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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 2: The Readiness of the Ancient World to Receive Christianity

Yesterday we discussed the meaning and development of the doctrinal expression of Christianity, and described especially the concept of dogma. I tried to remove some of the fears and resentments every modern man has when he hears the word "dogma." I hope I succeeded. Now I come to the "preparation"of Christianity in the ancient world.

According to Paul, there is not always the possibility that that can happen which, for instance, happened in the appearance of Jesus as the Christ. This happened in one special moment of history, and in this special moment everything was ready for it. I will talk now about this "readiness." Paul speaks of kairos to describe the feeling that the time was ripe, mature, prepared. It is a Greek word which, again, witnesses to the richness of the Greek language and the poverty of modern languages in comparison with it. We have only the one word "time." The Greeks had two words: chronos (still used in "chronology," "chronometer," etc.): it is clock time, time which is measured. Then there is the word kairos , which is not the quantitative time of the watch, but is the qualitative time of the occasion: the "right" time. "It is not yet kairos ," the hour; the hour has not yet come. (Cf.. in the Gospel stories. . ..) There are things in which the right time, the kairos, has not yet come. Kairos is the time which indicates that something has happened which makes an action possible or impossible. We all have in our lives moments in which we feel that now is the right time for something: now I am mature enough for this, now everything around me is prepared for this, now I can make the decision, etc: this is kairos. In this sense Paul and the early Church spoke of the "right time," for the coming of the Christ. The early Church, and Paul to a certain extent, tried to show why this time in which the Christ appeared was the right time, why it is the providential constellation of factors which makes His appearance possible.

What we therefore must do now is to show the preparation of Christian theology in the world situation into which Jesus came. From this point of view - which is only one point of view: the theological - the understanding of the possibilities of a Christian theology is provided. It is not, as some theologians want to believe - contrary to Paul - -that the revelation from Christ fell like a stone from heaven: here it is, and now you must take it or leave it - But there is a universal revelatory power going through all history and preparing that which is considered by Christianity to be the ultimate revelation.

The genuine situation into which the New Testament event came was the universalism of the Roman Empire. This meant something negative and something positive, (as do all these things I will now mention) at the same time. Negatively it meant the breakdown of national religions and cultures. Positively it meant that the idea of mankind as a whole could be conceived at that time. The Roman Empire produced a definite consciousness of world history, in contrast to accidental national histories. World history is now not only, in the sense of the prophets, a purpose which will be actualized in history, but now it has become an empirical reality. This is the positive meaning of Rome. Rome represents the universal monarchy in which the whole known world is united. This idea has been taken over by the Roman church, but applied to the Pope, and is still actual within the Roman church, and still means that Rome claims the monarchic power over all the world - following the Roman Empire in this. It is perhaps an important remark generally that we should never forget that the Roman church is Roman, that the development of this church is not only influenced by Christianity but also by the Empire which was Rome, by the greatness that was Rome, by the idea of law that was Rome. All this is embodied also in the Roman church, after it took over the heritage of the Roman Empire. We should never forget this situation; and we should ask ourselves; if we are tempted to evaluate the Roman church more highly than we should: how much Roman elements are there in it, and how much are they valid for us in our culture? - as we should do the same with Greek philosophical concepts which created the Christian dogma, and we should also ask: to what degree are they valid? It is not necessary to reject something because it is Roman or Greek, but it is not necessary, either, even if sanctioned by a dogmatic decision, to accept something because the church has accepted it, from Rome or Greece.

Within this realm of one world, a world history and monarchy created by Rome, we have Greek thought. This is the Hellenistic period of Greek thought. We distinguish :... the classical Greek period, which goes up to the death of Aristotle, from the Hellenistic period which starts after him, ~ - which the Stoics, Epicureans, Neo-Pythagoreans, Skeptics, and Neo-Platonists begin. This Hellenistic period is the immediate source of much Christian thought. It is not so much classical Greek thinking. It became this later in the 4th century. But it is more Hellenistic thinking, which influenced early Christianity. Here again I want to distinguish the negative and the positive elements in Greek thought in the period of the kairos, the period of the ancient world coming to an end. The negative side is what we would call Skepticism. Skepticism, not only in the Skeptic school but also in the other schools of Greek philosophy, is the end of the tremendous and admirable attempt of Greek philosophy to build a world of meaning on the basis of an interpretation of reality in objective or rational terms. Greek philosophy had undercut the ancient mythological and ritual traditions. In the period of the Sophists and Socrates, it became obvious that these traditions were not valid any more. Sophism is the revolution of the subjective mind against the old traditions. But now life must go on. The meaning of life in all realms - politics, law, art, social relations, knowledge, religion - has not been probed, This the Greek philosophers tried to do. They were not people who were sitting behind their desks writing philosophical books. If they were nothing but philosophers of philosophy, we would have forgotten their names long ago. But they were people who took upon themselves the task of creating a spiritual world by objectively observing reality as it was given to them, interpreting it in terms of analytic and synthetic reason.

This attempt broke down at the end of the ancient world. This breaking down of the great- attempt of the Greek philosophers to create a world of meaning through philosophy, produced what I call" the skeptical end of the ancient development. Skepsis means, originally,.observing things. But it has received the negative sense of looking at every dogma, thereby undercutting it, even the dogmata of the Greek schools of philosophy. Therefore the Skeptics are those who doubt the statements of all schools of philosophy. And what is perhaps even more important, these schools of philosophy, e. g. , the Platonic Academy, took a lot of these Skeptical elements into itself. Skepticism did not go beyond probabilism, and the other schools became pragmatic. So a skeptical mood entered all schools and permeated the whole life of the later ancient world. This Skepticism, especially in the school called the School of the Skeptics, was a very serious matter of life. Again it was not a matter of sitting behind one's desk and finding out that everything can be doubt - which is comparatively easy. But it was an inner breakdown of all convictions, and the consequence was - very characteristic of the Greek mind - that if they were not able to give theoretical judgments any more, they believed that they were not able to act practically, either. Therefore they introduced the doctrine of epoch', - restraining, keeping down, not giving judgment nor acting, deciding neither theoretically nor practically. This doctrine of epoch' meant the resignation of judgment in every respect. Therefore these people went into the desert, with a suit or gown very similar to the later Christian monks who followed them in this respect, because they also were in despair about the possibility of living in this world. Some of the skeptics of the ancient Church were very serious people and drew the consequences which our snobbistic skeptics do not usually do, who have a very good time while at the same doubting everything! That was not what the Greek Skeptics did; so they retired from life in order to become consistent.

This skeptical element was an important preparation for Christianity, not only in the later Christian theology but also already in the philosophical schools. The Greek schools, the Epicureans, Stoics, Academics, Peripatetics, NeoPythagorean, were not only schools in the sense in which we today speak of philosophical schools, namely that there is a great teacher, e. g , at Columbia University, or Boston, etc; or the "school" of Dewey or Whitehead, etc; and the "schools" at Chicago, etc A Greek philosophical school was a cult community, a community of a half-ritual, half-philosophical character. These people wanted to live according to the doctrines of their masters. In this period, in which this skeptical mood permeated the ancient world, they wanted certainty above all: we must have it in order to live, they demanded. The answer was: our great teachers, Plato and Aristotle, Zeno the Stoic, and Epicurus, and, later, Plotinus, were not simply thinkers, professors, but they were inspired men. And long before, Christianity, the doctrine of inspiration developed in these Greek schools, namely the inspiration of the founders of these schools. Later, when these schools discussed with the Christians, they did not say Moses was inspired, but they said, e. g., Heraclitus was inspired. This doctrine of inspiration gave Christianity also a chance to enter into the world. . . ; pure reason alone is not able to build up a reality in which one can live.

The character of the founders of these philosophical schools was also very similar to what the Christians said about the founder of their Church. A man like Epicurus - this is very interesting - who later was so much attacked by the Christians, that we have only fragments about him, was called soter by his pupils, the Greek word used in the New Testament which we translate by "savior.." Epicurus the philosopher was called a savior. What does this mean? We regard him as a man who had a good life all the time in his beautiful gardens, and had a very bad anti-Christian hedonistic philosophy - and other name-calling words. The ancient world thought quite differently about Epicurus. They called him soter because he did something for them which was the greatest thing he could do for them, a thing which also is praised by Paul when he speaks of the transformation of the pagans into Christians, namely, liberation from anxiety. Epicurus, with his system of atoms - we call it a materialistic system - liberated them from the fear of demons which permeated the whole life of the ancient world and especially of the later ancient world. Men like Epicurus were called soters, saviors, because they liberated people from fear by their philosophy. All this shows what a serious thing philosophy was at that time. . .

Other consequences also of great seriousness, was what the Stoics called apatheia, namely, without feelings towards the vital drives of life, not feeling desires, joys, pains, but being beyond all this in the state of wisdom. They knew that only a few people were able to reach this state, but those who as Skeptics went into the desert, showed that they were able to do so to a certain extent. Behind all this, of course, stands the early criticism of the mythological gods and the traditional rites for these gods. The criticism of mythology was made in Greece almost at the, same time in which the Second Isaiah did it in Judea. It was a very similar kind of criticism, and has undercut the belief in the gods of polytheism.

This was the negative side in Greek thought of that time. But there were also positive elements in the same tradition. First, the PLATONIC TRADITION: Here Christian theology had as its preparation the idea of transcendence,..that there is something that trespasses empirical reality. Plato speaks of "essential" reality, the reality of ousia's, or "ideas", I. e., the true essences of things. At the same time we find in Plato, and even stronger in Neo-Platonism and in the Platonic school leading to Neo-Platonism, the development of a devaluation of existence. It was called matter, and as a material world it has no ultimate value compared with the essential world. Further, in Plato the inner aim in human existence is described - in the Philebus somewhere, but also practically everywhere in Plato - as becoming similar to God as much as possible. God is the Spiritual sphere. Participation in the Spiritual divine sphere as much as possible is the inner telos of human existence. This is the Platonic tradition and has been used, especially by the great Cappodocian fathers of the Church, to describe the ultimate aim of human existence.

A third doctrine is a doctrine of the soul falling down from an eternal participation in the essential or Spiritual world, being on earth in a body, trying to get rid of the bondage to the body, coming to an elevation above the material world, in steps and degrees. This again was an element which was used not only by all Christian mystics, but also by the official Church Fathers to a large extent.

The fourth point in which the Platonic tradition was important was the idea of PROVIDENCE. This again seems to you to be a Christian idea, but it was formulated already in the later period of Plato's writings, and was a tremendous attempt of the ancient world to overcome the anxiety of fate and death. And in the later ancient world the anxiety of 'Tuch' and Heimarmen' (the goddesses) of accident and necessity - of fate, as we would call it today - was the most important thing. And in the greatest hymn of triump in the New Testament, in Romans 8, we hear " that it is the function of the Christ to overcome the demonic forces of fate. . . That Plato anticipated this situation is one of his greatest contributions; that providence, coming from the highest God, gives us the courage to escape the vicissitudes of fate, is something we should never forget when we speak of the "bad pagans." They produced this concept by their own philosophizing, by their own philosophizing in terms of an ultimate concern.

Fifthly, in Aristotle another element is added to the Platonic tradition: the Divine is a form without matter, perfect in itself and - what is the profoundest idea in Aristotle - this highest form, called God, is moving the world, not causally, not by pushing it from outside, but by driving everything finite towards Him in terms of love. Aristotle developed, in spite of his seeming merely scientific attitude towards reality, one of the greatest systems of love, where he says that God, the highest form - or pure actuality, as he calls it--moves everything by being loved by everything. Everything has a desire to unite itself with the highest form, to get rid of the lower forms in which it lives, where it is in the bondage of matter. In this way the Aristotelian God, as the highest form, came into Christian theology and played a tremendous role there.

Now I come to another tradition: THE STOIC TRADITION, which is the second one of great importance for the understanding of Christian theology. The Stoics were, more than Plato and Aristotle together, important for the life of the later ancient world. The life of the educated ancient man in the world of rulers, coming from Alexander the Great in the Macedonian Empire, or coming from Rome and taking away the independence of all nations - the life of the educated man in these periods was shaped mostly by Stoic tradition. Therefore it is even more important than the Platonic tradition, for the life of the people. I have dealt with this from the point of view of life, of the courage to take fate and death upon oneself, in my book The Courage to Be. There I show that Christianity and the Stoics are the great competitors in all the Western world. But now I show in this lecture something else: Christianity has taken from this great and always present competitor - present even today a lot of fundamental ideas. The first is the doctrine which will bring you into despair when we come to the history of Trinitarian and Christological thought, namely the doctrine of the Logos. but we must deal with it, otherwise no part of the Christian dogmatic development can be understood.

Logos means word, and means also the meaning in a word, the reasonable structure which is indicated by a word. Therefore logos also can mean the universal logos or law of reality. This is the way in which the first one who used this word philosophically - Heraclitus - -used it. The logos is the law which determines the movements of all reality.

Now this logos was used by the Stoic as the Divine power which is present in everything that is, and which has three sides to it, all of which have become extremely important in the later development. The first is the law of nature. The logos is the principle according to which all natural things move. It is the Divine seed, the Divine creative power in everything, which makes it what it is. And it is the creative power of the movement of everything.

Secondly, logos means the moral and legal law, what we could call today, with Immanuel Kant, "practical reason," the law which is innate in every human being when he accepts himself as a personality, with the dignity and greatness of a person. It is the moral or legal law. This is equally important and even precedes the other. When you see in classical books the word "natural law, " we should not think usually of physical laws, but of moral and legal laws. For instance, when we speak of the "rights of man," as embodied in the American Constitution, that would be called by the Stoics and all their followers in all of Western philosophy, natural law. The rights of man are the natural law, which is identical with man's rational nature. But it is also identical with man's ability to recognize reality. It is not only practical reason; it is also theoretical reason, It is man's ability of reasoning, because he has the logos in himself and can discover the logos in nature and history, From this follows, in Stoicism, the man who is determined by the natural law, by the logos; he is the logikos , corresponding to, determined by, the logos: the wise man, But the Stoics were not optimists. They did not believe everybody was a wise man. Perhaps only a dozen, and no more, reached this ideal. All the others were either fools, or between the wise and foolish .. the majority of human beings, those who are in the process of improvement, those who are - -as we would say in America - under the power of education. All this was a fundamental pessimism about most human beings. The Stoics were originally Greeks, but they also became Romans, and some of the Roman emperors were some of the most famous Stoics. When Stoicism came in the hands of the Roman emperors - e. g , Marcus Aurelius - they applied it to the political situation, for which they were responsible. The natural law, in the sense of practical reason, had the consequence that every man participates in reason by the very fact that he is man. And out of this they derived laws which were far superior to many things which we find in the Christian Middle Ages. They gave universal citizenship to every human being, because he potentially participates in reason. Of course, the Stoics - and certainly not the Stoic emperors, who knew people - were optimistic.about man and believed he was actually reasonable. But what they meant was that man potentially participates in reason and that through education they might become actually reasonable, at least some of them. That was their presupposition, from which presupposition they did the great and tremendous thing: they gave Roman citizenship to all citizens of the conquered nations. Everybody could become a Roman citizen or, finally, was declared to be such by birth. This citizenship was a tremendous equalizing step.

Further, the women, slaves and children, who in the old Roman law were the least regarded and developed human beings, became equalized by the laws of the Roman emperors.

This was done, moreover, not by Christianity, but by the Stoics, who derived the idea from the belief in the universal logos in which everyone participates. (Of course, Christianity has another foundation for the same idea: human beings are the children of God who is their Father.)

Thus the Stoics conceived of the idea of a world state embracing the whole world, based on the common rationality of everybody.

Now this certainly was something in which Christianity could enter and develop. The difference was that the Stoics did not know the concept of sin. They knew the concept of foolishness, but not of sin. . Therefore, STOIC SALVATION is salvation through reaching wisdom. CHRISTIAN SALVATION was a salvation through reaching Divine grace. And these two things still fight with each other in our days.

There was another reality which was taken over by the Christian Church, and for which pure philosophers coming from Europe have often a great contempt, while I think Americans should not have contempt at all, because in this as in so many respects, they are basically ancient Romans - namely, what is called eclecticism, from a Greek word meaning: choosing some possibilities out of many. The eclectics were philosophers but they were not originally creative philosophers, as the Greeks were, who created their system on which basis the schools worked. The Roman thinkers, politicians, and statesmen were often the same persons, as in England: in this I think England is superior to America; I hope we will soon have in this country philosophers who are statesmen, as we had it in England, and in ancient Rome. -- These people were eclectics; they did not create new systems. What they did, e.g., Cicero, was to choose the most important concepts from the classical Greek systems which were pragmatically useful for a Roman citizen. That which gave the best way of living pragmatically as a Roman citizen, as a citizen of the world state, was taken from the different philosophies. For this reason the following ideas, which you can recognize very much in popular political speeches in this country today, are those chosen from a pragmatic point of view: the idea of PROVIDENCE, which gives some kind of feeling of safety to the life of the people; the idea of GOD as an innate idea in everybody, which induces fear of God, and discipline; the idea of MORAL FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY, which makes it possible to educate and to uphold responsibility for moral failures; and finally the idea of IMMORTALITY, which threatens with another world those who escape punishment in this world.

These ideas, which we also find in the 18th century Enlightenment and which, from this source, are still very much prevalent in this country, were the ideas chosen by the Roman eclectics for the making of a good Roman citizen. They all were in some way a preparation for the Christian mission.

Now this was the philosophical world into which Christianity came when the kairos had arrived.


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