Schleiermacher and Barth
August 29, 2013
Alasdair I. C. Heron, Professor of Reformed Theology at Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg from 1981 to 2007, wrote a solid introductory survey of Schleiermacher and Barth’s dogmatic projects in an article first published in 1986 and now available for download in HTS Teologiese Studies:
For all of their differences, there is “a similar kind of questioning,” as Heron describes it (397). Barth’s counter-achievement “was necessarily related to that which it opposed. Barth and Schleiermacher may indeed be poles apart, but the poles are those of an ellipse, in which the second can best be appreciated in its tension laden relation to the first” (395).
Thankfully, Heron does not slight their differences nor fall prey to the “Barth didn’t understand his relation to modernity” shenanigans. (Yes, on a blog, I can get away with saying, “shenanigans.”) However, Heron focuses on the “God as wholly other” tactic that was most forcefully expressed in Barth’s Römerbrief. While Barth never abandons this orientation and indeed deepens it in profound ways, as Heron acknowledges, there is a conscious shift in Barth’s development away from over-reliance on Idealist categories (temporal/eternal, finite/infinite, etc.), appearing to do some of the exegetical work in Der Römerbrief, and toward specifically dogmatic categories of christological provenance in the Church Dogmatics. But, this goes well beyond the scope of Heron’s essay, which aims to give us a helpful overview from which further discussion can responsibly develop.
Heron does have this balanced insight into both Schleiermacher and Barth’s advancement, from their epoch-making first shot (Reden über die Religion and Der Römerbrief, respectively) to their mature dogmatics:
Further similarities can also be seen in the way that the later work of Barth and Schleiermacher developed. Some would characterize these by saying that both became more “conservative” following their first, radical beginnings. But “conservative” is a slippery concept, whether it is understood politically or theologically. It would be more precise to say that both worked from their starting points to include and gather in, in an essentially consistent development, a wider and deeper appreciation and appropriation of the fruits of earlier Christian theology. Both went on to become, in the strict sense of the word, ecclesiastical theologians, conscious of the responsibility of their work for the life and witness of the wider Christian community. Once called to chairs of theology – Schleiermacher in Berlin, Barth first of all in Göttingen - they found themselves confronted with other tasks and responsibilities than those of relatively independent thinkers. In particular, they were faced with the question of how they were to teach them – a question which can have a sobering effect on the most effervescent spirits if they feel its real force. (400-401)
Barth’s assessment of Schleiermacher can be found (1) in his Göttingen lectures of winter 1923/24, which ends with an autobiographical account, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript on Schleiermacher,” (2) in his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century from 1947/52, and (3) in the many excursuses throughout the Church Dogmatics, in which the index is most helpful for locating Schleiermacher.