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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

The Copernican Revolution of Theology

The present essay will focus on the task of theology, specifically changes in defining theology through the methods of Kant, Schleiermacher, and Bultmann. In the lecture, “Introduction to Schleiermacher and Ritschl”, Prof. Doornbas stated that before this period, theology had been the study of God. With these figures, the focus of theology changed from God to a study of humanity’s experience of God and the human community’s exercise of faith in history.

A “Copernican revolution” in human thought was initiated by Kant. Before Kant, the mind was the subject of philosophy, seeking to understand the object of study outside of the mind. The subject must change to conform to the external object in order to understand it. Kant reversed the order. The mind is not the subject of study but is the object. The mind creates meaning out of what it is trying to understand. By being studied, the external objects are changed to conform to the mind [1].

In Kant’s thought, the notion of a supreme being comes from the human mind’s attempt to understand the way the mutually dependent elements of the world form a unity. In forming a unity, the mind wants to envision a maximum by which it can evaluate all other things. For example, to say that human virtue is imperfect, there must be a “highest degree of virtue” by which to compare it. Such a maximum is identified as God [2]. In this process, Kant has not assumed God as a subject to be known, capable of being proven, as in Descartes, or an object of faith capable of being understood, as in St. Anselm of Canterbury and St. Thomas Aquinas. Knowledge of God arises from the mind’s attempts to create meaning out of the sensible world.

With Kant, philosophy shifts from discerning meaning in the external world to the mind’s attempts to create meaning out of the external world. His Copernican shift changes his own theological process. With Schleiermacher, the shift dramatically changes the task of theology for all who follow. Schleiermacher was heavily influenced by 19th-century Romanticism, which rejected Enlightenment rationalism, but instead thought human life included intuition and imagination, elements which cannot be captured by rationalism. While Kant focused on the human mind as the object of philosophy, Romanticism focused on human emotions and experience [3].

Schleiermacher took up the Romantic emphasis on human experience and identified religion as being “essentially feeling”. Feeling is “the impact of the universe upon us” and begins with an “immediate self-consciousness” [4]. Doctrine arises from reflection on human emotions and cannot be taught. It requires individuals to reflect on their own experiences [5].

He applied his method to the doctrine of the Trinity and, in so doing, dramatically redefined it. He posited that humans could never intuit a division in God, such as the classical doctrine asserts [6]. To do so is to engage in mere speculation [7]. He preferred Sabellianism, viewing the three persons as showing a history of God’s unions with humanity [8]. To Schleiermacher, this made more intuitive sense. In this example, Schleiermacher demonstrated that the task of theology is not a thoughtful reflection on the revelation of Scripture and the traditions of the Church, but is a reflection on how humans experience God. If humans do not experience a division in God, then the three persons of the Trinity must highlight different aspects of human experiences with God.

With Bultmann, the focus on human experience is applied to the practice of biblical interpretation. By the time of Bultmann, the dominant philosophical movement was existentialism. Existentialism began with the fact that human beings exist and then moved to define being. Being was defined by a sense of “being there”, placed in a particular situation and time, shaped by the past and oriented towards the future. Each person is defined by the choice to live authentically, recognizing the reality that one day he or she will no longer exist [9].

Bultmann applied these categories to interpreting the New Testament. He rejected any mythological portrayal of Christ’s death to atone for sin [10]. He also rejected the historicity of the resurrection [11]. The message of Scripture was not found in its historicity, nor was it found in its worldview. The task of Scripture is to “question us” and give us an opportunity to understand ourselves as those who have died to our selfishness and risen with Christ to live authentic lives [12]. Scripture is not the object of study; human individuals are the object of Scripture’s message. With Bultmann, the Copernican revolution of Kant comes all the way to Scripture, making human beings the focus of study rather than God’s objective self-revelation.

[1] Allen, Diogenes, and Eric O. Springsted. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Second ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, p. 159; Gayle Doornbas, “Introduction to Modern Philosophy and Theology”.

[2] Kant, Immanuel. Lectures in Philosophical Theology. Translated by Allen Wood and Gertrude M. Clarke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978, p. 22

[3] Doornbas, Gayle. “Introduction to Schleiermacher and Ritschl”.

[4] Livingston, James C. Modern Christian Thought. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006, p. 96.

[5] Livingston, p. 97.

[6] Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Christian Faith. Translated by H. R. Mackintosh and James S. Stewart. Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 1948, p. 739.

[7] Schleiermacher, p. 748.

[8] Schleiermacher, p. 750. Doornbas, “Introduction to Schleiermacher and Ritschl”.

[9] Doornbas, Gayle. “Introduction to Existentialism and Phenomenology”.

[10] Bultmann, Rudolf. Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate. Edited by Hans Werner Bartsch. London, UK: S.P.C.K., 1972, p. 35.

[11] Bultmann, p. 38.

[12] Bultmann, pp. 41-42.

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