What Went Wrong? Albrecht Ritschl

What Went Wrong? Albrecht Ritschl


Albrecht Ritschl emerged during a time in our history when liberal theology grew from a scientific ideology of the Bible.  Liberal theology is not a new term amongst biblical scholars, but it may confuse some modern churches as to its meaning.  Liberal theology began out of a criticism to the traditional teaching of biblical theology.  One of the main teachings was the young earth creation theory which was taught by main stream protestant theologians of the time.  The use of science to evaluate the historical evidence of biblical teaching gave researchers a theory that the earth was actually millions of years old and contradicted the young earth creation theory.  This was a challenge to traditional beliefs and contradicted the theological teachings of the time.  Swing said of Ritschl, “his historical method is more suggestive than that of any other modern writer on the subject of doctrine. He has introduced a method of analysis which is revolutionizing historical and doctrinal study.”[1] Ritschl believed that we should take history and combine it with practical moral judgment in order to understand the Bible.  Ritschl believed the Bible was a divine revelation, but he did not believe in the miracles, or any intangible teachings of the Bible that seemed to rely on faith.  He believed that we are limited to the experience of God and experience of justification through Christ.


During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, liberal theology took hold of higher criticism with the influence of scientific ideas and philosophy.  Friedrich Schleiermacher is considered by most biblical scholars as the father or creator of liberal theology.  His influence in the field of hermeneutics brought about a foundation that is still used by modern scholars.  Albrecht Ritschl was critical of Aristotelianism and Protestant theology; however he believed that he was continuing the scholarship of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Martin Luther.  Ritschl was raised by a Lutheran father and according to Britannica, “was trained in theology and philosophy at the universities of Bonn (1839-41) and Halle (1841-43).”  Ritschl continued in his studies at the Tübingen School where he was influenced by Ferdinand Christian Baur, who taught Hegelianism.  He was deeply influenced by Immanuel Kant, but he developed his own theology that is often referred to as Ritschlian Theology.



Albrecht Ritschl studied early Christian history and from his learning’s came away with the thought that the life of a Christian is an experience with God from only positive historical faith.  Ironic to his own scholarship of study, Ritschl proposes positive participation of life and teaches that critical thought is wrong.  Because his theories were so far reaching, it often found him opposed by both conservative and liberal theologians.  Swing stated, “The Confessionalists, with Luthardt at their head, may be thought of as having constituted the right wing of modern German thought. The Liberals, represented by such able theologians as Bierdmann, Lipsius and Pfleider, composed the left wing; while Ritschl with those won to his method formed the new centre. Ritschl’s position, then, must, from the very fact of its being at all, be considered by both the other parties as hostile.”[2] Ritschl opposed mystical teachings of miracles from the divinely inspired Bible, while at the same time still maintaining the Bible was a divine revelation.  Garvie explains, “Ritschlianism fails to satisfy the mind of the writer, because it refuses to explain fully the objects of faith. It is quite true that what is in the first place most important for us is God’s revelation to us, Christ’s mediation for us, the Spirit’s operation in us; but it is not true that it is altogether indifferent to faith what God as the eternal and infinite existence is, what Christ in His relations to God is, how the Holy Spirit is related to God and to man.”[3]  Ritschl did not believe in the doctrine of the trinity.  He believed that such doctrines fell under a mystical and not practical and moral standard explanation of theology.  This is where Ritschl theological principles started to form vast holes of explanation.  Ritschl like to ascribe to philosophical explanations of historical interpretation in order to understand the in depth nature of the writers.  Ritschl would indicate knowledge of divine interpretation, but leave an allowance for the oral traditions to be at fault for any mystical writings or authors exchange to the divine meaning of the text.


Albrecht Ritschl was a huge figure in theology and his theology helped shape liberal theology. Stearns states of Ritschl’s theology, “Two things which Ritschl particularly and persistently combatted were speculative rationalism, on the one hand, and subjectivism (including mysticism), on the other hand. Hegelianism was the classic type of the first (and truly we can rejoice that Ritschl had some success in driving it from the field of theology).[4]  Ritschl ascribed to teaching that we cannot know God our Father apart from Christ.  Ritschl looked at the study of history as the experience of life, rather than the history as it was revealed to us.  He did not recognize the sin of which Christ died to cleanse us from and that ignores the wrath of God.  Albrecht Ritschl put so much emphasis of the experience of life and the practical interpretation of theology, that he did not utilize it to see the implications his theology had on all other doctrine it contradicted.  His theology has set a course of change in interpretation of the Bible and opened up world theological discussions since.  Albrecht Ritschl has taken the theologians of his time and throughout his life developed a theory of beliefs that are filled with holes and contradictions.   In either case his following has a school and trains others on the basis of the principles of liberal theology as he ascribed to.


[1]. Albert Temple Swing, The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl (New York, NY: New York, Longmans, Green and co., 1901).

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Alfred E. Garvie, The Ritschlian Theology (Edinburgh, London: T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1899).

[4]. Minor Brodhead Stearns, “Protestant Theology Since 1700,” Bibliotheca Sacra 104, no. 416 (October 1947).

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