The Ritschlian Captivity of the Church

It’s been my contention throughout my various writings that contemporary Lutheran theology is in a crisis. The theologies which are being touted as that of Martin Luther, and have been at least for the last hundred years, are basically unrecognizable in relation to that of the Lutheran scholastics. A read of Gerhard Forde next to Johann Gerhard will point the reader to two divergent systems of thought and piety which might cause one to wonder how these two figures can both claim to be descendants of the same theological system. I have been trying to find the roots of such a divergence, in order to find out exactly what happened to produce what exists today in the Lutheran church, and it seems that modern developments are indebted, more than anyone else, to Albrecht Ritschl.

Gerhard Forde’s theology did not arise in a vacuum. It was not his intent to reinvent Lutheran thought on his own, but he was influenced by several forebears. The one he mentions most often is Johannes Von Hoffman, who rejected the Orthodox Lutheran definition of the law as the eternal will of God. Another clear influence is Werner Elert, who speaks of Luther’s theology in a much more existential manner than most previous writers. The most existentializing Lutheran, of course, is Rudolph Bultmann, whose shadow still hangs over much of contemporary theology. Some have proposed that the modern crisis in Lutheran thought is due to what has been labeled “Erlangen theology,” since some of the professors involved in this shift came from that school. Such a phrase, I think, is too simplistic, as Erlangen was quite broad as an institution, and theologians such as Adolf Von Harless could by no means be categorized in the same manner as Hoffman. Also, several theologians associated with a similar theology have no ties to Erlangen. For this reason, other titles might be preferred.

The writers who, in my view, have really understood the roots of this shift in Lutheranism are the Finnish interpreters of Luther. Now, personally, I do not think they themselves arise at the proper solution to the problems discovered, as they too engage in a kind of anti-scholasticism, especially with their general neglect of forensic language. However, what Mannermaa rightly points out is that Luther has been misunderstood due to Ritschl’s adoption of Kantian ideas, especially as explained by Herman Lotze. In particular, the problem lies in the nature of what Kant refers to as the noumenal realm which is inaccessible to the human person. Instead, a thing is only known through its impact upon the human subject. When Ritschl applies this distinction to theology (albeit with several modifications), this means that God is explained only through one’s experience of him. This is not a subjective personal experience, as Ritschl is highly critical of individualistic pietism, but the experience of the Christian community.

Ritschl teaches a theology that is anti-metaphysical, with an emphasis on practical value judgments. He does this through a strong dichotomy between nature and spirit, which is essentially a Christianized reworking of Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal divide. Matters of spirit are not subject to scientific investigation, and cannot be known by way of metaphysics. In his examination of Luther, and of pietism, Ritschl argues that Luther himself was not a highly metaphysical theologian, but rather, he rejected the majority of scholastic thought. For Ritschl, there is a great divide between Luther and the later Lutheran tradition–this includes both scholasticism and Pietism. He is the among the first to propose a divergence between Luther and Melanchthon, with an emphasis on the purity of the thought of the older reformer, and the corruption of the latter. What Ritschl is most critical of is the development of the theme of the unio mystica in both scholasticism and Pietism as a complete rejection of Luther’s theology of justification and the moral life. This is a major theme in his three volume study on the history of Pietism.

All of the basic elements of Lutheran thought in the twentieth century are laid by Ritschl here: a rejection of Lutheran scholastic categories, antipathy toward metaphysics, an emphasis on the subjective impact of God and his word as opposed to the thing-in-itself, the argument that pure Lutheranism is to be found in Luther and not the corrupted theology of later writers, and the rejection of union with Christ in any real-ontic sense. As much as later writers disagree with Ritschl, these basic assumptions are simply taken for granted throughout the last hundred years. Karl Holl and the major figures of the Luther renaissance reject elements of Ritschl’s Kantianism, but retain these themes. This then is filtered through Werner Elert, Gerhard Forde, and theologians today.

This year is the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s protest against the sale of indulgences through the posting of the 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. This should, then, be an opportunity for us as Lutherans to rethink our heritage and to contemplate the future of our tradition. As we do think about these central questions, it is my hope that these Ritschlian shackles can be removed, and the catholic tradition of the church of the Augsburg Confession can be rediscovered.

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