Practical Theology before Schleiermacher? (1)

schleiermacherPractical Theology is commonly regarded as a relatively young branch at the tree of theological disciplines. There is of course a long tradition in which theology is understood as ‘scientia practica’ (Duns Scotus, Ockham, Luther). But as an academic discipline Practical or Pastoral Theology was recognised only in 1774 (Vienna), followed by Tübingen in 1794. The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is held to be one of the founding fathers of Practical Theology, at least in its contemporary form. In 1850 a collection of his lectures was published by Jacob Frerichs under the title: Die praktische Theologie nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche im Zusammenhang dargestellt (hereafter refered to as: Practical Theology).  In the (lengthy) introduction he writes:

“Praktisch ist allerdings genau nicht ganz richtig, denn praktische Theologie is nicht die Praxis, sondern die Theorie des Praxis“ (p.12).

In (my own) translation: “The expression ‘practical’ isn’t quite right, for Practical Theology is not the praxis, but the theory of the praxis.” This is no surprise, of course. But it isn’t very innovative too, it seems.

Take for example the Dutch scholastic theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676). He wrote Ta Askètika sive Exercitia Pietatis (The practise of Godliness) (1664). This book contains an extensive analysis of the praxis of faith in all its variety. A theory of the praxis also.

So, what then are the reasons that works of Voetius and others in which they analyse all kinds of practices of faith aren’t considered as genuine Practical Theology? Or, put otherwise, in what regard is the work of Schleiermacher cum suis innovative in comparison with his predecessors?

(1) In the first place,  it is claimed that Schleiermacher has been the first who broadens the domain of Practical Theology to religion as a whole, instead of the church.

(2) In the second place, it is said that Schleiermacher, unlike his predecessors, has been the first theologian who really thinks out the starting proces of individualization.

As the Dutch Practical Theologian Gerben Heitink points out, in this way Practical Theology is itself an answer to the challenge of the Enligthenment. The implicit message is of course that the old (pre-Enlightenment) answers of Voetius and his friends were out of date. However, is that true?

In his Practical Theology Schleiermacher writes about the task of the discipline. He distinguishes between ‘das Ganze’ (the whole) and ‘der Theil’ (the part). Practical Theology is concerned with both: with the church as an organic whole (‘Kirchenregiment’), and with the local (‘Kirchendienst’) About the former, the  leadership of the church (‘Kirchenregiment’) he writes:

“Die wesentliche Function des Kirchenregiments hat es nur auf eine untergeordnete Weise mti den einzelnen zu thun, so nur daß dem einzelnen seine Function angewiesen werde. Die Hauptsache ist die, daß die Gestaltung des gemeinschaftlichen Lebens eine solche sei wodurch die Erhaltung des christlichen Lebens gesichert werde.” (p.63).

In (my own) translation: “The essential function of the leadership of the church has only in secondary way to do with the individual, in the sense that the individual’s function is shown. The main point is that the shaping of the communal life will be such, that by it the christian life is preserved and secured.”. So Schleiermacher considers Practical Theology (not so much as the science but) as the art of shaping the communal life in orde to preserve the christian life. In the light of this, it seems to be exaggerated to see him as the father of individualization as a fundamental concept in Practical Theology.

But what about religion? For Schleiermacher, Christianity (at its best) is the ultimate form of religion (‘Die Religion der Religionen’, p.190), as he states it in Über die Religion (1799; ausgabe Dilthey 1906).

“Das Christentum über sie alle erhaben, und historischer und demütiger in seiner Herrlichkeit…” (p.189).

“Christianity (is) elevated above all of them (s.c. other religions), both more historical and more humble in its glory…”. It is true, that Schleiermacher has an eye for the diversity and the development of religions, more than predecessors like Voetius. But the importance is not, in my point of view, that he broadens the object of Practical Theology to religion instead of christianity. The point is something else. In a next post I will explain why…


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