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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 9: Neo-Platonism: Plotinus. Clement of Alexandria. Origen.


Neo-Platonism is not only important because it was the philosophy which deeply influenced the first great theological system, that of Origen, but it was also the philosophy which influenced (through Dionysius the Areopagite, of whom we shall hear more later) all forms of Christian mysticism and most forms of classical Christian theology, especially with respect to the doctrine of God, world, and soul. Therefore it is impossible to understand the development of Christian theology without knowing something about this last great attempt of paganism to express itself in terms of a philosophical theology, or theological philosophy, which was both science and life for the ancient mind.

The man who is mostly responsible for the system of Neo-Platonism is Plotinus, who according to his dependence on Plato, is called "neo-Platonist"; but it is not he alone, it is a whole school of greatest influence. There is not only a scientific and religious side but also a political side to it: the emperor Julian the Apostate tried to introduce, against Christianity, the Neo- Platonic system, which shows that he considered it not only as a science but as the all-embracing system of religious elevation of the soul. All these things make it necessary to dwell on this system more than perhaps you think it necessary, for a philosophical non-Christian system.

God, for Plotinus, is the transcendent One, the One which transcends every number; also the number "one" insofar as it is a number which includes 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. It is that which is beyond number, and for this he uses the word "one." So when you hear, in all mystical language through all the centuries, the word "one" in the mystical expressions, don't take it as one beside others, but as that which transcends numbers.

It points especially to that which is beyond the basic cleavages of reality, which are the cleavages between subject and object, between self and world. The One is beyond that; there is neither subject nor object, neither self nor world. Therefore the Divine is the abyss of everything special, the abyss in which everything definite disappears. But this abyss is not simply something negative; it is the most positive of all because it contains everything that is. Therefore when you hear, in mystical literature, something about the transcendent nothingness, don't take it as "nothing" but as "no-thing", namely "no something", nothing definite, nothing finite, the ground of everything finite but itself no-thing, nothing finite and definite. Since it is without differentiation within itself, it is immovable, unchangeable, eternal. But out of this eternal ground of everything, in which everything disappears, everything has its origin at the same time. The whole system is a description of the way in which the world and all its forms originate in the ultimate ground of being. The first, which radiates like the light out of the sun, is what in Greek is called the nous which can be translated by "spirit" (small "s") or "mind." It is the second principle after the ultimate principle, after the ground of being out of which it has emanated. This second principle, that of the nous (or mind or spirit) is the principle in which the first, the eternal ground, looks at itself. It is the principle of the self-intuition of the eternal; God being manifest to Himself, in the principle of nous. This self-intuition of the Divine, in the principle of nous, is the source of all forms and structures, of all possibilities, of all that which Plato called "ideas" and what, as I hope you have learned in the meantime, means essences of being, essential potentialities of being. Everything beautiful, everything true, is contained in the nous, in .the Divine mind and His eternal self-intuition.

Not only are the universal essences tree-hood, redness, etc. in the eternal mind, but also the essences of the individuals. Let me make this clear by saying that in God is the form of each of us, independent of the changes in every moment of our life, that form which a great painter would see and express in his picture of us. All this is in the eternal mind, in the eternal spirit or nous.

But now it comes to a third principle: he calls it soul. "Soul" is the principle of life in all Greek thinking. It is not an immortal substance, first of all, but it is the principle of movement, the principle which moves the stars: therefore the stars have souls; the principle which moves the animals and plants: they also have souls; the principle which moves our bodies: so we have souls; the principle which moves the whole universe: so there is a world-soul, the soul. which is the moving principle of everything that is. This is the second principle, after the ultimate.

This soul-principle is midway between the nous on the one side, and the bodily reality on the other. It is the productive power of the existing world; it forms and controls matter, as our life-principle forms and controls every cell of our body. The soul of the world actualizes itself in many individual souls. Everything has an individual soul. These individual souls gives movement and life to everything, but they all have their common principle in the world-soul.

Now this principle of "soul", universally and individually, is the principle of ambiguity. Plotinus knew what I try to teach now for weeks in this room each morning at 9 o'clock (in the course on Advanced Problems in Systematic Theology,) that life is ambiguous, that ambiguity is a definite characteristic of life. He describes the ambiguity of the principle of the soul in the following way: the soul is turned both towards the spirit (or mind) and towards matter. It has, so to speak, two directions in which to look: it looks always to the meaningful contents we call this in our language man's spiritual life, in knowledge, esthetics, ethics, and everything else; and at the same time (to) the relationship to our bodily existence and the whole world of material embodiment. The soul has this ambiguity; it has these two sides.

In this system of hierarchies, coming down from the ultimate, (which is beyond anything definite) to the mind (soul), everything which is has a place. This was very important because in this way Plotinus could place the whole mythological world, after it was purified by philosophy, into his system. The gods of the pagans are limited powers of being which have their place in the whole of reality. This world is a harmonious world; it is directed by the principle of providence. Here, first, providence and harmony are united, the main principle of the Enlightenment, of the modern belief in progress in this country and everywhere, the basis of an optimistic world view. This optimism immediately makes itself felt in another statement of Plotinus, namely that the planetary forces, i. e., the demonic forces, are an illusion; they have no independent power; they are subjected to providence,(exactly as Paul describes it in Romans 8, except that Plotinus derives this same statement from his philosophy of cosmic harmony, while Paul derives it from the victorious fight of the Christ against the demons.)

There are many different souls in the cosmos: mortal souls, such as plants, animals and man; and immortal souls, such as the half-divine and divine beings as have appeared in mythology. In this way the pagan powers of being have found a place to rest on; they are reestablished not as gods in mythological terms, but as powers of being. And therefore not contradicting each other, not imperialistic one god wanting to be the God of all gods but brought into a system of hierarchies where they have their definite place.

The principle which orders this whole world, in terms of providence, is the logos. It is the rational side of the nous, the mind. Now you will have some difficulty in distinguishing these three concepts, perhaps, so let me repeat this because it is important for the later development of the Logos doctrine. After the abysmal One, beyond every number and everything special, we have the nous. We can call it perhaps the principle of self-consciousness in which God has present all the potentialities of being, all the essences which appear in reality. The second principle, the soul, the principle of movement, of life, also of person. The third principle is not another hierarchy but is only the dynamic side of nous, the principle of reason or logos, which organizes everything providentially, and gives it its place. It is the natural law, to use a modern expression, to which everything is subjected, in physics and in living bodies. The nous is not the logos; it is, so to speak, the source of all contents, but the logos gives order to them. The logos is the more dynamic principle, which is the providentially working power which directs the natural laws and the ethical laws.

Now I come to the next step in this system. The soul, because of its ambiguity, is the dynamic force which now changes the whole consideration. The soul is able to turn away from the nous, and with it from its eternal source in the abysmal One; it can separate itself from its eternal origin and can turn to the lower realms. Nature is the realm of the unconscious, between matter and the conscious soul, but nature has unconscious souls, while in man alone the soul is completely conscious. This turning away of the soul from the nous towards matter, towards the bodily realm, is the source of evil. But evil is not a positive power, it is the negation of the spiritual. It is participation in matter; it is participation in non-being, in that which has no power of being by itself. When the soul turns to non-being, then evil arises. But evil is not an ontological reality: this, neither Greeks nor Christians could admit; this was the Manichaean heresy that there is a Divine ground of evil, a Divine being which produces evil. Evil is non-being. Now if I say this, I know that many of my dear colleagues, and some of my even dearer students, would say: "So you say that evil is nothing, sin is nothing, sin is non-being; so you don't take sin seriously!" Then you should at least say that Plotinus or Augustine, who said the same thing, do not take sin seriously. Now it is a little hard to say this of these people if you see their further developments, especially Augustine. Nevertheless, the sound of the word "non-being" conveys to some of us the imagination that sin is not real. But a distortion of something which has being is as real as the undistorted state of that being, only it is not ontologically real. And that is what Plotinus says here, and that is what Augustine says, and that is what every Christian who is not a Manichaean heretic, also must say, because if sin is ontologically real, this would mean that there is a creative principle of evil -- as we have it in Manichaeism and that is what the doctrine of creation denies. "Esse qua esse bonum est," being as, namely as the distortion of the good creation. And that is what even being is good, said Augustine and also the anti-Gnostic Fathers. Therefore when you hear people say sin is non-being, or the turning of the soul towards non-being, this does not mean at all that sin is nothing. On the contrary, it takes sin extremely seriously Plotinus means. He describes this non -being (m on) (as) that which is matter and can become being and not non-being (ouk on). . . . This non-being of which he speaks (m on) for the Greeks, m is that which has not yet being and resists against having being. So he calls it that which lacks measure, limit, form. Then he describes this non-being: it is always in want, indefinite, hungry, it is the absolute poverty. In other words, evil is the presence of this non-being in our bodily existence. It is the absence of the power of being, which is the power of the good.

The soul has turned towards this non-being because it believed that with the help of it it could stand upon itself, and has separated itself from the ground and from the nous towards which it looked, originally. But soul looks back and yearns for the ground from which it comes. Lovingly, the soul ascends to that which is worth being loved, namely the ground of being itself, the origin. If the soul has the intuition of this ultimate aim of its longing, and if it has reached this aim, it has become like God. He who has the ultimate intuition of the Divine has become one with God.. But this way is hard. This way goes through the virtues first, to the ascetic purification next. And the ultimate union with God cannot be reached, either by morals or by asceticism; it can only be reached in this life by grace, namely when the Divine power of the transcendent One grasps the mind in ecstasy . This happens only rarely, only in great experiences which cannot be forced, which happen or don't 'happen.

In the highest ecstasy occurs what Plotinus calls the flight of the one to the One, i. e., of us who are individual ones to the Ultimate One which is beyond number, and in which the telos, the aim, is reached for which all Greek philosophy always has asked: What is the telos, the inner aim, the goal, the purpose, of man's being? The answer was already in Plato: homoiosis to theou kata to dunaton, i. e., becoming similar to God as much as possible. This was also the aim of the mystery religions, in which the soul was supposed to participate in the eternal One. This is the Alexandrian scheme of thought. It is a circle, starting in the abysmal One, going down in emanation to the hierarchies until it comes to the ambiguous situation of the soul, then through the soul falling into the power of the material world, which is determined by non-being. Then the elevation of the soul back through all these different grades up to the highest one, and in ecstasy this goal is reached.

Now keep this system in mind; you cannot understand the relationship of Christianity to mysticism, to Greek philosophy, or to anything of the period out of which Christianity came, without having this system in your minds.

This system was developed in Alexandria, and it was the same teacher, Ammonius Saccus, who taught Origen that taught Plotinus; Origen was the great Alexandrian theologian and philosopher. But before we come to him, we must look for a certain time at this school in Alexandria, of which he was by far the greatest teacher. This school was called a school for catechetes, for people who should instruct the future ministers how to teach the people, to introduce them into Christianity. It was a kind of theological seminary, and the earliest in spite of Union Seminary! and up to now the most famous in the history of Christianity. The first great teacher in it was Clement of Aexandria. We already quoted from a Clement among the Apostolic Fathers, who is usually called Clement of Rome, and has nothing to do with Clement of Alexandria. Clement uses the Logos doctrine very radically. In this respect he is more dependent on Stoicism than on the Platonic school. But there are many Platonic elements in later Stoicism anyhow. All these schools converged slowly in Neo-Platonism. God is the One and beyond one-ness, in numbers. The Logos, however, is the mediator of everything in which the Divine becomes manifest. He calls the Logos the man-loving organ of God, and therefore the educator of mankind in past and present. There is always a working of the Logos in human minds, there is always self-manifestation of the Divine. The Logos has prepared the Jews by the law, the Greeks by philosophy. But he has prepared them; he has prepared all nations. The Logos is never lacking; God is never without self-manifestation. When Clement speaks of philosophy, he doesn't think so much of a special philosophy although probably Stoicism has influenced him most but he thinks of the result of this converging movement in philosophy: that which is true in all philosophers. Therefore in his writing, many Greek materials are mixed with Biblical materials. He quotes whole sections from Stoic sources. Some people have tried to distinguish a genuine from an amended Clement, but there is no generally accepted conviction about this. In any case the way in which he was given to us is that in which he was always influential.

What he did was to introduce Christianity not only into philosophy but also into a philosophical life we would say a civilized or educated life, also. Philosophein was defined by him as striving for a perfect life. It was not defined as sitting at home and calculating possible logical figures. But living philosophical life was the striving to become as near to God as possible, in late Greek development. Therefore his system is not basically ascetic, but he accepts the bodily reality and the intellectual culture. His idea is to live according to the logos, in unity with the logos, a logikon life perhaps best translated by a "meaningful" or "reasonable" life, a life in terms of objective meanings. Christians start first with faith, pistis, a word which is only badly translated by "faith." It is a state of being in faith. Faith in this sense is a state of participation in the reality of the new being. Faith in this sense includes conversion, ascetic tendencies, passions and hope. This is the presupposition of all other developments within Christianity. And here he deviates from all Greek philosophers. Living according to the logos means participation in the realm of faith and love, namely the realm of the congregation of the church. The Alexandrian theologians were not free philosophers -- it is doubtful whether there were any anyhow, but certainly they were not. They were leading members of the Christian Church and therefore they all belonged to the state or stage of faith, which is the presupposition for all knowledge. But the state of faith is not sufficient since and here the first Catholic sound appears it is only understood as assent and obedience. But this is not sufficient. A real participation demands more. It drives beyond itself towards knowledge. This knowledge is called gnosis. The Christian is the perfect gnostic, and therefore he can reject Gnosticism. It is cognitive faith, as he calls faith: a faith which develops its own contents cognitively. It is a scientific explanation of the traditions, ("scientific" not in the sense of natural science, but in the sense of methodological.) Everybody is on the way of this development. . . Only a few reach the aim. The perfect ones are only those who are, as he says, "Gnostics according to the ecclesiastical canon.." Keep this phrase in mind; it means that philosophers, with all the means of philosophy, are at the same time bound by the ecclesiastical tradition which they accepted when they entered the Church. The highest good of these perfect Gnostics is the knowledge of God. But this knowledge is not a theoretical knowledge in terms of arguments or analyses, but it is participation in God. It is not epistem , scientific knowledge; it is gnosis , mystical or participating knowledge. This is what he also calls anti-gnostic knowledge. It is a gnosis of participation, in the congregation and in God. It is not a gnosis of a free speculation. The tradition remains the canon, i. e., the criterion, and the Church is the mother without which no gnosis is possible.

Now this is what we have to know about Clement. It is worthwhile reading him. But in any case, here you have one great example of Christian thinking and Greek philosophy forming a synthesis.

Before I come to Origen, I want to say that Christianity had to cope with this universal and extremely impressive system of Neo-Platonism, in which all the values of the past were united. Christianity had to use it and to conquer it at the same time. This was done by the school of which Clement was the first important head. It was the elevation of Christianity to a state of highest education. Let us look at the Neo-Platonists. One of the most important for theology is Porphyry, who acknowledges the high educated standing of the school of Alexandria, especially of Origen. But he regrets that Origen lived in a barbaric and irrational way as a Christian. Participation in the congregation was incomprehensible to the Neo- Platonist Porphyry, The philosophical creativity of Origen was completely acknowledged by him, and of this philosophical creativity Porphyry said that he "hellenized" in his thoughts, especially by interpreting the strange myths by Greek thought. What these people were Clement and Alexandria can be stated in these terms: they were both passionate Greek philosophers and faithful and obedient members of the Catholic church of that time. And they were not in doubt that it is possible to combine these two sides.

Now the way in which Clement did it, with respect to predominantly Stoic ideas and educational principles, we have noted. We now come to Origen and his system. Here we have the fulfillment of this program. Origen begins his system with the question of the sources. (By the way, his system is the first complete system of Christian theology, even over against Irenaeus and Tertullian). He takes these sources much more seriously than Clement ever did. The sources are the Biblical writings and their summary in the ecclesiastical teaching and preaching. The old "rule of faith" gives the systematic scheme for his system, but the basis of all the contents are the Biblical books. Therefore, as in Clement, Origen says that the first step for the true theologian is the acceptance of the Biblical message. Nobody can be a theologian who does not belong to the congregation; a free-soaring philosopher is not a Christian theologian. But this is not all that is needed. In order to become a theologian, you must also try to understand, and that means, for him, philosophical and especially Neo-Platonic understanding. This is the answer to the same problem, very similar to that of Clement, but as we shall see, much more developed and elaborated and infinitely important for all later Christian development.

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