On the Nature of the Church in the View of Schleiermacher and Schelling

By Fadi Abu Deeb

William Louis Sonntag Landscape with Temple Ruins


In the contemporary conservative Evangelical circles modern theology is almost totally absent, whether in its metaphysics or in its practical aspects.  Names like Schleiermacher or Schelling are also almost totally unmentioned, or perhaps mentioned just in a context of apologetics or polemics against liberalism, Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theology.  But in the current paradoxical age of extreme individualism and inevitable interconnectedness, wherein traditional priesthood becomes less and less capable to address all the important issues of humankind, with science and other new branches of knowledge taking central position in the world- with all these things it seems wise to reconsider visionary insights given by Romanticists such as Schleiermacher and Schelling.

This paper will introduce Schleiermacher’s and Schelling’s views on the Church.  The main idea presented in this topic will be the inclusive view of the Christian Church, with a subcategory concerning the true priesthood as seen by Schleiermacher.  The paper will begin by presenting a brief philosophical background of Romanticism, moving after that to explain the Church as an ecumenical body as seen by Schleiermacher and Schelling.  True priesthood and evangelism are also two very helpful aspects to deepen the understanding of the nature of the Church in Schleiermacher’s view.

Schleiermacher and Schelling:  A Brief Philosophical Background

Schleiermacher’s view of the Christian Church represents the core of his practical theology.  However, it is not related to the form of activities or rituals implemented in the church, but to the understanding of the essence of religion, Christianity and the Church.  On the other hand, Schelling represents another outspoken voice of romantic view of the Church with his evolutionary principle derived from German Idealism.  Both Schleiermacher and Schelling constitute the two-thronged axis around which the modern romantic view of the nature of the Christian Church is formed and takes shape.  The importance of both of this theologian and that philosopher is that they give both the theological and the philosophical aspects of the romantic revolutionary and ‘utopian’ stance on the Christian religion.  Klaus Penzel explains the significance of connecting these two figures, by declaring that

[T]he ecumenical ideas which were scattered here and there through the entire period were probably summarized and developed more typically and fundamentally by these two men than by anybody else. Furthermore, their contributions to ecumenical thought were shaped and determined most characteristically by certain ideas which were a part of the thought-world of German romanticism and idealism.[1]

This ecumenicalism needs to be understood according to the philosophical and spiritual principles of German romanticism concerning humanity and what humane is.  Schleiermacher sees that “[a]ll that is human is holy, for all is divine.”[2]  So humanity is part of the divine.  For that, Novalis asserts that understanding the world passes through the person understanding oneself, because both are “integral halves”.[3]

Ecumenicalism can be seen as a natural consequence of inclusiveness.  Exclusive thought is alien to romanticism.  Novalis is very clear about that, when he affirms that “[i]f the spirit sanctifies it, every true book is a bible.”[4]  For Novalis, statements of faith are just shortcuts for self-relief that does not grant salvation which comes through reflection.[5]  Schleiermacher sees the Bible in this view when he considers it authoritative and sacred because the early Church’s faith in Christ sacralizes it and gives it authority, not the opposite.[6]

Schelling also understands God in terms of art.  It does not need much evidence to deduce his inclusive view of Christianity.  James Lindsay explains that “Schelling’s aestheticism finds God really revealed only in art – for him the true religion. …Art, then, is for Schelling the first revelation of the infinite, in which we are still far from having blended the objectivity of art with the subjectivity of religion.”[7]  William Blake, an English romanticist, also understands God and Christianity in these terms. Isaiah Berlin in “The Roots of Romanticism” demonstrates that Blake regarded Christ and his disciples as artists.[8]

It is obvious then where the roots of inclusiveness and ecumenicalism in Schleiermacher’s and Schelling’s view of the Church and Christianity come from.  The following sections will try to uncover the most significant points of their concepts of the nature of the Church and its priesthood.  Bur before that it is important to know how Schleiermacher, as a theological representative of the romantic school, defines religion in general.


            Schleiermacher views religion from a philosophical perspective.  Thus he situates philosophical theology above dogmatic one.  Dogmatic theology which is the foundation of positive religion (it can be called the exclusive religion using the language employed previously in this paper) does not represent the true and complete knowledge about God.  In this sense, Schleiermacher expounds his view as follows:

Philosophical theologians can understand the positive religions in their truth – what they are and what they are not. For example, they understand that the historical religions do in fact proceed from a living intuition of the universe – that is the strength of positive religion. They also understand that the historical religions do not comprehend themselves as such.  Historical religions take their intuition to be a revelation of true knowledge about God or the absolute reality, which is impossible. Because philosophical theologians understand the essence of religion, they can understand the corruption that creeps into positive religion.[9]

            Thus Schleiermacher renders it impossible for historical/positive/dogmatic religions to be the ultimate revelations of absolute reality and truth.  These religions can never escape corruption that pollutes it.  Because of that, “philosophical theologians are in a position no longer to see the field of positive religions as they struggle among competing truth systems, but rather as an array of complementary religious intuitions.”[10]  This reveals again the romantic rejection of exclusiveness in terms of historical and dogmatic forms of religion. This also can evoke a different expectation when it comes to define the nature of the Christian Church

Schleiermacher writes that, “Religion…is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling. It will regard the Universe as it is. It is reverent attention and submission, in child-like passivity, to be stirred and filled by the Universe s immediate influences.” [11]  Because the true and absolute religion is not something to be taught by a certain system of thought, so its core and reality cannot, logically, be articulated through language, and therefore cannot be transmitted through light conversations:

On sacred subjects it would be rather sacrilegious than fitting to be ready with an answer to every question and a response to every address.  Religion, therefore, withdraws itself from too wide circles to the more familiar conversation of friendship or the dialogue of love, where glance and action are clearer than words, and where a solemn silence also is understood.[12]

This is the picture then:  with Schleiermacher, Christian religion is taking a different shape and conception.  It is not an exclusive religion, and not a necessary negation to other ideas or religions.  This does not need mean though that Christianity is just as valuable as other historical faiths.  In spite of his view of the nature of the true religion, Schleiermacher does not abandon the discussion of historical Christianity and the positive Church.  He presents the following picture of the Church, which can also shed light on Schelling’s concept of the epochs of the Church.

The Church

           Despite his philosophical approach to religion, Schleiermacher does not fail to take the biblical text into serious consideration.  He maintains that “[t]he Christian Church takes shape through the coming together of regenerate individuals to form a system of mutual interaction and co-operation.”[13]  He does not depart, then, from the verbal expression of the traditional Evangelical definition of the Church.[14]  Regeneration, according to him, pertains to the will for the kingdom of God.[15]  This will is an absolutely powerful God-consciousness.[16]

            But to understand Schleiermacher correctly, it is important to remember that exclusiveness is alien to his thought as seen above.  Although he talks about God’s election, he, however, does not mean that all people must have the same doctrinal faith articulated in some sort of statement of faith.  Schleiermacher states very clearly that the true Church never claims the possession of absolute truth.  He says, “The true church focuses on an individual image and feeling of the universe, makes no exclusive claims to truth, displays no trace of tyrannous hierarchy between lay people and priesthood, and feels no need to convert others to the one true religion.”[17]  Obviously, the true Church does not represent a doctrinal body that calls people to conversion to believe in a single format of maxims and postulates.

            From the beginning of his dealing with the Church issue the dichotomy of the “outer circle” and the “inner circle” appears.[18]  The former consists of those who could not recognize Christ, while the latter is constituted of those who had a relation with Christ and who created mutual influence among them and upon the members of the “outer circle”.  The “operation of grace” flows out of the “inner circle”, because in its association with Christ the Church was latent.[19]  Using another pair of terms derived from Matthew 22: 14, Schleiermacher differentiates between the “elect” and the “called”.  The latter is what constitutes the outer circle, while the former is the constituents of the inner circle.  The Holy Spirit does not dwell in the “called” nor is He communicated to them.[20]

            In other words used by Schleiermacher, he speaks of the “true church” and the “visible church” which is virtually false.  The latter is also the same as the “outer circle” or the group of the “called” ones.  He maintains that “in point of fact the church, as it exists among us, becomes of less consequence to men the more they increase in religion, and the most pious sever themselves coldly and proudly.”[21]  He goes further to note that “if these people did acquire a concept or intuition of religion, they would leave the (false) church, because the false church substitutes dogmas and rituals for intuition and feeling of the universe.”[22]  The people of the visible institutional church always import their religion from outside.[23]

            This modern view of the Church finds its philosophical companion in Schelling’s ecclesiology.  Despite the difference between the latter and Schleiermacher, both see the Church as a new world that does not exclude non-dogmatic declarations.

            Schelling does not see the Church as a mere ahistorical/beyond-temporal entity, but it is a historical visible corporeal body that has emerged in a certain time context and initiated by God.  Sean J. McGrath asserts that

Schelling is no Schleiermacher, substituting a religion of feeling for traditional Christian dogma. The institution of a church, a visible, historical structure which incorporates and perpetuates the worldly mission of the second potency, is, in Schelling’s view, essential to the Christian revelation.[24]

            Although Schelling is not willing to erase the visible reality of the true Church, he, nevertheless, does not return to the traditional view of the Church.  He sees the Church from an evolutionary perspective.  The Church and the world are no contradicting entities, but two stages of existence.  McGrath explains this view as follows:

The world itself is a first and fallen incarnation of the first potency or the Father; the Christ is the incarnate second potency whose mission is to re-unite with the Father, that is, to reunite the world and the absolute. The church is the form of the historical presence of Christ after the Resurrection. Christianity inexorably aims at the unity of the fallen and redeemed world and the church, or the historical incarnations of the first and second potency. The end of the Christian revelation is the self-cancellation of the church as an institution, existing either on the margin of the human community, as in the First Century, or in confrontation with the world, as in radical Protestantism; the church must become identical with the human community.[25]

            Schelling’s view is not very different then from Schleiermacher’s.  Although the former preserves the historical definition of the Church, but he anticipates the evolvement of this body to include the whole human community one day in the future.  However, that future does not seem to represent some sort of beyond-time-and-space epoch, but it is temporal and historic, wherein the Church cancels itself willingly.  Similar to his three-potency scheme, Schelling reads the history of the Church also as a three-stage process.  The first stage is the Petrine Church represented by the Roman Catholic Church that preferred unity and political power to grace and free spirituality, just to preserve the necessary unity of the Church.  The second stage is the Pauline Church represented by the Protestant Reformation that sacrificed external unity for the sake of reviving the interior spirituality of the individual Christians.  The Third stage then is the Johannine Church, which is a Church without dogmas and institutionalism.  It is the human society itself regenerated:

[W]ithout the Reformation, modernity would not have occurred; paradoxically the emancipation of philosophy and science from theology was necessary if they were to develop as authentically Christian discourses. Free from Rome, the West gives birth to the Enlightenment and the sciences flourish. But the self-understanding of the secular is that it thrives outside of Christianity. Schelling’s point appears to be that this is an illusion: the Enlightenment and Romanticism are through and through Christian, only they fail to recognize it. The third age of the church will occur when culture and science are at once autonomous and Christian, that is, when the Christian orientation of Western culture and science becomes spontaneous and immanent.[26]

            The importance of this Schellingian insight is that it is presented as if it fore-reads the trends of the world in the later centuries.  Science today is the massive engine that seems to be controlling current events and concerns, giving answers, whether primordial and initial or exhaustive and satisfying to a great extent, of things once thought to be matters of sheer biblical quest.  Schelling could predict the inevitable vitality of science was yet to appear in the third age of the Church.  This third age or stage of the Church is then a historical and natural result of the oppositional interaction of the first two ages.  It is reconciliation of all disciplines of knowledge.  McGrath concludes that

The history of the church is dominated by the opposition between the first and second potency, that is, between Peter and Paul. The resolution of this opposition is the advent of the third and final age of the church, the Johannine church, in which the substance of the church becomes identical to its subjectivity, or the exterior is fully determined by the interior and the interior by the exterior.[27]

Reading the previous view of Schelling in the light of what has been said in the beginning of the paper about Schelling’s high regard of art as the real and true revelation of God, the similarity appears between his system and Schleiermacher’s understanding of the nature of the true Church as an inclusive body of the elect and the called.[28] Schelling’s historical Christianity is not dogmatically exclusive then.  It takes the form of new world spirituality.  As McGrath puts it:

Schelling is not speaking of a neo-Orthodox vision of the arts and sciences subordinated to theology. In a certain way, the Schellingian future of Christianity is a Christianity without theology, insofar as every science now becomes the content of theology, or a religion without religion, insofar as everything becomes religious, or a world without church insofar as world becomes church. Only in this way will the special knowledge of revelation become the general knowledge of all men.[29]

This will be more clarified through exhibiting Schleiermacher’s view of the priesthood.  Being himself a Romanticist just like Schelling, his conception will be complementary to the latter’s scheme of the Church.  Therefore, investigating the nature of priesthood in the Church will take place in the next section.  This priesthood is the practical reality in the work of the Christian community.  It is the ultimate determining entity of how the Body of Christ really looks like and how it functions.

True Priesthood

The real priest from Schleiermacher’s perspective is a servant for the whole society.  He is not an exclusive minister for a religious closed community.  He is such an illuminator, not a sort of leader in a party.  The priest in his view seems a sort of an oracle of knowledge in a very romantic or mystical way.  He is not a servant of a dogmatic corpus of beliefs.  Schleiermacher presents this image of the priesthood:

The principles of the true church, the mission of a priest in the world is a private business, and the temple should also be a private chamber where he lifts up his voice to give utterance to religion. Let there be an assembly before him and not a congregation. Let him be a speaker for all who will hear, but not a shepherd for a definite flock.

Only under such conditions, can truly priestly souls take charge of seekers for religion. Thus only can this preparatory association actually lead to religion and make itself worthy to be regarded as an adjunct and vestibule of the true church, for thus only it can lose all that in its present state is unholy and irreligious. By universal freedom of choice, recognition and criticism, the hard and pronounced distinction between priest and laity will be softened, till the best of the laity come to stand where the priests are. All that is now held together by the unholy bond of creeds will be severed.[30]

The real religious community is a free community, or, in other words, it is a community of free thinkers, whereby thinking is trying to find ways to reach to the Ultimate/God.  Thinking is not synonymous to reasoning. It is the road paved for intuition, or a process which aims to get rid of oppressive limitations of the institutionalized dogmatic body.  Therefore, piety or true religion never depends solely on the Bible:

The assertion that scripture alone is sufficient to awake piety, seems to have experience against it, from the sacred writings of all religions down to our books for edification so widely distributed among a certain class, and the small religious pamphlets which are the means chiefly used at present for reaching the people.[31]

            This reminds of Novalis’ statement mentioned above.  To understand this more, one needs Kant’s view of the Bible, since the latter is one of the philosophical foundations of Romanticism (although he hated it).[32]  Kant sees the Bible as an instrument to serve “the religion of reason”.  Although the latter term might not be very compatible with romanticism, it is however similar in its inclusiveness and its remoteness from dogmatism.  Kant asserts that “the interpreter of the Scripture, should the occasion arise, is quite entitled to convey the true teaching of the religion of reason into the Bible, if by any chance he does not find it there.”[33]  Barth explains, on the other hand, that the reason in Kant’s view is a human capacity related to practice, and not a theoretical intellectual capacity.[34]  This is, then, another dimension of Schleiermacher’s inclusiveness concerning Christianity and the Church.  Consequently, the priest’s job is not to maintain a certain dogmatic form nor to be a priest of a certain ‘positive religion’.  The true priest is an artist in a sense (this reminds of Blake’s view of Christ and his disciples).  Schleiermacher explains that this priesthood is what makes other people convert to true religion/Church:

The holy ardour with which they treat everything shows that even in trifles that a profane spirit skims over thoughtlessly, the music of noble feelings resounds in them. The majestic calm(ness) with which they equalize small and great, shows that they refer everything to the Unchangeable and in all things alike perceive the Deity….If in this way the whole life and every movement of soul and body is a priestlike work of art.[35]

            Novalis helps in shedding light on what the Romantic Schleiermacher is saying by asserting that in olden times the poet and the priest were one, and that “the true priest has always remained a poet.”[36]  Again, the identity between religion and art is clear.  Novalis goes further to unpack the romantic conception of religion maintaining that “[o]nly an artist can divine the meaning of life.”[37]

            Drawing from this view of the Church and priesthood, the concept of evangelism must be then different from the traditional understanding of it.  As seen above with Schelling’s conception of the Johannine Church, Schleiermacher argues against the traditional way of evangelism.  Based on his view of the true Church which must not claim one type of true statements and dogmas, he, therefore, sees that spreading Christianity was the work of the visible church which was untrue:

It appears to be maintained that the spread of Christianity in the world did not proceed from the pious Christian sense. But this good endeavour is always in some way connected with the notion, here uniformly rejected, that salvation, either altogether or in a much higher degree, is not to be found outside a definite religious communion as it is found inside.[38]

            Although he seems to be talking in this place about a sort of Christian denominational inclusiveness, like the Moravian Brethren,[39] much more can be deduced from it, in the context of everything said above about his view of the true Church.  Schleiermacher distinguished between the praiseworthy zeal for conversion and that formal work of proselyting people into a certain dogmatic formula of ‘positive religion’.  He also sees traces of truth in all ‘religions’, especially the monotheistic ones.  He says that Christianity should never see itself as higher than others, in a certain sense at least:

We can therefore say that this is the true distinction between praiseworthy zeal for conversion that would recognize the faintest traces of religion and purify and build up a piety already begun, and that wild irreligious mania for conversion which easily degenerates into persecution. The former begins with unprejudiced and loving comprehension even of the most imperfect kind of faith, the latter believes it is exalted above any such endeavour.[40]

            Thus, Schleiermacher sees any attempt of a religious party/positive religion to exalt itself as prologue for exercising persecution against others, and as a “wild irreligious mania for conversion”.  The phrase “nulla salus/no salvation” is understood by him to mean the absence of piety that leads to salvation and the denial of the “universal communion” of faith and piety.[41]


This paper demonstrated that the ecumenical view of the Church held by Schleiermacher and Schelling, as two representatives of the German Romantic thought and modern theology, is very different from the traditional/classical Evangelical view.  Although both these traditions of Protestantism, classical and modern, use a certain set of words/terms, they however differ in the  implications they give to those terms and the results they expect from employing them.  Schleiermacher and Schelling saw the Church as a sort of universal communion, either as a true Church for the former or as a Johannine Church of no dogma for Schelling.  The main point here is that both are very far from embracing any kind of dogmatic/doctrinal exclusiveness.  The Church is the body of Christ that includes all true piety in the world.  In other words, it is that body led by priest-like artists/poets- the inner circle of regenerated individuals, channeling grace to the outer circle of the Church.

The importance of such view(s) is that it gives some explanation of why the Church appears as it appears.  It is insightful to think of the Church as concentrated circles or as different levels/stages.  The idea of the “universal communion” of Schleiermacher can be very helpful to look with respect and teachable mentality to the great and rich spiritual traditions of piety and knowledge in the world.  This also gives an explanation of why some non-Christians (using the term “Christian” here with its narrow sense) are sometimes more willing and capable of spiritual knowledge and profound Godly insights.  Schelling’s idea of the Johannine Church also gives a similar insight, being a stage more advanced and evolved than the Petrine Church of unity and dogma and the Pauline Church of individualism and subjectivism.


[1] Klaus Penzel, “A Chapter in the History of the Ecumenical Quest:  Schelling and Schleiermacher,”  Church History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Sep., 1964), 322.

[2]  Friedrich Schleiermacher, On religion:  Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, translated by John Oman (London:  Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co.., LTD. 1893), 180.

[3] Novalis, “Logological Fragments I,” Philosophical Writings, edited and translated by Margaret Mahony Stoljar (Albany”  State University of New York, 1997), sec. 71, p. 61.

[4]  Novalis, “Miscellaneous Observations,” ibid., sec. 108, p. 42.

[5]  Cf. ibid., sec. 23, 26; sec. 45, p. 30.

[6]  Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), sec. 128, p. 591

[7] James Lindsay, “The Philosophy of Schelling,”  The Philosophical Review, Vol. 19, No. 3 (May, 1910), 261.

[8] إيزايا برلين، جذور الرومانتيكية، ترجمة سعود السويدا.  طبعة أولى.  (بيروت:  جداول للنشر والتوزيع، 2012)، 108.

[9] David E. Klemm, “Culture, Arts, and Religion” The Cambridge Companion to Friedrich Schleiermacher, edited by Jacqueline Marina (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2005), 261.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Schleiermacher, On Religion, 277.

[12] Ibid., 150.

[13]  Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, sec. 115, p. 532.

[14] Cf. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.23; 4. 14.

[15]  Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, sec. 115.1, p. 532.

[16]  Ibid., sec. 116.3, p. 536.

[17]  Klemm, 258.

[18]  Ibid., sec. 115.2, p. 533.

[19]  Ibid.

[20]  Ibid., sec. 116.1, p. 534.

[21] Schleiermacher, On Religion, 160.

[22]  Klemm, 258.

[23] Schleiermacher, On Religion, 161.

[24] Sean J. McGrath, “The Late Schelling and the End of Christianity,”  Schelling-Studien (2), 67.

[25] Ibid., 67-68.

[26] Ibid., 68.

[27] Ibid., 70.

[28] Without neglecting the centrality of the “inner circle” of the elect in channeling the grace to the “outer circle” of the called.

[29] Ibid., 69.

[30]  Schleiermacher, On Religion, 175.

[31]  Ibid., 181.

[32] برلين، 137-38.

[33]  Karl Bath, Protestant Thought From Rousseau to Ritschl (New York:  Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1959) , 170-71.

[34]  Ibid., 165.

[35]  Ibid., 177.

[36]  Novalis, “Miscellaneous Observations,” Philosophical Writings, sec. 75, p. 36.

[37]  Novalis, “Logological Fragments I,” Philosophical Writings, sec. 96, p. 66.

[38]  Schleiermacher, On Religion, 187.

[39]  Ibid., 189.

[40]  Ibid., 188.

[41]  Ibid.

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