An Element of Truth

Posted by Brent.Barry on February 15, 2017

Frederich Schleiermacher

Woo hoo! We hit our first level of service goals: 45,000 minutes since January 1. If that gives you a good “feeling” then you already understand a bit about our first level reformer Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).

For Schleiermacher theology begins with a person’s “religious feeling (intuition or experience) which results in absolute dependence on God.” Theology during Schleiermacher’s day had either become a purely intellectual discipline separated from the realities of everyday life, under the influence of Immanuel Kant, or it had become nothing more than a moral responsibility. Schleiermacher rescued theology from these poles because of his interest in the relationship a person has with God in day-to-day life (feelings toward God, dependence on God). For that reason he is considered the greatest reformed theologian between John Calvin and Karl Barth. 

One of the reasons I put him on the first level of our service challenge is because you can’t understand Reformed Theology of the last century without understanding something about Schleiermacher. Karl Barth among others had what we might call a “family feud” with him.

To oversimplify, Schleiermacher held that we interpret God. Barth held that God interprets us. Schleiermacher started with a person’s subjective feelings when considering Jesus Christ. Barth said that we should start with Jesus Christ, who then interpreted one’s feelings and thoughts.  I have yet to read a theologian from 1920-1960 who was not in some way consumed with this question.

I think the critique that neo-orthodox theologians like Barth, Tillich, and Niebuhr make against Schleiermacher are correct. In many ways, the radical individualism in our religion as well as the “spiritual but not religious movement” where I begin my quest for God with my individual thoughts, experiences, and feelings can be traced back to Schleiermacher. And his theology creates strange bedfellows. Our attempts to make the gospel less or more patriotic, violent, judgmental or inclusive than it is, can be traced back to Schleiermacher. They all start with our feelings and then move to the gospel.

But while Schleiermacher gets a very bad rap in our Presbyterian seminaries and churches, I think there is an element of truth in Schleiermacher that cannot be denied.

When you have feelings about experiences as a patriotic American, or a war veteran, or teaching a refugee, or being abused as a child, or having a lesbian sister, or being a police officer, or being a person of color, you can’t help but take those experiences with you as you go to the Bible.  

At the same time, the Barthian is also right. We must start first with the Bible and let that interpret all of our experiences and feelings. We will talk more about Barth on another day. But suffice to say, the theology of Frederich Schleiermacher is walking around in all of us. 

Rev. Brent Barry is the lead pastor of NorthPark Presbyterian Church. Brent and NorthPark have a deep commitment to working with the poor and hungry in Dallas, helping those with Alzheimer’s disease, and reaching across religious and cultural lines to do their part to bring Dallas together as one.


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