What Am I Reading? Troeltsch on "The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches"

The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, by Ernst Troeltsch. Translated by Olive Wyon. (Reprint) Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960.

Some time ago, I acquired Ernst Troeltsch's 1910 classic two-volume text, a seminal work early work in the sociology and history of religion.
Troeltsch (1865-1923) served as professor in Heidelberg and Berlin as well as posts in the Prussian government. The German liberal Protestant scholar, as most of you know, was probably, next to Harnack, the preeminent theologian and historian from the history of religions school around the turn of the 20th century.

To be honest, though I've always respected Troeltsch, I've tended to approach his work with diffidence. During grad school I found his work of constructive dogmatics (The Christian Faith)a bit...tedious. Not so his seminal writings on theology and modern historical study, however, several of which are available in the the Fortress volume titled Religion in History (Edited by James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense, 1991). The critical questions Troeltsch poses for constructive theologians, even still today, are not to be lightly dismissed.

Somewhat as an act of procrastrination -- and I've been called out for this already -- I decided to take another look at Troeltsch in tandem with my increasing interest in Christian social ethics and political theology. One of Troeltsch's most accomplished advocates in the past century was H. Richard Niebuhr, whose early book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, is very much indebted to the German thinker's sociological writings. (See my post from last year). As Niebuhr notes in the preface to The Meaning of Revelation, he considered Troeltsch and Karl Barth to be his major teachers and he sought to integrate the insights from these two major thinkers, whose projects are often seen as irreconcilable.

Niebuhr wrote the introduction to my edition of Social Teaching. Despite its widespread influence in a number of fields, Niebuhr admits, reading the work cover-to-cover is not easy sledding, largely because its conclusions emerge through a meandering river of empirical studies. How many of you scholars and students have found yourself embarking on a new project because, after perusing ATLA or another database, you found that no one in the field had adequately dealt with the question animating you intellectually? This was Troeltsch's experience, and Social Teaching emerged as a series of discrete studies seeking to address a lack in the available literature.

Troeltsch was "a complex man and lived in a complex time," Niebuhr wries; yet there was an integrity to his overarching project; Troeltsch's massive interdisciplinary method was driven by an abiding desire to articulate a scientifically informed ethics. Niebuhr continues:

His practical, moral concern in the presence of pluralistic, centrifugal modern civilization is evident througout his total work. He lived and thought in the presence of the confusions and alarms, the hopes and threats that issue from class and party conflict, church and state tensions, international wars remembered and impending, from colonial imperialisms and rising nationalisms, from industrialism growing in extent and in power over the common life, from the spectacular development of the natural and social sciences, from the radical criticism of modern civilization by Marx and Nietzsche. Troeltsch, academician though he was by profession, experienced the need for ethical decision and action in this situation as the ultimate challenge (p. 8).

If any of these concerns still seem pressing a century later, we might learn to see Troeltsch as a contemporary interlocutor and not a mere museum piece in Western intellectual history.

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