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Tag: Social Teaching of the Christian Churches

Troeltsch – “Social Teaching of the Christian Churches” – Dualisms and Dual Morality in Early Catholicism

According to Troeltsch, the early Church saw the rise of a sharp distinction between Church and world, as well as a rise of a double morality, in which monastics began to practice ultra-ascetical disciplines while the laity were governed by a more accommodating set of moral norms. In Chapter 1, Troeltsch also notes the impact this had on the ethic of early Catholicism. From an ethic guided by absolute individualism (and thus universalism), it shifted to a focus on ascetical behavior, aimed at denying the “world” and procuring merit through the mediation of the Church. In a word: “Ascetic meritorious love swallows up individualism” (111).[1] In what follows I will attempt to trace the sociological effects of the shift from the Pauline and Gospel ethic to the ethic of early Catholicism. The difficulty with Troeltsch is that his argument is not particularly linear or cumulative—rather it is fugal. One must be able to recognize the theme that gets repeated over and over again, with different emphases each time. The theme, as far as I read it, in this section is “tension.” There are various tensions within the church’s social teachings that end up either in a “dual morality” or in a paradoxical “dualism” (or sometimes both). In my presentation of this section of Troeltsch, I will focus primarily on how this tension arises with respect to various social spheres (e.g. property, work, callings, family and slavery, charity, science, and state), and how it gives rise to dual morality or dualism in the church.

First, to set the stage: Initially the church had little overlapping concern with the Social, especially with the state, as Troeltsch defines it. The church and state were like non-overlapping circles. Early on, the influence of the church was mainly on the “most accessible point” (112), i.e. the family. Over time, the circles began to overlap more and more, and the church began to have a stronger effect on economic life of society, and eventually on the state—although Troeltsch is always quick to point out that the sociological impact of the ancient church was always fairly minimal, when compared with the medieval church, at least.

The first social sphere Troeltsch examines is that of property. According to Troeltsch, the absolute rejection of private property was never a viable option in the early church. Claims that seem to put such a view forward are actually hyperbolic exhortations to generous charity (115). With the increased socioeconomic diversity, however, a new problem did emerge: viz. “The Rich.” The problem of what to do about rich people was a complex one. While the institution of private property in itself remained untouched, it was unclear what amount of property was appropriate, although many agreed that one should only have the minimum necessary. The Church reached a two-fold solution. First, there was an “ethic of compromise” in which private property and even “riches” were allowed to the lay people in the Church and to the Church itself, so long as it was accompanied by an “inner detachment” and a spirit of generosity. At the same time, the way of monasticism did away with private property altogether, renouncing it in the name of ascetic denial (117-118). [Dualism & Dual Morality]

In a related matter, the early church had an ambivalent relationship toward work. On the one hand it was encouraged for its disciplinary effects on the individual, and this even in the monastery where private property was abolished. On the other hand, it was seen as a result of the fall and a punishment for sin (119). According to Troeltsch the early Catholic church was characterized by a dualism of a “practical wisdom” with regard to economics (i.e. she gained much through her work), accompanied by an under-theorization of the relation between work and sustenance, as manifested by constant exhortations to rely constantly on God to provide for daily needs. [Dualism]

In the early church there was no robust sense of calling as there was in the medieval church (in one way, monasticism) and in the Reformation church (in another, as described by Luther). Insofar as differences in class existed, they were largely believed to be a result of the fall and a punishment for sin (121). Most Christians believed that external inequality could coexist with internal, spiritual equality in the church. For the early Christians, one was to stay in their current calling, not because of any inherent goodness of the calling, but simply because the short eschatological horizon meant that it was most important to avoid those means of employment manifestly incompatible with Christianity (i.e. supporting the pagan idol worship) (123). In the third century, with the rise of Christians in the upper echelons of society, things became more complicated. Here one sees an “evading and softening [of] these rules” (125) about participation in various vocations. When Constantine converted to Christianity, the most important impediment to participation in society was taken away—i.e. the pagan emperor-cult (125). Christians could now be encouraged to endure the present social order (still a result of the fall), in order to uphold the good of social order (c.f. Augustine in City of God). And yet, the more the church became identified with a fallen world and its orders, the greater became the importance of a monasticism that could “redress the balance by a rigid practice of Christian principles” (126). “Thus in her attitude towards the social and economic organizations of the day the Church was divided between submission to the conditions imposed by sin and insistence on the monastic communistic ideal of love” (127, emphasis added). [Dual Morality]

The early church had much to say about the realm of the family. It supported a strict family ethic, which included monogamy, prohibition of extramarital relations, strict discipline of children, and prohibition of exposure of infants. In this regard, “there was a ‘perpetual struggle between the highest ideals of Christianity… and the motives of the secular legal system’” (130). This meant a high view of a particular picture of family life. At the same time, however, there was also a parallel morality of celibacy and virginity among the monastics. Family was affirmed as part of the good order of creation, but it was also something that some gave up for the sake of a higher, supernatural end. “The sex ethic split into two parts… In this respect the development of the sex ethic was typical of the whole ethic of the Early Christian Church” (132). [Dual Morality]

Insofar as slavery was affected by family relations, the church had an influence upon it. But insofar as it was an expression of the social sphere and the economic order of the State, the church did not try to alter it. Fully aware of “the inconsistency between [slavery] and the inner freedom and equality which was the Christian ideal” (133), the Church allowed it to continue to exist. [Dualism]

Early on charity had the following marks: it took place in tight, homogenous communities; it was largely private and philanthropic; it was primarily about expressing and acting out of love for neighbor. Later (post Constantine?), charity had changed. It now took place in the context of a large diverse society; it was depersonalized and institutionalized; and it was performed more and more as a means of obtaining merit, rather than for love’s sake (135-137). The institutionalization of charity is also related to the rise of the bishops and clergy as a “new class,” awarded “more and more privileges” (138) by the Emperor. These privileges for the Church were turned toward care of the poor and social welfare; the bishops became “patron of the poor and wretched” (140). Without fundamentally changing the oppressive Social order itself, the privileges of the church functioned as a “corrective and a softening of existing conditions” (141) – while, at the same time, the rise of a new clergy class had the effect of further separating the church from the world. [Dualism?]

Troeltsch’s final—and most extensive—exploration concerns the relationship between church and state. The early church, according to Troeltsch, was marked by a fairly strict dichotomy between Church/Kingdom of God, on one side, and State/World, on the other (146). The “world” was not thought of as in cosmological or metaphysical terms, but rather as a passing age (aion houtos, saeculum) between Fall and parousia. The state, on the one hand, was part of this passing age, a result of the fall, and therefore part of this “world.” On the other hand it was good, insofar as it was from God and used by God for social order and to punish sins (148).

As the church grew in size and influence, it inevitably compromised the element of antithesis. Some “minimum” form of secular institutions were necessary to uphold common life. But how much was this “minimum”? “This was the question which divided Christianity into two great camps” (149). Most of the church came to acquiesce more and more to the secular conditions of the empire, but “monasticism restricted this ‘minimum’ as far as it was humanly possibly to do so” (149).

How did Christians come to justify their (tentative) affirmation of the state? First, early Christian apologists began to appropriate the Stoic doctrine of Natural Law (150). Especially after Constantine, many Church Fathers based their acceptance of the laws of the State on the theory that positive laws “proceed from the Divine Law of Nature, which is identical with the Decalogue” (152). But this introduced a conundrum: what should one think about laws that are manifestly bad? The Stoics felt this tension as well, and “found their solution in isolating the primitive period, or the Golden Age” (152) in which the “Law of Nature prevailed completely” (152). Christians took a similar route. The fact that positive law no longer directly reflects the Divine Natural law is a result of human sinfulness. At the same time, the fact the Natural Law as we have it does not exactly match the Divine Natural Law (of the primitive state) is not simply a result of the corruption of our faculty of reason after the Fall. Rather “it is the transformation of the Law of Nature, which, according to the Divine Will, took place after the Fall” (153). Postlapsarian Natural Law “can only become evident in the form of an order of law and compulsion” (153). This gives rise to the distinction between a “relative Natural Law, corresponding to the conditions of the general sinfulness of humanity” and the “absolute Natural Laws of the Primitive State” (154, emphasis added). The “harsher aspects” of positive law, according to this view were a result of sin, but were also used by God as a remedy for sin.

Along with Natural Law, the church also stressed “theocratic absolutism” (158). This was a way of understanding the authority of the emperor to make positive laws. While they might have gone the way of the Stoics, and conceived of a free transfer of authority to the princeps occurring in the primitive state, the church fathers more often affirmed that “the authority of the Emperor comes from God” (156)—whether by the grace of God (if it is a good Emperor) or by the wrath of God (if it is a bad Emperor) (156). As regards this second (theocratic) conception, the authority of the Empire could only be limited by its source of authority, i.e. God. Practically speaking, this meant that the Church (“the institution in which God is incarnate” (157)) claimed authority over the Emperor “in all spiritual things, in questions of dogma, of the law of the Church, of ecclesiastical property, of ecclesiastical legislation,” etc. (157).  In so doing, the Church “hallows” the State.

This dualistic theory—combining “the theory of relative Natural Law and the theory of theocratic absolutism”—had various outcomes in the social realm. First was the “division of labor” between Church and State, with the Emperor ruling in the secular affairs of State, and the Church ruling “in everything which concerned religion and the Church” (158). Another outcome was that the Church also began to utilize the State for her own ends, i.e. to secure a “unity which was enforced by the powers of the State, and not by the inherent logic of the ideas contained in the doctrine of the Church” (159). [Dualism]

Troeltsch’s final say on this dualist theory of state is damning, and worth quoting at length:

“The Christian theory of Natural Law—in which the pure Natural Law of the Primitive State, the entirely opposite relative Natural Law of the fallen State, the positive law, which often included the greatest abominations, and that true goodness which, in spire of all these ideas of Natural Law, is the only source of the supreme power of the theocracy, were in continual conflict—as a scientific theory it is wretchedly confused, but as a practical doctrine it is of the highest importance for the history of civilization and social evolution” (160).

In the end, I am left with the following questions: (1) Does the heuristic of “dualism” vs “dual morality” illuminate—or obscure—Troeltsch’s understanding of the early medieval catholic social ethic? Is there a better overarching way of explaining this section? (2) How does Troeltsch’s historical treatment help us understanding Christian appeals to “Natural Law”? Is his distinction between relative and absolute natural law correct? (3) Using some of the concepts that Troeltsch introduces, as well as some of our readings for this week, how might we begin to explain a Christian doctrine of political authority, either for the ancient church or for our own day?


[1] Although Troeltsch notes that individualism was preserved through the ideas of Christian love, monasticism, and contemplation (111).

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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”.