The Lasting Significance Of Ernst Troeltsch’s Critical Moment -- By: Paul Wells

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 72:2 (Fall 2010)
Article: The Lasting Significance Of Ernst Troeltsch’s Critical Moment
Author: Paul Wells

The Lasting Significance Of Ernst Troeltsch’s Critical Moment

Special Lecture

Paul Wells

Paul Wells is Professor of Systematic Theology and Dean at the Faculte Libre de Theologie Reformee, Aix-en-Provence, France. This article is a revision of the lecture given by Professor Wells on April 7, 2010, at Westminster Theological Seminary as the third annual Richard B. Gaffin Lecture Series in Theology, Culture, and Missions.

If, as the saying goes, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie, why dig Troeltsch up? The question is legitimate and skepticism is justified. However, Ernst Troeltsch, the father of modern criticism, described the critical mindset and its implications with a lucidity admired even by his enemies. Critical attitudes to Scripture have never been buried and are still alive in spite of hermeneutical pluralism.

As the Barthian behemoth ploughed through the twentieth century it took the skyway rather than the seaway, precisely because of the reefs of historical relativity. For Barth, Troeltsch exemplified all that was wrong with the rationalism of the previous century, everything that made the downfall of liberalism inevitable.1

Today it is strange to see them both trumpeted as heralds of postmodernism. In our age of kaleidoscopic theology they are pressed into service to show the way forward—Troeltsch because of his synthesis of theology and historico-sociological perspectives, opening Christianity up to world religions, Barth because of a dialectic that secures a special place for Christian revelation. Of the former it has been said that “the man once thought to be the last theologian of the nineteenth century may even turn out to be the first theologian of the twentieth—or even the twenty-first.”2 If Barth skirted the historical problem, Troeltsch made it unavoidable. The historical questions he raised are still relevant, in spite of postmodernism or perhaps because of it. Nothing less than Christianity’s claim to absolute truth is the issue. With relativism in the driving

seat there is no final revelation of God’s truth, an idea not unwelcome at present to Christianity’s cultured despisers.

Troeltsch was bourgeois-born in 1865 near Augsburg. He studied at the University of Erlangen where he met his lifelong friend Wilhelm Bousset, and later at Gottingen under Albrecht Ritschl. He became Professor of Systematic theology at Heidelberg in 1894, living next door to social historian Max Weber. Both Troeltsch and Weber had contact with Abraham Kuyper and were interested i...

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