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The Role of Church History in The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Philip Hefner
Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania


The intention of this paper is to lay down a fundamental scheme for the interpretation of the work of Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889). It is not my purpose to present any sort of a critique of Ritschl's work, nor do I intend to present copious documentation for the assertions that the man made. Rather, the paper will present as cogently as possible a framework of thought which is a viable hermeneutical key for understanding and interpreting Ritschl.

Research Article
Church History , Volume 33 , Issue 3 , September 1964 , pp. 338 - 355
Copyright © American Society of Church History 1964

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This paper was originally delivered at the Spring meeting of the American Society of Church History, April 17, 1964.


1. Mackintosh, Hugh Ross, Types of Modern, Theology (New York: Scribner's Sons, n.d.), p. 141Google Scholar. Pelikan, Jaroslav, in “Introduction” to Karl Barth, Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), p. 10.Google Scholar

2. Hoek, Goesta, Die elliptische Theologie Albrecht Ritsehls: Nach Ursprung und innerem Zusammenhang. (Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift 1942:3).Google Scholar

3. Broadly speaking, these constructive works might include: Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung, Vol. III; Theologie und Metaphysik; Die christliche Vollkommenheit; and Unterricht in der christlichen Religion.

4. The only constructive works that are free from historical excursuses are the shorter ones: Die christliche Vollkommenheit and Unterricht in der christlichen Religion.

5. Jundt, André, Le Role de la métaphysique et de l'histoire dans la dogmatique protestante moderne: Essai sur les protestante de l'êcole de Ritschl (Montbéliard: Société aonyme d'imprimerie Montbéliardaise, 1920)Google Scholar describes Ritschl's historical work briefly, but chiefly in respect to the role that the historical Jesus plays in his work (see pp. 44–46). Mackintosh, Robert, Albrecht Ritschl and His School (London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1915)Google Scholar surveys Ritschl's historical output in more detail than any other commentator, but he assesses it as a passing phase of Ritschl's career, rather than as a constitutive element in his theology. Swing, Albert, The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl (London and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901)Google Scholar considers the historical figures from whom Ritschl borrowed important ideas or methods, but history is thus only a sort of proof-text for Ritschl's constructive work.

6. See Hoek's discussion of Ritschl's “Geschichtsauffassung,” from a wholly metaphysial and psychological point of view, pp. 293–316. See also Pfleiderer, Otto, Die Ritschl'sche Theologie kritisch beleuchtet (Braunschweig, 1891), pp. 1ff.Google Scholar, and passim.

7. Much of the material in this section has appeared in my “Baur Versns Ritschl on Early Christianity,” Church History, XXXI (1962) 3, 259–78.Google Scholar

8. Hereafter referred to as Entstehung. Unless otherwise noted, references are from the second edition, published in Bonn by Adolph Marcus.

9. See the two volumes of Gesammelte Aufsaetze (Freiburg i. B. and Leipzig: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1893, 1896).Google Scholar

10. Published in several editions by Adolph Marcus in Bonn.

11. See Hefner, , Church History, pp. 259–64.Google Scholar

12. The term Lebensfuehrung appears frequently in this paper; its meaning is set forth in several places below. For the purposes of this study, LebensFuehrung is considered to be synonymous with the term Lebensideal, which Ritschl uses more frequently in his own work. I employ the less familiar term for the simple reason that Lebensideal has been so loaded with perjorative connotations (notably in Karl Barth, pp. 601–605) that it is nearly unusable for this discussion. Barth interprets the term as referring chiefly to the ideal which man has constructed by his own powers as the goal for his life, towards the realization of which he bends every effort. For Barth, the term is nearly synonmous with bourgeois morality. In my opinion, the terms represent Ritsehl's existential concern. They refer to the fact that Christian faith characteristically deals with the direction and mode of human existence rather than with either doctrine or ecclesiastical institution. The difference between the various manifestations of Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Pietism, etc.) is measured in terms of the different configurations of existence (i.e., Lebensfuehrungen or Lebensidealen) that they engender. Ritschl's propensity for personalizing the Christian faith led him to discuss Lebensfuehrung in terms that emphasize individual vocation (Beruf). This emphasis is no doubt the source of Barth's interpretation. Barth's error lies in his overemphasis on the particular forms which this vocation takes, as if Ritsehl were canonizing nineteenth century German buergerlich modes of life. A more balanced reading suggests that Ritschl's use of the terms did not intend any such glorification of particular forms, but that it meant to emphasize the significance of the Christian religion for the concrete realities of human existence.

13. Ritschl, , Geschichte des Pietismus I 3 vols.; Bonn: Adolph Marcus, 1880-1886), p. 39.Google Scholar Hereafter referred to as Pietismus.

14. See Hefner, , Church History, pp. 271–72.Google Scholar

15. Ritschl, , Entstehung, pp. 410.Google Scholar Also Rechtfertigung und Versoehnung I (Bonn: Adolph Marcus, 1870), pp. 1214.Google Scholar Hereafter referred to as R.u.V.

16. Ritschl, , Entstehung, p. 27.Google Scholar

17. Ibid., pp. 31–41, passim.

18. Ibid., p. 107.

19. Ibid., pp. 154–55 and 248.

20. Ibid., pp. 250–55.

21. Ibid., pp. 256–7.

22. Ibid., pp. 257, 281–82.

23. “Das christliche Gesetztum der apostolischen Vaeter,” which is a chapter title, Ibid., pp. 274–98.

24. Ibid., p. 332.

25. Hefuer, Church History, gives a fuller discussion of this important judgment of Ritschl's, pp. 266–67.

26. These essays all appear in the 1893 volume of Gesammelte Aufsaetze, see note 9 above.

27. R.u.V. I, pp. 9697.Google Scholar

28. Ibid., p. 130. Ritschl's use of the term “Catholic” is ambiguous. When applied to Roman practices exclusively, it is a pejorative term. But it can also refer to the continuity with authentic Christian faith that Ritschl aspires to.

29. Ibid., pp. 171–72.

30. Ibid., pp. 172–73.

31. Ibid., pp. 134–36.

32. Ibid., p. 138.

33. Ibid., pp. 173ff.

34. Ibid., pp. 99–100.

35. Ritschl, , Pietismus I, 3738.Google Scholar

36. Ritschl, , R.u.V. I, 127.Google Scholar

37. Ibid., p. 101.

38. Ritschl, , Pietismus I, 3839, 7576.Google Scholar

39. Ibid 40–41.

40. Ritschl, , “Die Eutstehung der lutherischen Kirche,” in Aufsaetze (1893), pp. 171–72.Google Scholar

41. Ibid., pp. 173–74.

42. Ibid., pp. 175–76.

43. Ibid., pp. 186–87.

44. Ibid., pp. 197–98.

45. Ibid., p. 188.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid., p. 189.

48. Ibid., pp. 189–90. The term “Schulmaessigkeit” is best left untranslated. The root of the word, Schule, signifies both “school” and “party.” Thus, Schulmaessigkeit refers both to the intellectualism of the former and to the sectarianism of the latter.

49. Ibid., p. 202.

50. Ibid., pp. 209–12.

51. Ibid., p. 196.

52. Ibid., pp. 191–92.

53. Ritschl, , Entstehung, pp. 34.Google Scholar

54. Ritschl, , R.u.V. I, 127–29.Google Scholar

55. Ibid., p. 128.

56. Ibid., pp. 177–78.

57. Ibid., p. 178.

58. Ibid., pp. 185–86.

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid., pp. 176–77, 190–91.

61. Ritschl, , R.u.V. III, 22.Google Scholar See also the discussion in my “Albrecht Ritschl and His Current Critics,” The Lutheran Quarterly, XIII (05, 1961), 108–9.Google Scholar

62. Ritschl, , R.u.V. III, 1314.Google Scholar

63. Ritschi, , Pietismus I, 92ff.Google Scholar

64. Ibid., p. 95.

65. Ibid., p. 94.

66. Ibid., pp. 94–96.

67. Ritschl, , R.u.V. III, iii.Google Scholar

68. See Hermann, Wilhelm, in Festgabe … fuer Harnack (Tuebingen: J. C. B.Mohr, 1921), pp. 405406Google Scholar; also Nichols, James Hastings, History of Christianity, 1650–1950 (New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1956), p. 285Google Scholar; and Heussi, Karl, Kompendium der Kirchen gesehichte (11th ed.; Tuebingen: J. O. B. Mohr, 1957), p. 482.Google Scholar

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