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Ernst Peter Wilhelm Troeltsch (1865–1923) was born in Haunstetten and educated at Göttingen, Berlin, and Erlängen. Troeltsch was minister of education for Germany before World War I and taught, primarily at Berlin and Heidelberg, from 1894 until his death. He was a liberal theologian who was intensely involved in social and political issues, as well as a historian and philosopher. His work dismissed the Bible and regarded all religion as culturally conditioned, yet he detested the relativism his ideas promoted. Troeltsch believed Christianity to be the religion best suited for the Western world, and he sought to legitimize it through social action in modern history rather than supernatural action in the ancient world. Among his works were Christian Thought in History and Application (1924/trans. 1923), and The Social Teaching of the Christian Church (1912/1931).
Concerning the difficult position of the early Christians in Roman society, sociologist and theologian Ernst Troeltsch wrote: “All offices and callings were barred which had any connection with idol-worship, or with the worship of the Emperor, or those which had anything to do with bloodshed or with capital punishment, or those which would bring Christians into contact with pagan immorality.”
Professor Troeltsch wrote: “From the third century onwards, the situation grew more difficult, for the Christians became more numerous in the higher ranks of Society and in the more eminent professions, in the army and in official circles. In several passages in the [non-Biblical] Christian writings, there are indignant protests against participation in these things; on the other hand, we also find attempts to compromise—arguments designed to quiet uneasy consciences . . . From the time of Constantine these difficulties disappeared; friction between Christians and pagans ceased, and all offices in the State were thrown open.”
Troeltsch laid down the rule of analogy: The only way one can know the past is by analogies in the present. The unknown of the past is arrived at only through what is known. On this principle, some argue that the miracles of the Bible should not be believed, since they do not relate to anything happening now (see Miracles, Arguments Against). A proper historical method, thus, eliminates the miraculous. Antony Flew added his own twist to the “critical historical argument.”
THE PRINCIPLES OF ANALOGY: Two Principles of Analogy Sometimes Affect Christian Apologetics
Troeltsch used the principle of analogy and Flew the principle of critical history against miracles. Both have the same naturalistic basis (see Naturalism).
It should be noted that the term principle of analogy is used in two entirely differing senses. For a discussion on the principle of analogy related to reason and knowledge of God, see the article Analogy, Principle of.
The Principle of Analogy. This principle of analogy, according to Troeltsch, asserts that “on the analogy of the events known to us we seek by conjecture and sympathetic understanding to explain and reconstruct the past.” Without uniformity of the past and present, we could not know anything from the past. For without analogies from the present we cannot understand the past (Troeltsch, Historicism and Its Problems).
On the basis of this principle, some have insisted that “no amount of testimony is ever permitted to establish as past reality a thing that cannot be found in present reality.” Even if the witness has a perfect character, the testimony has no power as proof (Becker, “Detachment and the Writing of History,” 12–13). This means that, unless one can identify in today’s world such miracles as are found in the New Testament, we have no reason to believe they occurred in the past either. The philosopher F. H. Bradley (1846–1924) stated the problem this way:
We have seen that history rests in the last resort upon an inference from our experience, a judgment based upon our own present state of things; … when we are asked to affirm the existence in past time of events, the effects of causes which confessedly are without analogy in the world in which we live, and which we know—we are at a loss for any answer but this, that … we are asked to build a house without a foundation.… And how can we attempt this without contradicting ourselves? [Bradley, 100]
It is widely admitted on all sides of the issue that no virgin births, no raising the dead and no walking on water are occurring today, then it follows by the principle of analogy that such events cannot be known to have happened in history. So biblical miracles are historically unknowable.
Similar to Troeltsch’s “Principle of Analogy” is Flew’s “critical history.” Critical history owes its existence partly to two principles stated by David Hume, which attempt to undermine the credibility of miracles (Hume, Treaties on Human Nature, 2.3.1; Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 8; see Miracles, Arguments Against). Flew comments:
- “The present detritus [remains] of the past cannot be interpreted as historical evidence at all, unless we presume that the same basic regularities obtained then as today.”
- “The historian must employ as criteria all his present knowledge, or presumed knowledge, of what is probable or improbable, possible or impossible” (Flew, 350).
Only by presuming that the laws of today also governed reality in the past can the historian rationally interpret evidence and construct an account of what actually happened (ibid., 351).
Flew concludes that the critical historian dismisses a story of a miracle. With Hume, he argues that reasonable people regard the “absolute impossibility or a miraculous nature” as sufficient to refute reported occurrences (ibid., 352). Miracles are possible in principle, but in practice the historian must always reject them. The very nature of the historical method demands that the past be interpreted in accordance with the (naturalistic) regularities of the present. In logical structure, this argument against miracles can be summarized:
- All critical history depends on the validity of two principles: (a) The remains of the past can be used as evidence for reconstructing history only if we presume the same basic regularities of nature held then as now. (b) The critical historian must use today’s knowledge of the possible and probable as criteria for knowing the past.
- Belief in miracles is contrary to both these principles.
- Therefore, belief in miracles is contrary to critical history.
Conversely, only the naïve and uncritical can believe in miracles. The past can be known only in terms of the regular patterns of the present. And these patterns of nature in the present rule out any knowledge of miracles in the past.
Evaluation. It should be noted first that this argument does not claim to eliminate the possibility of miracles (see Spinoza, Benedict). It simply attempts to rule out their knowability by what Flew calls “critical history.” Further, the argument (as Flew admits) follows the basic form of Hume’s antisupernaturalism, which has been critiqued in the article Miracles, Arguments Against. That is to say, it assumes that to be truly critical and historical, one must be antisupernatural. Anyone who allows for the supernatural is automatically naïve (incidentally, an ad hominem attack). However, one would think that closed-mindedness would not be lauded as a prerequisite for evaluating evidence and compiling history.
It is a valid principle that “the present is the key to the past,” or that “the past is known by analogy with the present.” This is so since those living in the present have no direct access to the past. We were not there and cannot go back. We must depend, therefore, on comparing remains of the past with events in the present. This is precisely how origin science works (see Origins, Science of), whether applied to archaeology, biology, or geology. In geology the principle of analogy is known as the principle of uniformity or uniformitarianism. However, the two should be distinguished. For uniformitarianism is loaded with an extraneous antisupernatural bias. Whereas, in sciences about the past, the principle of uniformity (analogy) is legitimate. When an archaeologist finds a piece of pottery, it helps to know what pottery is used for in the present, how different materials, forms, and glazes apply to different functions, and how the potter performs the craft. The archaeologist postulates from that what the origin of this potsherd might have been.
A valid application of the principle that “the present is the key to the past” is that “the kinds of causes known to produce certain kinds of effects in the present can be assumed to produce similar kinds of effects in the past.” But, contrary to Troeltsch and Flew, this principle does not rule out a credible belief in past miracles, even if no such miracles exist in the present. This use misapplies the principle.
Problems with the Arguments. Several difficulties involved in the arguments against miracles are discussed in the section on arguments against miracles from analogy in the article Miracles, Arguments Against. In abbreviated form those arguments are:
Both Troeltsch and Flew adopt historical uniformitarianism. They assume all past events are uniformly the same as all present ones. By uniformitarian logic, geology long overlooked the fact that many past processes were catastrophic and caused change faster than what can be observed. By the uniformitarian argument, scientists should not study the singular, unrepeatable events surrounding the origins of the universe and life on earth.
The historical argument confuses uniformity with uniformitarianism. It does not follow that the object in the past cannot be a singularity. Unique finds by archaeologists can be studied by analogy to other finds. They may not be uniformly the same, perhaps nothing like, but that does not disqualify their study. The SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program is not unscientific in believing that receipt of a unique message from space will reveal the existence of intelligent life (see Sagan, Carl). The basis for knowing that a singular group of radio waves is produced by intelligence is their organized complexity, not receipt of more messages. Historical evidence provides ample grounds for affirming that the miracles of Christ occurred, even if none occur today.
It is special pleading to assume that no miracles are occurring. God may or may not still work in this way. Troeltsch and Flew do not demonstrate that miracles never happen today. If there are miracles, an analogy for knowing the past does exist.
In practice, Flew says that miracles are “absolutely impossible” and must be dismissed out of hand. This is the fallacy of petitio principii or question begging. Why should a critical thinker be so biased against the historical actuality of a miracle as to begin with a mind closed to all other evidence?
By closing off discussion and mocking those who disagree with their assumptions, uniformitarians are actually betraying the foundations of science. A recent example is the time and energy wasted in avoiding the evidence that the universe had a beginning, though the explosive eruption of mass in the big bang is readily accepted today.
Why should exceptional events of the past be judged against normal events of today’s world? The healing of a man born blind seemed as incredible in Jesus’ day as it would if it happened now (see Matthew 9). The only legitimate comparison of a past anomaly is comparison with today’s anomalous happenings, rather than the general run of life.
The uniformitarian argument proves that much of what uniformitarians believe about the past cannot be true. Many historical events they do accept were exceptional or unique.
“Critical history” does not criticize the uncritical, unreasonable acceptance of presuppositions that eliminate valid historical knowledge. It legislates, rather than seeks, truth.
Conclusion. Troeltsch sought to synthesize religion and social culture, but he seldom could come to a final conclusion about where the synthesis was headed, so he made a sometimes helpful but incomplete theology of Christian action in the world. Part of the problem was his theological liberal skepticism, which left unanswered the question of the foundations of Christianity and where this religion itself fit in the world of reality. Much of the problem with his historical philosophy related to his “Principle of Analogy,” a uniformitarian dogma that dismissed the uniqueness of Christ’s life and miracles. Who Christ was and what he did could not even be considered without similar occurrences repeating now. This historical naturalism assumes that all events can be naturally explained. This, however, is contrary to rational thought in general and scientific thought in particular.
Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999)