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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 4: Apostolic Fathers: Clement. Ignatius.


We come now to the so-called Apostolic Fathers, the earliest post-biblical writers, partly earlier than some of the later books of the New Testament. These so-called Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius, Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and others) are more dependent on a Christian conformism which slowly had developed, than on the outspoken position of Paul in his Letters. Insofar as Paul still was effective in this period, it was mostly not directly but more through John and Ignatius. The reason for this was, partly at least, that the fight with the Jews was a matter of the past, that the conflict with the Jewish Christians did not have to be continued and repeated. Instead of that, the positive elements became important which gave an understandable content for the pagans. One can say that in the generation of the Apostolic Fathers, the great visions of the first ecstatic breakthrough had disappeared, and that instead of that, a given set of ideas was left, a set of ideas which produced a kind of ecclesiastical conformity and made the missionary work possible. Some people have complained about this development, complained that so early after the second generation the power of the Spirit was on the wane. But this is an unavoidable thing in all creative periods. After the breakthrough one only needs to think of the Reformation and after the first generation which received the breakthrough (i. e., the second generation), a fixation or concentration on some special points begins; the need to preserve what was given, the educational needs all this working together to a Christianity which, compared with the Christianity of the Apostolic age, had considerably lost its Spiritual power.

Nevertheless, this period is extremely important since it was what was preserved and what was needed for the life of the early congregations. The first question to be asked was: Where could one find the expression of the common spirit of the congregation? Originally the real mediators of the message were those who were the bearers of the Spirit, the "pneumatics" who had the pneuma (the spirit). But, as you know from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, especially the 12th chapter, he already had difficulties with the bearers of the Spirit because they produced disorder. Therefore he already emphasizes the order besides the Spirit. In the supposedly Pauline letters of the New Testament, this emphasis on ecclesiastical order becomes increasingly important. In the generation of the Apostolic Fathers, the ecstatic Spirit almost had disappeared. It was considered to be dangerous, and why, one asked, do we need it?: everything the Spirit has to say has already been classically expressed in Bible and tradition; therefore, instead of the prophets, who travelled from place to place, following the Apostles we now have definite norms and authorities in the early Christian congregations, and the first thing we must do is to find out about these norms and authorities.

The first and basic authority is the Old Testament, and the older parts of the New Testament, as they already had appeared and were collected. But the New Testament at that time had a very vague edge: there were many books which were not yet decisively received into the canon of the Bible. It took more than 200 more years before the Church finally decided about all those books which we now consider as the New Testament. But in any case, the Church possessed the whole Old Testament and a central basic amount of New Testament books.

But this was not all. Besides these writings, there was a traditional life, a complex of dogmatic and ethical doctrines, called by I Clement "the canon of our tradition." The names of this tradition were: truth, Gospel, doctrine, commandments, tradition. All these words were used; theology points to the same thing: the living tradition beside the Old Testament, and the beginnings of the New Testament. But this was a large amount of material and it was necessary to narrow it down. First of all, for those who were baptised, it was necessary that they received and confessed a creed which made them members of the Church. So a confessional creed was created, which bore similarity to our present-day Apostles' Creed, and which was, in its center, Christological, because this was what distinguished the Christian communities from Judaism as well as from paganism.

Baptism was the sacrament of entrance, and in this sacrament the one baptized who at that time, of course, was an adult, coming from paganism had to confess that he wanted to accept the implications of his baptism. He was then baptised in the name of Christ. Later on, the names of God and the Spirit were added But nothing was explained. All this was faith and liturgy, but not yet theology.

All these things are going on in the Church. Therefore the doctrine is the doctrine not of a philosopher of religion, but is the doctrine of the Church, expressing its conformity, its traditional doctrines, its baptism creed. This "Church" derived from the Greek ekklesia, an assembly, i. e., an assembly of God or Christ: the original meaning is being "called out" of the houses, gathering together the Greek citizens to the city... etc.; similarly those who were called out of all houses and nations to form the Church Universal. Those people who are called out of the nations into the universal Church are the true people of God. They are called out of the barbarians, out of the Greeks, out of the Jews, although the Jews anticipated it and had a kind of ekklesia themselves, namely as the people of God of the Old Testament. But they are not the true people of God, because the true people of God are universally called out of all nations.

If this is the case, it is necessary that those who are called together to the conformity of the ecclesiastical creed distinguish themselves from those outside and from those who are inside but wrongly: the heretics. But how can this be done? How can you find out whether a doctrine may or may not be an introduction of barbarian, Greek or Jewish doctrines which do not fit into the conformity of the Church? The answer was: this can be done only by the bishop who is the "overseer" of the congregation, and who represents the Spirit, who is supposed to be in the whole congregation. In the fight against pagans, Jews, barbarians and heretics, the bishops become more and more important. Ignatius writes, in his letter to the Smyrnians: "Where the bishop is, there the congregation should be. Even if assumed prophets appear, they may be wrong or right. But the bishop is right." The bishops are the r:epresentatives of the true doctrine. The bishops themselves were not originally distinguished from the presbyters (the elders). Then slowly the bishop became a monarch among the elders and a monarchic episcopate developed. This is of course a consistent development. If the authority which guarantees truth is embodied in human beings, then the tendency towards one human being who has the final decision is almost unavoidable.

In Clement of Rome one of the Apostolic Fathers, to be distinguished from Clement of Alexandria, a few hundred years later....we already find the first traces of apostolic succession: the bishop represents the apostles. So this is the first thing we must say: the doctrine of the authorities. And this is fundamental, showing how early the problem of authority was decisive in the early Church; how early what came to full development in the Roman Church developed already in early Christianity.

We now come to special doctrines. The pagan world in which these few Christians lived demanded first of all an emphasis on a monotheistic idea of God. Therefore the Shepherd of Hermas says: "First of all, believe that God is one, who has made all things, bringing them out of nothing into being." Here we have the doctrine of creation out of nothing, which we cannot find in the Old Testament but which is implicit in it and was expressed already before Christianity by Jewish theologians in the period between the Testaments. It is the doctrine which was decisive for the separation of the early Church from paganism.

In the same line was the emphasis on the almighty God, the despotes as he is called, the ruling powerful lord. Clement says: "0 great demiurge", (i. e., master of all work and lord of everything: he is the great builder of the universe and the lord of everything he has built. Now here are three very important concepts. I already mentioned creation out of nothing; then the demiurge; and then the almighty, the despotes who rules the world. Why are these concepts, which seem so natural to us, so important? Because they are concepts of protection used against paganism. Creation out of nothing means that God did not find matter when He started creating, a matter which always resists the form, and which therefore should be transcended as it was in neo-Platonic paganism. Such a matter does not exist. The material world is an object of Divine creation and therefore good and must not be disparaged for the sake of salvation. The word "demiurge" was used in Plato and Gnosticism, in the religious mixture of these centuries, for something which is lower than God, which is below the highest God, who does not deal with such low things as creating the world, but leaves it to a demiurge. This means that creation is something in which the Divine reality is less present, that it is a falling away from full Divinity. Against this, these words of Clement speak: the great demiurge is God himself; there is no duality between the highest God and the maker of the world. Creation is absolute act, out of nothing. This means almightiness. Almightiness does not mean a God who sits on His throne and can do anything he wants to do, like an arbitrary tyrant; rather, almightiness means God is the ground and the o n l y ground of everything created, and that there is no resisting matter against Him. This is the meaning of the first article of the Apostles' Creed, which you should read with great awe again and again, because here Christianity separated itself from the dualistic interpretation of reality which we find in all paganism dualistic in the sense that there is a good principle and an evil principle, and that both of them are of equal originality, that matter is as eternal as form, that chaos.. . resists God. All these ideas disappeared in the moment the Christians created the first words of the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in God the almighty creator of heaven and earth." This is the great wall of Christianity against paganism. And Christology, without this wall, inescapably deteriorizes into Gnosticism, where Christ becomes one of the cosmic powers besides others, even if he is the highest. Therefore don't underestimate the first article. Only in the light of this first article is the second article meaningful. Don't reduce God to the Second Person. of the Trinity. This was very well understood by these earliest post-biblical theologians, these Apostolic Fathers. They knew that they needed a God who is creator, almighty, and not in any way dependent on a resisting matter.

As ruler of everything, God has a plan of salvation. This idea of a plan of salvation is especially developed by Ignatius. In his letter to the Ephesians, he speaks of the "economy towards the new man." This is a. wonderful summary of the Christian message: economy towards the new man. Economy means "building a house." But this word is used in our culture for what we call economic production. It is used in the Greek period for the structure of God and world, in their relationships. There is an economy of the Trinitarian thinking: Father, Son, and Spirit. They only together are God. There is an economy of salvation, the building of the different periods which finally led to the new man. This idea of the new man, or new creature, or new being, as the aim of the history of salvation, is an important contribution of these theologians.

This economy, this periodic preparation, is already present in the Old Testament. So Ignatius says: "Judaism has believed towards Christianity." Here again we have the relationship towards fulfillment. The Christ, the new man, has appeared. He is perfect. The disruptedness of the old man is overcome and death is dissolved. This leads to Christology.

Now you will find that here already, some of the defects arise which will become overwhelming when we come to the Trinitarian and Christological discussions. So I ask you to follow very carefully each mentioning of the Christological problem in the earlier periods, otherwise it is impossible to understand anything of the dogma of the early Church, which has two parts: Christ in heaven (the Trinitarian dogma) and Christ on earth (the Christological dogma).

Generally speaking, one can say that Jesus as the Christ was considered to be a Spiritual being who is pre-existent, and who had transformed the historical Jesus into a tool for His saving activity. The Spirit is an hypostasis in God, an independent power which of course is completely united with God but it has the character of a certain independence or hypostasis. The Son came into the realm of flesh; He accepted flesh, which had developed independently; the flesh cooperated with the Spirit in Him; the Holy Spirit dwelled in the flesh which He chose; He became the Son of God by His service. (" Flesh" here always means historical reality),

But there is another idea and now things become serious. One could say that the first Spirit, the proton pneuma, became flesh. For instance Ignatius says: "Christ is God and perfect man at the same time. He comes from the Spirit, and the seed of David." This means that He is not only some Spiritual power which has accepted flesh, but He, as the Spiritual power, has become flesh. One also uses other words. One says: "There is one physician." Salvation is still understood as meaning healing. This hiatros , this physician, heals fleshly and spiritually; He has genesis and has not genesis; He has come into flesh, He has come into death, and has eternal life in death; and He is God who came into flesh. He is from Mary and from God; able to suffer and then not able to suffer, because of His elevation to God.

Now these are still very mixed ideas, They all want to emphasize that here something paradoxical has happened. that a Divine Spiritual power has appeared under the conditions of humanity and existence.

From the point of view of God, Ignatius says: "For there is one God who made himself manifest through Jesus Christ, His Son, who is His logos, proceeding from His silence . II Clement: "Being the first Spirit, the head of the angels, He became flesh. Being He who appears in human form, Christ is the Word proceeding out of the silence." (aposiges ) . The Christ breaks the eternal silence of the Divine ground. As such He is both God and complete man. The same historical reality is the one as well as the other, as one person. One can speak of a double message (a dipton kerygma), the message that this same being is God and man.

Now here we have the main religious interest of this whole period. The interest is, as Clement says, theologein ton Christon, i. e., speaking theologically of Christ as of God. "Brothers, so we must think about Jesus Christ as about God, for if we think small things about Him, we can hope to receive small things only. The absoluteness of salvation demands an absolute Divine Saviour. " Now all of this is quite germinal for our development, but it had to evolve through centuries of struggle. Otherwise, they could not grow. But here we have the problem of the two possible categories: Has Christ come into flesh, accepting it?; or has He come as the logos, being transformed into it? Both ideas already appear.

The second point is: Here is logos aposiges, the Divine Logos who breaks the silence of God. This is a very profound idea. It means that the Divine Abyss in itself is without word, form, object, and voice. It is silence, the infinite silence of the eternal. But out of this Divine silence, the word, the logos, breaks and opens up what is hidden in this silence. He reveals the Divine Ground

Thirdly, Christology is not a theoretical problem, but the Christological problem is one side of the soteriological problem (from the Greek soteria, "salvation").We can see it here already, and can say that it is not a merely theoretical interest which drives to Christology and the fight about it, but it is the desire to have a safe salvation. It is the desire to get the courage which overcomes the anxiety of being lost. This is the situation, and these three points you should keep in mind. They appear as early as in the Apostolic Fathers:

The first point: The two Christologies: taking on flesh, or being transformed into flesh;

Second: The question of the Divine silence and the Logos revealing it;

Third: The question of soteriology, which is the basis for the question of Christology, and not vice versa. (Perhaps even those of you who don't know Greek should learn the word soter, "saviour"...) And now, what is this "salvation"? The work of Christ is a two-fold one, and remained so in the whole early Greek church, and is still so in the present Greek Orthodox church. It is first gnosis , (knowledge), and secondly, ~ (life). (It is always sad for me to see that there are many who don't know Greek, because the Bible--and also Plato! --was written in Greek.)

In any case, these are the things which the Christ brings: knowledge and life. Sometimes it is combined in the phrase athanatos gnosis : immortal knowledge, knowledge of that which is immortal and which makes immortal. Knowledge: the Christ called us from darkness into light; He made us serve the Father of Truth. Or: He called us who had no being and wanted that we have being, out of His new Being. This means knowledge brings being. Knowledge is knowledge of being. And he who has this knowledge has saving knowledge. Knowledge and being belong to each other. And so do lie and non-being. Truth is being; new truth is new being.

Now all this I mention in order to show one thing which is not often understood. Harnack and his followers have called the early Church as being infested by Greek intellectualism. I think this statement has two mistakes: first. Greek intellectualism is a wrong term because the Greeks were extremely interested in truth. but. with some exceptions, the truth they wanted to have was existential truth, truth concerning their existence, truth saving them out of the distorted existence and elevating them to the immovable One. And in the same way. the early congregations understood truth. Truth is not theoretical knowledge about objects, but truth is cognitive participation in a new reality. in the reality which has appeared in the Christ. Without this participation, no truth is possible. and knowledge is abstract and meaningless. This is what these people meant when they combined being and knowledge. Participating in the New Being is participating in truth. having the true knowledge.

This identity of truth and being mediates the other side. namely life. Christ gives immortal knowledge, the knowledge which gives immortality. He is the saviour and leader of immortality. He is in His being our imperishable life, He gives both the knowledge of immortality and the drug of immortality. which is the sacrament. Ignatius calls the Lord's Supper the antidotonto me apothanein . the remedy against our having to die, This idea that the sacramental materials of the Lord's Supper are, so to speak, drugs or remedies which produce immortality, has a very profound meaning. It shows. first of all, one thing: these Apostolic Fathers did not believe in the immortality of the soul, There is no natural immortality. otherwise it would be meaningless for them to speak about immortal life. appearing and given to us in Christ, But they believed that man is natural....mortal, exactly as the Old Testament believes; that in Paradise man was able to participate in the food of the gods, called the "tree of life", and to keep alive by participating in this Divine power. In the same way the Apostolic Fathers said that with the coming of Christ the situation of Paradise is reestablished. Now we again participate in the food of eternity, which is the body and the blood of Christ, and in doing so we build in ourselves the counter-balance against the natural having to die. Death is the wages of sin only insofar as sin is the separation from God, and therefore God's power to overcome our natural having to die from dust to dust, as the Old Testament says,. does hot work any more: and now it works again, in Christ. and it is seen in a sacramentally realistic way in the materials of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

Now if you see this, then you can at least say one thing -- that our traditional speaking of the immortality of the soul is not classically Christian tradition, but is a distortion of it, not in a genuine but in a pseudo-Platonic sense.

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