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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 13: Athanasius, Marcellus, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, John of Damascus. The Christological Problem.


We have discussed the significance of the Council of Nicaea and the reasons why it was attacked by many Eastern theologians, for religious, philosophical and political reasons. The main defender of the decision of Nicaea was Athanasius. He was first of all a great religious personality and therefore he was able, because his religious foundation was unchangeable, to change the scientific means and the political ways in which he fought for his basic religious conviction. His style is clear, he is consistent, cautious, and sometimes for the reasons just mentioned even compromising in his terminology. He was expelled several times from his episcopal see in Alexandria, he was persecuted, but he was finally victorious over heretics and emperors. It was he who saved the decision of Nicaea but in order to do so he had to compromise with a more Origenistic or, as one called it at that time, scientific interpretation of the formulas of Nicaea.

Let's look at the negative and the positive side of his beliefs. Sin is overcome by forgiveness; and the curse of sin, death, is overcome by the new life both given by the Christ. The new life includes communion with God, moral renewal, and eternal life, as a present possession. Eternal life is, positively speaking, deification, becoming similar to God as much as possible, (as I quoted from Plato.) So two things are needed: the victory over finitude, and the victory over sin participation in the infinity of God and participation in the holy, over against sin, must be provided. How? It can be provided only by Christ who. as true man, suffers the curse of sin and, as true God. overcomes death. No half- God. no hero, no relative and limited power of being can do that. They cannot do the one. they cannot do the other. Only as historical. could he change history; only as Divine could he give Divinity. There is no half-forgiveness or half-eternity. Either our sins are forgiven: then they are fully forgiven; either we are eternal or not: if we are. we are fully eternal. Therefore no religious half-God could be the saviour. The problem of Christology. as always in all Christological and Trinitarian struggles, is salvation. and from this point of view you must understand them; from this point of view they become meaningful. even in the moments of greatest confusion and in the expressions of greatest abstraction.

The Christ who performs this work is not understandable to the human mind except through the Divine Spirit. Only through the Spirit can we come in unity with the Christ. This implies that the Spirit of Christ must be as Divine as Christ Himself is. When after the Nicaean decision groups arose which denied the Divinity of the Spirit, they were called semi-Arians. Athanasius fought against them and said: they are wrong. they want to make the Spirit into a creature but if the Spirit of Christ is a creature. then Christ also is a creature

The Spirit of Christ is not the human spirit of the man Jesus. as a historical individual; the Spirit of Christ is not a psychological function; but the Spirit of Christ is God Himself in Him and. through Him. in us. In this way the Trinitarian formula which in Nicaea was left open with respect to the Spirit. becomes filled up. The same thing which was said about the Son is now said about the Spirit. In order to be able to unite us with Christ. the Spirit must be Divine as Christ Himself is Divine and not partly Divine. not .half-Divine. but fully Divine.

One of Athanasius' supporters was Marcellus. in whom the Monarchianistic tradition entered the discussion. He was a man always in intimate friendship with Athanasius, always accepted by him. although finally. after Athanasius' death. condemned by the more Origenistic theologians who didn't like his Monarchianistic trends. His emphasis was on monotheism. Before the creation, God was a mona a unity without differentiation. His Logos was in Him, but was in Him only as a potential' power, only as a possibility for creation, but not yet as an actual power. Only with the creation does the Logos proceed and become the acting energy of God in all things, through Whom all things have been made. In this moment something has happened the Divine monas has become broader; it has become a duas, the unity has become a duality.

In the incarnation. in the act in which the Logos took on flesh not became flesh but took on flesh the second "economy" is performed. An actual separation has occurred between Father and Son. in spite of the remaining potential unity. so that it is now possible for the "eyes of faith" to see the Father in the Son. And then a further broadening of the monas and of the duas occurs. when after the resurrection of Christ the Spirit becomes a relatively independent power in the Christian Church.

But all this separation is only preliminary. The independence of the Spirit and of the Son is nothing final. The Son and the Spirit will finally return into the unity with the Father, and then the flesh of Jesus will wither away. The potential, or eternal, Logos should not be called the Son. He becomes the Son only through the incarnation and resurrection. In Jesus a new man, a new manhood, appears, united with the Logos by love,.

Now this is a dynamic Monarchianistic system. The Trinity is dynamized, is put into movement, (approaches) history, and has lost the static character it has in the; genuine Origenistic thinking. But this system was rejected. It was accused of being Sabellian, of representing that kind of Monarchianism in which God the Father Himself appears on earth. Origen and the system of degrees and hierarchies triumphed, against Marcellus,

But the fight went on. The Origenistic protest against the homoouseous, against the one substance between Father and Son, led not only to a fight against a man like Marcellus or a man like Athanasius , it led finally to a fight against the Nicaenum itself only in the east, of course, but there, with strongest power and passion, not only Marcellus but also Athanasius were condemned. The Origenists, who were overwhelmed by the pressure of the emperor in Nicaea, gathered again and gathered such strength that they insisted, against the Nicaenum, on three substances, and could get away with it" It was if you want to call it so a pluralistic interpretation of the Trinity; it was an interpretation in the, scheme of emanation, of hierarchies, of powers of being. The unconditional is seen in degrees; but only the Father is, in an unlimited way, unconditional. He alone is the source of everything:,eternal and temporal. This was the mood of the Eastern theologians and of the Eastern popular piety It prevailed again and again, in some cases under strong support of the emperor, who defied the decision of his predecessor Constantine and now tried to press the supporters of the Nicaenum against the Nicaenum.

But there was a shortcoming in Eastern theology. It was united only negatively; it was not united in a positive decision. So it was easy to split it and reduce its power of resistance against the Nicaenum. There were some in the East who practically returned to Arius; they were called the anhomoioi, which means: Christ is not even similar to God; He is completely a creature. There were others who mediated between the Nicaenum and the mood of the East. They were called the homoiousianoi , those who believed not in the homoousios but in the homoiousios , (the latter is derived from homoios (meaning "similar" and ousia, "essence.")... So we now have the struggle between the homoosioui and the homoiousioi . The hostile pagans in Alexandria made jokes about this fight going on in the streets and barber shops and in the different stores and everywhere: the Christians fight about the iota, the smallest letter of the alphabet the only letter distinguishing homoousios from homoiousios. But there was behind it more than an iota; there was behind it another piety. For the homoousianoi Father and Son are equal in every respect, but they have no identical substance. This group interpreted the Nicene formula homoousios , which they couldn't remove any more, in the sense of homoiousios, and even Athanasius and the West finally agreed that this could be done, if only the West accepts the formula homoousios. The West accepted the eternal generation of the Son a formula which comes from Origen and which the West didn't like so much before and with it they accepted the inner Divine, the non-"economic", non-historical Trinity, which is eternal.

The East, on the other hand, accepted the homoousios after it was possible to interpret it differently, namely in the light of the homoiousios. And the East also accepted under these conditions, the homoousia of the Spirit. Now this means that theological formulas had been discovered which were able to overcome the struggle in theological terms, but theological terms are never able to overcome the religious difference itself. And we shall see how this worked itself out in the later developments of the Eastern and Western churches, in the coming fights and struggles and in the final separation. But for the time being the Synod of Constantinople (381) was able to make a decision in which East and West agreed, in which homoiousios and homousios could come together, because the one could interpret homoousios as real homoousios, and the others could interpret it as homoiousios.

But in order to do this, new theological developments were needed. These developments are represented by the three great Cappadocian theologians, Basil the great, Gregory of Nyssaa, his brother, and Gregory of Nazianzus, his friend. Basil the Great was bishop of Caesarea. He was many things in one person: a churchman, a bishop, a monk, the great reformer of monasticism, a preacher, a moralist. He fought against the old and neo- and semi-Arians, against everything which followed the idea that Christ is a half-God and a half-man. He died, however, before the favorable decision of Constantinople was given.

His younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa was called "the theologian." He continued the Origenistic tradition and its scientific methods. He worked scientifically on his (Origen's) basis. After the victory of Christianity in Constantine, after the fixation of the dogma in Nicaea, it was possible that now again a great theology could come and reestablish a union of Greek philosophy and the dogma. But it no longer had the freshness of the first great attempts the Apologists and especially Origen. It was much more determined by the ecclesiastical situation and the creed of Nicaea, and therefore was more a matter of formulas than of material creativity. But most important for the development was the third man, Gregory of Nazianz. He brought the doctrine of the Trinity to its definitive formulas, and was called "the theologian," among the Fathers of the Church. In Athens, where he and Basil studied, he became an intimate friend of Basil. They were united not only because of their common theological convictions but also because of their common asceticism. Gregory of Nazianz became bishop and was president of the synod of Constantinople for a certain time.

Now what was the step taken by these theologians especially the latter one? It was a sharper distinction between the concepts which were used, and had to be used, for the Trinitarian dogma. I give you now two series of concepts where each side has three words, meaning the same.

The first series is:One Divinity One essence (ousia) One nature (physis)

The second series :Three substances (hypostasis) Three idiotetes (properties) Three prosopa (personae)

If you have these three terms, on each side, you could perhaps best use the following in the one case: mia ousia (one essence) and three substances. The Divinity is one power of being that is what ousia, essence, nature, means. But this one power of being, which is Divine, has three forms in which it expresses itself, three independent realities. This means the Divinity is not a species, (as man is a species, for three of you who are sitting here in the class, but under one and the same power. Son and Spirit come out of the same Abyss, of the Father, and always remain in it even if they become independent. All three have the same will, the same nature, the same essence, Nevertheless the number three is real: each has His special characteristics or properties. The Father has the property of being ungenerated; He is from eternity to eternity. The Son has the characteristic of being generated, although in eternity. The Spirit has the characteristic of going out, of proceeding from the Father and the Son. But these characteristics are not differences in the Divine essence, but only in their relations to each other. Now this was complicated and very abstract philosophy, but it was the formula which made the reunion of the Church possible one essence, three persons; one nature, three faces or countenances.

The Council removed the condemnations, which were added to the Council of Nicaea, because they didn't fit the new terminology any more; and it did something else that was important and which was lacking in Nicaea, namely they said about the Holy Ghost: "And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, Who preceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified." Of course the latter phrases are more mystical and liturgical; but these abstract formulas mean more than they would mean for us, or for a logical positivist. They mean mystical power, at the same time, and therefore they can be used liturgically.

This decision ends the Trinitarian struggle. Arius and Sabellius and many of their mediating followers were excluded. The homoousios stands now against Arius in all subsequent Church history. But it was interpreted as homoiousios (as similar with God) against Sabellius.

Now in all this the negative side of the decision is clear, but its positive side, the implications for a development of the Trinitarian doctrine, are extremely difficult. I will show you the four main difficulties.

1) The Father is, on the one hand, the ground of Divinity. He is, on the other hand, a special persona, a special hypostasis. Now if you take these two points of view together, then it is possible to speak of a quaternity instead of a trinity, namely to speak of the Divine substance as the one Divine Ground, and the three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, as the manifestations of this Ground. Then we have a quaternity instead of a trinity. And there was always an inclination in this direction, and Thomas Aquinas still had to fight against it. Usually theology said: He who is the Father is at the same time the source of all Divinity, and that means, of the other manifestations also.

2) The distinctions in eternal Trinity are empty. The Trinity was created in order to understand the historical Jesus. As long as this was kept alive, there was a difference between God and him very evident. But now we are in the realm of a transcendent Trinity. How can differences be made there? They are made by words: like non-generated, generated, and proceeding. But what do these words really mean? They are words without content, because there is no perception of any kind which can confirm their meaning. And to anticipate something of Augustine: Augustine said these differences are not expressed because something is said with them, but in order not to remain silent about the differences. This means: If the motives of Trinity are left and lost, then the formulas become empty.

3) The Holy Spirit remains even now an abstraction. He is brought in concretely only if He is defined as the Spirit of Christ, namely of Jesus as the Christ, but if He is put into the transcendent Trinity, then He is more an abstraction than a person. Therefore He never had very great importance for Christian piety. At the same time in which He was deified, in the same sense in which Christ was deified, He was replaced in actual piety by the Holy Virgin, who as the one who gives birth to God, received Divinity very much herself, at least for popular piety.

4) The three hypostases, the three different personae, could lead to tri-theism. This danger became much more fully real when the philosophy of Aristotle replaced that of Plato. Plato's philosophy is always the background of what the medieval called mystical realism, namely that the universals are more real than their individual exemplars. But in Aristotle the thing is different: Aristotle calls the individual thing the telos, the inner aim, of all natural development. Now if this is the case, then the three powers of being in God become three independent realities or more exactly, the three manifestations of God become independent powers of being, become independent persons This is something which I believe is one of the great difficulties in your understanding of the Trinitarian dogma. You are nominalists by education: everything which is must be a definite thing, limited and separated from all other things. For mystical, realistic thinking -- as we have it in Plato, in Origen, in the Middle Ages this is not so. There the power of being in a universal can be something quite superior and different from the power of being in the individuals. Therefore the danger of tri-theism was very small, as long as Platonic philosophy interpreted the Trinitarian dogma. It became rather dangerous in the moment in which Aristotelian categories came in, and with it, some nominalistic trends, some emphasis on the individual realities. Then the Son and the Spirit could become, so to speak, special Individual beings and then we are in the realm of tri-theism. ~

The last great theologian, John of Damascus, of whom I hope Father Florovsky will tell you a little more, protested against this consequence. He emphasized the unity of action and being within each other of the three manifestations of God. But something else happened. For practical piety, the Trinitarian dogma became just the opposite of what it originally was supposed to be it was supposed to be an interpretation of Jesus as the Christ; it was supposed to mediate this understanding to the Greeks, with the help of the Logos doctrine. But the consequences of the Logos doctrine became so dangerous in Arius especially, that traditional theology reacted against it. It was still used, but it was somehow broken in its philosophical meaning. And that's something which has often happened with Christian theology. In this way and here Athanasius is mostly responsible the Trinitarian dogma became a sacred mystery. This sacred mystery was put on the altar and adored; it was put into the ikons, the pictures (which are important for the cult in the Eastern church); it was put into liturgical formulas and hymns, and there it lives ever since. But it has lost its power to interpret the meaning of the living God.

Now this is the end of the Trinitarian struggle. I come back to it once more when I shall speak about Augustine's interpretation of it, which is typically Western, but for the time being I will now introduce the next great struggle, the Christological one:

The Christological problem is historically a consequence of the Trinitarian problem. But in principle it is the other way around. The Trinity is the answer to the Christological problem. But it is an answer which seems in its final formulas to deny the basis on which it has arisen. The question was: If the Son is of one substance with the Father, how can the historical Jesus be understood? This was the purpose of the whole Trinitarian dogma, but now if the Trinitarian dogma was formulated as it was in Nicaea, is it still able to make Jesus understandable? How can He who is of Divine nature, without restriction, be a real man at the same time? The answer to this question was given or at least one attempted to give it in the Christological struggle which, according to its importance, lasted for almost three centuries and again brought the Christian Church to the edge of self-destruction.

There were always two main types of Christological thought: Either ,God as Father (or as Logos or as Spirit) has used the man Jesus of Nazareth, begetting and inspiring and adopting him as Son this is the one possibility; or a Divine being, the Logos, the eternal Son, has become man in an act of transformation. The Nicaenum, with its homoousios and with the Monarchianistic trend, favors the former solution. And so does the Roman theology. The emphasis on the Divinity of the eternal Son makes the emphasis on the humanity of the historical Son much easier. A half-God can be transformed; God Himself can only adopt man.

But this former solution was not in the line of Origenism. In Origen the eternal Logos is inferior to the Father and has, by His union with the soul of Jesus, in eternity, the traits of the historical Jesus. Therefore He can easily be transformed into Him with the help of the body, and a transformation Christology can be developed. In the Trinitarian struggle, no sharp distinction between these possibilities has been made. The homoousios could be interpreted nearer to Sabellius or nearer to Arius. So the Christological interpretations could be more in the sense of adaptation, or in the sense of transformation. This uncertainty was discovered by some theologians and became a matter of- controversy when one man acted in the Christological struggle as Arius did in the Trinitarian struggle, namely drawing the consequences of the Origenistic position. This man was Apollinarius of Laodicaea, of whom we have to speak more next time.

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