In Douglas Farrow’s account, the developed doctrine of Mary (mariology) is an expression of the church’s displacement of Christ with its own self. That which belonged to Christ was gradually co-opted by the church, with Mary as the more truly human mediator. In medieval and baroque Catholic piety (and still today), Mary often acquires the mediatorial role as the human means to God/Christ. For Farrow, this is a consequence of a defective theology of the ascended humanity of Jesus Christ, which safeguards the church from deifying itself in response to the absence of Christ.

Farrow spends considerable energy tracing how Irenaeus’ theology, wherein Jesus’ time is not collapsed into creaturely time, was betrayed by mystical, Platonist, Gnostic influences, especially beginning with Origen. With Schleiermacher, he discerns a similar faulty understanding of Christ and especially the events of resurrection, ascension, and parousia. This results in a faulty ecclesiology, where the church is the continuation of the incarnation of the Son. Here is part of Farrow’s account:

On Schleiermacher’s view doctrines such as the resurrection, ascension, and parousia do not speak of things that happened to Jesus, but of things that happen in us; that is, they articulate in various ways our recognition of his ‘peculiar dignity’ and our longing to be united with him in his perfect God-consciousness. Internalizing these doctrines was not a new thing, of course, but for the first time we encounter from within systematic theology the really quite astonishing contention that the Easter events and the parousia ‘cannot be laid down as properly constituent parts of the doctrine of his person.’ That is, they have no organic connection with belief in the redeemer qua redeemer. So far from being ‘one of the chief points of our faith,’ then, as Calvin thought, the ascension ‘is not directly a doctrine of faith’ at all! From one perspective it is merely ‘an accidental form’ for effecting Christ’s heavenly session. [footnote: See CF § 99, cf. 29.3, 158.1]

The immediate impact on the Where? question was to collapse the spatial distance on which Calvin had insisted into something radically Lutheran, that is, to render it in strictly existential terms. [footnote: By describing our relationship with Jesus as a ‘mystical’ one, Schleiermacher (§ 100) moves the whole issue of distance and nearness back into Lutheran territory, so to speak. In effect, it becomes an hamartiological question, related to the waxing and waning of the God-consciousness.] But at the same time it opened up the temporal dimension to Christ’s absence which the reformers had largely ignored. Jesus’ contemporaneity could no longer be taken for granted. For the new christology to work, a bridge between past and present was required, rather than a bridge between heaven and earth. Schleiermacher set out to build it, spanning Lessing’s ‘great ugly ditch’ with an attractive Romanesque structure: In the society of his followers Jesus’ unique God-consciousness (which is also his true self-consciousness) has survived and indeed widened with the advance of history; his personality and spiritual activity have been prolonged in the common life of the church. Here was Protestantism’s own mariological turn, modestly performed yet even more decisively. The church itself was now the τόπος [“place”] of Jesus, the only possible answer to the Where? question.

[footnote: Schleiermacher’s construct allows us to speak of an ongoing incarnation that passes from Jesus to the church: ‘And so, since the Divine Essence was bound up with the human person of Christ, but is now (his directly personal influence having ceased) no longer personally involved in any individual, but henceforward manifests itself actively in the fellowship of believers as their common spirit, this is just the way in which the work of redemption is continued and extended in the Church’ (§ 124.2; cf. 122.3).]

[Ascension and Ecclesia, Eerdmans 1999, pp. 181-182]

When Farrow gets to Kierkegaard and Barth, he is obviously happy that they broke with a speculative logos asarkos, and related matters. In his treatment of Irenaeus and Origen, earlier in the book, Farrow had identified Origen’s logos asarkos as a big part of the problem, in contrast to Irenaeus’ consistent identification of the Word with Jesus. Yet, Farrow is not happy with Barth’s identification of eternity with time, reconciliation with revelation, act with being, Christ with creation, just to name a few! This is an enormously complicated part of the book, spanning twenty-five very dense pages (pp. 229-254) in an already very dense book. I won’t even attempt to summarize. He ends with T. F. Torrance, who emerges as (finally!) the one who comes closest to getting back to Irenaeus (and the Bible). Farrow interprets Torrance as, for the most part, correcting Barth’s speculative pitfalls while maintaining all that is good and proper in Barth, which Farrow recognizes is enormous.

He concludes:

The answer we have been advocating is a disturbing one. It is not disturbing because, in maintaining that Jesus has gone in the flesh to the Father, it refuses to admit that ‘we do not know what has happened to him.’ On the contrary, it is disturbing because it states quite categorically that we do not know; that we cannot place him, spatially or temporally or materially or spiritually, with respect to ourselves; that he is not above us or ahead of us or alongside us or within us, even if each of these metaphors has something helpful to say about his actual relation to us. It is disturbing because it challenges the assumption that to talk about a human being who cannot be so placed is meaningless, and because it implies that every attempt to define him as something other than a human being is really an act of violence designed to force him to yield his meaning on our terms. It is disturbing because it challenges our entire frame of reference, physical and metaphysical, by allowing one particular man to stand over against us as a question mark against our very existence.

[pp. 267-268]

Ascension and Ecclesia was published in 1999. More recently, he published a follow-up volume, Ascension Theology, in 2011. From the reviews that I’ve read, it is partly a concise presentation of the larger, prior book, but it is also a reframing in terms of his newfound Catholicism. He converted to Roman Catholicism halfway between writing the two volumes. I am curious how he understands mariology now.


Image: Friedrich Schleiermacher (source)


I had to put aside Hans Martensen, due to other obligations. But I am now continuing with his Christian Dogmatics, which has been a joy.

Given the time period (mid 19th century), it is expected that he would treat, early in the volume, the controversies surrounding the supernatural in the doctrine of revelation. He affirms the orthodox position, but he wants to articulate it with greater sensitivity to the doctrine of creation. In my estimation, he does a fine job. The supernatural and miraculous is an anticipation of the new creation, completing and fulfilling nature in a perfect freedom given from above. This involves new “potencies” and “forces” that are discontinuous with nature as we generally experience it and observe it, and it is therefore genuinely miraculous, as in the miracles of Christ.

In the context, he is targeting Spinoza’s monism, which rejects any distinction between the divine and the natural, collapsing the former into the latter. Martensen sees this as the template for the naturalism of his own day, as popularized by David Strauss whom he also targets.

Martensen is arguing for a continuity within discontinuity, between the natural and the supernatural. The telos of creation is manifested through the miraculous, but the natural as such does not lend itself to the new creation bestowed by Christ and the Spirit. Nature is susceptible to the supernatural, capable of being molded by the supernatural, but it does not generate the supernatural. There is a real movement from God to us, from the beyond to the here. But this does not overthrow creation; rather, God is bringing creation to its proper end — the kingdom of God. The “lower forces” of nature, as we experience them now, are temporal and temporary. They give a provisional measure of freedom, but God is enacting genuine freedom in the new creation, inaugurated by Christ.

So long as nature is understood as fixed and eternal — or worse, commensurate with divinity itself — then the miraculous is impossible. It would be incoherent. The miraculous would have to be subjectivized, as in existential freedom (Tillich’s “miracle” of faith), which is the sort of thing that Martensen is wanting to avoid. At least, that is how I read him.

I have also provided an excerpt, later in the book, where he treats the bodily resurrection of Christ in similar terms. Herein, he also faults both Hegel and Schleiermacher.


Here we come to the opposing principles of Supernaturalism on the one side, and Naturalism and Rationalism on the other. If a distinction is to be made between naturalism and rationalism—they being in fact only two sides of one and the same thing, each necessarily leading to the other—the former is referable primarily to the objective, the latter to the subjective, side of existence. Both reject miracles; but naturalism directs its opposition chiefly against the miracle of incarnation, because it recognises no higher laws than those of nature; rationalism directs its main attacks against the miracle of inspiration, because it denies that there is any other and higher source of knowledge than reason. But, although there will always be men who affirm that the notions of nature and revelation, of reason and revelation (the latter taken in the positive, Christian sense of the word), are notions that exclude each other, yet within the Christian Church itself this can never be conceded.

We take first into consideration the issue between Supernaturalism and Naturalism. Here the decision of the question depends upon how the system of law and forces which we call nature, is conceived—whether it be conceived as a system in itself, finally and eternally fixed, or as a system that is passing through a teleological development, a continued creation. In the latter case new potencies, new laws and forces must be conceivable as entering into operation; the preceding stages in the creation preparing the way for them, and prefiguring them, though not the source from which they can be derived. This is the Christian view of nature. In terming itself the new, the second creation, Christianity by no means calls itself a disturbance of nature, but rather the completion of the work of creation; the revelation of Christ and the kingdom of Christ it pronounces the last potency of the work of creation; which power, whether regarded as completing or as redeeming the world, must be conceivable as teleological; operating so as to change and limit the lower forces, in so far as these are in their essential nature not eternal and organically complete, but only temporal and temporary. Hence the point of unity between the natural and the supernatural lies in the teleological design of nature to subserve the kingdom of God, and its consequent susceptibility to, its capacity of being moulded by, the supernatural, creative activity. Nature does not contradict the notion of a creation; and it is in miracles that the dependence of nature on a free Creator becomes perfectly evident. But, while nature does not contradict the notion of a creation, the assumption of a creation is quite as little inconsistent with the notion of nature. For, although the new creation in Christ does do away with the laws of this nature, yet it by no means destroys the notion of nature itself. For the very notion of nature implies, not that it is a hindering restraint to freedom, but rather that it is the organ of freedom. And as the miraculous element in the life of Christ reveals the unity of spirit and of nature, so the revelation of Christ at once anticipates and predicts a new nature, a new heaven, and a new earth, in which a new system of laws will appear; a system which will exhibit the harmony of the laws of nature and of freedom,—a state for which the whole structure of the present creation, with its unappeased strife between spirit and nature, is only a teleological transition period.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 19-20]

And here is how Martensen treats the bodily resurrection of Christ, related to the above discourse:

The denial of the miracle of the resurrection is not, therefore, the bare denial of a single historical fact, it is a denial of the entire prophetic aspect of the world which Christianity presents; which finds in the resurrection its beginning in fact. A view of the world which makes the present order of things perpetual, and which considers the eternal to be only a continual present, naturally allows no room for the resurrection of Christ, which is an interruption of the order of this world by the higher order of creation still future; and which is a witness to the reality of a future life; yea, it is even that future life itself in the actual present; the beginning of “the last things,” concerning which the Apostles witness that we who live after the resurrection of the Lord live “in these last times” (1 Peter i.20), and that it now remains for the risen Savior again to manifest Himself to judge both the quick and the death. This, the Christian view of the world, overthrows the mythical interpretation of the resurrection advocated now-a-days, and the biblical criticism resting thereupon. As Hegel omitted this Christian escatology, it was natural that those who followed in the steps of his philosophy would go on to deny the resurrection as something which had no foundation in fact. And when Schleiermacher, though reverence for apostolic testimony prevented his denying the fact of the resurrection, yet could attribute to it no doctrinal significance, nor draw any inference from it; this in like manner arose from the well-known uncertainty and indistinctness of his teaching in relation to future and final realities.

[pp. 319-320]


July 28, 2014

Schleiermacher stamp

German “mediating theology” — or Vermittlungstheologie for the nerds among us — was an important movement in the theology of the 19th century. Given its great diversity, it is probably best to not call it a “movement,” which recalls the same difficulties with labeling dialectical theology as a movement in the following century. Nonetheless, the general context and purported aims do give some unity.

The Vermittlungstheologen were working in the wake of Schleiermacher’s noble project of rethinking Christian dogmatics for the modern man, with his acute awareness of historical contingency and the subjective conditions for knowledge. The “mediating theologians” agreed that we cannot pretend the Enlightenment never happened, and thus they agreed that Schleiermacher was an important figure for the responsible theologian. But they disagreed, with Schleiermacher and with each other, on precisely how the church should navigate her way forward. They sought to mediate between the confessional Protestant theology of the past and the critical philosophy of the present, while also responding to the skepticism of figures like David Strauss in biblical studies.

Among the Vermittlungstheologen, probably the greatest name is Isaak Dorner in systematic theology. While this is a Protestant movement by and large, similar happenings can be found in Catholic circles. Johann Adam Möhler at Tübingen and John Henry Newman in England both sought to rearticulate Catholic orthodoxy in the wake of Romanticism and Historicism of the 19th century. Newman’s thesis on the development of doctrine is a perfect example of recognizing historical contingency within doctrinal formulation, and his moral epistemology in Grammar of Assent is a brilliant display of an aesthetic mind grappling with “modern” doubt.


German Roots

This morning I happened to read a few reviews of Annette Aubert’s book, The German Roots of Nineteenth Century American Theology (Oxford, 2013). Aubert argues that the influence of German theology, and Vermittlungstheologie in particular, has been neglected in studies of American theology of the 19th century. She uses Charles Hodge and Emanuel Vogel Gerhart as her test cases, representative of those who expressed their theology in considerable dialogue with German mediating theology. In Hodge’s case, it is a sharply pronounced rejection, whereas Gerhart is favorable, along with his better known colleague at Mercersburg Seminary, Philip Schaff. In regard to Schaff, see my post, “On the Significance of German Theology.”

Here are the reviews, all of which are available free:

James D. Bratt (Calvin College)

Zachary Purvis (Regent’s Park College, Oxford)

Daniel Ritchie (Queen’s University, Belfast)

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:

“Barth, Schleiermacher and the task of dogmatics” (pdf link)

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.

The guys at “Out of Bounds” have announced the appointment of Paul Nimmo to a chair in Systematic Theology at Aberdeen. This is great news. Here is a description of his work (found here):

My area of research is Reformed theology – that trajectory of Protestant theology which arose in sixteenth-century Switzerland and subsequently spread not only across Europe but also all over the world. Within that tradition, my research engages with the work of figures such as Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and Thomas F Torrance; but above all I focus on the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth. I explore their historical contexts, their doctrinal and ethical insights, and their relationships with church, academy, and state. And I engage in evaluating the significance and implications of their work for contemporary systematic theology.

And here is a fine introduction to Schleiermacher by Dr. Nimmo:

You can increase the video quality to 720p. This is part of the St. John’s College (Nottingham) series, Faith & Modernity, among other available series.

I am excited to see that his introduction to Barth, in the excellent Guides for the Perplexed series from T&T Clark, will be published soon.

Schleiermacher series

March 9, 2013


Chris Donato has completed a fine little series on Friedrich Schleiermacher:

1. More Than a Feeling

2. More Than a Feeling: Gefühl

3. More Than a Feeling: The Hypostatic Union

4. More Than a Feeling: Restatement

5. More Than a Feeling: Response

6. More Than a Feeling: The Death of God?

I have yet to read every post, but it looks like a great introduction to Schleiermacher, with whom every responsible theologian is required to be familiar.

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.

Friedrich Schleiermacher

After treating the intellectualism of Hegel and his followers, Bavinck turns to the Romanticism of the period which oriented religious thought along the affective and aesthetic domain of the human person. This domain of feeling was thought to be the proper domain for religion, not the rational domain strictly speaking, though the concerns of modern reason and skepticism were never far away. Romanticism was found in Wordsworth and Coleridge in England, Rousseau in France, and, most importantly for dogmatics, Schleiermacher in Germany. Here is a brief excerpt from Bavinck’s incisive appraisal of this approach:

One then, naturally, slips into the error of confusing and equating religious feeling with sensual and aesthetic feeling. Known to us all from history is the kinship between religious and sensual [erotic] love and the passage from one to the other. But equally dangerous is the confusion of religious and aesthetic feeling, of religion and art. The two are essentially distinct. Religion is life, reality; art is ideal, appearance. Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it. Art does not atone for our guilt, or wipe away our tears, or comfort us in life and death.

[Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, p. 267]

To be clear, Bavinck does note the positive connection between religion and art: “From the beginning religion and art went hand in hand. The decline of the one brought with it the decay of the other. The ultimate driving force of art was religion. …In religion, specifically in worship, the imagination has its rightful place and value.” (Ibid., emphasis mine)