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 20: Augustine. Donatism. The Medieval Church. Scholasticism. Mysticism.


There was one point remaining to be discussed in Augustine, namely his doctrine of the Church, and since this is of extreme influence in all the Christian churches not only the Roman we must deal with it.

I gave you the basic ideas of Cyprian's doctrine of the Church, namely that the Church is an institution of salvation; the concept of the communion of the saints (communio sanctorum) was largely replaced by that of the institute of salvation, in Cyprian and the whole development of which he is the representative, the institution of salvation being an objective thing, in which we participate.

In this situation Augustine came into conflict with the Donatist movement. The consequence of the institution meant a change in the idea of the holiness of the Church (una ecclesia sancta .). These ideas meant something other than what they meant originally. Originally the emphasis was on the sanctification of the individual members and the group as a whole. Now this emphasis is changed to the sacramental reality of the Church, the holiness of the Church is identical with the sacramental gifts, especially with the sacramental power of the clergy. Sanctus, holy, saint, does not mean now, any more, someone who is personally sanctified, but it does mean someone who has the sacramental power. This of course is a fundamental change in meaning, from the subjective to the objective element, from personal holiness to institutional holiness.

There were people in North Africa, where Augustine was bishop, who didn't want to follow this development and who were interested in the actual sanctification of the Church and its members, especially of the clergy. The points in which this problem arose were the following:

1) the discipline in the act of penitence;

2) the question whether baptism is valid if performed by heretics;

3) the question whether ordination is a possible thing if it is done by traditores , traitors, who in the persecutions delivered over the holy books, or denied they were Christians.

Are the objective graces valid if they are done by people who subjectively are under a strong judgment of the opposite of holiness? The Donatistic movements excluded them, did not allow them to become ministers, because for them the holiness of the Church is the personal holiness of their representatives. This would have had the consequence that the individual Christian would have been dependent on the moral and religious standing of the clergy. He would have been dependent on the inner holiness of the minister. Now Augustine was clear about the fact that you cannot judge about it, that any attempt to judge about it would lead to terrible consequences to claiming the position of God who alone can look into the hearts of the people. He wanted to save the objectivity of the Church against the demand for subjective holiness in its representatives. He followed the lead of Cyprian. In order to do this he introduced the distinction between faith (including hope) and love. Faith, including hope, are possible outside the Church, because they are determined by their content. You may live among heretics, you may be one yourself, but if you fulfill the formula of baptism in the right way, then the content is decisive and not your personal heretical or morally unworthy status. The formulas are the same as they are in the Catholic church. Therefore if the heretic churches use these same formulas, the contents make their activities valid.

Love, on the other hand, is something which cannot be found where there is not the right faith. Love is the principle which unites the Church it is not simple moral goodness, which can be found everywhere, but it is the agape relationship of individuals with each other. And this spirit of love, which is embodied in the Church as unity of peace, as the reestablishment of the original Divine unity which is disrupted in the state of existence this is something which you can have only in the Church. Therefore salvation is only in the Church, since salvation is impossible without the poured-in agape, the agape given like a fluid into the hearts of men. But this you can get only in the Church, therefore there is no salvation outside the Church, although there may be valid sacraments outside it.

Now this distinction between the faith element and the love element is of extreme importance and makes the Church the only place of salvation for every Catholic.

From this follows a second distinction, namely between the validity and the effectiveness of the sacraments. The sacraments of the heretics are valid, if they are performed n terms of the orthodox tradition. Therefore nobody has to be rebaptized. But they have no effectiveness within the heretic groups. They have effectiveness only within the Church. Baptism, for instance, always gives a "character from the Lord," as the technical term stated; it is the character coming from God, which one has throughout his life whatever one does. This was very important because it enabled the medieval Church to treat the pagans and Jews differently from the baptized Christians. The baptized Christians are subjected to the laws of heresy, the Jews and pagans are not, because even if they tried to become Jews and pagans or Mohammedans, etc. they cannot because they have the indelible character given to them in the very act of baptism whoever mediates this act, whether a member of the Church or a member of the heresy. But the effectiveness of baptism, its saving power, you cannot have except within the Church.

In the same way, ordination is always valid. The priests who are fallen and excommunicated are forbidden to administer the sacraments, but they are able to do it validly. If in a prison the medieval priest who is excommunicated for a crime meets a couple and marries them, what he does is valid in spite of the fact that it is forbidden him to do so. No re-ordination is needed if the priest is absolved and returns into the clergy, because ordination is and remains valid.

Now all this makes the people in the Church completely independent of the quality of the priest. Nobody knows this quality exactly, anyhow of course, there are mortal sins which are publicly visible, and then the priest will be excommunicated and forbidden to exercise his activities, but this is quite different what he does is valid anyway in this way the institution is effective by itself and has become completely independent f the status of the clergy. What we have here is the hierarchical institute of salvation, which as an institute is I dependent of the character of those who perform it; and also there is the spiritual community of the faithful. According to Catholic doctrine, the first is he condition of the second; according to sectarian ideas, the second is the condition of the first, if it comes to the first at all. These two concepts of the Church were fighting with each other in all the history of the Church. This ends our discussion of Augustine. We come now to the development of that Church which is more dependent on him than on anybody else: the Medieval Church.

The Medieval Church

We can deal with this topic for two semesters, four hours a week, starting only with the year 1000 and ending with 1450. But here we can do it only in a few weeks. Therefore I will do something which some of you may criticize. Others in former years have appreciated it so much that, following Professor Handy's advice, I will repeat it at this time, namely to give you, in one lecture hour or so, a survey of the main ideas and trends of the Middle Ages, from the beginning to the end, and only after this will I go into a few great figures and their special discussions. This is an emergency method, because this survey should follow the at least four hour semester course necessary for dealing with the Middle Ages. But it cannot. So you must follow me in what is usually called a sweeping statement. Now I hope it is not sweeping as a statement, but sweeping insofar as it sweeps through the centuries!

Now first the basic problem of the Middle Ages, which we find in all its periods: namely, a transcendent reality manifest and embodied in a special institution, in a special sacred society, leading the culture and interpreting the nature. This is medieval though t a transcendent reality embodied in an institution in time and space, leading all cultural activities and interpreting the relation of man to nature. If you have this in your mind, you can understand everything going on in the Middle Ages. If you have not, you cannot understand anything, because then you measure the Middle Ages by our own measures of today, and this the Middle Ages do not admit. When you come to distorted pictures, you come to the judgment that the Middle Ages were "dark ages" and we are the illumined ages, and we look back at this period of terrible superstition with a kind of contempt, etc.

But nothing of this is true! The Middle Ages were one form in which the great problem of human existence in the light of the eternal was solved. The people lived in these thousand years, and they lived not worse than we live. in many respects, and in other respects they lived better than we do. So there is no reason to look back at the Middle Ages with any form of contempt.

But on the other hand I am not a romanticist. I don't want us to measure our situation with measures taken from the Middle ages, as does all romanticism.

The Middle Ages are not so united as our ignorance about them makes us regard them. They are very much differentiated. We can distinguish the following periods:

1) Ca. 600, which we all should know as the date of Pope Gregory the Great, in whom the ancient tradition was still alive, but in whom already the Middle Ages started.

From there to ca. 1000, we have 400 years of preservation, as much as could be preserved which was comparatively little - and of reception, in the tribes which ruled Europe (the Germanic-Romanic tribes.) It was the period of transition from the ancient to the medieval

world. It was a transition which sometimes, in contrast to the real Middle Ages, is called the Dark Ages, especially the 9th and 10th centuries. But they were not so dark as they seem, and great things happened there which prepared a new world out of which we all come, even if we have forgotten it.

2) The second period if from 1000-1200, when new, original forms developed, decisively different from the ancient world. It is the very creative and very profound period of the early Middle Ages, artistically represented by Romanesque art.

3) We come to the High Middle Ages, 1200-1300. Here all the basic motifs are elaborated and brought into the great systems of the Scholastics, of Gothic art, and of feudal life.

4) From 1300 on, we come into the period of the disintegration of the Middle Ages, from 1300-1460, the Late Middle Ages. If I call it an age of "disintegration," I don't want to depreciate the tremendous surge of new motifs which developed there and made both the Renaissance and Reformation possible. Thus, to repeat:

1) The period of transition, 600-1000.

2) The Early Middle Ages, 1000-1200.

3) The High Middle Ages, 1200-1300.

4) The Late Middle Ages, 1300-1450.

The first series of problems we will discuss are the main cognitive attitude, the main theological attitude 1 don't speak of systems, but of attitudes. There are three of them, and they were always present and influential.

1) Scholasticism: , the main and determinative cognitive attitude of the whole Middle Ages. It is the methodological explanation of Christian doctrine. It is derived from "school, of course, and means "school philosophy," philosophy as it was treated in the school. Today "school" has connotations of separation from life; "scholasticism" even more so. When we hear the word "scholasticism" we think of lifeless systems, (as thick as a horse is heavy, as was said of one of these Scholastics), and no one can read them, since they have nothing to do with reality. There was a distortion of Scholasticism in the late Middle Ages, but that Scholasticism really is the theological interpretation of all problems of life of these people. Therefore we have an extremely rich Scholastic literature, that has tremendously influenced the whole spiritual life of the Middle Ages.

But there was of course one limit to this. . . A Scholastic(education) ... was given only to a small upper class. All the Scholastic books were written in Latin, and although many more of the educated of that time knew Latin, the masses did not know it, nor could they even write or read. So the question was: how to bring the message discussed in these Scholastic systems to the people.

There were two ways: participation in the church services, the liturgies, pictures, the church (structures), hearing the music, and receiving other sense impressions which do not require much intellectual activity but which give the feeling of the numinous, and some kind of moral guidance. But this didn't mean that these objective things were really personal experiences. The second attitude therefore developed to introduce personal experience into the religious life, and this was what mysticism in the Middle Ages meant.

Now you are today misled by a Protestant theology which starts with Ritschl and is still alive in the Barthian theology, a misinterpretation of the meaning of mysticism. You are misled by people who immediately identify the word mysticism with either Asiatic mysticism of the Vedanta type, or with Neoplatonic mysticism of the Plotinus type. Now forget about this when you approach the Middle Ages. Every medieval Scholastic was a mystic at the same time I. e. , they experienced what they were talking about as personal experience. That was what mysticism originally meant in the Scholastic realm. There was no opposition between mysticism and Scholasticism. The Scholastic message "experienced" that was mysticism. The unity with the Divine in devotion and ascetic exercises and prayer and contemplation was the basis of the dogma. Now if you know this, then at least I hope you will not fall. into the trap of removing mysticism from Christianity, which practically means reducing it to an intellectualized faith and a moralized love. And that is what has happened since the Ritschlian school became predominant in Protestantism, and still is very important in many parts of this country. And don't fall into the trap that if you use the word mysticism, or read it, or hear it spoken, you immediately think of the pattern of absolute or abstract mysticism in which the individual disappears in the abyss of the Divine. Mysticism - - unio mystica , as even the Orthodox theologians of Protestantism called it is the immediate union with God in His presence. And even for the Orthodox people, this was the highest form of the relationship to God. In the Middle Ages, mysticism and Scholasticism belonged to each other.

3) The third attitude was biblicism. Biblicism is strong in the later Middle Ages and helps prepare the Reformation. But biblicism is not something exclusively Protestant. There were always biblicistic reactions in the whole Middle Ages. These reactions sometimes were very critical of the Scholastic systems, sometimes they ,were critical of mysticism usually they were united with mysticism, and often also with Scholasticism. They were attempts to use the Bible as the basis for a practical Christianity, especially a lay Christianity. They prepared also in this respect the Reformation: in the later Middle Ages biblicism was predominant and made it possible for many laymen even in that period to read the Bible, before the Reformation.

So we have these three attitudes: Scholasticism, mysticism, biblicism. They could be united in the same person, and were in most cases. They could come into some tension. And we shall see how, for instance, Scholasticism and mysticism came into tension in the fight between Bernard of Clairvaux and Abelard. That is possible. But neither of them prevailed. Both gave what they had to give to the medieval Church. And the biblicistic criticisms were simply (appropriated) as the biblical foundation of the Scholastic system and the mystical experiences.

This is the first group of considerations. The main point is: Take these things for what they really are: Scholasticism is the theology of that time; mysticism is the personal experiential piety of that time - -sometimes going to extremes; biblicism is the continuous critical reaction coming from the biblical tradition and entering the two other attitudes, finally overcoming both of them in the Reformation.

Now we come to something much more difficult, namely the scholastic method. All Scholasticism has one basic problem, namely that of authority and reason. This you must understand again. The first thing is to understand the word "authority." What is the medieval authority? The medieval authority is the substantial tradition on which medieval life is based. Authority is first of all the Church tradition, and then those places where this Church tradition is expressed: in the acknowledged Church Fathers, in the creeds, in the Bible, in the Councils. This is authority. Now if we hear of "authority" today, we always think of a tyrant be it the father, the king, the dictator, or sometimes even a teacher I think some teachers exist who are tyrannical, but very few, I suppose, who would dare. In any case this is what authority means for us. Now don't be betrayed when you go to medieval sources and read the word auctoritas , or "authority", and identify it even with the Pope at that time this is much later, toward the end of the Middle Ages. But in the earlier and High Middle Ages, authority is the living tradition. This is perhaps the way in which you can translate the word authority. So the question is: What is the relationship of reason to the living tradition of the Church in which everyone lives and there is no other tradition? This is the tradition which is as natural for us as he air we breathe. There are no places of the earth that have different kinds of air to breathe, and we can choose one or the other. We breathe the air, and if it is not polluted by human activities, it has everywhere the possibility of keeping us alive. This is an analogy you must understand if you want to understand what living tradition in the Middle Ages means.

But in contrast to my example, the tradition was composed of many elements. It happened that these elements didn't all say the same thing, if you inquired into them. In many cases you had to make decisions. The Middle Ages experienced that first of all in the realm of practical decisions, namely of canon law. The canon law is the basis anyhow of medieval life; the dogma is one of the canon laws this gives it its legal authority within the Church. In this sense, practical needs produced people who had to harmonize the different authorities on the meaning of the canon laws, as they appear in the many collections of c anon law. Here we have first the harmonizing method, the, method of harmonizing the authorities. One called this the method of yes and no, the dialectical method, which intends to harmonize.

Now we know what reason means in the Middle Ages: it is the tool for this purpose. Reason combines and harmonizes the sentences of the Fathers and the sentences of the Councils and their decisions first practically and then also in the theoretical realm of theological statements. Therefore the function of reason was to collect, to harmonize, and to comment on the given sentences of the Fathers. The man who did this more successfully was Peter the Lombard , whose sententiae , the sentences of the Fathers, was the handbook of all medieval Scholasticism; everyone commented on it when writing one's own system.

But another step was taken, namely, this tradition which is now harmonized in the "sentences" of Peter the Lombard, or some others, must be understood; they need commentary; they must be interpreted. The next function of reason was to interpret the meaning of the given tradition expressed in the sentences. This means that the contents of faith had to be interpreted, but faith is presupposed. Out of this situation came the slogan: credo ut intelligam, I believe in order to know. But this simply means: the substance is given; I am living, participating, in it; it is not that I exert a will-to-believe this is nonsense for the Middle Ages. The creed is given, like nature which is given. Natural science does not create nature; no natural scientist would tell you this. But he calculates the structures and the movements of the given nature. Similarly, reason has the function of interpreting the given tradition it doesn't create the tradition. If you keep strictly to these analogies, then you can understand the Middle Ages much better.

This was carried through in the next step, less speculatively, very cautiously, by that group of thinkers which took Aristotle into their theology, and formulate especially Thomas Aquinas the relation in such a way that they said: Reason is adequate to interpret authority; reason at no point is against authority, but you are able to interpret that which is given in the living tradition in rational terms, and you don't need to hurt or destroy reason in order to interpret the meaning of the living tradition. This is the Thomistic position even today.

But then the last step developed, namely, the separation of reason from authority. Duns Scotus, Occam the nominalist, asserted that reason is inadequate to the authority, the living tradition; reason is not able to express it. This was stated very sharply in later nominalism. But if reason is not able to interpret the tradition, then the tradition becomes authority in a quite different way. Now it becomes the commanding authority to which you have to subject yourselves even if you don't understand it. We call this positivism: the tradition is given, positivistic ally: there it is, you simply have to look, at it and accept it, subjecting yourselves to it; and it is given by the Church. Thinking never can show the meaning of the tradition; it can only show different possibilities which can be derived from the decisions of the Church and the living tradition. Reason can develop probabilities and improbabilities, but never realities. It cannot show how things should be. They are all dependent on the will of God. The will of God is irrational and is given. It is given in nature, so we must be empiricists in order to find out how the natural laws are. We are not in the center of nature. They are in the Church orders, in the canon law, so we must subject ourselves to these decisions, positivistically; we must take them as positive laws; we cannot understand them in rational terms.

Now this was the end of the Middle Ages. And these different steps in the relationship of reason and authority, or reason and living tradition, must be kept in mind when coming to the last step, where Scholasticism dissolved itself. I repeat these steps:

1) Collecting and harmonizing the different expressions of the tradition called authority .

2) The commenting upon them, making them un-understandable in a quasi-systematic way.

3) To-speculate about them, but on the basis of faith (Anselm).

4) To say cautiously: you cannot really produce them, but they are adequate to reason.

5) They are inadequate to reason and you cannot reach them at all with reason; you must subject yourselves to them as they are given by the authority of the Church.

This is the development in many steps, and if you take them all together and say the medieval Church was "authoritarian," you don't know what you are saying. These different steps must be distinguished.

In Protestantism both things came to an end, the Church authority and to some extent reason. Reason then elaborated itself completely and became creative in the Renaissance. In the Reformation, tradition was transformed into personal faith. But the Counter Reformation tried to keep reason in the bondage of the tradition, but now this tradition was not so much living tradition as formulated tradition, tradition which was identical with the authority of the Pope.

Now this is very important for our present situation. Keep this in mind. We all have to deal, even today, with the problem of living tradition. Living tradition is often confused with authority, but this confusion is wrong. Authority can be natural, factual authority, authority which is not created by a break in ourselves, by a break of our autonomy, and by a subjection to a foreign law ofheteronomy. This was the situation in the early Middle Ages. In this situation, authority was natural, so to speak, as our relation to nature is natural.. But at the end of the Middle Ages the situation was changed. And then that concept of authority arose against which we must fight which is embodied in the preservation of one tradition against other traditions by subjection to one. The dictators today go even beyond this. They exclude the other tradition. The so-called "iron curtains" which we now build to a certain extent by not admitting books from the East, etc., are attempts to keep the people in a definite tradition and prevent it from touching other traditions, because every authoritarian system knows that nothing is more dangerous for a given tradition then the contact with other traditions, which puts the individual into the point of decision between the traditions, and this they want to avoid. Therefore the iron-curtain methods, which were not necessary in the early Middle Ages because there was no other tradition and one lived in this tradition as naturally as we live in nature.

Viewed 363462 times.