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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 7: Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus.


Last time we finished with the description of that great movement called Gnosticism and which, more exactly, should be regarded as the wave of religious syncretism running from the East to the West, existing in many groups and forms and entering also Christianity. I gave you some of their main ideas. In opposition to and partly also in acceptance of the Gnostic ideas, the first great Christian theologians developed their systems: Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus. The defense against attacks from outside was made in terms of the Logos doctrine. But now some of the spirit of the world which was conquered by Christianity, entered Christianity itself. The fight now had to be waged against a Christianized paganism. But such a fight is never simply a negation: it is always reception, also. The result of this partial rejection, and partial reception, of the generally religious mood of that time is what we call "early Catholicism." The people with whom we now have to deal are important because they represent early Catholicism, expressing these ideas which grew out of the acceptance and rejection of the pagan religious movement of that time.

In order to do so, they accepted the Logos doctrine created by the Apologists, but they now brought it constructively and not only apologetically into a framework of Bible and tradition. In doing so they partly deprived it of its dangerous implications, one of them of course being the possibility of relapse into polytheism tri-theism or duo-theism. It is the greatness of these people, Irenaeus and Tertullian, that they saw these dangers, used the Logos doctrine, and developed constructively the theological ideas in relationship to the religious movements of their time.

The religiously greatest of the three men I named is Irenaeus, who more than most of the people of his time, understood the spirit of Paul. You will recall that I said that already in the Apostolic Fathers, John and Matthew and the "catholic letters" were effective, but that Paul was not very much effective for that time any more. Now a man came Irenaeus who again had a feeling for what Paul's theology meant for the Christian Church. But it was not so much the doctrine with which Paul fought against Judaism the doctrine of justification through faith by grace but it was more the center of Paul's own teaching, namely, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which was important for Irenaeus.

In some ways Irenaeus was nearer to the Protestant ideas of Christianity than most of early Catholicism. Nevertheless he was the father of early Catholicism and ultimately not a Protestant, insofar as this side of Paul which I like to call the "corrective side" of Paul, namely the doctrine of justification by faith was not in the center even of Irenaeus.

The other man who belongs to the Anti-Gnostic Fathers is Tertullian. He is the master of Latin rhetoric. He is the creator of the Latin church terminology. He had a juristic mind, although he was not a jurist himself. His was a very aggressive temperament and a great character. He understood the primacy of faith and the paradox of Christianity, but he was not artificially primitive: he accepted at the same time the Stoic philosophy, and with it the idea that the human soul is by nature Christian anima naturaliter christiana. And he accepted the Logos doctrine of the Apologists, because he was not only accepting the paradox of Christianity, but was at the same time a sharp rational mind and didn't believe that Greek philosophy could surpass Christianity in rational sharpness and clarity.

The third man was Hippolytus, who was a scholarly man more than the other two, and who continued the polemics against/Gnostic movement in exegetic works and church-historical works. His refutation of the heresies is already history, more than the life-and-death struggle as in Irenaeus and Tertullian.

So we have these three men, who saw the situation of the early Church. It's important for Protestants to see how early most fundamentals of the Roman system were already present in the third century.

The problem of the period, as posited by the Gnostics, was in the realm of authority: the question whether the holy scriptures were decisive, or the secret teachings of the Gnostics. The Gnostic teachers said that Jesus, for instance in the forty days after His resurrection when He was supposed to be together with His disciples, had given them secret insights, and these insights came to the Gnostic theologians and formed the character of Gnostic philosophy and theology. Now against this the Anti-Gnostic Fathers first of all had to establish a doctrine of the Scripture. The Holy Scripture is given by the Logos through the Divine Spirit. Therefore, it's necessary to fix the canon, and this problem now arose. You see, all these things and you will find that in my whole lecture are not created by people who were sitting in their studios and were thinking about the problem, e. g., "Now what about the Bible?: What belongs to it and what doesn't?" But it was done by people who felt that the very foundations of the Church were threatened by the intrusion of secret traditions which asserted quite different things from what the Biblical writings said. So the decision of the Church as to what shall and what shall not belong to the canon, was a part of the life-and-death struggle with Gnosticism, and can be understood only from there. And this is so with all the statements of the early Church. We have an example in our own time: The restatement of the Lutheran confessions in modern form by the German synods was not a matter of conferences of theologians who were interested in restating the old confessions in a little bit revised form that was tried, and without any effect or success but it was done exactly as in the ancient Church: In the moment in which the so-called German Christians namely the Nazis, who in many respects had similarities to the Gnostic movements entered the Christian churches; and now the Christian Church had to state formulas of resistance. It was that resistance movement which the Germans could and did put up: namely, resistance of the churches against the intrusion of a pagan, half-gnostic philosophy into Christianity. It is in this way that you must think of the development of Christian dogma. Don't think of it in terms of professorial studies, as sometimes the theology of the Ecumenical Movement seems to develop... (The danger to the ecumenical movement)is not so much from the Communist side they are on the outside as it is if, for instance, a struggle develops between two halves of the Western world, the European and the Anglo-Saxon, where from the one or the other side, the attempt will be made to identify Christianity with, let us say, the American ways of life, as understood by some leaders of the present-day Congress.

Now if this happens, then there would be a real situation of life-and-death struggle: Christianity would have to fight for its very existence. This is what I mean with the serious and realistic character of the theological , development of the early Church, and also with the fixation of the canon.

They said the present period is poor in Spirit, and therefore we must always return to the classical period. The Apostolic period is the classical period of Christianity, and what has been written at that time is valid for all times. We shall see later that this statement was not always acknowledged by Christian theology, but here it was for the first time really fixed. Therefore something really new cannot be canonic. This was one of the reasons why we have in the Biblical literature so many books which go under Apostolic names, although they were written in the post-Apostolic period. But that which is canonic, is canonic in an absolute sense, even in the letters of the text. Here Christianity simply followed the legalistic interpretation of the Law in Judaism where every Hebrew letter of the Old Testament text has an open and a hidden meaning, and is absolutely inspired. But this was not enough as it never was, either in Protestantism or in any other people in which the Bible was made the ultimate norm....because the Bible must be interpreted. And the GnostIcs interpreted the Scriptures differently from the official Church. Another principle therefore must enter: TRADITION. The tradition was identified with the regula, the rule of faith. When this happens, not the Bible but the rule of faith becomes decisive, exactly as the creeds of the Reformation 50 years and later ,after the Reformation, are the decisive canon for theological teaching, and not the Bible.

The rule of faith was also called the canon of truth, and it is true because it comes from the Apostles. It is traditio apostolica , apostolic tradition, which is mediated through the presbyters or bishops. This however, is still too much. There are many elements in the tradition, ethical and dogmatic, so it must be concentrated in one creedal form, and the summing up of the Bible in the rule of faith and the rule of faith in the creed, was made in connection with baptism, the main sacrament of that time. The confession of baptism is the creed.

This, of course, presupposes that the bishops who are responsible for the rule of faith and its summary, the creed, have the gift of truth. Why do they have it? Because they are the successors of the apostles. Here you have the clear expression of the episcopalian doctrine of apostolic succession.

The apostolic succession is most visible in the Roman church, which according to the anti-Gnostic Fathers, to Irenaeus and Tertullian, is founded by Peter and Paul. Irenaeus says about this church: "To this church all nations must come, because of its greater principality, the church in which the Apostolic tradition has been always preserved." Now please imagine: This is not a statement of the early 1870's but of the third century.

The unity of the Church everywhere, is based on the tradition of the baptismal creed, which is guaranteed by the apostolic succession. Therefore, Irenaeus demands obedience to the presbyters of whom he says they "have the succession from the Apostles. " In this way the episcopate became the dogmatic guarantee of the saving truth.

So we have the Bible, the tradition, the rule of faith, the creed, the bishops: they all together are a system of guarantees, a very impressive system created in the fight against the Gnostics. And what we can be astonished about is how early all this happened.

Now against this a reaction took place. I want to deal with this before I go on with an elaboration of the doctrines of the anti-Gnostic Fathers. It was a reaction of the Spirit against the order. This reaction was represented by a man called MONTANUS, and his group the Montanists. This reaction was very serious, so much so that one of the two greatest anti-Gnostic theologians, Tertullian, himself became a Montanist. And it is important for us because Montanistic reactions against the ecclesiastical fixation of Christianity go on through all of Church history So the fact that this group was not very successful historically doesn't mean that it was not very important from the point of view of Christian theology.

This group had two ideas: the Spirit, and the end. The Spirit was suppressed by the organization of the Church, and the fear of Spiritual movements because of the Gnostic claims to have the Spirit. It was denied that. prophets necessarily have an ecstatic character. A churchman of that time wrote a pamphlet about the fact that it is unnecessary that a prophet speak in ecstasy. The Church couldn't understand the prophetic Spirit any more. It was afraid of it. And understandably, because in the name of the Spirit all kinds of disruptive elements came into the Church.

The other idea is that of the end. You remember that I said that already the Apostolic Fathers, and even already Paul, to a certain extent, started to establish themselves in this world, after the expectation of Jesus and the apostles that the end was very near and would come in their generation, was disappointed. Now this disappointment led to great difficulties and to the necessity of creating a worldly church, a church which is able to live in the world. Against this also, continuously in Church history, reactions set in. But they experienced what the earliest Christians experienced: the end they expected did not come. So the Montanists had to do the same as the church did: to establish themselves. And in the moment they established themselves, they also became a church. But it was a church in which much of the sectarian types of the churches of the Reformation and the later sects, was anticipated namely , a strict discipline. They believe that they represent the period of the Paraclete, after the period of the Father and the Son. And this is always something the sectarian revolutionary movements in the Church claims: that they represent the period of the Spirit.

But then it always happens even to the Quakers it happened, after their first ecstatic period that if you want to fix the content of what the Spirit has taught them, it is of extreme poverty; it is nothing new, in comparison with the Biblical message, and what is new is usually a more or less rational moralism. This happened to George Fox in his later development, and to his followers, and happens to all ecstatic sects: in the second generation they become rational, moralistic, legalistic, and the ecstatic element is gone, and not much comes out in terms of creativity as we have it in the classical period of apostolic Christianity.

They fixed these poor contents in new books and in the idea of a prophetic succession, which of course is self-contradictory because succession is an organizational principle and prophecy is an anti-organizational principle, and the attempt to bring them together was unsuccessful and always will be unsuccessful.

Now the Christian Church excluded Montanism; it conquered it. But such victories are always losses. Let's see the four ways in which this loss is visible:

1) The canon was victorious against the possibility of new revelations. The solution of the Fourth Gospel that there are new insights, which of course are under the criticism of the Christ, was at least reduced in meaning and power.

2) The traditional hierarchy was confirmed against the prophetic spirit. This was a very serious thing because since that time the prophetic spirit was more or less excluded from the Church and always had to flee in sectarian movements. Most of the so-called sectarian movements, ever since the defeat of Montanism; are movements into which the prophetic spirit fled because it couldn't find a place in the Church.

3) Eschatology became less interesting than it was in the Apostolic age. Establishment was much more important, and the expectation of the end was reduced to an appeal to every individual that his end can come at any moment which is how you usually handle it in your preaching. But the idea of an end of history was not important any more since that time.

4) The disciplinary strictness of the Montanists was lost, and a growing laxity took place in the Church. Here again something happened which has happened all through Church history again and again, that new, small groups with disciplinary strictness arose, were regarded with great suspicion by the church, and developed themselves into larger churches only to lose the disciplinary power in themselves.

So you can say the result of the Montanist struggles was that traditional theology and above all its safeguards, were victorious against any danger, and that the conservative establishment of the Church was victorious against any eschatological radicalism and expectation. These two consequences are there, and now we must ask: What was taught in the framework of these very strict safeguards given by the anti-Gnostic Fathers of the early Catholic church?

There is first one point which is obvious if you think of it as I said in connection with the Gnostics, namely the contrast between the father-God and the savior-God. One called the Gnostic theory blasphemia creatoris, the blasphemy of the creator-God. Now such blasphemy of the creator-God is something which should be kept in mind by all neo-orthodox theologians of today. There is much Gnostic Marcionism in them, much dualistic blasphemy of the creator-God. They put the savior-God so much over the creator-God that, although they never fall into a real heresy about it, they implicitly blaspheme the Divine creation by identifying it actually with the sinful state of reality.. Against all this of today and of the past people like Irenaeus said that God is one, and there is no duality in Him; law and Gospel, creation and salvation, are derived from the same God.

This God is known to us not speculatively but existentially. He expresses this: "Without God, you cannot know God." God is never an object. But in all knowledge, He is He who knows, in us and through us. Only He can know Himself, and we may participate in His knowledge of Himself, but He is not an object whom we can know from outside. According to His greatness, His absoluteness, His unconditional character, God is unknown. According to His love, in which He comes to us, He is known. Therefore in order to know God, you must be within God, you must participate in Him. You never can look at Him as an object outside of yourselves. This God has created the world out of nothing. This phrase "out of nothing" is not a story about. the way in which God has created, but is a protective concept which in itself is only negatively meaningful, that. there was no presupposed resisting matter out of which God created the world as we have it in paganism.. This is the meaning of this doctrine. God has created the world "out of nothing" means God was not dependent on a matter which, (as the Greek matter, against the Demiurge), resisted the form which the Demiurge, the world-builder, wanted to impose on it. This is not Christian. The Christian idea is that everything is created directly by God, without a resisting matter; He is the cause of everything. His purpose, the immanent telos of reality, is the salvation of man. Therefore the result is: the creation is good, and the creator-God is the savior-God: they are not two. If you know a little of Church history and of our present situation, you will see immediately that these ideas are not old-fashioned problems of the past, but are very modern problems. In Puritanism, religious or secular, there is much blasphemy of the creator-God. We should always realize that that this blasphemy of the creator-God is always based on the confusion of created goodness with the distortion of creation. You only need to think of the sexual problems to know what I mean.

Now this one God is a trius, a trinity. The word trinitas appears first in Tertullian since God, although one, was never alone. Irenaeus: "There is always with Him the word and the wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, through which He has made everything freely and spontaneously." Here we still have the motives of the transcendent trinity, of the trinity in God. God is always a living God, and therefore He is never alone, never a dead identity with Himself. He has always with Himself His word and His wisdom, symbols for His Spiritual life, His self-manifestation and His self-actualization.'" It would be good if we sometimes went back to people like Irenaeus, to look into the motives of those doctrines such as the Trinity, which have become holy pieces to be adored on the altar and to be used in liturgical formulas, and never understood that they shall really say something about God as living, and make understandable the presence of the Divine as a living, creative ground.

According to Irenaeus, these three are one God, because they have one dunamis, power of being, essence, potentiality you can use all these words. (Potentiality and dynamics are the Latin and Greek words, respectively ; "power of being" is perhaps the most exact translation.)~

Tertullian speaks of the one Divine substance which develops in the triadic economy, I. e. , "building up"; the Divinity builds itself up eternally in a unity. Any polytheistic interpretation of the Trinity is sharply rejected. On the other hand, God is established as a living God and not as dead identity. Thus una substantia, tres personnae , asTertullian calls it, who used the formula first, and which ever since has been used. Man of course, contrary to Gnosticism, is created good. He is fallen by his own freedom. Man who is immortal by nature was supposed to be immortal through obedience to God, remaining in Paradise and participating in the food of the gods, in the tree of life. But he lost this power by disobedience to God. So it must be regained. Immortality I said this already in connection with Justin and Ignatius is not a natural quality but is something which must be given, out of the realm of the eternal: namely, the Divine. There is no other way to get it. Sin is spiritual as well as carnal. Adam has lost the possible similitudo (similitude) with God, namely immortality, but he never has lost the natural image, because the natural image makes him man. This is Irenaeus' famous distinction between similitudo and imago. These two words are used in the Vulgate translation of the first verses of Genesis, that God made man in His similitude, in His image. This repetitious sentence is translated in two ways. This is long before the Vulgate and Irenaeus, who makes something theological out of it, which you cannot do from the Hebrew, which has only one word. But the interpretation is theologically very interesting. The one is the natural image of God, which every man has: man as man, man as rational being, man as able to have relationship to God, man as finite. . . is the image of God. Similitudo is a possible development of man, namely, becoming similar to God. And the main point in the similarity with God is eternal life, because that's what God has and if somebody gets this, then he overcomes his natural mortality and participates in the eternal life in terms of a gift of God. Again, I say, that if we had a Church council deciding between the traditional idea of the immortality of the soul....so popular especially in this country....and my own position that this is non-Christian and not even genuinely Platonic. . then I think if we could call Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus to decide which of us were heretic, I think they would decide for me, and against those of you who would defend the natural immortality of the soul. The one is classical theology; the other is a popular remnant of the theology of the Enlightenment, where the three ideas of God (in terms of a moral ideal), of freedom (in terms of a possible moral decision), and of immortality (as a guarantee in terms of moral progress) were in the center of rational theology. This was not Christian, but more or less misunderstood Platonism, and it is something which is still much more powerful than any Christian eschatological idea in the popular religious feeling of this country. And I emphasize this so much because it has so many other consequences theologically.

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