Any time we find an attempt to recast our doctrine or practice in order to make us more attractive to the culture, it may be the spirit of Schleiermacher haunting us. In the early twentieth century that came in the form of anti-supernaturalism. But the spirit of Schleiermacher can haunt the halls and pulpits of churches and seminaries that are committed to supernaturalism as well.
It is a great strength of our Presbyterian and Reformed ethos that we are historically conscious. We enjoy history and pride ourselves on being self-consciously rooted in the past. Confessional and conservative Presbyterians very much have their identity wrapped up in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. And a central figure in that controversy is our hero of pride, J. Gresham Machen. Machen showed us how to stand for the truth of God’s Word and the Reformed faith even upon pain of humiliation and marginalization.
The way the history is told includes how Machen (and others, of course) opposed liberalism. Machen gave special attention to modernism’s rejection of the supernaturalism of historic Christianity, particularly as that supernaturalism comes to expression in doctrines like the virgin birth and miracles of Jesus.
For generations, this history has aided conservative Presbyterians in defining liberalism. In the main, we have defined a “liberal” as someone who denies a high doctrine of Scripture or Christology. The label “liberal” is (rightly) applied to those who deny the virgin birth, Christ’s resurrection, or the Bible’s inerrancy. Conversely, if a minister in our denomination affirms those things they get a pass (sometimes irrespective of his other theological positions).
That is all well and good. But that way of approaching the evaluation of a man’s theology has its significant liabilities. Those liabilities arise when we realize that the denial of miracles or inerrancy is not the problem, at root. Liberalism, at heart, was a failed apologetic attempt to defend the Christian faith in the face of growing skepticism. And people like Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, was attempting to save Christianity, not destroy it.
Identifying the Source of Liberalism
Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834) was the son of a pastor, and pietism was the air he breathed growing up. He struggled with doubts about his faith, doubts his father simply blew off. When he matriculated at the University of Halle, he read deeply in Plato and Kant and found an intellectual home in the Romanticism of the day. He would eventually become a pastor in the state church and a professor at the University of Berlin.
Upon looking for answers to his doubts he found answers in grounding true religion in intuition rather than knowledge. This differed greatly from the older orthodox Protestantism which began with the knowledge of God in revelation. In his great systematic theology, The Christian Faith, he proposed that the basis of all theology is man’s feeling of absolute dependence on God.