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In 1799, Friedrich Schleiermacher, pastor of Berlin’s Trinity Church and cofounder of the University of Berlin, penned On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. His audience was Romantic poets and artists who rejected religion as it was then understood in Germany. Schleiermacher argued that religion is not a cognitive matter of human reason—the view of deists with their propositions of natural religion and Christians who defended orthodox confessions. Nor was religion primarily an ethical matter of the human will—as Immanuel Kant insisted. Rather, religion was sui generis, unique. Its origin lay in Gefühle, human intuition or feelings. Instead of cavalierly dismissing religion, Romantics with their enthusiasm for wonder and imagination should be its most ardent supporters.
This reassessment profoundly affected Christianity in Germany. For centuries, extending back to the New Testament, believers had held that the Christian religion was not limited to a single dimension of human existence such as intuition. Rather, the core of Christian religion involved three equally important features of human nature. Authentic Christianity entailed cognitively believing the doctrines of biblical revelation, espousing a vibrant ethic, and manifesting a life of vital piety or devotion. All three of these features found their source in the objective truth of the Bible.
Protestant Reformers had reinstated these core beliefs. Schleiermacher could have reaffirmed biblical religion and Reformation orthodoxy, thereby warding off the onslaught of Enlightenment teachings of human autonomy. Instead, he argued that in order for Christianity to continue its important role in German culture, it must accommodate itself to the spirit of the age—Romantic confidence in subjective human intuition. Schleiermacher’s work, therefore, both signaled the end of the Enlightenment’s Age of Reason and simultaneously ushered in the first hint of postmodernism. In the process, he became the “father of Protestant liberalism.” Schleiermacher’s radical proposal that Christianity must adapt to its cultural milieu was the first of many liberal capitulations to evolving worldviews.
In his magnum opus, The Christian Faith (1821), Schleiermacher fleshed out the implications of his revolutionary views. He dubbed humanity’s fundamental religious nature “the feeling of absolute dependence” that is mankind’s relation to God. Henceforth, every aspect of religion, including theology, would exhibit a subjective tone. Instead of doctrine being objective truth derived from biblical propositions, he argued that doctrine originated from mankind’s religious consciousness. The Bible, therefore, was merely the first expression of Christian experience. Schleiermacher reframed doctrine according to the following pattern: (1) discuss the classical tradition of Reformed confessions; (2) discuss the Enlightenment approach; (3) find a solution by examining the Christian consciousness, colored by his concept of religion. In this way, he transformed theology into a historical discipline. Schleiermacher’s method conformed perfectly to the University of Berlin’s founding presupposition that knowledge in all disciplines, including theology, is a work in process.
Regarding human nature, Schleiermacher contended that all people are imperfect but perfectible because they possess both “God consciousness” and “God forgetfulness.” Instead of a historical fall, he contended that the Genesis account depicts what characterizes every person’s subversion of their God consciousness to God forgetfulness. Schleiermacher rejected the doctrines of original sin and imputation as taught in Romans 5 as inconsistent with modern thought.
His treatment of Jesus’ person and work focused on the constant potency of Jesus’ God consciousness, which distinguished Him from all other men. Redemption consisted in Jesus’ sharing His God consciousness with His disciples, who in turn communicated their God consciousness to subsequent generations. Schleiermacher rejected the penal substitutionary view of the Christ’s atonement as “magical” and the exemplary view as “empirical” and substituted his subjective view of the atonement as “mystical.” Through preaching, people are drawn into the influence of Jesus’ God consciousness. Schleiermacher even speculated that the cumulative effect of redemption will one day result in the universal restoration of all souls.
Finally, Schleiermacher revised theological education. Ministerial training in his conception consists primarily of Wissenschaft, critical academic studies using modern hermeneutical methods, which replaced the traditional historical-grammatical method. Christian ministry was no longer a spiritual calling requiring evidence of devotional piety; instead, ministry is a “profession” by which ministers become leaders of the communities that they served—a clear sociological task.
Liberalism’s rise was abetted by F.C. Baur of the Tübingen School of Theology. He adapted G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophical dialectic to the history of Christianity. From its inception, Baur posited, Christianity has never been an authoritative and unified system of belief. The earliest form of Christianity appeared in Jerusalem under the leadership of James, who conceived of Christianity as a “royal law” (James 2:8). Diametrically opposed to Jewish Christianity, Paul propounded a separate gentile version in Romans—a detailed system of theology. Paul’s elaboration of justification by faith alone (Rom. 4) contrasted sharply to James’ view of salvation by faith and works (James 2). Much later, a historical synthesis evolved as the Roman Catholic Church developed a hierarchical episcopal clergy, yearly feast days honoring saints, and additional sacraments.
Another scholarly enterprise emerged to construct modern biographies of Jesus’ life. David Strauss’ Life of Jesus (1835) created a firestorm of criticism as he denied not only Jesus’ deity but also the historical validity of the Gospel miracles. He dismissed Jesus’ miracles as mere myths fabricated by the early church to authenticate Jesus as the Messiah. A consensus solidified around Martin Kähler’s The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historical Biblical Christ (1892). Kähler conceded that all attempts to construct objective biographies of Jesus based on modern historical research will inevitably reflect the biases of their authors. But Kähler also sided with the burgeoning liberal view that the New Testament accounts are unreliable because of the errors and preconceptions of the biblical writers.
Consistent with these developments, new critical methods of studying Old and New Testament texts challenged long-accepted views of the Bible’s authenticity. Biblical criticism would proceed by presupposing modern reason’s superiority over previous dogmatic orthodoxy. Julius Wellhausen questioned the unity of the Pentateuch. He hypothesized a number of documentary sources collected over many centuries instead of a single Mosaic authorship centuries earlier. He argued that various names of God and styles of writing and the development of Jewish history showed the patchwork nature of the Pentateuch. New Testament scholars posited late dates for the Gospels and questioned Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles.
Thus, German universities dominated the rise of liberal theology. In America before the nineteenth century, variant diversions from orthodoxy—deism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism—had infiltrated small segments of the population. Well into the 1800s, theological scholarship in America lagged a generation behind that in Germany. As the decades unfolded, Calvinism declined among Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational denominations. Sharp controversies erupted as pastors and seminary professors debated whether earlier confessions and ordination requirements ought to be modified to allow for more diverse theological views.
Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell became a founder of American liberal theology. He challenged the emphasis on individual conversion propagated by the Second Great Awakening. He advocated the moral view of the atonement. And he probed whether the complexity of religious language was an adequate vehicle to express theological truth.
Later in the century, the social gospel movement embodied an evangelical liberalism. Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden and Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch demanded that Christianity be socialized. They campaigned for workers’ rights to organize unions. Echoing German liberalism’s emphasis on implementing the kingdom of God, social gospelers insisted that Christianity is inherently revolutionary. Evangelicals previously insisted that social action follows individual conversion and is subordinate to correct theological belief. But liberal leaders insisted that transformation of American culture be given higher priority.
Between 1870 and World War I, seemingly endless disputes between progressives and conservatives dragged out over a wide range of topics: biblical authority, the deity of Christ, the atonement, and how to view Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. The differences between the Chicago School of Theology’s pragmatism, Boston University School of Theology’s personalist theology, and Union Theological Seminary’s practical, experiential teaching illustrated the remarkable variety in liberal theological training.
Highly publicized heresy trials proliferated in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, with prominent pastors and seminary professors charged with violating confessional standards. The most famous trial involved Charles A. Briggs of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In his inaugural address as professor of biblical theology, Briggs resolutely defended radical results of biblical criticism. He denied the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, vigorously attacked the low moral quality of Old Testament characters, and insisted on the existence of numerous biblical errors. He was defrocked for his views by the PCUSA in 1893.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the status of theology in America was anything but resolved. Instead, the rising tide of liberalism and resistance by evangelicals set the scene for major future confrontations in American denominationalism.