Ernst Troeltsch Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Troeltsch pioneered in making the study of religion a phenomenon amenable to social and scientific analysis in contrast to the standard theological approach. His sociological method stimulated in turn the comparative study of religions and helped gain acceptance for sociology as an academic discipline. His reflections on the philosophy of religion also helped establish the credibility of that field of inquiry.

Early Life

Ernst Peter Wilhelm Troeltsch was the eldest son of a physician of Augsburg, where the family was prominent among the local Lutheran burgher community. Through his father, young Ernst acquired early a fascination with scientific method and observation. He later recalled his ready access in the family home to botanical and geological specimens, anatomical charts, skeletons, and a library amply endowed with scientific books. Darwinism by the 1870’s had found a welcome reception among the educated classes of Germany.

Nevertheless, after a solid grounding in the classical languages and literatures at local preparatory schools, Troeltsch gravitated toward the study of theology and particularly the relationship between Christian faith and human reason, a theme that would occupy most of his scholarly career.

Between 1884 and 1888, Troeltsch studied theology at three German universities. At Erlangen he pursued, in addition to courses in Lutheran theology, a general liberal arts curriculum that included studies in history, art history, psychology, and philosophy. The breadth and variety of this program, coupled with his enduring interest in the scientific method, led him to increasing dissatisfaction with what he regarded as the narrow, dogmatic Lutheranism of the Erlangen theology faculty.

Troeltsch therefore transferred to the more cosmopolitan University of Berlin and, within a year, to the University of Göttingen. There, after three further years of study, he received in 1888 the licentiate in theology. It was at Göttingen under the tutelage of the renowned liberal Lutheran theologian Albrecht Ritschl that Troeltsch’s scholarly interests came into focus. Yet, while he learned much from Ritschl’s neo-Kantian perspectives and his insights regarding Christian values as essentially independent of scientific verification, Troeltsch eventually broke with his mentor.

What Troeltsch could not accept was Ritschl’s fully transcendent, ahistorical approach to the history of Christianity. Troeltsch had become convinced that theological study could no longer be based only on dogmatic authority. If theology were to be intellectually respectable it must, in his judgment, be subjected to the rigors of the scientific and historical methods. Troeltsch envisioned nothing less than a rational theory of religion rooted in concrete historical investigations. Since in his view religion had, like mankind, evolved across time, the Christian religion in particular should be studied within the framework of the comparative history of religions.

This was the message that the still obscure young scholar Troeltsch proclaimed at a meeting of German theologians in 1896. When his dramatic assertion that the old ways of theological study were tottering was sharply rebuked by a senior theologian present, Troeltsch angrily departed the assembly, slamming the door behind him. He was ready to carry forward the broad program of theological renewal that he had contemplated.

After a year as a Lutheran pastor, Troeltsch had in 1891 accepted his first academic position as a lecturer in theology at the University of Göttingen. The following year, he became associate professor of theology at the University of Bonn, where he remained until his elevation in 1904 to a full professorship in systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg. His final move came in 1915, when the now-renowned scholar became professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin. He developed his ideas within the framework of his teaching responsibilities at these institutions.

Life’s Work

Troeltsch identified the great spiritual dilemma of his time as the “dissolution of all norms and values under the endless turbulence of the currents of historical life.” He related this crisis in coherence and meaning in large measure to the decline of religion as a vital force in society. A multifaceted intellectual movement called historicism had since the latter nineteenth century stressed the relentless relativity of things, both in nature and in history. Although Troeltsch shared many of the premises and conclusions of historicism, as a committed Christian he took it as his urgent scholarly task to confront the historicist challenge in order to provide a tenable new coherence to religion and to history.

Troeltsch’s problem from the outset remained the great rift between the skepticism generated by what he called “the ceaseless flow and manifold contradictions within the sphere of history, and the demand of the religious consciousness for certainty, for unity and for peace.” To bridge this gap and meet the challenge of historicism, Troeltsch determined to lay the foundations of a general theory of religion. He sought above all an extrahistorical basis for what he called “the morality of conscience . . . amid the flux and confusion of the life of the instincts.”

In a series of essays beginning in 1895, Troeltsch tried to establish religion as a natural human phenomenon with its roots in the structure of the human mind, parallel to the various realms of reason affirmed in the famous critiques of Immanuel Kant. Troeltsch attempted to formulate a law that would, above any historical experience, attest the a priori existence of religious ideas such as a “morality of conscience” in human beings. If he could confirm the existence of a mental structure where religious ideas originated, he believed that he could demonstrate the actuality of the absolute in finite consciousness, a point at which the infinite and the finite would meet, thereby neutralizing permanently the acids of relativism on moral values. A “science of religion” could then be...

(The entire section is 2529 words.)