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 However, under influence of Enlightenment philosophy, scholasticism became out of date as a unifying scientific language.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.