February 19, 2014

1799: Oh, What a Feeling

Stephen Nichols
1799: Oh, What a Feeling


Well, I hope you're intrigued by this episode's title, "Oh, What a Feeling." The key to understanding this is the date 1799. Now, this will see if you are ready to get the "A" for the church history quiz. What famous book was written in 1799? Well the answer to that question is the book, "On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers." Now this was a book written by a German. In fact, this is a very German name—Friedrich Schleiermacher. There's a lot of consonants, and a lot of vowels in that name, too—Schleiermacher.

Schleiermacher was born in 1768, and he dies in 1834. Now he's a German but he's actually not in the Lutheran church tradition. He's in the Reformed church tradition. But he left that tradition as a young man and he even for a while engaged with the Moravians and came under Moravian influence but he found that to be wanting, too. Then he ended up as a student at Halle. Now the University of Halle had been a home for pietism in Germany. But by the time that Schleiermacher got there it had drifted towards rationalism. While Schleiermacher was at Halle though, he decided that he wasn't quite ready to give up religion. He wasn't quite ready to give up Christianity. He wanted to rethink it.

He also was realizing that he was not alone. There were many of his contemporaries and these are the "cultured despisers" of the title. They had grown up in churches, whether they were Reformed churches or Lutheran churches. They heard the stories of the miracles. They heard the stories of Christ. And they were great when they were kids, but now they're cultured, see? Now they're educated, and they're at university. And they don't need these Bible stories. They don't need the Bible anymore. They don't need religion. And so they've become "cultured despisers" of religion.

And what Schleiermacher was trying to do was sort of put the brakes on them before they ran over the cliff. Before they jettisoned their Christianity he wanted to say, "Wait, stop! Think about it for a second." Actually, he doesn't end up saying "Think about it." In fact, he turns his back on a rational defense of Christianity. At one point he's going to say (this is in Speeches), he says, "We entirely renounce all attempts to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity."

So, what's he doing in this book if he's not going to prove that it's true? In another place he says, "Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling." Then he goes on to say this: "Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion."

In other places in the book he takes a swipe at "revealed" religion, which of course would be the Bible. At other places in the book he takes a swipe at miracles. And he always throughout the book takes a swipe at dogma, at theology. "Christianity is not a revealed religion. Christianity is not a dogma. What is Christianity at the end of the day? It is a feeling." That's the book, On Religion, Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

Now this book is actually the beginnings of what we call modern liberalism—the move away from the truth of Scripture, the move away from sola Scriptura, the authority of Scripture, that we submit to, that we learn from, that we derive our doctrines from. And instead, it's all based on a feeling. "Oh, what a feeling," Schleiermacher says. So, this is what he held out to his fellow German university students—that they don't jettison Christianity, they just think about it differently. They just retool it so it fits in their lives. And that's liberalism. And sadly, we know where that's going to end up.

Well, sorry to end on such a sad note here. But, that's what we find sometimes in church history.