Friedrich Schleiermacher: An Appreciation

In my Advanced Hermeneutics seminar last October I found myself researching Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern hermeneutics. I researched his early years, Kantian influence, and the hermeneutical circle that he, and subsequently others, used frequently. His impression upon the discipline of biblical hermeneutics is far-reaching and is even seen behind the veils of interpretative methods today.

Schleiermacher was born on November 21, 1768 in Breslau, Prussia where his father served as a chaplain of the Reformed Church to a regiment in Silesia.[1] A very bright individual who was the product of a Moravian Brethren upbringing, he desired to receive a broader education than he was receiving at the time. At fourteen he began to doubt aspects of the Scripture. As a student at a boarding school in Pless there arose within him a strange skepticism towards the genuineness of the ancient authors of the Bible and they, as a result, began to seem disjointed and unreal to the young scholar.[2]

After his promotion to Barby in 1785 to study philosophy his doubting eventually lead him to turn to liberal Protestantism to acquire the answers he desired. He wrote to his father that he could no longer believe the Son of Man was the true eternal God, his death a vicarious atonement, and an eternal punishment for those who could not attain faith in Jesus.[3] After receiving permission from his father, Schleiermacher transferred to the University of Halle where he immersed himself in Kant, Greek philosophy, and the famous writers of the early church to the period of the Reformation. After he passed his theological exams in 1796 he spent six years preaching at a hospital in Berlin and two years as the court preacher at Stople. Eventually he traveled back to Halle and accepted a position as professor of theology at the University of Halle, only to leave and return to Berlin to preach at Trinity Church and lecture at the University.

It is without a doubt that Schleiermacher falls outside the realms of biblical orthodoxy. To deny, as he did, the key doctrines of Christology lands a person square in liberal Protestantism. His hermeneutical method laid the foundation for modern day hermeneutics, but Schleiermacher attempted to get inside the mind of the author even to the point of understanding more of what the author meant than he knew himself. This, to simply state, is an impossible task.

So why an appreciation for this man? My friend Madison Grace once made the comment that heretics never set out to become a heretic.[4] In other words, I do not believe Arius woke up and thought how he would destroy the divinity of Christ and lead a revolt of sorts against the early church. Rather, it seems that he was attempting to find a balance between the divine nature of Jesus, his manhood, and how God could become man. I think the same can be said of Schleiermacher. While reading some of his works and seeing how his mind came to the conclusion of subjects, it appears that he set out to understand and interpret the biblical text with an edification for the local church as best he could. This, I believe, is evidenced by his many stints at preaching.

I believe a certain level of appreciation can be given to Schleiermacher in the sense that we can appreciate his devotion to the Scriptures and the local church, and flatly reject what he espoused in his preaching. It is sad to see that, as devoted as he was to the Scriptures, the influence of German Romanticism and Immanuel Kant kindled within him a more philosophical understanding of biblical texts rather than allowing the texts to speak for themselves.

[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Schleiermacher as Unfolded in His Autobiography and Letters (trans. Frederica Rowan; London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1860), 1.

[2] “I conceived the idea that all the ancient authors, and with them the whole of ancient history, were supposititious. The only reason, indeed, that I had for this belief, was that I was not acquainted with any proofs of their genuineness, and that all I knew about them seemed to me disjointed and unreal.” Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Schleiermacher as Unfolded in His Autobiography and Letters (trans. Frederica Rowan; London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1860), 11.

[3] Schleiermacher, Life of Schleiermacher, 46 – 47.

[4] Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints, is exempt from this list for many reasons.