Few would dispute, although some regret, the fact that the single most influential voice in twentieth–century Protestant thought as it bears on religion in the public square is Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923). Only Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer can compare in generating key concepts and intellectual loyalties that have reproduced themselves for generations. Yet the reception of and resistance to Troeltsch’s thought has left deep marks in the religious and social history of the century now past.
To be sure, Troeltsch was largely ignored by statist–oriented “political theology” as it derived on the right from Carl Schmitt and on the left from Ernst Bloch, although Troeltsch energetically jumped into the struggle to establish a republic in Weimar after World War I. Further, it was his friends and heirs (including, in many ways, Niebuhr) who stood against the rising tide of radical ideologies after his death, and who later most energetically mobilized the Protestant churches outside of Germany against the Nazis and later the Communists. Indeed, as Ronald Stone of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has shown in a new book that contains the translations of broadcasts to the German people during World War II by Troeltsch’s student Paul Tillich, the Protestant resistance movements against the Nazis were likely inspired as much by Troeltschian motifs as by the more widely celebrated Barmen Declaration, written by Karl Barth, and the writings of the martyr Bonhoeffer.
Troeltsch was also ignored, or treated as a “neoliberal,” by the advocates of Liberation Theology as it played out in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, the belated fruit of the Catholic revisionist Maurice Blondel and the Marxist revisionist Antonio Gramsci. Indeed, when the World Council of Churches began to modulate its earlier Barthian accents to become a center of liberation advocacy, Troeltsch’s influence further declined in those Protestant circles.
Yet it was the students of Troeltsch, then already a full generation removed from him, who often worked ecumenically at local levels in the West, who advocated the embrace of the UN Declaration of Human Rights by the Protestant churches, and who marched with Martin Luther King for civil rights in America. In doing so, they often parted ways with other Protestants who were nationalistic or racist—as well as with those who were so alienated from Western culture in general and American culture in particular that they uncritically echoed every liberation voice that protested against them.
More recently, Troeltsch has come under fire from neo–sectarian pietists such as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, and treated with harsh contempt by those who have appointed themselves the guardians of “radical orthodoxy,” such as John Milbank. But it is not at all clear that they understand Troeltsch. Besides, they tend to accuse anyone who seeks to address public issues theologically of selling out to “the principalities and powers.” They note, for instance, that Troeltsch sometimes advocated the necessity of a “compromise” between the gospel and the world. But they fail to note that he clearly defined the “compromise” he intended as finding that synthetic possibility in a particular historical moment that was “co–promising” between basic theological insights and the social realities at hand.
The nonsectarian traditions of twentieth–century Protestantism, however—the parts that have not become cadres of liberation or advocates of pious communitarianism, and are thus likely to continue their public influence into the next century—have been shaped directly or indirectly by Troeltsch and his followers more than is acknowledged. He was cited often by the founders of the American Social Gospel and Christian Labor movements early in the century as they generated what later became the New Deal. He was utilized heavily by H. Richard Niebuhr at mid–century in studies of religion, the Church, and American life. He was made mandatory reading by several generations of leading Protestant teachers of Christian ethics—James Luther Adams, Walter Muelder, Paul Ramsey, Roger Shinn, Edward Long, James Gustafson, and Gibson Winter (and their many students) in the post–World War II period. He has been cited by intellectual historians and social theorists from Leo Strauss to David Martin and Peter Berger. And he has been taken up in divergent ways by such Catholic thinkers as David Tracy, Dennis McCann, Michael Novak, and, until his untimely death, Theodore Steeman. All, in one way or another, struggle with the issues of how to accept the historical nature of Christianity without succumbing to relativism, how to affirm the transcendent claims of Christianity without recourse to supernaturalist metaphysics, and how to more fully actualize the commitment of Christianity to universal justice without imposing the values of one culture.
As a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg, Troeltsch lived with his family in the other half of a duplex where his “religiously unmusical” (as his wife said of him), morally rigorous, and sociologically brilliant colleague, Max Weber, wrote his five volumes on the sociology of religion. They were friends also with the famous Jewish historian of law Georg Jellinek, who wrote a definitive work on the theological foundations of modern human rights law, and the conservative Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, who developed the theory of “sphere” pluralism that has increasingly been in conversation with Roman Catholic theories of “subsidiarity.” They all had sympathy for aspects of natural law theory and discussed appreciatively the reinvigoration of the social encyclical tradition by Leo XIII.
These figures obviously did not agree on all things, but they did all recognize that the deep structures of existence and the long traditions of religion shape the present and the future more than most of modern scholarship has acknowledged. They also knew that the repudiation of that reality, as fact and as value, had been taken in radical and destructive directions by Marx and Nietzsche, the godfathers of postmodernism. They were, at the same time, also critical of traditional dogmatics, not only because it made unbelievable claims, but because it could not, in their view, withstand the historicist assaults that they saw on the intellectual horizon as the influence of Marx’s militant secularism and of Nietzsche’s nihilist romanticism flourished.
Troeltsch saw the problems of their historicism early and acutely. It had something to it, he saw, in that it recognized that much of our thought and life is deeply embedded in historically constructed and changeable patterns. But that recognition was not the whole truth, and he was convinced that historicism’s partial truth could give us no moral guidance for life. Indeed, he held that certain “religious a priori” were intrinsic to human nature and had to be acknowledged in social theory. The critical issue was whether theology could acknowledge the depths of historicity and social theory the depths of religious consciousness.
In the decade before the turn of the twentieth century Troeltsch produced a number of articles that called for his contemporaries to face these matters directly; and in the first ten years of the new century he struggled mightily with this problem, writing The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions and Political Ethics and Christianity, plus a number of essays contrasting historical and dogmatic approaches to faith. (See Religion in History, collected and translated by J. L. Adams and W. Bense.) Troeltsch’s Der Historismus und seine Probleme (“Historicism and Its Problems”), never published in English, appeared later and identified most of the issues now known to us as postmodernism.
Troeltsch was convinced that the dogmatic theologians of his tradition were ignoring the situation, and that those who tried to face every problem by simply reclaiming “the spirit of love,” as advocated by several post–dogmatic reformers, were not intellectually serious. Neither group appreciated that theology and ethics, when they are alive, are always in dynamic conversation with the cultural, philosophical, existential, and social contexts in which they are found, just as every civilization, even an apparently secular one, needs an intellectually plausible religious center or it will collapse for want of an inner moral architecture.
The question was whether, in the new situation, a new synthesis was possible on Christian grounds, one analogous to that of Augustine with regard to biblical religion and Neoplatonic philosophy, or Thomas with Augustine and Aristotle, or Calvin with Luther and the legacy of Stoic thought. These great synthesizers abandoned neither tradition and faith, as had the Enlightenment, nor the dynamic contributions of philosophical and cultural insight, as did the dogmatists.
Troeltsch was not interested, therefore, only in a condemnation of his opponents. It was the prospect of a new synthesis that drove him. Such a proposal came into fuller view when he offered an address in 1906 to the Ninth Congress of German Historians. In his highly influential lecture, Troeltsch put forward the view that Protestantism was, in profound if little–recognized ways, the womb of “modernity” and that “modernity” could not be understood either as a purely scientific “coming of age” of reason, or as a full–scale secularistic rejection of the Christian past.
Of course, many theologians feared modernity and many Enlightenment philosophers relished the “defeat” of religion as so much myth and magic. Troeltsch disagreed with both. Some things in the Enlightenment were novel, but that did not mean that they were by definition incompatible with the faith. Indeed, many features of modernity were nothing other than strikingly fresh developments of classic, catholic motifs in conversation with a new cultural context that a reformed Christianity might well be able to take in new directions. This view comported well with the ways in which some church fathers had related the faith to the Greco–Roman world. It also echoed previous efforts of some humanist Catholics (such as Erasmus), some Phillipist Lutherans (following Melanchthon in manifesting a renewed interest in Aristotle), and a number of free church reformers (such as the Puritans who sought to establish a Christian commonwealth in the American colonies using both Stoic republican and Reformed Christian motifs). Troeltsch also adopted insights from Schleiermacher, who sought to establish theology as a university discipline; from the post–Hegelian philosopher of history Dilthey; and from the American philosopher and student of religious experience William James. In time, Troeltsch expanded that lecture into a little book, translated as Protestantism and Progress: The Significance of Protestantism for the Rise of the Modern World (1912).
Troeltsch’s title identified the issue. Many Christians found their faith in deep conflict with modernity. Could some kind of “catholic neo–reformed Christianity” creatively link the rationality, empiricism, personalism, and historicism of the modern world to the classical traditions of the faith? Could, as Troeltsch sometimes put it, a Christian social philosophy and a Christian personalist psychology be developed? If not, the brilliant terrors of Marx and Nietzsche would likely shatter societies and souls. But if so, a fresh version of Christianity could be the springboard of a future beyond modernity. It is this that allows one to speak of Troeltsch as the father of a certain kind of postmodernism.
Of course, not everyone agreed that what he was seeking could or should be sought. The Lutherans in his native Germany and the pietistic evangelicals in America had little sympathy with the effort. They could not imagine a non–confessional state shaped by a theological ethic, a tolerant pluralist culture rooted in a Christian conviction about freedom of conscience and association, or a civil society centered in a nonestablished church. (It was impossible for Troeltsch, as for almost any Protestant of his time, to imagine the pre–Vatican II Catholic Church as the source of renewal toward a new Christian synthesis.)
Troeltsch’s greatest work, in size and significance, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches and Sects (1911), has been a center piece of graduate courses in Christian Ethics in Protestant circles since it was published. It is an extended overview of his subject, organized, in the first instance, according to a series of “departments of life”—obviously a revised understanding of the “orders of creation” so deeply rooted in Lutheran thought. Thus, he takes up questions of politics and power, economics, work and class, science, learning and education, family and sexuality, and art and culture as these spheres had been addressed by the Church. But although some biblical and doctrinal themes are perennial, Troeltsch did not think that one constant perspective has prevailed historically, a fact that leads to the second feature of the work’s organization.
Troeltsch holds that the New Testament has a series of fundamental elements that give concrete substance to the “religious a priori” of human consciousness. These are combined in various ways by the biblical authors as they were in later developments of doctrine and morals. Theologians through the years also drew from philosophical and ethical resources in the cultural environment of the Church. Thus Troeltsch traced the formations and reformations of Christian ethics as believers addressed the issues that the various “departments of life” posed for them in ever new ways.
Troeltsch recognized the pluralism of answers that had been developed over time, although he thought that certain great syntheses provided the most creative and enduring responses. He charted these perspectives, drawing comparisons and contrasts through five periods of development—the early Church, the medieval synthesis, Lutheran Protestantism, the Calvinist Reformation, and the various sectarian and spiritual impulses that developed first into the monastic movement and later in the directions of “withdrawing sects,” “aggressive sects,” and “spiritual movements.” His famous “church/sect” typology, now used by scholars and journalists when speaking of religious movements and their impact on public life, derived from this work.
Less widely noted is the fact that Troeltsch saw the twentieth century as a time of vague, free–floating “spirituality,” of little importance for the great issues. Modern churches lacked social significance because, contrary to what had been the case in all the preceding ages, they lacked a high view of the Church. Ecclesiology is, indeed, essential to Christian social philosophy, since the Church is the place where persons are formed theologically and ethically to live responsibly in the wider society.
In one sense, Troeltsch’s monumental work can be understood as a self–critical search for a corrective to the German Lutheran tradition, with its tendency to divide law and gospel too radically and to hand the exterior church over to the state while confining the inner church to the heart. Troeltsch thought that only two great syntheses have been generated in the long history of the Christian heritage—the medieval synthesis of the Roman Catholic tradition, and the “modern” tradition that derived from Calvin as modified by the sectarian heritage and Enlightenment thought. Lutherans would, Troeltsch thought, sooner or later have to bend back toward Rome or ally with their Reformed cousins.
He considered the withdrawing and aggressive sects in considerable detail, seeing the root of one in the monastic impulses of the early and medieval Church, and the root of the other in the episodic attempts to bring the Kingdom of God by forced righteousness. The fruit of the first is the quietistic “peace churches,” the fruit of the second is Christian Socialism. Troeltsch was attracted to the sectarian desires for a “pure faith” and a “righteous society,” but he concluded that only the great church–types of the Catholic and Reformed traditions could sustain both the Church and the various spheres of the common life. He thought, however, that these too had become wooden, and he did not see clearly how they could be renewed, although that was his hope. Those who have followed Troeltsch are those who have not despaired of the effort.
We do not know whether the future will bring an extended or renewed interest in Troeltsch. We do know that in Germany new critical editions of his works are appearing under the leadership of Trotz Rentdorff, Friedrich W. Graf, and Klaus Tanner. Also, at Harvard Divinity School, Sarah Coakley has introduced new reflections on Troeltsch’s Christology, while at Yale Thomas Ogletree is seeking to update Troeltsch’s insights for our era, and graduate seminars are regularly held on Troeltsch at Princeton. Indeed, Troeltsch continues to be mined in many places for suggestions about how to handle the continuing dilemma of facing up to pluralism and historicity without falling into the pits of relativism or, in reaction to that temptation, retreating to premodern dogmatics. The problem, as ever, is for the Church fully to engage the world without in the process sacrificing its theological integrity.
Max L. Stackhouse is the Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary.