Schleiermacher's Brief Outline of Theology -- Review
BRIEF OUTLINE OF THEOLOGY AS A FIELD OF STUDY. Third Edition. By Friedrich Schleiermacher. Essays and Notes by Terrance N. Tice. Louisville: WJK Press, 2011. Xxi + 191 pp.
Friedrich Schleiermacher’s reputation suffered greatly at the hands of Karl Barth, and thus his contributions to the development of modern theology may not receive their due. He was, by most accounts, the “father of modern Christian liberal theology,” and while he sought to accommodate Christian theology with the philosophical, historical, and scientific currents of his day, he was not a skeptic. While I might not embrace his full program for theology (in part because of a difference in eras), I think it’s important to understand the world in which he sought to do theology.
We can see part of his agenda unfold in his book On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, written just prior to the turn of the nineteenth century, wherein Schleiermacher sought to defend the Christian faith from its enlightened critics and reclaim for religion its former place of respect in society. In this work he has many disciples today, as well as in the years that have passed between 1799 and today. Schleiermacher understood that for religion to find its place it had to engage the modern world, and the questions being raised at that moment of great change. In a manner akin to the “debate” that exists between theologians and the “New Atheists” today, he asks the question as to why these enlightened ones will not respect those who are experts in the field of religion. In his Brief Outline of Theology As a Field of Study: Translation of the 1811 and 1830 Editions Schleiermacher lays out a proposal for how to prepare to engage the world of his day, a world where skeptics and “cultured despisers” were questioning the place of religion in society. In a later work of constructive theology entitled The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher would lay out his understanding of Christianity in terms of his definition of true religion being a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Although not as well known as the other two works, Brief Outline of Theology requires our attention for it provides the foundations for the modern study of theology, whether you agree with the principles or not they can’t be ignored.
While my own exposure to Schleiermacher has been limited largely to his On Religion, which I read years ago while a doctoral student in historical theology, and has been influenced by my engagement with neo-orthodox and evangelical detractors, reading this Brief Outline reminded me both of Schleiermacher’s importance as a theologian, but as a progenitor of the very field for which I was trained. The basic divisions of theology laid out here define how generations of clergy have been trained. The perceived audience for an edition of book such as this might be small (an earlier edition was published by Edwin Mellen Press, which publishes narrowly targeted academic studies (2nd edition, 1990), for this is not so much a manual for the contemporary study of theology. Indeed, many would point to this as offering a wrong direction, being that it is rooted in modern philosophical and scientific presuppositions, but if we are to adapt our own study of theology for a new day it would be helpful to know how and why an earlier generation sought to do the same thing. Therefore, we are indebted to WJK and to Terrence Tice for bringing to our attention this third edition of Schleiermacher’s Brief Outline of Theology.
Tice is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan and former professor at Iliff School of Theology, as well as an established Schleiermacher scholar. Among his other books on Schleiermacher is a brief biography published by Abingdon in its “Pillars of Theology Series.” In this book, Tice brings us a fresh translation of the 1811 and 1830 editions of Schleiermacher’s book, along with notes and essays. The lengthy postscript and bibliographical essays at the close of the book prove extremely helpful for understanding Schleiermacher’s theology, context, and agenda in writing this book.
The book is comprised of lectures given during Schleiermacher’s years of teaching theology at the University of Berlin, an institution that he helped found in 1810, and at which he held the chair in theology. The lectures define his methodology, but set out a template for the scientific study of theology in the service of the church. The main text of the book is from 1830, with the much briefer 1811 text found in the footnotes. By comparing the two texts you can see how he continued to develop and deepen his understanding of this field of study over the course of his career.
Believing that theology must engage the modern world, he conceived of theology being a “positive science,” by which he means “an assemblage of scientific elements that belong together not because they form a constituent part of the organization of the sciences, as though by some necessity arising out of the notion of science itself, but only in so far as they are requisite for carrying out a practical task” (pp. 1-2). This definition needs to be kept in mind because Schleiermacher has in mind a very practical end to this mode of study. That practical purpose is described as providing for “a distinct mode of faith, that is, a distinct formation of God-consciousness” (p. 1). Whatever theology is, it is designed to move toward the “formation of God-consciousness.” It is scientific because it is designed for a practical task, and it is undertaken by a specific group of people – church leaders
In the course of this book, however, Schleiermacher lays out what in his mind were the three primary areas of theological study – philosophical theology, historical theology, and practical theology. The first category includes what he referred to as apologetics and polemics (but we should not take this to be something similar to Josh McDowell’s apologetic efforts). In the second category, historical theology, Schleiermacher brings together exegetical theology (biblical studies), church history, and dogmatics (contemporary theology). Because he believed theology was a positive science, he believed it was a historical discipline as well. Finally, there is practical theology. Sometimes Practical Theology is an afterthought, but for Schleiermacher, practical theology is the goal of all theology, for theology is done in service to the church.
Schleiermacher’s first division serves as a recognition that theology, especially if it is to be a scientific discipline, will engage the thought systems of the day, and thus he begins with philosophy. It also allows for comparing the plurality of ecclesial communities into which Christianity is divided. For him, philosophical theology has two primary aims: it provides for an engagement with science and allows for the object of study to be dealt with through historical criticism. Its form, however, will be determined by its relationship to church leadership. It is engaged in two directions – through apologetics, which looks outwardly, and polemics, which turns inwardly. The goal is the removal of the “diseased conditions” that are present in the church. This is the starting point upon which the work of theology is built.
From this foundation, we move to “historical theology,” a division that contains exegetical theology or historical study of the primitive community, church history, and contemporary theology. He brings all three divisions under history for he believes that theology is a discipline engaged through the scientific principles of history (historical criticism). He writes:
Although something, in the course of time, may, to be sure, be considered new in comparison with everything that is contemporaneous with it, it may still correspond more exactly to some one earlier moment of history than to all earlier moments. (p. 34).
In his third area of historical theology, he considers dogmatic theology and church statistics. Dogmatics is, for him, “the knowledge of doctrine that now has currency in the Evangelical church.” By evangelical he means Protestant. As for church statistics, which we might find oddly placed under historical theology, he speaks of this are of study as providing “information regarding the exiting social condition in all the different parts of the Christian church” (p. 72). In his discussion of dogmatics he makes a distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy that might surprise us, but also might prove helpful. Orthodoxy in his mind is “holding fast to what is already generally acknowledged, along with any inferences that may naturally follow.” That is, orthodoxy is to affirm what the church has traditionally believed. Heterodoxy, on the other hand, is the “inclination to keep the body of doctrine mobile and to make room for still other modes of apprehension” (p. 76). In his mind, both are important, and if we are to engage with the world, we will have to embrace a degree of “heterodoxy.” He goes on to say:
It is false orthodoxy to wish to retain in dogmatic treatment what is already entirely antiquated in public pronouncements of the church and does not exercise in its scientific expression any definite influence on other points of doctrine (p. 77).
Dogmatic theology also includes Christian ethics, a discipline that was new, and to which Schleiermacher gave considerable attention.
The final division is practical theology, and rather being the poor step-child of the more academic forms of theology, practical theology is the goal of all that has preceded it. But it is a task that involves both an ecclesial and a scientific interest. It is the purpose of this area of study to prepare persons to do with the “correct procedures for executing all the tasks that are included within the notion of ‘church leadership’” (p. 98). In this discussion he deals with the distinction between clergy and laity, which is clearly front and center in his mind. He believes there is a clear distinction between leaders and followers, and in this discussion we see the seeds being sown for the future development of both a professional class of clergy and the expectation that clergy will service the people, who are the recipients of their ministrations.
We needn’t read this book as a manual for contemporary theology and practice, but it would be valuable to read this so as to understand why we do what we do. Schleiermacher laid down a very organized system that still provides guidance for training of clergy. He also insists that the scientific/academic work of theology is geared to service to the church. Thus, it’s not simply another academic field that has no direct practical implications. It is also important to note how he stressed the historical nature of theology and the life of the church. God acts in history and thus we must be prepared to recognize that work. And, because it is a historical discipline, we must be aware of the process of change and adaption that has occurred and continues to occur as the church moves into the present and the future. It’s not light reading, but it will prove beneficial reading for those who wish to understand how previous generations have engaged their culture and context, so we might have a different angle to view our own issues and concerns today – whether you are a liberal or not!