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Friedrich Schleiermacher

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Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834) was one of the most influential Protestant theologians in the history of Christianity. Immersed in German and ancient philosophy, he moved theology into the main currents of intellectual thought and brought to it a Romantic spirit that was highly influential in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Schleiermacher was born in Breslau in Silesia, the son of a Prussian army chaplain in the Reformed church. He was educated in a Moravian school at Niesky in Upper Lusatia, and at Barby near Halle. However, pietistic Moravian theology failed to satisfy his increasing doubts, and his father reluctantly gave him permission to enter the University of Halle, which had already abandoned pietism and adopted the rationalist spirit of Friedrich August Wolf and Johann Salomo Semler. As a theology student Schleiermacher pursued an independent course of reading and neglected the study of the Old Testament and Oriental languages. However, he did attend the lectures of Semler, where he became acquainted with the techniques of historical criticism of the New Testament, and of Johann Augustus Eberhard, from whom he acquired a love of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. At the same time he studied the writings of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. He developed his characteristic habit of forming his opinions by patiently examining and weighing various positions with which he reconstructed his own thought. Indeed, as a student he began to apply ideas from the Greek philosophers to a reconstruction of Kant's system.

At the completion of his course at Halle, Schleiermacher became the private tutor to the family of Count Dohna-Schlobitten, developing in a cultivated and aristocratic household his deep love of family and social life. Two years later, in 1796, he became chaplain to the Charité Hospital in Berlin. Lacking scope for the development of his preaching skills, he sought mental and spiritual satisfaction in the city's cultivated society and in intensive philosophical studies, beginning to construct the framework of his philosophical and religious system. It was now that Schleiermacher became acquainted with art, literature, science and general culture. He was strongly influenced by German Romanticism, as represented by his friend [[Karl von Schlegel. This interest is borne out by his Confidential Letters on Schlegel's Lucinde, as well as his relationship with Eleonore Grunow, wife of a Berlin clergyman.

On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799)

Though his ultimate principles were unchanged, this impetus led Schleiermacher to place more emphasis on human emotion and the imagination. Meanwhile he studied Spinoza and Plato, both of whom were important influences. He became more indebted to Kant, though they differed on fundamental points, and finally remodelled his philosophy. He sympathised with some of Jacobi's positions, and took some ideas from Fichte and Schelling. The literary product of this period of rapid development was his influential book, Reden über die Religion (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers) (1799, Eng. trans., 1893) and his "new year's gift" to the new century, the Monologe (Soliloquies) (1800; ed. 1902).

In On Religion Schleiermacher gave religion an unchanging place among the divine mysteries of human nature, distinguished it from what he regarded as current caricatures of religion, and described the perennial forms of its manifestation, thus giving the programme of his subsequent theological system. Crouter (2005) compares it with Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem (1783); both, Crouter points out, are apologies, paradigms of modern religious thought, and texts of personal engagement. The comparison illuminates several fascinating dimensions of On Religion. Crouter reads the text as something of a political document that reflects Enlightenment values--in its insistence that coercion of any kind is alien to religion, in its arguing that religious liberty requires freedom from state control, and in its appeals to the progressive betterment of humanity. In thus reading the Speeches as also an Enlightenment text, Crouter breaks the usual mold of interpreting it only as a Romantic text. The Enlightenment was for Schleiermacher more than just Kant, and emphasizing the degree to which Schleiermacher was steeped in Jewish intellectual life in Berlin.

In the Monologe he revealed his ethical manifesto, in which he proclaimed his ideas on the freedom and independence of the spirit, and on the relationship of the mind to the sensual world, and sketched his ideal of the future of the individual and society.

Translate Plato

From 1802 to 1804, Schleiermacher was pastor in the Pomeranian town of Stolpe. He relieved Friedrich Schlegel entirely of his nominal responsibility for the translation of Plato into German, which they had together undertaken (vols. 1-5, 1804-1810; vol. 6, Republic. 1828). Another work, Grundlinien einer Kritik der bisherigen Sittenlehre (1803), the first of his strictly critical and philosophical productions, occupied him; it is a criticism of all previous moral systems, including those of Kant and Fichte — Plato's and Spinoza's find most favour. It contends that the tests of the soundness of a moral system are the completeness of its view of the laws and ends of human life as a whole and the harmonious arrangement of its subject-matter under one fundamental principle. Although it is almost exclusively critical and negative, the book announces Schleiermacher's later view of moral science, attaching prime importance to a Güterlehre, or doctrine of the ends to be obtained by moral action. The obscurity of the book's style and its negative tone prevented immediate success.

In 1804, Schleiermacher moved as university preacher and professor of theology to Halle, where he remained until 1807, quickly obtaining a reputation as professor and preacher; he exercised a powerful influence in spite of the contradictory charges about being atheist, Spinozist and pietist. In this period he wrote his dialogue the Weihnachtsfeier (Christmas Eve: Dialogue on the Incarnation)(1806), a charming production, midway between his Reden and his great dogmatic work, Der christliche Glaube (The Christian Faith); the speakers represent phases of his growing appreciation of Christianity as well as the conflicting elements of the theology of the period. After the Battle of Jena he returned to Berlin (1807), was soon appointed pastor of the Trinity Church, and the next year married the widow of his friend Willich.

Berlin University (1810)

At the foundation of the University of Berlin (1810), in which he took a prominent part, Schleiermacher obtained a theological chair, and soon became secretary to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He took a prominent part in the reorganization of the Prussian church, and became the most powerful advocate of the union of the Lutheran and Reformed divisions of German Protestantism, paving the way for the Prussian Union of Churches (1817). The twenty-four years of his professional career in Berlin were opened with his short outline of theological study (Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums, 1811), in which he sought to do for theology what he had done for religion in his Reden.

While he preached every Sunday, Schleiermacher also gradually took up in his lectures in the university almost every branch of theology and philosophy — New Testament exegesis, introduction to and interpretation of the New Testament, ethics (both philosophic and Christian), dogmatic and practical theology, church history, history of philosophy, psychology, dialectics (logic and metaphysics), politics, pedagogy, translation and aesthetics. His own materials for these lectures and his students' notes and reports of them are the only form in which the larger proportion of his works exist — a circumstance which has greatly increased the difficulty of getting a clear and harmonious view of fundamental portions of his philosophical and ethical system, while it has effectually deterred all but the most courageous and patient students from reading these posthumous collections.

In politics Schleiermacher supported liberty and progress, and in the period of reaction which followed the overthrow of Napoleon he was charged by the Prussian government with "demagogic agitation" in conjunction with the patriot Ernst Moritz Arndt.

In Berlin, the old home of German Rationalism, Schleiermacher became friendly with leaders of the new Romantic School of literature, Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich Schlegel, and Novalis. Both movements attracted him, and his reaction to both appears in his philosophical writing. He opposed the Rationalistic movement and urged, as the Romanticists did, the striving toward perfection as an individual's obligation to himself and society, a process within the frame of the individual's identification with infinite divinity. Schleiermacher was an eloquent speaker and as possibly the first representative of Romanticism in theology appealed to large audiences and a larger reading public.

The Christian Faith

As an expression of his Romanticism, Schleiermacher wrote his chief theological work The Christian Faith (Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche (1821–1822; 2nd ed., greatly altered, 1830–1831; 6th ed., 1884)).

His fundamental principle is that religious feeling, the sense of absolute dependence on God as communicated by Jesus through the church, and not the creeds or the letter of Scripture or the rationalistic understanding, is the source and law of dogmatic theology. The work is therefore simply a description of the facts of religious feeling, or of the inner life of the soul in its relations to God, and these inward facts are looked at in the various stages of their development and presented in their systematic connection. The aim of the work was to reform Protestant theology by means of the fundamental ideas of the Reden, to put an end to the unreason and superficiality of both supernaturalism and rationalism, and to deliver religion and theology from a relation of dependence on perpetually changing systems of philosophy.

Though the work added to the reputation of its author, it aroused the increased opposition of the theological schools it was intended to overthrow, and at the same time Schleiermacher's defence of the right of the church to frame its own liturgy in opposition to the arbitrary dictation of the monarch or his ministers brought upon him fresh troubles. He felt isolated, although his church and his lecture-room continued to be crowded.

Schleiermacher progressed with his translation of Plato and prepared a new and greatly altered edition of his Christlicher Glaube, anticipating the latter in two letters to his friend Lucke (1829), in which he defended his theological position generally and his book in particular against opponents on the right and the left.

The same year Schleiermacher lost his only son — a blow which, he said, "drove the nails into his own coffin." But he continued to defend his theological position against Hengstenberg's party on the one hand and the rationalists von Cölln and D. Schulz on the other, protesting against both subscription to the ancient creeds and the imposition of a new rationalistic formulary.

Religious System

From Leibniz, Lessing, Fichte, Jacobi and the Romantic school Schleiermacher had imbibed a profound and mystical view of the inner depths of the human personality. His religious thought found its expression most notably in his magisterial The Christian Faith, a systematic effort considered by many to be one of the true classics of Christian theology.

The ego, the person, is an individualization of universal reason; and the primary act of self-consciousness is the first conjunction of universal and individual life, the immediate union or marriage of the universe with incarnated reason. Thus every person becomes a specific and original representation of the universe and a compendium of humanity, a microcosmos in which the world is immediately reflected. While therefore we cannot, as we have seen, attain the idea of the supreme unity of thought and being by either cognition or volition, we can find it in our own personality, in immediate self-consciousness or (which is the same in Schleiermacher's terminology) feeling. Feeling in this higher sense (as distinguished from "organic" sensibility, Empfindung), which is the minimum of distinct antithetic consciousness, the cessation of the antithesis of subject and object, constitutes likewise the unity of our being, in which the opposite functions of cognition and volition have their fundamental and permanent background of personality and their transitional link. Having its seat in this central point of our being, or indeed consisting in the essential fact of self-consciousness, religion lies at the basis of all thought and action.

At various periods of his life Schleiermacher used different terms to represent the character and relation of religious feeling. In his earlier days he called it a feeling or intuition of the universe, consciousness of the unity of reason and nature, of the infinite and the eternal within the finite and the temporal. In later life he described it as the feeling of absolute dependence, or, as meaning the same thing, the consciousness of being in relation to God.


  • Clements, Keith W. Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology (Making of Modern Theology) (1997) excerpt and text search
  • Cross, George. The Theology of Schleiermacher: A Condensed Presentation of His Chief Work (1911) 344 pages; short biography; analysis of theology; excerpts from The Christian Faith; complete text online free
  • Crouter, Richard. Friedrich Schleiermacher: Between Enlightenment And Romanticism. (2005). 290pp excerpt and text search
  • Gerrish, B.A. A prince of the church: Schleiermacher and the beginnings of modern theology (1984)
  • Gerrish, B.A. "Schleiermacher and the Reformation: a Question of Doctrinal Development." Church History. 49#2 1980. pp 147+ online edition
  • Mariña, Jacqueline. The Cambridge Companion to Friedrich Schleiermacher (Cambridge Companions to Religion) (2005)

Primary sources

see also


based on Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) V24, Page 330

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