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Tag: Jesus

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

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”.

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Jesus is the Victor…

“In the resurrection of Jesus Christ the claim is made, according to the New Testament, that God’s victory in man’s favour in the person if his Son has already been won. Easter is indeed the great pledge of our hope, but simultaneously this future is already present in the Easter message. It is the proclamation of a victory already won. The war is at an end–even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the capitulation. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is in the interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse of death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humourless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not Christian seriousness. It may be burning behind–and truly it is burning–but we are invited and summoned to take seriously the victory of God’s glory in this man Jesus and to be joyful in Him. Then we may live in thankfulness and not in fear”

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (122-123)

Should We Pray for Specific Outcomes or for God’s Will?

Whose Will Will I Trust?

The following sermon was delivered at Woodside Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Yardley, PA on Sunday, May 16, 2010. It was part of a sermon series on common questions about prayer, entitled Prayer: The Original Wireless Connection.

Good Morning, (Good Morning)

The question I want to discuss with you today is, on one level, very simple and on another level quite a bit more complex. The question is this: When we pray, should we pray for specific outcomes or just for God’s will? I am going to tilt my hand a little bit, and give you the easy answer now. Should we pray for specific things or for God’s will? Yes! We should. We should most certainly pray for specific things and for God’s will to be done. This is the simplistic answer, and while I think that it is absolutely true, it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the question, which is a very important one and one that should be asked.

In fact, if we really stop to think about it, the question really is a profound one. It has to do with the content of or prayer – what should we pray for? Is it better to pray for some things than it is to pray for others? If it is, how do we know what we ought to pray for? If what we pray for isn’t important, why do we pray at all? It causes us to stop and think about exactly what it is that we are doing when we pray. Why do we pray? What do we hope will happen as a result of our prayers?

Unless I miss my guess, the person who is truly asking the question “Should I pray for specific outcomes or just for God’s will?” is not doing so as a theoretical question. As a theoretical question, it can be kept at a distance, played with like a puzzle. Here’ an example: “It’s the closing seconds of the Superbowl and the game is tied—the Eagles are on offence, the Giants on defense. The Eagles are marching down the field and with 5 second left on the clock, they call out their kicker, David Akers. And in the seconds before he kicks the ball, you know that there are millions of people on one side praying that he makes it, and millions on the other praying that he misses it.

Whose prayers will win?

Or maybe the real question: is God a Giants fan or an Eagles fan?

As a side note, this is one of the dangers of going to seminary, where you think about theological puzzles like this and you lose sight of the practical. Because the person who is really asking the question whether to pray for specific outcomes or for God’s will, probably isn’t thinking about football. They are more likely thinking about their sick parent, spouse or child. They want to know if it is OK—against all odds—to pray for them to be healed. Maybe the person who asks this question is sick or hurting. Should they pray for God to do something about it, or should they accept it as God’s will and move on? What they really want to know is whether or not their prayers matter to God.

Jesus was the greatest prayer who ever lived. If prayer is the original wireless connection, he had full-bars at all times—he had a clear connection to the Father.  If we want to know how to pray, we can do no better than to look at what he taught about prayer and how he lived it. In the scripture passage read this morning, we see Jesus wrestling with the exact same question that we are talking about. Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples for the Passover, and it is the final week of his life. Within a day, Jesus is going to be handed over by one of his very own disciples, to the leaders of his very own people, to be crucified at the hands of the Roman Army—and he knows it. Not only does he see the writing on the wall, but he has explicitly told his disciples that he must suffer and die so that the scriptures could be fulfilled.

With all of this in mind, let’s turn again to the text and see what we can learn about how Jesus prays. “Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples,

‘Sit here, while I go over there, and pray” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to the point of death, remain here and watch with me.’ And going a little further he fell on his face and prayed” (Matthew 26:36-39a).

The first thing we learn from Jesus is that his prayer flowed from his experience. All authentic prayer should begin there. We cannot begin anywhere else. Jesus says that he is “sorrowful to the point of death,” meaning that he is so sad and troubled that he may not be able to survive it. In another account of this story, Luke tells us that “he prayed in agony, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). And as a result Jesus “fell on his face and prayed” to God the prayer that was in his heart. He brought to God all his anguish and pain and fear and he prayed to God. Prayer must begin from our experience and our need because that is how it is with all relationships, and prayer is first and foremost about a relationship.CS Lewis saw this. He said the following:

“It is no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us. Even an intimate human friend is ill-used if we talk to him about one thing while our mind is really on another, and even a human friend will soon become aware when we are doing so.” (CS Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer)

Anyone who is married knows that this is true. You cannot have a true, intimate relationship if you do not entrust to that other person what is on your heart. If you were always worried about saying the “right thing” to your spouse or your friend the relationship would become stilted and fabricated. Besides that, my wife can tell when something is on my mind. She knows me and she knows when I am holding something back. Sometimes we are afraid to pray about something that is on our heart because we feel shame about it, or we do not want to feel silly praying about it. But God know us, he already knows what is in our hearts and there is no point in pretending that he doesn’t. It is better to bring it before God in prayer.  Jesus’ prayer flowed out of his experience because he had an intimate relationship with the Father—a relationship cultivated by earnest prayer.

And what did he pray for in that Garden that night? “Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Not only does Jesus pray for something very specific, but he also prays for something very bold. As I mentioned before, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in Jerusalem. Earlier in this chapter Jesus tells his disciples “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matthew 26:1). Then, when the woman poured ointment on him he praised her because she was “preparing [him] for burial” (Matthew 26:12) and in the upper room that very night he foretold his betrayal at the hands of Judas (26:24-5) and Peter’s denial (26:34). Which makes it all the more puzzling why Jesus would pray for something like this.

I am not really sure if Jesus was holding onto some hope that our redemption could be won in another way, or whether he prayed this prayer for the sake of all of us who follow him. Either way, the one thing that we can learn from this prayer is that it is ok to pray for specific outcomes—even big, bold prayers that seem impossible. “We must lay before him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” Thomas Merton, another one of my favorite writers wrote,

“The man whose prayer is so pure that he never asks God for anything does not know who God is, and does not know who he is himself: for he does not know his own need of God.” (Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island)

If we really know God and his power, we will cast our anxieties and cares on him in prayer because we know that that is where they belong. Is something weighing on you? Is there a relationship in your life that is strained, maybe to the breaking point? Pray about that. Is there a job opportunity out there that seems perfect for you, where you can use your gifts and passions and do something you care about? Pray about that. And one more example, which may or may not be autobiographical. Is there someone in your life, who although they maybe don’t even know it yet, you just know that you and she are made for each other, destined to get married and have little kiddos and a white picket fence, and go on a grand adventure of life… now, if only she knew your name and would give you the time of day – its even ok to pray about that.

Now, of course, there is a difference between praying for a good parking spot at Wegmans and praying for our friends and family members to know Christ—but it does not lie in the specificity of the prayer. As the prayer life deepens, the content of our prayer requests may change and mature. But that doesn’t mean that we cease praying for specific things, as demonstrated by Christ’s profound prayer in the Garden that night.

Jesus’ prayer, however, did not end simply with his request of God. His prayer in full was “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus brings to God what is truly in his heart, but he recognizes that if what he wants differs from what God wants, then God’s will takes precedence over his. How can Jesus pray such a prayer when the stakes are so high? What would it take for someone to pray this way?

When I was a little kid, I got my very first bike and I was so excited. It was red, it had a bell, and training wheels. I would ride that thing all over the place. Then one day my dad asked me if I wanted to learn how to ride my bike. “Ride my bike? I ride my bike all the time.” But when we went out to the garage I soon discovered what he meant, because he had taken the training wheels off. Does anyone else remember learning to ride a bike? What do you do? Your dad or mom grabs the back of the seat, and runs along with you, and they tell you to pedal as hard as you can, and then they just let go—and you are just supposed to trust that, for the first time in your life, your bike will stay upright without the training wheels to guide you. As a kid, I wanted to keep my training wheels on, it was easier, and I knew that it worked. But I trusted my dad, and so I did what he told me, and never looked back.

Jesus trusted his Father. That is the only way he could truly pray a prayer like that in the Garden that night. He honestly brought to God what he had, but once he had placed it in God’s hands he trusted that God would take care of him. It couldn’t have been easy to honestly say those words “Nevertheless not as I will, but as you will”—nor is it easy for us to honestly say them when we pray about the most difficult things in our life. The real issue that lies behind the question, “Should I pray for specific outcomes of just for God’s will” is the issue of trust. Whose will do you trust. If you trust in your own will you may pray for specific outcomes all day long, but God is not Santa Claus. He does not exist to give you what you want. But if you trust in God’s will you can honestly bring him your anxieties and requests and trust that he will hear them—and here is the thing about praying this way. Jesus prays three times in the garden, but his second and third prayer are slightly different than his first. Where before it was “if it is possible, let this cup pass,” it becomes “My father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42). The shift in emphasis is subtle, but important. As Jesus prays in the Garden his will starts to become aligned with God’s will. Jesus entered the Garden with profound anxiety, and he leaves with profound power. Through prayer Jesus is prepared to face his trial, as also we are prepared to face ours.

There is one more reason why Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane is so instructive for us. Our lord offered up a prayer in Gethsemane that night, and he did not get what he asked for.  There are many promises in the Bible about the effectiveness of prayer. We are told that whatever we ask for in Christ’s name, with faith, he will do it (John 14:13, Matthew 21:21-22). “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). And that the “prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). These are wonderful promises, and they are true. But if we read them without also keeping in mind Jesus prayer in Gethsemane, we may become discouraged. We may begin to believe the lie that if only we could muster up a little bit more faith our prayers would be more effective. Listen friends, if any person or book leads you to believe that if your prayers don’t “come true” then the fault lies in you, don’t listen to them. Jesus was the most righteous person who ever lived—righteousness itself—and he still asked for something that he didn’t get. Does that mean that his prayer was not “powerful and effective”? Of course not. In the book of Hebrews we are told that “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). The wonderful truth is that God hears our prayers, that he listens to them—they do not simply vanish into thin air. The Bible says that all the prayers of the saints are like “golden bowls of incense” before God (Revelation 5:8). Honest prayer before God is never “ineffective” because God hears it and what ultimately matters is that we recognize that God is not only in control, but that God is trustworthy, and that God wants to be in relationship with us.