Yesterday we focused on the impact of the radical immanentism of G.W.F. Hegel in the nineteenth century. Hegel’s theories, however, were not universally embraced. Schools like Princeton Theological Seminary, for example, held fast to Christian orthodoxy in the 1800s. Others attempted to hold to the uniqueness of Christ and yet were unable to totally break away from an immanentistic bent in their theology. The most influential of these men was Friedrich Schleiermacher.
Schleiermacher maintained that there was a divine element in all men, which illustrates his affinities with immanentism. Yet unlike Hegel, Schleiermacher maintained that Jesus was different from other men in that He represents the supreme perfection of the divine element in humanity. This is particularly evident in Christ’s “God-consciousness”: Jesus was acutely aware of His “absolute dependence” on His Father and thus He was rendered sinless.
Of course, it is true that we are all absolutely dependent on God, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But Schleiermacher did not emphasize this absolute dependence in any objective kind of way. Rather, he subjectivized the Christian faith, saying that the essence of religion is the feeling of “absolute dependence.” Jesus really “felt” His dependence upon the Father and that made Him the perfect man, the authentically religious man. Combined with his unbiblical view of immanence, Schleiermacher’s view of religion shaped the theological liberalism that came to the fore in the second half of the nineteenth century. Soon Jesus became the great teacher and model for what it means to be dependent upon God — whether or not He was God Himself. To be sure, Jesus is the supreme teacher and model, but this is not the whole story. He is also God incarnate who reconciles repentant sinners to the Almighty through bearing the Father’s wrath on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21).
Biblical Christianity is not pure subjectivism. There is an objective content — Christ’s life, death, and resurrection — that undergirds our faith. Without this content there is no way to know if we are depending upon the right God.
Hegel, himself no friend of biblical Christianity, criticized Schleiermacher, saying that if the essence of religion was the feeling of absolute dependence, then the dog, being absolutely dependent upon people, is the most divine creature of all. Many people feel dependent on their spouses, their jobs, or the teaching of other religions, but this does not make them truly pious. Only those dependent upon the biblical Jesus, who is fully God and fully man, will ever find salvation (John 14:6).
For further study:
The Bible in a year: