Ritschl, Albrecht Benjamin (1822–1889)

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Albrecht Benjamin Ritschl, the German theologian, was born in Berlin and studied theology at Bonn, Halle, Heidelberg, and Tübingen. He taught theology at Bonn from 1846 to 1864, and at Göttingen for the remainder of his career. Ritschl reexamined Christianity in the light of neo-Kantianism and historicist principles. After 1875 his influence was widespread in a number of German universities and led to increased interest in religious psychology, comparative religion, and related fields. However, his school came under sharp criticism from orthodox, pietist, and liberal quarters.

Ritschl undertook to establish Christian theology as an autonomous and systematic discipline. To do this he had first to purge German religious thought of pietism, Hegelian speculative theism, and the pantheism of Friedrich Schleiermacher and then to apply the techniques and results of contemporary literary and historical criticism. On the basis of Immanuel Kant's ascription of priority to practical reason over theoretical reason and his separation of philosophy and religion, Ritschl distinguished between value judgments and theoretical judgments. Unlike Kant, however, Ritschl accorded primacy to religion over philosophy on the grounds that spirit (the noumenal) takes precedence over matter (the phenomenal); also unlike Kant, he accorded moral primacy to the community (the nation) over the individual.

Ritschl believed that the deep-rootedness and continuity of religion, as expressed in dogmas and institutions, testifies to the reality and superiority of the religious need of practical reason in human nature. This need arises out of a basic contradiction between nature and spirit in human nature. The value of religion and particularly of Christianity, Ritschl thought, can be verified by history, which shows that this contradiction seeks a resolution in some form of redemption in the world. The Kantian elements in Ritschl's thinking, in combination with this positivist tendency, led him to believe that history does not merely provide material in support of some arbitrary, nonhistorical preconception but reveals an essential structure of human consciousness and the intrinsic historicity of Christianity.

In attempting to satisfy both the requirements of history and the claims of practical reason, Ritschl adopted the dogmas of redemption and the kingdom of God as embodied in the life of Christ as the pivots of his religious theory. Man seeks to realize his destiny here on earth by leading an ethically self-conscious life, which is the core of religiosity. The acts of love that he performs, the content of the ethical life, represent the human counterpart to redemption, and the community required for their performance represents the terrestrial counterpart to the kingdom of God. God's purpose is thus manifest in history. Sin, which is only the result of ignorance, is pardonable because it is only a transitory opposition to this purpose. Ritschl therefore rejected the dogma of original sin as unhistorical and hence unverifiable.

Biblical exegesis led Ritschl to believe that the community is both logically and chronologically prior to the church. Only in the community can man find justification and reconciliation in God. Christ was founder of a community and can be comprehended historically only through our knowledge of how that community conceived him.

From his conviction that religious consciousness is universal and characterized by its quest for redemption, Ritschl concluded that Christianity is the superior expression of that consciousness. History, rather than dogma, verifies Christianity, but its validity is thereby strengthened, not relativized.

Although the community takes precedence over the individual, the individual is not thereby depreciated but is provided with a field within which he is able to realize his personality. While the community is prior to the church, this does not devalue the church's interests but emphasizes its actual efficacy as the ecclesiastical form of the community's organization. Religious truths are established in practice rather than by their appearance in the New Testament, but its authority is thereby strengthened, not subverted. Martin Luther is the most significant religious figure since Christ, not because he modernized Christianity but because he recaptured and restored an understanding of the original Christian attitude.

See also Historicism; Kant, Immanuel; Neo-Kantianism; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst.


works by ritschl

Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung, 3 vols. Bonn, 18701874. Vols. I and III translated (Vol. I by J. S. Black, Vol. III by H. R. Mackintosh and A. B. Macauley) as Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation. Edinburgh and New York, 18721900.

Geschichte des Pietismus, 3 vols. Bonn: Marcus, 18801886.

Theologie und Metaphysik. Bonn, 1881.

works on ritschl

Barth, Karl. Die protestantische Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert. Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1947. Translated by B. Cozens as Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl. New York: Harper, 1959. Pp. 390399.

Ecke, G. Die theologische Schule Albrecht Ritschls, Berlin: Reuther and Reichard, 18971904.

Flügel, O. Ritschls philosophische Ansichten. Langensalza, 1886; 3rd ed., 1895.

Garvie, Alfred E. "Ritschlianism." In Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, Vol. X, pp. 812820. Edinburgh and New York, 1919.

Häring, Theodor. Zu Ritschls Versöhnungslehre. Zürich, 1888.

Mackintosh, R. Albrecht Ritschl and His School. London: Chapman and Hall, 1915.

Ritschl, Otto, Albrecht Ritschls Leben, 2 vols. Freiburg and Leipzig: Mohr, 18921896.

Schoen, H. Les origines historiques de la théologie de Ritschl. Paris, 1893.

Weber, W. Die Frage der Rechtfertigung in der Theologie Albrecht Ritschls. Heidelberg, 1940. Dissertation.

Wendland, J. Albrecht Ritschl und seine Schüler. Berlin, 1899.

Robert Anchor (1967)