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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 8: Covenants, Church Fathers.


We began the discussion of the Anti-Gnostic Fathers, Irenaeus and Tertullian, and I emphasized that the main point was the doctrine of the creator-God (put forth) against the creator-God in Gnosticism, namely, the separation of the creator from the saviour.

The history of salvation is described in three or four covenants. The first covenant is that which is given with creation, the natural law, which is ultimately the law of love and which is innate in man. Everybody has this natural law within himself. Secondly, the law re-stated, after it has faded away when man lost his immediate innocent participation in it. The third stage, again, is law, but now law reestablished in Christ, after Judaism distorted the law of Sinai. It's always the same law, it's always ultimately the law of love, it's always that which is innate in man by nature. God doesn't give arbitrary commandments, but he restates those commandments which are identical with man's essential nature, and which therefore are valid under all circumstances.This doctrine is very important and we must keep it in mind.

Then in Tertullian, insofar as he was a Montanist, we have a fourth covenant, the covenant with the Paraclete, the Divine Spirit, which gives the new law at the end of the days. This means the history of salvation was understood as the education of mankind in terms of a law. This was a very powerful system of thought. It made it possible to understand why the Old Testament belongs to the Christian Bible, why philosophy belongs to Christianity: they all are stages in the one history of salvation; they are not negated by the revelation in Christ, but confirmed. This should never be forgotten in Christian theology, that the problem of dualism was solved in terms of a history of salvation in different covenants. One can say that it is the Biblical idea of kairos, the "right time." At any time the revelation must do something special. There is not only one revelation. There is revelation adapted to the situation first that of Paradise; then that of the elected nation; then that of the followers of Christ; and, sometimes, that of the Divine Spirit. There is, in all cases, a different kairos, a different right time. Such a kind of thinking liberates Christianity immediately from a narrowness in which its own revelation is declared to be the only one, and it is not seen in the context of the history of revelation, and which finally leads in Marcion as today, partly at least, in the Barthian school to an isolation of revelation over against the whole history of mankind.

Now Christologically, Irenaeus, for instance, says: "The invisible of the Son is the Father; the visible of the Father is the Son." And this is eternally so. There is always something which potentially is visible in God or we would perhaps better say "manifest" in God and there is something which remains as mystery and abyss in God. These are the two sides which symbolically speaking are distinguished as Father and Son. Eternally the Son is the visible of the Father and the Father is the invisible of the Son, but it becomes manifest in the personal appearance of Jesus as the Christ. The Anti-Gnostic Fathers, because they had to do with Christian polytheistic tendencies, emphasized more the monotheistic element in Christianity than it was emphasized by the Apologists, whose discovery of the Logos doctrine brought them into some dangerous approximation to polytheistic ,or tri-theistic ,elements at least (if the Spirit is treated in the same way ., in which the Logos is treated.

In the line of thought leading from John to Ignatius to Irenaeus , the Logos is not so much a lesser hypostasis, a lesser form or power of being in God, but is much more God himself as revealer, as his self-manifestation. Irenaeus calls salvation anakephalaiosis, or recapitulatio , recapitulation, pointing to Ephesians I: All things in heaven and earth alike should be gathered up in Christ. Irenaeus constructs the idea of the history of salvation in connection with these words of Ephesians. For Irenaeus it means that the development which was broken in Adam namely the similitudo or immortality is taken up again by Christ and is fulfilled in him. In him the new mankind has started, that which mankind was supposed to become, namely a decided and tested new reality: this, mankind has become in Christ, after Adam had not been able to bring it about. But it's not only mankind which finds its fulfillment in the appearance of the Christ, but it is the whole cosmos. But in order to do this, Christ had to participate in that nature which broke away from this straight development, namely, in the nature of Adam. To fulfill it, he had to participate in it. So he has become the beginning of the living, as Adam has been the beginning of the dead. Adam is fulfilled in Christ, which means that Christ is the essential man, the man Adam was essentially, and should become but did not become. That which Adam i. e., mankind as a whole, seen essentially has not reached but from which mankind has broken away, that is now the work of the Christ: to actualize this in himself. Adam was not fulfilled in the beginning; he could not have borne fulfillment, as Irenaeus says; he lived in childish innocence. Now here we have a profound doctrine of a (let me call it) transcendent humanism, a humanism which says that Christ is the fulfillment of essential man, namely of the Adamic nature, but that this fulfillment was necessary because it didn't occur in a straight way a break occurred, and this break in Adam, who fell away from what he essentially was supposed to become, was fulfilled in Christ. The childish innocence of Adam of course has been lost, but now the man who is tested and decided can become what he was supposed to become, namely fully human, and he can become so because we can participate in this full humanity as it has appeared in Christ. And don't forget that this always includes eternal life. It means similitude with God with respect to participation in infinity. That's what Christ does, and that's what we can do too.

I always am surprised, when I go into these matters, how much better the old Christian theology was than the popular theology which developed in the 19th century how much profounder, how much more adequate to the paradox of Christianity without becoming irrationalistic or nonsential or absurd. It never did. Of course, there were absurd elements on the borderline, on the edge, with respect to miracles, etc. But the central position was as profound as possible, namely an understanding of Christ not as an accidental event or as a transmutation of a highest being, but as fulfilled or essential humanity, and therefore always related to Adam, I. e., to man's essential being, and to what Adam did when he broke away from himself his fallen state.

In this context, Tertullian gave the fundamental formula for the Trinity and Christology. He used a skillful juristic language which became decisive for all the future. It entered the Roman Catholic creeds which were written of course in Latin and had the power of the right word, which also has its kairos and the words of Tertullian had their "right time" in which they could "hit" and express what was going on. "Let us preserve the mystery of the Divine economy which disposes the unity into trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, three not in essence but in grade; not in substance but in form. " In these words we have for the first time the word trinitas. Tertullian introduced it into the ecclesiastical language. He also speaks of the unity in the trinity, denying any form of tri-theistic tendencies. Instead of that he speaks of "economy," a very important word in all ancient Christian theology. Today it is the method of producing the means of life; but economy is derived from oikos, meaning house; thus, building a house in this case, building God's full life itself. God develops Himself eternally in Himself, and builds up His manifestation in periods of history. It is "economy," building in a living and dynamic way the Trinity in historical manifestation. But this Trinity does not mean there are different essences; there is one Divine essence. If you translate "essence" by power of 'being, then you have what these people meant. There is one Divine power of being and each of the "economic" manifestations of the power of being participates in the full power of being. God has eternity, the ratio (reason), the logos in Himself. It is an inner word. And this is of course the characteristic of spiritual existence. If you say God is Spirit, you must also say He is trinitarian, namely He has the inner word within Himself, and has the unity with His self-objectivation. It proceeds from God, like the beam of the sun proceeds from the sun. This happens in the moment of creation. In this moment the Son becomes another one, a second person, and then a third person. But when Tertullian uses these words, we must not be misled by words, from the very beginning of our more difficult analyses which will inescapably come in the next weeks, concerning the Trinitarian and Christological problems. The words "substance" or "essence" mean power of being; the Divine power of being is in all of them. ... And "persona" is not our "'person"; "persons" are you and I; each of you is a person for himself. We are persons because we are able to reason, to decide, to be responsible, etc. This concept of person was neither applied to God this, not at all..,-nor was it applied even to the three hypostases in God, although the word "person" was applied not to God but to the Father, the Son and the Spirit. What did this word mean? Prosopon is "face," "countenance," or persona, the mask of the actor through which a special character is acted out. So we have three faces, three countenances, three characteristic expressions of the Divine, in the process of the Divine self-explication.

These are the classical formulas of a Trinitarian monotheism, which uses these formulas often, even in Tertullian probably, to cover philosophical implications with which he didn't want to deal. But the Greeks wanted to deal with the implications they were philosophers and so they tried to interpret what the real meaning of these words is. But let me repeat: persona is never applied to God before the 19th century; He never was called person. Secondly, in all classical theology, the term persona is applied to the three faces, or countenances, or self-manifestations of God: God as abyss, or Father; God as form, or Logos; God as dynamics, or Spirit. But this immediately shows that persona in this sense does not mean the juristic or ethical personality which it means today, but it means the independent self-manifestation of God, the countenance, or if you want, the mask, but not mask in order to veil something, but to reveal something, namely a special character.

Now I hope these interpretations have at least given you a little shock, if you run ahead without thinking about the (meaning of "person", in the phrase "God is personal," and "I cannot pray to a personal God", etc... Don't say it so easily. . . .) . . . .

It is not only true with respect to the idea of God, especially Trinity, that Tertullian gave fundamental formulas; he did it also with respect to Christology. "We see a double essence, not confused but united in one person, in God and the man Jesus." Now in such a statement we have the formula of the doctrine of the two natures or powers of being in the one person, namely Christ. This smooth formula of Tertullian, the juristic mind, covers centuries of problems which came out after the formula was found. But his formula prevailed over against everything which followed. Here again we must be clear about the words here persona is meant as one individual face or characteristic being of personal character namely Jesus. And in this person two different powers of being are united, namely the power of being which we call Divine and that which we call human. Each of these powers is dependent; none of them is confused with the other; it has its own standing nevertheless they are united in the unity of a person. If we ask how is this possible, then we are in the later discussions to come.

The question whether the incarnation is a metamorphosis that God becomes man or the acceptance of a human essence: Tertullian decides for the second, because he is certain, as were most of the theologian s, that God is ultimately unchangeable, and that the two powers of being must be preserved. Jesus as man is not a transformed God, but he is a real man, he is true man, and therefore can be true God also. He is not a mixture. If the Logos were transfigured or transformed into something else, then He would have changed His nature, but the Logos remains Logos in the man Jesus. So he decides much more in the line of adopting of a human nature by the Logos, instead of a mythological transmutation idea.

The saving power, according to Irenaeus, is the Divine Spirit who dwells in the Church and renews the members out of what is old, into the newness in Christ. He gives them life (zoe) and light (phos) He gives them the new reality. This is God's work in man, which is accepted by faith. Therefore no law is needed, since we love God and the neighbor. This is the Pauline element, but it is not strong enough to overcome the anti-Pauline elements. Finally, the New Being is mystical-ethical. It is in this sense the highest form of early Catholicism, but it is not Protestantism, where the renewal is by justification through faith.

Irenaeus thinks of the process of salvation in terms of a mystical regeneration into immortality. Against this, Tertullian speaks of a wholesome discipline as the content of the Christian life. He speaks of a process of education by the law, and the reality of obedience to it is eternal life. Here we have the Roman who is a jurist and likes the law, and at the same time the ascetic pietist, who became a Montanist. We have in Irenaeus mystical participation; and in Tertullian subjection to the law: the two sides of early Catholicism, the two sides which were always effective. The second was decisive, before the Protestant break. But the Protestant break denied also the Irenaean form and returned to the one side of Paul, namely justification by faith. So we have always similar problems arising as early as that. We have the relationship to Christ more spiritual mystical participation, more legal by accepting Him as the new law. And these two sides are going on also in Protestantism.

In Tertullian we have the Roman Catholic form of Jewish legalism. The relation to God is legal. Christianity is merely the new law. Christianity returns to the religion of the law but is prevented from becoming simply another Jewish system of laws and rules by the sacramental salvation. Therefore one can say: "the evangelion, the Gospel, is our special law." Trespassing has the consequence that guilt is produced and punishments demanded. "But if we do His will, He will make Himself our debtor. Then we gain merits. "

There are two classes of demands: precepts and counsels. In this way every man can acquire a treasury of holiness in which he returns to Christ what Christ has given him. The virtue of the Christian is crowned. The sacrifice of asceticism and martyrdom moves God to do good to us. "In the measure in which you don't spare yourselves, in this measure, believe me, God will spare you." This of course has a lot of Roman Catholic ideas. This was at the end of the second century. We have now already the difference of precepts for everybody, and counsels for the monks; we have already the idea of Christ as the new law. Roman Catholicism came quickly, and the reason for this is that Roman Catholicism was the form in which Christianity could be received including all the Roman and Greek forms of thinking and living.

Baptism is still the most important sacrament. It removes past sins. It has two meanings here again we come deeply into Roman Catholic ideas. The one is the washing away of the sins, and the other is the reception of the Divine Spirit a negative and a positive element. This of course presupposed the baptismal confession of the creed; it presupposed the consciousness of one's sins and the certainty of the Savior.

Characteristic for baptism are the following activities:

1) One lays the hand on the baptized, and gives him sacred oil, the medium which makes the reception of the Spirit possible.

2) One refutes the Devil, with all his pomp and angels. One leaves the demonic sphere. You must remember how important this way; the New Testament is full of the idea that Christianity has overcome the demonically ruled world. Therefore the refutation of the Devil is something which was extremely important: it meant really the end of participation in paganism. And it was not simply a moralistic formula; it went much deeper: it was the breaking of the religious neurosis which is paganism, the religious limitation to polytheistic limits, to demons, in other words. They could be thrown out. I remember from my own confirmation in Germany that, as a 14-year old child, this was the formula we had to say: I reject the Devil and all its pomp, etc... For us at that time this was some kind of romantic, dark and mysterious feeling about powers from which one goes away definitively. It was not what it was for a pagan who went over from a world which was really ruled by strong demonic powers: into a world of love. But it still was something. The symbol of the Devil was still alive even at that time.

3) The third element in baptism is the unity of forgiveness and regeneration, I. e. , the pagan existence has come to an end; the Christian existence begins. In this moment the preparatory stage has come to an end and those who are baptised are called the telaioi, the perfect ones, those who have reached the telos, the inner aim, of the introduction into the Church, the inner aim of man's existence itself; and the universal aim: to be fulfilled in what one's own being demands.

With respect to the theory of baptism, the Anti-Gnostic Fathers said that the Spirit is united with the water as it was in the Gnostic mysteries. The Spirit and this was easy especially for Tertullian as a Stoic is so to speak a material force in the water. This force some physically extinguishes the former sins and gives, physically, the Spirit. Here we have contradictory statements, but these statements were made. It is the famous "materialism" of Tertullian, who thought in these terms. This was very important because it made infant baptism possible. If the water is the saving power, then the child can be saved as much as the adult.

Now it was not without hesitation that Tertullian accepted this doctrine, but Christianity had to accept it in the moment in which one ceased to baptize individuals called out of all paganism, and baptized all nations. Then you cannot exclude the children. But if you include the children, then you must have a completely objective theory, because children are not subjects who can decide. And this is what people of that time saw, and what Luther and the Reformers saw therefore the strong emphasis on baptism in order to make it possible for everybody to participate in it.

The Lord's Supper is for Irenaeus the physical mediation of immortality; the union of heavenly and Divine elements take place. Participation in it is continuous reincarnation.

Now these ideas are the Roman church, and they are ideas which became extremely influential in the long run, and have finally conquered all other ideas. The Catholic church was ready about the year 300, I. e., it needed only a very short time to be brought into fulfillment because all the motives were ready, they were ready in paganism, and paganism couldn't receive Christianity without these elements. Therefore we shall not say that Protestantism is the restatement of the early centuries. It simply is not. The Catholic motives were very strong from the very beginning. And this is one of the reasons why the " middle way" of the Anglican church, which in itself would be an ideal solution for the split of the churches, doesn't work because the so-called agreement of the first 500 years is certainly an agreement of that period, but it is by no means with the principles of the Reformation. Therefore if someone says let's unite by going back to the development, let us say, from Irenaeus to Dionysius the Areopagite, then I would say you can do that, but you had better become a Catholic, because Protestantism simply cannot do that. And in everything I said today, you have a lot of such elements which Protestantism simply cannot accept especially in the doctrine of the Church, of the authorities, of the sacraments; not so much with respect to Trinity and Christology, although the implications are present there also.

The end of Greek philosophy is a state in which philosophy has become religion, and religion mystical philosophy. When now many philosophers became Christians, they could use a philosophy which was already half religious. When you hear about the relationship of philosophy and theology, which is often discussed in these rooms here around, then you must not forget that this is not the kind of philosophy which is taught by empiricists, logical positivists, naturalists, etc., as it is done today. But philosophy in the period of the Bible was in itself a religious attitude. It was not simply a discussing of elements, but it was something which had in itself fundamental decisions which had mystical-religious character. This is the reason why Christianity had to deal with philosophy at that time, not only as a nice pastime for intellectually gifted people to whom we leave that pastime, but it was another religion. The name of this religion was Neo-Platonism. In Neo- Platonism, Platonic ideas and also Stoic and Aristotelian ideas were brought together in a system which was philosophical and religious at the same time. Neo-Platonism and the development towards it, expressed the longing of the ancient world for a new religion. It expressed the dissolution of all special religions and it expressed at the same time the catastrophe of autonomous reason, the impossibility of reason to create by itself a new content of life. Therefore these philosophers became mystics, and as mystics, they tried to create under imperial protection (Julian the Apostate) a new religion (ca. 250). In doing so, they had to clash with Christianity. Now I come to that point where Christianity had not only to do with general philosophical tradition in Greece we discussed this already in the Apologists and in Irenaeus and Tertullian - -but Christianity was the rival religion with a philosophical religion, with a philosophy where the beginning and the end is religious. This is what Neo-Platonism is. With this, and the way in which the great Alexandrian theologians, Clement and Origen, put this into reality and used the philosophical religion of the Neo-Platonists to express Christianity, we will deal more fully next week..

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