Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834) was an influential philosopher who paved the way for modern theological liberalism. Schleiermacher was born in Breslaw, Germany, and was the son of a Prussian army chaplain who became a Pietist when Friedrich was a young boy. Friedrich was sent to a Moravian boarding school at age 15. During that time, Friedrich began to experience doubts about the Christian faith and felt that the Moravians did not have answers to his questions. He began his university education at the University of Halle, a school that promoted rationalism over Pietism. Here, Schleiermacher became a skeptic and abandoned orthodox Christianity.
In January of 1787, Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a letter to his parents explaining his position: “I cannot believe that he who called himself the Son of Man was the true eternal God; I cannot believe that his death was a vicarious atonement because he never expressly said so himself; and I cannot believe it to have been necessary, because God, who evidently did not create men for perfection, but for the pursuit of it, cannot possibly intend to punish them eternally because they have not attained it” (The Theology of Schleiermacher: A Condensed Presentation of His Chief Work, “The Christian Faith” by George Cross and Friedrich Schleiermacher, University of Chicago Press, 1911, p. 19).
Although no longer orthodox, Schleiermacher was still interested in religion and religious thought and activity. He went on to become a chaplain at a hospital, a pastor, and a professor of theology and religion. In addition, he was a philosopher who read and lectured widely in psychology, ethics, aesthetics, art, politics, language, interpretation, and translation. His German translation of Plato was in use for 200 years.
In 1799 Schleiermacher published perhaps his best known and most influential work, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. In this book he attempted to reconcile Enlightenment criticism of Christianity with traditional Protestantism. This attempt has earned Schleiermacher the title “father of modern liberal theology.” In a general sense, the term liberal is usually juxtaposed with the term conservative. While conservatives seek to conserve (preserve, hold to) the positions of the past, liberals are interested in embracing new ideas. Theological conservatives want to embrace and preserve the doctrinal positions that the church has embraced from the beginning (“the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” Jude 1:3). Theological liberals are interested in developing new ideas to replace those that are no longer in fashion. In this way, many liberals hope to “save” Christianity from irrelevance or obscurity. Unfortunately, many of the ideas that are no longer in fashion (whether today or in the 18th century) are the central doctrines of Christianity such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, human depravity, the atonement, and the need for salvation in Christ. In an attempt to save Christianity from its “cultured despisers” (Romantic and Enlightenment skeptics), Schleiermacher argued that many of these core doctrines were not central to Christianity and could be safely jettisoned.
Because of his work in interpretation and translation, Schleiermacher is also known as the “father of modern hermeneutics.” Evangelicals today still hold to a number of the principles he articulated, which he applied to not only the Bible but all written texts. Schleiermacher emphasized the importance of understanding the historical context and sought to interpret within the limitations of the language of the text and in light of the broader context to which a single passage belongs. He also recognized that there are great conceptual differences between the text to be translated and the receptor language. Interpretation and translation are an art as well as a science.
Friedrich Schleiermacher was a brilliant scholar, but unfortunately he could not accept what his intellect and reason could not master. As a result, he rejected true Christianity even as he purported to try to save it. He opened the door for others to question or reject the most basic Christian doctrines while still claiming to be faithful Christians. This trend is still popular today as is the idea that, if Christianity is to survive, it must change with the times.