Allow God to Tell His Own Story. Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance: A Better Way to do Genuine Christian Theology

Karl Barth is famous for wanting to think theological thoughts strictly and only after Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’); he is famous for his desire to do Revelational Theology. Thomas F. Torrance, in his own way, but in the wake of Barth is likewise famous for his desire to do Revelational Theology. They were both very successful at this, and have left a great heritage for those of us who want ritschlto do theology After Barth&After Torrance. Neither Barth nor Torrance invented this approach; we could identify strains towards this type of approach strewn throughout church history. In this post I want to identify a more recent voice (relative to Barth’s location in history) that helped to foster the kind of trajectory that Barth, Torrance, and others picked up on later. I am sure for those who are Barth-haters that they would be tempted to use this as ammunition to tar-and-feather Barth (and Torrance) to the dump of theological Liberalism; be that as it may, I am going to risk it, and name this voice for you.

As you have been reading this post thus far you might wonder what the big deal is; you might be thinking “don’t all Christian theologians do revelational theology;” “don’t all Christian theologians attempt to avoid philosophical metaphysics in their theologizing and attempt to think God directly from Jesus Christ as God’s Self-exegesis and interpretation (Jn 1.18)?” Most would claim to do so, but most in Protestant theology have cozied up to the idea that some metaphysics (whether that be Thomist, Scotist, Nominalist, etc.) are inevitable; that some philosophical categories are necessary in order to attempt to think and communicate God in an intelligible coherent way. Barth and Torrance, and this voice I am going to identify don’t think this is the case, and they have not cozied up to this idea about using philosophy and metaphysics as the driver for the doing of Christian theology; like I noted they are committed principially to the idea that we can only do Christian theology after God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus revelational theology.

The ‘voice’ that helped to pave the way for someone like Barth, at least in his emphasis on revelational theology was famed theologian Albrecht Ritschl (1822). Ritschl was anti-Hegel, and anti After Hegel theologians; if you know anything about Hegel you know that he wanted to supplant traditional Christian theology with his philosophically shaped pantheistic dialectically styled theologizing. Ristchl was responding to this style of philosophy and “metaphysics” (as it were); Barth similarly was responding to Hegel, but Kant even more. Nonetheless, it is interesting (at least to me) to see in Ritschl that in an de jure objective and principled way I can agree with; even if I cannot agree with probably anything else Ritschl stood for in his exegetical and theological conclusions.

In order to get an idea about all of this we will hear from H.R. Mackintosh (Thomas F. Torrance’s beloved teacher) as he develops Ritschl’s thinking on this, while at the same time offers a bit of critique.

Our study of this method may suitably begin with an allusion to two pernicious influences which, at every stage of his development except the first, Ritschl sought to drive from the field. One is Speculative Rationalism, with its claim that the true basis of theology is to be found in theoretical metaphysics. No doubt in a broad sense most of us are speculative rationalists in so far as we try to think out and think through the implications of Christian faith, in an effort to correlate each belief with all the rest. And in calling for the expulsion of metaphysics from theology, as I think we shall see Ritschl in form asked for more than could be conceded, and as it were drove the nail in so hard as to split the wood. Faith must always be metaphysical, for it rests upon convictions which, if true, must profoundly affect our whole view of the universe and the conduct befitting us within it. In this important sense, a metaphysical import belongs to every judgment concerning Ultimate Reality. Yet the belief or judgment in question need not have been reached by way of metaphysical argument, and in point of fact no essential Christian belief has ever been so reached, although metaphysical argument may later have been employed to defend it. And this, in the last resort, is the point Ritschl is bent on making. There is a Speculative Rationalism which comes to meet the Gospel with a ready-made framework of philosophical conceptions, insisting that faith is bound to use these conceptions, and no other, when it proceeds to formulate its own living content, and this in spite of the fact that its fundamental categories may have taken shape quite irrespectively of the experiences that make man a Christian. Philosophy as such is, even for the believer, the final court of appeal. This type of thought, of which Hegelianism is the classic instance, Ritschl strove not without success to dislodge from the seat of power. Anyone who knows more than the rudiments of his thought will acknowledge that his view of the living God, of revelation of Christ, of miracle, of the Church, is such as to lift the mind beyond the range of any metaphysic operating with general ideas. It becomes plain that, in spite of its great intellectual value, technical philosophy leaves on one side just those problems which possess a life-and-death interest for believing men. No books on metaphysics can be named which contain a serious handling of such matters as fellowship with God, the guilt of sin, the hearing of prayer, above all the redeeming Person of Jesus. By insisting that the Christian mind must at every point of religious belief be guided solely by revelation of God in Christ, Ritschl did his utmost to expel any and every presumptuous form of Speculative Rationalism; and it may well be that the future historian will reckon this to have been his best service to theology.[1]

And in case you were wondering how Ritschl fits with the trajectory of Barth/Torrance, or vice versa, here is what Torrance commentates in regard to Barth’s approach (which Torrance shared in this regard):

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

Moral of the Story:

Allow God’s own Self-exegeis, His own Self-interpretation to impose Godself upon you and the way you think about God and all His works (without separation between His Person and Work). Allow the categories and conceptions supplied by God Himself in Christ to provide the way we think God, and repudiate any approach to theologizing that allows philosophy and foreign metaphysics to set the tone for how we think God. If you do this things will go better; because if we get God wrong everything else that follows will be wrong.

 

[1] Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 142-43.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

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This entry was posted in Albrecht Ritschl, Barth, Christian Dogmatics, Evangelical Calvinism, Karl Barth, Revelational Theology, Systematic Theology, T. F. Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Allow God to Tell His Own Story. Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance: A Better Way to do Genuine Christian Theology

  1. roredman says:

    Great post, Bobby. Ritschl’s role in reframing Protestant theology and his influence on Barth is grossly underestimated these days. Elsewhere in Types of Modern Theology Mackintosh wrote that Ritschl is “too close for appreciation and too far away for gratitude”; he’s further away now but still unappreciated and unthanked! It does indeed start with the post-Kantian clearing of the decks, removing “speculative rationalism.” But positively, Ritschl’s understanding of justification and the kingdom of God as organizing principles for his theology anticipate Barth in important ways.

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  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Thanks, Robb! Do you engage with Ritschl in your dissertation?

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