Overview: This new collection of sermons by Friedrich Schleiermacher focuses on an often neglected aspect of his theology: the atonement. As such, it is a valuable contribution that demonstrates not only Schleiermacher’s concern for the Church as a preacher but also the consistency of his theology in the classroom and pulpit alike.
This volume begins somberly; two Schleiermacher scholars who contributed passed before publication: Terrence N. Tice (2020), who wrote the foreword, and Iain G. Nicol (2019), who was co-translator and editor. Tice was one of the most significant English-speaking scholars of Schleiermacher’s thought and contributed valuable work as both a translator and scholar. Nicol published four book-length translations, including one of my favorite texts (On the Doctrine of Election), and edited a study of Schleiermacher and feminism. Their voices were a tremendous addition to Schleiermacher-scholarship, and it is sad to realize this is their final contribution.
While Schleiermacher was alive, he was known more as a preacher than a theologian or academic. That narrative has changed today, but it is important to contextualize his work within this commitment to the Church. His preaching is not only a wonderful example of the craft of sermon writing but also makes his theology pastoral and approachable. Both aspects demonstrate the value of this book: it highlights the work of a great preacher, but also looks at a theologian who preaches what he systematized.
This volume presents Schleiermacher’s distinct and fascinating ideas about the death of Christ through nine sermons. Two are Good Friday sermons, but all of those selected examine a text related to the crucifixion, with several focusing on the last words of Christ. Schleiermacher’s approach to atonement is unique. It is sometimes an overlooked aspect of his theology, but that is not to suggest he has nothing important to say. As with most of Schleiermacher’s work, he is at once profoundly challenging and original.
I haven’t read Schleiermacher since publishing my book, Schleiermacher in Plain English (2019). And I confess that getting back into his style was a bit difficult at first. I caught myself staring blankly at the page, reading and re-reading a sentence or paragraph to try to grasp the point. But after I got used to Schleiermacher’s unique writing style, the sermons were a joy to read. And most of all, I was reminded of why I think Schleiermacher is an important theologian to study.
Schleiermacher is our contemporary, not some outdated figure we study from the past. This volume only confirms that for me. I often think of what Katherine Sonderegger said, “Always we return to Schleiermacher, for though we may not see this at first, we have always, in our day, already begun with him.” 1 That perfectly captures my thoughts about Schleiermacher. Anything we call “modern” or “cutting edge” today could arguably find its origin in Schleiermacher. He was probably there first.
A good example of this is found in these sermons as he works to understand the death of Christ. Many today challenge the substitutionary, violent models of atonement (particularly penal substitution or some other version of satisfaction theory)—myself included. The rejection of this approach to Christ’s death can also be found in Schleiermacher. Yet he does not seem terribly interested in classic atonement theories as a whole. He does not just trade PSA for another theory. Instead, his approach has a subtle complexity that will challenge our current assumptions.
So what, then, is Schleiermacher’s approach? The translators offer a helpful outline in the introduction:
In sum, Schleiermacher’s treatment of the cross in relationship to motifs of atonement demonstrates that the cross is not about an abstract payment to a vengeful God, nor about our being rescued from the powers of some evil that might thwart the will of God. […] Christ’s suffering is truly about com-passion in the sense of suffering with, but in two directions: Christ suffers with us to the end that we suffer with Christ in the context of the community that is the condition for the possibility of our redemption. Since the heart of his doctrine of salvation is about our participation in him in the community that is composed of persons of faith, this suffering continues until such time as sin is eradicated from humankind and God-consciousness reigns to the end that we, like the One in whom we participate, wholly live on the basis of this. In short, our union with Christ, achieved in the community that proclaims this, enables our relationship with God [CF §104.3]. 2
The section referenced above from Christian Faith describes atonement in terms of Christ’s passive and active obedience: “Christ’s high-priestly office includes his complete fulfillment of the law, or his active obedience, his atoning death, or his passive obedience, and his advocacy with the Father on behalf of the faithful.” 3 §103-105 follows Christ’s threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. For Schleiermacher, redemption is relational, not transactional. This relational and community-centric approach to redemption is seen throughout these sermons.
Schleiermacher stresses Christ’s unity with and obedience to the Father even to the point of death. In one sermon, he rejects the idea that the Father forsook the Son while on the cross. This idea is often based on Christ’s repetition of Psalms 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For Schleiermacher, Christ’s God-consciousness must remain perfect, or redemption is impossible. A rift in the communion of Father and Son would not indicate atonement but a disruption in our faith. He proclaims, “[T]his constant inward communion seems to me to be most essentially and most intimately connected with our faith in the divine Redeemer. And so, our faith holds that this communion was always constant and without interruption…” 4
Schleiermacher thinks it is false to assume that Christ’s experience of God-forsakenness is necessary for redemption. He explains, “God does not really forsake the sinner, and it cannot have been necessary for our redemption that Christ should take upon himself anything that is untrue.” 5 This point, together with Schleiermacher’s rejection of penal substitution, indicates his relevance to the contemporary discussion around atonement models. With this “new” critique of violent atonement model, it is once again the case that Schleiermacher was there first.
In addition to these sermons being a fascinating look into how Schleiermacher preached redemption and the cross, they also offer several examples of how he might preach other aspects of his theology. These include Schleiermacher’s unique understanding of the single divine decree, his universalism, and the doctrine of divine wisdom, among others. While he does not elaborate as systematically on these points as he does in the masterful Christan Faith, those familiar with these doctrines will pick up on them and likely find his pastoral presentation admirable. As such, the sermons are theologically rich and especially rewarding to students of Schleiermacher’s thought.
This collection is a valuable contribution to English-speaking Schleiermacher scholarship. Newcomers to Schleiermacher will also find much to learn from these sermons. The translators provide a helpful introduction, a summary of each sermon, and an outline of relevant concerns in Schleiermacher’s theology. But anyone interested in proclaiming Christ’s death again today will benefit from the book, not only those interested in Schleiermacher’s theology. It is a fascinating and moving collection of sermons.
My thanks to Wipf & Stock for a copy of this book for review. I was not obligated to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections here.