The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches
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The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches is an influential work in Christian theology. The author of the text, Ernst Peter Wilhelm Troesltsch, was a religious, philosophical writer and liberal politician. Troeltsch wrote about important topics that were often controversial as well, such as "disenchantment of the world." Read how this theologian faces the threat of a changing world on Christianity and its values. Can religion survive the evolution of the modern world?

The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches

Ernst Troeltsch

Translated by Olive Wyon

The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches

Introductory Note

It is not necessary to agree with Troeltsch in all his opinions in order to rejoice heartily at the appearance of an English translation of his greatest book. It stands beyond question without a rival, whether in thoroughness or in comprehensiveness, as an exposition of Christian life and thought in their relation to contemporary social facts, ideas, and problems from the beginnings of Christianity down to post-Reformation developments. And we owe much gratitude to the skilful translator.


Translator's Preface

FRIEDRICH VON HÜGEL, in his essay on The Specific Genius of Christianity, remarks that “it is not easy to furnish a short yet useful account and criticism of Troeltsch’s Soziallehren, with its nearly thousand pages, its bewildering variety of topics, and the range and delicacy of competence it so strikingly reveals.” It is obvious that the translation of this “monumental work,” as Baron Von Hügel calls it, would present peculiar difficulties. In addition to the wide range of the author’s learning and his extensive use of unusual and technical terms, there was the added difficulty of an extremely involved style.

For the sake of clarity the translator has introduced crossheadings which are not in the German text. Paragraphs have been subdivided, and where it was possible sentences have been broken up into their constituent parts. The present work, however, is an unabridged translation of the famous book published in Germany in the year 1911 under the title: Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen. It forms the first volume in the Collected Works of Ernst Troeltsch.

The footnotes occupy a large part of the book. Some of these notes are dissertations or articles rather than “notes,” and they often contain most valuable material. In order to free the text from this mass of annotations, however, the longer notes have been placed at the end of the chapters to which they belong. Actual footnotes alone have been left in their original position. A very few notes have been slightly condensed. No references have been omitted, and the numbering of the German edition has been retained. Note 80, which belongs to Chapter II, will be found on page 199, at the end of the Notes belonging to Chapter I.

The translator owes a very great debt of gratitude to several friends who have given most generous help out of the stores of their knowledge and experience. She would offer her cordial thanks to Mrs. Margrieta Beer, M.A.; Mrs. John May, B.A.; Frau Maria Schlüter-Hermkes, D.D.; and Miss Evelyn Underhill. The Rev. A. E. Garvie, M.A., D.D., D.Th., has kindly read the full text of the translation; for this, as well as for other most generous assistance, the translator wishes to render special acknowledgement and gratitude.


August 1931


In accordance with my own desires and those of others, I have gathered within this volume the fruit of my scattered researches. Apart from my large work on the place of Protestantism in contemporary culture, most of my researches have been gathered into monographs, studies of method, and various sketches, covering a great variety of subjects. Now that they appear in public in collected form, it will be clear that, in spite of the fact that they are drawn from so many sources, they all spring from a unified plan. On this point a few words of explanation are necessary.

The connection of ideas is easy to recognize. Trained in the school of Ritschl, I learned very early that two elements were united in the impressive teaching of this energetic and great scholar: a distinct conception of traditional dogma by means of which modern needs and problems were met, and just as decided a conception of the modern intellectual and religious situation, by means of which it seemed possible to accept and carry forward the teaching of tradition, understood in the Ritschlian sense. The question arose, therefore, quite naturally, first, whether this conception were true to dogmatic tradition in its actual historical sense, and, second, whether the present situation was being interpreted as it actually is.

Then it became clear that from both sides a certain process of assimilation had been completed which did not correspond with actual facts and which did not permit the real contrast to appear in its full actuality. Thus I found myself confronted by a double task: to make clear to myself both the ecclesiastical dogmatic tradition of Protestantism in its own historical sense, and the intellectual and practical situation of the present day in its true fundamental tendencies. Hence the double nature of my researches — the analysis of early Protestantism and the analysis of the modern world.

All this research, however, was only intended to serve the purpose of solving the systematic problem, in order to think through and formulate the world of Christian thought and life in frank relation to the modern world. This led me to researches in methodology and in the philosophy of religion which are absolutely necessary before a Christian doctrine of thought and life can be built up. In the process, however, I found that the more I studied modern problems the more I found that the balance leaned to the side of ethics. If Christianity is first and foremost a matter of practice, then its main problems lie in the sphere of practical life, and it is from this realm that the most complicated difficulties and contrasts arise in opposition to the world of Christian life. Particularly in relation to social ethics the ethic of the churches is out of date.

When, however, I pursued this line of thought, I was confronted with this further question: What, then, would be the relation of such a new and formative conception of the Christian attitude to life to its own ancient organizations, the churches? Further, could such a new conception, indeed, in any way be grafted on to the old organizations at all and, if this were possible, what kind of social adhesion or relation with a fellowship would be possible in harmony with this new view of life?

It was considerations such as these which led to the researches which are collected in this first volume. They readily became unified when the sociological formulation of the problem was applied to the whole sweep of the history of the Christian Church. This unified point of view illuminated the significance and nature of the varying forms of religious fellowship, the underlying characteristics of the Christian Ethos in its relation to the ethical problems and tasks of secular life, and the inner connection of each formulated dogma to a fellowship group more or less affected by it. At the same time this led me to a peculiar conception of the nature of Christianity, its history and its relation to the general history of civilization. This again led to progress in my whole formulation of the theological problem in general. The results have been summarized in the concluding section. They are genuine results which have been gained from the process of research, not theses which the book was written to support. This is why they are placed at the end and not at the beginning. The reader can, however, lighten his task by referring to the closing section of the book — that is, if he does not prefer to allow the results of the whole study to become clear to him naturally in the course of his reading.

With its nearly one thousand pages this work has become a very substantial volume. Especially in a subject of this kind, it was necessary to support the actual text with a very wide range of illustrations in the form of notes. In order to explain the facts upon which my ideas are based and to relate the explanation to the previous process of research, this annotation became inevitable. About two-thirds of the material had already been published in the Archives for Social Science and Social Politics, but the chapters on Calvinism, the Sects, and Mysticism are entirely new. The introductory chapters have been revised and expanded since they were published in the Archives; but they were then taken out of their context. This explains why there is no reference to some of the latest works on this subject.

There is one thing which consoles me for the enormous size of this volume, and that is that it enables it to bear the weight and the honour of a double dedication. The Philosophical Faculty at Greifswald, in the year 1903, on the occasion of their Jubilee celebrations, did me the honour of promoting me to the rank of Doctor philosophias honoris causa. In the first place this honour was accorded me on account of my inclusive study of Protestantism, which had just appeared. In the present year, 1911, the Faculty of Law at Breslau, on the occasion of its centenary celebrations, gave me the honour of Doctor juris honoris causa, in recognition of the work already published in the Archives, which is now contained in this book. The present volume is closely connected with its predecessor; indeed, it is only in this volume that actual proofs are provided for many of the statements made in the earlier treatise. I therefore venture upon a double dedication for the following reasons: the massive nature of this work, combined with the fact that both these honours prove how clear a connection exists between philosophy and law and the general subject of this book.

Both these honours also show very clearly that my work recognizes no special theological or Christian methods of research. I am, however, convinced, and believe that this work proves the force of my conviction, that in the process the Christian outlook on life loses nothing of its greatness or its inward significance.


November 1, 1911

Introduction and Preliminary Questions of Method

The Churches and the Social Problem

Amid all the social confusion of the present day, with its clamour of conflicting voices, the churches also are making their voice heard. These social conflicts are due in part to the growth of large modern unified States, with their democratic tendencies and their party struggles. They are also the outcome of modern industrialization, the development of the proletariat, and the emancipation of the masses in many lands. These problems do not merely concern politicians, political economists, specialists in social science, and modern independent philosophers of culture; they are also the concern of the churches, whose roots are entwined with traditions of great historical importance and vital energy.

At the present time the churches are employing their considerable powers of organization in the endeavour to find a solution for these problems. To a great extent their efforts coincide with those of the various political parties, particularly with the Centre Party, the Conservatives, and the anti-Semitic Mittelstandpolitik; this, however, means that the churches themselves are also strongly influenced in their turn by the political and class interests which these parties represent. To some extent, however, the churches are trying to exercise their influence in a practical way on religious, non-party lines, through movements like the Protestant Social Congress and by the promotion of scientific literature on social questions.

They also find a fruitful sphere of activity in the semi-ecclesiastical societies and organizations of the Home Mission Movement and other movements of the same kind. At any rate, since these religious groups have perceived that the modern social situation has brought them face to face with new problems and new duties in the ordering of social life, they have plunged into the study of these questions, both theoretically and practically. Linking their investigations with those contained in the existing scientific literature on the subject, they have attempted to outline or to define a peculiarly Christian doctrine of the State, of social science, and of economics.

The more clearly, too, that the churches have discerned the fact that all higher spiritual culture is largely dependent upon the economic basis of life, the more earnestly they have thrown their energies into an endeavour to understand and solve these questions. In this endeavour they have also been aided by several national political economists, and by several representatives of political science. It is well known that leading government officials are in the habit of taking an interest in these questions, and that Bismarck in particular — in strange contrast to the rest of his political realism and naturalism — favoured social reform, on his own lines.

In itself such a procedure is quite intelligible and in order, since in point of fact the science of Society cannot create ultimate values and standards from within, for even economic science, in regard to the ultimate valuation of the goods which it handles, and in regard to the complicated social, political, and moral energies which it presupposes, is obliged to use institutions outside the borders of its own special faculty. The question, therefore, is not whether it is permissible to formulate social doctrines from the standpoint of the churches and of religion in general; all we have to do is to ask whether these attempts have achieved something useful and valuable for the modern situation. In order to be able to answer this question, however, we need, above all, a detailed knowledge of these endeavours and aspirations.

A task of this kind, however, is extremely complicated. To attempt to estimate what the churches have actually achieved in practice in social reform and in social science is such a broad question that only a specialist with a training in politics and in political economy, who has consecrated all his energies to the investigation of these problems, would be fit to deal with the subject. On this point I cannot allow myself to offer an opinion. There is, however, another aspect of the question which, from the theoretical point of view, is still more important; I refer to the theological aspect of the problem. This, then, is the question: What is the basis of the social teaching of the churches? From the point of view of their essential nature in principle what is their attitude towards the modern social problem? And what should be their attitude?

This question is all the more important since one of the special advantages of ecclesiastical social science is that it possesses metaphysical convictions based on principle. In this the churches are one with the Social Democrats, and for that reason the political party of the Centre, the Conservatives with their “patriarchal” ideas, and the revolutionary Social Democrats have the strongest power of influencing other people, whereas Liberalism, which by its relative tendency is split up into individual peculiarities, practical compromises, and middle-class learning, either does not possess this power, or it possesses it no longer, since for the present, at least, its fundamental individualistic idea has become exhausted.

A study of the history of doctrine on these lines is pre-eminently a matter for the theologian and Church historian, or at least for someone who is familiar with these subjects. For at the outset we are faced at once with the fundamental fact that the churches and Christianity, which are pre-eminently historic forces, are at all points conditioned by their past, by the Gospel which, together with the Bible, exerts its influence ever anew, and by the dogmas which concern social life and the whole of civilization. Whether in agreement or opposition, in dependence or in change of meaning, all the modern ecclesiastical social doctrines are determined by this point of view. Since their spiritual power is only produced by this consciousness of an ancient and worldwide religious tradition, their content also can only be understood from this point of view.

These modern ecclesiastical social doctrines would have to be studied in the light of the history of the Christian ethic, and, properly speaking, in the light of its fundamental doctrines — if, indeed, there were such a thing as a history of the Christian ethic — which could present the Christian Ethos in its inward connection with the universal history of civilization. Since no history of this kind is in existence, I am forced to open up the subject myself, and to try to answer the question which has here been raised. My object will be to pave the way for the understanding of the social doctrines of the Gospel, of the Early Church, of the Middle Ages, of the post-Reformation confessions, right down to the formation of the new situation in the modern world, in which the old theories no longer suffice, and where, therefore, new theories must be constructed, composed of old and new elements, consciously or unconsciously, whether so avowed or not.

Christian Sociological Development

The attempt, therefore, must be made to present a clear view of the facts based on the results of this historical study. In order to achieve this result the briefest possible presentation will suffice. Brevity, indeed, will be an advantage, for in a small compass it is possible to indicate the outstanding features of this historical development, which, in any detailed treatment of the subject, would very easily be hidden by the intricate and perplexing process of building up ecclesiastical dogmas, with their particularly confusing details. The moment the problem is formulated, however, we are faced by one great difficulty: What, after all, does constitute the “Social” element in relation to the churches and to Christianity?

In face of the confusion which characterizes most of the writings dealing with the problem when it has been thus stated, we need at the outset to clear our minds as to the real content of the term “Social,” in order to arrive at a clear formulation of this question. If we examine a typical work of this kind, say, for instance, the book by Nathusius, which has gone into its third edition, on the “Co-operation of the Church in the Solution of the Social Question” of 1904, we find that two elements have been inextricably mingled, and that it is this confusion of thought which obviously causes the obscurities and errors of the book.

At one point the writer speaks of a fellowship which issues from the religious idea itself, of the “social character of Christianity” as a whole. On closer consideration, however, this is something quite obvious; it simply means the particular religious group-fellowship which is the outcome of the religious object, representing the sociological effect of the religious phenomenon. This, however, can be paralleled by any other phenomenon we may care to mention, such as the sex-instinct, art, science, the earning of a living, or even any favourite pursuit or passing intention which, in one way or another, produces its own sociological effect, great or small, permanent or temporary, upon the sociological circle which it affects, and the constituent elements of such a group.

This has nothing to do with the “Social” element in the usual sense of the word. As a matter of fact, all sociological reflection shows us the vast differences which exist in questions of basis and structure, in their function and in their connection with other groups, between these various sociological phenomena — differences which are affected by the object which produces them. But it is plain that the use of the word “Social” by Nathusius for this human co-operation which proceeds from Christian thought confuses everything. Hastily jumping to conclusions, he deduces from Christianity, on the basis of its “Social” character, a principle of social life in general.

Since, according to the author, this social life consists “in the natural relationships of sex, age, etc., in natural economic necessities, in the classification to which they give rise, in property, and in a human commonwealth of nations,” so also the social principle of Christianity becomes eo ipso the principle of all these things. Hence we cannot be surprised that the writer proceeds to say plainly: “That not only does Christianity contain a social spirit, a power which draws men and unites them to each other, but that also, for that very reason, certain principles are established for the natural classification of mankind — relationships of sex and age and of conditions of life, upon whose observance their healthy development depends!” Nathusius fails to see that possibly the sociological group which proceeds from the Christian view of life might be inwardly and essentially different from those sociological groups which proceed from other aims; merely, for the sake of formal equality, because they are “associating forces” they are forced into one mould, and then the one is deduced from the other.

Secular Sociological Development

This, however, is far from being the only instance of serious confusion in this process of thought. The second instance appears in the question of the conception of Society, or of the “Social” element, which has thus been cast into the sociological circle of Christian ideas. This conception is anything but natural and obvious, and does not in any way denote the sum-total of the sociological relationships which are present and possible alongside of the sociological group formed by the ideas of Christianity. Nathusius gathers up all other forms of association into a unity, and contrasts this unity with the Christian sociological unity, and then reduces both unities like Reason and Revelation to the same thing, because ultimately, that is in God, they are one.

The main characteristic of this argument, however, is the habit of the Christian theologian and apologist of setting everything as a unity over against the absolute nature of Christianity, and then somehow of tracing both unities back to a common source, and thus of smoothing out all difficulties; this is an error which disappears when it is placed in the clear light of dispassionate historical research. This habit of thought, however, contains a more far-reaching error: a vast extension of the general use of the conception of the “Social,” which makes any definite and clear formulation of the problem impossible. This is a very frequent misconception among non-theological dogmatic thinkers, the representatives of the conception of Society based on natural science.

The “Social” is neither the sum-total of “natural” forms of association contrasted with the association which has been effected by “supernatural” means, nor the sum-total of human association in general, which, as a universal conception, would include every sociological phenomenon as a particular detail, and by which it would then be explained and understood. If this argument were valid, it would lead to the same confusion of ideas as we see in Nathusius only from the opposite direction. Instead of allowing the idea of the “Social” to be swallowed up in the Christian-sociological ideal, it would mean that the latter would be absorbed into the supposedly clear and unambiguous conception of the “Social” itself. Here the Socialist dogmatist is a warning to the theological dogmatist; a paper like Kautsky’s “Programme” Pamphlet: Social Democracy and the Catholic Church (2nd ed., 1906) is a good example.

In the current sense, the idea of the “Social” means a definite, clearly defined section of the general sociological phenomena — that is, the sociological relations which are not regulated by the State, nor by political interest, save in so far as they are indirectly influenced by them. This sociological section is composed of the various questions which arise out of economic life, the sociological tension between various groups with different customs and aims, division of labour, class organization, and some other interests which cannot be directly characterized as political, but which actually have a great influence on the collective life of the State; since the development of the modern constitutional State, however, these interests have definitely separated themselves from it.

The “social problem,” therefore, really consists in the relation between the political community and these sociological phenomena, which, although they are essentially non-political, are yet of outstanding importance from the political point of view. Thus Lorenz von Stein, for instance, from his observation of the development of France, set the conception of “Society” alongside that of the State, and heralded the social problem of the present day. Rodbertus, the other prophet of the social problem, has defined Society as the “personified total content of the peripheral life-activities, which express themselves in the lower strata of social life, through individual multiplicities, in those sections of social life which the State does not control.” It is, however, essential to retain this narrower significance of the words “society” and “social” as they are particularly accentuated by the present situation.

For it is impossible to speak of Society as the total sum of varying grades of sociological groups, with their mutual complexities and interactions. It is not an entity which can be surveyed scientifically. Because of the infinitude of its groupings and the manifold ways we may choose for the linking up of sociological phenomena, Society is something inconceivable — an abstraction like civilization, or history in general, about which only dilettanti speak as a whole. In truth, all thought of it involves a seizing and relating of some particular factor which interests us, and by means of which the sociological phenomena which are related to it come into the field of vision at the same time. Even the keenest thinker, who is capable of looking at things from the broadest point of view and in abstract terms, if he tries to think about Society as a whole, finds his ideas dispersing in all directions, into the infinitude of sociological classifications which emerge from any other possible point of view.

There is no “natural-science” conception of Society such as there is of mechanics, which will cover all particular phenomena. The conception of Society is an historical conception, and out of an infinite wealth of individual sociological developments it is always only able to seize upon certain phenomena and to study them in their various connections; even when this conception seizes upon those aspects which are most important for life — and in so doing naturally touches an extremely widespread complication of sociological groups — it never exhausts the universal conception of Society in general. This means, however, that in this instance “Society” and the “Social,” in the sense of the problem of the present day, is only a specially important and a strongly emphasized part of the general sociological situation; it is a part only, not the whole.

The relation of Christianity to social problems, therefore, can only mean the relation to these great questions specially emphasized by the present situation, which, however, have always been present in “Society” in the narrower sense of the word, as it is used by Stein. However inconsistent it may be to class Christianity with all other sociological phenomena which are characterized by the faculty of creating the sociological “association” type, precisely because it possesses this faculty, it is equally inconsistent to use the terms “society” and the “social element” with which Christianity is contrasted to indicate Society as a whole. Indeed, even Stein’s conception of Society, which includes everything which does not come under the scope of the modern constitutional State, is still too broad. By “Society” modern science means, and rightly, primarily the social relationships which result from the economic phenomena. That is to say, it is the Society composed of all who labour, who are divided up into various classes and professional groups according to the work they do, which produces and exchanges goods, a Society organized upon the basis of the economic needs of existence, with all its manifold complications.

Both Elements Combined in a Fundamental Social Theory

It is true, of course, that a sociological point of view which issues from universal ideas, like the Christian regulation of the connection between the individual and the community, certainly constitutes a general fundamental sociological theory, which in some way or another will exert an influence upon all social relationships. This influence, however, is only intermittent; sometimes it is strong and sometimes it is weak, sometimes it is clear and sometimes it is confused, and it can never be held to be part of the social tissue of relations itself. All that can be done is to attempt to discover the possible influence of this fundamental theory in particular instances, in definite social groups.

For all these social groups possess independent instincts of organization; all that we can do, therefore, is to try to discover how far the religious-sociological fundamental theory has been able to penetrate into these motives, and to what extent it has been able to assimilate these groups into itself. Wherever this has taken place it will be found that the process of development has been very different within the various social groups. In particular, the economic form of “Society” based on the division of labour always remains an independent phenomenon, with its own sociological basis, in contrast to the spirit of fellowship which is derived from religious ideas.

Further, the question of the inward influence of Christianity upon the sense of personality, and upon ethical mutual relationships, is certainly of immense importance, but in the main it can be neither conceived nor answered. The only method of attempting to find an answer at all is by investigating the concrete effect of its influence in different social groups. In the course of such an investigation, however, it will become evident that great tracts of social life, like that of the economic-social order, throw a great deal of light upon the general fundamental tendency of Christian sociology, which permit us to draw certain inferences about the general character, and the effect on civilization, of Christian-sociological principles.

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