Schleiermacher: The Protestant Tradition

So we’ve been talking recently about this idea that spiritual experience is at the heart of religion – that all of the different religions that exist, with all their systems and explanations, are essentially laid over the top of the core underlying spiritual experience, which is a universal, shared impulse common to all believers. One of the core criticisms of this idea is – well, you know, if that’s true, why bother with one religion over another? If Hindus and Christians only differ in terms of the systems that they use to understand the same shared experience, do they really differ in any meaningful way? And if all religions rely on the same experience, what would compel a person to choose one religion over another? Surely you could only attach yourself very loosely and informally to your given religion, treating it as a way of speaking rather than as some exclusive and singular connection to the divine. It’s hard to see how religious doctrine could be cast as anything other than a sort of ecumenical slush – a lot of noise and racket that at best amounts to saying the same thing in different words.

In the case of Schleiermacher, who we’ve been discussing over the past few weeks, it’s worth remembering that while he writes about the spiritual experience being at the core of religion, he’s also a Protestant theologian. He might have this broad universalist approach to the spiritual impulse, but he also grounds and locates himself within the Protestant tradition. And he outlines pretty clearly what that tradition means. For example, where most Protestants hold to sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible alone is the source of revealed truth, Schleiermacher claims that all Protestant doctrine should “appeal to Evangelical confessional documents.” That’s not to take away from sola scriptura – which is, after all, one of the key claims of those documents. But if the Bible is the sole source for your argument, then it’s hard to tell whether you’re Catholic, Protestant, or even Orthodox: the Bible “can directly prove only that a proposition … is Christian.” From that perspective, the Evangelical confessional documents – things like the Westminster Confession or the Book of Concord – serve as a reference point, differentiating generically Christian claims from specific Protestant beliefs. “So every system of doctrine which desires to pass as Protestant must strive to attach itself to this history.”

And I actually quite like this approach. I think it’s good to emphasize the role of history, especially when you’re dealing with Protestants. The nature of the Bible as written text can lead some Protestants to assume that its meaning is fixed and frozen, that the act of writing encases meaning in amber, and that all we have to do is excavate and retrieve an unchanging, permanent truth. I think I tend to focus more on how readers create meaning, and how that meaning is conditioned by their experiences and culture and historical context. From that perspective, the history of Protestantism is obviously really important. It conditions how Protestants find meaning in the Bible. Schleiermacher’s argument that Protestants should therefore draw their doctrines back to the historical documents that have conditioned their faith, to me, makes sense. It’s just completing the circle.

And Schleiermacher’s generally pretty good on this idea of historical context. He appreciates that the confessional documents were developed in a particular time and place, and in some ways might be limited to those contexts. He describes it as “unquestionable” that all of those documents “are merely occasional documents, in which therefore the precise mode of statement of many points depends upon time and place; and we have no reason to suppose that the authors themselves would offer the selected expression as the only perfectly right one.” There’s obviously a degree of tension here: you can go back to the confessional documents to clarify whether or not something is properly Protestant, but you shouldn’t just assume that the strict limits of the faith are whatever you find on the page. Rather, “we must, in the first place, rather have regard to the spirit than cling to the letter, and, in the second place, we must apply the exegetical art to the letter itself, in order to make a right use of it.” Schleiermacher roots the church in its history, while also making allowances for growth and change over time. Again, the idea of the spiritual experience does useful work for us here. We all share the same core experience of the divine, but we articulate it differently, in different times and places, responding to the evolving circumstances of our environment. Systems and doctrines shift and change, but the core experience of Christ remains the same. By tracing the history of our tradition, we can better understand our context, our position within the broad trajectory of faith, and more consciously align ourselves with that arc. That’s what it means to be part of a specific religion – at least as far as Schleiermacher is concerned.

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