Essay / Theology

Schleiermacher: Trinity and Redemption

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was never persuaded that the doctrine of the Trinity had anything to do with the gospel. It is common enough to blame Schleiermacher for his role in marginalizing the doctrine of the Trinity: He famously placed the doctrine at the very end of his work The Christian Faith, making it something of an appendix to the main work. One could make too much of a doctrine’s location in a book, but in the case of a thinker so consummately systematic as Schleiermacher, location does signify a great deal. Since Christianity is “essentially distinguished from other faiths by the fact that in it everything is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth,” Schleiermacher’s theology is entirely centered on that redemption, or rather on the knowledge of that redemption, the contents of the self-consciousness of the redeemed.

“We shall exhaust the whole compass of Christian doctrine if we consider the facts of the religious self-consciousness, first, as they are presupposed by the antithesis expressed in the concept of redemption, and secondly, as they are determined by that antithesis.” To “exhaust the whole compass of Christian doctrine” by analyzing redemption may seem to risk restricting theology to soteriology, but Schleiermacher’s method is expansive enough to include much besides salvation. The Christian consciousness of redemption entails concepts such as God’s holiness, righteousness, love, and wisdom; the opposing negative states of evil and sin; and the transition between them by way of Christ and the church through rebirth and sanctification. These concepts, further, presuppose others: creation and preservation, an original state of human perfection, and the divine attributes of eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. Even angels and devils can be given a place within the Glaubenslehre, although only provisionally and tentatively, since their alleged operations are so far at the periphery of the Christian consciousness of redemption that angelology “never enters into the sphere of Christian doctrine proper.”

The Trinity, however, could not be admitted to the doctrinal system proper, because it could not be related to the gospel, or in Schleiermacher’s terms, it is not directly implicated in redemption. “It is not an immediate utterance concerning the Christian self-consciousness but only a combination of several such utterances.” Piecing together doctrines to construct more elaborate doctrines was something Schleiermacher regarded with horror, because it led out from the living center of the faith to the arid regions of theologoumena, where dogmaticians do their deadening work. Schleiermacher had long since rejected that approach in his Speeches on Religion: “Among those systematizers there is less than anywhere, a devout watching and listening to discover in their own hearts what they are to describe. They would rather reckon with symbols…” The young Romantic may have grown up to write a big book of doctrine, but he continued his “devout watching and listening,” and never betrayed his basic insight or became one of “those systematizers” content to “reckon with symbols.” Because the Trinity could not be directly connected to redemption, Schleiermacher placed it well outside the life-giving core of the Christian Faith.

In the heading of the section where he finally treated it, Schleiermacher pointed out that the doctrine of the Trinity could not be considered an issue that was “finally settled,” because after all 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.” Schleiermacher considered it obvious that if the Trinity were implicated in the evangel, the evangelisch awakening of the sixteenth century would have transformed and deepened it as it had everything central to Christian redemption.

There are many lessons to learn from Schleiermacher, who ranks among the greatest minds ever to take up Christian theology. Genius though he was, his work is most instructive as a cautionary tale, and it is certainly so here in his treatment of the Trinity.

Where Schleiermacher was right: If the doctrine of the Trinity is not an immediate implication of redemption, it should be set aside (perhaps quietly and respectfully, but decisively).

Where Schleiermacher was wrong: Judging that the Trinity is not an immediate implication of redemption.

The task: To articulate the doctrine of the Trinity as internally connected to the gospel.

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