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Ritschl, Albrecht


Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) (YunJung Moon, 1998)

Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1899): A Summary of his Introduction to A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (Karen-Louise Rucks, 2002)

Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889)

YunJung Moon, 1998


His Life and Works

A German Protestant theologian Albrecht Benjamin Ritschl was born on March 25, 1822, in Berlin as a son of a famous Lutheran preacher of Pomerania. He had a intellectually, culturally, and ecclesiastically prestigious family background. His grandfather George Wilhelm was pastor and professor of Gymnasium in Erfurt where Martin Luther spent his college days, his father George Carl Benjamin was also pastor who had a doctorate in theology, and his mother Auguste Sebald, the second wife of his father, was the daughter of the Commissioner of Justice in Berlin and had a deep affection in music. Hence young Ritschl was blessed with the musical life in the family as well as he distinguished himself in his studies.

He started his theological education in 1839 at University of Bonn, then moved to Halle, Heidelberg, and Tübingen. At Bonn, he had a friendship with the confessional Lutheran party. At Halle, he met the pietistic supernaturalistic view of Karl Immanuel Nitzsch, who was regarded as a member of Mediating school and was influenced by Schleiermacher. Then at Tübingen, he was strongly influenced by a New Testament scholar Ferdinard Christian Baur, who stressed a comprehensive historical theology and scientific studies in accordance with Hegel. In 1846, he started to teach the New Testament, history of doctrine, and then dogmatics at University of Bonn until 1864, and moved to University of Göttingen in the same year for teaching the New Testament and systematic theology until he died in 1889.

His major works are as follows: The emergence of the Old Catholic Church (1850, 2nd edition in 1857); The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1870, 3rd edition in 1874), which is in three volumes; the first volume deals with the history of the doctrine, the second volume is about a critical biblical theology, and the third volume is subtitled as the positive development of the doctrine; Christian Perfection (1874) which compactly deals with his notion of practical religion; Instruction in the Christian Religion (1875) as a text-book for schools; Theology and Metaphysics (1881), for debating with a leader of the Erlangen school; and History of Pietism (1880-6) which contains his judgment on pietism as a false revival of Catholic ideals of the Christian life within evangelical Protestantism (Mackintosh 1964, 140).

His Theology

Ritschl is one of the most important liberal theologians who used historical criticism as their methodology in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Hence Ritschl tried to remove two influences from his theological methods: One is speculative metaphysics, which is insisted on by Hegel and is learned from F. C. Baur. He considered it as an inadequate effort to put faith into philosophical conceptions, insisting that Christian faith should be based on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Although Ritschl learned the method of historical-theological studies from Baur, later he rejected Baur’s theoretical and philosophical approach toward the objective historical event of revelation with giving a credit to the authenticity of the Scripture. The gap between the first and the second editions of the Emergence of the Old Catholic Church shows Ritschl’s disagreement with Baur. The other is subjectivism, which is insisted on by Schleiermacher who founded his theology on the basis of subjective experiences of believers, and mysticism, which is not interested in the ethical life of believers and is lacking the importance of Jesus Christ as a mediator in the relationship between God and humans and of Christian community as the place of God’s revelation. He sees both are unhistorical and will lead to the moral catastrophe (Mackintosh, 142-5).

Accordingly, he focused his theology on the historical sources, like the Biblical testimony about the historical figure of Jesus and his activity for our redemption. Not to be mystifying and speculative, he insists that religion should be understood on the concrete historical foundation. This is why Ritschl emphasizes the revelation of God through the Work of Jesus Christ within the history. Hence he gives an importance to the Bible as a concrete historical fact, especially to the New Testament, which involves the Work of Jesus Christ, and so he is seen to follow the doctrine of Reformation because of its stress in the Bible. In rejecting speculative metaphysics as components for theology and faith, Ritschl was influenced by Kant in that Ritschl tried to link religion to ethics by deleting metaphysics from theology and faith.

Moreover, Ritschl rejects the idea that the religious truth can be known to all humans through their common rational faculty separately from their religious experience. He sees religion as a practical affair, not as a speculative one, and distinguishes religious knowledge from scientific knowledge. Religious knowledge or Christian knowledge is composed of value-judgments, while scientific or theoretical knowledge works for revealing the laws of nature and spirit (Ritschl 1902[1874], 204, 207). He rejects the mingling of these two kinds of knowledge. By distinguishing between concomitant and independent value-judgments, he argues that all religious and moral statements are included in the independent value-judgment (Ritschl 1902[1874], 204-5). In a Christian community members share the collective value-judgments. Therefore, Christianity is a religion that is referred to the Christian congregation and Jesus and the sole task of theology is to describe the relation between God and human beings in accordance with the historical Christianity.

According to Ritschl, Christianity is "an ellipse which is determined by two foci,"(Ritschl 1902[1874], 11) one is the religious side which concerns the problem of salvation for individual people and the other is the ethical side which concerns the realization of the Kingdom of God. He signifies Kant as who first perceived the ethical importance of the kingdom of God. For him the kingdom of God is understood in the ethical category as the highest good ("summum bonum")and the final end. While distrusting mystical and individual religion, such as Pietism, Ritschl gave importance to the believers’ community, i.e. the Church, as the medium of salvation. He held that the function of Christian religion is to realize the Kingdom of God.

With defining justification, reconciliation, and sin as religious conceptions, which has two characteristics of having a community and of expressing the relations between God and humans and toward the world, Ritschl argues that "all religions are social" (Ritschl 1902[1874], 27) and that justification and reconciliation are explained in the case of the individual who is in the Christian community. Also as he defines justification as the forgiveness of sins, human beings recover their ethical freedom from the interruption of sins, and the fellowship between God and humans is restored through the faith in Jesus Christ whose death was understood not as a sacrifice for our sins but as a result of vocational obedience to His Father. For he defines this reconciliation also as the internal change of will to act the good, salvation is related not only to the individual salvation but also the realization of the common ethical end or the highest good, the Kingdom of God. He sees Jesus as a ethical model and the community as the place for the real relationship to God through Christ.

Ritschl stresses the ethical and social aspects of Christianity. He has no interest in God itself, rather he focuses on the impacts of God’s Work toward human beings and the Kingdom of God as the supreme good. Also he regards the sin as a egotistic tendency placed in all human beings, and therefore, the sin is not inherited but universal. Also Christian perfection is understood in the religious and the moral aspects, that is, Christians’ dominion over the world and their constant vocational fulfillment in the world (Mackintosh 1937, 170).

His Influence

His thinking has influenced on the nineteenth and twentieth century liberal theologians. His historical critical methodology is shown in Adolf von Harnack’s studies of the history of dogma, Wilhelm Herrmann’s ethical theology, and Ernst Troeltsch’s historical work in ethics. Walter Rauschenbusch also formed his idea of the social gospel on Ritschlian understanding of the Kingdom of God (Hefner 1972, 38-9).

Works Cited

Ritschl, Albrecht. The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation: The Positive development of the Doctrine. English translation, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and A. B. Macaulay, 2nd edition. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902[1874].

________. Three Essays. tr. and with an intro. Philip Hefner. Philadelphia: Fortress press, 1972.

Mackintosh, Hugh Ross. Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth. London: Nisbet and Co. Ltd., 1937.

Mueller, David L. An Introduction to the Theology of Albrecht Ritschl. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, ?.

Notes, Quotes, Epigrams about or by Ritschl

Religion must feed upon concrete facts and events. When it takes flight from historical realities, it becomes either mysticism or rationalism ; and these temporary aberrations are pardonable only when the weight of tradition is on the point of suffocating vital faith. … to him nothing mattered but the revelation of God given …within history, … above all in Christ.

Ritschl did not start from Lutheranism, then ask whether it agreed with the Bible ; he ended with it, because he felt it to be the Biblical theology par excellence.

Christianity is defined as the absolutely ethical religion, based on the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, who founded the Kingdom of God. It imparts the blessed freedom of God’s children. The Kingdom, described as "the organization of humanity through action inspired by love," is at once the supreme purpose of the Father and man’s highest good¾ a Divine gift and a human task.

Ritschl turned the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin out of doors, … He contends that sin can be understood as essentially an individual phenomenon, each of us in turn being led astray by the bad influences emanating from our collective life. But human life as such, the movement of history itself, is not radically corrupt.

He starts … with the historical Christ, …His point of departure is the recorded manifestation of God in Christ, apprehended by believing historical perception. …We shall best understand Christ’s Person, then, by understanding what he has done for men.

To the apostles "reconciliation" is an experience of man ; it is man’s giving up that distrust of God which had been due to a misapprehension of the Divine character and is removed by the sight of Christ’s faithfulness in His vocation even unto death.

The New Testament speaks of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to God ; but in Ritschl’s exegesis this is a sacrifice of obedience, not of penalty.

"Our faith in Christ is not faith in Him as One Who was, but faith in Him as One Who continues to work" (Ritschl 1902[1874], 400).

Ritschl’s Christology manifestly belongs to that familiar type which asserts that out Lord is Divine not as being one in essence with God, but as being perfectly united and harmonious with Him in will.

To him, as to Luther and Calvin, justification is to be defined as God’s effective will to receive into fellowship with Himself the sinner who accepts Christ and His work. It is, in short, forgiveness. … one precondition is simple faith…

It removes the separation between God and man consequent upon guilt, abolishing the mistrust which guilt by its very nature engenders.

… The validity of forgiveness definitely hangs upon the truth that God is known as Father only through the specific life-work of Jesus Christ.

If it be asked how men can make saving contact with the work of Christ, … Ritschl answers with great decision that this happens solely through the mediation of the Church as the community of believers, the living fellowship in which the Gospel is preached and the work of Christ perpetuated.

… to say that He founded the Church and that He mediates to men the assurance of forgiveness is one and the same thing. It is in the society of the faithful that a man enters into personal relations with Christ, so that to be a member of the Church is identical with being in pardoned fellowship with God.

Perfection, the supreme end presented to all believers in Christ, has two sides, the religious and the moral… (the former is ) the dominion over the world (and the latter is) the steadfast fulfillment of our appointed "vocation."

Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1899): A Summary of his Introduction to A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation

Karen-Louise Rucks, 2002



In German Protestantism, he is considered one the most influential nineteenth century systematic theologian. As a student of and influenced by F.C. Baur (1792-1860) Ritschl studied Hegel’s philosophy. His first work, published in 1846, was on the origin of the Gospel of Luke. In his early works, Ritschl focused on his Kingdom of God motif, of which Jesus was considered the bearer of a new religious principle. The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation is the foundation of Ritschl’s work. This work consists of three volumes of which only Volumes I and II have been translated into English. Included in his Instruction in the Christian Religion is a summary of this three-volume opus. Ritschl, considered a biblical theologian, focused primarily on the doctrine of Justification. To describe justification in the life of faith, He used the term “reconciliation.” In his Kingdom of God motif, reconciliation can only take place in the religious community. (Matthias Wolfe in The Dictionary of Historical Theology, 493-494).

Since 1870 and onward, Ritschl’s approach to systematic theology was the focus of a school of theologians. Adolf Harnack (1851-1930) and Wilhelm Hermann (1846 - 1922) were a part of this group. According to Matthias Wolfes, through this school, Ritschl’s method and theory of knowledge was established as a “scientifically credible understanding of theology.” (Wolfes, 495) Wolfes adds that the members of this school shared in and carried forth the following motifs: Ritschl’s rejection of a natural theology, the acceptance of the revelation of God in Christ as the sole starting point of dogmatics, the linking of theology with the church, the view of Christian religion as practical ethical activity [a Kantian approach], and the interpretation of the biblical notion of the Kingdom of God in moral terms. (Wolfes, 495)

A Summary of his Introduction in J&R

A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation. Translated with the author’s sanction by John S. Black, M.A. Edinburgh: Edmonton, and Douglas, 1872

I. General Table of Contents


Chapter I: “The Idea of Reconciliation through Christ According to Anselm and Abelard.”

Chapter II: “The Ideas of Christ’s Satisfaction and Merit According to Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus.”

Chapter III: “The Medieval Idea of Justification.”

Chapter IV: “The Reformation Principles of Justification by Faith in Christ.”

Chapter V: “The Reformation Doctrine of Reconciliation Contrasted in its Principles with that of the Middle Ages, and with Osiander’s Doctrine of Justification.”

Chapter VI: “The Orthodox Doctrine of Lutheran and Reformed Divines on Reconciliation and Justification, and its Rejection by Faustus Socinus.”

Chapter VII: “Complete Disintegration of the Doctrines of Reconciliation and Justification by the German Theologians of the Illumination.”

Chapter VIII: “The Problem of Reconciliation Defined Anew by Kant; Regress of his Disciples to the Standpoint of the Illumination.”

Chapter IX: “The Revival of Abelard’s Type of Doctrine by Schleiermacher and his Followers.”

Chapter X: “The Course of Pietism Till the Repristination of Lutheran Orthodoxy”

Chapter XI: “The Idea of Reconciliation in the Speculative School.”

II. “Author’s Preface”

Ritschl wrote that he had devoted more than thirty years to the doctrines of justification and reconciliation. Out of those studies he had produced a program titled, De Ira Dei (Bonn, 1859) and a series of articles. His preparatory research had focused primarily on the middle ages. This volume is a result of that research. This work traces the history of the doctrine of reconciliation and justification. Ritschl anticipated a second volume that would deal with, “ . . . the dogmatic presentation of the doctrines in question along with the necessary biblico-theological constructure.” (viii) Instead, the anticipated two volumes became a three-volume opus.

III. Introduction to A Critical History of Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation

In his “Introduction,” Ritschl makes three points. First, his premise is that the doctrine of justification and reconciliation constitutes the real center of the Christian theological system. He writes, “In it is developed the determinate and direct result of the historical revelation of God’s purpose of grace through Christ . . . ” (1)

He explained that there is not yet a fixed terminology for this system of Christian doctrine and discussed his rationale for choosing the title “Justification and Reconciliation.” He reasoned that in both the apostles’ accounts and the methodology of the Reformation, the entire compass of Christ’s life is integral to the act of salvation. While the doctrine of the saving work of Christ would cover it, Ritschl was dealing only with one component of this larger doctrine. Ritschl added that he took this title from the Epistles to the Hebrews and that it was a New Testament idea. Additionally, Ritschl argued, although the doctrine of the saving work of Christ includes the three offices of Christ - prophet, priest, and king, and although this work will deal only with the priestly office, he echoed Schleiermacher’s objections to using these metaphorical expressions in systematic theology because the Reformers introduced these terms during the Reformation period and they were not used as a comprehensive form of expression. (2-3) Systematic theology therefore, cannot be dependent upon “subsidiary representations.” Regarding the use of the term “redemption” Ritschl gave several reasons why it was not suitable. Though used expressly by the apostle Paul and comprehensively by the Church, it is a negative term. Throughout the middle ages and the Reformation period, redemption was used as a subordinate notion, and, in modern times it is not used exhaustively for the purpose that Ritschl’s work focused. Finally, as the support of his decision not to use the term to designate his work, Ritschl gives deference to Schleiermacher’s distinction between redemption and reconciliation. Acknowledging the treatment of the two ideas as arbitrary expressions in the New Testament and the theological tradition, like Schleiermacher, Ritschl distinguished the terms as “ . . . co-ordinate operations of Christ upon believers.”

Ritschl also discussed his reasons for not using the term “sanctification.” While the term is comprehensive of the death and resurrection, it is not as synonymous as the previous terms and since it is treated as part of the system in the Evangelical Church, by using it would be confusing. It would also contradict his contention that the Incarnate Word could not be the means to bring men to God because in the doctrine of reconciliation between man and God, the contrariety between wills is presupposed. (7-8)

For Ritschl, the notions of justification and reconciliation simultaneously express the saving work of Christ on the relationship between God and the human will. Ritschl writes,

For justification removes the guilt, and reconciliation the enmity, of sin toward God: both notions thus include in themselves an effect upon the human will just as certainly as guilt and enmity toward God can only be understood as belonging to the human will. (8-9)

Ritschl recognized that his position opposed the satisfaction theory. He argued that it is

not accurate theology to limit God - to the satisfaction He receives or to the propitiation of His wrath - the direct saving efficacy of the action and passion of Christ: and to deduce the forgiveness of men’s sins, or their reconciliation with God, merely as consequences from that result, and so to make the saving efficacy of the action and passion of Christ’s work as regards man dependent only indirectly or secondarily upon His doing and suffering. (9)

This, asserted Ritschl, does not agree with the idiom and way of thinking in the New Testament. Nor is it sufficient to point the theologian to the doctrine of Christ, specifically the assertion of Christ as “the direct Revealer of God’s saving purpose toward men, . . . ” in both his words and works. (9) Ritschl embraced the Reformers’ use of justification and reconciliation to represent the direct work of Christ’s work and suffering which they “presupposed in order to the awakening in us of our consciousness as believers.” (10)

In his Introduction, Ritschl also critiqued Ferdinand C. Baur’s work in The Christian of Doctrine of Reconciliation in its Historical development from the earliest to the latest times (1838) [sic] In order for Ritschl to accomplish his historical task, it was necessary to review Baur’s work. Ritschl noted that as for pointing him to the necessary literature for review, Baur’s work was helpful. Ritschl asserted that although Hegel’s work in the Philosophy of History inspired and enabled Baur to conceive and execute this “grand scale” work, because it is such a vast undertaking, the standards for historical writing from the outset involve failure. For example, there are matters, such as reconciliation and the assertions by the Church Fathers regarding redemption and the deification of the human race, that were unaddressed or inadequately addressed in an attempt to either treat them exhaustively or place them under the under the identified title. Ritschl accused Baur of treating the theme of reconciliation too narrowly by asserting that the significance of the Reformation is the Reformers’ incorporation of the doctrine of reconciliation into the thought of justification by faith. Consequently the theme of reconciliation could not be treated separate of the doctrine of justification. Ritschl argued that contrary to Baur’s system, in the history of Christian dogma, various aspects of the doctrine of reconciliation had been treated as subjective and objective simultaneously. According to Ritschl it is impossible to use the change of relationships in terms of subject and object to understand the history of man’s spiritual life or the doctrine of atonement. Additionally, it is necessary to have a general understanding of the changes in the development of theology in order to assert an isolated history of the doctrine of justification and reconciliation. According to Ritschl, “. . . every change in theology presupposes change in religious and church consciousness. Although the influences may have been hidden from people then, it is the business of history to reveal them to us now.” (18)

Ritschl briefly makes one last point. Ritschl contends that the history of the doctrine of justification and reconciliation is limited to the Western Church. Ritschl concluded that there is a distinct difference between the West Christianity and the East [Greek], a separation that is more than just political. He bases this on his observation that the East has relied on works such as that of Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Lombard and that the doctrines of reconciliation and justification have been constructed by the Western theologians and developed exclusively in the Western Church. (21) Ritschl chose to not deal with material he described as “casual and rhetorical formulae [which] have not been thought out in an independent manner. “ (21) He dealt only with those trains of thought which have been worked out in a methodical way and which had only been done by Western theologians.



Primary Sources

Ritschl, Albrecht. Vol.1 Die Geschichte der Lehre. Bonn: Adolph Marcus, 1870. Translated in English under the title, A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation. Translator, H.R. Mackintosh and A.B. Macaulay. Edinburgh; T and T. Clark, 1900. Republished in 1966 by Reference Book Publishers, Inc., Clifton, N.J.

_____. Vol. 3 Die Positive Entwicklung der Lehre. Bonn: Adolph Marcus, 1874. Published in English under the title, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation. Translator, John S. Black. Edinburgh: Edmonton and Douglas, 1872.

Secondary Sources

Hefner, Philip. Faith and the Vitalities of History: A Theological Study Based on the Work by Albrecht Ritschl. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

Jodock, Darrell, editor. Ritschl in Retrospect: History, Community, and Science. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

Mackintosh, Robert. Albrecht Ritschl and his School. London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1915.

Swing, Albert Mead. The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl. London and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1901.

Wolfes, Matthias. “Ritschl, Albrecht (1822-89)” and “Ritschlianism” in The Dictionary of Historical Theology. Trevor A. Hart, general editor. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, 2000.

Internet Sources (author and editor unknown) (author and editor unknown)

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