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The Origins of the Operative Theology of The United Church of Canada


published in Theological Digest & Outlook (Burlington, March 2000)

How Did We Get Here?


The Origins of the Operative Theology of The United Church of Canada


In 1990 Bishop Donald Bastian of the Free Methodist Church in Canada gave me a copy of Rev. Wayne Kleinsteuber’s book, published in 1984, More than a Memory: The Renewal of Methodism in Canada. In the course of reading the book with relish and profit I was startled to find myself quoted in the text. I had no recollection of saying what was imputed to me. When I checked the endnotes, however, and saw the reference to the CMHS meeting of 1978, I recognized immediately the context and content of my assertion.

In the “question and answer” period following my CMHS address in 1978 I had been asked, “Which has had the greater influence in the theological formation of The United Church of Canada: the Calvinist tradition or the Wesleyan?” And I had responded, without reflection or hesitation, “Neither. Schleiermacher, the German romantic liberal, has been the determining influence…..”

I was reading in 1990 a book published in 1984 that quoted my comment from 1978. In 1978 several developments that continue to haunt the United Church had not occurred: the publication of In God’s Image (1980), the distribution of Sexual Orientations, Lifestyles and Ministry (1988), the decisions of the General Council later in 1988, the adoption of Membership, Ministry and Human Sexuality (1990). These pronouncements and promulgations reflected the United Church’s theological understanding underlying its statements concerning sexual conduct deemed to conform to a profession of faith. The theology of John Wesley was evident in none of this. Apart from Wesley’s doctrinal standards (the Sermons, Articles of Religion, and Notes on the New Testament), one would need to read only the single largest tract Wesley penned, that concerning original sin, to see that a chasm loomed between his theological tenor and that of United Church documents and developments.

Once the denomination’s highest court had rendered the “sexual revolution” denominational policy, other theological pronouncements followed, all of which were similarly remote from anything Wesley would have owned. I speak now of Membership, Ministry and Human Sexuality (1988), The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture (1992) (where the most that could be said of Jesus is that he is “mentor and friend”), Mending the World (1997), Voices United: The Hymn and Worship Book of The United Church of Canada (1996), Renewed Understanding of Ecumenism (1995), and not least the response of the executive of General Council to Moderator Phipps’ interview with the Ottawa Citizen (1997). When Phipps publicly announced, defended, and was supported officially in a Christology that was manifestly non-apostolic, and when Phipps’ declaration and defense were located in a succession spanning the last two decades, it could only be concluded that liberal theology of the late 18th century and the entire 19th century had become the operative theology of the denomination.

I am not pretending that liberal theology is monochrome. Undeniably there are significant differences in the work of Ritschl, Harnack, and Troeltsch. None the less, in many respects they all stand on the shoulders of Schleiermacher. The lattermost thinker is the progenitor of the theological movement.

Can my thesis (that Schleiermacher is the inspiration of the operative theology of the United Church) be supported? The thesis can be tested only as Schleiermacher himself is examined.


Early in his adult life Schleiermacher (1768–1834) became aware of the contempt that cultured (but not necessarily snobbish) people poured on the contemporary articulations of the Christian faith. He insisted that these people were held off faith not because of the offense of the gospel but rather because of the offensiveness of its current, less-than-sophisticated expression. Knowing that these people were part of that world which “God so loves”, he maintained that the church, and especially its theological spokespersons, were to love them no less. To love them meant at least to take seriously the reason they found faith repugnant (S. said it was merely the crude way faith was voiced that these people found unacceptable), and to address their objections sincerely.

Moreover, S. knew that the Christian mission is never served by the church’s deliberately refusing to relate the gospel to human reflection at its profoundest and human achievement at its loftiest. Here he could only recall God’s word to Jeremiah millennia earlier, “Seek the welfare of the city [i.e., Babylon, the place of exile where Israel was thoroughly despised], for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7) The church is never to huddle inwardly in attempted self-survival; it must always face outwardly, forever wrestling with the connection between the substance of the gospel and the thought-forms of the culture. To fear for the gospel in its engagement with society is only to declare one’s lack of confidence in the gospel’s inherent integrity and vitality and militancy. In a word, not to adapt “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) to modernity is to render the church and its proclamation museum pieces that nostalgically recall a bygone era but lack all relevance to the world around us.

Schleiermacher was born in Breslau, Germany, where he was schooled at the hands of Moravian Pietists. S.’s philosophical brilliance, however, soon transgressed the intellectual boundaries of the Pietists, and he found himself studying modern philosophy and classical Greek at the University of Halle. Here he supported himself by tutoring aristocratic families who in turn exposed him to the higher reaches of German culture, his exposure issuing in his epoch-making Addresses on Religion to it Cultured Despisers. At the University of Berlin he taught several hours per week in every subject of the theology curriculum (apart from the Older Testament), published volume after volume, and never skimped on the preparation for his weekly sermon. He remained a much-loved pastor at the same time that his intellectual gifts found him appointed to the highest echelons of the Academy of Berlin. His misshapen body, ill health and near-chronic pain never found him bitter or resentful.

From 1880 to 1930 S. was studied more than any other theologian in Europe (Luther excepted.) His thinking dominated the church in the 19th century and continues to dominate most of it in the 20th.

Schleiermacher begins his theology by identifying the nature of religion. Religion isn’t morality. (People can be moral without being religious. Furthermore, the truly free person doesn’t submit to an external moral law.) Neither is religion the rational apprehension of doctrine. (People can finesse doctrine yet remain unacquainted with God.) Neither is religion philosophical insight. The seat of religion is neither the will (as with moralists) nor reason (as with philosophers) but feeling. The religious consciousness is the “feeling of absolute dependence.” Did S. mean “the feeling of absolute dependence upon the Absolute”? Alas, he never resolves the ambiguity that surrounds him here, often speaking of “God” and “nature” interchangeably. Pantheism (the notion that God is the essence of everything) or panentheism (the notion that the essence of everything includes God) haunts S.’s theology throughout. Since religion consists in the feeling of absolute dependence, doctrine is virtually insignificant. S. assigns no weight to any statement we formulate concerning God. We can merely represent God to ourselves pictorially, imagistically, as shepherd, king, father, etc., without every saying something true of God himself.

Not surprisingly, S. everywhere reinterprets Christian vocabulary, with the result that biblical distinctiveness is forfeited and the substance of the faith evaporates. While S. retains the word “redemption”, for instance, his doing so appears pointless (even misleading) when his understanding of “sin” bears virtually no resemblance to what prophets and apostles and the church have always understood.

In the same way all the major building blocks of the Christian faith are recast. Convinced that the particularity of Jesus’ Jewish background is simply something that the “universal” Jesus must repudiate (and no doubt aware too of virulent anti-Semitism in Berlin), S. denies that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. His denial of Jesus’ messiahship is matched by his silence concerning the Incarnation. Instead of the Incarnate “God-with-us”, Jesus happens to one who possesses intensified God-consciousness. To be sure, all humans possess it in some degree; Jesus, however, more than anyone else. Jesus’ mission is to stimulate our God-consciousness until it becomes the determining influence in our life. Whereas the apostles everywhere confess Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, and are careful to distinguish the Son as begotten from sons and daughters who are made such by faith, S. is content to speak of Jesus as quantitatively superior in terms of God-consciousness.

Insisting on the feeling of absolute dependence (God-consciousness) as the focus and origin of all theological expression, S. draws attention to the fact that no reflection upon religious awareness yields anything remotely resembling the church’s historic statements concerning the Trinity. The Trinity too is an instance of antiquated theological “baggage” that now understandably occasions the contempt of the cultured. Then the Trinity must be jettisoned. (Needless to say, as soon as S. forfeits the doctrine he forfeits what the doctrine always preserves; namely, the bedrock truth that what God is in himself eternally he is toward us, and what God is toward us he is in himself eternally.)

Since Incarnation is the presupposition of atonement, pivotal distortion in the former can be expected to garble the latter. S. omits any understanding of atonement as God’s making “at one” with himself those who are unable to “rightwise” their relationship with God. Reconciliation with God isn’t primarily wrought by God and owned by believers in faith. Rather, it’s something we effect as our God-consciousness frees us from self-rejection. Where scripture speaks of propitiation and expiation, the averting of God’s wrath and the sacrifice which effects this, S. says nothing. His silence here is one with his silence on other matters that loom so very large in the bible: the forgiveness of sins or justification. S. never acknowledges that sinful men and women are exposed to the judgement and condemnation of God.

In view of the fact that S. has set aside as non-essential all the historically-affirmed building blocks of the Christian faith (the election of Israel, the Incarnation of Israel’s greater Son, and the Incarnation’s raison d’etre, Christ’s atoning death — the cross being the one “word” that the apostles insist gathers up all that God as ever said or will ever say) we can only ask where S. appears to have set out on the wrong path. Most elementally he went wrong when he set aside the Older Testament. (Recall he taught every subject except the Older Testament.) This omission was his Achilles’ heel. When he denied that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel; when he denied that Jesus’ relationship to Israel’s scriptures differs in any way from Jesus’ relationship to pagan religion; when he insisted that Jesus even contradicts the Hebrew bible (since the Hebrew bible is essentially legalistic(!) while Jesus is not), modern theology was undone.

The Hebrew bible provides the unsubstitutable grammar and logic of faith in Jesus Christ. Whenever it is rejected the Newer Testament is invariably skewed to the point of being falsified. Whenever the Newer is read without the Older, the Newer becomes merely a collection of moralistic teachings (the teacher himself rendered superfluous as soon as his teachings are appropriated), or merely the depiction of a model to be imitated (imitation of the person now superseding the claim of his teachings), or merely a popularized, pictorialized illustration of existential philosophy.

S. enormously undervalues the significance of the sole physical description we have of Jesus: he was circumcized. For the apostles, plainly, it’s crucial for Christian faith that Jesus is a son of Israel. For S., however, the Jewish provenance of Jesus is an impediment to the faith of us Gentiles — and therefore must be erased. The resulting de-judaized Jesus isn’t the fulfillment of God’s centuries-long struggle with Israel. This “universal” figure is now “ideal manhood (sic) achieving itself under the conditions of history.” Religious reality isn’t the result of God’s incursion in Israel; instead it’s the product of human achievement, world history ultimately generating Jesus’ God-consciousness.

Everything in S.’s theology, every aberration in 20th century liberal theology, unravels from this point. According to scripture faith in God begins (and continues) with the fear of God — fear of the One who transcends his creation and is never to be identified with it, whether in whole or in part, or be viewed as an extension of it. S., however, illogically makes his understanding of the creation (specifically, of the contents of humankind’s consciousness) the “whence” and “whither” of his understanding of God. (Here he anticipates the “creation spirituality of the 1980s.) S.’s anthropology everywhere controls his understanding of God (so-called.) He could have avoided the disaster that overtook his theology (even as he never perceived it) if he had begun with theoanthropology, the Incarnation. If he’d begun with a full-orbed Christology he would have found himself emerging amidst the riches of the 16th Century Protestant Reformers, for whom theology ultimately is Christology — as it is in scripture. When he began, however, with anthropology alone (albeit anthropology of religion), he couldn’t avoid the abyss into which he fell, taking all of 19th and most of 20th Century Protestant theology with him. Man, even man at his noblest, is simply not the measure of God.

Victimized by his failure to grasp the Holy One of Israel’s uncompromised “Otherness”, S. appeared to confuse God with nature or at least with some aspect of nature. Not surprisingly, S. characteristically confused an experience of the admittedly awe-full, mysterious depths of the creation with an experience of the mystery of God. “God” was simply the exclamation of someone moved by the creation’s inherent beauty and depth. The confusion, while easy to make and easy to understand, wasn’t thereby rendered any less idolatrous.

S.’s misunderstanding with respect to the creature leads to his misunderstanding with respect to sin. For him sin appears to be the arrears or residue of biological primitivism. He maintains (correctly) that God ordains the conditions of human existence; he goes on to say (incorrectly) that sin arises from these conditions. Plainly he’s confused sin with creatureliness, depravity with finitude. To be sure, creatureliness is the human condition (we aren’t divine), but the human condition as created, not as fallen. Moreover, it’s human creatureliness that God fashions uniquely for dialogical partnership with him. (In scripture God clearly loves all his creatures but he speaks only to men and women. His speaking to us renders us “response-able” and therefore “response-ible.”) Sin doesn’t arise from this! S. fails to grasp the essence of sin. It’s not a carryover from biological primitivism; rather it’s disdainful, disobedient rebellion against and perverse defiance of the One to whom we owe everything. With sad but appropriate consistency S. never deploys the appropriate (biblical) categories for discussing the remedy for sin: reconciliation rooted in atonement and issuing in regeneration.

Displaying his era’s the immense confidence in the outcome of historical processes, S. regarded process as progress. And just as obviously the Hebrew mind doesn’t. S. denied that Jesus is the Son of God Incarnate according to the purpose and act of God, and affirmed instead that Jesus is someone whom history inexplicably spawned as extraordinarily God-conscious. His affirmation concerning historical processes contradicts the logic of scripture. Biblical thought, illuming this point through the Virgin Birth, insists that history cannot generate the redeemer of history. History’s redeemer must be given to it. History’s prideful insistence that it can redeem itself is reduced to absurdity by history’s oft-repeated horrors, as the genocides of our era alone attest.

Perhaps the nature of S.’s theology is most evident in his discussion of doctrine. He maintains that doctrine says nothing about God; doctrine merely reflects an aspect of human consciousness. For this reason he can say virtually nothing about truth. In scripture “truth” is used as a synonym for “reality”, and also as a predicate of statements that express this reality. Doctrine, then, is the articulation of the truth of God on the part of those who have been included, by God’s grace, in God’s self-knowing. Doctrine is the human expression of the truth of God vouchsafed to believers through God’s self-disclosure. Since it’s a human expression, any doctrinal expression is provisional; there’s no formulation concerning the being or activity of God that is beyond re-articulation. To say this, however, isn’t to say that all such formulation is dispensable with respect to the church’s life and mission. Neither is it to say that all such formulation is presumptuous. S. appears to have thought that either doctrinal statements are purely speculative (guesswork) or such statements presumptuously and prematurely (even preposterously) claim to comprehend God, humans taking it upon themselves to speak “the last word” about God. He appears not to have understood that doctrinal statements are the grace-wrought apprehension of God. Believers are admitted, by God’s grace, to a genuine knowledge of God without claiming an exhaustive knowledge of the One whose depths can never finally be plumbed. While it’s plain that knowledge of God born of an encounter with him can never be reduced to any statement about God, it’s also plain that the truth of God and faith in him can never be commended as true (i.e., real) apart from such statements. S.’s failure here meant he could never commend Jesus Christ as truth; S. could only attempt to foster the emergence of a God-consciousness that he assumed somehow to be contagious.

Yet even the crux of S.’s approach overlooked a simple point. Since nothing can be articulated of God himself, said S., and since what is commonly affirmed to be the Holy One of Israel is no more than religious primitivism that cultured people rightly despise, exactly who is the “God” of whom we are supposed to be conscious? of whom Jesus was conscious? It can’t be the God of whom the prophets spoke and whose Son the apostles recognize Jesus to be. Then “God-consciousness” is a vacuous term.

S.’s approach to doctrine (at best, undervaluation; at worst, out-and-out dismissal) continues to characterize much liberal theology, while the vacuity of his major item appears undetected.

S.’s attempt at “adapting” was commendable; his unwitting move from adapting to adopting, however, was fatal. For in adopting the assumptions of the world he de-natured the gospel, turning wine into water, when all the while water can be found everywhere and wine nowhere. Here the gospel was reduced to little more than a mirror reflecting the world’s self-understanding back to the world, even as the world’s aching spiritual need remains unaddressed because unnoticed. In moving from a commendable “adapt” to a fatal “adopt”, S. ultimately confused the offensiveness of a less-than-cultured expression of the Christian faith with the irremovable offense of the gospel itself. S. assumed the truth of the world’s postulates. Liberalism always does. These postulates are (a) the world has an accurate and adequate understanding of its own condition, (b) this condition, while perhaps needing adjustment or even correction here and there, isn’t grievous, let alone both grievous and blind, (c) if the gospel is to be heard, the church must fit its proclamation to the world’s self-understanding.

Surely the horrors of our century alone have exposed the liberal theology of the last two centuries to be intellectually shallow and substantively dilute. Then why does it continue? Why is some variant of it still the dominant theological ethos of mainline North American churches and seminaries? The reason is, liberal theology doesn’t challenge the assumption that the world has access to the ultimate truth about itself. It doesn’t question the facile confidence that the eyes through which the world sees itself have no need of corrective lenses. It doesn’t show that the presuppositions of the world contradict those of the kingdom of God. It doesn’t highlight the truth that morality and religiosity (and much “spirituality” today) are neither the same as the kingdom and therefore the solution to the world’s ills, nor even the vestibule to the kingdom. Rather they are monuments to humankind’s defiance of God and barricades behind which it attempts to hide from God. It leaves unchallenged the biblical conviction that the worst consequence of sinnership is blindness to one’s sinnership, and in the wake of such ignorance of one’s sinnership, further immersion in it.

The most chilling aspect of S.’s theology, and that of the theology of his offspring, is this: S.’s God doesn’t so transcend the world as to be able to visit it with mercy. Chilling or not, this aspect of his theology only magnifies the tenacity of those for whose theology mercy would be but an alien category. Liberal theology dominates the ecclesiastical landscape in that the majority of humankind, including the church, remains unaware that in light of the undeflectable judgement of God mercy is the one thing needful and humankind’s only hope.

Victor Shepherd