E Troeltsch (1865-1923)
Ernst Troeltsch was a historian of religion and a philosopher of history.
But he also contributed to cultural and social history, to ethics and to
jurisprudence. His views, closely argued as they were, caused considerable
consternation among the ruling religious elite of his time.
This was because his argument, if correct, spelled
at a very fundamental level the end of Christianity's claims to absolute
truth. If, said Troeltsch, one examines the doctrines and history of
Christianity, its claim to be the final and complete revelation of God's
truth and wisdom can't be sustained.
When criticised by a Lutheran General Superintendent for his views and
accused of no longer being a Christian, he wrote, "I comfort myself that God
is not the General Superintendent of the universe and I therefore continue
with imperturbability to regard myself as a Christian."
Troeltsch thought that what he called "moral awareness" is a faculty
available to all as an abiding element of the human constitution. Religion
and religious doctrines were formulated as humanity developed through
history. In the process our inherent moral sense became incorporated into
various religious systems.
A problem he faced, therefore, was that knowledge of the origins of
morality as we have it now is therefore available to us only through the
analytical discipline of historical investigation. This discipline by its
nature requires that we pursue information about the origins of events and
Thus so-called moral awareness should also be subject to an
investigation of its origins in human history, since humanity itself had a
beginning in history. It will not do merely to locate morality in single
events through which God "speaks" to us.
If truth has its origins in a gradual evolution over time of human
awareness, and if history is a seamless web of cause and effect, then it
makes no sense to posit information from a supernatural being ("God") which
gives a person or group access to an absolute truth. He called this an
"artificial absoluteness" which is
...a theoretical determination of relationship in which the only fixed
point is its starting point in personal or inherited faith.
He continued, referring to artificial absoluteness:
It leads in Catholicism to the Thomistic system with its practical
complement in the infallibility of the Pope, and in Protestantism to a
dogmatics which combines natural and supernatural illumination and finds its
practical support in the inspiration of the Bible.
By this he means, I think, that any claim to special inspiration direct
from God, results in what we would today call an oppressive system.
If any knowledge comes direct from God - either via the Pope or the Bible
- it cannot be refuted, since by definition God cannot lie. Anyone who
possesses such absolute truth is under great pressure to convey this to
others, especially if their "immortal souls" are to be rescued from
damnation by assent to this truth.
Troeltsch asserts that the "secular idea of history" collides with the
Church's "apologetic, supernatural idea of history". The former threatens
"... the very foundations upon which the venture of dogmatic theology ...
ordinarily depends". If dogmatic theology tries to test its origins by using
the so-called secular method of historical investigation it will find itself
in a double-bind.
- If origins of its truths rest, as do all other religious truths, in
social events, then it must concede its claim to absolute truth.
To put this in context, we should refer back to the convictions of G W F
Hegel. He asked how the claim to the absolute truth of Christianity could
be rightly asserted in the newly-discovered rich and diverse religions
world wide. Hegel thought that even though the absoluteness of
Christianity could not stand, nevertheless it was, so to speak, better
than the rest.
Troeltsch thought Hegel was wrong. First, the discipline we call history
contains no criteria for making such a judgement. Second, it is plain that
there is no single absolute and unchanging aspect of Christianity which
can be thought of as its essence.
What then was actually "better" than other religions? The essence of the
Christian faith can't be separated from its cultural context as the kernel
of a nut is separated from its shell. Troeltsch wrote that, "... the
actual absoluteness of the kernel always absolutises the husk as well,
while the actual relativity of the husk always relativises the kernel in
turn." Christianity is just as vulnerable as any other religion in its
claims to be the final and absolute truth.
- In other words, any concession to historical method - and Christianity
claims to be an historical religion - isn't possible if divine revelation
is asserted. The two, revelation and historical method, are incompatible.
Because it is not the sole heir of truth, Christianity is, in Troeltsch's
view, only one of a world-wide family of religions. It is the expression
over a particular period of time of a particular Western culture. It's
claims are valid only in terms of the impact it has had on the West and
wherever else it has taken root. He conceded, albeit reluctantly, that the
Christian claim to validity is
... the fact that only through it have we become what we are, and
that only in it can we preserve the religious forces that we need ...
Christianity has grown up with us and has become part of our very being.
Though, added Troeltsch, it must also be acknowledged that Christian
mission has had as much to do with political, military and commercial
expansion as with its inherent power to convert those of other religions.
Protestantism derives from the confluence of toleration, the idea of
human development, and reason. Those who think it an aspect of modern man
are, said Troeltsch, badly mistaken. In fact, the Protestant movement as a
whole and in its particulars was essentially a continuation of medieval
On the other hand, modern Christianity is, he thought, radically
different from anything which has preceded it. It is separated from all
previous cultures, and from traditional Christianity, by a "great divide",
typified by modern analytical methods.
His views on the historicity of the Bible were impossible for the
Reformed churches to swallow. Jesus, he said (in common with others of his
time) clearly did not intend to found the Church. The Church was the
outcome, albeit inevitable, of the need of early Christians to continue and
pass on their convictions about the meaning to them of Jesus' life and
Troeltsch rejected classical Christian teaching which isolates Jesus from
the overall matrix of historical cause and event by claiming that his
uniqueness results from miracles - including the resurrection and
Why, he asked, is the Church able to claim miracles for itself while denying
that the miracles of other religions lack validity? On what grounds could
Protestant Reformers validly claim the efficacy of biblical miracles while
denying miracles claimed by Roman Catholics for their saints and heroes?
If Christianity cannot rest on the miraculous, it can't claim
absoluteness on the basis of faith either. It can't argue validly that those
who do not see biblical events with the "eye of faith" are therefore blind
to the absoluteness of Christianity. To do this would place faith finally
and absolutely beyond history, and thereby deny that Christianity is founded
upon an historical person and historical events.
But Christianity is founded on a real person, who actually lived,
and who actually did and said certain things. So how we understand the past
determines how we understand the Christian faith, at least in relation to its
If we are understand history properly, said Troeltsch, we have to try to
enter into the events of history in a sympathetic way, trying to make the past
"... as intelligible as if it were part of our own experience."
One implication of his approach is that we will understand Jesus better the
more we try to enter into his social and cultural ethos. Cause and effect in
history isn't mechanical, like cause and effect in physics. In history our
interest must lie in the individual whose choices, among other forces, are the
stuff of history.
Three important principles apply to history, thought Troeltsch.
1. History is continuous. It's a web of cause and effect which, although
complex beyond our imagining, ceases to be history if broken. As John
Macquarrie writes, "... although there may be distinctive events, and even
highly distinctive events, all events are of the same order, and all are
explicable in terms of what is immanent in terms of history itself."
Thus if history is to retain its validity, the possibility of divine
irruptions or interventions into the chain of cause and effect can't be
admitted. In other words, to maintain that God is active in history is also
to maintain that God's activity is continuous. If that is the case, no
events can be final or absolute because God might be constantly adding to or
building upon each event.
In my opinion, to maintain that God is in constant and complete charge of
history is merely to substitute "God" for "history". In the process,
moreover, we take from humanity the ability to choose and therefore to make
wrong choices and to sin. This is because if God is in total charge, then
God makes all the decisions, not we ourselves.
This means, in my view, that the elaborate structure of Christian theology
must, if it claims to be based on the historical person of Jesus, admit him
to be of the same order as all other humans who have affected the world. He
was undoubtedly a highly distinctive person who, through his followers,
changed human history substantially. But he, like us, was human and could be
no more than that if we are to retain history as it has developed over
2. History by definition is a process of critical
analysis. This process yields only provisional "facts" or conclusions. This
is because, as an analytical discipline, it is always open to new
information and new people to interpret that information. Any conclusion in
history can be revised by new data and new perspectives.
So, for example, those nearest to Jesus in time were
actually farthest from him in history. They knew less of Jesus than we do
because they had no knowledge of, or access to, history as we know it. They
concluded - in terms of the norms of their contemporary world-view - that
Jesus was (to use a metaphor then current) the "son of God." We now know
that Jesus claimed nothing of the sort, and that this doctrine does not
accurately reflect historical truth. This if we are to be historical in our
approach to Christianity, we required also to be critical of tradition, no
matter how sanctified.
3. Troeltsch's third principle is generally known as the
principle of analogy. It states that any event in the past which we wouldn't
allow today must be suspect. If, for example, we're unwilling to allow today
that the sun can be made to stand still in the sky for a length of time
(that is, that the planet's rotation can stop), then even the biblical
account of such an event can't be classed as good history.
Thus if we can't find an analogy in our own experience for
a reported event from the past, then that event must be considered
Unless we allow this principle it follows that we would be
unable to learn anything from the past at all. We couldn't know, for
example, that an earthquake in the past was of the same order as an
earthquake today. Nor could we understand anything of the past. The fall of
the German Reich in the Twentieth Century could have no necessary
relationship as a process of history to, say, the fall of Napoleon's empire
or the demise of the Roman Empire. Each empire could have been caused to
fall directly by God using processes of which we are unaware and cannot
possibly perceive and analyse.
Each and every event would have therefore to be treated as
unique and unrepeatable. No event could be interpreted in terms of any
other. History, in effect, loses its point. Jesus would have no necessary
relationship to us or to anyone else after his time. Nor could we point out
how his roots extend into the Old Testament - an essential element of early
Christian interpretation of the meaning of Jesus. There would be no point in
researching the culture in which he lived, since each element of that
culture would have been unique and could therefore not have influenced
anything. This is all patently absurd, even to those who claim absolute
infallibility for the Bible as the Word of God.
There is, however, one sense in which an event might be
final or absolute - as an event in the context of a particular culture. "It is
final and unconditional for us," wrote Troeltsch,
... because we have nothing else. But this does not
preclude the possibility that other racial groups, living under entirely
different cultural conditions, may experience their contact with the
divine life in quite a different way.
Troeltsch's point could be said to have been confirmed by
our knowledge in the 21st century of other major cultural groups. Not only is
their perception of the divine fundamentally different from those in the West,
but they have only limited interest in Western forms of religion.
This is not to say that as global culture becomes more
homogeneous, religious forms will not also become more similar. But it is to
say that Christianity, like the other religions, is the product of social
forces. So, for example, Troeltsch noted that within Christianity there
are "church-type" and "sect-type" religious groups. The first is open to
secular culture, the latter closed.
Karl Marx claimed that religion is the outcome of social
forces. When those forces are so oppressive that there seems no way out,
then religion becomes a way of escaping reality. Marx is incorrect, says
Troeltsch. Christianity is influenced by the times and tides of history. But
within all societies there is an inherent, unquenchable religious
consciousness. As a result, all societies and cultures are just as much
influenced and changed by religion as religion is by them.
The old attitude toward history can no longer be
maintained. That the history of humanity reaches through immeasurable
stretches of time, that all historical occurrences are alike conditioned
and temporal, and that the principles of historical criticism are
universally dominant - all these points must be admitted. Amid such
concessions the question comes very much to the fore how the historical
connections of faith are to stand their ground. 
All this is not to say that Troeltsch thought that Christianity no longer
has a unique contribution to make. He wrote that
... only a superficial understanding of history can lead men to believe
that religion must fade away because of the apparent contradictoriness of
its different kinds of absoluteness ...
On the contrary, he wrote,
... I have come more and more to regard the specific kernel of religion
as a unique and independent source of power.
Assertions of access to absolute truth are, he thought, temporary
positions. They tend to disappear when any religion is compared with and
measured against others. That is, Christianity is not absolute, but relative
to its environment, both now and in the past. As such, the proper and most
fruitful "missionary" approach was not to attempt to convert others to
Christianity, but to strive for mutual understanding and enrichment.
The present environment, thought Troeltsch, was one which would soon
force Christianity to come to terms with the truth of its relative
historical context. If it failed to do so it would be bound eventually to
stagnate in the backwaters of society. His conclusion may well be correct in
the longer term. But it seems that traditional Christianity, which clearly
hasn't come to terms with Troeltsch's challenge, today appears to be finding
new life and energy in the less-sophisticated cultures of Africa and Asia.
Troeltsch, with typical modesty, admitted that he had been unable to
overcome all the challenges he had encountered and had therefore been unable
to come up with a comprehensive theory of history. With hindsight, we can
forgive him that failure since he has proved one of the most original and
insightful thinkers of his time in relation to fundamental changes which
face Christianity in the 21st century.
 The Absoluteness of Christianity, 1901
 Twentieth Century Religious Thought, 1963
 Religion in History, T&T Clark, 1991