Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Ritschl

(Jason Ingalls was a year in front of me here in the PTS MDiv program. We worked together on campus and in a local church. He currently works with InterVarsity on the graduate school level at Vanderbilt University. He keeps a blog about his IV work.)
“There were very real reasons why all [Ritschl’s] contemporaries, apart from the adherents to his school, and the history of theology after him showed themselves to be governed by the determination not to allow his words to hold sway as the final and characteristic words of the entire age, no matter how genuine and impressive they might be in their own way.” - Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, 647.
If there is a point that Karl Barth wanted to make about Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), it would be this: Ritschl was not an epoch-maker. Important, yes. An interesting reaction, yes. Epoch-maker, no. Barth’s assessment stood against the “historians of Ritschl’s school” who wanted to make of Ritschl a parallel stream to the theological revolution of the only true epoch-maker of the nineteenth century: Friedrich Schleiermacher. While Ritschl stirred up controversy and attracted followers during and after his lifetime, only Schleiermacher was “incomparably stronger in 1910 than in 1830” (640). Rather like a rock in a brook, the theology of the nineteenth century momentarily pooled around Ritschl only to continue flowing down Schleiermacher’s stream. “In the development thus hinted at the school of Ritschl played the undoubtedly important rôle of a reaction. It is thus, however, and not as the beginning of a new epoch, that it distinguishes itself from the flood of events and personalities…” (641).

In reading Barth on Ritschl, I felt that Albrecht had become a morality lesson for Barth. Ritschl’s career and legacy are little more than a brief inconvenience in the history of theology, a history characterized by Schleiermacher and Hegel. If anything, it was Ritschl’s ultimate failure to reconfigure theology solidly on the basis of an “antimetaphysical moralist” reading of Kant that provided a negative case study for the theology Barth would later construct.

Consider this quote: “The passion with which he was attacked both from left and right is quite understandable—this self-assurance of modern man was not to everyone’s taste, even between 1860 and 1890—and quite understandable too was the fact that he and his school could not long sustain themselves, once the jubilation over Columbus’ trick with the egg had died away” (642). It is reported that Christopher Columbus once challenged a gathering of nobles to stand an egg on its end. When the whole room failed repeated attempts, Columbus cracked and slightly flattened the bottom of his egg and sat it straight up. Ritschl, apparently, had worked out a compromise with the Enlightenment that had broken theology’s egg, domesticating it to the Enlightenment’s ideal for humankind. Nineteenth century theology, after all, resulted “not at all in an overcoming of the Enlightenment, of its decisive interest of man in himself, but in its fulfillment” (641-42).

But, when we talk of this domestication, we must remember that it was the spirit of the age. Ritschl did not domesticate theology, it was already done!, nor did he find for it a new starting point. Barth adamantly maintains this was Schleiermacher’s work against which Ritschl’s anti-Pietism reacted on the basis of the same starting point (642). It was not to Christopher Columbus’ feat with an egg that Barth alludes, but to Nikola Tesla’s “Egg of Columbus” at the 1893 World’s Columbus Exposition. Tesla’s invention allowed a solid copper egg to stand on its end in the grip of a rotating magnetic field. Instead of a broken end, invisible and temporary forces kept Tesla’s egg upright. So too with Ritschl’s theology. Barth reported that it was “attacked both from left and right” with great “passion.” What held Ritschl’s work upright, according to Barth, is not so much the “genuine and impressive” work he did, but its competing and opposing forces. When these forces dissolved again into the stream of Schleiermacher’s Romanticism, Ritschl’s trick with the egg died away.

But, in dying away, Ritschl may have provided Barth with two lessons for theology. First, ideas might be held upright for a time for no other reason than they are opposed on either side. I think specifically of the Emerging church movement that continues to struggle for a positive basis simply because it is opposed by fundamentalists on the one hand and liberals on the other. Just because an idea stands for a time does not mean that it will finally hold. The second lesson Barth may have learned is this: if one is to start an epoch in theology, one must begin with a fresh starting point. Ritschl’s success and failure showed that “it was possible to abandon the Schleiermacher-Hegel approach” but since Ritschl failed to do so, “a different approach would make necessary the choice of another point of departure” (642). In other words, if theology were to move past the Enlightenment, it could not do so on the basis of the Enlightenment but upon another basis altogether. Though Barth does not state it explicitly here, it is easy to hear the opening strains of his symphony to Revelation, the starting points of starting points, upon which he attempted to inaugurate a new epoch.

- Jason Ingalls

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