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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The second edition (1830-1831) of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s major work is quite different from the first (1821-1822). The first edition, except for occasional small excerpts, has never appeared in English. The only English translation of the second edition has been reedited and reissued several times, but remains mostly the same as when it appeared in 1926. It was the first edition, however, that had the greatest impact during Schleiermacher’s lifetime.

In 1821 The Christian Faith caused a stir in German universities, seminaries, and churches by proclaiming that true religion is nothing more than piety grounded in a simple feeling of dependence on an infinite, eternal, unknown, and unknowable power. This feeling is essential, primal, and unavoidable. Piety is neither a kind of knowledge nor a way of behaving, but only this sincere, basic feeling. The feeling of absolute dependence requires no further sophistication as it develops into an intense devotion through the absorption of church doctrine and the regular practice of meekness and worship.

In 1822 Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, who was then Schleiermacher’s colleague at the University of Berlin and the most famous philosopher in Germany, launched a sarcastic attack against the first edition. In the foreword to Die Religion im inneren Verhältnisse zur Wissenschaft (Religion in Its Internal Relationship to Systematic Knowledge, 1987) by his student Hermann Hinrichs, Hegel wrote that if Schleiermacher were correct that feeling is the essence of religion and that piety is the highest expression of that feeling, then “the dog would be the best Christian.” Hegel’s point was that to reduce religion to emotion and to disown its cognitive and intellectual content would be to deny the full humanity of religious individuals as rational beings. Schleiermacher’s Romanticism, insofar as it valued faith over reason and piety over philosophical inquiry, was anathema to Idealists such as Hegel who held that God was ultimately knowable and that faith must be subordinate to the God-given reason that is the essence of human spirit.

Despite significant differences in tone and vocabulary between the two editions and other strong textual evidence of Hegel’s effect on Schleiermacher, scholars disagree about the extent to which Hegel’s criticism of the first edition influenced Schleiermacher’s preparation of the second. The second edition plays down the ideas of piety and dependence that dominate the first edition. Terms such as “pious feeling of dependence” in the first become “pious self-consciousness” in the second. Instead of uncritically elaborating the feeling of dependence, as in the first edition, Schleiermacher in the second uses a more systematic philosophical vocabulary centered on self-consciousness. Pious feeling remains the main theme, but Schleiermacher now presents it in a way better able to withstand Hegelian and other philosophical onslaught.

Both editions of The Christian Faith begin by explaining the advantages of Protestant dogmatic theology for faithful people. Then follows the Glaubenslehre itself in two parts, the first presenting the theory of the feeling of absolute dependence, the second contrasting sin and grace. In sin, the feeling of absolute dependence renders us weak and despondent; but through God’s grace, mercy, and omnipotence, this same feeling gives us joy, hope, and strength.

The Christian Faith is a long work in two volumes. In the first edition, the first part of the Glaubenslehre is about half of the first volume, while the second part is the entire second volume. In the second edition, the first part is only about the middle third of the first volume, while the second part is both the last third of the first volume and the entire second volume. This formal change is significant for the content of the work. In the first edition, the first part of the Glaubenslehre considers the development of the pious feeling of dependence without regard to...

(The entire section is 1,110 words.)