ERNST TROELTSCH died 70 years ago, and his theology was shortly thereafter declared dead as well. Famous in his own generation as a theologian, philosopher, historian and politician, he was soon forgotten, or remembered as the best example of what not to do. For Karl Barth, Troeltsch was the last theologian of the 19th century, a man whose failure revealed the true character of liberal theology. Barth's judgment shaped an entire generation of theologians.
But all that has changed. Interest in Troeltsch's thought is greater today than ever before, and also more wide-spread, attracting attention in Eastern and Western Europe, North America and Japan. What began about 20 years ago as a trickle of articles, dissertations, books, translations and reprints in German, English, French, Italian and Japanese has become a steady stream. Far from being the last theologian of the 19th century Troeltsch is coming to be seen as the first theologian of the 20th century--or perhaps even the 21st.
But why do the life and thought of this early 20th-century man now seem so relevant? Because Troeltsch, at the beginning of this century, was keenly aware of many trends that became apparent to most observers only at its end: the collapse of Eurocentrism; the perceived relativity of all historical events and knowledge (including scientific knowledge,); an awareness that Christianity is relative to its Western, largely European history and environment; the emergence of a profound global pluralism; the central role of practice in theology; the growing impact of the social sciences on our view of the world and of ourselves; and dramatic changes in the role of religious institutions and religions thought. Moreover, he was a profoundly interdisciplinary thinker whose contributions embraced philosophy, history, sociology, philosophy of history, ethics and politics.
Precisely because Troeltsch understood the forces that were and are shaping 20th-century religion and society, he can provide us with needed perspective on contemporary theological and religious movements. Furthermore, his willingness to confront some very difficult theological issues--issues that the intervening generation of theologians mostly ignored or evaded--makes his insights uniquely instructive. The issues Troeltsch confronted are many, but I will focus on three: 1) Christianity as a historical, relative phenomenon, 2) Christianity as a social phenomenon, and 3) theology as a practical discipline. Troeltsch's contributions are far more complex than this division suggests, but it provides a convenient format in which to summarize his chief insights. Then in light of this summary, I will explore how a theology informed by his insights might differ from what we see in theology today.
"Everything is tottering!" Troeltsch exclaimed at an 1896 conference, initiating an exchange that ended with Troeltsch slamming the door as he left the room. Everything is tottering, because Christianity was now known to be a historical phenomenon. From the beginning, Troeltsch took a historical approach to the study of religion and theology. He was convinced that there was no reason to exclude Christianity from the history of religion as a whole. The Bible, Jesus and the church were all part of history; they were neither exempt from historical investigation nor entitled to a privileged historical method. This meant that almost all of late 19th-century theology was on shaky ground.
The modern study of history had established that Christianity was not a supernatural phenomenon that had just appeared in history without cause or antecedent. On the contrary, Christianity was influenced by a host of non-Christian and non-Jewish factors. Christianity could not, therefore, on historical grounds be proven final or absolute. Troeltsch stated this conclusion in The Absoluteness of Christianity--tentatively in the first edition of 1902, emphatically in the second edition of 1912. …