A Quick Response to ‘God Of Our Fathers’ and the ‘Spirit’ of the Schleiermacherian Reformation

I am about two-thirds through the new critical edition of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith, so it intrigued me when the opening chapter of another book I just picked up, God of Our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (h/t Derek Rishmawy) engages with Schleiermacher a bit. I want to engage a bit with what the author, Eric Hutchinson, by way of sketching, has to say about Schleiermacher’s initiation of a movement of modern theological discourse, that according to Hutchinson was placed into a trajectory, because of Schleiermacher that wanted desperately to reformulate not just the foundations of soteriological consideration (so the move of the magisterial reformers et al.), but all of the foundations; most importantly for Hutchinson’s purposes, with reference to a doctrine of God.

Here is Hutchinson at some length as we pick up with his sketch and the implications of Schleiermacher’s impact on the development and trajectory of modern theology. Following, I will offer some feedback and response to Hutchinson’s thought.

These are the brief gestures toward the Trinity found in the bulk of the work. But, to repeat, explicit treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity is saved for Schleiermacher’s concluding remarks. What is particularly interesting for the purposes of this paper is the justification—or, more precisely, an additional justification—he gives for the freedom with which he treats this doctrine. He writes:

We have the less reason to regard this doctrine as finally settled since it did not receive any fresh treatment when the Evangelical (Protestant) Church was set up; and so there must still be in store for it a transformation which will go back to its very beginnings.

We should ponder the peculiar view of the Reformation in this statement, for it is one that is, one suspects, widely shared even among so-called “conservative” Protestants today. What is required for a doctrine to be treated as “finally settled”? “[F]resh treatment” at the time of the Reformation.

Aside from the fact that this view is paradoxical—if “fresh treatment” is a desideratum as such, how can anything ever be “finally settled”?—there is a more basic point that should be highlighted with respect to the idea of “reformation.” On Schleiermacher’s reading, “reformation” entails that all dogmatic loci be revised and overhauled from their very foundations. According to the gloss of a recent commentator, Schleiermacher believed that the Protestants of the sixteenth century “too uncritically took over earlier views without testing them against the Protestant spirit.” Schleiermacher is explicit in the work’s final section that his placement of the doctrine of the Trinity is due to just such a desire for total overhaul. The assumption lurking behind this viewpoint—and it is an assumption—is that there was a unifying drive broader than and undergirding particular theological revisions, that it ought to be generalizable to all doctrinal topics, and that if it has not been so generalized, it is due to a lapse on the part of the Reformers in carrying their Grundsatz all the way through. Thus Schüssler Fiorenza can gloss Schleiermacher’s stance as follows: “The traditional doctrinal formulations [about the Trinity] fail to express [the] reformation impulse.”

Schleiermacher’s basic position on this question became a hallmark of a certain style of Protestant theologizing in subsequent generations. For that reason, one is not surprised to find Adolph Harnack claiming, in the late nineteenth century, that the spirit of the Lutheran Reformation required something like what Schleiermacher desired, though it was impossible for a single man, Martin Luther, to carry it out; thus the “Catholic elements” in Luther’s theology “belong certainly to the ‘whole Luther,’ but not to the ‘whole Christianity of Luther.” This latter required the wholesale reworking that Luther himself could not perform. Indeed, this tension between the new and the old led the Reformation to “terminate . . . in a contradiction,” in that “it gave to [the new Church, in addition to Pauline faith] at the same time the old dogma as the unchangeable cardinal article, together with a christological doctrine, which did not negate the fundamental evangelical interest, but which had received an entirely scholastic shape and had therefore the inevitable effect of confusing and obscuring faith.’[1]

If the point of continuity for retrieving a ‘church catholic’ for the 21st century church is to find a common core between all the traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) having a uniquely iterated Protestant doctrine of God—one that at least ‘innovates,’ and at most ‘reformulates’—will not do. While I am only just getting into Hutchinson’s chapter I am pretty sure this is the basic premise that shapes his thinking; it is a common thesis held among almost all those in this particular style of retrieval.

But I am getting ahead of myself. We could agree with Hutchinson that after Schleiermacher Pandora’s Box was opened in certain extreme ways (Hutchinson mentions Moltmann and Barth, although he hasn’t engaged much with Barth yet). Us Evangelical Calvinists, insofar that we work ‘after Barth,’ and insofar as Barth works ‘after Schleiermacher’ might be candidates for the critique that Hutchinson is most likely going to make. The idea of operating in and from some sort of ‘pervasive spirit’ of the original reformational mind, as Hutchinson attaches that to Schleiermacher’s mind, clearly has substance to it. Indeed, if you have ever read Karl Barth’s Theology of the Reformed Confessions (one of my favorites!) you will see him pressing into this very distinction; viz. a distinction between the ‘letter’ versus the ‘spirit’ of the Reformed faith. Barth maintains that to operate in the letter of semper reformanda (‘always reforming’) means that the spirit of this letter entails that while there are certain orthodox parameters attending to and presented by the tradition of the church, that within those ‘orthodoxing’ parameters there is space to operate (‘the spirit’) with imagination that is regulated not by the force of the tradition (which is always and only a proximate or ectypal knowledge), but by the regula revealed in God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. For Barth, and for myself as an Evangelical Calvinist, to operate in the ‘spirit’ of the Reformational impulse is to recognize as Barth did, that knowledge of God is always already an eschatological reality, and as such allows for the Christian mind to grapple with him in ways that might just recalibrate certain aspects about who he has revealed himself to be that prior imaginations (and the categories they had available to them, philosophically) were unable to see. Bruce McCormack makes this very point in regard to Barth’s theology:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[2]

Also, in the same ‘spirit’ Adam Neder writes this:

while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[3]

For Barth, according to McCormack and Neder, ‘orthodoxy’ is not the absolute in the theological enterprise, instead the object and norm by which we come to recognize orthodoxy is the effulgence of God’s life given to us and for us in Christ; so orthodoxy is a symbol that serves as a boundary criteria that the ‘faithful’ have come to recognize, but it is only a boundary wherein greater reality, not lesser can come to be realized. This is not to suggest that there are no recognizable contours or ‘orthodox’ corners by which the church might confidently know her God. But it is to recognize that the church lives in a constant state of vulnerability and contradiction as she is ever afresh and anew by the grace of God confronted with her sinfulness—which implicates her ability to know—vis-à-vis con-versation with the living God.

Much more needs to be said, but let me close. My ultimate concern is that all of modern theology ends up getting caricatured by this type of gloss on Schleiermacher and it is seen as a hindrance to the advancement of presenting a fiduciary way forward for the church to know her God. That it is seen as an affront, or ulcer on the church’s capacity to think ‘catholically’ with our brothers and sisters pre-17th century and backwards looking, and thus relegated to a heterodox period of theological development that should be, with all purpose, abandoned. What a travesty! And all this in the name of offering the orthodox churches a ‘catholic foundation.’

As we can see, at least in Barth’s case and us Evangelical Calvinists following, to be orthodox is to always be in conversation with God as he encounters afresh and anew in the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. I would suggest that to take the tact that I believe Hutchison actually presents us with a conception of God that gets necessarily reflected in the method of catholicity that Hutchinson et al are calling us to. In other words, if God is a monadic unmoved mover then so will one’s conception of catholicity be.

Addendum: I finished Hutchinson’s chapter, and he went in another direction than what I had anticipated; although his chapter could serve as a historical ground clearing for the thesis of catholicity that I had anticipated in my blog post here. His chapter is an attempt to contextualize Melanchthon, particularly with reference to Melanchthons’s Loci Communes 1521. He argues that Barth and Ferdinand Bauer misread Melanchthon and as such find something in him that actually isn’t the case; in regard to Melanchthon’s supposed lack of focus, or abstraction of focus on creedal Christology and Trinitarianism (per the ordering of his communes). Hutchinson argues and concludes that the apparent ‘lack’ was precisely because Melanchthon was so committed to these traditional permutations that he didn’t feel compelled to spell them out because they served, instead, as the understood bases upon which he made his points about salvation and so on.

[1] E.J. Hutchinson, “Melanchthon’s Unintended Reformation? The Case of the Missing Doctrine of God,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 571, 581, 593, 603 kindle version.

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15-16. Also see this article.

[3] Adam Neder, History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, in Bruce McCormack and Clifford Anderson eds., Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 150. For further elaboration on Neder see this article.

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