by John M. Frame
This article was originally published in Carl Henry, ed., Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics (1973), 603-04. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2005. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. Baker’s URL is https://www.bakerbooks.com, and that of Baker Publishing Group is https://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.
Friedrich D.E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is sometimes called the “father of modern theology.” Perhaps the most important of his influential innovations is his view that the final authority in religious matters is not Scripture (as in orthodox Protestantism), nor natural reason (as in pre-Kantian rationalism), nor a combination of these plus tradition (as in Roman Catholicism), but intuitive religious feeling. For Schleiermacher, “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech.”1 The influence of this principle upon modern liberal Protestantism, and not least upon modern liberal Protestant ethics, is incalculable. Schleiermacher’s specifically ethical writings, however (Grundlinien einer Kuitik der Bisherigen Sittenlehre, Grundriss der Philosophischen Ethik), have had comparatively little impact on recent thought. This fact would have disappointed Schleiermacher, for he regarded his ethical works as in one sense the capstone of his theological labors and even regarded dogmatics itself as a kind of subdivision of ethics.2
Schleiermacher virtually identifies ethics with what we would ordinarily call “history” – i.e., a descriptive account of the ways in which man’s reason acts upon nature to accomplish its purposes. Specifically Christian ethics then, describes the ways in which the Christian’s communion with God through Christ influences his actions. In line with this conception, Schleiermacher presents detailed “descriptions” of various goods, virtues and duties and the relations between them. Essentially he sees the ethical life as a struggle to attain “unity” or “peace” between apparently (but in his view not actually) conflicting realities – spirit and flesh, ideal and real, reason and nature, individual and universal, production and appropriate, etc. In this spirit he supports the development of “unity” in the political and social realms – the developing Prussian state and the Lutheran-Reformed ecclesiastical union – at least insofar as he feels that these unions had a firm basis in the popular cultural consciousness. He advocates broad social reforms, particularly improvements in the condition of the poor.
Schleiermacher contrasts this “descriptive” approach most often with what we might call a “normative” approach – i.e. the exposition of an eternal, authoritative standard which demands man’s obedience.3 Like the modern “situationist,” Schleiermacher belittles the value of “law” to exalt that of “love.” In his view, law “does not pierce behind the outward act” and thus cannot deal with inward motives. This view leads him to the paradoxical position that the two great commandments of the law (Matt. 22:36-40) are not commandments at all. Such a view has a substantial weakness: if consistent it has no basis for declaring anything to be right or wrong. Mere description cannot yield such evaluations, which require a Biblical appreciation of the law of God (Deut. 6:1-9; Matt. 5:17-19; John 14:15).