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Book: The Eternal Covenant: Schleiermacher on God and Natural Science (Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann) by Daniel James Pedersen [AMAZON LINK]
Publisher: Walter de Gruyter [PUBLISHERS LINK]
Overview: An excellent and carefully written study, Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant is indispensable for serious scholars of Schleiermacher’s theology. The arguments are masterfully constructed and logically presented as the book moves from one point to another before arriving at an impressive conclusion.
I must admit, I am a newcomer to the world of Schleiermacher. My interests in theology have tended to revolve around Karl Barth, but it is also because of Barth that I feel inclined to dive into reading Schleiermacher. So far, I can make no claims of mastering even the smallest aspect of Schleiermacher’s theology, but I have come to thoroughly enjoy him and am beginning to recognize his mountainous significance.
Even though I have only begun to explore the vast literature surrounding the great 19th century theologian, I have no doubt that Daniel James Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant should be counted among some of the best available. It is possible that some of the more nuanced points went over my head, but I found it so masterfully argued that I could not help but to be impressed.
It was certainly a challenging book to read, but in a good way. There are books that are difficult because they are so poorly written, but then there are book that are difficult because they are so precisely articulated and carefully constructed that you can’t help but feel challenged by their depth. This book is undoubtably the latter.
The text reads somewhat like a hike up a mountain. There is a logical procession from step to step, as every chapter draws out important insights taking us one step closer to the peak (to the book’s conclusion). Like a hike up a mountain, the middle chapters were the most challenging, yet they were also quite essential to the whole. Here Pedersen examines at great length the necessary scientific and philosophical contexts so that we might properly grasp what Schleiermacher means by the eternal covenant. This includes fascinating discussions of evolution, Kant, nebulas and the stars, Leibniz and Clarke, miracles, Divine necessity, and Spinoza. But as fascinating (and well articulated) as these sections were, they certainly demand much from the reader. At the time of reading these, it could be easy to think it will not pay off in the end—kind of like how a climber might not see the point of scaling yet another cliff until they see the peak—but once the conclusion is reached, it all becomes clear. It is well worth the effort it takes to get there.
I say all this because it is important to be clear about precisely what sort of book this is. It’s not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the impatient who are unwilling to put in the conceptual work of each step. But neither is Schleiermacher, really. And do you really want to spend your time reading books that never challenge you, that merely support your own presuppositions? It is challenging to read Schleiermacher, as well as Pedersen’s book, but it is also well worth the effort.
Pedersen sets out to clarify what Schleiermacher meant by an “eternal covenant between the living Christian faith, and completely free, independent, scientific inquiry, so that faith does not hinder science and science does not exclude faith.” 1 Pedersen thinks that this eternal covenant has been misunderstood, both its content and its basis, and argues for a new understanding of it.
The conclusion Pedersen arrives at is best appreciated in its own context, by first reading the chapters which proceed it. So I will not spend any time in this review explaining what precisely his conclusion is. Instead, I want to highlight an important insight Pedersen stresses in his book that I think is well worth repeating, especially as it relates to how we should read Schleiermacher.
As a student of Barth’s theology, Schleiermacher was often presented to me in a subjectivist light, but this has been widely debunked by scholars of his theology. Part of the problem is too much of a focus on the controversial introduction of his theological masterpiece, Christian Faith. But as Pedersen notes, “Like a word, the meaning of Schleiermacher’s introduction is its use.” 2 It is the actual material content of Schleiermacher’s theology that should interpret the method, not the reverse. This is extremely important, since interpretive errors have arisen from attempting to read his content in the light of his method, while in fact his method is best understood in the way it is implemented.
In this sense, Pedersen’s book is not only an excellent study on the eternal covenant, but a fantastic example of how to properly read Schleiermacher. There are so many unscholarly opinions about Schleiermacher that circulate in books and in classrooms (I have been party to some of these errors myself!), but Pedersen’s book presents an account that is truly faithful to Schleiermacher’s theology. As such, if we want to learn how to read Schleiermacher by example, then Pedersen sets a very high standard worth following.
Conclusion: While the price and difficulty of this book might lead novices to avoid it, serious scholars of Schleiermacher will do so only at their peril. There is little doubt in my mind that Pedersen’s The Eternal Covenant will become indispensable for future scholars of Schleiermacher’s theology. A book of such careful attention and articulation can hardly be ignored. And as a novice in the world of Schleiermacher myself, I would also hope that other newcomers would take up the task of learning from Pedersen’s book, even if it demands much patience and diligence. I know I learned a great deal from reading it, and plan to return to it in the future as I continue to read (and eventually write about) Schleiermacher.
My thanks to Walter de Gruyter and Daniel Pedersen 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.