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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 10: The Theology of 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 basic authority for Origen is Scripture. He introduces the famous distinction of the three meanings of the Scripture:

1) The somatic, or literal, philological sense, (from soma, "body"), which everybody can understand and which is identical with the historical truth.

2) The psychic or moral sense: "psychic" in the original sense of that which belongs to the soul. The moral sense means the application of the Biblical text to our situation. It is the existential application of the Biblical texts to ourselves.

3) The spiritual sense: it is understandable only to those who are perfect, not morally but in the sense of being completely introduced into the meaning of Christianity; it is the mystical sense. There are some cases in which the Biblical text has only a mystical sense; then this is at the same time the literal one. But ordinarily it is a literal sense distinguished from the mystical sense. The way in which the mystical sense is to be found is through the allegoric method, the method of finding the hidden sense behind the texts.

Now this doctrine of the allegorical method, or of the mystical meaning of the texts, has been strongly attacked by the Reformers, and it is something strange in our realistic philological mind. What is the reason for it? The reason for it is easily understood: it is the authority of a text, which is not adequate to our own situation but still has absolute authority. In order to make it applicable to the situation of the interpreter, it is necessary to find a meaning which is not the literal meaning. This is always done; every sermon does it with the Biblical texts, and today it is done on a large scale by some interpreters of the Old Testament who make out of it the New Testament in interpreting every word of the Old Testament as a Christological prononciamento. But this is exactly the same situation; it is something which is almost inescapable: if you have a text which is absolute authority and you know its literal meaning, and this literal meaning doesn't say anything to you, then you use, consciously or unconsciously, a method which transfers the original meaning into an actual or existential meaning. Of course this can lead to a complete undercutting of the authority of the text. And for this reason the Lutheran Reformation reestablished the genuine or philological or literal text as the genuine authority. But when we look at the dogmatic statements and their proof which has been taken from the Bible, in Orthodox or Fundamentalistic writings, we find immediately that they don't do anything else except what Origen did here: they find a method for interpreting the Bible beyond itself. Only if you are scientifically completely honest can you have the literal text and then say: "This doesn't say anything to us," or "We say something else; we recommend beyond the text, and we don't mean to express a hidden meaning of the text. 'This, I think, is the only consistent attitude. But think of another example: The American Constitution and the formulas of their Amendments: they have absolute, even legal, validity; but in order to make this tolerable, there is the Supreme Court which interprets , ultimately. And interpreting always means applying to the present situation. Now the jurists of the Supreme Court do not apply the allegoric method, but rather use a method of adequacy, and the result is exactly the same. They speak of the "spirit" of the law, and the spirit of the law may often, even in evident things, contradict the letter of the law. . .

There are two classes of Christians: 1) The many simple ones, who accept on authority the Biblical message and the teachings of the Church without understanding them fully. They take the mythological elements, of which Origen knew as well as Bultmann literally and primitively, or, as he said, they prefer the healing stories to the story of Jesus with three apostles going to the mountain of transfiguration. This is an allegoric, or metaphoric, expression for those who go beyond the literal interpretation to the transformed meaning of it.

He calls the attitude of the primitives. . . "only faith", "mere faith", which is a lower degree of Christian perfection. This degree is something in which first of all all participate, because all are somehow imperfect. But on this common basis, it never shall be given up here, Origen is exactly as we found it in Clement. To some people the charisma of gnosis is given (i. e., the grace of knowledge) as a special grace. In this way the converted, educated Greek becomes the perfect Christian, but he can become the perfect Christian only on the basis of Christian conformity to what he calls "the faith."

Now if we, as Protestants, look at this concept of faith, then we must see immediately that its meaning is: acceptance of doctrines, while in Protestant faith it is: acceptance of the reuniting grace of God. Therefore the first step is authority, in which every Christian, even Origen himself, lives. And the second step, which is not a recanting of the first but which is possible only on the basis of the first step, is the autonomous rational understanding of the Biblical message.

Now this solves the problem with which you always have to deal in your congregations, the problem of the simple ones who take the myths literally and you have many of them and the educated to whom you cannot speak in terms of literalism, otherwise they will turn away from you, not because of the Christian message but because of the way you give it to them. This was the same problem with which Clement and Origen had to deal and they solved it in terms of these two forms of participation in the Christian communion.

The first doctrine in Origen's system, as in every system, is the doctrine of God. God is being-itself, and therefore beyond everything that is. He is beyond knowledge, because knowledge presupposes the cleavage between subject and object. He is beyond change. He is beyond passion. He is the source of everything. But now He has His logos, His inner word, His self-manifestation. This self-manifestation makes Him first manifest to Himself and then to the world. The Logos is the first and creative power of being. All powers of being are united in Him. The whole spiritual world is united in the Logos. The Logos is the universal principle of anything special, of anything (that has) being. This Divine Logos radiates eternally from the Ground of Being, from the Divine Abyss, as splendor radiates from the source of light. Therefore one is not allowed to say, "There was a time when the Son did not exist." To say this is to deny the eternity of the Logos. Therefore it never should be said. There never was a time in which the Son, namely the eternal Logos, did not exist..

The eternal Logos is eternally generated out of the Divine substance. He is not created; He is "out of nothing." He is not finite. Therefore He has the same substance with the Father. Here the term homoousios t patri (being equal with the Father) first arises. In spite of the eternity of the Logos the Logos is less than the Father. The Father alone has no origin. He is not even generated. He is auto theos, God by Himself, while the Son is God by the Father. The Son is the picture of the goodness or essence or nature of God, but not God Himself.

So we have two trends in this Origenistic thinking: On the one side, eternity of the Father and the Son; on the other side, a kind of lesser validity and power of being in the Son than in the Father. The Son is the highest of the generated realities, but the Son is less than the Father. The same is true of the Spirit, who is working in the souls of the saints. This is His function. Although the regula, the religious tradition, of the Congregations demand the trius (the three) as the object of adoration, the Spirit is called less than the Son and the Son less than the Father. And sometimes even the highest Spiritual beings are called gods.

Now all this means that two principles are in conflict in Origenistic thinking: the one is the Divinity of the Savior, who must be Divine in order to be able to save; the other is the scheme of emanation: the lower degrees are lower; only the Absolute, the Father, is first. The cut between the three and the other Spiritual beings is somehow arbitrary.

We can perhaps describe the whole thing in three circles. The largest circle is that of the Father, who embraces everything, who is by Himself and without genesis. Then within, this larger circle there is a narrower one, namely the Son and the Spirit, both of them generated but not created. And then there is an even narrower circle, namely all the things which are created.

The rational natures, i. e., the spirits, who are eternal but created and not generated, were originally equal and free, and fell away from their unity with God in different degrees of distance. In consequence of their revolt in Heaven against God, they have fallen into material bodies: this is their punishment and at the same time the way of their purification. The mediation between these fallen spirits and the human body is the human soul. The human soul is, so to speak, Spirit which has become cold, i. e, the intensive fire, which is the symbol for the Divine Spirituality, is reduced to a life process. The fall, which has all these consequences, is a transcendent fall. It precedes our existence in time and space. And it is a free fall, it is decided in freedom. The Freedom is not lost by the fall, but it is actual, present, in all concrete actions. In these concrete actions the transcendent fall becomes historical reality. We can say that the individual act represents the eternal nature of the fall. Or in other words, our individual existence in time and space has a prelude in Heaven. The decisive thing about what we are has already happened when we appear on earth.

This refers especially to sin. Sin is based on the transcendent fall. This doctrine of the transcendent fall is hard to understand for people who, as most of you, have grown up in nominalistic thinking. It is understandable only if you know that transcendent powers are realities and not individual things if you take them this way, everything becomes absurd. But there is a profound meaning in this doctrine which I think makes it necessary as a symbol for all Christian theology: our human existence and the existence of reality as a whole is considered not only as creation but also as guilt and judgment.

When we look at the fallen world, we see that the fallen character is universal, and penetrates through everything, penetrates even through the nature outside of man. When we ask where did it come from? of course every individual is guilty, but why is this universally so? Why are there no exceptions? then the answer is: because the Fall precedes the Creation, as the Fall follows the Creation. Origen has two myths of the Fall: one transcendent, which is not, mythologically, in space, etc... but which is the eternal transition from union with God to separation from God; and the immanent inner-historical in which in special acts this transcendent Fall becomes reality. Sin is spiritual, but the bodily and social existence strengthen sin. It is transcendent and is a destiny which, as every destiny, is united with freedom.

As in Plotinus, sin is in Origen a turning away from God. It is not something positive. Malum esse, bonum carere , (being evil means being without goodness.) Sin, therefore, has a double relation to creation: With respect to the creation of the free and equal spirits, creation precedes the Fall. With respect to the bodily world, creation follows the Fall and follows the freedom of the spirits. Because of the freedom of the spirits, even in eternity it is possible that the Fall may happen again. The end of this world process is not necessarily the end of history. The Fall may repeat itself, and then the whole thing starts again. You see in these ideas the cyclical thinking of Greek philosophy with respect to history has not yet been overcome, This was done by Augustine.

Now we come to the most difficult part: his christological system. The Logos unites itself with the soul of Jesus, who is an eternal spirit as everybody is. He is pre-existent, as all souls are. But He unites Himself just with this soul. The soul of the man Jesus has received the Logos completely. The soul of Jesus has merged into its power and light. This is a mystical union which, however, can be repeated in all saints. In this the soul mediates between the Logos of God and the body of man. In this way there are two sharply separated natures united in Jesus. The word of the Fourth Gospel that he became flesh. is a bodily, i. e., a literal, kind of speaking. But the truth is that He took on flesh so much so that He became it. This is more (like) adoptionistic thinking. Popular feeling in the East wanted a God on earth who walks with us; it didn't want a Divine transcendent Power who takes on flesh only. and returns after He has taken on flesh. But for Origen this was an impossible idea because the Logos never can cease to be also outside of Jesus. He is the form of all forms in everything. Homo esse cessavit. He ceased to be a man; but this is somehow the case with all Spiritual beings, who for this reason are called gods. But if they are gods, where is the cut between them and God? What does the cut after the third Person of the Trinity mean? This problem was never solved. and could not be solved on the basis of the doctrine of emanation. If we have a doctrine of emanation. then there is a continuous going down and returning. But Christianity belonged to monotheism. This often-abused term, the "Judeo-Christian tradition," has at least this in common: that monotheism must be maintained in all circumstances. How can this be done if there are two emanations which are lower than God and at the same time Divine? Men, when they follow the example of the Logos-God. .. , become 1ogokoi themselves, determined by meaning, reason and creative power. Then they are led back to deification. But something more had to be done by Jesus in order to give us this possibility. He had to give His body as a sacrifice. To whom does He give it? To Satan. as ransom. Satan demands that price for letting the others go free, but Satan was betrayed. He couldn't keep Jesus because He was pure. and therefore not under the power of Satan.

This idea of the betrayal of Satan is not only a theological idea which appears in such a high place as in Origen's thought, but it is also a popular idea. The Middle Ages is abundant with stories of how the peasants. and especially their wives. betrayed the Devil when he came, and he had to let them alone. This seems for us to be a grotesque mythology and certainly it is, if taken literally. But it is a religious idea of profound insight behind it. namely that the negative never can ultimately prevail, and it cannot prevail because it lives from the positive. When Satan takes Jesus into his power. he cannot keep in his power that from which he lives. namely. the Divine nature. Thus the ultimate futility of everything sinful: it cannot keep indefinitely the positive power of being, because this power of being is derived from the good, and good and power of being are one and the same thing. So if you laugh at this doctrine of Origen, you had better go behind it and see what he means. It means the impossibility of Satan to prevail ultimately. because he lives from that against which he wants to prevail.

Origen introduced an idea into the practical piety. which idea had a tremendous effect on the whole of Christian history after him, namely the interpretation of The Song of Songs, in terms of the mystical love of the soul and Christ. The human soul is the bride of the Logos that is what this love song means. The soul receives the bridegroom in itself. It is sometimes visited by the Logos, i. e., the Divine Spirit is sometimes experienced by us; sometimes the soul is left alone. no one visits her from the eternal.

This is the first mystical interpretation of The Song of Songs. related to an individual.

In Judaism it was interpreted for God and the synagogue. Here you see again an important example of the necessity for allegoric interpretation. The Song of Songs itself is nothing more than a Jewish love song perhaps a wedding song which was performed at weddings or festivals. It is in the canon; it has Divine authority; what to do with it? The answer of the Jews was: It is the relationship between God and the nation. And in my oId Luther Bible which I love dearly, because I got it when I was born, for my baptism there is always something said in the "head-lines"" of The Song of Songs about the relationship between God and the Church.

Here we have a third, the mystical, interpretation from Origen: the relationship between the Logos and the soul, the mystical marriage between Christ and the soul All this of course is mystical, but it is a very important transformation of non-Christian mysticism. It is concrete mysticism, The soul, being grasped by the Spirit of God, does not go beyond itself into the abyss of the Divine, but the Logos, the form, the concreteness, of the Divine comes into the soul, This was the first step for what I have called in my seminar on the theology of Christian mysticism, in former years, the "baptising" of mysticism. And this certainly is an important event mysticism introduced into the Church by becoming concrete. If Origen and later on Bernard of Clairvaux, speaks of the mystical marriage between the Logos and the soul, then the centered personality is not destroyed, it is preserved, as in a marriage there is a complete union and nevertheless the person is not destroyed, Now this is the imagery in which the pious life, in mystical terms, is described by Origen.,

The last important point in his theology is eschatology, the doctrine of the final end of history and the world, He interprets it Spiritualistically The rough descriptions, with their primitive imagery, are interpreted in Spiritual terms. The Second Coming of Christ is the Spiritual appearance of Christ in the souls of the pious. He comes back to earth again and again. but into our souls. not in a dramatic appearance in physical terms such as with clouds, thunder, etc. The pious people are fulfilled in a Spiritual experience, This Spiritual body, of which Paul speaks, is the essence or the idea of the "material body" It is that which is painted by a great portrait painter that is what is meant with the participation of the body in the eternal It isn't this body here, and especially not in this moment, but it is a body which is our body during all our life it is its essence, its idea (i.e., originally meaning "image"). The punishment for sin Hell, in traditional eschatology is the fire which burns in our conscience, the fire of despair because of our separation from God, But this is a temporary status, a status of purging our soul Finally everybody and everything will become Spiritualized; the bodily existence will vanish, Origen called this famous doctrine the apokatastasis paton , the restitution of everything, with the possibility that the whole thing starts again because freedom is never denied, Origen was thoroughly a philosopher of freedom, and this is what distinguishes him from Augustine, his great rival in greatness of theological thought/

But this spiritualization of eschatology was the reason why he became, partly at least, a heretic in the Christian Church although he was their greatest theologian. The simple ones revolted against this greatest system of scientific theology the monks and others, who couldn't and didn't want to get away from their literalism with respect to the future life, the end0catastrophe, the eternal judgment, etc, The motives for the simple ones were partly realistic, in the Jewish sense of realism of bodily existence: anti-Greek, dualistic And partly they were something else: they were ideas of revenge against those, who were better off on earth, and now they wanted to be better off than they, but how can, this be without bodily 'existence? So they fought for it, and for a very realistic and literalistic idea of judgment, final catastrophe, and heaven, The Church took their side and condemned not the whole of Origen, but the heretic side of. him,

But there were other reactions against the Logos Christology, which was introduced by the Apologists and already, somehow, by the Fourth Gospel and which found in Origen its greatest and most important expression. Again the laymen were the ones who revolted, not only against Origen but against the whole Logos Christology. The laymen, the simple ones were not interested in the cosmological implications of the Logos concept; they wanted to have God Himself on earth in Christ. This group was called the monarchianists, from monarchia , meaning one man's rule. They wanted to have only one ruler, one God, not three, as they felt the Logos Christology would make it. They emphasized, against the Logos as a second God, the "monarchy" of the Father. We can say that this movement was a monotheistic reaction against the tri- or duo-theistic danger of the Logos doctrine. The Logos doctrine was dangerous because it hypostasized the Son beside God, and the Spirit a God beside all of them. A man named Theodotus, a craftsman from Rome, thought that Jesus was a man upon whom the Divine Spirit came in baptism, giving him the power of his Messianic vocation. But this did not make him God. Therefore these people from the school of Theodotus were very much interested as were many later, especially Protestants of the 19th century in those passages of the Gospel dealing with Jesus as man. There is perhaps a connection (Theodotus) and a group in Asia Minor called the Alogoi, who denied the doctrine of the Logos. And since the doctrine of the Logos appeared in the Fourth Gospel, they rejected it. They tried to find the true text and emphasized the literal interpretation against the allegoric. They were predecessors of many later movements, of the Alexandrian school which fought against some issues, at least, of the high Christology; and they were predecessors of some trends in Rome which always were on the side of the Antiochean school; and they were predecessors of modern liberal theology. They all emphasized the humanity of Jesus over against the Logos becoming God. We call this the adoptionistic or the dynamic Christology, where the man Jesus is adopted and the Logos or the Spirit fills him--but that is all; he is not God Himself. This is the one wing of the Monarchic monotheistic reaction against the Logos Christology. And this is not something of the past; it is something which we have to face always in the whole history of Christianity. Even in the east these ideas found a representative, Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, and was in the same line. He says: Logos and Spirit are qualities of God, but they are not persons. They are eternal powers, they are potentialities in God, but they are not persons in the sense of independent beings. Jesus is a man who was inspired by this power from above. The Logos power inhabited in Jesus as in a vessel, or as we live in houses. The Logos is the inner man in Jesus. The unity this man Jesus has with God is the unity of will and love, but it is not a unity of nature, because nature has no meaning with respect to God. The more Jesus developed his own being, the more he received. (Finally), he was eternally put into union with God and then he became the judge and received the Divine dignity. Now he is God, but somehow he had to deserve to become God.

This of course is the negation of the Divine nature of the Savior. This shows what made him a heretic, although many people of that time and perhaps even of today would prefer to follow him.

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