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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 12: Monarchianism. Sabellius. The Arian Controversy. Nicaea.


We finished yesterday with a special type of reaction against the Logos Christology, namely what is called dynamic monarchianism. I know that these lectures are the most difficult in the whole course, and so I will not shy away from repetition.

The Logos Christology, as invented by the Apologists and carried through to a full victory by Clement and Origen, is a method of making the universality and uniqueness of the event Jesus understandable to the Greek mind. The only way in which this could be done at that time was to establish a Divine power within God Himself which appears in the historical Jesus. We find this early in the Fourth Gospel, we find it in all Gnostic literature, and we find it in a most philosophical form in the Apologetic attempt to defend Christianity. Then we find it in the context of a universal philosophical system derived from the Alexandrian scheme of emanation and return of the soul, by Origen.

This was one line of thought in the early Christian Church It was a line of thought which, as many Christians believed, is more "Athens" than "Jerusalem." For this reason they resisted it, and they did so in the name of what is called the Divine monarchy: God alone rules and God alone must be seen in Christ. This is the meaning of the Monarchianistic reaction against the Logos Christology. It is in some way a reaction in which Old Testament feelings react against Greek ideas. But this is too simple, as the subject of the Forum is too simple in its formulation, and perhaps for this very reason most interesting.

The Monarchianistic movement itself was split. There was one (movement) which followed the adoptionistic Christology, which says that God, or the Logos, or the Spirit, has adopted a fully human being and made him into the Christ, and gave him the possibility of becoming fully deified in his resurrection. But this adoptionist Christology, which we find especially in the West Theodotus of Rome and which influenced the basic Roman feeling to a great extent, also had a representative in the East, Paul of Samosata. This Christology started with human existence, tried to understand humanity and to emphasize the Biblical words in which the humanity is emphasized, and then to show that this man was driven by the Divine Spirit and was finally elevated into the Divine sphere.

But there was another type of this Monarchianistic thinking which became more and more influential because it was much more in the line of the basic feeling of the masses of the Christians. This is modalistic Monarchianism. Modalism means God Himself appears in different modes, different ways. It was also called patripassionism a word you must learn the Father Himself has suffered. It was also called Sabellianism, from its main representative Sabellius. This was a very widespread movement in the East as well as in the West. It was a real danger for the Logos Christology.

The fight between these two types was going on in the East and West In the West there was a man, Praxeas, with whom Tertullian was fighting. The idea was that God the Father Himself was born through the Virgin Mary; that God the Father Himself, who is the only God, has suffered and died. To be God means to be the universal Father of everything. If we say that God was in Jesus, this means the Father was in him. Therefore these people attacked the so-called ditheoi ,those who believed in two Gods, and the tritheoi , those who believed in three Gods, and they fought for the monarchy of God and or the full Divinity of Christ in whom God the Father Himself has appeared. Both ideas had very large popular support because what the popular mind wanted and what the popular mind perhaps still wants today was to have God Himself present on earth, a walking God, a God who is with us, who participates in our fate, whom we can see and hear when we see and hear Jesus.

The main representative of this whole development. was Sabellius. This name plays a tremendous role in all Christian theology, and I know of Christian theologians who even today accuse other Christian theologians of Sabellianism. So you see this is not a dated issue but is something very important.

Sabellius says: "The same is the Father, the same is the Son, the same is the Holy Spirit. They are three names, but names for the same reality.. Do we have one or three Gods?" (meaning, of course, that we have only one God, the Divine monarchy). Father, Son, and Spirit are names, they are prosopa (countenances, faces), but they are not independent beings. They cannot be applied in the same way; they are effective in consecutive energies. One follows the other, but they are always the same in different faces. It is God in three countenances, acting in history in different faces and in different acts. The prosopon (countenance) of the Father appears in His work as creator and law-giver. The prosopon of the Son appears from the birth to the ascension of Jesus. The countenance of the Spirit appears, since the ascension of Jesus, as the life-giver. But it is always the same monarchic Father-God. Therefore it is not adequate to speak of a trius in Heaven. There is no transcendent, no heavenly Trinity. The Father is equal with the two others. But it is always the same. And something else happens in this way of thinking: the Trinity is historical, instead of being transcendent; it is "economical," in the sense of oikumene , building a house the Trinity is "built up" in history. It is a very important idea for the future, where we often have the idea of a historical Trinity.

If Sabellius says that the same God is essentially in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and that there are only differences of faces, of appearances, of manifestations, then of course he means to say, with this, that they are all homo-ousios, they have the same essence, the same Divine power of being, as one could call it. They are not three beings, but they have the same power of being, and three manifestations. This trend was strong, although it was finally condemned, but it never disappeared. And it reappears as a strong monotheistic trend, even in Augustine, and through him in the whole of Western theology. This was the opposition to the Logos Christology. If you are able to distinguish these two basic trends, then you have an insight into what was going on in these seemingly incomprehensible and sophisticated fights about an iota in homoousios.and homoiousios. There was much more than abstract concepts behind it There was a monotheistic trend against a trend to establish Divine hierarchies between God and man. The East, very much dependent on Plato, Plotinus, and Origen, was interested all the time in hierarchical essences between God and man. (This of course would make Christ a half-God, as we shall see,) The West, and some groups in the East, were interested in the Divine monarchy on the one side, and the humanity of Jesus on the other. These two tendencies fought the .Trinitarian struggle and the Christological struggle. We, as bearers of the Western attitude, feel immediately nearer to the Western type of thinking, and the whole difficulty for you in these lectures on the history of Christian thought in understanding what is really going on, is largely based on the fact that we are Westerners and not Easterners, in this sense; that for us the problem of hierarchies is an abstract one, and not a problem of living realities. But in order to understand what was going on in these fights, we must understand first of all the Eastern world-view, the hierarchical world-view.

Now I come to the Trinitarian struggle itself. First we must see how the Trinitarian problem developed after Origen in the sphere of Origenistic thinking. Origen was so great in his constructive power that he conquered all competitors, also the Monarchianistic and Sabellian theologians. But more than this, his Christology was so much impregnated with mystical piety that his formulas could become formulas of a creed. This is very important to understand. Don't forget that when the Greek thinkers produced a confession, a creed, this seems to us abstract philosophy, but for them it was the mystical intuition of essences, of powers of being. For instance, in Caesarea in Asia Minor a creed was already used which added to the symbol used in baptism Origenistic mystical formulas This confession stated: "We believe in Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life, first-born of all creatures, generated out of the Father before all generations." Now this is philosophy and at the same time mysticism. It is that way of philosophy which was ruling at the end of the ancient period. It is Hellenistic and not classical Greek philosophy. And Hellenistic philosophy is united with the mystical traditions of the East. Therefore such seemingly abstract philosophical concepts could become mystical confessions.

This combination was endangered when the emanation system of Origen became questioned from the point of view of Christian conformism. For instance, the eternity and the pre-existence of all spirits, or the idea of the transcendent fall, or the idea of the spiritual bodyless resurrection and of the spiritualized eschatology. In this moment the whole Logos Christology, especially the place of the Logos, became questioned. Common sense and conformism, supported by the Monarchianistic reaction, demanded nothing less than God on earth. The theory of emanation in degrees, in hierarchies of powers of being, demanded something less than that which is ultimately transcendent and the One beyond everything given.

Out of this conflict a division occurred in the school of Origen, and everybody was in the school of Origen in these decades. It was a division into what one has called the Origenistic "right" and the Origenistic "left," the right-wingers and the left-wingers of the Origenistic school. The right wing said: Nothing is created or subjected in the trius; nothing has been added which had not been in it before; there is no inferiority in the Son to the Father, and in the Spirit to the Son. These were words of representatives of a kind of ecclesiastical traditionalism who wanted what is today called a "high" Christology: nothing shall be less in God, so that Jesus is not less than the Father Himself. It is the same trend we saw in the Monarchianistic movement.

The left wing was against the traditionalism of the right wing; it was scientific and modernistic. They said the Son is essentially strange to the Father, and being something that is made He had no being before He was generated. This means the Logos Christology in terms of hierarchies there is God the Father, the highest hierarchy, the eternal One beyond everything; there is the Logos, the second hierarchy, but as the second, lower than the first; and the Spirit is the third hierarchy, and lower than the second. The immortal spirits are the fourth hierarchy, lower than the three others. These were the two wings in the great struggle which almost ruined the Christian Church.

But besides the theological differences, there was politics and the attempt to find a practical way to solve a problem without going into its theoretical depths. This is not only American pragmatism but also Roman eclecticism. This was Rome. Rome, following its eclectic tradition, gave the directive for a solution which avoided the depths of Greek thinking and tried to find a way out of this conflict. There was a Pope, Dionysius, in Rome, who declared: "Two things must be preserved: the Divine trius and the holy message of monarchy." These are the two main terms of the two wings, The holy message of the monarchy, which stood against the Logos Christology; the Divine trius, which expressed the Logos Christology. So what Pope Dionysius in Rome did was to take the main formulas of both groups and said that they must both be preserved. But he didn't say how! This was practical Church politics. And this finally prevailed, as we shall see But it prevailed only after a tremendous fight of almost 80 years, a fight in which the whole situation of the Church changed, as we shall see, and in which finally something was decided which is valid for all periods of Christianity. The event of which I am speaking now is the so-called Arian controversy

This controversy is a unique and classical struggle, and caused by many motives. In it is involved the politics of the emperors, who needed unity in the Church which in just these years had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, and now the Church itself threatened to split the whole Empire into pieces. There were involved personal feuds of bishops and theologians. There were in conflict narrow traditionalism and unrestrained speculation. There was included an overemphasis on theoretical solution and popular monastic fanaticism.

But this is not the whole story. Besides all these motives, the really decisive issue, its meaning and permanent significance, is the answer to the question, "How is salvation possible, in a world of darkness and mortality?" This alone was the question. This was the question, as we have seen already in the Apostolic Fathers. It was the question ever since, and it was the question in the period of the great Trinitarian and Christological struggles.

Athanasius, the great foe of Arius, formulates that it is possible only under one condition, namely Jesus "was made man that we :might become God." But this was possible only if the Logos is eternal, if it is really God who has appeared to us, as God is Father only because He is the Father of the Son. Therefore He is without beginning. Eternally the Father has the Son. The Son is Son eternally, as the Son of the Father. And the Father is Father eternally, because He is the Father of the Son. Only if they are co-eternal can Jesus, in whom the Logos is present, give us eternity. He can make us like God, which always means, make us immortal, and give us eternal knowledge, the knowledge of eternal life. Not even the highest of all created spirits can give us a real salvation. He is less than God, but we are separated from God, we are dependent on God and must return to him So God Himself must save us.

Now this is the religious motive behind the Alexandrian trend in theology. Therefore the West and their allies in the East could not accept the theology of the Alexandrian presbyter Arius. According to him, only God the Father is by Himself and without beginning. The Logos, i. e. , the pre-existent Christ, is a creature. He is one of the creatures He is created out of nothing, and there was a time when He was not. You remember the famous saying of Origen: there was no time in which He was not Against this, the left -wing Origenistic theology says there was a time in which He was not. This time was before our temporal existence, but it was not eternity; the Logos is not eternal. The power of God who works in Jesus is not the eternal Divine power itself but a limited reduced hierarchy. This Logos is strange to the Divine nature, unsimilar in every respect to the Father's essence. This Logos can neither see nor know the Father completely and exactly. He becomes God only in the way in which every saint can become deified. This deification happened as it happens in every saint, through his freedom. He had the freedom to turn away from God, but he didn't. This Logos, therefore, is a half-Divine power. This half-Divine power is the soul of Jesus, and it becomes the anxiety and suffering of Jesus. . . This means Jesus is not fully man, with a natural human soul. Mary gives birth to this half-God, who is neither God nor man. This was the solution of Arius, a solution which is very well in line with the hero cult of the ancient world; the world is full of half-gods, of deteriorized gods, of gods who even in Heaven (Olympus) are not fully gods but derived forms of God, and one of them is Jesus but it is not God Himself.

Now this Christology has been rejected in the first and most important of all Christian councils, that of Nicaea, in June, 325. The text of the decision of Nicaea: "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible." let me stop here for a moment, because all these words are very important. "Invisible" means the Platonic "ideas." God is the creator not only of the things on earth, but also the creator of the "essences," as they appear in Plato's philosophy. "And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only begotten of the essence of the Father, God of God, and Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father, by Whom all things were made in Heaven and on earth, who for us men and our salvation came down and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, ascended into Heaven. From thence He comes to judge the quick\c and the dead.. . and in the Holy Ghost." Then it goes on to say: "And those who say there was a time when He was not, or He was not before He was made, and He was made out of nothing, and out of another substance or thing, or the Son of God is created or changeable, or alterable: they are condemned by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." Now this is the first and fundamental Christian confession. I will give you immediately its significance, but before this a few words of comment: The central phrase is "of one substance with the Father" (homoousios to patri). Then the important thing is that nothing else is said about the Holy Ghost. This was the reason for further struggles and decisions Then the condemnations are interesting: The first and all-embracing one: "Those who say there was a time when He was not. . . are condemned by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." Now let me give you, point by point, the significance of this decision for world history and the history of the Church:

1) The main possible Christian heresy was overcome. Christ is not one of the many half-Gods; He is not a hero. He is God Himself appearing in Divine essence within a historical person. This was the definite negation of paganism. In Arius, paganism again raised its head after it was defeated in the anti-Gnostic struggle, and it raised its head very strongly Christ, one of the many powers of being this would have made Christianity one of the many possible religions

2) This fundamental statement was expressed in terms which were more pleasing to Rome and the West than to the East. The East did not like the homoousios; it wanted a ladder of hierarchies. The West, Rome, and her allies in the East, insisted on the homoousios. For this reason the decision of Nicaea was immediately attacked and somehow transformed into something else by the East, in 60 years of struggle and theological work. Only in 381 did this struggle come to an end, and then in terms which pleased the East more than the original formula did, and in new theological interpretations.

3) The decisive statement is: "Being of one substance with the Father." This is not in the scheme of emanation but in the scheme of Monarchianism. Consequently it was accused of being Sabellian. And so were the main defenders. . ., Athanasius and Marcellus.

4) The negative character of the decision is especially visible in the condemnations. The creatureliness of Christ is negated. He is of no other ousia than the Father.. But what the homoiousios is, is not explained. . It was not decided whether the three prosopa are really differences in God, and if so whether they were eternal or historical. And no doctrine of the Spirit was given. But one and only one thing was decided: Jesus Christ is not an incarnated half-God; He is not a creature higher than a1l others; He is God, and God is creator and unconditional this negative decision is the truth and the greatness of the decision of Nicaea. And you should not forget what I said in the beginning about the dogma; the dogma is a negative decision against ideas which perhaps could undercut the conformity of the Christian congregation, which can undermine the basic statement that Jesus is the Christ. And every synodal decision worthwhile being mentioned is and was such a decision. The dogmas are not invented because people wanted dogmas, but they developed because people had to protect a religious substance. And in this light you must see the limited meaning of the dogma and of such a decision, and at the same time its greatness.

5) Beside this basic element some consequent implications must be mentioned. The statements had been made in philosophical, non-biblical terms. So some Greek terms were taken into the dogma. They were taken in not so much as classical philosophy as mystical philosophy of religion.

6) The unity of the Church from now on is identical with the majority of the bishops. A conciliarism has developed in hierarchical terms, and the majority of the bishops from now on replace all other authorities. And only much later did the Roman bishop claim and receive a special standing among the bishops, and finally the majority of the bishops as authority was abolished.

7) The Church had become a state Church This was the price which had to be paid for unity. The emperor did not command the content of the dogma, but he exercised pressure. Therefore revolts occurred against it, and the emperor after Constantine had to exercise even more pressure. All this meant a new development of Church history, and even of world history.

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