Monday, January 7, 2013

Leithart: Schleiermacher still not rebabilitated

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was, for all intents and purposes, the father of liberal Protestantism. His well-meaning but misguided attempts to reconcile the Christian faith with the criticisms raised by its "cultured despisers" of the Enlightenment era opened the door for more radical revisions. Despite the best efforts of Karl Barth, the influence of Schleiermacher is still felt in liberal Protestant circles to this day.

Chief among the weaknesses of Schleiermacher's theology was his muddled Christology, which rejected, or at least strongly criticized, the Chalcedonian Formula, which declared that Jesus Christ was "at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man."

In an article first published a decade ago in the Harvard Theological Review, Lori Pearson attempted to rehabilitate Schleiermacher, claiming that his "Christology continues the ‘Antiochene’ tradition of protecting the absolute integrity of Jesus’ human identity while at the same time maintaining a more ‘Alexandrian’ emphasis on a single (divine) subject that is the source of all Christ’s redemptive activities.”

It is a valiant effort but, as Peter Leithart notes, it is unconvincing for several reasons.
First, Schleiermacher’s characterizations of the problems of classic Christological formulae seem contrived, and arise only because of idiosyncratic and rigid definitions of terms. There cannot be two natures in one person, he argues. That’s because “nature” refers to a conditioned, limited, corporeal existence, moving between activity and passivity; it doesn’t apply to God at all. Besides, he argues, a nature is normally a universal in which individuals participate, and it makes no sense to say that an individual person partakes of two natures at the same time. Person, he says, denotes a unity, but a double-natured being like Christ cannot really ever be unified.

But who says that “nature” has such a restricted meaning? In Christology, it obviously doesn’t. And classical Christology answers the question about unity by insisting that Christ is a single subject, the eternal Logos, who assumed a full human nature. That hardly satisfies our every curiosity, but then one wonders if Schleiermacher’s questions take sufficient account of the fact that in talking about Christ we are talking about an unparalleled mystery.

Pearson points out that for Schleiermacher the main problem with the two-natures doctrine is pastoral and perhaps apologetic: “It cannot give any guidance in the proper preaching of Christ,” Schleiermacher claims. It cannot, perhaps more precisely, make any sense to the cultured despisers to which Schleiermacher wanted to appeal.

The second problem is that even when there are “parallels” with classical Christology, Schleiermacher has put them in a quite different framework. Sein Gottes in ihm, Schleiermacher affirms, but this affirmation comes at the end of a sentence that identifies the Sein Gottes with Jesus’ fully operational God-consciousness: “The Redeemer. . . is like all men in virtue of the identity of his human nature, but is distinguished from them all by the constant potency of His God-consciousness, which was a veritable existence of God in Him” (Christian Faith 94). As Pearson explains it, “The Redeemer has what other humans have (a God-consciousness), but in a perfectly ordered and complete way. Since, however, the Redeemer has this perfect God-consciousness, he is a new creation, a ‘new implanting’ . . . of the God-consciousness in human nature.” In this way, Jesus is, Schleiermacher says, the one in whom “there is an existence of God in the proper sense.”

On Pearson’s description, further, Schleiermacher’s position is inconsistent. On the one hand, the God-consciousness is something he shares with other humans; yet she claims that he also “takes great pains to protect the immutability and impassibility of God” by exempting the “inner” divine life principle from the changes of his humanity. It’s not clear how these two statements cohere: Pearson says that Jesus’ “God-consciousness went through a process of development” (p. 357) and, quoting Schleiermacher about Jesus’ determination by His cultural identity, “such determination in no way concerns the real principle of His life but only the organism.” Perhaps the contradiction is Pearson’s and not Schleiermacher’s, but it’s there.

On Pearson’s description too, Schleiermacher combines Alexandrian and Antiochene motifs in a way that results in a (somewhat modified) Apollinarianism. Jesus has a full humanity in Schleiermacher’s scheme, but a “divine principle” of some sort or other plays the active role of shaping all Christ’s actions. Apollinarianism is far more orthodox, because at least it affirms that the Logos occupied the empty soul-space of the humanity of Christ; Schleiermacher insists that the Redeemer is not the second Person, not the Logos: “The Person of Christ began only when He became a man” (Christian Faith, 105). For all his talk of Sein Gottes, there doesn’t seem to be much to distinguish the Redeemer from an inspired man.

Pearson has shown that formal parallels to Chalcedon are evident in Schleiermacher. To my mind, though, she only confirms the common charge that he revised Christology in the direction of psychology and, one cannot avoid the Barthian charge, anthropology.
Wolfhart Pannenberg would still give Shcleiermacher a hearing but, in doing so, he treads on dangerous ground. Leithart notes in a follow-up post:
Pannenberg (Jesus – God and Man (scm classics), 285) offers a more sympathetic summary of Schleiermacher’s Christology than I have done. He agrees that Schleiermacher’s definition of “nature” as “a limited being existing in opposition to others” doesn’t fly: It “does not meet the patristic doctrine, since its concept of nature is interchangeable with the concept of being.” This addresses also to Schleiermacher’s objection that the language of Trinitarian theology and Christology clash.

But Pannenberg thinks that Schleiermacher is on stronger ground in his objection that using nature flattens the Creator-creature distinction: “how can divine and human be so subsumed under any single concept, as if both could be mutually coordinated as more precise specifications of one and the same universal?” asks Schleiermacher.

Pannenberg thinks this question “scores a direct hit” since “one cannot speak of divine being and human being as though they were on the same plane.” While admitting that “this was not the intention of patristic Christologies,” he argues that the “two-natures doctrine is objectionable” for just this reason.

A point taken, but I wonder if any language about God can meet Pannenberg’s strictures, including his own. In formulating his objection he speaks of “divine being and human being.” Has he treated God and creation “as though they were on the same plane”?