The Protestant Reaction to Modernism, Part 1: Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Beginning of Liberal Theology

Is it possible to disagree with someone and still appreciate their work and the project they engaged in? I believe that it is, and this is the spirit in which I write the next two reflections. In this reflection, I will be looking at the pioneer of liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher. Next time, I will examine the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy, looking specifically at Henry Emerson Fosdick and Walter Rauschenbusch.

I don’t agree with any of these figures. I believe that their answers were limited and perhaps naïve. (Of course, I write that in full knowledge that many people will read my own reflections as limited and perhaps naïve.) However, I think their project was extremely important at a time when Christian faith could have faltered, being abandoned altogether or retreating into an anti-modernist fundamentalism.

They chose a third way. As Stanley Grentz put it: “While agreeing that theology could not simply return to pre-Enlightenment dogmatic orthodoxy, they refused to accept post-Enlightenment skeptical rationalism as the only alternative. For this new breed of intellectuals the only way forward in the aftermath of the Enlightenment lay in incorporating its basic thrust and engaging in a search for new ways to understand the Christian faith.” In other words, they were trying to articulate a vibrant Christian faith in serious conversation with Modernism. This is my own project in this series of articles. It is important to know about these thinkers because they set the agenda for all subsequent mainline Protestant engagement with Modernity. In many ways, we are still answering the questions they raised.

Moving Faith from the Head to the Heart

Have you ever felt that faith was so much more than creeds and doctrines and dogmas? That faith was more a matter of the heart than the head? Have you ever felt that you were deeply connected to God and the world in ways you couldn’t explain? Have you ever thought that maybe you don’t need all of the clergy and church stuff, and that you could just go out into the woods and commune with God? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have probably been influenced by a theologian you may never have heard of before: Friedrich Schleiermacher.

The Beginning of Liberal Protestant Theology

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)

Friedrich Schleiermacher is considered the grandfather of liberal Protestant theology. Most people today have never heard of him, but in his day, he was called a ‘prince of the church.’ He is perhaps the most influential theologian since John Calvin. He was a trailblazer in Christian thought, and well loved in his time. As was one of the greatest preachers of his day, he could fill churches. He helped found the university in Berlin and provided the authoritative translation of Plato‘s works. He worked for political reform and was so well regarded that, when he died in 1834, tens of thousands of Berliners lined the street to see his funeral coach go by. We remember him as the first liberal theologian in the modern sense of the word, who completely revolutionized thinking about Christian faith.

Liberal Theology

Let me say a word about the phrase ‘liberal theology.’ For many people, it has a negative connotation, meaning ‘not really believing in the Christian faith.’ I won’t adjudicate that judgement call here, except to say that it is not the actual meaning of ‘liberal theology.’ Liberal theology starts with the belief that the modern project is generally correct in its claims about science, historical criticism and other issues. Then it tries to reconstruct traditional Christian theology to accommodate Modern truth claims as far as possible, without sacrificing the essence of Christianity. Of course, it is a matter of debate how successful ‘liberal theology’ is in doing this. But that is the project that Schleiermacher began.

Early Life and Influences

Schleiermacher was born in 1768 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland.) His father was a Reformed church chaplain in the army. However, early in Schleiermacher’s life, his father had an intense religious experience with the Moravians. This group of pietist Christians from Bohemia emphasized ‘heart Christianity’ over ‘head Christianity.’ Above all, they valued a personal experience of God through repentance and love of Jesus Christ.

Schleiermacher was raised in this ‘heart Christianity.’ He even went to a pietistic school. However, he began to doubt some of the doctrines of the Christian faith. While found the modern criticism of Christian doctrine compelling, he did not lose his Christian faith. For him, the heart of Christian faith was not the doctrine, but the feeling of being utterly dependent on God.

His other big influence was the Romanticism movement. Romanticism is not about romantic love. Rather, it was a major cultural movement reacting to a previous cultural movement called the Enlightenment. Romantics thought that the Enlightenment put too much emphasis on reason, orderliness and clarity. The Romantics thought the Enlightenment had missed out on the important part of being human: feeling, emotion and depth. Therefore, they emphasized imagination and intuition through poetry, art and music. Schleiermacher was deeply caught up in this movement. He combined it with his pietistic ‘heart Christianity’, laying the foundation for the liberal protestant theology we know today.

Reforming the ‘Heart’ of Christianity

Schleiermacher was answering the questions of his day. His friends in Berlin were all part of the Romantic movement and all of them had accepted the Enlightenment’s critiques of Christian doctrine. There was a general feeling that Christian orthodoxy was intellectually stifling and authoritarian. On the whole, these ‘cultured despisers’ of Christianity were well educated and looking for truth outside of the Christian faith. For many of them, Romanticism itself was a form of religion. To offer this group a better account of Christianity, Schleiermacher published his famous book On Religion: To Its Cultured Despisers.

Deep Awareness Is at the Heart of Religion

Schleiermacher’s key claim was that at its heart, religion is not about doctrine, revelation, institutions, creeds, scripture or buildings. It is about a universal human feeling that he called Gefuehl. In German, this word means much more than feeling. It captures a deep sense or awareness of being part of something bigger than yourself. Imagine being in the mountains, and there is just a sense that all is one. You feel that God is there, but you just can’t quite put your finger on it.

Theology from the Heart

This feeling produces longing and a sense of being completely dependent on God. For Schleiermacher, this is the heart of religious piety. For him, religion IS about the deep awareness of dependence on God. This became the foundation of his entire theology. Theology is rooted in an experience that is universal to all humanity. Here is the key: the source for theology becomes neither a text (the Bible) nor a church, but the individual. This insight represented a huge shift in how theology was done.

To say that Schleiermacher’s project was successful would be an understatement. His thought influenced a wave of Christians following in his footsteps to make Christianity meaningful in their day. Even now, anyone working to make Christianity ‘relevant’ has been indirectly influenced by Schleiermacher. As the first modern theologian, his thought is still very much with us.


Postscript One: If you would like to learn more about some of Schleiermacher’s most famous followers, read up on Albrecht Ritschl, David Strauss and Adolph von Harnack. It is important to note that they will not have the final word. This is a conversation over decades, so others coming in the 20th century will profoundly question the whole project.

Postscript Two: I am not footnoting sources as these are general reflections. But I would like to point out one source I have relied on: The Journey of Modern Theology by Roger Olsen. I had read most of these thinkers in seminary and over the years, but Olson helped me understand how the whole story of modern theology worked together. This is a rework of an earlier book he wrote with Stanley Grenz. The quote in the introductory paragraph comes from that book. I love this book so much; Olson is a great guide. He blogs here if you are interested.

Question: How do you normally think of your Christian faith? Is it more a matter of the ‘head’ dealing with truth and doctrine, or is it a matter of the ‘heart’ dealing with experience and feelings? Do you try to combine the two, and how?

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2 Replies to “The Protestant Reaction to Modernism, Part 1: Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Beginning of Liberal Theology”

  1. I would say heart and experience bounce off reading of scripture and hearing and reading past and contemporary thinkers.
    And all this bound in prayer.

    Nothing terribly systematic in any of it.

  2. Very interesting. I hope you will indicate briefly what your disagreements with the three are. (I’d write their names, but Fosdick is the only one I can spell.)

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