Troeltsch – “Social Teaching of the Christian Churches” – The Gospel and the Pauline Ethic

by Travis Pickell

The following is a seminar paper reflection on Ernst Troeltsch’s The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, in which I focus on the first part of the first chapter. In this section Troeltsch makes a distinction between the gospel of Jesus and that of Paul that will have lasting influence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

§1. The Gospel

Troeltsch begins his discussion of the Christian gospel with an immediate challenge to Karl Marx: “Christianity was not the product of a class struggle of any kind” (39). According to Troeltsch, while the gospel arose in the context of various social forces, it cannot simply be reduced to a product of its time. Primitive Christianity arose as an “independent phenomenon” (39), with a “purely religious” (39) gospel with “its own inner dialectic and its own power of development” (48). It was concerned with matters such as eternal salvation, proper worship, and ascetical practices of discipline and holiness. The “Kingdom” the early Christians sought was not an upheaval of the social order, but rather an ethical ideal “in which all the values of pure spirituality would be recognized and appreciated at their true worth” (40).

According to Troeltsch, the “fundamental idea” of the gospel of Jesus is the “final Judgment of the coming of the ‘Kingdom of God,’ [when] the true spiritual values, combined with a single-eyed devotion to the Will of God, will shine out in the glory that is their due” (51), and with the community that looks in hope toward this Kingdom. This gospel stresses both the presence of God and the value of the human soul “attained though self-renunciation for the sake of God” (52). Among the ethical ideals that arise from such a gospel message are sincerity, integrity, conscientiousness, humility, and self-denial (53-54).

According to Troeltsch, this gospel ethic leads to the following sociological characteristics: (1) an absolute individualism which values each and every soul in light of her particular relation to God, and sees all distinctions fall away except “those which characterize creative personalities of infinite worth” (55);[1] (2) an absolute universalism as the “fellowship of love among those who are united in God” (56). Individualism and universalism, according to Troeltsch, are mutually interdependent, and both are conditioned by the eschatological expectation of the kingdom of God. All of this arises quite naturally and freely as a result of the Gospel ethic; it is not a result of a sociological or institutional structures. “Jesus did not organize a Church. He simply asked for helpers who would spread the message” (58).

What does the gospel of Jesus have to say about the State, the economic order, and the Family? Of the State Jesus has virtually nothing to say (59). Of the economic order Jesus councils only humble trust that God will provide one’s “daily bread,” and a self-sacrificing love that is apt to share what it has with others (59). Of the family, Jesus endorses whole-heartedly the “ethical conception” of the “monogamous family” (61), even while the message of the coming Kingdom relativized its importance. In no way does the gospel directly challenge any of these orders. “In the teaching of Jesus there is no trace of a struggle against oppression… The message of Jesus is not a programme of social reform. It is rather the summons to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God; this preparation, however, is to take place quietly within the framework of the present world-order, in a purely religious fellowship of love, with an earnest endeavor to conquer self and cultivate the Christian virtues” (60-61). While this ethic resulted, at times, in a “religious Communism of Love,” such a result was purely derivative and accidental; it was not the goal.

§2. Paul

The transition from the gospel ethic to the Pauline ethic is essentially a transition from the fact of the “fundamental happening” of faith in the exalted and risen Lord (69) and the sociological consequences that arose as a result. It is important to remember that Troeltsch is interested in how the gospel takes shape in the life of the church when, as he will say later, “the situation has changed” (81). With the Pauline ethic the situation has changed in two broad ways. First, the Christian message has become more Christocentric. The pure, absolute individualism was lost, and therefore so was the universalism. The individual before God, seeking to follow God’s will, is now a recipient of Pneuma-Christ, who is the mediator of grace. Second, the church, which began as a “loose-knit group” of followers, is becoming a semi-organized “cult.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of this section is Troeltsch’s examination of the sociological consequences of a key ambiguity—inchoate in Judaism and in the gospel but full-blown in Paul’s thought—between equality and inequality. According to Troeltsch this ambiguity is at the core of both (a) debates about theodicy and theological voluntarism and (b) the rise of Christian patriarchalism.

First, voluntarism: Paul speaks about human equality before God in multiple ways. Humans are equally sinful before God’s holiness, a form of “negative equality” (72). Humans are also equally loved by God. These equalities are of a purely religious sort, and manifest themselves in the equality of all members of the congregation in the act of worship (73). A tension arises, however, because not all realize the equality of Grace in the same way; some come to it slowly, and with great difficulty, if at all. Paul attributes the source of this inequality of the realization of grace to the inscrutable will of God, which gives rise to the classical question in metaphysics and theology: “Are holiness and love the norm for God himself? Or do they only have value through his inscrutable Will?”[2] According to Troeltsch, there is an “element of the irrational” in appeals to the “inscrutable Will of God,” that has the following sociological effect: the equality of humans must be affirmed only on the eternal scale; all differences in earthly life “must be left in the Hands of God” (75).

Troeltsch also sees in this ambiguity the seeds for the rise of Christian patriarchalism. Within the context of the “worth of personality and of the unconditional fellowship of love”, “inequalities of human life in ordinary affairs” are taken up and transformed into a “source of peculiar ethical value” (76). This occurs through the metaphor of the body/organism in which the “nobler and baser parts” each have a place in the fellowship of the whole. “As stewards of God the great must care for the small, and as servants of God the little ones must submit to those who bear authority” (78). Over time, this dynamic “assumed the form of a compact social system, with its various grades of authority and subordination” – i.e. a Christian hierarchy.

With regard to what Troeltsch calls “the Social”, the Pauline ethic presents a “curious blend of conservative and revolutionary elements” (87). It generally shows an outward conservatism mixed with an inner detachment that relativizes the social realm. It “can never be a principle of revolution” (85), nor can a “purely and unconditionally conservative doctrine” (86) be produced by it. This dynamic, I am sure, will play itself out throughout the rest of Troeltsch’s massive work.

§3. Two Points for Critique/Discussion

I will conclude this essay with two critiques. The first critique has to do with Troeltsch’s understanding of the class basis of the early church. According to Troeltsch, Jesus’ message was primarily addressed to the poor and oppressed, with whom it met the earliest success. “During the first few centuries the Christians belonged to the lower classes” (41). While immensely influential, Troeltsch’s view here has been challenged by some modern scholars. Rodney Stark, presents a number of arguments countering the theory that Christianity was disproportionately represented by those from the lowest class, as well as a sociological analysis of “new religious movements” that suggests that “cult movements [including early Christianity]… are based on the more, not the less, privileged” within a society.[3] Its difficult to say whether this effect’s Troeltsch’s overall program. On the one hand, it seems to call into question the strength of his claim that the early church could not have been interested in the “Social” because, as disenfranchised commoners, the followers of Jesus had religious concerns of a “primal” and “non-reflective” sort (44). On the other hand, Troeltsch acknowledges “some” upper class members in the early Church (42), and even points to a similar dynamic  [he calls it a “fusion”] between the “cultivated thoughtful circles” and the lower classes that necessarily takes place with the rise of  “new religious movements” (44). It may be the case that the difference between Stark and Troeltsch simply amounts to a difference of exactly when the upper classes began to play a role in the formation of Christianity—a point that may weaken, but does not necessarily discount Troeltsch’s overall narrative.

Second, I question Troeltsch’s assertion that “Paul’s ideas were quite distinct from the ideals of the Gospel” (80). It must first be acknowledged that Troeltsch does not draw an absolute division between Jesus and Paul. Indeed, the “Pauline turn of thought in relation to social matters corresponds to the spirit and meaning of the Gospel” (85, emphasis added). Still, one might ask whether it is fair to locate the “fundamental idea” of the Gospel where Troeltsch does? It seems to make the more Christ-centered aspect of Christianity a Pauline aberration. One might point to the early dates of Paul’s letters, his connection to the church in Jerusalem, and Christ’s teachings about himself in the gospels as evidence against such a distinction. Of course, Troelstch might say, as some scholars have, that what we learn of Jesus through the NT scriptures, especially the Gospels, is shaped and formed by the needs of specific communities, which have already undergone the “transformation” from loose-knit group to semi-organized cult. Such a view, in my opinion, claims too much. While not ignoring the contextual needs that occasioned the writing of NT documents, it seems more plausible that the Christocentrism of the early church was actually present in Christ’s own teaching.

[1] There are echoes here of Kierkegaard: “[Christian love] teaches love of all men, unconditionally all… embracing all, loving everyone in particular but no one in partiality” (Works of Love, 78).

[2] Of course, this problem did not arise only in Pauline Christianity. Plato has Euthyphro ask a similar question in one of his dialogues. It seems to arise in all theistic religions, and continues today in Muslim debates about theological voluntarism and Jewish philosophical debates about legal positivism and natural law in ethics.

[3] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 1997. See especially chapter 2: “The Class Basis of Early Christianity”.