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Daniel Schenkel: Excerpts from The German Protestant Association (1868)

The Professor of Theology Daniel Schenkel (1813-1885) of the University of Heidelberg was a leading proponent of liberal Protestantism and co-founder of the German Protestant Association (1865). Excerpts from his pamphlet on the association reflect his distinction between church and religion, and his emphasis on individual, non-institutional spirituality. The excerpts outline liberal Protestants' efforts to reconcile the hostile extremes of rationalist humanism and religious revivalism as they aimed for "the renewal of the Protestant Church 'in harmony with the entire cultural development of our times.'"

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I. The birth of the German Protestant Association

It is a peculiar phenomenon of our time that the church has lost the better part of the influence it used to exert on people and nations in other times. Some rejoice over this fact: they see in it a victory for freedom of the spirit. Others lament it: they perceive it as a sign of religious and moral dissipation. We, on the other hand, will seek to explain it. Religion is undoubtedly the mightiest spiritual force in man: it lifts him above the merely sensory existence; it gives him the awareness of being the citizen of a higher, eternal order of things. If human beings are religious, it is befitting of human nature; if they do not care about religious matters, it is improper. Religion, however, has always given itself a specific external form in a cult or the church, and in this circumstance lies the key to the peculiar phenomenon that human beings at times seem to lose religion, that they appear to have no more heart for religious matters, and that, as is presently the case, a large – namely the more educated – part of the nation no longer shows a lively interest in the church and its fate. Obviously, what is happening here is a confusion of concepts.

The human heart can never become indifferent toward religion itself; it is inextricably interwoven with the Eternal, and if it wished to abandon God, God would nevertheless not abandon it. It is different when it comes to the church. In many cases it is a very faulty manifestation of religion, and it can even reach the point where it is an obstacle to religion and a significant disadvantage for religious life. As evidence for this we shall invoke the Reformation. The Roman Church had tied off the life arteries of religion during the Middle Ages; it had become an entirely worldly sacerdotal state. It had suffocated consciences, paralyzed free minds, unleashed all evil passions in its own midst. If the German nation turned away from the Church and embraced the reform with enthusiasm, this was by no means an apostasy from religion, but a return to the sources of true piety. It is possible, as this example teaches us, to turn one’s back on the church, on its teachings, services, and institutions, precisely for reasons of religion.

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