Schleiermacher on Justification: A Departure from the Reformation?

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In his 1923–4 lectures on the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth offered a strikingly negative verdict on Schleiermacher's doctrine of justification, lamenting that it was radically discontinuous with the theology of the Reformation. The core purpose of this article is to assess this verdict in detail. The introduction presents in outline Barth's criticism of Schleiermacher's doctrine of justification from these lectures. The first section of the article provides a summary of the doctrine of justification as it is found in Schleiermacher's mature work, The Christian Faith, together with a brief consideration of the related doctrines of conversion and sanctification, and an exposition of the dogmatic location and inter-relation of the three loci. In the second section, the article proceeds to investigate closely whether three of the central criticisms of Barth pertaining to Schleiermacher's doctrine of justification reflect an accurate reading and adjudication of the underlying material. The criticisms explored are: that for Schleiermacher there is no justification as a free act of God but only a justification which takes place according to the law of nature; that in the event of justification Schleiermacher considers both God and the human being to be active; and that the doctrine of Schleiermacher repeats the heresy of essential righteousness after the fashion of Andreas Osiander. The common theme underlying each charge is that Schleiermacher has departed significantly (and lamentably) from the tradition of the Reformation. The third section of the article proceeds to explore these charges carefully in light of a close reading of Schleiermacher's dogmatic work on justification and related doctrines. In the case of each of the criticisms directed at his doctrine of justification, it is argued that there are strong grounds for asserting that Barth's concerns may be rather misplaced and that – true to his word – Schleiermacher indeed remains in broad dogmatic continuity with the Reformation tradition. In the conclusion, two further theological possibilities are noted. First, it is suggested that, far from leaving the Reformation tradition behind, Schleiermacher's work on justification resonates strongly with one particular reading of Calvin's work which has much currency in contemporary theology. And second, it is suggested that, far from Schleiermacher being the one to depart from the Reformation tradition on justification, it might actually – ironically – be Barth who is more guilty of that charge in view of his own doctrine of justification in the Church Dogmatics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-73
Number of pages24
JournalScottish Journal of Theology
Issue number1
Early online date15 Jan 2013
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2013


  • Barth
  • conversion
  • justification
  • Reformation
  • sanctification
  • Schleiermacher


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