Oikonomia and History: Newman’s Critique of Henry Hart Milman and the Historicism of Ernst Troeltsch

By Patrick Auer Jones
September 29, 2021
15 min read
Oikonomia and History: Newman’s Critique of Henry Hart Milman and the Historicism of Ernst Troeltsch

“Give the historical method an inch and it will take a mile. From a strictly orthodox standpoint, therefore, it seems to bear a certain similarity to the devil.”[1] With these words, Ernst Troeltsch aimed to impress the overwhelming consequences of modern historical research on orthodox, confessional theology upon the readers of his 1898 essay, “The Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology.” Troeltsch’s essay is the culmination of a disenchantment with the continued insistence on what he called the “absoluteness of Christianity” within German academia. Even within an intellectual milieu that had learned to take the historical-critical method seriously, Troeltsch complained of a lingering theological idealism in which Christianity transcended historical contingency. Educated by Albrecht Ritschl at the University of Göttingen in the 1880’s, Troeltsch found himself among a circle of students who pressed for an amplified focus on historical objectivity in the study of Christianity over and against traditional dogma.[2] In his mature work, he stood as one of the most formidable critics of any theological approach that presumed to isolate Christianity from the general “flux of history” and characterized the turn toward historical consciousness as a major intellectual “revolution.”

John Henry Newman stands at a threefold distance from Troeltsch: geographically, historically, and intellectually. Newman spent no time in Germany and was not immersed in the traditions of German Idealism and historicism. Though Newman’s and Troeltsch’s lifetimes intersected, Newman stands as a figure of the “long nineteenth century” with a life spanning from the Napoleonic Wars through the Victorian age. Troeltsch belongs more to the turn of the century moment, intersecting with the rise of German nationalism, the advent of sociological studies, and the advance of secularization predicted by Newman.[3] Yet, a comparison of their work reveals the two figures as worthy intellectual interlocutors. Here, I argue that Newman’s theology of history offers grounds for a response to Troeltsch’s highly influential turn to radical historicism in theology. The dialogue I seek to construct between Troeltsch and Newman hinges particularly on Newman’s reception of the patristic concept of oikonomia. As I show, this concept is definitively operative in a minor piece of Newman’s thought, which speaks rather directly to the methodology later proposed by Troeltsch: Newman’s 1841 review of Henry Hart Milman’s History of Christianity in the British Critic. I seek to demonstrate that Newman offers a profound counterproposal to a version of historical thinking with significant similarities to the more systematic views of Troeltsch.

Troeltsch’s Theological Historicism

“The scholarly investigation and evaluation of Christianity,” Troeltsch states, “must begin with the general context of universal history.”[4] Troeltsch juxtaposes the situation of Christianity within “universal history” with the traditional understanding of Christianity as supernatural. This understanding of Christianity gives rise in theology to what Troeltsch calls the “dogmatic method.” The hallmark of this “supernatural apologetic” is the separation of Christianity as a historical phenomenon from the field of ordinary, “secular” history.[5] The insistence on a supernatural origin to Christianity within orthodox Christianity causes it to rate “everything human” as “subjective, fallible, sinful, and powerless.”[6] From such a vantage, secular history suffers from a kind of total depravity in need of the interruption of “immediate divine causality.”[7]

The supernatural apologetic begins with two vitiating prejudices: 1) that the realm of “universal history” is corrupt and 2) that Christianity, as the supernatural truth with its origin in God’s direct intervention in history, is the unique and “absolute” criterion by which the contingencies of human history must be measured. Troeltsch insists that this “orthodox” perspective not only reinforces a questionable metaphysical dualism, but also showcases an “absence of skill in, or inclination toward, sympathetic understanding” of historical realities outside the sphere of Christianity.[8]  In opposition, Troeltsch stresses the promise of modern historical-critical research, which eliminates the faulty dualism imposed by orthodoxy and inculcates a mature, unprejudiced disposition in the historian of Christianity.

The promise of historical-critical research can be realized through a renewed scholarly methodology that proceeds from three fundamental “aspects” of the historical method: “the habituation on principle to historical criticism; the importance of analogy; and the mutual interrelation of all historical developments.”[9] Historical criticism rests on the acknowledgement that all interpretations of historical phenomena are probabilities, subject to revision and constant re-examination. To commit to “criticism,” the scholar must be willing to “suffer the uncertainty of results.”[10] The second aspect—analogy—arguably acts as the keystone in Troeltsch’s methodology. The historian will not deny “the originality of the particular historical fact,” but will admit that “its originality is analogous to others emerging from the common context and is neither more nor less mysterious than these.”[11] According to Troeltsch’s understanding of “mutual interrelation,” the claims of Christianity would be treated as intelligible only in light of the nexus of events and historical trends in which it is situated, such as “the disintegration of Judaism … the political movements of the day and the apocalyptic ideas of the time.”[12]

Troeltsch’s principles of analogy and interrelation do not seem problematic for any historically conscious study of Christianity, but his historicism goes beyond a recognition of Christianity’s embeddedness in historical phenomena and even its relationship to non-Christian ideas and religions. Troeltsch’s historicism, rather, insists on the radical reduction of Christianity as a whole to the level of immanent historical causality and correlation. In Troeltsch’s case, this means that an honest historical investigation must deny the dogmas of Christianity, as well as the idea of a supernaturally given revelation. Even if a defense of Christianity’s uniqueness is to be given, it must be built from the laborious and “detached” grounds of pure historical reasoning.[13] It is precisely here that Newman provides a rejoinder. A hallmark of Newman’s historical reasoning is his willingness to accept the principles of analogy and correlation while rejecting the anti-dogmatic principle, espoused in systematic form by Troeltsch.

Oikonomia and History: Newman’s Critique of Milman

Henry Hart Milman (1791–1868) was a professor of poetry at Oxford and an Anglican priest who wrote numerous poetic and tragic works before turning to history in 1829 with his History of the Jews. While Milman remained an ecclesiastic, his historical work was noted for its bracketing of the miraculous and avoidance of theological or dogmatic claims. Influenced by Gibbon, in 1840 Milman published his work, The History of Christianity from the Birth of Christ to the Abolition of Paganism in the Roman Empire. In 1841, Newman, in turn, published a review in the British Critic responding to the naturalistic methods employed by Milman. Newman roots his critique of Milman in certain Patristic modes of thought, which oriented his reflection of Christianity as a historical phenomenon.

Benjamin King has brought to attention the centrality of the concept of oikonomia to Newman.[14] Newman takes this concept from Origen and Clement of Alexandra. As King describes, the Greek term possesses four distinct but related meanings for the Alexandrians:

“Newman was enthralled … by their view of creation shot through with God’s glory, which the fall had not wholly obliterated from human sight. They used the word ‘economy’ to describe God’s indirect ways of working in and through creation. For them ‘economy’ meant at least four things: first the Providential order of creation discernible by philosophy, second the Christian dispensation already revealed in the Old Testament, third God’s accommodating to humanity, and fourth a ‘program of instruction’ (Clement, Paidagogos”[15]

The ancient understanding of oikonomia challenges Troeltsch’s reductive critique of the “supernatural apologetic.” While Troeltsch insists that any theological reading of Christian history depends upon a rejection of the rest of history—of the “human” or the “secular”—as “subjective, fallible, sinful, and powerless,” oikonomia connects the “Providential order of creation discernible by philosophy” with the revealed history of salvation and God’s incarnational action in history. What later Christians understood as the “natural” and “supernatural” orders were seen as complementary and more integrated in ancient treatments of oikonomia.

As King points out, Newman’s appropriation of the oikonomia dates back at least to his study of the Arians.[16] As Newman begins to take development seriously, he must insist upon an even greater appreciation of the influence of historical events and circumstances on theology. In his response to the publication of Henry Hart Milman’s History of Christianity, Newman upholds a nuanced position on the relationship between “universal history” (to use Troeltsch’s term) and Christianity. Echoes of the patristic concept of oikonomia resound in Newman’s careful adjudication between the extremes of fideism and historicism.

In a passage quoted by Newman, and highly reminiscent of Troeltsch, Milman lays out two potential approaches to the study of Christianity:

“Christianity may be viewed either in a strictly religious, or rather in a temporal, social, and political light. In the former case, the writer will dwell almost exclusively on the religious doctrines, and will bear continual reference to the new relation established between man and the Supreme being … in the latter … he will write rather as an historian than as a religious instructor.[17]

Milman insists, then, on the very dichotomy forwarded by Troeltsch between the “historical” and “dogmatic” methods. His history, Milman states, “will endeavour to trace all the modifications of Christianity, by which it accommodated itself to the spirit of successive ages.”[18] As with his History of the Jews, Milman focuses on tracing the causal influence of “general history” on the development of Christianity, revealing the effects of supposedly alien sources on the religion.

It is important to specify the substance of Newman’s objection to Milman. He does not object to the study of Christianity “in a temporal, social, and political light,” but rather to the fundamental dichotomy Milman creates between the “religious” and the “temporal.” He thus takes aim at the core of Troeltsch’s theory, as well. Yet Milman’s approach, unlike Troeltsch’s, is not polemical. Indeed, Newman makes clear to the reader that we should not “cruelly misunderstand [Milman]” to hold anti-Christian or anti-theological opinions. Rather, the fault of Milman’s history lies at the level of “premises,”[19] specifically the premise that he shares with Troeltsch: that a truly historical investigation of Christianity must leave aside the dogmatic and theological elements of the Christian faith and analyze Christianity only within the frame of “general” or “universal” history.

Newman responds that it is by no means necessary to consider the human and divine aspects of Christianity antithetical. He draws a comparison to the two natures of Jesus Christ: “He who regards our Lord as man, does not in consequence deny that He is more than man. … The Christian history is ‘an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace’: Christianity has an external aspect and an internal; it is human without, divine within.”[20] But, he is careful as well to show that the critique can go both ways. If any treatment of Christianity in a “temporal, social, and political light” is ruled out as anti-theological, the visible or natural characteristics of Christianity are unjustifiably suppressed. If we follow Newman’s analogy, this position corresponds to a certain historical monophysitism. On the other hand, the scholar who wishes to treat Christianity in the context of general history is not justified in excluding the theological from the historical, refusing to recognize any cooperation between human nature and God’s initiative.

Here we can return to the idea of oikonomia. Rather than juxtaposing the natural and supernatural orders—the visible and invisible orders of causality—Newman wants to insist both on the existence of natural laws understandable through the exercise of scientific reason, and on the presence of an unseen governance behind that system of causality. Newman acknowledges, for example, an immanent “system of laws and principles” within the visible world.[21] The “wonderful web of causes and effects” that can be traced in natural phenomena, in political history, and in the development of cultures is so complete as to seem “sufficient to account for itself.”[22] It is for this reason that natural science and, indeed, historical science are tempted to make hegemonic claims.

Newman has recourse to his characteristic claim that the visible world is a world of shadows compared to the invisible world.[23] He attributes to the “external aspect” of history a potential to “obscure” and to “disguise” the internal, invisible aspect of history. Such comments suggest a somewhat low view of the visible order.[24] As Andrew Meszaros says, “the significance [of the external order] is not a particularly noble one” for Newman.[25] Newman’s “Platonism,” as this position has sometimes been described, would seem to conform to Troeltsch’s criticism of the orthodox view of universal history as “fallible” and “sinful,” but does Newman lapse into a dualism that overly denigrates the “external” aspect of history?

As stated above, Newman acknowledges the web of causes and effects that belong to the natural order. What he rejects is a reductionism that would insist upon an ostracization of the “internal” aspect—the invisible or supernatural order of providence simply because the natural oikonomia is discovered to be rational. Having defended the coherence of the natural order, Newman proposes that there is no reason to deny that even the lawful order of natural cause and effect falls within God’s governance, even if that order does not sufficiently express the totality of God’s providential order: “If then He is still actively present with His own work, present with nations and with individuals, He must be acting by means of its ordinary system, or by quickening, or as it were, stimulating its powers, or by superseding or interrupting it; in other words, by means of what is called nature, or by miracle.”[26]

The natural oikonomia and the supernatural or miraculous oikonomia are joined together in God’s single act of providence. Newman proposes that if this is the case, the method of Milman creates an unnecessary bifurcation, and indeed, one which eventually led Milman, despite his own intentions, to a denial of the “invisible aspect” of Christianity. Because God works in the visible world, both by a natural system of causes and by miraculous intervention, a Christian view of history will go so far as to recognize the external order as a sign or a sacrament, of the invisible order.[27]


Important distinctions need to be made between the objectives of Troeltsch and Milman. While Troeltsch is arguing for a decisive overthrow of the understanding of Christianity as supernatural, Milman is merely suggesting that Christianity can be viewed in either a “religious” or a “temporal” light. As Newman points out, Milman makes no attempt to completely supplant the “religious” view with the “temporal” view, but rather seeks to offer a contribution to the study of Christianity as a temporal phenomenon. Yet, Newman identifies a “premise” in Milman’s study that belongs also to Troeltsch: that a historically objective consideration of Christianity must set aside all theological or dogmatic claims in order to place Christianity within a purely natural context. Newman does not deny all analogies or correlations between Christianity and other historical phenomena—including non-Christian religions—but rather draws attention to the fact that the embeddedness of Christianity in universal history does not preclude its supernatural or divine character. Indeed, Newman wants to argue, the very “system” of nature should be understood as an order within which God works to reveal himself, even if the integrity of that system sometimes serves to conceal God.

Troeltsch, in a more philosophically rigorous manner than Milman, demands that theology embrace the historicist revolution. This means setting aside entirely the study of Christianity in (to use Milman’s terms) a “religious light.” While Milman’s irenic proposal of two distinct modes of approach to Christianity attempts to preserve certain elements of traditional Christianity as “religion,” Troeltsch polemicizes against any stubborn insistence on dogma or “supernaturalism.” He thus helps set the stage for the common conviction that Christianity can only be studied objectively if it is divested of all its claims to divinity, as well as for the academic methodology that attends that conviction. Newman challenges his readers both to embrace Christianity as a visible historical phenomenon, and to recognize insufficiencies in the position that stipulates that Christianity’s historical embeddedness is a sign of its total historical contingency. The distinction and interrelation of the visible and invisible orders is a profound mystery, yet not an irrational one. It is a mystery that has as its prime analogate the person of Christ, in whom the human nature serves both to conceal and to reveal the divine nature, even as both natures exist in a glorious personal union. The cooperation of the human and divine within the historical order, Newman would remind us, is possible only according to the religion whose original fact is the Incarnation of the Word.

[1] Troeltsch, Ernst, “Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology,” in Religion in History, trans. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 16.

[2] Cf., Chapman, Mark David. Ernst Troeltsch and Liberal Theology: Religion and Cultural Synthesis in Wilhelmine German. Oxford (Oxford University Press, 2001), chs. 1 and 2.

[3] Cf., Newman, “The Infidelity of the Future,” Faith and Prejudice, ed. Birmingham Oratory.

[4] Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology,” 19.

[5] Cf., Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, trans. David Reid. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1971), ch. 6.

[6] Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, 52.

[7] Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, 102

[8] Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, 46

[9] Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology,” 13

[10] Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology,” 21.

[11] Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology,” 17.

[12] Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology,” 15.

[13] Troeltsch, “Historical and Dogmatic Methods in Theology,” 19.

[14] Benjamin King, “The Church Fathers,” in The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman, ed. Frederick D. Aquino and Benjamin J. King (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 113–34.

[15] King, “The Church Fathers,” 118.

[16] King, “The Church Fathers,” 118.

[17] Henry Hart Milman, The History of Christianity, from the Birth of Christ to the Abolition of Paganism in the Roman Empire, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1840), v–vi, quoted in Newman, “Milman’s View of Christianity,” in Essays Critical and Historical, ii (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), 189.

[18] Milman, History of Christianity, 47; Newman, “Milman’s View of Christianity,” 189.

[19] Newman, “Milman’s View of Christianity,” 187.

[20] Newman, “Milman’s View of Christianity,” 187–88.

[21] Newman, “Milman’s View of Christianity,” 191.

[22] Newman, “Milman’s View of Christianity,” 191.

[23] Cf. Newman, Apo (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908), 113: “The very idea of an analogy between the separate works of God leads to the conclusion that the system which is of less importance [the visible system] is economically or sacramentally connected with the more momentous system [the invisible system], and of this conclusion the theory, to which I was inclined as a boy, viz. the unreality of material phenomena, is an ultimate resolution.” The inscription on Newman’s tomb reads: ex umbris et imaginibus ad veritatem.

[24] Newman, “Milman’s View of Christianity,” 188.

[25] Andrew Meszaros, The Prophetic Church: History and Doctrinal Development in John Henry Newman and Yves Congar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 219.

[26] Newman, “Milman’s View of Christianity,” 192.

[27] Newman, “Milman’s View of Christianity,” 192.

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Patrick Auer Jones

Patrick Auer Jones

Student, Catholic University of America

Patrick Jones is a doctoral student in Moral Theology and Ethics at the Catholic University of America, where his research focuses on questions of political authority, citizenship, and the relationship of church and state in the Catholic theological tradition. Before his doctoral studies, he received an MA in Theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC and a BA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. 


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