Reading the sermons of Friedrich Schleiermacher from two hundred years ago doesn’t happen without its challenges. It’s particularly challenging when it involves a dated English translation from a Prussian great-grandson of the enlightenment age, who was also a Pastor, romantic and continental theologian.
I’ve resigned myself to pursue this based on the fact that when these challenges are measured on the scales of hedonic calculus, the benefit out ways the cost.
I’m familiar with Schleiermacher, not so familiar with his work. I know of him. Have been drenched in Karl Barth’s quirky disappearing fondness for him as a teacher of neo-Protestantism, and joined in Barth’s reprimand of the pietism and liberalism which framed Schleiermacher’s theology.
Schleiermacher was raised in the Moravian church. Like most Christian movements, Moravianism, as nurtured into existence by Count Nicolaus Zinzendorf, was founded on solid biblical ground. It then moved towards extremes, finally finding its unique place in the Church Universal through much needed reform.
What stood out about the Moravians was their love of music, Christology and missiology. Their heavy focus on finding Jesus Christ at the centre of Church doctrine and a zeal for missions was equal to the zeal of a long existing list of Catholic missionaries.
Christology was also where the early Moravians almost found themselves shipwrecked. The excesses and early charismatic enthusiasms manifested themselves in their worship which bordered on the absurd. Such as the over-the-top mysticism infused language about Christ’s atoning blood.
“For seven years these Brethren took leave of their senses, and allowed their feelings to lead them on in the paths of insensate folly […] Since the year 1734,” he [Count Zinzendorf] said, “the atoning sacrifice of Jesus became our only testimony and our one means of salvation.” But now he carried this doctrine to excess. Again the cause was his use of the Lot. As long as Zinzendorf used his own mental powers, he was able to make his “Blood and Wounds Theology” a power for good; but as soon as he bade good-bye to his intellect he made his doctrine a laughing-stock and a scandal’[i]
Though the excesses of Moravian theology ended, Moravian theology didn’t. They humbly learnt from these mistakes and moved forward:
‘On this subject the historians have mostly been in the wrong. Some have suppressed the facts. This is dishonest. Others have exaggerated, and spoken as if the excesses lasted for two or three generations. This is wicked. The sober truth is exactly as described in these pages. The best judgment was passed by the godly Bishop Spangenherg. “At that time,” he said, “the spirit of Christ did not rule in our hearts; and that was the real cause of all our foolery.” Full well the Brethren realized their mistake, and honestly they took its lessons to heart. They learned to place more trust in the Bible, and less in their own unbridled feelings. They learned afresh the value of discipline, and of an organised system of government. They became more guarded in their language, more Scriptural in their doctrine, and more practical in their preaching.’[ii]
Further filling out the situation of Schleiermacher’s relationship with Moravian theology, Joseph Hutton tells us,
‘Though he differed from the Brethren [Moravians] in theology, he felt himself at one with them in religion.’[iii]
Schleiermacher left Moravian orthodoxy behind.
‘He called himself a “Moravian of the higher order”; and by that phrase he probably meant that he had the Brethren’s faith in Christ, but rejected their orthodox theology.’[iv]
Having a clearer view of Schleiermacher’s context eases the challenges of reading his work. He had a ‘scientific frame of mind, and also a passionate devotion to Christ […] The great object of Schleiermacher’s life was to reconcile science and religion.’[v]
Hutton points out, ‘of all the religious leaders in Germany, Schleiermacher was the greatest since Luther.’[vi]
In the reading I’ve done so far, it’s Moravian theology, this scientific frame of mind and his desire to reconcile science and religion that provides the key for hearing Schleiermacher in his context.
I’m curious about what we can learn from Schleiermacher. Curious about how much influence the Moravian Church had on his theology. Keen to see how that early learning impacted his future learning and I’m interested in seeing, with a Barth’s crisp caution in mind, what Schleiermacher has to say to the socio-political and theological milieu today.
[i] Hutton. J.E, 2014, History of the Moravian Church Heraklion Press. Kindle Edition. (pp.190 & p.189)
[ii] Ibid, p. 195.
[iii] Ibid, p. 295.
[iv] Ibid, p. 295.
[v] Ibid, pp. 295 & 294.
[vi] Ibid, p. 294.