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HTS Theological Studies

versión On-line ISSN 2072-8050
versión impresa ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.75 no.4 Pretoria  2019 



Reflections on Schleiermacher's God



Rian Venter

Historical and Constructive Theology, Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa





Schleiermacher's approach to the doctrine of God has attracted interest in contemporary theological scholarship. The article tries to map the major features of his God-construal and a number of perspectives are highlighted. Attention is given to the general sentiments of his project, the history of interpretation, the question of a primary referent for 'God' and the centrality of causation, the role of structure in his Glaubenslehre and finally the attribute tradition and the doctrine of the Trinity. The second part of the article engages Schleiermacher's interpretation from the developments in especially the Trinitarian Renaissance since the last part of the 20th century. A number of critical divergences are identified, for example, the preference given to plurality, greater appreciation for the immanent Trinity, a Trinitarian approach to the attributes and an expansive notion of the 'practical' implications of the Trinity. Critical questions about 'Schleiermacher's God' are raised in the conclusion.

Keywords: Divine attributes; Economic and immanent Trinity; Sabellius; Schleiermacher; Trinity.




The return of the God-question is a particular mark of systematic theological reflection since the mid-20th century. New and imaginative constructions have been explored, reflecting drastic shifting sensibilities in the wider intellectual horizon. One feature of the new enthusiasm is a historical interest, a return to major minds in Christian theology, for example, the Cappadocian fathers, Augustine, Thomas, Calvin and Edwards, and a re-evaluation of their theo-contributions. The article is situated in this trajectory of contemporary theology, and aims at intimating the broad structures that might enable a fair representation of Friedrich Schleiermacher's understanding of the doctrine of God. The focus is on pointers, perspectives and avenues to grasp contours of his interpretation of God. In a final section, some critical comments will be made from an explicit contemporary perspective.



An obvious starting point may be the identification of general sentiments which fundamentally guided and influenced Schleiermacher's thought. Placing him in 19th-century approaches to God (see, e.g. McGiffert 1908; Roberts 2017) is arguably a natural formal move. More crucial is to emphasise his critical Enlightenment posture, his embrace of historical modes of thinking contra metaphysical ones and his deep anti-speculative attitude. The emphasis on unity and oneness was also a pervasive theistic sentiment of the time. The monistic line from Spinoza through Herder crystallised in Schleiermacher: God is the Absolute, the all-embracing whole. McGiffert (1908:15) views this as 'characteristic of most modern religious thought'. These all have influenced his approach to God. Poe in her recent and detailed study of Schleiermacher's Trinity (2017:23f, 45) emphasises the continuation of Calvin's aversion to speculation in theology. Apart from a formal orientation, a radical Christo-centrism determined the character of Calvin's theology, specifically his understanding of God. The impact of the community of faith is the epistemological principle of his work. The doctrine of God is developed in relation to experience inasmuch as it provokes action (Roberts 2017:577). Wide and deep currents flow together in Schleiermacher's understanding of God which in an elaborate study could be discussed thoroughly.

One cannot read Schleiermacher without the weight of a history of interpretation which most often distorted his intentions and his position. This warrants a study of its own. The impact of Barth, Pannenberg, Moltmann and the Trinitarian Renaissance complicates one's interpretation; engagement with Schleiermacher is always tainted by subsequent history. Some of the critical claims - that his theology is mere subjective projection, that he marginalises the Trinity and that he is a modalist - should be re-evaluated by fresh readings of his work. Welch in his well-known work (1952) may be referred to as such a critical voice, albeit with some interesting observations. He directly blames Schleiermacher for a tradition which questions the importance and validity of the Trinity as an unnecessary additional to the faith. Apart from the typical focus on the subjectivism of Schleiermacher's thought, Welch highlights rationalist principles in his theology and the choice of theological methodology (1952:7ff). God is to be viewed as an absolute unity, without any distinctions. By placing the experience of redemption as organising principle, Schleiermacher relegates the Trinity to secondary status. For him, Dogmatics is an organic whole, centring in one organising principle; in his way, Schleiermacher has distanced himself from a long tradition starting with Lombard's Sentences.

To move closer to his own constructive proposals, one should arguably enquire after the precise referent of the notion of 'God' for Schleiermacher. He connects 'God' explicitly with the 'whence' - 'for us "whence" holds the truly primary meaning of the term "God"' (Schleiermacher §4:4).1 The background here is obviously his emphasis on absolute dependence. Another way to put this is to refer to 'the absolute causality' (Schleiermacher §51). Poe (2017:46) suggests that Schleiermacher most basically understands God as creator. The implications of this should be considered: if this holds true, his theology should be appreciated as radically theo-centric; God precedes human existence. Once this is seen, the conventional subjectivist charge is relativised.

Logically and intimately linked to what has just been stated is the question about a possible 'fulcrum', a key to his doctrine of God. Powell (2001:89, 95) suggests that this is to be found in causation, and not in human feeling. Schüssler-Fiorenza (2005:176, 179) also points to the link between causality, divine attributes and Trinity; he, however, adds 'redemption is the key for Schleiermacher's understanding of God'. DeHart (2010:19) also emphasises this in his appreciative review of Schleiermacher's treatment of the Trinity. The notion of 'activity' thus replaces the traditional pre-occupation with 'nature'. In contrast to Calvin who distinguishes between God as Creator and God as Redeemer, Schleiermacher posits a much more unified view of creation and redemption: the creative power of God culminates redemptively in Jesus Christ (see Poe 2017:47f).2

A consideration of the architectural structure of the Glaubenslehre is of utmost importance for a representation of his 'full' doctrine of God. Unlike traditional approaches, he develops this progressively. The attributes are discussed in three separate sections throughout the work, and the Trinity follows towards the end. The entire Glaubenslehre is, in fact, doctrine of God: Schleiermacher moves from abstraction to concrete knowledge. To suggest that he marginalises the Trinity missed the thrust of his argument. His innovative treatment tries to correct the deficiencies of traditional approaches. The discussion of the Trinity forms the 'copestone of Christian doctrine' (Schleiermacher §170:1), the crown of this work. It can be presented only after Christology, pneumatology and soteriology. Critical questions could be raised, however, about the price exacted for this architectural design.

Schleiermacher offers a highly innovative treatment of the divine attributes. By discussing the attributes in different sections and relating them to different religious experiences is quite unique. In three major sections (§50-56, §79-85, §164-169), he discusses (1) eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience in relation to self-consciousness expressed in the general relationship between God and world; (2) holiness, justice and mercy as they relate to the consciousness of sin; and finally (3) love and wisdom as they relate to redemption. Two critical issues surface here: a question of the coherence of his exposition and one of reference. The impression is that Schleiermacher deviates in the third group - love and wisdom - from his previous conception; here, the two attributes intimate something of the divine essence, but still for him 'attribute' 'is not suitable for presentation of the divine being' (§167:1). Attributes 'are meant simply to explicate the feeling of absolute dependence, all of them must somehow be traced back to divine causality' (Schleiermacher §50:3). This constitutes a radical departure of traditional conceptions. Instead of referring to the divine being, they refer to modulations how divine causality comes to human consciousness. His alternative to the traditional via eminentiae and via negationis is a via causalitatis (Richards 1996:161). The view of Pedersen (2015) should be mentioned here who argues that the roots of Schleiermacher's view are already to be found in the Reformed Scholastics for whom attributes also do not correspond to the being of God as God is in se, but are merely explanatory. The reason, for both Schleiermacher and his predecessors, is to be found in the conviction of the incomprehensibility and simplicity of God. Real attribution would contradict divine simplicity that resists any trace of composition. In light of these considerations, Pedersen (2015:430) makes the interesting suggestion that 'Schleiermacher's deflationary take on the Trinity is merely an extension of his own tradition's doctrine of the divine attributes'. Multiplicity in the divine life would contradict the aseity of God which implies immutability and simplicity.

The attributes of love and wisdom deserve special attention. Schleiermacher's statements in this regard are provocative and at the same time quite ambiguous vis-à-vis his God-project. Wisdom is 'the art' of 'bringing love to its complete realization'; love is the 'underlying disposition' of the union of the divine being with human nature (Schleiermacher §165:1). The critical insight here is Schleiermacher's claim that 'only love and no other divine attribute can be equated with God' (§167:1). For him, there is a difference between wisdom and love - 'we are not able to say that God is wisdom in the same way that we say that God is love' (Schleiermacher §167:1). How to interpret this is quite difficult. Richards (1996:166) claims that Schleiermacher remains consistent, and maintains the non-referentiality with respect to God. We have at most 'an ascriptive, and not descriptive way of speaking about God'. Walter (2008:63, 71) focuses on wisdom and deems this as the actualisation of love and 'the ground of the Trinity'.

His position as Enlightenment thinker comes to the fore in his criticism of the traditional ecclesial Trinitarian doctrine. He is dismissive of tradition because it lacks a relation to Christian faith and piety, lacks Biblical support and is incoherent and speculative3 (see Schleiermacher §170 & §171). Part of this negative attitude includes his rejection of any notion of God in se, and traditional theological doctrines of Trinitarian procession, appropriation and of assigning personhood to God.

His views on the Trinity require a consideration of his Glaubenslehre, as well as his 1822 treatise on Sabellius as sources. Attention is often given only to the Christian Faith. Walter (2008:63) claims that there is no study available which examines the implications of his work on Sabellius in conjunction with his larger opus. For an example of complementation, one can refer to the more extensive discussion of God the Father in the treatise which is not found in the larger work. In fact, he avoids using the term 'Father' in the major work. For Schleiermacher, theology has to navigate 'two shoals' in its doctrine of God: polytheism, on the one hand, and compromising Jesus's divinity (i.e. subordinationism) on the other (see Schleiermacher [1835] 2018:66f.). The question is how he himself navigated the 'considerable width left for sailing between the two shoals'. He is critical about the Nicene approach to the Trinity and more receptive to the Sabellian way of thinking. His twofold standard for a credible doctrine of the Trinity resists 'abstruseness' as it has to produce fruit for the life for the church (see Smith 2008:504). The inherent problem with an Athanasian interpretation, which posits eternal generation in the God-head and asserts the Father as the source of all divinity, is that it inevitably casts a shadow on the full divinity of the son. The critical contribution of Sabellius for Schleiermacher was that 'The Trinity, therefore, is GOD REVEALED (his capitalization, RV); each member of the same, is a peculiar mode of this revelation' (Schleiermacher [1835] 2018:151). The God-head 'is never revealed to us as it is itself' (Schleiermacher [1835] 2018:151). This keeps the monarchia of God unaffected with no hypostatic division within God. Schleiermacher is quite aware what this in Sabellius's view entails ([1835] 2018):

To Sabellius and his friends, no doubt, it seemed very important that Trinity was not essential to Godhead as in itself considered, but only in reference to create beings and on their account. (Italics by Schleiermacher, RV, p. 142)

As Sabellianism has been associated with modalism, it becomes understandable that Schleiermacher has also been accused of this Trinitarian heresy. By leaving a space between God-in-revelation and God-in-Godself, the impression is created of a God who gives creation different faces. This view obviously questions the doctrine of the immanent Trinity. Schleiermacher does not follow Sabellius wholesale, but is looking for an interpretation which goes beyond the contrast between Athanasius and Sabellius (Poe 2017:77). Helmer's (2011:164) comment in this regard is worth mentioning: Schleiermacher's Sabellianism is modified: For Sabellius, the modes of God were interchangeable, 'whereas Schleiermacher sees Son and then Spirit as historically non-reducible to each other and, once introduced historically, as irrevocable constituents of the Trinity'.

The significance of the reconstruction of the Trinitarian doctrine by Schleiermacher should be acknowledged in the history of reflection on this doctrine (see his comment in §172:2). He (§170:1) regards the 'essential element' in the doctrine as 'the uniting of the divine nature with human nature, both through the individual person of Christ and through the common spirit of the church'. The Trinity is thus the result of divine impartation (Powell 2001:100); it is about 'the way in which, in history, the divine being unites with human nature' (Powell 2011:271). The Trinity is grounded by the historical experience of God's presence as person-forming in Christ, and community-forming in the Christian community. Here, one encounters the specific thrust of Schleiermacher's Trinitarian view. Schüssler-Fiorenza (2005:181) concludes that Christian consciousness of the deity of the Son and the Spirit 'necessitates a threeness in God'. The Christian understanding of God correlates with the consciousness of grace; it is rooted in redemptive activity. The reconstruction is thus based exclusively on soteriology. The knowledge of the Trinity is cumulative, and cannot be metaphysically presupposed at the beginning; it is a working out of the power of God's in love and wisdom, a historical working out in terms of Christ and the Spirit. Precisely what the doctrine of the Trinity signifies is clear and Powell (2012:57) captures this well: 'The Trinity is thus a doctrine about God's casual intervention in the world for the purpose of salvation'. Two critical issues surface here: the relation between being and experience, and between Trinity and history. Schüssler-Fiorenza (2005:185f) is convinced of a positive relationship - the experience of redemption manifests the being of God; and Powell (2001:100, 103) believes that an element of historicity is introduced into God, 'God becomes a Trinity in the course of history'. The distinctive features of Schleiermacher's God emerge in clearer focus in these scholarly interpretations: God as a unity without difference, the divine being as pure activity, and one who becomes a Trinity in successive unions (Powell 2011:271).4

The interpretation of Poe in her major recent interpretation of Schleiermacher (2017) should be taken into consideration. She attempts a re-evaluation of him and concludes that he is 'an authentically Christian, Trinitarian theologian' (p. 173) and offers resources for the revitalisation of the doctrine (p. 174). For her to reach these verdicts, she had to make a number of innovative argumentative moves. To find a mid-way between immanent and economic Trinity, she introduced the category 'essential Trinitarianism', and then, this is arguably the most creative contribution, she views causality, love and wisdom as expressions of the very essence of the divine life. Here, she refers to 'distinctions-in-relation within the divine life' (p. 17, 81ff). The divine life is 'textured in a threefold way' (p. 81). She is careful not to equate these with the traditional understanding of Father, Son and Spirit (p. 92f., 132). Poe repeats the well-known emphasis that God is always for Schleiermacher 'God for us'; the notion of a threefold structure underlines that the divine life should be considered in relation to the world.



Evaluative remarks about Schleiermacher's doctrine of God must obviously be tentative and preliminary. His construction is too sophisticated and fed by too many streams of influence for simplistic labelling or dismissal. There are clearly lines not only of continuity with his Reformed predecessors but also of integration of Enlightenment sentiments. Moreover, his own creative genius should not be ignored! Furthermore, what complicates reception and engagement is the overwhelming tainting of perception by 20th-century God-reflections.

For Schleiermacher, unity5 was clearly a guiding motif, whereas plurality has become a major pre-occupation for the contemporary era. Pervasive cultural sensibilities leave no God unaffected! The shift from an emphasis on monism to relationality and plurality registers the transition from modernity to postmodernity.6 At stake here is much more than the introduction of new thematics, or new priorities. New categories involve new ways of thinking. In her account of post-Reformation Trinitarian theology, Helmer (2011: esp. 150f, 164ff) emphasises precisely this. The fascinating claim by her is that the Trinitarian confession challenged Western thought as such; the Trinity 'decisively probed and stretched Western thinking' (p. 166). The 20th-century Trinitarian enthusiasm may be an expression of this: the narrative of the God, who became human and who died on the cross, gave impetus to thinking unity or diversity, nature or personhood, eternity or history, identity or change and power or vulnerability at the same time.

The well-known Rahner axiom - the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity - captures a fundamental challenge in Christian God-reflection. If the starting point is the divine economy, a logical extrapolation or inference becomes unavoidable. The persistent and consistent emphasis by a theologian like Barth (1975:382) has been exactly this: 'God is precisely the One He is in showing and giving Himself'.7 A complex revelation in history cannot be thought without a complex eternal identity. If relationality is not consistently thought through, the every identity of ultimate reality is compromised, and the danger of modalism surfaces. Obviously, one could deny this argumentative move, this inference, and posit a threefoldness in revelation and simultaneously resist a corresponding distinction in the eternal Godhead. Theologically, little is gained by creating a dialectic in this way. The danger of a discrepancy between revelation and mystery becomes obvious: the significance and truth of revelation are questioned. A host of theologians of which Barth and Rahner are prime examples have seen the critical thrust of asserting a positive relationship between immanent and economic Trinity. That distinction and relationality belong to the nature of the divine may be one of the truly significant insights of 20th-century theology. What is easily dismissed as speculation should rather be seen as fruitful imagination. More is gained by positing diversity to the life of the divine than succumbing to a premature apophasis. The function of the doctrine of the Trinity is to convey a message of salvation; however, it is first and foremost a statement about the nature or identity of the Divine in a specific religion - Christianity. Because God is sheer donation, sheer community 'in' God self, we can meaningfully theologise about creation and about salvation. The notion of causality, as is the case in Schleiermacher, cannot satisfactorily accomplish this. A Trinitarian approach to causality can account for fecundity, diversity and relationality, whereas an indeterminate one must revert to the notion of sheer divine will. There is no analogical relation between creation and Creator. A theology with a monistic point of departure and later a Trinitarian culmination generates an inherent tension.

What was considered as 'abstruse' by Schleiermacher, a doctrine which has no bearing on the experience of the Christian community, has been retrieved, in the striking formulation of LaCugna (1991:1), as 'a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life'. By arguing for diversity in the eternal life of God, social Trinitarians could draw radical innovative ontological conclusions: ultimate reality is not monistic, but relational. Distinctions in the identity of God do not negate divinity, but generate precisely the opposite - God's life in community is the unique Christian identification of God. Once God's nature is perceived as perichoretic personhood, one could analogically solve an immense spectrum of human and social problems. This has been the achievement of the 20th-century Trinitarian Renaissance. Trinitarian doctrine has started to become relevant for a host of intellectual challenges, for social ethics, for the dialogue with natural sciences and for inter-religious dialogues. At stake here is an immense expansion of the category 'experience'. Post-modern experiences have become kaleidoscopic, and a different notion of God is required for sense-making.

Schleiermacher's treatment of the divine attributes is particularly challenging. Fully aware of the Achilles heel of the traditional approach, his own reconstruction remains, however, 'unbaptised'. The particular contribution of Barth has been the reversal of the order - firstly the Trinity and then the attributes. This allows for a radical re-imagining of attributes, for example, of 'glory' along aesthetic lines. The Trinitarian re-visioning motivates, or rather requires, a disruptive interpretation of the divine. The structural locating of the attributes by Schleiermacher, how ingenious it might be, does not allow for an experience of God in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. Gunton (2002:12ff), who also acknowledges Schleiermacher's contribution, especially the focus on causality, questions whether he really differs from typical Neoplatonic philosophical thinking. Placing the attribute discussion after a treatment of the Trinitarian confession allows quite different experiences of God and even of predications to God. For example, placing power there opens new avenues of discovering the cruciform nature of power. Twentieth-century Trinitarian attribute proposals have tried to move beyond the curious 'hybrid deity' (Gunton 2002:2) of pre-Barthian theology. When the 'relational God' becomes the departure, one could even venture into entertaining new namings, like gift or hospitality.8

Even if Schleiermacher (§167:1) accords love a special status and equated it with the being or nature of God, one cannot miss the reticence with which he approaches the topic. Love, according to him, 'is the orientation of wanting to unite with others and wanting to be in the other' (Schleiermacher §165:1); it is the underlying disposition in the process of the union of the divine being with human nature. This is a far cry from 20th-century treatments of the love in relation to God. The relational turn and the acknowledgement of communion in the very being of God have added a tremendous 'thickness' to contemporary treatments. Vanhoozer (2001:2) in his overview of the theme 'love of God' in Systematic Theology even refers to a paradigmatic revolution by attending expressly to interpersonal relations. Love cannot be discussed without mentioning pathos, desire, donation and vulnerability. The deeply rationalistic character of Schleiermacher's treatment emerges when he combines love with wisdom. In the end, his God remains strangely aloof in the process towards union with humanity.

The structural location of the doctrine of the Trinity makes a comparison with Barth unavoidable who has reversed the position of his 19th-century predecessor, and placed the doctrine at the beginning of his dogmatics. For Schleiermacher, the Trinity represents the climax of an intricate argumentative movement, and for Barth, the Trinity is the fundamental optic which determines vision. The pertinent question is whether Systematic Theology should repeat a genealogical journey, or implement the fruit of a long history of insight. The advantage of the latter is that the entire Christian vision could become Trinitarian and eschatological.

The gallery of great Christian God-thinkers such as the Cappadocian fathers, Augustine, Thomas, Luther and Barth should include Schleiermacher. His turn from metaphysics to history, his focus on activity and redemption, the re-appreciation of Sabellius, the courage to question traditional doctrine and the insistence on reconstruction deserve our attention and recognition. The configuration of various elements - the formal location of themes in the overall structure, the treatment of attributes in relation to experience, the refusal to attend to the immanent Trinity and the focus on causality - assigns to his construction of the doctrine of God a particular uniqueness. These sensibilities and his antenna for the Christian tradition and his Enlightenment context render his work a quality which is to be considered in all contemporary re-imaginings. His sophisticated approach renders to his understanding of God a surplus of meaning which opens new scholarly appreciations. However, whether his God will be imitated is unlikely. Too much rethinking of virtually every element of his construal has occurred, which has given birth to new appreciations of the great Mystery of the world. One cannot but ponder the question whether his interpretation is too rationalistic, too measured to convey a coherent and existentially engaging profile. The images of God of great theologians are instantly associated with some gravitational point - whether it be sovereignty, freedom in love, pathos or sheer donation. Schleiermacher is connoted with ingenious argumentative moves. Whether the Great Cause which is eternally monistic will really touch the heart of people is to be pondered.



This is a revised version of a paper presented at the 'Engaging Schleiermacher today: South African perspectives' conference, held at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, on 02 November 2018.

Competing interests

The author declares that they have no financial or personal relationships which may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Author's contributions

R.V. is the sole contributor to this research article.

Ethical considerations

This article followed all ethical standards for a research without direct contact with human or animal subjects.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official or position of any affiliated agency of the author.



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Rian Venter

Received: 16 May 2019
Accepted: 29 July 2019
Published: 29 Nov. 2019



Note: Engaging Schleiermacher today: South African perspectives, sub-edited by Rian Venter (University of the Free State).
1 . All references, unless indicated otherwise, will be to his Christian Faith; the new 2016 translation is used.
2 . One cannot but wonder what was the influence on Barth (1957:263) who claims 'To its very deepest depths God's Godhead consists in the fact that it is an event'. See also Jenson (1997:221). For both Barth and Jenson, the eventfulness is the first and foremost Trinitarianly determined - 'God is what happens between Jesus and his Father in their Spirit' (Jenson 1997:221).
3 . This is crucial in his theology, and one should call attention to studies in this regard, see, for example, Gordon (2014), who discusses the express anti-speculative thrust of Schleiermacher's work.
4 . Olson (2013:144) is of the opinion: 'For Schleiermacher, God is the absolute, infinite, all determining, suprapersonal power immanent in everything but beyond all distinctions creatureliness imposes on existence'.
5 . See §96:1 - 'precisely what is divided and conditioned we contrast with God, viewing God to be unconditioned and absolutely simple'.
6 . For an excellent account what 'a postmodern theology of the Trinity' might entail, see Cunningham (2003). He not only identifies relationality and difference but also highlights the role of practices which result from theology.
7 . The comment by the Barth scholar McCormack (2003:156) can be referred to here: 'At the heart of Barth's theology lies a single conviction: God is in eternity (in himself) the mode of his self-revelation in time. The content of revelation (its "what") is identical with its mode (its "how"). This starkly contrasts with the Schleiermacher position'.
8 . For a recent discussion of the attribute tradition with a Trinitarian antenna, see Kärkkäinen (2014: chapters 12 and 13).

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