June 10 – Albrecht Ritschl & Adolf von Harnack

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Albrecht Ritschl & Adolf von Harnack, Christian thinkers

Albrecht Ritschl (1822 – 1889) German Lutheran theologian.
Trained at Bonn and Halle; lectured at Bonn, Göttingen and Tübingen.
Major work: The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (in 3 volumes; 1870-1874)

Ritschl was one of the founders of what came to be called Liberal theology. He also anticipated John Robinson, Bishop Spong and other radical theologians of the 20th century. Ritschl became important in the middle to the late nineteenth century as he turned away from the influences of Schleiermacher and Hegel. Underlying his work is the European Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant and his three volumes of Critical Philosophy. Ritschl thought that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason proved conclusively that we cannot know things in themselves but only how they are to us. This makes impossible the promise of any mystical experience of God and any account of knowledge based upon that, especially Schleiermacher’s idea of “the feeling of absolute dependence”. In the same way Ritschl saw that Kant’s account of experience undercut most of the common accounts of Christianity based upon religious experience where “experience” was understood objectively.

Ritschl’s fame does not lie only in his courage in facing the challenges raised by the Enlightenment or in his acceptance of the unknowability of things in themselves. He turned away from the Critique of Pure Reason to Kant’s writings on Practical Reason or morality, and to his later works on religion, the imagination and political philosophy. From these works Ritschl came to the view that morality was the proper domain for understanding Christianity and for Christian life. We must understand, however, that Ritschl did not understand morality as essentially private. Ethical life, he understood, was realised and accomplished in community. He also came to understand that Luther’s translation of the Greek dike as righteousness was misleading and that the underlying theme of justice required a more social and political understanding of “justification”, and that, in turn, led to reconciliation with God and in our social life. However, Ritschl understood that religion requires a rational account of transcendence. He believed that Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only on the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”, provided a sufficient account of transcendence.

From his exploration of Kant, Ritschl also opened the way to an understanding of the importance of history, though an account of history that did not assume either decline or progress, and an account of history free from Hegel’s metaphysics. For Ritschl the discipline of history should lead Christians to understand the contexts in which Christian doctrine and theology had always taken place and would continue always to take place. Ritschl also understood that history should be the appropriate method for understanding the Bible. Every part of the Bible, its ideas and languages, was the product of specific historical circumstances which must control interpretation.

In these three dimensions Ritschl began Liberal Christian theology. This was a theology in which the Sermon on the Mount came to have a new importance; a theology in which ethics and community opened the way for Christians to share in and respond to a diversity of Christian views; and set the scene for Weimar liberalism and the American Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenenbusch which lasted until the start of World War II and beyond.

Ian Weeks