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Christine Helmer

Christine Helmer

Christine Helmer is Professor of Religious Studies and German at Northwestern University. Her area of research and teaching specialization is Christian theology from historical and constructive perspectives. Her work is focused on German intellectual history with primary interest in the theology of Martin Luther, the philosophy and theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the early twentieth-century Lutherrenaissance. She is the author of many articles as well as contributing editor (and co-editor) of numerous volumes in biblical theology, philosophy of religion, Schleiermacher studies, and Luther studies, including most recently The Global Luther (Fortress Press 2009), Transformations in Luther’s Theology (EVA-Leipzig 2011), and forthcoming in 2014, Lutherrenaissance: Past and Present (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht). She is the main editor of the Christianity section for the Encyclopedia of Bible and its Reception (de Gruyter). Her monographs are: The Trinity and Martin Luther (Zabern 1999) and Theology and the End of Doctrine (Westminster John Knox Press, forthcoming in August 2014). Her research has been supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Humboldt Foundation. During 2012-2013 she was the Marie Curie EURIAS (European Institutes of Advanced Study) Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium of Advanced Studies in Helsinki, Finland. Her current book project explores the epistemological, hermeneutical, and ethical dimensions of humility in Schleiermacher’s thought in order to work out a constructive theological theory of doctrinal truth.



Photo credit: Veikko Somerpuro
Schleiermacher's Thought in Motion: Epistemic Humility and the Truth of Doctrine

When knowledge is regarded as a quest, and its pursuit contextualized in an intersubjective milieu, then humility becomes an important concept and human disposition, even in the theological practice of articulating doctrine. This study considers the topic of knowledge, specifically the production of doctrine as theological knowledge, as it is informed and shaped by epistemological humility. The project uses the early nineteenth-century German theologian Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) as an important resource in identifying the aspects of human thinking in an intersubjective milieu that are integrated in the quest for truth and knowledge. Schleiermacher is known as the father of modern theology, a designation that also implies his construction of a theory of knowledge that became the blueprint for the University of Berlin in 1809. His theory of the production of knowledge is characteristically modern; human thought is always in motion, oriented to truth, but never attaining it. In motion, thinking is an intellectual practice that also involves the interpersonal skills of gauging emotions, interpreting the speech and writing of others correctly, articulating claims for others to understand and discuss, and addressing disagreement. I apply Schleiermacher’s ideas on thinking, intersubjectivity, and ethical obligations vis-a-vis both subject matter and commitment to a common research task to the construction of a theory of doctrinal production that is informed by humility. My question has specifically to do with how the liberal elements that are said to relativize doctrinal truth-history, personal and interpersonal limitations, consensus in a particular community, and a divine subject that eludes comprehension by rational concepts can be reconceptualized in terms of humility, thereby proposing an honest understanding of doctrinal truth. I work out the different nuances of humility that are related to different aspects of thought in motion, namely epistemological humility, intersubjective humility, and ethical humility, and then integrate them into a constructive proposal regarding the production of doctrine. Thus my aim is to show how doctrinal articulation too is in motion, thereby calling into question assertions about doctrine’s normativity. This model of doctrine conceived along Schleiermacherian lines of openness to knowledge as well as the cultivation of intellectual and interpersonal practices may also be seen as theology’s contribution to the study of religion and the wider academic community.