said…
Scott, yes, this is right so long as in 1) you understand the "use" in "mobilize certain uses" as simply saying specific things, not a categorically different sort of use. So, for example, on my reading, the consciousness of God authorizes us to say that we are absolutely dependent on God and then to flesh out what we mean by that. And then yes, absolutely, 2). So, while a Buddhist might not think what I say about God is true, they can at least know what I mean when I say what I do--indeed, any evaluation of the truth of my claim (or any claim) *presupposes* adequate mutual understanding of my meaning. What do you think?
I like it! I think it has fruitful implications, say, for inter-religious dialogue and comparative theology (as in my example). And also it is a helpful corrective to a certain trajectory in theological method in recent decades -- but I'm not going to get myself into hot water by saying anything more specific about that. ;-)

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