A Reflection on the Church and Science conference, and Schleiermacher’s Doctrine of Creation

Today I attended the Church and Science conference sponsored by New Wine, New Wineskins which is a theology of culture ministry that Dr. Paul Metzger initiated at my alma mater, Multnomah Biblical Seminary. Multnomah has partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science who has provided Multnomah Seminary with a sizeable grant to work on producing theological curriculum that is attentive to the discipline of science in the 21st century. We had two plenary sessions, the first was Dr. Se Kim, of the AAAS; and then Dr. Rod Stilt of Seattle churchandsciencePacific University, he is a historian of science’s development as a discipline. There was also two workshop sessions. The first one I attended was offered by Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass, he is an Assistant Professor of Laboratory and Genomic Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, and his presentation was entitled Is Jesus Greater than Anti-Evolutionism? The second workshop I attended was offered by Derrick Peterson and Dr. Michael Gurney, Derrick has his MDiv and ThM from Multnomah Biblical Seminary (and is a friend), and Mike Gurney has his PhD from Highland Theological College, University of Aberdeen (also a friend and former prof in undergrad) — their presentation was entitled “When Galileo Goes to Jail”: Rethinking What Galileo’s Controversy with the Church Means Today (Derrick presented the paper, and Mike moderated and facilitated the Q&A following).

I mention all of this because it leads to what we will consider in this post; in other words, the discussion from today at the conference has motivated me to write this post. I just happened to have read something from Bruce McCormack last week on Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation, and in particular, about Schleiermacher’s qualified belief in the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. I actually think that this topic would be an interesting one to explore at a conference like the one I attended today at Multnomah.

I am going to share from McCormack at length. The first piece from him is providing context for why Schleiermacher developed his doctrine of creation the way that he did. Here’s McCormack:

At the dawn of the modern period in theology, Schleiermacher was concerned that the day might come when the natural scientists would be in a position to provide a complete explanation not only of the movements of heavenly bodies but even of the origins of the physical universe. He writes,

I can only anticipate that we must learn to do without what many are still accustomed to regard as inseparably bound to the essence of Christianity. I am not referring to the six-day creation, but to the concept of creation itself, as it is usually understood, apart from any reference to the Mosaic chronology and despite all those rather precarious rationalizations that interpreters have devised. How long will the concept of creation hold out against the power of a world view constructed from undeniable scientific conclusions that no one can avoid?

By means of his heuristic and critical norm, he found a way to limit a theology of creation so as to obviate a conflict with the exact sciences but also to make a reasoned use of the creation story found in Gen. 1.[1]

Schleiermacher was anticipating what later came to be known as full blown naturalism and/or metaphysical materialism; where all of reality can ostensibly be reduced to physical reality and “natural” (i.e. observable) phenomenon. Schleiermacher was concerned with providing a kind of apologetic basis for Christian theology that elided the potential (in his day) findings of the natural sciences. As the direct quote from Schleiermacher illustrates he wasn’t concerned with the minutia of various biblical interpretive approaches, but instead he was concerned with the macro issue of origins itself. He was trying to provide a rigorous theological basis that would be impenetrable from the attacks of the natural sciences; as he perceived their development in his day in the 18th and 19th centuries.

McCormack distills for us in four points the way that Schleiermacher attempted to develop a genuinely Christian doctrine of creation that would out-pace Schleiermacher’s antagonists in the natural sciences. McCormack writes of Schleiermacher (at length):

This is not the place for a comprehensive exposition of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation. It will suffice here to allow Schleiermacher to describe his approach in his own words and to briefly sketch its results. “The doctrine of creation is to be elucidated preeminently with a view to the exclusion of every alien element, lest from the way in which the question of Origin is answered elsewhere anything steal into our province which stands in contradiction to the pure expression of the feeling of absolute dependence.” Since everything that exists must be absolutely dependent upon God, a Christian doctrine of creation must oppose “every representation of the origin of the world which excludes anything whatever from origination by God,” and it must oppose all conceptions of the origin of the world that would place “God under those conditions and antitheses which have arisen in and through the world.”From this state of affairs, Schleiermacher draws the following conclusions, all of which are supported by exegesis of Gen. 1: (1) God does not work with preexisting materials in creating. For if God found material ready to hand that he himself had not created, such material would be independent of him and the feeling of absolute dependence would have been destroyed. So the idea of a Divine Architect is ruled out of court. (2) If it is the case that the Christian doctrine of creation excludes anything that would place God “under those conditions and antitheses which have arisen in and through the world,” then God could not possibly be seen as having deliberated before acting. To be sure, creation is a “free” act of God, but divine “freedom” is wrongly construed where it is seen to entail “a prior deliberation followed by choice” or as meaning that “God might equally well have not created the world.” To define “freedom” in God in this way is to play it off against “necessity”—which is to bring God under an antithesis that is proper to the conditions of life in the world God creates. God’s freedom consists in his “otherness” and in his capacity to be who and what he is in all of his activities. It does not consist in a choice among options over which he must first brood before deciding upon the one he thinks “best” (as Leibniz had it). And in any case, as Spinoza put it (in a passage Schleiermacher would have approved), “because in God, essence and will are one, then the claim that God might possibly have willed a different world would be the same as saying that he could have been Another”—that is, a different God.(3) God cannot be conceived as having begun to create. Now this might seem to make creation “eternal,” but Schleiermacher resists this formulation of the relation. The reason is that if we say that creation is “eternal,” we seem to make it independent of God, which would destroy the feeling of absolute dependence. So Schleiermacher wants to uphold two values: (a) that God has never been without the world, and (b) that the world has always been absolutely dependent upon the divine activity for its existence. His conclusion is that God alone is “eternal” (in the sense of transcending time); the fact that the world does not transcend time but is structured by it is sufficient, in his view, to preserve a proper distinction between Creator and creature. But how then to speak of a creation that has no beginning without resorting to the term “eternal”? Alexander Schweizer would later use the word Sempiternität (from the Latin sempiternitas—meaning “everlasting” or “perpetual”) to describe the existence of a world that knows of no beginning. Such a world is “everlasting,” but God alone is “eternal.” I should add, perhaps, that this is not a linguistic trick but a real distinction, rooted in the differing kinds of being that God and the world are (God as a being transcending time and the world as a being structured by it). (4) Schleiermacher is willing to use the phrase creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) so long as its meaning is restricted to the understanding that God used no instrument or means in creating. That, he believes, is the force of the New Testament phrasing according to which God created “by His Word” alone. Such a phrase is to be taken in a critical sense, rather than as a positive explanation of how God works.[2]

Schleiermacher was obviously concerned with maintaining his principle of ‘feeling’ as the locus for his theological methodology; again motivated by his desire to move beyond the rationalism of his day and find a “safe place” as it were for theology to take place (unfortunately this ended up having deleterious consequences for subsequent theologizing, even if there is something also latently pregnant and valuable within this move of Schleiermacher). The point here though is that Schleiermacher desired to keep God distinct from his creation, and at the same time leave room for encounter or ‘feeling’ of God to happen in his creation/creatures.

I would like to say more, but this is running a bit long for a blog post. Suffice it to say, I think that Schleiermacher actually has the potential to provide some fruitful place in his doctrine of creation for some of the things considered today; particularly with reference to Dr. Josh Swamidass’ presentation. But also, Schleiermacher also helps to illustrate how conflict was happening, even for him, between the natural sciences of his day and his own theological development and methodology (which was something being considered at the conference today in general; i.e. the conflict or “warfare” between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ and how that might be mitigated and in fact used as a place where fruitful engagement might happen between scientists and say Christian theologians/pastors and lay people in the church).

P.S. There is much more to say, particularly with the place that Schleiermacher has in the development of the continued rift between science and religion. Does he help soften that rift, or contribute further to it? Questions like that. Not to mention the kind of theological space he might create for folks like Dr. Josh Swamidass who would like to focus on ‘experience’ and ‘encounter’ for evangelizing scientists in the public square and beyond (although I believe Barth provides a better more orthodox and constructive basis for a theology of encounter via his analogy of faith/relation).

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 21.

[2] Ibid., 22 scribd.


What Did Lessing, Schleiermacher, and Kant do to the Bible and the Way we Interpret It?

How did we get to where we have gotten theologically exegetically in our current state, whether ‘Liberal’ or ‘evangelical’ in the modern-post/modern period? How has a ‘reasonable faith’ impeded upon a revealed faith such kantthat either we must attempt to jump Lessing’s historical ditch by our own intellectual prowess, or acknowledge thus propping up revealed theology (i.e. what is given in the Bible) by our own rationales?

These are questions I will briefly deal with and sketch in the rest of this kind of abstract (an abstract without an essay).

As Murray Rae describes the impact of Lessing, Schleiermacher, and Kant upon where ‘modern’ exegetical practice is at today the above questions will be addressed, and then I will follow this up with my own reflection upon Rae’s observations.

Lessing’s troubled skepticism about whether the Gospel narratives—concerning events now inaccessible to our experience—could be sufficiently trustworthy to warrant the total submission of one’s life and intellect to the truth proclaimed by Christianity helped to generate among Schleiermacher’s contemporaries, at least in the universities, an impatience with theological claims—about Jesus in particular—that relied solely on the quotation of Scripture and that could not be confirmed by the deliberations of human reason. That mood was also given impetus by Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) insistence that we have no direct experience of things as they are in themselves but only of things as they appear to us. The way appearances of things are ordered into a coherent picture of the world depends upon the data of perception but crucially too upon the conceptualizing activity of our own intellects. With respect to theology, Kant contended that we have no direct experience of God, but our experience of moral obligation only makes sense if we postulate the existence of God (along with individual freedom and immortality). The existence of God is, in other words, a condition of the intelligibility of our moral experience.

Kant proceeded to explain that there are two forms of theology, the revealed or biblical theology of the church containing all the historical and symbolic material upon which Christian theology has been constructed, and the rational theology which Kant himself presumed to develop in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). These two forms of theology are related as two concentric circles: the outer being revealed theology, the inner being rational theology. The rational theologian, Kant argued, must “waive consideration of all experiences,” which is to say, the rational theologian must proceed without reliance upon the historical material of the Bible. There is, in revealed theology, a timeless essence with which the rational theologian is concerned, but it is discoverable in principle without recourse to the historical testimonies that attend Christian theology, as also the theology of other faiths. The essence of all faiths, allegedly, is their moral significance, which is derivable a priori from reason alone.[1]

Present in all proposals, whether Lessing, Schleiermacher, Kant, et. al. there is redolent a kind of dualism between history (linearly conceived), and a subject’s engagement with it vis-à-vis reason; and the more circumspect or reliable or accessible of the two is humanity’s reason. And so beyond the categories supplied by reason there is nothing reliable and thus anything beyond reason remains off limits and inaccessible toward being a ground upon which humanity can build anything stable and flourishing.

As Rae underscores, what this does, in particular with a Kantian accessibility to reality and ‘truth’ is that it subjectivizes it in a way that historical data, for example, no longer has the capacity to duly inform how we ought to conceive of God; instead that is left to our experience and ordering of reality through our own rationales. So God becomes subject to our subject, and Scripture is discarded as a husk that only reflects the kernel of other human being’s attempt to think God. God orbits in our world, we do not orbit in his, in other words.

Actually I made some assertions about ‘Liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ in my opening statements to this abstract, I am going to leave those dangling in light of what I just presented.

[1] Murray Rae, “Salvation in Community: The Tentative Universalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011),

Jesus, the ‘Criterion of Truth’

Let me respond to these comments made by commenter Stephen by quoting something from TF Torrance on Barth that I think is apropos to what Stephen has communicated about his own process and method of theological jesusphilosopherengagement. I don’t think Stephen is as far afield as what Torrance on Barth is critiquing, but then, I don’t really know. Here is what Stephen wrote of his approach:

In all honesty, I am extremely averse to theological precision. (I think I spend most of my time questioning dogmatics unnecessary dogmatic claims!) My exposure to world (particularly, Chile, Korea, Japan) Christianity and different Christian traditions has in many ways made me a theological minimalist.

Also, I take the consequences of positions extremely seriously and must negotiate accordingly. This does not mean I compromise on the essentials (Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Authority of Scripture), but it does mean that certain dogmatic statements are accountable to human experience of reality (like a doctrine of Scripture, creation, etc).

And this [he is applying his method to a discussion about Biblical translation and human epistemology]:

My final disclaimer is that knowing the author’s original intention does not settle the issue. Even if (lest say for argument’s sake) the author meant inerrancy as traditionally understood, if human experience does not allow me to say this, than I have to reformulate reinterpret the author’s views in light experience. (Truth is truth!) Certain doctrines must take into account experience. Actually all do, but the incarnation, trinity, atonement are inaccessible now, but hopefully these views will be vindicated at the parousia by are [sic] experience when all will be revealed. [taken from here]

Here is how Thomas Torrance on Karl Barth would respond to placing this kind of premium on human experience and absolutizing it as the criterion by which we know:

[T]here is still another line of development that must be noted, not one concerned so much with history considered as the product of man’s creative spirituality or with the existentialist fear of rational criticism, but with a psychological analysis and interpretation of the religious self-consciousness that is deliberately pursued as an extension of the Cartesian line of thought – what Wobbermin called ‘religo-psychological existential thought’. This is a line of thought which takes seriously the interrelation between man’s knowledge of God and his self-knowledge, and between his self-knowledge and knowledge of God, that is, the correlation between God and man, but it is one which thinks away the free ground of that correlation in God, takes its starting-point in man’s immediate self-consciousness, and makes its ultimate criterion man’s certainty of himself. Even it that means starting from a religious ego-consciousness and returning to it as the criterion of certainty, it involves a religio-psychological circle which is fundamentally ‘vicious’, for it has no objective ground independent of its subjective movement, and no point where its circular movement comes to an end, since the ‘God’ at the opposite pole is only the correlate of man’s consciousness, and so points back to man for its testing and truth.

In all these different movements there is, insisted Barth, a basic homogeneity of method from Schleiermacher to Bultmann, in which theological thinking takes its rise from a basic determination in the being of man, so that the only truth is is concerned with or can be concerned with is truth for man, truth which can be validated only by reference to his self-explication controlled by historical analysis of human existence. Two fundamental propositions are involved in this whole line of thought: a) Man’s meeting with God is a human experience historically and psychologically fixable; and b) this is the realisation of a religious potentiality in man generally demonstrable. These fundamental propositions remain essentially the same even if the idiom is changed to that of existentialism. It is this line of thought which throws up a theology in which the Church and faith are regarded as but part of a larger context of being and in which dogmatics is only part of a more comprehensive scientific pursuit which provides the general structural laws that determine its procedure, and so are the test of its scientific character. This means that theology can he [sic] pursued only within the prior understanding, and by submission to a criterion of truth, derived from a general self-interpretation of man’s existence. Thus theological activity becomes merely the servant of man’s advancing culture, and the tool of a preliminary understanding which, as Bultmann claimed, is reached ‘prior to faith’. [Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, 34-5.]

Not wanting to push commenter, Stephen to places he might not want to go, or be identified in; I cannot help but see Stephen’s methodology being critiqued and described in Torrance’s accounting. The Bible and Theology know nothing of a human experience (ontologically) abstracted from the human experience of God in Jesus Christ (as definitive and determinative of what it means to be human). There cannot be some sort of notion of human epistemology that has an active intellect of its own that is able to abstract a logical-deductive schemata of categories from its interplay with a pure nature of passive reality that then becomes the criterion by which humanity vindicates the reality of God in Christ. As Torrance notes, “… one which thinks away the free ground of that correlation in God, takes its starting-point in man’s immediate self-consciousness, and makes its ultimate criterion man’s certainty of himself. Even it that means starting from a religious ego-consciousness and returning to it as the criterion of certainty, it involves a religio-psychological circle which is fundamentally ‘vicious’, for it has no objective ground independent of its subjective movement, and no point where its circular movement comes to an end, since the ‘God’ at the opposite pole is only the correlate of man’s consciousness, and so points back to man for its testing and truth….”

If we believe that our experience is more certain than the objective experience of God, REVEALED (exegeted cf. Jn. 1.18) in Jesus Christ; then we will only haplessly be able to end up back in the ‘vicious’ circle, that Torrance notes above, of displacing God’s certainty with a religio-psychologically certainty of our own. And in the end we end up back in the ‘Liberal’ theological project of Schleiermacher, and not the orthodox one of Barth and even the Trad. And theology becomes driven by my experience, my ‘feeling’, and by anthropology of a certain kind; the kind that believes our capacity to speak of God can only be fleeting projections of our own imaginations that remain cut off from the inaccessibility of the Triune God who became incarnate and left nuanced and detailed disclosure and attestation of that in Scripture.