Theology Compromised

Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, and the Possibility of a Sociological Theology

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Matthew Ryan Robinson, Evan F. Kuehn
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
    , October
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Theology Compromised: Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, and the Possibility of a Sociological Theology, by Matthew Ryan Robinson and Evan F. Kuehn, is a gem of a book—small, finely crafted, and valuable. It reconstructs an important but little-remembered episode in European Christian theology and documents its ongoing relevance. The episode concerns the efforts of Ernst Troeltsch to build reflection on the particularities and structures of both Christian communities and their societies into Christian theology. The book’s point of origin was the project of producing the first English translation of Troeltsch’s only sustained essay on Friedrich Schleiermacher—“Schleiermacher and the Church,” published in 1910 in a volume of essays on Schleiermacher edited by Friedrich Naumann. The project eventually expanded to six chapters, which fill the background of Troeltsch’s and Naumann’s appropriations of Schleiermacher, explore Troeltsch’s theological project in some detail, and then trace the continuation of the project in the work of two more recent figures. The translated essay by Troeltsch appears as an appendix, accompanied by Naumann’s introduction to the collection in which it appeared.

The first chapter sketches a history of development from Schleiermacher’s own interest in the interpersonal dynamics of religion through the efforts of his student Johann Hinrich Wichern to promote “a regeneration of our most inner condition in state, church, and society” (9). These efforts continued through Naumann and the Evangelical Social Congress, out of whose networks the volume on Schleiermacher emerged. The second through fourth chapters are on Troeltsch. The first of these focuses on Troeltsch’s reflections of the condition and prospects of the church in “the great religious crisis of the present” (18), drawing attention to the grounding of the “church question” in the underlying “social question” of the day.

Chapter 3 interprets Troeltsch on the theme of compromise, particularly in his posthumously published lectures of 1923. Compromise is the necessary reflection of the fact that “all history involves the synthesis of absolute ideals and contingent historical circumstances” (33), and in fact historical Christianity itself is, in the final analysis, “a tremendous, continuous compromise between the utopian demands of the Kingdom of God and the permanent conditions of our actual human life” (40). Chapter 4 focuses on Troeltsch’s 1910 address to the Evangelical Social Congress on the theme of Christianity and political ethics, in which Troeltsch argued that Christianity, rather than containing or generating a distinct political ethic, is unavoidably caught between competing democratic and conservative tendencies that prioritize, “on the one hand, the dignity and equality of each person and, on the other hand, the maintenance of conditions that support the cultivation of that equality” (54).

The final two chapters bring the history forward to the present by concentrating, first, on Hans Joas and the question of values in history, and second, on Niklas Luhmann on the theme of communication. Joas inherits Troeltsch’s concern with the status of the absolute values around which religions revolve and argues that within history value commitments arise “in experiences of self-formation and self-transcendence,” often in a dynamic relationship to religious traditions (65). Making use of both Troeltsch and Nietzsche, Joas proposes the device of “affirmative genealogy,” a type of historical investigation that “rather than negating our commitment to them or endowing us with the sovereignty to assess our value commitments, opens our minds to the way in which historically embodied meaning calls upon us” (67). In the final chapters the authors, with one eye on Luhmann’s work on systems of communication, revisit Troeltsch’s late claims that under the conditions of modernity, church became insularized, or relatively self-enclosed communicative systems that, no longer conterminous with more global social structures, exist in dynamic interaction with larger social structures to which they cannot dictate terms.

Taken as a whole, Theology Compromised sketches a Schleiermacherian trajectory in academic theology. In an intriguing passage from a letter written in 1904, Troeltsch remarked that he wanted to continue “the older channels of Schleiermacher and those related to him . . . and breaking from the interregnum of Hengstenberg, Mediating Theology, and Ritschl” (74). The passage suggests that Troeltsch saw in Schleiermacher the prototype of a project interrupted by the largely defensive theological movements of the remainder of the century. Robinson and Kuehn write that following Troeltsch’s expansion of this project, “Christian doctrine might be seen as more than the conceptual contents of central ideas of the Christian confession and instead as including the practices facilitating the generation, circulation and realization or ‘making-real’ of those ideas in concrete historical forms” (57).

Moreover, a theology informed by this idea will follow Schleiermacher in focusing its attention not on doctrines as recorded in the writing of elites, but on the actual discourse of existing religious communities in all their particularity, reframing the notion of doctrine itself “not finally as truth or even a community’s beliefs about truth, but as a record or manual even of that community’s communications, which reflect its style and methods for discerning its self-understanding and values” (81). Knowledge gained from analysis in these terms will be of interest to both scholars of religion and religious leaders. Thus, if a premise of this approach is the insularization of religious communities in the modern world, the approach itself is a recipe for the deinsularization of theology.

At a minimum, this book should inform any discussions of theological method in both precincts favorable and hostile to theology. It provides a powerful, if underdeveloped, paradigm for theological reflection with both historical sanction and reasoned justification. But the book can and should have a broader and deeper impact. It raises questions about why so much of Christian theology during the past two centuries has carried on largely untouched by the modes of learning for which Schleiermacher advocated and within which Troeltsch’s life unfolded. The century since Troeltsch contains further interregna from which it might be possible for contemporary theologians to break.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Dole is a professor of religion at Amherst College.

Date of Review: 
April 14, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Ryan Robinson is a research associate in the Protestant Theological Faculty of Friedrich Wilhelm University of Bonn.

Evan F. Kuehn is theological librarian and adjunct lecturer in philosophy at Trinity International University.


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