return to religion-online

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 16: Tertullian. Cyprian. Augustine.


We finished the discussion of the Eastern development of Christian theology and we are now looking at the West, with the intention to remain there until the end of these lectures which is perhaps not absolutely fair to the East, because there were developments there which one must certainly study if one wants to understand the situation in present-day Russia, for example, but our limitations are so great that I cannot go into this.

The two men who lead us from the East to the West, and with whom we must deal first, are Tertullian and Cyprian. We already discussed Tertullian to some extent in connection with the Montanistic movement of radical spiritualism and radical eschatology. He was its greatest theological representative. We also spoke about him in connection with his ability to create those formulas which finally survived, in a very early stage, those formulas about Trinity and Christology which, under the pressure of Rome, finally conquered all the other suggestions made by the East. Further, we have seen that he was a Stoic philosopher and as such he was fully aware of the importance of reason and carries through his rational system in a very radical way. But the same Tertullian is also aware of the fact that on the basis of his philosophical attitude there is something else, namely the Christian paradox, He who said that the human soul is naturally Christian (anima naturaliter christiana,) a phrase you should remember, and is the same who is said to have said, at the same time though he did not actually say it that "I believe what is absurd," (credo quia absurdum est). What he really said was: "The Son of God is crucified; it is not a shame because it is a matter of shame. And the Son of God had died; it is credible because it is inadequate And the buried (was) resurrected; it is certain because it is impossible."

Now what you find in such paradox is a mixture of an understanding of the surprising, unexpected and that means, in Greek, "paradoxical" - -reality of the appearance of God, or God-man unity, under the conditions of existence; and at the same time it is a rhetorical expression of this idea, in the way in which the Roman educated orators used the Latin language. So you must not take it as a literal expression but as a pointing by means of paradox to the incredible reality of the appearance of Christ. Now people have added to this, credo quia absurdum est, "1 believe because it is absurd," but this of course is not Tertullian. He never would have been able to give very clear dogmatic formulas and (be) a Stoic, believing in the ruling power of the Logos.

In Tertullian also appears something which is important later in the West, namely the emphasis on sin. He speaks of the vicium originis, the original vice, and identifies it with sexuality. In this way he anticipates a long development of Roman Christianity, the depreciation of sex and the doctrine of the universality of sinfulness.

Another thing can be derived from him and partly from his Stoic background: for him the Spirit is a kind of fine substance, as it was in Stoic philosophy. This fine substance is called grace or Spirit which is the same thing in all Catholic theology; usually the third concept is love: (grace, spirit and love are actually the same in Catholic theology.) Therefore Roman Catholicism can speak of, infused grace, infused like a liquid, like a very fine substance, into the soul of man and transforming it. This is the non-personalistic element in all Roman Catholic sacramental thinking, and in the way in which the fine substance of the Spirit, or of love or grace, can be infused into the soul,. . into the oil of extreme unction, into the water of baptism, into the bread of the Lord's Supper. Here you have one of the sources of this kind of "spiritual materialism," if you want to call it like this, which played such a great role in the Roman church.

Finally he represents the idea that asceticism, the self-denial of the vital reality of oneself, is the way to receive this substantial grace of God. He uses the juristic term "compensation" for sin; asceticism, compensation for the negative side of sin. Or he uses "satisfaction": by good works we can satisfy God. Or he uses "self-punishment" and says that to the degree in which we will punish ourselves, God will not punish us. All this is legalistic thinking. And although he himself was not a lawyer, every Roman orator and philosopher was potentially a lawyer, as every American is a philosopher! . . . This use of legal categories was another fundamental characteristic of the West and it became decisive, for the later development of the Roman church in the movement in which the second and great important element was put into the foreground, namely the Church, and this was Cyprian.

The North African bishop Cyprian's greatest influence was on the doctrine of the Church. The problem which he discussed was also a very existential one as in all Church history very few people were mere scholars; most of them had very fundamental existential affairs and concerns, and out of that arose their doctrines. In the moment in which a theology says something which you cannot existentially realize any more, either the theology is bad or you have not yet had a special experience both things are possible. But usually, I would say, the theology then is bad, or these parts of a theology are bad. And I believe this is self-criticism that in every theological system there are, besides those elements which are creations of existential concern and therefore full of blood and power and speaking to others, sections which are like lines drawn out in order to fill the system up, but not created on the basis of existential concern. And I believe that most of you are very sensitive to this; that is the reason why for a teacher every lecture should be a matter of fear and trembling at least it is for this teacher! And just for this reason, because I never know, with absolute exactitude, (whether) something I tell you in systematics and my whole "history of Christian thought" is very much systematic, as you know is existential or not. That is the meaning of the word "existential." Nietzsche called it "spirit", and then he has said: Spirit is the life which cuts into its own life; out of its own suffering it produces its own creativity... He doesn't use the word existential, but that's what it means.

For the people like Cyprian, the problems of the Church were existential problems. There were the persecutions; there were those called the lapsi those who were fallen either by recanting Christianity or at least by surrendering books to the searching servants of the pagan authorities, or who denounced others in a trial such as those we see now in this country. All this was a matter of great concern for the Church, and of course each of them who did this was so to speak under Divine judgment. And these people wanted to return to t he Church and overcome the weakness which got hold of them. No one can judge them who is human. But not everybody could be returned into the Church; in cases where there was not human weakness but malignancy or lack of depth, it was not possible for the Church to re-accept. Now the question was: Who decides, in this situation. The ordinary doctrine was: those who are "spirituals," i. e. , those who had become martyrs or had in any other way proved that they were fully responsible Christians.

But against this, which was a kind of remnant from the period of Christianity in which spirit was still fighting with office and office was not yet prevailing, now the office didn't want this remnant of the past and wanted to take over this decision too. The episcopalian point of view said that the bishop, who is the Church, must decide about it. And he must decide in a very liberal way. He must take those who fell even more than once. In the same way, other mortal sinners must be received. The Church had become a country Church, a territorial, a universal Church, the Church of the Empire, and so no one could be easily excluded. The decision was now in the hands of the bishop.

But on the other hand the doctrine was still powerful that the Spirit must decide whether or not someone can belong to the Church. So Cyprian said that the bishops are the Spirituals, those who have the Spirit, namely the Spirit of succession from the early Apostles, apostolic succession. In this way the Spirit became the qualification of the office This was the greatest triumph of the office, that now the Spirit is bound to the office and the Spirit is called the Spirit of succession. This was a transition, and shortly after it became clear that the clergy has the graces which belong to it by ordination, and that the highest clergy, finally the Pope, embodies the Divine grace on earth. But this was the transition to it.

A similar very existential problem was the problem: What to do with people who are baptized by heretics and schismatics. You know the difference, I hope. Heretics are people who have a different faith, who have deviated from the order of the Christian congregation. Schismatics are people who follow a special line of church-political development, those who split from the church, perhaps because two bishops fight with each other, or some groups don't want to accept the Roman bishop. So the separation of the Eastern and Western churches is always called schisma. The Eastern church is considered by Rome not as a heretic church but as a schismatic church. Protestantism is considered by Rome not as a schismatic church but as a heretic church, because their foundations of faith are at stake and not only the non-acknowledgment of the Roman bishop.

Now the question was: How was it possible to receive into one's own congregation people who are baptised by one of these groups. The answer was, again: It is the objective character of baptism which is decisive, and not the person who has performed it. We will see how Augustine carried this through.

Now behind all this stands Cyprian's idea of the Church:

1) He who has not the Church as Mother, cannot have God as Father. "There is no salvation outside the Church" extra ecclesia nulla salus. The Church is the institution in which salvation is reached. This again is a change from the early Christian period where the Church was a community of the saints and not an institution for salvation. Of course salvation was going on within it and those who could be saved, and were saved, from paganism and from the demons were gathered in the Church. But the Church itself was not considered to be an institution of salvation but a community of the saints. This is the first emphasis of Cyprian. It is very consistent with the legal thinking of the West.

2) The Church is built on the episcopate. He says the Church is built over the bishops. This is done by Divine law and therefore it is an object of faith. "Therefore you must know that the bishop is in the Church and the Church is in the bishop, and that if somebody is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church." Now this is purest episcopalianism though somehow different from what is called today by this word.

3) The unity of the Church is correspondingly rooted in the unity of the episcopate. All bishops represent this unity. But in spite of the equality of all of them, there is one representative of this unity: this is Peter and his See. The See of Peter is the principle Church, "from which the priestly unity has arisen, the womb and the root of the Catholic Church." Now this is before Augustine. The consequence of this, although not yet in Cyprian's mind, was unavoidably the principate of Rome in a much more radical way than he expressed it.

4) The bishop is sacerdotes (the Latin word for "priest"). The priest's main function is the sacrificial function. The priest sacrifices the elements in the Lord's Supper and repeats the sacrifice on Golgotha by doing so. He imitates what Christ did; he offers a true and perfect sacrifice to God the Father within the Church. Here again it was not yet the later Catholic Mass, but it unavoidably would lead to it (the more so in the primitive nations, with their realistic thinking and tendency to take as real what is symbolic. . . .).Many of the fundamentals of the Roman church existed as early as about 250, Cyprian's time. And whatever we say against the Roman church, we should not forget that the early developments of Christianity led this way, as early as the year 250, let us say, as an example. And when today one speaks of the agreement of the first 500 years, this is entirely misleading. Of course everybody agrees in the big synodal decisions Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox but this agreement is only seemingly an agreement, because the living meaning of all these things was absolutely different from what the Reformers built up as the Protestant doctrine. And if you take a man like Cyprian, then you can see the difference. No Protestant could accept any of these points.

Let me sum up some of the points characteristic of the Occidental tradition:

1) One could first mention the general practical activistic tendency in the West, the legal relations between God and man, the much stronger ethical impulses for the average Christian, not with respect to himself but with respect to the world; and include in this point the eschatological interest, without mystagogical and mystical emphasis. We can say: More law, less participation: that characterizes the West from the very beginning.

2) The idea of sin, even original sin, is almost exclusively occidental. The main problem of the East, as we have seen, was death therefore immortality; and error therefore , truth. The main problem of the West is sin, and salvation. In a man like St. Ambrose, the estimation of Paul who is the main teacher on sin and salvation is accepted. He has been called by St. Ambrose the doctor gentium , the teacher of the nations. Paul has the keys of knowledge; Peter has the keys of power. And there was going on through the whole history of the Middle Ages a struggle between Peter and Paul between the keys of knowledge, which finally prevailed in the Reformation, and the keys of power, which always prevailed in the Roman church. Grace, therefore, is, according to St. Ambrose, first of all the forgiveness of sins and not, as in the Platonic attitude of the East, deification.

3) This has the following consequences: Western Christianity emphasizes the historical humanity of Christ, his humility, and not his glory. e. g., on the door of St. Sabina in Rome, before which I stood with great awe, I must say, there you find in wood-cut relief the first picture or sculpture of the crucifixion. The door is world-famous, coming from the fourth century. Here the West shows that it deviates, or can deviate, from the Christ in glory which you find in all mosaics but you never find the Christ crucified. This is more symptomatic for the difference of East and West than many theological formulas. But it is of course also expressed in the theological formulas: If I now return to this most difficult lecture I gave on Chalcedon, I now can illustrate it with the two doors, or with a mosaic in, let us say, Ravina, which was under Byzantine influence at that time; and on the other hand the door in Santa Sabina.... There you find the two Christologies clearly expressed in picture. .In one you have always the tremendously powerful Lord of the universe, in all glory as the Judge of the world or of the resurrected, in His majesty surrounded by angels, man, animals, and inorganic parts of nature, which all participate in His glory. And then you have this very wonderful, in some way poor, (presentation) of the suffering Christ on the door at Santa Sabina. The one is Antiochean, Roman theology, which emphasizes the humanity more than anything else, including the suffering humanity of the Christ; the other is Alexandrian Christology which makes Christ a walking God. . . the bodily existence is swallowed up by the Divine form. Now this can give you an example of the difference in feeling. And so we have in the whole history of painting in the West, since that time, the most wonderful ,the most cruel, and the most destructive representations of the Crucifixion. The early Gothic crucifixes, of which there are many, are such that perhaps a modern church trustee wouldn't allow them to be hung in his church, because they are so ugly supposing that the crucifixion was a beautiful thing. It was ugly. And that is what the West accepted, and could understand.

4) The last point I want to make is the Church. The idea of the Church is much more emphasized than in the East. The Church is built somehow according to the legal structure of the Roman state, with the principle of authority, with the double law the canonic law and the civil law. All this is characteristic of the West. One element I want to add is the hierarchical centralization of power in the Pope, and the personal participation of everybody, including the monks, in the sacrament of penance.

Now this gives you some ideas about the difference. Now I come to the man who is the representative of the West more than anyone else ever since, even the Reformers, and who is so to speak the foundation of everything the West had to say, in an ultimate formula, Augustine.

Augustine lived from 354-430 after Christ. His influence overshadows not only the next thousand years but all periods ever since. In the Middle Ages his influence was such that even those who were struggling against him in theological terminology and method the Dominicans, with the help of Aristotle quoted him often; as a Catholic theologian in Germany has counted, 80% of all the quotations of Thomas are from Augustine, and Thomas is the great opponent of Augustinianism in the Middle Ages. Now if you quote your enemies in the amount of 80% of all your quotations affirmatively, of course then this enemy is not simply an enemy, but you live on his basis, and the difference is one in emphasis and a change in method, but it is not a substantial difference. The whole Middle Ages are full of this.

In Augustine we have also the man to whom all the Reformers referred in their fight with the Roman church. We have in him the man who influenced deeply the modern philosophical movement insofar as it was Platonistic i. e., Descartes and his whole school, and including Spinoza. He influenced deeply our modern discussion, and I would say, almost unambiguously, that I myself, and everything you get theologically from me, is much more in the line of the

Augustinian than in the Thomistic tradition.

So we have a line of thought from Augustine over the Franciscans in the Middle Ages, over the Reformers, over the philosophers of the 17th and early 18th centuries, over the German classical philosophers including Hegel, to the present-day philosophy of religion, insofar as it is not empirical philosophy of religion which I think is a contradiction in terms but a philosophy of religion which is based on the immediacy of the truth in every human being.

Now this is the greatness of Augustine, and this we have to understand. Now I am sorry that we are so late now, because that lecture has to be given as one. But I must start and will dwell on one special problem and will continue next Tuesday.

In order to understand Augustine, we must look at his development, his development in seven different steps, and then an eighth step which is negative, with respect to content.

1) The first of these seven steps, which may help us to understand the immense influence of this greatest of all Church Fathers, is his dependence on the piety of his mother. This means, at that time, something extremely important. It means that he is dependent on the Christian tradition. This reminds us of Plato's situation. When Plato wrote, he also wrote out of a tradition the aristocratic tradition of the Athenian gentry, to which he belonged. But this tradition had come to an end in the self-destructive Pelopponesian war, the masses had taken over, and then the tyrants came as always, following the masses. The aristocracy was killed, as a principle and partly also as human beings. So what Plato saw in his mind was an ideal form of political and philosophical existence, both identical with each other, but a vision which had no reality any more. Therefore I warn you about a mistake! The name of Plato overshadows everything else in Greek thinking, even Aristotle. But don't believe that Plato was the most influential man in the later ancient world. He had always some influence and his book "The Timaeus" was almost the bible of the later ancient world. But he could not exercise real influence because everything he developed was in the realm of pure essences, and had no historical foundation any more. Here I think in terms of pure economic materialism: if the social and economic conditions do not exist any more; if a civilization has reached a special status; then you cannot influence it and even less transform it with the ideal form of ideas which come from the past. This is very concrete for us today, namely the longing for the Middle Ages, and the daily or I must say hourly increasing power of the Roman church has something to do with this situation. But it cannot be done. We cannot go back to the Middle Ages, although this is the hope of every Catholic. So when Plato wrote his "Republic" and later on his "Laws," and implied in all this all elements of his philosophical thought which was at the same time his social, psychological and religious thought then he was in some way reactionary (if you don't misunderstand this word, from agein, driving towards something which was a matter of the past, and could not be reestablished any more in the period of the Roman Empire. This produced again a kind of emptiness in which the Cynics and Skeptics and Stoics were much more important than Plato because they were adequate to their situation. Stoicism, not Platonism, governed the later ancient world. But Plato returned in the Middle Ages. We will speak of this later.

Augustine was just in the opposite situation. While in Plato a great aristocratic tradition came to an end, in Augustine a new tradition started. It was, so to speak, a new archaism into which he came, and was brought into it. So immediately he had something which made it possible for him to participate in the new tradition. He had a pagan father and a Christian mother. The pagan father gave him the possibility to participate in paganism of course, in what was greatest in paganism at that time; what was lowest in it, for him personally, we don't know and his Christian mother made it possible for him to enter into another tradition, a new archaism. Thus the simple empirical fact of a man with a pagan father and a Christian mother means almost everything for our understanding of him.

2) He discovered the problem of truth. This was the second step, connected with the fact that he read Cicero's book "Hortensius". Here Cicero deals with the question of truth. But this question in Cicero means choosing between the existing ways of truth, between the different philosophies. And Cicero, though a great Roman statesman, answers in terms of a kind of eclectic philosophy, (as I believe every American statesman, if he wrote a book on truth, would answer, showing those elements in philosophy which are most adequate to the political situation in which he finds himself.) So it was truth from a practical point of view. Cicero is not an original philosopher. This was impossible after the catastrophe of Greek philosophy. Therefore he used, from a pragmatic point of view, the Roman Empire what enhances good citizenship in the Roman Empire is of philosophical value. And the ideas which enhance are: providence, God, freedom, immortality, rewards, and things like that.

Augustine was in exactly the same situation. But for him it was not the civitas terrenae but the Christian city of God; it was the Christian tradition. So he developed a pragmatic philosophy, with Platonic and other elements, on the basis of the need of the Christian life and not on: the basis of Roman citizenship. But the basic form was very similar it was pragmatic-eclectic. Augustine is not an original philosopher in the sense in which Plato or the Stoics were. But he is a philosopher in whom the great synthesis between the Old Testament idea of Yahweh and the Parmenidean idea of being, was combined. He is responsible for the communion of Jerusalem and Athens, more than anybody else in the history of the Church.

Viewed 379847 times.