The Eternal Covenant

Schleiermacher on God and Natural Science

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Daniel James Pedersen
Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann
  • Berlin, Germany: 
    De Gruyter
    , August
     199 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


One of the seemingly perennial debates that rages unceasingly is the relationship—or lack thereof—between (Christian) theology and the natural sciences. This debate, however, is not new, as evidenced in this monograph on the 19th-century Prussian Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). In The Eternal Covenant, Daniel James Pedersen takes up the task of arguing for the validity and coherency of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of the “eternal covenant” between Christian faith and the natural sciences as chiefly—but not solely—argued for in his monumental dogmatics, The Christian Faith. Pedersen argues that the alternative to so much debate over the God-world relation is to reclaim Schleiermacher’s paradigm of the knowledge of God and the world as a unified knowledge in which there is no competition between theology and the natural sciences; rather, these disciplines mutually reinforce one another into an holistic knowledge of God and the world.

This work is divided into seven chapters, with chapter 1 being the introduction. Pedersen begins with his discussion of Schleiermacher’s Letters to Lücke wherein he first coins the phrase “eternal covenant” between Christian faith and the natural sciences. Pedersen concludes the first chapter by looking at how the “eternal covenant” functions in The Christian Faith thereby setting the stage for the book’s subsequent chapters.

In chapter 2, Pedersen surveys the scientific worldview of Schleiermacher’s day by looking at how theologians and natural scientists possessed many shared convictions, particularly regarding the age of the cosmos and its lengthy development. Pedersen contends that Schleiermacher was congenial to the scientific findings of his day and even held to proto-evolutionary ideas through the influence of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

Chapter 3 turns to the philosophical influences on Schleiermacher’s theology of the “eternal covenant” as seen in the philosophy of G.W. Leibniz. Pedersen dissects the Leibniz-Clarke debate over the cosmos being a wisely ordered creation that is the best of all possible worlds. From Leibniz, Pedersen sees Scheliermacher adopt his goal-oriented understanding of creation because God, as the ultimate cause of creation, brought creation into being for an intended goal—that is, union with the divine.

In chapter 4, Pedersen discusses Schleiermacher’s doctrine of the “Nature System” (Naturzusammenhang) and how this doctrine determines that, for Schleiermacher, there are no absolute miracles because God only works through secondary agents/causes.

Chapter 5 sees Pedersen explicate how the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza influences Schleiermacher’s doctrine of the “eternal covenant.” Pedersen argues that Schleiermacher adopts Spinoza’s argument for the absolute necessity of the world (rather than Leibniz’s view on the hypothetical necessity) and how this necessity rules out all absolute miracles in the “Nature System.” Where Schleiermacher diverges from Spinoza and remains with Leibniz is with the goal-oriented nature of the cosmos. Thus, Schleiermacher synthesizes Leibniz’s cosmological teleology with Spinoza’s absolute cosmological necessity.

Chapter 6 draws upon this Leibniz-Spinoza synthesis and Pedersen contends that Schleiermacher develops a doctrine of the world as the absolute revelation of God, which includes Jesus Christ as its pinnacle. Employing the metaphor of the artisan and their artwork, Pedersen demonstrates how Schleiermacher’s “Nature System,” as a creation of the almighty, wise, and loving God, is the cumulatively absolute revelation of this one God. Pedersen then shows how Schleiermacher handles the issue of theodicy as a necessary aspect of the “Nature System” for the goal of creation as union with God.

Chapter 7 concludes the book with a discussion on how ethics and natural philosophy (i.e., natural science) are essentially identical for Schleiermacher. The reason Pederson discusses this essential identity is because Schleiermacher believes in the unity of knowledge, regardless of the discipline that discovers it; thus, all knowledge is unified even if it stems from such diverse disciplines as theology and the natural sciences. Because one cannot absolutely divide the disciplines, the “Eternal Covenant” between theology and science cannot be broken but must be acknowledged and employed whether one engages in theology and/or the natural sciences.

In a time when various “camps” have been built around the polarizing positions of segregation or accommodation relative to the relationship between theology and the natural sciences, this monograph is a helpful and timely reminder that sometimes it is beneficial to reach into the not-too-distant past to retrieve an unsuspecting voice to help us through this apparent aporia and false dilemma. Pedersen provides the Christian and even secular academies with an erudite argument for why the disciplines of theology and the natural sciences must not be afraid of one another; rather, they necessitate one another to comprehend themselves and the other as seen in Schleiermacher’s doctrine of the “Eternal Covenant.”

Although this is a short book, it is a tightly wound and densely argued work that can be quite demanding on the reader. Pedersen draws upon the philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz all the while assuming the reader’s familiarity with their ideas. Moreover, Pedersen assumes the reader has a minimal understanding of Schleiermacher’s theology, thus the reader should acquaint themselves with his theology before reading this book.

It is no surprise then, that this is a book written by a first-rate scholar for scholars and will reward those who take their time in reading it and ruminating on the arguments therein. Pedersen does well to engage with Schleiermacher’s early and mature literature to show continuity of thought and how the genetics of that thought were generally and positively influenced by Spinoza and Leibniz while also in negative reaction to Kant’s critical philosophy.

Where I am slightly critical of Pedersen’s overall project is that he spends too much time on the Rationalist side of Schleiermacher’s theology of the “Eternal Covenant” and not enough on the Romanticist side of his thought. Because Schleiermacher’s theology is generally understood to be a brilliant blend of Enlightenment Rationalism and Romanticism, I would have liked to see how the influences of Romanticism also shaped and moulded his understanding of the “Eternal Covenant” between theology and the natural sciences. Ultimately, however, this is an important scholarly work on the science-and-religion debate in general and the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher in particular.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is Adjunct Professor of Theology at Carey Theological College


Date of Review: 
September 8, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel J. Pedersen is Professor of Religion & Theology at the University of Exeter.


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