Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst

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Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst (1768-1834): German Theologian

Friedrich Schleiermacher is considered the most important theologian of the Romantic movement as well as the founder of modern Protestant theology. Schleiermacher was born in Breslau to a Reformed chaplain and the daughter of a Reformed chaplain. In 1783, his parents sent him to the Moravian school in Niesky, where he was introduced to a humanist curriculum of languages — Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and English. To prepare for a career in the ministry, Schleiermacher then attended the Moravian seminary in Barby, where he read Goethe, Johann Wolfgang’s Werther and the Jenaer Literaturzeitung. Schleiermacher matriculated at Halle in 1787, where he pursued not only theology, but classical studies and philosophy — particularly the work of Kant, Immanuel, which he received filtered through the criticisms of J. A. Eberhard. Shortly after Schleiermacher passed the theological examination to become a Reformed minister, a family friend, clergyman F. S. G. Sack, secured him a position as private tutor to the children of Count Dohna in East Prussia, where he served from 1790 to 1793. After he passed the second theological exam in 1794, Schleiermacher was ordained and appointed assistant pastor in Landsberg.

In 1796, Schleiermacher accepted a position as the Reformed pastor of the Charité Hospital in Berlin. He quickly became active in the salon of Markus and Henriette Herz, where he met a number of the leading Romantic thinkers in Germany. His involvement in another literary group also led to a close friendship with Schlegel, August Wilhelm and Friedrich; for a time, Schleiermacher helped edit and contributed aphorisms to Das Athenäum, Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel’s literary journal. The literary avant-garde had misgivings about Schleiermacher’s religious affiliation, however, which prompted him to write Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern (1799). In the series of five speeches, Schleiermacher conceives of the basis of religion in personal emotional experience, thus paving the way for its acceptance by the Romantics; like art, religion makes us conscious of the immanence of the infinite.

Hoping that Eleonore Grunow, the unhappily married wife of a Berlin pastor, would accompany him, Schleiermacher accepted a position at Stolpe in Pomerania in 1802. When she did not, Schleiermacher threw himself into his work. Applying a hermeneutical analysis to establish the chronology of the dialogues, he continued a translation of Plato he had begun in Berlin. He also published his first philosophical work, the Grundlinien einer Kritik der bisherigen Sittenlehre (1803), in which he criticizes Kant’s abstraction of ethics from the historical development of reason, and argues instead that duties stem from the interrelation of one’s individuated rational nature and one’s institutional community.

In 1804, Schleiermacher was appointed extraordinary professor of theology at Halle, where he also served as preacher. When the French occupied Halle and dissolved the university in 1806, Schleiermacher delivered patriotic sermons at the university church and carried on covert meetings with members of the political reformist movement. He continued his resistance when he moved to Berlin in 1809. As pastor of the Dreifaltigkeitskirche, his sermons became known for their religious fervor as well as their patriotism: he advocated the unification of the German people and the integration of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. Amid the tumult, he married a young widow, Henriette von Willich, with whom he later had five children and adopted two others.

Based on Schleiermacher’s theory of education in his Gelegentliche Gedanken über Universitäten im Deutschen Sinn (1808), he and Humboldt, Wilhelm von founded the University of Berlin from 1808 to 1810. Schleiermacher himself served as the first professor of theology, teaching such subjects as dogmatic and practical theology, New Testament criticism, hermeneutics, history of philosophy, and ethics. He also advanced the nationalist cause by delivering sermons on behalf of German unification, blessing soldiers before they went into battle, and serving in the Landsturm, a military support unit composed of university professors.

When the constitution promised by King Friedrich Wilhelm III failed to materialize, Schleiermacher openly denigrated the government’s handling of the war, eliciting a reprimand from the king and his dismissal from the Department of Education. And, after he gave a speech at the Royal Academy in which he suggested that the government was unresponsive to the German people, Schleiermacher’s public appearances were closely monitored. Schleiermacher nonetheless continued to comment on the affairs of the state: in a series of lectures, he claimed that the shared tradition necessary for a stable Germany was lacking; and, when the king’s plan to unify the Protestant church in Prussia included what he considered an unacceptable liturgy, he protested the decision in print.

During this time, Schleiermacher completed his principle theological work, Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche im Zusammenhange dargestellt (1821-22; revised edition, 1830-31), in which he centralizes religious consciousness around the figure of Christ: through the redemption accomplished by Christ’s death, we recognize both our identity with and our absolute dependence on the infinite God. Along with his previous work, this established Schleiermacher as the most important theologian in Protestant Germany, and, when he died in 1834, thousands of his countrymen mourned him.

Schleiermacher created the discipline of modern general hermeneutics, which was extended by Wilhelm Dilthey and radicalized by Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Most significantly, however, the importance of his religious philosophy to the post-Enlightenment understanding of theology ranks with the work of Calvin and Aquinas in the history of Christian thought.

Further Reading:

Wilhelm Dilthey, Leben Schleiermachers 2 vols., 1970.

Terrence N. Tice, Schleiermacher Bibliography (1784-1984), 1985.

Matthew Altman

Central Washington University