Troeltsch, Ernst

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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

Troeltsch, Ernst

views updated May 23 2018

Troeltsch, Ernst

Sociology of religion




Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), German historian and sociologist, was born in Augsburg, a descendant of an old burgher family and the eldest son of a practicing physician. His father introduced him to the natural sciences, and he retained a keen sense for scientific thinking throughout his life. His interests, however, lay in the direction of religion and philosophy. From 1883 to 1888 he studied theology at the universities of Erlangen, Gottingen, and Berlin and for a short time was a Lutheran curate at Munich. He became a lecturer at Gottingen in 1891 and an associate professor of theology at Bonn in 1892. In 1894, at the age of 29, he became a professor at Heidelberg, where he remained for 21 years. In 1915, feeling that theology was narrow and confining, he transferred to philosophy at Berlin, where he lectured on a variety of topics, from the philosophy of religion to the philosophy of history. He was influenced by Kant and Hegel, and by Fichte and Schleiermacher, as well as by his teachers, especially Ritschl. In 1901 he married the daughter of a Mecklenburg officer; a son, Ernst Eberhard, was born in 1913. Troeltsch took part in politics, was long a member of the Baden upper house, and from 1919 to 1921 was a member of the Prussian Landtag and undersecretary of state for public worship. He died in 1923 in his fifty-eighth year.

Troeltsch was conservative in politics. In the early days of World War i he was moved, as were many of his friends, including Max Weber, by what Weber called the “great and wonderful” fervor of the German people. Like almost all his fellow intellectuals, he saw rooted in the German nation idealist values that constituted the ethical justification for the war effort. Like Weber, he believed that his fatherland upheld an important spiritual heritage, as opposed to the materialistic values of the British and the French. Soon, however, under the influence of Weber and Friedrich Meinecke, he separated himself from the conservative majority, opposed annexationist war aims, and advocated domestic democratization, which he Considered urgent. He joined the circle around Prince Max of Baden and after the war became active in the founding of the German Democratic party. He supported the Weimar Republic and in the early 1920s defended the new constitution in monthly articles in the review Der Kunstwart, using the pseudonym “Spektator.” These contributions rank among the most clearheaded political analyses of the day: he decried the “frightful demagoguery” of the right and urged that the republic be accepted wholeheartedly, despite its alien character (its basis in Anglo-French eighteenth-century values) and the inferior quality of its office holders. The true conservatism required to restore balance to German life could be brought about, he declared, only by the acceptance of the Weimar Republic. Troeltsch’s articles appeared until four months before his death, representing his last efforts to save both humanity and rationality.

Sociology of religion

In his great sociological work, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912), Troeltsch examined the history of Christianity up to the eighteenth century. He sought the answer to two fundamental questions: (1) Are religious beliefs and movements primarily the products of non-religious factors or are they primarily irreducible phenomena that develop independently? and (2) the reciprocal question, To what extent do religious ideas and institutions affect other elements of society and culture? He raised these questions not simply in the abstract but with respect to Christianity in its total historical setting.

Weber concerned himself with similar questions but evolved a rather different technique of study. Weber used ideal type constructions and, in a kind of post hoc mental experiment, attempted to hold some factors constant while he compared two or more cases. Troeltsch studied only Christianity and attempted to trace the whole vast interconnected web of factors impinging on it, delineating the place of religion within this total complex. The result—The Social Teaching—makes difficult reading but exhibits tremendous learning, and despite a certain diffuseness, it presents a host of valuable theoretical insights. It reveals the interaction of ideal and material factors at the same time that it conveys the unique quality of concrete historical situations.

The Social Teaching affirms the reality and autonomy of the religious factor—or, to use a more modern expression, finds that religion can be an independent variable in social change—but locates this autonomy in a context of interacting factors. Primitive Christianity was a religious movement, not reducible to displaced social protest, as Kautsky and the Marxists had tried to show, and its inner meaning contained autonomous implications for future development. But the forms of its beliefs, values, and organizations were to a great extent conditioned by circumstances, and once established, Christianity in turn affected other aspects of society and culture.

Troeltsch examined this complex interaction of factors in relation to four aspects of society: family, economics, politics, and learning. In all four areas he saw Christianity exhibiting two contradictory but complementary tendencies—accommodation and protest, or compromise and absolutist rejection of compromise. Both were genuine expressions of New Testament values. He concluded his monumental study with the following summary: “The Ethos of the Gospel … is an ideal which requires a new world if it is to be fully realized … [it is] an ideal which cannot be realized within this world apart from compromise. Therefore the history of the Christian Ethos becomes the story of a constantly renewed search for this compromise, and of fresh opposition to this spirit of compromise” ([1912] 1931, pp. 999-1000).

This great permeating rhythm of accommodation and protest has its sociological expression in three types of religious participation. The church compromises with the “world”—with society and culture; the sect rejects the world and compromise with it, as well as the social consequences of compromise; and individual religious spontaneity finds expression neither in creative compromise nor in dissent, but in mysticism. The appearance of these forms is conditioned by social and cultural influences, but each represents a genuine religious expression that is irreducible to other factors or variables.

Troeltsch was influenced by Weber and, like him, was concerned with the relation of religion to economic activity. In an earlier work, Protestantism and Progress (1906a), he sought to find out how much the development of modern secular capitalism owes to Protestantism. Troeltsch saw Protestantism as originally a reaction, a return to medieval thinking, “which [swept] away such beginnings of a free and secular civilization as had already been toilsomely established.” Its impact upon the rise of modernity was mainly “indirect and unconsciously produced,” as well as “against its will" ([1906a] 1958, pp. 85-87). Like Weber, he asked whether or not the this-worldly asceticism of Protestantism had provided indirect and unintentional support for the development of capitalist economic activity, and he agreed with Weber that Calvinism did have an important early influence. But he felt that Weber should have given greater emphasis to the fact that Reformed asceticism was itself “partly determined by … the commercial situation in the Western countries,” especially “the exclusion of Dissent from political life” (ibid., p. 138) and that it was economic decline in Germany that gave emphasis to the element of asceticism in traditional Lutheranism.

Curiously, although Troeltsch was a friend of Weber’s and somewhat dependent upon him intellectually, he seemed unaware that he had seriously criticized Weber’s thesis. Moreover, although he charged Weber with having failed to stress sufficiently the differences between Calvin and Calvinism, he did not seem to realize that this also was a highly critical appraisal. In the same work Troeltsch both denied any immediate or direct causal relationship between Protestantism and capitalism and declared that “Weber has, in my opinion, completely proved his case” (ibid., p. 138).

Troeltsch believed that religion was more significantly affected by the development of modernity than the reverse. Yet he saw that despite “all the hostility to the churches and to Christianity” in his own time, culture and values derived from and rested upon Christian foundations. He felt that “individual autonomy,” “belief in progress,” “confidence in life,” and even the “impulse to work” would be impossible, were it not for the Christian heritage (ibid., pp. 38-39). Toward the end of his life Troeltsch assessed the future of Christianity as “unpredictable,” but he felt that it was “at a critical moment of its further development, and that very bold and far-reaching changes [were] necessary, transcending anything that [had] yet been achieved by any denomination” ([1923] 1957, p. 60).


Troeltsch took a classic position with respect to the problem of historicism. Influenced by Dilthey, he believed in a sharp distinction between the methods appropriate to the natural sciences and those appropriate to study of the life of the human spirit. The former could use generalized categories and seek timeless regularities; the latter must endeavor to understand the meaning and uniqueness of spatially and temporally situated cultural complexes. History is “an immeasurable, incomparable profusion of always-new, unique, and hence individual tendencies, welling up from undiscovered depths.” History reveals individual configurations of ideas, values, strivings, relations, and situations in “always-new and always-peculiar individualizations” (ibid., p. 44). These “historical individuals” can be understood only in their own terms.

Weber too had faced this issue, and his solution represents an important contribution to social science. He accepted the uniqueness of specific historical configurations and the importance of understanding meaning and quality, but he also developed generalized analytical categories for analysis. These he saw as formal in Kant’s sense. He was thus able to break down the historical complexes into a number of analytical factors, to make comparative studies in which some factors were held constant as far as possible, and thereby to produce analytical and generalizing sociology. He did not, however, pursue the philosophical difficulties involved in this “nominalist” use of “universals” for scientific convenience. For Troeltsch the issue was more profound; he was concerned with its human and not its technical implications. He sought not simply a methodological posture for scientific work but “a vital and effective religious position, which alone could furnish my life with a center of reference for all practical questions and could alone give meaning and purpose to reflection upon the things of this world” (ibid., p. 37).

Troeltsch’s problem was this: If everything in history is individual and unique and is limited to specific times and places, is there then nothing suprahistorical in the products of man’s search for truth and his creations of value? Can man make no contact with any extrahistorical truth or any transhistorical truths or values? In his Trennung von Staat und Kirche (1906b) he introduced the concept of “polymorphous truth”: Truth is one, but it is apprehended by men in historical forms that vary indefinitely. He rejected “monomorphous truth” as no longer genuinely accepted, save by Roman Catholics. In 1909, in his Absolutheit des Chris-tentums, he sought the basis for transhistorical validity in the inner experience of the Christian and its effects on his actions and in an evolution toward universal religion.

Troeltsch also looked for an extrahistorical element in what he called the “morality of conscience.” Conscience arises from the need to preserve the inner integrity of personality amid “the flux and confusion of the life of the instincts.” But this need has “a purely formal aim of independence from mere fate” and finds its content in historically relative cultural values. Personality and conscience do not represent a genuinely transhistorical basis for values, however, for the value of personality is itself culturally relative; our own high evaluation of it is derived from Christianity and unknown in our sense in the Far East ([1923] 1957, pp. 77-78, 121).

Troeltsch later gave up these tenuous bases for extrahistorical validity but continued to be greatly concerned with what he saw as the fundamental conflict between “the critical scepticism generated by the ceaseless flux and manifold contradictions within the sphere of history and the demand of the religious consciousness for certainty, for unity, and for peace” (ibid., p. 39). He came to see all the world religions as unique and relative to given historical conditions, having validity only within a community of tradition. “The actual history of religion knows nothing of the common character of all religions, or of their natural trend toward Christianity” (ibid., p. 43). He did not limit this concern to the sphere of religion but in his Historismus und seine Probleme (1922), as he wrote later, he examined the “relation of individual historical facts to standards of value within the entire domain of history in connection with the development of political, social, ethical, aesthetic, and scientific ideas” and found that “even the validity of science and logic seemed to exhibit, under different skies and upon different soil, strong individual differences present even in their deepest and innermost rudiments” ([1923] 1957, pp. 52-53). He held that mankind has little in common besides material needs and a capacity for mutual understanding.

Cultures represented for Troeltsch unique historical products, and values, although the “source of all nobility and all greatness,” are the consequence of a “molding which is peculiar, unique, and sui generis.” Cultural values remain in a “permanent dependence on the natural basis and the temporary and special historic position of that basis…. Here there is nothing independent of time and universally valid except the stimulus and obligation to create a system of culture” (ibid., pp. 105-108).

Troeltsch never found a basis within history itself for any transhistorical position for either knowledge or values. He concluded that validity is historically relative and conscience valid only for each individual. He fell back on faith, the anguished and dissatisfied faith he had never completely lost. He believed that the truth man sees from his limited and relative point of view is a refraction of a truth beyond and that relative values reflect a transcendent value realm. Thus he could say: “Scepticism and relativism are only an apparent necessary consequence of modern intellectual conditions and of Historicism. They may be overcome by way of Ethics …” (ibid., p. 126). Ethical values are objective to the actor and challenge him to transcend his situation. Thus, they are genuine and valid, but finally rest upon a “deep subjectivity” and “personal resolve” (ibid., p. 126). It is perhaps an ironic example of the historical determinism with which he grappled that he himself found his last uneasy and unsatisfactory solution in his own version of the doctrine in which he had been brought up—the Lutheran doctrine of salvation through faith alone.

Troeltsch had created a stir among German intellectuals in 1896 when he appalled a group of theologians by announcing that “all is tottering,” and when they rebuked him, walking out and slamming the door. He never ceased to concern himself with this tottering. His friend Meinecke said of him with irony and compassion that he was the incarnation of the idea expressed by both Heraclitus and Archimedes: Everything is in flux; give me a place to stand. This deeply religious man, in Baron von Hügel’s words, this “so realistic believer in God,” struggled to find within the ebb and flow of history a stable basis for universally significant values. When his anguished search failed, he found a final position in an anguished faith. Shortly before his death Troeltsch wrote: “If there is any solution at all of these riddles and problems, with their conflicts and contradictions, that solution certainly is not to be found within their own sphere, but beyond it, in that unknown land, of which there are so many indications in the historic struggle of the spirit upwards, but which itself is never revealed to our eyes” ([1923] 1957, p. 146).

Thomas F. o’dea

[See also Christianity; History, article on The philosophy of history; Religion; Sects and cults; and the biographies of Dilthey; Meinecke; Weber, Max.]


(1906a) 1958 Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of Protestantism to the Modern World. Boston: Beacon. → First published as Die Bedeutung des Protestantismus fur die Entstehung der modernen Welt. The first English translation was published in 1912 by Williams and Norgate and by Putnam.

1906b Die Trennung von Staat und Kirche: Der staatliche Religionsunterricht und die theologischen Fakultaten, Akademische Rede zur Feier des Geburtsfestes des hochstseligen Grossherzogs Karl Friedrich am 22. november 1906 bei dem Vortrag des Jahresberichts und der Verkündung der akademischen Preise gehalten von dr. theol. et phil. h.c. Ernst Troeltsch. Heidelberg: Universitäts-Buchdruckerei.

(1906c) 1909 Wesen der Religion und der Religionswissenschaft. Pages 1-36 in Systematische christlicheReligion, by Ernst Troeltsch et al. 2d ed. Die Kultur der Gegenwart, t. 1, abt. 4, 2. Berlin: Teubner.

(1909) 1912 Die Absolutheit des Christentums und die Religionsgeschichte. Vortrag gehalten auf der Versammlung der Freunde der Christlichen Welt zu Miihlacker am 3. oktober 1901. 2d rev. ed. Tubingen: Mohr.

(1912) 1931 The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen. A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Harper.

1915a Augustin, die christliche Antike, und das Mittel-alter: Im Anschluss an die Schrift, De civitate Dei. Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg.

1915b Das Wesen des Deutschen. Rede gehalten am 6. dezember 1914 in der vaterlandischen Versammlung in der Karlsruher Stadthalle. Heidelberg: Winter.

1916 Über Massstabe zur Beurteilung historischer Dinge. Academic dissertation, University of Berlin.

1919 Die Dynamik der Geschichte nach der Geschichts-philosophie des Positivismus. Berlin: Reuter.

1922 Der Historismus und seine Probleme. Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 3. Tubingen: Mohr.

(1923) 1957 Christian Thought: Its History and Application. New York: Meridian. → Lectures written for delivery in England during March 1923 and first published by the University of London Press. A German edition was published in 1924 as Der Historismus und seine Überwindung.

1924 Spektator-briefe: Aufsätze über die deutsche Revolution und die Weltpolitik, 1918/22. Tübingen: Mohr. → Published posthumously in book form.

Deutscher Geist und Westeuropa: Gesammelte kulturphilo-sophische Aufsätze und Reden. Tübingen: Mohr, 1925.

Gesammelte Schriften von Ernst Troeltsch. 4 vols. Tübingen: Mohr, 1912-1925. → Volume 1: Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen, 1912. Volume 2: Zur religiösen Lage, Religions-philosophie und Ethik, 1922. Volume 3: Der Historismus und seine Probleme, 1922. Volume 4: Aufsatze zur Geistesgeschichte und Religions-soziologie, 1925. Volume 4 includes a comprehensive bibliography of Troeltsch’s writings.

Glaubenslehre. Nach Heidelberger Vorlesungen aus den Jahren 1911 und 1912. Munich & Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1925.


HÜgel, Friedrich von 1923 Introduction. In Ernst Troeltsch, Christian Thought: Its History and Application. Univ. of London Press.

Hughes, H. Stuart 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. New York: Knopf.

Yinger, J. Milton 1948 The Sociology of Religion of Ernst Troeltsch. Pages 309-315 in Harry E. Barnes (editor), Introduction to the History of Sociology. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Ernst Troeltsch

views updated May 23 2018

Ernst Troeltsch

The German theologian, historian, and sociologist Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), through his utilization of the objective methods of modern scholarship, contributed to the sociology of religion and the problems of historicism.

Ernst Troeltsch was born in Augsburg. After studying theology at the universities of Erlange, Göttingen, and Berlin from 1883 to 1888, he became a lecturer at Göttingen in 1891, an associate professor at Bonn in 1892, and a professor at Heidelberg in 1894; he remained at Heidelberg for 21 years. For a short time he was a Lutheran curate in Munich. In 1901 he married, and a son, Ernst Eberhard, was born in 1913. In 1915 he came to feel that theology was too confining and transferred to philosophy at the University of Berlin.

A conservative in politics, Troeltsch long served in the Baden upper house. From 1919 to 1921 he was a member of the Prussian Landtag and concurrently secretary of state for public worship. He was moved deeply by the war. Like Max Weber and others, he hailed the "great and wonderful" fervor of the Germans and saw their cause rooted in idealistic values as opposed to the materialism of the Allies. Soon, however, together with Weber and Friedrich Meinecke, he left the conservative majority, opposed annexationist war aims, and advocated increased democratization. After the war he defended the Weimar Republic, decried the "frightful demagoguery" of the right, and advocated a genuine conservatism in articles which bore the pseudonym of Spektator and appeared until 4 months before his death.

In The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912) Troeltsch studied the relation between religion and the other elements of society and culture. He found that Christianity was not reducible to displaced social protest, as Karl Kautsky and the Marxists had suggested, but rather was a real and autonomous religious movement with its own immanent implications for development and its own independent effect upon history. Although the forms of belief and organization developed by the Church were historically conditioned, they also represented the unfolding of the implications of Christianity's inner meaning; and once the Church was established, it also in turn affected and influenced other aspects of society and culture.

Troeltsch carried out his study in four contexts— family, economic life, politics, and intellectual life—and found Christianity exhibiting two contrary but complementary tendencies—accommodation and protest. These two tendencies gave rise to two organizational types: the Church, which qualifiedly accepted the world in order to sanctify it, and the sect, which rejected the world and the whole idea of adjustment to it. Troeltsch stated that the Christian ideal could not be "realized within this world apart from compromise" and that consequently Christian history was "the story of a constantly renewed search for this compromise, and a fresh opposition to this spirit of compromise."

In an earlier work Troeltsch had examined the relationship between Protestantism and modern capitalism. He agreed with Weber that Calvinism had an important early influence upon the development of capitalism, but he saw the Protestant impact upon economic developments as chiefly "indirect and unconsciously produced" and religion as more affected than affecting with respect to modern developments. Despite the Christian derivation of modern civilization, Troeltsch came to see the future of Christianity as "unpredictable" and its survival demanding "very bold and far-reaching changes."

Historicism was a profound challenge to Troeltsch. If all beliefs and values are products of individual tendencies specific to particular conditions, is there then nothing suprahistorical resulting from man's search for truth and creation of value? He studied this problem in his Historismus und seine Probleme (1922), examining the "relation of individual historical facts to standards of value within the entire domain of history in connection with the development of political, social, ethical, esthetic, and scientific ideas." Earlier he had spoken of "polymorphous truth, " which though beyond history is apprehended differently in different civilizations and epochs, and he had also sought for an extrahistorical basis in morality. Now he concluded that "even the validity of science and logic seemed to exhibit, under different skies and on different soil, strong individual differences present even in their deepest and inner rudiments."

Troeltsch was concerned with historicism not simply as a scholar but as a deeply religious man as well. Although he failed to solve the problems intellectually, he concluded: "Skepticism and relativism are only an apparent necessary consequence of modern intellectual conditions and of historicism. They may be overcome by way of ethics"; and, "If there is any solution at all to these riddles and problems, with their conflicts and contradictions, that solution certainly is not to be found within their own sphere, but beyond it, in that unknown land, of which there are so many indications in the historic struggle of the spirit upward, but which itself is never revealed to our eyes."

Further Reading

Most writings on Troeltsch are in German. In English, a study of his thought is Benjamin A. Reist, Toward a Theology of Involvement: The Thought of Ernst Troeltsch (1966). He also is considered in Thomas W. Ogletree, Christian Faith and History: A Critical Comparison of Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Barth (1965), and Wilhelm Pauck, Harnack and Troeltsch: Two Historical Theologians (1968). For background see Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth (1937).

Additional Sources

Drescher, Hans-Georg, Ernst Troeltsch: his life and work, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. □

Troeltsch, Ernst

views updated May 29 2018


German Protestant theologian and philosopher, known especially for his comprehensive historical presentation of Christian social teaching; b. Haustetten, near Augsburg, Feb. 17, 1865; d. Berlin, Feb. 1, 1923. Troeltsch began his academic career in theology at Göttingen in 1891, moved to Bonn in 1892, was appointed ordinary professor at Heidelberg in 1894, and was called to Berlin as professor of philosophy in 1915. After the collapse of the old regime, he was elected a representative to the Prussian Diet in 1919, served from 1919 to 1921 as undersecretary for evangelical affairs in the Prussian Kultusministerium, and became a deputy in the German Reichstag in 1921, as a member of the German Democratic Party.

Troeltsch's importance for a reexamination of the place of religion in society can scarcely be overrated. He exemplifies the conflict between appreciation of the variety and universality of the historical process and recognition of the independence of the religious idea with its demand for security, unity, and balance. His historicism has been called a non-skeptical relativism because he was striving for a firm stand on the ultimate ground of life, and found it in the commitment of the individual to fulfillment of his personal destiny (in der Entschlossenheit zu einer persönlichen Lebenstat ). He feared man would fall into the trap of externalized faith and dogma, and thereby misinterpret the overwhelming manifestation of God in the great Prophets as a thought process or a system of social order instead of an expression of life and vital power. This made him particularly sensitive to the idea of finality in Christianity.

Troeltsch, however, saw the position of Christianity as unique and outstanding only within the framework of the European value system. He did not believe that a common spiritual denominator for all mankind could be found in any of the historical religions. The problem of reconciling the existence of absolute values with divergent and changing cultural orders (Kulturkreise ) led him to write one of his most important essays, "Measuring Norms for the Evaluation of Historical Matters and their Relationship to an Actual Cultural Ideal." Slowly he developed the idea of Europäismus as a new culture synthesis illustrating the concept of historical individuality; he was concerned especially with the intimate nexus between the individualities of the European tradition and Christianity. But while he promoted a living Christian ethics, adaptable to social changes and never to be turned into a final system, he also tried to overcome dependence on history alone. His premature death cut off his attempt to find a solution beyond the conscience and personal determination of the individual. His works remain an inexhaustible source of knowledge and stimulation, but the relativism that he never succeeded in dissolving by rational means renders his philosophy sterile and unsatisfactory.

See Also: religion, sociology of.

Bibliography: Gesammelte Schriften, 4 v. (Tübingen 191225). v.1 is translated as The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, tr. o. wyon, 2 v. (New York 1931). w. mÜller, "Troeltsch," Staatslexikon, ed. Görres-Gesellschaft (Freiburg 195763) 7:104547.

[r. e. morris]

Troeltsch, Ernst

views updated May 17 2018

Troeltsch, Ernst (1865–1923). Christian historian of culture and religion. He became professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg in 1894, and professor of ‘religious, social and historical philosophy and the history of the Christian religion’ at Berlin in 1915. The latter title points effectively to Troeltsch's general position. Historical relativism (or ‘historicism’) suggests that cultural values are embedded in history and change over time. No religions (including Christianity) express absolute values which are exempt from this process; and the recognition that this is so is the consequence of the modern historical consciousness—and that is why Troeltsch maintained that the modern age began with the Enlightenment, not with the Reformation, which he regarded as a medieval phenomenon. But in that case, is there anything about religion which persists and endures through the vicissitudes of time? Here, Troeltsch, like R. Otto, took a Kantian line, and argued that there is an a priori religious mode of consciousness, which brings religions, in all their variety and relativity, into being. In Die Absolutheit des Christentums … (1902; The Absoluteness of Christianity …) he claimed that Christianity is ‘relatively absolute’ (relativer absolutismus) as a religion because it, more than any other religion, affirms the value of personal and ethical beings, locating this character in God and exhibiting it in Christ. His development of the Church–Sect (and mysticism) typology has remained influential. In his major work, Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (1912; The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches), he argued that underprivileged and less educated populations are the driving force in religious creativity, since they feel more and ask less.

Troeltsch, Ernst

views updated May 29 2018

Troeltsch, Ernst (1865–1923) A German philosopher and theologian, contemporary and close friend of Max Weber, who also made a major contribution to the sociology of religion (see his The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, 1911, and Protestantism and Progress, 1912
). Like Weber—whom he influenced greatly—Troeltsch was interested in the interrelationship of the material and ideal elements in social life. Again, like Weber and in criticism of Karl Marx, he insisted that religious beliefs could act as an independent variable influencing the development of material factors. His ‘church-sect typology’ subsequently proved influential in characterizing religious movements. See also SECT.