A year on

This time last year I was struggling with Schleiermacher. Today’s Biblical Interpretation class was dealing with another chunk of Schleiermacher and shock! horror! I actually more or less understood it. I’d like to think that it’s because I’m more knowledgeable but I suspect it was an easier read than the last one. That’s not to say that this reading was easy. I certainly struggled to get my head round it. But from the discussion in class today it seemed that my understanding of it was pretty close.

Schleiermacher is considered the ‘father of modern theology’. He was writing at a time when the enlightenment was in full swing and rationalism was questioning many of the foundations of religion and faith. Scleiermacher’s intention was to ‘rescue’ Christian faith from this barrage of criticism by moving it outwith the realms of reason and placing it firmly in the realms of ‘feeling’ and experience. In many respects he succeeds but opens many cans of worms on the way.

The one we were dealing with today was the status of scripture. In a nutshell (and probably doing him a huge disservice) Scleiermacher would prefer to have only those parts of scripture which were a reliable witness to the person and teaching of Jesus. Everything else is ‘padding’ or simply not useful. He even goes so far as to suggest that the Old Testament should be relegated to an appendix of the New Testament. After all, why bother with the foreshadowing of the Messiah when we have the real thing now attested to in scripture? And why bother with the doings of the early church when it’s Jesus that really matters?

Some of his arguments are very persuasive but I’m not sure I could swallow the entire package he comes up with. I do like his focus on faith being an awareness of utter dependency on God. I also like his assertion that the crucial element of faith is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And I get his inspirational role for the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure I’d be just so happy to dismiss the large parts of scripture he seems to. But that’s not through any misplaced sense of bibliolatry. I do like his argument that scripture has authority because we, as a faithful people give it that status rather than having its own authority simply because of what it is. In other words, the gospel message is in our Bible because it is true rather than it being true because it is in our Bible. A subtle but often misunderstood distinction.

Thinking back on last year I think I detect a major change since then. Then, I was still learning (and I still am) but I think I was still in ‘assimilation mode’. By that I mean that I was still gathering information and knowledge but still with no sense of shape to it. Since this summer past I think I now have a better understanding of my own faith and theology. It’s still rough round the edges and still needs a lot of work but it’s now taking shape enough to be able to take someone like Schleiermacher and see how he fits. And probably more importantly, have a better understanding of why he might not. That seems to have been a while in the making, but it’s no trivial task and it’s one that’ll never be finished. But it does make a lot of the hard brainwork seem that much more worthwhile now. (Just don’t get me started on the subject of anti-intellectualism, or at least an apparent unwillingness to engage with difficult subjects.)

2 responses to “A year on”

  1. The ‘subtle distinction’ you make, I think, gives us more credit than we deserve. Granted, the New Testament as we have it is a result of human councils, but it is dangerous for us to assume that we decided what was true and left God out of that process. (I may not have totally understood your point!)
    As for Schl’s ‘padding’ argument… you can’t take the Messiah out of context and so have to know about the bits he calls padding. You have to know the story, His story….

  2. I think you are correct to point out the role of the Spirit in selecting the canon of scripture. The point was more to do with how we then approach it rather how we put it together. I’m struggling to get words to describe the subtlety without destroying it. Anything I can come up with makes it too black and white.
    As for Schleiermacher’s padding… I totally agree. All scripture stands as witness to a people’s struggle with God. For Schleiermacher though, what mattered wasn’t God in general, but Jesus in particular so unless it speaks specifically and clearly about Jesus and His teaching, it’s padding.

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