Was Schleiermacher a Universalist? Sanders Weighs In

In laying out his typology of diverse Christian viewpoints on the fate of the evangelized, James E. Sanders numbers Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the "father of modern theology," among those renegades in the West who affirm universal salvation. By Sanders' definition, the universalist claims that everyone, the unevangelized included, will be "saved" in the end -- ergo, "that all human beings will ultimately be reconciled to God, that none will be eternally damned" (p. 81). This passage gave me pause: Is that really an apropos way to characterize the radically revisionist soteriology of the 19th century Berlin theologian? As we shall see, nothing with Schleiermacher ever is that simple.

No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized, by John E. Sanders (Eeerdmans, 1992).

Sanders discusses Schleiermacher only in passing. Oliver D. Crisp has outlined a possible minority-report option for universalism within the broader umbrella of the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition, via an emphasis upon the Irresistibility of grace (See his Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, Fortress, 2014, chap. 4). Sanders' Schleiermacher, perhaps, might sojourn under this tent.
The Last Judgment, by Viktor Vasnetsov (1904)
Photo by Scatestle (Via Wikimedia Commons, PD-1994)
Thus, we learn:
Some universalists are determinists, arguing that God's all-powerful will overrides human freedom to bring all people to salvation; Friedrich Schleiermacher is perhaps the best-known proponent of this position (p. 82).
This claim raises potential yellow cards (if not quite red flags) for me, especially vis-a-vis this way of characterizing the relationship between divine and human agency. Full disclosure: Heavily influenced by Kathryn Tanner, I've always been inclined to situate Schleiermacher squarely within the dual-causality tradition of Western Christian thought; according to this paradigm, divine and human agency operative in a noncontrastive manner, at ontolgoically distinct levels, such that any claims for a providence that determines creaturely action must be nuanced a tad. Then again, Schleiermacher's radical insistence upon divine omnicausality (the notion that God wills everything, evil included) is a bit unusual and might naturally elicit the appellation monergeism. But I can see this post is way over budget already, so I'll leave that question aside for now.

Fortunately, Sanders elaborates and clarifies his claim a few pages later:

Schleiermacher argued for a single predestination by which all people would be saved through God's omnipotent grace. In arriving at this conclusion, he rejected two crucial doctrines: limited atonement and election. He argued that Jesus died for all people, and since there can be no favoritism or caprice in God, all people must be elected in Christ (p. 91).

(I hate to disappoint you yet again, gentle readers, but we're not going to even attempt to unpack the ways that Schleiermacher appropriates and upends atonement language. Paging Gustav Aulen?) Sanders continues:

He repudiated the Arminian idea of conditional election based on human faith on the grounds that it would make salvation a matter of works rather than grace. He also rejected the argument that God elects certain individuals because he foresees that they will have faith (ibid.).

As Sanders rightly suggests, both those ideas introduce an "element of conditionality" in the doctrine of God and of providence that Schleiermacher would rule out of bounds. In a final reference to the Berlin thinker (on p. 97), Sanders says Schleiermacher dismisses the notion of eternal damnation on the grounds that it would spoil the bliss of the elect. (Followers of C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine should mull over that one a bit more, perhaps.)

But none of Sanders' foregoing claims get at my real question: What would it mean, for Schleiermacher, to claim that everyone is saved? It is well and good to claim (if it happens to be true) that no one is condemned eternally. But does his dogmatics leave a space for personal "immortality," for the conscious persistence of one's identity beyond the grave? What can the modern Christian, following Schleiermacher, make of the question of the afterlife? In a previous post , after all, I argued that Sanders' typology of soteriologies presupposes a traditional account of life after death.

Since I haven't read the relevant passages in Schleiermacher's Christian Faith for a few years, I decided to do a little review. My source is the older English edition (ed. H.R. MacIntosh and J.S. Stewart, T&T Clark, 1999). The most relevant place to look (logically enough) is near the end of the dogmatic treatise, in the division titled "The Consummation of the Church" (pars. 157-163, pp. 696-722). If 27 pages seems innocuous enough to you, you'd better think again: This is Schleiermacher, and passages shorter than this have been the making of dissertations. Now, I'm a North American rather than a German, so one dissertation is enough for me, thank you very much.

But, at any rate, I can blog through this question a bit more on later occasions. One hint at where this might be heading, though: It does not suffice to try to answer what Schleiermacher speculates upon, "believes" or "affirms" in the framework of his dogmatics. The question always comes back to this: What may or must we say on the basis of the criterion of faith -- that is, the communal piety shaped by the redeeming, person-transforming influence of the Savior. So stay tuned, friends!



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