The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches Summary
by Ernst Troeltsch

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The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Ernst Troeltsch belonged to a pioneering generation of German social thinkers who studied value conflict in the formation of social and cultural unity. In studies of religion, they emphasized the tension within “universal” religions between world-affirming and world-rejecting impulses. The former impulse finds expression in beliefs that the cosmos is divinely created, sustained, or guided; the latter finds expression in beliefs that the cosmos stands in profound disjunction with divine purposes, triggering responses such as asceticism, expectation of divine judgment, or longing for otherworldly salvation. Focusing primarily on three periods of Christian history—early Christianity, medieval and Reformation Christianity, and early modern Protestantism—Troeltsch shows how Christians, wrestling with the ambiguities of institutional and personal value conflict, attempted to create Christian identities suitable for their times and cultures.

Because they expected the world to be quickly replaced by the Kingdom of God, these social dilemmas were especially acute for the earliest Christians. To follow Jesus meant to live wholly in terms of the coming redemption and in radical disjunction with this world. The expectation of a perpetually delayed salvation, however, could not sustain the nascent community for long, and Christianity had to adjust to life in an enduring world. Troeltsch argues that the social tensions of this dilemma permeated the ethical and theological discourse of early Christian thinkers from Paul to Augustine. Their primary response was to find in Jesus not only the announcer of future redemption but also a cosmic Christ who offers salvation within this world. In turn, redemption came to mean grace that ensures both salvation in the next world and forgiveness, personal transformation, and strength to live a virtuous life in this world, mediated by an authoritative institutional church. However, the nagging question persisted: What is to be rejected and affirmed in the life of this world? Its social ethic attuned to the world to come, Christianity borrowed from preexisting Jewish and Greco-Roman ethical and philosophical perspectives. Troeltsch argues that the expectation of a future Kingdom of God was ultimately recast into a Neoplatonic hierarchy of divinely created goods: those of this world—the state, the economy, the family—were affirmed, but only in their proper place below the higher eternal goods that call forth absolute love of God and neighbor. Combined with a Stoic theory of natural law, this perspective offered a relative Christian affirmation of secular institutions even while demoting them beneath the higher ethical demands that echoed from the Gospel.

The medieval Church broke out of this model for the simple reason that it was situated in a culture it had helped to create. To a large extent, Christianity permeated and affirmed secular medieval institutions. This circumstance found intellectual expression in the Christian-Aristotelian theology of Thomas Aquinas, which held that divine revelation, grace, and the Church perfected and completed the political, social, and economic institutions natural to the created pattern of rational human development. The underlying formal ideal of the unity of religion and culture expressed here was assumed not only by the medieval Church but by the Protestant Reformers as well.

At this point in his analysis, Troeltsch proposes one of his most famous themes: the analytical distinction between three types of religious institutional formation—the church-type, sect-type, and mysticism-type. For many readers, this distinction is the enduring heart of his book.

By the term church-type, Troeltsch means the type of religious institution, first exemplified in Christianity by the medieval Church, that affirms and stabilizes worldly institutions, seeing them as divinely ordained. Such support, in turn, increases the authority with which the Church maintains its own...

(The entire section is 1,229 words.)