Ernst Troeltsch

1865-1923. Liberal German theologian, historian, and philosopher of religion. He taught mainly in Heidelberg and Berlin between 1894 and 1923, and served also for a time as minister of education in the government. Early associated with the “religionsgeschichtliche Schule,” he devoted himself to the problem raised for religion by the historical consciousness and method dominant in the West since the eighteenth century, and to relating Christianity to the cultural situation. He denied that dogmatic theology could have access to a super-historical absolute truth. The claims of all religions were depicted as relative to their total cultural settings, which both made them possible and limited them. His belief that Christianity could be shown to be the highest of religions weakened between Die Absolutheit des Christentums und die Religionsgeschichte (1902; ET The Absoluteness of Christianity, 1971) and Der Historismus und seine Ueberwindung (1924; ET Christian Thought, Its History and Application, 1923). Yet he feared the skepticism of historical relativism and believed it could be overcome by living decisions, taken responsibly in the light of history. Thus Christianity was still the religion best suited to the Western world.

He was intensely concerned with social and political questions, and his interest in the possibilities and conditions for a fruitful contemporary relation between Christianity and civilization issued in The Social Teaching of the Christian Church (1931; first published in 1912 as Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen), a work best but misleadingly known perhaps for its use of church, sect, and mysticism as three types of Christianity. By his classical explorations of the problem of historicism in relation to religion, Troeltsch could be regarded as marking an epoch in modern theology.

See R.H. Bainton, “Ernst Troeltsch-Thirty Years After,” Theology Today 8 (April 1951), pp. 70-96.