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The History of Christian Thought by Paul Tillich


Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


Lecture 1: Introduction


When Professor McNeill began his lectures last semester, I was in his first class for a few minutes and spoke about the relationship between Church history and the history of Christian thought. I said there that they cannot be separated from each other, and that in the history of Christian thought the history of the Church must always be presupposed; and vice versa, that in the history of the Church the history of Christian thought is implied. This separation, therefore, into two semesters following each other is artificial. Fortunately this is the last time that we have this procedure and that I give these lectures, and from now on there will be a more integrated form of teaching Church history, in one year and a half. You are now still anticipating this period of glory in the Church History Department, and we must still make the best of it! But don't forget that Christian thought is the expression of something which is more universal and more real than thought, namely the Christian life itself. Because of this, Christian thought has very often been neglected and even despised But this is equally wrong, and I want therefore to make a few remarks in the beginning about the necessary function of thought in every human endeavor, and especially in the religious life.

All human experience implies the element of thought, simply because man's intellectual or spiritual life is embodied in his language, and language is thought expressed in spoken and heard words. Therefore there is no human existence without thought, and the kind of emotionalism so rampant in religion is not something more than thinking, but is less than it, and brings religion down to the level of a pre-human experience of reality.

In the tension between the philosopher Hegel and the theologian Schleiermacher, you know that Schleiermacher emphasized the function of "feeling," or emotion, in religion; and Hegel, who emphasized the function of thought, said: "Even dogs have feeling, but man has thought." Now this was based on an unintentional misunderstanding of what Schleiermacher meant with "feeling," a misunderstanding which we find very often even today. But it expresses some truth. Man cannot be man without thought. He must think even if he is the most primitive devotional Christian, with no theological education or understanding. Even in religion we give names to special objects. We distinguish acts of the Divine. We relate symbols to each other. We explain their meaning. There is language in every religion, and the existence of language means that there are universals, and of universals that there are concepts, and of concepts that one must think, even on the most primitive level. It is interesting that this fight between Hegel and Schleiermacher was anticipated by a man like Clement of Alexandria, in the 3rd century, who said that the religion of animals, if they had a religion, would be mute, without words. And he must have derived from this that every man who lives religiously, must participate in religious thought.

Now I repeat: reality precedes thought. But I repeat also: thought shapes reality. These two are interdependent. You cannot abstract the one from the other. Therefore when you shall fall into despair which you certainly will, when we come to the sections on trinity and Christology, where much thinking is needed because the Church Fathers for hundreds of years did much thinking about these problems don't forget that the decisions which were made on the basis of this thinking are decisions which have influenced the life of the most primitive Christian, ever since, not because they understood the discussions going on between the philosophical theologians, who were in classical Greek philosophy, but in the way the devotional life itself developed. The decisions of the Church councils are omnipresent, and they are omnipresent even in the least theological congregations today in this country. So don't underestimate them, as I certainly wouldn't ask you to overestimate them.

Beyond this thinking, which is always present, there is the development of methodological thought, thought which goes on according to logical rules and methods of dealing with experiences. This methodological thought, if expressed in speaking or writing and communicated to other people, produces theological doctrines. This is, of course, more than the thought element which is implied in every life. This is a development beyond the more primitive use of thought. And ideally such development leads to a theological system, not because systems are especially nice to dwell in everybody who dwells within a system feels after a certain time that it is a prison, and even if you produce a systematic theology, as I did, you always try to go beyond it and not to be imprisoned by it. Nevertheless the system is necessary because the system is the form of consistency. And I repeat here what I repeated in my answer to my critics in the book on my theology *, that those of my Union Theological Seminary students who have the greatest misgivings about the production were most impatient with me when they discovered that two of my statements disagreed with each other; that means, they were unhappy in finding one point in which the hidden system had a gap. But when this system was developed, then they felt it was a mean attempt on my side to imprison them! This is a very interesting double reaction, but understandable because if the prison is taken as a final answer, then it is of course even worse than a prison. If it is understood as an attempt to bring theological concepts into consistent expression, where none contradicts the other, then you cannot escape a system. And even if you think in fragments--as some philosophers and theologians (and some great ones) have done--then every fragment contains implicitly a system. When you read Nietzsche's fragments 1 think he is the greatest fragmentist in philosophy then you can find in each of his fragments a whole system of life and world implied. So you cannot escape a system except if you want to make verbal statements which are nonsense and completely contradict each other. And that is, of course, sometimes done.

But, of course, a system has a danger of becoming a prison, and also the danger, when it is built, of moving within itself, of separating itself from reality, of becoming something which is, so to speak, above the reality which it is supposed to describe. Therefore I am not so much interested in the systems as such with a few exceptions, for instance with relationship to Origen but I am interested in the power of these systems to express the reality of the Church and its life.

The Church doctrines have been called dogmas, and in former less noble periods of Christian instruction -for instance when I myself was young the whole thing was called "the history of dogma." This cannot be done any more. One calls it "history of Christian thought." But this is only a change in name, because nobody would dare to present a history of Christian thought in the sense of what every theologian in the Christian Church had thought. That would be an ocean of contradictory thoughts. But this series of lectures has a quite different intent: to show you those thoughts which have be come accepted expressions of the life of the Church. And this is what the word "dogma" originally meant.

The concept of dogma is one of the things which lie between the Church and the secular world. Most secular people are afraid of the dogmas of the Church, and not only secular people but also members of the churches themselves. "Dogma" is a red cloth waved before the bull in a bull fight: it produces anger, aggressiveness, or in some cases flight, and I think the latter is mostly the case with the "seculars" with respect to the Church.

 Why is this so? Because the word has a very interesting history, which you must know. The first step in this history is the use of "dogma" derived from the Greek doxein, "having an opinion", in the Greek schools of philosophy preceding Christianity. Dogmata are the differentiating doctrines of the different late Greek schools of philosophy, the Academics (from Plato), the Peripatetics (from Aristotle), the Stoics, the Skeptics, the Pythagoreans. Each of these schools had special fundamental doctrines in which they were distinguished from each other, and if somebody wanted to become a member of one of these schools, he had to accept at least the basic presuppositions which distinguish this school from another school. Of course he could discuss these foundations, he could find out that another school was better for him than this school. But even the philosophical schools were not without dogmata.

In the same way the Christian doctrines were understood as doctrines distinguishing the Christian school from the philosophical school, and this was natural and nobody was angry by this. It was no red pieced cloth for anybody at that time. This is seen in the characteristics of the Christian dogma in the early period. First of all it is an expression of the Christian conformity, of that which all Christians who, with the risk of their lives and with a tremendous transformation of their lives, entered, the Christian congregations, accepted when they did so. So a dogma is never an individual statement or a theoretical statement: it is an expression of a reality, the reality of the Church.

Secondly, all dogmas are formulated negatively, namely as a reaction against misinterpretations from inside the Church. This is even true of the Apostolic Creed. We will come to the first article, "I believe in God the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth." This is not simply a statement which says something in itself, but it is the rejection of dualism, of Manichaeism, after a life and death struggle of a hundred years. And so also with all the other dogmas. The later they are, the more they show clearly this negative character. They are PROTECTIVE DOCTRINES, protecting the substance of the Biblical message. This substance was fluid. It had, of course, a core which was fixed, the confession that Jesus was the Christ, but beyond this everything was in motion. But now doctrines came up which seemed to undercut this fundamental statement, and the protective doctrines were added to it. In this way the dogma arose. Luther still knew this, that dogmas are not results of a theoretical interest, but of the need for protection of the Christian substance.

Now these statements again could be misinterpreted, and if this was done, then a sharper theoretical formulation was necessary. In order to do this, it. was necessary to use philosophical terms. In this way the many philosophical concepts came into the Christian dogma, not because people were interested them again Luther is very frank about it: he openly declared he disliked terms like "Trinity," "homoousios," or similar words, but he said they must be used, unfortunately, because we have no better terms. This is the theoretical formulation which comes if other theoretical people formulate the doctrine in such a way that the substance seems to be endangered by a leading group in the Church.

But this was not the last step. The next step was that this dogma was accepted as canonic law, by the Church. Canonic law is law according to the canon, which is the rule of thought or rule of behavior. Canonic law is the ecclesiastical law to which everybody must subject himself who belongs to the Church. In this way the dogma receives a legal sanction, and in the Roman church the dogma is a part of the canonic law, and its authority comes from the legal realm, not from the dogmatic realm, according to the general development of the Roman church, which is especially Roman, that means, always legalistic development. .

Now even this perhaps would not have created the tremendous reaction against the dogma in the last 400 years if another step had not been taken: the ecclesiastical law was accepted as state law by the medieval society. This meant that he who breaks the canonic law of doctrines is not only a heretic against the Church: he disagrees with fundamentals which were accepted by the Church as a whole; but he is also a criminal against the state. And this last point was one which produced the radical reaction in modern times against the dogma, and the impossibility of using the concept of dogma even for the title of these lectures.

Don't forget all these steps:

FIRST, the natural thought, which is in every religion.

SECOND, the methodological development of doctrines.

THIRD, the acceptance of some doctrines as protective doctrines against distortions.

FOURTH, the legalization of these doctrines as parts of the canonic law.

FIFTH, the acceptance of these doctrines as the foundation not only of the Church but also of the state, because the state has no other content than the content the Church gives it., so that he who is supposed to undermine this content not only undermines the Church but also the state. He is not only a heretic who must be excommunicated; he is also a criminal who must be delivered into the hands of the civil authorities to punish him as a criminal. Now this was the state of the dogma, against which the Enlightenment was fighting not so much the Reformation, which was still in the same line, but certainly the Enlightenment; and ever since, all liberal thinking has been characterized by trying to avoid dogma, and this also was supported by the development of science and the necessity to leave science and philosophy complete freedom in order to give them the possibility of their creative growth.

In his famous History of Dogma, Harnack asked the question whether, with the dissolution of the dogma in the early period of the Enlightenment, the dogma has not come to an end. He agrees that there is still dogma in orthodox Protestantism, but he believes that the Enlightened dissolution of the Protestant dogma is the last step of the history of the dogma: there is no dogma any more in Protestantism, since the Enlightenment. This means a very narrow concept of dogma, and Harnack agrees that he uses a very narrow concept, namely the Christological-Trinitarian doctrine of the early Church. Against this, Seeberg emphasized that the dogmatic development has not finished with the coming of the Enlightenment, but that it is still going on.

Now this is a very important systematic question: Are there dogmata in present-day Protestantism, or are there not? Those of you who go into the ministry have to undergo a kind of church examination, which is not an examination for knowledge but for faith. The churches want to know whether you agree with their fundamental dogmatic tenets. And they often do it in a very narrow way, without much understanding of the development of theology in the last 400 years, since the period of old Orthodoxy On the other hand if you have an inner revolt :and I know that most Union Seminary students have such an inner revolt against this faith-examination don't forget that you go into a definite group, which is distinguished from other groups.. It is first of all a Christian and not a pagan group; it is a Protestant and not a Catholic group; and within Protestantism it may be an Episcopalian, or a Baptist--or between these extremes! Now this means there is a justified interest in the Church that those who represent it at least show some acceptance of their foundations. Every baseball group demands of you that you accept the rules and the moral standards of a baseball team, and why should the Church leave it completely to the arbitrary feelings of the individual? That cannot be done. Usually the problem today is of somebody who is too heretic, too radical, too much on the side of Bultmann in the demythologization of the New Testament, or Tillich in using the term IT Being" for God or other bad people! This is the problem today. And on this basis many churches are suspicious.

But now think for a moment that this was not the problem, but that the young ministers all suddenly became enthusiasts for the veneration and perhaps even adoration of the Holy Virgin, and wanted to introduce this into the Baptist and Methodist churches! Now here you see immediately that there is a real and serious problem in it. And of course, if we come to the political dogmas which are more dogmatic than any church whatsoever is then you find that the problem becomes even more acute for the present situation. So it is one of the tasks of systematic theology to help the churches to solve this problem in a way which is not narrow-minded and not dependent on the 16th and 17th century theologians which are identified with the pure word of God although they are dependent on their time as we are dependent on our time but on the other hand there is some fundamental point which is accepted if somebody accepts the Church. Now I will give you here because this is so important--something which anticipates my systematic theology, which you can read in the first volume already published: I believe that it is not the matter of accepting a series of dogmas, which the Church must demand of their ministers; how can they honestly say that they don't doubt about any of these dogmas? They would be not very good Christians if they did not, because our intellectual life is as ambiguous as our moral life. And who would call himself morally perfect, and how then can someone call himself intellectually perfect? The element of doubt is an element in faith itself. And what the church should do is to accept somebody who says to them that this faith for which this church stands is a matter of my ultimate concern, which I want to serve with all my strength. But if you are asked to say what you believe about this or that doctrine, then you are driven into a kind of dishonesty even if in this moment you can say "I believe," e. g., concerning the Virgin Birth or whatever that may mean. If you say you will agree, then you are dishonest.. . .; you may subject yourselves to this whole set of doctrines as long as you are ministers, and you can say you cannot promise because you cannot cease to think, and if you think you must doubt. And that is the problem. I think the only solution on Protestant soil is to say that this set of doctrines represents your own ultimate concern, and that you desire to serve in this group which has made this the basis of its ultimate concern, but that you can never promise not to doubt anyone of these special doctrines.

Now this was a deviation from history into not only systematic but even practical theology. . . This shows you that what we do in terms of historical description is not so far away from the practical problems of your own life as ministers. This means that without dogmatic expression, without doctrinal formulations, no human life can live at all, neither a non-ecclesiastical group nor an ecclesiastical one. The problem is not to abolish the dogma but to interpret the dogma in such a way that it is not the horror and the suppressive power which necessarily produces dishonesty, or flight from it, but that it is a wonderful profound expression of the actual life of the Church. And in this sense I will direct the entire lectures, namely to show how in even the abstract doctrinal formulations, with difficult Greek concepts, etc., it is not a matter of discussing concepts as such, but it is a matter of discussing those things of which the Church believed that they are their most adequate expression for life, devotion, and life and death struggle: outside, against the pagan and Jewish worlds; and inside, against all the disintegrating tendencies which belong to every group.

So my conclusion would be: estimate the dogma very highly. There is a great thing about the dogma. But don't dissolve it into a set of special doctrines to which you must subscribe as it stands. This is against the spirit of the dogma, and is against the spirit of Christianity.

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