A critical appraisal of typologies of religious orientation in the theology and ethics of Ernst Troeltsch and H. Richard Niebuhr

Jennings, Brian Keith (1989). A critical appraisal of typologies of religious orientation in the theology and ethics of Ernst Troeltsch and H. Richard Niebuhr. MPhil thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000fc1c


The thesis begins with the contention that the categories which are used to interpret Christian ethics, which are generally derived from Troeltsch and Niebuhr's typologies, are far too restrictive to be useful in establishing responses to contemporary moral problems. Troeltsch and Niebuhr polarise the options in Christian ethics allowing only a choice between being culturally effective but compromising the Gospel or being faithful to the Gospel but becoming socially irrelevant.

The thesis proceeds to show how the central themes in Troeltsch and Niebuhr's thought become the evaluative criteria behind their typologies. In Troeltsch's case this was the idea of compromise or synthesis in which Christian values may be combined with secular values. This approach is embodied in Troeltsch's church-type and is the standard by which he evaluates all his other types. Niebuhr adopted much of Troeltsch's thinking and methods with the difference that for him 'compromise' was a negative rather than a positive principle. In his later work, however, Niebuhr abandoned Troeltsch's synthetic approach entirely and sought, instead, the conversion or transformation of culture on the basis of 'radical faith'. Conversion or transformation became the organising criterion of the typology of Christ and Culture. All the five types in this work were evaluated with regard to their ability to transform culture. Different approaches to Christian ethics are thus evaluated by a principle that is no part of their own agenda and which presents them in a limiting and distorting light.

In addition to these distorting effects both Troeltsch and Niebuhr's typologies are based upon dualistic frameworks which falsely polarise options in Christian ethics.

In conclusion the thesis does not reject typological approaches entirely but makes a plea for a more open-ended approach to Christian ethics based upon the eschatological duality of Christianity.

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