Peculiar conception of the nature and scope of Christianity, widely held in modern Protestantism, especially in Germany
Ritschlianism, a peculiar conception of the nature and scope of Christianity, widely held in modern Protestantism, especially in Germany. Its founder was the Protestantism theologian, Albrecht Ritschl (b. at Berlin, March 25, 1822; d. at Gottingen, March 20, 1889.) Having completed his studies in the gymnasium at Stettin, where his father resided as general superintendent of Pomerania, Ritschl attended the University of Bonn, and was for a time captivated by the “Biblical supernaturalism” of his teacher, K. J. Nitzsch. Mental dissatisfaction caused him to leave Bonn in 1841, and he continued his studies under Julius Muller and Tholuck in the University of Halle. Disabused here also as to the teachings of his professors, he sought and found peace in the reconciliation doctrine of the Tubingen professor, Ferdinand Christian Baur, through whose writings he was won over to the philosophy of Hegel. On May 21, 1843, he graduated Doctor of Philosophy at Halle with the dissertation, “Expositio doctrine Augustini de creatione mundi, peccato, gratia” (Halle, 1843). After a long residence in his parents’ house at Stettin, he proceeded to Tubingen, and there entered into personal intercourse with the celebrated head of the (later) Tubingen School, Ferdinand Christian Baur. He here wrote, entirely in the spirit of this theologian, “Das Evangelium Marcions and das kanonische Evangelium des Lukas” (Tubingen, 1846), wherein he attempts to prove that the apocryphal gospel of the Gnostic Marcion forms the real foundation of the Gospel of St. Luke. Having qualified as Privatdocent at Bonn on June 20, 1846, he was appointed professor extraordinary of Evangelical theology on December 22, 1852, and ordinary professor on July 10, 1859. Meanwhile he had experienced a radical change in the earlier views which he had formed under Baur’s influence; this change removed him farther and farther from the Tubingen School.
In 1851 he had withdrawn his hypothesis concerning the origin of the Gospel of St. Luke as untenable, and in 1856 he had a public breach with Baur. Henceforth Ritschl was resolved to tread his own path. In the second edition of his “Die Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche” (Bonn, 1857; 1st ed., 1850), he rejected outright Baur’s sharp distinction between St. Paul and the original Apostles—between Paulinism and Petrinism—by maintaining the thesis that the New Testament contains the religion of Jesus Christ in a manner entirely uniform and disturbed by no internal contradictions. At Gottingen, whither he was called at Easter, 1864, his peculiar ideas first found full realization in his “Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung and Versohnung” (3 vols., Bonn, 1870-4; 4th ed., 1895-1903). His practical conception of Christianity was described first in his lecture on “Christliche Vollkommenheit” (Gottingen, 1874; 3rd ed., 1902) and then in his “Unterricht in der christlichen Religion” (Bonn, 1875; 6th ed., 1903), which was intended as a manual for the gymnasium, but proved very unsatisfactory for practical purposes. In his small, but important, work, “Theologie and Metaphysik” (Bonn, 1881; 3rd ed., Gottingen, 1902), he denies the influence of philosophy in the formation of theology. In addition to numerous smaller writings, which were reedited after his death under the title “Gesammelte Aufsatze” (2 vols., Gottingen, 1893-6), he compiled a “Geschichte des Pietismus” (3 vols., Bonn, 1880-6), based upon a wide study of the sources. Pietism itself, as it appeared in Calvinistic and Lutheran circles during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he condemns as an abortion of modern Protestantism caused by the false Catholic ideal of piety. His last and incomplete work, “Fides implicita, oder eine Untersuchung fiber Kohlerglauben, Wissen and Glauben, Glauben and Kirche” (Bonn, 1890), appeared shortly after his death. After 1888 he suffered from heart disease, of which he died in the following year. Although Ritschl was violently attacked during his lifetime not only by the orthodox party, but also by the Erlangen school named after Hofmann, he attached to himself a large circle of enthusiastic followers with Liberal leanings, who are included under the name of Ritschlianists. The literary organs of Ritschlianism in Germany are the “Theologische Literaturzeitung”, the “Zeitschrift fur Theologie and Kirche”, and the “Christliche Welt”.
To understand and rightly appraise the rather abstruse train of thought in the doctrine of justification, which constitutes the focus of Ritschl’s theological system, we must go back to the epistemology on which the whole edifice rests. Influenced by the philosophy of Kant rather than of Lotze, Ritschl denies human reason the power to arrive at a scientific knowledge of God. Consequently religion cannot have an intellectual, but merely a practical-moral foundation. Religious knowledge is essentially distinct from scientific knowledge. It is not acquired by a theoretical insight into truth, but, as the product of religious faith, is bound up with the practical interests of the soul. Religion is practice, not theory. Knowledge and faith are not only distinct domains; they are independent of and separated from each other. While knowledge rests on judgments of existence (Seinsurteile), faith proceeds on independent “judgments of value” (Werturteile), which affirm nothing concerning the essence or nature of Divine things, but refer simply to the usefulness and fruitfulness of religious ideas. Anticipating to some extent the principles of Pragmatism put forward in a later generation by W. James, Schiller, etc., Ritschl declared that knowledge alone valuable which in practice brings us forward. Not what the thing is “in itself”, but what it is “for us”, is decisive. So far Ritschl is not original, since Schleiermacher had already banished metaphysics from Christian philosophy, and had explained the nature of religion subjectively as springing from the feeling of our absolute dependence on God. Ritschl’s teaching is distinguished from that of the Berlin scholar especially by the fact that he seeks to establish a better Biblical and historical foundation for his ideas. In the latter respect he is the promoter of the so-called historical-critical method, of the application of which many Ritschlianists of the present day are thorough masters.
Like Schleiermacher, Ritschl connects mankind’s subjective need of redemption with Jesus Christ, the “originator of the perfect spiritual and moral religion”. Since we can determine the historical reality of Christ only through the faith of the Christian community, the religious significance of Jesus is really independent of His biography and investigation into His life. A convinced Ritschlianist seems to be ready to persevere in his Christianity, even though radical criticism were to succeed in setting aside the historical existence of Christ. He could be a Christian without Christ, as there could be a Tibetan Buddhist without an historical Buddha (cf. “Christliche Welt”, 1901, n. 35). Ritschl himself never wished to separate Christianity from the Person of Christ. Since, as Ritschl especially emphasizes in reply to Baur, the original consciousness of the early Christian community reveals itself with perfect consistency in the writings of the New Testament, theology must in its investigation of the authentic contents of the Christian religion begin with the Bible as source, for the more thorough understanding of which the ancient Christian professions of faith furnish an indirect, and the symbolical books of Protestants (Luther) a direct, guidance. The Reformation rightly elevated the Pauline justification by faith to the central place in Christian doctrine, and in the West carried it to a successful conclusion. As the necessary doctrine of salvation through Christ, this doctrine of justificationis thus alone obligatory for theology and Church, while the other convictions and institutions of the earliest Christian community are of a subsidiary nature. For this reason, therefore, Luther himself recognized the Bible as the Word of God only in so far as it “makes for Christ”. Since the Christian faith exists only through personal experience or subjective acquaintance with justification and reconciliation, the objects of faith are not presented to the mind from without through a Divine revelation as an authoritative rule of faith, but become vividly present for the Christian only through subjective experience. The revelation of God is given only to the believer who religiously lays hold of it by experience, and recognizes it as such.
Justifying faith especially is no mere passive attitude of man towards God, but an active trust in Him and His grace, evincing itself chiefly in humility, patience, and prayer. It is by no means a dogmatical belief in the truth of Revelation, but it possesses essentially a thoroughly practico-moral character. Ritschlianism can thus speak without any inconsistency of an “undogmatic Christianity” (Kaftan). The harmonizing of the free-religious moral activity of the Christian with dependence on God is proclaimed by Ritschl the “master-question of theology”. This fundamental problem he solves as follows: The returning sinner is at first passively determined by God, whereupon justification achieves its practical success in reconciliation and regeneration, which in their turn lead to Christian activity. Justification and reconciliation are so related that the former is also the forgiveness of sin and as such removes man’s consciousness of guilt (i.e., mistrust of God), while the latter, as the cessation of active resistance to God, introduces a new direction of the will calculated to develop Christian activity in the true fulfilment of one’s vocation. These two—justification and reconciliation—form the basis of our sonship as children of God. This justification, identical with forgiveness of sin, is however, no real annihilation of sin, but a forensic declaration of righteousness, inasmuch as God regards the believing sinner, in spite of his sins, as just and pleasing in consideration of the work of Christ.
A special characteristic of Ritschlianism lies in the assertion that justifying faith is possible only within the Christian community. The Church of Christ (by which, however, is to be understood no external institution with legal organization) is on the one hand the aggregate of all the justified believers, but on the other hand has, as the enduring fruit of the work of Christ, a duration and existence prior to all its members, just as the whole is prior to its parts. Like the children in the family and the citizens in the state, the believers must also be born in an already existing Christian community. In this alone is God preached as the Spirit of Love, just as Jesus Himself preached, and in this alone, through the preaching of Christ and His work, is that justifying faith rendered possible, in virtue of which the individual experiences regeneration and attains to adoption as a son of God (cf. Conrad, “Begriff and Bedeutung der Gemeinde in Ritschl’s Theologie” in “Theol. Studien and Krit.”, 1911, 230 sqq.). It is plain that, according to this view, Christian baptism loses all its importance as the real door to the Church.
What is Ritschl’s opinion of Jesus Christ? Does he consider Him a mere man? If we set aside the pious flourishes with which he clothes the form of the Savior, we come speedily to the conviction that he does not recognize the true Divinity of Jesus Christ.
As the efficacious bearer and transmitter of the Divine Spirit of Love to mankind Jesus is “superordinate” to all men, and has in the eternal decree of God a merely ideal pre-existence. He is therefore, as for the earliest community so also for us, our “God and Savior” only in the metaphorical sense. All other theological questions—such as the Trinity, the meta-physical Divine sonship of Christ, original sin, eschatology—possess an entirely secondary importance. This self-limitation is specially injurious to the doctrine concerning God: all the Divine attributes, except such as are practico-moral, are set aside as unknowable. The essence of God is love, to which all His other attributes may be traced. Thus, His omnipotence is another phase of love inasmuch as the world is nothing else than the means for the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Even the Divine justice ends in love, especially in God‘s fidelity to the chosen people in the Old Testament and to the Christian community in the New. Every other explanation of the relation between the just God and sinful mankind—such as the juridical doctrine of satisfaction taught by St. Anselm of Canterbury—is called by Ritschl “sub-Christian“. Only the sin against the Holy Ghost, which renders man incapable of salvation, calls forth the anger of God and hurls him into everlasting damnation. Other evils decreed by God are not punishments for sin, but punishments intended for our instruction and improvement. Sin being conceivable only as personal guilt, the idea of original sin is morally inconceivable.
Although Ritschlianism has undergone manifold alterations and developments in one direction or another at the hands of its learned representatives (Harnack, Kaftan, Bender, Sell, and so on), it has remained unchanged in its essential features. The Liberal and modern-positive theology of Germany is distinctly colored with Ritschlianism, and the efforts of orthodox Protestantism to combat it have met with poor success. More than a decade ago Adolf Zahn (“Abriss einer Geschichte der evangelischen Kirche im 19. Jahrhundert”, 3rd ed., Stuttgart, 1893) passed the sharp judgment on Ritschlianism, that it was “a rationalist scepticism and Pelagian moralism, vainly decked out in the truths of the Reformers, the threadbare garment of Lutheranism, for purposes of deceit; the clearest sign of the complete exhaustion and impoverishment of Protestantism, which at the end of the nineteenth century again knows no more than the common folk have ever known: `Do right and fear no man’.” The Catholic critic will probably see in the scorn for metaphysics and the elimination of the intellectual factor the chief errors of Ritschlian theology. The separation of faith and knowledge, of theology and metaphysics, has indeed a long and gloomy history behind it. The philosophy of the Renaissance, with its doctrine of the “double truth”, erected the first separating wall between faith and knowledge; this division was increased by Spinoza, when he assigned to faith the role of concerning itself with pia dogmata, but entrusted to philosophy alone the investigation of truth. Finally appeared Kant, who cut the last threads which still held together theology and metaphysics. By denying the demonstrability of the existence of God through reason, he consistently effected the complete segregation of faith and knowledge into two “separate households”. In this he was followed by Schleiermacher and Ritschl. Since recent Modernism, with its Agnosticism and Immanentism, adopts the same attitude, it is, whether avowedly or not, the death-knell not only of Christianity, but of every objective religion. Consequently, the regulations of Pius X against Modernism represent a contest in which the vital interests of the Catholic religion are at stake. As the foremost champion of the powers and rights of reason in its relations with faith, Catholicism is the defender of the law of causality which leads to the knowledge of metaphysical and Divine truths, the guardian of a constant, eternal, and unalterable truth, and the outspoken foe of every form of Scepticism, Criticism, Relativism, and Pragmatism always in the interests of Christianity itself, since, without a rational foundation and substructure, Revelation and faith would hang unsupported in the air. In this statement the Catholic opposition to Ritschlianism in one of the most fundamental points of difference is sufficiently characterized.