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Summary Article: Troeltsch, Ernst
from Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology

Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) was one of the leading representatives of German liberal theology in the early years of the twentieth century. He studied at Göttingen under A. Ritschl (1822–89), forming close friendships with a group of biblical scholars known as the ‘History of Religion School’. He was appointed professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg in 1895, where he produced a number of influential writings epitomized by The Absoluteness of Christianity (1901), which drew out the theological and philosophical implications of the historical method, and which earned him the title ‘systematic theologian’ of the History of Religion School. He regarded historicism as one of the most important characteristics of the modern period, which differentiated it from the earlier ‘ecclesiastical-unified period of European culture’, in which he controversially included the Reformation.

Through his historical researches Troeltsch became increasingly interested in the different social forms of Christianity and formed a close working relationship with the sociologist M. Weber (1864–1920). Troeltsch’s studies in social history resulted in the massive book The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912), where he outlined the various ways in which the Christian ethos had been ‘compromised’ in particular historical settings. This led him to develop his threefold typology of Church, sect, and mysticism, which was taken up by later sociologists of religion. The Social Teaching was intended to provide a basis for a constructive theology, which would have blended the three types of religious organization, but which was never produced.

Having ‘outgrown’ the theological faculty, Troeltsch moved to the philosophical faculty at Berlin in 1915, concentrating his efforts on the philosophical analysis of history, and at the same time trying to understand the religious dimension of World War I. In the early Weimar Republic he played an active role in liberal politics. His historical researches resulted in Der Historismus und seine Probleme (1922), which was to have been supplemented by a ‘material philosophy of history’, which would have offered practical solutions to the ethical dilemmas of modernity. Although his sudden death meant that this remained unwritten, his work in this area was published posthumously in Christian Thought (1923). These lectures present an ethics of compromise based upon the relativity of all cultural constructs. Troeltsch aimed to use the resources of the past, drawn from the ‘melting pot of historicism’, to create a cultural synthesis (‘Europeanism’) for the present.

Troeltsch’s reputation has suffered from his association with what was pejoratively called ‘Culture Protestantism’; his move to philosophy was seen by K. Barth as marking the bankruptcy of liberal theology. However, Troeltsch was often deeply critical of his own culture and sought to introduce a thoroughgoing critical method into all aspects of thought, including theology. This was partly based on I. Kant’s philosophy and showed a similar distrust of supernatural method and over-reliance on religious experience.

  • Chapman, M., Ernst Troeltsch and Liberal Theology: Religion and Cultural Synthesis in Wilhelmine Germany (Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • Drescher, H.-G., Ernst Troeltsch: His Life and Work (SCM, 1992).
  • Mark D. Chapman
    © Cambridge University Press 2011

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