Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1865-1923) German theologian and philosopher; was appointed Professor of Theology at Heidelberg 1894, but in 1915 became Professor of Philosophy at Berlin. Although Albert Ritschl was his early mentor, Troeltsch continually absorbed new intellectual influences, including the ideas of Wilhelm Dilthey and, later, the philosophy of the southwest German Kantian school (especially Heinrich Rickert) and the sociology of Max Weber, among others.

Troeltsch sought to understand the varied relationships between Christianity and culture, especially modernity. He pursued this aim through the study of Christianity's development in all its main historical phases. His pioneering work The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (Macmillan 1931 [1912]), influenced in part by Max Weber's sociology, embodies Troeltsch's own historical and sociological method. Troeltsch distinguished between church, sect, and mysticism as primary types of religious life. The church is more peremptorily inclusive and achieves greater accommodation to worldly institutions. The sect demands voluntary commitment from its members, is more perfectionistic in its aims, and often adopts a critical stance toward existing social arrangements. Mysticism's individualistic and spiritualistic religiosity, to which Troeltsch himself was strongly attracted, is an ever present historical possibility, but it forges especially strong links with sect organizations and has a diffuse appeal under modern social conditions. These concepts have since become central to the sociological study of religious processes and have been variously adapted by more recent thinkers (e.g., H. Richard Niebuhr and Liston Pope).

Despite many points of agreement with Weber, Troeltsch's method and sense of historical-developmental periodization were distinctive. His use of concepts is historical and dialectical. He shows the ways in which sects and forms of mysticism emerge out of conflicts within church structures over reappropriation of the common religious traditions and civilization. The typological analysis is suffused with detail drawn from the early and medieval churches, Luther, Calvin and Protestant sects, and later developments. In his book Protestantism and Progress (Putnam 1912), Troeltsch examined the relationship of Protestant teachings to the entire range of modernity (i.e., politics, economic life, social classes, culture, and so on). Troeltsch saw modernity emerging with the Enlightenment and, unlike Weber, thought the ideas of both Luther and Calvin remained largely medieval in cast.

Troeltsch also was interested in the role of natural law doctrines in the development of Christianity. With the waning of early Christian apocalyptic expectations, the church absorbed Stoic natural law theories, as well as other elements of ancient philosophy, and adapted them to Christianity's increasing involvement in Roman society. The result was a twofold development. On the one hand, Stoic-Christian natural law allowed Christianity to accommodate its teachings to the systems of patriarchal family authority, imperial law and political organization, economic life (including slavery), and other social practices of late Antiquity, while at the same time tempering these practices in the name of Christian principles. Christianity could thus elaborate church doctrines suited to its seemingly permanent existence in a fallen world. On the other hand, the idea of a natural law of the prelapsarian state allowed for the repeated emergence of communities that aimed at mimetically recapturing primitive perfection or re-creating the apostolic life. The rationales provided by Stoic-Christian natural law thereby aided the development of both church and sect types of religiosity (Troeltsch 1991).

Troeltsch's theological commitments made it difficult for him to dispense entirely with Christianity's universal truth claims, and he grappled throughout his life with the problem of Christianity's historical relativity. This problem was related to his early interest in the history-of-religions school. His posthumously published work on historicism and its problems was a full study of these perspectives and their relationship to his theological concerns. Although he came increasingly to accept the historical relativity of Christianity, it is not clear that he ever fully resolved the tensions between a thoroughgoing relativism in the comparative-historical study of religion and the idea of Christianity as a universally valid salvation religion whose essence was, in some sense, always present despite its varied manifestations under differing historical circumstances (Troeltsch 1972). However, few authors have confronted these issues so directly and effectively as Troeltsch, and his work remains a cornerstone in the edifice of the sociology of religion.

See also James Luther Adams, Church-Sect Theory, H. Richard Niebuhr, Max Weber

Donald A. Nielsen


H. Drescher, Ernst Troeltsch (London: SCM, 1992)

E. Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions (London: SCM Press, 1972)

E. Troeltsch, Religion in History (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991).

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