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Assessment of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Christology

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An examination of the Christology of Friedrich Schleiermacher

Friedrich Schleiermacher is without a doubt one of the most important figures in the field of Christology. He is generally regarded as the father of modern liberal Christology and even Karl Barth, one of his most severe critics admitted that “The first place in a history of the theology of modern times belongs and will always belong to Schleiermacher, and he has no rival.” Another admirer of Schleiermacher, the elder Gass once wrote to him, “there is no one who can make me waver in my belief that your dogmatics herald a new era… in the whole study of theology in general” after reading his Doctrine of Faith.

His Christology has been described as “humanistic Christology” as he rejected the rationalist Christology of Kant and tried to incorporate more elements of experience and feeling (gefuhl) into his ideas about human thought, particularly within the field of religion. He had read Kant from an early age and came to believe that Kant’s Christology did not do humans justice. He believed that we are more than just “rational” beings. In many respects Schleiermacher’s Christology is satisfactory. His idea of Christ’s perfect humanity is coherent, logical and believable. However, his attempt to better explain the “two natures doctrine” falls slightly short of satisfactory in my opinion due to his failure to properly account for Jesus’ sinlessness. I will examine several different aspects of his Christology, in particularly why he believed that Christ’s “God-consciousness” was the fulfilment of human nature and not a contradiction of it. I will then examine his interpretation of the two natures doctrine and show why his idea is not wholly satisfactory.

One of the reasons why Schleiermacher’s Christology has been described as humanistic is because his argument relies on his belief that Jesus Christ was “totally” human! If Jesus Christ was not human, but some supernatural being then the whole point of his life as well as his death and resurrection is lost. If only a supernatural being is capable of living the sinless life that Jesus did then we can all give up hope of ever achieving what he did. Schleiermacher’s argument however, is designed to encourage us. Jesus Christ he argues was the perfect embodiment of a human being and something that we can all aspire to be. This is where his interpretation of the two natures doctrine becomes essential. Schleiermacher believed that Christ was not contradiction of human nature, but the perfection of it. Therefore, to become like Jesus is to become like God. Jesus Christ himself did in fact according to Schleiermacher embody this perfection of human nature and therefore, was indeed both God and man as Christianity would have us believe.

“The Redeemer, then is like all men in virtue of the

identity of human nature, but distinguished from

them all by the constant potency of His God-consciousness,

which was a veritable existence of God in Him.”

This brings us to the idea of God-consciousness. This is Schleiermacher’s way of describing for us how he understands an individual’s awareness of God. This can be described in the same way as an individuals other talents. Just as Leonardo Da Vinci or Albert Einstein had talents far in excess of most humans they were non the less just as human as anyone else. “So to every separate corporate life there are those who are more or less gifted.” Jesus talent lay in his God-consciousness, which was perfect. “His preponderatingly powerful God-consciousness links to the corporate life”.

But what is the key difference between us and Christ which makes him divine? In order to explain this adequately I must turn my attention to how Schleiermacher pictured God. “Pictured” is without a doubt the wrong word to use here as Schleiermacher’s perception of God was of a being of “pure activity” In order to make sense of this idea we must think about what constitutes a being of “pure activity”. In order to be purely active God must always act upon things and never be acted upon himself. He is universal and infinite and is constantly acting upon us. Our awareness of this force or spirit acting upon us is what Schleiermacher called God-consciousness. Therefore, since Jesus possessed a perfect God-consciousness he was like a perfect receptacle for God’s activity and acts totally upon his God-consciousness or the activity that is God. This means that although Jesus was completely human he was also completely God, thus fulfilling the requirements of the two natures doctrine.

To me Schleiermacher’s theory of Christ’s dual nature is acceptable thus far. In my opinion Schleiermacher more than adequately explains how Jesus could be both man and God. That is of course if you accept that Jesus was God as is described in the New Testament and if you believe in God in the first place. As a non-believer I have always puzzled over the following issue. If Jesus was in fact totally human just like you or I and yet at the same time was the Son of God. Then surely we are all the Son of God in exactly the same respect. If in fact God did create us all then we are by a loose definition all his children, just a Jesus was. So then what was so special about Jesus Christ that made him actually God? I have puzzled over this for many hours and have never found a satisfactory explanation. Schleiermacher does not offer an explanation that would convert me but does offer one that seems to be perfectly plausible. After all he set out explain the nature of Jesus Christ not to prove his existence or Godliness.

Perhaps Schleiermacher’s greatest problem arises from the doctrine of the Virgin birth, which he did not think very highly of. How did Jesus come by this perfect God-consciousness? According to Schleiermacher there are two Christological heresies, both of which would render Jesus Christ and therefore, Christianity irrelevant. The first, the docetic heresy regards Jesus as redeemer. If Jesus was sent to Earth with this perfect God-consciousness then he is purely a supernatural figure that has no comparison to human kind with the exception of physical appearance. The second, the Nazarean heresy, states that Jesus was just a man and he too needed to be redeemed. This is where the virgin birth is concerned as some claimed that since Jesus was born of a virgin he was born without the sin that corrupts other humans God-consciousness. This however, is simply not a good enough explanation and Schleiermacher saw this. This ideas clearly exhibits a huge contradiction as a virgin could surely not give birth without some supernatural interference, which would take us right back to the docetic heresy.

Schleiermacher attempts to get around this problem with the idea of a new “implanting” of the god-consciousness in Jesus, that had not been corrupted like the original God-consciousness (that of Adam) that had existed throughout the course of history. Sadly this is where his argument breaks down. He himself once said, “Jesus needs to have the whole human development in common with us”. Yet if Jesus was sinless because he had his perfect God-consciousness implanted specifically in him then he was not the same as us. He has been given a clear and supernatural advantage over us which by Schleiermacher’s own description would lead us once again back to the docetic heresy.

To try and understand this idea of the “implanting” we must try to analyse it further. Was this “implanting” something that Jesus had and was aware of from his birth or was it something that developed over time as he grew up? If in fact Jesus was aware of this from his birth then the effects are clearly supernatural as Jesus was born different from us. However, if he was only born with the potential to fully develop his God-consciousness then he was not different nor though was he divine. Schleiermacher’s essential problem is that he wants to show that Christ is as similar to us a possible in order to show that perfect God-consciousness is an attainable goal for other humans but at the same time he needs to maintain that Jesus was in fact special in some way for it is essential to Christianity that Jesus was the son of God.

At this point Schleiermacher’s Christology becomes somewhat difficult and abstract. As I said earlier he also wanted to incorporate more elements of feeling and emotion into his ideas than the rationalists before him. He defined a church as “a communion or association relating to religion or piety… and piety the defining characteristic of a church is neither knowing nor doing but a feeling.” This is where he attempts to describe how the God-consciousness allows an individual to feel God. He describes this feeling as “absolute dependence”. This concept seems very abstract and awkward but non the less plausible. MacQuarrie describes this feeling of absolute dependency as “correlative with and inseparable from a sense of the One on whom we are absolutely dependent.” This description helps us to understand Schleiermacher’s idea but I feel I need to look further into it.

The way I understand Schleiermacher’s absolute dependency is that as the perfect God-consciousness is achieved, or was achieved by Jesus Christ, the person becomes as MacQuarrie put it “inseperable from the One”. Therefore, it is as though everything the person does, thinks or feels is done in perfect conjunction with God and therefore, acts in every way just as God himself would. This would explain Jesus wisdom, patience and willingness to die for us on the cross as he was acting in the way that the most perfect being in the world would act.

Schleiermacher’s Christology is to be fair satisfies me in most respects. He tries bravely to describe to us the ideas of God-consciousness and Christ’s relationship to God. It is clear that he does fall somewhat short of the mark, so to speak when it comes to explaining how Jesus managed to achieve perfect God-consciousness, but I very much doubt that anyone else could explain perfectly how one goes about becoming divine. To his credit he did take on the difficult of tasks and I find his explanations to be interesting and in general satisfying although I am sure that his theory’s will be subject to constant criticism, scrutiny and hopefully revision to make them more complete.

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