Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

Ernst Troeltsch is not an easy figure to categorize owing to the breadth of his intellectual interests. He was a German Protestant theologian who made major scholarly contributions to theology, social ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of history, and sociology of religion. Troeltsch was preoccupied for much of his academic career with the advent of modern civilization and its implications for Christianity. His scholarly research was driven by a passionate concern for the wellbeing of the church and its relationship to society. Troeltsch perceived that the church in Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century was encountering an entirely new set of social realities in the wake of the Enlightenment: industrialization, urbanization, the emergence of the nation state, and revolutionary intellectual developments in scientific and historical studies. As Troeltsch surveyed the landscape of Europe in the early years of the twentieth century he worried about the present condition and future prospects of western civilization; he did not share the optimism that many of his contemporaries in church and society exhibited. Troeltsch lived to see his worst fears confirmed in the carnage of trench warfare and Germany’s halting attempts to establish a new political settlement in the form of the Weimar Republic following World War One (1914-1918).

1. Background

Ernst Troeltsch was born in Haunstetten near Augsburg, Germany, on February 17, 1865. He was the eldest of five children. The son of a doctor, his father encouraged him to think about scientific problems. On completing his studies at the gymnasium in Augsburg, Troeltsch entered the University of Erlangan to study theology in 1884. Owing to his dislike for the conservative character of the theology faculty, he transferred to Berlin for a year. He then moved to Göttingen where he studied, with his friend William Bousset (1865-1920), under Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and his approach to historical problems was shaped decisively by the influence of Paul Legarde (1827-1891). Troeltsch’s intellectual brilliance was recognized early on in his academic career, but so were his difficulties with orthodox doctrine. In 1890 he was appointed Privatdozent or lecturer at Göttingen. Troeltsch moved to Bonn in 1892 to become a junior professor. The University of Heidelberg appointed him Professor of Systematic Theology in 1894. He remained in the post until 1915. While at Heidelberg he was colleague and neighbor to Max Weber (1864-1920), one of the formative thinkers in the discipline of sociology, and friends with Georg Jellinek (1851-1911), a Jewish historian, and Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), an influential Calvinist theologian. In 1915 Troeltsch accepted an invitation to become a professor in philosophy at the University of Berlin. He had initially been approached about the possibility of taking up a chair in the faculty of theology, but members within the faculty opposed his appointment. Troeltsch was actively involved in the politics of the Weimar Republic in the wake of Germany’s defeat in World War One. He died prematurely of a heart condition on February 1, 1923.

2. Works (Selected List)

On Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology (1898), The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions (1902), What Does the ‘Essence of Christianity’ Mean? (1903), Religion and the Science of Religion (1906), The Significance of the Reformation for the Rise of the Modern World (1906), Faith and History (1910), The Significance of the Historical Existence of Jesus for Faith (1911), Protestantism and Progress (1912), The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (1912), Der Historismus und seine Probleme (1922), Historiography (1922), My Books (1922), The Place of Christianity Among the World Religions (1923), The Christian Faith (1925).

3. Themes

History and Historiography

Troeltsch mastered several intellectual disciplines. Yet, the thread that runs through his substantial and diverse body of work is history. History is the fundamental category in his thinking. According to Troeltsch, history is essentially a flow of events connected in a network of interacting elements. The task of historiography or modern historical scholarship is to locate human beings in the complex web of interacting forces operative in nature and human events, those contingent factors that shape all human existence (Troeltsch, 1922b, 718). Furthermore, historiography is practiced in a new intellectual context marked by three characteristics. First, the modern conception of nature omits reference to metaphysics. God and notions of ultimate reality beyond the empirical, material world play no part in contemporary descriptions of the natural order. Second, a new conception of history has emerged that views all events as interconnected. Third, a new approach to ethics is evident. Troeltsch sees contemporary historiography as a method of inquiry consonant with modern scientific rational method, which assumes a naturalist perspective to explain the world without reference to God or the supernatural. Troeltsch is keen to offer an explanation for the course of historical events that can be accounted for in terms of cause and effect within the cosmos and human action. He recognizes that social reality is complex (Ibid) and wrestles with the challenge of discerning normative values in the midst of the contingent process of history.

Principles of Critical History

Troeltsch formulated three principles of critical history, which, in practice, governed all his historical inquiry. First, the principle of criticism stipulated that all historical judgments are open to revision and, therefore, can only attain a greater or lesser degree of probability. Historical knowledge can never be absolute and, in Troeltsch’s view, cannot be the foundation of faith. Second, the principle of analogy maintains that historical judgments presuppose an essential similarity between our humanity and the humanity of the past period. Thus if people do not typically rise bodily from the dead in our contemporary world and experience, we have no basis for assuming that any perrson could have done so in the past. Third, the principle of interrelatedness (correlation) means that to understand a historical event one must see it in terms of its antecedents and consequences and not separate it from its environment. Troeltsch was constrained by a rigid nineteenth century understanding of scientific law in the sense of an inflexible principle that governs conditions and does not allow for exceptions. The historical method stresses the difference between then and now. Moderns see the nature of reality, the cosmos and human beings, very differently to the ancients. Yet, simultaneously, what is deemed to be possible within the purview of a naturalist worldview today ultimately determines what a scientific historian like Troeltsch judges to be probable in the past.

Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology

Troeltsch differentiated between a historical method and a dogmatic method in theology. The historical method subjected Christianity to comprehensive historical critical scrutiny. The dogmatic method made an exception for Christianity and viewed certain events, such as those associated with Jesus like the virgin birth and resurrection, in isolation from others by appealing to supernatural agency. Miracles, in the sense of a supernatural agency temporarily suspending the operation of laws of nature to intervene in the universe and human affairs, were inadmissible to Troeltsch’s theological method. Troeltsch insisted that every religious event muse be seen in relation to its entire historical context. Hence, all occasions are particular and relative. Troeltsch applied historicism or radical historical contextualization to Christianity. Christian belief could not be founded on dogmatic assertion, but must be informed by historical studies. Anything that could not be verified according to the historical critical standards (presupposing a naturalist world view) should be abandoned.

Non-Absolute Christology

Troeltsch’s application of the historical method to theology has implications for his understanding of Christian belief, especially Christology. He avoids committing himself to affirmations of miracles, virgin birth, the cross as an atoning sacrifice for sin, bodily resurrection from the dead, and a second coming of Christ. Troeltsch applies social theory, specifically a social psychological explanation, to account for the impact of the person of Jesus upon his contemporaries and the emergence of the church. Jesus Christ is responsible by means of his personality and teaching for causing the response that resulted in the formation of a community, the early Church, although he had no control over the nature of the response he precipitated. The continuing significance of Jesus Christ is explained by recourse to the early Christian movement’s need to focus on a central personality to sustain its ongoing life and perpetuate the Christian message. A community is created that preserves and transmits the teaching of Jesus and teaching about Jesus. Jesus is like the first domino in a series lined up, that, when toppled, causes a sequence of events that stretches from the past to the present. Troeltsch thus eschews metaphysical categories to explain the person and work of Jesus, and his significance for faith through the centuries to the present day. The doctrine of the incarnation is treated as a once useful but now outmoded way of talking about God’s presence in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the supreme expression of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, but he is not God incarnate. Troeltsch disavows a universal and absolute salvific value to the death of Jesus on the cross. Yet, Christianity is so intertwined with Western culture that Jesus is, in effect, absolute for Europe and North America, but may not necessarily be of absolute significance to people immersed in cultures where other religious traditions are preeminent.

Social Ethics

Troeltsch made a major contribution to the field of Christian Social Ethics in The History of the Social Teaching of the Churches (1912) and Protestantism and Progress (1912). His approach is defined by his commitment to historical study. He is concerned with the condition and prospects of the contemporary Christian Church, but his instinct was always to examine the past with a view to understanding the present and helping Christianity engage with the complexities of the contemporary situation. Properly speaking, Troeltsch is a historical sociologist. He does not study the empirical social reality of the church in his own generation. The intellectual currents that challenged Dogmatic theology and the forces of modernization rapidly reconfiguring the social and cultural landscape in the Western world precipitate his concerns for the Church at the start of the twentieth century. Troeltsch delves into the historical to assist in the task of forging a cultural synthesis in the present.

Christianity and the Religions

Troeltsch wrestled with the realities of contingent history and the traditional assumption that Christianity was inherently absolute and superior to other world religions. In The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions (1902) he asserted the superiority of Christianity over all other religions from within a European perspective. However, the massive program of research he undertook for The Social Teaching of the Churches (1912) impressed upon him to an even greater degree the multiplicity of responses from within Christianity to diverse social contexts and cultural conditions and laid the foundation for his change of views on Christianity and its relation to other religions that were expressed in his posthumous work The Place of Christianity Among the World Religions (1923). Certain questions need to be revisited in the light of what is learned form other religions. The basis of Christian belief cannot reside in either outer or inner miracles, unless Christians are willing to legitimate other religions on that basis (Troeltsch, 1923, 42-43). Although any claim to Christian absoluteness is moderated, Troeltsch cannot totally abandon his view of Christian superiority, “it is the loftiest and most spiritual revelation, we know” (Ibid., 51). He recognizes Hinduism and Buddhism as “really humane and spiritual religions, capable of appealing in precisely the same way to the inner certitude and devotion of their followers as Christianity” (Ibid, 52). He finds Christianity to be valid “for us” (Ibid., 55), by which he means Europeans. If Christianity has an overall claim to superiority it may be less a theological assertion that a cultural one (Ibid., 55). Finally, he refines his observation that religion is ubiquitous by noting that there is no single agenda which all religions share. All people may be religious, but the manner in which religion operates in individual cultures is varied. Hence, comparison seeking to demonstrate superiorities may be regarded as beside the point.

God is ‘Personalistic’ and Experienced Mystically

Troeltsch is keen to reject any notion of pantheism. In this respect he differentiates himself from Hegel and the latter’s notion of a world historical process in which God is coming to consciousness. Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not a significant feature of Troeltsch’s theology he repeatedly affirms that God is ‘personalistic’. Still, Troeltsch follows in the footsteps of Scheiermacher in relegating the doctrine of the Trinity to the margins of his thought. The Trinity in its dogmatic form cannot be substantiated by the historical critical method. Troeltsch is comfortable with a type of monotheism uncomplicated by a doctrine of the Trinity that proposes One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing from eternity. God is a transcendent reality who encounters human beings directly in the interior subjective experience of the individual. Troeltsch’s preference for a monotheistic ‘personalistic’ God is mirrored in his increasing predisposition toward mysticism, a feature he associated with cultured intellectuals such as himself (Troeltsch, 1912b, 994).

4. Outline of Major Works

The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches

The Social Problem

The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912, English translation 1931) is an account and analysis of Christianity from the first century to the eighteenth century. Troeltsch focuses his attention on the development of the Church in Western Europe. (He does not engage much with the growth of the Church in North America or the Western Protestant Missionary Movement in the Global South.) The Social Teaching made its debut amidst the optimism that characterized culture and Christianity in Western Europe in the opening years of the twentieth century. Troeltsch did not share the optimism of many of his contemporaries. In his opinion a cultural confusion and crisis threatened the fabric of Western civilization. The intellectual foundations upon which Western Christianity was built were in the process of crumbling. Troeltsch was also preoccupied with an intellectual and personal struggle over the nature of history. Historical study, he concluded, can no longer be used to ‘prove’ the truth of the Christian faith. Historians can speak of probabilities but not absolute proof in matters of faith. Yet, at the same time, Troeltsch strained to discern a solution to the problem of Christianity’s relation to the modern world. He cared about the Church and its future. Troeltsch believed the Church in his generation was confronted with a profound “social problem” (Troeltsch, 1912b, 28). He defined the “social problem” as a tension between the State (political power) and Society (social entities and networks distinct from the State but influenced by it). The Church was an example of such “sociological phenomena” (Ibid., 28). Troeltsch set out to answer one central question, “How can the Church harmonize with these main forces in such a way that together they will form a unity of civilization?” (Ibid., 32).


The Social Teaching was a groundbreaking study, because it applied sociological modes of thought to the history of the Church and Christian social ethics. Troeltsch’s view of Society influences his methodological approach. Society is vast and complex. He concedes that nobody can survey every element in Society. No comprehensive description is possible. The historian must be selective and focus on a sector within Society. Troeltsch concentrates his interest on the Church in Western Europe and its relationship to the State and Social Order. He adopts an historical methodology to answer his central question. Troeltsch seeks to understand the basis of the social teachings of the Churches in five periods of development: the Early Church, the Mediaeval Synthesis, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and the Baptist Movement. He was struck by the diverse range of responses that emerged from within Christianity to different social contexts through the centuries. The Mediaeval and Calvinist syntheses were, in his opinion, the most imaginative and satisfactory harmonization of Christianity and culture. Troeltsch examines the history of the Church to find a solution for the Church in his generation. Troeltsch sketches out a method in four movements. First, he describes the contemporary problem that the Church must engage with. Second, he explores the history of the Church for clues to interpreting the present situation. Third, he aims at a theological synthesis. Fourth, he wants to propose strategies to guide the Church in the present moment and into the future. Troeltsch partially realized his proposed method in the Social Teaching. The Social Teaching examines the contemporary situation in cursory terms. Most space is devoted to the history of the Church. Troeltsch struggles to produce the synthesis he aspires to and concludes without making any concrete strategic recommendations.

The Social Context of the Church

Troeltsch pays attention to the social context of the Church. The Social Teaching reflects the web of social forces that influence and interact with Christian communities. Troeltsch identifies two key factors that shape modern Society and impact the Church. First, the advent of the “modern constitutional state” (Ibid., 28) accentuates the division and fragmentation between social groups in society; social groups have become increasingly alienated from the State. Second, the nature of modern society is defined in economic terms; social relationships are the product of economic activity (Ibid., 30). Christian and Secular “sociological phenomena” (groups or movements) are distinct and originate from different starting points, but nevertheless interact with one another. Secular forces did not create the Church, but they do influence it.

The Principles that Guide the Survey

Troeltsch sets out to identify the essential character, structure, and organization of the Church. He also assumes that his study will identify “a universal fundamental theory of human relationships in general” (Ibid., 34). The problem is, then, to determine how far such a theory can penetrate and influence the State and Society. Troeltsch wants to construct an integrated relationship between Church and Social Order. The model of the Church in harmony with the Social Order functions as the normative criterion by which Troeltsch evaluates the Church’s social ethics in specific historical and cultural contexts. Consequently, this premise predisposes Troeltsch to favor those chapters in Church history, such as Medieval Europe and Calvin’s Geneva, that exemplify close integration between the Church and the Social Order. Troeltsch is interested in explicating the relationship between the Church, the State, the Economic Order, and the Family. How has the Church influenced such groups in the Social Order? How far have they influenced the Church? To what extent do Church and Social Order share the same worldview? Troeltsch perceives that close harmony is rare. He reflects that his own generation experiences friction between Church and Social Order.

Independent Existences and Dynamic Influences

Troeltsch begins The Social Teaching of the Churches by examining the origins and nature of the Early Church. A constant refrain in his survey of church history, especially in the opening sections of the work, is that religious movements are not the product of social forces, but are influenced by them. Religion has a self-generative dimension that cannot be attributed to the cause and effect of social forces. Religious thought possesses a capacity for development unique to itself:

It is, therefore, clear that the rise of Christianity is a religious and not a social phenomenon. For although religion is interwoven with life as a whole, in development and dialectic it has an independent existence (Ibid., 43).

Yet, social forces define the context within which religion is operative and interact with it. For example, social upheaval in the ancient world prepared the way for a religious crisis that caused people to reflect upon “religious redemption” (Ibid., 46). Greek philosophical thought moved in the direction of monotheism and undermined the inherited worldview of many within the Roman Empire and primed the ancient world for a moral and spiritual renewal. The convergence of social forces in the ancient world created the conditions necessary for Christianity to emerge. The seed of Christianity was planted in a soil ready to receive and cultivate it. Troeltsch does not explore, given the self-generative quality of religion, whether a social context must always be an amenable environment for religion to survive and flourish.

The Ideal of Jesus’ Message and the Contingency of Christianity

The Gospel Ethic is primarily about personal relationship with God and secondarily concerned with the Social Order. Jesus did not lead a social movement in the modern sense. Christianity is marked by absolute individualism. Human beings are called into fellowship with God. Individuals in relationship with God are united by a common set of values that cause natural differences to disappear. Christianity was in its earliest form a relationship with God from which a set of values flowed. The Social Teaching as a project is shaped by Troeltsch’s search for a social theory that transcends historical contingencies, which turns out to be an elusive and unsuccessful project. To his mind historical studies expose the contextually determined responses of Christianity that do not conform to a consistent ideal. Christianity as an ideal ethic stands in an unresolved tension with the particular expressions of the Church in time and space. 

Sociological Analysis: The Early Church as a Human Community

The social profile of the Early Church shifted from lower classes to higher classes. Troeltsch detects a two-stage development in religious movements including Christianity on the basis of a sociological comparison of religions. In the first stage adherents of a new religious movement are usually drawn from the lower classes. They are poorly educated and less cultured, but provide the raw material for the spread of a religious movement and creating communities and structures. The first Christians were drawn largely from the lower classes in Society and were too far down the social ladder to influence the political classes or instigate major social or political change. In the second stage, a religious movement like Christianity engages with the intellectual currents of cultures and more sophisticated adherents begin to think through the nature of the Faith and articulate it in a credible way. The social profile of the Church influences its character and agenda. Troeltsch points to the remarkable social inclusiveness of the Early Church that cut across social (Free and Slave), ethnic (Jew and Gentile), and gender (male and female) lines. The first Christian missionaries engaged with sophisticated Gentile idolatry and philosophy. The Early Church was compelled to begin to work out the implications of affirming Jesus as Savior and Lord.

The Early Church moved from an absolute to an accommodating ethic. The message of Jesus was purely religious. Jesus summoned his followers to an absolute ethic of love to prepare them for the coming Kingdom of God. There is a world denying quality to the teaching of Jesus. The call to surrender self and love others by the sharing of possessions was not a campaign for social equality. The common life of the Early Church was a by-product of the absolute ethic of love. The Early Church continued with Jesus’ absolute ethic and required moral conduct that contrasted with the prevailing norms in secular society. Troeltsch traces the switch from an absolute ethic to an accommodating ethic to the Early Church’s appropriation of Stoic Natural Law. The path was cleared for the Church to value existing social institutions and reconcile itself to the social life of the ancient world and establish a cultural synthesis. Troeltsch depicts the Early Church changing from a dynamic community to a stable institution. The emergence of a priesthood set apart to exercise leadership and administer sacraments was an attempt to embody and visibly demonstrate the salvific power at work within the Church. An increasingly institutional form of the Church diminished the place of a universal priesthood of all believers and the idea of religious equality. Patriarchal attitudes and hierarchy defined the structures of the Church. An institutional dimension is necessary for the Church to relate to other social institutions within the Social Order. If the Church is to forge a harmony, an integrated partnership with other social bodies, then an institutional aspect is vital. 

Mediaeval Synthesis 

The Middle Ages was one of the few examples in Western Christianity of the harmony between Church and Social Order that was so desirable in Troeltsch’s opinion. He contrasts the Early Church with the Medieval Church: 

To the Early Church, social reform was too difficult, to the Mediaeval Church it seemed superfluous. The Mediaeval Church idealized the actual situation and declared herself in favour of the true ideal, which was required both by reason and revelation. (Ibid., 303-304)

The social position of the Church affects its attitude towards social reform. The Early Church was separated by a vast social gulf from the political classes in the ancient world. Hence, the Early Church could not conceive that it bore any responsibility for the Social Order. The Mediaeval Church occupied a different status. Troeltsch admired the Mediaeval Church and the achievement of Thomas Aquinas. Troeltsch was attracted to the integration that existed between Church and Social Order in the Mediaeval period. Troeltsch admired the stability within the Mediaeval Synthesis, even though, in practice, it was short-lived. He appreciated the all-embracing theory of social relationships in the Mediaeval Synthesis albeit a hierarchical and feudal definition of the relationships within society. This era coincided with the pinnacle of Papal power in Western Europe and a widespread desire among Church and Secular leaders for an underlying unity between Church and Secular leaders.

Social Conservatism and Natural Law

The Mediaeval Church saw no need to reshape the Social Order in the light of radical Christian beliefs. A stable Society was the primary goal. The relative values of Mediaeval Society were elevated to an absolute status as supernatural values endorsed by the Church. Toeltsch considered the role of Natural Law in Catholic theology. In Catholic social thought Natural Law exists before the State. Therefore, Natural Law assumes priority over Human Law formulated and enacted by the State. The Catholic approach recognizes the existence of varying contexts and takes them into account when applying Natural Law. All that is necessary for ordering human life already exists. The State must organize its life according to these existent principles. Human Laws enacted by the State acquire binding force only from this perspective. The Mediaeval Concept of Natural Law is conservative, organic, and patriarchal in nature and produces a form of social conservatism that reinforced Mediaeval Society.


Troeltsch regarded Lutheranism as a kind of reformation of Catholicism from within, a modification of the Mediaeval Church. The rise of Lutheranism coincided with the emergence of the modern nation state. Luther opted in favor of a Territorial Church and an approach to Christianity that stressed personal piety and acquiescence to the existing situation. In effect, an ecclesiastical civilization dominated by religious ideas defined Lutheran practice, although in theory spiritual and civil authority were independent of each other. “Thus the conception of a State Church still remains the centre of the social doctrines of Lutheranism” (Ibid., 516). Lutheranism manifests a passive tendency that predisposes it to support whatever power happens to be dominant and makes it vulnerable to being controlled by the governments to which it is connected, even if they are characterized by brutality and tyranny. Troeltsch views these tendencies within Lutheranism as contrary to the progressive spirit he associates with Protestant countries in the modern era.


Calvinism constitutes a second-generation form of the Reformation that developed a distinctive set of theological convictions about predestination, the individual, and the “Holy Community” (Ibid., 590). In the latter theme, Calvinism envisaged a society “in which God is glorified in all its activity, both sacred and secular” (Ibid., 591). The city of Geneva heralded a version of Christianity compatible with new forms of democracy and the first expressions of modern capitalism. Calvinism was also instrumental in the rise of the Free Churches and Puritanism. Troeltsch traces the developments that ultimately result in a movement committed to breaking any formal union between Church and State. 

The Baptist Movement

Troeltsch is the first major Protestant scholar to devote serious critical attention to the Baptist Movement and identifies three characteristics of the ‘Baptist Movement and Protestant Sects ‘ (Ibid., 694-729) in England and America: (1) the separation of church and state, (2) voluntarism as the form of the church (the original form of the church according to Troeltsch), and (3) individual liberty of conscience over against the state. Although the Church-type was his preferred manifestation of the church, Troeltsch did acknowledge that sometimes the small voluntary association or sect type common to this stream of Christianity is capable of effecting significant changes in society simply by choosing to exist apart from wider society and in so doing challenge its basic assumptions (Ibid., 331-343). James McClendon, a Baptist theologian is correct in his assessment that “Troeltsch’s libertarian interpretation provided a watershed in the development of nonpolemical historical study of the Radical Reformers” (McClendon, 2002, 29).

Three Types of Christianity: Church, Sect, and Mysticism

Troeltsch applies the convention of the ideal type developed by his colleague Max Weber as a tool of interpretation. A type is an artificial and ideal construct that does not exist in a pure form in actuality, but serves as a useful tool to clarify and contrast different forms of social reality. The Church/Sect typology is a heuristic tool developed by Troeltsch to critically reflect on religious movements and their relation to public life. Troeltsch proposes three types of Christianity (the Christian idea) in the course of history. Each type exemplifies a stream of thought within the Christian Faith. The Church-type is an institution endowed with grace and salvation as a consequence of the work of redemption. The Church-type is able to incorporate the masses into its corporate life and can adapt itself to the world. The Church-type ignores the need for a subjective standard of holiness for the sake of objective qualities of grace and redemption. The Sect-type is a voluntary society made up of intentional believers committed to strict holiness and united by a common experience of grace. Believers live apart from the world. The Sect-type is limited to small groups and emphasizes Law rather than Grace. The Sect-type exists as a society based on love within a society. They live their lives and act in anticipation of the Kingdom of God. The Mystical-type transposes doctrinal formulations and formal liturgy into a purely personal and inward experience. Troeltsch perceived the twentieth century as a period of nebulous “spirituality” with little to say to the great issues of the day. Troeltsch himself was increasingly inclined to adopt a kind of mysticism. All three Types of Christianity can be detected in history and across the broad streams of both Catholicism and Protestantism. Troeltsch favored the Church-type as the most appropriate, because he believed that Christian ethics by necessity always entails compromise with the Social Order to be effective among the greatest number of people: 

One of the most serious and important truths which emerge as a result of this inquiry is this: every idea is still faced by brutal facts, and all upward movement is checked and hindered by interior and exterior difficulties. Nowhere does there exist an absolute Christian ethic, which only awaits discovery; all that we can do is to learn to control the world-situation in its successive phases just as the earlier Christian ethic did in its own way. There is also no absolute transformation of material human nature; all that does exist is a constant wrestling with the problems which they raise. Thus the Christian ethic will also only be an adjustment to the world-situation, and it will only desire to achieve that which is practically possible (Ibid., 1013).

Aims and Outcomes

The Social Teaching aimed to comprehend the history of Western Christianity with a practical theological objective. Troeltsch took the visible form of the church in particular historical contexts seriously in a way not attempted before. The Social Teaching does not begin with the church as a theological ideal, but reflects on the church as a sociological reality. Troeltsch started with the church as he found it embodied in particular times and places. He set out to uncover an underlying social theory to integrate Church and Society in a cooperative harmony in his own generation. Ultimately, Troeltsch concluded that the Church is constantly being influenced by social context and approximating itself to what will work. There is no absolute Christian ethic or idea that transcends historical contingencies.

The Christian Faith (Glaubenslehre)

The Christian Faith (Glaubenslehre) was published posthumously in 1925. It consists of lecture notes prepared by Troeltsch (“dictation”) and notes taken by a student (“lecture”). The content of both sets of notes overlap considerably. In The Christian Faith Troeltsch applies the historical method of theology to determine what can be said about Christian doctrine. The work is arranged in three sections: (1) an introduction on methodology and critical questions, (2) an assessment of “Jesus Christ as the Object of Faith” (Troeltsch, 1925, 71), and (3) a concluding set of thoughts on God, the World, the Soul, Redemption, Religious Community, and the Consummation (eschatology). Throughout the work Troeltsch asks questions of a contemporary nature.

History became increasingly influential in theological method as the nineteenth century progressed. Exhaustive scrutiny of the life of Jesus, the history of the church, and the development of doctrine reshaped theology dramatically. Yet, scholars recognized that the past is not the object of faith. Theology reflected upon the meaning of the past and was not simply interested in establishing the ‘facts’ of what actually happened. Troeltsch saw history as the context within which a religious idea is grasped (Ibid., 81). Indeed, every historical event is more than simply historical. He sensed a “fragrance of supra-history” which gives shape and meaning to the past (Ibid., 81).

Troeltsch utilizes three sources for constructing his theology. The Bible is the foundational element in theology (Ibid., 29) and is especially important as a witness to the personality of Jesus as the supreme successor to the prophetic impulse of the Old Testament. Jesus must be seen against the backdrop of the Old Testament to grasp him in true perspective. The teaching and moral example of Jesus are not the salient point, rather it is the disposition and total character of his life that are most significant. Paul is equally vital to perceive the impact that the personality of Christ made on the first Christians. The second source is the tradition of the Church (Ibid., 30). Tradition is the collective inheritance of the church’s life and teaching from the past. Tradition provides insight into how the revelation is progressively interpreted through the ages. Troeltsch is not uncritical of these developments, even when they appear nearly inevitable. Thus, the institutionalization of the Church and the rise of the sacramental system may have been historical necessities, but they are also understood by Troeltsch to have become hindrances, rather than aids, to contemporary faith. Third, personal experience has personal value when a person and a community are religiously aware (Ibid., 38). Personal experience is the process by which that which comes to us from the outside is appropriated and internalized (Ibid., 38). Such a process is individual and mysterious. “It is in authentic experience that we first see the revelation that is personally granted to us” (Ibid., 39). There is thus a contemporary process that is revelatory in its “inner …truth and power” (Ibid.,75).

The approach taken to the history of Christian belief is not different from other approaches to history. Jesus and the Bible are part of history and are to be investigated as such. The Bible cannot be regarded as an inspired book impervious to historical investigation (Ibid., 15). Furthermore, the neo-platonic philosophy underlying the Creeds is seen as part of the history of the Christian tradition, perhaps even as necessary to the development of the Church, but it cannot be viewed as a trustworthy guide to understanding who Jesus was in a historical sense. Modern theology is not interested in a metaphysical Christology but an understanding of the personality of Jesus.

Troeltsch lists five issues on the relation of faith and history that must be addressed (Ibid.,73): (1) the reproductive and sustaining capacity of subjective personal faith is related to the “breadth and depth” (Ibid., 71 ) of a religious tradition, (2) the redemptive character of Christianity that allows humanity to rise above itself is mediated through historical means, (3) the communal character of Christianity that is grounded in the personality of its founder, (4) the unique nature of Christian cultus that functions by making its “religious possession” (Ibid., 73) contemporary, and (5) the place of Christianity among the world religions. These topics are more than matters of establishing historical fact. Troeltsch is concerned to mine the resources of history to inform active Christian commitment in the present. Approaching these issues as historical questions requires attention to the modern understanding of the role of history. Troeltsch identifies six relevant features: (1) autonomy that rejects any claim to historical authority and insists belief in anything must spring from inner necessity, (2) environmental or social and cultural conditions must be considered, (3) historical criticism renders all judgments tentative, (4) recognition of the historical relativity of Christianity means that claims to exclusivity are untenable, (5) the history of religions and philosophy or religions view Christianity as one religion among many with nothing unique about the character of its emergence and development, and (6) historical criticism means that no single historical event is sufficient to build a faith upon (Ibid., 74).

Toeltsch then proceeds to examine Christian history and the conclusions of modern interpreters. He faults Hermann and Schleiermacher for their unhistorical approaches to the person of Jesus (Ibid., 76), constructing portraits of Jesus which are historically dubious to fit them into their theological systems. Troeltsch counters by insisting that the personality of Jesus needs to be seen as a whole (Ibid., 76). Jesus is the culmination and climax of Israel’s prophetic tradition and the center of Christianity (Ibid., 76). The emergence of the prophetic movement in Israel constitutes an advance in religious history. The prophets focused on divine holiness as part of an ethical monotheism, which was better than the nature religions that surrounded Israel. However, the prophetic tradition degenerated into nationalism and a particularistic apocalyptic vision. Jesus broke out of these constraints. The apostolic community spread the message of Jesus and Christianity as a religion was born.

“The person of Jesus is the center of Christian history” (Ibid., 87). Troeltsch notes the importance of distinguishing “purely historical matters from their interpretation by faith” (Ibid., 87). “But historical knowledge can, either directly or indirectly, influence faith and its interpretation” (Ibid., 87). The critical question is whether the apostolic community’s “belief in Christ and redemption” (Ibid., 87) originates in the impact of Jesus or stems from “some non-Christian mystery cult” (Ibid., 87). Troeltsch dismissed the latter possibility on two grounds. First, no evidence for a redeemer myth exists. Second, by process of elimination, it can be concluded that the significance of Jesus for the apostolic community can be traced back to Jesus himself (Ibid., 88). Much of the Gospel tradition is influenced by later Christian belief. But, even if his actual words cannot be recovered, “the life that flows through them” remains accessible (Ibid., 76).

Christianity is a “monotheistic religion of personality” (Ibid., 66) in which the individual soul comes into relationship with God. Jesus lives out this relationship and thereby inspires others to do so as well. The early church expressed the presence of God in Christ in terms of Jesus as the Messiah and later in the doctrine of the incarnation. Contemporary theology “formulates the relationship of God and Chris in terms of a unity of will” (Ibid., 90). Jesus’ unity of will with God is what makes him able to redeem others.

Troeltsch said very little about the resurrection, because historical-criticism had “nothing to say” (Ibid., 96) about the resurrection. He accounts for the Christian belief about the resurrection by assuming that the intensity of the disciples’ commitment to Jesus convinced them that he really was alive. The early Christians remained as monotheistic as the Judaism out of which they had grown. “The person of Jesus, now elevated into heaven, became transparent to the one God that was visible through him” (Ibid., 96).

Jesus is in a sense correctly viewed as “redeemer,” even if mythological language of sacrifice and substitutionary atonement are rejected and it is remembered that God is ultimately the “actual redeemer” (Ibid., 98). Troeltsch concurs with Schleiermacher that Jesus’ God-consciousness is transmitted to his followers (Ibid., 98). His moral influence is communicable. The death of Jesus is significant because it is an example to us that enables us to respond to God in a similar fashion:

Abelard already taught that the significance of Jesus was not cosmic, but rather his soul-transforming impact. Likewise, the death of Jesus entailed no effect on God and the devil, but was rather the great example of certainty in God that could not be shaken by senseless suffering, that was able to overcome all darkness. And so it enabled others to share this certainty in God…What I experience before his countenance bestows courage and elevation, and that is redemption! I experience this redemption in personal communion with God; but the courage that enables it, I owe to the revelation in Jesus (Ibid., 98-99).

A consequence of Troeltsch’s non-absolute, not-incarnational Christology is that he distances himself from traditional orthodox understandings of the Trinity. Although, he has no place for metaphysical discussions of the Trinity, he argues that Trinitarian language still serves some useful purposes. First, as long as Jesus is an object of faith, the language of divinity needs to be expansive enough to encompass him (Ibid., 106). Second, understood somewhat loosely, Trinitarian language serves as a reminder that redemption comes from God in Christ and the church is animated by the Spirit of Christ (Ibid., 105). The Trinitarian formula need not be understood neo-platonically to be helpful. Finally, provided that it is always recalled that history is dynamic, rather than static, the traditional creedal language has its place as a statement of who the believer is in historical perspective (Ibid., 107).

Troeltsch manifests a sense that Christianity has been in a long process of development since the New Testament to the present day. The community provides a genuine link to Jesus (Ibid., 102), but is also the place of a “genuinely continuing development of revelation” (Ibid.). This understanding of the community leads to several insights. First, the historical development of Christianity can be simultaneously affirmed and criticized. The growth of doctrine is an essential part of the community living at any given point in time and space. But, because of these conditioning features it is crucial that no time and space be given priority in defining Christian belief. Second, contemporary time and space are in many ways radically different from previous ages and therefore it is vitally important that current sensibilities be introduced into theology. Thus, in addition to historical perspective, Troeltsch is open to new approaches in natural science and psychology, as well as awareness of other religious traditions. Thus, faith needs to be conversant with a wider range of dialogue partners than was the case in previous generations. Religion retains its independence (Ibid., 56) and its unique perspective (Ibid., 9). Christian beliefs provide a center of a “normative, comprehensive worldview” (Ibid., 11), which is broader than that of a prior era in church history.

An engagement with contemporary culture results in a reformulation of doctrine. Creation is understood now as a statement not of how the world came into being, but of the way in which the world is to be valued (Ibid., 199). It is not about natural science, but a practical orientation of how the world has meaning. An understanding of soul needs to recognize the insights of psychology without confusing psychology with faith. The older notion of miracle as a temporary suspension of laws of nature by which the world normally operates gives way to understanding of miracle as the story of human transformation. True miracle is not an account of the exterior world; it is the story of people being turned toward God in a redemptive fashion.

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

Troeltsch was closely identified with the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (History of Religions School), a group of Protestant scholars that rejected the liberal ‘lives of Jesus’ approach to the New Testament and insisted that Christianity be viewed in the widest possible social, cultural, and historical contexts. The school originated at Göttingen University and included Old Testament scholars Herrman Gunkel (1862-1932) and Hugor Gressman (1877-1927), New Testament scholars William Bousset (1865-1920), Johannes Weiss (1863-1914), William Wrede (1859-1906), and the polymath talent of Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch wrestled most acutely with the historical and theological implications of the school’s comprehensive use of historical critical study. Yet, he lived to witness the first stage of a massive rejection of the intellectual tradition that had formed him. Karl Barth (1886-1968) published a groundbreaking riposte to German liberal theology in 1918. His commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (1918) ushered in an era of reaction against the generation of theologians that had taught him. Barth subsequently concluded that the catastrophe of World War One was in great measure the consequence of a flawed approach to theology that accommodated too readily to a culture hostile to the Gospel. Barth regarded Troeltsch as the logical outcome of such a flawed theological impulse. He dismissed Troeltsch as the symbolic epitome of everything that was wrong with nineteenth century liberal theology; he represented a path that led the Church to ruin. The name and writings of Ernst Troeltsch fell into disfavor. Yet, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches continued to be used as a standard textbook in classes on Christian Social Ethics. A small number of scholars, notably in America, engaged with his ideas in the middle part of the twentieth century, while Western theology was in thrall to Neo-Orthodoxy. H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) wrote his doctoral dissertation on Troeltsch’s thought and made use of his typological method in Christ and Culture (1951). The influence of Troeltsch is also apparent in the work of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) who appropriated historical and sociological perspectives in the field of social ethics. Interest in Troeltsch’s eclectic range of writings experienced something of a revival in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Several of his works, which had been unavailable in English during Troeltsch’s lifetime, were translated and published posthumously. New critical editions of his works have appeared in German. Troeltsch continues to be the subject of doctoral dissertations and scholarly reappraisal. He is now recognized as one of the seminal minds of the twentieth century, who anticipated many of the intellectual challenges that confront Church and Society in the West today.

6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Barth, Karl.1933 [1918]. The Epistle to the Romans. Sixth Edition. Translated by Edwyn C. Hoskins. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chan, Mark L.Y. 2001. Christology From Within and Ahead: Hermeneutics, Contingency and the Quest for Transcontextual Criteria in Christology. Leiden: Brill.

Chapman, Mark D. 2001. Ernst Troeltsch and Liberal Theology: Religion and Cultural Synthesis in Wilhelmine Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coakley, Sarah. 1988. Christ Without Absolutes: A Study in the Christology of Ernst Troeltsch. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

McClendon, James Wm., Jr. 2002 [1986]. Ethics: Systematic Theology. Vol. 1. Second Edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1951. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper.

Troeltsch, Ernst. 1902 [1971]. The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions. Translated by David Reid. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

            . 1903 [1977], “What Does ‘Essence of Christianity’ Mean? in Ernst Troeltsch: Writings on Theology and Religion. Edited and Translated by Robert Morgan and Michael Pye. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 124-181.

            . 1911[1977]. “The Significance of the Historical Jesus for Faith” in Ernst Troeltsch: Writings on Theology and Religion. Edited and Translated by Robert Morgan and Michael Pye. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 182-207.

            . 1912a [1958]. Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of Protestantism to the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press.

            . 1912b [English Translation 1931, Reprint 1992]. The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (2 Volumes). Translated by Olive Wyon. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press.

            . 1922a. Der Historismus und seine P robleme: Gesammelte Schriften Vol. 3. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr.

            . 1922b.”Historiography” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. 6. Edited by James Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 718-723.

            . 1923 [1957]. “The Place of Christianity Among the World Religions” in Christian Thought: Its History and Application. New York: Meridian Books.

            . 1925 [1991]. The Christian Faith. Edited by Gertrude von le Fort. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

            . 1977. Ernst Troeltsch: Writings on Theology and Religion. Edited and Translated by Robert Morgan and Michael Pye. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

            . 1991. Religion in History. Essays translated by James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 

Wildman, Wesley J. 1998. Fidelity with Plausibility: Modest Christologies in the Twentieth Century. Albany, New York: SUNY Press.

7. Internet Resources

Troeltsch on Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon. A brief biographical account and an exhaustive bibliography in German.)

Troeltsch in First Things: an article published in First Things 106 (October 2000): 19-22.

Protestantism and Progress by Ernst Troeltsch. An electronic version of a work by Troeltsch.

8. Related Topics



Author: Julian Gotobed, incorporating material submitted by Bill Fraatz


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