Skip to main content

Troeltsch, Ernst


TROELTSCH, ERNST (18651923), German Protestant theologian and cultural philosopher. Ernst Peter Wilhelm Troeltsch is considered "the most eminent sociologically oriented historian of Western Christianity" (Talcott Parsons, quoted by James Luther Adams, "Why the Troeltsch Revival? Reasons for the Renewed Interest in the Thought of the Great German Theologian Ernst Troeltsch," in The Unitarian Universalist Christian 29, 1974, pp. 415). With regard to the impact of his work, Troeltsch was the most significant evangelical theologian since Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834). As the central figure in German Protestant theology in the early twentieth century, he was able to exercise an enduring influence on philosophy, religion, sociology, and the study of history.

Troeltsch was born in Haunstetten, a small town near the old southern German imperial city of Augsburg. He spent his childhood and youth in Augsburg. Through the efforts of his father, a well-to-do physician, Troeltsch became acquainted at an early age with the modern natural sciences, and the famous preparatory school at Sankt Anna gave him the sense of a cosmopolitan Christian humanism.

In 1883, Troeltsch began the study of philosophy for two semesters at the Roman Catholic preparatory school in Augsburg and then, in the fall of 1884, of Protestant theology in Erlangen. He was particularly interested in the reconciliation of faith with knowledge and, therefore, attended lectures in art history, political science, national economics, history, psychology, and philosophy. Since the theological faculty at Erlangen was dominated by a neoorthodox Lutheranism, Troeltsch transferred, in 1885, to Berlin for a year and, in the fall of 1886, finally to Göttingen. Here the systematic theologian Albrecht Ritschl (18221889), the most prominent contemporary representative of a liberal, Lutheran, cultural Protestantism, exercised a primary and profound influence upon him.

As early as 1891, however, Troeltsch formulated a sharp criticism of Ritschl's ethicizing modernization of Luther's theology. He emphasized the far-reaching cultural differences between the "Old Protestantism" of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and the modern world, which had emerged only with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Insofar as Luther had remained committed to the ideal of a religiously dominated, homogeneous culture and had represented a pacifist ethic that sanctioned submission to the status quo, he was, for Troeltsch, still part of the Middle Ages. Thus for Troeltsch's own theological development, Enlightenment traditions were more important than the theology of the reformers. He believed that theology must be changed from the old dogmatic paradigm to a "historical method" and must be based upon a general, rational theory of religion.

Already in the Disputationsthesen, published on the occasion of his doctoral degree in 1891 (text in Troeltsch-Studien I, 2d. ed., Gutersloh, 1985, pp. 299300), Troeltsch designated such a theology, which he believed compatible with modern consciousness, a "religious-historical discipline." It is not yet clear to what extent this statement was influenced by the Göttingen religious historian and Septuagint scholar Paul Anton de Lagarde (18271891). Troeltsch was part of a very close and friendly exchange in Göttingen with the church historian Albert Eichhorn (18561926), as well as the exegetes Hermann Gunkel (18621932), Alfred Rahlfs (18651935), Wilhelm Wrede (18591906), Heinrich Hackmann (18641935), and especially Wilhelm Bousset (18651920). These "young Göttingers" wanted to transform traditional biblical scholarship into an undogmatic, sociologically informed religious history of Judaism and early Christianity. They therefore attempted to understand the origins of Christianity from the perspective of the ancient religions, especially of late Judaism. Since they were not interested in historically secondary theological dogmatics, but rather in the original productivity of religious consciousness, they, along with Johannes Weiss (18631914), emphasized very strongly the eschatological character of Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God, and also the autonomy of religion within culture. Troeltsch was considered the "systematician" of this "little Göttingen faculty," which as a so-called religious-historical school exercised a significant influence on the theology of the early twentieth century.

In a well-known essay, Über historische und dogmatische Methode in der Theologie (On Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology; 1900, included in his Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, Tübingen, 1913, pp. 729753), using the historiographic principles of critique, analogy, and correlation, Troeltsch drew the radical conclusion of definitively separating a supranaturalistic view of Christianity as the only true religion from the old dogmatic understanding of Jesus Christ as the extraordinary and exclusive revelation of God. The breaking down of the traditional isolation of Christianity from other religions should not, however, imply any skeptical relativism, but rather should serve as a foundation for the specific validity that Christianity claims. The program for a general theory of religion, which Troeltsch first outlined in 1895 in Die Selbständigkeit der Religion (The Independence of Religion), should, therefore, produce a metacritique of modern religious criticism. It should demonstrate, moreover, in dialogue with Ludwig Feuerbach's "suspicion of illusion," the real meaning of religious consciousness, in order to prove thereby the special validity of the Christian tradition. Thus the connection of historical-empirical analyses of the history of Christianity with a variety of attempts at a systematic philosophy of religion is characteristic of Troeltsch's lifework. The difficulties of making such a connection, however, demanded extensive epistemological, historical, and philosophical analyses of the relationship between historical contingency and the absolute. This Troeltsch was not able to bring to completion. To that extent, his massive literary work is, for the most part, fragmentary.

After a short lectureship in Bonn, and at the age of only twenty-nine, Troeltsch was called to Heidelberg in 1894 as professor of systematic theology. After the turn of the century, he became known far beyond the narrow borders of academic theology. This was a result of his intensive engagement in ecclesiastical politics on behalf of different organizations in liberal Protestantism, and also his prominent position within the University of Heidelberg. From 1909 to 1914, Troeltsch represented the university in the lower chamber of the parliament of the grand duchy of Baden. He was especially known for his numerous publications. On the basis of religious-historical comparison in his famous lecture Die Absolutheit des Christentums und die Religionsgeschichte (The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religion, Tübingen, 1902), he denied to Christianity its traditional claim of absoluteness and relative superiority as the religion of personality. In Psychologie und Erkenntnistheorie in der Religionswissenschaft (Psychology and Epistemology in the Study of Religion, Tübingen, 1905), an essay presented to the International Congress of Arts and Sciences in Saint Louis in 1904, he connected William James's psychological pragmatism with the Neo-Kantian assumption of empirically independent structures of consciousness to form a theory of the "religious a priori." In accordance with this, the production of religious ideas is seen as a constitutive accomplishment of human subjectivity. In Wesen der Religion und der Religionswissenschaft (Writings on Theology and Religion, 1977, pp. 82123), Troeltsch sought to explicate the independence of religion on four levels: First, empirically given religion should be analyzed according to a psychology of religion as an autonomous phenomenon of life that is constitutive for all culture. Second, in the epistemology of religion, the level of reality proper to religious consciousness must be rationally justified. Third, within a special historical philosophy of religions, the general concept of religion should be realized specifically and concretely in terms of the plurality of real existing religions for comparative religious-historical studies. Fourth, a metaphysics of religion bases the religious understanding of worldly reality upon the self-revelation of God. In this way, the universal history of religion should be proven to be the progressive revelation of God, and the presence of the absolute would be demonstrated in finite consciousness.

Troeltsch was not, however, able to carry out this great program. The concept of the religious a priori remained especially unclear. For Troeltsch only partially appropriated Kant's understanding of a priori structures of consciousness. He could do justice to the statement that the pious subject knows itselfor all finite realityto be grounded in a divine substance only insofar as he understood the a priori as a product not proper to the intellect. To presuppose objects of cognition as directly given, however, contradicted the Kantian point of departure of his argumentation. The more Troeltsch sought to explain, in numerous small monographs on the philosophy of religion, the relationship of the religious consciousness to reality, the less he could still do justice to Kant's criticism. Although in close personal contact with the leading German representatives of Neo-Kantianism, Troeltsch did not share their basic assumptions.

After the turn of the century, in addition to his studies in the philosophy of religion, Troeltsch published in relatively quick succession several cultural-historical investigations into the profound transformation of the Christian consciousness during the transition to the modern period. These include the large treatise, Protestantisches Christentum und Kirche in der Neuzeit (Protestant Christianity and the Church in the Modern Age, in Paul Hinneberg, ed., Die Kultur der Gegenwart, Part 1, Section 4.1, Berlin and Leipzig, 1906; 1922, 3d ed.), on the basis of which the University of Greifswald conferred on him an honorary doctorate in philosophy, and a famous lecture, Die Bedeutung des Protestantismus für die Entstehung der modernen Welt (Munich, 1906; 1911, 2d ed.; abridged English version, Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of Protestantism to the Modern World, London and New York, 1912). Both show the strong influence of Max Weber's investigations of 19041905 into the genetic connections between Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism. And Weber, in turn, was strongly influenced by Troeltsch's understanding of Lutheranism as a politically as well as economically premodern, patriarchal religion. Moreover, indications of the significance of the ascetic work-ethic of Calvinism for the development of capitalism can already be found in Troeltsch's work before the appearance of his friend's famous essays on Protestantism. The very close, seventeen-year friendship meant a substantial scholarly enrichment for both Troeltsch and Weber.

It is true that Troeltsch had established a sociological foundation for his understanding of the church even before the meeting with Weber. However, it was only under the influence of his friend that he distinguished precisely between church and sect as different types of religious community-building. Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (The Social Doctrines of Christian Churches and Groups), which, already partially published in 19081910, appeared in 1912 as the first volume of Troeltsch's collected works, also shows, however, significant sociological differences between the friends. Troeltsch wanted to present the social and ethical consequences of the Christian conceptual world and its interaction with cultural phenomena. The eschatological ideal of the kingdom of God of the Gospels stands in a relationship of unresolvable tension to the facticities of culture. Nevertheless, in that the church institutionalizes the grace of redemption sacramentally, it can become the place of salvation for the masses and fit the Christian concepts to the political-social order and its needs for legitimation. In contrast to this, the sects, small groups on the margin of society with demands for high achievement on their members, radicalize the tensions of religion and society to the point of absolute opposition between the norms of culture and the lex Christi, the Sermon on the Mount.

From the types of church and sect, Troeltsch further distinguished mysticism as the third particular social form of Christianity. Here the opposites of religion and society are reconciled within the pious subject himself, to the extent that he knows himself to be a participant in the divine spirit and he glimpses the true reality of the kingdom of God in a purely spiritual and universal brotherhood of those gifted by God. Troeltsch especially ascribed to his third type significant historical effects for modern Christianity. Weber, however, did not consider mysticism to be a separate social form of religion. This difference is the expression of contradicting evaluations of the real meaning of religion for modern societies. Unlike Weber, Troeltsch was convinced that, even under the conditions of Western rationalism, religion was an extremely important factor in societal formation. He understood the Christian tradition primarily as a force for the strengthening of individual autonomy over against the depersonalizing developmental tendencies of modern capitalism. Moreover, the church's tradition had to be provided with a new cultural credibility; that is, "religious individualism," inspired by the mystical tradition, which had been forced out of the evangelical church, had to be again given a right to exist within a "flexible church of the people" (Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, Tübingen, 1913, p. 105). In connection with Schleiermacher's program of a practically oriented theology of consciousness, Troeltsch interpreted dogmatic statements as self-communications of the genuine Protestant consciousness, as is shown especially in Die Bedeutung der Geschichtlichkeit Jesu für den Glauben (1911; translated as The Significance of the Historical Existence of Jesus for Faith, in Writings on Theology and Religion, 1967, pp. 182207) and in his posthumously edited lectures on Die Glaubenslehre (Munich and Leipzig, 1925).

In the spring of 1915 Troeltsch was transferred to Berlin by the minister for cultural affairs. The chair he occupied there was renamed specifically for him, as a professorship in "religious, social, and historical philosophy and the history of Christian religion" and was transferred from the theological to the philosophical faculty.

With his moving to the capital of the empire, Troeltsch's intensive political activity quickly gained in public significance. Troeltsch interpreted World War I as an imperialistic power struggle, at the root of which lay not only economic antagonisms, but also deep-seated political and cultural contradictions between the German spirit and Western rationality. In spite of this connection with his earlier analyses of the social and ethical differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism, Troeltsch was not a theoretician of a separate political way for Germany. Since 1916 he had been fighting for a thorough democratization of the imperial constitution, the political integration of the parties of the workers' movement, and economic reforms aimed at breaking down class differences. This was reflected in manifold activities for the limitation of war and for peace negotiations. Troeltsch was a delegate of the leftist-liberal German Democratic party in the Prussian state assembly and undersecretary in the Prussian ministry for cultural affairs. After defeat and revolution, he was one of the leading representatives of that small minority in German Protestantism that interceded for the acceptance of the constitutional compromise of Weimar and for its concrete actualization as a social democracy.

In close connection with his political and practical activity, Troeltsch turned his attention in Berlin primarily to this question: to what extent could normative approaches to the solution of the present cultural crisis be found in the European cultural tradition? Because of his sudden death on 1 February 1923, Troeltsch was not able to realize concretely his program for a "European cultural synthesis." However, the basic theological structure of Troeltsch's philosophy of history can be recognized in the lectures Christian Thought: Its History and Application (London, 1923), edited by his friend Friedrich von Hügel (18521925), the so-called lay bishop of Roman Catholic modernism, and also the concluding part of Das logische Problem der Geschichtsphilosophie (The Logical Problem of the Philosophy of History), the first book of Der Historismus und seine Probleme (Historicism and its Problems), which appeared in 1922 as the third volume of the Gesammelte Schriften. Troeltsch now expressly restricted to the European-American cultural arena the old claim of Christianity to a position of relative superiority among the world religions. To pretend to understand foreign cultures was cultural imperialism. Against monistic worldviews, which presuppose that a universal history of humanity can be recognized, Troeltsch argued for a pluralistic understanding of reality. In that he was guided by the theological insight that an overview of history is possible only for God, but not for finite persons.

In the antiliberal, mostly antidemocratic, German Protestant theology of the 1920s, Troeltsch's cultural relativism encountered intensive criticism. Since the 1960s, however, one can seeon the international level as well as on an interdisciplinary levela notable renaissance of interest in Troeltsch's thought. Indeed his theology of cultural modesty is important, in that it permits central problems of contemporary theological and philosophical discussionfor instance, the pluralism of religious traditions, the dependency of theology upon contexts, the relationship of Christianity to cultural modernityto be grasped outside of all claims of dogmatic absolutism.


A comprehensive listing of published works by Troeltsch is now offered by Ernst Troeltsch Bibliographie, edited and with an introduction and commentary by Friedrich Wilhelm Graf and Hartmut Ruddies (Tübingen, 1982). This inclusive bibliography indicates numerous previously unknown publications of Troeltsch and various of Troeltsch's own editions of the same texts. Summaries of texts that have been published in English can be found in Jacob Klapwijk's "English Translations of Troeltsch's Works," in Ernst Troeltsch and the Future of Theology, edited by John Powell Clayton (Cambridge, 1976); see also the appendix, "Troeltsch in English Translation," in Troeltsch's Writings on Theology and Religion, translated and edited by Robert Morgan and Michel Pye (London, 1977).

Several introductions to Troeltsch's work have been published: Trutz Rendtorff's "Ernst Troeltsch, 18651923," in Theologen des Protestantismus im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, vol. 2, edited by Martin Greschat (Stuttgart, 1978); Karl-Ernst Apfelbacher's Frömmigkeit und Wissenschaft: Ernst Troeltsch und sein theologisches Programm (Munich, 1978); Giuseppe Cantillo's Ernst Troeltsch (Naples, 1979); Robert J. Rubanowice's Crisis in Consciousness: The Thought of Ernst Troeltsch, with a foreword by James Luther Adams (Tallahassee, 1982); Trutz Rendtorff's and my discussion of Troeltsch in Nineteenth Century Religious Thought of the West, vol. 3, edited by Ninian Smart et al. (Cambridge and New York, 1985); and my and Hartmut Ruddies' "Ernst Troeltsch: Geschichtsphilosophie in praktischer Absicht," in Grundprobleme der grossen Philosophen, vol. 8, edited by Joseph Speck (Göttingen, 1986). A critical biography of Troeltsch does not yet exist. However, there are detailed studies for a biography of the young Troeltsch in Troeltsch-Studien, vol. 1, Untersuchungen zur Biographie und Werkgeschichte: Mit den unveröffentlichten Promotionsthesen der "Kleinen Göttinger Fakultät" 18881893, edited by Horst Renz and Friedrich Wilhelm Graf (Gutersloh, 1982).

Jean Séguy's Christianisme et société: Introduction à la sociologie de Ernst Troeltsch (Paris, 1980) offers an instructive introduction to Troeltsch's sociology of religion. Intensive work has also been done on Troeltsch's dogmatics and theory of religion. See Ernst Troeltsch and the Future of Theology, edited by John Powell Clayton (Cambridge, 1975); B. A. Gerrish's The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage (Edinburgh, 1982); Walter E. Wyman, Jr.'s The Concept of Glaubenslehre: Ernst Troeltsch and the Theological Heritage of Schleiermacher (Chico, Calif., 1983); Sarah Coakley's Christ without Absolutes: A Study of the Christology of Ernst Troeltsch (Oxford, 1986); and Troeltsch-Studien, vol. 3, Protestantismus und Neuzeit, edited by Horst Renz and Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, (Gutersloh, 1984). In addition to studies in the reception of Troeltsch's thought in the Anglo-American world, in Italy, and in the Netherlands, this last volume contains detailed examinations of Troeltsch's political activity. Moreover, an instructive introduction is offered by Arrigo Rapp in Il problema della Germania negli scritti politici di E. Troeltsch, 19141922 (Rome, 1978).

Friedrich Wilhelm Graf (1987)

Translated from German by Charlotte Prather

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Troeltsch, Ernst." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 21 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Troeltsch, Ernst." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 21, 2018).

"Troeltsch, Ernst." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.