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Friedrich Schleiermacher:
The Father of Modern Theology & a Prophet of German Nationalism, Part 1

[1]4,148 words

Part 1 of 2. Part 2 here [2].

“I feel sure that Germany, the kernel of Europe, will arise once more in a new and beautiful state, but when this will happen, and whether the country will not first have to experience even greater difficulties […] God alone knows.” — Friedrich Schleiermacher, 1806[1] [3]

“. . . were you not mine, I should not have felt so conscious of how true is my patriotism and my courage. As it is, however, I know that I may place myself on a level with whomsoever it may be, that I am worthy of having a country I can call my own, and that I am worthy of being a husband and a father. […] Now, this is just my vocation – to represent more clearly that which dwells in all true human beings, and to bring it home to their consciences.” — Friedrich Schleiermacher, in a letter to his wife to be, Henriette von Willich, 1808[2] [4]

Friedrich Schleiermacher is generally recognized as the father of modern theology,[3] [5] and considered the most influential Protestant theologian since John Calvin. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Schleiermacher redirected the course of Protestant theology by breaking the stalemate of rationalism and orthodoxy.[4] [6] The rise of neo-orthodoxy in the twentieth century, led by Karl Barth, was in many ways a reaction to the influence of Schleiermacher. After World War Two, Schleiermacher was treated with suspicion, since he was a Romantic, a German idealist, and an advocate of nationalism, culturally conditioned Protestantism, and the German Volksgeist.[5] [7] To him, the essence of religion was an inward disposition of piety, rather than outward practices or written dogmas.[6] [8]

Early Life

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was born in 1768 in the Silesian town of Breslau in Prussia (now Wrocław in Poland). He was the son of a Reformed pastor who served as a chaplain in the Prussian army.[7] [9] At fourteen, Schleiermacher was placed in a school of the Moravian Brethren, or Herrnhuters, a Pietist congregation. The Moravians emphasized an intense devotion to Jesus and a vivid communion with him, resulting in the immediate presence of God, experienced within the self. This had a profound influence on Schleiermacher. At the Moravian school he also got a humanistic education based on the study of Latin and Greek.[8] [10] He enrolled in a Moravian seminary at sixteen to become a pastor. At the seminary, the students were forbidden from reading modern writers like Goethe, or the investigations of modern theologians and philosophers into the Christian system and the human mind. Schleiermacher asked his father for permission to enroll at the University of Halle instead, telling him that he no longer believed in Christ’s vicarious atonement. His father reluctantly agreed, believing that “pride, egotism, and intolerance” had taken possession of him.[9] [11] “Go then into the world whose approval you desire,” he told his son.[10] [12]

Schleiermacher matriculated at Halle in 1787. The leading philosopher at Halle then was Johann August Eberhard, who acquainted his students with a thorough knowledge of Kant’s philosophical system, and introduced them to the history of philosophy, and philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. For many years, Schleiermacher devoted himself to the study of Kant’s philosophy,[11] [13] and for a while he thought he’d lost all faith except in Kantian ethics.[12] [14]

In 1796, Schleiermacher moved to Berlin when he was appointed as a Reformed chaplain at Berlin’s main hospital, the Charité Hospital. There, he became acquainted with a circle of Romantics, who sought unity in their lives by completely devoting themselves to something they thought worthy of devotion. Their ideas centered around inward feeling, idealism and the growth of individuality. There, Schleiermacher met the poet Friedrich Schlegel who became his friend and had a significant influence on him.[13] [15] Schleiermacher understood individuality to be the designation of each individual in the order of things by divine providence: “Your obligation is to be what the consciousness of your being bids you to be and become.”[14] [16] His relationship with the Romantics was somewhat ambivalent. He noted that all people with artistic nature had “at least some stirrings of piety.” But ultimately, Schleiermacher wrote, “imaginative natures fail in penetrative spirit, in capacity for mastering the essential.” Wilhelm Dilthey wrote about Schleiermacher’s time with the Romantics: “Like every genius he was lonely in their midst and yet needed them. He lived among them as a sober man among dreamers.”[15] [17] Schleiermacher was repeatedly embarrassed and humiliated by their social impropriety and inability to function in the real world.[16] [18]

Together, Schleiermacher and Friedrich Schlegel decided to begin the monumental task of producing the first German translation of Plato’s works. But Schleiermacher could not count on Schlegel, and soon he had had to work on the translation alone. The work took many years and the volumes were published intermittently between 1804 and 1828, although not all dialogues were translated. Still today, Schleiermacher’s translations are the most sold paperback editions of Plato in Germany and are authoritative translations for scholars. Dilthey claimed that through them, “knowledge of Greek philosophy first became possible.”[17] [19] The work on the translation was to have a profound effect on the development of Schleiermacher’s philosophy.

The Speeches on Religion

Bothered by the Romantics’ hostility toward religion, Schleiermacher wrote his most famous work, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern), in 1799, which made him instantly famous. In it, Schleiermacher attempted to discern the spirit or idea of pure religion, just as Kant had done for pure reason. In this early work his philosophical and theological ideas were still unformed and would evolve in the following years.

Schleiermacher thought that the Romantics’ criticism of religion applied only to external factors such as dogmas, opinions, and practices, which determine the social and historical form of religions. Religion was about the source of the external factors. He noted that, “as the childhood images of God and immortality vanished before my doubting eyes, piety remained.”[18] [20] He distinguished religion from “vain mythology” that conceived God as an outside being who interfered in history or natural events, although he thought Christianity should retain its mythical aspects and language as long as it was recognized as myth. Beliefs or knowledge about the nature of reality were also to be separated from religion.[19] [21] After Kant, the old-world view with its metaphysical idea of God was no longer possible. Martin Redeker explains: “On the basis of critical transcendental philosophy God cannot be the object of human knowledge, since human knowledge is bound to space and time and the categories of reason, i.e., the finite world.”[20] [22]

True religion, according to Schleiermacher was the “immediate consciousness of the universal being of all finite things in and through the infinite, of all temporal things in and through the eternal.”[21] [23] Feeling was the essence of his idea of religion, feeling of the eternal in all that has life and being. Feeling was only religious though, if it imparted a revelation of the spirit of the whole. That was God, the highest unity, being felt.[22] [24] Schleiermacher defined feeling as the pre-conceptual organ of subjective receptivity that makes thought and experience possible. Feeling is self-consciousness itself, the unifying property of the self that pre-reflectively apprehends the world as a whole.[23] [25] It is the primal act of the spirit before reality is divided into subject and object. An existential experience of revelation is the basis of faith and the certainty of salvation, not correct doctrines or theological formulations.[24] [26]

In contrast to Romantic religious individualism, Schleiermacher claimed that religion was social or nothing at all, since it was “man’s nature to be social.” The more one is stirred by religious feelings, “the more strongly his drive toward sociality comes into play.” A religious person, therefore, must interact with other people and do his part in the Christian church, which is the social form of the idea of true religion. Although, corruption is to be expected when the eternal steps down into the sphere of the temporal and must adapt to historical and political realities.[25] [27]  What characterizes Christianity is the conflict of the infinite and finite in human history, and through Christ’s reconciliation this conflict is overcome. Thus, Christianity is by nature a polemical religion, critical of culture, of religion, and above all of itself.[26] [28]

Many readers, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found Schleiermacher’s account of the essence of religion wonderful, but his attempt to justify church Christianity disappointing. Georg W. F. Hegel admired On Religion, but later the admiration would turn to hate. It has been suggested that it was partly because Hegel envied Schleiermacher’s work on Plato, Heraclitus, and the dialectic, although their later rivalry at the University of Berlin seems an adequate cause.[27] [29]

In this early work, Schleiermacher shows some prejudice toward his neighboring countries, when he asks who could fathom his testimony: “To whom should I turn if not to the sons of Germany? Where else is an audience for my speech? It is not blind predilection […] that makes me speak thus, but the deep conviction that you alone are capable, as well as worthy, of having awakened in you the sense for holy and divine things.”[28] [30] According to Schleiermacher, the English, “whom many unduly honor,” are incapable of attaining true religion, for they are driven by the pursuit of “gain and enjoyment.” He continues, “their zeal for knowledge is only a sham fight, their worldly wisdom a false jewel, […] and their sacred freedom itself too often and too easily serves self-interest. They are never in earnest with anything that goes beyond palpable utility.”[29] [31] The French are worse: “On them, one who honors religion can hardly endure to look, for in every act and almost in every word, they tread its holiest ordinances under foot.” The “barbarous indifference” of the French people and the “witty frivolity” of their intellectuals towards the historical events taking place in France at the time (the French Revolutionary Wars) shows how little disposition they have for true religion. “What does religion abhor more than that unbridled arrogance by which the leaders of the French people defy the eternal laws of our world? What does religion more keenly instill than that humble, considerate moderation for which they do not seem to have even the faintest feeling?”[30] [32]

Professor at Halle and Christmas Eve

In 1804, the Prussian government called Schleiermacher to the University of Halle as professor and university preacher.[31] [33] The following year, he wrote Christmas Eve (Die Weihnachtsfeier), a work in the style of Plato’s dialogues. It is a conversation among a group of friends gathered on Christmas eve, discussing the meaning of the Christmas celebration and Christ’s birth.[32] [34]

The dialogue begins with the historical criticism of the Enlightenment, claiming that although the Christmas celebration is a powerful and vital present reality, it is hardly based on historical fact. The birth of Christ is only a legend. Schleiermacher rejects the historical empiricism of the Enlightenment since it results only in the discovery of insignificant causes for important events and the outcome of history becomes accidental. This is not good enough, “for history derives from epic and mythology, and these clearly lead to the identity of appearance and idea.” Therefore, he says, “it is precisely the task of history to make the particular immortal. Thus, the particular first gets its position and distinct existence in history by means of a higher treatment.”[33] [35]

Speculation and empiricism must be combined for historical understanding: “However weak the historical traces may be if viewed critically, the celebration does not depend on these but the necessary idea of a Redeemer.”[34] [36] Since men lack the unity and harmony of primordial nature and whose nature is the separation of spirit and flesh, they need redemption.[35] [37] The birth of Christ, “is founded more upon an eternal decree than upon definite, individual fact, and on this account cannot be spoken of in a definite moment but is rather elevated above temporal history and must be maintained mystically.” Festivals like Christmas simply create their own historical background.[36] [38] But the myth of Christmas is far from arbitrary: “Something inward must lie at its basis, otherwise it could never be effective nor endure. This inner something, however, can be nothing else than the ground of all joy itself.”[37] [39]

Schleiermacher understands Christmas as the event when eternal being enters the finite becoming of history, influenced by the Platonic ideas, the archetypes of pure being. The spirit thus reveals himself in history and brings mankind to self-consciousness.[38] [40] The celebration of the eternal is what sets Christmas apart from other festivals.

Some, to be sure have attempted to transfer the widespread joy that belongs to the Christmas season to the New Year, the day on which the changes and contrasts of time are pre-eminent. […] The New Year is devoted to the renewal of what is only transitory. Therefore, it is especially appropriate that those who, lacking stability of character, live only from year to year should make an especially joyful day of it. All human beings are subject to the shifts of time. That goes without saying. However, some of the rest of us do not desire to have our live in what is only transitory.[39] [41]

The joy of Christmas bespeaks an original undivided human nature where the antitheses between time and eternity, thought and being have been overcome, an eternal life in our temporal existence.[40] [42] The celebration of Christmas also brings to the fore the divine relationship of mother and child. Mary symbolizes every mother, and mother’s love for her child is the eternal element in every woman’s life, the essence of her being.[41] [43]

Schleiermacher’s life changed when Napoleon defeated the Prussian army in 1806. After battles in the streets, Halle was captured and occupied. Schleiermacher’s house was plundered and occupied by French soldiers.[42] [44] “Unlike Goethe and Hegel, who admired the French conqueror, Schleiermacher seethed with rage at the crushing of old Prussia.”[43] [45] When he was asked by a French official to witness Napoleon’s entry into the city, Schleiermacher asked to be excused. The students were expelled and the University dissolved. Yet Schleiermacher remained, convinced that greatness awaited Prussia and Germany. The destruction of Prussia was only a transition, the old and feeble had to fall for something stronger to emerge. He wrote: “The scourge must pass over everything that is German; only under this condition can something thoroughly beautiful later arise out of this. Bless those who will live to see it; but those who die, may they die in faith.”[44] [46] He was convinced that God had ordained that Germany, this glorious cultural entity, would also be realized politically.[45] [47]

Prussia’s defeat and Napoleon’s occupation brought Schleiermacher to consciousness of the spirit of nationalism. He joined the movement for reform in Prussia, based on the emerging Protestant ethics, and the values of Volk, state, and fatherland. Schleiermacher’s ethics had until then been based on individuality. The individual self now found its freedom by serving the nation and the state. Moreover, Providence was at work in history as peoples and states evolved into social individuals. The old idea of history as a process of continuous perfection, harmony, and peace, gave way to a history as a life of struggle, decisions, and sacrifice, but also catastrophe and destruction. This was the will of God for the realization of justice and truth.[46] [48] In the collapse of the Prussian state, Schleiermacher sensed the will of God leading his people through defeat to victory. Germans had to recognize God’s work in the ethos and spirit of the German nation and the historical state, and obey his will. God would protect those who wanted to preserve themselves, and their unique meaning and spirit. For the fatherland and its freedom, one must risk his life. A Christian cannot rely on others or only himself, but should trust in the power of God when standing up for his Fatherland.[47] [49]

Up until the defeat, Schleiermacher had seen Prussia as his Fatherland, but he now started to question its existence. He wondered whether God was using the defeat to awaken the Prussian people to their destiny in Germany. This humiliation could only have been prevented by a unified Germany.[48] [50] He felt that the struggle of nationalism had been made almost impossible by the Enlightenment, its ideas masked decay with a false sense of progress. “Every last moment is supposed to have been full of progress. Oh, how much I despise this generation, which adorns itself more shamelessly than any other ever did.”[49] [51]

Professor at the University of Berlin

The University of Berlin was founded in 1809 by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Schleiermacher played an important role in the founding of the university, working as one of Humboldt’s closest collaborators. Schleiermacher, like Fichte, opposed the idea of the university as a technical school of higher learning and special studies, based on those that had been established in France after the Revolution. Science was supposed to be universal and coherent, a unified and universal system of man’s total knowledge.[50] [52]

Schleiermacher and Fichte based their idea of university on the transcendental idealist philosophy and its new conception of science. A mere technical academy could not represent the totality of knowledge. According to Schleiermacher, “the totality of knowledge should be shown by perceiving the principles as well as the outline of all learning in such a way that one develops the ability to pursue each sphere of knowledge on his own.” All genuine and creative scholarly work must be rooted in the scientific spirit as expressed in philosophy.[51] [53] The philosophical faculty was to predominate over the other faculties in the university because, “there is no productive scientific capacity in the absence of the speculative spirit.”[52] [54] The students were to be captivated by the idea of knowledge, and all specialized learning was to be understood in accordance with the entire framework of knowledge. From this, the students would derive the impulse for their own research.[53] [55]

In 1810, Schleiermacher joined the Prussian Academy of Sciences and became permanent secretary of the philosophical division in 1814. There he worked to establish a new field, cultural-historical studies, in which he emphasized a new study of antiquity that combined philosophy with the history of philosophy, law, and art. A critical edition of Aristotle’s works was also prepared at his recommendation. Because of the importance of the new studies, Schleiermacher urged the appointment of Hegel to Berlin, but Hegel became isolated, and they had no personal relationship.[54] [56] Hegel soon took issue with Schleiermacher’s theology of feeling and blasted Schleiermacher in every lecture cycle.[55] [57] Schleiermacher, in turn, made sure that Hegel was kept out of the Academy of Sciences, ostensibly on the grounds that Hegel’s speculative philosophy was no science.[56] [58]

Schleiermacher served as a pastor alongside his academic appointments his whole career. During the French occupation he used his pulpit in the Berlin Charité to raise the spirits of his congregation and instill in them the spirit of nationalism. The philosopher Henrik Steffens, a friend of Schleiermacher’s, described his sermons thus: “How he elevated and settled the mind of [Berlin’s] citizens […]; through him Berlin was as if transformed […]. His commanding, refreshing, always joyful spirit was like a courageous army in that most troubled time.”[57] [59] In 1808 he joined a secret group of agitators, who sought to prepare a popular uprising and a war against Napoleon. There he befriended prominent patriots like General Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Field Marshal August von Gneisenau, whose names were later given to famous German battleships. Political maneuvers of Russia and Austria ruined the work of the secret group and the possibility of war against Napoleon would have to wait a few years.[58] [60]

Then in 1813, Prussia prepared to fight Napoleon again. That year, Schleiermacher preached a sermon before young soldiers in Berlin who were going to fight the coming war. He told them that they should think only of the nation when fighting. That should be their inspiration for bravery. They were fighting for the Fatherland and not for personal liberties. If a soldier died fighting to preserve his personal liberties, his death was a total waste since one had to be alive to enjoy the liberty. To die fighting for the Fatherland, on the other hand, was only an “utterly insignificant casualty.” Schleiermacher, valued death from a mystical point of view, as it united the soul with God. He knew what tragedy the death of a soldier was, but he wanted them to know that the only meaningful death for a soldier would be for the sake of the Fatherland. He himself served in the Landsturm reserve unit for the defense of Berlin. The Landsturm was supposed to be a second line of defense behind the newly established Landwehr.[59] [61]

The struggle against France and the ineffective political organization in Prussia caused Schleiermacher to begin to question the rule by divine right, on which the monarchy was based. Germany was ruled by many monarchs who all claimed to rule by the will of God, but to Schleiermacher, God would only approve a unified Germany. A rule by a monarch was only justified by the will of the nation as expressed in its traditions. He also blamed the conceited aristocracy for Germany’s troubles, for they were more concerned with their own status than with the welfare of the Fatherland. [60] [62]

It was during a crisis period over the defense of Berlin that Schleiermacher also noted that one particular group was very unwilling to participate in the Landsturm reserve units. He had no sympathy for those who left Berlin only to avoid their obligations, and conspicuous among them were the Jews. In 1799, Schleiermacher had advocated full civil rights for the Jews. Now he saw no place for them in Prussia, nor could he foresee one in a unified Germany. Before 1813 he had also never criticized Jewish theology, traditions, or culture. That was to change too.[61] [63]

In the summer of 1813, Schleiermacher was appointed as a journalist and editor of a newspaper called The Prussian Correspondent, where he began to criticize the Prussian government for its handling of the war. He regarded a peace treaty with France as a betrayal since it would doom the chance to unify Germany. King Friedrich Wilhelm was furious with Schleiermacher and had him dismissed from the newspaper and expelled from Berlin. The order was later eased, and Schleiermacher got to stay and keep his position in the University and as pastor.[62] [64]

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, a period of reaction began in Prussia, and Schleiermacher found himself almost an enemy of the state. Despite official opposition and knowing that he would never live to see the unification of Germany, Schleiermacher still preached and taught the ideals of German nationalism in the church and in his lectures. He decided to be patient and prepare the groundwork for a unified German state, or as much as the Prussian government would tolerate.[63] [65] For fifteen years he had to live with the fear of persecution, and many friends and colleagues were forced to choose between him and the government.[64] [66] Yet he remained publicly committed to German nationalism, certain that those who frustrated the nationalist effort would ultimately have to answer to God for their crime.[65] [67] We now turn to Schleiermacher’s ideas as they appear in his mature writings.


[1] [68] Jerry F. Dawson, Friedrich Schleiermacher: The Evolution of a Nationalist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966), p. 66.

[2] [69] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Schleiermacher, as Unfolded in His Autobiography and Letters, vol. II, trans. Frederica Rowan (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1860), p. 125.

[3] [70] Jacqueline Marina, “Introduction”, The Cambridge Companion to Friedrich Schleiermacher, ed. Jacqueline Marina (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 1.

[4] [71] Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion (London: SCM Press, 1964), p. 6.

[5] [72] Niebuhr, p. 12.

[6] [73] Robert Merrihew Adams, “Faith and Religious Knowledge”, The Cambridge Companion to Friedrich Schleiermacher, ed. Jacqueline Marina (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 37.

[7] [74] Robert P. Scharlemann, “Friedrich Schleiermacher”, Encyclopædia Britannica (2006, September 22), retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Friedrich-Schleiermacher.

[8] [75] Martin Redeker, pp. 9-10.

[9] [76] Gary Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), p. 86.

[10] [77] Martin Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, trans. John Wallhausser (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973, p. 14.

[11] [78] Redeker, p. 15.

[12] [79] Dorrien, p. 87.

[13] [80] Dorrien, pp. 88-89.

[14] [81] Redeker, p. 22.

[15] [82] Redeker, pp. 62-63.

[16] [83] Dawson, p. 47.

[17] [84] Julia A. Lamm, “Schleiermacher as Plato Scholar”, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 80, No. 2 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 206-207.

[18] [85] Dorrien, pp. 89-90.

[19] [86] Dorrien, p. 93.

[20] [87] Redeker, p. 38.

[21] [88] Dorrien, p. 92.

[22] [89] Dorrien, p. 93.

[23] [90] Dorrien p. 93.

[24] [91] Redker, p. 39-40.

[25] [92] Dorrien, pp. 93-94.

[26] [93] Redeker p. 48.

[27] [94] Michael Inwood, “German Philosophy”, The Oxford Companion to Phiosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 336.

[28] [95] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1893), p. 9.

[29] [96] Schleiermacher, On Religion, pp. 9-10.

[30] [97] Dorrien, p. 94.

[31] [98] Redeker, p. 76.

[32] [99] Redeker, p. 82.

[33] [100] Redeker, p. 83.

[34] [101] Redeker, p. 83.

[35] [102] Redeker, p. 83.

[36] [103] Niebuhr, pp. 60-61.

[37] [104] Niebuhr, pp. 62-63.

[38] [105] Redeker, p. 85.

[39] [106] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christmas Eve Celebration: A Dialogue, trans. Terrence N. Tice (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010), pp. 75-76.

[40] [107] Niebuhr, p. 63.

[41] [108] Redeker, p. 82.

[42] [109] Redeker, p. 86.

[43] [110] Dorrien, p. 96.

[44] [111] Redeker, p. 86.

[45] [112] Dorrien, pp. 96-97.

[46] [113] Redeker, p. 88.

[47] [114] Redeker, p. 89.

[48] [115] Dawson, pp. 63-64.

[49] [116] Dawson, p. 41.

[50] [117] Redeker, pp. 95-96.

[51] [118] Redeker, p. 96.

[52] [119] Redeker, p. 96.

[53] [120] Redeker, p. 97.

[54] [121] Redeker, p. 186.

[55] [122] Dorrien, p. 212.

[56] [123] Dorrien, p. 208.

[57] [124] Redeker, p. 91.

[58] [125] Redeker, p. 91.

[59] [126] Dawson, p. 104.

[60] [127] Dawson, pp. 108-110

[61] [128] Dawson, p. 115.

[62] [129] Dawson, pp. 118-120.

[63] [130] Dawson, pp. 123-124.

[64] [131] Dawson, p. 132.

[65] [132] Dawson, p. 98.