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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 3: Intertestamental Period


We spoke yesterday about the preparation of Christianity in Hellenistic philosophy. Today we come first to the Hellenistic period of the Jewish religion. Of course, the Old Testament is the soil on which Christianity grew, but there is a long period between the end of the Old Testament and the appearance of the Christ. This period developed in Judaism ideas and attitudes which deeply influenced the Apostolic Age, i. e, Jesus, the apostles, and the writers of the New Testament, etc.

The first is the development of the idea of God in this period between the Testaments, (the inter-testamental period, as it is usually called.) It is a development towards a radical transcendence: God becomes more and more transcendent, and for this very reason He becomes more and more universal. But a God who is absolutely transcendent and absolutely universal has lost many of the concrete traits which the God of a nation has. Therefore names are introduced which try to preserve some of the concreteness of the divinity, names like "the heaven": therefore we often find in the New Testament not "the kingdom of God" but "the kingdom of heaven"; or "the height," coming down from the height.. . etc.; or "the glory." All these words indicate the establishment of a more concrete God. At the same time, the abstraction goes on under two influences: 1) The prohibition against using the name of God; 2) In the fight against anthropomorphisms of the past seeing God in the morph , the image, of man (anthropos) the passions of the God of the Old Testament disappear. The abstract oneness is emphasized. This made it possible for the Greek philosophers (who had introduced the same radical abstraction with respect to God), and the Jewish universalists ,with respect to God, to unite. It was especially Philo of Alexandria who carried through this union, in the idea of God.

But if God has become abstract, then it is not sufficient to hypostasize some of His qualities, such as heaven, height, glory: more is needed. Mediating beings appear between God and man who become more and more important for practical piety. There are three main concepts of this mediating character. First, the angels: they are deteriorized gods and godesses from the surrounding paganism. In the period of the prophets, when the fight with polytheism still was going on, they couldn't play any role. But when the danger of polytheism was completely overcome as it was in later Judaism then the angels could reappear without too great danger of a relapse into polytheism. But even so, the New Testament is aware of this danger and again and again warns against the cult of the angels. These are the first figures which mediate.

The second is the Messiah: the Messiah has become a transcendent being, the king of Paradise. He is also called, in the Danielic literature, which is dependent on Persian religion, the "son of man" who will judge the world. In Daniel it is probably used for Israel, but it became more and more the figure of the "man from above," as Paul describes him in I Corinthians 15. And when Jesus calls himself the "son of man" or when the very earliest tradition called him in this way, this also means "the man from above," the original man, who is with God and comes down when the kairos is fulfilled.

Thirdly, these names of God are increased and become almost living figures. The most important figure is the figure of God's wisdom, which already appears in the Old Testament: the wisdom which has created the world, which has appeared in the world, and which returned to heaven since it did not find a place among men an idea very close to the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel.

Another of these powers between God and man is the shekinah, the dwelling of God on earth. Again, another is the memra , the speaking of God, the word of God, which became so important later through the Fourth Gospel. Another is the "spirit of God," which in the Old Testament is God in action, but now becomes a partly independent figure between the most high God, and man: the ruah Yahweh, or Adonai . Most important became the Greek meaning of the term logos. .. This unites the Jewish memra with the Greek philosophical logos. Logos in Philo is the protogłnes huios theou, the first-born son of God. All these are developments which are pre-Christian, and prepared the Christian thinking of the logos, the word, who is the first-born son of God (Philo). These mediating beings between the most high God, and man, partly replace the immediacy of the relationship to God, as in Christianity especially in Roman Catholic Christianity the, ever more transcendent idea of God was made acceptable to the popular mind by the introduction of the saints into the practical piety. But as in Christianity the official doctrine always remained monotheistic, and the saints never were supposed to receive adoration but only veneration, so the same thing (and even more radically) was the case in late Judaism, Judaism which has one fundamental anxiety: the anxiety of relapsing into polytheism, because that was its whole history: to fight polytheism within and outside of itself.

Another world of beings between God and man arose and became powerful: the realm of the DEMONS. There are not only good angels, but also evil ones. These evil angels are not only organs of temptation and punishment under the direction of God, but they are also a realm of power against God. We can see this very well out of the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning the Divine or demonic power, where he exorcizes the demons. This belief in demons permeated the daily life of that time, and filled the highest speculation of the time. It was a dualistic element, but it never became ontological dualism. Here again Judaism was able to introduce a good many ideas from Persia, among them the demonology of the Persian religion, where the demons have the same standing as the gods, where the evil god has the same ontological standing as the good god. It introduced these ideas and the New Testament is full of them but it never fell back into an ontological dualism. All these demonic powers have power only through the one God; they have no standing of their own in an ultimate sense. This comes out in the mythology of the fallen angels. The evil angels are, as is everything created, good which is the first anti-pagan dogma; but as fallen angels they are now evil angels. . . . and therefore responsible and punishable, and are not simply creations of an anti-divine being.

Another influence on the New Testament here is the elevation of the future into a coming aeon. In the late apostolic period of Jewish history, world history was divided into an aion houtos (this aeon in which we are living) and an aeon mellon, (the coming aeon which they expected.) This aeon is valued very pessimistically, while the coming great aeon is valued ecstatically. This is not only a political idea: this goes beyond the hope of the Maccabean period, in which the Maccabees defended the Jewish people against tyranny. Also it was not a statement of the prophetic message: the prophetic message was much more historical and this-worldly, while these ideas are cosmological: the whole cosmos participates in these two aeons. The characteristic of this aeon is that it is controlled by the demonic forces, and that it has come of age. The world, even nature, is aging and fading away. One of the reasons is that man has subjected himself to the demonic forces and is disobedient against the law. In connection with these ideas, the concept of Adam's fall, producing the universal destiny of death, is developed out of the short story of Genesis, into a system as we find it in Paul; and this fall is confirmed by every individual by his actual sin. This aeon is under a tragic fate, but in spite of the tragic fate of this aeon the individual is responsible for it.

Now here you have many ideas which you have not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament, which developed in the period between the Testaments. The piety of the law becomes more and more important, partly replacing the piety of the cult. Of course there is still the temple, but beside the temple the synagogue, the religious school, developed. The synagogue becomes the form in which the decisive religious life develops. The law is not valuated as negatively as we are accustomed to doing so, but for the Jews it was a gift and a joy. The law is eternal; it was always in God; it is pre-existent, as later in Christian theology Jesus was interpreted as pre-existent. The content of the law is the organization of the whole life, in its smallest functions: every moment of life is under God: this is the profound idea in the legalism of the Pharisees, which is so heavily attacked by Jesus.

But of course this produces an intolerable burden, and if in religion you receive an intolerable burden, either in thinking or in acting, two alternatives are always possible: the way of the majority, which is one of compromise: you reduce the burden to a point where you can stand it; or the other way, the way of despair, and this was the way of people like Paul, Augustine and Luther, In IV Esdras, written in the period of Paul, we read: "We who have received the law shall be lost because of our sins, but the law never will be lost. Here you have a mood which is reflected in many Pauline sayings. This is the development of late Judaism, the period between the Testaments, and we see how many theological ideas came to the foreground beyond the Old Testament in this period, and were developed in the New Testament community.

Now I come to a third group of influential movements for Christian theology: mystery religions and mysticism. They are not the same. Let us begin with Philo, who developed a doctrine of ek-stasis , (standing outside of oneself which for him is the highest form of piety, lying beyond faith, uniting the prophetic ecstasy with the en-theos-mania (whence our word "enthusiasm"): possessing the Divine, in the Greek mysteries. Out of this comes finally the fully developed mystical system, the ecstasy which leads to the union of the one, namely the individual man, with the One, namely the Absolute, God. which is the fully developed mysticism of the Neo-Platonists such as Dionysius the Areopagite.

But besides this development we have the more important development of the concrete mystery gods. These mystery gods, are monotheistic. He who is initiated into such a mystery has a concrete God who is at the same time the only God. But one can be initiated into more than one mystery, which means that the figures of the mystery gods are exchangeable. There is nothing of the Old Testament exclusiveness of Yahweh. These mystery gods had greatly influenced Christian cult and theology. If somebody is initiated into a mystery as later on the Christians initiated the congregations by steps then he participates in the mystery god and the experiences which the mystery god has. These experiences are described by Paul in Romans 6 with respect to Jesus, namely participation in the death and the resurrection of the mystery god. This is the ecstatic experience which is produced in the mystery activities. In the devotional services, in which those who belong to it are brought into a state of deep sorrow about the death of the god, about the tragic reality in which even the god is involved, and after a certain time experience the ecstatic experience of the god resurrected, in which the individual participates for resurrection himself. This presupposes that the idea of the suffering god is described in these mysteries. Since the Delphic Apollo, we have the idea of the participation of God in the suffering of man: Apollo at Delphi has to pay for the guilt of slaying the powers of the underworld, which have their own right, themselves. Then we have the methods of introduction through psychological means: intoxication; by a change of light and darkness; by ascetic fasting; by incense, sounds, music, etc. all similar to what we can experience every Sunday in a Catholic cathedral.

There is another element, namely the esoteric character of these mysteries. You must learn the words esoteric and exoteric: the former is derived from the Greek eso (inner, internal) , and the latter is from exo (outer, external, public). The mysteries were esoteric: you had to be initiated. You can enter them only after a harsh process of selection and preparation. In this way alone, the mystery of the mystery performances is protected against profanization, and later on, in the Christian congregations, against betrayal to the pagan persecutors.

So we have in these mysteries a lot of elements which the early Christian church accepted. But of course all this is preparation, is potential. The decisive preparation is the event which is documented in the New Testament. And therefore we must say that the decisive preparation of Christian theology is the New Testament. Now I cannot give you here a New Testament theology, but I can show, with a few examples, how early Christian theology used the New Testament. I can speak about the method: it is the reception of New Testament categories of interpretation, and their transformation in the light of the reality of Jesus as the Christ. This means Christian theology used the New Testament always in two steps: reception and transformation. It received the categories which developed in the surrounding religions, in the Old Testament, in the inter-testamental period, and used them in order to interpret the event Jesus. But in doing so they also transformed the meaning of these categories, or symbols, however you want to call them.

For example, with respect to Christology: Messiah is the old prophetic symbol. What happened was that this symbol was applied by the early disciples, perhaps in the very beginning of their encounter with Jesus, to the name "Jesus." This was a great paradox. It was, as we can say adequate because He brings the New Being , and it was inadequate because all the connotations of the word "Messiah" go beyond the actual appearance of Jesus. Therefore Jesus himself, according to the records, realized the difficulty of this double judgment. He himself had this double judgment."Messiah" ("Christ" in Greek) is adequate; it brings out the new reality which appears in him; and it is inadequate: it brings it out in a way which necessarily produces misunderstanding. Therefore He prohibits his disciples to use this term at all. Now it might be that this is a later construction of the records, but however it may be, it mirrors the double judgment about this concept whether Jesus himself had it or the early congregations, which we never know, with certainty, in any case: namely, it mirrors the fact that such a category is, on the one hand, adequate, and on the other hand is inadequate.

The same is true of the concept Son of Man. It is adequate and therefore used, perhaps even by Jesus himself, because it points to the Divine power present in this man to bring the new aeon. On the other hand, it is inadequate because the "son of man" was supposed to appear in power and glory, on the clouds of heaven, (according to Daniel, in symbolic, poetic language.) And so since the inadequacy seems to be greater later on in the pagan world than the adequacy, this term disappeared.

Or the term man from above, used by Paul in I Corinthians 15. But Paul sees that this also is difficult. Therefore he says: Now the man from above is historical, and therefore he is the "second man" and not the first; the first is Adam, who fell, and the second is the "man from above," the Spiritual man, who is identical with Jesus as the Christ.

Or they used the term Son of David, which is adequate since he is supposed to be the fulfiller of all the prophecies. But it is inadequate, because David was a king, and "son of David" can indicate a political leader and king. Therefore the fight of Jesus against this misunderstanding, when He says that David himself calls the Messiah his lord.

Then Son of God is adequate because of the special relations and intimate communion between God and Jesus. But it is also inadequate because "son of God" is a very familiar pagan concept. All pagan gods have sons. They propagate sons on earth. Therefore there was a danger in this term, and one added "only begotten, " and called Him "eternal. " But it was also difficult for the Jews: they could not stand the pagan connotations. They themselves used that term, but for Israel as the "son of God," and they couldn't use it for an individual.

There are many other terms, but I will now only mention two of these interpretative concepts: KURIOS, i. e., Lord. This is adequate because of its use in the Old Testament, where Divine power is expressed in terms of this word. At the same time it is inadequate because the kurioi the lords, were the mystery gods, and Jesus was pictured concretely in a finite being. It was adequate because the mystery gods were objects of mystical union; and Jesus, also - -especially for Paul was an object of being in Christ (en Christo), in the power and holiness and fear of his Being.

Finally the concept logos, which is the most important one for the development of theology. This term had been developed in Greek and Jewish thinking. It is adequate insofar as it expressed the universal self-manifestation of God in all forms of reality. It is in Greek philosophy and Jewish symbolism the cosmic principle of creation. But at the same time it is inadequate because the logos is the universal principle, while Jesus is a concrete reality. It is a concrete personal life, which is described in these terms. And this inadequacy is expressed in the great paradox of Christianity: the logos became flesh. In this expression you have a perfect example of everything I said to you today, namely a perfect example of using a term (logos) with all the connotations of the past, and at the same time transforming this meaning not denying it or removing it from its original character, and bringing in the Christian message that this universal logos became flesh, an idea which could never have been directly derived from Greek thinking. Therefore the Fathers again and again emphasized that the doctrine of the logos is universal the Greek philosophers have it, as do the Christians but one thing is not universal, and is peculiarly Christian: the logos became flesh in a personal life.

Now it is the greatness of the New Testament that it is able to use words, concepts, symbols, which have developed through the whole history of religion, insofar as it has influenced the Old and New Testaments, and that in using these terms the New Testament at the same time preserves the picture of him who is interpreted by these symbols, namely Jesus. The spiritual power of the New Testament was great enough to take all these concepts into Christianity, with all their pagan and Jewish connotations, without losing the basic reality, namely the event Jesus as the Christ, which these concepts were supposed to interpret. Now it is very important for all your preaching, for your whole theology, for your personal piety, always to distinguish these interpretative categories from the event itself. I always give here, as an example, something many of you might have experienced, e. g., suddenly somebody comes to you and asks: "Do you believe Jesus was the Son of God?" Now this question is an absolutely inescapable threat, if you accept it as a question. You cannot get out of it, because whether you say yes or no, it is absurd. But you can do something else. You can ask back: What do you mean by this term "Son of God" ? -- And then the fear and trembling is on the other side of the fence. Then he looks at you and asks you to help him, and then you can help him and can say: "Son of God" is a very largely used symbol for a special intimate relationship between God and a human being. In paganism this relationship was mostly a relationship by propagation. In Judaism it was the relationship by election. But in any case it is a symbol which interprets such a relationship, and your question, my dear friend, can only mean: "Are we justified in using such a symbol for the event Jesus as the Christ?" And to this answer I answer fully affirmatively.

Then you have escaped the threat and have at the same time given a very important instruction. And I think those of you who deal with children in religious instruction should do the same thing, very consciously and very carefully.

Now we come to that group of people who are called the Apostolic Fathers. But since we have only two minutes, I don't want to go into this now, and we will have questions.

QUESTION: You said that mystery religions and mysticism were not the same thing, and out of the mystery religions came the mysticism. . .

REPLY: The word mysticism is very ambiguous and has many different meanings. One type of mysticism is what I would call abstract or absolute mysticism, as in Plotinus, where the soul disappears into the Ultimate. Then we have a kind of concrete mysticism. namely a concrete mystery god, who might even have the absolute concreteness of Jesus as the Christ, in whose Spiritual sphere we participate. This is what Paul means when he speaks of "being in Christ." This is concrete mysticism. This is the "baptism" of mysticism. It has been taken into Christianity by being concrete mysticism, and by being related to Jesus as the Christ.

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