St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Theology Course 02:
Mainly Nineteenth Century:
Theological Liberalism

Resource Paper Extracted

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)

How far back can we go? How far back we need to go is the theological tradition that all the founding twentieth century modern theologians were forced to reject. We could go back to Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who set out a scheme for Cultured Despisers of religion, a foundation of religious commitment in universal human dependent piety. This piety is not just individualistic but in the Church community. Jesus, also showing dependency and surrendering to the infinite, had the clearest of vision. Schleiermacher criticised the Chaldedonian one person in two natures as confusing; Jesus's clarity linked him uniquely to God and therefore God's presence in Jesus - and this Jesus supremely communicated outwards. The issue raised, though, is can anyone be like Jesus, say by training (as, say, Buddhists claim the possibility of Buddha-nature), and if so, how is Jesus unique? We will see this question again: can we ever establish uniqueness from the outside of Christianity, or must it come from within the closed circle? Schleiermacher believed in universal language, giving access to show an author's intention better than even the author knew. So his was an open circle, that shared by all humanity.
Modern theology is framed by the greats of the first half of the twentieth century. We need to see whom they reacted against. They were two generations of the descendants of Schleiermacher. They now had a developed liberal Protestant theology well aware of critical biblical studies found in Germany and the United States. There were waves of impact, including on the radical elements of the Broad Church party of the Church of England, on liberal non-conformity, welcomed by academic Unitarians (some of whom studied studied in Germany through the German language), and impacted into Catholic modernism too. Starting at 1830 at the earliest, this period continues until 1914.
The nineteenth century theologians related particularly to the issue of history. Christianity claims to be a historical faith, grounded in a moment in time when revelation came to a specific part of the world. When the academic subjects became more specialised in the nineteenth century, naturally history was a crucial area for Christian theology. And yet it was doing history, and the notion of history and progress, also a theme of Sociology, and of political socialism, where all the trouble was to locate. We shall see how modern twentieth century theologians found a huge difficulty with history and culture as part of their understandings of Christian faith and, crucially, Christology (that is, the focus on Christ and how Christ can be understood). This is a key theme to grasp: the problem of history.
In some ways, history is not actually about the past. It is about using the resources available in the present to open up evidence and understandings about the past. It is about primary documents, it is about the skill of narrative writing, it is about drawing in other disciplines in the support of doing history. History is done in the present. When it comes to theology, a key theme is what history supports and what it fails to support, and what you do about its failings.
The liberal modernists all had a big role for history: history was a timeline that showed change, a movement onwards and upwards - history meant progress; the fears and ignorances of the past were being overcome and now we could see the big story opened out and surely going on in front. With technological and social improvement came moral improvement, or at least its possibility if guided by a beneficient progressive Christianity. How did the theologians propose this?
The key liberal modernists of the nineteenth century were Albrecht Ritschl and his students Adolf Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch - all Germans, of course.

Albrecht Ritschl 1822-1899

Ritschl rejected metaphysical speculation on the basis that this established nothing, and he wanted to root his theology in something. He rooted it in this world practical connections.
As a liberal modernist in theology, Ritschl believed that Christianity had a core essence, and he wanted to know what that was.
"Christianity is the monotheistic, completely spiritual and ethical religion, which based on the life of its Redeemer and 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." (230)
"In Christianity the Kingdom is represented as the common end of God and of the elect community in such a way that it rises above the natural limits of nationality and becomes the moral society of nations."
Ritschl's starting point is God as loving who and aims to give humanity the kingdom of God, which is a condition of the supreme good, and also the gospel given in Jesus Christ. Jesus introduced the Kingdom of God and we should organise in ethical action to bring about the Kingdom of God. Via pleasure or pain, humankind either enjoys dominion over the world with the help of God or does not with the absence of God.
This involved individuals in value judgments. These determine one's orientation to the world. It is a direct value judgment to honour Jesus Christ as a saviour figure. Christ is called divine because of the experience of God's loving will through Jesus. Jesus tells us that God is the Father and he forgives sinners. Jesus as the perfect revealer of God is such because of his Godhead. Christ gained a freedom from the pressures of the world through suffering: our contemplation of this life lived gives us this freedom, and facilitates our discipleship towards entry into the Kingdom of God. It is this worldly and international, moral and ethical, the organising of humankind through love.
A number of pointrs follow from this. Unlike the founding liberal theologian, Schleiermacher, who began with our universal dependence, Ritschl starts with God as person and Christology. However, wholly located in this world, it demands the subjectivity of believers and their value judgments, and it puts a huge demand on history as progress to reveal the Kingdom and culture as beneficient. It assumes that under the model of Christ, we can build the Kingdom in culture and in history. It was a nineteenth century view of optimism, and is why the liberal theological period of this kind lasted until 1914. However, even with liberal optimism, we now know that history is interpreted, that it is a set of inherited texts, and simply cannot deliver a universal interpretation of itself.
Ritschl is important because,when we get to Karl Barth, we see Barth use Ritschl's God as personality and Christ as starting point, but rejects every association with history and culture as we have it, and humans no longer make value judgments with Barth.
Born in Berlin Ritshl studied at several universities: Bonn, Halle, Heidelberg and Tubingen. In 1846 he lectured in Bonn in 1846, and he started his teaching in New Testament and Historical Studies, and from 1852 taught Dogmatics/ Systematic Theology. A professor in 1859 he then moved from Bonn to Gottingen in 1864 where he stayed until he died.

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)

He was a student of Ritschl and as such wanted to ground Christianity into history. He was a major figure in Church history and its research, particularly Marcion - and distrusted by Churches because of his radicalism. Also like Ritschl, and extending from him, Harnack wanted to know what was the essence of Christianity, and indeed gave lectures with that title (but translated into English as What is Christianity) in 1900 in Berlin.
One should trust the message of Jesus about eternal life under God: Jesus taught the coming of the Kingdom, and not about himself; and that the essence of Christianity also included that the human soul has infinite value alongside God as the Father and his providential care, and that the commandment of love relates to higher consciousness. So the Kingdom of God is the rule of God and his loving in the hearts of individuals.
What we see here is liberal individualism: the message comes to the consciousness of the individual, and also the view that Jesus didn't care much for religion as such. We also see much about history. Harnack studied Marcion, the Christian leader who rejected the Hebrew Bible. Harnack saw Marcion as part of the Hellenisation of Christianity, that it followed in the footsteps of Paul and the Gnostics, but the later orthodox, despite taking much on board, reaffirmed the place of the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament. Harnack saw Hellenisation in the two natures one person view of the Council of Chalcedon, and thought that the historical Jesus was accessible as a rabbi freed from institutions and encrusted doctrines.

Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923)

He is the other important liberal figure and student of Ritschl, and still influential among sociologists of religion for the Church-sect continuum (though he and Max Weber were not the first - the liberal James Martineau first saw the difference in 1859). Troeltsch had a third category too of mysticism, an odd label because this form of faith meant the religion of the individual and the intellectual that has more to do with the Enlightenment than the stances of the two Church forms that both come out of the New Testament. Church believers were traditional, broad-institution, culturally-situated believers - a disappearing environment for Christianity - and sect believers were anti-culture and proclaimed a narrow faith of salvation. The sect obviously had a future to it.
Troeltsch also regarded history as important, and he wanted to synthesise history, philosophy and theology in the new academic fields. However, and differently from Harnack, Troeltsch could not see that Christianity could be built upon history. There are three parts to historical method, according to Troeltsch.

  • Historical likelihoods are probable only: the critical component
  • We move from the more familiar to the less: the component of analogy
  • Nothing is isolated at any one time: the component of correlation
  • Miracles are ruled out because they don't happen now and familiarity/ analogy argument means they hardly were likely to happen then. Concepts such as the divinity of Christ simply cannot be argued from the point of view of history. And history mattered, as history established historical truth.
In fact, Troeltsch came to a relativist view of all religion. There is no method in history for establishing the salvation-superiority of Christianity or any other faith. All that can be said is that Christianity established itself into European culture and has had a transforming effect: but this is not the same as saying Christianity is itself superior or that Christ is unique.
Why is Troeltsch liberal? Because in choosing between history with culture and Christianity, he chose history and culture.
We shall see that modern twentieth century theologians agreed with Troeltsch, but they chose Christianity not history, that theological method is somewhat divorced from other disciplines as it internally justifies the essences of Christian salvation and Christology.
We shall see that Christology is different from Harnack's historical Jesus, and that whether Barth, Bonhoeffer or Tillich, Christology cannot be located in history or culture. Strange to say for what is regarded commonly as a historical faith.
Troeltsch himself ended up as a Secretary of State in the Ministry of Culture in 1919, having studied in Erlangen, Berlin and Gottingen, becoming a Professor of Theology in Bonn in 1892, Professor of Theology in Heidelberg in 1894 and took the Chair in Philosophy in Berlin in 1914.
Now a sub-theme of this theology course is history: this background of optimism, but the dashing of that optimism in the First World War, and a history of culture with the perverting of culture in Germany leading to the second world war. There is a liberal theology that once attracted and assimilated some modernist Jews of Germany, yet to be spat out by the violence of its cultural reversal into poisonous cruel fantasy. Theology was on the case, going through its own changes, and shapes our theology now into the twenty first century.

Main Points Summary:

  • Schleiermacher relied upon universal human dependency and Jesus showed a higher God-consciousness than anyone else.
  • Ritschl started with Christology but it depends on our value judgments
  • Ritschl had Jesus introducing the Kingdom of God for us to build
  • Harnack had the Kingdom of God located in our hearts
  • Harnack saw a historical Jesus who preached about God, not himself, and who was Hellenism-free (to be later labelled with titles and dogmas)
  • Troeltsch saw a Jesus like us, but historical method at variance with the Gospel account
  • Troeltsch said nothing of the uniqueness of Christianity could be established by history, and history matters


McEnhill, P., Newlands, G. (2004), 'Harnack, Adolf von', 'Ritschl, Albrecht', ''Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst', 'Troeltsch, Ernst', Fifty Key Christian Thinkers, Routledge Key Guides, London: Routledge, , 131-135, 229-233, 236-240, 266-269.

Retained notes on 'Narrative theology' from Dearey, P. (1996/ 97), MA Course: Theological Understanding of Contemporary Society, Department of Theology, University of Hull.

Troeltsch, E. (1931), Wyon O. (trans.), The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Vol. 1, London: George Allen and Unwin, especially 380-381.

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Adrian Worsfold