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Ritschl, Albrecht


RITSCHL, ALBRECHT (18221889) was a German Protestant theologian. Born in Berlin, the son of a pastor and bishop of the Evangelical church, he was reared in Stettin (present-day Szczecin, Poland), in the Prussian province of Pomerania. From 1839 to 1846 he studied at the universities of Bonn, Halle (Ph. D., 1843), Heidelberg, and Tübingen (where he learned the church historian's craft from Ferdinand Christian Baur). From 1846 to 1864 he taught at Bonn, and from 1864 until his death he was professor of dogmatics (systematic theology) at Göttingen.

Ritschl's teaching and writing at first concentrated on the New Testament and early church history. The views of Baur and his "Tübingen school"which regarded late second-century Christianity ("old Catholicism") as the outcome and reconciliation of struggles between Jewish Christians ("Petrinists") and gentile Christians ("Paulinists")informed Ritschl's first two books: Das Evangelium Marcions und das kanonische Evangelium des Lukas (The Gospel of Marcion and the Canonical Gospel of Luke; 1846) and Die Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche (The Rise of the Old Catholic Church; 1851). The second edition of the latter book (1857) marked a dramatic personal and academic break with Baur, whose "conflict model" of early church history Ritschl now repudiated as too speculative or "Hegelian." He insisted, rather, that all the apostles proclaimed a fundamentally similar message, interpreting the ministry of Jesus in the light of its Old Testament presuppositions; that the differences between Jewish and gentile Christians were relative, not substantive, with only a few groups of Judaistic Christians opposing Paul; and that early Catholicism, far from being a Jewish-gentile "synthesis," was wholly a gentile phenomenon, the result of a gradual "de-judaization" of Christianity.

During the 1850s Ritschl's interests turned increasingly to dogmatic theology. While at Göttingen he published two monumental works, each occupying three volumes: Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung (The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation; 18701874) and Geschichte des Pietismus (History of Pietism; 18801886). These works, in tandem with numerous essays and several short monographsnotably Unterricht in der christlichen Religion (Instruction in the Christian Religion; 1875)established Ritschl's international reputation as the foremost Protestant systematic theologian of his time. His disciples occupied the leading chairs in theology at the German universities well into the twentieth century. The most prominent Ritschlians were Adolf von Harnack, Wilhelm Herrmann, and (at an early stage of his career) Ernst Troeltsch.

Ritschl's paramount aim during his Göttingen years was to fashion a comprehensive interpretation of the Christian religion based on the doctrine of justification and reconciliation, as set forth by the New Testament (chiefly the letters of Paul) and by the Protestant reformers (chiefly Martin Luther in his writings of 15151520). In Ritschl's judgment, however, the reformers, while recovering essential components of New Testament Christianity and turning them to church-reforming effect, had failed to order their religious insights in a holistic theological system. They had neglected, not least, to correlate their fundamental teaching on justification by faith alone with the biblical teaching on the kingdom of God. Thus they left the impression that Christianity is primarily a religion of personal redemption from sin, and not equally one of corporate ethical activity directed to the moral reconstruction of society. Viewed in respect of its formal theological productions, therefore, the Protestant Reformation was unfinished.

Ritschl contended, moreover, that post-Reformation Protestantism had continued and heightened the "theological atrophy" of the Reformation era, leading to serious "deformations" of authentic biblical-Reformation Christianityas evidenced, for example, in the intellectualism (neoscholasticism) of Protestant orthodoxy, in the emergence within the Lutheran and Reformed churches of a "half-Catholic" mysticism, in the sectarianism and "otherworldliness" of Pietism, in the rationalism ("natural religion") and eudaemonism ("self-justification") of Enlightenment theology, and in the flight from the historical Christian revelation in Hegelian speculation. To be sure, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher had given significant impulses for the reconstruction of Protestant theology on the basis of Reformation religion, but their gains had soon been surrendered by their epigones.

Ritschl took it as his own vocational task, therefore, to effect a true reformation of Protestant theology by recovering the reformers' religious root ideas through critical-historical scholarship and by articulating these ideas, with the aid of constructs supplied by Kant and Schleiermacher, in a "homogeneous" theological system. Thereby, he believed, the unfinished Reformation would be brought to theological completion; classical Protestant Christianity would be vindicated before its cultured despisers and its newly resurgent Roman Catholic foes; and the Reformation's epoch-making significance, including its immediate relevance for the modern world, would be displayed, all with the result that a debilitated Protestantism would at last be purged of "alien growths" and so would attain "maturity."

The main themes of Ritschl's doctrinal system are presented in the third volume of Justification and Reconciliation. God, for the sake of Christ, freely pardons sinful humanity ("justification"), thereby overcoming the sinner's fear, mistrust, alienation, and enervating consciousness of guilt, and thus making possible the individual's entrance into a new, confident relationship to God as Father ("reconciliation"). This relationship is verified, first, in the religious virtues of trust in God's providential guidance of the world, patience, humility, and prayer (whereby the believer attains "spiritual lordship over the world" and the vindication of the unique worth of spirit, or the "order of persons," vis-à-vis nature, or the "order of things"); and, second, in the moral virtues of fidelity in one's secular vocation and active love for the neighbor (whereby the kingdom of God, or "moral society of nations," is ultimately to be realized). Ritschl claimed that this doctrine was faithful to the biblical-Reformation heritage because it centered entirely on God's self-revelation as loving Father in Jesus Christ ("history")a revelation mediated to individuals solely by and within the community of believers ("church"), and appropriated solely through lively personal trust ("faith"). This doctrine, therefore, entailed the explicit repudiation of all "disinterested" knowledge of God, metaphysical speculation, "natural theology," ahistorical mysticism, monastic-ascetic piety ("flight from the world"), ethical quietism, and unchurchly individualism.

From about 1920 to 1960 Ritschl's theology suffered an almost total eclipse. The leading representatives of the then-dominant Protestant neoorthodoxy, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, charged Ritschl (and Ritschlianism) with egregious departures from classical Christianity, including religious subjectivism, moralism, capitulation to the cultural Zeitgeist, and, in sum, a return to the anthropocentrism of Enlightenment religion in its "chastened" (antimetaphysical) Kantian form. Since the 1960s, however, there has been a noteworthy Ritschl renaissance, which has defended Ritschl before his neoorthodox detractors by eschewing "criticism by catchwords," by relating his total theological program to its immediate historical context, and by taking seriously his claim to have constructed his system on biblical and Reformation foundations.


The only biography of Ritschl is that by his son, Otto, Albrecht Ritschls Leben, 2 vols. (Freiburg im Breisgau, 18921896). Otto Ritschl also edited his father's Gesammelte Aufsätze, 2 vols. (Freiburg im Breisgau, 18931896). There are English translations of volumes 1 and 3 of Ritschl's magnum opus: A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, translated from the first edition by John S. Black (Edinburgh, 1872), and The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation: The Positive Development of the Doctrine, translated from the third edition by H. R. Mackintosh and A. B. Macaulay (1900; reprint, Clifton, N. J., 1966). Ritschl's "Prolegomena" to The History of Pietism, Theology and Metaphysics, and Instruction in the Christian Religion have been translated by Philip J. Hefner in Albrecht Ritschl: Three Essays (Philadelphia, 1972)the best place to begin for the first-time reader of Ritschl. Valuable older studies are A. E. Garvie's The Ritschlian Theology, Critical and Constructive, 2d ed. (Edinburgh, 1902), and Gösta Hök's Die elliptische Theologie Albrecht Ritschls: Nach Ursprung und innerem Zusammenhang (Uppsala, 1942). The fullest expositions of Ritschl's relationship to Reformation thought are my Ritschl and Luther: A Fresh Perspective on Albrecht Ritschl's Theology in the Light of His Luther Study (Nashville, 1974), which includes a translation of Ritschl's important "Festival Address on the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Martin Luther" (1883); and "Albrecht Ritschl and the Unfinished Reformation," Harvard Theological Review 73 (1980): 337372. Four pathbreaking studies of Ritschl's theological system, offered as "correctives" to neoorthodox criticisms, are Philip J. Hefner's Faith and the Vitalities of History: A Theological Study Based on the Work of Albrecht Ritschl (New York, 1966), Rolf Schäfer's Ritschl: Grundlinien eines fast verschollenen dogmatischen Systems (Tübingen, 1968), David L. Mueller's An Introduction to the Theology of Albrecht Ritschl (Philadelphia, 1969), and James Richmond's Ritschl: A Reappraisal (London, 1978).

David W. Lotz (1987)

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