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The Theology Of Ritschl

To a man who is interested in the thought-movements of our time and the relation of Christianity to them, the study of the theology of Ritschl is sure to be of interest. He will feel that he is studying something which is alive. It is not a worn-out system in whose channels men's minds move with difficulty and to whose deeper meanings their hearts do not respond, but a system growing out of the very heart of our modern thought life, and one whose attractiveness and vitality have been felt by multitudes.

In this study the plan will be, first, to get a glimpse of the man and the movement in quite external features; then to endeavor to see the outstanding features of the thought world in which the system was born. Following this, we shall try to see what Ritschl's standpoint was, and then make a brief statement of his system as we understand it. Coming to the atonement, we shall try to see Ritschl's view in relation to his general principles and its place in relation to the great historic theories, with some appreciation and criticism of his view. Then, in conclusion, we shall have something to say of the service of Ritschlianism, and in criticism of its inadequacies.

First, then, the man and the movement. Albrecht Ritschl was born in Berlin in 1822. His father was a bishop and general superintendent of the Evangelical Church in Pomerania. In 1827 Ritschl's father moved to Stellen, which thus became the home of his childhood. When the time came for Ritschl to enter university, Bonn was chosen, as we are told, on account of Nitzsch. It is an interesting fact that Nitzsch was a theologian who believed in the agreement of the evangelical theology and science and sought to show this agreement. Thus Ritschl's first theological environment in a university was that from which his whole system, as we shall see, was a revolt. It is also worth noting that Bonn has a double faculty Catholic and Protestant. Ritschl went to Bonn in 1839, and in 1841 we find him at Halle. Here he was under Tholuck and Julius Müller. But the Hegelian philosophy was represented by such men as Professor Erdmann, and now Ritschl came under the influence of Hegelianism, and after a time we see him in the position of a Hegelian himself. The great Hegelian theologian, Baur, was in Tübingen, and to Tübingen Ritschl went. But Ritschl could not content himself in the Hegelian ranks, and by 1856 we find that he has completely broken with them. The influence of this Hegelian period remained with Ritschl, however, and traces of it may be seen as in his desire for a "whole" view of Christianity. Through his own study Ritschl came under the influence of Kant, and later became personally acquainted with Lotze, whose views influenced his own. Likewise in study Ritschl came up against Schleiermacher, who influenced him profoundly.

Ritschl was a teacher in Bonn for eighteen years. We are told that "he began his first semester with eight hearers in each of his two courses, but the next semester he got only three in one and two in the other. Three years later he passed the whole winter semester without lecturing at all, since no one had taken the courses offered." But in his last years at Bonn he was exceedingly popular. It will interest us to notice the fields he covered in his teaching. He first took the New Testament, then he took up church history, then history of doctrine, and after he had been at Bonn seven years began lecturing on dogmatics. After twelve years he took up the subject of theological ethics, and after sixteen years the subject of the biblical theology of the New Testament. We see that it was a wide field which Ritschl himself covered. His last years were spent as professor at the University of Gottingen, and this period was a time of great popularity. His earlier work on The Old Catholic Church is interesting in its relation to his rupture with the Tübingen school. His great work was his Justification and Reconciliation. The three volumes consist of (1) A History of Doctrine, (2) A Biblical Theology, and (3) the positive statement of his own system. The first volume was published in 1870, the second and third in 1874. His last work was a History of Pietism which engaged him ten or eleven years. Ritschl died in his study March 20, 1889, aged sixty-seven years.

It has been declared that Ritschl touched almost every phase of theological thought in Germany, and what has already been said of his preparation almost answers our second question, What was the thought-world in which his system was born? This may be answered briefly by saying, On the philosophic side, the world of Kant and Hegel; on the theological side of the world of Schleiermacher; and over against positive Christianity the world of Strauss; the world in which Kant's critique of the possibilities of speculative thought and his exaltation of the practical reason had been heard; the world in which Hegel's philosophy of the "absolute" had been received with open arms ; the world in which the rationalism of Semler and Strauss had been felt; and the positive impetus of Schleiermacher, with his insistence upon the value of the subjective and man's direct communication with God. This was the world in which Ritschlianism was born. And the aim of Ritschlianism is to give a more adequate view of Christianity than had been given elsewhere.

Now we must try to see what was Ritschl's standpoint in his work. On the religious side his position was anti-mystical. He did not believe in direct communication between the soul and God. Dr. Garvie, in his interpretation of Ritschl, tries to qualify this statement, but at best it cannot be made out that Ritschl held to a positive notion of direct communication between the soul and God. When Ritschl read Schleiermacher we are told that he was both repelled and attracted, and we may readily conclude that the thing that repelled him was Schleiermacher's mysticism, while his subjectivity attracted him.

Then, following Kant, Ritschl came to the conclusion that along the lines of theoretic thought you cannot do much for religion, while Kant's "Practical Reason" suggested a way to do something for religion. Ritschl made the distinction a sharp one. To him there were two worlds : the world of theoretic thought and the world of religious truth, and these two do not touch. Ritschl would never have us attempt to harmonize Christianity with a theory of things. Religious knowledge and scientific knowledge are distinct and their spheres are distinct.

Religious knowledge is based upon what Ritschl called independent value judgments, or judgments of worth. In other words, the basis of accepting Christianity is its worth in satisfying our religious needs, and we are to be quite content with this and not to seek for it an objective validity by moving along the lines of ordinary theoretic thought. Ritschl discards speculative theism. He condemns ecclesiastical dogma for having mixed itself with metaphysical notions, for he believed that Christianity had suffered from being mixed with philosophy, that very early it began to accommodate itself to Greek thought in Harnack all this is expressed clearly and that it has suffered from its connections all through the centuries. To get back to Christianity before this unfortunate alliance is Ritschl's endeavor.

But Ritschl's rejection of metaphysics is by no means such a wholesale thing as at first sight it may seem. For he must proceed according to a theory of knowledge, and he must recognize the validity of logical procedure. Ritschl himself was perfectly conscious that he could not lock metaphysics out of the door, and he is quoted as saying that, after all, it is not a question of having metaphysics, but what metaphysics you have. And it is important to recognize that it was on the basis of a particular philosophic view that Ritschl made the distinction between religious and philosophic knowledge. And perhaps he was far more influenced by his own philosophical presuppositions than he himself recognized.

Now we come to Professor Ritschl's system of doctrine. And probably it would not be putting it too strongly to say that he was by nature a systematic theologian.

First, it is worthy of note that in Ritschl's view the systematic theologian must do his work from within the Christian community. And his conception of the systematic theologian is that he is to give an articulated view of the whole of the Christian faith.

Beginning the survey of his system then, we come to his conception of God. According to Ritschl, the Christian conception of God is that "given in the revelation received through Christ" and this conception is that of a loving will. All that we know of God we can sum up in the word "love." By a metaphysical excursion Ritschl argues for the personality of God. He conceives of God's love as his steadfast holding to his purpose of a kingdom among men. In his notion of God we miss a great insistence on God's righteousness, and when we come to God's relations to men his personality seems in time somehow chained and lifeless.

The World. Again taking a plunge into the forbidden realm of metaphysics, Ritschl deduces the world from the love of God. He conceives of it as being called into existence and governed to secure the end of God, which is the establishment of a kingdom among men. This is the end of his love. Men exist in the world as a means to the kingdom.

Sin. But such a kingdom as God wants in the world does not exist, and, summing up all that is contradictory to the kingdom of God, we may call it the kingdom of sin. Ritschl puts no emphasis on the fall, and rejects the idea of original sin. In relation to the individual he conceives of two kinds . of sin : the final direction of the will in opposition to God, which he thinks cannot be forgiven, and all other sin, which he classes as ignorance, and which can be forgiven. Sin is the opposite of the kingdom of God, and opposition to God's will. The conceptions of sin as a violation of the moral law and of one's own standards of righteousness are not emphasized.

Guilt. Men have a consciousness of guilt which leads them to distrust God. Those things in life have the significance of punishments which the consciousness of guilt leads men to impute to themselves as punishments. This consciousness of guilt as distrust and guilt itself shut men out from fellowship with God, and it is evident that whatever shuts men out from fellowship with God needs to be removed.

Religion. Ritschl has a peculiar view of religion. Men find themselves in the world with a feeling that they are of greater value than the world, yet feeling that they are a part of it. And in men there is a desire to master the world. This leads to religion. Religion is the expression of men's need of world mastery. Christianity secures to men this mastery, this lordship over the world.

Christ. Coming now to Christianity, we find that it centers in the historic person of Christ. Ritschl puts aside all such questions as the incarnation the two natures, human and divine as metaphysical. He has no doctrine of the Trinity, and despite Dr. Garvie's argument I am not sure that it would be doing Ritschl an injustice to say that in his notion Christ's preexistence was ideal. And it is difficult to make out from Ritschl how the Saviour's postexistence has any direct relation to the community founded by him. To Ritschl the divinity of Christ consists in the worth of Christ to men; as some one has put it, "God could not do for us more than Christ has done." So he has the value of God for us.

When we look at Christ the first thing that impresses us is his spiritual lordship over the world. In his patience in suffering and his trueness to his vocation (the founding of the kingdom of God) even unto death, there is a kingliness. In the loving motive he had, and the continual estimate of himself as Lord over the world, in conformity of this to the will of God, he is God's revealer, and is equal to God. Jesus Christ made God's end his end. To the man who comes to him with a sense of guilt, and a distrust of God on account of this, Jesus reveals God's love and thus takes away the distrust.

Justification. This removing of the sobstacle to fellowship with God is justification. Jesus Christ by his own Lordship over the world through making God's end his end, shows man the way to lordship over the world. Thus his religious need is met. Our Lord is able to lead men to this freedom because he had it first. He had the relation of fellowship with God and leads men into it. The experience which he possessed he shares with men. In this sense he is their Priest.

The Community. But God is not after saved men but a community. In fact, according to Ritschl, it is only by means of the community that the man becomes par-taker in justification. The community rather than the individual is the subject of justification. A man enters the community by trusting God and accepting God's end as his end.

The Church. The community regarded as worshiping is the church; as bound together and acting on the basis of unselfish love, it is the kingdom of God. Of this kingdom Christ is the founder, and to it he stands as God. We get back to Christ through his self-testimony and the testimony of the disciples about him. But to Ritschl there was no such authority to the point of view of authors in the New Testament as would keep him from disagreeing with them if he chose. The community of Christians enjoy religious freedom from the world. By the exercise of patience, humility, and prayer, prayer being principally thanksgiving and the expression of patience and humility the members of the community exercise lordship over the world. They feel that no obstacle the world can offer can divert them from their end the kingdom of God and so exercise lordship over the world. Along this way the Christian finds his perfection a perfection in relation to his vocation, not an absolute one in religious freedom and moral activity, in his motives perfected. Moral activity in the kingdom of God comes as a sort of concomitant of religious freedom. Professor Ritschl never succeeded in showing in a very satisfactory way the relation between religious freedom and moral activity.

Assurance. Personal assurance, of course, does not come according to Ritschl as a direct communication from God. His anti-mystical tendencies prevented his holding such a position as that. Assurance, he thinks, comes in one's exercise of patience, humility, and prayer, as the functions of religious freedom.

The Holy Spirit. Ritschl's notion of the Holy Spirit is that the Spirit is God's knowledge of his own end. As said before, Ritschl has no answer to questions about the Trinity. These are metaphysical. He gives one eschatological hint the annihilation of the finally perverse.

The Atonement. In the outline of Ritschl's system we have stated the essence of his view of the work of our Lord, which, as we have seen, occupies a very important place. Now we want to view it more definitely. Jesus Christ has a peculiar relation to the Christian community as founder of the kingdom of God. Here we find his kingly office. Jesus Christ has a peculiar relation to the Christian community as revealer of God : showing men the love of God, so that their distrust of God is taken away, and showing them God's end in the world, his kingdom, which they are to make their end also. This is his prophetic office. Jesus Christ maintained his own fellowship with God, which is the basis of the relation into which he is to introduce believers. All through his life, even unto death, he had to maintain this relation himself in order to introduce believers into it. This is his priestly office.

On man's part the necessity is that he make God's end in the world his end. This is reconciliation. Man now enters upon a new relation of trust in God and comes to the blessedness of lordship over the world, and being one with the community bound together by love. Lordship over the world Ritschl calls eternal life. The significance of the death of Christ to Ritschl is that it represents the final proof of our Lord's loyalty to his vocation, that is, the founding of the kingdom of God.

All that man gains through Christianity is directly related to the personal work of the Saviour. His distrust in God is removed by the revelation he gets in Jesus Christ. The life of lordship over and freedom from the world he first sees in Jesus Christ, who shows him the way to it. His patience, his humility, his prayer, his trust in God all come from him. The new relation to God, the new relation to the world, the membership in the kingdom of God all come through Jesus Christ.

From the evangelical standpoint one is almost tempted to say that Ritschl has no theory of the atonement, for to him sin makes no such obstacle between man and God as makes an atonement in this sense necessary. But in the sense that the life and work of our Lord are the basis of men's being admitted to the Christian community, and enjoying its privileges, we may call his a theory of the atonement.

Now, what are its connections with the historic theories? With the Governmental none. Ritschl thinks of God never as a ruler, but as a Father. The theory is not a Satisfaction Theory. With Ritschl's general view there would be no place for the peculiarities of the Satisfaction Theory. The Saviour bears no penalty for us in Ritschl's mind. In one point, however, there is a connection with the Satisfaction Theory. Ritschl tries to utilize the idea of Christ's being our representative, and brings out the thought of God's imputing to the community the position Christ has in it. But I can-not see that this idea is connected in any very organic way with his view as a whole. We must classify his theory as a form of the Moral Influence Theory. The great thing about the work of our Lord is that it reveals God. When man sees what God is like his distrust is taken away.

Now, this emphasis upon Christ as the revealer of God is a valuable thing and worthy of our appreciation. The emphasis upon the person of Christ and the spirit of his life is a valuable thing. But when we look frankly at the theory we see that it is not even the greatest kind of a Moral Influence Theory. One never feels the awful movement of sacrifice in the Eternal God which is a part of a Moral Influence Theory which has a positive relation to the deity of our Lord. One misses the emphasis upon the power of our Lord's work to win men from sin which is a part of a Moral Influence Theory which is related to a profound conception of sin.

Criticizing the theory in larger relations : There is not the biblical emphasis upon the death of our Lord. There is no conception of sin as making an obstacle in God, no emphasis corresponding to the biblical notion of God's relation to sin, or to a man's own sense of sin when his conscience is fully awake. There is no adequate account taken of the fact that God must uphold all moral concern. His theory, then, we must characterize as thoroughly inadequate, measured by the Bible and by the deepest feelings of a man's own heart.

Now, viewing the system as a whole, can we say that it has rendered service to theological thought? In reply, we must recognize that, in the first place, its emphasis upon value judgments has been of service. We need to see clearly that the great apologetic of Christianity is the very fact upon which Ritschl insisted that it satisfies man's religious needs, and a man's deepest reason for accepting it is that it has the worth of a satisfying thing to him. But when Ritschl refuses to allow that a thing necessary for our religious satisfaction shall clearly have objective validity, we must part with him. When he sees no connection between religious truth and scientific truth, we must part with him. It has well been said that a religious truth without objective reality is not a real truth, and religion itself is reduced to subjectivity if we are not allowed to relate it to truth in other realms. What is true in one realm cannot be false in another. Christianity satisfies the man, therefore he accepts it. And because it satisfies him in the needs of his personal life he is not afraid to see it related to all life. He knows that it must stand.

From the Ritschlian movement perhaps there will come a sense of the truths of the faith quite apart from their philosophical setting, and that it is these truths which are vital and not the particular philosophical system with which we try to relate them. This will be a good thing. But it must never be taken to mean a divorce between religion and every philosophical view of the world. Another service of the Ritschlian movement has been the emphasis it has placed upon the historic Christ. This cannot help having a freshening influence upon the religious life of all who feel it. Then the lifting up of the idea of the kingdom of God the community bound together by love is a service we ought to recognize. It should be made and kept a great thought in the mind of the Church.

When we come to speak in conclusion of the inadequacies of the system, we find that they are many. In the first place, as Professor Orr points out, while ruling out a theory of things from being related to his system, he allows his own philosophical theory to do strange and wonderful things. Taking it as a basis, he rules out the consideration of the Trinity, leaves his system, to say the least, without a clear notion of the preexistence of Christ or the proper place being given to miracles and takes away from Christianity things which have been considered essential, and which we believe are essential, not with the excuse that in "going back to Christ" and the primitive records he finds full warrant for it, but be-cause his philosophical theory demands it. No wonder if such procedure suggests the thought that if you shut metaphysics out of the front door it will come in at the back door. And, more than this, Ritschl is not prevented from dealing with such subjects as the personality of God, for all his dislike of metaphysics. Philosophically, he has done two things which seem to me unjustifiable in a Christian theologian : he has attempted to divorce the realm of religious truth from that of scientific truth, and he has allowed philosophical positions which have commended themselves to him to lead him to discard cardinal Christian doctrines.

The Christian thinker may come to times when he cannot harmonize some philosophic position and some Christian fact, but he must always insist that finally when the true philosophy has come, and Christian doctrines are finally understood, there will be perfect harmony, and this must be the end toward which he is always working. In the meantime he must be looking for a philosophy large enough to explain his Christianity, and not paring his Christianity down to fit into his philosophy.

We have already suggested that Ritschl's attitude toward sin is not that of the Bible. Now our attention needs to be called to the fact that it is difficult to reconcile his own positions at this point. To him such sin as may be forgiven is conceived of as ignorance. Yet one of the things the work of our Lord does is to show a man how to get rid of his sense of guilt. Now, here is rather an anomaly a man having a sense of guilt for sins he does not know he has committed. Psychologically, we believe Ritschl's notion of sin to be thoroughly inadequate. Then he has missed the Bible emphasis about the resurrection of our Lord. To this day it is a question upon which there is disagreement, as to whether Ritschl believed in the actual resurrection. Anyone who reads the New Testament will not find any such doubtful attitude there. Then there is in Ritschl a tendency to try to account for as much of the whole thing as he can, inside a man, which is rationalistic. He seems to shrink from gripping what is quite outside of human life, and this shrinking means that rationalism had a greater hold on him than he knew.

Perhaps one can sum up that in which Ritschl's system fails by saying that it is a surrender to the Zeitgeist and not a challenge to it. The spirit of the times says, "Surrender the Trinity," and he surrenders it. The spirit of the times says, "Surrender the personality of the Holy Spirit," and he does it. The spirit of the times says, "Surrender the actual preexistence of Christ, the miracles, and the resurrection," and Ritschl puts no emphasis on these facts. The spirit of the times says, "Surrender the thought of the awfulness of sin," and Ritschl transposes sin into ignorance.

But the attitude of the Christian thinker must be not of surrender, it must be one of challenge. Taking the facts which have been the basis of that satisfaction of the church through the centuries, he must build his fortification and summon the modern spirit to make the attack, confident that after the din of battle, at the setting of the sun, there shall have been lost not one of the great fundamental positions of the faith. The supernatural in the world on the basis of a living, personal, loving, holy God; the Godhead a Trinity, with a glowing richness of life, not a lonely only one; the incarnation real God becoming real man; the sinless life; the redemptive deed on Calvary, when He who knew no sin became sin for us; the actual resurrection the eternal session, the judgment to come; the reality, awful in its tragedy, of sin; the meeting of the human soul by God himself ; the Spirit's personality and ceaseless activity among men; the Bible a basis for true and reliable knowledge about redemption all these shall stand a fortification, not simply that but a range of granite mountains, against which assault shall beat in vain. The Christian theologian must believe that Christianity is strong enough to do battle and great enough to conquer.

( Originally Published 1915 )

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