(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Three Essays, published and translated in its present form in the United States in 1972, is a distillation of the most seminal work of the late nineteenth century German theologian Albrecht Ritschl. It should be noted that Three Essays, edited by Philip Hefner (who supplies a lengthy introduction that situates Ritschl in the history of Christian thought), exists as such only as an English-language book.

The first essay, “Prolegomena to a History of Pietism,” was originally a prologue to a longer history of the Pietist tendencies in Protestantism (those tendencies emphasizing fervent and performed expression of belief as the mainstay of religious devotion). Though strongly Protestant (in fact Ritschl’s great motivation, in wishing to combine Lutheranism and Calvinism and to give a total sense of Christian history, was to provide a Protestant rival to the universal and ecumenical tendencies of Catholicism), Ritschl criticizes his historical precursors for scanting the proto-Protestant tendencies already present in late medieval Catholicism. In Franciscan devotion, for instance, Ritschl finds a sense of piety that both tried to define monastic piety as something distinct from the word and sought to present it to people outside the Church as a model for their own piety. The very concept of reformation, Ritschl argues, was endemic to Catholicism, as Catholicism, unlike Eastern Orthodox Christianity, did not have the Byzantine model of the civil ruler maintaining a theoretical suzerainty over the Church. This Western difference has both historical and theological origins, but it virtually ensures that there will always be reforming tendencies, as there is no external political organism to keep these in check.

On the Protestant Reformation itself, Ritschl distinguished between Lutheranism, which did not expect the Church to be any purer than the surrounding society; Calvinism, which sought to reform the surrounding society by bringing it to the level of the Church; and Pietism, which placed the individual achievement of moral perfection above all. This moral perfection, the expression of the Holy Spirit, could be achieved through religious feeling, through the effect of piety. Whereas Lutheranism and Protestantism continued the Catholic stress on discipline as a way to achieve perfection (although placing the instrument of discipline less in the Church as an institution than in divine grace and the confessing community), Pietism, in its call for perfection, rejected the world in its entirety, not wishing either to reform the world or to use worldly instruments to help achieve religious...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. Gives background on the Prussian Union Church so important to Ritschl’s thought, as well as on the history of German unification that provided the political background for Ritschl’s theology.

Dorrien, Gary J. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. Canvasses Ritschl’s underestimated influence on later American Social Gospel and reformist thinkers.

Lotz, David W. “Albrecht Ritschl and the Unfinished Reformation.” Harvard Theological Review 73, nos. 3/4 (July, 1980): 337-373. Views Ritschl as anticipating some of the major themes of twentieth century Protestant theology; reasonably accessible in its approach.

McCulloh, Gerald W. Christ’s Person and Life-Work in the Theology of Albrecht Ritschl. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990. An occasionally dense exploration of the sometimes explicit, sometimes tacit Christological emphasis in Ritschl’s work; also contains useful biographical detail.

Richmond, James. Ritschl: A Reappraisal. London: Collins, 1978. A seminal text in the attempt to rescue Ritschl from the opprobrium placed on him by neo-orthodox theologians such as Karl Barth; particularly concerned to rebut accusations of “liberal optimism.”