Practical Theology before Schleiermacher? (2)

What is innovative in Schleiermacher’s theological approach? In the previous post I argued that it is not the change of focus in his Practical Theology from christianity to religion. To clarify this point we may briefly turn our attention to the before mentioned Voetius. VoetiusVoetius was professor of theology in Utrecht, in the mid 17th century. I mentioned already Ta Asketika sive Exercitia Pietatis. In this voluminous book he analyses the praxis of the faithful christian life. It contains topics like ‘prayer’, ‘devotion’, ‘meditation’, temptations’, but also ‘the exercise of delivering a sermon’, ‘the praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper’, ‘pastoral visiting’, etcetera.

Notice that Voetius has a keen eye for both the individual experience and the ecclesiastical practices. It is tempting to see a parallel here between Schleiermacher’s Kirchenregiment and Kirchendienst, although there are differences as well, of course . In my point of view the difference between Schleiermacher en his predecessors is not the object of Practical Theology. Both analyse the individual and ecclesiastical practices of faith. The difference is to be sought instead in their methodology.  Voetius was a scholastic theologian. The scholastic vocabulary had been in use at that moment for centuries, starting with Anselm and others in the 11th century. Its logic and distinctions were seen as a common scientific language, a requisite for meaningful communication and discussion. However, under influence of Enlightenment philosophy, scholasticism became out of date as a unifying scientific language.

Schleiermacher, being a representative of the Enlightenment, uses a diffent kind of language, less analytical, more hermeneutical. That is in my point of view the new element in the (Practical) theology of Schleiermacher and his contemporaries. In other words, in Schleiermacher’s account of the discipline, Practical Theology becomes an interpreting art, instead of an analytical science. The reason for this change is – at least – twofold. In the era of Schleiermacher historical awareness is emerging. Of course, there has always been a notion of past, present and future. But ideas and theories in philosophy and theology had always been interpreted ‘theoretically’ instead of ‘historically’. Real scientific historical investigation arises in the 18th century and Schleiermacher incorporates it in his theology. A new vocabulary emerges with words like ‘Impuls’ (impulse), ‘Fortschritt (progression), ‘Entwicklung’ (development).

In this light Schleiermacher defines the task for Practical Theology as an interpretive art. That is what the church and the religious men and women really need: a discipline that is able to interpret the changing times and to point in the right direction. Vital competences are therefore hermeneutical and communicative ability. This has been the leading thought in Practical Theology ever since, at least in Europe. Wilhelm Gräb for example, a remote successor of Schleiermacher,  defines Practical Theology as ‘Religionshermeneutik’ (in his book Lebensgeschichten – Lebensentwürfe – Sinndeutungen [1998]).

This new approach of Schleiermacher has certainly its merits. It has drawn our attention to the dynamics and processes in religion and to the intertwining of social and ecclesial processes. However, there is – in my point of view – also a negative side in the developments inaugurated by Schleiermacher. A few remarks by way of closing.

‘Religion’ tends to become a more fundamental concept then ‘faith’. In his On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers the concept of religion underpins the particularity of christianity. That has been the trend ever since in Practical Theology (again: at least in Europe). Practical Theology is generally defined in terms of its hermeneutical relation to religion. And it is precisely because of this fact that Schleiermacher is considered as (one of) the founding father(s) of Practical Theology. However, in this way the pre-Schleiermacherian concept of Practical Theology (‘analyzing the praxis of faith’) has been lost. And that’s is indeed a loss in my opinion.

There is another indication for this developement. Schleiermacher is critical in the introduction of his Practical Theology of the concept ‘Empirie’ (the empirical), in favour of ‘Theorie’ (the theoretical) (p.11). That has been also the trend in Practical Theology. It has taken a lot of time to turn the discipline to empirical inquiry of religious practices instead of theoretical reflection on religion in all its varieties. Scholastic theology hasn’t been empirically orientated as well, of course. However, taking Voetius’ thoughts once again as an example, it seems to me that his descriptions of the praxis of faith in all its variety are based upon shared experience of himself and others. So, Practical Theology before Schleiermacher is certainly different from Practical Theology after Schleiermacher. However, the pre-Schleiermacherian Practical Theology has its own merits, chiefly its penetrating and strictly methodological analysis of the praxis of faith. Contemporary Practical Theology has to do the same task with new tools, for example with qualitative research methods. Only focusing on theories of religion will not do. We need to be empirical as well. And we need to do that in an analytical way. That’s what we can learn of Voetius and his contemporaries.


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…