Friedrich Schleiermacher Essay - Critical Essays

Schleiermacher, Friedrich


Friedrich Schleiermacher 1768-1834

German philosopher and theologian.

Known as the father of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher was one of the preeminent religious thinkers of the nineteenth century. A clergyman by profession, Schleiermacher is best remembered for his revolutionary spiritual philosophy that advocated religious belief grounded deeply in personal experience versus the rational and ordered morality of the Enlightenment. In this regard, many scholars have drawn a parallel between Schleiermacher's ideas and the major philosophies of the Romantics, who also advocated the sublime nature of human experience in contrast with religion steeped in dogma and rationalism. Although primarily concerned with theology and religious philosophy, Schleiermacher was also deeply enmeshed in the political and philosophical discussions of his time, including a passionate involvement in debates regarding German nationalism and unity. He is credited with the development of interpretive analysis of religious texts based mostly on his unfinished translation of the Platonic dialogues.

Biographical Information

Born in Breslau, Germany, on November 21, 1768, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was the son of an army chaplain of the Reformed Church. His family had many friends in ecclesiastical circles and in 1783 Schleiermacher's parents sent him to a boarding school of the Moravian sect which deeply influenced his view of religion and its value in human life. Beginning at the Moravian school in Niesky, Schleiermacher later moved to their seminary in Barby, studying both philosophy and literature. He soon found himself in conflict with the theological outlook and the confining intellectual opportunities offered by the seminary. In 1787 he transferred to the University of Halle where he studied philosophy. After leaving Halle in 1789, Schleiermacher completed the church examination in theology and later accepted a position as tutor in the household of Count Dohna of Schlobitten. He later related that these years with the Dohna family allowed him to view human life at its best and taught him the true nature of humanity, an important factor in his later development of ideas on morality and religion. He left the Count's service in 1793, accepting a position as pastor in Landsberg an der Warthe. It was during this time that Schleiermacher familiarized himself with the work of Spinoza, who, with Kant, Plato, and Friedrich Schlegel, is acknowledged as one of the sources for the development of Schleiermacher's later philosophical system. In 1796 he moved to Berlin as a chaplain of the Reformed Church. It was also during this time that he befriended Schlegel and Henriette Herz, a Jewish intellectual who hosted many philosophers and thinkers of the day. Schleiermacher was still not interested in putting his thoughts in writing at this time, instead focusing on the study of the connection between religious feeling and critical interpretation. Nonetheless, at the insistence of Schlegel, he eventually issued Über die Religion (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers) in 1799. This work has often been viewed as Schleiermacher's most expressive writing on the Romantic aesthetic, proposing religion as the means for ultimate self-fulfillment. His Monologen: Eine Neujahrsgabe (Schleiermacher's Soliloquies), published a year later, is considered to be a companion piece to the Speeches and is composed of five parts. In this text, Schleiermacher clearly departs from the rationalistic philosophy advocated by Kant, instead making a case for the supremacy of individual experience. Although he continued preaching and teaching, Schleiermacher was often in conflict with the government due to his political views regarding the role of the monarchy and the unification of the Reformed and Lutheran churches in Germany. Towards the end of his life, however, he regained favor with the government and was awarded the Red Eagle Cross, Third Class. Schleiermacher died of pneumonia in 1834.

Major Works

In addition to the Speeches and Soliloquies, Schleiermacher also translated Plato's dialogues in the early 1800s. While the project was never completed, his commentary and translations are still considered a valuable addition to Plato scholarship. In 1804 Schleiermacher accepted the position of professor of theology and university preacher at the University of Halle. Although given only a mild reception by the mainly rationalistic faculty due to his theological views and close ties with Romantic philosophy, Schleiermacher continued to expand his theory of hermeneutics. In 1806 he published his Die Weihnachtsfeier: Ein Gespräch (Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas). Comprised of three short stories and three speeches, this work discusses the significance of the Christmas feast from a number of perspectives. Schleiermacher uses the story of Christ to demonstrate that both historical and personal experience are necessary to achieve perfection. After the French occupied Halle in 1806, Schleiermacher began participating in the political reformist movement, delivering several patriotic sermons. In 1809 he accepted the position of pastor of the Trinity Church in Berlin, marrying a young widow named Henriette von Willich with whom he had five children and adopted two others. Later that year, he also joined the faculty of theology at the University of Berlin, eventually becoming dean in 1810. His sermons during this time focused heavily on the idea of German unification. However, due to his criticism of the monarchy, he fell out of favor and by 1813 his lectures and sermons were carefully scrutinized. His interest in a united Germany continued, however, and in 1819 he published a series of lectures, Die Lehre vom Staat (The Doctrine of the State), in which he emphasized the need for an evolution of leadership and consciousness among ordinary people. Schleiermacher's most important religious work, Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche im Zusammenhange dargestellt (The Christian Faith), was published in 1821. In this work Schleiermacher most clearly defines his theological stance on such issues as creation and salvation and offers his ideas regarding the organization of theological disciplines. Schleiermacher asserts that man's dependence on nature and his consciousness of this dependence allow him to fully realize individual identity. This realization, in turn, allows man to understand his relationship to God, thus making Jesus Christ the center of the individual's religious consciousness.

Critical Reception

Most scholarship on Schleiermacher's work has focused on a discussion of his theological ideas as well as his influence on the development of religious thought and philosophy in the nineteenth century and beyond. Schleiermacher's work in this area, especially his ideas regarding the significance of nature and purpose of theology, are almost universally regarded as fundamental to the establishment of modern theological studies. Richard B. Brandt notes that Schleiermacher's influence is pervasive because the system he proposes is very adaptable. For example, Schleiermacher is able to mediate successfully between supernatural theology and naturalism, showing theologians a way in which they can accept modern science and defend religion. In fact, his influence on the ideas regarding the primacy of naturalism over supernaturalism is often compared to Kant's influence in the transcendence of rationalism and empiricism. Schleiermacher's ideas regarding religion, in which he expressed the supremacy of a personal relationship and devotion to a personal God, also influenced his political ideas and philosophies. In his essay on the development of Schleiermacher's nationalistic philosophy, Jerry F. Dawson notes that just as Schleiermacher rejected the idea of a dogmatic, institutionalized religion, he also opposed the idea that the Church could be a moral and social force in society that would advocate a standard of behavior for the state. Debate and controversy over Schleiermacher's ideas continues, with scholars focusing their study of his writing in the context of literary interpretation, hermeneutics, and theology. However, there is general agreement, as noted by Hans Küng, that Schleiermacher's greatest concern was the development of a personal faith and connection with God that was not bound by dogma, and it is for the development of this philosophy that he is accorded the status of the father of modern theology.

Principal Works

Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern [On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers] (lyrics and essays) 1799

Monlogen: Eine Neujahrsgabe [Schleiermacher's Soliloquies] (essays) 1800

Vertraute Briefe über Friedrich Schlegels Lucinde [Confidential Letters on Schlegel's Lucinde] (criticism) 1800

Die Weihnachtsfeier: Ein Gespräch [Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas] (short stories and speeches) 1806

Über die Schriften des Lukas: Ein kritischer Versuch [A Critical Essay on the Gospel of St. Luke] (essay) 1817

Die Lehre vom Staat [The Doctrine of the State] (lectures) 1819

Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsäzen der evengelischen Kirche im Zusammenhange dargestellt 2 vols. [The Christian Faith] (essays) 1821-22

Friedrich Schleiermacher's sämmtliche Werke 30 vols. (essays and lectures) 1835-64

Fredereich Schleiermachers Dialektik: Im Auftrage der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften auf Grund bisher unveröffentlichten Materials herausgegeben (lectures) 1839

Aus Schleiermachers Leben in Briefen 4 vols. [The Life of Schleiermacher as Unfolded in his Autobiography and Letters], 2 vols. (biography and letters) 1858-63

Schleiermachers Sendschreiben über seine Galubebslehre an Lücke [On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr. Lücke] (essays) 1908

Briefe Schleiermachers (letters) 1923

Friedrich Schleiermachers Ästhetik, im Aüftrage der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur-Archiv-Gessellschaft ze Berline nach den bisher unveröffentlichten Urschriften zum ersten Mal herausgegeben (essays) 1931

*Hermeneutik: Nach den Handshriften neu herausgegeben [Hermeneutics: The Handwritten Manuscripts] (essays) 1959

*Originally published as part 1, Vol. 13 of Friedrich Schleiermacher's sämmtliche Werke, 1850


The British Quarterly Review (essay date 1849)

SOURCE: “Der Christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der Evangelischen Kirsche im zusammenhange dargestellt,” in The British Quarterly Review, May 1, 1849, pp. 303-54.

[In the following essay, an anonymous reviewer examines Schleiermacher's ideology and his powerful influence on German theology.]

Two countrymen, says the fable, were walking in the fields when they saw a cloud approaching, huge and dark. Ah, cried John, there comes the hail; our crops will be ruined, a famine in three months, then a pestilence, then—Hail! interrupted Thomas, that cloud carries rain, the very thing we want, we shall make a fortune this summer. The dispute grew warm....

(The entire section is 23312 words.)

Robert Munro (essay date 1903)

SOURCE: “Philosophical Position,” in Schleiermacher: Personal and Speculative, Alexander Gardner, 1903, pp. 131-223.

[In the following excerpt, Munro presents a detailed overview of Schleiermacher's philosophy, focusing on his theory of knowledge, the elements of thought, and the distinction drawn between religion and philosophy.]


The philosophy of Schleiermacher, while not absolutely original, is very much more than a mere repetition of the results of the critical method. It is an independent study of the problem of knowledge—a study which, although making free use of the materials of past investigators, so builds them...

(The entire section is 21712 words.)

J. Arundel Chapman (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: “Valuation and Criticism of the Addresses,” in An Introduction to Schleiermacher, The Epworth Press, 1903, pp. 55-99.

[In the following excerpt, Chapman provides an interpretation of Schleiermacher's Addresses (also known as his Speeches), characterizing them as a seminal influence on nineteenth-century theological development.]

The Addresses were published in 1799. Goethe was at the height of his power. His first great burst of literary activity was over, and nine years were yet to elapse before the publication of the First Part of Faust. Kant was nearing the end of his philosophical toils, The Critique of Pure Reason...

(The entire section is 14363 words.)

Richard B. Brandt (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: “Schleiermacher's Influence,” in The Philosophy of Schleiermacher: The Development of His Theory of Scientific and Religious Knowledge, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1941, pp. 299-317.

[In the following excerpt, Brandt asserts that Schleiermacher's vast influence on theologians was due in part to his ability to mediate between supernatural theology and naturalism, thus allowing both orthodox and liberal theologians to accept modern science while also defending religion and theology.]

An adequate discussion of Schleiermacher's influence, especially in Germany, would require a separate book. For his work in theology was so significant in bringing about a...

(The entire section is 9163 words.)

Jerry F. Dawson (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “Schleiermacher, Rationalism, and Romanticism,” in Friedrich Schleiermacher: The Evolution of a Nationalist, University of Texas Press, 1941, pp. 17-42.

[In the following excerpt, Dawson traces the development of Schleiermacher's nationalism and his response to the romanticist philosophy in the context of his Speeches on Religion.]

The subtle, subjective influence of Pietism upon Schleiermacher was an excellent preparation for the next step he took in his evolutionary progress toward nationalism: the study of rationalism. When he cast off the yoke of rigid Moravian Pietistic doctrines in order to study at Halle, he did more than just leave one institution...

(The entire section is 10691 words.)

Jack Forstman (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Religion Within the Limits of Human Perception: Schleiermacher,” in A Romantic Triangle: Schleiermacher and Early German Romanticism, Scholars Press, 1977, pp. 65-79.

[In the following excerpt, Forstman critiques Schleiermacher's Speeches as evidence of his evolving religious philosophy, which makes a clear distinction between religion and morality.]

In the early romantic circle in Berlin, at a time when polemics, not least against religion, had not yet given way to rebuilding, Friedrich Schleiermacher was something of an enigma to the others. He had won his rights to membership by solid performance on the salon circuit. An engaging...

(The entire section is 7884 words.)

Robert F. Streetman (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Romanticism and the Sensus Numinis in Schleiermacher,” in The Interpretation of Belief: Coleridge, Schleiermacher and Romanticism, Macmillan, 1986, pp. 104-25.

[In the following essay, Streetman illustrates the ways in which Schleiermacher influenced religion during the nineteenth century, noting his revitalization of the sense of divinity which led to the creation of an experiential faith rooted in Romantic philosophy.]

These words of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) will surely be subjected to new assessments during the several events commemorating the 150th anniversary of his death: ‘I, for my part, am a stranger to the life...

(The entire section is 7759 words.)

Keith Clements (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Main Themes in Schleiermacher's Theology,” in Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology, Collins, 1987, pp. 35-65.

[In the following excerpt, Clements discusses the influence of Schleiermacher's writings on the philosophy and study of religion, focusing on his theological methods, nationalism, and ideas on the place of Christianity in relation to other religions.]

Our selection of themes from Schleiermacher's work and the corresponding texts chosen to exemplify his treatment of these do not pretend to be an exhaustive survey of his theology. They do, however, bring into relief the particular contribution which Schleiermacher made to the renewing...

(The entire section is 13166 words.)

Tilottama Rajan (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Is There a Romantic Ideology? Some Thoughts on Schleiermacher's Hermeneutic and Textual Criticism,” in Text: Transactions of the Society for Textual Scholarship, edited by D. C. Greetham and W. Speed Hill, AMS Press, 1988, pp. 59-77.

[In the following essay, Rajan provides an overview of the development of Schleiermacher's hermeneutic philosophy in the context of Romantic ideas regarding discourse, criticism, and creation.]

Since the appearance of Jerome J. McGann's A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism in 1983, we have begun to reconceive significantly a textual criticism based on a theory of final authorial intentions. In taking issue with...

(The entire section is 7849 words.)

Julie Ellison (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Hermeneutics as Desire,” in Delicate Subjects: Romanticism, Gender, and the Ethics of Understanding, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 63-99.

[In the following excerpt, Ellison studies Schleiermacher's approach to interpretive theory through an examination of his major texts.]


After the publication in 1806 of his dialogue Christmas Eve, his last work in an early romantic mode, Schleiermacher's engagement with readers outside academic circles took the form of sermons and statements on public affairs.1 During the uncertain years of the French invasion and occupation of Prussia (1806-14),...

(The entire section is 15023 words.)

Hans Küng (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Friedrich Schleiermacher: Theology at the Dawn of Modernity,” in Great Christian Thinkers, SCM Press, 1994, pp. 157-84.

[In the following excerpt, Küng traces the development of Schleiermacher's theological philosophy and provides an overview of his major works.]


‘The first place in a history of the theology of the most recent times belongs and will always belong to Schleiermacher, and he has no rival.’ So says Schleiermacher's most vigorous opponent, who was to drive him from his pinnacle, and continues: ‘It has often been pointed out that Schleiermacher did not found any school. This...

(The entire section is 10480 words.)

Theodore M. Vial (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Friedrich Schleiermacher on the Central Place of Worship in Theology,” in Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 91, No. 1, January, 1998, pp. 59-73.

[In the following essay, Vial proposes that worship is a fundamental tenet of Schleiermacher's theology.]

Suspicion raised by the Neo-orthodox movement concerning Schleiermacher's theological enterprise continues to cast its shadow. Karl Barth framed this suspicion perspicaciously in terms of an “either/or” in his “Concluding Unscientific Postscript on Schleiermacher”:

Is Schleiermacher's enterprise concerned (a) necessarily, intrinsically, and authentically with a...

(The entire section is 6210 words.)

Further Reading


Blackwell, Albert L. Schleiermacher's Early Philosophy of Life: Determinism, Freedom, and Phantasy. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982, 327p.

Examines Schleiermacher's life and philosophy from 1789 to 1804.


Frank, Manfred. “The Text and its Style. Schleiermacher's Hermeneutic Theory of Language,” translated by Richard Hannah and Michael Hays. In Boundary 2 11, No. 3 (Spring 1983): 11-28.

Analyzes Schleiermacher's theory of hermeneutics.

Guenther-Gleason, Patricia Ellen. On Schleiermacher and Gender Politics. Harrisburg: Trinity Press...

(The entire section is 253 words.)