Schleiermacher Is An Apologist

opened book

The New Testament authors are not reluctant to identify the ill intent of false teachers. False teachers pursue ministry for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, monetary gain, and even sexual immorality. They are condemned not merely for their false teaching but also for their corrupt motives.

There are those who introduce error into the church with such destructive purposes. But it remains true that much error enters the church from those with good intentions. It has often been noted that Uzzah’s good intentions did not justify his violation of God’s orders about the Ark of the Covenant. A faithful churchman must remain vigilant, because even those with good hearts will sometimes lead a church away from her mission.

My specific field of interest is apologetics. I love thinking about the defense of the faith—and more than that, I love having opportunities to answer objections and make the case for Christianity to those who do not believe. But there is a danger to the church that arises from the work of apologetics, and I want to argue here that it is the best intentions of the apologist that make apologetics most dangerous to the church.

It is the best intentions of the apologist that make apologetics most dangerous to the church.

To illustrate this danger, I want us to consider Friedrich Schleiermacher. This might seem an odd choice, for several reasons. Schleiermacher is often given the title “the father of liberal theology.” His thought is complex; in places, I must confess I do not even find it wholly intelligible. But his goal is clear, and that is important for us.

Schleiermacher’s most important work is his 1799 volume On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.1Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern The title is on point: Schleiermacher is writing about religion to those who believe religion unworthy of their attention. The Enlightenment had made belief in the supernatural untenable for the educated class.

Schleiermacher is addressing exactly this audience, asking them not to dismiss true religion so heedlessly. True religion, he contends, has virtually nothing to do with affirming the supernatural intervention of God in history, the unique deity of Jesus, or his atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Instead, true religion is something like this:

The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal. Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling, only as such an existence in the Infinite and Eternal. Where this is found religion is satisfied, where it hides itself there is for her unrest and anguish, extremity and death. Wherefore it is a life in the infinite nature of the Whole, in the One and in the All, in God, having and possessing all things in God, and God in all.

Traditional Christian beliefs and even Scripture itself are often obstacles to this more meaningful contemplation of the Infinite. He writes that “the sacred writings were not for perfect believers alone, but rather for children in belief, for novices.”

What I find incredibly revealing is the degree to which Schleiermacher attempts to win the favor of his audience. That may well be saying it too kindly; Schleiermacher is given to flattery and pandering. Consider his insistence that only his German readers would be capable of comprehending the nature of true religion: “Finally, if I am thus impelled to speak of religion and to deliver my testimony, to whom should I turn if not to the sons of Germany? Where else is an audience for my speech? . . . You alone are capable, as well as worthy, of having awakened in you the sense for holy and divine things.”

It is not enough for Schleiermacher to flatter the Germans directly, but he must also heap disdain on the English (for whom “zeal for knowledge is only a sham fight. . . . They are never in earnest with anything that goes beyond palpable utility”) and the French (“On them, one who honours religion can hardly endure to look, for in every act and almost in every word, they tread its holiest ordinances under foot”).

I trust we find such unvarnished racism—allegedly in the service of Christ—revolting. But Schleiermacher does not merely appeal to the German’s racial vanity. He also appeals to their academic and intellectual elitism:

Do you seriously expect me to believe that those who daily distress themselves most toilsomely about earthly things have pre-eminent fitness for becoming intimate with heavenly things, those who brood anxiously over the next moment and are fast bound to the nearest objects can extend their vision widest over the world, and that those, who, in the monotonous round of a dull industry have not yet found themselves will discover most clearly the living Deity! Surely you will not maintain that to your shame? You alone, therefore, I can invite, you who are called to leave the common standpoint of mankind, who do not shun the toilsome way into the depths of man’s spirit to find his inmost emotions and see the living worth and connection of his outward works.

Such vanity—in all senses of the word.

Schleiermacher, then, is not simply a theologian: Schleiermacher is an apologist. For those of us who embrace a theology rooted in traditional biblical orthodoxy, it is easy to see Schleiermacher merely as one who is carrying out a program of destruction on the Christian faith—and to be sure, he is doing that. But we must realize that, from his own perspective, he is not destroying Christianity but saving it. He has gone on a mission to make the Christian faith plausible to a generation that no longer finds it so.

Schleiermacher’s flattery is egregious, but it is in some ways only an exaggeration of what apologists almost always do. In their attempts to win an audience, apologists (explicitly or implicitly) employ a “now, people like us” method of argumentation. In Schleiermacher’s case, this attempt to build common ground is overt: “people like us,” he says to his elite audience, “simply cannot believe the antiquated version of Christianity of the common man.”

(As an aside: it should be a red flag for us all when our attempt to win the unbeliever compels us to disparage fellow believers. When our message to the unbeliever is that he and I have more in common than I do with a brother in Christ, something is very likely amiss.)

I’ll write more about this in a future essay here, but the antidote to what we see in Schleiermacher is found in Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1–2. In those verses, Paul tells us that he has done his market research on his target ministry demographics. The Jews want to hear about a mighty conquering Messiah. The Greeks want to hear of a wise sage.

And here’s the thing that we must notice: Jesus is ultimately a might conquering Messiah and he is a wise sage. The marketers would tell Paul that this is how he should preach Christ. Paul, in this sense, would not say anything untrue to preach Christ in the way his audience desires. But Paul adamantly refuses to make Christ serve the unbelievers’ idols. Instead, he preaches Christ crucified, an offense to the Jewish desire for might and foolishness to the Greek desire for wisdom.

When we seek to subvert God’s plan, articulating the gospel in a way that seems like wisdom to this age, we rob God of his glory and “the cross of Christ [is] emptied of its power.”

Why adopt such a counterintuitive strategy? Because God’s wisdom and the wisdom of this age are ultimately at odds. This is the point that Schleiermacher ignores. Religion’s cultured despisers will despise true religion, because God has ordained that the world would not know God through their wisdom. When we seek to subvert God’s plan, articulating the gospel in a way that seems like wisdom to this age, we rob God of his glory and “the cross of Christ [is] emptied of its power.”


1 Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern