Mini-Review: Thinking About Christ with Schleiermacher, Catherine Kelsey

Thinking About Christ with Schleiermacher by Catherine Kelsey (WJK Press, 2003)

This is a slim volume of little over a hundred pages. The audience is, surprisingly enough for this sort of study, an adult Sunday school class. Interspersed throughout the text are blocks of discussion questions, guided by personal reflections and practical commentary. These are well-done and valuable for those who do agree with Schleiermacher’s emphases in The Christian Faith. The choice of following The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher’s mature systematic theology, is especially appreciated by yours truly. Kelsey does a fine job of explaining the method of dogmatics and the use of Christology (subjectively focused) as an organizing tool.

The criticisms I have, and others will have, are with the limitations of Schleiermacher’s approach. So, I do not share Kelsey’s enthusiasm for this approach, but it is instructive to read someone who does. Kelsey is fair throughout and briefly notes the departures from other, more common and more traditional, readings of Christ’s person and work. A focus on the Cross and substitutionary atonement is replaced by a focus on the affective life of Christ on his followers, the disciples who were first drawn to Christ by his God-consciousness. This origin of the church is the locus of salvation, such that ecclesiology and soteriology are equated. Atonement is entry into this community of God-consciousness, with Christ as the head. The perfection of Christ is in his God-consciousness, not his fulfillment of the Law before a Just and Holy God.

Interestingly, I am currently reading P. T. Forsyth’s The Justification of God, and the contrast with Schleiermacher could not be more stark. Forsyth is awe-struck by the holiness of God, whereas Schleiermacher is “moved” by the beauty of Christ. While the latter may have some minimal value as a corrective (albeit over-corrective) to the dominant themes of scholastic Protestantism, the former approach of Forsyth and his Reformation friends is truer to the strange otherness of God and his claim on our lives.

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9 comments

  1. Excellent. I’m slated to read Schleiermacher’s portions on Christ in his Christian Faith in a course this semester. I might do well to read Kelsey in tandem.

    • But tell me now: steeped as I have been these past few months in the patristics and medieval theologians on christology, I’m immediately going to be looking for what FS says about the hypostatic union. Waste of time?

      • Yeah, you’ll be in an entirely different world from the early fathers. I’ll need to break-out my copy of The Christian Faith and see how he addresses it.

  2. Okay, so now having read Kelsey and slogging through a goodly portion of Glaubshire (my head hurting a bit from this last endeavor), I suppose I can say a few words specifically with respect to Schleiermacher’s method:

    First, Kelsey’s book is a helpful summation (if not overly enthusiastic) of Schleiermacher’s “christology” (if we can call it that).

    Second, I found myself torn with respect to Schleiermacher’s approach. It’s like he takes Calvin’s double knowledge starting point and his indecision on whether it’s best to start with God or man seriously and says, in effect, “I’ll start with man.” Okay, sure.

    The question I’m left with, however, is should The Christian Faith (esp. on Christ) be considered supplemental—helpful—to Chalcedon (despite Schleiermacher’s reservations) or antithetical, even heterodox (so Barth). If I understand Schleiermacher’s intent correctly (being somewhat apologetical), then I’m inclined toward the former.

    In a post-Englightemnent, post-Kantian world, speaking about these matters to a broad audience necessarily means bracketing the metaphysical, and constructing from the ground up, as it were, an argument for transcendence. If this is what I can take away from Schleiermacher on this score, then I think he generally succeeds.

    I’m not sure we can assume that the difference between Schleiermacher’s Christ and ourselves is only a difference of degree, not kind. So, McCormack: “It is precisely in [Christ’s] redeeming activity that he is the replication in human form of the pure activity which God is—an incarnation of God by any other name. And he alone can be this” (Mapping Modern Theology, p. 160). Christ is utterly unique, etc., etc.

    • Thanks for the reflections, Chris.

      I still need to tackle The Christian Faith…perhaps over Christmas break. Anyway, based on Kelsey, it does seem that what makes atonement possible for Schleiermacher is that it be construed as a human possibility. So, Christ’s God-consciousness is, although perfect, only of consequence for us because it reveals this possibility (for God-consciousness) within the human context. So, yes, this does undermine the unique and miraculous ontology of Christ which points to the necessity for a unique and miraculous faith on our part (i.e., God alone capacitating our incapacity). This parallel between the miracle of the Incarnation and the miracle of faith is why Barth saw that the starting point — across the board — must be “from above.” Thus, we have a christology from above and a pisteology from above (the latter is Dorner’s term for the doctrine of faith).

      So, those will be my thoughts when approaching The Christian Faith, and I’ll also keep Chalcedon and your thoughts in mind as well.

      • That’s a good approach to the problem, I think, if atonement is construed in objectivist terms. Of course, Schleiermacher doesn’t grant that.

        Now, I think he’s wrong (and his counsel is one of despair, so Jenson), but I’m not sure how a subjectivist version of the atonement in this vein (merely revealing the possibility of redemption, i.e., God-consciousness) totally undermines the unique and miraculous ontology of Christ.

        Schleiermacher’s doctrine of God, on the other hand, may do just that.

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