Albrecht Ritschl was born into a long line of ministers in the Prussian Union Church, which was officially Lutheran but incorporated Calvinist elements. Ritschl’s intellectual curiosity led him to be influenced by figures ranging from the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) to the New Testament critical scholar Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) to the church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). Compared to some of his influences, Ritschl was practical-minded. He believed that the world around him could be gradually improved and that what people did in their daily lives mattered in a theological sense. He was not, however, interested in isolated gestures or concrete events without a greater historical horizon.
Reacting against both present-minded social activists and textual historians who looked carefully only at selected segments of biblical text or of church history, Ritschl insisted on considering the entire history of the Church, from its earliest Israelite beginnings to the present day, as the overall ground against which ethical and moral judgments must be made.
Though Ritschl understood that the Kingdom of God, as proclaimed in the New Testament, was partially reserved for a future eschatological state—in other words, for the end-time after the Day of Judgment—he also maintained that part of the Kingdom of God was realizable in our own day, expressed by concrete ethical action within a community confessing belief in God and acknowledging the salvation of Jesus Christ as a prerequisite for all morality and judgment. Ritschl is hardly a household word outside college theology departments, but he influenced scores of better-known later thinkers and has provided Christians with one of the most satisfactory accounts of what it means to live a Christian life in community.