C.G. Weaver: Let’s start off with your thoughts on Professor Harnack and his
work on the essence of Christianity.
Professor Tröeltsch: Yes…I see Harnack giving us an object of faith from an historical starting point. For him, the object of faith is the essence of Christianity. However, Dr. Harnack assumes that essence is a static concept. The dichotomy of kernel and husk serves as evidence of my analysis.
C.G. Weaver: Indeed, Dr. Harnack believed that in grasping “what is essential” in a given phenomena one must “distinguish kernel and husk.”
Professor Tröeltsch: So the essence of Christianity is to be arrived at by historical investigation, but Harnack’s philosophical definition of essence is normative. And this normative concept of essence is always thrown back upon his investigations into history.
C.G. Weaver: And your beef with Harnack, if I’ve understood your writings correctly, is that his static normative conception of essence is multiply flawed.
Professor Tröeltsch: Precisely! As I have written in my 1913 work: The static essence of Christianity can only be found “in a broad view [of Christianity] over the totality of all the manifestations which are related to this idea [Essence of Christianity], and its discovery demands…the art of seeing the whole…with a synoptic vision.”
C.G. Weaver: Your saying that a static conception of Christianity’s essence can only be gleaned from history if we have the all encompassing “God’s I point of view”?
Professor Tröeltsch: Yea, well, I’m not entirely sure that there is such a thing. But before we go that direction I want to simply affirm that historical investigation involves philosophical presuppositions. In fact, on the next page of my book I state, historical investigation into the “essence of Christianity purely historically includes a series of the most important and ultimately decisive presuppositions...”
C.G. Weaver: But what would this mean for Harnack’s program?
Professor Tröeltsch: It means that Harnack’s historical methodology has to be examined in order for his inductive-historical inferences to be secured.
C.G. Weaver: I trust that one need also examine Harnack’s static normative conception of essence as well?
Professor Tröeltsch: Alas! From the framework of philosophy a comprehensive view of Christianity is possible only by way of understanding the universal development of religion.
C.G. Weaver: It is precisely here where you invoke your History of Religions methodology. For those students who may be listening, why don’t you explicate what concept or ideology is…
Professor Tröeltsch: Well, ‘as religion is a constitutive part of historical existence, its main questions arise in the area of history.’ As a natural result of the work performed by the Deists of the 18th century Christianity lost its exclusive-supernatural foundation. The uniqueness of Christianity and Religion are lost amidst religious diversity. In fact, the truth value of religious claims is undermined given realism concerning religious diversity and plurality. As I’ve written, “[w]hat can be true in the religious belief in God when this belief manifests itself in a thousand different forms, clearly dependent on the situation and the conditions in which they arise.” The authority upon which such religious beliefs are formed is thought to be supernatural, and yet the propositional elements of these revelations from the divine are mutually exclusive.
C.G. Weaver: Ah! So it’s back to Hume and the argument from religious diversity. To travel in another direction briefly, it appears that your understanding of history, with its relevant presuppositions gives rise to a new (I mean new in the 1900’s) conception of religion.
Professor Tröeltsch: The outsider must try to understand and analyze the fundamental experience of religion, and the resulting formation of religious groups and the unfolding of the religious idea.
C.G. Weaver: And for this task you deem knowledge of the empirical history of religion, broadly speaking, to be the most important requisite.
Professor Tröeltsch: It is extremely important that you recognize Chris, that I am not saying the History of Religions program is a school. It is only the recognition of two scientific conclusions. The first conclusion is that human religions exist only in multiple individual forms which develop in a very complex relation to one another. And the second conclusion is that any decision concerning these forms cannot be made with the expedient distinction between natural and supernatural revelation.
C.G. Weaver: Why not invoke this distinction? Surely each is a real possibility.
Professor Tröeltsch: Claims to supernatural revelation end in a pluralism of mutually exclusive truth claims (e.g. Christianity vs. Islam vs. Buddhism etc.). The history of religions thinking is concerned with the historical development of Christianity and that “out of contact with, and in opposition to, other religions.” An interest of HRP, as I will now call it, is the questions posed by the Philosophy of Religion. HRP is trying to answer these questions by studying the historical development of religion in general.
C.G. Weaver: One startling thing I came away with in studying your writings was the thesis that Christianity is not unique, and neither is it in final form absolute religion (to use Hegel’s term). On the truth of your method how ought we to view Christianity then?
Professor Tröeltsch: Christianity of course is to be measured by a standard that itself arises in the comparison itself out of our religious and moral feelings. Such a standard is not scientifically demonstrable, but neither is it any ready-made prejudice or irresponsible bit of arbitrariness. In other words, HRP is not concerned with how we all “ought” to view Christianity. It is only concerned with what Christianity is. And the “what” of Christianity is subject to a variety of interpretations, formulations, and syntheses relative to one’s cultural and temporal context. No single impulse or idea has dominated the whole. “Thus the essence of Christianity can be understood only as the new interpretations and new adaptations, corresponding to each new situation” arise.
C.G. Weaver: You then believe that Christianity has no normative static essence.
Professor Tröeltsch: Yes. In fact, Christian dogmatism is better understood as Glaubenslehre to borrow a phrase from Schleiermacher. This better serves my purposes because it entails that “there is no such thing as unchangeably fixed truth” relative to dogmatics. In fact, such truth is completely unknowable because there is no completely finished program.
C.G. Weaver: Ah! So it’s back to your point about having an all encompassing point of view, a veritable synoptic vision.
Professor Tröeltsch: Exactly! Chris, you really should stay here and study with me, you would make a great pupil.
C.G. Weaver: I don’t think so Professor. Your rejection of the uniqueness of Christianity, and Jesus in particular rests upon a number presuppositions as you yourself admit. In your Writings on Theology and Religion page 131 you state what the presuppositions of the modern historical critic are: (1) Presupposition of criticism (2) the reconstruction of facts by analogy (3) and the construction of a causal scheme that binds together all phenomena.
Professor Tröeltsch: Yea, Chris these principles are explicated more fully in some of my other writings. I call them the principle of criticism, the principle of analogy, and the principle of correlation.
Professor Tröeltsch: According to the principle of criticism all conclusions are subject to revision, historical inquiry can never attain absolute certainty, but only degrees of probability which are relative to the object of historical investigation.
C.G. Weaver: I do not see how this is a principle for historical investigation at all!
Professor Tröeltsch: What do you mean?
C.G. Weaver: This is a mere judgment about the nature of all historical conclusions, namely that they are at best probable. But this is false even if it is so in an almost trivial way. It is false because the following proposition which is very historical is necessarily true:
(1) Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in the year 30 A.C.E., or he was not crucified in the year 30 A.C.E.
C.G. Weaver: It is clearly the case that (1) if true is necessarily true given the nature of the inference rule (Excluded-Middle Introduction). And there are good reasons for believing that if (1) is known to be necessarily the case, then (1) is known with epistemic certainty. Just like if one knows that 2 + 1 = 3 one knows it with epistemic certainty, i.e. one knows that it cannot be false.
Professor Tröeltsch: Yes I concede your point. I cannot escape the logic; however are not most historical claims unlike (1) and more like the following:
(1*) Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.
C.G. Weaver: Yes, I completely agree. (1*) is only at best probably the case, but your principle is not one for historical investigation it only describes the nature of the conclusions arrived at by such investigation.
Professor Tröeltsch: Point well taken.
Professor Tröeltsch: The principle of analogy concerns how our knowledge of history is possible i.e. the events which take place in the world are similar or analogous and therefore makes knowledge of such events knowable. The laws of nature during the time in which one is seeking to know about must have been the same as they are now. And this seems intuitively obvious to me.
C.G. Weaver: It is not so obvious to me. I think that you must be very careful in affirming this specific principle. Later scholars will take you to be precluding all direct divine action in the world. For instance, a German scholar named Bultmann who claims to be following in your stead will say: “[t]he historical method includes the presupposition that history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects in which individual events are connected by the succession of cause and effect.” Are you precluding divine action in the world?
Professor Tröeltsch: Only if that follows from saying that the natural laws have remained the same throughout time.
C.G. Weaver: So you are precluding the miraculous?
Professor Tröeltsch: Miracles do not happen in the present, and therefore could not have happened in the past.
C.G. Weaver: This smacks of David Hume who affirmed that the regularity of occurring events happening naturalistically serves as evidence against the occurrence of miracles.
Professor Tröeltsch: Then I am, in one way, a Humean empiricist in method. Historical inquiry must seek to be scientific.
C.G. Weaver: The principle of analogy is vague at best then. To quote a scholar who will write in the year 2000, “[e]mpiricists have always been dubious about natural laws, however, and at present the claim that there are any such things is, at best, extremely controversial.”
Professor Tröeltsch: But surely we have a general knowledge of what a nomic law might be.
C.G. Weaver: There are, or will be three main views about what a nomic law might be. Consider propositions (2)-(4):
(2) [Regularity Theory] A nomic law is a generalized description of what (most of the time) happens in nature.
(3)[Nomic Necessity Theory] Nomic laws are propositions whose truth values preclude or include the naturally possible and impossible.
(4)[Causal Dispositions Theory] Nomic laws are simply metaphysically necessary truths about what causal dispositions are true of various natural kinds.
C.G. Weaver: On the truth of any of these theories, miracles are not naturally impossible. On the truth of (2) there would be events which were not apart of the generalized descriptions but would, subsequent to their occurrence, be assimilated into the general descriptions of events. In other words, on this view miracles are not impossible but events which occur only rarely. If we were to adopt (3) miracles would not be precluded as impossible because nomic laws are still universal inductive generalizations based upon experience. Insofar as they are based upon experience we must be open to describing what is experienced as miraculous or caused by God, as William Alston will write: “we have to learn from experience what we can be experientially aware of.” To assert that one cannot look into experience and infer an event caused by God is to assume either the incoherence of the idea of God, the incoherence of the idea that God could cause an event in the physical realm, or a problem with the idea that we can, as humans identify a miracle. On the truth of (4) miracles would still be nomically possible for the causal dispositions would still be true of a specific natural kind, it’s just that God interacts by way of causal interference of the natural propensity in question. It is like a regular human being holding a rock up and causally impeding gravity from bringing the rock to the ground.
Professor Tröeltsch: Perhaps there has to be more work done on what I mean by “natural law.” But I am not ready to yield to allowing contranomicity in the causal scheme of the natural world.
C.G. Weaver: Well that brings me to my analysis of the principle of correlation. You stated yourself, “[t]he sole task of history in its specifically theoretical aspect is to explain every movement process, state and nexus of things by reference to the web of its causal relations.” And it is clear that you mean natural causal relations. So the causal scheme of the past is a strictly naturalistic one. Now it is obviously the case that events are often caused by persons. So if we were to consider an event like the resurrection of Jesus (if indeed it was a historical event) you could not infer from historical data that God raised Jesus from the dead. Why? The answer is because of your philosophical presupposition that inductive historical investigation is strictly empirical. And at this point I have to say your guilty of methodological naturalism—the belief that one can only due history, science, or any other discipline with the assumption of philosophical naturalism. Now since you admit that presuppositions shape one’s approach to history the real disagreement between you and I lies in our differing answers to the meta-questions of philosophical theology. Why must we all operate under historical methodologies which preclude the miraculous? Why not choose to do history in such a way so as to preclude your principles?
Professor Tröeltsch: I agree that the fundamental question is whether to dispense with my principles for historical research, I am just at a loss in offering philosophical reasons why I adopt them at the moment. Let’s get back together again some time to discuss this further.
Ernst Tröeltsch, Writings on Theology and Religion trans. and edited by Robert Morgan & Michael Pye (Duckworth, originally ca. 1913) p. 177.