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General Editors
Sarah Coakley Richard Cross

This series sets out to reconsider the modern distinction between ‘historical’ and
‘systematic’ theology. The scholarship represented in the series is marked by
attention to the way in which historiographic and theological presumptions
(‘paradigms’) necessarily inform the work of historians of Christian thought, and
thus affect their application to contemporary concerns. At certain key junctures
such paradigms are recast, causing a reconsideration of the methods, hermeneutics,
geographical boundaries, or chronological caesuras which have previously guided the
theological narrative. The beginning of the twenty-first century marks a period of such
notable reassessment of the Christian doctrinal heritage, and involves a questioning of
the paradigms that have sustained the classic ‘history-of-ideas’ textbook accounts of
the modern era. Each of the volumes in this series brings such contemporary
methodological and historiographical concerns to conscious consideration. Each
tackles a period or key figure whose significance is ripe for reconsideration, and each
analyses the implicit historiography that has sustained existing scholarship on the
topic. A variety of fresh methodological concerns are considered, without reducing the
theological to other categories. The emphasis is on an awareness of the history of
‘reception’: the possibilities for contemporary theology are bound up with a careful
rewriting of the historical narrative. In this sense, ‘historical’ and ‘systematic’ theology
are necessarily conjoined, yet also closely connected to a discerning interdisciplinary

This monograph series accompanies the project of The Oxford Handbook of the
Reception of Christian Theology (OUP, in progress), also edited by Sarah Coakley
and Richard Cross.
General Editors: Sarah Coakley (Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, University of
Cambridge) and Richard Cross (John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy, University
of Notre Dame)

recent series titles

Calvin, Participation, and the Gift
The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ
J. Todd Billings
Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers
Shaping Doctrine in Nineteenth-Century England
Benjamin J. King
Orthodox Readings of Aquinas
Marcus Plested
Kant and the Creation of Freedom
A Theological Problem
Christopher J. Insole
Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
The Secret Instinct
William Wood
Theology as Science in
From F. C. Baur to Ernst Troeltsch


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Franziska, Jonathan, Juliane,
Immanuel, Nicholas, & Nathanael
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The place of theology within institutions of higher education has once again
become controversial in recent years. The receding social and cultural domin-
ance of Christianity in most Western countries has inevitably and unsurpris-
ingly raised questions about the continuing presence of the sometime Queen
of Sciences in the academy. Less predictably perhaps but equally challenging
has been the contribution of those within the Christian community who have
voiced their concern that within a secular university theology must necessarily
lose its ability to offer intellectual guidance to the faith that seeks understand-
ing. The price theologians have to pay for the ticket that grants them entry into
the world of academic respectability, some have urged, is too high as it robs
their work of its specifically theological character.
While these debates are not lacking their political dimension, it would be
wrong to reduce them to an extension of contemporary identity politics. The
issues they raise touch the heart of what theology is and what role it can, and
ought to, play in churches, in the academy, and in society in general. Theology
has always been a precarious intellectual exercise. The place it occupies within
the totality of human learning and the role it plays in the university have been
controversial ever since that great European institution was founded in the
Middle Ages. In their attempt to discern theological answers to today’s
challenges, therefore, theologians are well advised to reflect on the peculiar
character of their own discipline. Whatever the changing conditions of the
world around them, without a proper understanding of the purpose and the
nature of their own enterprise, the theologians’ voice cannot be expected to be
heard, respected or even discerned.
I have written this book out of the conviction that historical reflection
can help those who are committed to the contemporary and future role of
theology. It therefore narrates and explains the origin, the development, and
the eventual demise in nineteenth century German academic theology of the
project of theology as science or Wissenschaft. The paradigmatic importance
this project has had for modern systematic as well as historical theology is
generally recognized. Recent attempts to break new ground and change
paradigms in a variety of theological fields have, if anything, served to high-
light more strongly to what extent all aspects of theological work during the
past 150 years have been under the sway of this nineteenth-century move-
ment. Knowledge of more than its most general outlines, however, has been
confined among English-speaking readers to a small circle of experts. Many of
the most important source texts remain untranslated and are therefore
viii Preface

accessible only in dense nineteenth-century academic German. Consequently,

secondary literature has been in short supply as well; on many central individ-
uals and issues no major English publication has appeared for years.
In this situation it seemed paramount to provide a reliable account of the
main protagonists of the movement, from F. C. Baur to Ernst Troeltsch, as
well as an analysis of their ideas and their intellectual contexts. Nevertheless,
my primary aim here is not the contribution of one chapter to the history
of nineteenth century theology. By means of historical engagement, rather,
I hope to elucidate some of the main features and challenges of theological
work: its intimate relationship to philosophical and historical thought, its
creative engagement with doctrinal traditions, its adaptability to changing
social and cultural circumstances, but also its internal tensions, its ideological
temptations, and its seemingly immodest inability to limit the scope of its
study. Once all these factors are taken into account, I have no doubt that the
scholars who are the object of my research will, in spite of their many failures
and shortcomings, emerge as exemplary theologians.
It goes without saying that a book like this could not have been written
without the help and support of a large number of people and institutions. In
this case, they are too many to be named, but I would like to single out my
former colleagues at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Richard Schröder,
Karsten Laudien, Michael Weichenhan, Nils Ole Oermann, and in particular
Till Hüttenberger whose critical and encouraging responses to my work
helped shape this project in its early stages. After my move to Oxford, George
Pattison, Joel Rasmussen, Paul Fiddes, and Robert Morgan have been the most
stimulating, competent, and constructive conversation partners any academic
could wish for. Trinity College has provided the ideal intellectual as well as
convivial environment for the completion of the book, and so it was most
fitting that the final research was undertaken during generously supplied
sabbatical leave from this institution.
The book was originally designed as a thesis for the degree of Dr. theol.
habil. An earlier version of the text was therefore submitted, in German, to the
Theologische Fakultät of Berlin’s Humboldt University in 2010. I wish to thank
the examiners involved in that process whose careful and exacting criticism
helped further improve the manuscript. I was fortunate, subsequently, to
secure a grant from Oxford’s John Fell Fund which paid for the translation
of the German text into English. This task was undertaken by Judith Wolfe
whose care, competence, and reliability in dealing with the rather stubborn
German of my original thesis rendered an incalculable service towards the
production of the final manuscript. Additional revisions, however, became
necessary, some at the instigation of OUP’s anonymous reader, while for
others I am indebted to Tara Isabella Burton who read and considerably
improved the language of the final manuscript. Lizzie Robottom at Oxford
Preface ix
University Press was unfailingly helpful and patient during the preparation for
its submission.
As ever, the book could not have been written without the constant support
of numerous friends and, most importantly, my family. What their presence in
my life has meant cannot easily be expressed but I hope that the dedication to
this book goes some ways in indicating it.
Johannes Zachhuber
December 2012
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Note to the Reader xiii

1. Introduction 1
The Institutional Context 2
The Historicization of European Intellectual Life 4
Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Project of Theology as Science 12

Part I. Ferdinand Christian Baur and the Tübingen School

2. F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 25
Gnosis and the Christian Philosophy of Religion 27
Ancient Gnosticism as Philosophy of Religion 31
Modern Philosophy of Religion as Gnosis 38
The Two Programmes: Idealist and Neo-rationalist 47
3. The Origin of the Two Programmes 51
The Tübingen Easter Programme 52
Symbolism and Mythology 64
Schelling’s Philosophy of History 67
4. A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 73
A New Ideal of Science 75
A Hegelian Theologian? 80
History, Religion, and Myth 86
5. Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 96
‘Scientific Theology’ 98
Strauss and Feuerbach 101
On the Nature of Religion 110
6. A Manifesto of Tübingen Orthodoxy: Adolf Hilgenfeld 124

Part II. Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschl School

7. Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 135
The Reformulation of the Idealist Programme 135
The Debate with Zeller 143
The Formation of the Early Catholic Church 162
xii Contents

8. Philosophical Insights and Influences 175

Foundations and Principles 176
Philosophy and Theology 196
9. The Kingdom of God 211
Background and Development 212
The Kingdom of God in Biblical Theology 224
A Teleological Doctrine of God 236
10. The End of the Idealist Programme 250
Tensions in Ritschl’s System 252
The Parting of the Ways 267
Conclusion 286

Bibliography 297
Index 315
Note to the Reader

This book operates with a number of terms, mostly German, that are not
easily, and often not unambiguously translated into English. This note is
meant to provide a brief explanation of some of the most frequent of them
even though more explanation may be offered in relevant passages in the book
Wissenschaft: while the most obvious rendering is ‘science’, it must be noted
that the German term retains the broad meaning that its English equivalent
lost at some point in the nineteenth century. It can therefore be applied to any
academic discipline, including theology, as well as academic and scholarly
work generally speaking.
Geist: in many ways, this is the key term for Idealist and post-Idealist
German philosophy. It corresponds equally to the English ‘mind’, ‘intellect’,
and ‘spirit’. The usual translation in the present book will be ‘spirit’ but the
complex connotations of the German term connecting theological reflection
with ideas about the nature of the intellect must always be borne in mind.
Hegel and the theological authors more directly influenced by him think of
Geist as a subject; hence Spirit is capitalized in contexts where this implication
seems paramount.
Idealism: where Idealism/Idealist is capitalized it refers to German Idealism
as a philosophical school. Analogously, Rationalism/Rationalist is capitalized
where the Continental philosophy flowing from Descartes and Leibniz is
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Over the past two hundred years, few theological issues have been debated
with as much academic and, more than occasionally ideological, fervour as
the status of theology as science or Wissenschaft. Advocates of this epithet
have sometimes treated it as a modern day shibboleth whose enunciation
alone would grant theologians, and their work, admission into intellectually
respectable places of learning.1 This attitude, perhaps unsurprisingly, has then
provoked the opposite view, according to which modern ideas of Wissenschaft
are fundamentally incompatible with theology and their adoption, conse-
quently, a grave danger to the proper pursuit of the discipline.2
The present book is not written to decide this controversy, but rather to aid
in its understanding. It is essentially historical in character although one
cannot write the history of such a problem without raising and discussing
its normative dimension. The story it narrates is largely situated in German
universities of the nineteenth century, more specifically in their faculties of
Protestant theology. It is thus not coterminous with the history of nineteenth-
century theology, nor even with the history of German Protestant theology
with its traditional combination of Lutheran and Calvinist influences. Even
within the more restricted field of German university theology, its focus is
narrowed to a relatively small group of scholars who became particularly
associated with the project of a science of theology. Admittedly, this happened
partly as a result of their strategic self-presentation, and some of their many
opponents vigorously sought to disown this particular claim.
Nevertheless, their perception as ‘scientific’ theologians is more than
the product of clever self-promotion but hints at their strong commitment
to a programme aimed at the integration of theology into the broader para-
digms of contemporary academic work and, concurrently, at the internal
integration of historical and systematic disciplines within theology. This
programme, I shall argue, survives with various modifications from around
1820 until 1880 and determines the identity as well as the scholarly work of

1 2
Harnack in: Rumscheidt (1989: 91). Vilmar (1874: 38).
2 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
the two dominant theological schools in nineteenth-century Germany, the
Tübingen School and the Ritschl School. It is this history, consequently, that
this study is about to present.
In a first rough sketch, this nineteenth-century project of theology
as science may be described as the intersection of two problems of very
different provenance. The first is the justification of modern theology as a
critical discourse whose parameters are not automatically set by church
doctrine or ecclesial tradition. The second is the need to classify theology
within an overall system of knowledge institutionalized in the university.
While the former originated in seventeenth-century England and Holland,
the latter is an inheritance from the high Middle Ages. Both inform
nineteenth- (and twentieth-) century debates about theology as Wissenschaft,
but whereas the more spectacular issues and controversies arose from its
critical dimension, the specific shape of the project of theology as science
cannot be understood without reference to its institutional context.


It is often said, in the words of Anselm of Canterbury, that theology is ‘faith

seeking understanding’.3 From its origins Christianity has consistently ac-
knowledged the need to engage in rational reflection about its beliefs and
practices, the interpretation of its Scriptures, its forms of organization and
governance, events in its history, and its relationship to rival accounts of
reality. The idea that all these reflections comprise a discipline or science
called theology, however, is much more recent. It came to prominence only in
the Western Middle Ages4 and followed both intellectually and institutionally
the establishment of the medieval university.5
This is no coincidence. Theological reflection always happens within an
institutional context of which the university is only one and, historically
speaking, not necessarily the most enduring nor the most prominent one.
Yet extended and sustained reflection about the place of theology within a
broader system of learning and knowledge has hardly ever taken place outside
this particular environment. This is true for the Middle Ages6 as much as it is
for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s reflec-
tions on the topic result directly from his involvement in the foundation of the
University of Berlin in 1812; John Henry Newman lectured on The Idea of a
University as rector of the newly established Catholic University at Dublin in
the 1850s; and Wolfhart Pannenberg’s extended reflections on Theology and

3 4
Anselm of Canterbury (1998: 87). Pannenberg (1973: 11–12).
5 6
Geyer (1964: 143). Köpf (1974).
Introduction 3
the Philosophy of Science (a rather misleading rendering of Wissenschaftsthe-
orie und Theologie), were written at the height of institutional controversies
about the German university in the early 1970s.
Why is the university context crucial? Part of the answer surely relates to
the pedagogical dimension of theology. The aggregate of Christian teaching
and learning needs to be passed on from generation to generation, and
the university has always been primarily a place to facilitate such intergenera-
tional transmission of knowledge through teaching and study. In order for this
to succeed, however, questions concerning the delimitation and organization
of the material as well as its rhetorical and didactic presentation become
paramount. Within theology, one may identify here a second order discourse
whose primary subject is no longer the actual content of the doctrine of faith,
but its structure, the relationships between individual theories or dogmas, and
the method of their investigation.
Theology has been taught and studied, however, in places other than the
university and a didactic concern is not, therefore, limited to this particular
environment. Thus, while the tendency to organize doctrinal, ethical, and
practical elements of the Christian tradition into a coherent whole was
in many ways driven by the requirements of catechesis and, by extension, by
the need to train those who were to catechize, this in itself does not yet
engender the question of theology’s status as a science. The latter only arises
from an attempt to situate theology within the totality of human knowledge,
and this precisely is necessitated by its integration into an institution that
aims to embrace and cultivate human learning in its entirety. As its very
name suggests, this is what the university has, since its inception, intended
to achieve. The question, then, whether theology is scientia, science, or
Wissenschaft, while ultimately striving to give something like a self-definition
of theology as an intellectual enterprise, has had, historically, its primary
purpose in the need to justify and explain the logic of its inclusion, as a
discipline, within this very institution.
The precise idea of the university, and the understanding of science, of
knowledge and of theology have, of course, changed dramatically over the
centuries. Yet it is instructive to note that the question of whether theology is
scientia was by no means rhetorical when it was first raised in the thirteenth
century;7 in fact, the caveats and reservations expressed by those who dis-
cussed it at that time in many ways anticipate later controversies and may thus
indicate problems transcending the specific parameters of science as con-
ducted within the modern academy. How can a field of study be a science if
it relies for its premises or principles on revelation? How do the various parts
of theology form a unity? What methodologies ought to be used in its pursuit

Köpf (1974: 125–54).
4 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
and what criteria are acceptable in adjudicating conflicting judgements?
How precisely is theology related to Christian faith and practice? Thomas
Aquinas raised all these questions,8 and while in his answers he seeks to strike
a balance between scientific and ecclesial demands, most or all of those replies
became the subject of fierce debate and often polemical rejection almost from
the moment of their publication.9



While none of these questions, then, is new to modernity, the latter created
conditions that necessitated new answers to most or all of them. Changes
began in the seventeenth century, but came to a head at the end of the
eighteenth with a number of transformations that can summarily be described
as the historicization of European intellectual life.10 In this process, all areas
of public discourse and rational enquiry were increasingly inscribed in, and
reconstructed as, historical development or evolution. It was a paradigm shift
in European thought if ever there was any. Historicization affected political
and social theory as much as ethics and law; it changed people’s understanding
of language, literature, and philosophy. Religion and theology, naturally, were
not exempt from its sweeping impact but encountered it at its forefront.
It would, however, be a mistake to think of these transformations merely in
negative terms. Historicization, it is true, went along with a new awareness of
difference and alterity in relation to the thoughts, actions, and values of past
generations and thus created a sense of loss: what used to be unquestionably
one’s own now had to be appropriated if it was to be recognized as valid
patrimony. Yet the same process also appeared to open up new opportunities
for academic work in general and for theology in particular. Not unlike
contemporary innovations in science, technology, and political organization,
it generated feelings of pride and optimism as much as concerns, anxieties,
and resentfulness. Many believed that the critique of traditional theological
ideas and methodologies was merely a first step, painful but necessary, towards
the worthy goal of a proper historical and theological understanding of
Christianity. Traditional ways of appropriating the heritage of the past seemed
woefully inadequate, and judgements passed on seminal figures in the history
of Christianity appeared superficial and shallow where they were not based on
proper historical contextualization. One cannot begin to understand the

Thomas Aquinas (1926: 10–20) = Summa Theologiae I, qu. 1., artt. 2, 3, 5, 8.
William of Ockham (1967: 199); Freddoso (2000).
Most (2001).
Introduction 5
project of theology as science in nineteenth-century Germany without taking
seriously this attitude, whatever its justification. The proponents of that
movement were neither iconoclasts who sought to dismantle the foundations
of their faith, nor sceptics who had long since stopped believing. Rather, they
were inspired by the conviction that the new tools of historical and philo-
logical methodology as well as new philosophical insights would yield a better
theology than had been possible in the past.

Historical Research

Beginning from the mid-eighteenth century, historicization increasingly

affected the work of academic theologians in Germany. Up until this period,
the study of church history in the Lutheran faculties of theology was generally
integrated into a discipline called polemics and meant to furnish the rhetorical
tools for the presentation of dogmatically correct insights.11 History was called
upon mainly to illustrate these insights with the help of examples from the
past. This function, however, came to be regarded as problematic once doctri-
nal decisions themselves were recognized as the result of historical circum-
stances. Consequently, church history was now seen as illuminating these very
circumstances and their impact on doctrinal and ecclesial developments. In
practice, this largely amounted to a critique of tradition. Thus, Gottlieb Jakob
Planck wrote, in 1794, in his Einleitung in die theologischen Wissenschaften
(Introduction to the Theological Disciplines):
Not long ago even among ourselves and in our church, we were greatly and
fearfully considerate of the statements of the ancient Church Fathers, and even
more so of the decisions of the ancient and especially the ecumenical Councils, in
determining some dogmatic truths. We were very reluctant to deviate from any
conception which those ancients had stamped as Christian truth, and even more
reluctant even to approach any idea that they had anathematized as un-Christian.
If that time is over among us, if a freer spirit now drives our dogmatic investi-
gations, if, among us, it is now possible to say loudly that no dogmatic idea is
true merely because old Athanasius or the Council of Nicaea declared it to be so,
let alone is false merely because St Augustine and a few African Councils regarded
it as heretical—then whom have we to thank for this but church history, which
alone revealed, and could reveal, the factors that all too often motivated the good
Church Fathers in their statements, and the Councils in their decisions.12
Historical work for Planck is indispensable because the reliability of church
tradition can no longer be assumed as a matter of course. A patristic proof text
is not as such sufficient to establish a position as correct. Those traditional

11 12
Cf. Bergjan (2002) for the following account. Planck (1794/5: vol. 1, 108–9).
6 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
authorities, rather, are now themselves to be judged by the critical acumen of
the historical theologian.
Such scepticism, however, and the ensuing critical cast of the new historical
theology were only one of its aspects. More importantly, Planck also suggests a
hermeneutical necessity for his methodological innovation:
Even if one does not wish to engage in assessing the value, the inner truth or the
obligatory nature of the doctrines of systematic theology, history is yet indispens-
able for their mere understanding. The true sense of some of them is, after
all, determined solely by the causes of their first invention, their establishment
as truths of faith, and their incorporation into the [ecclesial] system. Only [by
establishing the latter] can one tell the original intention of some of them.13
Two reasons, then, made it necessary to assign a central place to historical
study in theology: the validity of traditional assumptions needed to be critic-
ally tested; and their very understanding required historical contextualization.
The former exercise delivered spectacular and often controversial results, but
logically and methodologically the latter had priority since it was only on its
basis that any critical assessment became possible in the first instance. It was
therefore inevitable that the rise of critical and hermeneutical interest within
historical theology was accompanied by the search for systematic principles
ordering its presentation. The latter should accomplish more than a mere
enumeration of curious facts, individual events or document materials; it
should embed those in a narrative illuminating their interrelations, furnish
explanations, and extrapolate developments.14
Such an interest within historical theology corresponds exactly to contem-
poraneous demands of non-theological historians.15 Thus in 1767, Johann
Christoph Gatterer writes in his programmatic tract Vom historischen Plan
und der sich darauf gründenden Zusammenfügung der Erzählungen (On the
Historical Plan and the Construction of Narratives on its Basis):
When the historian has completed the tedious collection of historical material for
a work, and has culled what is odd from this chaos, . . . it is time to think of a plan
according to which all the great and small pieces which are to make up the edifice
may most decorously be put in order, so that, after completing the work, one can
see without trouble why a piece of material was set here and not elsewhere. This is
the first task of the historian after the collection and culling of his material—one
may call it the positioning, or the arrangement, or the layout of the narrative.16
The ideal of Enlightenment historiography, as we encounter it in figures like
Planck and Gatterer, has been called ‘pragmatic’. Its demand for systematic
coherence is primarily a methodological claim on the scholar who should

13 14
Planck (1794/5: vol. 1, 109). Bergjan (2002: 31–2).
Gatterer (1767: 22–3) = Blanke/Fleischer (1990: vol. 2, 625).
Cf. Rüsen (1993: 56).
Introduction 7
not merely collect the historical source material, but present it in such a way
that the relationship between individual events becomes plausible to the
reader and its reconstruction, accountable to the community of historians.17
The transition to early nineteenth-century ‘historicism’ takes this develop-
ment a step further. Historians now work on the assumption that a particular
story is objectively given in or behind the empirical evidence available to the
scholar, and the uncovering of this story is the specific task of the ‘scientific’
historian.18 Jörn Rüsen in his work on the origins of historicism has ascribed
this particular transformation to the influence of an Idealist philosophy of
history.19 His findings indicate that the emergence of German nineteenth-
century historiography cannot be understood in isolation from contemporary
philosophical developments and the latter—as we shall see—involved de-
cidedly theological ideas and principles. This intimate interrelation between
historical, philosophical, and theological ideas throughout the nineteenth
century will be a recurrent feature in the present book’s narrative as it explains
the immediate and strong reverberations developments in historiography and
philosophy had within historical theology.
What then was this philosophy of history and how did it influence the
emergence of a historicist theology?

Philosophy of History

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the icon of German Enlightenment culture, wrote

in 1777 that, due to their arbitrary character, historical insights could never
prove necessary truths of reason.20 Throughout the nineteenth century this
statement came to be seen as the emblematic expression of the relativistic
consequences of the historicist turn. In this sense, for example, Søren Kierke-
gaard takes Lessing’s aperçu as the starting point of his own deliberations in
Concluding Unscientific Postscript.21 It is therefore easy to overlook that within
Lessing’s own intellectual environment, his claim was not, as such, either
novel or controversial. On the contrary, the juxtaposition of the contingency
of empirical history and the eternal validity of reason was an axiom of the
Rationalism that had dominated continental philosophy since the seventeenth
century. Philosophy had the task to discern truths that were eternal because
they pre-existed in the mind of God. This had been Leibniz’s position,22 to
which two generations later Friedrich Christian Baumeister, a noted albeit

17 18
Rüsen (1993: 56). Rüsen (1993: 56).
19 20 21
Rüsen (1993: 56). Lessing (1777: 5). Kierkegaard (1992: 96).
Leibniz (2006: 301): ‘L’existence reelle des Estres qui ne sont point necessaires, est un point
de fait ou d’Histoire, mais la connoissance des possibilités et des necessités (car necessaire est
dont l’opposé n’est point possible) fait les sciences demonstratives.’ English translation (ET):
Remnant/Bennett, 301.
8 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
now largely forgotten philosopher of the Leibniz-Wolffian school, provided
the dogmatic formulation: ‘Historical knowledge is knowledge of facts; philo-
sophical knowledge . . . is knowledge of causes.’23
Lessing, then, did not invent the dichotomy between historical and speculative
truth claims. In fact, he was more original where he proposed a philosophy of
history as the means to overcoming this dichotomy. While his more immediate
public renown may have been owed to his controversies with the orthodox
Lutheran establishment of his time, he achieved more lasting recognition for
those writings—particularly the Education of Humankind—in which he antici-
pated Herder24 and Kant25 in advancing a philosophical as well as theological
interpretation of history as an alternative to the competing truth claims of
traditional supernaturalist orthodoxy and enlightened rationalism.26 The
resulting grand narrative, he suggested, could bridge the duality of historical
and speculative truth if it could demonstrate that the historical emergence of
speculative insights was the thrust of divinely ordained history. While history in
this way became a vehicle of the revelation of truth, philosophy by the same
token became historicized inasmuch as its discovery of truth was inscribed into a
historical process which, in turn, derived its teleology from its progressive
facilitation of such knowledge.
From the vantage point of Lessing’s theory, enlightened reason appeared as
the consummation of Jewish-Christian ethical religiosity. His construction
mitigated the harshness of historical difference and alterity by inscribing
past events into a progressive, evolutionary development. Yet why the end
point of that evolution, enlightened rationality, was superior to the ideas
cherished in earlier historical periods, Lessing’s theory could not and did not
explain. His philosophy of history therefore, like those of Kant and Herder,
was liable to the objection that the teleology it postulated rested on an
ultimately arbitrary claim to the perfection of its own position as the telos of
history. The most powerful response to this objection at the time sought to
counter it by identifying historical thinking itself with the goal towards which
the history of reason pointed. If reason finds its fulfilment in perfect under-
standing, historical reason would seem to be consummated when it is fully
perceived in its historical emergence. The result was a new philosophy of
history built on the claim that its very ability to inscribe individual historical
events into a progressive development constituted proof of its own prominent
position within that evolution.
This new philosophy of history was proposed for the first time by Friedrich
Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and became subsequently associated with his

Baumeister (1738: 1) }} 1–2: ‘Cognitio historica est cognitio factorum; cognitio
philosophica . . . est cognitio caussarum.’
24 25
Cf. Irmscher (1997). Cf. Fackenheim (1996).
Cf. Yasukata (2002: 89–116).
Introduction 9
sometime roommate in the Tübingen Stift, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In
his System of Transcendental Idealism, published in 1800, Schelling described
history as a ‘progressive, gradually self-disclosing revelation of the Absolute’.27
In other words, history does not merely have meaning it has absolute meaning.
It is, one might say, God’s own story. The eventual decipherment of this code
will therefore furnish humanity with perfect philosophical and theological
knowledge. In the same vein, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit deploys the
eminently historical character of the World Spirit to underwrite his own
synthesis between historical and philosophical insight:
Since the Substance of the individual, the World-Spirit itself, has had the patience
to pass through these shapes over the long passage of time, and to take upon
itself the enormous labour of world-history, in which it embodied in each shape
as much of its entire content as that shape was capable of holding, and since
it could not have attained consciousness of itself by any lesser effort, the individ-
ual certainly cannot by the nature of the case comprehend his own substance
more easily. Yet, at the same time, he does have less trouble, since all this has
already been implicitly accomplished; the content is already the actuality reduced
to a possibility, its immediacy overcome, and the embodied shape reduced to
abbreviated, simple determinations of thought.28
The mutual interdependence of philosophical and historical knowledge typical
for the Idealist philosophy of history is as clearly expressed in this passage as
Hegel’s dense language permits. On the one hand, philosophical knowledge
depends on historical reason because it can only grasp the World Spirit insofar
as the latter assumes the ‘tremendous labour of world history’. On the other
hand, the factual emergence of such knowledge confirms the teleological or
even eschatological interpretation of the author’s own historical moment, and
therefore (at least indirectly) also the validity of his philosophical truth claim.
Within this idealistic perspective, historical and speculative knowledge have
indeed become identical: the precise opposite of Leibniz’s and Baumgarten’s
earlier views.
For the integration of these philosophies with concurrent developments
in history and historical theology, Schelling’s early ideas seem to have
been particularly significant. The view of history developed in his System of
Transcendental Idealism and affirmed in his Vorlesungen über die Methode
des akademischen Studiums (Lectures on the Method of Academic Study)
maintained a conscious balance between the ‘pragmatic’ historiography of
the Enlightenment and the purely speculative view characteristic of Hegel’s
system. From the historian’s point of view, the first was as objectionable as the
second. Thus, Friedrich Creuzer complains in 1803 about a philosophy of

Schelling (1858a: 603), ET: Heath, 211.
Hegel (1970: vol. 3, 33–4), ET: Miller, 17.
10 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
history ‘according to which spirit, rather than rising above nature in religious
contemplation, created a nature for itself in proud caprice’.29 At this point, he
is no doubt thinking primarily of Kant and Fichte; but later, Hegel will say in
his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion that ‘religion would do right not to
be able to accept such [historical-critical] investigations’.30 To treat the Bible
like profane works of literature is only expedient for those with a ‘purely
historical’ interest.31 He himself declares programmatically:
In contemplating this religion [viz., Christianity], we do not set to work historic-
ally after the manner of the Spirit, which begins with the external, but start from
the concept (Begriff).32
The integration between historical and speculative knowledge here was no
doubt achieved at the expense of empirical historical work, and paid for its
impressive philosophical pithiness with a loss in relevance to historical-critical
scholarship. By contrast, as Arnaldo Momigliano once pointed out, Schelling’s
middle course made him a decisive influence on the leading lights of early
nineteenth-century historicism.33 The Italian historiographer mainly thought
of non-theological historians, such as von Humboldt, Boeckh, Ranke, Gervi-
nus, and Droysen. However, as we shall see in more detail later, the same is
true for the early representatives of theological historicism as well.

Philosophy of Religion

While historicization was, arguably, a European phenomenon, it had a

special flavour in Germany. The combination of historical research and philo-
sophical Idealism already made German historicism unusual, and the addition
of specific theological concerns influenced and modified it further. A teleological
interpretation of history, of course, had been a theological enterprise since at
least Eusebius of Caesarea and Augustine. In the mid-twentieth century, Karl
Löwith demonstrated the close relation between that theological tradition
(Paulus Orosius, Augustine, Joachim of Fiore) and modern philosophies of
history (Vico, Hegel, Marx) in detail.34 For Löwith that pedigree undermined
the philosophical legitimacy of the latter projects; the protagonists at the
turn from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, however, noted it with
approval as it helped to inscribe their own efforts into a Christian history of
ideas. The historical character of the religion that dominated their own
culture seemed to support their claim to fulfil its latent potential. Once

29 30
Creuzer (1845: 201). Hegel (1970: vol. 17, 307–8).
31 32
Hegel (1983: vol. 3, 253). Hegel (1970: vol. 17, 202).
33 34
Momigliano (1946: 161–2). Löwith (1949).
Introduction 11
again, Schelling is decisive. In his Vorlesungen über die Methode des akade-
mischen Studiums he writes:
This is the great historical thrust of Christianity; this is the reason for which a
Christian science of religion must be inseparable from, indeed wholly one with
history. But this synthesis with history, without which theology itself could not be
thought, in turn requires as its condition a higher Christian view of history.35
Schelling cites the ‘higher Christian view of history’ to underwrite his own,
Idealist philosophy. At the same time, his words imply a methodical demand
for theology, the thorough historicization of the discipline. In the context of
Christianity, a ‘science of religion’ must not only be ‘inseparable’ from, but
‘wholly one’ with history. Christian theology, in other words, not merely has a
historical component, but is, strictly speaking, its own history. Such an ideal
form of historical theology is, however, only possible under the cultural impact
of Christianity—just like Schelling’s philosophy, which reaches this insight.
The most important theologian of the same generation to be influenced by
these ideas was Friedrich Schleiermacher. His debt to Schelling in his under-
standing of religion and history has long been recognized,36 but those who
established it, Hermann Süskind and Hermann Mulert,37 also pointed out that
Schleiermacher’s acceptance of Schelling’s ideas was only partial. In his cri-
tique of the Enlightenment and its ideal of a natural religion Schleiermacher
firmly took the side of the Romantics and Idealists in his critique of the natural
religion of the Enlightenment. This is already evident in the Speeches. Not
nature but history is the material of religious contemplation and discernment:
History in its most proper sense is the highest object of religion; with [history],
it begins and ends . . .38
Accordingly, in the fifth speech, he brusquely rejects the enlightened ideal of a
rational religion in favour of historical ‘positive’ religions.39 The comparative
study of these religions, Schleiermacher hints, ultimately reveals that Chris-
tianity is the ‘religion of religions’.40 His later formula of the nature or essence
(Wesen) of Christianity in The Christian Faith is equally contextualized within
the history of religions: the most fundamental idea of this religion is achieved
through its comparison with other ‘kinds and levels’ of religion.41
Yet Schleiermacher’s affirmation of this theoretical position remains am-
bivalent; he never fully commits himself to the identity of theology and a
philosophical history of religion as demanded by Schelling and others. While
occasionally he seems to come close to its endorsement—as in the formula of

35 36
Schelling (1858b: 291). Süskind (1909); (1911).
37 38
Mulert (1907). Schleiermacher (1799: 100).
39 40
Schleiermacher (1799: 238; 242). Schleiermacher (1799: 310).
Schleiermacher (1830b: 60–4) (}7).
12 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Christianity as the ‘religion of religions’—he never goes all the way. Readers
from F. C. Baur to Albrecht Ritschl to Ernst Troeltsch and his student
Hermann Süskind,42 who expected him to be an Idealist at heart and inter-
preted the early paragraphs of The Christian Faith as an attempt to prove
‘the pre-eminence of Christianity over all other religions’, therefore found his
argument ‘strangely incomplete’.43 A more likely interpretation, however, is
that Schleiermacher never intended his comparison of religions to yield the
‘absoluteness’ of Christianity let alone furnish a philosophical foundation
of his systematic theology. The theologian, he writes in The Christian Faith,
will not seek to prove the ‘truth of the necessity of Christianity’ but assume it
for each individual Christian and for the Christian community in its entirety.44
Be this however as it may, we shall see in more detail later that throughout the
nineteenth century Schleiermacher’s apparent ambivalence on this point
arouses discussion, irritation, consternation, and criticism.
With hindsight, Schleiermacher’s reticence may well have been the wiser
position: theology is overburdened with the expectation to provide the foun-
dations of individual or collective faith. Many of his early readers, among them
those most strongly committed to the project of theology as science, however,
saw in it a lack of intellectual rigour or even a residue of supernaturalism—in
any case, an imperative to complete a process which Schleiermacher had left



This ambivalent reception does not only apply to Schleiermacher’s commit-

ment to a philosophical interpretation of the history of religion, but to his
theological enterprise as a whole. As the latter offers the most sustained
reflection about the place and role of theology within the modern university,
his thoughts are the necessary backdrop to all subsequent developments.
But they do not provide their blueprint. Schleiermacher’s theology is both
uniquely influential and strangely neglected, rejected and misunderstood
throughout the nineteenth century.

Troeltsch calls this the ‘great programme of all scientific theology’ and credits Schleiermacher
with its inauguration (Troeltsch 1908: 225); cf. Zachhuber (2008a).
Süskind (1911: 4).
Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 17) (}11.5).
Introduction 13

Theology and the University

Schleiermacher’s argument for theology as science is largely determined by

his commitment to a faculty of theology in the modern ‘Humboldt’ university
in whose genesis he was heavily involved. Prior to the foundation of the
University of Berlin in 1810 not only the institutional context of theology,
but the shape of higher education as a whole had been cast into doubt across
Schleiermacher’s treatise Gelegentlich Gedanken über Universitäten im
deutschen Sinn (Occasional Thoughts on Universities in the German Sense) is
his specific contribution to this intellectual debate which saw contributions
from some of Germany’s pre-eminent intellectuals of the day, among them
Fichte, Schelling, and Humboldt. While they all advocated the foundation
of a new university, their visions for this institution differed starkly. Schleier-
macher had his own ideas, not least with regard to the presence of theology
in such a place of learning, but it would be mistaken to see his treatise only as a
proxy for the latter cause. Rather, its extensive argument embeds his political
views within a theory of Wissenschaft that is deeply rooted in his own
philosophical concept of knowledge and communication, which he developed
extensively in his lectures on Dialectics and on Paedagogik.45 Perhaps counter-
intuitively, it is also notably different from the view we normally associate with
the modern ‘research university’.
Schleiermacher starts by observing in good Aristotelian fashion that
Wissenschaft is something human beings desire.46 This goal, however, cannot
be achieved by even the most gifted individual, but needs the collaboration of
many. Science is not therefore an individual but a social pursuit, more
specifically it is the pursuit of the group united by a common language, the
nation.47 This makes it similar to the state, but while the latter in order to act
must be able to subjugate individual wills, science can thrive only under the
condition of freedom. There is therefore reason for the state to support
science, but equally, for both sides to mind their respective differences.48
Since science needs to be both taught and practised, it is cultivated in several
different institutions: schools have the primary purpose of educating and
forming young people; academies on the other hand exist as the republic of
letters seeking to unite those who are masters of their fields.49 Characteristic-
ally, the university for Schleiermacher is a third in between these two; it must
exist due to the dynamic nature of the system: science in order to be advanced
by the leading lights in their respective disciplines needs to be initiated, and
this has to happen in a place dedicated to its principles. The purpose of the

45 46
Crouter (2005: 150). Anrich (1956: 223).
47 48 49
Anrich (1956: 225–6). Anrich (1956: 228–32). Anrich (1956: 233).
14 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
university, then, is to impart to young people the very idea of science, the
notion of the unity of knowledge in all its diversity.50
Politically Schleiermacher’s argument is evidently pitched against the con-
temporary French model, which had discarded the university in favour of a
dual system of schools and academies.51 His conception of the university as
primarily responsible for the idea of science means that philosophy is at its
core.52 Schleiermacherian philosophy, however, is always embedded in the
cultural contexts from which its practice emerges. The centre of his philoso-
phy is ethics, but ethics as understood as a system of goods.53 It is for this
reason that he can defend the traditional structure of the university: theology,
law, and medicine all benefit from regular exchange with philosophy, but
philosophy itself would be incomplete without those extensions. This does
not mean that for him theology is philosophy of religion—if anything,
Schleiermacher tends to the opposite view—but that philosophical reflection
cannot ever be conducted in abstraction from the concrete realities of nature
and culture. Schleiermacher is deeply sceptical about the ability of the human
mind to construct a system of thought capable of explaining reality in its
fullness—hence his opposition to Fichte and Hegel and his advocacy of a
dialogical epistemology as first philosophy. Knowledge and hence science are
fundamentally dependent on communication and exchange; they are always
perfectible and never complete.

Theology as Science

It is this open system of science that facilitates Schleiermacher’s affirmation

of theology’s inclusion in the university. He does not claim that theology is
an indispensable part of a system of knowledge nor accept for theology any
narrow definition of science as normative. In fact, his argument for the
retention of the traditional ‘higher faculties’ is remarkably conservative: this
particular structure has emerged ‘naturally’54 and for this reason continued for
such a long period of time. The faculty of theology, in particular, was founded
by the Church
in order to preserve the wisdom of the Fathers; not to lose for the future what in
the past had been achieved in discerning truth from error; to give a historical
basis, a sure and certain direction and a common spirit to the further develop-
ment of doctrine and Church.55
In other words, theology exists because the Church needs clarity about its
doctrines and practices, and such clarity is achieved by permitting these issues

50 51 52
Anrich (1956: 237–41). Howard (2006: 2). Anrich (1956: 258–9).
53 54 55
Schleiermacher (1827). Anrich (1956: 257). Anrich (1956: 258).
Introduction 15
to be openly debated in permanent exchange with all other areas of human
knowledge. Theology is taught in the university because the public has an
interest that this is done well and that church ministers are appropriately
trained in the same way it wants doctors with a good medical education and
judges with a proper understanding of the law. This is what Schleiermacher
calls ‘positive science’ (positive Wissenschaft), a discipline that is not constituted
by systematic deduction from the idea of knowledge, but by a practical require-
ment. Yet it is not a trade as for its proper exercise a solid and permanent
exchange with Wissenschaft proper, that is philosophy, is vital. A professor of
law or of theology therefore, according to Schleiermacher, who does not make
an effort to contribute actively to philosophy—in the wide sense in which it
includes not only metaphysics and ethics but also philology and history—
deserves to be ridiculed, even excluded from the university.56 This does not
mean that all theologians have to be polymaths, but that students of theology
must be allowed to expect from their teachers the ability and the willingness to
traverse the distance between their theological area of expertise and related
philosophical fields: the moral theologian must be conversant in ethics, the
New Testament scholar in classics, the systematic theologian in logic and
metaphysics, and so forth.
The same conception also inspires the Kurze Darstellung des theologischen
Studiums (Brief Outline of the Study of Theology).57 If this writing has less
to say about the relationship of theology to other academic disciplines and is
instead focused more on the inner structure of the discipline, this does not
reduce its relevance for the problem of theology as Wissenschaft. Already
in Aquinas, the question of whether theology is scientia was immediately
followed by the question whether it is one science. As a matter of fact,
Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in his proposal for the new university, rejects a faculty
of theology largely because he denies its internal coherence. Schleiermacher’s
own line of argument is that as a ‘positive science’, theology derives its unity
not from its place within a system of science, but from the practical need of
the Church to have appropriately trained leaders.58 Schleiermacher in fact
acknowledges the force of Fichte’s argument where he concedes that theology
without its practical purpose of church government would disintegrate.59
It is this purpose, then, that serves as the organizing centre of theology
as science for Schleiermacher, and philosophical and historical parts of the
discipline are instrumental to this ultimate goal. What exactly does this mean
for theology as science? Schleiermacher accepts, we might say in Aquinas’s
words, that theology is based on principles that are not themselves part of
science. For Aquinas, these principles had been revealed and passed down to

56 57
Anrich (1956: 261). Schleiermacher (1811).
Schleiermacher (1811: 328), ET: Farrer, 93 (} 5).
Schleiermacher (1811: 328), ET: Farrer, 93 (} 6).
16 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
us through the authority of the teaching magisterium of the Church; the
theologian thus relies on somebody else’s knowledge for his work. Schleierma-
cher does not appeal to supernatural facts, but in his theory too the theologian is
dependent for his work on something external to scientific rationality, the
existence of the Church as a historical and social reality. At one level, the
difference between the two is small; after all, revelation in practice is always
(or almost always) accessible only as historical information whether contained
in biblical texts or in authoritative writings of the ecclesiastical tradition.
Nevertheless, something fundamental is at stake in the changes Schleier-
macher applies to Thomas’s argument: once again we perceive the effects of
historicization. In The Christian Faith Schleiermacher argues that utter nov-
elty of a historical movement, which cannot be deduced from previous events,
is the only reasonable meaning the word ‘revelation’ could possibly have.60 It
is precisely this inscrutable reality of Christianity as a historical and social
formation (which Schleiermacher calls the Church) that provides an extra-
philosophical focal point of reference for theology in his theory. This same
historical and social reality of Christianity is also the principle that unites the
various philosophical, historical, and practical fields pertaining to it.
Up to this point Schleiermacher’s understanding of theology as science could
appear fairly conventional, and it is indeed important to see that the majority
of his proper students drew on him for moderately conservative versions of
what came to be called ‘mediating theology’ (Vermittlungstheologie)—halfway
houses between liberalism and orthodoxy, historical-critical exegesis and
Protestant Biblicism, philosophical theology and dogmatic traditionalism.
Yet in spite of his own attempts, and those of his pupils, to present his
theology as in continuity with earlier Christian thought, the evidence for
Schleiermacher’s modernity is nevertheless unequivocal. He affirms, in par-
ticular, that as science all theological work must not only be conducted
in ways that can stand up to the highest standards of academic enquiry, but
must be constantly aware of possible cross-references and interferences with
related non-theological work. This sounds innocent enough, but one wonders
whether Schleiermacher was aware of the enormous ramifications this
principle could and would cause for theology. Did he realize that application
of those methods was most likely to yield results different from, if not in
outright contradiction to, traditional Christian views? It appears that he
thought (much like his Idealist contemporaries) that historicism could be
contained by proper philosophical reflection. While he engaged in exegetical
and historical work himself more than Hegel did, the results of his studies soon
became the butt of ridicule because of their lack of critical edge. Decades

Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 90), ET: Mackintosh/Stewart, 50 (} 10, Postscript).
Introduction 17
later, commenting on Schleiermacher’s lectures on the life of Jesus, Albert
Schweitzer comes to a similarly devastating conclusion:
Nowhere indeed is it more clear that the great dialectician had not really a
historical mind than precisely in his treatment of the history of Jesus.61
In summation, Schleiermacher’s view of theology as science combines a
concept of science as philosophy whose Aristotelian pedigree is still clearly
recognizable with a moderately historicist perception of religion. By opting for
an open philosophy of science that situates the university within the context of
a society’s cultivation of learning, he creates a space for theology without
either forcing it into the straitjacket of a deductive system of universal
knowledge or assigning to it a place merely in the domain of private opinion.
Accepting theology’s function for the Church as its organizing principle,
he offers a powerful model for its disciplinary unity. Yet he seems oddly
unconcerned about the consequences of accepting wissenschaftlich method-
ology for theological work; occasionally he seems to hint that the ecclesiastical
pole would serve to mitigate potentially critical conclusions, for example
about the canon,62 but overall he seems to have underestimated the enduring
force of historicism in the undoing of all traditional belief claims.
The project of a theology as science that drove academic activity from
F. C. Baur to Ernst Troeltsch, which is the subject of the remainder of this
study, must be understood against the background of all these influences.
First of all, the institutional environment in which this project was conceived,
debated and practised was the university. All its protagonists began their
academic careers as doctoral students, junior researchers or research assistants
in a faculty of Protestant Theology. The prospects, exigencies, and indeed
risks of such a career determined their scholarly plans and projects from the
outset. Later on, the simultaneous commitment to teaching and research,
both prescribed by academic conventions, influenced shape and character of
their productivity. As we have seen, these formative factors were not specific to
modern theology but have operated in similar ways wherever theology was
practised within the university. Specifically, the very question of theology’s
character as an academic discipline, scientia, or science has historically been a
by-product of this institutional setting. Its most immediate purpose has always
been to justify the existence of theology as a separate field of study, a discipline,
within this particular institution and to define, and justify, the principles of its
internal organization, the methods used in its operation, and the presuppos-
itions and fundamental assumptions it could or should accept for its work.

Schweitzer (1984: 100), ET: Montgomery/Burkitt, 62.
Schleiermacher (1811: 379), ET: Farrer, 146) (}} 147–8).
18 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Yet if the principal problem of how theology could be Wissenschaft ante-

dates the nineteenth century, the challenges posed to the theologians of that
time were nevertheless largely consequential upon the radical modernization of
higher education during this period. At the beginning of the century, the
question of whether theology should have a place in the academy was in
principle open, and while the situation stabilized after the foundation of the
University of Berlin in 1810, lingering doubts about theology’s academic
respectability continued to loom large in all subsequent debates about its
‘scientific’ character. At the same time, ecclesial, confessional and, more
broadly, religious developments in European societies cast their shadow over
theologians’ attempts to reconceptualize the work of their discipline. Most or all
protagonists to be discussed in the following chapters found themselves con-
fronted, at one time or another, with the charge of undermining the Christian
faith. In many cases, the university offered a safe haven against those attacks
but on a number of occasions, popular resentment forced individual academics
out of their faculty or even out of the university altogether.
Next to the increasingly ambiguous and controversial place of Christianity
in modern society, emerging historicism was the most substantial formative
influence on nineteenth-century debates about theology as Wissenschaft.
Much more than in Schleiermacher, recognition of the groundbreaking and
transformative consequences of this paradigm for the whole of theology stands
at the centre of theological reflection from F. C. Baur to Ernst Troeltsch. The
unique relevance of this factor cannot in its entirety be attributed to the overall
sway historicism held over German intellectual and academic culture during
this period. It is equally significant that all these thinkers were themselves
actively engaged in historical research; several of them rank amongst the most
creative, original, and prolific historical theologians of their own, and arguably
any, time.
At the same time, their historical research is controlled by ideas typical for
the German variant of historicization: the philosophical theories of history
flowing from Lessing, Herder, Kant, and the Idealists form its permanent
backdrop and the theological overtones of those theories are inevitably in-
voked in their appropriation. As we shall see in detail throughout the present
study, this combination of historical scholarship under the conditions of
German historicism and the concurrent commitment to theological principles
read through the lens of contemporary philosophy of religion enter into a
fascinating but also uneasy partnership. On the one hand, the combination of
philosophical and historical ideas provided by the wider intellectual culture in
Germany at the time stimulated, sustained, and drove theological engagement
of the highest calibre over several decades. The theological principles derived
from the encounter with historicism and German Idealism underwrote the
collaborative scholarship of the two major theological schools, the Tübingen
School and the Ritschl School, spanning most of the nineteenth century and
Introduction 19

producing some of its most acclaimed theological scholarship. On the other

hand, the various commitments into which these scholars entered were never
entirely free from internal tension. What will become apparent in subsequent
chapters is that, while this tension may for a while appear to have been
contained and neutralized within a broader theological synthesis, it eventually
erupted into much more open and critical conflict which ultimately led to the
abandonment of the conceptual framework that had originally been accepted.
This happened in two cycles. The historicist-idealist concept of theology as
Wissenschaft was first conceived and executed in the 1820s by the Tübingen
theologian Ferdinand Christian Baur. His own work and the writing of his
numerous students, who together comprise the Tübingen School, dominated
historical theology until the 1850s even though the fundamental tension of
their conception had been exposed when in 1835 Friedrich David Strauss, one
of Baur’s students, published The Life of Jesus, one of the most successful as
well as controversial theological books of the century. Yet it was only with the
emergence of Albrecht Ritschl as the major theologian of his generation that
the Tübingen School’s intellectual leadership began to wane in the 1850s.
Ritschl had himself been brought up under Baur’s influence, but his publica-
tions from the middle of this decade betray an ever-widening gap between his
own principles and those of his teacher. The result was the creation of a new
form of historicist theology which inspired the work of scholars at the turn
of the twentieth century, including Adolf Harnack, Wilhelm Herrmann, and,
to an extent, Ernst Troeltsch.
Nevertheless, while the Ritschl School departed in important ways from the
methodological and philosophical ideas Baur had originally adopted, the
present study will emphasize how much the two schools have in common.
Baur’s original project of theology as Wissenschaft under the conditions of
nineteenth-century German historicism and philosophical Idealism remained
in many ways the guiding framework for the work of Ritschl and his school as
well. It is only with the more fundamental crisis of historicism, the prolifer-
ation of the non-theological study of religion and altogether new departures in
philosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century that the paradigm
inaugurated at the beginning of the century comes to an end.
The present book will follow the rhythm of this development by offering a
narrative in two parts. The first will chart the rise and fall of the Tübingen
School. A major focus will be F. C. Baur’s own version of historicist theology
with its peculiar co-existence of divergent motives and ideals. This divergence
will then be traced to his students who generally present a simplified and
more reductionist form of the Tübingen programme which, by the mid-1850s,
had lost much of its intellectual appeal. Albrecht Ritschl’s opposition to the
Tübingen School, from which the second part starts, will turn out to be
directed principally against its late, degenerate form. His attitude to Baur, on
the other hand, is more balanced: Ritschl recognizes the merits of Baur’s
20 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany

project but faults him for a project that could lead to a theological affirmation
of positivistic historicism. Much of the second part of the present book will be
devoted to an in-depth exploration of the precise ways in which Ritschl’s
theology can be understood as an attempt to embed Baur’s original concern
for a modern, historical theology within a more suitable philosophical and
historical framework. However, Ritschl’s framework itself was by no means
free from tensions. Within his own, very systematic writing they tend to be
carefully glossed over, but the cursory examination of further developments
among his students, which is offered in the final chapter of this book, reveals
their extent and the serious consequences following from their exposure for
the entire project of theology as Wissenschaft.
Part I
Ferdinand Christian Baur and the
Tübingen School

The first part of this book is devoted to a group of theologians known

collectively as the Tübingen School. Their name is derived from the fact that
their founder, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860), spent his entire aca-
demic career at the famous medieval university in Southern Germany. His
activity began while both Hegel and Schleiermacher were still alive—he
became professor of theology in 1826—but extended mainly through a period
during which public opinion became increasingly hostile towards the spirit of
Romanticism and Idealism that had dominated the early decades of the
nineteenth century in Germany. In this climate, Baur, who never entirely
disowned his intellectual allegiance to these movements, soon acquired a
reputation as the standard bearer of theological Hegelianism and generally
an advocate of theology’s integration into the intellectual framework of
German Idealism.
This perception, which is still very much alive today, has not aided the
recognition of his actual achievements or indeed, his failures. In many ways,
Baur’s formation was primarily determined by the effects of late eighteenth-
century historicization. Within theology, he embodies the transition from
eighteenth-century ‘pragmatic’ interest in historical theology to nineteenth-
century historicism. His influential conception of theology as science is, as we
shall see, driven by an attempt to advance historical understanding with the
help of philosophical reflection.
It is this imperative that he passed on to his numerous pupils. While Baur’s
academic position was in principle secure when the intellectual and political
mood changed in Germany from around 1840, his students were directly and
personally affected by the results of these shifts. When David Friedrich Strauss
(1808–74) was offered a chair for dogmatic theology and church history at
the University of Zürich in 1839, public riots broke out which eventually led
to the downfall of the liberal government of that canton and to his own
22 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
premature ‘retirement’ from his post.1 In 1849, the Faculty of Theology at
Marburg University elected Baur’s son-in-law, Eduard Zeller, to a professor-
ship; after massive public protests, the government of the Electorate of Hesse
intervened and, as a compromise, Zeller was moved to philosophy. The fate of
Baur’s other students may not have been quite so dramatic, but at the end of
his life, he remained the only member of the school to hold a tenured academic
position within a theology faculty.
The epithet wissenschaftlich, while not initially favoured by Baur himself,
soon became the chosen self-designation of the school’s theological ethos. This
was a novel claim, and the rest of the theological world was far from accepting
its validity. In retrospect, however, it does not seem unjustified; in fact it fairly
aptly characterizes the specific theological project of the Tübingen School, the
pursuit of radically innovative historical and exegetical scholarship within a
clearly defined theological and philosophical framework. Ernst Troeltsch once
described the basic tendency of theology since the late eighteenth century as
the drifting-apart of historical theology, including biblical studies, on the one
hand and systematic and practical theology on the other.2 At the same time,
however, the consolidation of theological faculties in the wake of the founda-
tion of the University of Berlin in 1810 confirmed at least the institutional
identity of confessional theologies.3 As an initial approximation, we may
describe the Tübingen project as a response to the tension between theology’s
internal disintegration, as analysed by Troeltsch, and its continuing insti-
tutional unity. As we have seen in the previous section, the same tension
had been addressed by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Unlike the latter, however,
Baur does not invoke the practical, ecclesial purpose of theology, but attempts
to ground the unity of historical and systematic theology in a speculative
interpretation of history, which reveals the latter as the place where nature and
spirit, necessity and freedom, and objectivity and subjectivity find their
And yet, our analysis of the works of Baur and his students will also disturb
this strikingly neat and unified picture. It will demonstrate that side by side
with this ‘idealist’ vision of a unity of historical and systematic reflection in
theology, a very different set of ideas determined in practice much of the work
of the Tübingen scholars. This ‘neo-rationalist’ programme, which is to be
found already in Baur himself and becomes predominant in his students, rests
on the principles of positivist historicism. It presupposes the dualism of
objective facts and their subjective interpretation. It introduces a categorical
distinction between the relativistic realm of history and any normative truth
claim. This neo-rationalist programme of theology as Wissenschaft, therefore,
finds its most characteristic expression in the demand for ‘presuppositionless’

1 2 3
Zopfi (2006). Troeltsch (1908: 198–9). Cf. now: Howard (2006).
Ferdinand Christian Baur and the Tübingen School 23
(voraussetzungslos) historical research. A philosophical interpretation is ap-
plied to the results of historical scholarship only in a second step; this
interpretation is itself ahistorical and methodologically independent of the
historical work.
These two programmes, their tension and their interference, determine the
Tübingen concept of theology as science or Wissenschaft. This oscillation
between a vision of theological unity inspired by philosophical Idealism on
the one hand and a practical separation of historical and systematic work
makes their project Janus-headed and, ultimately, unstable.
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F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of

Scientific Theology

Ferdinand Christian Baur was born in 1792, died in 1860, and lived the life of
an exemplary scholar. He never ventured beyond his native country of Swabia,
where in 1829 he was appointed professor of theology at the local university in
Tübingen, a position he held until his death. In an obituary, his son-in-law,
Eduard Zeller, described Baur’s daily routine in the following way:
Through summer and winter he got up at four o’clock. In the winter, he normally
worked for some hours in the unheated room to spare the servants, even though,
as would happen in particularly cold nights, the ink in his inkpot might freeze.
From then, his regular walks after lunch and in the evening were the only lengthy
interruptions of his learned pursuit.1
From this work emanated, beginning in the late 1820s, an incessant flow of
groundbreaking publications including seminal works on all New Testament
writings which, perhaps for the first time ever, aimed at producing a consistent
picture of Primitive Christianity in its historical setting, giving due weight to
the fact that the texts we possess are both our sources for that period and also
its products. Simultaneously, Baur covered the history of doctrine by devoting
entire monographs to the development of particular doctrines throughout
Today, Baur has become a largely unrecognized theologian, whose signifi-
cance for nineteenth-century theology is routinely overlooked by those who
write its history.2 This neglect, I shall argue, is only partly the result of the
arbitrary ebbs and flows of theological fashion. Rather, both Baur’s importance

Zeller (1865b), 363.
The fullest English account available is still Hodgson (1966). Of the older German literature
Fraedrich (1909) remains indispensable because of the wealth of source material used there. Cf.
also: Geiger (1964), Harris (1975), and Morgan (1985) with an extremely useful ‘bibliographical
essay’ (1985: 287–9). Wolf (1963) and Scholder (1961) offer instructive discussions of Baur’s
concept of a theology of history. For his development and various influences on his thought see
Liebing (1957) and Hester (1973).
26 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
and the general failure to acknowledge it are related to the special character of
his theology, which combines historical and systematic work in exemplary
form. This means no less than that Baur’s historical work is in itself eminently
systematic, while his systematic theological ideas are developed by way of
historical analysis.
It will be the task of the present chapter to work this out in detail. Our
analysis will be based on Baur’s 1835 monograph, Die christliche Gnosis
(Christian Gnosis);3 like most of Baur’s writings it never saw a second edition
(the first edition was reprinted in 1967) and has never been translated into
English. The book’s title is somewhat misleading, as we shall see; according to
its subtitle, the work represents Baur’s attempt to write the history of what he
calls the ‘Christian philosophy of religion’. This history may have had its
beginnings in second-century Gnosticism, but undergoes a continual devel-
opment finding a further expression—and, in some sense, its culmination—in
Baur’s own time in the thought of Schelling, Schleiermacher, and particularly
Hegel. Yet even the book’s subtitle does not tell the whole story. In many ways,
for Baur the history of the Christian philosophy of religion is this philosophy,
and by means of such a historicized philosophy (and only by it) Christianity’s
truth can be grasped.
Die christliche Gnosis, then, will take us right to the heart of Baur’s project: a
concept of theology based on the identity of the philosophical nature of
Christianity with the history of this religion. This concept inevitably had far-
reaching as well as complicated methodological consequences, and these two
can be observed particularly distinctly in Die christliche Gnosis. In this way,
our analysis of this work will also illustrate the intrinsic difficulties Baur’s
reception is faced with today. With few exceptions, the development of
scholarship since the early nineteenth century has tended towards increasing
subject specialization; separation between systematic and historical work in
theology is now all but taken for granted. There is the occasional complaint
about this state of affairs, usually motivated by hermeneutical concerns.
Notwithstanding this, there can be no doubt that in their actual research,
theological and non-theological historians in the widest sense of this word rely
on the positivistic assumption of historical givenness. The idea that historical
work necessarily involves philosophical premisses is frowned upon, and un-
surprisingly so. For while reflective historians are aware that their work is in
practice never free from extra-historical assumptions, including philosophical
or religious convictions, few if any would regard such influences as benefiting
their historical work. Such a view is foreign to mainstream contemporary
historical research both within and outside theology. Therefore, Baur’s work
cannot but be evaluated as having been—despite his great learning—too
greatly influenced by German Idealism.

Baur (1835).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 27
Yet his specific version of historical theology stands in the way of Baur’s
appreciation as a theologian as well. While systematic theology is still not
infrequently approached historically, the scope of historical perception has
become much more limited. Its purview is practically confined to intellectual
history, and even within that, often only to developments immediately related
to one’s own position. Thus there is usually neither the willingness nor the
competence to engage in forms of argumentation that develop systematic
insights directly from strictly historical, that is to say source-critical, work.
The systematic theologian today, consciously or unconsciously, looks for
‘systematic texts’ in Baur. Yet Baur’s systematic texts are precisely his histor-
ical investigations of early Christianity, Gnosis, or the doctrine of Reconcili-
ation. In Baur’s theology, as we shall see, it cannot be otherwise, but it is
important to note that his modus operandi significantly complicates its
reconstruction, let alone its reception.
These more general methodological problems make themselves felt in the
present analysis as well. We cannot proceed without engaging, to a certain
extent, with Baur’s historical and exegetical questions and hypotheses. Our
chapter will therefore deal in some detail with his interpretation of late-ancient
Gnosticism as well as the thought of his philosophical and theological con-
temporaries, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Hegel. Baur gains and develops
his own insights by way of historical and textual interpretation, and it is
therefore only through observing him in this process that we can learn to
understand his own ideas. At the same time, the advance of scholarship since
his time means that we can really only do this ‘to a certain extent’. Again and
again, we shall have to point to necessary limitations within the present
endeavour. Baur argues as a theological historian on the basis of sources and
research results knowledge of which would nowadays be the task of a specialist
in the history of historiography. The question—critically discussed in the
literature of his time—whether his hypotheses (which are never exclusively
but always also historical) are appropriate in this context can therefore often
not be answered definitively within the framework of the present study.
Similarly, this study cannot avoid paying tribute to the existing separation of
disciplines by repeatedly emphasizing—anachronistically, as far as Baur is
concerned—that its own nature is ultimately systematic and not historical in



[Baur has] reached his work on gnosis (1835) in none of his later works, even his
history of the earliest Church is comparatively deficient. Whoever wants to
28 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
appraise Baur as a Church historian has to evaluate him on the basis of his account
of Gnosticism and by its comparison with contemporary church-historical studies.
It also offers the key, however, for the philosophical foundation of his understand-
ing of history and for the criteria according to which he developed his specific
theory of Primitive Christianity.4
These words by Albrecht Ritschl, written in 1861, reveal, despite their polem-
ical context, the considerable hermeneutic sensibility of Baur’s sometime
pupil. We shall accept them as a pointer for the following presentation,
which therefore starts from an investigation of Baur’s great work of 1835
without—in spite of Ritschl’s authoritative pronouncement—ignoring Baur’s
earlier and later work.
The first question to be asked must be why Baur thought gnosis offered the
key to an understanding of the Christian philosophy of religion. The first and
most obvious answer is that for him gnosis denotes a recurrent type of
Christian religious thought rather than a single historical phenomenon. We
here take note of this view by using ‘gnosis’ exclusively for Baur’s diachronic
understanding while reserving ‘Gnosticism’ for the historical movement in
late antiquity. Right at the beginning of his book, Baur unequivocally asserts
his belief in the centrality of that second-century phenomenon for an under-
standing of Christian philosophy:
A history of the philosophy of religion, which up until now has been lacking, is
impossible, in my view, without going back to the ideas generated by ancient
Gnosis [ = Gnosticism] on its fertile soil. Once one has mastered the full extent of
this point of departure, however, and obtained alongside the concept of gnosis the
concept of the philosophy of religion, at once a vista opens up from this point of
departure on a coherent series of homogeneous phenomena in which one and the
same concept (Begriff ) moves forward on account of the internal relationship of
the moments of its development.5
This passage is interesting in more than one way. First of all, it shows clearly
the centrality Baur ascribed to historical study—and especially the study of the
history of religion—for philosophical investigation. Only an examination of
ancient Gnosticism will yield an understanding of the history of the philoso-
phy of religion. If we are to take him seriously at all, then, we have to follow
him through this task in order to obtain a sense of his own philosophical and
theological views.
Secondly, however, there can be no doubt even at this early point in his
investigation that Baur’s historical work is by no means independent of
philosophical inspiration. For him, after all, studying Gnosticism means
studying a philosophy, and he clearly expects this historical exercise to result
in something he calls the ‘concept’ or idea (Begriff ) of gnosis and at the same

4 5
Ritschl (1861: 433). Baur (1835: viii).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 29
time the idea of the philosophy of religion in general. It is this principal idea
that will, in its turn, explain the subsequent historical development of this
philosophy. How does he expect his historical analysis to achieve this kind of
result? A little earlier in the text, Baur had pointed out that his understanding
of gnosis has been ‘aided significantly’ by the ‘newest philosophy of religion’.6
This is a reference to Hegel, whose Philosophy of Religion had been published
posthumously for the first time in 1832. Baur would appear to be moving in a
methodological circle then. On the one hand, a historical investigation of
ancient Gnosticism is meant to advance the elucidation of the concept of the
‘Christian philosophy of religion’; on the other hand, that very concept is
needed to grasp the nature of gnosis.
Perhaps, however, such a circle is inevitable and appropriate to the subject.
Baur’s concern, after all, is the presentation of a single historical phenomenon,
such as ancient Gnosticism, as incomplete without its classification within a
larger concept, which alone secures a proper understanding of each phenom-
enon. Gnosticism, for example, is understood correctly only if we identify it as
an exemplary case of the ‘Christian philosophy of religion’. Whether or not
this particular identification is convincing is here less important than the
underlying methodological principle that the part is understood by reference
to the whole, while at the same time, a reconstruction of the whole requires an
understanding of its parts. According to Baur, we arrive at an understanding
of the philosophy of religion only through the study of its historical manifest-
ations, for example, those in the Early Church, but these manifestations
cannot be appreciated properly without a philosophical framework. This
particular circle has been called the ‘hermeneutic circle’, and it has been said
that the point is not to avoid it but to ‘enter it in the right way’.7
A third observation concerns the nature of Baur’s philosophical influences.
The language in the passage quoted above is quite suggestive in that regard: a
concept (Begriff ) is moved forward by the internal connections between its
developmental stages. This is the jargon cultivated in the Hegelian School
which reached the height of its hegemony over German public discourse
around that time. As Baur’s adjacent, explicit reference to Hegel demonstrates,
the Tübingen professor is by no means coy about this intellectual debt. His
contact with the ‘newest, extremely significant manifestation’8 of the philoso-
phy of religion provided him with a ‘natural point of rest’ for his understand-
ing of gnosis. Reading Hegel, then, convinced Baur that his philosophy of
religion was the most advanced form of ‘gnosis’. Hegel’s influence, however,
went further than that. Baur’s presentation of his own task in Die christliche
Gnosis hints at the presence of Hegelian principles in the very methodology of

Baur (1835: viii).
Heidegger (1957: 153) (} 32), ET: Macquarrie/Robinson, 195.
Baur (1835: vii).
30 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
his investigation. As a historical phenomenon, gnosis can only be adequately
grasped if individual events and facts are understood as moments of a self-
moving (and in this sense, as Baur says at this point, ‘living’) concept.
If we follow Baur’s own declaration at the beginning of Die christliche
Gnosis, then, the work has to be considered a product of theological Hegelian-
ism. Yet there are indications early on that this may not quite be the case. In
the passage quoted above, Baur refers to historical development as ‘a series of
homogeneous phenomena’. Gnosis, he apparently thinks, is a type that recurs
in the same way throughout history. Every single occurrence is essentially the
same; in this sense, the individuals categorized under this heading are, as Baur
writes, ‘homogeneous’. Hegel could never have said such a thing. The funda-
mental interest of his philosophy is to understand being in its evolution, to
capture the essence of development. While Baur uses the word ‘development’
in the present place, there is little indication throughout Die christliche Gnosis
that he means it in more than the trivial sense of historical sequence. At the
end of the introduction, he remarks that
it is in the nature of the philosophy of religion again and again to embark on the
path on which ancient Gnosis already embarked.9
Despite terminological and conceptual parallels with Hegel, then, and in
spite of Baur’s willingness to acknowledge such leanings, there are also
indications of significant differences between himself and Hegelianism. His
understanding of the history of the philosophy of religion seems more typo-
logical than evolutionary; the ‘living concept’ (lebendige Begriff ), which he
invokes, seems to be aimed at a unity in multiplicity rather than the progres-
sive unveiling of some ultimate truth. We must, it seems, seriously reckon with
the possibility that Hegel’s influence on Baur’s thought in Die christliche
Gnosis is less pronounced or at least differently configured than it may appear
at first sight.
These hints and insights that can be gleaned from the introductory pages of
Die christliche Gnosis yield a preliminary indication of the general character of
the book, but no more than that. Any more far-reaching assessment requires a
consideration of the entire development of Baur’s argument. How does the
Tübingen professor proceed? The first section of his monograph is dedicated
to a systematic definition of the concept and origin of gnosis. This serves to
establish a framework within which the second and third sections present the
historical details first of the Gnostic systems of the second century and then of
their development in confrontation with ecclesial and philosophical polemics
up to the mid-third century (Clement of Alexandria, Plotinus). A fourth
section concludes the history by relating its modern phase ranging from

Baur (1835: 9). Italics mine.
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 31
Jakob Böhme to Baur’s contemporaries, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Hegel.
Not all of these are of equal importance, but some space must be devoted to
Baur’s reconstruction of ancient Gnosticism and his interpretation of Schleier-
macher and Hegel as modern ‘Gnostics’.



Baur’s theological and philosophical interest in gnosis cannot be detached

from his historical reconstruction of Gnosticism. The relationship of this
analysis with the work of earlier scholars such as Johann Lorenz von Mosheim
(1693–1755) or August Neander (1789–1850) must here be bracketed in its
particulars.10 However, it is necessary for any appreciation of Baur’s own
approach to note that the relevant works immediately preceding his own,
those of Neander11 and Jacques Matter (1791–1864),12 typically describe
Gnosticism as ‘theosophy’ and characterize it as ‘syncretistic’.13 Gnosis thus
appeared to be a phenomenon oddly positioned, or rather oscillating, between
the various ancient religions on the one hand and between mythology and
philosophy on the other. By contrast to the imprecision of this conceptual-
ization, which Baur explicitly notes,14 his own aim is first of all to develop a
more robust definition of the term gnosis as a basis for its historical
In his first step in this direction, Baur focuses on the relation of gnosis to
Christianity, Judaism, and paganism (for Baur these are ‘three religions’15).
Baur here picks up the intention of earlier descriptions of gnosis as ‘syncretis-
tic’ while turning it in a characteristically different direction. To him, the most
perspicuous and essential characteristic of gnosis is found in its relation to
Religion is the very object with which it (i.e. Gnosis) is occupied, but primarily
not religion in its abstract idea, but in its concrete forms in which it had
objectified itself historically at the time when Christianity came into existence.16

Baur (1835: 1–9 and passim). Cf. Neander (1818). The amount of praise Baur lavishes on
Mosheim’s work is particularly noteworthy.
Baur refers to Neander’s discussion of Gnosis in the more recently published first volume
of his Church History; Baur (1835: 15); cf. Neander (1826: 627–8).
Matter (1828). Baur knew the German translation by C. H. Dörner, Heilbronn 1833, but
quotes from the French original. For Gnosis as ‘theosophy’ see Matter (1828: vol. 2, 191) and
Baur’s summary in (1835: 16–17).
13 14
Baur (1835: 15–17). Baur (1835: 17).
15 16
Cf., e.g., Baur (1835: 9). Baur (1835: 18–19).
32 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
In other words, in Baur’s view, the specific aim of gnosis is to penetrate the
material content of the religious forms known at its time, Judaism, Christian-
ity, and paganism. All Gnostic systems, he claims, ultimately seek
to determine the relation, in which the three said forms of religion stand to one
another with regard to their character and their inner value. In this way, by means
of a critical, comparative examination, they intend to ascertain the true concept of
Whether this assumption is in any way justified as concerns second-century
Gnosticism may remain an open question at this point.18 With regard to the
other (ever-present) aspect of Baur’s question, the nature of the philosophy of
religion, his assumption is, in any case, illuminating as it implies two further
claims. First, the Gnostics have a historical cast of mind and are therefore
interested in religion ‘in its concrete forms’. Gnosis, accordingly, is philosoph-
ical not in the sense of abstract speculation but only as philosophy of history.
The Gnostics, according to Baur, are philosophers-cum-historians. Their
philosophy of religion reflects actual religions in their specific historical
development; its ‘material content’, Baur explains, is the history of religion.
Yet the same must be true, then, for the philosophy of religion more generally.
‘In its material content’, to use his words again, philosophy of religion is the
history of religion, working with the ‘concrete forms’, not an ‘abstract idea’, of
religion. Conversely, the natural theology of Rationalism is the exact opposite
of a philosophy of religion:
There hardly is a greater antithesis to Gnosis than [Christian] Wolff ’s natural
philosophy. While it wants to be philosophy of religion also, its God is merely the
abstract, rational concept of the ens perfectissimum . . . 19
Without historiography, then, there can be no philosophy of religion. At the
same time, however, this historical interest is not an end in itself but rather is
placed in the service of philosophical reflection on the material it uncovers,
from its study of the history of religion that is. Gnosis, then, is philosophy of
religion in the sense that it aims at a philosophical penetration of the history of
religion, and thus at achieving a concept of religion through comparative
study of religions. Whether such an ideal concept, a ‘true concept of religion’,
could ever, as Baur supposes, be achieved through ‘a critical comparative
study’—this too must remain an open question for the moment. It will become
clear that it is precisely at this point that Baur’s project is exposed to significant
tensions, of which, incidentally, the Tübingen scholar himself was perfectly

Baur (1835: 19).
Baur refers to the Gnostics’ interest in the origin of evil. Its treatment in their various
systems indicates, according to him, that they deemed positive religions ‘necessary’ for the
‘mediation’ of truth discovered in philosophy and religion (1835: 20).
Baur (1835: 555, n. 5).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 33
aware. In the present context, however, there is as yet no indication of this.
Rather, Baur continues in his characterization of gnosis as a philosophy of the
history of religion:
Gnosis is history of religion only by being at the same time philosophy of religion.
The particular way in which these two elements and tendencies, the historical and
the philosophical, mutually penetrate each other and are connected to a whole,
provides us with the true concept of its being.20
It views the individual religions as parts of ‘religion’ that is of an organic whole
or an Idea that moves through its concrete individual manifestations. This
understanding is based on the conviction—which Baur once again formulates
in Hegelian language—that the absolute religion must necessarily be aware of
its own ‘mediation’ (Vermittlung). In other words, in order to be what it is, the
absolute religion must include an awareness of its own position within the
historical development of religion. From its standpoint at the apex of this
development, the historical path leading to it must become transparent and
knowledge of this path must become part of the religion’s theological self-
definition. This theological integration of the history of religion, however,
implies that this very history, the ‘path’ leading to its consummation in the
absolute religion, is itself God’s progressive revelation. In the final instance,
therefore, philosophy of religion can consistently only be articulated as a
theory of absolute Spirit:
Therefore history of religion for [Gnosis] is not merely the history of successive
divine revelations, but these revelations are at the same time the developmental
process in which the eternal being of the Godhead moves outside itself, manifests
itself within a finite world and dirempts itself from itself in order to return
through this manifestation and self-diremption into its eternal unity with itself.21
Gnosis, then, is the history of religion in philosophical interpretation or
philosophy of religion, historically conceived. The two are not quite identical,
however. For Baur, they remain two distinguishable elements within the
Gnostic search for truth.22 This is clear in his reconstruction of the Gnostics’
method as proceeding from the gathering of historical evidence to the philo-
sophical interpretation of this material (where the results of the latter may in
turn lead to a revision of the former, etc.). This method, as much as Baur’s own
method, can be called hermeneutic: it assumes an organic part-whole relation-
ship, in which both mutually determine and interpret each other.
Baur is thus able to describe both elements separately: materially (that is, as
far as the historical side is concerned), the Gnostics related matter, demiurge,
and salvation to paganism, Judaism, and Christianity, respectively. Each of
these three principles of Gnostic systems belongs to and characterizes a

20 21 22
Baur (1835: 21). Baur (1835: 22). Baur (1835: 24–5).
34 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
particular religion, and it is according to the status of those principles that the
religions are schematically classified.23 In this classification, ‘paganism’ is then
understood as nature religion, Judaism as the religion of abstract theism, and
Christianity as the perfect religion of redemption. The triad of historical
religions is thus based on an ontological duality of spirit and nature, which
is overcome and reconciled in the third element, Christianity.
Considering that Baur never lost sight of the paradigmatic significance of
his historical object of study on account of the historical details of his work, we
can glean at this point something of the overall structure of his reconstruction
of the history of religion: a typology of nature and spirit-religions, in which the
absolute religion must be a religion of redemption bringing together these
opposites and reconciling their antithesis. It would, then, further appear that
the claim of an absolute religion must additionally require the reflective
awareness of its own position within this scheme. This precisely is what the
philosophy of religion provides and therefore it is needed at the stage of
Christianity. The necessity of a philosophy of religion at the level of Chris-
tianity thus arises from the fact that this religion can only be what it is meant
to be, namely, the religion of redemption, if it also develops an understanding
of itself as the reconciliation of the polar opposites of nature and spirit that had
dominated the history of religions prior to its emergence.
Thus far the historical side of gnosis. What of its philosophical aspect? Baur
here advances the interesting thesis that, while in their religious outlook the
Gnostics of the second century rightly regarded Christianity as the absolute
religion, they fell, philosophically, under the spell of paganism. Given the
analogy between Greek philosophy and pagan religion, however, this effect-
ively undermined their philosophical conception of Christianity. Baur ex-
plains how this worked in practice:
This [philosophy] starts from the same assumption that underlies all pagan
religion in fundamentally the same way, albeit with various modifications. God
and world are conceived as mediated through the moments of a process which,
more or less, bears the character of a natural process conditioned by physical
This analysis provides Baur with a criterion for an immanent critique of the
imperfection of Gnostic speculation: in adapting for its reflection a form of
philosophy inadequate to the religious level it was meant to underwrite, it lags
behind its intellectual task. In practice, this use of ‘pagan’ philosophy means,
according to Baur, that the ‘highest antithesis’—the most fundamental duality
to which all difference is traced back in Gnosticism—is that between God
and matter. Its philosophical scheme, in other words, is cosmological, and
salvation is thus primarily salvation from human decline into matter. In

23 24
Baur (1835: 25–9). Baur (1835: 29).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 35
Christianity, by contrast, the relevant polarity is not ‘physical’ but ethical: it is
between election and rejection, grace and sin, spirit and flesh. This ethical
polarity, as Baur later emphasizes, is only properly reached in Protestantism.25
This reference to Protestantism is not without a rationale. Contemporary
Catholic theologian Johann Adam Möhler had polemically likened Protest-
antism to Gnosticism. Baur essentially accepts the parallel provided the
difference between the ‘physical’ character of early Christian Gnosticism and
‘ethical’ Protestantism was observed. Harking back to his slightly earlier
dispute with Möhler, he writes:
As long as the definition of Christian Gnosis is rightly conceived and its purely
ethical character recognised, which Protestantism must never deny, there is no
reason to be ashamed of this comparison.26
Protestantism, then, is a variety of gnosis, as Baur understands it; in setting the
gospel above the law and postulating Christianity as the religion of freedom, it
retains and develops further the true kernel of ancient Gnosticism. Both
envision Christianity as the religion of the conscious reconciliation of the
antithesis between spirit and nature, but in Protestantism this is no longer
referred to the cosmological duality of two ontological principles, God and
matter, but to the ‘ethical’ or existential tension tearing apart human beings
between fallenness and freedom. The fact alone of his willingness to align
Protestantism to gnosis should be enough to indicate that Baur’s inclusion of
Schleiermacher and Hegel in the genealogy of Gnosticism does not constitute
an intentional denigration of these stars in the contemporary debate but rather
a (critical) defence of their approach.
If a philosophy of religion is to be developed through an analysis of late
antique Gnosticism, its most central element must still be missing. A philoso-
phy that elevates Christianity to the status of absolute religion by regarding the
reconciliation of nature religion and spirit religion as its central element must
of necessity place at the centre of attention the very point at which the
reconciliation of spirit and nature takes place and through which alone
Christianity can claim to be the absolute religion: the Incarnation. Without
a doubt, the success of a Christian philosophy of religion depends, for Baur, on
its ability to prove that spirit and nature truly are reconciled by being united in
the person of Jesus Christ. A viable Christology becomes the touchstone of the
philosophy of religion.

Baur (1835: 555). Baur’s view is a precursor of the well-known theory of the Ritschl School,
according to which Platonic influence on early Christianity led to a ‘physical’ doctrine of
salvation and, more generally, ushered in a deplorable influence of metaphysics on Christian
theology. Cf. Ritschl (1870: vol. 1, 8–9), ET: Black, 8; Herrmann (1875); Harnack (1888: vol. 2,
165–8; ET: Buchanan, vol. 3, 297 and note 580), and Zachhuber (2011). Further on this in
Chapter 8, text at n. 81.
Baur (1835: 553). Baur refers to Möhler (1833: 243–4). Cf. also: Baur (1833: 367–8).
36 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
At the same time, however—and this is characteristic of Baur’s sophisti-
cated interlacing of material and formal levels—a robustly conceptualized
Christology becomes the touchstone for Baur’s own historical understanding
of the philosophy of religion as well. After all, a point of contact between God
and history is necessary to confirm the philosophical premiss that Baur had
made the foundation of his study: that its ultimate truth was found in history.
And such a point of contact must exist not merely as an idea, but also in
reality. Baur, therefore, cannot remain indifferent to the solution offered to
this problem by the authors he studies. Rather, the justification of his own
philosophical programme, just like that of early Gnosticism, stands and falls
with the success of what one might call a speculative Christology, a theory that
reveals a particular point of history as being at the same time expression and
realization of absolute Spirit and yet fully and entirely part of human history.
Nothing, perhaps, is more characteristic of Baur’s thought in Die christliche
Gnosis and beyond than his blunt assertion of the failure of all these attempts.
This appears, first, in his discussion of Gnostic docetism.27 The diverse forms
this teaching takes in various Gnostics, according to Baur, are merely expres-
sions of a shared dilemma arising from an understanding of salvation as spirit
overcoming nature. This means, however, that the redeemer himself must be
Spirit and therefore remain, at all times, fully detached from nature. But this is
possible only if he is not ultimately related to it:
If Spirit, then, is to retain for himself consciousness of his absolute being and of
his absolute rule, he must again and again exercise this rule by breaking through
the material form, in which he appears. He must never permit it to become static
and fixed, must soar up above it and act towards it in complete freedom treating it
as a form completely transparent and plastic for the Spirit. In this sense, then, the
sensible form in which Spirit appears is mere semblance, and the redeemer can
appear in the sensible world in no other than such a form.28
If it were otherwise—if the redeemer were himself substantially, in his being,
related to nature—then he himself would be in need of salvation and thus no
longer the redeemer. There is no ‘Incarnation’, therefore, in the proper sense
of the word; the Word does not become flesh. Rather, a redeemer who is
himself spirit recalls human beings to their true spiritual home, away from
their decline into matter. This makes Christianity (in Baur’s categories) spirit
religion, but does not constitute it as the religion of redemption, which would
truly reconcile spirit and nature. Dualism is not ultimately overcome as spirit
asserts itself over against nature but does not assimilate or incorporate it into
But this is not all. Viewed historically, docetism finds its complement in a
further theory, no less important to Baur. For Gnostic Christology implies, in

27 28
Baur (1835: 255ff.). Baur (1835: 261).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 37
his view, the necessity of an ‘absolute beginning’,29 which is most clearly
expressed in Marcion’s formulation, at the beginning of his version of the
Gospel of Luke, that Christ ‘came down from heaven’ (manare de coelo30).
Baur seeks to show that the same principle applies, and must apply, in other
Gnostic systems as well. After all, the epiphany of the principle of salvation
cannot have occurred within the continuous flow of history:
The principle of higher, spiritual life can interfere with human nature only
because it in itself is supernatural, in the same way in which, according to the
usual view, Christ is sinless only because his origin does not belong to the series of
human procreation and thus constitutes an absolute beginning.31
This ahistoric entry into the world of the Gnostic redeemer subsequently
repeats itself in the history of salvation that follows. Like the redeemer, every
saved individual
relates to their entire previous existence, to their earlier development as some-
thing purely supernatural that cannot be explained from it, even though it must,
nonetheless, belong to the sphere of human nature’s potential for development.32
Rather than a history of salvation, Gnostic redemption initiates a quasi-history
of discrete individual events. This radical discontinuity, however, makes any
reference to the ‘historical Jesus’ even more precarious: how can the historical
existence of this man relate to each believer’s present, interior experience of
salvation? At this point, Baur introduces Gnostic speculations about Primal
Man (Urmensch):
In order to have a true redeemer, there was needed, then, the additional interest of
conceiving the first in the series [of saved human beings] also as the paradigm
(Urbild) of all human individuals who fall under the same concept, as universal
Man, who merely individualises himself, as it were, in all the others and realises
the Idea of his being in them.33
This Urmensch—the paradigm of saved humanity and thus the human side of
the redeemer—cannot, however, simultaneously also be a concrete historical
individual. Any attempt at a theoretical reconstruction of a history of salvation
must therefore end in a duality between the paradigmatic humanity of Christ,
the visible image and personified idea of an archetypal Urmensch on the one
hand and the historical Jesus, the arbitrary beginning of a historical sequence
on the other. Consequently, the Gnostic attempt to bring these two together

Baur (1835: 263).
Cf. Tertullian, adv. Marcionem I 19: ‘Anno XV. Tiberii Christus Iesus de caelo manare
dignatus est, spiritus salutaris Marcionis’ = Harnack (1924: 184*).
31 32 33
Baur (1835: 264). Baur (1835: 264). Baur (1835: 265).
38 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany

and unify history and salvation history in the framework of a teleological

history of religion has utterly and completely failed.
For Gnosticism, the results of this failure are entirely ruinous. By not achiev-
ing the reconciliation between spirit and nature—or indeed between philosophy
and history—it has failed at its most fundamental task. It cannot therefore
claim to offer a theoretical justification of Christianity’s absoluteness—the
very idea that had originally inspired the Gnostic endeavour. Furthermore,
given the subtle interdependence of material and methodological aspects
Baur had established, this failure to justify the Gnostic worldview inevitably
casts a shadow over the philosophical method they had adopted for this end.
One was meant to underwrite the other, so the downfall of the one is also the
downfall of the other. What is worse, these consequences cannot be limited
to ancient Gnosticism. This second-century school, Baur had argued, was the
archetype of gnosis, the Christian philosophy of religion. Its ideas—the complete
synthesis of historical and philosophical interpretation of religion—evidently
underlie Baur’s own work too. The spectre of their systematic failure, then,
must be as profoundly worrying for the author of Die christliche Gnosis himself
as for any of his objects of study.


Baur’s study of ancient Gnosticism ends in ambiguity. On the one hand, the
movement for him represents the inevitable consequence of Christianity in its
attempt to justify the ‘absoluteness’ of this religion by means of philosophical
reflection on the history of religion. Baur clearly approves of this programme;
after all, his own project of scientific theology draws on recent advances in
historiography and the philosophy of German Idealism in a similar way. Baur
would also agree that any such attempt has to focus on the Incarnation as the
meeting-point of God and world, idea and history. On the other hand, the
Gnostic attempt in Baur’s analysis ends in failure. Its Christology does
not bridge the gap between spirit and nature; its philosophy does not make
history intelligible; its history of religion does not prove the absoluteness of
In light of this ambivalence, the fundamental question for Baur’s subse-
quent analysis of the more recent history of the philosophy of religion is
whether the latter offers a solution to this fatal dilemma. Is Baur able to find
in Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Hegel tendencies that suggest a more
satisfactory response than the one he had diagnosed in the ancient represen-
tatives of gnosis? The short answer is that he does not. If anything, the failure
of their Christologies is even more conspicuous than that of ancient
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 39
Some more detailed investigation of Baur’s argument will confirm and
illustrate this assessment. His treatment of Schelling is somewhat cursory.34
Schleiermacher and Hegel, clearly, provide his major examples for the con-
summation of the Christian philosophy of religion in his own time and form
the core of the last part of Die christliche Gnosis. This is not surprising given
how thoroughly both thinkers influenced Baur’s own perception of gnosis
even in its ancient guise. His interpretation of Gnostic Christology with its
dual emphasis on the historical figure of Jesus on the one hand and the
transcendent paradigm or Urbild of Christian faith on the other, for example,
evidently owes much to Schleiermacher’s exposition of that doctrine in The
Christian Faith.35
By contrast, Baur’s presentation of Schleiermacher’s teaching in the chapter
devoted to him in Die christliche Gnosis—which is based exclusively on his
Glaubenslehre—might appear more confusing than illuminating, at least at
first sight. First of all, Schleiermacher’s standpoint is characterized as ‘subject-
ive’. To understand this claim, we have to recall that Schleiermacher explains
all religion as an expression of what he calls the ‘feeling of absolute depend-
ence’. This feeling or, as Schleiermacher also and more precisely calls it,
‘immediate self-consciousness’ refers the individual to their absolute origin
which, however, is only given to us as the cause that must correspond to the
internally experienced reality of absolute dependence. Schleiermacher’s the-
ology, then, is subjective insofar as its ultimate point of reference is human
subjectivity; it is not ‘subjective’ in the sense that religion is entirely a matter of
human interiority. God is essential for this theory; he is, one might say,
absolute causality and, as such, simple and without internal differentiation.
How then does Schleiermacher’s theology fit Baur’s definition of gnosis with
its emphasis on a dynamic concept of God, which permits and underwrites a
history of religion as divine revelation? Precisely its ‘subjectivity’ seems to
make the system of the Glaubenslehre an unsuitable example of gnosis in
Baur’s sense. Schleiermacher’s theory, whatever its meaning and significance,
seems far removed from an attempt to understand Christianity on the basis of
a philosophical interpretation of the history of religion.
The answer lies in Baur’s specific understanding of Schleiermacher’s ap-
proach, which is idiosyncratic but not without ingenuity. The Tübingen
professor finds the dynamic and mediating element typical of the gnostic
philosophy of religion recurrent in Schleiermacher precisely on the subjective
side, that is, within the feeling of absolute dependence. This interpretation
rests on a particular reading of the introductory part of The Christian Faith. In
Schleiermacher’s own view, this part contains non-theological theories that

Baur’s account is exclusively based on Schelling’s Of Human Freedom and his polemic
against Jacobi: Baur (1835: 611–26).
Cf. Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 2, 41–52) (} 93), ET: Mackintosh/Stewart, 377–85.
40 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
are merely imported or ‘borrowed’ propositions (Lehnsätze) which context-
ualize and illuminate the dogmatic content that follows.36 Schleiermacher
there engages the history of religion to demonstrate how the feeling of absolute
dependence, which as such is an anthropological universal, has presented itself
over time in various forms and modifications. In his argument, he combines
an evolutionary progression from fetishism, via polytheism to monotheism
with an explicitly non-hierarchical differentiation between the various forms
of monotheism.37 It is therefore doubtful that Baur’s attempt to subsume this
historical schema under his evolutionary model with its climax in one absolute
religion could at all succeed.
Crucial for the present analysis, however, is another issue that comes out in
Baur’s discussion of Schleiermacher’s formula for the nature (Wesen) of
Christianity, which in The Christian Faith is put as follows:
Christianity is a monotheistic faith, belonging to the teleological type of religion,
and is essentially distinguished from other such faiths by the fact that in it
everything is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth.38
Baur observes that this formula in its reference to ‘the redemption accom-
plished by Jesus of Nazareth’ leaves behind the immanence of the believer’s
consciousness and enters the external world of history. This, however, raises
the larger theological as well as philosophical question of the identity of the
redeemer with that historical individual, a correspondence that could, in any
case, not ultimately be decided through historical research but only by means
of philosophical reflection. From a historical perspective, there could only ever
be a relatively best, relatively most perfect individual: ‘but between the rela-
tively best and the absolutely perfect, there is a chasm which history can never
In anticipation of my further argument, let me say here only that this is a
treacherous remark. For it shows that Baur’s critique of a philosophy of
religion that wants to think history and supernatural redemption together
rests on a petitio principii. If this statement is to be believed, Baur basically
accepts the Rationalist dichotomy between history and reason as an a priori
certainty. If that is the case, however, all attempts to overcome this dichotomy
are doomed, regardless of procedure or methodology, regardless also of their
philosophical or theological sophistication.

This arrangement, however, only occurs in the second edition of The Christian
Faith (1830), and Baur, who suspected Schleiermacher of dissimulating the actual significance
of philosophy for his theology, notes that it betrays the ‘cautious hand’ that wishes to
avert any appearance of an elevation of philosophy over Christianity: Baur (1835: 634).
e.g. Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 60–4) (} 7), ET: Mackintosh/Stewart, 31–4.
Schleiermacher (1830b: vol.1, 93) (} 11), ET: Mackintosh/Stewart, 52.
Baur (1835: 638).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 41
In this context, however, Baur is not yet ready to draw this conclusion. His
initial conclusion from his postulate that the absolute dignity of the redeemer
cannot be proved historically is that such a proof requires philosophical
reflection, more specifically a speculative concept of the redeemer that is
subsequently transferred to the person of Jesus.40 In other words, it is only
the philosophy of religion that can establish Christianity as the absolute
religion. The ensuing criticism, then, is that Schleiermacher downplays the
relevance of philosophy, particularly the philosophy of religion, for his the-
ology. This is, in fact, the only real criticism that Baur levels against Schleier-
macher. His further, unsurprising claim that Schleiermacher’s Christology
exhibits the same defect he had earlier diagnosed in ancient Gnosticism
cannot really be called by that name:
I am far from criticising Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre for something that is
inevitable in this subject matter. Yet precisely because it thus is in the nature of
things, the undeniable part philosophy of religion has for the entire inner
organism of this dogmatic system should have been acknowledged more openly,
and the speculative element should have been more clearly separated from
historical exposition.41
Needless to say, then, Baur can only regard Schleiermacher’s attempt to
restrict the scope of philosophy in the Christian Faith to extraneous Lehnsätze
as an utter failure. Rather, as he soon makes clear, the dogmatic core of the
doctrine of faith, Christology in particular, cannot be justified except within
the framework of a philosophy of religion. Baur expresses it thus:
Philosophy of religion, having been relegated from the field of dogmatics to the
introduction, invades the territory of dogmatics with all its might, like an enemy
who had been driven over the border, to take possession of it for itself, in spite of
all protestations. On the basis of those ‘borrowed propositions’ (Lehnsäze) it
founds its reign subjecting dogmatics as its vassal (Lehnsträgerin).42
In other words, Baur reconstructs Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre roughly as
follows. It is primarily a philosophy of religion, which proceeds from ‘subject-
ive religion’, i.e. the consciousness or feeling of absolute dependence. This
consciousness, however, has its own history which moves through different
stages; this is the history of religion. At its summit, however, we encounter the
necessity of a concrete historical point of reference. This, of course, recalls
Baur’s perpetual dilemma of the whole philosophy of religion: how can the
natural and the supernatural—in this case, specifically, the ideal existing
within human self-consciousness and the real, historical person—be recon-
ciled and become one?

40 41 42
Baur (1835: 638). Baur (1835: 641). Baur (1835: 657–8, n. 23).
42 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
This reconstruction of Schleiermacher’s system undoubtedly is one-sided,
as has often been pointed out. On its basis, The Christian Faith had to appear
as the imperfect, subjective form of the philosophy of religion, which must
necessarily pass on to its objective realization, which Baur recognized in Hegel.
In Schleiermacher’s theory, by contrast, Baur found lacking any explanation of
the transition from the level of subjective experience to that of external history.
As evidence for this absence of mediation, he cites Schleiermacher’s claim that
all dogmatic statements can be given in three forms, ‘as descriptions of human
states, or as conceptions of divine attributes, or as utterances regarding the
constitution of the world’.43 In all of them, the Christian faith is truly ex-
pressed, but the second and third can in principle be traced back to their
original, psychological form.44 Schleiermacher’s theology is therefore, in
Baur’s view, ultimately a theory of interior religious experience without the
potential to explain the relationship between this experience and the historical,
social and cultural dimensions of religion.
This is different in Hegel, and, for Baur, the cause of the superiority of his
philosophy of religion over Schleiermacher’s. Baur does not argue for a
categorical opposition between the two Berlin professors whose rivalry was
notorious throughout the 1820s. On the contrary, he regards them as closely
akin in their adherence to the ‘gnostic’ paradigm of the philosophy of religion.
What separate the two thinkers are their subjective or objective standpoints:
The entire difference between Schleiermacher’s and Hegel’s standpoints cannot
be expressed more clearly and more immediately than in the one sentence which
already contains in itself the entire system: rather than placing the whole content
of religion into the feeling of the subject, as Schleiermacher had done, Hegel
defines its being as the self-consciousness of God or of Absolute Spirit, or as the
idea of spirit in its relation to itself, the relation of spirit to Absolute Spirit, self-
knowledge of divine Spirit.45
The plausibility of this teleology, of course, is partly due to Baur’s own original
definition of gnosis, which had made its fulfilment in Hegel nearly inevitable—
not least because it was (as Baur himself confessed) formulated under Hegel’s
philosophical influence and guidance. If the nature of gnosis requires an
understanding of the history of religion as the self-explication of the divine
Spirit, then a philosophy that emphatically understands itself in this way must
indeed occupy a special position in its history. In this sense, Baur’s explicit
claim that the philosophy of religion has been perfected, or perfectly realized,

Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 194–5) (} 30, 2), ET: Mackintosh/Stewart, 125.
Cf. Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 194–5) (} 30, 2), ET: Mackintosh/Stewart, 126: ‘Hence we
must declare the description of human states of mind to be the fundamental dogmatic form.’
Baur (1835: 672–3).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 43
in Hegel cannot come as a surprise.46 In the same spirit of a committed
Hegelianism, Baur rejects critics of Hegel (especially the Speculative Idealists
around Immanuel Hermann Fichte) who censured Hegel for an inadequate
understanding of individual persons and their role in the historical process.47
Baur’s rhetorical endorsement of the cause of Hegelianism in Die christliche
Gnosis cannot, however, be taken at its face value. We have observed before
that his explicit references to Hegel’s philosophy are not necessarily matched
by his own formulations and ideas. Baur’s full exposition of Hegel’s philoso-
phy of religion in the final section of his book entirely confirms this initial
suspicion. It is Baur’s own Hegel who emerges from these pages; they betray
far more about the former’s views than about the latter’s system.
In one place, Baur summarizes Hegel’s understanding of concrete historical
religion in the following remarkable manner:
Historical religions, in which Religion exists in its finite form, are merely
moments of its concept (Begriff ) and thus do not correspond to it; the concept is
not really in them. At the highest point, determinacy becomes the concept itself,
limits are thus sublated and religious consciousness is no longer different from
the concept: this is the Idea, the fully realised concept, absolute religion.48
At this point, Baur continues, the finite is annihilated, and the infinite Spirit
becomes aware of it as nothingness.
This passage perfectly displays and illustrates the specific one-sidedness of
Baur’s interpretation of Hegel. His dualistic separation of ahistorical concept
and historical reality completely misses what for the latter is absolutely central:
the ‘sublation’ (Aufhebung) of the finite in the infinite.49 While in this process
the finite is ‘annihilated’, it disappears only in its negativity; it loses that which
is opposed to the fullness of the Spirit. At the same time, however, it is, as such,
preserved precisely by its integration into the total intelligibility of the spiritual
realm. Baur’s misreading of this idea may, at one level, seem a mere matter of
subtle nuance. In some sense, of course, it is right that for Hegel the concept ‘is
not really’ in the historical religions; ‘in its full reality’ it indeed does not
correspond to its finite manifestations. Baur, however, clearly does not think
of dialectical ‘sublation’ here, but rather of a full and lasting separation
between concept and history.
One may well doubt that Hegel succeeds in his project of an absolute
philosophy that eventually sublates—that is, overcomes as well as integrates—
all antitheses in the absolute Spirit. Yet this is not what Baur says. Rather, his

Baur (1835: 720–1). Cf. however Baur’s somewhat formulaic phrase at the end of the book
(1835: 740) that the philosophy of religion remains forever unfinished.
Cf. Baur (1835: 700–6).
Baur (1835: 690).
It is notable that the concept and the terminology of sublation play only a marginal role in
Baur’s reconstruction of Hegel’s philosophy.
44 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
reading and interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy is based on dualistic prin-
ciples. For him, this philosophy is yet another example of the ‘gnostic’ attempt
to reconcile, on a higher plane, two initially separate kinds of being: nature
and spirit. This, of course, is in line with his definition of gnosis right from the
beginning of his work. Hegel, on the other hand, was perfectly convinced
that a ‘reconciliation’ on such terms was impossible. It is precisely for this
reason that he notoriously despised the results of empirical research and
instead advocated the speculative construction of the emergence of knowledge
from the birds-eye view of the absolute Spirit. Baur’s reconstruction of his
thought shows no sign that he was aware of this intention and appreciated its
significance. There is, then, a certain irony to the fact that his praise for Hegel
in Die christliche Gnosis rests on an interpretation which Hegel himself could
never have accepted: that in his philosophy the characteristic elements of
gnosis, the Christian philosophy of religion, are revealed with final and
supreme clarity.
We have already found that, in Baur’s analysis, the entire project of a
Gnostic philosophy of religion is deeply tensional. Hegel’s philosophy,
which offers its ultimate consummation, must therefore be expected to display
with particular distinctness its central aporia, which resides in Christology. In
his account, Baur does indeed give due prominence to this element of Hegel’s
philosophy. He commends the latter for regarding it as second only to the
trinitarian idea of God in its doctrinal centrality to the absolute religion, but
detects in it, upon closer inspection, the same problematic consequences he
had discovered throughout his study. Baur’s summary is most poignant in his
own words:
Christ is the God-man only through the mediation of faith. What is behind faith,
the objective reality of history, which must form the presupposition for the
transformation of a merely extraneous, historical observation into faith, is
cloaked in a mystery into which we ought not to enter. For the question is not
whether Christ as such, according to his objective, historical existence, was the
God-man. What matters alone is that through and for faith he became the
What Baur here (twice in the same paragraph) calls the ‘objective’ reality of
history is nothing other than empirically reconstructed history. As if it were a
matter of course, Baur explicates the Christological problem against the
horizon of a dichotomy between empirically researched and reconstructed
history and its transcendental, hermeneutic interpretation by a faith which,
however, always remains an extraneous addition to that history. This could
hardly be otherwise if such interpretation is a secondary reflection on an
‘independently’ and ‘objectively’ existing history, which could be recognized,

Baur (1835: 712).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 45
reconstructed, and understood even without this reflection. However, Hegel
had sought to avoid precisely such an understanding of history. His philoso-
phy in no way intended to provide the hermeneutic equipment for interpret-
ing an already knowable and in principle already known ‘objective reality’;
much rather, it claimed to show that only speculative philosophy makes being
intelligible and is thus foundational for the very existence of ‘objective reality’.
Baur, then, finds in Hegel the same unresolved duality between the histor-
ical and the ideal Christ that he had detected previously in Schleiermacher and
the ancient Gnostics. Clearly, then, no disparagement was ever intended to
anyone on this score, if by disparagement we mean the criticism of an
avoidable error. Rather, as becomes clear again and again, Baur regards this
defect as an ineradicable flaw of the philosophy of religion as such.51 It may
sound paradoxical, but Baur is in fact capable of regarding it as a sign of
Hegel’s perfection of that history that his philosophy exhibits the dichotomy
between the two Christs most sharply. Christ, at the highest stage of Hegelian
knowledge, is
pure Idea, Spirit itself, and everything that is related to Christ’s [earthly] appear-
ance and to his life has truth only insofar as being and life of the Spirit present
themselves in it. What the Spirit is and does, however, is not history.52
Hegel’s divisive Christology goes beyond both ancient Gnosticism and
Schleiermacher in presenting the ideal Christ as ‘the unity of finite and
absolute Spirit, as independently existing truth’.53 This very acumination
however, according to Baur, clears the way for a new and exceedingly rich
imagination of the historical Christ. This Christ could not, of course, be the
historical individual whom simple faith identifies with the God-man, but by
means of this critical clarification, Hegel ‘clears the widest space for the truly
historical Christ’. This truly historical Christ, however, is nothing other than
‘humanity uniting itself to God’.54 Baur here anticipates the notorious view
expounded by his own student, David Strauss.
By contrast, he clearly contradicts the more conservative interpretation,
associated with the right wing of the Hegelian party, according to which
Hegel’s philosophy facilitates an orthodox Christology. In spite of his apparent
proximity to the critical wing of Hegelianism, however, Baur interestingly does
not wish to draw the consequence that the Christian faith in its traditional
form is obsolete, although it must be admitted that his argument for this
position is, at first glance, slightly odd. He defends Hegel’s claim (derided from

In one place he even writes that the philosophy of religion, from its very beginning, had
‘made’ the separation of historical and ideal Christ ‘its task’ (Baur 1835: 720–1). However, this
would seem to be hyperbolic.
52 53 54
Baur (1835: 715). Baur (1835: 721). Baur (1835: 721).
46 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
the beginning by the Young Hegelians55) that religion and philosophy are
identical in content and different only in form. If this is the case, Baur
continues, then it is indeed correct to say that the ‘philosopher who knows
about God’ stands above the ‘historical Christ’ insofar as the latter’s statements
as recorded in the Gospels do not give the impression that he disposed of the
philosophy of religion ‘in the form of knowledge’.56 Yet, according to Baur,
Hegel could only be criticized for this implication if this formal difference were
construed as one of content. Only in the latter case, the philosopher (or indeed
theologian) would pretend to understand Christianity better than its founder
who was unaware of its speculative, doctrinal elaboration. Hegel is, therefore,
an opponent of orthodox Christianity only if the identity of Christian content
and Christian form is maintained against his own protestation. For Baur, the
alternative is simply this whether the opposition between faith and knowledge
is absolute or relative:
If the opposition is absolute, then all truth falls on the side of faith. For faith is the
first to have truth as its content; there is no knowledge apart from faith nor
is there philosophy of religion because philosophy of religion as philosophy about
religion, according to its nature, has the content of faith in a different form than
faith [itself has it]. If that opposition, however, is relative, then the difference
of form and content is recognised alongside. In this case, the philosophy
of religion cannot be denied the right to develop this difference and opposition
to their extreme point. This complete development is offered in Hegelian
philosophy . . . 57
The argument, as noted above, seems strange because it does not appear to
reckon with the possibility of an atheistic philosophy of religion which then
emerged from the Hegel School only a few years later. Is there not, beyond the
two options Baur mentions, a third, in which ‘all truth’ belongs ‘only’ to
philosophy? Is Baur, at this point (in 1835), too shortsighted or too naïve to
anticipate this imminent development? This seems hardly likely. Rather, at
the end of his critical and, as we have seen, in many ways aporetic discussion
of the Christian philosophy of religion, Baur reminds his readers that the
origin of the entire project lay in a particular religious identity. Philosophy
of religion only exists because the Christian faith requires this kind of
reflection. If we have to conclude that such a philosophy is fundamentally
flawed and hence impossible, we have to return to our point of departure

In 1830 already, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote this satirical epigram: ‘Can you parry this thrust,
sophist [that is, Philip Marheineke]? The form is itself essence; thus you abolish the content of
faith/if you abolish the representation that is its proper form.’ Feuerbach (1963: vol. 1, 461), ET:
Massey, 213.
56 57
Baur (1835: 718). Baur (1835: 720).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 47

and ‘all truth’ turns out to belong to faith. A philosophy of religion founded on
the rejection of religious faith would be parasitical insofar as it would deny the
right of existence to that form of cultural reality, religion, which is its own
raison d’être. In this sense, there really is for Baur ‘only’ a choice between a
conservative, supernaturalist theology that refuses the challenge posed by
historical criticism and philosophical reflection, and his own historicist-
idealist approach.



What then are the principles underlying Baur’s extensive and learned presen-
tation of eighteen hundred years of Gnostic reflection? What does his narra-
tive convey about his own position? For Baur, the philosophy of religion is a
form of reflection that seeks to turn faith into knowledge (not without reason
is it called gnosis!). It becomes historically necessary at the stage of the
absolute religion whose claim to ultimate validity it seeks to justify by inscrib-
ing its historical emergence into an evolutionary process aimed at overcoming
the contradictions and imperfections of other, earlier religions. Philosophy of
religion is therefore philosophy of the history of religion. Baur thus assumes
both that history, in this case the history of religion, is rational, and that
philosophy must take as its object the concrete forms of human life rather than
remaining in the realm of abstract forms.
This principle, however, determines not only Baur’s reconstruction of the
various individual positions with which he engages throughout his text, but
also his own presentation of their history. The distinguishing mark of gnosis,
to be philosophy of the history of religion, is exactly Baur’s own approach. Die
christliche Gnosis offers the rare example of a historical writing whose execu-
tion follows the script it claims to decipher in earlier authors. In other words,
Baur not only presents philosophy of religion as its own history, but also seeks
to practise this very discipline by writing its history. The historical form of his
presentation, then, would make its product philosophy par excellence; for
philosophical reflection, if we take Baur’s theory seriously, reaches its own
perfection at the point where it integrates, and becomes identical with, the
narration of its own history. No subsequent, separate ‘philosophical’ assess-
ment of that history is thus necessary; rather, historicity as such would be
normativity in its highest sense. And indeed, Baur does not conclude the text
with a ‘crowning’ systematic conclusion. The few summary remarks with
which he ends the final chapter contribute—like in many of his other
48 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
writings—little or nothing above and beyond the insights gained within and
through the historical account.58
Yet the pronounced character of these systematic principles underlying
Baur’s argument only serves to throw into even sharper relief the concurrent
presence of an opposing, equally pervasive tendency in the text, which is based
on the conviction that the philosophy of religion is in fact incapable of making
good on its claims because reason and history are categorically different and
cannot, therefore, be synthesized. The interpretation of several individual
passages has left us in no doubt: Baur does not so much reach this conclusion
as take it for granted. And he most certainly does not regard such failure as the
result of individual intellectual weakness or argumentative flaws in a particular
author. On the contrary, his assessments of Schleiermacher and Hegel in
particular have made it clear that he expected these problems to emerge all
the more clearly the more consistent and the more perfected philosophical
reflection became: ‘What the Spirit is and does is not history’.59 Rational
reflection is ultimately concerned with the reality of Spirit, and its work,
consequently, must result in the clearest possible separation of that reality
from any relation to the non-spiritual, the material and thus eventually, the
What perspective emerges from this outcome for theology as science? At
this point, the fundamental ambiguity of Baur’s writing becomes fully evident.
The work makes the strongest possible plea for a synthesis of historical and
philosophical reflection in an intellectual engagement with Christianity. The
necessity of a philosophy of religion, after all, results from the fact that
Christianity’s claim to absoluteness can only be justified by means of a
reflection that is historical and philosophical at the same time. Die christliche
Gnosis thus lays out Baur’s subsequent research agenda, which comprised a
philosophically inspired historical reconstruction of the history of early Chris-
tianity together with an examination of the conceptual framework emerging
from that history and explaining it. Accordingly, he wrote Die christliche Lehre
von der Versöhnung (The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation, 1838)60 and
Die christliche Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit und der Menschwerdung Gottes in
ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung (The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity and
the Incarnation in their Historical Development, 1841/2).61 In parallel, he
published in quick succession a string of important studies on New Testament
exegesis and history.62 Thus far, Die christliche Gnosis presents the programme

Scholder is thus absolutely right in his assessment that historical research in Baur assumes
‘the dignity of a foundational theological discipline’. Scholder (1961: 449).
Ritschl was perfectly right to point this out (1861: 475). The sharp, polemical criticism of
his argument by Zeller (1861: 359–60) and, more recently, Geiger (1964: 11) is beside the point.
Baur (1838).
Baur (1841).
The main results of this research are summarized in: Baur (1845); (1847a); (1853).
F. C. Baur’s Two Programmes of Scientific Theology 49

of a theology that is science insofar as it works both, and at the same time,
philosophically and historically. Only to the extent that it succeeds in recon-
ciling these poles can it live up to its task. We shall in this study call this Baur’s
idealist programme. Its aim is to overcome the dualistic dichotomy of history
and reason by means of rational self-reflection. It is based on the assumption
that such reconciliation is possible, that the opposition between spirit and
nature does not have to be the final word, and that a modern, wissenschaftlich
reconstruction of traditional salvation history is therefore possible.
But the programme embodied by this writing can also be interpreted very
differently. If one reconstructs it starting from Baur’s apparent scepticism
about a reconciliation of history and reason, the book’s argument points
sharply in a direction in which history and philosophy represent diametrically
divided opposites. Formulated as a programme of work, this insight might
read as follows: given the categorical division between the historical and the
rational, historical work must be primarily critical; that is, it must show that
and why the traditional claim that history and salvation history form a unity
was (and is!) doomed to failure on both historical and philosophical grounds.
Historically, it encouraged a tendentious interpretation of actual events, their
transformation into myth. Philosophically, it is rendered unsatisfactory in
light of the insight that no absolute point of reference can be found within
history. Drawing this final consequence of course means, in practice, returning
to the perspective of eighteenth-century Rationalism, which regarded history
as merely factual and thus incompatible with true philosophical interest.
Historical research and philosophical reflection in this model are fundamen-
tally separated. The nature of Christianity and the nature of religion can and
must be determined and defined without reference to historical realities.
History, by contrast, has no ultimate meaning and is devoid of religious or
philosophical significance. The obvious question why it should, under such
circumstances, be necessary for a theologian to engage with it can, from this
perspective, only be answered in one way: a critical examination of history
serves to deconstruct the fallacious, traditional claims made on behalf of
salvation history.
In Baur’s Die christliche Gnosis, then, two very different programmes for
theology as science can be seen coexisting side by side, namely, an idealist and
a neo-rationalist one. How can this be explained? Baur’s intellectual sympa-
thies for Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Hegel notwithstanding, his major
occupation never was that of a philosopher or a systematic theologian; he
was a historical theologian who on a daily basis conducted historical research.
In this way, the relativizing and relativistic tendency, which is not without
reason often related to historicism, forced itself upon him: historical compari-
son, indeed, does not permit to prove the absoluteness of Christianity or the
significance ascribed to the person of Jesus Christ by the Christian faith. In
spite of his commitment to a unified theology, then, Baur found it ultimately
50 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany

impossible to extract himself from the centrifugal tendency of historical and

systematic work under the conditions of historicism and academic subject
This interpretation could also rather tidily explain why it was ultimately the
neo-rationalist programme that dominated among the younger members of
Baur’s own Tübingen School with its largely historical approach. These theo-
logians, as we shall see in more detail later, executed that programme without
Baur’s own ambivalence identifying their brand of theology as ‘presupposi-
tionless’ and critical science. While they more or less simply abandoned Baur’s
idealist programme, they sustained an appearance of continuity with his
philosophical interests by complementing their historical theology with an a
philosophy of religion, which however was ahistorical in character. By con-
trast, it was an ‘apostate’ from the Tübingen School, Albrecht Ritschl, who
revitalized the idealist programme. Despite his critical distance from Baur,
Ritschl renewed the project of a theology that is science by integrating
Christianity’s theological and philosophical truth claims with its historical,
social, and cultural reality.
Before the line between these two later positions is drawn further, it may,
however, be useful to broaden the exposition of Baur’s conception, which has
thus far rested almost exclusively on a single writing. This is meant, above all,
to elucidate the origin of his two programmes. Baur is still often noted for his
theological Hegelianism. Is such a characterization, however, accurate, and if
so, in what sense? Our analysis of Die christliche Gnosis has raised doubts
about a strictly Hegelian interpretation of Baur’s thought at that stage.
A glance at the development of Baur’s thought will confirm and reinforce
these doubts by pointing to other, biographically prior influences while also
revealing the considerable extent of his intellectual independence. It will thus,
by implication, also provide an answer to the question what exactly Baur owed
to his encounter with Hegel.

The Origin of the Two Programmes

Die christliche Gnosis presents a snapshot of Baur in the mid-1830s. The

detailed analysis presented in Chapter 2 revealed his commitment to an idealist
project intended to bring into unity the historical and the philosophical
dimensions of Christian theology. It also showed, however, how implicit
assumptions underlying Baur’s work served to pull his thought into the oppos-
ite direction. His ultimate assessment not only of second-century Gnostics but
also of Schleiermacher and Hegel has been seen to rest on premisses incompat-
ible with his overt espousal of Idealist principles, which rather hark back to
eighteenth-century notions of the strict separation between the ‘arbitrary’ realm
of history and the intelligible realm of eternal truths. Yet while Baur’s second
programme can therefore be called ‘neo-rationalist’, its principal assumptions
connect him with later nineteenth-century historicism as well. Even at this
point in the development of Baur’s thought, we can detect more than a whiff of
the relativism and positivism of historicism. This strand was to become more
dominant over the course of Baur’s life; after Baur’s death in 1860, his life’s
work was appraised in the Historische Zeitschrift as the introduction of histori-
cist principles into theology,1 and while this assessment was evidently one-
sided and duly challenged in public, it lucidly indicates the trajectory of the
Tübingen School’s further development.
This development will be the topic of subsequent chapters. Questions
of context, however, arise with regard to the genesis of Baur’s programmes
also; the present chapter will seek to clarify those by asking primarily for the
original inspiration from which Baur’s project arose. Baur has often been
considered a theological Hegelian, and on the basis of his own self-declared
philosophical allegiance in Die christliche Gnosis and many other writings
from the 1830s and 1840s such an assessment must appear all but natural.
At the same time, our analysis so far has already indicated that the extent
to which Hegel’s philosophy influenced Baur’s own project must at least
be qualified. His explicit endorsement notwithstanding, many of the most

Zeller (1865a).
52 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
fundamental ideas and principles in Baur’s work cannot really be reconciled
with Hegelianism.
These doubts are only reinforced by the observation that at the time of
writing Die christliche Gnosis, Baur had for the first time made the acquaint-
ance of Hegel’s philosophy at the age of 40.2 There is a general consensus that
Baur’s familiarity with Hegel’s thought rested primarily on the Lectures on the
Philosophy of Religion, which were published for the first time, posthumously,
in 1832 by Philip Marheineke.3 The principles of Baur’s own thought did not,
however, change dramatically as a consequence of this encounter. This be-
comes clear by comparing a slightly earlier writing whose relation to Die
christliche Gnosis is evident from its related topic but also from Baur’s explicit
testimony at the beginning of the latter work.4 The first part of the present
chapter will offer a close reading of this work, a Latin dissertation with a long,
published German abstract. It will become clear that, while Baur’s position
evolved during the eight years between this writing and Die christliche Gnosis,
the fundamental principles of his idealist programme are fully evident already
in 1827.
These are also, as the second section will demonstrate, present in Baur’s
very first monograph, Symbolik und Mythologie, published in 1824/5. Going
back to this writing solidifies our grasp of the original intuition of Baur’s
scholarship. Yet it also raises more urgently the question of its intellectual
origin. The proposal advanced in the final section of the present chapter is to
identify Baur’s first and most fundamental inspiration in the early Idealist
writing of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling whose System of Transcendent
Idealism Baur read and commended during his student years. Schelling’s
System and the subsequent Lectures on the Method of Academic Study are
known to have been influential for early nineteenth-century historicism.
At the end of the chapter Baur therefore emerges as a representative within
theology of this broad intellectual movement during this period.


Baur himself notes in the introduction to Die christliche Gnosis that his
present engagement with Gnosticism as well as his attempt to link this
historical phenomenon with Schleiermacher had a precursor in the ‘Tübingen

A note in a book from 1833 indicates that Baur was aware of Hegel’s philosophy at that
point: Baur (1833: 421–3, note); Geiger (1964: 43, n. 21); cf. Harris (1975: 26).
Zeller (1865b: 364) and subsequently, e.g., Fraedrich (1909: 100–1); Harris (1975: 25–7);
Geiger (1964: 43).
Baur (1835: ix).
The Origin of the Two Programmes 53
Programme’, a Latin dissertation he had authored a few years earlier.5 In
1827, he published this text under the title Primae rationalismi et supraratio-
nalismi historiae capita poteriora. Its first part, Baur’s inaugural dissertation
as Professor of Theology at his alma mater, is a historical essay about
second-century Gnosticism, while its second part, Comparatur Gnosticismus
cum Schleiermacherianae theologiae indole, anticipates some of the crucial
theological and philosophical ideas of the later work in seminal form. Baur
himself summarized his Latin essay in a substantial German epitome for the
1828 edition of the Tübinger Zeitschrift für Theologie,6 on which the following
presentation is based.
Baur thus goes over much of the same material twice, but this makes a close
reading of the present text all the more valuable. His parallel treatment of
similar or identical source material shows, better than an entirely different
monograph could, continuity and discontinuity in Baur’s development during
these years. Furthermore, given that his acquaintance with Hegel fell into the
intervening period, it must be assumed that ideas and principles underlying
both works antedate any putative Hegelian influence even if in later works
Baur connects them with that influence or presents them in the jargon of the
Hegelian School.
The main concern of his investigation, says Baur at the outset, is a reflection
on basic principles of historical work. Such a reflection brings into view
‘certain higher and more general aspects’ according to which the empirical
material might be arranged, in the hope that these aspects would ultimately
lead to fundamental ‘opposition of views and ideas’, which ‘has its seat in the
organism of man’s intelligible nature’ and so ‘extends through all periods
of history’.7 We should not pass over this remark too hastily. For it shows,
first, that at this point in his intellectual career Baur’s understanding of history
is rooted not in the idea of development but in the notion of an unchanging
anthropological constant of ‘man’s intelligible nature’. The historian extracts
from the source material available to him certain concepts (‘higher and more
general aspects’) which are eventually fitted and integrated into a kind of
‘phenomenology of mind’—not, however, in the sense understood by Hegel,
but rather as the philosophical conceptualization of a fixed, ahistorical entity,
man’s intellectual nature. In this sense, it is plausible that the concepts (thus
reconstructed) extend and stay the same, as Baur writes, throughout history.
It shows secondly that Baur does not here express any expectation that the
fundamental tension within human nature—the ‘opposition of views and

Baur (1835: ix). There Baur also mentions Schleiermacher’s protest against his classification
as a ‘Gnostic’ in his letters to Friedrich Lücke On the Glaubenslehre. Cf. Schleiermacher (1829:
314; 362–3; 370–2). A detailed account of the Tübingen Programme and Schleiermacher’s
response is given in Fraedrich (1909: 77–83).
Baur (1828).
Baur (1828: 220).
54 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
ideas’, as he calls it—will be reconciled or overcome. His exposition of the
problem is a typology of polar opposites, and the historian’s interest, we
may paraphrase, is ‘purely’ in finding certain ideal types of contrasting ‘ideas
and views’ and grasping these oppositions as anchored in the structure of the
human mind.
One such paradigmatic opposition, for Baur, finds expression in the terms
‘supernaturalism’ and ‘rationalism’. Although both had only recently come
into use as descriptions of positions and schools, they were, he argues, in
principle as old as Christianity itself. How are those terms to be determined
in a way that reveals their paradigmatic significance? Baur initially defines the
two directions as one would expect, with
rationalism as that system which posits human rationality as the supreme
epistemological principle of religion, [and] supernaturalism as that, which ties
religious knowledge to a super-rational, supernatural authority so that, in the
final instance, rational knowledge itself finds its satisfactory justification only
through supervening divine authority.8
Baur then offers a brief critical discussion of so-called ‘rational supernatural-
ism’, a variant of supernaturalism advocated within the older Tübingen
School by Ernst Gottlieb Bengel (1769–1826).9 Baur had been familiar with
this particular attempt to mediate between rationalism and supernaturalism
since his student years.10 His first extended publication appeared in a journal
edited by Bengel,11 and in 1826, he succeeded the latter to his chair in
Tübingen. Bengel believed that the exercise of reason itself ultimately led to
the demand for supernatural truths and thus sought to replace the opposition
of rationalism and supernaturalism with a transition from the former to the
latter.12 Baur, at this point, has little time for this attempt, which he suspects to
be artificial and intellectually unrewarding. He comments as follows:
How can purposefulness and relative necessity of revelation be demonstrated
if not by accepting the insufficiency of what is contained in human rationality
and human nature per se.13
Rational supernaturalism thus turns out to be a mere variant of supernatural-
ism,14 and so changes nothing about the polar dichotomy of the two terms.

Baur (1828: 222).
Ernst Gottlieb Bengel, grandson of the well-known pietist, Johann Albrecht Bengel. Cf.
Palmer (1875). Interesting is Baur’s own account in the chapter he contributed to Klüpfel’s
history of Tübingen University: Klüpfel (1849: 241–5).
Fraedrich (1909: 10–11).
Baur (1818). The review is signed ‘–r’.
Baur (1828: 222).
Baur (1828: 222).
Baur briefly considers the possibility that ‘rational supernaturalism’ might be a kind of
rationalism. This too would not, however, be for him a reason to extend the binary division he
had initially introduced.
The Origin of the Two Programmes 55
More important than this excursus is the subsequent reflection, which
extends the scope of the terms ‘rationalism’ and ‘supernaturalism’ in a
surprising way, quite typical of Baur. With a view to certain tendencies within
rationalism, Baur claims to observe that
the more certain doctrines bear a historical character, the closer they stand to
supernaturalism than to rationalism, which everywhere developed itself into
a form all the more perfect the less it depends on extraneous, historical facts.15
A connection is here drawn between supernaturalism and a historically
oriented theology on the one hand, and rationalism and an essentially ahis-
toric philosophy of religion on the other. What is historical about supernatur-
alism? Baur puts it like this: the ‘external authority’ supernaturalism posits as
a limitation of reason consists concretely of ‘certain historical facts’.16 The
supernaturalists, in other words, insist that the ‘supernatural’ salvation history
is at the same time part of the ‘natural’ history of events and therefore inevit-
ably concerned with history. Baur’s characterization of rationalism as ahistoral
is less surprising, given that such an assessment of eighteenth-century thought
was common currency among early nineteenth-century thinkers.17 In any
case, it would appear that such a dichotomy, which places the historical firmly
on the side of supernaturalism and describes the realm of reason as (ideally)
entirely ahistorical, leaves no room for a concept of historical reason. But then
Baur’s typology is not yet complete.
For besides rational supernaturalism as an attempt to reconcile the oppos-
ition on the basis of supernaturalism, Baur also draws attention to a significant
differentiation within rationalism:
There has been also, especially more recently, a kind of rationalism that, while it
shares with ordinary rationalism the principle of reason’s supreme authority and
independence, at the same time applies to the ‘facts’ of consciousness (Thatsachen
des Bewusstseyns) and to the ideas of reason the historical form, proper to
supernaturalism, so that, as external historical facts cannot be thought of without
temporal form, they too appear in a temporal, serial development.18
In other words, besides a strictly ahistorical rationalism for which Christianity
is, at best, the purest form of natural religion, there is also a kind of rationalism
that sees the Christian religion as the apex and the goal of a teleologically
interpreted, universal-historical development:

Baur (1828: 223).
Baur (1828: 222–3).
The relevance of late eighteenth-century developments for the emergence of modern
historiography has been the focus of an intense debate among scholars of German historiog-
raphy since the 1990s. Cf. Blanke/Fleischer (1990); (1991).
Baur (1828: 223).
56 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
While, [according to this view] Christianity essentially is a natural product of
historical development, it occupies within the series of such products of human
development such a high and unique position that it forms, against all previous
stages, an opposition that is not merely relative and gradual, but essential and
specific. Thus what is natural is at the same time also supernatural. Therefore, this
system, unlike ordinary rationalism, attaches the whole importance and dignity
of Christianity exclusively to the person of Christ.19
This ‘ideal’ rationalism, as Baur calls it, is thus in a certain sense an attempt to
combine rationalism and supernaturalism, insofar as it combines the historical
interest of the latter with the philosophical emphasis of the former. In other
words, it introduces into theology the idea of history in such a way as to enable
precisely its rational interpretation. This is achieved by means of a philosophy
of history in whose interpretation history appears less as an arbitrary sequence
of events than as a teleological development leading up to, and culminating in,
its goal. While Christianity here is not simply, qua supernatural, separated
from secular history, it is, as the goal and fulfilment of the history of religion,
superior to the stages of history that precede it. This superiority, moreover,
is not only quantitative, but qualitative—the telos of religion’s development
is religion in a new and different sense. This brings ‘ideal rationalism’ close to
the claim traditionally associated with supernaturalism—that Christianity is
supernatural as part of natural history.
Somewhat surprising, at first sight, is the equation Baur postulates between
the historical character of ‘ideal rationalism’ and its focus on Christology.
What he means, apparently, is that this form of rationalism—following trad-
itional Christology—emphasizes the coming together, in the person of the
redeemer, of the divine and the human. The unity-in-duality of the Christo-
logical dogma corresponds, in this case, to the supposed synthesis of continual
historical development with the idea of religion’s true und full realization:
Ordinary rationalism distinguishes Christ from all other human beings not
in kind but only by degree. That other form of rationalism, however, seeks to
incorporate Christianity’s supernatural beliefs as well, mainly by ascribing to
Christ total and unique priority before all other human beings.20
What, then, is this ‘ideal rationalism’? Is it a subcategory of rationalism and
thus does not upset the systematic bipolarity of supernaturalism and rational-
ism of Baur’s original proposal? Or is it an attempt to mediate the opposition
between the two as a third thing? Baur’s position does not seem entirely clear.
On the one hand, he says explicitly that ordinary and ‘ideal’ rationalism
approach their subject ‘from opposite angles’.21 This suggests that the differ-
ence between them must be taken seriously. And yet, he elsewhere insists that

19 20 21
Baur (1828: 225). Baur (1828: 223–4). Baur (1828: 225).
The Origin of the Two Programmes 57
he does not want to introduce ‘ideal rationalism’ as a tertium quid, thus
suggesting its ultimate alignment with rationalism:
For it soon becomes evident that [this type of rationalism], in spite of seemingly
affirming the historical reality of Christianity, cannot conceive of Christ as
anything other than an idea of reason.22
Remarkable here is the rather polemical choice of words (‘seemingly affirming
the historical reality . . . ’). It gives Baur’s engagement with this mediatory
attempt an ultimately critical, even polemical edge. While ‘ideal rationalism’
is not simply ahistoric, the history it treats of is entirely intra-mental and does
not extend to external reality at all: ‘Although it emphasizes the historical
character of Christianity, the entire temporal course which it presupposes
falls purely within the sphere of consciousness’.23 The history reconstructed
by this form of rationalism is ideal, but not real. In a sense, ideal rationalism
therefore is treacherous: it obfuscates the necessary distinction between the two.
It certainly cannot claim to attain a true reconciliation between the polar
opposites of supernaturalism and rationalism. Nevertheless, Baur does add
it as a separate sub-category to his original typology (which he does not do
for rational supernaturalism); this now distinguishes between (1) supernatural-
ism and (2) rationalism, and within (2) between (a) its ordinary and (b) its
‘ideal’ form.24
This philosophical exposition, in turn, serves an understanding of historical
gnosis which Baur examines in the two parts of his work. The former of these
is devoted to Gnosticism in the ancient Church while the latter presents the
thought of Schleiermacher. In both cases he diagnoses an adherence to ‘ideal
rationalism’. In the case of the latter, Baur begins his exposition with the
confession that he had already had Schleiermacher’s system ‘in mind’ ‘in [his]
general definition of the term “ideal rationalism” and its relation to ordinary’
rationalism.25 Ideal rationalism, then, is gnosis which, as in Baur’s later work,
is regarded as a theological-philosophical type—although Baur here models
his theoretical framework not on Hegel but on Schleiermacher.
This shift in philosophical allegiance has an evident impact on Baur’s
assessment and presentation of his historical material: in 1827, he explains
the intra-divine dialectic of gnosis not by analogy to a objective history of
absolute Spirit but by analogy to human consciousness:
The divine being is therefore understood to undergo a temporal development
totally analogous to the development of human consciousness, which rests on the
interaction of the ideal and the real.26

22 23
Baur (1828: 224). Baur (1828: 236; cf. 224).
24 25 26
Baur (1828: 224–5). Baur (1828: 239). Baur (1828: 229).
58 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Accordingly, gnostic principles are interpreted not cosmologically but anthro-
pologically, in relation to human mind, soul, and body. The significance of
Christ, too, is sought in this sphere:
Insofar as he is most closely connected with the supreme God, Christ is that God-
consciousness in the human being through which and in which the latter
becomes most perfectly conscious of his ideal nature and of the higher state he
is to regain in the future.27
On the basis of this paradigm, focused primarily on the self and its salvation,
the ancient Gnostics, according to Baur’s current interpretation, then
developed a theory of the history of religion. This they achieved by using
the familiar analogy of microcosm and macrocosm to interpret the three
religions—paganism, Judaism, and Christianity—as, so to speak, a single
‘individual according to the three aspects of its being’, that is body, soul, and
Where Die christliche Gnosis, then, will offer a theory of the history of
religion in which absolute Spirit attains its own self-perfection, the present
writing offers a theory of human self-consciousness which furthermore as-
sumes a historical dimension. From this reconstruction it becomes evident
why, in spite of interpretative differences, the earlier writing ends by diagnos-
ing the very same dilemma that will, in 1835, still dominate the extensive
analyses of Die christliche Gnosis. For precisely in such a theory of self-
consciousness, Christ is first and foremost an idea formed and contained in
the human mind, whose connection to external reality remains ultimately
In light of this construction of ancient Gnosticism, the postulation of
its family resemblance with Schleiermacher’s theology is not so surprising,
especially since Baur’s interpretation of The Christian Faith is essentially the
one we encountered in the analysis of Die christliche Gnosis.29 Schleiermacher
appears as a renovator of earlier attempts to classify religions historically
according to the structure of their consciousness of self and God. But as
early as 1827, Baur is perfectly unequivocal about the Christological aporia
that he will continue to emphasize later on. If the Christian faith is supposed
to refer to a historical person, it must transcend the immanence of the human
mind; but doing so, it fails to prove the identity of that person with the intra-
mental concept of a redeemer:
Whether the person of Jesus of Nazareth really possessed the properties con-
tained in the notion of the redeemer postulated here is indeed a purely historical

Baur (1828: 235).
Baur (1828: 236).
The hypothesis that Baur was first a Schleiermacherian, then became a Hegelian is
therefore untenable, as Liebing has rightly argued (1957: 229).
The Origin of the Two Programmes 59
question that can only be answered by means of a historical investigation of
the written testimonies of the gospel narrative.30
It is, Baur continues, no coincidence that The Christian Faith dispenses with
the Bible as the material source of theological knowledge. This leads to a
permanent muddling of the relation between the ideal and the historical in the
redeemer,31 which in turn has its ultimate conceptual source in the unresolved
tension produced by the definition of the consciousness of absolute depend-
ence as self-contained and independent in its intra-mental existence, while at
the same time inherently striving for community with others.32 The latter
assumption produces the necessity of situating Christianity in a social and
historical framework, since individual feeling can only be understood fully
in its interaction with its environment. But a reconciliation between this extra-
mental, social, historical dimension of religion and that subjective, psycho-
logical interpretation is not achieved even though Schleiermacher himself
resolves the tension in favour of the subjective side.33 The consequence of
this resolution, finally, is the separation of historical and ideal Christ and with
it the subordination of the first to the second.
In Baur’s extended oeuvre, Schleiermacher’s theology is frequently dis-
cussed and assessed. Remarkably, the basic tendency of his interpretation
and critique remains roughly the same in all these various treatments; its
details, however, are constantly revised.34 This general observation evidently
applies to the two accounts we have looked at in some detail here. Is the same,
however, true for Baur’s entire approach in the Tübingen Programme as
compared with Die christliche Gnosis? Connections between the two writings
are easily recognizable. ‘Ideal rationalism’ is, in essence, nothing other than
what the later work calls the philosophy of religion. This very convergence,
however, also indicates the considerable difference in Baur’s evaluation of the
two. For while Die christliche Gnosis essentially affirms gnosis, even regarding
it as indispensable, the earlier text is significantly more reserved towards ‘ideal
rationalism’, which it considers a mere variant of rationalism. Nevertheless, it
would be rash to conclude that Baur fundamentally changed his position
in these years. The basic objection raised against ‘ideal rationalism’ in 1827
is exactly the same as that raised against all forms of philosophy of religion in
1835. As we have seen, Die christliche Gnosis, too, shows clear recognition of
the aporetic nature of any philosophy of religion—the fact that it necessarily
becomes an ahistorical philosophy of spirit unable to attain the reconciliation
of spirit and nature, or reason and history, which it seeks. On the other hand,

30 31
Baur (1828: 242). Baur (1828: 242).
32 33
Baur (1828: 243). Cf. Chapter 2, text at n. 44.
e.g. Fraedrich (1909: 104). He points out that Baur aligns Schleiermacher first to Kant
(Christliche Gnosis), then to Spinoza and Fichte (Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit) and finally to
Origen (Dogmengeschichte).
60 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
we must not overlook that Baur’s choice of subject for the Tübingen Pro-
gramme of 1827 in itself already suggests a strong interest in ‘ideal rational-
ism’. It might therefore be most accurate to describe the change between the
two writings as a shift in emphasis.
This shift in emphasis may have been due in part to external factors. Baur
had assumed his chair at the Tübingen Faculty, which had a strong tradition of
supernaturalism, only recently, in 1826. His predecessor had been none other
than Ernst Gottlieb Bengel, the major proponent of ‘rational supernaturalism’.
According to Baur’s son-in-law and biographer, Eduard Zeller, there had been
‘worries’ concerning Baur’s orthodoxy among the faculty before his election.35
A degree of assimilation to his new situation would therefore be entirely
understandable at this stage of his career.
This having been conceded, however, the similarities between the two
texts far outweigh their differences. Baur adduces philosophical arguments
to adequately understand a historical phenomenon; this approach, at the
same time, allows him a historicization of philosophical-theological positions.
Thus Schleiermacher’s thought provides the theoretical framework for Baur’s
understanding of gnosis, including second-century Gnosticism, and is also
treated as one of its historical instantiations. This characteristically subtle
methodological interlacing of historical and philosophical work is in principle
the same in 1827 as it is in 1835, which indicates that Baur is much more
beholden to ‘ideal rationalism’ in 1827 than his aloof rhetoric lets on. Insofar
as he practically accepts its method for his own work, he cannot be as
indifferent to its success or failure as he claims.
Seen in this light, the ‘Tübingen Programme’ in outline already presents the
same ‘two programmes’ that were shown to mark Die christliche Gnosis.
Despite the shift in emphasis noted above, it already displays the same
ambiguity in sending off signals in two directions: the principal affirmation
of a philosophical reflection on history which supersedes both rationalism and
supernaturalism is as apparent as the somewhat resigned postulation of the
ineffectuality of such attempts. The necessity of historical reason is recognized
as much as its failure is stated: ‘ideal rationalism’ is ultimately rationalism and
thus ahistorical, just as philosophy of religion, in 1835, will be, in Hegel’s
phrase, ‘what the Spirit is and does’, and therefore ‘not history’.
Can attention to the earlier writing, then, help understand the background
of this strangely incoherent tension? Despite his ambivalence toward the
philosophies of history and of religion, the basic principles of Baur’s historical

Zeller (1875: 174). Note that Schleiermacher, on the basis of Baur’s critique of his theology
in the Tübingen Programme, considered him a representative of the supernaturalism of the Old
Tübingen School (cf. n. 5 in the current chapter). Hester too thought that Baur tried to adapt his
argument to the conservative position of the older Tübingen School and that Schleiermacher’s
response was, therefore, not surprising (1973: 258, n. 26).
The Origin of the Two Programmes 61
work seem firm. He never doubts the necessity, and therefore also the meth-
odological normativity, of historical work on the basis of source criticism. This
would suggest that the primary impulse of Baur’s academic work is to demand,
and to find, a theology which both facilitates and requires historical work.36
This would explain his opposition to supernaturalism, which in practice rules
out critical research, and to rationalism, which, because of its ahistorical
concept of faith, does not require it. However, he finds that even where this
should be otherwise, it ultimately is not. Neither Schleiermacher nor Hegel
offer a theory conducive to a meaningful theological integration of his own
historical work. Note the phrasing of his 1827 criticism that Schleiermacher
methodically brackets the task of making the special position of the redeemer
historically plausible: it is, Baur claims, ‘a purely historical question’ whether
or not the man Jesus really possessed the characteristics of the redeemer.37
Similarly, in Die christliche Gnosis, Baur objects to Hegel’s indifference to-
wards the ‘objective reality’ of the historical Jesus.38 Both arguments unwit-
tingly betray Baur’s deep-seated historical positivism: an underlying belief in
the facticity and objectivity of historical reality that flies in the face of his
Idealist, philosophical pretensions.
It is then further likely that these unintended ‘confessions’ occur far from
accidentally in the context of Baur’s discussion of Schleiermacher’s and
Hegel’s Christologies: their subtext would be a certain frustration with the
blindness of both to the results of historical research. Schleiermacher and
Hegel—as Baur recognizes quite rightly—constructed their theories in such a
way as to be impervious to shifts or reorientations in historical scholarship.
Could there be, from Baur’s point of view, stronger evidence that even their
systems of thought are, in the last instance, unsuitable for the kind of task that
Baur expects, and must expect, of them? Both theories are ultimately immune
to the critical sting of historical research.
What, then, occasions the prioritization of Hegel over Schleiermacher from
the mid-1830s onward? What insights does Baur find in Hegel that he misses
in Schleiermacher? Part of the answer surely is that Baur himself shifts, so to
speak, from a ‘subjective’ to an ‘objective’ standpoint. Even if Hegel cannot
resolve the fundamental ambiguity of the philosophy of religion, a theory of
absolute Spirit nevertheless promises to offer better conditions for a mediation
between subjective and objective religion than Schleiermacher’s approach.
There is, however, another point which, although not as clearly articulated,
is likely to have advanced Baur’s thinking in those years. It is the idea of
development that is largely absent still from his first analysis of gnosis in the
Tübingen Programme, where the systematization offered is predicated upon
the determination of a structure inherent in human nature and therefore

Note again Scholder (1961: 449).
37 38
Baur (1828: 242). Cf. Chapter 2, text at n. 50.
62 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
continuously recurring. Although ‘ideal rationalism’ is associated with the idea
of development, that idea is not (yet) reflected in Baur’s own analysis. By
contrast, Christian Gnosis speaks in Hegelian terms about a ‘movement of the
concept’ (Begriff) that leads to a succession of historical phenomena. In other
words, Baur moves from an essentially static, typological model to a dynamic,
evolutionary one. The hypothesis that this brand of evolutionary logic in
Baur’s later work owes much to his encounter with Hegel’s philosophy is
further strengthened when we take into account his intellectual development
beyond Die christliche Gnosis. This latter text, an early product of Baur’s
Hegelian phase, still displays a mixture of typological and evolutionary argu-
mentation. In spite of his reference to ‘the internal movement of concept’,
Baur finds the intrinsic logic of the development of the philosophy of religion
in the necessary generation of a number of ‘homogeneous phenomena’. He
shows little inclination to move further toward a theory explaining the whole
history of gnosis in developmental terms. On the contrary, we have found him
arguing that again and again the philosophy of religion must ‘traverse the
same path’ as ancient Gnosis.39 Such a perspective clearly shifts in his subse-
quent works on the history of the doctrine of reconciliation (1838) and on
the twin doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation (1841–3); they execute
the idea of development systematically and across the entire time span of
Christian history, and indeed are shaped by it in fundamental ways. Thus, the
introduction to Die christliche Lehre von der Versöhnung (1838) states:
Spirit in its overall development moves from objectivity to subjectivity and from
subjectivity to objectivity, thereby raising itself from the immediacy of natural
being to true spiritual freedom, through the various moments by means of which
it mediates itself with itself. In the same way the history of Christian dogma as
such, as well as the history of each individual dogma, is divided into various
periods depending on whether the moment of objectivity or that of subjectivity
is prevalent or whether both combine and mutually penetrate each other in the
higher unity of concept.40
This idea, which Baur develops and explicates further in the remainder of the
introduction, structures the entire subsequent presentation; it alone renders
the latter a proper history. At the same time, when we compare this pro-
gramme with Baur’s procedure in earlier works, the extent to which his earlier
thought operated on the basis of an archetypal analogy between the structure
of the human spirit or mind and certain historical phenomena is strikingly
obvious. This is clear enough in the Tübingen Programme: both supernatural-
ism and rationalism, the latter in both its variants, are regarded as typical
orientations which have their origin in the perennially unchanging structure
of the human mind. Perhaps even more importantly, it is the historian’s task

39 40
Cf. Chapter 2, text at n. 9. Baur (1838: 12).
The Origin of the Two Programmes 63
to uncover such structures if they wish to decipher the meaning of history.
History, properly understood, apparently correlates with the internal consti-
tution of mind: both subsist in a tension they seek, but are ultimately unable,
to resolve. An awareness of the mind’s unity coexists in the human being
with a strong sense of its actual division into mutually opposing aspects. This
mental polarity can also be expressed in existential language:
A deep awareness of human nature’s finitude, but also an equally lively awareness
of a higher nature preceding that finite limitation—these are the two basic
feelings of Gnosticism, and its highest religious task is the return of the finite
into infinity.41
A little later, we read:
Human beings have a twofold nature, a sensible and an intelligible one. The two
are opposed to each other, insofar as they are two different principles. They are
also, however, one, insofar as one of them ought to be subject to the other, insofar
as both together make up the one human nature, and an awareness of intelligible
nature can only develop on the basis of sensible nature which antecedes it.42
Both passages, it must be noted, are descriptions of gnostic existence; but we
have seen again and again that such descriptions are never merely historical
in Baur, but always also imply paradigmatic significance. Occasionally, the
same viewpoint is still found in Die christliche Gnosis. At one point of his
generally rather critical engagement with Schleiermacher, Baur expresses
some sympathy for the latter’s subjective standpoint. It may not be able to
bridge the gap between the ideal and the historical Christ, since these are
mutually dependent; but
this just is the very same opposition between ideal and real placed into which we
quite generally find ourselves in our whole thinking and cognition. Idea has its
truth in itself, it is true not because it has been implanted from the outside, but
only by virtue of being known by reason. Yet it could not come to our knowledge
without the constant interaction of the Ideal and the Real . . . Yet it does not
follow that the Real, which mediates knowledge of the Idea and stands in a
necessary relationship with it, is absorbed by it in such a way that they both
form one and the same thing.43
The oppositions of which philosophy of religion is expressive, the separation
of intra-mental and external reality thus correspond to a duality in the consti-
tution of the human being, who partakes of the world of sense-perception,
‘the Real’, but also of the intelligible realm, ‘the Ideal’. As an existential tension
it cannot, therefore, be finally overcome. Nevertheless, even in view of such
passages it would certainly be false to regard such a quasi-existential

41 42 43
Baur (1828: 229). Baur (1828: 233). Baur (1835: 655).
64 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
perspective as Baur’s main focus of interest. The reconciliation of which he
speaks—the mediation that is relevant to him—is sought on the level of
knowledge. Baur’s theory of religion is fundamentally a theory of knowledge
and cognition. It is an intellectual and theoretical problem to relate unity and
duality, and must be solved as such: It is for this reason that he is interested in
philosophy of religion.


The original form of Baur’s idealist programme which the previous section has
detected in his ‘Tübingen Programme’ of 1827 is found even more clearly
expressed in his first published monograph, Symbolik und Mythologie. Oder
die Naturreligion des Alterthums (Symbolism and Mythology: or, The Ancient
Religion of Nature, 1824/5). The work is Baur’s ambitious attempt to write a
theological companion piece to Friedrich Creuzer’s immensely influential
four-volume book under the almost identical title Symbolik und Mythologie
der alten Völker, besonders der Griechen (Symbolism and Mythology of
the ancient peoples, especially the Greeks).44 Both are ultimately inspired by
the Romantic notion that myths and legends offer the key to humankind’s
earliest and therefore most fundamental ideas. For Baur, this means at the
same time that the study of ancient mythology provides the widest possible
framework for a universal history of religion. Therefore, his title equates
Creuzer’s ‘symbolism and mythology’ with ‘ancient nature religion’. This
connection appealed to Baur because, under the influence of Schleiermacher,
he saw religion as a phenomenon of the human mind, and in the latter he
recognized a mirror image of human history. The world of ancient mythology
therefore promised to unlock the mystery of how religion operates within the
human mind as well as throughout history.
The key word for Baur in this context is ‘unity’. The book’s epigraph is a
passage from Plato’s Phaedrus identifying the dialectical process of division
(dihairesis)—and the corresponding synthesis—as basic intellectual oper-
ations establishing mind as a unity-in-multiplicity.45 The writing itself opens
in the same vein. It declares that ‘the true goal of any self-reflective scientific
endeavour’ must be ‘to approach the idea of the unity of knowledge’. This idea
is ‘prefigured in the organism of the human mind’.46 Just as the latter’s

Creuzer (1810).
Plato, Phaedrus 265 d–e. At this point it should at least be noted that, in his book on
Socrates and Christ, published about a decade later, Baur drew a direct parallel between the
theory of Ideas and Chalcedonian Christology: Baur (1837: 36–41).
Baur (1824: vol. 1, iv).
The Origin of the Two Programmes 65
elements are not independent of each other, so science attempts to present its
individual observations not in isolation but organized into a, once again
organic, unity.
This organic, rather than atomistic, understanding of the course of history
is here justified in a way that will give us the deepest insight into the sources of
Baur’s idealist programme. Such an understanding, in Baur’s view, is legitim-
ate because world history is ultimately nothing other than a ‘revelation of
divinity’.47 Divinity reveals its intelligible nature nowhere more clearly than in
history, and it is by virtue of its divine archetype that history is perceived in
its overall unity and coherence. The individual and the particular are sublated
in such an organic unity. Just as, in this perspective, the race stands above
the individual, so the consciousness of individual peoples is sustained by
the universal consciousness of humankind, which in turn is, as Baur puts it,
image and mirror of God.48 History must thus be interpreted philosophically:
this had been the core of what has been described as Baur’s idealist pro-
gramme. The reason is here explicitly given: history is manifestation of divine
consciousness. It is the expression of divine Spirit and, because of this,
the legitimate subject of philosophy and ultimately, in exemplary fashion,
But the basic principle of such a philosophy of religion, Baur continues, can
be found solely in the constitution of the individual mind. The philosopher or
theologian must follow this structure to its ‘ultimate source’.49 A structural
analysis of mind is therefore the methodological precondition of uncovering
the universal Spirit revealed in world history. But where better to start, he
continues, than in the realm of religion, which, after all, deals with nothing
other than human attempts to thematize the connection between human mind
(Geist) and divine Spirit (Geist)? Philosophy of religion is therefore, paradig-
matically, philosophy of history, because it studies the human being precisely
under the aspect that connects his mind with the divine. At the same time,
though, it is already becoming evident at this point that philosophy of religion
can only fulfil this task if it, in turn, is nothing other than a philosophy of the
history of religion.
We can see, then, that at this early point of his career, Baur already formu-
lates his programme of a synthesis of philosophy and religion with particular
attention to the concept of religion. Its original context is a conception of the
organic unity of the many, as it is paradigmatically expressed in Plato’s later
doctrine of Forms50 and is of immense importance for early Idealism and
Romanticism. Wissenschaft, so Baur writes, can only choose one of two ways:

47 48 49
Baur (1824: vol. 1, v). Baur (1824: vol. 1, vi). Baur (1824: vol. 1, vi).
That is, according to the chronology accepted today. Schleiermacher notoriously con-
sidered the Phaedrus Plato’s earliest dialogue (1996: 66, 79).
66 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
. . . either that of separation and isolation, which, consistently pursued, necessar-
ily leads to atomism, fatalism and atheism, or that on which dawns a purer and
higher consciousness of the divine to the degree to which the spiritual life of
the peoples is recognized in its great interconnectedness as a great whole, thus
leading to an ever more sublime idea of the divine. . . . I am not scared of the well-
worn charge of mixing philosophy and history. Without philosophy, history for
me remains forever dead and dumb.51
Concentration on the particular, which is here apparently identified
with a naturalistic perspective for which everything is a law of nature, is
contrasted with a spiritual (geistig) understanding of history which regards
the latter as one.52
We can here clearly discern Baur’s conception in nuce. His programmatic
aim is a form of research which, while giving due attention to detail, does not
stop there, but progresses to a comprehensive reflection of the intellectual
principles underlying world history. With this vision, Baur is a characteristic
representative of the historicism of his time.53 At the same time, a genuine
philosophical and theological interest is evident as well: Baur searches for a
philosophy that would underwrite his quest for unity in the multiplicity of
historical phenomena, and such a philosophy is most likely to be a philosophy
of religion. By means of such an intellectual engagement, religion in its turn
receives philosophical justification. Philosophy and religion thus mutually
penetrate and perfect each other and in this form provide an indispensable
interpretative tool for an adequate view of history.
At the same time, this early exposition of Baur’s programme already casts
its shadow over the ambiguities that are to emerge in the course of its full
execution in his later works. Reading Baur’s comments critically, we immedi-
ately notice a gap with far-reaching consequences: while adducing the analogy
of organic life for an understanding of spiritual matters, he almost entirely
ignores the potential of this analogy for mitigating the juxtaposition of par-
ticular and universal. ‘Spiritual’ (geistig), to Baur, means ‘universal’ in a sense
that ultimately obliterates the individual, while the model of organic unity
really should suggest an integration of the individual as individual within the
more general framework. Despite certain alterations in the details of his
viewpoint, however, Baur—both here and later—maintains a dichotomous
opposition of particular and universal perspectives: either atomism or a view
of the whole; either renunciation of unity or renunciation of particularity.
Faced with this dilemma, Baur emphatically chooses the latter possibility and

Baur (1824: vol. 1, xi).
Hester points out that this principle is encountered in Baur’s writings as early as 1818 and
ascribes it to Schelling’s influence (1973: 260–1).
Cf. Rüsen (1993: 53–8).
The Origin of the Two Programmes 67

thus voluntarily surrenders the thought of relating the two in a model of

mutual complementarity.
By the same token, however, he also surrenders the possibility of conceptu-
alizing history and religion in its mutual interdependence. It may seem
paradoxical, but we have here reached the point of departure that explains
not only Baur’s idealist programme but also his second programme, described
above as neo-rationalist. For a concept of spirit that explicitly and emphatic-
ally opposes the general and the particular cannot grasp historical reality as
rational. It must tend towards that which is constant, everlasting, and eternal,
and so shipwrecks both on the essentially concrete nature of history and on the
nature of religion to the extent that it is historical. The seemingly unifying
perspective that Baur had endorsed as a cure for fatalism and atheism there-
fore leads, in nearly ironic fashion, to the renewed separation of history and
philosophy—to the de-historicization of the latter and the de-signification of
the former. Baur’s criticism first of ‘ideal rationalism’ and later of Gnostic
‘philosophy of religion’, Schleiermacher, and even Hegel thus rebounds on the
author, who has built his programme of the reconciliation of history and
reason on premisses which entail its failure. What remains is an understand-
ing of history on the paradigm of a natural process, whose course is constant
and rule-bound, never yielding phenomena that are not explicable by preced-
ing causes. Understanding spirit as pure universality, after all, ultimately
means equating it with nature. Any synthesis of individual experience and
the universal perspective of humankind that follows from the logic of Baur’s
programme must thus from its start have a naturalistic bend quite contrary to
his own intentions.


The exposition above should have made sufficiently clear that the search for an
understanding of Baur’s programme of theology as science, which finds its
first full elaboration in Die christliche Gnosis, must lead us back to his earliest
writings. In the ten years between Symbolik und Mythologie and Die christliche
Gnosis, the approach, once chosen, remains the same. This allows at least
one firm conclusion: the encounter with Hegel, which occurred in the former
half of the 1830s, cannot explain the salient features of Baur’s theology. The
search for alternative inspirations, however, proves difficult. Some have
opined that Schleiermacher was his most formative influence. Eduard Zeller,
Baur’s student and son-in-law, declared that Baur was Schleiermacher’s ‘pupil’
and remained this throughout his entire career:
68 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
On the basis of Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre (1821), into which he immedi-
ately immersed himself with penetrating understanding, he gained a firm centre
for his own scientific principles. In it he found a system that forever liberated him
from the supernaturalism of the [older] Tübingen School and corresponded
perfectly and satisfactorily to his own theological needs. It is the spirit of this
system that penetrates his thought entirely so that, while in the future he would
critically oppose some of its individual doctrines, permit a greater influence to
Hegelian philosophy and go way beyond Schleiermacher in historical criticism,
he remained so faithful to the spirit of his teaching that, if he had at all to be
named after any of his predecessors, we would have to name him after none other
more than Schleiermacher.54
While this interpretation has found some more recent supporters,55 others
have fiercely contested it. Most interesting for our purposes is the occasional
argument that Baur’s own explicit acknowledgement of Schleiermacher’s
influence in his publications from the 1820s fundamentally rests on a misread-
ing of The Christian Faith, which is rooted in, and explained by, a prior and
ultimately formative influence of Schelling’s philosophy.56 The point is not so
much to adjudicate on the rights and wrongs of Baur’s reading of The
Christian Faith; whatever its justification, the consistency with which Baur
raises this same objection to Schleiermacher throughout his intellectual career
indicates that right from the start he approached that theology with his own
preconceptions. What were these preconceptions and how were they origin-
ally formed?
The answer to this question may lie in Baur’s philosophical training as
a student. As far as we can discern, this early phase in his life was the only
time during which Baur immersed himself in philosophical studies not dir-
ectly related to his research interests in historical theology and philosophy
of religion. Notably, there is no evidence that his later ‘Hegelianism’ rested
in anything other than his reading of the Lectures on the Philosophy of
Religion; likewise, his intellectual relationship with Schleiermacher is almost
entirely limited to The Christian Faith. If we are to find the sources that
influenced his later philosophical orientation most fundamentally, we may
do well to consider his earlier studies. Our knowledge of them is easily
summarized. We have letters from Baur’s hand to his younger brother and
to a former student, called Ludwig Bauer, indicating that his initial philosoph-
ical training drew on Kant and Fichte on the one hand, on Schelling on
the other. Baur leaves the recipients of his letters in no uncertainty about his
own preferences:
Without a doubt, Schelling’s at least much more lively and more imaginative
philosophy will have attracted you more [sc. than Fichte’s ‘unbearably abstract’

54 55 56
Zeller (1865b: 361). Pältz (1955). Hester (1973).
The Origin of the Two Programmes 69
Wissenschaftslehre], and I advise you to read carefully especially his System of
Transcendental Idealism, a writing I liked very much.57
It is not too hard to see why Baur would have liked the System of 1800 and
the near-contemporary Lectures on the Method of Academic Study (1803).
Agreements between these two works and Baur’s early thought are substantial
and sometimes striking.
In his System of Transcendental Idealism, Schelling argues that ‘history as a
whole is a progressive, gradually self-disclosing revelation of the Absolute’,58
which guarantees the ultimate unity of freedom and determination. To under-
stand history, then, it must be perceived ‘as a union of freedom and necessity’.59
Such an attempt is taken directly from the analysis of self-consciousness, for the
I understands itself as the result not merely of natural but also of spiritual
(geistig) and therefore historical conditions at the same time; it understands its
actions as aimed at a purpose which ‘can be realized, not by the individual
alone, but only by the entire species’.60 Thus, the problem of freedom and
necessity is, as it were, extrapolated from individual experience to the interpret-
ation of history.
The latter, accordingly, can take three basic forms, which Schelling initially
calls fatalism, atheism, and religion, depending on whether they focus on
determination, freedom, or a synthesis of both. Needless to say, only the last
is appropriate, and leads, according to Schelling, to a three-level developmen-
tal scheme of periods of history or revelation which are dominated by the ideas
of fate, nature, and providence, respectively.
Clear lines to Baur’s idealist programme are already apparent here: the unity
of history as an expression of the unity of God; the analogy of absolute
and individual spirit; the bipolarity of nature and spirit, and a sequence of
three necessary steps as the principle of historical construction—all these are
elements that are also found in Baur. The parallels to the Lectures on the
Method of Academic Study, published three years later, are even more con-
spicuous. That text contains a separate section ‘On the historical construction
of Christianity’, in which Schelling—with explicit reference to his theory of
history in System61—develops the thesis of the eminently historical character
of Christianity:
This is the great historical thrust of Christianity; this is the reason for which a
Christian science of religion must be inseparable from, indeed wholly one with
history. But this synthesis with history, without which theology itself could not be
thought, in turn requires as its condition a higher Christian view of history.62

57 58
Baur (1993: 26–7). Schelling (1858a: 603), ET: Heath, 211.
Schelling (1858a: 593), ET: Heath, 203.
Schelling (1858a: 596), ET: Heath, 205.
61 62
Schelling (1858b: 290). Schelling (1803: 291).
70 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Theology is thus necessarily and paradigmatically historical theology; the
reason is to be found in the specifically historical character of Christianity,
which, through its ‘higher view’ of history, in turn provides the pragmatic (and
in some sense providential) precondition for this form of Wissenschaft. This
‘higher’ Christian view of history is again that of providence—a ‘view of the
universe’ as history, i.e. as reconciliation of necessity and freedom. What we
have here is precisely an interlacing of the imperative of historical theology
and the quasi-eschatological indicative of a historical constellation, which
alone facilitates such a theology of history: a culture informed and saturated
by Christianity. At this historical moment, therefore, a theology that is ultim-
ately nothing other than a philosophy of history is possible and at the same
time demanded. This complex theory corresponds so closely to Baur’s ‘idealist
programme’ that it seems plausible to postulate a connection between them
even though its precise extent may remain a matter of speculation.
Significantly, Baur still points to Schelling’s Lectures almost euphorically
and certainly with unqualified approval in his late, groundbreaking work
on the Epochs of Church Historiography (Die Epochen der Kirchengeschichtss-
chreibung, 1852). In its concluding section, he criticizes the still prevalent lack
of ‘progress from a pragmatic view of historiography to a universal one’.
‘Schelling’, he continues,
very aptly distinguished and characterized the two vantage points that confront
each other here in his Vorlesungen über die Methode des akademischen Studiums
(Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1803), 213ff.; and a reminder of these brilliant ideas
about history generally is all the more appropriate here since of themselves they
apply especially to church history.63
This announcement is followed by long quotes from Schelling’s text, the final
one being the following:
For the first time, then, history is completed for the reason when the empirical
causes, while satisfying the intellect, become the tools and means of manifestation
for a higher necessity. In such a portrayal history cannot fail to be the result of the
greatest and most astonishing drama, such as can only have been composed in an
infinite Spirit.64
Baur has little to add to this conclusion. Rhetorically he asks where history
should ‘have lacked this result least than in the field of church history?’65
In other words, Schelling’s words do not merely apply to historical theology;
for Baur, it is his own discipline that confirms the deepest truth of that
philosophical conception.66

Baur (1852: 248, n. 1), ET: Hodgson, 241–2.
Baur (1852: 248, n. 1), ET: Hodgson, 241–2.
Baur (1852: 248, n. 1), ET: Hodgson, 241–2.
Baur ignores, however, Schelling’s identification of history and art.
The Origin of the Two Programmes 71
Baur was by no means the only one to draw on Schelling’s theories.
Arnaldo Momigliano has noted how fundamental their influence was on
the entire first phase of historicism, ‘by which phase we mean the defence
of empirical history against the theory of a history a priori whether in the
dualistic form of Kant or Fichte or in the monistic one of Hegel’.67 A whole
generation found articulated in Schelling’s writings the possibility of a new
philosophical turn to empirical historical reality. Interestingly, Momigliano
explicitly mentions Schleiermacher in addition to Humboldt, Boeckh, Ranke,
Gervinus, and Droysen as an important mediator of these ideas. Given the
dimension of this intellectual movement, the significance of Baur’s familiarity
with a particular text by Schelling should not be overrated. These ideas were
in the air and seemed attractive to many who were committed to historical
and philosophical principles in their academic work.
In any event, Schelling’s transcendental idealism certainly cannot have
been the sole intellectual factor behind Baur’s historical theology. From the
very beginning of his academic activity, these ideas never appear without
the simultaneous acknowledgement of the normativity of historical research.
In Baur’s very first publication, a review written in 1818, we read the
programmatic statement that ‘ . . . without historical reasons we cannot
decide about that which must be considered a historical truth’. Already at
this point, then, he is in no doubt about the imperative that the principles of
all historiography must also be applied to the history of early Christianity. 68
Baur seeks philosophical help from Schelling, Schleiermacher, and finally
Hegel, in order better to understand and explain the results of such work
(‘without philosophy, history remains forever dead and dumb to me’!); its
methodological rules and its pragmatic necessity, however, are beyond
doubt for him from the beginning.
To summarize: at the high point of Baur’s work, in 1835, we find two very
different programmes of theological Wissenschaft uneasily coexisting. On the
one hand, he advocates an idealistically conceived philosophy of religion that
makes religion comprehensible through a historical reflection on the concrete
forms of religious history, interpreted as teleologically moving towards
the goal of the absolute religion. On the other hand, he not only declares the
failure of all previous attempts at such an account, but does so in a way that
makes clear his conviction of the aporetic nature of the entire project. This
aporetic construction, however, leads to an entirely different programme
which essentially restores the constellation of eighteenth-century rationalism
by permanently and categorically separating history and philosophy.

67 68
Momigliano (1946: 161–2). Baur (1818: 705).
72 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany

At the same time, it has become clear that, while Baur’s Hegelian commit-
ments in Die christliche Gnosis and beyond may well explain some features of
his work during the 1830s and 1840s, they cannot account for the foundations
of his thought. The latter, rather, emerged long before Baur’s first encounter
with Hegel’s writings and originally developed in dependence on, and dialogue
with, Schleiermacher and particularly Schelling. This basic insight seems to
have originated in Baur’s own earliest academic work. The fundamental
dilemma is already apparent in his first publications: Baur’s justification of
a philosophical interpretation of history is underwritten by an integrative,
universal concept of Spirit as all-unity. This Spirit, however, is not a unity-in-
multiplicity capable of integrating the individual into the more comprehensive
whole, but its universality is juxtaposed to particularity. Baur’s ingenious
theory of the unity and causal determination of the historical process is
therefore bought at the price of ignoring the vital role of individuals in those
developments. His philosophy of religion is thus in danger of becoming what
Baur never wanted: a philosophy of abstract, ahistorical principles, even as his
concept of history threatens to mutate into a completely secular theory based
on the principles of steadiness and immanent causality.

A Science without Presuppositions:

David Strauss

Baur was never able to abandon one of his programmes in favour of the other.
Their unresolved tension inspired his scholarship but also gave it a deeply
ambivalent character. No such ambivalence exists in the works of his most
gifted and most controversial student, David Strauss. Where the teacher
constantly vacillated between diverse projects and concerns, the pupil has no
difficulty in choosing and pursuing a single path that is as consistent as it is
radical. One may find many faults in Strauss’s work but one can hardly accuse
the author of the Life of Jesus of a lack of clarity. The bright light shone by
his scholarship makes disappear many of the shades extant in the work of his
forebears, including Baur, while arguably removing alongside many of the
nuances and the depth that made their theology attractive for further
David Friedrich Strauss was an exceptional figure even by the standards of a
century that produced a long list of outstanding theological thinkers. From a
publisher’s point of view, he was easily the period’s most successful religious
author in Germany. His nephew, Emil Strauss, realized that and became
wealthy by running a publishing company which had only a single author—
his uncle.1 Strauss’s literary and commercial success rested on the immense
hunger of the German reading public for a new type of theological book,
written from a non-orthodox position and with an eye on contemporary
developments and issues.
Like Baur, Strauss was born and brought up in Swabia and initially followed
the typical career steps of a budding theologian:2 the seminary at Blaubeuren
(near Ulm), which he entered age 12, and subsequently the University of
Tübingen. In 1831, however, he moved to Berlin hoping to hear Hegel’s

Graf (1982: 16–18).
On Strauss’s life and thought in general cf. Müller (1968), Sandberger (1972), Harris (1973),
Graf (1982).
74 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
lectures, but by the time of his arrival the philosopher had died. Strauss
attended some of Schleiermacher’s lectures but generally found them under-
whelming. In the following year, he moved back to Tübingen. Strauss became
famous practically over night with the publication of his Life of Jesus in 1835,
at a time when he was not yet 30 years old. The book was translated into
English in 1846 by Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Elliot. Its fame
was well deserved. The Life of Jesus is one of the most brilliant products of
biblical criticism, written in an eloquent style and eminently readable through-
out. Strauss covers all four Gospels, subjecting one pericope after another
to the same kind of criticism, which is all the more impressive as it rests on
simple principles which are applied consistently throughout the 1,200 pages of
the book. Strauss’s work derives its fascination partly from its almost playful
simplicity which renders its argument even more forceful.
It will be the task of the present chapter to show that these principles were
ultimately those of Baur’s neo-rationalist programme. We shall argue that
Strauss became the exemplary proponent of this programme; he pointedly
pitched historical truthfulness and accuracy against religious and theological
prejudice. In this way, historical work became a critical prolegomena to
theology; its task above all was to make clear what the latter could and must
not rely on. Strauss always acknowledged how deeply he was and remained
indebted to his teacher:3 From Baur he learned the principles of historical
critical exegesis and the historical critique of doctrine. Baur surely inspired his
early interest in speculative philosophy of religion, but also, arguably, a certain
scepticism regarding the success of its theological application. Baur, after all,
anticipated the notoriously aporetic ‘final dilemma’ of The Life of Jesus4 in his
own writings.5
In his radical execution of the neo-rationalist principles, however, Strauss
did not simply go beyond Baur; he moved the Tübingen project in a direction
that was ultimately opposed to the intentions of its founder. Not only did he
(increasingly categorically) deny that traditional Christian doctrine could be
justified in light of contemporary scientific knowledge, he also extended this
thesis to Christianity’s historical foundations. The final result of critical work
on tradition in general, as Strauss conceived it, could only be a demolition job:

Wilhelm Dilthey emphatically asserted that ‘if anybody was Baur’s pupil, it was Strauss’
(1963: 418). Their personal relationship however, which initially was close and friendly, cooled
markedly as a consequence of the debates about the Life of Jesus. This development is discussed
in Mehlhausen (1994) and Briese (1998: 170–81).
Strauss (1835/6: vol. 2, 732–44). Strauss published in quick succession several revised
editions of The Life of Jesus. References are normally given to the first German edition or
otherwise to the earliest edition in which the quotation occurs. Evans’s English version translates
the fourth German edition.
Cf. Chapter 2, text at n. 54.
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 75
historical-philological work on biblical texts as well as historical and philo-
sophical criticism of the history of doctrine must of necessity end in negation.
There is one immediate objection to this interpretation of Strauss as the
major proponent of Baur’s neo-rationalist programme: was Strauss not an
avowed Hegelian? Did not this philosophy determine his approach even more
than it did Baur’s? And was not precisely this influence the connecting link
between Baur and Strauss, at least in the first half of the 1830s? This objection
has to be taken seriously and will be considered in detail below. However, we
ought to be cautious right from the start as we have already seen that Hegel’s
philosophy was less determinative of Baur’s basic theoretical assumptions than
is often thought. Moreover, none other than Baur himself questioned the
connection between Strauss and Hegel in at least one decisive point:
[Strauss’s Life of Jesus] is usually considered a product of Hegelianism. . . . The
spirit of criticism that generated this work, however, Strauss did not learn from
the Hegelian School, which had existed for a long time without engendering a
critical element of this kind.6
Baur rightly perceived that Strauss’s embrace of historical criticism cannot be
derived from his commitment to Hegel’s philosophy. Our own discussion of
Strauss’s place in the history of nineteenth century debates about theology as
Wissenschaft, therefore, have to be focused, once again, on the relationship
between historicism and Idealism in his work. It will turn out that this
relationship is, in fact, less complicated than might initially appear. An initial
investigation of Strauss’s self-description as a scientific theologian will suggest
that his position is strikingly clear and at the same time innovative. Later parts
of the chapter will add context to this finding by examining and gauging in
more detail Strauss’s reception of Hegelian thought as well as his use and
understanding of myth.


Judging from the preface to the first volume of Strauss’s Life of Jesus—the first
edition of which appeared, like Baur’s Die christliche Gnosis, in 1835—the
thesis that the text is based on the neo-rationalist programme might seem
unlikely. For Strauss begins, as Baur had done in his Tübingen Programme
of 1827, from the dichotomy of supernaturalism and rationalism, which for
him, essentially, are two types of biblical interpretation. Yet while his teacher
had regarded their duality as the perennial antithesis of two ideal types
of theological approach, Strauss argues for a model of historical supersession

Baur (1862: 359).
76 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
according to which the rationalist critique of the Bible has invalidated the
earlier, orthodox interpretation. His observation, therefore, of a return, in his
own time, of the supernaturalist approach to biblical exegesis could only be
explained as a reactionary development, indicative of a worrying instance of
public amnesia.7 Vis-à-vis supernaturalism, rationalism is fully justified, but
it has to be carried further as it only half-completed the process of modern-
ization, which is why Strauss’s own ‘mythical’ interpretation has now become
Implicit in this argument is the principle of progressive development. Time-
honoured assumptions now superseded by ‘an advanced state of culture’ and
thus rendered untenable must by necessity undergo modernization.8 This
logic of intellectual progression is evidenced, according to Strauss, by the
consecutive rejection of two presuppositions that lay at the heart of traditional
The exegesis of the ancient church set out from the double presupposition: first,
that the gospels contained a history, and secondly, that this history was
a supernatural one. Rationalism rejected the latter of these presuppositions, but
only to cling the more tenaciously to the former, maintaining that these books
present unadulterated, half-measure; the other presupposition also must be
relinquished, and the inquiry must first be made whether in fact, and to what
extent, the ground on which we stand in the gospels is historical. This is the
natural course of things, and thus far the appearance of a work like the present is
not only justifiable, but even necessary.9
Rationalism, with its denial of the identity of natural and supernatural history,
has thus by necessity replaced supernaturalism. It left intact, however, the
traditional premiss that the Gospels relate history and for this reason now—
and once again necessarily—gives rise to the even more radical question of
‘whether in fact, and to what extent, the ground on which we stand in the
gospels is historical’.10 This is where Strauss locates himself and his own work
on the progressive trajectory.
This emphatic use of the paradigm of inevitable progress sets Strauss apart
from Baur’s thought, at least until the late 1830s.11 It is not their only
difference. As the text continues, the 27-year-old author rhetorically raises
the question whether he himself is the person called and able to execute the
necessary step of intellectual modernization whose need he had previously
demonstrated. Having initially conceded that others might, in many respects,

Strauss (1835/6: vol. 1, iii).
Strauss (1835/6: vol. 1, iii), ET: Evans, 3.
Strauss (1835/6: vol. 1, v), ET: Evans, 3–4.
Strauss (1835/6: vol. 1, v), ET: Evans, 3–4.
In his later work, Baur occasionally uses a similar logic: cf. Baur (1838: 742).
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 77
have been as capable as he (if no more so) to write this book, he ultimately
justifies his attempt in the following words:
The majority of the most learned and acute theologians of the present day fail in
the main requirement for such a work, a requirement without which no amount
of learning will suffice to achieve anything in the domain of criticism, namely, the
internal liberation of the feelings and intellect from certain religious and dogma-
tical presuppositions; and this the author early attained by means of philosophical
studies. If theologians regard this absence of presupposition from his work, as
unchristian: he regards the believing presuppositions of theirs as unscientific.12
Strauss here complements his earlier emphasis on progress with an equally
emphatic affirmation of science (Wissenschaft). Only a truly scientific engage-
ment with the sacred text can justify such a consequential project as The Life of
Jesus. It is this scientific approach in particular that Strauss regards as his
special qualification. But what does Strauss mean by ‘scientific’? First of all,
there is the mention of his philosophical training. One cannot go far wrong in
detecting a tacit reference to his Hegelianism here, especially given the popu-
larity of the epithet ‘scientific’ within the Hegel School.13
Yet this hint, however justified, must not cause us to overlook another
suggestion Strauss makes in the same passage, namely that this philosophical
training has brought him ‘internal liberation’ from ‘certain religious and
dogmatical presuppositions’. It is in this sense, he maintains, that his work is
‘presuppositionless’—and if that means that it is ‘un-Christian’, then at least it is
not ‘unscientific’. This ‘absence of presuppositions’ (Voraussetzungslosigkeit)—
here clearly synonymous with intellectual independence—is therefore one,
perhaps the decisive, condition for a scientific treatment of biblical history.
Later in the same book, in a note included from the second edition
onwards, Strauss offers a fuller explanation of what he means by this absence
of presuppositions. As we shall see, his explanation does not forgo a dose of
liberal-progressive rhetoric:
To a freedom from this presupposition we lay claim in the following work; in
the same sense as a state might be called free from presupposition where
the privileges of station, &c., were of no account. Such a state indeed has one
presupposition, that of the natural equality of its citizens; and similarly do we take
for granted the equal amenability to law of all events: but this is merely an
affirmative form of expression for our former negation. But to claim for the
biblical history especial laws of its own, is an affirmative proposition, which,
according to the established rule, is that which requires proof, and not our denial
of it, which is merely negative. And if the proof cannot be given, or be found

Strauss (1835/36: vol. 1, vi), ET: Evans, 4.
This was Baur’s interpretation (1862: 359).
78 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
insufficient, it is the former and not the latter, which is to be considered
a presupposition.14
At its most fundamental level, then, Strauss’s demand that scientific theology
must be free from presuppositions is simply tantamount to the rejection of
miracles in historical-critical exegesis. This insight is crucial, and must in
its turn determine the interpretation of the self-declared Hegelian influence
on Strauss’s thought. For while Hegelians were indeed keen to claim the
epithet ‘scientific’ for their work, they did not understood it to mean ‘without
presuppositions’—at least not in the sense of ‘without prejudice’ intended by
Strauss. This terminological ambiguity, as scholars have noted, is pivotal for
the nineteenth-century transformation of the scientific ideal. Taken at face
value, the term ‘absence of presuppositions’ describes an idea fundamental
for the entire philosophical tradition, from Plato to Hegel. All knowledge
has to start from that which in itself has no further ground and is, in this
sense, without presuppositions, anhypotheton as Plato famously called it in the
Republic.15 Yet this metaphysical affirmation of a first, most foundational
principle is fundamentally different from the methodological demand, raised
from the 1830s, that scientific work requires an individual attitude character-
ized by an unbiased and open mind and must in its procedure not be beholden
to any religious, ideological, or political premisses.16 When Hegel and his
students called their work ‘scientific’ they meant that it was emphatically
philosophical or speculative. Philip Marheineke, the major theologian on the
Hegelian right, illustrates this habit well. He first published his theological
opus magnum in 1819 while still under the influence of Schelling’s philosophy,
under the title Die Grundlehren der christlichen Dogmatik (The Fundamental
Teachings of Christian Dogmatics). From the second edition, however, which
was heavily revised in the spirit of Hegelian Idealism, the title was changed to
Die Grundlehren der christlichen Dogmatik als Wissenschaft (The Fundamen-
tal Teachings of Christian Dogmatics as Science).17 F. C. Baur too used the term
in precisely this sense until the late 1830s.18
By contrast, the notion that scientific work must be free from presuppos-
itions in the sense that it must be conducted without prejudice or preconcep-
tions became a decisive building block of the post-idealist conception of
science, ultimately modelled on the methodology of the experimental, natural
sciences, which began to establish itself in Germany precisely in the 1830s.
This ideal postulates, under the header of ‘science without metaphysics’, the

The note is only added from the second edition. Strauss (1837a: vol. 1, 87, n. 3), ET: Evans,
61 (note).
Plato, Republic VI 510 b.
Cf. Diemer (1968: 26–7).
Marheineke (1819); (1827); (1847).
Cf. Baur (1835: 627). The total number of references in Baur, however, is relatively small.
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 79
abolition of any metaphysical and ideological presupposition be it with regard
to the questions addressed, be it with regard to the methods adopted by
scientific research, be it with regard to the answers science can give. Any
ideological, religious, or national interest must here be excluded.19
Given this substantial conceptual transformation occurring throughout
the former half of the nineteenth century, it is significant that at the termino-
logical level Strauss seems to have been the first to characterize science by
its lack of presuppositions in precisely this subjective sense. Subsequently,
the term is frequently used in the debates initiated by his publication.20
All this underlines the considerable novelty that comes to the fore in Strauss’s
self-designation as a scientific theologian. At the same time, this explicit
arrogation of a new form of scientific theology characterized in its method-
ology by the ‘absence of presuppositions’ is a first indication that any
influence Baur and Hegel may have exerted on Strauss cannot fully explain
his own position. Ultimately, both his passionate emphasis on progress and
his equally passionate emphasis on theology as science strike a new and
distinctive note.
Strauss’s debt to Hegel, however, is not therefore irrelevant but shapes his
particular perception of the exegetical and theological task. The preface to The
Life of Jesus once again provides for a useful illustration. Strauss there suggests,
at least indirectly, that what causes the reluctance of other scholars to subject
the New Testament to a radically critical analysis is the fear of losing the
foundation of their own faith. Characteristically, Strauss himself does not
display such fears. Rather, he explains:
the author is aware that the essence of the Christian faith is perfectly independent
of his criticism. The supernatural birth of Christ, his miracles, his resurrection
and ascension, remain eternal truths, whatever doubts may be cast on their reality
as historical facts.21
In other words, it is by realizing the complete separation of ‘factual’ history
and religious truth that Strauss gained, as he writes, the ‘calmness and dignity’
necessary for criticizing the historical foundations of the gospel without
becoming frivolous. One can hardly express more clearly and distinctly than
Strauss himself does it here, the principle that the complete dichotomy of
event history and religious significance is the condition of truly scientific,
historical work on the New Testament. This insight, moreover, Strauss claims
to have gained as the result of his philosophical studies. His reading of Hegel,
he alleges, led him to the realization of a ‘core’ or essence of Christianity

Diemer (1968: 48).
Baur (1847a: 51); Diemer (1968: 48, n. 16). Cf. Picht (1969: 12).
Strauss (1835/6: vol. 1, vi), ET: Evans, 4.
80 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
completely independent of the historical facts which the scientific theologian
can now study with complete equanimity, certain of their irrelevance for their
In truth, this concept has nothing whatever to do with Hegelian philoso-
phy. Rather, it neatly resembles Baur’s neo-rationalist programme, in which
history and philosophy of religion were defined antithetically. Nevertheless, it
would be simplistic to dismiss Hegel’s influence on the basis of an analysis
of a few lines in the preface of The Life of Jesus. What does a closer examin-
ation tell us?


Any discussion of Strauss’s relationship to Hegel’s philosophy and to the

Hegelian School will do well to take as its starting point Jörg Sandberger’s
detailed study of Strauss’s Hegelianism published in 1972.22 Sandberger’s
conclusion is that Strauss combined a Hegelian heritage with a critical
spirit foreign to Hegel himself as well as his school. As we have seen earlier,
F. C. Baur’s judgement had already tended in the same direction. Baur as well
as Sandberger, then, believed that the description of Strauss as a Hegelian was
justified only in a somewhat limited sense, since a central element of his work,
his emphasis on historical criticism, could not be directly derived from Hegel’s
thought. Sandberger writes:
Strauss’s combination of speculative philosophy and historical criticism was by
no means taken for granted within the theological Hegel School, and Hegel
himself had not practiced it either. For an orthodox Hegelian it would indeed
appear that Strauss had combined two completely heterogeneous methods that
could not be reconciled in their tasks nor in their purpose of investigation.23
By means of the painstaking research underlying this conclusion, Sandberger’s
work does us an inestimable service. It demonstrates exhaustively not only
that and how historical criticism determines Strauss’s work, but also that
Strauss’s historical criticism was guided by entirely unphilosophical criteria.
For example, Strauss writes in a review article of 1834 that the biblical text, in
its historical aspect,
has entered the region of the sensible and rational observation of nature and
history, and is hence controlled by their laws which are as certain as they are well-

22 23 24
Sandberger (1972). Sandberger (1972: 155). Sandberger (1972: 236).
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 81
Sandberger interprets this passage with perfect accuracy:
According to Strauss, then, historical criticism is in no way dependent on
speculative philosophy, but is the rational study of history operating according
to its own specific laws. This is why Strauss mentions the absence of presuppos-
itions in the exegete as the fundamental condition of true scientific, historical
criticism. By this, however, he means precisely that the exegete must not work on
the basis of any unchecked presupposition or prejudice.25
This same assessment could, without modification, be applied to Strauss’s
statement in the preface to The Life of Jesus quoted and discussed in the
previous section of the present chapter. In both contexts, it seems clear that,
for Strauss, scientific work is characterized by absence of presuppositions
and that it proves its salt in its application to the critical study of history
(particularly the exegesis of the New Testament).
Another early text of crucial relevance for the question at hand is a review
of Karl Rosenkranz’s Enzyklopädie der theologischen Wissenschaften (Encyclo-
pedia of Theological Sciences [sic!]), which Strauss published in 1832. In
Rosenkranz’s proposed structure of the study of theology, which is modelled
on Hegel’s own Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, speculative theology
(consisting of dogmatics and ethics) would come first as it forms the founda-
tion of all theological reflection. Strauss radically rejects this idea; rather,
he maintains, theological study must start with the exegetical and historical
disciplines. It is true that Strauss uses the argument ‘that the beginning, in
science, is not the highest but rather the lowest, not the richest but the
poorest’, 26 suggesting that his prioritization of the historical is meant merely
to raise the speculative and philosophical element of theology to a higher level.
Whether his reorganization achieves this goal, however, is questionable.
After all, the prioritization of exegesis and church history presupposes that
these disciplines can do their work without philosophical foundation. Yet
this assumption, which already came to the fore in Strauss’s earlier review
article, sets him apart not only from the Hegelian Rosenkranz, but also from
Schleiermacher, who, in the Brief Outline, had likewise set philosophical
theology before the historical and philological parts of theological study.27
Strauss explains his decision in Hegelian language. Biblical theology,
he maintains, has, ‘as criticism and exegesis, sublated the immediacy of the
content of the New Testament and revealed it as developed and multiply
determined’.28 And indeed, one might think that Hegel’s Phenomenology of

Sandberger (1972: 87).
Strauss (1832: 217).
Cf. Schleiermacher (1811: 337): ‘Without the constant reference to ethical principles, even
the study of Historical Theology can be nothing but an unconnected preliminary exercise, and
must needs degenerate into unintelligent tradition.’ (} 29, ET: Farrer, 103).
Strauss (1832: 233).
82 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Spirit proceeds in a similar fashion. Perhaps Strauss has its example in mind in
his formulation.29 In any case, he argues analogously a few years later in
defending his Life of Jesus:
The whole Phenomenology [sc. of Spirit] is critique of consciousness. Given that
critique thus plays the major role in philosophy, it cannot be lacking in the
application [of philosophy] to theology. . . . Just as for knowledge in general, then,
sense-certainty, including its object and content, that is sensual objectivity, forms
the starting point, so the starting point for theological knowledge is the certainty
of faith and its object, religious tradition as dogma and as sacred history.30
As philosophical critique, then, subsequently rises from sense-certainty to the
absolute ‘through a series of mediations’, Strauss continues, so ‘a whole
theological phenomenology’ will have to show the subordination of traditional
faith, rising to knowledge of the truth of religion through its sublation.31
However, a closer look shows how skewed this comparison is. For what
Strauss means by the ‘sublation’ of the immediacy of New Testament testi-
mony is nothing other than its relativization or even destruction by means of
historical criticism. The character of the sublation of the immediacy of natural
consciousness in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, on the other hand, is
nothing like this.32 On the contrary, the whole work proceeds from the
beginning according to one unified, speculative procedure; all ‘sublations’
are carried out in essentially the same way. For Hegel, a critical history that
would proceed autonomously in Strauss’s sense and thus function as a pro-
paedeutic discipline would be unthinkable: after all, what seems to be ‘the
most real’ for any empirical discipline would necessarily be that ‘which is after
all only the unrealized notion’.33 Strauss’s echoes of the language of the
Phenomenology of Spirit thus ultimately conceal a fundamental difference.
A letter, which Strauss wrote from Berlin to his Swabian friend Christian
Märklin further corroborates this interpretation.34 This letter, dated 6
February 1832, is significant because it contains a first account of Strauss’s
plan to write a Life of Jesus. According to this account, Strauss initially
intended to present the Life of Jesus, which he calls a ‘preparatory work’ for
‘the greater dogmatic plan’ (his later two-volume Christliche Glaubenslehre
[Christian Doctrine of Faith], to be published 1840–1, is already in view
here35), in three parts: ‘as it ought to be’, he remarks, thus indicating that

For Strauss’s reading of Hegel cf. Sandberger (1972: 40–1) and the various letters to
Christian Märklin printed in the same volume (165; 167; 172).
Strauss (1837b: 3rd issue, 65).
Strauss (1837b: 3rd issue, 65).
e.g. Hegel (1970: vol. 3, 72), ET: Baillie, 135–6.
Hegel (1970: vol. 3, 72), ET: Baillie, 136.
Sandberger (1972: 192ff.); further on this letter: Sandberger (1972: 93–6), Graf (1982:
Sandberger (1972: 195). Cf. Graf (1982: 87–8).
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 83
the three parts were meant to correspond to the three stages of Hegelian
dialectics. In the first, ‘traditional’ part, ‘the life of Jesus’ is to be presented ‘as it
lives and develops in the common consciousness of the church’. This is to be
followed by a second, critical part (‘But now the party begins’, Strauss
remarks). In this part, according to the original plan, traditional doctrinal
content is to be corroded. The eyewitness of the Gospels is to be refuted and its
content revealed as essentially mythological.
In this way, I would partly annihilate, partly unsettle the infinite content, which
faith has assigned to this life, only however to restore this content in a higher
This second, critical-destructive part, however, is to be followed by a third,
dogmatic part aimed at reconstructing that which has been destroyed.
This reconstruction, according to Strauss, has in principle already been at-
tempted by supernaturalism and rationalism, whose efforts are therefore to
be integrated in this third part. Supernatural attempts here include that of
which permits criticism in its own operation, hands over to it many details, but
under the authority of faith draws a sacred circle over which, it says, it has no
power, namely that this historical individual was absolutely perfect.37
Both approaches—rationalist and supernaturalist—are however outbid by
‘scientific reconstruction’, as Strauss calls it. Only science (here understood
in its idealist sense, i.e. as speculative philosophy) is capable of achieving a true
reconstruction of that which has been destroyed by historical critique. How
does it do this? Strauss replies: by regarding
as objectified in the life of Jesus the Church’s consciousness of the human Spirit as
divine. In the biography of Jesus up until the passion narrative, [this idea] is
separated into individual elements such as miracles etc., whose significance has to
be explained. In the story of his death and resurrection, however, the same idea is
so to speak systematically summarised in its entire process, showing that only
through the negation of its negation, which is natural existence, the Spirit can
achieve true positivity, divine life, even his sitting at the right hand of God.38
Again it is evident that, according to Strauss, this entire historical and exeget-
ical work can proceed without the aid of philosophy. Only in a second—or
third—step does speculation come in, in order, as he says here, to reconstruct
that which criticism has destroyed.
Strauss’s Hegelian rhetoric in many of his early texts, then, does not quite
match up with their actual line of argument. While it is the case that Strauss

36 37
Sandberger (1972: 196). Sandberger (1972: 196).
Sandberger (1972: 196–7).
84 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
uses ‘science’ (Wissenschaft) in Hegel’s sense to denote speculative philosophy—
though it must be noted that this use is by no means specifically Hegelian, he
also speaks about ‘scientific work’ in reference to a specifically critical engage-
ment with tradition, particularly New Testament texts, characterized by the
absence of religious presuppositions. Moreover, this latter, critical science
proceeds largely autonomously, while its negative results, in their turn, serve
as the starting point of theological speculation, which accordingly, unlike for
Hegel, is not at all free from presuppositions. Only in a psychological sense is
speculative philosophy a condition for critical exegesis, namely by enabling the
scholar to maintain intellectual independence, which is his subjective condi-
tion for ruthlessly critical historical research.
Even this psychological condition, however, is fulfilled only because of
Strauss’s own, idiosyncratic reading of Hegel that finds in the author of the
Phenomenology of Spirit a justification for a ‘subjective’ and thus ultimately
ahistorical understanding of the nature of religion: this interpretation, and
only it, permits Strauss to claim that his philosophical insights have made him
equanimous in principle towards the historical basis of religious belief. Inter-
estingly, as we shall see later, it was precisely the legitimacy of Strauss’s
‘subjective’ and ahistorical definition of religion that became an occasion for
criticism and development among those who were otherwise in agreement
with his broader views and tendencies.
The result of our investigation into Strauss’s early texts can be summarized
as follows: Sandberger and others have been correct to describe Strauss’s
position, in its intention, as a combination of speculative Hegelianism and
historical criticism. It has to be asked, however, whether such a combination
is at all sensible, indeed conceivable. Can the influences of historical criticism
and Hegel’s philosophy simply be added together to explain the specific
character of Strauss’s work? The answer to this can only be given in the
negative. In Strauss’s thought a principle is abandoned which was absolutely
central for Hegel and shared by all German Idealists (including even someone
like Schleiermacher) namely, the assumption of the immanence of mind or
spirit (Geist) in the material world, which alone makes possible the conception
of the ultimate unity of all knowledge.39 Despite all their differences, Hegel,
Schelling, and Schleiermacher all agreed that the mind that examines nature
and history encounters itself in the object of its reflection, and this ultimate
identity of subject and object is the very condition for any such examination.
Only on the basis of this assumption does Hegel’s methodology as well as
those of Schelling or Schleiermacher make any sense at all. By contrast, the
aporiae in Baur’s idealist programme already appeared to rest on the opposite,
essentially dualistic assumption of an irreconcilable difference between the

For a different interpretation of the concept of immanence in Strauss see Müller (1968).
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 85
subjective synthesis of knowledge and its empirical objects. Strauss is closer
to his Tübingen historicist mentor in this respect than to his Berlin idealist
The conception of an autonomous historical or exegetical Wissenschaft,
which is intimately bound up for both Baur and Strauss with their notion of
criticism, would have been unthinkable for Hegel or indeed for Schleierma-
cher. For such a science rests on the philosophical premiss that human beings,
in seeking to understand historical phenomena, interact with something
external to themselves, which they therefore have to study in just as ‘presup-
positionless’ a manner as the natural scientist examines his objects. These
objects or facts are in and of themselves meaningless and must therefore be
assigned meaning, for example religious meaning, in a second, separate step of
the investigation. This, as we have seen, is how Baur worked;40 Strauss, in spite
of many differences of detail, follows his lead. Both represent the historicist
practice of their own time and pioneer the historical-critical exegesis that was
to dominate the later nineteenth and twentieth century. Yet this mode of
operation is implicitly predicated on a fundamental departure from the idealist
paradigm of the ultimate unity of the investigating mind and the world
surrounding it. In other words: by supplementing speculative philosophy
with an allegedly presuppositionless critical exegesis or history, Strauss reveals
that his thought is governed by presuppositions not only different from, but
fundamentally opposed to, those of German Idealism in general. In interpret-
ing Sandberger’s diagnosis, therefore, one must mark Strauss’s ‘Hegelianism’
with a firmer question mark than this author himself has done.
What was it, then, that fascinated Strauss about Hegel’s philosophy in the
first instance? Quite possibly, as in the case of Baur, it was the idea of
development: specifically, of a necessary development whose concrete real-
ization is achieved only through a process of negation, and therefore of
radical critique. At this point, it may be illuminating once again to recall
Strauss’s liberal rhetoric of progress. Theologically speaking, many of his
texts are grounded by a quasi-eschatological consciousness: the sense of
being present at a decisive point in history, at which, through the destruction
of the old and traditional, new possibilities open up whose grandeur justifies
even the most radical criticism and thorough destruction of the old and

Liebing (1957: 237) rightly notes that ‘for Baur, history was first of all a dumb, dead,
arbitrary sequence of individual events’. Only when ‘necessity and totality’ of the process were
made evident and gave meaning to particular events, the past was turned into ‘intelligible
history.’ For Liebing, this marks the difference between Baur and Schleiermacher, but he
might have added that it sets the Tübingen scholar apart from Hegel as well.
86 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany

The present section took its departure from the observation that Strauss, in the
preface to The Life of Jesus, seems to speak of Wissenschaft in a double sense. It
is now clear that this is not a coincidence, but rather points to a deep
ambiguity in Strauss’s understanding of science. For Strauss, the historian
and the exegete fulfil this ideal by approaching their object of study critically
and without (religious or ideological) presuppositions. Philosophers, by con-
trast, are scientific when they think speculatively in the Hegelian sense. This
double idea of science, however, is as incompatible with Hegel and Idealism as
is Strauss’s scientific practice. His post-idealist ideal of scholarship, then, is
paralleled by the disintegration of the unified idea of science that had been the
mark of German Idealism.
This then raises the question whether Strauss envisaged an idea, or a
procedure, by means of which this duality could in fact be overcome. Did he
consider a particular way of bridging the gap between historical-critical
research and philosophical reflection and speculation? In his programmatic
statements, at least, Strauss seemed to have an idea that and how both aspects
of his philosophical-theological work could be integrated. As the next section
will demonstrate, such an idea does in fact exist; indeed, it is relatively easy to
name it. More difficult, however, and also more important will be the identifi-
cation of its consequences for both sides, the historical and the philosophical.


The diastasis of religion and history we have found in Strauss essentially

corresponds to Baur’s ‘neo-rationalist programme’. Nevertheless, Strauss is
no mere executor of this programme but acuminates it in a way that entails its
thoroughgoing transformation. Baur had reached the impasse that the attempt
to think history and religious truth together failed for categorical reasons. Yet
if that is the case, one wonders why theology needs historical work at all. Baur
could sidestep this question by reverting to the perspective of his idealist
programme. Not so Strauss, who juxtaposed history and religion even more
sharply. His answer was that historical work serves to undermine the belief
that an appeal to historical facts can sustain the Christian faith. What does this
mean for its practice within theology? The passionate rhetoric of progress and
the scientific ideal that is characteristic of Strauss’s texts expressed itself, as we
have seen, in the demand for an exegesis that proceeds historically and
without presuppositions. The historical trajectory he constructed stretched
from the traditional identification of history and salvation history via their
separation in Rationalism (which nevertheless preserved the assumption of
the historicity of the Gospels) to a critical questioning of the latter premiss.
This last step, according to Strauss, was to be the task of his own critical
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 87
exegesis. Its theological significance, then, lay in its radical destruction of the
deceptive identification of faith and history by way of its mythical interpret-
ation of the gospel history.41
This exposition itself is not, however, entirely without ambiguity. It can be
read, on the one hand, as demanding historical-critical work on the New
Testament, whose results are not predetermined by theological, ecclesial or
religious commitments. Viewed in this way, Strauss really does become the
starting point of a cutting-edge, properly presuppositionless critical-historical
New Testament research. It is thus that his work was valued not least within
the Tübingen School, both by Baur himself and by its younger members
Hilgenfeld and Zeller. Baur writes retrospectively of Strauss’s critique:
Its greatest merit will forever consist in its presentation of the state of historical
knowledge about the gospel history based on the then current state of scholarship.
This presentation was delivered with pure and open love of truth, which none of
his fairer-minded critics have ever denied the author, without prejudice and
without presupposition (voraussetzungslos), without any mitigation or consider-
ation even though [this meant offering it] with piercing coldness.42
One can, however, also decipher the logic of Strauss’s trajectory from super-
naturalism via rationalism to his own work in a different way. In this reading,
the ultimate purpose of historical criticism is not so much a reconstruction of
the historical foundations of the Gospels as the total elimination of those
foundations. Strauss would thus take the rationalist deconstruction of the
concept of a supernatural salvation history to its logical conclusion by
rejecting the very historicity of the gospel narratives. Supranaturalism and
Rationalism both erred insofar as a historical interpretation of these texts
already implied a misunderstanding of their concerns. The mythical interpret-
ation of the Gospels would therefore have a twofold significance: on the one
hand, to prove that—historically viewed—their accounts are without sub-
stance; on the other hand, to show that the search for historical truth in the
Gospels was always already misguided. Yet if this is the programmatic object-
ive of the analysis, then its result, insofar as it is historical, appears to be very
much predetermined by theological and philosophical presuppositions.
Strauss’s programme would then precisely not be what the Tübingen scholars
claimed it was: a manifesto of presuppositionless historical criticism. Rather, it
would be another (if new and wholly different) form of dogmatically deter-
mined biblical scholarship.
Recalling Strauss’s various programmatic statements that have been pre-
sented and discussed in the course of this chapter suggests that this latter

Cf. for the historical background of Strauss’s use of this category: Hartlich/Sachs (1952);
Merk (1998); Wintzek (2008: 30–159).
Baur (1847a: 51).
88 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
interpretation is certainly not unlikely. For example, in his presentation of the
interaction between historical and speculative work in The Life of Jesus, Strauss
had argued that the freedom from presuppositions required by the critical
scholar was a result of speculative insight into the nature of religion.43 But
what is the nature of religion? Once again, Strauss offers a Hegelian argument,
or this at least is what prima facie he appears to do: religion, he writes, shares
with philosophy the same absolute content, but in a different form, as imagery
rather than idea.44 This imagery, in turn, is nothing other than myth. Strauss
can therefore derive the centrality of myth for religion in a quasi-deductive
manner from Hegel’s understanding of religion; ‘only when religion either
falls short of, or goes beyond, its peculiar province’ can the mythical be absent;
within the ‘proper religious sphere it must necessarily exist’.45 ‘Beneath’ the
standpoint of religion: this is the absence of objectively imagined gods
‘amongst the lowest and most barbarous people, such as the Esquimaux’.46
‘Above’ religion, by contrast, we find philosophy:
It is only from the philosophic point of view that the world of imagination is seen
again to coincide with the actual, because the thought of God is comprehended to
be his essence, and in the regular course itself of nature and of history, the
revelation, of the divine idea is acknowledged.47
It appears, however, that the critical theologian too occupies the same stand-
point and precisely because of this is capable of speculatively reconstructing
that which has been destroyed as imagination. Strauss’s project thus stands in
the tradition of earlier attempts, which ultimately originated in ancient
Stoicism, of the rational interpretation of mythology seeking to advance
‘from myth to logos’.48 Another observation, however, may be more important
here. By identifying religion with mythical imagery (allegedly following Hegel),
Strauss practically dissolved the bond between philosophy of religion and
history that had been absolutely constitutive for Hegel and Baur alike. Strauss’s
understanding of religion is, in Baur’s phrase, a purely subjective theory,
which does not even attempt a mediation with objective religious history.
The Hegelian criticism levelled against Strauss, that his theory marks a ‘return
to Schleiermacher’, is therefore understandable—quite independently of the
question whether such an assessment does justice to the latter.49

Strauss (1835: vol. 1, vii–viii).
The passage was added from the second edition: Strauss (1837a: vol. 1, 87–8), ET: Evans, 61.
Strauss (1837a: vol. 1, 87–8), ET: Evans, 61.
Strauss (1837a: vol. 1, 87–8), ET: Evans, 61.
Strauss (1837a: vol. 1, 88), ET: Evans, 62.
Strauss himself claims this tradition for himself. His own ‘development of the mythical
point of view’ begins with the critique of mythology by ‘the rigid philosophy of the Greeks’
(1835/6: vol. 1, 3), ET: Evans, 11–12.
Rosenkranz (1836: xvii): ‘He lapsed from Hegel’s philosophy of religion back into Schleier-
macher’s standpoint instead of decisively overcoming it.’
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 89
For Strauss himself, of course, matters look different. Following Hegel, he
would argue, the content of religious language must be seen as an expression
of absolute truth in the form of imagery (Vorstellung), and this means,
in practice, as myth. Consequently, the philosophically trained student of
the New Testament will seek to prove that and how this absolute truth finds
expression there in the form of mythical imagination. This position, however,
implies in practice a purely negative stance vis-à-vis the claim of these stories
to being history. The historical question, not least in its historical-critical form,
what information these texts contain for the scholarly reconstruction of
historical events is ultimately insignificant and even rejected as it must ultim-
ately appear detrimental to an appreciation of the true religious content of
these stories.
Historical theology and philosophy of religion are thus separated for Strauss
in two ways. First, the concept of science that underlies them differs radically.
Historical theology is ‘scientific’ if the scholar is free from presuppositions that
might interfere with his interpretation and bound in his research solely by
the most appropriate procedural criteria necessary to advance his work. In
philosophical usage, by contrast, science still means speculative knowledge.
Secondly, historical and philosophical knowledge are completely independent
of each other. Historical insight depends on the proper application of its
own methodology on the basis of empirical research. It does not need to be
grounded in philosophical or theological understanding. By the same token,
philosophical reflection does not have to take into account any historical
knowledge but proceeds autonomously in the realm of speculative thought.
The principle that all knowledge is one is, in effect, abandoned.
Still, generalizations are here, as always, problematic and must be handled
with care. After all, the very existence of The Life of Jesus illustrates, one might
say, that for Strauss the historical-critical question was anything but irrelevant,
even though it gains its significance not by its constructive potential but by its
destructive force. The scientific refutation of the naïvely assumed historicity
of the biblical story fulfils, as it were, the job of a midwife for the breakthrough
to a speculative, essentially ahistorical approach to truth. If one takes seriously
Strauss’s affirmation of the three-step of Hegelian dialectic, one might have
to formulate this even more sharply: transcending religious truth towards
philosophical knowledge requires the destructive force of historical critique
not merely in a pedagogical sense, but necessarily, as the antithesis which is
needed before a synthesis can be reached.50 This, however, would appear to

A very similar argument is used, interestingly, by Rudolf Bultmann (1993a: 101): ‘I never
yet felt uncomfortable with my critical radicalism; on the contrary I have been entirely
comfortable. . . . I let the fire burn, for I see that what is consumed is only the fanciful portraits
of Life-of-Jesus theology, and that means nothing other than “Christ after the flesh” (æØe
ŒÆa æŒÆ).’ ET: Smith, 132.
90 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
have far-reaching consequences for the character of historical exegesis which
under these circumstances cannot but produce negative results. They are, it
seems, practically dictated to it from the start by its systematic function within
the broader philosophical and theological framework. Considered in this way,
its freedom from presuppositions would seem rather limited! This is not, of
course, how Strauss meant it. We would arguably capture his intention more
accurately by reversing our formulation: since all experience shows that only
prejudice keeps biblical criticism from drawing its consequences with full
force, any examination of the Christian tradition that proceeds without bias
or prejudice will necessarily result in its complete corrosion. Be this, however,
as it may, crucial at this point is that Strauss’s whole theological enterprise is
set up to produce a dynamic of historical criticism which, for systematic
reasons, cannot but end in total negation.
Did Strauss, then, live up at all to his ideal of an exegesis that is conducted
‘free from presuppositions’? If the question is posed this bluntly, it will have to
be answered in the negative—and not merely in the general and familiar sense
that no science is ever entirely without presuppositions.51 Rather, in a more
specific and problematic sense, Strauss de facto presupposes a specific exeget-
ical result through his philosophical-theological programme. It is precisely this
problem which was strongly perceived and repeatedly criticized not least by
his colleagues and friends within the Tübingen School; to indicate it Baur,
Zeller, and Hilgenfeld would routinely use the term ‘negative critique’.52
Nevertheless, it would be simplistic to condemn Strauss as historian and
exegete on the basis of this charge. One need only read the informed conclu-
sion reached by Albert Schweitzer seventy years after the publication of
The Life of Jesus53 to understand that Strauss was able, precisely with his
own specific, intellectual ‘presupposition’, to provide important impulses for
the development of historical-critical exegesis. It is this contribution which
was recognized, valued, and emphasized by the younger members of the
Tübingen School.
More important for the present study are two other conclusions that emerge
at this point: first, Strauss pushed Baur’s ‘neo-rationalist programme’ with
unprecedented force. History and philosophy of religion became effectively
separated and retained only a negative relation to each other. This position

Cf., e.g., Bultmann (1993b).
Geiger has sharply criticized Baur’s later attitude towards Strauss. Baur, he alleges, disin-
genuously critiques Strauss’s work from a purely historical perspective ignoring its theological
dimension and seeking to distract attention from the ‘identity’ of their philosophical standpoint
(1964: 210). Geiger suspects personal motives in Baur’s ‘tendency to distance himself as far as
possible’ from Strauss during the years following the publication of The Life of Jesus: ‘An element
of scholar’s envy . . . and an element of more or less unconscious self-recommendation towards
dominant forces in theology and the Church . . . would in any case have played some role.’
Schweitzer (1984: 115–31).
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 91
subsequently became the quasi-official opinion of the Tübingen School, ex-
pressed, for example, in a programmatic essay written by Adolf Hilgenfeld in
1858; we shall have to look at this writing in more detail later. Hilgenfeld
justified this negative relationship between historical and philosophical work
in theology by applying the logic of 2 Corinthians 3: 6:
That which scientific theology in its critical-historical form destroys and reduces
to an inner impossibility, is merely adherence to the letter that killeth. . . . It not
only leaves intact, but brings to living recognition and sets in an ever brighter
light, the truth that what is eternal and imperishable in Christianity . . . must be
found in the realm of the spirit.54
Secondly, Strauss was the first to programmatically erect and proclaim a
standard for New Testament exegesis rigorously based on the new concept
of ‘science’. This, too, was to become an essential part of what members of the
Tübingen School later stood for and claimed for themselves. Specifically, the
notion that exegetical work has to be conducted free from presuppositions
implying first of all a rejection of miracles first appeared in Strauss and,
through him, entered the mainstream of the Tübingen concept of theology
as science.
At the same time, provided one follows him thus far, Strauss leaves behind
two open questions: first, what historical result does one reach if—quite
independently of a philosophy of religion—one works historically-critically
on the New Testament and other early Christian texts on the basis of his
principle of presuppositionless exegesis? Is Strauss’s own mythical interpret-
ation the final answer? Is it not itself really the refusal of an answer insofar as it
ignores the historical problem posed by those texts?
Secondly, is Strauss’s equation of religion and myth (‘absolute truth in the
mode of imagery’) satisfactory from a philosophical perspective? Does this
formula adequately describe the nature of religion? This is inevitably related to
the further question (which became urgent in the 1840s) of whether religion
has in fact a future or whether emancipation from mythical ideas necessarily
leads to its demise.
The need to address these two questions, broadly speaking, is the driving
force of the self-proclaimed and emphatically ‘scientific’ theological discussion
of the 1840s. This discussion leads, on the one hand, to the development of
Baur’s theory of early Christianity, which reigned supreme until about 1860,
and, on the other, to an intensive philosophical debate about the question of
the nature of religion, which has so far been almost entirely neglected by

Hilgenfeld (1858a: 19). A much more nuanced account of faith and Wissenschaft is offered
in Baur (1836: 209–15).
92 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
As far as the first of these developments is concerned, a rough sketch must
suffice in the present place.55 In his immediate response to The Life of Jesus,
Baur already expounded at considerable length what he saw as the main
differences between his own approach and that of his student. The ‘idiosyn-
cratic element of Strauss’ critique’, namely the ‘mythical explanation of the
facts of gospel history’, he wrote, never appealed to him.56 His own critique, by
contrast, was characterized by ‘adherence to the historically given’:
Everywhere I start from certain, historically established facts and only on this
basis seek to unite the threads of my historical combination into a whole.57
In this sense, his work aimed at a ‘complete historical impression’ which
allowed an understanding of the historical phenomenon under consideration.
A few years later, in the introduction to his Kritische Untersuchungen zu den
kanonischen Evangelien (Critical Essays on the Canonical Gospels), he once
again criticized the insufficiency of Strauss’s exegesis with regard to historical
The criteria of the mythical, far from being sufficient for the elimination of the
mythical from the historical, rather serve to make suspect the entire content of
history. . . . Yet is not this conclusion rash, is not the metaphysical notion of
miracle too abstract a category to judge on its basis the whole content of gospel
The main cause of these problems, Baur explains, is Strauss’s belief that
he could reach definitive results without first engaging in source criticism of
the text and transmission of the Gospels. Precisely at this point, however, his
critique ‘points beyond itself with the inherent impulse towards a further
development’. The result of this further development is Baur’s celebrated—
and to some notorious—theory of early Christianity. In his lectures on church
history in the nineteenth century, published by Eduard Zeller in the form in
which Baur held them repeatedly up to the 1850s, Baur summarizes the
relevant basic insights as follows:
My work on the two letters to the Corinthians first made me focus more clearly
on the relationship between the Apostle Paul and the earlier apostles. I became
convinced that the Apostle’s letters themselves set sufficient data before our eyes
from which we learn that this relationship was completely different from what
one usually assumes. Where one tends to see a thoroughgoing harmony between
all apostles, there was, rather, an opposition that went so far that from the
point of view of Jewish Christianity the very authority of the Apostle Paul was

For a summary treatment from the perspective of New Testament scholarship cf.
Käsemann (1963). More comprehensive are Wechseler (1991: 30–98) and Kümmel (1970:
56 57 58
Baur (1836: 294). Baur (1836: 294). Baur (1847a: 45).
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 93
questioned. A thoroughgoing investigation of the pseudo-Clementine Homilies,
a writing whose significance I, after Neander, pointed out especially, allowed me
to perceive more deeply the importance of this opposition for the postapostolic
period. And it became increasingly clear to me that the opposition between
the two parties, which in the postapostolic age must be distinguished much
more strictly than has hitherto been done, the Paulines and the Petrines or the
Judaists, has had a significant influence not only on the form of Petrine myth-
ology but also on the composition of Acts.59
In these almost shockingly simple words, Baur epitomized the result of
groundbreaking research that has taken many years of his life. The antagonism
between Paul and the ‘Jewish Christians’ as described in Paul’s letters, and
the seemingly unchanging continuation of this opposition until the end of
the second century, as Baur understands it from his study of the pseudo-
Clementine writings, convinced him that the reconciliation of this party
conflict (only just suggested in the pseudo-Clementines) and thus the emer-
gence of Early Catholicism is to be dated as late as the latter half of the second
century. Therefore, those New Testament writings that presuppose such a
reconciliation, especially the Gospel of John, cannot have been composed
before this time.
In essence, Baur’s theory rests on five related assumptions:
1. That the authentic Pauline writings witness to a radical opposition
between Jewish and Gentile Christians and that this conflict was funda-
mental for the apostolic and post-apostolic period.60 Related to this are
such fundamental questions as the tension between nationalism and
universalism, law and freedom, and institution and charism.61
2. That this conflict had its source in the proclamation of Jesus, which
expressed its ‘material universalism’ by means of the ‘formal principle’ of
the concept of a Messiah, and thus provided grounds both for a Pauline
and a Jewish Christian development.62
3. That the pseudo-Clementine writings are evidence for the continuation of
Jewish Christianity far into the second century. However, they present it,
according to Baur, at a point when it was open to compromise:
In exchange for its acceptance of the episcopal structure of the Catholic
Church, it was ready to relinquish the necessity of circumcision

Baur (1862: 395).
Fundamental is Baur (1831); that text already develops in nuce Baur’s interpretation of the
origins of the legend of St Peter (136–86), which underwrites his reading of the pseudo-
Clementine writings. Cf. Fraedrich (1909: 69–73) for a full account of this work.
The classical summary is found in Baur (1853: 42–93); a full account of Paul’s teaching is
given in Baur (1845: 505–670).
Cf. again Baur (1853: 1–41). A comprehensive defence of this position in Baur (1859:
94 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
for salvation (and thus more generally of the validity of the ceremonial
law).63 This continued existence of Jewish Christianity as a relevant factor
in the second century also, according to Baur, explains the emergence of a
Petrine tradition in Rome, which, on this view, represents nothing other
than the attempt of a Jewish Christian counterweight to the more trad-
itional link between the apostle to the Gentiles and the metropolis.64
4. That the emergence of Early Catholicism is to be understood precisely as
this process of reconciliation between the oppositions in Primitive
Christianity, and that its character is therefore explicable as a historical
compromise between Jewish and (Pauline) Gentile Christians. Just as
the pseudo-Clementines, for Baur, attest the continuation of Jewish
Christianity, so the Gentile Christianity of the second century is essen-
tially ‘Pauline’.65
5. That the dating of the New Testament corpus must be checked against
this historical framework. Only those texts that present in unmitigated
form the tensions defining Primitive Christianity, especially the early
Paulines, can claim authenticity.66 Due to the enormously long temporal
extension of the process thus reconstructed, Baur assigned to many texts
adventurously late dates reaching deep into the second century.67
Such a schematization inevitably represents a simplification that does not do
full justice to Baur’s theory (which, moreover, changed and developed over the
years). However, it serves to show the remarkable systematic stringency of
this theory. The rather counter-intuitive nature of at least some of the hypoth-
eses Baur ventured and defended must not make us lose sight of the scale of
his achievement. This includes not only, as is often said, the adoption of the
historical-critical method for New Testament exegesis, but also, building on
the latter, a first theory of Primitive Christianity—in other words, a first
attempt to restore a history that can only be reconstructed indirectly from
the extant sources while being fully aware of the historiographical, philo-
logical, and hermeneutical problems this task faces.68 This project Baur

Baur’s use of the pseudo-Clementines for his reconstruction of Ebionitism was inspired by
Neander (1818: 361–421) and is first presented in his Easter programme of 1831 (De Ebioni-
tarum origine et doctrine ab Essenis repetenda) and subsequently in Baur (1831: 116–33). Cf.
Rehm (1938), Strecker (1958), and Schoeps (1998) for more recent evaluations of the historical
problem, which is extremely complicated.
Baur (1831: 136–86); (1845: 671–7).
Baur (1831: 94–146).
On his critique of the Pauline Corpus cf. Baur (1845: 245–504); on the Gospels: Baur
(1847a) which is a partial reprint of Baur (1844).
Cf. the summary in Baur (1850: 318–28). Notorious is his assumption that the Gospel of
John was written at the end of the second century: cf. Fraedrich (1909: 158–68).
It is arguable that Rothe’s theory of Primitive Christianity was in fact the earlier one (1837).
The Tübingen School was aware of this issue: Fraedrich (1909: 158–68).
A Science without Presuppositions: David Strauss 95
seems to have had in mind when he wrote that his desire was to gain a ‘total
historical impression’ (historischer Totaleindruck).69
At some point, such a reconstruction of biblical and early Christian history
necessarily had to return to the question of the relevance this history could
have for the Christian faith and thus to the themes of Baur’s ‘idealist pro-
gramme’. For the time being, however, the Tübingen School continued to
pursue a programme of separate historical and philosophical scholarship. The
second aspect of this programme, the debate about an appropriate under-
standing of the nature of religion, will be the subject of Chapter 5.

Baur (1836: 294). Kümmel summarized (1970: 176) that ‘whatever objections one may
bring against Baur’s results’, he ‘recognized two problems of lasting significance’ for New
Testament research, the ‘integration of New Testament writings into a general historical context
and the understanding of the sequence and the historical development of the world of New
Testament ideas’.

Debating the Nature of Religion:

Eduard Zeller

The triumph of the neo-rationalist programme of scientific theology in the

wake of The Life of Jesus led directly to the intensive debate about the nature or
essence of religion that occupied German theologians and philosophers in
the 1840s. To establish this connection is not to deny the role of other
important influences on the shape of this debate, notably the publication of
Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity in 1841.1 Neither should we ignore
that this discussion was part of the larger controversy about the legacy of
Hegel’s philosophy, which was soon reduced to the alternative: does it lead to a
restoration of Christian faith or to atheism?2
Without being blind to these important trends, however, our own perspective
has the advantage of bringing into view several peculiarities of the debate only
insufficiently (if at all) revealed within prevailing paradigms. Thus, it is
remarkable that and how its focus of the question shifted away from the
historically concrete, ‘objective’ religions, so central to Hegel, Schelling, and
the earlier Baur, and towards its ‘subjective’ and ‘psychological’ side, its place
in the human mind. A first remarkable result of this transformation was that
Schleiermacher’s philosophy of religion, which in the 1830s had seemed
hopelessly inadequate and out-of-date compared to Hegel’s, experienced a
remarkable renaissance in the 1840s. The new paradigm meant that religion
had to be located among the range of mental activities, so Schleiermacher’s
celebrated exposition of the problem—was it knowledge, volition or a tertium
quid?—seemed once again topical. Individuals inevitably disagreed on the
precise position religion occupied within this triangle, but by accepting the
model they perpetuated the very approach Schleiermacher had inaugurated. It
is at this point and within this discussion that Schleiermacher first assumed

Feuerbach (1841).
Cf. Sass (1962); Toews (1980: 203ff.); Breckman (2001).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 97
the role of a ‘classic’ whose theory of religion was recognized as a fundamental
point of reference regardless of school affiliation or theological position.
Eventually however, the discussion had to face again the problems the neo-
rationalist programme sought to suppress. The very attempt to determine the
nature of religion brought back the desideratum of a combination of subjective
and objective religion, and with it of faith and history. The debate, which in the
1840s was largely detached from historical considerations, thus ended up
questioning this very distinction and thus furnished the background against
which alone the emergence of Albrecht Ritschl’s theology can be understood,
both in its opposition to the Tübingen School and in its continuity with Baur’s
original approach.
Our presentation will be focused on one crucial participant in this debate:
Eduard Zeller. The analysis of his specific contribution will, hopefully, illu-
minate the broader peculiarities of the period he represents while linking it
with the earlier work of Baur and Strauss. Zeller, who wrote extensively on
theology and philosophy of religion, has been almost entirely neglected by
historians of theology.3 Undoubtedly, this is in large part due to his move to
the philosophy faculty at the age of 35, which effectively ended his literary
career as a theologian.4 As a philosopher, he is remembered for his magisterial
History of the Philosophy of the Greeks and his contributions in the field
of epistemology.5 For our own narrative, however, Zeller is significant as a
representative of the younger generation of the Tübingen School, close to Baur
(whose son-in-law he became in 1847) as well as to Strauss. In fact, Zeller’s
early life mirrors almost exactly those of Baur and Strauss: born 1814 in a
Swabian village, he was educated in the theological seminary and afterwards at
the University of Tübingen where he began to lecture from 1840. He was
offered a theological chair at Marburg in 1849, but by that time controversies
about liberal historical theology had become so heated that his appointment
provoked an outcry of conservative public opinion. Eventually, the govern-
ment of the Electorate of Hesse intervened and Zeller was transferred to the
Faculty of Philosophy as a compromise. After Baur’s death, however, Zeller
took on the mantle of the public apologist of the school in a major dispute with
Ritschl. He is more, however, than a faithful disciple; Zeller proves an inde-
pendent thinker, especially in the philosophy of religion. The culmination of
this development is his study Das Wesen der Religion (The Nature of Religion,
1845), which consequently stands at the centre of our exposition. First,

A summary in Harris (1975: 55–77); cf. now Hartung (2011) and, especially on Zeller’s
theology, Schaede (2011).
The circumstances of his transfer into the philosophical faculty are recounted in Harris
(1975: 74–6).
Zeller (1919–23). The English edition of the multi-volume work was published under
various different titles. Cf. Köhnke (1986: 175–9); Krämer (1994).
98 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
however, his characteristic self-understanding as a scientific theologian and
his engagement with the work of Strauss and Feuerbach need elucidation.


All of Zeller’s important academic writings from the period under investi-
gation here appeared in the Theologische Jahrbücher (Theological Yearbooks)
founded by him and edited first single-handedly and later with Baur. The first
issue, published in Tübingen in 1842, was accompanied by a short editorial
(dated November 1841) about the aims and tendencies of the journal. Here,
Zeller writes:
It is the idea of a free science on which they (sc. the Yearbooks) are based. ‘To
accept freedom and consistency of thought as justified and necessary even in the
field of theology’ is the first demand it makes of its contributors. Stipulation of a
particular theological or philosophical creed beyond this general principle had to
be abandoned as incompatible with the former condition. The editors did not
hesitate, therefore, to ask for their contributions men from the most different
tendencies that are possible under the principle of free research.6
At first glance, this definition seems rather unspecific. Its only potentially
remarkable aspect, considering the statements by Baur and Strauss discussed
so far, is its specific emphasis on the freedom of science. It makes Zeller part of
a development in which the emphasis on freedom from presuppositions as the
sign of true scholarship is increasingly merged with the political ideal of
academic freedom. Noteworthy is, further, Zeller’s use of the term research
(Forschung). The equation of science and research, indeed of free science and
free research, is typical of the time. In the words of Herbert Schnädelbach,
science now
was constituted as research-science, that is, as empirical science . . . It became an
open and changeable system of knowledge, indeed one committed to change, in
which systematization was subordinated to the ideal of innovation. It was a
totality, the identity of which came principally from rules of procedure and
standards of testing . . . 7
In the second issue of the first volume, Zeller felt compelled to raise the issue of
his understanding of science once again. A reviewer of the first issue for the
Litterarische Zeitung of Berlin had taken issue with the passage quoted above:

Zeller (1842a: v).
Schnädelbach (1983: 91).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 99
This is the well-known pretence by which in certain circles the words ‘science,
philosophy, speculation, critique etc.’ are used in an exclusive sense. How it is to
be judged, we do not even have to say here.8
After pointing out (not without acrimony) that as far as he is informed, the
Berlin journal has been subsidized by the Prussian Ministry of Education to
the sum of ‘1200 thalers’ this year, Zeller restates his position with more
precision. His emphasis is once again on the idea of free research, which is
now explained by way of the concept (already used in the preface to the first
issue) of ‘a science independent of all heteronomy’.9 This, however, is nothing
other than the principle of freedom from presuppositions we have already
encountered in Strauss. Zeller is concerned with the objective distinction
between this concept of science and that underlying much other theological
He who explicitly declares that theological thought in its results is bound by any
external authority, which is fixed right from the outset, cannot lay claim to [the
title of] genuinely free research. [Depending on] whether this is the authority of
the Church or of the Creeds or of Scripture or of religious feelings, very consider-
able distinctions of kind and degree will ensue, but the principle of completely
free research is given up in one as much as in the other cases.10
What is decisive for Zeller’s concern, then, is (as for Strauss) the fact of
independence from external authority. Free science as it is meant to be
pursued in his journal cannot tolerate limitation by criteria external to itself,
which may inhibit its progress. Within the theological spectrum of his time,
Zeller clearly positions himself on the left, and excludes not only contemporary
forms of orthodoxy and neo-orthodoxy but also the ‘pectoral theology’ of
‘mediating’ theologians (Vermittlungstheologen) such as August Neander from
his understanding of science. Yet while this evidently is polemical, even pugna-
cious, it would, nevertheless, be simplistic to effectively agree with Zeller’s critic
of the Litterarische Zeitung and detect here the merely subjective attempt
to claim the label wissenschaftlich exclusively for Zeller’s own (Tübingen)
position. For the imperative that theological work live up to the academic
standards of other disciplines is not easily dismissed, provided there generally
is broad consensus on this issue.
How far removed from speculative Idealism Zeller’s definition of scientific
theology is—and how thoroughly he regards historical and exegetical work
as the paradigmatic disciplines at its centre—can be illustrated by a brief
comparison with near-contemporaneous comments by Alois Emanuel

Quoted from Zeller (1842c: 420).
Zeller (1842c: 420); cf. (1842a: iv).
Zeller (1842c: 421).
100 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Biedermann, a theologian close to Zeller.11 Biedermann, who had opened the
second issue of the Theologische Jahrbücher with an article on the personality
of God, writes in 1844 in his book Die freie Theologie oder Philosophie und
Christenthum in Streit und Frieden (The Free Theology or Philosophy and
Christianity in Conflict and in Peace):
A science is free if (1) it has its principle within the human intellect and does not
receive it from outside; [if] (2) in unfolding its principle it follows only the
immanent laws of intellect and is not determined by external authority; and [if]
finally (3) it is rounded off in itself into its own proper form. This applies to the
form of theology that is the unfoldment of the speculative concept of religion into
a whole science. Therefore the latter is called free theology.12
The point here is not to deny similarities between Zeller’s and Biedermann’s
standpoints. It is certainly no coincidence that in both cases the concept of a
‘free science’ is stressed. Similarly, it can be no coincidence that and how the
two definitions converge, particularly in their rejection of external authority.13
However, precisely in light of those convergences, the different tone in which
they are formulated and the different interest that can be discerned behind
them are all the more striking. Biedermann aims at a speculative theology,
which as such is free from the dominance of church tradition. Zeller, by
contrast, is concerned first of all with free research, i.e. with the ability to
work on the decipherment and interpretation of unknown but in principle
knowable data without inhibition by authorities.
An illustration of this difference is apparent in Biedermann’s comments, a
few pages later, about historical theology. Within his speculative system
of successive ‘mediations’, historical theology is said to deal with the ‘immedi-
ate self-consciousness of the empirical reality of inner man’.14 In practice,
this means, for example, that in the study of the New Testament, its task is
to determine ‘Jesus’ religious self-consciousness as the origin or key’ to
the understanding of Christianity. This self-consciousness, in turn, must,
according to Biedermann, be understood ‘from the essence of spirit’. Precisely
this is ‘the highest and most glorious problem of all history’. Through it, ‘the
final result of the exegetical part of historical theology and that of philosophical
theology converge on the idea of religious self-consciousness as the form that
fully realises the idea’:

On Biedermann’s life and thought cf. Kuhn (1997); Reinmuth (2004).
Biedermann (1844: 177).
This similarity may be explicable by their common dependence on Strauss. In the intro-
duction to his Glaubenslehre, the latter writes: ‘Where the debate concerns autonomy and
heteronomy of the mind as such, the subsidiary question of whether the principle of heteronomy
is the Church or Scripture can arouse only low interest’ (1840: vol. 1, vi–vii). Both Biedermann
and Zeller knew and appreciated the work.
Biedermann (1844: 177).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 101
Only an exegesis that aspires to this goal, is a part of free, speculative theology.15
Biedermann’s book, with its unapologetically philosophical approach to the-
ology, is an important part of the discussion of the 1840s; Zeller himself
remarked on their closeness.16 At the same time, it is equally clear that
Biedermann’s interest in free theology largely lacks precisely the element so
characteristic of the Tübingen School—the urge for the liberation of historical
and exegetical research, and with it an understanding of theology that (whatever
else it achieves) offers a theoretical framework for this specific form of academic
practice. One may consider Biedermann’s demand for an examination of
the religious self-consciousness of Jesus a legitimate exegetical research question.
Yet this is not how he justifies it; the demands of his programme, rather,
derive from a thoroughly speculative conception, not from practical historical
work—quite in contrast to that of Zeller, who was at this point continuously
engaged in the historical-exegetical research of the Tübingen School.
If what fascinates Biedermann in Strauss and other Hegelian theologians,
such as Wilhelm Vatke (1806–82) is their speculative approach, Zeller is a
student of Baur and a friend and admirer of Strauss in his historist-positivist
passion for science. Precisely this interest in an autonomously working
historical-exegetical science also motivates his engagement with the philo-
sophical question of the essence of religion, which, on this approach,
independently accompanies his other work. It is interesting, in this context,
that Zeller’s first relevant statements are found in his reviews of Strauss and


Beginning in the fourth issue of the first volume of Theologische Jahrbücher,

Zeller published a review article running over several dozen pages, of dogmatic
works published in 1840 and 1841, which was continued the following year
with extensive reviews of Strauss’s Glaubenslehre and Feuerbach’s Essence of
Christianity. Right at the outset of this article, he intimates that, in his view, the
latter works are the culmination of the two years under discussion, which are
among ‘the richest and most eventful in the history of this discipline [i.e.
dogmatics]’.17 In the dispute provoked by Strauss’s Life of Jesus, ‘all parties that
have formed over the last 60 years’ meet once more ‘on the battlefield’. Even if
practically all of them agree in their rejection of the newest trends among the

All quotations from Biedermann (1844: 184).
Zeller (1845: 418–19).
Zeller (1842e: 718).
102 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Hegelian left, they nevertheless ‘break apart as soon as they are questioned
about their own positive endeavours’. Zeller therefore divides the publications
under discussion as follows: first he discusses supernaturalist contributions,
then those of rationalist authors. These are followed by the Hegelian right and
finally the left, i.e. Strauss and Feuerbach. While thus the more traditional
approaches come first in the sequence of presentation, there is no doubt that as
far as relevance is concerned, the order is quite the reverse.
As already mentioned, Zeller regards Strauss and Feuerbach as exponents of
left Hegelianism. At the same time, the reviewer emphasizes from the begin-
ning that he has some reservations about this classification. In a brief, intro-
ductory comparison of the two books, with which he opens their reviews, he
points to two main differences between Strauss and Feuerbach: one, the fact
that Strauss is a theologian (however critical), while Feuerbach is a philosopher.
This is not irrelevant, given that Strauss’s criticism, insofar as it strikes with the
weapon of theological critique, ‘always deposits some healing rust into the
wound’.18 For a theologian, it is ultimately the case that ‘the critic cannot
negate everything, lest he eradicate his own presuppositions’.19 Precisely in
this respect, Feuerbach’s case is fundamentally different. The philosopher who
turns to a critique of religion can coherently set himself the goal of showing
‘that consistent theology diametrically opposes everything that philosophy
and reason demand’.20 Accordingly, Feuerbach’s harshest verdict falls on
theological mediators and critics, whom he regards as liars and hypocrites
all; theological reactionaries who radically contrast faith and reason, by
contrast, are at least true and genuine theologians.
The second essential difference between Strauss and Feuerbach, according
to Zeller, lies in the fact that Strauss is a Hegelian, while Feuerbach cannot
effectively be understood against the background of that school:
Strauss is a Hegelian, and however zealously the conservative members of the
School have denied him, the unbiased [observer] will have to admit this: he has
better understood the system, and, even where he has removed himself from
Hegel’s original explanations, developed it with more consequence than all those
who have made such big efforts to keep at a distance from themselves the shame
and the disadvantages that could result for them from such an ill-famed fellow
Feuerbach, by contrast, may have emerged from the Hegelian School, but has
distanced himself so much from it that he not merely polemicizes against

Zeller (1842e: 92). Zeller alludes to the Greek story of Achilles and Telephus. Hit by
Achilles’ spear, Telephus learned from the Oracle at Delphi that only the weapon that had
struck it could cure his wound. In the event, some rust from Achilles’ spear was applied and had
the desired effect (Dictys Cretensis, Ephemeridos belli Troiani II 10). For uses of this story
through the ages cf. Starobinski (1993).
19 20 21
Zeller (1842e: 92). Zeller (1842e: 92). Zeller (1842e: 92–3).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 103
individual Hegelian statements but ‘has publicly rejected’ the name ‘Hegelian’.
In Zeller’s view, this is entirely justified: Feuerbach has bent Hegel’s idea of
immanence into a strict empiricism, ‘restricting his philosophizing entirely to
the self and to empirically knowable nature’.22 By contrast, the idea of absolute
Spirit or a general substance is dropped or viewed with suspicion insofar as it
appears to be transcendent. Precisely this difference, according to Zeller,
explains why Feuerbach’s critique is so much more radical than Strauss’s: as
long as someone retains even the trace of an idea of a spirit active in everything,
he cannot regard a phenomenon as historically potent as the Christian religion
as a mere conglomeration of errors. Only when the assumption of a connection
between a phenomenon and its intelligible origin is lost can (and perhaps must)
imperfect phenomena appear not as imperfect expressions of an in-principle
justified reality but as wholly erroneous or aberrant.
Whether or not one agrees with this assessment of the two authors, Zeller’s
exposition at least has the advantage of revealing what he himself at this point
understands a Hegelian to be. Decisive for him is a belief in the meaning or
significance of historical phenomena; readiness to confront the testimonies of
history with the expectation of finding in them something that points beyond
themselves. The counter-idea exemplified by Feuerbach is a pure empiricism,
i.e. an attitude that denies precisely this transparency of the world of experience
to something beyond its own facticity. Hegel, in other words, stands for an
idealist as opposed to a purely positivistic worldview, for an acceptance of the
hypothesis that there is such a thing as spirit or mind, as opposed to a reduction
of all experience to the immanence of the empirical and material realm.
With this reading of the ideological landscape, Zeller is at the cutting edge of
contemporary developments; in fact, his presentation neatly captures the
general reconfiguration of intellectual positions in the 1840s. In 1840, the
Berlin philosopher Adolf Trendelenburg had opened his influential Logische
Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations) with the remark: ‘The sciences hap-
pily try their own peculiar paths but often without reflection about their
method, as they are interested in their object, not in their procedures’.23
Trendelenburg believed this practical positivism was at least partly the fault
of Hegelianism with its neglect of empirical work and induction; he therefore
sought to counter it with a moderately idealistic philosophy of science—fully
conscious that his suggestion stood in opposition to Hegel’s absolute Idealism
as much as to positivism. His local rival at the University of Berlin, however,
Hegel’s immediate successor Georg Andreas Gabler, did not take up that
challenge. Rather, he responded to Trendelenburg in a way that, much like
Zeller, represented a Hegel geared towards a binary confrontation of positiv-
ism or materialism and idealism. The ‘basic question’ (Grundfrage) of

22 23
Zeller (1842e: 93). Trendelenburg (1840: vol. 1, iv–v).
104 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
philosophy, according to Gabler, concerns the relationship of matter and mind
(Geist), and Hegel rightly opted for idealism—as does Trendelenburg. Gabler
therefore does not so much reject the latter’s philosophy as his claim of a radical
difference between himself and the Hegelians.24 Confronted by the common
enemy of materialism, they should bury their conflicts about trifling philosoph-
ical details and recognize that in this battle they are, in fact, comrades-in-arms.
Within this new context, Zeller’s assessment of Strauss as a ‘Hegelian’
therefore means primarily that in Strauss, the consequences of a radical
critique of religion are reigned in by his affirmation of a concept of mind or
spirit. This, however, is only his first, very general characteristic of Strauss’s
approach in his Glaubenslehre. Zeller then approaches a more detailed assess-
ment of the work by seeking to make clear what it is not, and what expect-
ations are unfairly directed towards it. Thus, Strauss certainly did not write a
history of doctrine;25 neither did he write a dogmatic work in the strict sense—
after all, the book largely forgoes an answer to the question of what shape
Christian faith ought to take today.26 Rather, the book is properly understood
by perceiving its function as analogous to the one Strauss’s earlier Life of Jesus
had fulfilled within the field of exegesis: it offers a critical prolegomena to any
future dogmatics by delimiting the current position of the discipline as sharply
and uncompromisingly as possible. Zeller finds this characterization in Strauss
himself, who opens the Glaubenslehre by comparing it to the Life of Jesus, and
assigning to the current work the task
of doing for the science of dogmatics what the balance sheet does for a trade
company. While the latter does not, as a consequence, become more prosperous,
it is, however, informed about the state of its financial means. Often this is worth
as much as a their actual increase.27
This statement, then, describes the standard by which the work is to be
measured. Without a doubt, Zeller concedes, it is much more difficult for a
dogmatic treatise to achieve this goal than for an exegetical one (simply due to
the abundance of material); its practical realization will, therefore, almost
necessarily by liable to criticism. Yet this does not diminish his affirmation
of the principal value of a critical foundation to prepare the ground for a future
dogmatics as Wissenschaft, and consequently his appreciation for Strauss’s
willingness to undertake such an attempt.
This does not mean, however, that Zeller gives unconditional approval to
the work. In fact, he directs fairly severe criticism against what ought to be a
central element of Strauss’s endeavour: the aspect of the work ‘most radically
in need of supplementation’, according to the critic, is its definition of
religion.28 In Zeller’s view, Strauss rests content with the relatively vague,

24 25 26
Gabler (1843: 2–3). Zeller (1842e: 96). Zeller (1842e: 96–7).
27 28
Strauss (1840: vol. 1, xi). Zeller (1842e: 101).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 105
left-Hegelian assertion that the ‘claim that religion and philosophy are identi-
cal in content’ is wrong.29 At the same time, he disagrees with the radical
critique of Feuerbach. ‘Surely’, Strauss objects, it cannot be
merely the identity of human nature as such, but rather its impulse for self-
knowledge, its intellect, which ultimately determines the agency of imagination
and leads it through the ascending series of religions towards an ever greater
approximation to the truth.30
Zeller is decidedly discontented with this definition, which he sees as stuck in
the Hegelian, ‘theoretical’ understanding of religion. Religion, according to
Strauss’s definition, comprises ‘(1) thoughts generally and (2) not pure
thoughts but thoughts in the form of imagery’.31 Accordingly, religion con-
tains truth only insofar as it agrees with philosophy. Is this, however, the case?
Zeller remarks first of all that a further elaboration and clarification of this
viewpoint would have been indispensable within the very endeavour Strauss
proposes. An account of the dogmatic inventory of the church ‘in the light of
modern science’ cannot, after all, be indifferent to the question by what
standard the validity of this inventory is to be measured. Strauss’s work,
then—and this is indeed remarkable—is explicitly criticized for its lack of
any substantial reflection about the most appropriate definition or, as Zeller
puts it, the nature of religion.
What would be the outcome of such a reflection? Zeller only ventures a few
suggestions at this point. The theoretical understanding of religion evidently
espoused by Strauss ignores the central concern of religion:
The religious subject considers its activity not as an end in itself, which is the
character of all merely theoretical intellectual activity, but as a means to [attain]
beatitude. It [sc. the religious subject] is, qua being religious, not concerned either
with God’s existence as such, [and] generally not with metaphysical questions,
but with its own salvation, with the means of obtaining divine benevolence, but
with everything else only to the extent that the latter is needed for this purpose.32
In other words, we will never understand the nature of religion if we expect to
discover it in the sphere of theoretical truth; rather, what concerns religious
subjects is individual beatitude, the ‘achievement of a subjective state of life’, of
a ‘personal life in God’.33 This understanding of religion, moreover, is con-
firmed not only by the subjective perspective of religious consciousness, but
also by history. Looking at the history of doctrine and theology, Zeller argues,
it quickly becomes clear that the victorious side is not usually that with the best
arguments—quite the reverse. Heretics, in other words, apparently fail

29 30
Zeller (1842e: 101). = Strauss (1840: vol. 1, 22). Zeller (1842e: 101).
31 32
Zeller (1842e: 102). Zeller (1842e: 102).
Both quotations Zeller (1842e: 102).
106 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
because the dominant principle of doctrinal formation is not theoretical reason,
but—as the most important theologians have frequently affirmed—the practical
needs of desire. The latter forms a last, insurmountable ground against which
even [proof of] the most evident logical impossibility cannot hold.34
Zeller emphasizes that his understanding of religion does not amount to a
return either to the Enlightenment equation of religion and morality or to ‘its
reduction to sentiment’ by Schleiermacher.35 Neither does he agree with
Spinoza’s dictum that religion requires not true but pious dogmas.36 Rather,
Zeller wishes religion to ‘draw the entire activity of personal life into its
circle’—in other words, the point is that religion should not be reduced to
one, separate sphere of human existence.
Only this is the claim: that the theoretical and the practical element do not have,
for religion, the same value; that the religious significance of a dogmatic idea does
not rest immediately in itself and in its theoretical truth, but in its influence on the
advancement of the individual’s spiritual life . . . 37
Only from this vantage point can the essence of Christianity be satisfactorily
defined. Strauss may have been right in saying that Christianity is neither pure
monism nor pure dualism, a religion neither of immanence nor of absolute
transcendence. Yet his theoretical concept of religion could not explain how
Christianity as a ‘dualist’ system proceeding from the assumption of divine
transcendence could at the same time have become a ‘religion of reconciliation,
a remedy for the tornness and faintness of the human spirit’.38 Baur’s dilemma
is not, after all, forgotten! Its solution, however, Zeller expects from the recog-
nition that ‘it is precisely not religious ideas (Vorstellung) which is the source
of a religion’s power and significance’.39 As far as the ‘practical determination of
life’ effected by Christianity is concerned, it is an ‘essentially monistic’ religion.
The ‘basic ethical mood’ of Christianity is consistently determined by a
‘consciousness of achieved salvation’. This is the essential thing, vis-à-vis
which two-natures-Christology is merely a ‘dogmatic conceptual aid’.
These few statements do not yet, of course, amount to a satisfactory theory
of religion. However, we shall see that Zeller’s sketch here agrees in key points
with the extensive exposition that he will offer two years later in a work on the
same subject. For the moment, two things are remarkable. First, we see here
for the first time a question not hitherto raised within the Tübingen School.
While Baur and Strauss were concerned with religion, and while it could thus
far be said that both also tried to address the question what the nature of
religion was, their understanding of this task was very different from what

34 35
Zeller (1842e: 103). Zeller (1842e: 104).
Cf. Spinoza (1989: 434) (cap. 14): ‘Sequitur denique fidem non tam requirere vera, quam
pia dogmata’.
37 38 39
Zeller (1842e: 104). Zeller (1842e: 105). Zeller (1842e: 105).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 107
Zeller took it to be. It is no coincidence that Baur in Die christliche Gnosis,
after all something like his philosophical magnum opus, did not devote a
separate section to the question of the ‘nature of religion’. Rather, his idealist
programme assumed that the question of the essence of religion was essen-
tially a historical question. Once the sequence and reciprocal relations of
religions were presented with historical accuracy, the philosophical inter-
pretation of religion was also fulfilled. Precisely such a merger of historical
and philosophical (and theological) tasks has proven the distinguishing
mark of that idealist programme. Accordingly, Baur also appropriated
Schleiermacher’s theory under this aspect; his reading was guided by the
question whether it offered a useful framework for the historical reconstruc-
tion of religions. The question raised by Zeller, by contrast—whether reli-
gion is a form of knowledge, a form of activity, or (though he does not
mention that alternative here) something else entirely—is beyond the hori-
zon of Baur’s investigations. Nevertheless, one can see it emerge from Baur’s
second, neo-rationalist programme, which reintroduced a categorical separ-
ation of philosophy and history even though Baur, who did not, after all,
consciously or explicitly distinguish between his two ‘programmes’, never
explicitly raised it. Strauss, who radicalized the second programme, did not
raise it either, and it is exactly this failure for which Zeller rightly criticized
him in the present context.
Secondly, it should be noted that Zeller not only raises this question
explicitly but also gives it a critical twist that goes against a traditional
consensus within the Tübingen School. For there can be no mistake: while
mentioning only Strauss by name, Zeller’s objections against a largely theor-
etical, intellectualist conception of religion are directed at the teacher as much
as at the student.40 By counselling an alternative solution to the question,
Zeller strikes a critical chord against the School’s tradition from the start.
One might object that such a school-immanent interpretation of Zeller’s
argument ignores what arguably must have been the decisive influence on the
emergence of his position. Was not, after all, the discussion about the ‘essence’
of religion in the 1840s primarily and centrally provoked and fuelled by the
publication of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity in 1841? There can
indeed be no doubt about this book’s crucial significance, which finds expres-
sion not least in the fact that all contributors to that debate engaged explicitly
and directly with Feuerbach’s critique of religion. Yet precisely in light of that
fact, something else is equally remarkable: this first wave of theological
responses to Feuerbach differed from later theological engagements—for

In some later publications, Zeller makes this criticism against Baur more explicit (Zeller
1865b: 441–2). In the same place, Zeller also suggests, albeit subtly, that Baur’s later philosoph-
ical development might have been influenced by his own contributions to this debate (428–9).
108 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
example by Kurt Leese41 or Karl Barth42—in regarding Feuerbach (despite all
criticism of his work) primarily as a constructive impulse for a theological
discussion of the question of the nature of religion. At least among those
theologians willing and able to appreciate the rigour and conceptual force of
his construction (and these include, mutatis mutandis, Zeller and Biedermann
as well as Leese and Barth), the guiding idea of the earlier authors was very
different from that of the later ones. The tenor among the former was neither
that Feuerbach showed the catastrophic consequences of a conflation of
soteriology and theology (as Leese argued primarily against the Ritschl
School43), nor that Feuerbach demonstrated the disastrous consequences of
a theological appropriation of the concept of religion more generally (Barth).
Rather, Feuerbach’s work was primarily read as a justified and plausible
plaidoyer for an understanding of religion as practice. In other words, it was
used as the hook for an engagement with the ‘theoretical’ approaches of Hegel
and Baur, which had enjoyed unquestioned predominance in the 1830s. With
hindsight, one might therefore be inclined to say of this discussion that the
true explosive power of Feuerbach’s theses had not yet come into view.44 Yet
this, in turn, suggests that his work initially served as the trigger for an internal
discussion of the foundations of theology which had come due for other
In any case, it was not least his reading of Feuerbach that inspired Zeller’s
critique of Strauss. In the review of Feuerbach’s book published in the
following issue of Theologische Jahrbücher, he acknowledges that anyone
who has read his review of Strauss must have come to the conclusion that
Zeller agrees with Feuerbach’s definition of religion:
According to Feuerbach, religion is a purely practical affair, a concern of desire,
not of the intellect. It would appear that I should have nothing to object to this
definition. I myself have criticised in Strauss [i.e. in the earlier part of his review
article] his one-sided theoretical conception of religion.46
Ultimately, of course, it is not quite like that. Immediately before this para-
graph, Zeller had characterized Feuerbach’s critique of religion (not for the
first time) as an outgrowth of a non-speculative empiricism. Is there an

41 42
Leese (1912). Barth (1960: 484–9); (1928a).
Leese (1912: 194) and, especially with regard to Ritschl (71): ‘ . . . not only does Ritschl’s
dogmatic method have nothing of equal stature to hold up against Feuerbach’s critique, . . . it
subsequently adds new fuel to the fire.’
Cf. C. Janowski’s remark that it is ‘indicative’ of the contemporary situation ‘that according
to E. Zeller Feuerbach did not introduce too much metaphysics into Christianity but too little’
(1980: 310, n. 222).
Admittedly, this focus on the theological debate ignores that Feuerbach’s broader reception
reached beyond theology and indeed beyond academia. The latter fact in particular had far-
reaching personal consequences for Feuerbach himself.
Zeller (1842e: 334).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 109
absolute, or can human beings know nothing but their own nature, their own
species? Feuerbach opts for the latter view, but Zeller disagrees: does not
humanity’s ability to distinguish, within themselves, nature and mind (Geist)
justify our search for a common origin of both in an absolute mind or Spirit
distinct from, but related to, the finite mind? Are we not in fact forced to do so,
provided we do not want to arrive either at a radical dualism that cannot at all
relate mind and matter, spirit and nature or at an (equally unattractive) radical
subjective idealism, a denial of the reality of the external world? For Zeller,
there is no doubt that it is this kind of idealist apologetics that is capable of
exposing the limitations of Feuerbach’s critique. Accordingly, his full answer
to the latter’s purely practical understanding of religion is as follows:
Undoubtedly, the conception [of religion] in the present book is right in one
important regard: religion primarily and chiefly is . . . concerned with life not
thought, with practice not theory. As correct, however, as this may be, it seems to
me mistaken to make this aspect, which as such is right, exclusive.47
An exclusively practical relation to an object is nothing other than ‘sensual
lust’. At best, it can reach the standpoint of an ‘abstract, pedantic morality’.
What religion is about, by contrast, is ‘an activity that is determined by its
relation to the idea of God; an enjoyment that has its source in the divine being
as it is present in the imagination’.48
Put differently, Feuerbach’s understanding of religion is justified if (and
only if) it is freed from its crude empiricist husk. Feuerbach is right that
religion is about the attainment of beatitude. He is not right in identifying
religious desire with our attraction to material goods. This materialist reduc-
tion, however, has its ultimate origin precisely in the fact (and here we see
Zeller’s philosophical interest come to the fore) that an exclusively practical
framing of the concept of religion is as inadequate as Hegel’s purely theoretical
approach. Rather, the concept of religion must be framed in such a way that
the integration of practical and theoretical aspects becomes possible. The
same intuition had already been apparent in Zeller’s review of Strauss’s
Glaubenslehre. What will become of it remains to be seen.
First, however, one further detail must be clarified. In the current sense of
the term, it is far from clear that Feuerbach conceives of religion as ‘practice’.
Yet this seemingly idiosyncratic diagnosis is not particular to Zeller, but found
everywhere in the discussion of the time. What, then, does ‘practice’ or
‘practical’ mean in this context? A first answer emerges directly from Zeller’s
argument: a practical conception of religion is one which foregrounds an
interest in beatitude. In addition, there are quasi-Kantian overtones indicating
a connection between religion and morality. The relation between these two
connotations becomes intelligible once one recalls that in traditional moral

47 48
Zeller (1842e: 334). Italics in the original. Zeller (1842e: 334).
110 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
philosophy it was the notion of summum bonum, the apex of a teleological
system of goods, that underwrote the connection of religion and morality.
Formally, this was still the case in Kant,49 whose theory of postulates was
routinely criticized among the Idealists, precisely for this reason, as relapse
into Enlightenment eudemonism. A practical conception of religion along the
lines implied by Zeller, then, is one in which religion shapes the moral life by
providing humanity’s highest good: eternal beatitude. In this sense, Duns
Scotus defined theology as a practical science (scientia practica), and this
conception became highly influential in the late Middle Ages as well as in
Reformation and post-Reformation theology. Of this Zeller was well aware50
and not only he: the nearly unanimous consensus among the early Lutheran
divines that religion was habitus practicus was of considerable relevance for the
contemporary debate. It notoriously impelled Feuerbach himself to adorn the
second edition of his celebrated work with numerous quotations from Luther’s
works.51 For a fuller treatment of these issues, Zeller’s most extended engage-
ment with the problem of the ‘essence of religion’ now needs to be considered.


From Zeller’s review article it appears that he supported Strauss’s programme

in principle, but criticized his failure to provide a developed philosophy of
religion. If the progress of scientific theology was to be advanced, attention had
to be given to the question of the essence of religion. His interpretation of
Feuerbach’s contribution, on the other hand, emphasized the latter’s rejection
of the highly problematic intellectualization of the concept of religion in
Hegel, but also in Baur and Strauss. Feuerbach’s work thus, according to
Zeller, acuminated the task as follows: does the essence of religion lie in a
theory or in a practice? Is religion knowledge or is it activity? It was, conse-
quently, this very question that lay at the heart of Zeller’s own work in the
philosophy of religion.
The 1845 edition of Theologische Jahrbücher contained an article, in which
Zeller put forward the examination of the concept of religion he had an-
nounced, but not developed, in his earlier review article. The essay, entitled
Das Wesen der Religion (The Nature of Religion) was originally planned in
three parts, of which the first gave a historical account of the genesis of the

Cf. Kant (1788: 198–215).
John Duns Scotus (1960: 46–59) = Lectura, prol., pars 4, qu. 1–2. Cf. Zeller (1845: 75);
Elwert (1835: 5–6).
Wallmann (1970: 84–5). On Feuerbach and Luther more generally Bayer (1992); Harvey
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 111
concept of religion. In a footnote near the beginning of this essay,52 Zeller
announced that the second part was to deal with the ‘significance of positive
religions’ and the third with ‘the absolute religion’. But only a (revised) second
part, entitled ‘Positive Determination of the Essence of Religion’, appeared.
Zeller had clearly revised his plan while writing, and ultimately settled on a
structure dividing the piece into a historical and a systematic part.53
The first part cannot be analysed and evaluated in detail here, but it is
relevant insofar as it sets the scene for the second. With the exception of a few
references to Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholasticism, Zeller’s historical
reconstruction reaches back mainly to the Reformation and to subsequent
Lutheran orthodoxy. It is evident from his somewhat long-winded exposition
that for both its structure and range of sources Zeller is heavily indebted
to Eduard Elwert’s exhaustive essay ‘Über das Wesen der Religion, mit
besonderer Rücksicht auf die Schleiermacher’sche Bestimmung des Begiffes
der Religion’ (‘On the Nature of Religion: with Particular Reference to
Schleiermacher’s Definition of Religion’), published in the Tübinger Zeitschrift
für Theologie in 1835 and repeatedly referenced by Zeller.54
Before discussing the history of the concept of religion, Zeller specifies in
what sense it is the theme of his essay: not in the general sense in which its
content is the same as that of ‘the other spheres of absolute Spirit’, namely
‘the Absolute and its relation to the finite’.55 To pursue this would result in a
treatise on metaphysics. Rather, he is concerned with the ‘specific character
of the religious sphere, i.e. the form of mental activity, in which it differs
from all other spheres’.56 This definition is not trivial: philosophy of religion
is here clearly located within the broader framework of the philosophy of
mind or, as Zeller still would have referred to it, psychology. The essence of
religion is categorized without further discussion or justification as a phe-
nomenon of human intellectual activity. It will be crucial in what follows to
demonstrate that and how this unquestioned premiss of his interpretation
inflects the shape of Zeller’s historical exposition as well as his philosophical
The thematization of religion in theology, Zeller notes, is as such a recent
development. For a long time, it seemed clear that only Christianity was
religion in its proper sense: only catachrestically, according to the Lutheran
divine Johann Andreas Quenstedt in 1715, are the pagan, ‘Turkish’, and Jewish

Zeller (1845: 26).
Thus far, the note by the editor of Zeller’s Kleine Schriften, Hans Lietzmann, that ‘the
planned third part’ was never published, is not entirely correct: Zeller (1910: vol. 3, 71).
Elwert (1835). In some ways, this journal was the predecessor of Zeller’s own Jahrbücher;
Zeller cites its ‘cessation’ as his motivation for founding the latter (1842a: iii).
Zeller (1845: 29).
Zeller (1845: 30).
112 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
‘religions’ also called religion.57 Where the term ‘religion’ was nevertheless
used, Zeller continues, it was originally only in its practical sense, that is, with
reference to the goal of salvation. This was also the understanding of the
Reformers. Here, Zeller takes over Elwert’s interesting idea of supplementing
the sparse references to ‘religion’ with references to ‘faith’. Elwert had adduced
a passage in Calvin’s Institutions58 for the close connection between the two in
the Reformers’ writings, and concluded:
From the [concept of faith] alone we can expect a precise insight into the psycho-
logical relation between the various functions constituting the essence of religion.59
This, he continued, would show that for the Reformers and their theological
heirs the real essence or form of faith was trust (fiducia), precisely its practical
dimension, regardless of the fact that knowledge (notitia) and acceptance
(assensus) of the credenda were also necessary. As a matter of fact, Elwert
pointed out, some of them, Quenstedt for example, would regard notitia, too,
as a practical and living knowledge rather than a purely theoretical one.60
Elwert’s interest, in this historical deduction, was in the thesis that a stronger
emphasis on theory really only began with the early eighteenth-century divine
Johannes Franciscus Buddeus, whose activity coincided with a developing
interest in a generic concept of religion:
At this time, Christianity was first understood as one religion among others; the
generic concept of religion, too, received more intensive treatment than it had
before; and in addition it was believed that philosophical reflection could find the
prototype whose various modifications had come to inform all existing religions.61
In other words: a more strongly theoretical concept of religion was only
developed in connection with the emergence of eighteenth-century natural
theology, based on a generic concept of religion.
Characteristically, Zeller does not agree with this historical reconstruction.
Rather, he uses the evidence collected by Elwert for a different interpretation of
the development. While Zeller accepts Elwert’s hypothesis that it is necessary to
appeal to the Reformers’ concept of faith in order to reconstruct their concept of
religion,62 he applies a different taxonomy, positioning the Reformers’ theory
between a theoretical and a practical definition of religion:
Our ancient dogmaticians considered a pious disposition of the mind the essen-
tial element of religion, that which alone bestows upon it absolute value. Yet they

Elwert (1835: 4); Zeller (1845: 26). The quotation is from Quenstedt (1715: vol. 1, 28) =
Pars prima, cap. 2, sect. 1.
58 59
Calvin (1843: 40) = Institutes I 2. Elwert (1835: 9).
Elwert (1835: 10); cf. Quenstedt (1715: vol. 2, 1336) = Pars quarta, cap. 8, sect. 1, thesis 6.
61 62
Elwert (1835: 8). Zeller (1845: 31).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 113
accepted its possibility only in conjunction with a certain theoretical conviction
and its actuality only in conjunction with a certain practice.63
In other words, while the Reformers’ concept of faith—and with it, for Zeller,
their concept of religion—was consciously neither knowledge nor action,
it was related to both. They did not, however, provide an answer to the
question of how exactly this relation was to be defined, and precisely this
lack of a tenable solution to this theoretical problem was, according to Zeller,
at the core of theological aberrations during the post-Reformation era.
Since the Reformers lacked an explicit philosophy of religion, they
could not accurately define the conceptual relationships between the
different elements of faith. One ensuing problem was that, while they
asserted the priority of fiducia, they aligned it so closely with notitia and
assensus that
theoretical orthodoxy [had to] appear not merely as equally indispensable as
practical faith and devout piety, but so much as the prior condition of the latter
that, wherever it was missing, one felt entitled a priori to deny the latter as well.64
The same was true of the relation between faith and practice. As the Reformers
had defined it so inadequately, post-Reformation scholasticism was not so
much a ‘perversion of Reformation principles’ (though it was also that) as a
consequence of the ‘limitation . . . of the principle of Protestantism as it
appeared in the Reformation’.65 While the Reformers, rightly, declared fiducia
to be the essence (forma) of faith, preceded by knowledge and followed by
action, they failed to develop a theoretical framework for expressing these
relations adequately.
It was the same ambiguity, according to Zeller’s analysis, which was then
responsible for the more complete disintegration of the two elements, which
happened with the emergence of a one-sided theoretical and an equally one-
sided practical understanding in eighteenth-century supernaturalism and
rationalism. The same scheme Zeller sees repeating itself in his own time,
and one can hardly go amiss in detecting in his reconstruction of Reformation
theology a type of what is happening in Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Feuerbach—
even if Zeller does not say so explicitly. In fact, the historical reconstruction of
this last phase may be the really remarkable move in the first part of Zeller’s
essay: it leaves no doubt about the epochal significance of Schleiermacher. Zeller
The real, scientific confutation of the one-sided theoretical or moral conceptions
of religion and their replacement by a theory tracing religion back to the pure
interiority of personal life we only owe to the one man who generally, by virtue of

63 64 65
Zeller (1845: 31). Zeller (1845: 34). Zeller (1845: 34).
114 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
his visionary philosophy of religion, overcame the earlier theology of reflection66
and thus introduced a new epoch for the whole of theology: Schleiermacher.67
Such a warm appreciation of Schleiermacher was until then found only among
his declared students and admirers. Zeller does not number among these. It is,
on the contrary, evident that he is involved in the various skirmishes that
persisted during those years between his own Tübingen School and that of
Schleiermacher.68 It is also clear that—by contrast to Elwert in the essay he
had used69—Zeller is not primarily concerned with an apology for Schleier-
macher’s theory. Yet all these observations in no way mitigate the evident
respect he expresses for Schleiermacher’s contribution to theology. Zeller is
here perhaps the first in a long list of critical admirers to whom Schleierma-
cher ultimately owes his status as a ‘church father’ of that age. This is not a
matter of panegyric: as we shall see, the reverence Zeller offers Schleiermacher
here is not insignificant for his own solution to the problem under discussion.
Schleiermacher, then, defines religion as feeling. Taken as such, Zeller avers,
this definition is untenable. First of all, Schleiermacher’s own distinction
between different types of religion depends on their contents and practices.70
Insofar as these are obviously essential to the concrete shape of religion, they
must also be so for religion in general. Secondly, Schleiermacher’s definition
ruptures the unity of intellectual life, in which feeling, knowing, and acting are
always related. Thirdly, Schleiermacher himself could not, in developing his
theory, avoid supplementing the subjective side of feeling stricte dictu with an
objective side, the ‘determination of feeling by the thought of a general
being’.71 Finally, the one-sidedness of Schleiermacher’s theory is apparent in
the fact that although he asserts the emergence of knowing and acting from
religious feeling, he cannot explain their relation to the latter or their relevance
for the latter. In other words: if knowledge and action in general emerge from
feeling, it remains unclear what makes a particular idea a religious idea or a
particular act a religious act.
In light of these problems, it is not surprising that Hegel and Feuerbach
opposed Schleiermacher with their theoretical and practical conceptions of
religion. Even if Zeller does not say so explicitly, then, the first third of the
nineteenth century evidently repeats in fast motion the constellation of the
Reformation era. But this analogy makes it clear what immense significance

Theology of reflection (Reflexionstheologie) refers to both Rationalism and Supranatural-
ism. As Baur writes, these two schools could find no common ground because they both operated
‘on the basis of a theology of reflection, which kept aloof from all speculation, never probing the
deepest foundations but working with relative oppositions’ (Baur 1858: 352).
Zeller (1845: 45).
Cf. Zeller (1846: 7).
Elwert (1835), cf. esp. (1835: 59ff.).
Zeller (1845: 46–7). He thinks of Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 64–80) (}} 8–9).
Zeller (1845: 50).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 115
Zeller attributes to Schleiermacher, despite any particular criticisms: Hegel
and Feuerbach are to him what supernaturalism and rationalism are to
the Reformation! In each case, a theory that is correct and valuable, albeit
incomplete, is followed by one-sided valorizations of its two individual
Zeller appraises Hegel by describing his theory in almost exactly the same
words as those used for Strauss two years earlier:
Religion (1) originally is neither feeling nor imagery (Vorstellung) but thought; it
is not, however, (2) pure thought, but thought in the form of feeling and
This is not the place to discuss how far the understanding of Hegel expressed
in this interpretation is justified. Instead, here is Zeller’s own addition to the
second of the points above:
Or, as Hegel himself expresses it, ‘Religion is the Divine Spirit’s knowledge of
itself through the mediation of finite spirit.’73
What Hegel meant by these words is relatively clear. Peter C. Hodgson neatly
summarizes it: ‘Religion is not merely a human but a divine process.’74 In
other words, what in Hegel had been a theory claiming no less than to present
the self-consciousness of absolute Spirit in its development has, for Zeller,
turned into a solely ‘intellectualist’ theory of religion which is rightly opposed
by Feuerbach’s purely practical theory. At the same time, it is evident that both
derive their (seeming) justification only from the fact that Schleiermacher’s
philosophy of religion, just like that of the Reformers before him, does not
succeed in relating the core of faith convincingly to knowledge and action.
Precisely this is the task that Zeller sets himself in the second, systematic part
of his essay.
Comparing Zeller’s standpoint in the present essay with that taken in the
two reviews of 1843, it is conspicuous that his insight into the special signifi-
cance of Schleiermacher must have been gained in the interim. This shows
particularly in the fact that the earlier texts did not work with the threefold
scheme knowledge–action–feeling at all, but rather attempted a combination
of Strauss’s (and Hegel’s) theoretical and Feuerbach’s practical approach by
integrating the latter’s practical understanding into a theistic framework.
Thus, the high valuation of Schleiermacher Zeller professes in Das Wesen
der Religion corresponds perfectly to the structural significance this thinker
had by this time obtained for his own exposition of the subject, both historical

Zeller (1845: 55).
Zeller (1845: 57). The quotation is from Marheineke’s edition of Hegels Lectures on the
Philosophy of Religion (Hegel 1970: vol. 16, 198), ET: Speirs/Sanderson, 206.
Hodgson (2005: 81).
116 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
and, as we shall see, systematic. This reorientation is all the more remarkable
given that Elwert’s article (which was written before Feuerbach and with the
intention to justify Schleiermacher vis-à-vis Hegel) provides no example for
Zeller’s typological parallel between Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Feuerbach on
the one hand and the Reformation and subsequent aberrations on the other.
At the same time, the basics of Zeller’s philosophical solution remain the
same. His 1845 response to the triad of knowledge–action–feeling is given
along the same lines as his earlier evaluation of Strauss’s and Feuerbach’s
theories: an adequate account must integrate the theoretical and the practical
elements of religion and show their mutual interconnectedness. He describes
his initial assumption as follows:
Religion is neither knowledge nor action nor feeling if each of these mental
activities is taken per se and in isolation from the others. In it, however, there is
knowledge and action and feeling.75
In order to do justice to this state of affairs, Zeller subsequently overlays the
triad of knowledge–action–feeling with a second triad of mental activity:
theoretical, practical, and ‘pathological’. The latter triad is intended to solve
the problem that had arisen from his objections to earlier theories of religion,
namely that their classification of religion as belonging to one or the other
sphere of the human mind has torn apart what really belongs together. As
Zeller points out, this is a problem pertaining not only to religion, but to all
mental activity. At the same time, he claims, it is possible to show that with
and despite their intermeshing, there is in each mental act a general directed-
ness characterized by the fact that it issues in either a realization (knowledge),
or a deed, or an ‘effect on the self-consciousness of the acting subject’.76 Thus,
one can say that science is ultimately concerned with knowledge, even though
it would be wrong to regard it as nothing but knowledge. Political activity, by
contrast, aims at praxis, to which knowledge, though indispensable, is subor-
dinated. The third form of mental activity, the ‘pathological’, is, for Zeller,
most readily exemplified by love and friendship. For whatever may be known
or done in such relationships finds its ultimate aim in the ‘supplementation of
the self-consciousness of one part by that of the other’:
Every true friendship will bring moral and spiritual advancement, but its imme-
diate motive is not the wish to be educated through the friend, but relish in their
personality, [it is] desire. The relationship is not practical in the stricter sense
defined above, but personal and emotional. This already appears from the fact
that the need and the sense for friendship is not necessarily and equally connected
with intellectual disposition or with the activity for general moral purposes.77

75 76 77
Zeller (1845: 393). Zeller (1845: 394). Zeller (1845: 394–5).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 117
Among these three, religion falls within the third category; to adapt Schleier-
macher’s famous phrase, it is neither a theoretical nor a practical, but a
pathological activity. Indeed, Zeller defends this modification of Schleierma-
cher’s conception with Schleiermacher’s own arguments. If religion were not a
pathological activity, the measure of a person’s religiosity would have to be
measured by the perfection of his or her knowledge or moral conduct: both are
clearly not the case.78 Rather, it is obvious that in relation to knowledge,
though the latter is no doubt relevant to it, religion is never concerned with
pure knowledge or knowledge for its own sake:
Religion does not want metaphysics but theology; it does not want to find out
what God, the world or the human being is in itself, but only how God relates to
the human being, and how the latter ought to relate to God. In other words,
knowledge for religion is not an end in itself, but only a means for an end that is
extrinsic to it. This [end] is the determination of the personal relation in which
the human being stands to God.79
The same is true of its relation to practice. The activity called forth by religion
never finds its aim in itself, but in something outside itself. This is obviously
true in the realm of cultic activity—liturgy and worship; but it is no less true in
the realm of religiously motivated ethical activity.
What then is this external aim to which both knowledge and practice in
religion are directed? It is nothing other than the personal need or desire of the
subject. In religion, human beings are concerned with their relation to God; in
worship, they serve God to gain his favour, ‘because they know that their own
wellbeing is dependent on it’.80 Similarly, the individual’s motivation to act
morally is, in the context of religion, always mediated by his or her relation
to God, i.e. by feelings of admiration, adoration, fear and love:81 a moral
command, after all, becomes religious only when it is understood as God’s will.
In general, then, it holds that:
Much as religious knowledge, religious action does not have its determinant
factor in the objective character of the action, but in man’s personal relationship
to the Godhead. The aim of all religious activity lies in the relationship of the
personal self-consciousness to the Godhead. [In this sense], such activity is
This returns us to the principal thesis of the Strauss review: ‘Beatitude is the
telos of all religion’. Yet what is beatitude?
Beatitude is the consummate state of personal life, unmitigated sanguinity and
flawless perfection of self-feeling; the absolute enjoyment of subjectivity satisfied in
itself. If therefore religion is a means to beatitude, this means that the significance of

78 79 80
Zeller (1845: 396). Zeller (1845: 397). Zeller (1845: 398).
81 82
Zeller (1845: 398). Zeller (1845: 399).
118 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
religion consists in its ability to bring subjective life to its perfection. Religion is
concerned not with the determination of objective consciousness or a specifically
determined knowledge or action, but with the fulfilment of subjective needs.83
The closeness of this conclusion to the theory Zeller had briefly sketched in
response to Strauss and Feuerbach makes one wonder whether the long detour
via Schleiermacher’s triad has made any substantial contribution to the dis-
cussion. Is not Zeller’s new concept of the ‘pathological’ simply a reformu-
lation of his earlier idea of the ‘practical’? Is not therefore the concept of
religion once again reduced to an individual eudemonism which has ultim-
ately nothing to do with Schleiermacher’s idea of religion? These are no doubt
some of the central questions with which a critical discussion of Zeller’s theory
will have to engage.
What, then, can be said about Zeller’s conception from this perspective? Our
starting point must be the two most conspicuous conceptual modifications
which he proposes to advance beyond extant theories: first, the introduction
of the triad of theoretical, practical, and pathological mental activity to replace
the more traditional, Schleiermacherian distinction between knowledge, action
and feeling; secondly, his addition of a third category, pathological, to the duality
of potential conceptions of religion posed as the simple binary of theoretical and
practical in his review article of 1843. With regard to the former innovation, the
principal question is whether it really improves the psychological framework
within which mental activity is explained? With regard to the latter one has to
ask whether a conception of religion as ‘pathological’ is really at all different
from the practical understanding of religion Zeller had advocated earlier and, if
so, what that difference amounts to. It will soon become evident that any
discussion of Zeller’s theses must ultimately turn on his postulation of a
pathological mental activity, and while the latter, as will be seen, is liable to a
number of criticisms, it will nevertheless appear that it is on just this point that
Zeller’s theory is not without significance.
A first observation is that, in spite of his protestations against Schleierma-
cher’s allegedly one-sided relation of religion to feeling, Zeller’s own conception
of mental activity is remarkably similar to Schleiermacher’s definition of
thought and volition in his Lectures on Dialectics.84 That Zeller read Schleier-
macher’s posthumously published lectures soon after their appearance is
evident from his early explicit references to this text in Theologische Jahrbü-
cher.85 By contrast to Kant’s categorical distinction between theoretical and

Zeller (1845: 399–400).
While Zeller constantly refers to ‘action’ (Handeln), the fact that he deals with mental
activity makes it clear that this is in fact no different from volition. Both terminologies go back to
Kant’s duality of theoretical and practical reason.
Zeller (1842b: 265–9). The essay discusses Schleiermacher’s view of God as person. Inter-
estingly, the express purpose of the (posthumous) publication of Schleiermacher’s Lectures on
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 119
practical reason, thought and volition for Schleiermacher are merely ideal poles
of a continuum of mental acts within which both are engaged at every point.
When we typically speak of an act of ‘thought’ or ‘volition’, we really refer to the
predominance of one or the other. Accordingly, Schleiermacher can talk about
‘thinkingly willing’ or ‘willingly thinking’ being.86 He explicitly states that
‘thinking is also willing, and vice versa’.87
Precisely in order to express this unity in the face of a frequent sense of
opposition between volition and thought, Schleiermacher introduces feeling
that is, immediate self-consciousness, as a tertium quid, a point of connection
and of transition between the two. At this point, where thinking becomes
willing and willing becomes thinking, both, as Schleiermacher puts it, are
‘relatively identical’.88 Feeling, in this sense, then is something like the zero
point of mental activity characterized by permanent and dynamic transition
between thought and volition. Religious experience arises, Schleiermacher
argues, precisely at this point which can never be pinned down but must
always be assumed to exist. Thinking and willing, human beings must always
presuppose the identity of thought and volition in their ‘transcendental
ground’; but they experience this identity (though ‘never purely’) only in
religious feeling.89
This, simply put, is Schleiermacher’s conception, whose aim is clearly
the preservation and expression of the unity of what Zeller calls ‘mental
life’. Furthermore, even from such a brief sketch it should be evident that
Schleiermacher had no intention of excluding religion from thought or vol-
ition (or, knowledge or action). Already in the Speeches, he made clear that his
interest was not to deny such a connection, but appropriately to establish it.
Thus, in a famous phrase about the relation between religion and activity, he
said that ‘religious feelings should accompany every human deed like a holy
music’. Human beings should ‘do everything with religion, nothing because of
religion’.90 The same link is in view in the—admittedly difficult—theory in
Dialectics: the positioning of religion at (or as) the connection point of thought
and volition makes a radical disjuncture of the former from the latter
Thought, action, and feeling are thus inextricably linked for Schleiermacher.
Is Zeller’s argument then completely void? Does he, in spite of his protest-
ations, simply repeat what Schleiermacher had already said? Not quite. One
begins to perceive that Zeller’s aim is different from Schleiermacher’s when
reflecting on the fact that he develops his theory against the background of

Dialectics (as well as his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, which came out almost exactly at the
same time) was precisely to defend him against the charge of pantheism. Cf. Jonas (1839: ix).
86 87
Schleiermacher (2002: vol. 1, 266). Schleiermacher (2002: vol. 1, 216).
88 89
Schleiermacher (2002: vol. 1, 142). Schleiermacher (2002: vol. 1, 143).
Schleiermacher (1799: 68–9), ET: Crouter, 30.
120 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Strauss’s and Feuerbach’s accounts of religion. He is, as we have seen, con-
cerned to object to both that religious ideas cannot adequately be understood
as theoretical. Rather, a given sentence has a different meaning in a religious
context than in a philosophical or political one. Such a claim, however, cannot
simply be deduced from the theoretical frame of Schleiermacher’s Dialectics.
The conception developed there simply shows that religion plays a role in all
thought and all volition. It does not have the function of distinguishing certain
statements from others as forms of religious knowledge or religious under-
standing. This, however, is precisely what Zeller seeks to achieve as he hopes to
counter the radical critique of religion by Strauss and Feuerbach. His concept
of a ‘pathological mental activity’ is intended to cordon off a mental realm
particular to religion—a realm in which the rules obtaining for the evaluation
of ideas and actions are different from those that apply elsewhere. While Zeller
thus insists that he wishes to integrate the triad thought–action–feeling in his
conception of mental activity, he in fact takes a decisive further step in the
conceptual differentiation of religion as a special mental phenomenon.
Zeller thus presents as the basis of philosophy of religion a philosophy of
mind aimed at delimiting a mental sphere containing both intellectual content
and impulses to action, but aligning both with the guiding idea of an interest in
one’s own beatitude. This ‘pathological’ orientation evidently is the result, in
the first place, of a differentiation within the sphere of practical reason. After
all, Zeller himself had initially adopted a ‘practical’ approach which he then
modified specifically for the sake of the independence of religion.91 Yet
this relationship is not only of relevance for Zeller’s individual development.
What he claims for religion, human interest in their own beatitude, since
Kant had come to be known in Germany derogatorily as ‘eudemonism’. Yet
such directedness towards one’s own happiness (eudaimonia) had been the
unquestioned basis of moral orientation for the entire tradition of ethics since
Plato and Aristotle! Zeller retrieves it as a legitimate, independent spiritual
interest, but establishes it as the basis of religion (just as Feuerbach had done
out of a very different motivation), not ethics. Such a differentiation of the
practical is not without its justification. An activity is properly moral when
ordered by ‘objective’ laws—a juridical or ethical code.92 In this way, Zeller
adopts the Kantian and Idealist critique of eudemonism as far as ethics is
concerned. From an ethical standpoint, beatitude is irrelevant, because it is, on
this reading, something subjective, not objective. Yet religion, according to
Zeller, is different; it is not primarily concerned with such objective facts.
Rather, it is justly oriented towards subjective beatitude and happiness, to-
wards one’s own life. The primary religious activity, in alignment with this

91 92
He himself says so: Zeller (1845: 394). Zeller (1845: 394).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 121
interest, is therefore worship; when it leads to moral acts, those too arise from
this interest rather than from a sense of duty towards an objective authority.
It is arguable that Zeller’s theory can be inscribed into a larger shift of
theological argument around the middle of the century. This transformation
has been described as a move away from theories conceptualizing religion
within the framework of an integrative theory of mind towards a more sectoral
understanding of religion as a separate form of knowledge distinguished from
other forms by a concept of ‘interest’.93 Zeller’s reconstruction of Schleierma-
cher seems to offer a neat illustration of this broader development. While
overtly concerned with the integration of mental activity, Zeller’s argument in
reality seems set to isolate religion from reason and ethics in the interest of
apologetics, thus immunizing it from criticism. This shift, however, has some
rather problematic consequences which have been usefully summed up by
Eilert Herms:
As an expression of an empirically existing religious claim and interest, the
concept [of religion] in itself becomes a merely empirical datum. And as a merely
empirical fact, religion and its concept are—like all empirical facts—completely
determined by their empirical context, entirely subject to the causal laws that
regulate its development, and wholly indifferent to the question of truth.94
This change in theologians’ understanding of religion, it appears, was directly
related to fundamental philosophical and theological transformations, not
least the loss of the worldview of Romanticism and Idealism with its integra-
tion of nature and spirit in favour of a view separating these realms on the
basis, ultimately, of a positivistic concept of nature as empirical reality.95 Once
again, Zeller’s example confirms the larger picture: after all, his theory of
religion was the direct result of his abandonment of Baur’s idealist programme
in favour of the neo-rationalist agenda characterized by a dualistic separation
of nature and spirit, and leading to analogous consequences for the under-
standing of history and of science.96 Zeller’s overall project is predicated on an
emphasis on free and critical historical research; a theological integration of
philosophies of religion and history does not even come into view any longer.
The ‘neo-rationalist’ turn within the Tübingen School from about 1840, then,
ties in with broader developments in the history of German theology in the
nineteenth century and has arguably been a decisive factor in its evolution.
Zeller’s position is also significant for Schleiermacher’s subsequent recep-
tion in German theological debates.97 On the one hand, his influential reading

93 94 95
Cf. Herms (1982); (2000). Herms (1982: 138–9). Herms (2000: 143).
Herms ascribes the difference he observes between Schleiermacher on the one hand and
Ritschl, Herrmann, and Troeltsch on the other, to Kantian influence on the latter group.
However, as Köhnke’s analysis of Neokantianism during this period demonstrates, precisely
the same transformation occurred within the Kantian camp (1986: 132–40; 151–79).
Herms (2000: 143).
122 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
clearly is one-sided and problematic. While Schleiermacher sought to make
religion an integral and necessary part of mental life, Zeller as well as the
mainstream of later nineteenth-century theologians recast that view as a com-
mitment to religion as a ‘separate sphere’, detached from knowledge and action.
Schleiermacher unlike Zeller was not interested in religion as a ‘pathological
mental activity’ working largely autonomously according to the rules of an
individual interest in beatitude. Rather, religion in Schleiermacher is part of
the real unity of life, integrating the different aspects of spiritual and natural life.
Zeller thus positions Schleiermacher within a framework that is not his own.
At the same time, Zeller’s reference to Schleiermacher is not wholly without
its justification.98 The latter had, after all, done little to mediate between his
theory of a transcendental ‘feeling’ (described famously in }4 of The Christian
Faith as ‘absolute dependence’, and in the Dialectics as the point of transition
between thought and volition) on the one hand and the separately posited
reality of an empirical religious feeling on the other. Zeller can therefore say
with some justification that the unification of both feelings of dependence, the
‘absolute’ and the ‘sensible’, in a single ‘individual unity of life’ is ‘as impos-
sible’ (or as paradoxical) as the union of the two natures in the one Person of
Christ according to the Chalcedonian dogma.99 Zeller is the first, or one of the
first, to utilize a fundamental ambiguity in Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher’s
thought alternates, in this point and continuously, between a transcendental
and an empirical theory. In this regard, too, Zeller is exemplary for subsequent
developments: his emphatic reference back to Schleiermacher in the interest of
an ultimately empirical-psychological theory of religion prefigures the use
made of Schleiermacher by many later authors. Schleiermacher became the
‘Church Father of the nineteenth century’, particularly the classic of its
Protestant theology, in just the measure to which he was more amenable to
such an interpretation than his Idealist contemporaries. By the same token,
however, it can also be said that he achieved that status through an extremely
one-sided interpretation of his work.
If Zeller then became a precursor of important developments in the second
half of the century in both these regards, it must not be overlooked that he also
remained indebted to Baur and Strauss in decisive respects—and at the same
time clearly distanced from Ritschl and his pupils. To perceive this, his
argument against Feuerbach is instructive. Zeller found himself in a difficult
position: while his theory may have been able to demonstrate that religion
derives from, and expresses, human desire for individual beatitude and the
perfection of mental or spiritual life, it offered little in defence against Feuerbach
who, after all, had admitted the existence of a practical need for beatitude—and
concluded to the necessity of a radical critique of religion. It is telling that

98 99
Cf. Moxter (2003: 551–2). Zeller (1845: 50).
Debating the Nature of Religion: Eduard Zeller 123
Zeller’s decisive argument against this logic derives from a general philosophical
idealism: for certain metaphysical reasons, it makes sense to assume the exist-
ence of an absolute Spirit! In spite of his arguments for a separation of mental
activities, then, Zeller ultimately expects metaphysics, which is of the ‘theoret-
ical’ type, to justify religious faith. While it must be admitted that Zeller also
holds that metaphysics can never simply and in itself become religion and,
contra Strauss, that such a philosophy could never replace or render religion
superfluous, the central plank of his defence of religion against Feuerbach’s
critique is in essence metaphysical. Only if individual interest in beatitude does
not equal interest in sensual pleasure—only if it is directed towards subjective
participation in the reality of (an) objective spirit—does religion remain justified
despite and after Feuerbach.
With this move, Zeller represents the culmination of what in this book I have
called the neo-rationalist programme of historical theology. In essence, we find
here the complete restoration of an understanding of theology dismissed with
great fanfare half a century earlier by Kant and Schleiermacher. In this concept
the free, that is non-theological, exploration of reality, nature, and history is
underwritten by a metaphysical concept of spirit or God on the one hand and a
theory of religion centred on the individual interest in beatitude on the other.
In this way, however, the emancipation of religion from theoretical and
practical activity, which had formed the conceptual as well as apologetic goal
of Zeller’s project, is effectively undermined, and the independence of religion
is merely illusory. This, however, leads straight back to the ‘gnostic’ results
consistently reached by Strauss but repudiated by Zeller. Once again, the
philosopher, who possesses the metaphysical knowledge capable of justifying
religious faith, is in a better position than the simple believer. Provided that
one accepts the path of an emancipation of religion from other forms of
mental activity in principle, this consequence could be avoided only if religion
was credited with a form of internal verification capable of asserting its right
against its critics under its own steam. Schleiermacher had formulated this
imperative in 1799: ‘Religion’, he wrote programmatically,
in order to take possession of its own domain, . . . renounces herewith all claims to
whatever belongs to those others and gives back everything that has been forced
upon it. It does not wish to determine and explain the universe according to its
nature as does metaphysics; it does not desire to continue the universe’s develop-
ment and perfect it by the power of freedom and the divine free choice of a
human being as does morals.100
Like a motto, these words had motivated theological work in Germany
throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century. Still, fifty years after
they were written, their demands remained largely unfulfilled.

Schleiermacher (1799: 50), ET: Crouter, 22.

A Manifesto of Tübingen Orthodoxy:

Adolf Hilgenfeld

By the mid-1840s, the Tübingen School as a whole had embraced the neo-
rationalist programme. Their work developed and advanced Baur’s picture of
early Christianity together with a (clearly subordinate) philosophical interest
in the nature or essence of religion, Christianity or indeed Protestantism. This
state of affairs remained the same until Baur’s death in 1860, which is not to
say that their scholarship became static during this period. For Baur himself,
certainly, a scholarly caesura in the late 1840s or even the 1850s has repeatedly
been suggested.1 Such developments, however, happened within a stable
disciplinary framework, which defined theology as science by separating
presuppositionless historical-critical work on the one hand from an independ-
ently conducted philosophy of religion. It is the purpose of the present chapter
to illustrate, with reference to a programmatic text, the extent of this continu-
ity into the late 1850s.
In 1858, Adolf Hilgenfeld opened his recently founded Zeitschrift für
Wissenschaftliche Theologie (Journal for Scientific Theology) with a ‘Preface’
laying out the programme of the new publication under the title ‘Scientific
Theology and its Current Task’. Hilgenfeld (1823–1907) was a Tübingen
scholar of the third generation. He never studied under Baur, however, but
received his academic training at the University of Halle where, in 1846, he
earned his doctorate on the basis of a dissertation on the philosophy of
Baruch Spinoza. From 1847 he taught New Testament studies and historical
theology at the University of Jena but did not become a full professor until
The very title of Hilgenfeld’s journal sufficiently indicated his programmatic
intentions which, at the time, were far from the theological mainstream. The
editor’s introduction soon makes clear that he regarded himself as a lone

Harris (1975: 158); Fraedrich (1909: xiv) who follows Ritschl (1861).
Beyreuther (1972); Iff (2011: 47–53).
A Manifesto of Tübingen Orthodoxy: Adolf Hilgenfeld 125
voice in the desert of current theology and church affairs, marked by neo-
orthodox reaction—a landscape in which, as he writes,
the call to conversion is directed even at the non-theological science, and within
the field of theology the demand for the adherence to ecclesiastical discipline has
been heightened to an extent not previously thought possible.3
Hilgenfeld’s manifesto seeks to steer against this flow. In the face of wide-
spread demand for an ‘ecclesiastical theology’, he presents an apology for the
alliance of theology and science. This alliance is defended first of all by
historical-genealogical argumentation, based on a radiant and in its own
way simplistic picture of a German intellectual movement steadily progressing
towards its culmination. This movement, claims Hilgenfeld, began with Leib-
niz and was developed further within the context of a universal philosophical
system by his school, particularly by Christian Wolff. Its result was a rational
theology, the first to transcend
theological scholasticism which, even in Protestantism, permitted only the formal
use of reason and philosophy and sought entirely to exclude philosophy from the
material content of theology.4
The main theological achievement of this philosophical tendency is, in Hil-
genfeld’s view, its facilitation of critical philosophical reflection of Christian
doctrine. In this sense, it constitutes an attack on the concept of ‘positive
revelation’. Rational theology of the Leibniz-Wolffian school, in other words,
eroded the assumption—constitutive for both orthodoxy and pietism—of
material, propositional revelation in the sense of supernaturally disclosed
truths simply by asserting and executing the philosophical claim to examin-
ation and treatment of doctrinal statements. Such claims, once asserted,
necessarily result in a conflict with the traditional working methods of the-
ology. And thus, it could not but be that ‘Wolffianism eventually resulted in an
attempt to fight and suppress revealed faith by means of the pure faith of
reason’.5 In their endeavour, Hilgenfeld continues, these philosophers were
supported by a second movement, inspired by English Deism, which exercised
a parallel and no less radical influence on theological thought: historical
criticism. The latter worked towards an analogous erosion of basic theological
assumptions through the demand for impartiality (Mosheim), historical-
philological faithfulness to the sources (Ernesti), and a healthy dose of scepti-
cism towards traditional historical ‘certainties’ (Semler).
Developments came to a head when these two tendencies met in the late
eighteenth century, most clearly exhibited in Reimarus’ Fragments. The result,
Hilgenfeld argues, was a vital crisis in German theology. Would it survive as a
living corpse existing in an outmoded shell, or would it be capable of retaining

3 4 5
Hilgenfeld (1858a: 1). Hilgenfeld (1858a: 3). Hilgenfeld (1858a: 3).
126 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
‘its honoured position in the intellectual life of the German people’? In the
event, the latter alternative prevailed, and the crisis thus became the crucible
which gave birth to modern scientific theology. The true ‘hero’ of Hilgenfeld’s
historical narrative therefore is Lessing, whose thought already contained
‘foreshadowings’ of all that would subsequently guide theology on its way to
overcome the ‘shallow pragmatic and eudemonic theology of the Enlighten-
ment’ as well as a ‘complete separation of rational faith from its historical
basis’.6 Hilgenfeld summarizes this guidance in three main points: the distinc-
tion between religion and traditional ecclesial faith; a definition of revelation
from within reason; and a historical-philosophical perspective on Christianity
in the context of the history of religion.
This theological task was, according to Hilgenfeld’s reconstruction, subse-
quently developed in three major directions resulting in a rationalist theology
(Kant), a speculative theology (Hegel), and an emotive theology (Schleierma-
cher). This threefold foundation was the basis on which scientific theology
continued to rest even in 1858. From his vantage point, Hilgenfeld is evidently
less interested in emphasizing the differences between these three trajectories
than in establishing behind the well-known oppositions and controversies of
the 1830s and 1840s the underlying ‘scientific’, i.e. philosophical and meth-
odological, consensus represented by the uniformly high intellectual level at
which all three had grasped fundamental theological problems and responded
to them. Besides, these three forms of scientific theology also gesture towards
the characteristic trilemma whether religion is a matter of morality, knowledge
or feeling, which had dominated theological debate since the 1830s.7
Hilgenfeld, however, is clearly not concerned with a choice between these
three. Indeed, the decision that he regards as vital for his time lies beyond the
opposition between schools so typical until the mid-1840s. It is not a decision
between Hegel or Schleiermacher or between Hegel or Kant; rather, it is a
decision between criticism and the rejection of criticism:
As German philosophy has had its great critical period, so too the more recent
turn of German theology, by virtue of which it may deserve the name ‘science’,
must be called its critical turn, and the resulting opposition of uncriticism and
criticism, which has internally divided all three recent main tendencies, has
already significantly reduced the distinctions between them.8
At this point, it becomes clear why Hilgenfeld has chosen Reimarus and
Lessing as the vanishing points of his historical reconstruction of scientific
theology. Their twin affirmation of historical criticism and philosophy of
religion has set up an abiding standard for modern theology, against which

Hilgenfeld (1858a: 5).
Cf. the introductory section of Chapter 5.
Hilgenfeld (1858a: 13).
A Manifesto of Tübingen Orthodoxy: Adolf Hilgenfeld 127
its current state must also be measured. The litmus test he applies to this end is
therefore not devised out of theological indifference, but rather betrays Hil-
genfeld’s own theological colours as a loyal member of the Tübingen School.
He is in no doubt that Ferdinand Christian Baur’s work, despite the need for
numerous adjustments and corrections of details, is ‘the centre of recent
scientific theology’9 precisely because it is Baur who, with his principle of
combining an unrestrained application of the historical method with rigorous
philosophical interpretation, remains paradigmatically faithful to the path set
for theology in the late eighteenth century.
For Hilgenfeld, then, scientific theology is first of all historical and critical
theology. In this sense, as he explicitly emphasizes, it continues the tradition of
the philosophical Rationalism of the Leibniz-Wolffian School. Moreover, it
relates to the traditional content of Christian doctrine in purely negative form.
It deconstructs historical ecclesial faith by exposing its foundations as friable.
This was Strauss’s position, and it is therefore not surprising that Hilgenfeld
praises both The Life of Jesus and Glaubenslehre as important contributions to
the more recent history of scientific theology. While appropriating Baur’s
qualification of Strauss’s exegetical work as offering merely ‘negative criti-
cism’,10 Hilgenfeld pointedly gives the latter pride of place in his historical
reconstruction of the Tübingen School thus implying that Baur, the professor,
had continued and perfected his own exegetical work under the influence of
his own student, Strauss.11
Like Strauss, Hilgenfeld ultimately regards the function of historical criti-
cism as negative or destructive: it pulls down, it demolishes, it erodes. In doing
so, however, it hits only those views that prop up a fundamentally misunder-
stood Christianity. It destroys the letter that kills, and so liberates the spirit,
‘the truth’, ‘the eternal and immortal in Christianity’.12 This, of course, cannot
be found in the realm of appearances as such which are so willingly and
immediately eternalised and turned into boundaries of all spiritual progress . . .
[but is] to be sought in the realm of the spirit.13
The destructive tendency of historical-critical work is thus offset by a new
speculative construction which retrospectively demonstrates the necessity of
that destruction by the agreement of its own results with the principles of the
Christian religion. How is this to be understood? Hilgenfeld’s genuine interest
as a New Testament scholar is in the exploration of Primitive Christianity. He
does not advance his own philosophical speculations, but rather expresses his
conviction that

Hilgenfeld (1858a: 13).
Hilgenfeld (1858a: 14). Cf. Baur (1862: 394–5) and Geiger (1964: 209–12).
Cf. Baur’s own account in (1862: 395–8) and Zeller (1865a: 281).
12 13
Hilgenfeld (1858a: 19). Hilgenfeld (1858a: 19).
128 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
even in Christianity’s primitive period, if it really was part of history, every
formation that can rightly be considered a genuine instantiation of the Christian
principle and has its truth and its justification in its unity with this eternal
principle of Christianity, has a finite and human side by which it is distinguished
from the all-transcendent essence [of Christianity].14
Hilgenfeld makes himself quite clear in this passage: philosophy of religion
determines the principle or essence of Christianity, an ideal and transcendent
core that appears in many individual instances without being identical with
any of them. Both sides of the scientific endeavour, history and philosophy, are
therefore mutually supportive as the destruction of deceptive certainties on the
one hand and the construction of reliable truths on the other. This mutual
relation, however, is precisely that of the ‘neo-rationalist’ programme ad-
vanced by Baur and subsequently radicalized by Strauss and Zeller. The
‘essence’ of which Hilgenfeld speaks is not itself historical; it ‘transcends
everything’ as an ‘eternal principle’ reflected in individual phenomena,
which must therefore be made transparent to this ahistorical principle by
historical criticism. Historical research and philosophical reflection are there-
fore complementary but mutually independent. The possibility of a unification
of both is no longer even attempted.
Hilgenfeld’s text has no claim to originality or unusual rigour in its presen-
tation of a theory of theology as science. It is no classic and did not become the
founding document of a theological school. Yet precisely because it is none of
those things, it is of particular interest in the present context—for it describes
with precision what the Tübingen School understood by ‘scientific theology’ in
the mid-nineteenth century. The following observations result:
1. Scientific theology understands itself as a novel development of the late
eighteenth century and onward, introducing decisive changes vis-à-vis
traditional forms of theology.
2. ‘Scientific’ refers to the normative use of historical criticism and the
philosophy of religion. Theology thus accepts the guidance of disciplines,
history and philosophy, whose scientific nature is presupposed and
whose theological application alone can guarantee the scientific nature
of the latter.
3. Insofar as theology works historically, it is critical vis-à-vis traditional
salvation history. This critique may initially only imply the rejection of
absolute theological claims (in line with Lessing’s dictum of the arbitrari-
ness of historical truths). In practice, however, it leads to a tendency to
regard the most comprehensive ‘negative criticism’ as particularly

Hilgenfeld (1858a: 19).
A Manifesto of Tübingen Orthodoxy: Adolf Hilgenfeld 129
4. The philosophical side of scientific theology is conceived of as the
correlate of its historical work. The certainties pulled down by the latter
must be re-established constructively by the former. It does so primarily
by ascertaining a Christian principle, a nature or ‘essence’ of the Chris-
tian religion.
5. Despite this cooperation, history and philosophy are conducted inde-
pendently of each other. Historical research requires no philosophical
prolegomena: its significance and method self-evidently comprise what
Troeltsch will later describe as the historical method: critique, analogy,
and interconnection of all events of past history.15
The theological world Hilgenfeld sketches in the Preface to his journal has the
great advantage of being clear and unambiguous; it has no shades of grey. His
presentation of scientific theology enables an unproblematic distinction be-
tween friend and foe by applying categories such as ‘scientific’, ‘ecclesial’,
‘progressive’, or ‘reactionary’. Unfortunately, however, the world was no
longer quite so simple for a Tübingen scholar in 1858.
In the same first issue of the new journal in which the Preface just discussed
appeared, Hilgenfeld also published the first part of an essay continued in the
next issue, on recent work on Primitive Christianity.16 One of the works
discussed in this essay was the second edition of Albrecht Ritschl’s monograph
Die Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche (Development of the Early Catholic
Church). Inevitably, its stark repudiation of the Tübingen School did not meet
with Hilgenfeld’s approval. Something else, however, is more important. In his
attempt to classify Ritschl’s work theologically, Hilgenfeld is forced to stretch
his scheme of scientific versus ecclesial-reactionary theology to breaking point.
He may well express his exasperation that ‘a former member of the Tübingen
School, a respected historian working in a similar direction, . . . now steps up
as an open opponent of the School from which he emerged’.17 Ultimately it
makes no difference to his evaluation of the case. Ritschl, for Hilgenfeld, has
become a renegade who has returned to the old ‘apologetic’ line always
already toed by the opponents of a consistent historical criticism. The critical
insights of Baur and his students regarding the authorship and dating of New
Testament books—which, as Hilgenfeld willingly admits, can and must be
debated—are unceremoniously rejected, seemingly in the interest of an un-
critical dogmatic use of biblical material.
If, for the sake of argument, we accept the premiss that Ritschl’s work is
fundamentally misunderstood if perceived as a relapse into uncritical, unsci-
entific orthodoxy, and that, on the contrary, he is explicitly concerned with
scientific theology, then the question arises: what (beyond individual historical

15 16 17
Cf. Troeltsch (1898: 731). Hilgenfeld (1858b). Hilgenfeld (1858b: 58).
130 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany

questions) is the substance of the opposition between Ritschl and the Tübin-
gen School, and what constitutes scientific theology for Ritschl? Are there
connections to the Tübingen School? Ritschl’s provenance makes this prima
facie likely. Why then does Hilgenfeld seem unable to diagnose anything but a
relapse into theological reaction? Does this have to do with his own narrowing
of Baur’s original impulse? Hilgenfeld’s presentation offers no simple solu-
tions to these questions. It will be the task of the second part of the present
work to pursue them.
Part II
Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschl School

In many ways, the world in which Albrecht Ritschl’s theology emerged and
became influential was very different from that which had given birth to the
thought of Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Baur. Politically, economically and
academically, Germany evolved dramatically during those years, and these
transformations were mirrored in the ideals, ambitions, and illusions that
guided the academic endeavours of its theologians. Underlying those changes,
however, was much continuity; many of the cultural, social, and intellectual
paradigms established at the beginning of the century remained dominant
until its end.
This general picture of evolutionary rather than cataclysmic development
fits the situation of academic theology as well. As our account will reveal in
detail, the fundamental principles that had driven the project of theology as
science in the Tübingen School continued to inspire the work of Ritschl and
his school. Ritschl’s appropriation of those principles, however, was shaped by
the circumstances of his own time, and by his own theological convictions.
The theology resulting from this creative process is thus no mere continuation
of Baur’s or Schleiermacher’s work. On the contrary, its initial appearance as
well as Ritschl’s preferred mode of presentation would suggest that it stands in
conscious opposition to the theologies dominant in the former half of the
century. This opposition is real; but it is the result of an attempt to advance
theology along a path that was begun by Ritschl’s forebears at the turn from
the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Only his students will turn from that
path more radically.
Albrecht Benjamin Ritschl (1822–89) was born into a clerical family; his
father was bishop of Berlin and thus an important adviser to the Prussian King
Frederic William III. Young Albrecht’s wish to study theology under the
tutelage of Baur in Tübingen did not immediately meet with his father’s
approval, but the son eventually prevailed and soon became a fully committed
member of the Tübingen School. His first major work, which he published
while teaching at Bonn, was a history of the Early Catholic Church and thus
part of the major ‘Tübingen’ project generated by Baur’s own work. It was this
132 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
very book, however, which also caused Ritschl’s eventual break from the
school. After it was first published in 1850, Ritschl continued with his research
and the results, which he integrated into a second edition in 1857, unequivo-
cally contradicted the principles of the Tübingen consensus. Ritschl himself
was perfectly aware of this fact and, in characteristic fashion, used the book’s
preface for a brusque repudiation of his own former views.
Ritschl continued to teach at Bonn until 1864 when he was offered, and
accepted, a chair at Göttingen. He published little until the early 1870s which
saw the appearance of his three-volume magnum opus Die christliche Lehre von
der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung (The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation
and Justification). A string of further books followed, which established their
author as the leading systematic theologian of Protestant Germany whose
recognition, while never uncontroversial, soon extended beyond national and
confessional boundaries.
During these years, a group of younger theologians established themselves
as the Ritschl School. Few of them had been Ritschl’s actual students. Ritschl
was a solitary character, not a charismatic teacher or a sociable networker. His
writings were the foundation of his school; his personality did not play a
significant role in it. While Baur’s Tübingen School was largely excluded from
German academia, the Ritschlians, including illustrious names such as Wil-
helm Herrmann (1846–1922), Julius Kaftan (1848–1926), and Adolf Harnack
(1851–1930), came to dominate academic theology in Germany for several
While this institutional significance waned after the First World War, their
lasting influence on twentieth-century theology was still enormous. The his-
torical scholarship of the Ritschlians, epitomized by Harnack’s monumental
History of Dogma, achieved authoritative status despite frequent criticisms.
Equally substantial, though frequently less recognized, was its impact on
developments in systematic theology. Wilhelm Herrmann was the academic
teacher of both Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth. The latter, in particular,
emphatically affirmed his debt to this upbringing throughout his life. Ernst
Troeltsch, while never a Ritschlian in the strict sense, was part of the wider
penumbra of the school and willingly acknowledged the significance of
Ritschl’s writings for his own work.
This lasting impact, however, contrasts with a rather marginal scholarly
reception. Several of Ritschl’s own works and a number of writings by the
younger Ritschlians were translated into English at the end of the nineteenth
century, but today there is little awareness of their specific theological position
or contribution in the English speaking world.1 The situation in Germany, as
one would expect, is somewhat different but not as much as the sheer number

Richmond (1978) is still the best comprehensive study available in English. Cf. further
Hefner (1966); Lotz (1974); Marsh (1992).
Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschl School 133
of publications might suggest.2 Part of the problem, admittedly, is accessibility.
Ritschl’s own theology is developed in densely written and tightly argued
treatises that are not easily understood regardless of linguistic competence.
The discussion within his school is often conditioned by Ritschl’s own idio-
syncratic conceptual and terminological preferences that are bound to confuse
today’s reader.
Ultimately, however, our problem with Ritschl may be the same as our
problem with Baur as both operate with a conception of theology that does not
strictly separate its historical from its systematic aspect. To perceive Ritschl’s
place in nineteenth-century theology, this at least will be our hypothesis, his
work on doctrine must be seen in its conjunction with his historical theology.
Recent scholarship has tended to focus on the former to the near complete
exclusion of the latter; but this is to neglect the bulk of his oeuvre: according to
Philip Hefner’s estimate, about 80 per cent of his published work—and even
with a generous estimate of his unpublished lecture notes reported by Gösta
Hök, still about two-thirds of all that Ritschl ever wrote.3 Hefner, one of the
few who have regarded this fact as significant, has drawn from it the following
‘hermeneutical key’ for the interpretation of Ritschl’s theology:
[Ritschl’s] career took the shape it did because Ritschl understood church history
as he did, because he was committed to this understanding, and because he
accepted the responsibility for the theological activity which commitment to
such an understanding of church history entails. . . . Ritschl’s theological achieve-
ment owes its shape to his preoccupation with church history, and more specific-
ally with a definite sort of continuity within that history.4
This perspective immediately brings into view the relationship between
Ritschl and Baur; it may thus be no coincidence that Hefner is also the only
recent scholar who has engaged at greater length with this issue.5 Ritschl’s
concept of theology as science stands in the tradition of Baur’s idealist
programme; both rest on the idea of a full integration of historical and
systematic theology. In fact, Ritschl’s commitment to this programme is partly
responsible for his growing estrangement from the Tübingen School of his
own day which had fully adopted the neo-rationalism inherent in Baur and
loudly propagated by Strauss. In his attempt to redress these aberrations,
Ritschl sought help from contemporary late Idealist and post-Idealist philoso-
phies of historicism. Little was left unchanged of Baur’s original ideas in

Fundamental are Schäfer (1968) and Wrzecionko (1964); more recent studies include:
Kuhlmann (1992); Hofmann (1998); Slenczka (1998: 124–87); von Scheliha (1999); Wittekind
(2000); Neugebauer (2002).
Hefner (1964: 340).
Hefner (1964: 338). Cf. Hefner (1966) for a full development of this thesis.
Hefner (1962). I have not been able to consult Jodock (1969).
134 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
the ensuing system though Ritschl’s debt to his teacher remained visible
Our presentation will seek to do justice to this state of affairs by recon-
structing Ritschl’s thought both in its genesis and in its systematic coherence.
We shall take our starting point from his self-declared identity as a scientific
theologian and subsequently show how historical, philosophical, and system-
atic theological insights form a subtly balanced triad in his thought—his own
version of the idealist programme Baur had originally proposed. This balance,
however, was ultimately as unstable as it had been in the founder of the
Tübingen School. Tensions appear along certain faultlines in Ritschl’s own
work, and his synthesis falls apart in the work of his most important and most
influential pupils.

Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science


The first part of this book has charted the understanding of theology as science
in the Tübingen School. The dominant feature of this development was the
emergence of the idea, first mooted by Strauss, that scientific theology had
to be presuppositionless. Zeller, Hilgenfeld, but also the later Baur adopted
this methodological principle with its emphasis on empirical and progressive
research unimpeded by dogmatic convictions. Ritschl, who began his aca-
demic career as a member of this group of scholars, agreed emphatically that
theology had to be scientific. He and his own circle of followers were as
adamant in their insistence to practise scientific theology as the Tübingen
School had been around the middle of the century. Yet Ritschl sharply
disagreed with the premiss that theological science had to be based on the
absence of presuppositions. In fact, writing against Eduard Zeller in 1861,
Ritschl dismissed this notion as fictitious. Claiming it for one’s own work, he
argued, merely indicated one’s unwillingness to reflect one’s own standpoint
in its ‘historical determination . . . by the preceding development of science’.1
In other words, the scholar who pretends to work on this basis conveniently
ignores the role his own subjectivity, the place and time of his writing and,
certainly in the case of theology, his antecedent religious convictions inevitably
play in his research.
This sentiment comes to the fore again when, almost fifteen years later,
Ritschl opens the systematic part of Justification and Reconciliation with a
protestation against the ‘great untruth . . . which exerts a deceptive and con-
fusing influence under the name of an historical “absence of presuppos-
itions”’.2 At this point, Ritschl is clear that the central object of his criticism

Ritschl (1861: 449).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 3), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 3. Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung is
quoted from the most accessible third (= fourth) edition unless otherwise indicated. Note that
the ET of vol. 1 is translated from the first German edition.
136 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
is Strauss himself. There is a reason, he suggests, that the pretence to write a
life of Jesus has led to the utter subversion of his religious importance.3
Instead, Ritschl boldly declares, the ‘authentic and complete significance’ of
Jesus can only be grasped where one reckons oneself ‘part of the community
which he founded’.4
For Ritschl, then, theology as science does not exclude the theologian’s
commitment to the Church; on the contrary, it requires such an attitude. He
writes that Christianity demands to be understood as a particular religion
which at the same time must be regarded as the general religion of humanity:5
Assent to the statement that Christianity is the highest and most perfect religion
is therefore no obstacle to the scientific character of the theory.6
Some have therefore concluded that Ritschl anticipates Barth’s theology of
revelation,7 but while certain parallels arguably exist it is crucial to see that for
Ritschl the demand to theologize from within the Christian community
merely qualifies a thoroughly historical approach to theology including the
contextualization of Christianity within the history of religion:
The form of systematic theology is bound up, first of all, with the correct and
complete idea of the Christian Religion. . . . The specifically peculiar nature of
Christianity, which at every turn of theology must be kept intact, can be ascer-
tained only by calling the general history of religion to our aid. Schleiermacher
was the first to adopt this method. It is this that makes his definition of religion so
important, even though when more closely examined it by no means justifies its
Ritschl’s description of the theologian’s task is here starkly reminiscent of
Baur’s original attempt to understand Christianity within the context of the
history of religion. How can this programme be combined with Ritschl’s
insistence on the theologian’s commitment as a member of the Christian
community? It will be the task of the present section to clarify this in detail,
but a first answer can be gleaned by observing that for Ritschl comparative
historical study reveals not so much a generic concept of religion as a graded
sequence of religions, culminating in Christianity. Note that he does not assign
to systematic theology the task to establish the correct definition of ‘religion’;
Ritschl thinks that such a definition, if it can at all be found, would be trivial.
He is therefore careful to say that it is the ‘idea of the Christian religion’ which

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 3), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 3
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 2), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 2.
Ritschl (1870: vol. 3, 11).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 188), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 197.
Cf. e.g. Weinhardt (1996: 15).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 9), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 8. Italics in the original.
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 137
is ascertained with the help of the history of religion. Elsewhere in the same
volume Ritschl expounds his understanding as follows:
For the observation and comparison of the various historical religions from
which the general conception is abstracted, likewise shows that they stand to
one another not merely in the relation of species, but also in the relation of stages.
They exhibit an ever more rich and determinate manifestation of the chief
features of religion; their connection is always more close, their aims more worthy
of man. Such a way of looking at them opens up more fruitful vistas than are
offered by the abstraction of a general conception of religion, followed by the
comparison of the historical religions as species of this genus.9
To find out more about Ritschl’s distinction between a generic concept of
religion and an analogical one, we must turn to his book-length engagement
with Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion, published in 1874 under the title
Schleiermachers Reden über die Religion und ihre Nachwirkungen auf die
evangelische Kirche Deutschlands.10 Ritschl begins his interpretation of the
Speeches with Schleiermacher’s discussion of ‘positive’ religions in the fifth
speech11—clearly an attempt to read Schleiermacher in good part. Ritschl
agrees emphatically with the fundamental antithesis proposed in this speech,
that is Schleiermacher’s repudiation of the ‘so-called natural religion’ of the
eighteenth century; for Ritschl, too, ‘religion’ can only be found in the histor-
ical ‘religions’.12 But Ritschl immediately qualifies his agreement, for in his
view Schleiermacher’s development of his thesis opens the worrying possibil-
ity of a back door for the natural religion just rejected. Here, we have to read
Ritschl’s text at least as carefully as he has read Schleiermacher’s.
What Ritschl criticizes is Schleiermacher’s ‘definitions of the “whole of
religion” and “universal religion”; further his application of the terms “species”
and “stages of religion”’.13 His concern, in other words, is precisely the same
problem he had briefly sketched a few years earlier in the third volume of
Justification and Reconciliation. Ritschl continues by arguing that Schleierma-
cher’s text suggests two possible conceptualizations of ‘the whole religion’. It is
defined, first, as ‘the sum of all relations of man to God, apprehended in all
possible ways in which any man can be immediately conscious in his life’.14
Ritschl interprets this as ‘the historical whole as the sum of all the species’.15

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 187), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 196.
Cf. Scheliha (2000).
Ritschl (1874: 4): ‘Only in the fifth and last speech “On Religion” are we informed about the
historical perspective of its author. Here therefore the reconstruction of his circle of ideas must
Ritschl (1874: 4–5).
Ritschl (1874: 6).
Ritschl (1874: 6). Ritschl quotes from the third edition: Schleiermacher (1821: 256), ET:
Oman, 217.
Ritschl (1874: 6).
138 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Whether or not this is an appropriate interpretation of Schleiermacher’s
intention must be left to one side here.16 Ritschl, in any case, explicitly notes
that in this Schleiermacher is ‘right’.17 He is less satisfied with the parallel
formulation that ‘the one universal religion is the summary of all their
differences as thought’.18 This definition, according to Ritschl, leaves open
the possibility ‘that the whole religion can only be achieved through a distilla-
tion of all individual religions’.19 But this would, consequently, lead back to
‘natural religion’.
How is this to be understood? First of all, Ritschl seems to refer to the
difference between an extensional and an intensional understanding of the
universal, where the first refers to the totality of a class, while the second refers
to a generic property as abstracted (Ritschl: ‘distilled’) from its individual
members. Ordinarily, these understandings would not be regarded as
mutually exclusive, but rather as complementary. Ritschl’s concern, however,
ultimately is with something else. This ‘something else’ is expressed in the
parallel he suggests between an extensional genus and an interpretation of
religions as ‘stages’ on the one hand, and an intensional concept and an
understanding of religions as coordinated species of a genus on the other
(again, we must bracket the question whether Ritschl is justified in suggesting
that this is what Schleiermacher had in mind). In any case, Ritschl’s approach
is determined by the assumption that an abstract concept of religion as a genus
goes hand in hand with an understanding of religion as a genus comprising a
number of equal species, while a concrete one goes hand in hand with a
hierarchical understanding of religions. The latter, in turn—and this is the
important point for Ritschl—yields the epistemological conclusion that ‘that
individual positive religion which occupies the highest rank is at the same time
recognized as the “whole religion”’.20 In other words: the epistemological
consequence of the assumption of an ontological gradation in the realm of
historical religions is that the concept of religion denotes an ideal and is thus
strictly applicable solely to Christianity, and only analogously to the other
religions. This insight, in Ritschl’s view, has escaped Schleiermacher, who
consequently ‘approaches the phantom of a natural, universal religion’.21
Ritschl does not inform his reader about his source for the epistemological
principle that in ontologically gradated genera, knowledge of the highest
species implies knowledge of the whole genus; in light of his well-known
opposition to the application of pre-Christian ‘metaphysics’ to Christian
theology, he might have been worried had he realized that he is here

The relevant passage is completely reworked in the edition Ritschl uses. Cf. Schleiermacher
(1799: 249) for the original version.
Ritschl (1874: 6).
18 19
Ritschl (1874: 6). Italics in the original. Ritschl (1874: 6). Italics in the original.
20 21
Ritschl (1874: 7). Ritschl (1874: 8).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 139
borrowing directly from a model that has its origin in the Old Academy and in
Aristotle, and attained near-axiomatic status in Neoplatonism.22 In whichever
way knowledge of this principle may have reached Ritschl (and chances are we
shall never know23), it is this principle, and it alone, that ultimately explains
his peculiar understanding of scientific theology. Only in its light is his project
of practising theology ‘from the perspective of the Church’ as well as against
the horizon of the history of religion understandable at all. For if the study of
the history of religion leads to the conclusion that the individual religions
constitute steps in a development leading up to Christianity, and if it is
furthermore plausible to assume that the highest religion is at the same time
‘the whole’, then a theological exposition of Christianity is at the same time the
study of religions par excellence.
The passage in Ritschl’s work on Schleiermacher analysed above makes
clear that Ritschl not only shares Schleiermacher’s opposition to natural
religion but also realizes that this opposition is more easily declared than
sustained.24 Ritschl shares Schleiermacher’s emphatic rejection of the concept
of natural religion: religion is always concrete, historical, ‘positive’ religion. Yet
in order to identify religions as religions in the first instance, it seems necessary
to have some generic concept of religion. This is implicit in Schleiermacher’s
project of showing ‘religion’ in ‘the religions’.25 Ritschl, however, rightly sees
that this is a statement of the problem rather than its solution. In Lessing and
Kant, the assumption of a gradated history of religion led to the conclusion
that its goal was or would be the ‘true religion’—but this was nothing other
than a historically inflected vindication of natural religion (and thus, in
practice, of Enlightenment theology).26 Schleiermacher, who does not commit
to a strictly teleological history of religion, nevertheless repeatedly approaches
the view that the true religion, though found in all positive religions, is also
something different from all of them.27 Possibly, Ritschl suggests, this is even
to be understood to mean that all individual religions only contain parts of the
true religion—so that the discovery of the true religion is only possible through
‘the right connection of the former into a whole’, and thus resembles ‘the

Cf. for Aristotle: Owens (1960); for the Neoplatonists: Lloyd (1955).
This idea is not discussed by either Trendelenburg or Lotze nor, as far as I could find, by
contemporary German logicians.
Ritschl’s attempt to think religion radically from its individual instantiations leads at least
occasionally to a radical critique of cultural or historical universals that sounds almost postmod-
ern: ‘To negate natural religion, consequently, means to negate all other universals whose
knowledge one would wish to possess prior to the particular relations of the religion of revelation
(Offenbarungsreligion) and independently of its reality in its founder and in the community.’
Cf. Schleiermacher (1799: 238).
Cf. Lessing (1780); Kant (1794: 183–222).
Cf. Schleiermacher (1799: 238): ‘in what stands before you as earthly and impure, you are
to seek out the individual features of the same heavenly beauty whose form I have tried to
reproduce.’ ET: Crouter, 96.
140 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
founding of a new religion’.28 Whether or not this is the case, Schleiermacher’s
presentation effectively opens the back door to ‘the phantom of a natural
universal religion’.
Why is this so important to Ritschl? One answer is that this point is decisive
for the delicate balance of his conception of scientific theology. Ritschl rightly
feels that an ontological prioritization of natural religion must necessarily lead
to its epistemic prioritization, and thus to the prioritization of philosophy of
religion over theology in a way which reduces the latter to little more than a
branch of ethnography tasked with the description of the contingent realiza-
tions of religion under the conditions of a particular culture. Part of Ritschl’s
worry may be explicable in terms of his professional, and indeed personal,
commitment to the academic status of theology, but it would be facile to
reduce his argument to an instinctive defence of the traditional privileges of
his own caste. The ontological prioritization of natural religion necessarily
implies a devaluation of ‘positive’ religion; but if it is correct that the former
cannot really exist in itself, then in practice, this polemic willy-nilly leads to
religious criticism and atheism. The theologian falls into this trap if
the influence of the general conception of religion makes one even for a moment
neutral towards the Christian religion itself, in order to be able to deduce its
meaning from the conditions of the general conception.29
Such a procedure, according to Ritschl, serves ‘to undermine Christian con-
viction’.30 Ritschl’s argument here is not so far removed from Barth’s cele-
brated critique of ‘religion’ in }17 of Church Dogmatics,31 though their
agreement does not necessarily extend to the theological conclusions drawn
from this analysis. Ritschl assumes that the train of thought he presents is
more than an act of religious self-assertion. Rather, he is convinced that even a
‘secular’ interest in understanding religion must be guided by the premiss that
the satisfaction of this interest cannot negate the existence of the object of
understanding. If, therefore, a particular philosophy of religion is implicitly
critical of religion, then this effectively constitutes a methodological objection
to it as philosophy of religion:
One [can] only hope successfully to philosophize about religion . . . by preserving
a personal attachment to the general spiritual phenomenon of religion and to its
object, as it is generally perceived. The philosopher who, convinced of the
absolute opposition of faith and knowledge, lets the believer, who does not

Ritschl (1874: 7).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 187), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 197. This statement does not yet
occur in earlier editions but cf. Ritschl (1870: vol. 3, 11–12).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 187), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 197.
Barth (1932: vol. 1/2, 305–24). Cf. esp. p. 315 where Barth argues that in van Til and
Buddeus religion has become ‘the presupposition, the criterion, and the frame for the under-
standing of revelation’.
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 141
want to follow him, go his way, is no longer a philosopher of religion for he is
finished with religion for himself.32
This is how Ritschl formulated it in 1861 in his controversy with Zeller, and
there is no indication that he ever changed his view on this point: philosophy
of religion exists only because religion exists; it is therefore perfectly possible
for religion to exist without philosophy of religion—or indeed without the-
ology, but not vice versa. And because this is so, a philosophy of religion
resting on atheistic premisses is ultimately parasitical and self-contradictory.
This line of argument could be countered, it appears, with simple empirical
observations: do not examples such as Strauss and Feuerbach show that it is
after all possible to develop a philosophy of religion critical of religion? It is of
absolutely fundamental significance for Ritschl’s theological project that, in
response to this kind of objection, he introduces a further, decisive consider-
ation. The theoretician of religion must be a participant, he claims, because
religion is not merely a theoretical matter but has a practical side too. In other
words, we have here another version of the objection which Zeller had already
brought against Strauss (and ultimately against Hegel and Baur as well)
though it must be emphasized that its meaning in Ritschl is rather different.
No doubt the latter agrees with Zeller (and others) in seeing a practical
concept of religion as the Holy Grail of the philosophy of religion capable of
extricating theologians from the dangerous trajectory of Hegelian panthe-
ism.33 Decisive for Ritschl, however, is the link that can be established between
the practical character of religion and a number of other properties—its
historical, communal, and ‘positive’ nature—he thinks are essential to it.
Only thus can the dreaded ‘natural religion’ be reliably staved off. For if
religion relates to the practice of human life, then it cannot even be conceived
either without communal interaction or without historical contingent elem-
ents. The former explain its constitutively social, the latter its ‘positive’ char-
acter. Yet if this is so, then religion can only be understood through historical
study, for only from this perspective is it recognizable as ‘positive religion’.
These observations lead directly to the question of the relation between
Ritschl’s and Baur’s theologies. This relationship, when it is discussed at all, is
usually seen either as consisting in a common commitment to historical
theology (thus Hefner34) or as rooted in Ritschl’s early fascination with
Hegel (thus most recently Neugebauer35). Both these interpretations fall
short of recognizing Baur’s significance as an independent philosophical-
theological thinker. If however—as this study has sought to establish—his
work represents a large-scale attempt to bring together theology and history
with the inclusion of philosophy of religion, and if, on the other hand, Ritschl’s

32 33
Ritschl (1861: 437). Cf. Ritschl, Dogmatics Lectures 1853: Hök (1942: 24, n. 27).
34 35
Hefner (1962). Neugebauer (2002: 40).
142 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
theology now appears to be shaped by a rather similar concern, then it is prima
facie likely that the genesis of Ritschl’s own theology can in large part be
reconstructed on the basis of his engagement with his Tübingen roots. I shall
here argue that this is indeed the case: the twofold thesis I shall seek to defend
is that, first, Ritschl’s relationship to his Tübingen teacher is correctly appre-
hended only when one realizes that the former sees in Baur’s ‘idealist
programme’—that is in the concept of theology as a ‘science’ in which history,
philosophy, and religion are unified—the true goal of his own work, and that,
secondly, his critique of Baur is motivated by the degeneration of that
programme into the ‘neo-rationalism’ begun by Baur himself and completed
in Strauss, Zeller, and Hilgenfeld—a development whose consequence, in
Ritschl’s view, was Strauss’s ‘negative criticism’ and ultimately Feuerbach’s
radical critique of religion. Ritschl’s perception of Baur’s achievement, then,
was ambivalent and one is tempted to describe it in the very words Karl Barth
famously used to describe his own relationship to his teach Wilhelm Her-
mann, his studentship ultimately forced him to say everything that the teacher
had said but in a different way.36
In Die christliche Gnosis, as we have seen,37 Baur sharply distinguished the
Christian philosophy of religion as described and endorsed by him from any
form of natural theology in the rationalist tradition of the Wolffian school. To
him, philosophy of religion was philosophy of the history of religion, a
philosophical reflection on the history of religion which leads—or ought to
have led—to the conclusion that the truth of religion is identical with its
history. This conclusion, according to Baur, could only be reached if it could
be shown that Christianity was the absolute religion, and this in turn required
confirmation of the claim that the Incarnation was at the same time the
historical life of Jesus and the absolute revelation of God. Classical Christ-
ology, he thought, had sought to make that same point with its emphasis on
the hypostatic union of human and divine nature in the person of Christ; it
was equally expressed by the idea of the absolute religion as the religion of
reconciliation, which requires the Incarnation as concept and reality.
Ritschl’s conception of a scientific theology that avoids lapsing into natural
theology by being developed from the standpoint of the Christian community
and justified against the horizon of the history of religion is essentially a
reformulation of the same task. For Ritschl only a consistently historical
theology can dispel the ‘phantom’ of natural theology. And just as in Baur,
this means that everything ultimately hinges on an equal emphasis on ‘histor-
ical’ and ‘theology’—or, put differently, on a right understanding of what is
meant by history. For Ritschl, as for the idealist Baur, the congruence of
theological and historical perspectives is idealiter assured; accordingly,

36 37
Barth (1928b: 241). See Chapter 2, text at n. 19.
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 143
historical theology which conducts its historical critique at the expense of
theological substance is not only theologically but also historically deficient,
just as ahistorical theological work is not only historically false, but also bad
It is this very insight, however, that Ritschl subsequently turns against the
founder of the Tübingen School: historical theology that is worthy of its name
cannot operate with a concept of religion that is primarily theoretical, precisely
because history itself belongs to the realm of human practice. At the same
time, given the intimate connection between religion and history, the converse
is also true: a concept of religion that is not geared towards its practical
dimension necessarily distorts one’s understanding of history. History itself
then becomes—and here Ritschl’s argument converges with contemporaneous
historicist objections to Hegel—a development of Spirit isolated from real life,
which, however plausible the evolutionary theories that underlie it, is miles
distant from the actual empirical reality of the history we experience.38 As we
shall see this last point plays a considerable role in Ritschl’s critique of Baur’s
theory of the emergence of Early Catholicism.
The relevance of these observations, however, is not limited to historical
theology in the narrower sense of that term. Ritschl’s systematic conception
of religion as historical and in this sense practical increasingly led him to
theological conclusions fundamentally at variance with Baur’s views. In
what follows, we shall consider this development in more detail focusing in
particular on Ritschl’s public controversy with Eduard Zeller in 1861 and
his historical reconstruction of Primitive Christianity and the emergence of
the Early Catholic Church. As we go along, we shall be able to observe the
close interrelation between Ritschl’s historical and theological scholarship
and his conceptual realignment of philosophical, theological, and historical


The direct sources of Ritschl’s engagement with Baur and the Tübingen School
are few, and those we possess often are not too revealing. More can be deduced
indirectly from Ritschl’s work in historical theology; nevertheless, it is, as
Matthias Neugebauer has rightly pointed out, ‘extraordinarily difficult to
cull the decisive basic theoretical assumptions’ from the wealth of historical
material in these works.39 For this reason, the present analysis will take

Cf. Zeller (1865b: 448–51). On the whole, however, Zeller seeks to mitigate the charge
of Hegelianism.
Neugebauer (2002: 52).
144 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Ritschl’s literary debate with Eduard Zeller as its starting point. This contro-
versy, it will be argued, constitutes a rarely understood but highly relevant
testimony in the history of nineteenth-century theology. The differences it
reveals between the two parties will furnish appropriate categories for our
subsequent interpretation of Ritschl’s historical treatment of the Early Church
and also offer some first indications of the philosophical ideas underlying his
theology whose full analysis will be the task of Chapter 8.
Chronologically, this debate belongs to the phase immediately after Ritschl’s
as it were official dissociation from the Tübingen School with the publication
of the second edition of Die Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche in 1857.40 It
acquires a somewhat delicate note from its proximity to Baur’s death on 2
December 1860, and from the fact that even this event could not move Ritschl
to mitigate in the least even the style of his polemic. This apparent lack of
propriety, to put it mildly, cannot have improved sympathies for Ritschl’s part
in the literary exchange, which has come in for some rough treatment.41 His
initial failure to recognize Zeller behind the anonymous apologist for the
Tübingen cause further weighed on the perception of his performance in
this exchange.42 While such questions of style and personal conduct are
legitimate, they must not distract from the significance of the historical-
theological disagreement enunciated in those publications. For the present
context the latter concern is paramount, and the following account will
therefore be focused exclusively on the views expounded by the two protagon-
ists about the relationship between historical and theological study. To the
extent that Ritschl’s major contribution to the debate was a reaction to an
earlier article by Zeller, it is necessary to begin with a brief examination of the
latter essay, which appeared, in 1860, in the fourth year of Heinrich von
Sybel’s Historische Zeitschrift.43

For the historical context cf. O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 393–9).
Cf. Geiger (1964: 9–14).
This is the general consensus although there are indications that things may have been
otherwise. Ritschl makes much of the fact that his opponent was not a theologian. Technically,
this was the case with Zeller who had, in 1849, been moved from the theological into the
philosophical faculty. Otherwise, it is unclear whom Ritschl might have suspected as a ‘non-
theological’ author of such an article. Ritschl’s son, Otto Ritschl, still possessed letters showing
that on 23 March 1861 Karl Weizsäcker informed Ritschl of his suspicion that Zeller was the
author of the anonymous article. Ritschl replied that he too had had that suspicion, but ‘rejected
it as he would have expected something better from Zeller’ (O. Ritschl 1892: vol. 1, 894). Perhaps
the strongest argument in favour of Ritschl’s ignorance about the real author of the text is his
polemical claim that his opponent had not ‘reflected on the nature of religion’ (Ritschl 1861:
441). Ritschl was perfectly familiar with Zeller’s major contribution to that debate (see Chapter 5,
‘On the Nature of Religion’).
Zeller’s text first appeared in the Historische Zeitschrift. I use the slightly revised reprint in
his collected papers (1865a).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 145

Zeller’s Presentation of the Tübingen Project

Its title already is deeply characteristic: Die Tübinger historische Schule—The

Tübingen Historical School. The programmatic, almost political interest Zeller
pursued with this anonymous publication is unmistakably reflected in this
decision. It is the author’s concern to present the Tübingen School to the non-
theological historians that constitute the journal’s readership as a serious
conversation partner. This intention is further underlined by his presentation
of the school’s achievements which strongly emphasizes their historical at the
near-total expense of their theological significance:
As the Tübingen School in its external development has spread from theologians
to non-theologians, its internal character similarly shows a fundamental tran-
scendence beyond the theological tradition. In the first instance, admittedly, its
founder and his students were theologians who had been led to their studies by
their own specialist science (Fachwissenschaft). But they wanted to treat their
subject matter, for which until then entirely unique operations—deviating from
otherwise accepted scientific procedure—had as a rule been required, not
according to theological but historical criteria.44
For precisely this reason, Zeller continues, he has referred to the Tübingen
School as a ‘historical school’. This does not mean that it must therefore
surrender the title of a ‘theological school’—after all, it is ‘appropriate to the
true spirit of Protestantism’ not to judge historical evaluations on the basis of
dogmatic assumptions, but vice versa. But in his essay, Zeller explains, he
wishes consciously to bracket that question and limit himself to the ‘historical
standpoint’ and the ‘historical results’ of the Tübingen School.45
In what follows, Zeller develops this line of argument by locating the
Tübingen contribution on a historical trajectory that started from the trad-
itional orthodox doctrine of inspiration and proceeded from there first to
Rationalist exegesis. The ‘violence and sophisms’46 in their explanation of the
Scriptures Zeller explains by suggesting that while the Rationalists had relin-
quished the orthodox premiss of a supernatural interpretation of biblical
history, they had retained their assumption that the latter reflected ‘pure
history’.47 The ensuing, unattractive alternative of supernaturalism and
rationalism, however, remained largely intact in the subsequent Romantic-
Idealist era; neither Schleiermacher nor Hegel made substantial progress in
this field. About the latter, Zeller explicitly writes:

44 45
Zeller (1865a: 295). Italics mine. Zeller (1865a: 295–6).
Zeller (1865a: 300).
Zeller (1865a: 297). Zeller’s formulation agrees almost literally with Strauss’s phrasing in
(1835: vol. 1, iv–v), ET: Evans, 3.
146 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Hegel [like Schleiermacher] initially approached religion on the basis of a ration-
alism whose traces never entirely disappeared from his work; consequently, when
reconciliation of faith and knowledge became the watchword of his philosophy
of religion, he declared that the historical dimension of faith was indifferent
since only its Idea mattered. Hence his utterances on the subject are so vague
that completely opposite views could claim his support with almost equal
Only with Strauss did a truly new epoch dawn. He was the first to take
seriously the task of a strictly historical engagement with New Testament
history. The principle of such an engagement had to be ‘presuppositionless’
criticism. The decisive premiss that had to be removed to achieve this was the
recognition of miracles.49 In this way, Strauss arrived at radical conclusions
regarding the historical reliability of the gospels, which were (in Zeller’s view)
largely confirmed by subsequent discussion, or at least corrected in a way that
did not substantially damage them.
More critical is Zeller’s treatment of Strauss’s mythological explanation of
the genesis of the New Testament. While acknowledging the benefits of this
attempt, Zeller diagnoses two major gaps. First, substantial parts of the New
Testament simply do not conform to Strauss’s definition of myth; in these
cases, his research raises rather than answers the question of a historical
reconstruction of the actual events. In fact, the latter is the second gap in
The Life of Jesus:
In his work, the author of the book evidently was guided more by the critical
endeavour to remove ahistorical ideas about the founder of Christianity than by
any positive historical attempt to gain a historical picture of him. He shows what
Christ was not; but if we ask what he has been, we do not venture beyond the few
and rather vague conjectures that result for the historical core of the evangelical
presentation from the conviction of the ahistoricity of everything else.50
Precisely at this point and in response to this shortcoming, Zeller identifies the
fundamental achievement of Baur and the Tübingen School at large. Based on
the critical foundations Strauss had laid, they constructed a theoretical frame-
work which, however debatable in its details, rests on indisputably scientific
principles. Their interest in doing so, Zeller concludes, was to ‘achieve an
account that is adequate to the true facts, and corresponds to historical
possibility and probability’. The attempt to develop such an account was
‘guided by the same principles’ that had determined ‘all German historiog-
raphy’ outside theology ‘since Niebuhr and Ranke’.51

48 49
Zeller (1865a: 302). Zeller (1865a: 304).
50 51
Zeller (1865a: 309). Zeller (1865a: 389).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 147

Ritschl on Baur and the Tübingen School

For an appropriate evaluation of Ritschl’s response to this essay, it is necessary

to keep in mind—quite apart from his fairly recent alienation from the
Tübingen School—at least two interrelated peculiarities of Zeller’s presenta-
tion. The first has already been pointed out: Zeller’s method of presentation
seeks to justify the Tübingen School’s claim to scientific significance almost
exclusively with the ‘purely historical’ method applied by its members.
Recalling that the underlying question motivating much of Baur’s (and, as
we have seen, even Hilgenfeld’s) work was, how a scientific theology is possible,
it is indeed striking that a solution is here propounded almost in passing which
(despite its outward faithfulness to the School) seems to twist its main goal
into its opposite: if theology is wissenschaftlich only where it practically
coincides with history, then it is no longer scientific in itself. By contrast, it
was characteristic of the position of the Tübingen School, as expressed for
example by Hilgenfeld, that theology as Wissenschaft is constituted precisely
by the convergence of ‘presuppositionless’ historical research and philosoph-
ical reflection on the nature of religion. Ritschl, who was bound to have doubts
about the success of the Tübingen programme anyway, could not but be
incensed by this reductionism: did it not indicate that within the Tübingen
paradigm scientific theology only really merits the former half of the phrase
(wissenschaftlich) to the extent that it surrenders its latter half (theology)?52
Zeller’s motivation in proposing such a truncated version of the Tübingen
programme cannot be answered here. Certain hints in the text may be taken to
suggest that he was primarily concerned with an apology of the school to
historians, and therefore ignored the more strictly theological side of its
work.53 But such an honourable or at least pragmatic motive is more difficult
to reconstruct for the second peculiarity that must have struck any reader
familiar with Baur and his school: Zeller almost completely neglects any
account or indeed any mention of their interest in philosophical questions,
particularly Baur’s (and Strauss’s) alliance with Hegel’s philosophy. Even from
the purely ‘historical’ point of view Zeller aspired to, this omission is hard to
justify; while the present account has cautioned against the blanket reference

Cf. Ritschl’s assessment of Baur’s Das Christenthum und die christliche Kirche der ersten
drei Jahrhunderte (1853) in a letter to his father: ‘In this book, the problematic side of Baur’s
understanding of history comes out into the open as never before namely, the opinion to be
wissenschaftlich only when at the least leaving the basic ideas of Christianity to one side, of which
the true opinion is that they are to be abandoned’: Letter to his father, dated 18 October 1853.
O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 248). Italics mine.
Cf. Zeller (1865a: 295): The School ‘does not have to forgo the name of a theological school
or renounce its justification within Protestant theology. . . . I do not have to investigate this point
here; I consider the “Tübingen School” here according to its historical standpoint and its
historical results.’ In his obituary for Baur, which Zeller published shortly afterwards (1861),
he comments in detail on Baur’s views on ‘speculative historiography’ (Zeller 1865b: 448–51).
148 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
to Baur and his students as theological Hegelians, it is difficult to recognize in
Zeller’s presentation the work of a person who in his first major publication
had declared that history remains dumb without philosophy.54 It is not only
that Baur’s ‘idealist programme’ is entirely neglected here (which, after every-
thing that has been said so far, is hardly surprising); the very significance
philosophy possessed for the foundations of the Tübingen programme, which
Hilgenfeld had still unequivocally emphasized, is here implicitly denied or at
least ignored.
One motive for Zeller’s reticence on this point must surely have been the
intellectual climate in Germany around 1860, in which an association with
Hegel’s thought was very nearly tantamount to the stigma of unscientific
speculation. Characteristic for this period was Rudolf Haym’s influential
work Hegel und seine Zeit (Hegel and His Age 1857), which, while written
with a certain academic detachment, is permeated by the underlying certainty
of Hegelianism’s intellectual bankruptcy.55 Horton Harris describes Zeller’s
dilemma in his presentation of the Tübingen School thus:
Zeller found himself in a difficult position, for it was highly embarrassing to be
forced to admit that Baur had taken a blind alley, a blind alley which he had
followed for roughly fifteen years; to have laboured for so long under so great an
error of judgement—indeed under a delusion—was no flattering compliment to
However this may be, it is plausible to assume that the explicit references to,
and discussion of, Baur’s debt to Hegel in Ritschl’s reponse to Zeller result not
least from this ‘lapse of memory’ on the part of his literary opponent. While
some scholars have opined that Ritschl and Zeller essentially agree in their
Hegelianism and merely vie for its most successful theological appropri-
ation,57 the truth is rather different: Zeller’s essay, which ignited the debate
between the two, presents neither its author nor Baur as Hegelians, but, to the
contrary, seems like an intentional attempt to conceal any connection between
the Tübingen School and the now maligned Berlin philosopher.
Ritschl’s response, whatever other merits it may possess, is not least a
supreme example of academic polemics. In central position, it contains the
precise counter-thesis to Zeller’s
As a Hegelian, Baur prioritized for his theological convictions the ideal Christ
over against the historical; therefore his historical investigations into Primitive
Christianity never entered into the track of the historical method.58

Baur (1824: vol. 1, xi).
Haym (1857). On Hegel’s philosophy of history cf. Haym (1857: 445–53).
Harris (1975: 156). Cf Taylor (1975: 537).
57 58
Wittekind (2000: 9). Ritschl (1861: 438).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 149
The blow he deals here strikes home: Zeller’s broadly argued thesis that the
Tübingen School is a ‘historical school’ is—in the forum of a largely anti-
idealist, if not positivistic, scientific public—repudiated with a reference to its
founder’s Hegelian roots.
While its rhetorical effect, then, cannot be denied, the further aims of
Ritschl’s strategy might appear more puzzling. Zeller had not, after all, in-
voked Hegel’s support for the Tübingen School’s case, and Baur himself had
moved away from his association with this philosopher by the late 1840s, as
Ritschl himself knew well.59 It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that
Ritschl’s essay has not, in general, been warmly received. For the most part,
it has been regarded as the one-sided, even jaded, polemics of a defector from
the School, a typical case of academic parricide. Against this general tendency,
Folkert Wittekind has recently, rightly, reclaimed the text as a milestone in the
history of nineteenth-century theology.60 Far from being the outgrowth of
improper rivalry with his erstwhile colleagues, Ritschl’s essay represents a
highly interesting attempt to summarize the theological differences that had
emerged between him and the Tübingen project, and his consequent critique
of the latter’s conception and realization. His sketch of Baur’s own position is
characterized by respect for his recently deceased teacher, and his criticism,
while acute and occasionally acerbic, remains consistently factual, insofar as it
attempts a comparison of intent and execution of the great Tübingen scholar’s
work. In this sense, one could say (slightly modifying Wittekind’s statement
above) that Ritschl was concerned to show that he was, ultimately, the better
representative of Tübingen: the claim to conducting scientific theology on the
foundation of historical work is denied Zeller precisely so that it may be staked
for his own position.
Ritschl begins with an appraisal of Baur’s work. He concedes to Zeller that
there is a fundamental difference between Strauss and Baur, but rejects its
characterization (originally advanced by Baur himself and then endorsed by
Zeller) as ‘negative’ versus ‘positive’ criticism.61 What is his alternative?
Ritschl reconstructs Baur’s theological approach on the basis of Die christliche
Gnosis, which he regards as the high point of Baur’s writing.62 There is, as we
have seen, nothing wrong with this decision:63 nowhere else does Baur so
coherently and comprehensively present and develop his idea of an inherent
close connection of historical and philosophical thought, which has in the
present book been called his ‘idealist programme’ of theology as science.

Cf. Harris (1975: 158), Fraedrich (1909: xiv) who follows an interpretation originally
proposed by Ritschl (1861: 486–7). Zeller himself at this time sought to minimize Baur’s overall
indebtedness to Hegel (1865b: 401–2).
Wittekind (2000: 17–18).
Ritschl (1861: 431).
Cf. the quotation in Chapter 2, text at n. 4.
Fraedrich (1909: 336) however is more critical of Ritschl’s interpretation.
150 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Ritschl, then, skilfully reaches for one (no doubt fundamental) work for the
critical reconstruction of his teacher’s thought. This decision, as we will see
more clearly in what follows, is also reflective of his own, alternative project of
theology as Wissenschaft.
Ritschl expresses broad sympathy with Baur’s historical construction, in
Christian Gnosis, of a parallel between Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Hegel
on the one hand and ancient Gnosticism on the other; only the inclusion of
Schleiermacher among the modern Gnostics he finds objectionable:
The intellectual systems of the other three men [that is, Böhme, Schelling, and
Hegel] offer such principal points of agreement with the heretical Gnosticism of
Early Christianity, both on the material and the formal level, that the combin-
ation of those modern with these ancient systems splendidly proves Baur’s
pertinent and grand vision of the history of theology.64
In light of this however, Ritschl continues, it is all the more remarkable—and
in fact worrying—that Baur can still act as an ‘apologist’ of Hegel’s philosophy.
After all, he fully realized in 1835, and therefore independently of Strauss’s Life
of Jesus, that the ensuing ‘Gnostic’ Christology could never be reconciled with
Christian orthodoxy. Historical and ‘ideal’ Christ are and remain separate.
The unity of the God-Man of faith and his merely historical appearance
remains ‘shrouded in impenetrable mystery’, as Ritschl quotes Baur.65 Hegel’s
thought, precisely as the culmination of Christian philosophy of religion,
paradigmatically reveals this fundamental problem. Ritschl quotes Baur:
What the Spirit is and does is no history.66 For faith therefore, the appearance of
the God-man may well be . . . a historical fact; from the point of view of specula-
tive thought, however, God’s Incarnation is . . . [the] eternal determination of
God’s being by virtue of which God becomes man in time (that is, in every single
human being) only insofar as he has been human from eternity.67
If Baur nevertheless hypothesizes that the historical Jesus might be understood
as the point at which the unity of divine and human nature ‘first became
concrete truth’, then this is nothing short of a contradiction to his earlier line
of argument. Ritschl suggests sarcastically that it was the ‘concrete truth’ of
Christology that seems to have remained ‘a mystery’ to Baur.68 Whether or not
he is willing to admit it, Baur’s philosophical principles entail, according to

64 65
Ritschl (1861: 433) Ritschl (1861: 434) = Baur (1835: 712).
The quotation is from Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion where it reads ‘What
Spirit does is no history; it takes to do only with what exists on its own account, is in-and-for-
itself, not with something past, but, on the contrary, simply with what is present.’ (Hegel 1970:
vol. 17, 318), ET: (Hegel 1895: vol. 3, 122). Baur elsewhere cites the quotation in full (Baur 1835:
Ritschl (1861: 435), quoted from Baur (1835: 715). Ritschl’s quotation is abbreviated and
somewhat rough but essentially correct. Square brackets indicate Ritschl’s omissions.
Ritschl (1861: 435).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 151
Ritschl’s analysis, the superiority of (speculative) knowledge to (historical)
In this point, then, Ritschl summarizes, there is no opposition between Baur
and Strauss, but complete agreement. Where they differ is in the conclusions
they draw from this appraisal. Strauss assumes, in his Glaubenslehre of 1840/1,
an ‘antithesis’ between the philosophical Gnostic and the believer69 whereas
Baur, in Die christliche Gnosis, rejects the absolute opposition of the two in
favour of a relative one.70 If there were an absolute opposition, he argues, this
would spell the end not of faith but of the philosophy of religion, for in this
case ‘all truth would accrue only to faith, which first had truth as its content’.71
Theological and philosophical reflection on religious faith is thus only possible
if the tension between faith and knowledge is not a contradiction. Ritschl sums
it up:
This decision . . . is characteristic of Baur’s general theological position and also
explains why the philosopher of religion could still remain a historian.72
In other words, Baur’s ‘basic intuition’ (Grundanschauung) requires the phil-
osopher of religion to manage the tension between faith and knowledge. Once
their gap becomes unbridgeable, philosophy of religion is no longer a practical
option. In this sense, ‘personal participation in the general intellectual phe-
nomenon of religion and in its object’, to use Ritschl’s own somewhat cum-
bersome phrase, is indispensable for the philosopher of religion. This
‘sympathy with religion’, in turn, presupposes lasting ‘impressions of the
historical Christ’,73 and the latter fact explains Baur’s continuing commitment
to the study of Primitive Christianity—while Strauss having become a Feuer-
bachian inevitably left behind historical theology altogether.
That Ritschl almost intuitively draws a connection between Baur’s concept
of religion and his historical scholarship is significant, as we shall see in more
detail later. While he does not go quite as far as to attribute to his former
teacher a concept of religion as practice, he nevertheless speculates about a
‘premonition’ in Baur according to which religion is ‘not merely a matter of
ideas (Vorstellung) . . . but probably something else as well’.74 This ‘something
else’, which Baur ‘probably’ had in mind, clearly is nothing other than the
practical side of religion. From these musings, Ritschl proceeds directly to
comments about Baur’s historical work: Baur’s rejection of the ‘absolute
opposition’ of faith and knowledge explains ‘how the philosopher of religion
could nevertheless remain a historian’.75 Unlike Strauss, Baur did not allow
gospel history to evaporate into unhistorical myth, but sustained a lasting

69 70
Ritschl (1861: 436). Ritschl (1861: 436).
71 72
Ritschl (1861: 436) = Baur (1835: 720). Ritschl (1861: 437).
73 74
Ritschl (1861: 437). Ritschl (1861: 437).
Ritschl (1861: 437). Italics mine.
152 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
interest in its historicity. Historicity, however, is always also and specifically
arbitrary, individual, in a word: concerned with human practice. It therefore
resists any subsumption under purely abstract notions and for this reason
precisely the relation between historical work and an appreciation of religion
as practice obtains conversely too:
In spite of his official announcement that ‘what the Spirit is and does [!] is no
history’, he [sc. Baur] nilly willy had, as philosopher of religion, impressions of the
historical Jesus that were in stark contrast to the idea of humanity becoming
united to God.76
Baur’s historical work, then, is not only an indication of his ‘premonition’ of a
practical concept of religion, but in some way also its cause. In his philosoph-
ical reflections on religion, Baur, albeit unconsciously, draws on insights from
his historical work on the New Testament that run counter to his ‘Hegelian’
preference for a ‘Gnostic’, transhistorical, metaphysical Christ over against the
historical concreteness of the Incarnate. As an interpretation of Baur’s
writings, Ritschl’s claims may appear far-fetched. They do, however, open a
fascinating window on the way Ritschl understood his own work at the time;
one will hardly go astray assuming that what Ritschl reads into his teacher’s
writings is in fact his own conviction that the historical work, to which he
dedicated the majority of his research at that time, necessarily leads to a
particular understanding of the nature of religion and of Christianity, or at
least clearly resists certain other theories.
It goes perhaps without saying that Ritschl’s mitigating reflections on Baur’s
‘premonitions’ of a theoretical framework beyond his own Hegelianism do not
ultimately alter his critical verdict about the founder of the Tübingen School.
To the extent that Baur’s work was conducted under the fateful star of
Hegelian speculation, he was not the paradigmatic theological historian and
therefore his anonymous panegyrist, who claims that he was, acts either out of
ignorance or worse. The full wording of Ritschl’s charge has been quoted
above: it alleges, in a nutshell, that Baur was anything but ‘well-qualified’ for
the ‘application of the generally valid historical method to the examination of
Primitive Christianity’.77
Ritschl is not nearly finished yet, but it may be worthwhile to pause here for
a moment and consider the consequences of the argument so far, which
arguably represents the most penetrating, immanent critique ever brought
against the principles of the Tübingen School. While Zeller subsequently
accused Ritschl of various misrepresentations of Baur’s position,78 there is
little doubt that the fundamental question Ritschl directed at the Tübingen
School’s philosophical underpinnings and, in particular, at their understanding

Ritschl (1861: 437). Italics in the original.
77 78
Ritschl (1861: 438). Zeller (1861).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 153
of theology as Wissenschaft cannot so easily be dismissed. The charge, after all,
is that their main project, to integrate into theology the most advanced
historical research of their time, suffered precisely from their inability to
reconcile faith and history at the conceptual level. If this is true, the Tübingen
School failed at the very hurdle it had defined as crucial for the claims of
modern theology. Indications for such failure had, in fact, emerged from the
analysis of Die christliche Gnosis earlier in the present study:79 without using
these very words, Ritschl effectively points to Baur’s aporetic oscillation
between his ‘idealist’ and his ‘neo-rationalist’ programmes. The latter connects
him, as Ritschl rightly points out, to Strauss, and it is this orientation which, as
we have seen, subsequently dominated the Tübingen School and was empha-
sized anew in Zeller’s article in the Historische Zeitung.
At the same time, Ritschl sets himself the very hurdle he regards the
Tübingen School to have failed in jumping: the systematic integration of
religion and history. This is precisely what renders his polemic against Zeller
so insightful and valuable: His repudiation of the Tübingen School implies—
perhaps even presupposes—a fundamental agreement regarding the task
theology has or ought to have: to integrate into a single theory the indisputably
and irreducibly historical character of Christianity, including its origins, and
its absolute truth claim. This can only be achieved, however, by overcoming
the dualism of these two realms that was postulated by eighteenth-century
rationalists such as Lessing. Measuring the achievements of the Tübingen
School against this imperative, which he is justified in regarding as mutually
accepted, Ritschl reaches a nuanced conclusion.
There are those who—like Strauss and the anonymous author of ‘Die
Tübinger historische Schule’, i.e. Zeller—relapse into an antithesis of faith
and history and thus not only fail to do justice to the task posed, but lose sight
of it entirely. In their perspective, history is once again emptied of all religious
relevance; the historical theologian becomes, quite literally, a ‘secular’ histor-
ian whose research and its results can at best serve to critique and undermine
the naïve reliance of the believer on historical traditions and its theological
consequences. Ritschl appears careful, however, to distinguish from this un-
bridled positivism Baur’s own position. The founder of the Tübingen School at
least recognized the task and made a serious attempt at its solution even
though his contribution ultimately remained aporetic, since, as he himself
recognized, the tool he adopted, Hegel’s philosophy of religion, was inad-
equate to the envisaged reconciliation of faith and history. The ultimate
consequence in both cases, that of the ‘Tübingen left’ as well as that of Baur
himself, is that the essence of the Christian faith remains ahistorical and that

See Chapter 2, ‘The Two Programmes: Idealist and Neo-rationalist’.
154 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
the historical analysis of the history of Christianity’s origins is conducted
without an understanding of its own specifically religious relevance.

Religion, History, and Individuality

Let us now return to Ritschl’s argument in the piece against Zeller. On the
basis of what we have found so far, its next step is unsurprising: it is a
reflection about the essence of religion. Its neglect, after all, had been at the
centre of Ritschl’s sharp rebuke against his anonymous opponent. Without
such a foundation, a person is as qualified to evaluate the history of religion as
someone is able to technically assess music without having first obtained some
knowledge in the mathematical laws of the regular combinations and sequences
of notes.80
Ritschl’s discussion of miracle stories in the Bible, which at first sight is the
most remarkable feature of his account and consequently has often dominated
its analysis,81 in reality is a mere extension and application of this fundamental
turn of his argument: Zeller’s categorical demand that the historical theologian
must reject the reality of miracles, Ritschl alleges, completely ignores their
provenance as objects of ‘religious perception’ (religiöses Erkennen):
Miracles must be addressed, above all else, as objects of a specifically religious
perception, which presupposes faith, and they can, therefore, only be made the
object of scientific study relative to their subjective determination.82
Miracles, that is, are not ‘natural’ phenomena whose occurrence can—or
cannot—be reconciled with our idea of the universe; they form part of a
religious worldview, and it is within such a hermeneutical context that they
must be understood and interpreted.
While Ritschl writes this in conscious and polemical opposition to a
principle of Tübingen scholarship, it is important, once again, not to overlook
the fundamental agreement underlying his criticism: Baur had constantly
argued that historical theology had to combine philosophical reflection and
historical research; this is Ritschl’s position as well. Their divergence comes to
the fore, however, in his simultaneous emphasis, in the passage just quoted, on
a specifically religious form of perception. Understanding religion thus be-
comes at least partly an epistemological task; miracles are significant insofar
as, and to the extent that, they are a paradigmatic instance of such religious
perception. This ‘epistemic turn’ in Ritschl’s approach to the philosophy of

Ritschl (1861: 441). A rather embarrassing charge to bring against the author of Zeller
81 82
e.g. by Wittekind (2000: 18–42). Ritschl (1861: 440).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 155
religion ties in with an analogous emphasis on epistemology in contemporary
German university philosophy83 though the philosophical merit of the as-
sumption of a multiplicity of equally valid forms of perception must remain an
open question here.
Evident in any case is Ritschl’s interest in the way religion defines and
shapes our access to the world. Religion, in his view, is fundamentally misun-
derstood if this impact it has on our worldview, our Weltanschauung, is not
taken into account. ‘Religious perception’ is always about applying ‘general
truth . . . to individual or communal self-awareness’.84 For example, Ritschl
explains, ‘religious perception of God’ occurs ‘in the awareness of God’s
special providence for the individual as well as for moral communities on all
levels’.85 Religious perception, then, is not concerned with God as he is in
himself, but with the ‘God for me’ (deus pro me); its object is the God who
guards one’s own life and the life of one’s community. Miracles, likewise, must
be understood as individual experiences of divine providence; to declare them
historically impossible would therefore amount to no less than the claim that
‘positive religion [is] an illusion’.86
Whatever the philosophical and theological merits of this theory—and we
shall discuss them in more detail later, Ritschl’s primary motivation for
introducing it in the present place is to make an exegetical and historical
point: if miracles must be seen as instances of ‘religious perception’ of reality,
then an interpretation of the miracle stories in the New Testament as late
embellishments of originally more mundane reports betrays a fundamental
misunderstanding of their character. Once this is conceded, however—and
this is the upshot of Ritschl’s argument here—the existence of miracle stories
in the gospels can no longer be taken as evidence for their late date of
composition as the Tübingen School was wont to doing. After all, he reminds
his readers, references to miracles are found already in Paul. Miracles are part
and parcel of the way believers describe their world, neither more nor less.
While therefore historians cannot be expected to accept miracles as metaphys-
ical or even physical phenomena, they should, as Ritschl explicitly demands,
admit that ‘miracle reports [are] incommensurable with the scientific study of
According to Ritschl, the historical hypotheses of the Tübingen School
about the origins of the New Testament, in particular their tendency towards
a radically late dating of the Gospels, are the result of their failure properly to
appreciate the specifically religious nature of their object of research. Ritschl
himself was willing to regard large parts of the canonical New Testament as
originating from the Apostolic Age and thus date them considerably earlier
than Baur had done. Some have interpreted this as a mere act of conservative

83 84 85
Cf. Köhnke (1986: 168–79). Ritschl (1861: 441). Ritschl (1861: 441).
86 87
Ritschl (1861: 441). Ritschl (1861: 440).
156 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
revisionism, but this is to ignore its theological and philosophical background.
Whatever the exegetical merits of Ritschl’s argument, and they will be dis-
cussed in the following section of this chapter, his interpretation of the New
Testament as the historical document of Primitive Christianity is deeply
imbedded in the overall shape of his theological thought. Of this, his present
argument about New Testament miracle stories offers just one example:
[Against] those who declare the New Testament stories relatively untrustworthy
because they are full of miracle reports, and who then, for this reason, reckon that
they cannot have originated from the first generation of the Christian commu-
nity, one must hold, given Paul’s hints [sc. about miracles in his own environ-
ment], that we must not expect reports from first generation Christians that
would be free from miracle stories.88
Zeller’s interpretation of miracles, then, betrays his insufficient insight into the
religious nature of his object of enquiry. Yet this is not all. Ritschl has a second
problem in view, which, like the first, is indicative of a central difference
between his own current viewpoint and that of the Tübingen School. This
second problem, too, concerns the concept of miracle, but Ritschl rightly notes
that the latter term is used in a different sense when Baur postulates that
scientific theology has to reject ‘the miracle of the absolute beginning’ of
Christian history.89 The principle that is in view here is that of the absolute
steadiness of historical development which Baur invokes in conscious oppos-
ition to traditional orthodox theology with its willingness to conceptualize the
origin of Christianity as a ‘miraculous’, absolute beginning of a fundamentally
new history of salvation within world history.
While Ritschl’s intention, once again, would be misconstrued if seen as an
attempt to return to the earlier theory, there is no doubt that to him the
categorical rejection of Zeller’s and the later Baur’s postulate of historical
steadiness is of absolutely central significance.90 For Ritschl, the exact opposite
is true: one cannot understand any historical phenomenon—including Chris-
tianity—if one views it exclusively as a result of the historical forces and trends
prevailing at the time. Precisely in this sense the historical theologian can, and
should, conceptualize the beginning of Christianity as ‘miraculous’. From a
theological angle one may take this reflection a step further and speak of divine
revelation,91 but be this as it may, no theology is necessary to rebuke the
postulate of absolute steadiness as a presupposition of historical understand-
ing. This is because the postulate of uninterrupted steadiness of historical

Ritschl (1861: 442).
Thus Baur (1853: 1). Cf. with this, however, his insistence in Die christliche Gnosis that
philosophy of religion has to postulate an ‘absolute beginning’ for the origin of salvation (Baur
1835: 263 and Chapter 2, text at n. 30).
90 91
Cf. also: Baur (1847b: 558). Ritschl (1861: 444).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 157
development would negate the very possibility of discrete, individual events in
history. Ritschl elaborates his view with the example of human individuality:
Even the individual human being can only be considered the subject of a
historical process because one must understand him not as the result of the
natural development of the species, but—under the conditions of the latter—as
God’s miraculous creation.92
Human beings could not be subjects or individuals if their indubitable origin
from the natural process of reproduction were their sole defining cause. They
are only free, they only have a history (these two for Ritschl coincide) insofar
as they have their true origin in God, not in a natural process. The example
Ritschl chooses here is significant for another reason as well: it implicitly
illustrates that for him trans-individual history is analogous to the story of
the individual; in fact, as will become clearer in due course, this paradigmatic
function of the individual is characteristic for Ritschl’s his thought in its
entirety. Ultimately therefore, his protest against the Tübingen ‘critique of
miracles’ is a protest against a naturalist conception of history which neglects
the role ‘individuals’ play in and for it.93
The probable source for Ritschl’s theory comes into view once we consider
its theological acumination, which is the alignment of the ‘miraculous’ origin
of new historical formations with the concept of revelation.94 As in the
example given above, the individual is God’s creation,
. . . by the same analogy, Christianity, which does not have its sufficient reason in
the previous history of religion and philosophy, is postulated to have been
founded by divine revelation.95
This view of Ritschl coincides, albeit not fully,96 with Schleiermacher’s defin-
ition of revelation in The Christian Faith. In }10, on the definition of the
concept of revelation, the latter writes:

Ritschl (1861: 445). Italics mine.
Cf. Ritschl’s reference to ‘naturalism’: (1861: 448).
A parallel argument can be found in the third volume of Hermann Lotze’s celebrated
Microcosmus, published in 1864: Lotze (1856: vol. 3, 59–64), ET: Hamilton/Constance Jones, vol.
2, 183–8. In that same year, Ritschl had been appointed to a chair at Göttingen and thus become
Lotze’s colleague; their thought has repeatedly invited comparison (Neugebauer 2002). Given the
chronology of publications (Ritschl’s skirmish with Zeller happened already in 1861), Ritschl is
evidently not dependent on Lotze for this particular view. He does, however, note the agreement
with satisfaction in his dogmatics lectures of 1864/5, which, while generally following an earlier
course he had given about the same topic, contains a reference to Lotze’s work at the relevant
point: Ritschl, Dogmatics Lectures 1864 (Hök 1942: 11, n. 6).
Ritschl (1861: 445).
Ritschl had fundamental misgivings about Schleiermacher’s use of ‘religious emotions’ and
‘divine causality’. Cf. Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 488): ‘As he rather in the main reduces the movement
of the power of the spirit to the category of operative cause, and the antitheses of morality to the
category of quantitative difference, he has fallen short of Kant in these respects.’ ET: Black, 444.
158 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Accordingly we might say that the idea of revelation signifies the originality of the
fact that which lies at the foundation of a religious communion, in the sense that
this fact, as conditioning the individual content of the religious emotions which
are found in the communion, cannot itself in turn be explained by the historical
chain which precedes it. Now the fact that in this original element there is a divine
causality requires no further discussion; nor does the fact that it is an activity
which aims at and furthers the salvation of man.97
Decisively, both Schleiermacher and Ritschl associate the concept of revelation
with a philosophical theory that seeks to conceptualize the emergence of new
phenomena in history. In and through such new beginnings, God’s historical
activity becomes especially visible, and for that reason the traditional concept
of revelation can in this sense be adopted and modified. Given Ritschl’s regular
insistence on the significance of this concept for theology, we shall have to
return to this point. At the moment, however, it is important to note only that
he, apparently following Schleiermacher, inscribes it into a particular philoso-
phy of history.
Overall, then, Ritschl’s diagnosis is that Zeller’s stance on New Testament
miracle stories, far from indicating the purely ‘historical’ method of the
Tübingen School, in fact betrays a lack of philosophical reflection about
their object of study. It is in itself not without irony that Ritschl counters
Zeller’s claims about the ‘Tübingen Historical School’, which allegedly had
pioneered scientific theology by the adaptation of a purely historical method-
ology, with an analysis of their philosophical foundations. The latter are found
to be wanting on account of the inappropriate influence of Baur’s lingering
Hegelianism as much as the absence of a more suitable reflection about the
character of history and religion.
One final step in Ritschl’s analysis of the Tübingen School’s position still
needs consideration. What, he asks, is the relation between Baur thesis in Das
Christenthum und die christliche Kirche der ersten drei Jahrhunderte (1853) of
a ‘purely historical’ theology premissed on the notion of complete historical
steadiness, and the Christological and philosophical foundations of Die chris-
tliche Gnosis? Ritschl argues that, on the one hand, the later work clearly
departs from the Hegelian foundations of the former, yet on the other, it
retains some of their most important features. As it turns out, one is as
problematic as the other.
Baur departs from Hegelian theory in his demand for total steadiness within
history, and his rejection of a ‘miraculous beginning’ for Christianity. Writes
The fundamental Hegelian viewpoint does not exclude the assumption of a
miraculous beginning of Christianity; on the contrary, it demands it.98

Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 90), ET: Mackintosh/Stewart, 50.
Ritschl (1861: 445).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 159
Yet does this not prove—as Zeller will claim elsewhere99—that the late Baur
had left behind the speculative eggshells of his earlier Hegelianism and come
to realize that his fundamental concerns can be safeguarded more effectively
without them? Ritschl begs to differ. According to him, the after-effects of
Hegel’s baleful influence on Baur linger on, precisely, in the latter’s late turn to
a purely immanent understanding of history and are thus partly responsible
for the reductionist character of Baur’s theory of Primitive Christianity which
Ritschl had previously exposed. For it is only Hegel’s metaphysics of Spirit that
falls by the wayside from the late 1840s; his near-total emphasis on super-
individual forces in his interpretation of history, however, and the consequent
disregard for the individual, are retained in the naturalist-evolutionary scheme
Baur eventually adopted. Baur, then, dropped exactly the wrong parts of
Hegel’s philosophy. While Die christliche Gnosis featured, in Ritschl’s analysis,
an unresolved contradiction between Christ as a trans-historical principle and
a concrete individual, the later, ‘post-Hegelian’ Baur retains the former and
completely neglects the latter. Thus, in discussing Jesus’ Messianic mission,
Baur’s main concern is to show how the Jewish concept of the Messiah
‘identified with the person of Jesus’. By contrast, he is very nearly indifferent
to the problem of the saviour’s ‘self-awareness’ of his dignity. This way of
privileging an abstract idea, the concept of the Messiah, over against the
psychological reality of the individual man Jesus, for Ritschl strongly indicates
the presence in Baur of a naturalistically modified Hegelian legacy. It proves
that it was the ‘left-turn of Hegel’s philosophy’, in other words the substitution
of a purely speculative for a historical understanding of Jesus Christ, which
ultimately gained the upper hand even in Baur himself.100
Baur’s historical work, then, is far from ‘presuppositionless’, as Zeller would
claim. Rather, his work is determined by clearly definable and deeply prob-
lematic philosophical presuppositions, which are closely related to an early
embrace of Hegelianism which later was only half-heartedly repudiated and
continued to loom large in the philosophy of naturalist evolutionism which
Baur eventually adopted, albeit implicitly.
This attempt at a fundamental confrontation with the philosophical foun-
dations of Baur’s theology is followed, in Ritschl’s essay, by a detailed critical
account of the former’s reconstruction of early Christian history. This is by
no means insignificant, for it shows that it is more than a façon de parler
when Ritschl concludes his essay by voicing his concern about the ‘progressive
isolation of the different Wissenschaften’. Such isolation can only be
harmful, not least for theology; he is therefore at pains to repudiate any
‘suspicion . . . that the historical research of theologians pursues paths other

Zeller (1865b: 474).
Elsewhere, Zeller himself moderately criticizes Baur for his overemphasis on super-
individual categories and his corresponding, relative neglect of individuals (1865b: 452).
160 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
than those of the historical method’.101 In other words, Ritschl has no inten-
tion of questioning the programme of a strictly historical theology whose
character as Wissenschaft depends on its adoption of historicist methodology.
On the contrary, he is adamant to emphasize its continuing validity. Theolo-
gians, like other academics, are engaged in a continuing debate about the most
appropriate realization of this programme, and there are reasons, Ritschl
believes, for suspecting that the work of the Tübingen School as presented
by the anonymous author in the Historische Zeitschrift falls short of that
standard. It is, therefore, the shared ideal of theology as Wissenschaft that
necessitates and inspires Ritschl’s criticism.
This criticism concerns, as we have seen, the theoretical premisses of the
School’s historical scholarship as much as it does the concrete results their
scholarly work achieved. With regard to the former, Ritschl complains that
philosophical reflection about the nature of religion and about history is either
absent from the Tübingen School’s work or insufficient. The principles
guiding their historical scholarship thus remain in the dark or, where they
can be deduced indirectly, raise concern precisely regarding the historical
quality of their research. It is, after all, not irrelevant to a historical examin-
ation of religious phenomena that its objects of research are precisely defined
as such—just as it cannot be irrelevant to any historical examination, however
motivated, that it rest on an adequately reflected concept of history. Besides a
propaedeutics in the philosophy of religion more narrowly conceived, there-
fore, historical work in theology also requires a propaedeutics in the philoso-
phy of history. Ritschl raises serious objections to the realization of both in
Baur. Of course, these pale in comparison to his objections against Zeller’s
procedure, whose appeal to ‘purely historical work’ suggests that these prem-
isses are essentially a matter of course once theology desists from supernatural
assumptions. Contra this, Ritschl explicitly agrees with Baur’s position in the
1830s and early 1840s regarding the necessity of such a twofold propaedeutics
for theology. The two theologians also agree in their conviction that a valid
answer to the question of the nature of religion is only possible within the
framework of a philosophy of history: the two tasks thus ultimately coincide,
or at least are much closer than is apparent at first sight.
At precisely this point, however, the fundamental disagreement between
Ritschl and the Tübingen School he encountered in the 1850s arises.
The latter, as we have seen, was characterized precisely by a dissociation of
historical and philosophical work. Hilgenfeld as well as Zeller present the
historical task of theology as operating within a field whose methods are self-
evident. Theology secures its scientific nature by participating ‘without pre-
suppositions’ in rules which are not themselves in need of explanation.

Ritschl (1861: 459).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 161

The philosophical task that Hilgenfeld describes explicitly and Zeller seems to
presuppose in his essay is therefore seen as an entirely separate business,
which is related to historical work only secondarily and often only negatively.
But precisely this methodical separation constitutes, in Ritschl’s view, an
ultimately aporetic relapse into the diastasis of faith and historical knowledge.
And because this is so, he has the not entirely unjustified suspicion that behind
this positivist-seeming methodological decision lurks an implicit philosoph-
ical choice—that this ‘purely historical’ theology is in fact the vehicle of an
atheistic philosophy of religion, and that even if it attempts to free itself from
the latter, previous decisions doom any such attempt to failure. Behind
Hilgenfeld and Zeller, to put it more concretely, stand Strauss and Feuerbach.
Nevertheless it would be too simple to describe Ritschl’s position as a
defence of Baur against his (other) students. After all, Ritschl recognizes that
Baur’s own work was not unambiguous. The question he directs at Baur,
therefore, is this: why and how did this ambivalence arise, which then led to
results that seem utterly incompatible with his original intentions? How did it
happen that the attempt to combine theology and history philosophically
produced its exact opposite? Ritschl’s answer becomes clear in his confron-
tation with Zeller: the mistake rests with philosophy. Ritschl is of the opinion
that Baur’s Hegelianism furnished an entirely inappropriate basis both for his
historical and for his theological work.
Whatever one may think of this diagnosis, and of the interpretation of
Hegel’s philosophy of religion it implies, the analysis of Ritschl’s confrontation
with Zeller has made it clear that for Ritschl the fundamental root of the
Tübingen School’s errors lies in the failure of Baur and his students properly to
conceptualize spirit (Geist) as the foundation both of historicity and of reli-
gion. The corrective Ritschl attempts to bring to Baur’s synthesis must there-
fore be expected to address this problem in the first instance.
The analysis so far has already yielded first results indicative of basic
philosophical assumptions likely to be of significance: Ritschl is critical
about the principle of historical steadiness and concerned to ensure that the
individual can be discerned within the flow of historical continuity. The bigger
problem emerging from this is the concept of individuality as such: historical
necessity is only one of several ways naturalistic determinism radically
threatens the freedom and spiritual autonomy of the individual human
person. Ritschl perceives a link between the obvious tendency of contemporary
naturalism in this respect and the more implicit but nonetheless factual
consequence of Hegelian philosophy that comes to the fore, theologically, in
the Tübingen School. The intellectual biography of David Strauss, who was to
become the champion of a shallow naturalism in his later life, shows that such
a view is, at least, not entirely absurd.
These observations will be rendered more precise through a closer study of
Ritschl’s philosophical environment; first, however, we shall briefly discuss
162 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
what arguably is Ritschl’s most important, and in any case his most influential,
piece of historical scholarship, his theory of the origin of the Early Catholic
Church. For if it is correct that for Ritschl—just as for the Baur of the ‘idealist
programme’—the ideal unity of theological, philosophical, and historical
insights is the foundation and the criterion for an adequately scientific the-
ology, then this ought to be reflected in his concrete historical-exegetical work
as much as in his more abstract reflections about philosophical and theological



There is no avoiding the observation that Ritschl’s confrontation with Baur

and the Tübingen School was at least in part fought out over exegetical and
historical issues. While an exhaustive appraisal of this debate is impossible
within the context of the present work, this aspect must not go unnoticed if the
postulate of a connection between historical and systematic theology on both
sides of that debate is to be taken seriously. Methodologically, this means that
the relevant historical questions cannot here be pursued in their own right,102
but only in view of their theological and philosophical premisses and conse-
quences. That such a separation cannot be entirely clean is self-evident.
Nevertheless, it must, in the interest of methodological clarity, at least be
Before looking at the details of historical research, we must recognize
something too often dismissed as self-evident. In principle, Ritschl continues
the trail blazed by Baur. Throughout his life, he takes it for granted that the
theological scholar has the task of reconstructing the history of earliest
Christianity from source material furnished by the New Testament writings
and other contemporary documents. This is rather different from, and much
more than, ‘historical-critical exegesis’, which often rests content with presup-
posing the biblical books and asking after their internal and external consist-
ency. In Baur’s and Ritschl’s procedure, by contrast, these books are primarily
testimonies to the historical event of revelation; their entire religious and

This includes the context of New Testament research in the narrower sense of the word. It
is, of course, an abstraction to confront Baur and Ritschl without taking into account that
Ritschl’s exegetical work was influenced by the results of many others who cannot be discussed
here. The most important book to be mentioned from within the Tübingen School is undoubt-
edly Schwegler (1846).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 163
theological value lies, strictly speaking, in this very fact. While Ritschl increas-
ingly differs rather radically from Baur in his dating and evaluation of these
sources, he remains faithful to this principle of Tübingen scholarship, which, it
must be pointed out, is not merely a principle of historical research. Rather, it
is predicated on the conviction of a unity of religion and history, and the
corresponding assumption that the truth of Christianity can, and must, be
proved historically. Ritschl’s criticism of Baur concerns the execution of this
programme; he doubts that it produces the desired results. He remains,
however, fully and emphatically committed to the pursuit of these same
To this caveat, we must immediately add that within this framework,
Ritschl’s opposition to Baur in the second edition of his monograph Die
Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche (The Formation of the Early Catholic
Church) is as fundamental as possible.103 It may therefore be useful to begin
with a reminder of Baur’s theory of Primitive Christianity, which has been
summarized earlier, in the following five points:104
1. The authentic Pauline letters bear witness to the radical opposition
between Jewish and Gentile Christians fundamental to the apostolic
and post-apostolic era.
2. This conflict resulted from an ambiguity in Jesus’ proclamation, whose
‘material universalism’ was at odds with his ‘formal’ assimilation to the
national religion of the Hebrews.
3. The pseudo-Clementine writings prove that Jewish Christianity con-
tinued to exist far into the second century, and only entertained a
compromise with Gentile Christianity at the end of this period.
4. Precisely this compromise historically marks the emergence of Early
Catholicism, a synthesis of Petrine and Pauline traditions.
5. The dates of composition of the New Testament writings must be
determined according to this historical frame, which, in some cases,
leads to a radically late dating.
Against the background of this simplified scheme, the radical nature of
Ritschl’s opposition can be appreciated as he rejects every single one of
Baur’s fundamental tenets.
First of all, Ritschl adjusts Baur’s view of the Pseudo-Clementine Romance.
While he concedes

The following analysis refers exclusively to the second edition of Ritschl’s monograph,
published in 1857. For a comparison with the first edition, which in many ways represents a
halfway house between the Tübingen and Ritschl’s eventual position cf. O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1,
151–66 and 286–94); Neugebauer (2002: 51–64).
Cf. Chapter 4, text at n. 60.
164 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
how important and fruitful his alignment of the parties and their relations hinted
at in this writing, with analogous traces in the apostolic age has become for the
church-historical appreciation of Jewish Christianity,105
he emphatically denies the far-reaching consequences Baur derived from his
discovery. Referring, among others, to Justin Martyr,106 Ritschl argues that the
estrangement between the Early Catholic Church and Jewish Christianity
already in the latter half of the second century was far greater than Baur had
assumed. The Gentile Christians were so far removed from the Jewish roots of
Primitive Christianity that they lacked the ‘piety’ still found in Paul at least to
respect the Jewish-influenced ‘life form’ (Lebensgestalt)107 practised by one
part of the Church.108 At the same time, the position of the Jewish Christians
was hardening; the more radical groups who not only practised, but regarded
as indispensable, both circumcision and observance of the Mosaic law were in
the ascendant. In the face of this, the position of Pseudo-Clement is only an
‘isolated occurrence’109 which, moreover, does not represent the new readiness
for compromise Baur had diagnosed, but only the traditional ‘neutral’ stance
James and the Apostolic Conference had taken in the mid-first century.110
The external occasion for the break-up of the two groups and the ultimately
complete loss of significance of Jewish Christianity was Hadrian’s crushing of
the Bar Kokhba revolt. Not only did the increased persecution of Jewish
Christians lead to a tendency to distance themselves more clearly from
Judaism; even more important was the prohibition for Jews to enter the
newly founded Aelia Capitolina:
Through this edict, Jewish Christians who practised circumcision were excluded
from the city too; and hence, while up until then the Jerusalem community had
only had bishops from among the circumcised, in the newly-founded Aelia a
bishop of gentile descent presided over a fully or largely Gentile Christian
Ritschl, then, rejects Baur’s interpretation of Jewish Christianity in the second
century on two counts: first, he denies it any significant role in the emergence
of Early Catholicism; rather, the latter was purely a product of Gentile
Catholic Christianity, then, is a certain stage of religious ideas within the area of
Gentile Christianity. For this reason it is independent of the conditions of Jewish-
Christian life and in opposition to the principle of Jewish Christianity.112

105 106
Ritschl (1861: 457). Justin, Dial. 47. Cf. Ritschl (1857: 252–7).
107 108
Cf. Ritschl (1857: 271). Ritschl (1857: 256).
109 110
Ritschl (1857: 259). Ritschl (1857: 259). Cf. Ritschl (1861: 453).
Ritschl (1857: 257–8) with reference to Eusebius, Hist. eccl. IV 5–6.
Ritschl (1857: 330).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 165
Secondly, he rejects their identification, by Baur, with the ‘Jewish Christians’ of
the first century. In general, Ritschl complains at the beginning of his treat-
ment of Jewish Christianity, it is so vague and general a term that it can be
almost infinitely abused:
Baur’s treatment of the history of Christian origins rests on a close alignment of
Epiphanius’ informations about the Ebionite sect,113 the Clementine Homilies
and the later tradition about the first apostles [sc. Peter and Paul] with the
tendency of Paul’s opponents in the apostolic age.114
Against this, Ritschl argues that
the application of this sect name [sc. Jewish Christianity] to the original Jewish
Christianity of the apostolic age . . . is only likely to sow confusion.115
Ritschl, then, is concerned to distinguish sharply between Judaizing tendencies
in the apostolic and the post-apostolic eras. Baur’s idea of an initially antagon-
istic conflict that was gradually resolved in the second century is very nearly
reversed: a quarrel which could still be contained in the first century led, in the
course of the second, to the lasting separation of the two Christian groups.
This, in fact, is the second major point of dispute between Ritschl and Baur:
Ritschl denies the irresolvable contradiction which Baur perceived between
Paul’s presentation of his conflict with Peter in Galatians and the account of
Acts 15. According to Ritschl, while Paul’s enemies, against whom he sharply
polemicizes, undoubtedly invoke Peter, it is much less evident that their
invocation is justified:
The early apostles resisted the Jewish Christian demands because their own view
was free from the Jewish Christian error of reducing the new covenant to the old
or [at least] tying the performance of the former to the conditions of the latter.116
Ritschl can claim this distance of the apostles from the enemies of Paul not
least because he regards both the Epistle of James and First Peter as authen-
tic.117 Both, in his opinion, reflect a form of Primitive Christianity which,
although dissimilar to Paul’s, is not categorically different from the latter.
Despite their different missionary practices, both accept the essential differ-
ence between old and new covenant, while the ‘Jewish Christians’ insist on
their identity:
While the early apostles differed in their individually distinctive version of their
Christian formation of ideas, they nevertheless agreed on this that they

113 114
Cf. Epiphanius, Panarion 30. Ritschl (1857: 104).
Ritschl (1857: 104).
Ritschl (1857: 579). Cf. Ritschl (1857: 127–8) and the explicit criticism of Baur’s position
in n. 1.
Ritschl (1857: 109–20).
166 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
unconditionally accepted the novelty of the covenant of Christ and the novelty of
the religious and moral life [constituted by it] in their common opposition to the
old covenant.118
On this basis, according to Ritschl, the compromise related in Acts 15 is
historically plausible, both with respect to the agreement presented there
and with respect to its limits. In explicit opposition to Baur, Ritschl
that the Apostolic Decree cannot have been the expression of the full agreement
of both parts of the Christian community allegedly achieved at a later time. For it
does not represent a complete social and cultic community between Gentile
Christians and those Jewish Christians who are still bound to the Mosaic Law.
It is far from removing all obstacles to mutual community; instead it lays the
foundations for a provisional neutrality of mutual intercourse, which did not
exclude the recurrence of argument.119
Precisely this ‘inexpediency’ of the decree, claims Ritschl, speaks for its
historical provenance in a situation in which the radically different rates of
success of the Jewish and Gentile missions are not yet foreseen.120
It has, in passing, become evident already that Ritschl substantially opposes
the last pillar of Baur’s theory too, namely the late dating of the New Testa-
ment writings. In fact, Ritschl reverts to the opposite extreme by regarding
more or less the entire canonical corpus as authentic or at least as a product of
the first century thereby facilitating its use for the reconstruction of the
apostolic phase of early Christianity.121
In spite of tensions, therefore, which Ritschl by no means denies, this phase
was far more homogeneous than Baur claimed:
It is the general historical experience that such a development [sc. the origin of
the Christian Church] passes through relative oppositions. In this regard, the
relationship between the immediate disciples of Jesus and the apostle Paul is
unsurprising. However, the only interpretation of [this relationship] that does
justice to historical standards will be one according to which both parts do not
renounce Jesus’ essential relationship to the Mosaic Law. It appears historically
impossible that the view of Christianity’s autonomy and universality, which
determined Jesus’ own inner life, should have remained hidden from his personal
The reason for the relative congruence between Paul and the original apostles,
then, lies in the fact that Jesus’ proclamation still has immediate effects on
them. A further reason is that Jesus’ proclamation leaves open at least the
possibility of different interpretations of the question of observance of the law.

118 119 120

Ritschl (1857: 579). Ritschl (1857: 138). Ritschl (1857: 140).
Cf. for the Gospel of John: Ritschl (1857: 48–9) and summarily Hilgenfeld (1858b: 59–60).
Ritschl (1857: 47).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 167
The core of Jesus’ teaching about the law, for Ritschl, is that the law is
adiaphoron except in its highest purpose, which is expressed in the command-
ment to love:
Within the Mosaic Law, [Jesus] distinguishes what expresses man’s highest
purpose from that which has only been ordained for the benefit of man. As the
Messiah he has power over the latter kind of the law’s elements, to invalidate
them, whereas even as the Messiah and head of the Kingdom of God, he
recognizes the law in the former regard. He proves that man’s highest purpose
is [expressed] in the Mosaic commandments to love God and human beings, but
declares the Mosaic regulations about Sabbath-rest and sacrificial worship indif-
ferent, the ones about purification useless, the ones about divorce the result of
leniency towards sin, in which the highest purpose of matrimony has been
On the whole, however, the question of one’s attitude to the law was not at all
at the centre of Jesus’ preaching, which was occupied rather by the idea of the
Kingdom of God.124 As we can see, then, Ritschl’s understanding of the person
of Jesus and his proclamation, too, are distinctly different from Baur’s: he
is not at all willing to concede an unresolved conflict between an ethical-
universalist gospel incompatible with a national religion on the one hand, and
a pragmatically motivated use of the theological language of just that national
religion on the other. Jesus’ preaching is clear in every respect; it only becomes
a problem when a later development seeks to use it as the touchstone of a
special question—namely that of the significance of the law for Christianity—
without understanding the framework within which this special question has
found a meaningful answer in Jesus. This fact is, in Ritschl’s view, the very root
of the confusion prevailing in the post-apostolic era: A topic which for Jesus
himself was clearly subordinate to the ‘awakening of faith in himself and in
the foundation of the Kingdom of God’, and about which he consequently
spoke only ‘indirectly or veiledly’ even to the disciples,125 a generation later
became an issue of decisive import for doctrinal as well as constitutional
decisions in the Early Church.126
A third reason important to Ritschl for the relative agreement of the
apostles, and contrasting later developments, is his assumption that the
rootedness of Jesus’ proclamation in the Old Testament was perceived and
understood as a matter of course by the apostles because of their shared Jewish
background. It is precisely this horizon which was lost in the following
generation of Gentile Christians:
In their reproduction of [apostolic] teachings, Gentile Christianity soon entered a
slippery slope because the specific apprehension of Christ’s person and his salvific

123 124
Ritschl (1857: 33). e.g. Ritschl (1857: 46).
125 126
Ritschl (1857: 33). Ritschl (1857: 27).
168 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
activity is founded on the O[ld] T[estament], and a correct understanding of the
Old Testament presuppositions of Christian ideas did not automatically occur
among Gentile Christians.127
It is precisely here that Ritschl locates the great defect which Gentile Chris-
tianity passed on to Early Catholicism, and which was primarily responsible
for the latter’s fundamental difference from the proclamation of Jesus and the
teaching of the apostles:
The ultimate cause of Catholic Christianity’s deviation from New Testament
models lies in Gentile Christians’ inability correctly and vividly to reproduce
the apostles’ fundamental ideas of the divine foundation of the religious relation-
ship mediated by Christ, which is intelligible only from the O[ld] T[estament].128
This thought is significant for another reason as well. Although Ritschl regards
Gentile Christianity as the sole root of Early Catholicism, he rejects Baur’s
identification of that group with ‘Paulinism’. Rather, we must acknowledge
. . . not only that the first apostles who lived Jewish must be distinguished from
[later] Jewish Christians, who among themselves comprised several kinds, but
also that the Gentile Christianity that became Catholic is not identical with the
Pauline tendency.129
In some respects, Ritschl goes as far as describing Gentile Christianity as
explicitly opposing central elements of Paul’s message, though he admits
that its ‘formal opposition against Judaism and Jewish Christianity is signifi-
cantly determined by Paul’s teaching’.130 On the whole, it is characteristic
of the Early Catholicism emerging from Gentile Christianity to rely ‘on the
authority of all the apostles, as represented by Peter and Paul’.131 At the same
time, the interpretation of Christianity that Ritschl regards as fundamental for
Early Catholicism—summarized in the formula that Christ had brought a
‘new law’132—is nothing less than a contradiction ‘of Paul’s teaching and of the
inner relations of the proclamation of Christ’. Ultimately, Ritschl regards this
interpretation as
. . . [the] origin of all deformations within the Catholic Church, which only the
Reformation opposed with the principle that no human activity counted before
God unless it had its roots in the relationship established by God and mediated by
In the preface to the second edition of Die Entstehung der altkatholischen
Kirche, Ritschl speaks in a celebrated statement of the ‘principled and radical’

127 128 129

Ritschl (1857: 581). Ritschl (1857: 331). Ritschl (1857: 22).
Ritschl (1857: 331). Further on Ritschl’s critique of Paul’s theology Chapter 9, text at
n. 112.
131 132 133
Ritschl (1857: 330). e.g. Ritschl (1857: 27). Ritschl (1857: 331).
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 169
opposition to the ideas of the Tübingen School which he has reached at this
point.134 It is now possible to evaluate this claim. Four points are particularly
relevant to the question guiding the present study.
1. Ritschl replaces Baur’s image of a conflict persisting from the apostolic
era until about 200 AD, and thus framing the first 150 years of church
history as a relatively homogeneous first epoch, with a view according to
which the decisive break happened much earlier. Ritschl assumes a
clearly delimited apostolic era which, though not free from tensions,
was nevertheless not marked by irreconcilable differences, at least as far
as the main actors—Paul on the one side, the Jerusalem apostles on the
other—were concerned. Ritschl explains their basic consensus by way of
the common personal influence of Jesus (though only in an attenuated
sense for Paul) and the shared hermeneutical horizon of the Old
2. Correspondingly, Ritschl restores the New Testament as the primary
historical testimony for this epoch that can be claimed, by the same
token, as a basically consistent foundation for theological reflection. His
historical and exegetical arguments in favour of earlier dates for New
Testament books thus serve to re-establish its quasi-canonical unity.
What is more, since Ritschl claims to have shown that his historically
restored quasi-canon of the New Testament presupposed an adequate
grasp of the Old Testament, this implies the unity of the two parts of the
Bible as well. Baur’s procedure, by contrast, had split the New Testament
into a multiplicity of single historical documents that were claimed for
different phases of the Tübingen narrative and were, thus far, on a par
with non-canonical texts.
3. Ritschl places great value on a view of Early Church history that is not
limited to the history of ideas. He explicitly describes Jewish and Gentile
Christianity as ‘forms of life’ (Lebensformen) rather than mere systems of
doctrine. One argument for his rejection of the identification of Gentile
Christianity and ‘Paulinism’ is the fact that the former is a ‘doctrine’, the
latter a historical formation.135 Again, the fate of Jewish Christianity in
the second century is explicitly explained by reference to the history of
events, specifically, the repercussions of the Bar Kokhba revolt. In this
approach, Ritschl is doubtlessly following general developments of the
time, which increasingly recognized the limits of the history of ideas
prevalent in the Romantic-Idealist historiography of the beginning of the
century,136 but it would be wrong to ignore that he has a reason of his

134 135
Ritschl (1857: v). Ritschl (1857: 271).
Lotze (1856: vol. 3, 42–5), ET: Hamilton/Constance Jones, vol. 2, 165–8. Cf. Pester (1997:
170 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
own for choosing it, too. Acknowledging the potential significance of
external factors on the development of Christianity removes the need
solely to rely on ideological conflicts (and their resolution) for its explan-
ation. In other words, it aided Ritschl’s argument that the very method
Baur and the Tübingen scholars of the first generation had affirmed as
the key to historical theology, in reality forced the latter into the Pro-
crustean bed of an ahistorical, philosophical methodology.
It may come as no great surprise that this latter point in particular baffled
Baur; in fact, the degree of mutual incomprehension that comes to the fore in a
literary exchange between Ritschl and his former teacher on this issue is highly
illuminating. In his polemical work The Tübingen School, Baur presents a
largely accurate account of Ritschl’s argument in the second edition of Die
Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche, but then remarks:
Where such an opposition as here between Judaism and Paulinism still exists,
even according to Ritschl, one would believe that above all it has to be mediated
and settled if there is to be any further development.137
Of this, however, he sees nothing in Ritschl’s explanation:
But where is here a living principle of movement (lebendiges Bewegungsprinzip) if
Judaism and Paulinism are equally unsuited for further development, if Judaism
insists on its privileges and the link, which on the side of Paulinism connects
Catholic and Apostolic Christianity, consists merely in the inability of Gentile
Christians ‘correctly and vividly to reproduce the apostles’ fundamental ideas of
the divine foundation of the religious relationship mediated by Christ, which is
intelligible only from the Old Testament’?138 This indeed is the most miserable
idea one could have of the state of Christianity in the Postapostolic Age, and one
should, had it been like this, only be surprised that Christianity continued to exist
at all . . . 139
From Baur’s viewpoint, then, Ritschl’s hypothesis lacks everything that would
render a historical explanation plausible. Instead of showing how unbalanced
tensions led to dynamic developments and new formations, it contents itself
with a list of unsuccessful strategies and unfruitful endeavours. Instead of
replacing Baur’s theory with another founded on a convincing ‘living principle
of movement’, Ritschl falls back into a historical schematism that never moves
beyond inorganically coexisting individual factors.
Ritschl, by contrast, regards Baur’s criticism of his work as the best indica-
tion that Baur is not concerned with historicity at all, but with filling in a
pre-established philosophical framework: against such proofs, Baur has
merely maintained his postulate of a reconciliation that must have come
about because it is necessary.140

137 138
Baur (1859: 65). Baur quotes this literally from Ritschl (1857: 331).
139 140
Baur (1859: 66). Ritschl (1861: 454). Italics mine.
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 171
His objections are such that Ritschl cannot accept them as ‘objections
against my source-based’ evidence. For while he admits that there are cases
in church history which are explicable by Baur’s scheme of reconciliation, for
example the development of Augustinianism and Pelagianism into medieval
semi-Pelagianism, it would be ridiculous to make this scheme into a general
What then should one reply to this: one should believe above all that such an
opposition as that between Catholicism and Protestantism has to be mediated
and settled if there is to be any further historical development.141
In short: Ritschl regards Baur’s programmatic principle as a speculative
premiss more often than not barring the way of historical work, while Baur
defends the superiority of his principle precisely for genuinely historical work
and knowledge.
This leads directly to the fourth and final contrast between Ritschl’s presen-
tation in the second edition of Die Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche and
Baur’s theory of Primitive Christianity. This contrast touches even more
directly than the previous one on the borderline area between historical
research and its philosophical and theological foundations. It concerns the
question of history’s fundamental direction of development. The thought of
Baur and his School rests on the assumption of a fundamentally progressive
historical development. One may call this their Hegelianism, but then one also
has to recognize that they are, in this regard, representative of a broad
consensus that existed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century:
Lessing, Kant, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and many others construe history,
and not least the history of religion and morality, on the basis of this principal
assumption. From the point of view of Christian theology, this certainly
becomes problematic as soon as a development beyond traditional Christianity
is eyed, as one can see in Zeller’s discussion of the idea of Christianity’s
‘perfectibility’ in 1842.142 Not least, it appears to make impossible the delimi-
tation of a normative ur-epoch in Christianity against the general flow of
development. Baur emphatically defends precisely the latter insight until the
end of his life; the idea ‘that the earlier must be the lower, and the later the
higher’ is, according to him, nothing other than the ‘Protestant conception
of history’. Its opposite, by contrast—the idea that ‘Christ himself was the
highest, the miracle’—is ‘the programme of a truly Catholic conception of
history’,143 which rests on belief in the ‘miracle’ of the ‘absolute beginning of
the history of Christianity’.144 According to this view, which essentially con-
stitutes the Catholic ‘dogma of tradition’,145 ‘nothing in history could ever
become the collective consciousness of the Church and thus count as

141 142
Ritschl (1861: 455). Zeller (1842d) and Schütte (1968).
143 144 145
Baur (1859: 43). Baur (1859: 44). Baur (1859: 44).
172 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
essentially Christian which did not already have that significance at the
To recognize how fundamentally Ritschl diverged from this view, we need
only recall his opposition to Zeller on this question. Far from seeing in it the
‘Catholic principle of tradition’, Ritschl regards the possibility of a new
beginning in history—of a development that is not merely the result of
conditions prevailing at the time—as the ethical character of history, standing
against a pseudo-Hegelian naturalism. We see now that this theoretical shift
reflects Ritschl’s theological interest not merely in the possibility but in the
reality of an early phase of church history that is in principle perfect and can
therefore permanently remain a normative point of reference. Such a possibil-
ity can exist only if it is not philosophically necessary to assume its opposite.
Ritschl’s arguments against such a philosophy of history were discussed in
detail in the previous section; their philosophical background will be discussed
further in Chapter 8. One purpose of his study of Primitive Christianity and its
transition to Early Catholicism, however, was to argue historically for the
plausibility of that possibility in the present case: Jesus’ preaching and its
reception by the apostles constitute the perfect foundation of Christian the-
ology, and insofar as the writings of the New Testament reflect this reality,
they have normative significance. Nothing other than this is meant when
Ritschl at the same time (in 1856) writes of the need to develop a biblical
theology on the basis of revelation,147 and the same principle is implied in the
programmatic words Ritschl sets at the beginning of the third volume of
Justification and Reconciliation almost twenty years later:
Once this authentical exposition of the ideas named [sc. those preached by Jesus
and received by the apostles] has been given . . . the ideas of theology are satisfied.
For succeeding thinkers have been guided, in part intentionally, in part uncon-
sciously, by the models of the New Testament, or should not be followed when
they in point of fact diverge from them.148
For Ritschl, however, this is precisely not the ‘Catholic’ but the ‘Protestant-
ecclesial’ programme. He is therefore far from suggesting, as Baur insinuates,
that the Church has traditionally always been in possession of the truth; his
claim, rather, is that the truth originally contained in Jesus’ proclamation was
soon lost or at least exposed to ‘many shifts and obfuscations’.149

Baur (1859: 44–5).
Cf. Ritschl (1856): ‘The Tübingen School has fallen apart, and their suggestions deserve
recognition only to the extent that they lead to an opposition to the history of Primitive
Christianity (christliche Urgeschichte) systematically presented by Baur and Schwegler, and
that they further the development of biblical theology more than they have so far done’ (262).
Italics in the original.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 1), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 1.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 1), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 1.
Albrecht Ritschl on Theology as Science 173
These last observations have already taken us back from the level of
historical exegesis to that of its philosophical and theological presuppositions,
which are the primary concern of the present study. It remains to be deter-
mined to what extent the exegetical and historical results reached by Ritschl
are expressions of fundamental theological and philosophical decisions that
led him away from Baur at this time. Ritschl himself, as we have seen,150
ultimately regarded Baur’s Hegelianism as the explanation for historical con-
structions which otherwise would seem completely implausible; he himself, by
contrast, was promptly declared a renegade who had returned to the lap of
orthodoxy by his former Tübingen colleagues.151 Both interpretations are
simplistic and evidently coloured by their polemical contexts. One should
not doubt that both Ritschl and Baur were concerned, in their historical work,
to do justice to difficult and ambiguous source material. Neither of them
simply assimilated their research to one or another philosophical or theo-
logical paradigm. With these qualifications, however, it is nevertheless justified
to ask what fundamental theoretical commitments set the direction for their
historical research and how those commitments influenced their interpret-
ation of the empirical evidence available to them.
In the case of Ritschl, an answer to this question does not seem excessively
difficult or controversial. His ambition was to be a theologian in a way that
allowed him to combine the ideal of Wissenschaft with the personal commit-
ment to ‘the ground of Christianity’. It was to this end that he sought to
assimilate the basic principle of Baur’s idealist programme, the postulate of the
identity of historical and theological truth with all its formal and material
implications. To achieve this, however, he felt the need to discard those
elements in Baur’s theology that had subsequently led to the effective dismant-
ling of the idealist programme by Strauss, in other words his ‘neo-rationalist’
The analyses of the last two sections of the present chapter have shown in
two steps how Ritschl pursued this in practice. In his confrontation with
Zeller, he argued that the Tübingen ‘historical method’ is in fact far from
‘purely’ historical, but predicated on a philosophical concept of history which,
on the one hand, is unduly influenced by the speculative philosophy of Hegel
(‘What the Spirit is and does is no history’152) and, on the other, de facto
guided by the naturalist idea of pure constancy, which seemingly but really
only seemingly contradicts the former. In opposition to both, Ritschl insists on
a ‘spiritual’ (geistig) or ‘ethical’ reading of history that proves its salt precisely
by its perception of individuals as agents in the historical process.

See Chapter 7, text at n. 58.
Cf. Hilgenfeld (1858b: 58): Ritschl now acts as a ‘proponent of the usual apologetic
conception of Primitive Christianity’.
See Chapter 7, text with n. 66.
174 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
This same idea is then applied to the historical puzzle of the formation of
the Early Catholic Church. Ritschl deliberately forgoes a historical ‘derivation’
of Jesus’ preaching; he regards the reality of the latter, situated within the
community of the apostles that received it, as a sui generis phenomenon, a
‘revelation’ in the historical sense of a ‘miraculous’ new beginning that he had
defended against Zeller. Further, Ritschl regards the apostolic era as a rela-
tively enclosed historical period attested to by the writings of the New Testa-
ment canon, which can therefore largely be appraised in its own right, both
historically and theologically. This, however, means that—provided one
accepts Ritschl’s various theses—we have here a construction that permits
and requires theology to be radically historical without the danger of falling
into the abyss of relativism. Ritschl thinks, after all, that he has rendered
these claims plausible by genuinely philosophical and historical arguments. It
is on the basis of such non-theological considerations that theology can
subsequently develop its own dogmatic and ethical system, which ideally, in
the end, will prove the justification of those historical and philosophical
premisses by showing that they could historically only be had on the soil of
Christianity, specifically Protestant Christianity.
Yet this is to anticipate what yet has to be shown in detail: the precise
philosophical foundation of Ritschl’s thought, by means of which he feels able
to formulate this philosophical-historical-theological synthesis. If the hypoth-
esis of such a synthesis is taken at all seriously, however, there can be no
radical separation between the historical, the philosophical, and the theo-
logical sides of Ritschl’s system: they must be expected to be interwoven and
mutually interlocking. Ritschl’s historical work on the history of Primitive
Christianity is as such drawing on philosophical ideas and relevant for theo-
logical insights; his theology is always historically grounded and guided by
philosophical premisses; his philosophical considerations are ultimately in the
service of theological concerns and executed in large part historically.
In more recent research, the historical and exegetical note in this triad has
often been ignored. Without it, the Ritschl School, arguably, could not have
existed. Adolf Harnack’s account of the ‘nature of Christianity’ in his cele-
brated series of lectures of 1899/1900, which was translated into English as
What is Christianity, still depends on, and subscribes to, the basic elements of
Ritschl’s theory of Primitive Christianity and Early Catholicism—albeit, as we
shall see, with significant modifications.153 We shall have to return to all this.
First, however, the second note of the triad, Ritschl’s philosophical founda-
tions, must be considered. It will be key here not to dissociate this side of his
thought from its relation to the whole.

See Chapter 10, text at n. 116.

Philosophical Insights and Influences

Ritschl’s historical and theological views firmly rely on philosophical prin-

ciples. Baur was of the opinion that history was dead and dumb without
philosophy, and Ritschl did not disagree. He was, however, convinced that
the philosophical foundations his teacher had chosen were not suitable for this
task. Baur’s dallying with Hegelianism, Ritschl believed, had led straight to
Strauss’s undoing of Christianity’s historical character, and the ensuing myth-
ical pantheism was a mere step away from Feuerbach’s atheism. For Ritschl,
the personal character of Christian theism and the affirmation of Christianity’s
basis in history were closely related, and only a philosophy capable of uphold-
ing and underwriting these principles could be of use for the theologian.
It will be the primary task of this chapter to work out the details of the
philosophy Ritschl deemed appropriate for his purposes. In the absence of any
definite and conclusive presentation by the theologian himself, its reconstruc-
tion will draw on the full range of Ritschl’s published writings including his
very useful early lecture notes. Further insights will be gained by embedding
these sources in the philosophical debate in Germany around the middle of the
nineteenth century. While earlier as well as later decades produced eminent
thinkers whose names are widely recognized even today, the philosophers
relevant to this enquiry are now largely forgotten. Their works have not
normally been reissued since their own lifetime and only few of them
were ever translated into English. The relative obscurity of these individuals
and their writings, however, will reveal a wealth of stimulating reflections
prompted by the near-universal disillusionment with the grand systems of the
Romantic-Idealist period while at the same time responding to the rise of
materialism, positivism, and scientism during these years. As we shall see, we
can discern all major concerns identified in Ritschl’s theology in that of his
philosophical contemporaries as well.
Our ultimate guide in the presentation of the material, however, must be
Ritschl’s own writing. His debate with Zeller has already provided a sense of
the direction his thinking is likely to take. Significant is his identification of a
covert naturalism at the heart of the Tübingen project, which undermines the
eminently spiritual, intellectual, and ethical character of religion and history
176 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
from the start. It indicates Ritschl’s apparently intuitive reliance on the
dichotomous duality of nature and spirit (Geist). This principle is indeed
crucial and in evidence throughout his writings. Put most simply, it is that
things are either spirit or nature. There exist no things-in-general, which are
neither the one nor the other.1
As we shall see, this axiom constitutes the backbone of every single element of
Ritschl’s philosophical orientation: his dualistic ontology of spirit; his epi-
stemological appropriation of teleological over against causal explanations; his
conception of ethics as a theory of spiritual life; his interpretation of the place
of Christianity in the history of religion.
In the first part of this chapter, we will analyse these four central pillars of
Ritschl’s philosophical outlook, culminating in the recognition of a very
specific philosophical profile underlying Ritschl’s various utterances even
though the absence of its systematic exposition makes it somewhat difficult
to speak of ‘his philosophy’. Its contextualization will reveal, time after time,
his indebtedness to various contemporaries, although often his position can
ultimately be traced to Schleiermacher or indeed, despite the overt antagon-
ism, to F. C. Baur. Yet a comparison of Ritschl with this group of thinkers will
also show him as dissenting from common principles and assumptions in a
number of ways. At the end of the first part, therefore, the problem of his
philosophical background will recur; a comprehensive answer to this issue will
only emerge in the chapter’s subsequent second part, which will be devoted to
a full examination of the origins of Ritschl’s philosophical principles.


Ontology of Spirit

In the many writings authored by Ritschl and his students, one will find few
pages without reference to nature and spirit as dichotomous realities or
principles. This duality must therefore form the point of departure for an
investigation into the foundations of his philosophical ideas. At the same time,
however, there is no evidence that Ritschl ever reflected about this basic
assumption independently from a number of specific contexts in which he
made use of this antithesis. We would do well, therefore, to follow him in this
practice and examine this principle by way of a close analysis of the most
central elements of his philosophical thought. Each of them, as we shall see, is

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 226–7), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 238 (amended).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 177
fundamentally determined by the premiss that nature and spirit are mutually
exclusive, polar opposites.
His ontology, first of all, firmly rests on this dualism: reality for Ritschl is
divided into nature and spirit as two separate spheres. The radical separation
of these spheres reduces philosophy to a decision between worldviews based
on the priority of one or the other. Ritschl himself seeks to embrace what I call
an ontology of spirit, the only philosophical attitude, he believes, that is
consonant with the Christian faith. Where this option is not unequivocally
grasped, the alternative is usually naturalism, materialism, and scientism even
where this is not openly acknowledged as, most controversially, in the case of
‘metaphysics’ which Ritschl thought of, and dismissed, as a covert naturalism.
Ritschl’s acceptance of a dualism of nature and spirit as an axiomatic datum
of human thought and experience reflects the general currency in German
post-Idealist philosophy. Eduard Zeller, as we have seen earlier, assumed such
a duality as quasi-self-evident in the 1840s.2 The same is true for Adolf
Trendelenburg (1802–72), whose thought is known to have impressed Ritschl
deeply.3 Hegel’s successor at the University of Berlin, Georg Andreas Gabler
(1786–1853), responded to Trendelenburg by presenting the question of the
relation between being and consciousness, clearly a variant of nature and
spirit, as the ‘basic question of all philosophy’.4
The origin of this consensus can be located in philosophical debates of the
1830s that led to the insight that Hegelianism’s claims to be ‘absolute’ phil-
osophy floundered on the question of its relation to reality. While the internal
coherence of Hegel’s dialectics at this stage still seemed irrefutable to many,
this only gave more urgency to the radical problem of how the system as a
whole could be seen to correspond to the external world. In fact, how could
any philosophy as a mental construct meaningfully relate to reality ‘out
there’?5 It is from this vantage point that such different conceptions as
Schelling’s philosophy of revelation6 and Marx’s claim that philosophical

See Chapter 5, ‘Strauss and Feuerbach’.
While Trendelenburg usually speaks of ‘thought’ (Denken) and ‘being’ (Sein), he easily
moves between this terminology and Ritschl’s ‘nature’ and ‘spirit’: cf. (1840: vol. 1, 105 and 272).
Cf. on Trendelenburg in general: Köhnke (1986: 23–58).
Gabler (1843). On ‘nature’ and ‘spirit’ cf. esp. 272. Cf. for the broader debate Schröder (2001:
Cf. Trendelenburg’s extensive critique of Hegel under the heading ‘the dialectical method’
(1840: vol. 1, 23–99); he raises the ‘general question’ how ‘the concept (Begriff) that evolves only
by itself and is omnipotent in its self-movement, relates to the content of the so-called empirical
sciences’ (79).
Schelling’s introduction of the distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ philosophy was
directed against the Hegelians (1858c: 80 ff.). Schelling argued that the problem was not so much
that Hegel’s philosophy was ‘negative philosophy’ but that it pretended to be ‘positive’ (80).
These ideas can be traced back to Schelling’s development in the late 1820s, cf. Fuhrmans (1940);
Bowie (1993: 141–7).
178 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
theory will necessarily turn into revolutionary practice7 can be seen as
emerging. Both reflect the conviction that a solution to the dilemma posed
by Hegel’s philosophy may only be found outside philosophy proper.8 Not
everyone, of course, shared the latter view. Within university philosophy,
renewed attention was paid to a number of authors who were expected to be
helpful in this matter. One of them was Schleiermacher, whose lectures on
dialectics had just (1839) been edited by Ludwig Jonas;9 another was Leibniz;10
a third, and arguably the most important, was Kant, whose post-Idealist
rediscovery was inaugurated at just this time.11
In the context of this philosophical reorientation, the duality of nature and
spirit was frequently introduced to underwrite typologies of philosophical
systems or—in a newly fashionable term—Weltanschauungen.12 In this per-
spective, nature and spirit are seen as principles dominating comprehensive
philosophical or theological systems as well as the religious or quasi-religious
life forms underlying them.13 A typical example is provided by Adolf Tren-
delenburg’s Über den letzten Unterschied der philosophischen Systeme (On the
Final Difference between Philosophical Systems), published in 1847. Trende-
lenburg, starting from the ontological duality of being and consciousness or of
‘force’ and ‘thought’, reconstructs on this basis ‘materialism’, ‘idealism’, and
‘Spinozicism’ as an exclusive set of ideal types of philosophy. The last of the
three, as determinism, ultimately tends towards materialism14 thus leaving a
duality of philosophical systems, of which one prioritizes matter over mind,
whereas the other sets the mental realm of ideas above the physicality of
‘naked forces’.15 Trendelenburg does not hesitate to equate this dualism with
the disciplinary competition between physics and ethics.16 Epistemologically,

Cf. his early demand that after ‘total philosophy’ its ‘transsubstantiation into flesh and
blood’ was needed (1985, sixth cahier, 217–19) and Schröder (2001: 135–7).
One might also mention Kierkegaard whose thought developed in this very situation. For
contemporary influences on his philosophy cf. now Stewart (2007); for his changing attitude to
Hegel: Stewart (2003).
Cf. Köhnke (1986: 58–88). On the early reception history of the Dialektik cf. Hübner (1997:
Illuminating is the C. H. Weiße review article on this topic: Weiße (1841).
For the historical context cf. Köhnke (1986: 21–105).
Cf. Zachhuber (2008b).
Marquard (1973) following Wach (1926) but cf. the critique in Köhnke (1986: 171–2).
Trendelenburg (1855: 10–12). In Logische Untersuchungen he had drawn an analogous
distinction between ‘physical or mechanical’ and ‘organic’ worldviews (1840: vol. 2, 353–9).
Gabler applies the same method but comes to different results. For him, the relevant systems are
‘empiricism’ which ultimately leads to materialism and ‘idealism’ which is perfected in Hegel’s
philosophy. Gabler summarizes the latter in the words: ‘Insofar as God is original and absolute
thought . . . he is absolute and original activity’ (1843: 141). Cf. again Schröder (2001: 140–1) and
Köhnke (1986: 171–5).
Trendelenburg (1855: 25).
Trendelenburg (1855: 25).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 179
it corresponds to the dominance of efficient causality on the one side and
teleology on the other.17
This intellectual constellation forms the backdrop against which Ritschl
develops his own conception of an antithesis of nature and spirit. For him, the
terms represent a duality of principles in the world to which human thought
can and indeed must relate in one way or the other. This relation is primary
and fundamental; it will subsequently determine all other philosophical and
theological options. Neutrality in this matter is impossible, which is why the
(alleged) strategy of metaphysics to postulate a being that is neither nature nor
spirit can only be a pseudo-solution. Behind it frequently lurks the ghost of
materialism insinuating that material or natural being is the basis of all
being.18 That the theologian whose task it is to expound Christianity as a
spiritual and intellectual religion cannot but embrace the idealist thesis is a
given for Ritschl, and he does not expect any serious opposition here. What he
finds is a frequent failure to realize the impossibility of a ‘neutral’ starting
The historical context of Ritschl’s position underlines once more the ambi-
guity of his relationship to Baur. After all, Baur too regarded the duality of
nature and spirit as fundamental.20 Ritschl then found in Trendelenburg and
Lotze21 what he already knew from his Tübingen background. At the same
time, the strict dualism of Ritschl’s conception sets it apart from Baur’s view,
in which the duality of nature and spirit was ultimately oriented towards its
reconciliation in the Incarnation. For Baur, the very goal of Christianity as a
religion and as a philosophy was defined as the overcoming of the separation
of nature and spirit. For Ritschl, by contrast, there can be no such mediation;
the task of religion, rather, is to secure man’s ‘domination of nature’:
In every religion what is sought, with the help of the superhuman spiritual power
reverenced by man, is a solution of the contradiction in which man finds himself,
as both a part of the world of nature and a spiritual personality claiming to
dominate nature.22
This ontological disagreement between Baur and Ritschl corresponds to a
different view of history. While Baur used the duality of nature and spirit to
argue for a dynamic, progressive, and necessary historical development,

Trendelenburg (1855: 23–4). Cf. Trendelenburg, (1840: vol. 2, 354; 357).
From the second edition, Justification and Reconciliation contains the following, remark-
able line directed against the more ‘metaphysical’ theology of the Erlangen theologian
F. H. R. von Frank: ‘to my mind there is an element of materialism in his view’ (1888: vol. 3,
227), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 238.
Cf. Ritschl’s (rather muddled) argument in (1887: 9).
See Chapter 2, text at n. 23.
Lotze (1841: 15–18) (} 6). Cf. Neugebauer (2002: 200–7).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 189), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 199.
180 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Ritschl’s conception does not permit such a construction. Both in his contro-
versy with Zeller and in his historical work on the formation of the Early
Catholic Church, we have seen that he regards any notion of a necessary
historical process as a Procrustean bed for theology; his emphasis on the
concept of revelation is not least directed against such an understanding of
religious history. Ritschl’s argument derives part of its force from the supple-
mentary claim that such a philosophy of history also constitutes a Procrustean
bed for historical research—one only has to recall here the thrust of his sharp
reply to Baur’s critique in Die Tübinger Schule.23 For the latter charge, at least,
he could rest assured of the implicit agreement of the historicist mainstream in
the mid-nineteenth century.24
The danger that Ritschl perceived in the work of the Tübingen School can
be described as follows: a system in which spirit emerges in evolutionary
fashion from the realm of nature ultimately subjects the former to the neces-
sary laws of an evolution, within which it is reduced to a mere stage or phase.
But whence, in this case, derives the regularity of the process itself? Ritschl
suspects that it is conceived in analogy to natural processes: behind a dynamic
pretending to encompass both nature and spirit, then, can be discerned a
naturalist scheme. This consequence, he holds, can only be avoided if the goal
of a reconciliation of spirit and nature in a third is given up in favour of the
principle of spirit’s self-assertion over against nature.

Causality and Teleology

It is practically axiomatic for Ritschl to associate the duality of nature and spirit
with that of efficient and final causality.25 A similar position can be found
in prominent contemporary philosophers, such as Adolf Trendelenburg,26
Hermann Lotze (1817–81),27 and Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus (1796–1862).28
It corresponds to the understanding of nature and spirit as philosophical
principles described in the last section. Nature, accordingly, is what is deter-
mined by causality; to think ‘naturally’ or ‘physically’ is to connect phenomena
by means of the category of causa efficiens. Such a formal definition of nature is

See Chapter 7, text at n. 140.
Cf. Ranke’s famous word that ‘every epoch is immediate unto God’ (1971: 59–60). The full
quotation is given in Chapter 10, text at n. 12. Further Ottmann (1977: 182–3).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 211), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 222.
Trendelenburg (1840: vol. 2, 354): ‘The physical view perceives the world under the
category of efficient causes and effects, like the sea that is moved by the wind’. ‘The organic
view perceives the world under the category of purpose . . . ’ (357). Trendelenburg adds in a note:
‘The organic view [is] precisely spiritual [geistig], the view of Spirit realizing itself.’
Lotze (1856: vol. 2, 5–16), ET: Hamilton/Constance Jones, vol. 1, 408–18.
Chalybäus (1841). See further Chapter 8, text at n. 129.
Philosophical Insights and Influences 181
already found in Kant;29 Ritschl and many contemporaries30 take it for
Its popularity can be explained, at least in part, by recalling that since the
late 1830s a major public ideological conflict had been shaping the experiential
background of the work of theologians and philosophers in Germany. While
Trendelenburg, Chalybäus, and Ritschl defended the superiority of spirit and
the principle of teleology over nature and the principle of efficient causality,
others were simultaneously at work to achieve the exact opposite. Motivated
by the success story of the natural sciences, these writers pushed hard and
aggressively to establish naturalist materialism as part of intellectual culture.
A good example is the medic Ludwig Büchner, a brother of the celebrated
playwright Georg Büchner, whose book Kraft und Stoff (Force and Matter)
was first published in 1855 and underwent no fewer than twenty-one editions.
It is a manifesto of scientific enlightenment against religion and philosophical
idealism. The cornerstones of its argument are the infinity and eternity of
matter and the unchangeable and universal validity of the principle of
We have the fullest right, and are scientifically correct, in asserting that there is no
such thing as a miracle; everything that happens does so in a natural way; i.e. in a
mode determined only by accidental or necessary coalition of existing materials,
and their immanent natural forces.32
Among the ideas most fiercely contested in this context is, not surprisingly,
that of teleology:
The combination of natural materials and forces must, in giving rise to the variety
of existing forms, have at the same time become mutually limited and deter-
mined, and must have produced corresponding contrivances, which, superficially
considered, appear to have been caused by an external power. Our reflective
reason is the sole cause of this apparent design, which is nothing but the necessary
consequence of the combination of natural materials and forces.33

In the Prolegomena, he defines nature ‘in the formal sense’ as ‘the sum total of the rules to
which all appearances must be subject if they are thought as connected in an experience’ (1783:
110) (} 36), ET: Hatfield, 72.
Cf. Lotze’s definition of nature in his posthumous Grundzüge der Naturphilosophie, } 1: ‘By
nature, we understand . . . the form of activity that is determined blindly by general laws, without
knowledge of the intended aim’ (1882: 1).
Actual corporeality, materiality, sensuality, however, are largely absent from Ritschl’s
reflections. His intuitive identification of ‘physical’ and ‘causal’ means that ‘nature’ is ultimately
always the ‘concept of nature’. His theology has little to offer on the religious dimension of real
Büchner (1855: 29), ET: Collingwood, 34.
Büchner (1855: 77–8), ET: Collingwood, 90.
182 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Goal-directedness thus only seems to exist in nature; in truth, it is produced by
our ‘reflecting reason’, which subsequently, as Büchner says (with Kant),
‘admires a wonder which it has created itself ’.34
We must not be deceived by the absence of explicit references to this
controversy; it is this materialism that as an opponent is consistently in view
for Trendelenburg, Lotze, and Ritschl.35 ‘Natural’ or ‘physical’ thought is
therefore always regarded as leading ultimately to such a radical-materialist
position. Accordingly, the duality of natural/causal and spiritual/teleological
in Ritschl is additionally identified with the alternative of determinism and
freedom. Freedom, for Ritschl, is only ‘conceived as decidedly distinct from or
opposed to’ a system of naturalist determinism when it is itself understood as
‘determined through self-determination by means of universal ideas of pur-
pose’.36 This self-determination is that ‘capacity of the spirit which sets a limit
to the propensities and their compulsion, and thus makes itself known as a
force opposed to them’.37
The parallel between spiritual/intellectual (geistig) and teleological is as
firmly enshrined in Ritschl’s mind as that between physical and causal.38
The notion of a spiritual realm governed by final causality is not, of course,
new; it goes back at least as far as Leibniz.39 In Kant, too, the ethical realm is
called ‘Kingdom of Ends’ (Reich der Zwecke),40 and one formulation of the
Categorical Imperative calls his readers to act as if they were lawgivers in this
realm: ‘Act in accordance with the maxims of a member giving universal laws
for a merely possible kingdom of ends’.41 In light of the great respect Ritschl
had for Kant—specifically the Kant of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of
Morals and the Critique of Judgment—it is likely that this parallel is no mere
coincidence. Nevertheless, Ritschl’s methodological imperative to think teleo-
logically cannot as such have been derived from Kant, who strictly limited the
scope of this maxim of the reflective faculty of judgement.42 Ritschl was
perfectly aware of this difference and, in a lengthy passage setting out Kant’s
theological significance, goes out of his way to criticize the Königsberg phil-
osopher for his refusal to accept that truths established by practical reason
could obtain also in the theoretical realm:

Büchner (1855: 77–8), ET: Collingwood, 90.
Cf. Trendelenburg’s careful but unmistakable formulation (1840: vol. 1, vi; full quotation in
Chapter 5, text at n. 23. Ritschl is more direct: (1888: vol. 3, 199–200), ET: Mackintosh/
Macaulay, 208–10; (1888: vol. 3, 581–3), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 616–17.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 277), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 292 (with amendments).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 278), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 292–3.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 211), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 222; full quotation below.
Leibniz (2002a: 154) (} 3), ET: Bennett, 2. Cf. Leibniz (2002b: 144) (} 79) and Bennett
Kant (1785: 74).
Kant (1785: 83–4).
Kant (1790: xxvi) and Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 209–10).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 183
Theoretical cognition must simply accept the fact that while spiritual life is
subject to the laws of mechanism so far as it is interwoven with nature, yet its
special character as distinct from nature is signalised by practical laws which
declare spirit to be an end in itself, which realises itself in this form. Kant wrongly
let himself be persuaded, by this specific quality of spiritual life, to oppose
practical reason as one species of reason to theoretical reason as another. And
yet knowledge of the laws of our action is also theoretical knowledge, for it is
knowledge of the laws of spiritual life.43
Accordingly, Ritschl undertakes to establish a consistently teleological thought
form as the signature of the ‘knowledge of the laws of spiritual life’, while
exposing any form of causal connection in this field as an indication of
inappropriate natural or physical thinking. In practice, this means that Ritschl
generally tries to use teleological concepts to structure theological statements.
This is as true of the concept of the Kingdom of God as for the concept of God
and the doctrines of justification and reconciliation that are presented in such
detail in his main work.44
The full significance of Ritschl’s teleological option, however, becomes
apparent only when one realizes that purposes for him include internal ends
responsible for the existence of organic or quasi-organic structures. This
understanding had been prevalent in Aristotle, whose physical teleology
postulated goal-directedness as a principle inherent in all natural processes,45
but under the influence of theistic religion it gradually gave way to the view
that teleology presupposed the volition of an external agent. Most modern
critics of teleology, such as Spinoza,46 therefore take it for granted that
teleology is either naively anthropocentric or introduced as a vehicle for
proving the existence of God, as in the design argument which from the
observation of goal-directedness in nature deduces the existence of a tran-
scendent deity.47
The most influential philosophical attempt at a philosophical rehabilitation
of teleology in Ritschl’s time, however, does not expound the design argument
of external purposes but consciously and systematically seeks to recover the
Aristotelian model. It is developed at great lengths in Adolf Trendelenburg’s
two-volume study Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations), a book
Ritschl read in his formative years and regarded extremely positively.48

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 211), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 222.
Further on this see Chapter 9.
Aristotle, Physics ii 8.
Spinoza (1989: 144–59). Cf. the summary: ‘ . . . omnia praejudicia . . . pendent ab hoc uno,
quod scilicet communiter supponant homines, omnes res naturales, ut ipsos, propter finem
agere; imo, ipsum Deum omnia ad certum aliquem finem dirigere . . . ’ (144) Italics mine.
Occasionally, Aristotle’s teleology has been understood as anthropomorphic, but this is almost
certainly wrong: Broadie (1990); Johnson (2005).
Paley (2006: 8–10).
O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 224).
184 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Trendelenburg argues that the category of purpose reveals organic and quasi-
organic structures in reality that could not be explained by the principle of
causality. This approach closely aligns the relation of causality and teleology
with that of whole and part:
Where the efficient cause produces something, the parts produce the whole. One
may then say dialectically that the parts are parts only through the whole; and
that parts are not distinguished until the whole is there. This, however, is so only
when we consider the reference of the term and speak of knowledge, not of origin.
The blind movement that produces the line steadily produces its parts; when the
movement stops, the whole is there, and the antecedent parts have produced the
whole. Where purpose governs, the relation is reversed. . . . In reality, this is
shown in the seed, which is rightly called the potential whole. The power of the
whole is concentrated, as it were, in the seed and governs the development
throughout the process.49
It is intriguing to note a level of agreement between Trendelenburg’s view of
teleology and some of Baur’s ideas as presented in the first part of this study.
Baur had spoken programmatically of two ways of historical work, that ‘of
separation and isolation, which, consistently pursued, necessarily leads to
atomism, fatalism and atheism’, and that other ‘on which dawns a purer and
higher consciousness of the divine to the degree to which the spiritual life of
the peoples is recognized in its great interconnectedness as a great whole’.50
Baur’s method also, therefore, is ‘teleological’ insofar as this means the use of
an organic model of thought.
The comparison with Trendelenburg, however, also reinforces our earlier
impression that Baur’s use of the organic model was half-hearted. Baur did not
even consider the possibility that such a model might overcome the antithesis
between a universal and a particular perspective; for him, intuition of the
whole remained—in theory and practice—opposed to the perception of par-
ticulars. Trendelenburg, by contrast, emphasizes that a teleological perspective
both establishes and contains the separate existence of parts:
As purpose by nature includes the concept of relation, it requires, to be at all
possible, a multiplicity of things or elements. What therefore is related by purpose
is, on the one hand, independent; things set themselves apart from each other.
Where the efficient cause of a movement determines everything, the individual
thing appears as a mere piece torn off the whole . . . The separation demanded by
purpose, [on the other hand], is again overcome by purpose. Multiplicity for and
in a unity, then, is the expression of this simple fact.51

Trendelenburg (1840: vol. 2, 19–20).
Baur (1824: vol. 1, xi). Cf. Chapter 3, text at n. 51.
Trendelenburg (1840: vol. 2, 18).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 185
This aspect of teleology becomes fundamentally significant for Ritschl’s own
thought. Teleology facilitates a particular way of understanding and concep-
tualizing the structure of spiritual entities and their mutual interconnection as
whole and parts, preserving both unity and multiplicity.
Recalling at this point Ritschl’s debate with Zeller, we are now in a position
to see how fundamentally important this philosophical principle was for his
rejection of the Tübingen School’s concept of history. Ritschl’s philosophical
argument is given precise expression by Trendelenburg: ‘where the efficient
cause of a movement determines everything, the individual thing appears as a
mere piece torn off the whole.’52 The Tübingen School’s complete reliance on
efficient causality, then, was by no means as innocent as Baur made it when he
wrote that ‘it [i.e. Christianity] contains nothing that is not conditioned by a
preceding series of causes and effects—nothing that has not been long prepared
in various ways’.53 For Ritschl, these words were indicative of a highly
problematic, naturalistic method that failed to do justice to the spiritual and
intellectual character of history. It also failed to ensure that an interest in the
whole would not obliterate the perception of the individual. Ritschl claimed
more plausibility for his own ‘teleological’ historical work precisely because it
enabled the organic delimitation of historical epochs as quasi-individuals, as
exemplified by his theory of early Christianity.
The same teleological interest in the relation of part and whole is also
evident in Ritschl’s view of religion as a social or communal phenomenon.
He himself believed that his thought on this point was most directly depend-
ent on Schleiermacher; therefore, the theoretical foundations of his theory are
most explicitly articulated in conversation with Schleiermacher’s practical
Schleiermacher has noted . . . that the religious moral life of the spirit cannot at all
be conceived of outside the fellowship that corresponds thereto and that, in
reciprocal action, the individual attains his proper peculiar development.55
We shall have to return to the relationship between this insight and Ritschl’s
theological concept of the Kingdom of God whose discussion frames the
present evaluation.56 For the moment, however, it is crucial to perceive
Ritschl’s praise for Schleiermacher’s theory of individuality as yet another
example of his principal affirmation of teleology.57

52 53
Trendelenburg (1840: vol. 2, 18). Baur (1853: 22). Italics mine.
Cf. Zachhuber (2005a).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 487–8), ET: Black, 443–4. The text Ritschl has specifically in mind is
Schleiermacher (1827).
See Chapter 9, text at n. 35.
For Schleiermacher’s theory of individuality and its importance in his overall work cf.
Dilthey (1970: 326–44); Frank (1985).
186 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
There is thus ample evidence connecting Ritschl’s affirmation of ‘internal’,
organic teleology with the Romantic tradition that flows from Schleiermacher
and Schelling via Baur and Trendelenburg to him; the fact that it has, at his
time, a distinctly anti-Hegelian ring to it, must have made it more attractive
for the theologian who was convinced of the inevitability of the historical
trajectory leading from the Berlin philosopher to his students on the left,
notably Strauss and Feuerbach. At the same time, however, this note of
agreement requires qualification: in a highly typical and significant manner,
Ritschl’s understanding of this tradition is one-sided. For Ritschl the duality of
nature and spirit is dichotomous and even antithetical. This is different in
every single philosopher who has so far been considered: Schleiermacher
understands the two as the merely ideal, extreme ends of an ontological
continuum.58 Trendelenburg’s ‘organic world-view’, too, privileges gradual
transitions over against dichotomous oppositions. In discussing teleology,
therefore, he deliberately considers a rehabilitation of Aristotle’s teleology of
nature; nature, one might almost say, is assimilated or aligned to the categories
of mind or spirit. The same is even truer with regard to Hermann Lotze, whose
philosophy has frequently been compared to Ritschl’s thought.59 Lotze, who as
a philosopher had a firm grasp of the scientific issues and advances of his time,
keenly perceived the weaknesses of the idealist alternative proffered against
contemporary naturalist materialism. The full account he provides of the
theistic and pantheistic protests against the ‘mechanical worldview’ in the
second volume of his magisterial Microcosmus is unsparing in its criticism of
their internal, conceptual problems and incoherencies.60 His own solution
unveiled at the end of a long and critical discussion favours a panpsychistic
monism combining mechanism and idealism.61
In contrast to all those thinkers, Ritschl regards the antithesis of nature and
spirit as absolute. Teleology is only possible in the realm and under the
domination of spirit. He therefore completely avoids describing it with the
natural, organic metaphors so characteristic of Trendelenburg and the Aristo-
telian tradition. For Ritschl, spirit and teleology are coextensive insofar as both
are determined by personal willing. In fact, Ritschl is a voluntarist in the sense
that for him the will is the one mental faculty that must be categorically
distinguished from the empirical-natural realm. Natural teleology in the
proper sense, therefore, cannot exist, even if Ritschl occasionally concedes its
heuristic usefulness for our understanding of natural organisms.62

Cf. Zachhuber (2005a: 42–3).
Neugebauer (2002).
Lotze (1856: vol. 2, 14), ET: Hamilton/Constance Jones, vol. 1, 417: ‘Neither of these two
views accomplishes its end . . . ’.
Lotze (1856: vol. 3, 527–33), ET: Hamilton/Constance Jones, vol. 2, 642–7.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 582), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 616.
Philosophical Insights and Influences 187
Ritschl, then, adopts the concept of internal, organic teleology from Tren-
delenburg and Schleiermacher, but also limits its scope. The relation of nature
and spirit is, for him, fundamentally a conflict in which one side necessarily
dominates and the other succumbs.63 Teleology in nature can only exist if a
will confronts it from the outside as an external purpose to which it is
submitted and used as a means.64 Precisely this nexus of teleology and will,
so fundamental to Ritschl’s thought, is markedly absent from Trendelenburg,
Schleiermacher, Schelling, and Baur.

Ethics as a Theory of Spiritual Life

A third aspect of Ritschl’s philosophy, which again derives directly from the
dualism of nature and spirit, is his specific concept of ethics. He has often been
evoked as a proponent of an ‘ethical view of Christianity’;65 however, it is
crucial to add to such an epithet that for Ritschl, ethics is the philosophical
discipline that considers the world insofar as it is spirit (Geist). Terms like
‘ethical’, ‘moral’, or ‘practical’ are therefore antonyms of ‘physical’ and can, in
many cases, be exchanged with ‘teleological’. This is the broad understanding
of ethics championed in Germany at the outset of the century by Schelling,
Schleiermacher, and later Trendelenburg, which conceives of the discipline as
a theory of human action and human culture.66
Once again, Ritschl’s agreement with this tradition is only partial. His sharp
disjunction of nature and spirit bends his ethics too in a distinctly voluntarist
direction. It is tied first and foremost to the phenomenon of will, which alone
guarantees human beings their special position over nature. Quite telling is
Ritschl’s homage to Kant at the expense of Schleiermacher, whose theory of
individuality did ‘not put out of date’
. . . Kant’s commanding importance in ethics as well as in the science of religion.
This would be the case only if Schleiermacher had appropriated Kant’s leading
thought, namely, the specific distinction of the power of the will from all powers
of nature. But this he has not done.67
Ritschl’s claim rests on a rather specific concept of the will as distinct ‘from all
powers of nature’. Volition, in other words, is the exemplary phenomenon of

Since Ritschl charges that Schleiermacher’s ‘pantheism’ led him to the subject of the
individual to the whole (1874: 37–8) we must assume that he was in principle aware of the
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 265–6), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 279; Kuhlmann (1992: 133–5).
Cf. von Scheliha (1999: 214–31); (2000: 746).
Schelling (1858a: 532–606), ET: Heath, 155–213; for Schleiermacher: Pleger (1988: 12–30);
Trendelenburg (1840: vol. 2, 358–9); (1855: 25–6).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 488), ET: Black, 444 (with amendments).
188 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
spiritual (geistig) reality and for this reason provides the key to an understand-
ing of human beings as part of the intelligible realm. This had also been the
view of Kant, for whom the good will in its ideal form coincided with pure
practical reason.68 Ritschl, while perfectly prepared to accept the latter identi-
fication, emphasized much more strongly the will’s teleological structure. An
ethical worldview, for him, is therefore essentially one that is determined by
Consequently, Kant’s significance consists not only in his definition of the
will as non-natural or non-empirical—and Ritschl is right to stress the dis-
agreement between Kant and Schleiermacher on this point69—but also in the
central position he accorded to this principle in his ethics. Once again, we see
Ritschl restrain the Romantic-Idealist, ‘broad’ conception of ethics because of
the dichotomous duality of his own concepts of nature and spirit. Ethics exists
where there is volition—and only there. It is the will that brings forth ends,
and thus its occurrence not implausibly takes centre stage in a teleological
This is not to say, however, that Ritschl has given up an understanding of
ethics as a theory of the spiritual and intellectual life. Rather, his overall
voluntaristic approach affects his understanding of the latter too. In other
words, the spiritual and intellectual life in its turn is chiefly characterized, for
Ritschl, by the presence of volition. Spirit is teleological insofar as it is
essentially willing. Even in his earliest lectures on dogmatics, Ritschl is un-
equivocal about this point. The ‘central function of the subject’, he writes, is ‘to
will itself ’. It is this self-willing, a transcendental determination of human
personality, that explains not only human agency but, Ritschl argues, even
cognition, which must be driven by an ‘interest to know’ which ultimately
rests in ‘self-willing’.70
These formulations, written down in 1853—almost twenty years before the
first publication of Ritschl’s main theological work—are not to last. Already in
his revised lecture notes from 1856, Ritschl dropped the notion of ‘self-
willing’, as far as we can see.71 Yet there can be no doubt that right at the
beginning of his academic work in the early 1850s, Ritschl’s voluntarism is
already fully in evidence. For an elucidation of his philosophical background
during these formative years, this observation is as pivotal as it has been
neglected. For all the similarities of Ritschl’s dualism of nature and spirit to

Cf. Kant (1785: 36–7).
For Schleiermacher, a transcendental will in the Kantian sense would be irrelevant for the
actual moral life since its interaction with nature could not be demonstrated (1825: 436).
Ritschl, Dogmatics Lectures 1853 (Hök 1942: 74–5, n. 46).
The notes are extant only in extracts published by Gösta Hök (1942). It cannot therefore be
absolutely excluded that the term recurs in a passage that has not been transmitted. Yet in his
analysis, Hök explicitly comments on Ritschl’s development in this matter: Hök (1942: 72–8;
106–29; 138–77).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 189
analogous concepts in Baur, Schleiermacher, Trendelenburg, or Lotze, this
particular doctrine has no evident parallel in any of them. It has, therefore,
been suggested that on this issue Ritschl quite simply is original.72 There is,
however, one philosophical school of the time, Speculative Theism, whose
thought provides a remarkable parallel. In fact, a closer comparison, which
must be deferred to the second part of this chapter, will bring to light
considerable similarities between their philosophy and a number of Ritschl’s
central intellectual tenets.

Nature and Spirit in Ritschl’s Philosophy of Religion

While Ritschl’s readers may disagree over the ultimate interpretation of his
version of nature-spirit dualism, it cannot be controversial that the primary
concern underlying those reflections was always in theology and philosophy of
religion. Ritschl sought to advance an understanding of Christianity that
would circumvent the fatal consequences of ‘Hegelism’ (Hegelei, in his own
idiosyncratic phrase) that is, the critique of religion by Strauss and Feuerbach.
Baur and his school, according to Ritschl, had failed precisely this test.
Consequently, the main purpose of his own conception of nature and spirit
was to show more effectively that and how Christianity was an ‘ethical
Such an understanding of Christianity as an ethical (and in this sense
‘spiritual’ and ‘teleological’) religion, which therefore had achieved its true
form only in Protestantism, was well established among academic theologians
at Ritschl’s time.73 Schleiermacher, in a celebrated passage in The Christian
Faith, had introduced his distinction between aesthetic and teleological reli-
gions to this same end:
The widest diversity between forms of piety is that which exists, with regard to the
religious affections, between those forms which subordinate the natural in human
conditions to the moral and those which, on the contrary, subordinate the moral
to the natural.74
It must be noted that for Schleiermacher this distinction did not imply
hierarchy; it is a ‘division of religions which appear as co-ordinate’.75 This
nuance, however, was lost already in Baur,76 who took it for granted that
Schleiermacher had endeavoured to prove the absoluteness of Christianity and
who himself used the classificatory scheme of physical and ethical religions for

O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 246).
For an extensive survey cf. Hök (1942: 178–93).
Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 74), ET: Mackintosh/Stewart, 39–40.
Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 74), ET: Mackintosh/Stewart, 39–40.
See Chapter 2, text at n. 37.
190 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
this very purpose. Ethical religion thus can, for Baur, only exist in the realm of
monotheism, and its emergence within the latter category marks the transition
to the consummate religion. In Symbolik und Mythologie he writes:
When this awareness of moral ends as the ultimate task of [human] agency is
related to the feeling of dependence, the result is the teleological view, according
to which God is not only the supreme cause of the world, but also originator of
a moral universe. As such, unlike in pantheistic monotheism, he must on
no account be identified with the world, but be distinguished from it as an
intelligent cause operating with self-consciousness and according to moral
ends. In this monotheism alone . . . religious consciousness obtains its true and
pure meaning.77
This division of monotheism into its pantheistic and ethical versions is the
final element of a systematic classification of religions geared towards an
absolute and consummately perfect form characterized by a concept of deity
that is ‘ethical’ precisely insofar as it is teleological.78
Baur also introduced the sequence of polytheism, dualism, and monotheism
into his argument,79 but it is the duality of nature and spirit that drives the
dynamics of the history of religion. In a telling illustration of this point, Baur
draws an explicit parallel between the history of religion and the development
of humanity in general:
When the human being gradually cuts himself loose from the connection with
nature to which initially he is, as it were, conjoined; [when] he juxtaposes himself
in his own, particular character to external nature, . . . the awareness of his own,
moral nature has dawned on him, and the feeling of being dependent on a higher
cause, which accompanies him at all stages of his development, now finds its
expression in the idea of its object as the ideal totality of all the moral laws
formulated in and through reason.80
It is remarkable that despite all the shifts in Baur’s thought between 1824,
when the first volume of Symbolik und Mythologie was published, and 1835,
this basic principle remains intact. The duality of spirit and nature, and the
necessity of mediating between the two realms, determines the presentation in
Die christliche Gnosis as clearly as it did in Baur’s first work. There is no need
to reiterate here an argument that has been made at length in an earlier
chapter, but one particular point is worth recalling simply because it is so
strikingly similar to a central element of Ritschl’s thought that it throws into
relief the lasting significance of the Tübingen professor for his renegade

77 78
Baur (1824: vol. 1, 124). Baur (1824: vol. 1, 124).
Baur (1824: vol. 1, 115): All three are initially expressions of ‘physical’ religion because they
consider the divine being in ‘numerical terms’.
Baur (1824: vol. 1, 126).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 191
In their work on the history of religion, Baur argues, the Gnostics presup-
posed the absoluteness of Christianity. In their philosophy, however, they fail
to take full cognizance of this datum because of its indebtedness to the heritage
of Greek religion, which is ‘physical’ and not ‘ethical’:
This [sc. philosophy] starts from the same view that also underlies pagan religion
in its various modifications, usually always in the same way. God and world are
conceived as mediated through the elements of a process that has the character,
more or less, of a natural process governed by physical laws.81
This, then, is the basic problem of early Christian Gnosis: the combination of
the Christian idea with an inappropriate form of philosophy, which, because
of its affinity with nature religion, applies to the relation of God and world the
paradigm of a natural process. This failure to properly acknowledge the ethical
character of Christianity was, according to Baur, already emphasized by early
Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, who in his anti-Gnostic
polemic emphasized the idea of free will and an ‘ethical’ understanding of
It is very much the cause of morality that Clement brings to bear against the
Gnostic systems and their interlacing of human beings into the causal nexus of
the universe.82
This same tendency recurs in Augustine’s anti-Manichean polemics83 and
especially in the Reformation and the subsequent history of Protestantism:
The quintessential difference between the religious worldviews of Gnosticism and
Protestantism must always be perceived in this that the highest opposition to
which Protestantism can be reduced can only be the ethical one of election and
condemnation, grace and sin, spirit and flesh, not the metaphysical or natural one
of spirit and matter, God and world, the absolute and the finite.84
It is not altogether clear whether Baur in the present passage equates ‘ethical’
and ‘teleological’ the way he has done in Symbolik und Mythologie; nothing,
certainly, appears to contradict this assumption except that the connection is
not explicitly made here. Regardless of this latter point, however, the parallels
between Baur and Ritschl are quite remarkable:
1. Both express the fundamental paradigm of the history of religion with
the help of the duality of nature and spirit. The perfect and absolute
religion is a perfectly spiritual (geistig) religion. This implies the subor-
dination of the natural to the spiritual.
2. Most characteristic of spiritual religion is its ethical and therefore teleo-
logical idea of God.

81 82
Baur (1835: 29). Baur (1835: 492).
83 84
Baur (1835: 548–9). Baur (1835: 555).
192 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
3. Christianity is the absolute religion insofar as it is, in this sense, ethical.
4. In its history, Christianity is threatened by adulterations arising from the
illegitimate influence of natural philosophy. This is particularly apparent
in the influence on early Christian theology of Greek metaphysics, a
philosophy essentially shaped by the concerns of pagan nature religion.
It is the Reformation that has led Christianity back to its original and
true ethical character.
The last point is particularly illuminating given the prominence Ritschl
accords to the theory that physical thought was a permanent threat to theol-
ogy’s intellectual integrity. On the basis of this theory, he rejects any theo-
logical emphasis on God’s transcendence as ‘Aeropagitism’85 and due to
improper influence of Platonism. The same theory also underwrites his radical
opposition to metaphysical ‘natural theology’86 as well as his proposal to
substitute for the latter a form of philosophy more congenial to the ethical
principles of Christianity. Both will be more fully discussed in the next section.
More generally, the agreements between Baur and Ritschl indicate their
common conviction that Christianity’s character as religion of the spirit
necessitates as its corollary the imperative of a strictly historical philosophy
of religion and thus the rejection of the ahistorical approach of Rationalism
and orthodoxy. Ritschl appears less impressed, it must be added, by the way
Baur, or indeed Schleiermacher, had executed this general principle: Schleier-
macher’s definition of Christianity as ‘teleological’ was, Ritschl averred, ‘con-
stantly crossed by the neutral idea of religion by which he is guided’,87 while
Baur inscribed the dualism of nature and spirit into a deterministically
conceived historical process and thus undermined Christianity’s basis in
revelation and, ultimately, its very historicity.
The reason for this failure, according to Ritschl, was their neglect of the
close relation, indeed identity, of the spirit and the will. They therefore did not
acknowledge volition as the theoretical basis of morality, religion, and history
as Ritschl thinks is necessary. This does not, of course, mean that it was clear
to Ritschl right from the beginning what the latter affirmation implied for our
understanding of religion. From the early 1850s, he was unwavering in his
commitment to a practical concept of religion with volition as its central
element. This decision corresponded to a broad contemporary trend encour-
aged, no doubt, by the perception that Hegel’s concept of religion as know-
ledge inevitably led to its later rejection by the Young Hegelians. Zeller (as we

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 257–8), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 271. Ritschl is therefore also
opposed to ‘mysticism’ and ‘pietism’: these theological ideas had direct practical and church-
political consequences!
Schäfer (1968: 86–9).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 9), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 9.
Philosophical Insights and Influences 193
have seen88) argued analogously, and the Hegelian Wilhelm Vatke, for a while
Ritschl’s close friend,89 struck a similar note in his 1841 book Die menschliche
Freiheit in ihrem Verhältnis zur Sünde und zur göttlichen Gnade (Human
Freedom in its Relation to Sin and to Divine Grace):
It is dangerous lunacy to think, as some do, that the individual subject, to the
extent that they obtain philosophical education, cease, and are permitted to cease,
to have religion. Such a view rests on a one-sided identification of the essence of
religion with religious ideas, the theoretical part of consciousness, which is indeed
purified, changed and to some extent completely abolished by the power of pure
thought . . . The true kernel of religion is not, however, to be found in this partly
modified form of appearance (Erscheinungsform), but in the internal cult, the
living and practical mediation of self-consciousness with the divine. . . . Religion
as such concerns life, chastity (Zucht) and the transfiguration of the entire human
Vatke’s emphasis on the practical dimension of religion is clearly motivated by
an apologetic concern. The same holds true for Zeller, and Ritschl too was
influenced by similar considerations. A more conceptual factor was the per-
ceived proximity of a practical concept of religion to its radical historicization.
Vatke continues the present passage by noting that the ‘historical character of
religion’ can be derived from its practical nature,91 and this undoubtedly was
Ritschl’s view too: only a practical concept of religion permits an understand-
ing of religion as historical and avoids the errors of natural religion. This
conceptual syzygy was of central importance for Ritschl’s thought and nothing
suggests that it changed significantly over the course of his intellectual career.
Yet problems remained. Ritschl was aware that Feuerbach’s critique of
religion, too, rested on a view of religion as practice.92 The apologetic potential
of a practical conception of religion may still have seemed self-evident to
Vatke, whose book was published in the early summer of 1841 and thus just
before The Essence of Christianity made itself felt on the intellectual scene; to
Ritschl it must have been evident that Feuerbach’s critique necessitated a more
complex theoretical response.
This ambivalence, and Ritschl’s discomfort with the solutions presented by
Vatke, Zeller, and others, finds vocal expression in the manuscript of his first
dogmatics lectures in 1853:
The main idea of religion as practice has now, in its turn, influenced the Hegelian
School and elicited various attempts by Vatke, Biedermann, Zeller, Schwarz to
save religion from Strauss’s impositions by its application; but the consequence of

See Chapter 5, ‘Strauss and Feuerbach’. 89
O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 87).
90 91
Vatke (1841: 21). Vatke (1841: 21).
See Chapter 5, ‘Strauss and Feuerbach’.
194 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Hegelism (Hegelei) developed by Feuerbach influences them too insofar as they
shy away from a recognition of the concept of revelation.93
The note, which is somewhat elliptic, appears to suggest that the theological
Hegel School adopted the practical concept of religion to escape from the
critical results of Strauss’s scholarship (his ‘impositions’). We have seen that,
for Zeller and Vatke, this motivation certainly existed.94 Yet Ritschl goes on to
argue that this theoretical move alone cannot protect from a radical critique of
religion without the additional willingness to embrace the concept of revela-
tion. In their reluctance to take this further step, those Hegelians still display
Feuerbachian influence.
It is difficult to be certain about the details of Ritschl’s allusions. What
exactly does he mean by a ‘recognition’ of the concept of revelation? And why
would such ‘recognition’ be an antidote to the ‘consequences of Hegelism’?
Ritschl did not understand revelation in the supernatural sense of the term,
but adopted its philosophical understanding pioneered by Schleiermacher, as
we have seen from his confrontation with Zeller.95 Given that the latter
concept referred to the idea of radical historical novelty, one might deduce
for the present passage an analogous understanding of ‘revelation’ as a cipher
for historicity. On this interpretation, an understanding of religion as practice
falls into the Feuerbachian trap if its proponents do not at the same time
embrace a radically historical viewpoint emphasizing the historical reality of
Christianity’s origins and their written attestation in the biblical books. While
preparing these lectures, Ritschl after all worked hard on the preparation of
the second edition of Die Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche.
A similar concern may explain why it took Ritschl so long to absorb the idea
that religion aims at beatitude.96 Clearly, the principle would have appealed to
his preference for religion as practice, but it too had become contaminated by
its association with Feuerbach’s critique. So, Ritschl adopted it only once he
was sure how to steer clear of these consequences. His solution draws on the
communal character of religion, which, he argues, defeats the allegation that
interest in salvation is inevitably egotistical:
In its day the Hegelian philosophy represented theoretical knowledge as not
merely the most valuable function of spirit, but likewise the function which has
to take up the problem of religion and solve it. To this Feuerbach opposed the
observation that in religion the chief stress falls upon the wishes and needs of the
human heart. But as the latter philosopher also continued to regard professedly
pure and disinterested knowledge as the highest achievement of man, religion,
and especially the Christian religion which he held to be the expression of a purely

Ritschl, Dogmatics Lectures 1853; Hök (1942: 24, n. 27).
For Zeller, cf. Chapter 5, text at n. 38; for Vatke, cf. Chapter 8, text at n. 90.
Hök (1942: 7–15); cf. Chapter 7, text at n. 97.
Cf. Hök (1942: 106–13) whose historical construction is, however, problematic.
Philosophical Insights and Influences 195
individual and therefore egoistic interest, and a self-delusion in respect of its
object, God was by him declared to be worthless . . . But an interest in salvation
in the Christian sense, when rightly understood, is incompatible with egoism.97
Using Ritschl’s own terminology, we would have to conclude that the Chris-
tian interest in beatitude is realized only through the spirit of love in the
Kingdom of God.
There is some irony in the fact that Ritschl here meets Feuerbach with an
objection that was analogously proffered by Marx, namely that religion cannot
be isolated from its social reality.98 Yet this parallel also reveals as problematic
Ritschl’s conclusion that the recognition of the social character of religion is in
itself sufficient to defuse the critical potential of Feuerbach’s theory. This
conclusion is valid only under the condition that the role of religion as a
stabilizer of social order is unquestionably justified; in other words, a tacit
premiss of Ritschl’s argument is that social institutions such as family and
state in their existing form are products of moral volition and, while not
identical with the Kingdom of God, are analogous to it.99 This, however, can
be denied, and if it is, Feuerbach’s critique of religion reappears in a new guise,
transformed into a critique of the social conditions that are justified and
stabilized with the help of religion: this, precisely, is Marx’s project in the
celebrated ‘Introduction’ to his Contributions to the Critique of Hegel’s Phil-
osophy of Right.100
However this may be, one thing is clear: in his developed system, Ritschl
remains faithful to his original impulse to see religion primarily as a matter of
practice. This impulse arises from his conviction, appropriated from Baur, that
Christianity is the religion of the spirit. Baur already had used spiritual (geistig)
synonymous with ‘ethical’ and with ‘historical’. Ritschl, for whom ‘ethical’
means ‘teleological’ and thus ‘determined by volition’, concludes that the
religion of spirit is necessarily practical and, as such, radically historical and
social. This religion provides the final and supreme solution to the existential
conflict caused for human beings by their submission to the determination by
laws of nature:
Christianity, by its completely rounded view of the world, guarantees to believers
that they shall be preserved unto eternal [i.e. spiritual101] life in the Kingdom of
God, which is God’s revealed end in the world and that, too, in the full sense that

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 196), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 206.
Marx (1844: 378).
Cf. Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 272), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 286. Ritschl commends the
Reformers for ‘their recognition of the state as a directly Divine institution, and of civil justice as
a positive moral good.’
Marx (1844: 379), ET: O’Malley, 131: ‘The critique of religion is the critique in embryo of
the vale of tears of which religion is the halo.’
Cf. Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 223), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 235: ‘For eternity is in general
the power of spirit over time.’
196 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
man is thus in the Kingdom of God set over the world as a whole in his own
Ritschl’s specific version of the nature-spirit dualism, which has been analysed
in previous sections, has had an equally formative influence on his conception
of religion and in this, once again, Ritschl’s relation to his Tübingen roots is
revealed as ambiguous. While Baur’s influence can be traced to the very
foundations of Ritschl’s conception, his departure from the Tübingen philoso-
phy is nevertheless fundamental and radical. The latter is most conspicuous in
Ritschl’s voluntarism—his insistence on the primacy of the will as the privil-
eged and pre-eminent mark of spirit. This theoretical move turns the duality
of nature and spirit into a sharply dichotomous dualism, and it is this
transformation more than anything else that was seen, again and again, to
set Ritschl’s thought apart from that of Baur, Schleiermacher, Schelling, Lotze,
or Trendelenburg to whom his philosophical outlook has most often been
related. In light of this observation, it must be asked at this point whether
anything more can be discovered about the background of Ritschl’s thought in
the philosophy of his time.


The Problem of Ritschl’s Sources

From the very beginning of his career as a systematic theologian, Ritschl was
in search of a suitable philosophy that would aid his theological reflection. We
learn from his earliest set of lecture notes, written in 1853, what the prerequis-
ites for a solution would be:
The dependence of theology on philosophy is rightly conceived when philosophy
too knows itself dependent on the Christian religion, when [this religion] stimu-
lates it to make, in its own way, the transition from the world to God whose
revelation is the original datum of theology. Theology has always been dependent
on philosophy, even in the Middle Ages when the relationship appeared to be the
reverse. Yet religion is not dependent on philosophy, but religion and philosophy
are polar opposites; the harmony of the human mind is revealed in their
Theology, then, requires philosophy, but both theology and philosophy
depend on the ‘Christian religion’, and theology can and must join itself to a
philosophy that acknowledges that fact. Accordingly, the so-called conflict

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 191), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 200.
Ritschl, Dogmatics Lectures 1853: Hök (1942: 327, n. 9).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 197
between faith and knowledge or between theology and philosophy rests on a
historical misunderstanding. Christianity’s apologists in late antiquity, as
Ritschl continues to say in his 1853 lecture series, acquired their philosophical
ammunition from an arsenal not commensurate to its religious level:
as a matter of fact, the generally accepted conflict between reason and revelation
comes down to a conflict between the thought forms of Greek philosophy and the
Christian idea (Vorstellung) or, rather, Christian theology. For that conflict
becomes possible only when the Christian idea is reflected within universal
thought forms; early on it received a metaphysical addition that was much
more closely related to their opponents than to Christianity. This dispute can
only be settled in a twofold procedure: philosophy must [proceed] from its
Ancient stage [to] reach the Christian one, and Christian theology must eliminate
the elements of Ancient thought it has assimilated and obtain forms of thought
that are more adequate to it. The task cannot be to return to simple religious
It is this very flaw, he charges in his 1860 lectures, that infected the classical
formulation of the Trinitarian dogma as well as Chalcedonian Christology:
According to the correct historical critique, [the contradictory nature of those
doctrines] results from the fact that the religious ideas underlying those doctrines
have been brought into a scientific (wissenschaftlich) form inadequate to its
content. For the categories of substance and accident, of thing and property
apply only to the realm of appearance, not the reality of the spirit and the will.
Their application to the latter necessarily leads to contradictions.105
It is, then, precisely the ‘reality of the spirit and the will’ that is of key
philosophical importance; no proper concept for this reality existed in pre-
Christian philosophy—indeed, one may infer, only a philosophy that has
emerged under the influence of Christianity could have attained it. What
philosophy is this? Is Ritschl thinking of a particular version of philosophy,
even a specific philosopher? The individual most frequently mentioned in this
regard is Kant. Thus, Ritschl writes in 1874, in the first edition of Justification
and Reconciliation:
As Hellenic philosophy is limited by the same conditions that define nature
religion, so one will recognize, conversely, a specific effect of Christian culture,
especially Protestant culture, in a philosophy that describes individual human
responsibility, and the human destiny to universal morality, as criteria of the
necessary knowledge of the world. This applies in the case of the teleological
perfection of our knowledge of the world as a whole, which Kant achieves in his
Critique of Judgment. Specifically, this teleological interpretation of the universe is

Ritschl, Dogmatics Lectures 1853: Hök (1942: 338, n. 32).
Ritschl, Dogmatics Lectures 1860: Hök (1942: 339, n. 32).
198 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
derived from an appreciation of communal agency according to the moral law as
the world’s highest end and thus analogous to the Christian worldview.106
This statement is not isolated in Ritschl’s mature work; he clearly came to
think of Kant (especially the Kant of the third Critique) as perhaps the most
important point of reference for philosophical theology. Was this however his
view right from the beginning? In other words, can Kant’s influence explain
the genesis of Ritschl’s philosophical outlook? An impressive scholarly trad-
ition gives an affirmative answer to this question and classifies Ritschl as a
theological Kantian.107 Yet the case may not, however, be quite so straightfor-
ward. Here it is instructive to look at two statements from Ritschl’s early
lectures; in many ways they anticipate those passages in his later work in
which he invokes Kant as the normative point of reference for Christian
theology, but with a striking difference. In the lecture series of 1864, Ritschl
writes as follows:
Among us only that philosophy seems to have a future which following Kant
affirms the field of human moral volition as the main object, and at the same time
the cognitive principle, of the entire worldview. By this is meant a concept of the
human spirit which, while acknowledging its conditionality on the entirety of
nature, insists that spirit is different from nature and destined to use nature as a
means to its own end. Such philosophical understanding, however, has to account
for the fact that the highest task we recognize is guaranteed for the immediate
consciousness by Christianity and that the Christian idea of God as Spirit who
through his purpose for the world guarantees its unity underwrites human moral
freedom. In such a philosophy, theology can find its highest principles without
succumbing to a foreign power.108
Ritschl’s fundamental position is familiar to us by now: theology can and
should ally itself with a philosophy that has originated in Christianity and is
aware of its Christian roots. Its main mark is a sharp dualism of nature and
spirit, with its ethical consequences. Kant’s name is mentioned as a point of
reference, but one must not overlook the nuance: Ritschl speaks here of a
philosophy ‘which following Kant affirms the field of human moral volition as
the main object, and at the same time the cognitive principle, of the entire
worldview’. Moreover, it seems clear that he is here thinking of a philosophical
development of his own time; he writes in near-prophetic style that this alone
has ‘a future’. Do any clues permit us to hazard a guess concerning the identity
of those philosophers? Names are conspicuously absent from the present
passage; in later texts, Kant alone is mentioned.

Ritschl (1870: vol. 1, 12–13).
Wrzecionko (1964: 143–98). The ultimate result of his analysis is, however, that Ritschl
fundamentally misunderstood Kant.
Hök (1942: 331–2, n. 14). Italics mine.
Philosophical Insights and Influences 199
On one occasion, however, Ritschl becomes more outspoken. That text is
found in the introductory part of his notes for his lecture series on ethics,
originally written down in 1858 but published for the first time only in 2007.
There, Ritschl once again discusses the history of theology and philosophy,
reiterating all his fundamental ideas, familiar to us by now.109 Once again, he
ascribes a significant role to Kant, insofar as the latter was the first to grasp the
exemplary role of the will in an understanding of spirit—an insight later
missed by both Schleiermacher and Hegel. Note, however, how Ritschl
Precisely in opposition to those two [sc. Hegel and Schleiermacher], philosophy
as far as it is at all alive, seeks to develop the concept of the will under transcen-
dental categories but also in the right relationship to morality and the natural
condition (Chalybäus, Fichte jun.110) Theological ethics can enter into a conver-
sation with these attempts all the more given that this party accepts the moral
necessity of religion, especially Christianity, and constructs religious commu-
nities as a type of moral ones.111
As in his 1864 lectures on dogmatics, here Ritschl directly expresses his views
on contemporary philosophical developments, finding the best promise of
success in a further development of Kant’s valorization of the will. Yet while
any further specification of this alleged tendency is conspicuously absent from
the dogmatics notes, the present passage lists names—names, however, which
have hardly ever been seriously discussed in connection with Ritschl’s thought.
In citing Immanuel Hermann Fichte and Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus, Ritschl
names two representatives of Speculative Idealism or Speculative Theism, a
philosophical movement influential in German university philosophy from
the 1830s to the 1850s but nowadays almost entirely forgotten. In contempor-
ary English language scholarship, mere mention of their names would have to
be considered exceptional.
Can Ritschl’s hint then be taken seriously? Certainly, we must recognize
that, taken at face value, Ritschl’s claim in the present text is quite remarkable.
He identifies, in the ethical writings of those Speculative Idealists, the most
important dialogue partner for crucial elements of his own thought. This
significance is reinforced when, in the next section of the manuscript, Ritschl
sets out the relationship between philosophical and theological ethics in a way
completely analogous to the broadly contemporaneous notes from his dog-
matics lectures.112 It has to be conceded, therefore, that prima facie Ritschl
regards Chalybäus and Fichte Jr as principal philosophical reference points in

Ritschl (2007: 13–17).
Ritschl adds in the margin the name of Schopenhaur, but his son, Otto Ritschl, is right in
observing that ‘the following sentence does not apply’ to him (Ritschl 1892: vol. 1, 347, n. 1).
111 112
Ritschl (2007: 17). Ritschl (2007: 17–19).
200 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
1858. We must admit that his comments refer explicitly to ethics alone. Yet
theological ethics is not, for Ritschl, a subdiscipline within theology; as we
have seen in detail above, Christian theology, due to the principal importance
of spirit for Christianity, is essentially expressed through ethical reflection.
We shall see in a moment, that in a rather stunning way, a very similar
assumption is central to Speculative Idealism as well.
Can Ritschl’s reference to Fichte and Chalybäus, however, be reconciled
with his invokation of Kant, not exactly a philosopher normally associated
with ‘speculative’ systems of any shade?113 Here we need to revert to the most
authoritative study of this phase in the history of German university philoso-
phy, Klaus Christian Köhnke’s The Rise of Neo-Kantianism. Köhnke has
shown, in commendable detail, how important the contribution of those
Speculative Theists was for the spectacular renaissance of Kantianism from
the 1840s.114 Notably, this return to Kant found its expression, at least initially,
in a programme of speculative ethics, prefigured, and to an extent already
executed, in Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals.115
Ritschl himself, in the paragraph cited above, lists four themes or insights
that make this philosophy valuable for theology:
1. Its development of a transcendental concept of the will;
2. Its delimitation of ethics against the ‘natural condition’;
3. Its acknowledgement of the significance of Christianity for morality;
4. Its understanding of religious communities within a framework of social
It would seem hardly an exaggeration to say that if it is true that Ritschl
learned these insights from the writings of Speculative Idealists, then this will
be of pivotal relevance for our understanding of his intellectual development.
For it appears that these four points perfectly summarize the major differences
setting Ritschl’s emerging position apart from that of the Tübingen School and
of various other contemporary thinkers such as Adolf Trendelenburg and
Hermann Lotze. How plausible then is this assumption? The question can
only be answered by a more detailed doctrinal comparison, for which the
copious writings of Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus (1796–1862) are particularly

Cf. Wrzecionko (1964: 14, n. 7) for a brief contextualization. He writes that Ritschl
‘occasionally distanced himself ’ from these philosophers without adding a reference. He may
have had in mind Ritschl’s cursory reference in (1856) where his critique, however, is qualified.
Köhnke (1986: 88–105).
Kobusch (1993: 208–9) cf. (129–57).
On Chalybäus cf. the biographical note by Prantl (1876). More recently he has been
discussed by Kobusch (1990); (1993: 207–16) and Trappe (1997: 63–78).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 201

Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus on Metaphysics, Ethics, and Religion

Chalybäus, who is all-but-forgotten today, belonged to a group of philoso-

phers and theologians who first attracted attention in the 1830s as critics of
Hegel’s philosophy ‘from the right’. Immanuel Hermann Fichte (1796–1879),
son of the more famous Johann Gottlieb Fichte, was the first to formulate a
critique of Hegel’s philosophy in the name of personality. Hegel, Fichte alleges,
while announcing in his Phenomenology of Spirit a new philosophy that would
overcome the duality of metaphysics of substance (Spinoza) and of the subject
(Kant), in his actual execution of this programme lapsed back into an unmiti-
gated essentialism at the expense of the reality of the subject.117 He therefore
does not move beyond pantheism and generally falls short of an adequate
concept of the individual person, which leaves him open to serious theological
and ethical charges. Theologically, Fichte specifies, his philosophy leads—as
the Young Hegelians correctly point out—to either pantheism or atheism. It
cannot accommodate the idea of a personal God—or, by extension, that of the
human person, an idea indispensable for ethics. It is precisely this line of
thought which then subsequently leads Fichte and his collaborators back to
Kant, whom they are the first to rediscover. They borrow from him the idea of
a metaphysics of morals118 and develop it into the idiosyncratic genre of
speculative ethics; these copious works are, in practice, treatises on first
Hermann Chalybäus’s most notable individual contribution within this
fundamental project is a critique of traditional metaphysics and a proposal
to transform it along ethical lines; it is not least this element of his philosophy
that makes him interesting in the present context. Especially illuminating and
in many ways foundational for his method of thought is his journal essay
‘Die ethischen Kategorien der Metaphysik’ (‘The Ethical Categories of Meta-
physics’), published in 1841. This text sets out seminal ideas that underlie
Chalybäus’s later main works, his Wissenschaftslehre (Theory of Knowledge,
1846), the two-volume System der spekulativen Ethik (System of Speculative
Ethics, 1850), as well as his philosophy of religion, published in 1853 under
the title Philosophie und Christenthum (Philosophy and Christianity). His
close sympathy for theology was notable even at this time, as is evident from
internal discussions about potential successors of Georg Andreas Gabler to the
Chair of Philosophy at the University of Berlin.120

Chalybäus (1840: 8–13). Cf. for the broader debate Fulda (1975: 67–73).
Kant (1797: 10): ‘If therefore a system of a priori cognition from concepts alone is called
metaphysics, a practical philosophy, which has not nature but freedom of choice for its object,
will presuppose and require a metaphysics of morals.’ ET: Gregor, 10.
I. H. Fichte (1850); Chalybäus (1850). Cf. Kobusch (1993: 207); Scholtz (1999: 235–59).
Pester and Orth (2003: 241). Lotze made the same point in his review of Chalybäus’s
Wissenschaftslehre (1847: 348).
202 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
In his 1841 essay, Chalybäus is first of all concerned with a clarification of
the category of will—specifically, its difference from ‘natural impulse’ (Natur-
trieb).121 Without this distinction, he argues, spirit (Geist) is not differentiated
from nature, and history and ethics cannot be adequately conceptualized.
Hegel fails this challenge; consequently, he ‘slides back from spirit into nature,
from historical, free progress to the necessity of simultaneity’.122 Worse, his
philosophy of spirit ‘underhand’ becomes a ‘philosophy of nature’, insofar as
he fails to properly account for subjectivity; substance thus once more be-
comes ‘the omnipotent category of spirit, indeed, the basic category of all
philosophy’.123 In this way, Hegel’s philosophy remains under the spell of
metaphysics, which since Aristotle has been marked by precisely this defect,
and is therefore, from a religious perspective, a child of paganism that can
never be reconciled to a truly Christian perspective. In radical contrast to this
stands Kant, whose critical philosophy not only aimed to show
that the then prevailing method of formal logic was unable to comprehend and
establish the existence of God, freedom, immortality etc.; but at the same time,
and much more, that by means of such logical procedures and their application to
supersensual reality this very reality is objectively falsified and unconsciously
even demoted to the sensible and finite realm.124
By ‘subsuming everything under the category of thing-ness,’ logic ‘also turned
God and spirit themselves into things’.125 This is the major critical insight of
Kant’s philosophy, and it was therefore consistent of him to leave behind ‘the
realm of physics’ altogether and instead search in ethics for ‘means and ways
towards that ultimate purpose of speculation’.126 Yet he was guided by no
more than an ‘intimation’, and therefore stopped halfway, lingering sceptically
‘in partial, subjective reticence’127 without realizing that only the inadequate
methods of traditional metaphysics, not any inherent barrier of cognition,
prevented us from knowing things as they are in themselves. This is Kant’s
basic failure, but, Chalybäus continues, it applies equally to subsequent phil-
osophers up until, and including, Hegel. This historical analysis underwrites
his central thesis, which must be reproduced here in full:
The claim will no longer appear too daring that up until now metaphysics proper,
or philosophia prima, has hardly taken any notice of the specific categories of the
spirit or of freedom, which we call ethical categories. Even less has it adopted
them even though this would be appropriate [for a philosophy] that wants to be
modern or Christian, advanced beyond antiquity’s philosophy of life.128

121 122
Chalybäus (1841: 155). Chalybäus (1841: 159).
123 124
Chalybäus (1841: 160). Chalybäus (1841: 160).
125 126
Chalybäus (1841: 161). Chalybäus (1841: 161).
127 128
Chalybäus (1841: 162). Chalybäus (1841: 164).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 203
Strictly speaking, we are here dealing with the combination of a philosophical,
a historical, and a theological statement. Philosophically, Chalybäus is con-
cerned with a radical extension of the traditional philosophia prima in the
interest of an adequate conceptualization of ethical and spiritual (geistig)
categories. Historically, he claims that Aristotelian metaphysics, which has
dominated the philosophical tradition, is in reality a form of natural philoso-
phy. Theologically, he attributes to modern philosophy an interest in con-
sidering itself Christian, and it is this alleged identity that in its turn
necessitates the development of new, ethical categories within metaphysics.
The principal incompatibility of traditional metaphysics both with a phil-
osophy of spirit and with a Christian worldview is concisely expressed, a few
years later, in Chalybäus’s Wissenschaftslehre:
Aristotle explicitly called his philosophia prima Łøºª Æ [sic!], and this is what it
is. Everything depends, however, on its contents: whether it is a pagan philosophy
of nature and hence identical with physics, as exemplified by the Stoics, or
whether it is Christian and speculative . . . 129
Philosophically, Chalybäus’s argument, in a way reminiscent of Trendelen-
burg, leads to a reaffirmation of teleology. It goes perhaps without saying that
for him, unlike Trendelenburg, this cannot be a return to an Aristotelian
teleology of nature. After all, Chalybäus thinks that philosophers from Aris-
totle to Hegel failed to apprehend moral and spiritual reality principally
because of their willingness to subsume human actions under categories
primarily and originally applied to non-human life. Yet this, as Chalybäus
argues in detail in his 1840 pamphlet Phänomenologische Blätter (Phenomeno-
logical Sheets), is problematic130 because such a procedure will not be able to
do justice to the higher formation: volition is turned into natural force,
personality into singularity, ethical necessity into natural necessity, and free-
dom can only be played out against determination. The task of contemporary
philosophy is precisely to overcome these false conclusions. It is to this task
that Chalybäus wishes to contribute.
Ends therefore always presuppose an agent with a will and a purpose,131 and
philosophical anthropology is called upon to show how this fundamental
insight variously inflects human volition in relation to nature, to other
human beings, and to God:
Human beings relate to brute nature as ends do to means. Person and person are
related as two ends that mutually become means for each other or, conversely, as
two means that, each of them, act simultaneously as ends for themselves. God and
humanity are related in neither one nor the other category, but in a qualitatively
higher, unique one, [in fact] the highest and free [category], which one may

129 130
Chalybäus (1846: 75). Chalybäus (1840: 42–51).
Chalybäus (1841: 167).
204 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
conceive as emerging from the synthesis of the two earlier ones though not as a
formal synthesis, which does not change anything essential about their content,
but such a one that represents a specific improvement and transformation of the
copula in itself.132
To these three types of human relationship correspond the ethical formations
of eudemonism, legality, and morality,133 of which the first is entirely justified
for the interaction of man with nature, since we are here dealing with a
question of power and struggle, of victory or defeat, of domination and
submission. By contrast, the basic principle of the second formation is that
of ‘reciprocity’;134 the individual will must be strictly subordinate to the
general will:
[It] is necessary that individual arbitrariness is most strictly excluded; no personal
and individual will must be allowed to dominate but only the general will. All
individuals . . . must relentlessly be bound to the laws.135
While the harshness of this formation may have been mitigated by the
emergence—under the influence of Christianity—of the rule of law, this very
development, according to Chalybäus, raises the decisive question: is the idea
of morality
completely fulfilled in, and identical with, the perfect constitutional order or does
its content reach further, into a freer area of worship, which also requires more
liberal forms to its realisation than the legal ones of the state, which are by
necessity coercive . . . 136
Chalybäus is conscious of the fact that this issue is, at his time, highly
controversial. Hegel’s political philosophy arrived at the opposite conclusion,
and, among theologians, Richard Rothe affirmed the ideal identity between
Church and the perfect form of the nation state only a few years later.137
Chalybäus, however, denies this consequence. Human willing does not come
to fulfilment in the legal sphere; it is fulfilled only in conscious self-restraint:
After all the experiences it has made with itself in the process of life, the will must
cease to desire its own (external) power as an end in itself and, since it cannot give
it up entirely, will it only as what in truth and reality it is, i.e. a means. Thus, the
will must demote [its external power] within itself, as an object of its volition, to a
subordinate element.138
Chalybäus does not counsel total self-abandonment; rather, he argues that the
will discovers its freedom only in the abstention from power: ‘Will must
therefore, in order to be free, renounce freedom as power’.139 Only through

132 133
Chalybäus (1841: 171). Chalybäus (1841: 169).
134 135
Chalybäus (1841: 170). Chalybäus (1841: 182).
136 137
Chalybäus (1841: 185). Rothe (1845: vol. 1, 419).
138 139
Chalybäus (1841: 187). Chalybäus (1841: 189).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 205
such an act of renunciation can the contradiction be resolved ‘that something
that is willed as a means should, objectively speaking, both be and not be; or,
subjectively, both be willed and not be willed’:
Rather, that will or that freedom is the absolute, which wills the subsistence of
finite beings (the other or the world) in and for itself. . . . The absolute wills
worldly beings, and especially human beings, as ends in themselves. Such volition,
however, is the category of love. Only love is full, true and real volition without
internal contradiction. It is the will that wills the existence of the object of its
volition . . . 140
Nonetheless, such self-renunciation of the will must not be understood as the
complete resignation of power and self-interest. Rather, love must consciously
absorb and preserve those two:
Love does not stand in contradictory opposition to power, but subsumes it. Power
is determined by love and must, consequently, be present in it . . . Egoism is then
transformed into ‘egoity’ (Egoität) and, as such, retained even within love. It is the
self-regard (Selbstgefühl) that in and for itself is justified.141
This qualification is of great significance for Chalybäus, for it alone can explain
why love is at the same time supreme freedom. Power must ‘always be present’
in love (whether human or divine), ‘though pushed to the background and
tamed’.142 If it were different—if one were simply to negate ‘this basis of raw
power’, and ignore it ‘as unworthy of the absolute’, then
love or any other moral perfection would itself be turned into an inevitability and
thus lapse back into physical necessity, and freedom is lost . . . If arbitrariness is
no longer retained within the domain of freedom as a freely excluded potentiality,
freedom itself does not have any moral value, or it is not even true, ethical
Thus, the evolution of truly human volition presents itself to Chalybäus as the
core of human personality and freedom; it culminates in the will to love, in
which the willing subject consciously suspends his or her power in order to
allow the object of his or her volition to emerge as an end in itself. And while
for Chalybäus, who rejects a Hegelian emergence of higher categories from
lower ones, such a development would be impossible without the pre-existence
of the principle of this perfect will, it can still only be recognized and understood
at its end point.
Put differently, the history of religion reflects the various stages of the
formation of the will throughout the history of human culture. For Chalybäus,
as for Hegel and Baur, the doctrine of reconciliation is the key conceptual
means for the reconstruction of this history. Unlike the latter pair, however, he

140 141
Chalybäus (1841: 189). Chalybäus (1841: 190).
142 143
Chalybäus (1841: 192). Chalybäus (1841: 192–3).
206 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
understands reconciliation specifically in terms of the agreement of human
and divine volition: consequently, it is the changing relation between divine
and human will that drives the development of religion at each stage of its
history. Thus, it is the case that
at the lowest stages of their emerging freedom, while it is still in need of
sustenance, human beings cannot properly love, but only fear, God. They cannot
really desire that God be absolute power; this they can only will and desire when
they know it as determined by love, and themselves as free beings safe and
preserved by [God’s power].144
Reconciliation in a proper sense therefore cannot exist at these stages of
religion; its possibility is only granted in Christianity through the ‘copula of
absolute love’ which ‘allows the I to exist, that is to be free, and hence experi-
ence reconciliation as proffered to the individual in order to be appropriated
under the conditions of love, i.e. in confident hope’.145 Within Christianity, it
is Protestantism that historically first achieves this perfect union of religiosity
and ethics, while the Catholic concept of righteousness defines the relationship
between God and humanity once again in the sphere of law and reciprocity.
Thus there is a direct connection between religious development (culmin-
ating in Christianity and ultimately in Protestantism) and the possibility of
perceiving the Absolute. This was, of course, also Hegel’s view; but to Chaly-
bäus, what matters is less the doctrinal contents of Christianity than its
Christian morality, this cornerstone the builders rejected, is therefore the sole
path to scientific (wissenschaftlich) knowledge of God.146
This potential of Christian morality, however, is precarious. If we attempt to
articulate it in metaphysical categories, it cannot come to fruition. We find
therefore a complex relationship of dependency between philosophy and
religion. Philosophy relies on the premisses created by the Christian religion
in its Protestant form, especially Christian morality. Theology, however,
requires a philosophy that supplies, on the basis of those premisses, appropri-
ate categories for theological reflection.

Ritschl and Speculative Idealism

Our reconstruction of Chalybäus’s philosophical argument has impressively

revealed the extent of the agreement between his and Ritschl’s ideas. Most
striking, arguably, is their common perspective on the history of philosophy

144 145
Chalybäus (1841: 194). Chalybäus (1841: 194–5).
Chalybäus (1841: 197).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 207
that leads both to a specific critique of metaphysics. Both Ritschl and Chaly-
bäus regard an alliance between theology and philosophy as possible and
desirable on the basis of the ethical worldview shaped by historical Christian-
ity. On this point, their positions are practically identical. If for Ritschl
theology can and should be dependent on philosophy insofar as the latter
‘knows itself dependent on the Christian religion’,147 Chalybäus says,
Christian morality, this cornerstone the builders rejected, is therefore the sole
path to scientific (wissenschaftlich) knowledge of God.148
In fact, their agreement on this issue extends to points of detail; occasionally,
Ritschl’s very wording is so closely reminiscent of Chalybäus’s article as to
make direct literary dependence probable.149
In Ritschl’s extant works, Chalybäus is only mentioned once; the passage
from the ‘Introduction’ in his lecture notes on ethics has been cited in full
above. All the more important is that systematic comparison of their philoso-
phies can confirm every single point of agreement Ritschl lists in this place.
They were: a transcendental concept of the will; the dichotomy of moral and
natural; an emphasis on the moral significance of Christianity; the interpret-
ation of religious community as a phenomenon of social morality. It would be
an understatement to say that all four appear in Chalybäus as well; in many
ways they describe core concerns of his ethical transformation of metaphysics.
The distinction of the will from any natural endowment, especially biological
forces and impulses, is as central for Chalybäus’s thought as it is for Ritschl’s.
Both invoke Kant in a rather strikingly similar, and idiosyncratic, interpret-
ation while emphasizing the need to overcome central premisses of his critical
philosophy. Equally parallel is their view of the role of Christianity as a
cultural factor for the development of moral, and by implication also intellec-
tual, reflection, and the same is true for the fourth and last of Ritschl’s points,
the ethical appraisal of religious community.
The least that can therefore be said at this point is that Ritschl’s statement
about the close relation of his thought to Chalybäus and the younger Fichte is,
as far as the former is concerned, fully and entirely confirmed. The benefit
of their comparison may, however, extend considerably further than that.
For Ritschl appears to agree with or even draw on the Speculative Theists
precisely on those issues that had otherwise set him apart from his most likely
sources and influences, such as Baur, Schleiermacher, or Trendelenburg. His

Ritschl, Dogmatics Lectures 1853: Hök (1942: 327, n. 9).
Chalybäus (1841: 197).
Cf. e.g. Ritschl and Chalybäus on Paganism (Hök 1942: 228, n. 90 and Chalybäus 1841:
194) and on the relation between God and man as love (O. Ritschl 1892/96: vol. 1, 234 and
Chalybäus 1841: 189).
208 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
voluntarism in particular, which turns the duality of nature and spirit into a
dichotomous dualism, previously appeared as very nearly idiosyncratic; all the
more impressive is his specific concurrence with Chalybäus on this issue. In
other words, our examination of Speculative Theism has delivered something
like the missing link between Ritschl’s thought and that of Baur, Zeller, Vatke,
Trendelenburg, or Schleiermacher.
Albrecht Ritschl’s son Otto, incidentally, was puzzled by his father’s philo-
sophical idiosyncrasy. In his exhaustive biography he commented on the 1853
lectures on dogmatics in the following words:
The essence of God and human beings he [sc. Ritschl] locates in their will. His
precursor for this view among Protestant theologians was Melanchthon. For it
appears quite impossible that he could have drawn for this on Schopenhauer even
though this might suggest itself at first sight. Ritschl conceives of the will exclu-
sively as the totality of specific ends. And no traces from that time point to a
knowledge of Schopenhauer’s philosophy.150
Otto Ritschl is one of the few to have discerned the centrality of the concept of
the will in his father’s theology. While he is surely right to dismiss the
possibility of Schopenhauerian influence, it is striking that he does not even
contemplate a link to Speculative Theism, probably because these authors and
their writings were already largely unknown to him. Gösta Hök, whose
analysis generally follows the hints suggested in Otto Ritschl’s biography,
will later trace Ritschl’s entire early development back to Trendelenburg,
Schwarz, Vatke, and Zeller; for strictly historical issues, Baur’s influence is
admitted as well.151 And Hermann Timm, whose study went a long way
towards establishing the lingering Idealism in Ritschl’s thought, confines his
exploration of Ritschl’s philosophical background to Hegel.152
All these influences, however, are insufficient to explain the genesis of
Ritschl’s thought. Like Hegel and the Hegelians, he believed in the unity of
religion and reason; from Vatke and Zeller, he took the idea of religion as
practice and (specifically from Vatke) the identification of practice as histor-
ical and communal. His reading of Trendelenburg alerted him to the potential
of teleological thought for theology. From Baur, finally, he appropriated the
ideal of theology as science, as well as a number of specific historical and
philosophical ideas. Missing in all this, however, as Otto Ritschl rightly
observed, is the idea, so fundamental for Ritschl, of the special dignity of the
will and of volition. It is this notion that, to him, ultimately guarantees

O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 246). Harris argued that Ritschl’s ‘new theology’ was decisively
influenced by Schopenhauer (1970: 81–99). While he is right to detect a new departure in the
1853 Dogmatics Lectures (82), the link he seeks to establish with Schopenhauer’s philosophy
seems, to me, untenable. Schopenhauer’s will is a vitalistic principle whereas for Ritschl it is the
mark of spiritual (geistig) being.
151 152
Hök (1942). Timm (1967: 36).
Philosophical Insights and Influences 209
1. that nature and spirit are adequately distinguished;
2. that—on the other hand—God and man are set in proper relation;
3. that individual and community both come appropriately into view, and
4. that a ‘practical’ philosophy of religion avoids the dangers of Feuerbach’s
We may protest that it is a questionable premiss of the history of ideas that an
author’s every idea must be traced to some source; human beings, after all,
may occasionally be capable of original ideas. This is no doubt true. Neverthe-
less, we must acknowledge that we find in Chalybäus a conception of the will
identical, in essential respects, to that used by Ritschl, and developed, further-
more, to deal with concerns that are fundamental to Ritschl as well. Further-
more, in at least one place Ritschl explicitly refers to this intellectual link as
fundamental to his own project. That later he invokes Kant for these insights is
hardly surprising: from 1850 Speculative Theism increasingly lost its academic
reputation while Kant’s star continued to rise. Besides, Chalybäus himself
traced his insights to Kant in a similar fashion. In view of these facts, Ritschl’s
voluntarist turn seems best explained by reference to Speculative Theism and
particularly the philosophy of Hermann Chalybäus.153
At the end of Chapter 7, the idea emerged of Ritschl’s thought as a triad of
history, philosophy, and theology in which these three permanently and
inseparably interact. The present investigation of Ritschl’s philosophical foun-
dations has confirmed and specified this thesis. Ritschl’s version of the nature-
spirit dualism is consistently aimed at the conceptualization of religion and
history as phenomena pertaining to the realm of spirit. While it became
apparent, at every step, how much Ritschl continued to owe to his Tübingen
roots, specifically to Baur’s idealist programme, the faultlines separating him
from this position became equally clear: Ritschl’s voluntarist theory of spirit
rests on its categorical juxtaposition with nature. Their relation is therefore
neither one of synthesis nor one of transition, but one of antithesis, just as
that between ethics and (meta-)physics. This fundamental decision is so
central and so consistently woven into Ritschl’s thought that, all similarity
notwithstanding, it leads to an equally fundamental and equally consistent

Ritschl’s dependence on Chalybäus may help settle the long-standing debate over his
relationship with Lotze’s philosophy. While there are undoubtedly close parallels between Ritschl
and Lotze (cf. Neugebauer 2002 for a full account), Ritschl apparently only became aware of
Lotze’s work with the publication of the third volume of Microcosm in 1864, too late to influence
his main ideas (cf. Harris 1970: 225). There is, however, evidence that Lotze himself was
influenced in his early development by Chalybäus (Lotze 1841: 329; Pester 1997: 131–2), and
both he himself and his academic teacher Christian Hermann Weiße acknowledge the close
proximity of his and Chalybäus’s position (Lotze 1847; Weiße 1844: 3–4).
210 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany

repudiation of the philosophical, historical, and theological positions Baur had

The present chapter has sought to show that and how Ritschl’s philosoph-
ical development during the 1840s and 1850s helps explain the extent and the
character of his dissent from Baur’s idealist programme—a dissent relevant to
the entirety of the triad. On the basis largely of early lecture notes, it became
evident that, despite Ritschl’s evident proximity to Adolf Trendelenburg,
Wilhelm Vatke, and Eduard Zeller during this period the decisive impulse in
Ritschl’s readjustment of Baur’s original programme could not have come
from any of these, but from the specific version of Kantianism he encountered
in contemporary Speculative Theism. These philosophers, especially Heinrich
Moritz Chalybäus, furnished him with the idea that was to become funda-
mental for his own thought of a quasi-metaphysical development of Kant’s
transcendental concept of the will as the basis of ethics, history, and philoso-
phy of religion. In this ethical voluntarism, Ritschl found the conceptual tools
for his own decisive modification of Baur’s programme of a unification of
religion, history, and philosophy.

The Kingdom of God

One unquestionable difference between Baur and Ritschl is their career path.
While Baur began and ended his academic life as a historical theologian,
Ritschl’s development increasingly took him into the field of Dogmatic The-
ology. Baur himself notes this divergence, not without irony, in a letter of
congratulation to his former student on the occasion of his promotion to an
extraordinary professorship in 1853:
You have a beautiful field of occupation ahead of you, and while dogmatics is not
the part of theology in which I would prefer to see you established, the participa-
tion in this task, which is particularly difficult at the present moment, must be of
great interest to a younger theologian.1
One cannot therefore do justice to Ritschl’s thought without noting that, in
many ways, the clarification of doctrinal questions is at its centre. A precise
exposition of the doctrine of God, the work of Christ or the sacraments are at
least as important to Ritschl as contemporary philosophical discussions about
epistemology or value theory.2
At the same time, a full study of this dimension of Ritschl’s work requires its
own contextualizing. Ritschl’s theology must be considered in its various
relations with theologians of the Scholastic era, the Reformation, as well as
Orthodoxy and Pietism—not to mention contemporary discussions in which
he took part. While some of these questions have been addressed by recent
scholarship,3 much more remains to be done.4
Such a task the present work cannot accomplish; we must more narrowly
circumscribe its aim. The extent of our interest in Ritschl’s account of Chris-
tian doctrine is defined by the hypothesis that his concept of theology as
science rests primarily on the integration of philosophical, historical, and
theological work. If this assumption is valid, it must be possible to show that

Letter dated 21 August 1853. Quoted from: O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 248). Ritschl’s appoint-
ment had already happened in late 1852.
For a full exposition of Ritschl’s theology cf. Schäfer (1968).
Hofmann (1998); Slenczka (1998); Lotz (1974).
Chalamet (2008: 623–8).
212 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Ritschl’s philosophical insights were developed for the purpose of facilitating
an adequate theological interpretation of the Christian religion and an appro-
priate understanding of its historical foundations. At the same time, his
historical studies, in particular his theory of Primitive Christianity, must
likewise be shown to underwrite a particular theological interpretation of the
Christian religion. His theological doctrines then, ex hypothesi, will illuminate
the nature of Christianity in a way that makes Ritschl’s philosophical and
historical premisses plausible—premisses, we must remember, which do not
presuppose a theology, but the religious and cultural reality of Christianity.
It would therefore be wrong to assume that Ritschl applied to theological
questions a previously established, independent philosophy. Rather, the three
dimensions of his academic work are irreducibly interrelated. Ritschl’s con-
ception of the Kingdom of God, which is as idiosyncratic as it is central to his
theology, is an obvious test case for this assumption.5 Its analysis will demon-
strate how closely Ritschl’s theories in the philosophy of religion and in ethics
are related to his more narrowly theological, dogmatic, and ethical choices. At
the same time, his conception of the Kingdom of God is fundamental for
Ritschl’s understanding of biblical theology, that is of his exegetical recon-
struction, on the basis of Scripture, of the historical revelation.
The argument will be developed in three steps. The first is an overview
of the development of Ritschl’s doctrine of the kingdom of God and its
context within the history of ideas. Secondly, Ritschl’s understanding of the
Kingdom of God will be presented in the context of his own version of
biblical theology. Finally, an account of Ritschl’s doctrine of God will illustrate
how his fundamental theoretical choices shaped his work on a specific topos
of dogmatics.


As far as we can see, Ritschl’s specific interest in the doctrine of the Kingdom
of God comes to the fore for the first time in his lectures on theological ethics
in 1858.6 Otto Ritschl, whose biography usually evinces a keen sense of the
gradual formation of his father’s theology, surprisingly passes over this
turning point, even though he clearly appreciates the significance of this

No comprehensive account exists but cf. Weiss (1901); Walther (1961: 137–55); Schäfer
(1964); Kuhlmann (1992: 110–39).
The lecture series was given for the first time in the winter semester of 1858/9 under the title
‘moral theology’ (theologische Moral); from the subsequent winter semester onwards, Ritschl
delivered them regularly as ‘theological ethics’ (theologische Ethik): O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 449–
50). Ritschl’s lecture notes from 1859/60 have now been edited for the first time by R. Schäfer:
Ritschl (2007).
The Kingdom of God 213
lecture series in general.7 Nevertheless, even a superficial view reveals striking
similarities between this first attempt to present the doctrine of the Kingdom
of God as the ‘principle of theology as such’,8 both ethical and dogmatic, and
his mature discussion of the same idea published nearly twenty years later in
Justification and Reconciliation and in his Unterricht in der christlichen Reli-
gion (Introduction to the Christian Religion).9
In his lecture notes, Ritschl proceeds from a summary of New Testament
teaching (}21). He notes a tension: on the one hand, the Kingdom of God is
described as a good ‘produced only by God, to be imparted to humankind’. In
other words, it is the work of God which human beings receive passively in
faith. On the other hand, however, it is also said to be the ‘object of moral
striving’10 and thus dependent on human volition and activity. The New
Testament solves this dilemma, according to Ritschl, by means of an ‘external’
connection of the two ideas. Jesus, he argues, initially inculcates the notion of
an ‘equivalent reward’ corresponding to the ideal of moral striving: he prom-
ises ‘a reward in heaven’ to those who are persecuted on his behalf (Matthew 5:
12) or to those who love their enemies (Matthew 5: 46) while announcing
negative compensation to hypocrites (Matthew 6: 1–2, 5, 16).11 This logic of
reciprocity, however, is ultimately transcended by the logic of grace, the
‘infinitely more valuable reward of the kingdom of God’.12 In this way, it is
divine activity that constitutes ‘the ground of the highest good’,13 and human
action contributes to the coming of the Kingdom only insofar as it ‘is done for
the sake of Christ, out of faith in Christ’.14 In this sense, Ritschl summarizes
the position of the New Testament as follows:
Thus the Kingdom of God is the goal of [human] activity . . . only because
membership in the Kingdom is already the condition for such activity. The
Kingdom of God is not one-sidedly a divine or a human product, but a process
that has been initiated by God through Christ and is to be realised by the believers
in order to yield a product that is both divine and human.15
In this dual sense, the Kingdom of God correlates with human activity in
the spirit of justice: it is its ground, purpose, and means.16 Its function as
telos corresponds to the divine end in itself, which is dogmatically expressed
in the idea of the Son as the ‘necessary and eternal object of God’s love:

O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 345–64).
Ritschl (2007: 74). Cf. the chapter heading: ‘The Kingdom of God as the ethical principle of
Christianity’ (73).
Ritschl’s reference to the ‘pietist’ use of the concept of the Kingdom is echoed almost
literally in (1888: vol. 3, 12).
10 11 12
Ritschl (2007: 74). Ritschl (2007: 74). Ritschl (2007: 75).
13 14 15
Ritschl (2007: 75). Ritschl (2007: 75). Ritschl (2007: 75–6).
Ritschl (2007: 76).
214 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
‘The kingdom of God is therefore the ethical exposition of divine love as an
end in itself ’.17
The New Testament position, then, balances the religious and ethical
dimension of the Kingdom of God in such a way that human activity is
demanded and appreciated but at the same time grounded in and transcended
by God’s freely given love. Subsequently, however, this idea has not always
been preserved in the Christian Church. Ritschl singles out specifically the
identification of the Kingdom of God with a legal and ecclesial system, which
he perceives in Roman Catholicism and traces back to Augustine’s City of
God.18 To Ritschl, by contrast, ‘legal system and Kingdom of God form a
mutually exclusive contradiction’.19
The Kingdom of God, based as it is on the principle of love, excludes the
notion of entitlement that constitutes the basis of legality. Ritschl even con-
cedes some justification to those who regard the Kingdom of God and
property as incompatible; they seem, at first glance, ‘to prepare a special
place for the Kingdom of God’.20 This concession, however, is immediately
revoked and bent into the assertion that precisely because the Kingdom of God
transcends earthly justice, the legal system preserves a limited place for it.
While, as Ritschl explains by analogy to the family,
among the children in the Kingdom of God property rights, compensation for
insult, punishment for bodily harm and so forth should be suspended, the
Kingdom of God presupposes the universal validity of the legal sphere as a
means for even the highest moral task.21
The Kingdom of God is thus not identical with any legally ordered commu-
nity; with a swipe against Hegel and Rothe—though he omits their names—
Ritschl dismisses the state as a possible contender for this role.22 Neither is it to
be identified with any particular religious projects, as the Pietists suggest.23
Rather, it emerges wherever the divine end-in-itself, love, determines the ends
of human practice. This gradual evolution of the Kingdom, however, is met
with permanent opposition and resistance, which Ritschl equates with the
‘power of sin’.24 While teleologically, therefore, ‘the cosmos’ is destined to ‘be
Christianized’, it is equally true that ‘the cosmos cannot accept Christ’.25

Ritschl (2007: 76). To gauge the development of Ritschl’s thought it is interesting to
compare here his dogmatics lectures from 1853 which contain the identical theological concept
(humanity as contained in the divine as self-end) but as yet without reference to the Kingdom of
God: O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 234).
Ritschl (2007: 77); cf. (1871: 156–8).
Ritschl (2007: 77). In Ritschl’s later writing, this principle underwrites his extensive
criticism of medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation theologies.
20 21 22
Ritschl (2007: 78). Ritschl (2007: 79). Ritschl (2007: 81).
23 24 25
Ritschl (2007: 81). Ritschl (2007: 82). Ritschl (2007: 82).
The Kingdom of God 215
Ritschl is aware how close his own position here is to that of the Pietists, whose
eschatological orientation he nevertheless rejects:
the ecclesial mind will hope for a historical solution [to], confrontation [with],
overcoming of, certain immoral tendencies.26
By contrast, his appreciation of Calvin is evident; in the Lutheran tradition, only
the Pietist Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705) ‘made similar motifs . . . accessible’
by means of his chiliastic modification of orthodox eschatology.27
It appears, then, that as early as 1858, Ritschl was already clear in his mind
about the unique potential of the doctrine of the Kingdom of God. While his
notes are rudimentary, dense, and not always fully unequivocal, they contain
all the fundamentals of his later teaching. He dwells at length on the doctrine’s
biblical foundations,28 emphasizes its systematic potential to integrate dog-
matics and ethics, has a view for its teleological mediation of divine love and
human striving, and notes its communal dimension as an antidote against
religious individualism, the identification of Church and state or indeed
sectarianism. None of this is as yet worked out within a recognizable theoret-
ical framework, but in light of his later writing, the gaps can easily be filled thus
providing an impressive glance at the state of his project fifteen years before
the publication of his major works.29
The notes give few indications of Ritschl’s sources. At the end of a lengthy
account of the historical background of his own teaching, Ritschl merely adds
the names ‘Leibnitz, Kant, Schleiermacher’ without providing further details.30
Notable, and especially regrettable, is the absence of any reference to Reformed
theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603–69) who may well have been the only
theologian prior to Ritschl who assigned to the doctrine of the Kingdom of
God a similarly central position in his theology. Many years later, Ritschl
devotes to Cocceius a full chapter of his Geschichte des Pietismus (History of
Pietism);31 this text is written with much sympathy, but Ritschl, there and
elsewhere, refrains from any explicit comment on the relationship between
their theologies.

Ritschl (2007: 82). Italics mine.
Ritschl (2007: 83). On Spener cf. Wallmann (1986: 324ff.).
Ritschl’s argument in these lectures is limited to the doctrine’s New Testament background,
but his principal insights into the unity of the Bible were already in evidence in his Entstehung
der altkatholischen Kirche: see Chapter 7, text at n. 127. Further on his elaborate biblical theology
in Justification and Reconciliation cf. ‘The Kingdom of God in Biblical Theology’ in this chapter.
Some of these connotations hint at areas in Ritschl’s activity which, while crucial for him,
are largely ignored in the present study. He was an active part of the life of the Church during a
momentous and tumultuous period in its existence. Questions about the role of religion in
modern society, about early forms of ecumenism (the Prussian Union) and the lasting relevance
of confessional Churches, about individual piety and the revivalist movement, and not least the
relationship between Church and state, occupied Ritschl throughout his life. These concerns are
inextricably intertwined with his more abstract theological ideas.
30 31
Ritschl (2007: 84). Ritschl (1880: vol. 1, 130–52).
216 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Whether, and if so, when and to what extent, Cocceius influenced Ritschl’s
understanding of the Kingdom of God must therefore remain an open
question.32 There is, however, little reason to doubt his later statement that
it was above all Schleiermacher whose lead he followed on this issue.33 To
Schleiermacher Ritschl owed the conceptual association of the doctrine of
goods in ethics with the relation between individual and community and the
theological doctrine of the Kingdom of God.34 This is concisely summarized
at the very beginning of the third, systematic volume of Justification and
It remained for Schleiermacher first to employ the true conception of the
teleological nature of the Kingdom of God to determine the idea of Christianity.
This service ought not to be forgotten, even if he failed to grasp the discovery with
a firm hand.35
The same view is developed in much greater detail in the first, historical
volume of the same work. There, Ritschl explains Schleiermacher’s special
position as the ‘lawgiver’ of recent theology by way of his introduction of ‘a
peculiar standard for the understanding of the Christian religion’.36 Ritschl
It will be expected that, as is usual, I should find this expressed in his idea of
subjective religion. . . . But what I am alluding to lies beyond the region of the
Glaubenslehre. For Schleiermacher has established the much more general truth,
that the religious moral life of the spirit cannot at all be conceived of outside of the
fellowship that corresponds thereto, and that, in reciprocal action and reaction
therewith, the individual attains his peculiar development.37
Ritschl’s debt to Schleiermacher for his theory of the individual is a well-
established fact, which he himself explicitly and repeatedly recognized.38 In
fact, he found this agreement so significant that he inserted, at the last minute,
into his Justification and Reconciliation a reference to Wilhelm Dilthey’s study

Cf. however the testimony of W. R. Smith, who studied under Ritschl in 1869 and wrote
from Göttingen to his father, ‘He [sc. Ritschl] always recommends the old Dogmatik and last
week lent me a book of Cocceius whom he admires greatly’ (letter dated 7 July 1869): Booth and
Hess, <>.
To see Leibniz and Kant behind Schleiermacher, as Ritschl’s lecture notes suggest, makes
sense historically. Cf. Dilthey (1970: 342–4) for Leibniz’s influence on Schleiermacher’s concept
of individuality: ‘He [sc. Schleiermacher] formed his idea of the individual on the basis of that
concept [sc. Leibniz’s monad]’ (342).
Schleiermacher’s two academy lectures Über das höchste Gut, fundamental for Ritschl’s
later reconstruction of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of goods, were known to Ritschl at least since
1860 from an article by Palmer: Palmer (1860: 437–40); Ritschl (2007: 80).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 12), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 11.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 487), ET: Black, 443.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 487–8), ET: Black, 443–4.
See Chapter 7, text at n. 94.
The Kingdom of God 217
of Schleiermacher’s earliest works, which had been published only weeks
earlier and broadly confirmed his own interpretation of Schleiermacher’s
thought.39 In his understanding of historical ‘individuals’ as well as in his
rejection of ‘natural religion’, Ritschl relied on ideas he had found in Schleier-
macher, and it is important to see that at least for Ritschl, these points were
directly related to the doctrine of the Kingdom of God and that, in his view,
this relation was also found in Schleiermacher.
The truth, admittedly, is that the latter, in his academy lectures On the
Highest Good, had only touched on the religious dimension of the doctrine of
goods with a fairly vague reference:
The activity of reason only becomes its own full revelation when through it the
spirit manifests its supernatural home by means of which it contains the eternal
and simple Being itself, in a mysterious way.40
Schleiermacher then defines the highest good: it is the one, ultimate telos of all
four types of human moral activity but depending on the type to which it
corresponds, which can be individual or universal, actively shaping (organiz-
ing), or interpretative (symbolizing), its appearance varies:
They are all one, and no one is without the other, but depending on whether we
take one standpoint or another the highest good appears now as the Golden Age
of unadulterated and all-sufficient communication of individual life, now as
eternal peace of well-distributed governance of peoples across the earth, or as
the completeness and immutability of knowledge in the community of languages,
and as the Kingdom of Heavens in the community of religious faith. Each of those
will in its particularity include the others and symbolize the whole.41
The ‘Kingdom of Heavens’, then, is here only one of four realizations of the
highest good. It is specifically the goal of religious life, which, in Schleier-
macher’s ethical scheme, is a form of moral activity that is both individual
and symbolizing. As all moral activity it transforms nature into spirit, but
does so in a way that is irreducibly personal even while it aims at universal
intelligibility and communication. As such it is distinct to scientific know-
ledge which aims at universal truth. Like the latter, on the other hand, it
is symbolizing activity as it aims at making nature intelligible to humankind.
In spite of his use of the biblical term Kingdom of Heavens, then, Schleier-
macher’s conception of the highest good is primarily inscribed into a com-
plex theory of human activity and can be fully appreciated only within this

Cf. Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 477) and Dilthey (1970: 326–44).
40 41
Schleiermacher (1827: 552). Schleiermacher (1827: 552).
Cf. Birkner (1964: 38–41); Moxter (1992).
218 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
A more superficial reader, however, may well identify in Schleiermacher’s
ethical reference to the Kingdom of Heavens, which in his academy lectures is
made in passing, a more immediately theological motive. Ritschl certainly was
one who did this. He quotes Schleiermacher’s statement concerning the
‘supernatural home’ of the spirit and expounds it as follows:
The activity of reason only becomes its own full revelation when through it the
spirit manifests its supernatural home; that is, when morality takes a religious
direction and is founded upon religion, that is, in the Christian stage of develop-
ment, in the conception of the Kingdom of God.43
In Ritschl’s reading, then, Schleiermacher affirms the need for a religious
foundation of morality and refers specifically to the biblical category of the
Kingdom of God. As we have seen, this interpretation is at least a considerable
simplification of Schleiermacher’s philosophical argument, but it confirms
Ritschl’s own conviction ‘of the necessity of the communal character of any
religion’ and he commends Schleiermacher’s academy lectures specifically
because they offer ‘proof ’ for this assumption.44
How the Kingdom of Heavens in Schleiermacher’s ethics is related to the
Kingdom of God in The Christian Faith is a difficult question.45 Ritschl, at any
rate, takes their identity for granted and moves directly from his discussion of
Schleiermacher’s lectures On the Highest Good to his formula of the essence of
Christianity in the Glaubenslehre. Its characterization of Christianity as the
‘monotheistic phase of faith within the teleological (ethical) line of piety’,46 as
Ritschl respectfully remarks,
does justice to the peculiar value and the inner excellence of Christianity above
the two other monotheistic religions.47
Ritschl’s respect for Schleiermacher’s approach, then, must not be underesti-
mated. He fully endorses the latter’s specification of Christianity as an ethical
or teleological religion as it correctly distinguishes the Christian faith from the
other monotheistic religions and in this sense adequately determines its place
in the history of religions.
This language of appreciation, however, soon gives way to a much more
critical tone. In fact, it turns out that Ritschl commended Schleiermacher’s
appraisal of the Kingdom of God in his formula for the essence of Christi-
anity only in order to criticize all the more sharply its further theological

Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 492), ET: Black 448 (with changes).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 492), ET: Black 448.
Cf. Miller (1970: 82–6).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 492), ET: Black, 448. Cf. Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 15–17) (} 11),
and (74–80) (} 9) for the distinction between the ‘teleological’ and ‘aesthetic’ types of piety.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 494), ET: Black, 450.
The Kingdom of God 219
For if the Divine final end is embodied in the Kingdom of God, it is to be expected
that the redemption which has come through Jesus should also be related, as
a means, to this final end. But as this relation is not expressed, the result is
that Schleiermacher construes the whole Christian consciousness of God by
reference now to redemption through Jesus, now to the idea of the Kingdom
of God, without coming to any decision regarding the mutual relations of
this final end and the function of the Mediator. The natural consequence of
this want of lucidity is that no topic receives less justice in the general argument
of his Glaubenslehre than what he admits to be the teleological character of
Critical readers have protested that Ritschl misunderstands Schleiermacher’s
intention. His son-in-law and noted New Testament scholar Johannes Weiss
observed that Schleiermacher’s use of the term ‘teleological’ is idiosyncratic as
is evident from his own addition of ‘ethical’ in the same sentence. By pretend-
ing that Schleiermacher believed Christianity was teleological in the usual
sense of the word, Ritschl grossly misrepresented the viewpoint of The Chris-
tian Faith.49 Be this however as it may, Ritschl’s criticism at least indicates his
own programme of theology, which is in line with his philosophical orienta-
tion. The central place of the biblical category of the Kingdom of God and its
teleological character justify and indeed demand a complete reworking of
Christian dogmatics in accordance with its principles. For this programme
Ritschl coined the metaphor of an ellipsis with two focal points, salvation
through Christ and communion in God’s kingdom.50 By contrast, Schleier-
macher is the typical representative of Protestant theology,51 which in both its
Lutheran and Calvinist variants has emphasized the salvation at the expense of
ethics and morality.52
This elision of the ethical dimension of Christianity has, in Ritschl’s view,
made it difficult for Protestant theology to offer an adequate response to the
Catholic doctrine of the Church as the Kingdom of God. The latter, Ritschl
concedes, ‘in its own way’ does justice to the central significance of that
doctrine53—though he leaves no doubt that it is also a serious distortion of
evangelical truth. Nevertheless, it was the error of the Reformers that they
did not purify the idea of the moral Kingdom of God or Christ from sacerdotal
corruptions, but embodied it in a conception which is not practical but merely

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 9), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 9.
Weiss (1901: 99–100).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 11), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 11.
Calvin and the Reformed tradition are no longer exempt from this charge as they were in
Ritschl’s earlier ethics lectures. Cf. Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 11) and (2007: 83).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 11), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 11.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 11), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 11.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 11), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 11.
220 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Ritschl does not deny that it is possible to find a practical understanding of
religion in the Reformers, particularly Luther—indeed, he finds the heart of
Luther’s theological contribution in this very insight.55 This vision of religion
as practice is not, however, related to the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, and
this failure to integrate the new understanding of faith into this conceptual
framework has, according to Ritschl, facilitated the complete neglect of the
ethical aspect of Christianity in Melanchthon and subsequent Lutheran
Against this fateful tradition of Protestant theology, Ritschl seeks to recover
the task of theology by building on the programmatic hints he found in
Schleiermacher who wrote that
that figure of a Kingdom of God, which is so important and indeed all-inclusive
for Christianity, is simply the general expression of the fact that in Christianity all
pain and all joy are religious only insofar as they are related to activity in the
Kingdom of God.56
These words furnish the motto for much of Ritschl’s theology, but his specific
development of this idea is determined by his understanding of ethics and
teleology. In other words, the teleological character of the Kingdom of God
implies its association with the principles of spirit and volition and must, for
this very reason, be understood strictly historically.
This specific form of Ritschl’s concept of the Kingdom of God motivates, as
well as explains, his further claim that theology can only be practised from the
standpoint of the Christian community. It is of cardinal importance to see that
this imperative is entirely bound up with the specific philosophical and
theological premisses underlying Ritschl’s theory of the Kingdom as strictly
historical. In a key passage, he writes:
Authentic and complete knowledge of Jesus’ religious significance—his signifi-
cance, that is, as a founder of religion—depends, then, on one’s reckoning oneself
part of the community which he founded, and this precisely in so far as it believes
itself to have received the forgiveness of sins as his peculiar gift. This religious
faith does not take an unhistorical view of Jesus, and it is quite possible to reach
an historical estimate of him without first divesting oneself of this faith.57
Careful attention to Ritschl’s words here reveals echoes of his earlier dispute
with Zeller: the ‘Tübingen’, neo-rationalist understanding of ‘presupposition-
less’ historiography is far from being the only legitimate one. In fact, it is not
without presuppositions at all but rather ignorant of them; and theologically—
perhaps not even only theologically—they are deeply problematic insofar as

Cf. Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 6–7), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 6–7.
Schleiermacher (1830b: vol. 1, 78–9) (} 9.2), ET: Mackintoch/Stewart, 43.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 2), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 2.
The Kingdom of God 221
they betray a naturalist view of history that is at the very least incommensur-
able with the cultural level of Christianity.
Thus Ritschl in 1861. The same context is also present in Justification and
Reconciliation, written almost fifteen years later. Immediately after the passage
just cited, Ritschl polemically refers to the ‘name of a historical “absence of
presuppositions”’; his concurrent remark that ‘the subversion of Jesus’ reli-
gious importance has been undertaken under the guise of writing his life’ is a
clear reference to David Strauss.58 This scholarly genre, according to Ritschl, is
already implicitly critical of Christianity, for it
implies the surrender of the conviction that Jesus, as the Founder of the perfect
moral and spiritual religion, belongs to a higher order than all other men.59
He therefore dismisses the apologetic potential of a Life of Jesus and instead
reiterates his earlier demand for a theology ‘from the faith of the Christian
community’.60 Once again, his criticism is not directed against the use in
theology of philosophical or historical methods as such—otherwise, Ritschl
would hardly appeal to ‘the general history of religion’ for his definition of the
Christian religion.61 Rather, as Ritschl carefully puts it,
we can discover the full compass of his historical actuality solely from the faith of
the Christian community. Not even his purpose to found the community can be
quite understood historically save by one who, as a member of it, subordinates
himself to his person.62
Nothing may be more telling here than Ritschl’s repeated use of the term
‘historical’; overall, it occurs four times in the space of fewer than twenty lines.
This terminological preference in the present place is unlikely to be coinci-
dental, but indicates the interdependence of Ritschl’s demand for a theology
‘from within the Christian community’ and his specific non-naturalist under-
standing of history. For Ritschl, only inclusion in the Christian community
and participation in Christian practice facilitates an adequate understanding
of history in this sense. From his exchange with Zeller it would further appear
that Ritschl explicitly and emphatically does not limit this claim to the
particular field of historical theology.63 This postulate of a form of historical
awareness that is reached only within Christianity, for Ritschl is justified
insofar as the absoluteness of Christianity can objectively and universally be

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 2–3), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 2–3.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 3), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 3.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 3), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 3.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 9), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 8.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 3), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 3.
Cf. Ritschl (1861: 459) with the concluding appeal against the ‘drifting apart of academic
222 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
ascertained, a view he upheld until the end of the 1870s and which thus
underlies all his major works published by that time.
The Kingdom of God, then, demands the participation of the theologian
because it cannot otherwise be known and recognized. This is because it is
eminently historical, which in turn is an aspect of its practical character. Both
are intimately related; the concept of religion as practice for Ritschl implies its
strictly historical, teleological, and generally spiritual (geistig) character. It is
therefore not surprising that Ritschl can move directly from his demand for a
theology ‘from the faith of the Christian community’, through which alone the
‘historical reality’ of Jesus can be expressed, to the postulate of its necessarily
practical character. For the latter, he appeals to the Pietist Philipp Jakob
Spener, whom in his ethics lectures he had credited with the first ethical
concept of the Kingdom of God in Lutheranism. Spener has shown theology
the way to such a conception of the Christian view of the world and of life as can
hope for success only when it is attempted from the standpoint of the community
of believers.64
The reason behind this principle, Ritschl continues, is expressed in Spener’s
‘ethical proof for the truth of the Christian religion’, according to which
‘whoever willeth to do the will of God will know the truth of Christ’s doctrine’.
This insight, however, entails ‘an complete revision of the matter of theology’:
Ritschl’s own ambition is nothing less.65
Spener’s ‘ethical proof ’, as Ritschl understands it, asserts that, while the
truth of Christianity can only be attained through participation in its practice,
those who participate in it will necessarily recognize its absolute value. The
proof is therefore ‘objective’ and yet inseparable from the theologian’s partici-
pation in the community of the Kingdom. Once again the close connection
between Ritschl’s affirmation of a theology ‘from the standpoint of the com-
munity of believers’66 and his philosophical principles is evident. After all, the
impossibility of an adequate theological understanding without personal par-
ticipation ensues from the ‘practical’ and at the same time historical and
communal character of spiritual religion.
These insights tie in well with the results of our earlier analysis of Ritschl’s
concept of theology as science.67 Ritschl, we found there, understands religion
as generic yet hierarchical; its kinds and stages culminate in one religion,
Christianity, that is particular but represents the whole nonetheless. This
character of Christianity as the one religion that is also the whole allows,

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 8), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 8.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 8), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 8. (cf. John 7: 17). Interestingly, Ritschl
quotes this biblical verse again in his discussion of Kant’s moral argument for the Christian idea
of God (215).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 8), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 8.
See Chapter 7, ‘The Reformulation of the Idealist Programme’.
The Kingdom of God 223
indeed demands, an explication from within that is a theology which at the
same time, however, is also science of religion. We have here reached the same
result starting from Ritschl’s commitment to a theology conducted from
within the Christian community. Its plausibility again rests on the ethical,
historical, and communal character of Christianity. As it cannot be portrayed
as such without personal religious involvement, the use of traditional doctrinal
concepts, such as sin and salvation, in its explication is inevitable and justified
but does not preclude an articulation of the same phenomena in the philo-
sophical terminology of nature and spirit.
Ritschl can therefore describe the anthropological conflict underlying all
religion in terms of sin and salvation as much as in the language of his nature-
spirit dualism. The latter is employed in his own formula for the essence of
Christianity, then, is the monotheistic, completely spiritual, and ethical religion,
which, based on the life of its author as redeemer and as founder of the Kingdom
of God, consists in the freedom of the children of God, involves the impulse to
conduct from the motive of love, which aims at the moral organisation of
mankind, and grounds blessedness on the relation of sonship to God, as well as
on the Kingdom of God.68
In accordance with the ‘elliptical’ character of Christianity, the role of Jesus in
Christianity must be twofold: he is, in equal measure, both saviour and
founder of the Kingdom of God.69 In both functions he reorients human
beings within the dualism of nature and spirit: as saved, they unconditionally
owe to Jesus their new ‘freedom of the children of God’: that is, freedom from
subjection to the determinism of the natural order. This freedom consists, on
the one hand, in the person’s ‘beatitude’, their reconstitution as a citizen of the
intelligible realm or as an end-in-itself. On the other hand, it expresses itself in
‘conduct from the motive of love’, which Ritschl understands as a determin-
ation of the will in which self-interest and care for the other coincide:
Love continually strives to develop and to appropriate the individual self-end of
the other personality, regarding this as a task necessary to the very nature of its
own personal end, its own conscious individuality.70
As such, it not only excludes any form of egoism, but also transcends the limits
of natural and legal bonds.71 The ideal of this will to love is God, who in fact is
identical with and defined by this loving will (1 John 4: 16). Since this will is
directed at the communion of human beings in the Kingdom of God, a
Christian doctrine of God is intimately connected with the Christian doctrine

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 13–14), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 13–14.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 3), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 3.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 264), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 278.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 267), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 280–1.
224 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
of salvation as well as the recognition of the person and activity of Jesus, the
founder of the Kingdom.
Ritschl’s emphasis on the believers’ passive reception of their salvation from
Christ must not obscure, however, his commitment to their active participa-
tion in the development of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, insofar as salvation is
the transformation of the human will, it must engage the Christian in a process
that is at least partly dependent on an adequate exercise of the believer’s
volition. This is what Ritschl means by calling Christianity the ‘completely
spiritual and ethical religion’—its character as religion and its character as
morality are not really two different things, but two sides of the same coin.
Christian beatitude, the liberation from the bonds of natural determinism, and
Christian participation in the ‘moral organization of mankind’ are, strictly
speaking, two ways of expressing the same reality. As a transformation of the
will, salvation is manifested in and through the appropriate moral practice,
while participation in the kingdom of God, which consists in ‘conduct from the
motive of love’, presupposes a quasi-supernatural transformation of the will:
Freedom in God, the freedom of the children of God, is the private end of each
individual Christian, as the Kingdom of God is the final end of all. And this
double character of the Christian life—perfectly religious and perfectly ethical—
continues, because its realisation in the life of the individual advances through the
perpetual interaction of the two elements.72
As Ritschl explained in his ethics lectures of 1858, the special potential of the
idea of the Kingdom of God lies in its conceptual ability to encompass the
religious as well as the ethical side of Christianity. It is therefore at once a
divine and a human product and its application avoids a reduction of religion
to either outward morality or interior piety.


From Ritschl’s first known treatment of the Kingdom of God, its claim to
represent the core of biblical teaching has been central to his interest in this
doctrine. His project of a ‘biblical theology’, which occupied him since the
1840s,73 is eventually and fully developed on this basis in Justification and
Reconciliation. For Ritschl’s theological system this element, which fills the

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 13), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 13.
An Essay on Biblical Theology is one of Ritschl’s first extensive academic works while still a
student. The lengthy account in O. Ritschl (1892: vol. 1, 100–2) shows some interesting
similarities with his later thought.
The Kingdom of God 225
entire second volume of the great work, is indispensable.74 Its importance has
often been overlooked in the reception and interpretation of his theology; the
ensuing asymmetric perception has had a particularly devastating effect within
English-speaking theology as the second volume has been omitted from the
translation of Ritschl’s main work. In spite of a number of valuable studies,
therefore, the biblical focus of Ritschl’s theology has largely remained un-
known to English readers.75
Before examining some details of Ritschl’s argument, it is necessary to
clarify more broadly the purpose of biblical theology within Ritschl’s overall
thought. To begin with, it must be noted that Ritschl’s commitment to biblical
theology neither implies an uncritical or literal affirmation of biblical state-
ments nor the identification of biblical theology with systematic theology
overall. Rather, it rests on his assumption of the lasting normativity of the
founding epoch of Christianity, the Apostolic Age. For Ritschl, this premiss
represents a general rule which he is ready to apply equally to the history of
Islam or Buddhism:
It must therefore . . . be recognized as a law that those religions that aim at
universality contain their proper nature, clearly and completely, in the activity
of their founders.76
This founding epoch of Christianity encompasses Jesus’ activity as well as ‘the
first generation of his church, since without this particular success the inten-
tion of the founder could not be recognized as effective’.77 The central
theological relevance of the New Testament is predicated upon its ‘documen-
tation of this effective revelation’.78
It is, then, its character as historical source that accords the New Testament
canon its significance.79 Given, on the other hand, Ritschl’s insistence on the
historicity of religion, it is at once apparent that his emphasis on the specific
significance of the Bible for systematic theology is not at all in tension with his
other intellectual commitments. Religions are primarily historical phenomena
and must be understood as such. Christianity is similar to other world reli-
gions insofar as it has a historical beginning and a founder, and is therefore an
instance of Ritschl’s general rule, that in such cases their nature can be fully
learned from its first origin.

Cf. Schäfer (1968: 44–67).
Cf. however Marsh (1992) for a treatment of some of the relevant issues.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 13). In the first edition, Ritschl went further and postulated a ‘law’
supposedly valid ‘for all ideas that shape history’, according to which ‘the content of the principle
that founds a community shows itself in its full peculiarity at the beginning of the development’
but becomes ‘more shallow or transformed’ as its impact ‘branches out’ (1870: vol. 2, 13). From
the second edition, this principle is explicitly renounced.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 13).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 13).
Schäfer’s use of the term ‘biblicism’ for Ritschl’s viewpoint is therefore misleading (1968: 60).
226 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Furthermore, we must note that ‘biblical theology’ for Ritschl is emphatic-
ally not the attempt to determine the theology of the Bible, whatever the latter
may be. Rather, it is theological interpretation of the religion of Primitive
Christianity that can be reconstructed from the New Testament. Ritschl
unambiguously denounces the
creeping error that more or less identifies the teaching of Christ and the apostles,
which one seeks to reconstruct purely historically, with theological doctrine.80
Rather, the proclamation of Jesus and in principle also the epistles are ‘reli-
gious discourses’ and are only normative if interpreted as such.81 Ritschl
explicitly rejects the alternative:
If, however, one undertakes to reproduce the Christology of the apostles on the
assumption that they have become what we are, theologians; if, consequently, one
expects their speeches to progress, like dogmatics, from the pre-existent to the
post-existent [sc. Christ], one violates those texts and ruins biblical theology.82
In proposing a biblical theology then, of whose experimental character he is
perfectly aware,83 Ritschl seeks to emphasize the historical character of Chris-
tianity against those among his contemporaries, such as Johann Christian
Konrad von Hofmann and Richard Adelbert Lipsius, who saw inner experience
as central to the Christian faith and thus, in Ritschl’s view, reduced it, willy-nilly,
to a psychological phenomenon.84 This historical character, he argues, is ideally
captured in the age of its foundation for which the New Testament provides the
source material. The historical reconstruction of Christianity’s original, ideal
content on the basis of its biblical attestation, then, is the task of Ritschl’s biblical
theology, which makes it a prolegomena to systematic theology.
Central to Ritschl’s biblical theology and foundational for much of his
argument is Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. This practice places
him, Ritschl says, in the tradition of the prophets;85 in fact, the covenant
tradition in Ancient Israel is the primary context in which the words of Jesus
must be interpreted. The fulfilment this tradition expected has now, he pro-
claims, arrived (Mark 1: 15). Closely associated with this expectation, however,

80 81
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 22). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 22).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 23).
Cf. Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 21): ‘The individual conditions of this procedure cannot be
demonstrated in advance, but can only be established from the product, i.e. biblical theology.
For this discipline in its historical sense is Scripture interpreted through itself; or this at least is its
aim. Of course, one cannot become convinced of [the merits] of this claim if one refuses from the
outset to accept the task. While the latter has been formulated for one hundred years, it is still
discredited insofar as the ruling exegesis follows, in important points, dogmatic ideas which
reveal an illegitimate influence of ecclesial traditions over the biblical theology.’
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 7–9). Cf. Hofmann (1852: vol. 1, 9–10); Lipsius (1871: 56). Further on
Hofmann’s argument: Slenczka (1998: 20–6).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 23).
The Kingdom of God 227
is the ‘exhortation to a change of heart’.86 Insofar as Jesus perceived an
immediate connection between his message and his own activity, he was
concerned, as Ritschl writes:
to educate, by means of regular influence, a certain group of people for the
Kingdom of God, which is considered the highest good only insofar as this
includes the highest task for its members.87
This ‘highest task’, for Ritschl, is the radical call to repentance contained in
Jesus’ message. More indicative of the specific profile of his interpretation may
be his understanding of the choice of the twelve disciples. According to
Ritschl, only Mark preserves its full sense by naming as its purpose not only
their commission but also their communion with Jesus (Mark 3: 14). This
shows, on the one hand, the unity of proclamation and practice in the person
of Jesus, which unsurprisingly corresponds to Ritschl’s own concept of religion
as practice. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God by the founder of the
Christian religion must, therefore, go hand in hand with the founding of such
a Kingdom. On the other hand, the narrative evinces the communal character
of Christianity. From Ritschl’s Protestant perspective, the significance of the
apostles does not consist in their elevated position as teachers or bishops; they
are the first Christian community, in which the original impulse of Jesus’
activity was most purely preserved:88
Jesus knows that he himself, as the Messiah, exercises the dominion of God
through his proper activity, but its realisation in a kingdom for him depends on
obedient subjects; therefore he founds a community.89
In this sense Ritschl also understands Jesus’ exhortation of his disciples to seek
the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6: 33): this indicates the
change of heart and mind, the renewal of the will out of the spirit of love, as
Ritschl puts it,90 without which human beings cannot enter the Kingdom of
This exhortative, ethical element in Jesus’ proclamation is underlined in
those gospel sayings that describe participation in the Kingdom of God in
term of an equivalent reward (Matthew 20: 1–6; 24: 45–51 etc.91). However,
Ritschl suggests that these sayings must be read in conjunction with those
passages that relate the moral and religious achievement to the believer’s
attitude to Jesus and promise a reward for works done ‘for the sake of ’ the
saviour (Mark 10: 28–31; Matthew 10: 37–9; 5: 10–11). This logic, he argues,
already transcends the equivalence between human achievement and divine

86 87
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 28). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 31).
88 89
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 21–2). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 31).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 32).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 32). Ritschl made the same point already in the earlier ethics lectures.
See Chapter 9, text at n. 11.
228 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
reward. The person of Christ, after all, reveals God’s grace, which thus comes
into view (‘shines through’92) as the real foundation of the divine kingdom.
This is further underlined by Jesus’ regular emphasis on the disproportionate
character of the reward (Mark 10: 29–30). Ritschl concludes:
The participation in the Kingdom of God as the highest good is not, therefore,
conceived as the direct product of an independently accomplished work; for the
fullness of the divine gift exceeds the measure of the presupposed human
It is, rather, the fundamental significance of the forgiveness of sins that here
comes to the fore. Jesus himself practises it as part of his Messianic role as
judge, defined in the prophetic tradition. The forgiveness of sins is therefore
part of his sorting of humanity, which ‘in some awakens faith in him, and in
others meets persistent disbelief (John 3: 17–18; 5: 22–24, 26–27, 30; 12: 47)’.94
In this sense, Jesus’ forgiveness of sins is merely another expression of the call
to join his community, to which a response must be given:
If Jesus saves those who are lost by calling them into his community, over which
he exercises the dominion of God, then those are saved by him who, on the basis
of the gift of the highest good, let themselves be determined to obedience against
the demands of the community of Jesus. While, then, the salvation through Jesus
becomes operational in the impulse to a change of mind, the metaphors of being
‘dispersed’ and ‘lost’ indicate sinfulness.95
Forgiveness of sins, then, like the Kingdom of God, becomes a reality for those
who accept it on the authority of Jesus. The separation between those who are
saved and those who are condemned correlates with the human response to
Christ’s call to repentance, which is the transformation of the will in the spirit
of love; at the same time, this transformation is also origin and cause of the
fellowship in the Kingdom of God.
This is Ritschl’s reconstruction of the nucleus of Christianity with its
complete coincidence of proclamation and practice. Thus Jesus’ proclamation
of the Kingdom of God corresponds to his foundation of the Church, while, on
the side of the disciples, their acceptance of the forgiveness of sins correlates
with their readiness to live a new life in the divine kingdom. It is then,
however, also the case that ‘within the community of those who confess Christ
the Kingdom of God comes about’, in other words, that it is not something
finished or complete but ‘awaits its fulfilment . . . in the future’.96 The King-
dom of God is thus both religious and ethical; it is divine gift and the product

92 93
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 33). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 34).
94 95
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 36). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 38).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 41).
The Kingdom of God 229
of human effort; it is fully present in the proclamation of Jesus and yet grows
and develops over the centuries.
The conceptual relation between Ritschl’s understanding of salvation in his
biblical theology and his philosophical dualism of nature and spirit is most
distinctly seen in his interpretation of Jesus’ death. This death, for him, is
necessary as the ultimate proof of the redeemer’s unique dignity and personal
significance. His willing acceptance of his execution fully and irrefutably
confirms ‘that he resisted the temptations arising from the collision of the
drive for self-preservation and the duties of his vocation’.97 Only his persever-
ance in this extreme situation, in other words, could prove beyond a doubt
that Jesus as a human person perfectly exemplified the absolute superiority of
the spiritual principle to the natural. In this sense, Ritschl interprets Jesus’
identification of his death as a ransom for many (Mark 10: 45).98 Through
wide-ranging exegetical comparisons, he tries to make a plausible case for a
reading of º
æ as ‘means of protection’, so that Jesus interprets his death as
a gift of specific value for God, which therefore is a means of protection against
the death of all others.99
This does not, of course, mean that the Christian community is exempt from
natural death. Rather, Ritschl is concerned with the ‘futility’ of death. Just as
Jesus himself ‘even in his death did not become futile, but rather realized his
purpose and finished his work’,100 those who believe in him ‘are saved from
the prevailing divine curse of the irrevocable annihilation of life’; in other
words, ‘they achieve a different evaluation of death than was possible under
the dispensation of the Old Testament, and no longer fear death’.101
This gift of salvation given by God through Christ, and expressed in a
transformation of the will, is summarized in the concept of righteousness.
Here in particular, Ritschl detects a merger of religious and moral perspectives
in the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God:
Jesus postulates righteousness as the task of the community of his disciples
(Matthew 6: 33; 5: 20). Its solution is identical with the realisation of the
dominion of God in this community. It is human activity inspired by the love
to God and to the neighbour, which agrees with the leading will of God.102
Ritschl’s ethical interpretation of the biblical concept of righteousness, it will
be noted, contrasts rather starkly with the predominant Lutheran tradition.
There is no indication, however, that Ritschl is overly concerned about this
disagreement. Right from the outset of his discussion, he roundly dismisses the

97 98
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 42). Cf. the extensive discussion in Schäfer (1968: 54–9).
99 100
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 85). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 87).
101 102
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 87). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 265).
230 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
exegetical basis of the traditional view as a mere ‘fantasy of the old theological
school’, educed from ‘certain confessions of the Apostle Paul’, that
the rule of Old Testament law has always caused either pharisaic selfrighteous-
ness or despair about one’s own salvation.103
In reality, the Old Testament concept of righteousness is not coincidentally
used in parallel to ‘uprightness of heart’ (yishrei lev); it denotes a certain
disposition of the faithful which Ritschl regards as far from irrelevant:
The kernel of righteousness is formed precisely by the steady confidence in the
merciful, righteous, faithful God, kept up in spite of all obstruction. In this
confidence is given certainty of his help against the resistance of the ungodly
and his guidance on the paths corresponding to God’s salvific purpose.104
Ritschl’s primary concern, once again, is the balance between the biblical idea
of salvation and its ethical teaching. To this end, he has to disown the alleged
exegetical foundation of the fateful Protestant tradition of emphasizing salva-
tion at the expense of reconciliation and of religion at the expense of morality.
It is worth recalling at this point that for Ritschl, an adequate understanding
of the Old Testament is key to the proclamation of Jesus and the true nature of
Christianity. As our analysis of his Entstehung der altkirchlichen Kirche has
shown, he regarded the loss of this horizon in the post-apostolic generation as
the cardinal reason for the problematic transformation of Christianity at that
time.105 In the second volume of Justification and Reconciliation, he writes
The knowledge the apostles and authors of the New Testament possessed of the
content, the destiny, and the divine foundation of Christianity, as much as
Christ’s own set of ideas, are due to an authentic understanding of the religion
of the Old Testament . . . , which is lacking in contemporary Judaism, whether
pharisaic, sadducaic or essenic.106
Without a solid understanding of the Hebrew Bible, then, Christianity cannot
properly be grasped. At the same time, however, Ritschl maintains that
precisely this presence of Old Testament ideas in the New Testament makes
the latter uniquely relevant for the biblical theology of Christianity. Ritschl
asserts that a ‘theology, which must understand the Christian religion from its
original sources, is referred only to the texts of the New Testament’.107 In other
words, while Old Testament ideas are hermeneutically indispensable for the
study of Christianity, the historian is justified in considering solely the origins
of Primitive Christianity for his study of its essential nature.

103 104
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 268–7). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 269).
105 106
See Chapter 7, text at n. 127. Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 16).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 16).
The Kingdom of God 231
Ritschl then is clearly not following the tradition of Reformed covenant
theologies, but at the same time, his unequivocal, ‘anti-Marcionite’ affirmation
of the inadmissibility of the Old Testament for an understanding of Chris-
tianity strikes a rare chord in nineteenth-century German theology. Clearly,
Ritschl’s community-oriented, ‘ethical’ interpretation of Christianity must
have made this option attractive for him. Note, for example, how he draws
on the Old Testament idea of righteousness in his rejection of the purely
interior view of righteousness that has often been justified with reference to
Paul and Luther.
Ritschl, characteristically, takes his starting point from the synoptic Jesus
who, he argues, continued and completed ideas previously developed by Old
Testament prophets and in the Psalms
by emphasising the command to love God and the neighbour as the leading and
most comprehensive principles of activity.108
In his polemic against the Pharisees, he privileges the radical transformation of
the will over the correct and detailed observance of ritual ceremonies.109
For Jesus, then, righteousness is ‘the task of those who share the fellowship
of the Christian community’, and the same understanding also dominates the
New Testament in general.110 This has immediate relevance for the Kingdom
of God, as Ritschl summarizes in the following passage which, by his stand-
ards, is almost lyrical in character:
Righteousness is the communal activity of those who belong to the Kingdom of
God; it is the obedience that tests the efficacy of God’s dominion exercised by
Christ. Obedience against God’s will for the benefit of the community is a plant
that grows by the power of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which is its
seed. Its fruit is the moral order, the general as well as the particular one, the peace
to which those contribute who act righteously. Their contribution, which varies in
its size and consequently benefits more or fewer people, either continues the
regular existence of the moral community or forcefully reinvigorates it.111
To reconcile this position with Paul’s teaching, Ritschl concedes, is more
difficult as in certain parts of his epistles,112 his concept of righteousness is
developed from a sharp antithesis between law and gospel.113 Ritschl, who is
not coy to call this Paul’s ‘individual’114 position, explains it with his specific
biography, his background in the Pharisaic tradition and, later on, his conflicts

Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 275).
This is how Ritschl understands Jesus’ charge of ‘hypocrisy’ against the Pharisees in verses
like Matt. 23: 23: Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 276–7).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 279).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 293–4).
The hortatory sections, Ritschl insists, always presuppose the ‘normal’ view: Ritschl (1888:
vol. 2, 309).
113 114
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 321). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 304).
232 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
in Galatia and elsewhere. Paul’s understanding of law and righteousness,
Ritschl claims, rests on an implicit acceptance of the Pharisaic interpretation
of the Mosaic law:
Paul accepts the pharisaic combination of the legal observance of cultic practices
and the task of righteousness as the view inherent in the law itself.115
Just as before his conversion he had shared the (erroneous) view that the
law constitutes a legal relation between God and the human being based on a
correlation between achievement and reward,116 he retains this idea after his
conversion, ignoring
the entire fullness of the faith of the Old Testament developed in the Psalms;
ignoring in particular their relation to the law in which the righteous recognize
God’s assistance and accept it with gratitude.117
But while as a Pharisee, he believed at least sometimes, and in principle, that
he had fulfilled the law in this sense (cf. Phil. 3: 6), his conversion led him to
regard this possibility as a dangerous delusion.118
This idiosyncratic perspective was inevitably exacerbated when Paul was
confronted with opponents in Galatia and Jerusalem who shared this very
(mis)interpretation of the law. Just like the Pharisees, they understood the law
as a legal relation between God and man, whose human part consisted
primarily in the observance of cultic practices. The ‘religious error of Phar-
iseeism’ was therefore, as Ritschl puts it, ‘legalized in the Christian commu-
nity’;119 the most problematic aspect of this Jewish school was at the cusp of
becoming accepted in Christianity as well. Paul’s protest against such a
development was fully justified, and in agreement with Jesus’ own views.
However, in this dispute Paul implicitly granted the correctness of his oppon-
ents’ interpretation of the Mosaic law. This was a fateful step, which Ritschl
can only explain as a consequence of Paul’s personal development: it confirms
that Paul’s conversion ‘is the key to his overall intellectual formation’.120
All this does not, of course, mean that Paul can or should be discounted in a
theological reconstruction of the biblical idea of righteousness and the King-
dom of God. We must recall at this point that, according to Ritschl, biblical
theology interprets the ‘religious discourses’ of biblical authors not a magis-
terium whose teaching is eternally normative for the church as a whole. This
methodological premiss allows Ritschl to contain the problem Paul’s letters
pose to his own theory. Paul’s words only become difficult under the mis-
guided assumption that there is something like ‘Paul’s theological system’.121

Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 308). Italics in the original.
116 117
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 311–12). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 311).
118 119
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 314–15). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 307).
120 121
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 321). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 320).
The Kingdom of God 233
While his early Phariseeism may have influenced his theoretical articulation of
the Christian faith, it only marginally affected his practical religiosity.122 At the
latter level, Ritschl maintains, Paul’s understanding of justification agreed
precisely with the meaning Jesus had assigned to the forgiveness of sins, and
in fact complements it by his sacrificial interpretation of the death of Jesus:123
Paul understands justification by faith as the basic relation established between
the sinners within the Christian community and God. This community has been
founded in this very relation according to God’s mercy and righteousness, by
means of the obedience of Christ perfected in his sacrificial death; it is maintained
in it by the power of his life restored from death.124
Pauline justification thus corresponds with the religious side of Jesus’ proc-
lamation of the Kingdom of God: it is the grace of God that through Jesus
Christ and independent of human activity first enables human beings to enter
into the Christian community. Internally, this gift bestows a calmness of mind
which Paul calls ‘peace with God’ (cf. Rom. 5: 1), as well as trust in the
steadiness of divine care and providence;
. . . the absence of fear of death; an independence of mood and judgment in
relation to the value different people and changing circumstances in the world
seem to represent; the reversal of judgment about those evils that follow from the
community’s situation in the world; and the transformation of the natural
perception of all evils by virtue of that judgment.125
Ritschl explicitly disagrees with those, notably the Reformers, who found that
this awareness of God’s freely given grace in Paul corresponds to a sense of the
complete inadequacy of one’s own achievement.126 Paul, just like Jesus him-
self, understands participation in the Christian community as a call to perfec-
tion; and this call can and should be answered! Ritschl here lays the exegetical
foundation for the ideas he elsewhere develops under the title On Christian
Perfection.127 For Paul, according to Ritschl, it is the case
that an awareness of personal, moral perfection, in particular of perfect faithfulness
to one’s vocation may well coincide with the acceptance of justification by faith.
Such an awareness does not have to be clouded by a reprimand of one’s con-
science, but must not either violate the principle that one should boast in the
Lord. It is, finally, accompanied by the certainty of a special divine reward
equivalent to the success God has awarded to the efforts undertaken in his

Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 320).
A full interpretation of the biblical concept of sacrifice follows in the third chapter: Ritschl
(1888: vol. 2, 157–264).
124 125
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 339). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 355).
126 127
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 365). Ritschl (1889: 4–5).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 370).
234 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Ultimately, however, it is not Paul but John who in the New Testament offers
the most perfect expression of the moral aspect of the Kingdom of God. While
his initial formula that God is light and that in him, there is no darkness (John
1: 5–7) in Ritschl’s judgment is ‘rather abstract’129 he goes on immediately to
relate this light to love—showing both that God must be understood as love
(cf. 1 John 4: 8) and that the love of Christians for each other expresses and
reflects the divine love shown to them:130 ‘If God, then, has shown his love for
us to this extent, we are obliged to love each other’.131 Like the other New
Testament authors, John distinguishes between the religious and the moral
dimensions of Christianity and regards the latter as a result of the former.
However, he goes beyond the other authors in his willingness to recognize an
impact of the moral on the religious dimension as well.132 The reason is,
according to Ritschl, that John, by contrast to the more ‘optimistic’ Paul,133
already perceives the danger that lies in the mutual isolation of the ethical and
the religious and realizes that this may not only lead to the weakening of moral
effort, but that the latter will ultimately also affect religious faith as such.
While a full exegetical evaluation of Ritschl’s various theories is beyond the
scope of this study, their present survey should have made evident that this
‘biblical theology’ cannot be reduced to an invocation of New Testament proof
texts in support of a specific theological position. Rather, Ritschl implements
his programme of reconstructing Christianity on the basis of the religious
reality of its founding epoch with much historical, philological, and theological
ingenuity. While his approach is strictly historical, he seeks to prove on that
basis that Christianity is the perfectly spiritual and teleological religion. Ritschl
himself had laid the major historical foundations for this interpretation in his
earlier study of The Formation of the Early Catholic Church. And while, from
today’s perspective, the limitations of his overall picture are as obvious as they
were in the case of Baur’s account, many details of his frequently surprising
and occasionally counter-intuitive theories evince not only solid exegetical
work but may well contribute lasting insights.134
In view of this evident commitment to historical scholarship, the systematic
coherence of Ritschl’s biblical theology is all the more remarkable. In accord-
ance with his philosophical commitment to a history of collective individuals,
whose principle is most clearly discernible in their beginning, he reconstructs
the essential nature of Christianity in the proclamation of Jesus and his
communal practice. This unity of preaching and life, he argues, forms the
seminal origin that determines the subsequent history of the Church (or, in

129 130
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 373). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 376).
131 132
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 374). Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 377).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 2, 378).
Cf. Schäfer (1964: 80–5) for a thoughtful defence of Ritschl’s theory against the standard
charge that it was entirely discredited by Weiss’s discovery of the apocalyptic background of
Jesus’ preaching.
The Kingdom of God 235
any case, should have determined it). While the idea of a historical essence of
Christianity is not peculiar to Ritschl, his emphasis on the ‘religion’ of Jesus as
comprising proclamation and practice in equal measure is largely original with
him. Included in this concept of religion, however, as we have seen again and
again, is its communal character. The ‘religion of Jesus’, then, is neither a
theological system nor the expression of a merely or primarily interior,
psychological reality, but is practice, a particular way of life which, of course,
necessarily includes inner experience. It is for this reason that Jesus’ actions
are as significant as his ‘self-consciousness’; it is for the same reason that
Ritschl emphasizes specifically Jesus’ calling of the disciples into community
with him and that, within this communal structure, the impact of Jesus’
practice on his disciples is of immediately theological relevance. After all, it
is this impact that finds its literary reflection in the New Testament canon,
which in turn justified the whole project Ritschl has been undertaking.
This unity of proclamation and life, of theory and practice in the person of
Jesus, finds its strongest expression in the Kingdom of God. It thus becomes
clear at this point just how central this concept must be for the entirety of
Ritschl’s theology. It is this idea, and only it, that moves his postulate of the
mutual interdependence of preaching and action in Jesus’ life beyond a mere
hypothesis: The Kingdom of God as the centre of Jesus’ proclamation expresses
as an idea the unity of religion and morality, of faith and life, of subjective and
objective religion as well as the interaction of receptive and active elements in
the Christian’s faith experience. The Kingdom of God taken as the historical
reality Jesus initiated, on the other hand, embodies all these ideas in their
practical realization. For Ritschl, both belong together, and one cannot be
appreciated without the other. Accordingly, the Kingdom must be understood
both as divine gift—the expression of the unchanging divine will to love—and as
the call to the Church to participate in a social and historical reality determined
by this will to love; it has been fully constituted by its founder at the beginning of
Christian history, but is also forever growing, changing, and developing. In a
word: the concept of the Kingdom of God integrates within itself the productive
tension Ritschl perceives at the centre of Christianity.
Nonetheless, Ritschl’s biblical theology, the reconstruction of the religion of
Primitive Christianity, is not yet systematic theology; it only provides the
normative groundwork for the latter. On this foundation, Ritschl thinks, the
theologian must accomplish his own work, namely that of a systematic
doctrinal development appropriate to the intellectual, cultural, and historical
situation Christianity has brought forth. This task, Ritschl avers, has only been
accomplished imperfectly so far; a ‘complete revision of the matter of the-
ology’ is required.135

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 8), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 8.
236 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
This revision must do justice to the various postulates contained in, and
emerging from, the concept of the Kingdom of God at every point of the
theological system, both in methodology and in dogmatic substance. It is not
enough for the theologian, therefore, merely to adapt individual doctrines to
insights about the nature of Christianity obtained in biblical theology and
philosophical reflection; rather, the ethical, teleological, and historical nature
of Christianity must find its expression in the organization of dogmatic topoi
and their integration into a systematic whole. Ritschl rigorously submits to
this task, and presents its results in the third volume of Justification and
Reconciliation as well as, in condensed form, in his Unterricht in der christli-
chen Religion.


Ritschl’s ‘complete revision of the matter of theology’ cannot be presented

here in its entirety. Instead, we shall attempt to capture its spirit by focusing
on one important element within his system, his teleological reformulation
of the doctrine of God. If our hypothesis is correct that Ritschl’s concept of
theology as science implies that the historical, philosophical, and theological
interpretations of Christianity are inseparably connected, this triad must also
come into view in his exposition of individual doctrines within his systematic
theology even though, inevitably, more specifically doctrinal problems will
Ritschl develops his doctrine of God by way of extensive historical discus-
sions involving the major medieval, Reformation, and modern theologians; it
is in response to, and engagement with, these individuals and their positions
that his own approach to the problem is shaped, justified, and defended.136
Equally formative have been his critical and often polemical debates with
theological contemporaries. While the present study does not allow for a full
exploration of all these relationships, no plausible reconstruction of Ritschl’s
own theology is possible without an appreciation of their significance for his
Characteristically, Ritschl’s work on the doctrine of God begins in earnest
with historical scholarship. In 1865 and 1868 he published three major journal
articles in the Jahrbücher für deutsche Theologie (Yearbooks for German
Theology).137 They contain detailed analyses of the teachings of theologians
from Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther to Fausto Sozzini. It is this research,

Recent scholarly work on these issues has not been extensive. Cf. on Ritschl and Luther:
Lotz (1974); Hofmann (1998); on his discussion with F. H. R. von Frank: Slenczka (1998).
Ritschl (1868).
The Kingdom of God 237
which then forms the backbone of his most comprehensive treatment of this
doctrine in volume three of Justification and Reconciliation.138 This preoccu-
pation with historical theology, however, must not be mistaken for theological
historicism which would be contrary to Ritschl’s theological and philosophical
principles. He cannot expect earlier generations of theologians to offer safe
guidance towards the most appropriate understanding of God; rather, its
correct conceptualization derives from a firm grasp of Christianity’s essence,
which has been revealed historically in its earliest phase and finds its authori-
tative reflection in the canon of the New Testament.
In practice, this means that the test for any doctrine of God must be its
ability to underwrite what Ritschl calls the Christian worldview. Christianity
promises human beings salvation in the sense of a triumph of their spiritual
being over impervious nature. Christ is believed to be saviour and founder of
the Kingdom that unites a moral community in activity towards a common
goal. The Christian concept of God must operate within this framework;
specifically, it must have the capacity to underwrite this particular understand-
ing of salvation. Existing theological formulations of this doctrine will, conse-
quently, be measured by their conformity with this ideal. Given that few
theologians prior to Ritschl defined their own work in these terms, it is hardly
surprising that Ritschl’s evaluation of the theological tradition on the basis of
his own principles is overall extremely critical. It would be wrong to call it
dismissive; Ritschl is an excellent and in many ways gracious reader of
theological texts, perfectly able to recognize and acknowledge theological
insights even in authors whose general outlook he sharply rejects. He is
furthermore aware that his forerunners sought to base their understanding
of God on their Christian faith, drew on the Bible, and participated in the
practice of Christianity; one must therefore, by Ritschl’s own definition, expect
to discover nuggets of theological truth in their writings.139 Nevertheless, the
tone of his treatment of other theologians usually betrays his impatience with
their insufficiencies, and even Martin Luther, whom he credits with the one
insight most crucial for his own theology, is by no means wholly exempt from
stinging criticism.140
For Ritschl, then, the criterion by which any doctrine of God must be
judged is to what extent it permits, or obstructs, a Christian understanding
of salvation as justification and reconciliation. For this reason, he presents his
fullest account of the doctrine of God as part of his treatment of the latter two
doctrines. Once again, his most obvious precursor for this decision is Baur,

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 184–309).
An illuminating example is Ritschl’s essay on Bernard of Clairveaux (1873). The reader
notes the author’s surprise to find in this medieval writer so many ‘evangelical’ insights.
Ritschl’s critique of Luther is most strongly articulated in (1865: 66–89) although he adds
contextual observations mitigating his charges.
238 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
whom he also follows in inscribing this theological discussion into the duality
of nature and spirit.141 As elsewhere in his work, however, Ritschl’s principal
indebtedness to Baur coincides with equally radical disagreement and a
complete reformulation of the latter’s results. For Baur, reconciliation meant
overcoming the duality of nature and spirit in an ontological mediation; in this
sense, the idea of the Incarnation aimed at a third in which both principles
were preserved and thus ‘reconciled’. Baur’s history of the doctrine of recon-
ciliation, consequently, displays the possible variations of such mediation and
finds its putative climax in a theory that perfectly unites both principles while
keeping each of them fully intact. By contrast, reconciliation for Ritschl means
overcoming the conflict between human and divine will. This understanding,
it will be noted, is precisely in line with his voluntarist reconstruction of the
ethical, teleological, and historical character of Christianity. Accordingly,
Ritschl writes in the introduction to the first volume of Justification and
The idea of reconciliation with God is possible only where there is contradiction
of will between the two sides, or of one side against the other, which is to be
Thus, the question of God, for Ritschl, is from the beginning a question about
God’s will or, more specifically, about God as will.143 This will only becomes
the object of study for Christian theology, however, on account of its prob-
lematic relationship with human volition; the history of the Christian doc-
trines of justification and reconciliation is the history of attempts to
conceptualize this conflict and its solution as envisioned in the teaching and
the practice of Christianity. Failure to perceive this task and to adapt every
single theological topos to its requirements is, Ritschl alleges, the cause of
much error and confusion in the history of theology. The latter failure was
compounded by the absence of a scientific ethos in theology and the conse-
quent lack of any attempt to systematically connect the individual loci and to

See Chapter 2, ‘The Two Programmes: Idealist and Neo-rationalist’. Notable is the perman-
ent presence of Baur as a conversation partner throughout Ritschl’s historical studies. Ritschl’s
engagement with Baur’s writings is always critical but betrays solid familiarity and scholarly
appreciation of his teacher’s work. Cf. (1868: 59–61) for a detailed discussion of Baur’s interpret-
ation of Scotus’ theology and its changes between the Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit (1841) and the
posthumous Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters (1861). In his account, Ritschl takes cognizance of
several smaller publications that lie between the two major ones.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 14). For this reason, Ritschl dismisses what Baur had called the
‘mystical’ doctrine of reconciliation in the Church Fathers as irrelevant and begins his own
historical reconstruction directly with the conflict of Anselm and Abelard. From the second
edition onwards, he integrates a brief account of Patristic ideas culled mainly from Wilhelm
Herrmann’s doctoral dissertation on Gregory of Nyssa: (1888: vol. 1, 12–14). Cf. (1888: vol. 3,
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 262), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 276. Cf. Ritschl (1875: 21–2) (} 11
with n. 2).
The Kingdom of God 239
refer every single one of them to the central doctrine of salvation and
We are able to know and understand God, sin, conversion, eternal life, in the
Christian sense, only so far as we consciously and intentionally reckon ourselves
members of the community which Christ has founded. Theology is bound to take
up this point of view, and only so is there any hope of constructing a theological
system which deserves the name.144
Traditional dogmatics failed to take this insight seriously and this led to
predictable consequences:
The traditional doctrine of man’s original state, consequently, implies that the-
ology takes up its standpoint within either a natural or a universally rational
knowledge of God which has nothing to do with the Christian knowledge of him,
and is consequently indifferent to the question whether the expositor who
expounds the doctrine belongs to the Christian community or not.145
We do not have to elucidate again the specific meaning Ritschl attaches to the
need for the theologian to be involved in the Church.146 Crucially, the present
passage highlights the root of his criticism of nearly the entire theological
tradition: its neglect to develop all dogmatic topoi in a specifically Christian
way. They all must be shown to depend on salvation by Christ and the
Kingdom of God proclaimed and founded by Jesus. Failure to do so creates
a systematic ‘gap’ that is filled more or less randomly. For the mainstream of
medieval and post-Reformation theology, this meant the adoption of ‘natural’
or metaphysical insights with supposedly generally validity, which in reality
however had their origin in a pre-Christian, pagan worldview and therefore
objectively corrupted Christian teaching.
In his own work, Ritschl consciously and deliberately seeks to undo this
damage and establish a theological alternative to it. He distinguishes two main
forms in which the doctrine of reconciliation has historically been developed.
They correspond to conceptualizations of the relation between divine and
human will that are different though they also share similar features. The first
tradition, Ritschl argues, ultimately originated with Thomas Aquinas,147

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 4), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 4.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 4), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 4.
See Chapter 9, text at n. 57.
Ritschl is aware that the inclusion of Aquinas in this tradition, which is normally traced to
Duns Scotus and his students, will be controversial. His own argument to sustain it is, arguably,
far-fetched. Yet for Ritschl the decision is crucial as it reveals at the root of Western theology the
deformation of the idea of God brought about by the adaptation of natural theology. The two
ideas of God, obtained respectively through metaphysical argument and from revelation, cannot
really be reconciled. Thomas solves this problem by merely accepting the contrast between the
idea of God’s volition, which he finds in Christian revelation, and the ‘indifferent simplicity’ of
the metaphysical concept of God, which ultimately forms the basis of his own system. In this
way, Ritschl claims, his work already points to later nominalist ideas: (1865: 28–9).
240 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
assumed its classical form in nominalism and from there partially influenced
Luther, Calvin, and Calvinism,148 before finally becoming dominant in Armi-
nianism and Socinianism.149 Its fundamental principle, which underlies the
various variations encountered in all these authors, is the absolute freedom of
the divine will; this ‘formal freedom’ of the divine will, however, correlates to
what Ritschl calls the relativity of its objects.150 In this theory what specifically
God wills is completely detached from any concept we may have of him;
knowledge of God is thus logically severed from the awareness that the object
of his will, according to Christian revelation, is human salvation. Instead, he is
recognized first and foremost as creator—a perception the proofs of God’s
existence appropriated from ancient philosophy made additionally plaus-
ible.151 In this relation he is the absolute Lord over all creatures, including
human beings who, consequently, ‘as contrasted with him are as destitute of
rights as slaves’.152 While in real history God has undertaken to change this
situation by instituting a valid moral order of the world, this outcome is
ultimately subjected to the principle of God’s arbitrary volition. In this theory,
Ritschl argues, there is no original relationship between God and humanity.
Rather, they are treated as individual legal entities, whose relationship, conse-
quently, is conceptualized by analogy to private law.153 Their mutual obligations
are thus understood as resting on a contract to which God commits ‘out of
equity’ (aequitas, Billigkeit) while man is subjected to it volens nolens. This idea
facilitates the further assumption of an equivalence between human fulfilment
of this contract and divine recompense,154 while God is under no obligation ‘to
punish human transgressions of his law’,155 but possesses complete freedom ‘to
forgive them as injuries or as infractions of his private rights’.156
Ritschl is prepared to admit that the biblical idea of complete human
dependence on God might be construed as giving rise to such a theory,157

Cf. Ritschl (1865: 66): ‘Within limits and with specific application, the nominalist concept
of God has continued to affect the foundations of Reformation theology. This happened by
means of the doctrine of double predestination, which was mediated through Luther’s writing De
servo arbitrio and subsequently came to dominance in the Calvinist churches.’ In detailed
analyses Ritschl covers Luther (66–82), Calvin (96–102), as well as Beza and a number of
other Reformed theologians (102–11).
Cf. on Arminianism: Ritschl (1865: 124–7); on Socinianism: (1865: 128–44); (1888: vol. 3,
229–33), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 241–5.
Ritschl (1865: 25).
Ritschl (1865: 27–9); (1888: vol. 3, 203–8), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 214–19.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 228), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 240.
Ritschl (1865: 43); Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 58–85); (1888: vol. 3, 228–33). In Aquinas,
however, Ritschl recognizes elements of the public law model: (1865: 42).
It therefore corresponds to the medieval and Catholic ‘notion of human merit before God’:
Ritschl (1865: 65).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 229), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 241.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 229), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 241.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 232), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 244.
The Kingdom of God 241
but apart from this concession he regards it as sheer nonsense. It imagines, he
writes, a world in which human beings are expected, on the one hand, to
understand that they have no rights vis-à-vis God. In principle, God could
dispose of them as he pleases; yet on the other hand they are expected to see in
him their partner in a legal relationship that presupposes equality of moral
personhood between both partners.158 This seems like a slaveholder, who
out of equity treats the men who are his chattels as persons capable of rights, who
in this confidence imposes on them a law of reciprocal behaviour, but indulgently
tolerates infractions of it except when they are characterized by obstinacy, and
rewards the well-meant fulfilment of his law, however imperfect it be . . . 159
The other main type in which the doctrine of reconciliation has been cast,
Ritschl recognizes in the prevalent teaching of the Reformers160 as well as in
Lutheran and Reformed Orthodoxy. Here, the relation between divine and
human will is interpreted by analogy to public law.161 The difference,
according to Ritschl, lies not so much in the fact that in this form of the
theory human beings have been furnished with rights at their creation, but
rather in the view
that the law, the fulfilment of which is required, is not one of arbitrary content,
but the expression of the Divine will such, indeed, as is essential to God himself,
must of necessity be ascribed to him, and is ordained to be in all its concreteness
the indispensable and universal rule of the moral order.162
This construction results in a completely different understanding of salvation
history. For on this analogy, it is necessary to punish human transgression of
divine law ‘like treason’163 with the highest form of punishment available, and
this penalty remains in effect throughout subsequent generations and can only
be lifted by Christ’s specific work of reconciliation.
What about the idea of God underlying this theory? To Ritschl, it is as
problematic as the earlier one.164 In this model, he argues, God’s justice
appears as natural necessity, to which the divine will is subordinate.165
Where this problem is recognized, the response has often been a two-tiered
concept of God, in which his justice, as latent quality (ruhende Eigenschaft)
underlies the individual effects of his will thus all but abrogating the central

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 232), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 244.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 233), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 245.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 1, 230–5).
Ritschl (1865: 88–9); Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 233–50), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 245–62.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 234), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 246.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 235), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 247.
Cf. in detail: Ritschl (1865: 161–75).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 236), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 248.
242 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Christian tenet of God’s personality.166 Thus, public law is ultimately as
unsuitable as an analogy for the relationship between divine and human will
as private law. This, finally, leads Ritschl to his decisive question: can this
relationship at all be explained in legal terms and categories?
At this point at the latest, it should be clear that Ritschl’s rather idiosyn-
cratic distinction of private and public law theories of divine–human recon-
ciliation has by no means digressed from his concern for the Kingdom of God
as central theological category. It is, of course, this very notion that is now
introduced to offer a better and, in fact, the only adequate frame for the
interpretation of the relationship between God, humanity, and the world as
a whole. We have earlier seen Ritschl protest strongly against its juridical or
political interpretation167 and should not be surprised that this same failure is
at work in the two prevalent types of doctrine analysed here. An argument
Ritschl ascribes to ‘the older school’ (that is, seventeenth-century orthodoxy)
held that the double command to love was at the same time the substance of
the universal moral law.168 Ritschl strongly disagrees and instead reiterates the
purely ethical character of the Kingdom of God:
Moral fellowship as such neutralizes national distinctions, for it springs from the
subjective motive of love, which differs from that natural hereditary friendliness
of fellow-countrymen to one another which is, as a rule, an accompaniment of
civil society. Moral fellowship, viewed in these two characteristics of possessing
the widest possible extension and being animated by the most comprehensive
motive, can only be conceived as the Kingdom of God. This idea Christ expresses
in such a way that he transcends the view of the national state, and takes up an
attitude essentially opposed to it.169
Ultimately, therefore, the idea of the Kingdom of God, and nothing more,
constitutes the criterion for a doctrine of God corresponding to Ritschl’s
theological requirements. By its standard, the theories of Lutheran and
Reformed Orthodoxy are as deficient as their Socinian rivals:
Both are out of harmony with Christianity exactly in so far as they are not guided
by the Kingdom of God as a positive end which, as common both to God and
man, follows from the conception of divine love.170
As this idea cannot be separated historically from the ‘founding epoch’ of
Christianity, the doctrine of God that is implicit in it becomes the mark of
emphatically Christian theology, a system of thought inseparable from the

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 237), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 248–9. On the problem of God’s
personality cf. Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 217–27), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 228–38.
See Chapter 9, text at n. 19.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 238), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 250.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 240), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 252.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 279), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 294.
The Kingdom of God 243
message proclaimed by Jesus and the practice inaugurated by him.171 By
contrast, both traditions considered in Ritschl’s analysis suffer from the
error of natural theology. Both ultimately hark back to supposedly rational
assumptions for which ‘points of support for both were found in the New
Testament’.172 But this neutrality is, in Ritschl’s view, illusory merely obscur-
ing the worrying and lasting influence pre-Christian views have had over
Christian theology especially in the form of metaphysical arguments for the
existence of God and in the tradition of apophatic theology: neither one nor
the other is ultimately compatible with the ‘Christian world view’. Both
occlude the decisive ‘question, what end God has, or can have, in common
with the human race’:173
The God who is conceived only as not being the world, must always be negatively
related to everything that is real.174
Even after the Reformation had effected a correction of the world-denying
ethical viewpoint to which this concept of God corresponded, theologians
failed to draw the appropriate and consistent conclusions for the doctrine of
If the proper destiny of the human race includes spiritual and blessed fellowship
with God, this end cannot be unrelated to God’s personal end. Between the
creation of man for this end and the creative will of God it is impossible to
think the relation as accidental; it must be necessary.175
The key to the solution of this problem, according to Ritschl, lies in John’s
statement that God is love (1 John 4: 8).176 Love, here, is to be understood as a
will constantly striving
to develop and to appropriate the individual self-end of the other personality,
regarding this as a task necessary to the very nature of its own personal end, its
own conscious individuality.177
Understanding God in this way requires that the aim of his will—and this is the
salvation of humankind in his own kingdom—determines our understanding of

Cf. Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 267), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 281.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 256), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 270.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 257), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 271.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 258), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 271.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 258), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 272.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 262), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 276.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 264), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 278. Ritschl’s concept of love is
almost entirely abstracted from its affective component. This one-sidedness is quite typical of his
more general, peculiar blindness to this dimension of religion and, probably, life. Probably
related is his almost violent aversion against any form of ‘pietism’ which his own students
already found almost incomprehensible. Cf. for a fascinating critique along those lines: Hefner
244 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
his being. We cannot know God without thinking of him as salvific love; and
we know nothing of God that is unrelated to this specification. In the
devotional language of the gospels, this idea is expressed through use of
the word ‘Father’,178 which implies, as a corollary, trust that ‘all things work
together for good for those who love God’ (Romans 8: 28).179 Thus did Luther
define the significance of Christian faith in God in his Large Catechism,180 and
this is what Ritschl regards as the Reformer’s great, albeit largely unrecognized,
By contrast, any attempt to articulate the Christian concept of God on the
basis of a ‘disinterested’ knowledge existing apart from, and independent of,
the reality of salvation in Christ, inevitably fails. The idea of God as love
cannot, Ritschl insists, be reached by narrowing down such an earlier, more
‘universal’ concept:
For the goodness and power of God, on which faith casts itself, is in Luther’s view
revealed in the work of Christ alone. Apart from Christ, apart from the reflection
of God in Him, Luther finds the idea of God to be accompanied by terrors and
annihilating effects.182
Ritschl agrees without reservations. The Christian theologian for him con-
fronts a straightforward alternative: either to think God in and through the
teleological concept of love as salvific will whose goal is the establishment of
his own Kingdom in partnership with humanity, or not think him at all. To
opt for the former, however, the theologian must also accept as the horizon of
his or her reflection the historical reality of the religion that Jesus founded and
thus place himself or herself within the ever-developing Kingdom of God.183
Of great significance for Ritschl’s theology is the assumption that every concept
of God is relational. There is no doctrine of God that is not, explicitly or

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 259–60), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 272–3.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 288), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 304.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 6), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 6. The reference is to Luther’s explan-
ation of the First Commandment in his Catechismus Maior, Prima Pars, and to Augsburg
Confession XX 24: Bekenntnisschriften (1998: 560–7; 79), ET: Tappert, 365; 44.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 201–2), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 211–12.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 202), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 212
This aspect of Ritschl’s theology is lost where his concept of value judgements is deemed
the primary key to his thought. In the decades after his death, this became the predominant
interpretation (Stählin (1888)) and is still popular today (Slenczka (1997)). In this reading,
Ritschl’s theology is a forerunner of today’s non-realism concerned almost exclusively with the
believers’ experience and their notional correlates. To his opponents, this made him nearly an
atheist in theological guise (Leese 1912). Ritschl never intended this, but one may ask whether he
did not dramatically underestimate the epistemological and ontological problems his approach
created. His response to early critics in Theologie und Metaphysik certainly looks naïve and
improvised, and his use of the concept of ‘religious cognition’ (e.g. 1888: vol. 3, 15–20) lacks
adequate epistemological reflection.
The Kingdom of God 245
implicitly, concerned with human salvation; if theologians pretend otherwise,
this usually hints at a dimension of their thought they are unwilling to admit.
This relationality, however, is not solely a mutual affair between God and the
human being, but triangular. Ultimately, every idea about God implies corres-
ponding notions of humanity as well as the world as a whole, and the theologian
must not ignore either of them.184 Ritschl derives this tenet from his commit-
ment to a concept of religion as practice inscribed into his dualism of nature and
spirit: human beings turn to religion because they are caught in a tension
between their determination by natural laws and their claim to the freedom of
the intelligible realm. Their expectation, therefore, can only be met if religion
offers a plausible redefinition of their relationship with the natural world. ‘The
idea of God’, he therefore formulates, ‘is the ideal bond between a definite view
of the world and the idea of man as constituted for the attainment of goods or
the highest good.’185 Whether it can provide this ‘ideal bond’ between human
beings and their world must then be the touchstone for any doctrine of God.
What idea of world corresponds to the Christian understanding of God as
love? Ritschl argues that
neither the indeterminate notion of a cosmos, nor the notion of the natural world,
can be conceived as the correlate of this particular aspect of the Divine will; for in
them there is nothing akin to God . . . We can find an object which corresponds to
His nature as love only in one or many personal beings.186
The Christian concept of God as such, then, entails the purpose of creating
persons, though Ritschl concedes that we cannot know a priori whether one or
many of them. But in the world we know this question has been decided! For
this world, Ritschl deduces two consequences from his doctrine of God: first, it
must consist of a ‘multiplicity of spirits’ destined to join into a fellowship—
this, of course, is once again Ritschl’s Kingdom of God whose specifically
Leibnizian background is perhaps nowhere else as tangible as here.187 Only
this idea, he writes, permits ‘to conceive the human race as a unity in spite of
its natural multiplicity’;188 this association of human beings in the spirit of
love Ritschl can therefore, and in this qualified sense, call their ‘supernatural’
The multitude of spirits who, for all their natural and generic affinity, may yet, in
the practical expression they give to their will, be utterly at variance, attain a

With this idea Ritschl exerted considerable influence on nascent sociology of religion.
While detailed research is still scarce, much suggests that, directly or indirectly, both Max Weber
and Émile Durkheim drew on his work for this insight: e.g. Ward (1987: 203–10) for Weber;
Jones (2002) for Durkheim.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 192), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 201.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 264), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 278.
Cf. Leibniz (2002b: 146) (} 84–5); Walther (1991: 54–60).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 266), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 280.
246 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
supernatural unity through mutual and social action prompted by love, action
which is no longer limited by considerations of family, class, or nationality and
this without abrogating the multiplicity given in experience. It is an essential
characteristic of the Kingdom of God that, as the final end which is being realised
in the world and as the supreme good of created spirits, it transcends the world,
just as God Himself is supernatural.189
This ‘supernatural’ Kingdom of God, however, becomes reality in history and
only through the community that has been founded by Jesus and remains
continually dependent on him.190 The history of the Christian community and
the history of the world, then, are intimately related; Christianity has a unique
role to play in world history. While Ritschl derives this idea from his properly
theological insights, its articulation throws into sharp relief a fundamental
tension within his approach. Until now, his entire reasoning has tended to
emphasize the contingent character of the Christian history. The theologian
must accept ‘revelation’ and participate in the communal practice of Chris-
tianity because theological insights can only be had on this basis; while they
are universally applicable and in that sense scientific, they cannot be deduced
from more general historical or philosophical principles. How plausible are all
these demands, however, if Christianity ties in so nicely with the principles of
idealist philosophies of history?191 If the destiny of the Christian religion is to
unite humanity in the Kingdom of God, and thus to lead the world to the goal
to which it has been called since creation—must not such ideas lead Ritschl
back to precisely the same kind of philosophy of history and ‘natural theology’
which he rejected with so much emphasis in his dispute with Zeller? A major
faultline is indeed beginning to emerge in Ritschl’s thought here, and we shall
have to come back to this problem.
There is a second consequence Ritschl deduces from his understanding of
God as love for the constitution of the world: nature is related to spirit as a
means to an end:
If it be an essential part of God’s personal end that he should create a multitude of
spirits, formed after their own kind, and that he should bring them to perfection
in order to manifest himself to them as love, then the world of nature, viewed in its
separate formation as distinct from the world of men, cannot be viewed as a mere
arbitrary appendix, but must rather be regarded as a means to the divine end.192
In this idea, according to Ritschl, lies the ultimate fulfilment of the task of all
religion, the ‘solution of the contradiction in which man finds himself, as both
a part of the world of nature and a spiritual personality claiming to dominate

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 267), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 280–1 (with changes).
Ritschl (1875: 33) (} 19).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 268), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 282.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 265), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 279.
The Kingdom of God 247
nature’.193 The superiority of spirit over nature is therefore contained in the
Christian concept of God in such a way that human self-assertion is already
inscribed in the purpose of creation:
God’s will, permanent and certain of itself, directed towards the realisation of the
Kingdom of God as the ethical and supramundane unity of a multitude of souls,
forms, for the sake of this end, the ground of everything, whether multiplex or
individual, which serves as a means to its accomplishment. We must therefore
conclude that God creates in time the multiplicity of things, which, as superior or
inferior to each other, become causes and effects.194
This result, it may be objected, was in fact predetermined from the moment
Ritschl set out to develop his systematic theology. He had, after all, in his
biblical theology established the same insight as underlying the worldview of
Primitive Christianity and, on this basis, identified it as the ‘nature of Chris-
tianity’ at the beginning of the third volume of Justification and Reconcili-
ation.195 The doctrine of God merely recapitulates this insight and develops its
theoretical consequences without generating radically new information. Such
a criticism, however, would ignore that, according to Ritschl, this precisely is
the task of systematic theology. It does not constitute the truths of Christianity
but learns, reflects, and interprets them on the basis of their prior evidence in
religious life. This does not mean that theology cannot criticize religious
practice, but the critical potential it has derives exclusively from its awareness
of the principles inherent in the ‘founding epoch’ and their systematic appli-
cation to later periods. Ritschl’s doctrine of God, whatever else may be said
against it, is a precise application of this prescription.
On this basis, Ritschl develops a strictly soteriological doctrine of God. God
is of interest to the Christian theologian only insofar as he is a ‘God for us’, a
God who is known, through the revelation of Christ, as a gracious and loving
God. For Ritschl, theological interest in God apart from this revelation is
misguided; he rejects such attempts sharply and often polemically. The pas-
sionate language he adopts in this context, however, cannot distract from the
fact that his approach leaves unanswered the crucial question of what can be
said about God’s nature apart from his revelation as the God of love. Ritschl’s
extensive discussion of Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will shows that he was
conscious of this problem. He sarcastically notes the tension in the Reformer’s
position: on the one hand, Luther declares that we should simply ignore that
which lies beyond our salvific concern (quae supra nos nihil ad nos196); we

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 189), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 199.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 284), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 299. Italics mine. It is difficult not to
think here of Barth’s celebrated idea of the creation as the ‘external basis of the covenant’ in
} 41.2 of Church Dogmatics III/1: Barth (1932: vol. 3/1, 103ff.), ET: Bromiley, 94ff.
195 196
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 13–14). Ritschl (1865: 77).
248 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
must listen to God’s word and not speculate about his ‘inscrutable will’.197 On
the other hand, however, his diatribe against Erasmus would suggest ‘that
Luther knows quite a lot in this area after all’.198 Ritschl himself does not
intend to follow him in this respect:
We shall honour the inaccessibility of this area for human understanding in this
way that we only permit our premonition briefly to traverse beyond the limit of
God’s revealed salvific will into the background of his universal efficacy. Subse-
quently we bend it back underneath the certainty of God’s mercy in Christ thus
suppressing further questions.199
This statement of intent evidently raises the question of how easily such
suppression is achieved. In the present passage, Ritschl seems at least to permit
the interpretation that—just as Luther apparently intimated it—the soterio-
logical God of the Christian revelation is not the whole God. Unlike Luther,
however, Ritschl insists that the limit drawn by revelation is to be strictly
However, there are indications that this was not after all Ritschl’s main and
conclusive view. After all, as a thinker schooled at some point of his life in
Hegelian philosophy, he knew that such an intellectual ban could not be
upheld and would, in the end, only lead to a migration of the God question
from theology into a different academic discipline. Indeed, Ritschl’s willing-
ness to identify the essence of God with his love must indicate that Luther’s
deus absconditus for him is a non-god, an idol. This interpretation is con-
firmed by Ritschl’s polemical controversy with his colleague at Erlangen, Franz
Hermann Reinhold von Frank. Against Frank’s insistence on the concept of
God’s ‘absoluteness’, Ritschl argued that this was a survival of pre-Christian
religion made obsolete by the more comprehensive proof of the absoluteness
of Christianity.200 For if it is true that God is an object of ‘religious knowledge’,
and if it is further true that the history of religion finds its consummation in
Christianity, then the knowledge of God suggested at this stage of religious
development marks a universal, ‘indispensable truth, in order that we may find
both the ground and the law of the real world in that creative will which
includes, as the final end of the world, the destination of mankind for the
Kingdom of God.’201
With this last twist, however, Ritschl’s doctrine of God reveals itself as
closely aligned to some of his most central concerns. In particular, it is the
exact theological correlate to his fundamental philosophical tenet, the volun-
taristic dualism of nature and spirit. God is the will whose goal is the Kingdom

197 198
Ritschl (1865: 77). Ritschl (1865: 82).
Ritschl (1865: 83). Italics mine.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 226), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 238.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 213), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 224.
The Kingdom of God 249
of God, the world as a unity of intelligible, ‘spiritual’ beings. Insofar as this
spirituality is tied to communal religious and moral practice, participation in
such activity is the exclusive as well as sufficient means through which the
reality and the presence of God is disclosed. In other words, only those who
join the Christian community experience God as the indispensable precondi-
tion of this form of life. This precondition is primarily historical in nature,
pointing believers back to the foundation of their community through ‘revela-
tion’ in Christ. Because of this origin, Christians today receive the Kingdom of
God as divine gift. At the same time, however, as the Kingdom is also in the
process of becoming, they are called to participate in its future consummation.
For Ritschl therefore ‘the instances of human action from love which are
comprehended under the Kingdom of God constitute, as the correlate of God’s
personal end and as his specific operations, the perfect revelation of the truth
that God is love.’202 The Kingdom of God thus extends from the past into the
future, and while the perspective shifts from the latter to the former, the role of
its human members changes from passive recipients to active collaborators in
God’s project. In both perspectives, however, the Kingdom is strictly histor-
ical, tied to the specific, irreducible history of Christianity and therefore
plausible only to those who participate in this communal practice.
Ritschl calls his theology ‘positive’ because it ‘starts from the Christian idea
of God’.203 But it should by now be clear that for him this commitment does
not compromise its scientific character. He supports this assumption through
his own elaboration of a number of constitutive principles that underlie his
systematic theology as much as his thought as a whole: the dualism of nature
and spirit; the voluntaristic interpretation of the latter as practical, historical,
and communal; and the identification of Christianity as religion of the spirit in
precisely this sense. On this basis, Ritschl’s intellectual system operates, as we
have seen, as a triad of historical, philosophical, and theological perspectives
which, in their unity, ground his claim to present Christian theology as the
science of religion.

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 276), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 291.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 217), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 228.

The End of the Idealist Programme

Albrecht Ritschl’s work is a milestone in the history of nineteenth-century

academic theology. The strength and the coherence of his vision is apparent
from its productive reception by a whole generation of theologians from
Wilhelm Herrmann to Adolf Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch, and his even
wider influence on scholars of religion as diverse as William Robertson Smith,
Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim. In his own period, only F. C. Baur’s synthesis
of historical and systematic theology had been equally powerful in its ability to
inspire successful theological work across a variety of specialist fields.
Our account of this theology began from the observation that for Ritschl
theology was and indeed had to be a science. This ideal demanded a commit-
ment both to the history and philosophy of religion and to an explanation of
Christianity from within the Christian community. Ritschl solved this tension
by means of a philosophical theory of the history of religion according to
which Christianity’s place at the pinnacle of religious development justified its
privileged treatment as religion par excellence, while theological reflection
revealed the eminently historical character of Christianity.
With this dual approach, however, Ritschl stands in the tradition of the
idealist programme of a unity of theology, philosophy, and history outlined by
Baur in his Christliche Gnosis. Baur himself, however, had undermined this
programme by his practical adoption of principles adopted from rationalism,
and in his students, David Strauss, Eduard Zeller, and Adolf Hilgenfeld, this
neo-rationalist programme came to dominate the work of the Tübingen
School. In spite of superficial similarities, the two programmes are fundamen-
tally at variance: while the former is predicated on the unity of faith and
history, the latter excludes it. Ritschl’s resumption of Baur’s idealist pro-
gramme therefore not only illuminates his fundamental and lasting debt to
his sometime professor, but also explains his critical and occasionally polem-
ical dispute with members of the Tübingen School.
Ritschl’s approval of Baur’s idealist programme, however, was unmitigated.
After all, it had led to the relapse into a separation of faith and reason and,
eventually, to Strauss’s dismantling of the historicity of the gospel. To identify
the weak spot in Baur’s original approach, Ritschl utilized the specific critique
The End of the Idealist Programme 251
of Hegel’s philosophy advanced in Speculative Idealism. According to this
argument, the Hegelian concept of spirit, forced into the stretch-bed of an
evolutionary logic, does not reach the level of personal subjectivity but ultim-
ately remains naturalistic, and therefore fails precisely as a theory of spirit.
Ritschl applied this critique to Baur and appropriated also the alternative
proposed by speculative theists such as Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus. It con-
sisted in a voluntarist reworking of the idea of spirit, which paved the way for
the idealist modification of Kant’s philosophy in later Neokantianism. On the
theological side it led to a significant transformation of the concept, popular-
ized by Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Baur alike, of Christianity as the religion of
the spirit. For if spirit is primarily will, then it follows, for Ritschl, that
Christianity is the religion of the spirit precisely insofar as it is practical and
this, again, means that it must be understood in teleological, historical, and
ethical categories. As in Baur, this led to the adoption of a methodology
maintaining a fine balance between philosophical clarification of principles
and concepts, detailed historical research, and theological reflection on doc-
trine and ethics.
Our presentation of this work and its results has so far emphasized its
coherence and the mutual confirmation of insights gained in the several
disciplines Ritschl pursued. It would, however, be a serious mistake to ignore
the tensions and internal contradictions that lurk underneath the surface of
this elegant web of theories. The first part of the present chapter will attempt
an exposition of the internal strains that stretch, shake, or possibly destroy
from within the cohesion of Ritschl’s theological system. In exploring these
faultlines, we shall still accept his fundamental premisses as valid; in that sense,
the present task is not a critique of Ritschl’s theology but merely the attempt to
take its analysis to its logical conclusion by exposing difficulties that arose, and
perhaps had to arise, in the course of his construction of this impressive
intellectual edifice.
Several readers of Ritschl’s works have noted the existence of internal
tensions; their most common response has been to refer those to moments
in his theological development, though how the latter explains those incoher-
encies has been a matter of disagreement. While some have argued that
Ritschl, in response to shifting historical circumstances and under the influ-
ence of his own students, moved away from an original system that was in
itself coherent whatever else its flaws,1 others interpret his continuing work on
his theology, especially the reworking of the three-volume Doctrine of Justifi-
cation and Reconciliation in two subsequent editions, as evidence of increasing
intellectual maturity leading to a climax of systematic coherence at the end of

C. Fabricius concludes his comparative study with the unequivocal judgement: ‘Its original
form was the most perfect’ (1909: 136). Cf. for a similar assessment Timm (1967: 100–1, n. 17).
252 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
his academic career.2 Accordingly, the former group prefers to reconstruct
Ritschl’s thought on the basis of his early works up until the first edition of
Justification and Reconciliation in the early 1870s, while the latter would use
the final editions of Ritschl’s texts as the basis of their work.
Our own systematic reconstruction of Ritschl’s thought on the basis of his
early lecture notes and published work prior to his systematic magnum opus
has revealed the extent of ingenuity and internal coherence in Ritschl’s
theology at the beginning of his career. Thus far, the critics in the former
group are justified in their intuition to seek the fundamentals of Ritschl’s
system in his early work. They are wrong, however, insofar as they consider it
flawless. In fact, we shall see in some detail that the changes Ritschl introduced
into his work from around 1880 were provoked by his awareness of some
serious difficulties inherent in his original system. It will, however, also
appear—and this will mitigate the tenets of the latter group of his readers—
that these changes did little to heal those rifts but paved the way towards a
disintegration of his original systematic insight. This disintegration continued,
and was brought to its conclusion, in the work of Ritschl’s own students; the
latter half of this chapter will throw some light on that history.
The narrative this chapter will present, then, records the final phase of a
period of theological history. In many ways, this report will have to be
provisional. Too many aspects of this history are as yet wholly or partly
unknown to us. Given the considerable number of relevant individuals and
the vast amount of their published work that would merit consideration, the
lack of existing scholarly work in this field is a serious drawback. There is no
recent, comprehensive analysis of Ritschl’s later theological development,3 nor
are there studies of the majority of Ritschl’s students.4 In this situation, the
present study can do no more than point to the most obviously significant
factors explaining the eventual demise of Baur’s and Ritschl’s project of
theology as a philosophical and historical science of religion.


In spite of its strongly systematic appearance, Ritschl’s theology suffers from

tensions and rifts extending to its very centre: its self-understanding as science.

Schäfer (1968: 4, n. 4); Neugebauer (2002: 157).
The most extensive study is still Fabricius (1909); cf. also Hök (1942: 154–74; 346–59);
Neugebauer (2002: 100–6; 146–9; 156–62).
On W. Herrmann: Mogk (2000); Sockness (1998); Weinhardt (1996). On J. Kaftan: Witte-
kind (2000: 80–145). On Harnack: Pauck (1968); Rumscheidt (1989). More generally on the
Ritschl School: Geisler (1992: 169–205); Lessing (2000: 80–95). For an English summary account
one has to go back to Mackintosh (1915).
The End of the Idealist Programme 253
It will be expedient, however, to begin our presentation with a seemingly more
marginal faultline that appears in Ritschl’s concept of history. This will lead to
more obviously central ambiguities in Ritschl’s fundamental philosophical and
theological decisions and finally to the difficulties at the heart of his under-
standing of theology as science.

Peculiarity and Progress

In his debate with Eduard Zeller, Ritschl protested that the Tübingen School
could not lay claim to the epithet of a historical school. Its concept of history,
he alleged, emphasized totality and process at the expense of individuality and
peculiarity. It thus cannot do justice to the ‘ethical’ character of history but
instead considers the latter by analogy to the necessary steadiness of the
natural process. Freedom, individuality, but also contingency and innovation
cannot come into their own if phenomena are consistently reduced to their
effective causes.5 In this critique, Ritschl could at this time (1860) be assured of
his agreement with the philosophical critique of Hegelianism advanced by
Immanuel Hermann Fichte, Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus, and, albeit in a
different way, Adolf Trendelenburg and Hermann Lotze.6 He also broadly
concurred with the principles of historicism most famously expressed in
Leopold von Ranke’s lectures Über die Epochen der neueren Geschichte (On
the Epochs of Recent History), delivered in the presence of the Bavarian King,
Maximilian II, in 1854.7 Closer scrutiny, however, reveals that Ritschl’s agree-
ment with these authors was far from complete, while his opposition to Zeller
and the Tübingen tradition was not quite as unequivocal as he himself
pretended and probably believed.
Philosophers like Lotze as well as historians like Ranke were fully aware that
their preference for the individual and peculiar in history requires the repudi-
ation of universal teleology in human history. Ranke’s celebrated dictum that
every epoch in history is ‘immediate unto God’ expressed this very insight. It
occurs in a section entitled ‘How is the term “progress” to be understood in
history?’8 Ranke answers it without a moment’s hesitation: philosophically
speaking, the idea of progress leads to a complete abrogation of freedom, and
reduces humans to ‘will-less tools’.9 Historically, it is questionable and contra-
dicts too many individual findings.10 Theologically, it leads to the ‘injustice
against God’ that many generations have the sole purpose of existing towards

See e.g. Chapter 7, text at n. 93.
See Chapter 7, n. 94 (Lotze); Chapter 8, text at n. 49 (Trendelenburg); Chapter 8, text at
n. 117 (Speculative Idealists).
Schnädelbach (1974: 34–48), ET: Matthews, 33–65.
8 9 10
Ranke (1971: 54–63). Ranke (1971: 54). Ranke (1971: 55–6).
254 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
the perfect epoch; they are thus, as Ranke says, ‘as it were mediatized’.11 Ranke
juxtaposes his own view:
I however state that every epoch is immediate unto God. Its value does not consist
in its result but in its own existence, in its own self. In this way, the consideration
of history that is, the individual life in history, obtains its proper attraction, as
every single epoch must now be considered as something in itself valid and
eminently worthy of consideration.12
The emphasis of an individual perspective and the critique of the idea of
progress are thus closely and intimately related. And they have to be. The
concept of a universal teleology in history is inseparable from an emphasis on
the totality of the historical process that comes at the expense of its individual
A perfectly analogous argument is found in Lotze’s Microcosmus. In a
chapter-long discussion of the meaning of history, Lotze engages in detail
with German philosophies of history since Lessing. He rejects all of them.13
Significantly, this is a text Ritschl knew well. In fact, he had previously offered
an extensive and critical discussion of it in Justification and Reconciliation14
because he realized its challenge: his own understanding of the Kingdom of
God could not ultimately be limited to the history of the Christian community,
and Ritschl therefore—carefully but unmistakably—rehabilitates a compre-
hensive conception of historical teleology:
If the moral association of nations in the Kingdom is the end which God is
pursuing in the world, then the inference is unavoidable, that the previous history
of the nations must have stood in some teleological relation to that higher stage of
development, and in some positive degree prepared the way for its advent, and
that a similar order of things must obtain also in every Christian nation as a
precondition of its Christianity.15
More important than the details of Ritschl’s discussion is the observation that
he does not consistently share the historicist rejection of universal teleology. In
his polemical engagement with Baur and Zeller, Ritschl was perfectly content
to argue otherwise and regularly appealed to historicist principles against their
postulates of historical progress and steady development. He shifts camps,
however, when it comes to the necessarily universal implications of his
understanding of the Kingdom of God.

Ranke (1971: 59).
Ranke (1971: 59–60). Italics mine. As Ranke writes here of epochs, it is clear that he too
shares the romantic concept of individuality that can be applied to nations, epochs, and religions.
Lotze (1856: vol. 3, 20–53), ET: Hamilton/Constance Jones, vol. 2, 144–76.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 288–301), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 303–18.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 288), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 304.
The End of the Idealist Programme 255
Ritschl never entirely abandoned his quasi-historicist credentials and was
happy to invoke them where they seemed to facilitate his critique of the
Tübingen programme. Compare the following passage from the very end of
the first volume of Justification and Reconciliation:
[Baur believes] that he has clearly shown how the dogma, by the immanent
agitation of its idea, is pushed on from one form to another, until at last the latest
theory attaches itself as a new link in the chain of the momenta of its develop-
ment. In the negative character that attaches to every representation lies,
according to him, the impulse to an always advancing progress; the march of
the Spirit goes forwards only; and what once has been recognized in its negative
character remains for ever a vanquished and eliminated factor. I may now appeal
to the delineation of the history of the doctrines of reconciliation and justification,
which here closes, to test whether or not this belief in the progress of knowledge
in a direct line is one to which we are of necessity driven by facts. At all events, the
last link recognized by my predecessor in the history unfolded by him and that
too by a follower of the speculative theology itself has been so surpassed that an
older position has again been taken up.16
Ritschl’s sole purpose in these lines is to attack Baur’s claim, formulated in the
Hegelian jargon, that the history of the doctrine of reconciliation develops
progressively.17 The arguments he employs to that end hardly deserve this
name. The repeated reference to David Strauss is a thinly veiled attempt to
discredit Baur personally by tying him to his notorious student. And as neither
Baur nor any Hegelian would have accepted that their commitment to histor-
ical progressivism excludes periods of restoration, Ritschl’s anonymous hint to
a ‘follower of the speculative theology’18 who has returned, after Strauss, to ‘an
older position’ could not have impressed his erstwhile teacher. However this
may be, this rhetorical outburst impressively underlines not only Ritschl’s
principal opposition to the concept of history dominant in the Tübingen
School but also his awareness that this opposition implied the denial of a
universal historical teleology.19
Ritschl knew perfectly well that his use of a concept of history focused on
individuality and peculiarity was not only necessary to secure his theory of
Primitive Christianity as a normative epoch and to contain the threat to
theology from historical relativism, but could also be used, if necessary, to
justify a blanket rejection of historical progressivism. At the same time,
however, he was prepared to accept that the Kingdom of God is ‘God’s final
purpose in the world’ and, thus far, adopt a theological interpretation of

Ritschl (1870: vol. 1, 637–8), ET: Black, 605.
Cf. Baur (1838: 742).
This individual is Alois Emanuel Biedermann whose position is the last one Ritschl
discusses in his historical survey, directly before the concluding paragraph.
See Chapter 8, text at n. 24.
256 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
history as progressively moving towards a universal goal. The tension between
these two tenets lays bare the first major faultline in his theology.
We might wish to mitigate this conclusion by arguing that this tension is
ultimately marginal for Ritschl’s thought. After all, the application of his
doctrine of the Kingdom of God to the philosophy of history is not a central
element of his theology. If it must be rejected as incompatible with Ritschl’s
other basic assumptions, its elision from his thought may not change the latter
too much. Is this the case? Can this internal contradiction be so easily
dismissed? Or does it reveal a deeper and more consequential problem? At
least one answer can be given right away. In view of the centrality of Ritschl’s
‘anti-Tübingen’ historicism for his overall thought, the possibility of discard-
ing the present incoherence depends entirely on the significance of the other
tenet for Ritschl’s theology. Only, that is, if his defence, against Lotze, of
universal historical teleology can be safely ignored, the system as a whole
can be deemed largely unaffected by its clash with Ritschl’s broadly historicist
outlook. If this is not so; if it turns out that, however rare its discussion in
Ritschl’s writings, the postulate of universal historical progress is in fact
inseparable from his basic systematic assumptions, the tension observed
here would indicate a deeper rift in Ritschl’s system of thought. What has to
be clarified, then, is the theoretical and conceptual background of his adoption
of the notion of historical progress, and its possible interdependence with
other elements of his thought.
The obvious place to start with such a clarification is a return to the problem
of teleology. Our presentation of Ritschl’s thought has made abundantly clear
how closely his theological historicism is related to his emphasis on the
teleological character of Christianity. Prima facie, however, his affirmation
of historical progress towards the consummated Kingdom of God seems
equally the result of the teleological interpretation of Christianity. Does this
point to an analogous ambivalence in Ritschl’s understanding of this category
so central for his theology?

‘Internal’ and ‘External’ Teleology

Our earlier, full discussion of Ritschl’s notion of teleology in the context of

contemporary philosophical developments has demonstrated its close concep-
tual relation with his understanding of history and his emphasis on personal
individuality.20 It has also revealed that Ritschl draws on various authors
whose understanding of teleology, however, is not necessarily identical with
his own. While in Trendelenburg and Lotze he found a concept of internal,

See Chapter 8, ‘Causality and Teleology’.
The End of the Idealist Programme 257
organic teleology, the voluntarist bent of his own thought appeared to privil-
ege a version directed towards external goals.21 At first sight, this ambivalence
seems to correspond to the one we found to inhere in Ritschl’s concept of
history. His ‘historicist’ protest against Baur and Zeller, we might presume, is
based on the organic model and can therefore isolate discrete individuals
within the flow of history, while his defence, against Lotze, of Lessing’s
education of humankind rests on the notion of external goal-directedness.
In view of the great significance Ritschl himself attached to the teleological
character of his theology, it is astounding how little attention his readers have
paid to his understanding of this term and the coherence of his concept.
Broadly speaking, Ritschl expected teleology to fulfil two very different con-
ceptual tasks. On the one hand, it was meant to underwrite his definition of
Christianity as positive, practical, and historical. This commitment grew out of
his opposition to the natural theology of the Enlightenment and its unacknow-
ledged reception in Schleiermacher philosophy of religion. It is articulated with
particular distinctness in Ritschl’s summary critique of Schleiermacher at the
outset of the systematic part of Justification and Reconciliation:
No topic receives less justice in the general argument of his Glaubenslehre than
what he admits to be the teleological character of Christianity. The latter is
constantly crossed by the neutral idea of religion by which he is guided, by the
abstract monotheism which he follows, and finally by everything being referred
solely to redemption through Jesus.22
If by invoking Schleiermacher’s recognition of the ‘teleological character of
Christianity’, Ritschl has in mind external goal-directedness, we would have to
agree with those critics who accused him of egregiously misrepresenting his
forerunner here. After all, in the passage Ritschl discusses, Schleiermacher
explicitly equates ‘teleological’ with ‘ethical’ and explicitly introduces a
moment of external teleology in his ecclesiology, later in The Christian
Faith.23 It is, however, more likely that Ritschl’s argument presupposes the
internal, organic model of teleology. His present concern, then, would not be
the desirability of an orientation of theology towards a final historical state, but
Schleiermacher’s problematic use of causal patterns of argument in his the-
ology, which, Ritschl thinks, undercut the historical particularity of Christian-
ity and thus lead to the reaffirmation of natural religion.
Ritschl, then, takes Schleiermacher to task for his failure to employ the
organic model of teleology in The Christian Faith. Yet this is only half the
story. In the same context, in fact in the very same paragraph, he also refers to

See Chapter 8, text at n. 61.
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 9), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 9.
Cf. Weiss (1901: 99–100).
258 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
the Kingdom of God as the ‘ultimate divine purpose’.24 This ‘ultimate purpose’
clearly is an external goal that directs the development of humankind towards
its consummate future state. Later in the same writing, Ritschl offers a full
elaboration of this idea:
It is an essential characteristic of the Kingdom of God that, as the final end, which
is being realized in the world, and as the supreme good of created spirits, it
transcends the world, just as God himself is supramundane. . . . God is love
inasmuch as he realizes his personal end in the formation of the human race
into the Kingdom of God, which at the same time is the supramundane destiny of
human beings. . . . The Kingdom of God that is to be formed out of those human
beings, therefore, correlates to God’s personal end. It is the purpose of [God’s]
creation and governance of the world.25
It is evident that Ritschl’s affirmation of the Kingdom of God as the historical
and moral destiny of humankind derives immediately from his voluntaristic
doctrine of God. God is love: for Ritschl this means that he is the will to unite
and perfect human beings into a community held together by the bonds of
mutual love. While the structure of this Kingdom of God follows the logic
of ‘internal’ teleology and therefore, in Ritschl’s words, unites a ‘multitude of
spirits’ through ‘mutual and social action prompted by love’ ‘without abrogat-
ing the multiplicity given in experience,’26 it is also, as such, the ultimate goal
of humanity’s historical development.
The wholly ambiguous character of Ritschl’s position becomes increasingly
obvious. Against Zeller, he had adopted the historicist argument that the
teleological determination of the historical process inevitably eradicates the
particularity of individual formations. Yet he is unwilling to accept the cultural
relativism ensuing from the consistent affirmation of this view for which the
teleological unity of the world only comes into view in the irreducible plurality
of its constituent parts. Ritschl is not ready to admit this consequence, at least
not initially.27 For him, the Kingdom of God is not simply one way among
several to unite human beings; it constitutes humanity’s ultimate historical
aim and, as such, transcends the ‘natural’ formations of cultural and social life,
and establishes a hierarchical order between them. From its vantage point,
those formations can be evaluated in terms of their proximity to the ideal
‘ultimate purpose’ from which they differ not only in degree but in kind.28

Cf. Miller (1970: 132) for the view that Ritschl fundamentally misunderstands Schleierma-
cher here.
Ritschl (1882: vol. 3, 262–3).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 267), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 280–1.
Interestingly, Ritschl could commend Schleiermacher in 1874 for calling ‘the historical
whole the sum total of its parts’ (1874: 6) without noting the tension to his simultaneous demand
for the proof that ‘Christianity is the whole religion’ (7).
Cf. again Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 266–7).
The End of the Idealist Programme 259
It is not clear how this ‘teleological’ perspective can stand up to Ritschl’s
own demand that the independent value of individual historical and cultural
formations must be preserved. All the charges he had levelled at Baur and
Zeller can, in fact, on this basis be applied to himself. Ritschl’s concept of the
Kingdom of God as the ultimate divine purpose and, as such, the goal of
human history undermines his emphatic commitment to interior teleology in
the same way his defence of historical progress had vitiated against his
historicist principles. While it seemed momentarily possible to contain the
latter tension by downplaying its systematic significance within Ritschl’s
thought, its recurrence within an area of absolutely central importance for
him makes this strategy considerably less plausible.
In fact, it appears increasingly more likely that both observations point to a
tension right at the heart of Ritschl’s intellectual project. Systematically and
consistently, he seems to have utilized two incompatible lines of thought: on
the one hand, he defends the specific dignity of historic positivity, peculiarity,
and individuality; for this end he avails himself of the organic model of
internal teleology. On the other hand, his theology makes absolute claims
about the Kingdom of God as the ultimate goal common to God and human-
ity. Both are equally crucial: without the former, neither Ritschl’s isolation of
Christianity within the history of religions nor indeed his theory of Primitive
Christianity as a separate founding epoch of that religion would be possible.
The significance of the latter is evident from its connection with Ritschl’s
voluntarism. The principle of spirit is goal-directed volition; hence Christian-
ity, the religion of the spirit, must be teleologically reconstructed. That the
Christian God is love (1 John 4: 16), for him means that God is the will to love.
This will is directed towards ‘the concrete purpose of the Kingdom of God’.29
Given that Ritschl appropriated this voluntarist teleology from Speculative
Idealism, where it had underwritten an emphasis on personality over against
the abstract process allegedly privileged by Hegel, there is no little irony in the
fact that in Ritschl’s own work, it is precisely this category which covertly
reintroduces the goal-oriented ideal of historical progress he had so sharply
and derisively criticized in Baur.

Natural and Positive Religion

It is hardly surprising at this point that the systematic rift detected in Ritschl’s
thought penetrates to his understanding of religion as well. Crucial for his
philosophy of religion, as we have seen, was the attempt to supplant a generic
concept of religion with an analogous one in which the highest individual

Ritschl (1882: vol. 3, 263).
260 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
religion is at the same time the genus as a whole. This theoretical decision is
closely related to his understanding of history and his use of teleology;
tensions showing in these aspects of Ritschl’s thought must therefore be
expected to affect the former theory as well. It also seems possible to predict
the kind of consequence most likely to emerge. Ritschl’s non-generic theory of
religion was underwritten by his commitment to particularity in history and
organic teleology; a countervailing tendency to emphasize the universal his-
torical process directed towards an absolute goal may have as its corollary a
generic concept of religion and thus ultimately bring back the spectre of
‘natural religion’ which Ritschl had hoped to have exorcized from his theology.
This connection does indeed exist, but it would be wrong to perceive this
most problematic faultline in Ritschl’s thought as a mere corollary of ambigu-
ities elsewhere in his system. A tension resides, rather, right at the centre of his
concept of religion. It concerns the very distinction, so vital for his theory,
between positive and universal religion. As we shall see, Ritschl became
increasingly conscious of this ambiguity and, in an attempt to remedy it,
applied significant modifications to his theology.
It is worth remembering at this point Ritschl’s abhorrence for the idea of a
natural religion. As an alternative, he developed a theory of religions, which as
historical quasi-individuals are to be explained primarily from within them-
selves. This approach seeks to undermine, in the first place, the epistemic
primacy of an abstract concept of religion by the stipulation that religion as
such can only be found in religions. The study of religion, then, must begin
from a historically particular investigation of ‘positive’ religions, not from an
abstract concept of religion.
This epistemological thesis served an ontological and a theological purpose.
Ritschl opposed the epistemic primacy of universal religion because he sus-
pected it to imply its axiological priority. Once the knowledge of universal
religion was granted to be foundational for an understanding of the Christian
faith, this ‘natural’ religion would easily appear the most authoritative source
of religious truth as well, against which the beliefs of historical religions would
have to be measured and justified.30 A Christian theology committed to such
an approach would therefore suffer from a built-in tendency to deny the
validity of its own claim to be the perfect religion. A strongly-worded passage
to this effect is found in the first edition of Justification and Reconciliation, but
removed from later editions. Ritschl there assigns to theology ‘the imperative
to solve’ the antinomy implicit in the concept of Christianity,
. . . why this historically particular religion must be deemed the universal religion
of humankind.31

30 31
See Chapter 7, text at n. 5. Ritschl (1870: vol. 3, 11).
The End of the Idealist Programme 261
If this was the task, however, starting from the historical analysis of positive
religions could be at best a first step in its solution. After all, this starting point
did little to confirm the Christian claim to absoluteness; in fact, it was much
more likely to render the various religions mutually incommensurable. To
escape this consequence, Ritschl stipulated that the study of the Christian
religion, which is fundamental for systematic theology, ought to take cogni-
zance not only of the historical results of biblical theology but also of the
comparative history of religion. This two-pronged approach, however, implies
a change of perspective: from the historicist focus on a historical quasi-
individual, appropriate in biblical theology, Ritschl switches, for the latter
part of his task, to a universal and comparative viewpoint. He believes that
this duality of methods is not mutually exclusive but held together by virtue of
his analogical concept of religion. The comparative approach, he argues,
reveals that the world of religions exists in hierarchical stages of increasing
perfection. Their history moves towards its consummation in that religion
which, as such, embodies the true nature of religion:
The observation and comparison of the various historical religions from which
the general conception is abstracted, likewise shows that they stand to one
another not merely in the relation of species, but also in the relation of stages.
They exhibit an ever more rich and determinate manifestation of the chief
features of religion; their connection is always more close, their aims more worthy
of man.32
This is Ritschl’s attempt to make the duality of historical and dogmatic,
comparative and hermeneutical methods compatible for theology. How suc-
cessful is it?
There is no doubt that the stakes are high. For Ritschl’s reconciliation of the
two approaches to work, Christianity must not only be the best religion
comparatively speaking, it must be perfect in a way that makes it categorically
different from all the others. Only its absoluteness, to use the Hegelian term,
could justify the unique epistemic privilege accorded to it in Ritschl’s Christian
science of religion. No historical comparison, however, could ever reach such a
conclusion; from its perspective, as Baur already observed, there could only be
a relative, but never an absolute best.33 Hegel’s argument for the absoluteness
of Christianity, whatever else its flaws, was unaffected by this difficulty because
it was not presented as the result of empirical historical research, but of
philosophical speculation. Ritschl’s claim that the comparative study of the
history of religions would reveal the unique dignity of Christianity is thus a
priori implausible: on such a methodological basis the absoluteness of Chris-
tianity is not tenable.

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 187), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 196.
See Chapter 2, text at n. 39.
262 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
More than twenty years after the completion of Ritschl’s magnum opus,
Ernst Troeltsch argued this case at length and with relentless rigour in his
book The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions. His critique
is undeniably justified, but its controversial reception within Germany’s theo-
logical public, which at the time was still largely dominated by the Ritschl
School, throws into sharp relief the extraordinary fact that Ritschl himself and
his school seemed largely unconcerned about this problem. Ritschl himself, as
in the above quote, is often content with the use of comparative formulations.
Historical religions ‘exhibit an ever more rich and determinate manifestation of
the chief features of religion; their connection is always more close, their aims
more worthy of man’. Such statements do not mitigate his commitment to the
principle that ‘that individual positive religion which occupies the highest rank
is at the same time recognized as the “whole religion”’.34 What they indicate,
arguably, is that he was not entirely clear about the methodological conse-
quences resulting from his theoretical principles. In the second edition of
Justification and Reconciliation, Ritschl writes:
In order to understand the mutual gradation of religions, one needs knowledge of
the one religion which must be considered the highest stage and the complete
realisation of what the other religions strive to achieve without achieving it.35
While it is the case that such a need exists for Ritschl’s theology, the latter does
not appear to possess the potential to fulfil it. This problem, however, seems to
have remained unrecognized by Ritschl and his students; there is no evidence
that they engaged with it before, or independently of, Troeltsch’s critique.
The same cannot be said of another difficulty that is closely related but not
identical. If we bracket the impossibility of proving by historical comparison
the absoluteness of Christianity, we are still left with the problem on what
theoretical basis such a comparison proceeds at all. Ritschl himself, as we
noted earlier, believed that it leads to the insight that the world of religions
exists in a hierarchical order and is therefore comprehended not by a univocal
but an analogical concept of religion. It is, however, easy to demonstrate that
despite this conviction Ritschl nevertheless employed a univocal concept of
religion wherever he sketched his comparative ideas. And indeed, it is difficult
to see how it could be otherwise as the univocal use of their common term is
the precondition for any meaningful comparison between two things. If they
are analogically related, a comparison would really be begging the question
(petitio principii). Numerous examples of common characteristics of all reli-
gions can accordingly be found in the third volume of Justification and
Reconciliation. As Cajus Fabricius, who must be credited with the collection
of these passages, has observed, almost all of these passages are removed or

Ritschl (1874: 7).
Ritschl (1882: vol. 3, 184). Italics mine. In the third imprint, the passage is amended.
The End of the Idealist Programme 263
significantly edited in later editions. We shall have to return to this observa-
tion; all the following references are taken from the first edition of Ritschl’s
magnum opus.
In his definition of the concept of justification, Ritschl enumerates a number
of characteristics found in every religion and on whose basis the evolutionary
dynamic towards Christianity becomes clear. Thus, ‘religion . . . in all its forms
and stages is a common acknowledgement of the dependency of man on God’.36
Furthermore, it includes a ‘worldview and self-evaluation or mood’, which are
directly related to its cultic character, ‘which realizes the connection between
worldview and self-evaluation ordered by the doctrine of God through the
agreement of the will’.37 Elsewhere, the Christian contrast between sin and
assurance of salvation is similarly embedded in the broader context of the
history of religion throughout which the identical phenomenon is increasingly
adequately conceptualized.38 Not least, Ritschl’s detailed observations on ‘the
nature and chief characteristics of religion’ assume in their entirety a generic
concept of religion. ‘Religion’, he writes, arises ‘everywhere under the same
conditions’ and is ‘a practical law of the spirit’.39 This position is fully consistent
with Ritschl’s lecture notes from the 1850s and 1860s which witness his involve-
ment in contemporary post-Idealist debates about the ‘nature of religion’. While
in each of these texts Ritschl criticizes or rejects existing definitions of religion as
entirely inappropriate, imperfect, or one-sided, there is no indication that he
objects to their procedure in principle.40
How can a hierarchical order of religions be established under these condi-
tions? One possibility is that a general concept of religion is normative, and
individual religions can and must ultimately be proven against it. In that case,
however, the same would be true of Christianity, and its absolute validity
(assuming it could be established in this way) would constitutively rest on
evidence furnished by the broader study of religion. This, of course, was
precisely what Ritschl explicitly sought to avoid. Alternatively, the normative
dimension does not arise from a generic concept of religion, but lies within
Christianity itself. In that case, however, the concept of religion merely aids
the intra-theological engagement with the world of religions, and does not
contribute anything to a historical-comparative judgement independent of
Christian self-understanding. In both cases, however, the theological synthesis
of internal Christian and historical-comparative perspectives intended by
Ritschl fails.
In Ritschl’s eyes, Schleiermacher had lapsed into the former of these
options, ‘a factual approximation to “natural religion”’.41 It would turn out,

36 37
Ritschl (1870: vol. 3, 16). Ritschl (1870: vol. 3, 17).
38 39
Ritschl (1870: vol. 3, 121–2). Ritschl (1870: vol. 3, 174).
40 41
Hök (1942: 138–52). Ritschl (1874: 6).
264 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
however, that the critic himself was by no means in possession of a better
answer to the same dilemma. Overall, he tends to favour the latter possibility;
in spite of his principal announcements, the impact of comparative religious
history on the actual formation of his theology is limited. In fact, there is little
evidence that he had more than a passing interest in this burgeoning field of
study; his references to the broader world of religions, as we have seen, are all
vague and generic. In the course of his later career, as we shall see, they become
increasingly rare and theologically non-committal. This impression is con-
firmed by Ritschl’s own historical work which, while indubitably integral to his
theology, is almost exclusively concerned with an immanent elucidation of the
origins of Christianity against their background in the Old Testament. The
environment of Primitive Christianity in the world of Hellenistic religions is
practically absent from Ritschl’s reconstruction of its early development in his
biblical theology.
This, however, means that Ritschl’s academic interest is largely restricted to
only one of the two dimensions within which Christianity ought in principle
to be viewed: the internal perspective of the Christian faith community. His
principle that the study of Christianity from within must be complemented by
comparison with the broader history of religion is thus not only theoretically
problematic, but remains in practice unfulfilled and limited to scattered,
blanket statements.
The three systemic problems we identified in Ritschl’s theology are not
separate or unrelated intellectual inconsistencies. They all converge into one
single insight: the synthesis of philosophical, historical, and theological per-
spectives underlying Ritschl’s project of scientific theology is strained at its
deepest level. Its elements are pulled apart by a powerful internal tension that
exists at its very heart. This basic dilemma can be formulated as follows:
Ritschl’s theology is a grand attempt to hold together the peculiarity and
distinctness of Christianity with its universal religious validity. Like Baur
before him, he finds the medium for this interpretation in its historicity insofar
as history in general unites the principles of subjectivity and objectivity, of
regularity and freedom, of positivity and universality. Religion is historical in
this sense, and Christianity owes its special position not least to the fact that it
is emphatically a historical religion. This concept of history can be traced back
to Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism where Baur originally dis-
covered it; its influence on Ritschl thus is arguably indirect, but nonetheless
Closer investigation then revealed that the synthesis thus postulated could
not be sustained in practice, but fell apart time and again into mutually

Ritschl rarely engages directly with Schelling; cf. his sharp critique in (1888: vol. 1, 560–7).
The End of the Idealist Programme 265
contradictory statements that unevenly emphasized individuality and positiv-
ity or the historical process, the general or the distinctive. At the beginning of
the systematic part of Justification and Reconciliation, Ritschl had called it the
‘antinomy’ of Christianity that it is as a historical and particular religion also
the universal religion of humankind; theology, he argued, faced the task of
solving this antinomy. His own theology, as we have seen, failed to answer this
particular challenge, and so it was only consistent that Ritschl purged this
passage from the second and later editions of his work.
What does all this mean for Ritschl’s concept of theology as science? The
present account and interpretation of his thought started from a seeming
contradiction in his systematic exposition: on the one hand, he categorically
declared that the ‘concept of the Christian religion’ could only be determined
through comparative study of the history of religion;43 on the other hand, he
simultaneously demanded that theology must be conducted from within the
Christian community. We have argued44 that this contradiction is resolved in
Ritschl’s thesis that a comparison of religions leads to a gradated hierarchy
whose pinnacle is Christianity and that the latter’s ontological privilege as the
absolute religion implies an analogous epistemic privilege according to which
knowledge of this religion is knowledge of religion as such. Theology, there-
fore, is at the same time unashamedly conducted from the Christian viewpoint
and also science of religion.45
It seems, however, evident at this point that this construction is directly
affected by the internal tensions straining from within the coherence of
Ritschl’s thought. Ritschl’s critique of Baur’s principles of historical develop-
ment and progress rested on the claim that a process-oriented, teleological
view of history effectively bars the recognition of individuals in their particu-
larity and thus true historicity. This is the root cause of the eventual radical
destruction of the biblical foundation of Christianity emerging from the
Tübingen School. It is however unclear how this argument can be reconciled
with Ritschl’s claim that the comparative look at the history of religion reveals
the supremacy or even absoluteness of Christianity. At least to this history,
then, ideas of necessary development and progress seem to apply. This,
however, leaves Ritschl with an uncomfortable choice: either the same
principle applies to the history of Christianity as well—which reopens a raft
of issues Ritschl hoped to have put firmly behind himself—or the analysis of
Christianity must rest on principles different from those applied to the history
of religion in general. The latter procedure had been attempted in the 1830s
and 1840s by Isaak August Dorner, who sought to circumvent Baur’s radical
views by affirming a teleology of the history of religion that led up to

Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 8–9), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 8–9.
See Chapter 7, ‘The Reformulation of the Idealist Programme’.
Ritschl (1874: 7).
266 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
Christianity, but considered the latter a ‘divine fact’ that could not be histor-
ically derived.46 Such an approach, however, was clearly at odds with Ritschl’s
emphatic affirmation of the scientific character of his theology.
There was, however, a third and final way out. Theology could forgo
completely the use of the study of the history of religion to establish the
truth and superiority of Christianity. It would then view Christianity as
‘historical’ only in the sense of historical individuality or positivity. Its peculi-
arity would make it monadic, incommensurable with other similarly peculiar
quasi-individuals in the history of religion. Historical particularity would so
completely take the place of historical universality. One might, then, find in
such a theology the final consummation of the historical perspective in which
nothing distracts from the detail and peculiarity of historical formations, but
one should not ignore that in its own way such a conception leads to the
renewed separation of reason and history. As a historical phenomenon in this
sense, Christianity would be a brute ‘fact’ of which one must take cognizance
without understanding it. This was the position of eighteenth-century Ration-
alism, succinctly put, in 1738, by Friedrich Christian Baumeister in his
Institutiones Metaphysicae: ‘Historical knowledge is knowledge of facts’.47
The sole criterion for such a theology would be its internal coherence and its
correspondence to the structures of the religion it reflects. Once again, the
departure from the original project proposed by Baur and Ritschl, which
sought to mediate internal and external perspectives on Christianity, is evident
and radical.
All three options were on the table at the end of the nineteenth century. In
spite of their differences, they are all predicated on the common recognition
that the unity of historical and theological work Baur and Ritschl had em-
phatically affirmed was no longer viable. Instead, theologians increasingly
faced the choice between the two. This need to choose between historical
and dogmatic method, as Ernst Troeltsch memorably put it, in many ways
determines the various theological positions taken up since about 1880.
Theology, accordingly, is either scientific insofar as it is historical, and thus
affirms the free historical study of Christianity within the wider history of
religion. In this case, its truth claims are established separately, as previously in
Zeller and Hilgenfeld, on the basis of metaphysical or psychological reflection
if they are not simply taken for granted within a particular faith community.
Alternatively, theology consciously and explicitly brackets historical work for
its self-understanding as an academic discipline and either excludes and
rejects it entirely, or retains it in an accidental, preparatory, or supporting
function. This constellation emerges in German academic theology around
1880 and marks the final end of its idealist phase. It has cast a long shadow

46 47
Dorner (1845: vol. 1/1, xxv; 64–5). Baumeister (1738: 1).
The End of the Idealist Programme 267
over all subsequent theological developments, so that year ought to be recog-
nized as a major caesura in the modern history of theology.


The failure of Ritschl’s version of the idealist programme had far-reaching

consequences. Already within his lifetime, the system he originally envisioned
changed decisively. Stripped of its idealist element, his theology was reduced to
an immanent theory of Christianity whose identity was secured by the rigid
imposition of disciplinary borderlines. In place of the earlier ideal of a
synthesis of philosophical, historical, and theological insights, the later Ritschl
and his pupils adopted a concept of theology primarily designed to distinguish
their discipline from neighbouring ones. This process took place in the context
of the general differentiation and ‘disciplinization’ of German academia
during those decades—no doubt one of the reasons for its success. Still, it
came at a cost for theology, as Ernst Troeltsch repeatedly and emphatically
pointed out. We shall here trace this development by focusing on two major
issues, the concept of religion and history and truth. Debates about these two
problems led to, or exacerbated, theology’s disciplinary separation from the
study of religion and cast doubt about the suitability of the historicist para-
digm for the self-definition of theology as Wissenschaft.

Revelation or Religion: Theology or the Study of Religion

In 1881, Julius Kaftan, 32 years old, published Das Wesen der christlichen
Religion (The Nature of the Christian Religion). In the same year, Kaftan
became Professor for Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Basel; only
two years later he moved to Berlin where he was to fill the chair once occupied
by Schleiermacher. The exact relation between Kaftan’s position and the
theology of Ritschl has been variously evaluated;48 uncontroversial, however,
is the great significance this text had for the development of the Ritschl School.
Kaftan’s argument appears to have first alerted Ritschl himself to fundamental
problems in his original system,49 and the resulting modifications in the

For Ecke (1897: 74–80), Kaftan and Häring mark the beginning of a second phase of the
school which, in spite of some novel developments, stands in fundamental methodological
continuity with Ritschl. Hök (1942: 154–74) and Fabricius (1909: 14; 107–8), however, empha-
size the opposition between Kaftan and Ritschl while conceding that the latter adapted his own
views to those of the younger theologian. A more nuanced position is held by Wittekind (2000:
143–5). Cf. Geisler (1992: 189–205); Weinhardt (1996: 28–9).
Cf. the detailed reconstruction in Fabricius (1909: 14).
268 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
second edition of Justification and Reconciliation alter his system consider-
ably.50 While avoiding an explicit engagement with Ritschl’s theology in his
book, Kaftan had evidently managed to put his finger on some of its more
problematic elements.
At the outset of his book, Kaftan seeks to distinguish his own attempt to
determine the nature of religion from what he calls the ‘usual procedure’.51
The latter, he observes, combines and in fact confounds two different ques-
tions: one that asks for the universal that is common in all religions, another
that seeks the ideal form of religion; the latter implies an interest in its
existence. The former question is historical and descriptive in character,
while the second is normative and does not seem to permit for a straightfor-
ward scientific (wissenschaftlich) answer. Their conflation, according to
Kaftan, is problematic for both sides. The former question needs to be
approached in a disinterested disposition that allows for the most objective
comparison of historical phenomena; preconceived theological views only
hamper this investigation.52 The identification of the two questions, however,
is also problematic from a theological perspective:53 if the analysis emphasizes
the universality of the concept of religion, as Schleiermacher’s does, the nature
of Christianity ultimately coincides with the nature of religion, and can claim
its truth only by regarding itself as the fulfilment of what is already seminally
present in other religions:
As religion of revelation in the proper sense, however, it [sc. Christianity] claims
to have its centre precisely in that in which it is distinct from all others.54
If, however, the comparison rests on a concept of religion already tailored to
Christianity, the comparison yields no gain whatsoever, since its result is
already determined by the definition of its terms. The task of theology, ‘namely
to [produce] a methodically achieved, precise knowledge of Christianity’, is
thus missed from the outset.55
Kaftan’s methodological stipulation is thus a separation of the two tasks; the
nature of religion is to be determined exclusively by historical-comparative
means, with the aim of identifying and systematizing the essential character-
istics of all religions. Only on this basis is the nature of Christianity to be
determined in a second step which, Kaftan insists, is not prejudiced by the
results of the prior comparison:

Fabricius also compared the changes Ritschl made to the second edition of Unterricht in
der christlichen Religion (1909: 14) and observed about } 27 of Justification and Reconciliation III
that ‘the later version has several close parallels with Ritschl’s review of Kaftan’s work. In his
discussion of the importance of community, these are almost literal’ (107). The relevant passages
are printed in Hök (1942: 154–70).
51 52 53
Kaftan (1888: 3). Kaftan (1888: 2–3). Kaftan (1888: 24–5).
54 55
Kaftan (1888: 24). Kaftan (1888: 25).
The End of the Idealist Programme 269
Those [results] are applied to Christianity merely as questions to which the
answers are to be gleaned exclusively from divine revelation.56
Without considering the details of Kaftan’s further argument, it should be
clear that this methodological decision entails far-reaching consequences.
What he rejects as conceptual muddle had made the term religion attractive
to several generations of German theologians since Schleiermacher: the ease
with which it shifts between descriptive and normative connotations and the
ensuing impression that its appropriation permits theology to be science of
religion without ceasing to be Christian doctrine. This impression, Kaftan
suggests, is an illusion, and he unceremoniously proposes to untie this con-
ceptual bond. Without saying so explicitly, he opts for a secular study of
religion and a confessional theology that uses the results of the former exclu-
sively to explain ‘what it means to ask about the nature of a particular
religion’.57 Just as the comparative study of religion ought to proceed without
normative theological assumptions, theology is free to define the nature of
Christianity without side-glances towards other religions. In this sense, it
serves, as Kaftan repeatedly emphasizes, ‘an ecclesial purpose’:
This [purpose] can only be to determine the essence of historic Christianity, as
founded on divine revelation, and to prevent norms extraneous to that revelation
from influencing the doctrines of the Christian religion.58
The tone struck here is so different from the consciously ‘scientific’ style of
Ritschl’s writings that it is unsurprising that eminent Ritschl scholars, such as
Gösta Hök and Cajus Fabricius, have stressed the fundamental difference
between the two. Ritschl himself, in a review of Das Wesen der christlichen
Religion, made a number of serious objections to which we shall have to return
in an instant. The obvious differences between their views must not, however,
distract from equally evident points of contact between their positions. In fact,
Kaftan’s project offers a fresh and illuminating new glance at the basic tension
operative in Ritschl’s system.
Kaftan perceptively recognizes the latent consequences of Ritschl’s commit-
ment to a theology conducted from within the Christian community and
rigorously seizes on them in his own book. In doing this, he is fully con-
scious—more so than Ritschl himself—of the incompatibility of this tendency
with Ritschl’s concurrent appeal to the history of religion and its alleged
teleology towards Christianity. Ritschl, of course, felt that he could only justify
the former on the condition that it turned out to be historically plausible, while
Kaftan has no qualms in claiming a theological privilege here:
While he [sc. the theologian] pursues an objective scientific task, it is the Church
for which he works that sets this task for him. For the Christian Church, however,

56 57 58
Kaftan (1888: 27). Kaftan (1888: 27). Kaftan (1888: 24).
270 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
the truth of her own claims is a presupposition. While a philosopher, then, or a
historian of religion may choose to disregard this fact, the theologian cannot and
will demand that those [scholars of religion] too accept his results in the sense
that they express what Christianity originally meant to be.59
We must admit that Kaftan’s actual argument in his book does not measure up
to his methodological principles. His investigation of the ‘essence’ of religion is
by no means objective or pre-theological but determined right from the outset
by his ultimate goal, the theological clarification of the nature of Christianity.
Ritschl was perfectly justified to comment, in his review, that Kaftan ‘indirectly
[draws] the interpretation of the ideal of religion [into] his explicit task’.60
While observing this deviation of Kaftan’s argument from his stated method-
ology, however, Ritschl was far from chiding it: the interweaving of the
descriptive and the normative approach to religion happens ‘of necessity.
Otherwise one could not be interested in his [sc. Kaftan’s] endeavour’.61
There is plenty of evidence that Ritschl understood full well the challenge to
his own system implied in Kaftan’s programme; the close and extensive
literary parallels between his review of Das Wesen der christlichen Religion
and additions introduced in the revised second edition of Justification and
Reconciliation (1882/3) speak a clear and distinct language.62 At first sight, his
response seems primarily negative and his continued theological work, as
Cajus Fabricius put it, determined by ‘criticism of Kaftan’s work’.63 Ritschl
roundly dismisses Kaftan’s suggestion to establish the nature of Christianity
on the basis of a value-neutral, generic concept of religion. Such a concept, if it
can be found at all, would be pale and meaningless; it would contribute little or
nothing to the understanding of individual religions as it would exclude
precisely those characteristics which make them interesting in the first place.
It would obliterate their vital distinctions, and ignore the different stages they
occupy within the history of religion. Finally, it would be blind to the stand-
point of the scholar:
The measure according to which here [sc. in Kaftan’s book] the stages are
arranged is the validity of Christianity as the ideal religion. A Buddhist would
arrive at a different sequence of stages than [Kaftan] and we with him.64
In response to Kaftan’s book, it seems, Ritschl emphasizes even more strongly
the positivity and distinctiveness of religion. In his revisions for the second
and third edition of Justification and Reconciliation the tendency is evident to
reduce references to the comparative history of religions or avoid them

59 60 61
Kaftan (1888: 226). Ritschl (1881: 310). Ritschl (1881: 310).
Cf. Ritschl (1881: 308–10) and Ritschl (1882: vol. 3, 185–9).
Fabricius (1909: 108).
64 65
Ritschl (1881: 310). Fabricius (1909: 101–8); cf. Hök (1942: 160–2).
The End of the Idealist Programme 271
His initial definition of the task of systematic theology in many ways sets the
tone for the argument to follow. Its modification in later editions, therefore, is
highly indicative of Ritschl’s evolving views. In the first edition, Ritschl
stipulated that ‘the full idea of the Christian religion’ is achieved not by
the reproduction of Christ’s set of ideas (Gedankenkreis) [alone], but by its
comparison with other kinds and stages of religion.66
In the third edition, the emphasis has clearly shifted. Now the ‘idea of the
Christian religion’
is reached by an orderly reproduction of the thought of Christ and the apostles; it
is confirmed by being compared with other species and stages of religion.67
Ritschl certainly does not recant, but the change is palpable nonetheless: while
he initially advocates a balance between biblical theology and comparative
religion, the latter is now reduced to second stage and merely ‘confirms’ what
biblical theology has already accomplished on its own.
This sets the paradigm for the remainder of the volume. References to the
teleological development of the history of religions towards Christianity,
frequent in the first edition, are either purged or significantly reworked in
subsequent revision. Thus, Ritschl originally introduced the idea of God as
love as a universal notion, whose shape and consequences became gradually
clearer and more appropriate in the course of religious and cultural history
until they are fully understood and realized in Christianity. Consequently, the
corresponding concept of a ‘moral unity of humankind’, while only possible in
Christianity, emerges from, and is in continuity with, the earlier cultivation of
particular moral communities such as family, friendship, and people. For this
claim Ritschl appealed to objectively recognizable historical realities:
[It is] a historical fact that the notion of a moral community of the human race
only reaches universal effect in the Christian idea of the Kingdom of God.68
In the third edition, we read instead:
The conception we are in search of [sc. the moral unity of humankind] is only
given in the idea of the Christian community, which makes the Kingdom of God
its task.69
Once again, Ritschl does not contradict his earlier view, but the change
of emphasis, away from universal categories and towards an increasing af-
firmation of the privileged perspective of the Christian community, is notable

66 67
Ritschl (1870: vol. 3, 4). Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 8–9), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 8.
Ritschl (1870: 242).
Ritschl (1888: vol. 3, 266–7), ET: Mackintosh/Macaulay, 280 (with amendments).
272 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
The section in which Ritschl develops his theory of religion undergoes a
complete reworking in the later editions of Justification and Reconciliation.
Cajus Fabricius summarizes the gist of these changes as follows:
The difference between the various versions of this paragraph concerns less its
proper topic, the content of the concept of religion, but the viewpoint from which
the presentation is given . . .
[In the first edition] Ritschl adopts the viewpoint of universal morality: reli-
gions are homogeneous with regard to their common aim of dominating the world.
Their difference of value is relative and corresponds to the laws of moral reason.
Ritschl, it is true, does not deny that the direction towards the highest goal is an
achievement of Christianity. But he does not argue like this: since I am a Christian
theologian, i.e. find myself under the influence of the Christian tradition, I declare
Christianity to be the consummate religion . . . Rather, in his value judgment
he initially brackets the historical peculiarity of Christianity, adopts for himself
the viewpoint of the ideal destiny and overlooks the course of the history of
religion from there. From there he arrives at his judgment: Christianity is the
consummate religion.70
By contrast, continues Fabricius, Ritschl’s attention in the later editions turns
primarily to the multiplicity of religions. He comes to the conclusion that a
general concept of religion is either impossible or, if it can after all be
formulated, this happens under the conditions of historical Christianity.
Christianity is thus still ‘the consummate religion’, but Ritschl derives this
insight no longer from ‘general ethical principles’ but ‘because the theologian
is caught in the traditional prejudice that he is in possession of the consum-
mate religion’.71
All these changes indicate that Ritschl became increasingly convinced that
the generic concept of religion resulting from a comparison of religions could
not be reconciled with the ideal concept emerging from theological reflection
on the basis of a Christian commitment. This, of course, was precisely the
claim on which Kaftan’s criticism of the ‘usual procedure’ was built. No
objection against this claim is found in Ritschl’s review; the impression of a
fundamental methodological disagreement72 between the two is therefore
false. Kaftan pleads for the necessity of separating the two approaches and
Ritschl, somewhat reluctantly, agrees. Kaftan is not, of course, a proponent of
the non-theological study of religion; quite the contrary. It is, rather ironically,
his preference for theological work unencumbered by extraneous concerns
which leads him to demand a clear-cut methodological separation between the
purely historical comparison of religions and a theology based on the tenets of

70 71
Fabricius (1909: 107). Fabricius (1909: 107–8).
Considerable theological differences subsist between the two. Kaftan disagreed with
Ritschl’s ethical understanding of the Kingdom of God and did not share his categorical rejection
of mystical interiority either.
The End of the Idealist Programme 273
the Christian revelation. Ritschl never follows him to this extreme, but his
development since 1881 goes in the same direction. This is also the broader
trend of the period: religion and revelation became increasingly separate,
occasionally juxtaposed, principles underwriting clearly distinct disciplines.
Theologians appeal to revelation and are, at least implicitly, willing to accept
that this restricts their work to a normative reflection of the principles of
Christianity. They consequently leave the broader world of religions, and the
theoretical challenges it poses, to the attention of the growing number of those
who at the time prefer to study religion outside theology.
Ritschl’s original theology could still appeal to the latter group as well. This
is apparent, above all, in his influence on the work of the Scottish scholar
William Robertson Smith.73 Smith studied with Ritschl in Göttingen in the
summer of 1869; in a reference written at the end of this period, the professor
describes his student as ‘a man of the liveliest scientific zeal, of versatile
knowledge, and extraordinary agility of mind’.74 Smith, in turn, wrote enthusi-
astic letters home to his father75 and convinced his friend John S. Black,
immediately after his return to Scotland, to prepare a complete translation
of the first volume of Ritschl’s magnum opus. The project was swiftly com-
pleted, and published by 1872. Ritschl’s lasting influence on Smith is well
documented and uncontroversial among his biographers.76 Opinions are
more divided over the problem of whether, or to what extent, the intellectual
impact of his time in Göttingen stands behind Smith’s seminal work on
Semitic religious history,77 which in turn constituted an important source
for the work of James Frazer and Émile Durkheim. While Robert Alun Jones
has sought to demonstrate a Ritschlian influence, mediated by Smith, on
Durkheim,78 Ivan Strenksy has strongly and polemically rejected this thesis.79
The controversy, in any event, highlights potential interferences between the
theological and non-theological study of religion at a time when the paths of
the two disciplines increasingly diverged. Today, little is known about these
mutual interferences, but it is interesting to note that it is the idea of religion as
practice, so strongly emphasized by Ritschl, which is subsequently at the

For the various dimensions of his work cf. Johnstone (1995).
Note from A. Ritschl to W. R. Smith dated 24 December 1869. Booth and Hess, <http://> (accessed 29 July 2012).
Letter from W. R. Smith to his father dated 7 July 1869: Booth and Hess, <http://www.> (accessed 29 July 2012).
Black and Chrystal (1912: 112–13); Bailey (1970: 200–40).
Smith (1894).
Jones (2002); (2005).
Strenski (1998). Strenski’s historical assessment is not least due to his more general
assumption of a secular, anti-theological origin of the modern study of religions. It is evident
that, for him, the latter thesis has strong normative implications. Cf. Strenski (2003).
274 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
centre of the new theories developed by Smith, Frazer, Durkheim, and his
colleagues at the Année Sociologique.80
At first glance, Ernst Troeltsch’s Absoluteness of Christianity, first published in
1902, appears as yet another attempt to disown the utilization of the history of
religion for the purposes of theological apologetics.81 Given that such a
renunciation of the idealist heritage had, since the mid-1880s, become con-
sensual in the Ritschl School, its leading members not surprisingly shrugged
off Troeltsch’s polemic as a misunderstanding.82 After all, Kaftan had made
this point over twenty years earlier and Ritschl himself had been moved by
that critique to restrain the idealist element in his original system in favour of a
theology constructed from within the Christian community. Troeltsch conse-
quently could not in fact cite many Ritschlian proponents of what he called an
‘idealistic-evolutionary’ theology,83 and Harnack, whom he explicitly invoked,
does, on a careful reading, not at all claim that historical Christianity is the
absolute religion. Rather, he argues in What is Christianity,
that the gospel is in nowise a positive religion like the rest; that it contains no
statutary or particularistic elements; that it is therefore religion itself.84
Only insofar as the ‘gospel’, the ideal core of Jesus’ message, is not a positive
religion is it here called ‘religion itself ’. This was not, of course, Ritschl’s view,
just as it had not been Schleiermacher’s or Hegel’s. The idea that no ‘positive’
religion could be the true religion was popular in eighteenth-century Enlight-
enment, where it led to the quest for a ‘natural religion’, which Schleiermacher
and his successors found so abhorrent.85
It may be best not to place too much weight on a statement like this for an
interpretation of Harnack’s position. On the whole, his attitude to the concept
of religion is as reticent as one would expect of a Ritschlian. In fact, a little
earlier, in the opening lecture of What is Christianity, he is unequivocal about
his scepticism in this regard:
We know today that life cannot be spanned by general conceptions, and that
there is no general conception of religion to which actual religions are related
simply and solely as species to genus. Nay, the question may even be asked
whether there is any such generic conception as ‘religion’ at all. Is the common
clement in it anything more than a vague disposition? Is it only an empty place in

Cf. Bediako (1997: 370).
Of all the authors discussed in the present book, Troeltsch arguably is the one who has been
best served by English-speaking scholarship. Cf. esp. Coakley (1988); Sockness (1998); Chapman
(2001). For the most comprehensive biography cf. Drescher (1992).
Herrmann (1902: 331–2). Cf. Sockness (1998: 28–40).
Troeltsch (1902: 21; 48), ET: Reid, 60.
Harnack (1929: 41), ET: Saunders, 63. Italics in the original.
Cf. Schleiermacher (1799: 243).
The End of the Idealist Programme 275
our innermost being that the word denotes, which everyone fills up in a different
fashion and many do not perceive at all?86
While Harnack goes on to answer the latter question with an emphatic no, this
is given as his personal opinion. His presentation of the nature of Christianity
is ‘historical’; speculative issues are excluded from its purview.
Troeltsch’s rejection of the ‘idealistic evolutionary’ theory of the absolute-
ness of Christianity coincided with the general consensus in the Ritschl School
at that time, and if he pretended otherwise this was more than a little
disingenuous. This does not make his argument pointless, but its provocative
edge must be sought elsewhere. It consists in Troeltsch’s insistence on the
systemic need of the proof for the absoluteness in Ritschlian theology. In other
words, the problem was not that the majority of Ritschlians at the turn of the
century utilized a philosophical argument for the absoluteness of Christianity,
but that they defended a theology which without this element could not work.
In principle, Troeltsch was aware that
abandonment of the false identification of the concept of universality with that of
normativeness; renunciation of proofs for Christianity as the absolute religion by
means of a speculative philosophy of history; and recognition of the limited,
individual and highly conditioned character of all historical phenomena—
have . . . been acknowledged by large numbers of contemporary theologians.87
Similarly, he could, on occasion, take note of the difference that existed in this
respect between Ritschl and his students.88
Troeltsch’s argument exposes the deeply ambiguous nature of the theology
that has emerged from the disintegration of Ritschl’s version of the idealistic
programme. In that programme, as we have seen, the ‘idealistic-evolutionary’
argument for the absoluteness of Christianity, as Troeltsch calls it, had a firm
place and fulfilled a necessary function—it underwrote, by means of philo-
sophical and historical reflections, the special theological treatment reserved
for Christianity. Since Kaftan’s rejection of that argument, the Ritschl School
had more or less consistently discontinued its use, but without realizing that
without it, the whole of Ritschl’s theology could no longer operate. What
Troeltsch alleges is that they have created a halfway house without systematic
coherence or apologetic potential.
The thrust of The Absoluteness of Christianity is thus a dual one: vis-à-vis
the halfway house of contemporary Ritschlianism, Troeltsch insists that

Harnack (1929: 6), ET: Saunders, 9.
Troeltsch (1902: 43), ET: Reid, 79–80. According to Troeltsch, the Ritschlians drew the
wrong conclusions from this insight as they subsequently ‘thought they could turn to good
account the difficulties of the evolutionary apologetic and the doubtfulness ascribed to universal
principles on the basis of the modern study of history’.
Troeltsch (1902: 43).
276 Theology as Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
theology must be integrated into broader philosophical and historical frames
of reference.89 Against Ritschl himself, on the other hand—and thus ultimately
against Schleiermacher and Hegel—he avers that historical comparison can
never yield ‘absoluteness’.90 Troeltsch is thus a historicist sceptic, whose position
nevertheless is not altogether removed from that of Baur and the Tübingen
School (a proximity of which he is aware91); in fact it recalls the theological
intuition behind the idealist element in Ritschl’s original programme.
The confrontation between Troeltsch and the Ritschl School is thus very
nearly a conflict between the two elements Ritschl’s original system had forged
into a precarious unity: an argument for the absoluteness of Christianity on
the basis of the comparative history of religion and of philosophical reflection
on the one hand; concentration on Christianity’s unique and peculiar charac-
ter on the other. No further synthesis of the two, however, is to happen at this
point in history; Troeltsch is fighting a losing battle: his vision of a theological
science of religion, which, one should not forget, implies an opposition to a
secular science of religion as much as the critique of the confessional theology
of his time,92 remains unrealized. With the final end of the idealist pro-
gramme, the paths of theology and the science of religion are invariably set
to diverge.

Absolute or Relative Truth: Theology or History

In Troeltsch’s critique of the Ritschl School, the relation between the discip-
lines of theology and the science of religion was closely connected to the
problem of history. The origins, however, of this second big disjunction at the
turn of the century, can once again be traced back to Kaftan. For Ritschl, as
much as for Baur before him, the principal identity of theological and histor-
ical truth was a fundamental premiss of their work. Kaftan, however, carefully
limits use of the word ‘historical’ primarily and emphatically to his propae-
deutic, non-theological study of religion:
The historical religions form the object of our investigation. We are to extract
from them that which is common to all and can therefore be considered a
characteristic of all religion. Our full and undivided attention is directed at
history, and at history alone, while usually the latter is only considered in passing
as the context in which religion occurs.93

89 90 91
Troeltsch (1902: 43–8). Troeltsch (1902: 48–9). Troeltsch (1908: 203).
Cf. Troeltsch’s Preface to the first edition of The Absoluteness: ‘To build up a theological
faculty that had no official knowledge of normative religious truth, that had to hunt for it like an
explorer for the North Pole or a water witcher for water, would be a manifest absurdity’ (1902:
iv), ET: Reid, 26. For his critique of Ritschlian and other theologies as ‘half way houses’ cf. e.g.
(1911: 10–16).
Kaftan (1888: 15).
The End of the Idealist Programme 277
Compare to this the way Kaftan introduces his discussion of the nature of
The question regarding the highest good in Christianity is directed to Holy
Scripture as the historical source of divine revelation; it is directed to it alone.
We do not apply the same restriction to our study of other religions, but tend to
take into view their further historical development together with their origins.
Christianity however claims to have originated from a special revelation. Hence it
implies the claim that its peculiar character should be known from this revelation.
This is a demand which the theologian at least has to recognize.94
It should be noted that the formulation of the ‘Scripture principle’ here is
taken verbatim from Ritschl’s analogous demand at the outset of Justification
and Reconciliation.95 At the same time, force and practical implications of this
principle are by no means identical in the two theologians. For Ritschl,
‘biblical theology’ only derives its justification from a historical argument.96
While he too appeals to the origin of Christianity in revelation, this is not
something unique to his own religion but rather denotes the fact of a unique
and as such inexplicable historical origin. Therefore, Christianity, like all such
religions, relates to its founding epoch in such a way that its normative
significance for the ensuing religious community is retained.97 Kaftan, on
the other hand, may speak of a historical revelation, but regards this revelation
as a distinguishing feature of Christianity. While therefore a thoroughly
historicist investigation is required for other religions, the theological engage-
ment with Christianity must be based entirely on the special revelation
contained in Scripture. Kaftan obviously cannot make good this claim of a
special role for Christianity in historical terms, and therefore retreats to an
appeal to ecclesial authority. The teaching of the Church provides the norm
for the academic work of the theologian, who is thus categorically distin-
guished from the philosopher or the historian of religion.
Again, we see the divergence of two lines of thought which Ritschl had
forged into an unea