...at that time the state of theology seemed to demand such great synthetic undertakings rather than the more circumscribed work of the specialists. In this respect, too, theology was then one of the most interesting of disciplines. Here more than in other fields, general scholarship continued to be cultivated; although it had to be looked for, one could at least find it. Since then, the situation in theology has changed. Theology today is only interested in practical matters and has abandoned the historical and systematic study of religion in the struggle for its own survival. Such theology interests me only in terms of social psychology and history. (Religion in History, 368)I've been thinking a bit lately about the common assertion that there simply aren't very many good theologians in the U.S. these days (readers from other countries may hear similar narratives of decline, I'm not sure). Troeltsch here seems to be lamenting an analogous lack of vitality, so his thoughts on what sort of change was going on in the style of theological scholarship might be worth considering.
I'll state up front that I'm not convinced (or at least not overly impressed) by cries of a waning in theological work. I understand why the point is made; I agree that standards of excellence can be pretty unimpressive and that there is a lot of fluff passing as real work. But I'm not sure if this is unique to our own time and place, and more importantly, I'm not sure it's really even a useful picture of current theological work. It's my intention to write a longer post offering some reasons why I think people fall into this sort of pessimism (and what is actually useful about such pessimism, and what is simply unjustified), but when I came across this quote I thought I'd introduce the problem in a more open-ended manner, as a sort of preface. Troeltsch identifies some specifics... like a shift from "great synthetic undertakings" to "practical matters" and a lack of "historical and systematic study". There's also a suggestion that these changes have something to do with a struggle for survival, which may be worth considering with regard to its plausibility as an explanation for theology's current status amongst the disciplines.
Another quote from the essay worth considering:
The so-called systems of modern authors are means to understand their actual main works, which are directed to particular themes; they are instruments of control for themselves and others. It goes without saying that outstanding, brilliant, and instructive materials are to be found among them. But there is nothing remotely resembling the great systems of antiquity or of the seventeenth, the end of the eighteenth, and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. In this sense, everything that we do today is the work of followers (Epigonenwerk), even if it is not dead and superfluous. (377)The point seems straightforward enough. Is it true for our own day? If it is, is this necessarily a problem in current work? Is theology more appropriately a systematic project, or a commentative one? Does one of these in particular make for greatness of work?