Standing with Friedrich Schleiermacher against Philosophical Theology

There seems to be an ascendancy, once again, of philosophical theology [and I apologize, this post, or at least this point of this schleiermacher (1)post is going to have to remain rather general and abstract without any concrete examples at the moment]. The way I understand philosophical theology is pretty close to home; it is a form (it might be THE form) of evangelical theology that I sat under while in undergrad at Bible College (things changed a bit for me in my seminary experience because of two profs in particular). Philosophical theology, as I understand it, and have experienced it, in a nutshell, is what has come to be called: analytical theology. Analytical theology, in a nutshell, is theology, like scholastic theology from the post-Reformed era that feels free to drink freely from the analytical philosophical tradition (like from Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, et al), and use the categories discovered by these philosophers as they reflected upon creation as the categories through which the Christian God was synthesized and casted.

So even with the scant sketch above of how I understand philosophical or analytical theology what should begin to emerge is how there is no necessary connection between Christian theology, and its revealed categories, and the categories “discovered” by the analytic philosophers. And yet what happens in the analytical theology tradition is that a foundation, of sorts, is constructed so that these two disparate approaches of thinking about metaphysical things can be brought into mutually supporting beams such that God’s life ends up being founded upon our capacity to think God (from reflecting upon creation) instead of being confronted by God Self-revealed and interpreted in Jesus Christ. This is how I see analytical theology functioning, and it is because of this that I must reject it, and search for an approach (and I believe that I have found one years ago now) that does not depend upon my ability as a philosopher and theologian to conceive of God, categorically, apart from his Self-revelation.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian from the 18th and 19th centuries, who became known as the ‘Father of Theological Liberalism’ (wrongly!) offers an alternative to the analytical tradition–when critically received–that I believe is quite refreshing; and that I believe moves us away from attempting to work out correlationist theologies that seek to synthesize Christian theology with classical philosophical categories (Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous for attempting to do this … I should say though, that I can learn a lot from Aquinas, still, just not uncritically).

I believe, along with Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance, et al) that Christian theology cannot and must not depend upon any attempted correlations between natural reflection upon nature (the analytical philosophers), and then syntheses of these reflections with Christian theology.[1] I do not believe, along with someone as Scottish as Thomas Torrance, that there are any natural analogies for God become man (i.e. the Incarnation); do you? Schleiermacher writes it this way:

Our dogmatic theology will not, however, stand on its own proper ground and soil with the same assurance with which philosophy has long stood on its own, until the separation of the two types of proposition is so complete that, e.g., so extraordinary a question as whether the same proposition can be true in philosophy and false in Christian theology, and *vice versa*, will no longer be asked, for the simple reason that a proposition cannot appear in the one context precisely as it appears in the other; however similar it sounds, a difference must always be assumed.[2]

And this in regard to the audience of Christian theology:

It is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianty, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquiries of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot take any higher form than this.[3]

For Schleiermacher, then, and many others after him (like Barth, Torrance, and a whole host of more ‘liberal’ theologians), Christian Theology is for Christians! It is exclusive to those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; as the Revelator has written: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”[4]

The ascendancy of philosophical or analytical theology that I referred to to open this brief piece up continues to make new in-roads into the evangelical heart-land. I think we ought to repent of that, and engage in theological endeavor that ironically comes from someone like Schleiermacher. We want to really be able to hear from the Lord, and attempt to repeat what we hear in a genuine way as Christians. We want to genuinely walk in the way that comes after we come to recognize that Deus dixit, that ‘God has spoken;’ and only after that and from that speech can we truly theologize and in a way that contradicts our words, and our lives instead of flowing from them (which I contend analytical theology does at its base in the methodological form that it flows from).

The end.

[1] If you have not spotted the undercurrent of what I am getting at yet let me help: What this cuts against, what I am about to write about, is natural theology. Natural theology believes that there are analogies in creation (because of an interconnected chain of being between creation and Creator) that can be used as foundation stones for us to build our knowledge of God upon (i.e. analogia entis, ‘analogy of being’). So this is part of the critique, and part of what is going on here. But the deeper concern I have is the impact that analytical theology can possibly have upon a Christian’s spirituality. I believe Christian theology, by definition, is for Christian eyes and ears, and so from this touchstone, of sorts, we proceed onward with Schleiermacher and Barth.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §16 postscript in Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2008), 72.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New American Standard Bible, Revelation 3.22.


15 thoughts on “Standing with Friedrich Schleiermacher against Philosophical Theology

  1. Alright, so when comic book introductions to Barth begin with Schliermacher, and contrast their two approaches as oil and water that cannot mix, like Batman and the Riddler, do they exaggerate? Is Schleiermacher really ancillary to Barth as Robin the Boy Wonder is ancillary to Batman?


  2. Hi Bobby,
    Thanks for your thoughts about Analytical Theology. I’m still reading here, mostly silent, but sometimes commenting… I’d like to make a couple of amendments on what you wrote.
    To start with, your connection between scholastic and analytic theology is maybe not convincing in all cases. In fact, both scholastic and analytic theology are definitely more about method (applying semantical and logical tools in rethinking theological problems) than about content (Aristotle, etc.). I know we disagree on this, but nevertheless I think connecting scholastic and analytic theology in this rather general way doesn’t do justice to either of them.
    But another issue seems more important to me. Philosophical theology has developed quite a bit in recent years. Maybe, it was true what you wrote for the philosophical theology of two, three decades ago: “there is no necessary connection between Christian theology, and its revealed categories, and the categories “discovered” by the analytic philosophers”. But things have changed, at least in the case of some analytic theologians. Let me mention a few examples: Eleonore Stump has argued that narratives have a contribution to make to analytic philosophy, which is blind to some things without the help of narratives. Another fine example of an philosopher / analytic theologian is Terence Cuneo. He is working on a larger project in which he explores christian liturgy, in particular the orthodox liturgy, as embodiment of the christian story. And to mention one other excellent philosopher: Nicholas Wolterstorff has in his career always been trying to listen very carefully to Scripture, sometimes wrestling with it, sometimes asking hard questions, but always with the purpose of doing justice to God’s revelation. He wrote a monograph on it: Divine Discourse. I know of course of others, who work in a very technical way, who fit in in the picture you gave. You certainly are rigth about them. But I hope I gave enough indications of others, who are doing a very different, and according to me, also very important job!
    Anyway, thanks again for a thought provoking post!


  3. Arjen,

    This is a repost, and I agree with all of your amendments. I also like the work that Oliver Crisp is doing as an “analytic”. Of course there is an N American tradition of analytic theology (like what happens at Talbot Theological Seminary in La Mirada, California) that what I note in this post still applies to.

    I also agree with you about tying analytical theology into scholastic theology too closely; they both have their issues in distinct ways, from my perspective (with some overlap at points).


  4. Bowman,

    Yes, Schleiermacher and Barth are still wildly distinct. But as Bruce McCormack demonstrates when Schleiermacher is read properly Barth still works with Schl. more closely than often is intimated.

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  5. But the point of commonality I am noting, is a general point here. It is not an endorsement of Schl.’s theology whatsoever. I only agree with him in the sense that he wants to focus on a revealed theology in principle insofar as he does (which in the end he doesn’t achieve himself).

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  6. Insofar as analytic philosophers work from the Late Wittgenstein’s ‘ordinary language’ model of philosophy, they will be obliquely explicating the content of revelation if they ‘do things with words’ that disclose the ‘bewitchment of language’ in, for example, scripture, prayer, liturgy, etc. (Indeed, Wittgenstein– both Early and Late– was criticized for his ‘mysticism’ by Russell; he is seldom far from some misty frontier with theology.) What distinguishes the efforts of analytic evangelicals (eg Crisp) from those of the old analytic neo-liberals (eg Lindbeck)?


  7. From some Barthian POV, does Schleiermacher’s project show the need for a theology of reception (unsuccessful in his own Christian Faith) that is a counterpart to a prior theology of revelation (eg Church Dogmatics)?


  8. I’m not sure, Bowman. My only real point in highlighting this point with Schl is because it is something I could agree with him on. Most of his stuff I can’t. And of course his alternative to philosophical theology in the end really isn’t an alternative to philosophical theology. But he still says some stuff that can be helpful in some ways.


  9. If we’re gonna talk about philosophical theology, let’s not merely limit ourselves to the Aristotelians or Platonists! What about Kant’s legacy that created so much of this discussion. If we can’t know God as the shadow-lord of the Noumena, then we’re going to theologize differently!

    Also, Bobby, did you see the first LA theology conference? It’s all on Youtube. It was about Christology and Leithart gave a talk about how the Scripture gives us the parameters for Incarnation (not that Niceaea and Chalcedon are bad or wrong, but is there something more primal than language of persons and substances?).

    He argues that the Temple is God’s type before the ‘true’ Temple shows us. It’s really fascinating. But would you say this falls under the Ban of no ‘natural analogies’? Or is it on account of Scripture’s logic that we can see such a creational connection?



  10. Quick addition to the first part of my comment:

    My point is that Schliermacher had to find a new way to meet God, in ‘feeling’, in order to defeat Kant’s criticism and pathetic offering of synthetic apriori. Without Kant, his project has less urgency. In my thinking, Schliermacher sacrificed too much for this.

    PS. why would a man who was so pietistic and about ‘feeling’ be so bloodthirsty about Prussia’s wars?! I wonder if he’s the grandfather of German-Christians who were merely the latter on account of its cultural ties to the former!!



  11. Cal,

    I’m obviously not against the appropriation of some philosophical apparatus, but the question is how is it reified (from what direction)? Barth’s actualism for example; does he do with that what the Fathers did with certain aspects of Greek philosophy? I think so.

    And yes, I did see that by Leithart. But not sure how that would fit into a natural theology since it is scripture and salvation history. I’m not against seeing God’s intelligibility in creation, just against using that in an interlocking way to work our way back to a knowledge of God before he does that work for himself for us first in Christ. So I think that temple metaphor is awesome and fits well with the idea of a prefigural of the incarnation. So the inner reality of that covenant reality would be God’s life in Christ.


  12. And on Schl I kind’ve was appealing to him more provocatively; per my other comment above. I’m really not a fan of Schl and think he in fact fails with the against philosophy title of my post.


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