All posts in “Dogmatics”

Review: “Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism” by Catherine L. Kelsey

Book: Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism: The Interpretation of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of John by Catherine L. Kelsey. (Princeton Theological Monograph Series) [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Pickwick Publications [LINK]

Overview: Catherine L. Kelsey is one of the leading scholars of Schleiermacher in the English-speaking world. This book is the published edition of her dissertation, which establishes her reputation as a careful and generous reader of Schleiermacher. The book examines Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the Gospel of John and the fundamental interaction between preaching, dogmatics, and Biblical criticism. Along the way, it presents an accurate picture of Schleiermacher’s significant presuppositions and theological convictions. It is a valuble study, clearly articulated and convincingly argued.

Three critical focuses of Schleiermacher’s theology are carefully examined in this study: his preaching, dogmatics, and biblical criticism. The second is often the most frequently discussed, but in this text all three are given their due consideration, bringing much-needed attention to Schleiermacher’s preaching and Biblical scholarship. Kelsey stresses the interconnection of all three, and she articulates the significant presuppositions guiding Schleiermacher’s thought.

An appropriate quotation from Schleiermacher at the beginning of the first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book:

I know of nothing better to desire for my life than the uniting of the podium and the pulpit. 1

Kelsey briefly states the purpose and goal of the work: “The chief purpose of this study is to investigate more closely the relationship between historical-critical interpretations, dogmatic interpretations, and faith interpretations of Jesus Christ.” 2 She stresses how these interpretations are not linear but are interactive. The result is a masterful study of all three interpretations of Christ in Schleiermacher—which occasions his work as a preacher, dogmatician, and biblical scholar—and the various ways in which these disciplines interact and correspond to each other.

One of the most fruitful discussions comes from chapter three, where Kelsey provides an introduction to three of the major presuppositions of Schleiermacher’s theology. These are the presuppositions she considers essential:

  1. “It is apparent to all who come into the sphere of Jesus’ influence that he is the Redeemer.” 3
  2. “Redemption is availible through the redeemer prior to his death and resurrection.” 4
  3. “Redemption is directly associated with incorporation into a community of Christians.” 5

These concisely present the core drives behind Schleiermacher’s theology, particularly his Christology. For example, presupposition number one explains why Schleiermacher placed significantly less of an emphasis on the death of Christ for redemption than he does on His life. Kelsey then makes a connection between Schleiermacher’s preaching, with these three presuppositions as its basis, and his dogmatics. This results in a careful reading of Christian Faith in the light of Schleiermacher’s preaching, in chapter four.

Finally, Kelsey examines Schleiermacher’s Biblical criticism, particularly his Life of Jesus lectures. One of the great values of this chapter, besides its nuanced reading of Schleiermacher’s lectures, is how well Kelsey defends Schleiermacher’s work against his critics. Because of the publication history of Schleiermacher’s Life of Jesus, it has become common to disregard his scholarship as inconsistent or non-historical. However, as Kelsey argues, a more careful reading reveals the benefits of Schleiermacher’s approach, even if modern historical research would invalidate some of his claims.

Overall, Kelsey offers a helpful interpretation of Schleiermacher’s multi-faceted theology through her study of these three aspects, and her work is notable for returning Schleiermacher’s preaching and Biblical criticism to a place of honor, alongside the (rightly deemed) significance of his dogmatics. The interaction of all three is important for reading Schleiermacher, as she masterfully argues in this text.

Conclusion: As a careful study into Schleiermacher’s work as a preacher, dogmatician, and Biblical critical, this study is of great value. However, it is also a great text for introducting some of the key presuppositions and drives behind his thought. Thus, it may be read as an introductory text, especially with how clear and articulate the style is.

Click here to purchase a copy of Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism by Catherine L. Kelsey. 

My thanks to Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers) for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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  1. Cited in Kelsey, Schleiermacher’s Preaching, Dogmatics, and Biblical Criticism, 1
  2. Ibid., 2
  3. Ibid., 67
  4. Ibid., 68
  5. Ibid., 70

The Weakness of God

christ-of-st-john-of-the-crossIn my book, Where Was God? (which you can get right now for free), I explore the idea of God’s impassability (His inability to suffer) in the face of human suffering. If God has suffered and died on the cross, why do we say that God cannot suffer? The answer, which I discovered in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, was simple. God can suffer, and in fact He does suffer. God is not impassable in the sense that He is unaffected or unmoved by the suffering of mankind. But quite radically, we must say that since the crucified Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and that this is what God is like, then God can and does suffer with mankind. And furthermore, as Moltmann concluded, we must place suffer and death itself in the very Triune life of God. God intimately knows suffering and death in Himself, He experiences our suffering when we suffer and He joins us in our death through Jesus’ death.

Learning this revolutionized my understanding of God and the way I think about the gospel. Since Jesus has truly suffered as a man, God deeply understands mankind. We do not find an abstract God void of emotion in the gospel, we find a personal, relatable, intimate God who suffers with mankind. What a beautiful picture this is!

But as I read Jürgen Moltmann’s latest book, The Living God and the Fullness of Life (which I recommend!), I was once again challenged in my understanding of God. Traditionally God is called the “Almighty”, and the scriptures affirm this. But what does that actually mean?

Is God Almighty?

For most, this is an abstract term about God’s ultimate dominance. As Moltmann writes, “If we see the Deity as the all-determining summit of universal monarchy, then it must be ‘all-determining reality.'” 1 The logical conclusion we make about an abstractly “Almighty” God is that such a God must determine all history, and in fact all existence.

But is this what is means to be Almighty? Is God the determining cause of everything that happens in creation?

On one hand this is an appealing claim to us, because we tend to relate such absolute power with freedom. We believe we are free when we can accomplish something or determine the outcome of an event. So the ultimate, highest understanding of this must be a completely free God who determines all things. But is that really freedom in itself? Is an Almighty God that must be all-determining really free?

According to Moltmann, no. He writes, “Is the Almighty free? No, for God has to be ‘the all-determining reality.’ For God there is no alternative to rule over the world. In this way God is tied down to this almighty role. Is the Almighty a subject? Yes, but a fixed subject. Is the Almighty a God in relationship? Yes, but only in a single relationship of determining everything. Has the Almighty power over Godself? No, God can do nothing other than rule over everything. So, in fact, the Almighty is powerless and a prisoner of the universe.” 2

The Almighty is a prisoner, because the Almighty is responsible for everything. Which means the Almighty is accused of the theodicy question. Which makes sense. If God is all determining, why doesn’t God end suffering and death? But in this line of thinking an “almighty” God, as the all-determining God, is nothing short of a monster-God, because such a God causes and wills all suffering, corruption, injustice, and death in the world. But is this what God is like? And is such a God really free? No. Because an all-determining God cannot “withdraw into Godself”, as Moltmann puts it. Such a God cannot choose not to be “Almighty”.

So how then should we re-understand the “almighty-ness” of God?

To be Almighty Means the Freedom to be Weak

A God who is Almighty, in the Christian sense, cannot be an “all-determining” God. Because such a God is not free to withdraw, and to have power over Godself. Such a God is a slave to the reality being determined, and therefore unfree to choose not to determine that reality.

So what then? Am I saying that God is not almighty?

Certainly not. The “Almighty” label for God is found all throughout the scriptures, especially in the Old Testament. So instead of dropping that title, what I’m proposing is we rethink what God as the Almighty actually means.

An Almighty God is not an “all-determining” God. Rather, God is free in Godself. God is free to withdraw from history, to determine Godself. In other worlds, God is not required in Gods almighty-ness to determine all things. This is an act of self-limitation. God certainly could determine all things, but since God is free God does not have to. As Moltmann continues to say, “The limitation of God’s unending power is an act of God’s power over Godself. Only God can limit God.” 3 The Almighty God is free to limit Godself. This is what it means to be Almighty, in the Christian sense: the limitless God is free to be self-limited.

And God has chosen to do exactly that.

God has chosen not to be counted among the “mighty”, but among the weak. God has chosen solidarity with the broken, the outcasts, the lost, and the forgotten. God has chosen to be weak with the weak, poor with the poor, and to suffer with those who suffer. This is apparent especially in the life of Jesus, who commonly ate with sinners, and fellowshipped with the so-called outsiders of society. It often was a mark against Him according to the religious rulers of the day, and still is today in stark contrast against the way we tend to understand God. But if this is who Jesus is, we must say this is what God is like, because it is what God has revealed about Himself.

The God of Jesus Christ is the God of outcasts, the God of the weak, of the helpless, and of the needy. 

God is free and in freedom God has decided to limit Godself. This is how God is “Almighty”. It is not because God is all-determinating, but because God in freedom has chosen weakness, helplessness, suffering, and even death for Himself that God is Almighty.

As Moltmann writes, “God is not on the side of the mighty as ‘the Almighty’—God is on the side of the weak, as the liberator who is in solidarity with them. The living God chooses the weak in the world and rejects the mighty.”  4

This is the almighty-weakness of God! Not that God is lacking, but that God in His majesty and love has chosen to be our God, to be the God of those who suffer, who die, who weep, and who are weak. He radically chooses solidarity with mankind, and rejects even His own might for our sakes.

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  1. The Living God and the Fullness of Life by Jürgen Motlmann, P. 43
  2. ibid, P. 44
  3. ibid P.45
  4. ibid p. 47