Ritschl and Barth: Still a Worthwhile Discussion

Two outstanding theologians defined liberalism of the nineteenth century and neo-orthodoxy of the twentieth centry. The tendency of the twentieth century was to reject the liberalism of the nineteenth century, but really the two worlds ought to be in dialogue. They are both our heritage today.

Albrecht Ritschl

Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889) was an influential theologian of the nineteenth century. Most people who work professionally in the Christian tradition know his name, but apart from that he is remarkably unknown; knowing his name and knowing what he was about are two different things.

Ritschl was a key figure in the rise of “liberal” theology; among his students was Wilhelm Hermann, and among Hermann’s students was Karl Barth (1886–1968). It is likely due to Barth that Ritschl fell from favour.

The features of Ritschlian theology are the priority of the church as a community, the focus on Jesus as a teacher, and the emphasis on the kingdom of God. Ritschl influenced the development of the social gospel, which is the gospel of the kingdom of God on earth.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth lived through the First and Second World Wars—shocking events after the life of Ritschl. Barth felt that Ritschl’s liberal theology was idealistic. Ritschl’s gospel was too humanist and did not account for evil. To Barth, theology is eschatological. It is about the judgement of God upon the world and the crisis of the world in light of God’s judgement. To Barth, the optimism of liberalism led to naivete about human nature. Human beings are sinful, sin is expressed in a lust for power, and the lust for power is fascism. It is pretty clear why, having lived through two world wars, Barth felt God was about judging human sin, not about praising human virtue.

Barth today is understood as a conservative. He is frequently named as the founder of Christian neo-orthodoxy, though initially his theology was called a theology of crisis. However, Barth, as a person, was not conservative. Politically, he was a socialist, and he was a socialist because he believed capitalism holds little to no counter-balance against gluttony and the lust for power, that is, against sin. Capitalism gone wild is sin on the rampage; socialism counter-balances irresponsible greed.

Ritschl and Barth

As much as Barth is admirable, it is somewhat regrettable that his influence in the twentieth century overruled the insights of Ritschl in the nineteenth century. Barth gave liberalism a bad reputation. Consequently, no one pays attention to Barth’s “liberal” politics anymore. What people like about Barth is the conservative emphasis on sin, the judgement of God, and salvation through Jesus as the Word.

Barth’s theology emphasizes the apocalyptic gospel. Apocalyptic theology announces the judgement of God. It’s not a fundamentalist theology, but it sounds like it. Early fundamentalists disliked Barth, maybe because they understood his politics. But today Barth and fundamentalism are often found together.

To the extent that Barth is a needed corrective to Ritschl’ s social optimism, Ritschl is a needed corrective to Barth’s social apocalypticism. To Ritschl apocalypticism is a lost world. The idea that the world is coming to an end belongs to the age before Newton (Einstein was not yet around), natural law, and the awareness of an overwhelmingly large universe. There is not much to retrieve from Jesus if the focus is on end-time thinking.

Ritschl did, however, see the teaching value of Jesus. He understood that Jesus was at the heart of a movement or school, and that a school is a community. The world does not have to be ending for a community to be of value. Jesus gives a moral centre to a community, and the centre is love. To Ritschl, the kingdom of God was the summum bonum of life, the “supreme good.” It was not anyone’s possession. It was the promise of being human. “Our moral endowment,” Ritschl said, “has as its end the moral destiny of the race.” If we put Ritschl’s thought in a casual way, we could say that his advice was “don’t wait around for the kingdom of God. It’s not coming on its own. We have to build it together.”

Barth’s supreme suspicion of human nature is offset by Ritschl’s supreme hope invested in human nature. In this difference, we might note that liberation theology comes out of the spirit of Ritschl. The Jesus Seminar’s focus on the voice of Jesus is consistent with Ritschl. The radical theology of the Death of God expresses Ritschl and his commitment to the now. Equally, understanding the church first as a community and only secondly as a belief system is Ritschl in spades.

Barth’s theology, on the other hand, is at home in otherworldly delusions, conspiracy theories, fundamentalism, and authoritarian forms of church dogma. The Word of God in Barth was always spelled with a capital W, and it always remained beyond human reason and understanding. The Word in Barth loans itself to uncritically accepted apocalyptic warnings and fanatical events.

Common Priority

It is sad that this displacement happened to Barth because it is not consistent with the one thing Barth retained from Ritschl. To Barth, too, the church is primarily a community, and, as such, it is primarily about the collective good before it is about individualistic desires for salvation.

For Barth, the collective is the social, which accounted for his politics, but Barth needed Ritschl to make the connection between the gospel and the social. Barth needed the positive elements of liberalism in his otherwise overly conservative expressions. It might be understandable that Barth rejected his liberal teachers due to the times of his life, but it is an error if we, in retrospect, do the same thing.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University.


Academic Credentials

  • Ph.D., McGill University
  • M. Div., Vancouver School of Theology
  • B. A., University of Winnipeg
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