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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 21: Medieval Period: Nominalism, Realism, Monasticism, Crusades.


Our subject has been the general trends in the Middle Ages. We discussed the main periods, attitudes of thought, and the development of the Scholastic method in its different steps. We now come to different trends in scholasticism itself.

The first form in which autonomous thinking arose in the Middle Ages was dialectics. This word is very hard to use today, having innumerable meanings, the original meaning having been lost. The original meaning is the Greek word "conversation," talking to each other about a problem, going through "yes" and "no," one representing the "yes" and the other the "no" or vice versa. I told you yesterday already that the jurists, those who represented the canon law, had to harmonize for practical reasons the different authorities, Councils, theologians, about practical problems of the organization of the Church. Out of this need arose the method of "dialectics," of yes and no. They were applied to the theological problems themselves. But yes and no is always something about which the guardians of traditions are afraid, because once a "no" is admitted, one does not know where it leads to. This is so today, when you think of our Fundamentalists, our traditionalists, of any kind, and this was so in the early Middle Ages.

Certainly the early Middle Ages were not able to stand much no's, in view of the primitive peoples to which they had to speak, and in view of the fact that they were the only reality in which mankind lived at that time, and in view of the fact that everything was a process of transformation and consolidation. So against the dialectics, the pious traditionalist arose 1 think here especially of the dialectic of Abelard, and the representative of the pious traditionalists is Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard prevailed over against Abelard in terms of synodal decisions, but Abelard prevailed insofar as his method became the general method of Scholastic thinking.

The question was: Can dialectics produce something new in theology, or is dialectics to be used only for the sake of explaining the given, namely the tradition and the authorities? .

This was the first conflicting couple of trends. The next goes deeper into the Scholastic development itself. I referred to it already when speaking about Augustine, that one man is missing in Augustine's development, namely Aristotle, and that this had consequences in the High Middle Ages when the Augustinians came into conflict or at least into contrast - -with the newly arising Aristotelians. The Augustinians were represented by the Franciscan order, therefore they are often called the Franciscan group; the Aristotelians were represented by the Dominican order, therefore it is often called Dominican theology. Augustinians against Aristotelians: or Franciscans against Dominicans. One of the heads of the Franciscan order was Bonaventura, a cardinal of the Church, opposing Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian.

This means we have a development of one of the fundamental problems of the philosophy of religion when Augustine and Aristotle since Augustine is somehow Neoplatonic when Plato and Aristotle met again and continued their eternal conversation, which will never cease in the history of human thought because they represent points of view which are always valid and which are always in conflict with each other. If you want the more mystical point of view, (cf.) in Plato, Augustine, Bonaventura, the Franciscans; and the more rational, empirical point of view, in the line from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas. This was perhaps the most important couple of trends in the Middle Ages, from the point of view of the foundation of religion and theology. Almost all the problems of our present day philosophy of religion were discussed in this light, which was especially strong in the 13th century, developing in all methods.

A third contrast or conflict was between Thomism and Scotism (Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus 13th century). In some way this is a continuation of the other struggle, since Duns Scotus was a Franciscan and Thomas a Dominican. But it was not the old problem, it was another new and very important problem, also decisive for the whole modern world namely, the fight between intellect and will as ultimate principles. For the Dominicans, for Thomism, for the Aristotelian rationality which Thomas introduced into the Church, the intellect is the predominant power; man is man qua intellect. For the Augustinian line, which leads to Duns Scotus, will is the predominant power which makes man man, and God God. God is first of all will, and only on a second level, intellect. Man is first of all will this is the center of his personality and only on a second level, intellect. The world is first created by will and therefore irrational and to be taken empirically, and only on the second level, intellectually ordered; but this order is never final and cannot be taken in by us in deductive terms. So we have another form of conflicting, going on all the time also, going on also through the modern world where people like Bergson can be confronted with a man, for example, like Professor (Brand) Blanshard of Yale who fight with each other, in terms of will and intellect. This is the third of the conflicts going through all the Middle Ages, on which all of us are dependent whether we know it or not, if we start thinking.

The fourth of the conflicting trends is Nominalism against the so-called Realism. Now in order to make this very powerful conflict understandable, we must understand the word "realism." If you understand what realism was in the Middle Ages, then simply translate it by "idealism": it was what we call idealism, if idealism is not meant in a moral sense or a special epistemological sense, but if it means that the ideas, the essences, the ousia's of things have reality and power of being. Medieval realism is almost 180 degrees the opposite of what we call realism today, and realism today is almost identical with what the medieval people called nominalism. Now this is very confusing, but you as people who have to learn these things should at least be able to understand this confusion.

The reason for it is the following: For medieval man, the universals, the essences, the nature of things, the nature of truth, the nature of man, are powers which determine what every individual tree or every individual man always will become when he or it develops. This is, if you want, mystical realism or, if you want, idealism. Universalia realia this is medieval realism. They are not, of course, things in time and space; that is a misunderstanding, and then it is a little too easy to reject them and say, "I have never seen "manhood," I have only seen "Paul" and "Peter". Of course this is a wisdom the medieval people, also, knew. But they said all Pauls and Peters always have a nose and eyes and feet and language this is a phenomenon which must be understood, and it can be understood only if it is understood in terms of the universal, the power of being which we call manhood, and which makes it possible for every man again to become a man, with all these potentialities which may not develop, which may be destroyed; but he has these potentialities. That is what realism means.

Nominalism is the opposite position which says: only. Peter and Paul, only this tree, at Riverside Drive, at the corner of 116th (the big one there!): that alone exists, and not "treehood," not the power of treehood, which makes it become one and which makes all the small ones develop if the boys don't destroy them! Here you have an example of the difference in feeling. If you look at a tree, you can feel nominalistically and say, "This is a real thing; if I run against it, I will hurt my head." But you also can look at it and can be astonished, that of all the tree-seeds thrown into the soil, always this structure, shooting up and spreading its branches, etc., develops. And if you do this, then you can see in this big tree "treehood," and not just a big tree. And in Peter and Paul, you can see not only these particular individuals, but also the nature of man, manhood, as a power which makes it possible that all men have this character. The importance of this discussion, which went on in logical terms and is still going on all the time there's almost

no day in which I do not have a fight against nominalism on the basis of my comparatively medieval realistic kind of thinking, which thinks that being is power-of-being. That is a sin against the "holy spirit" of nominalism, and therefore very much against the "unholy" spirit of logical positivism and many other such spirits. But I fight this fight because I believe that although extreme realism is wrong namely that realism against which Aristotle was fighting in Plato, that the universals are special things somewhere in heaven of course this has to be denied -- there are structures which actualize themselves again and again against all attempts of boys and stones and climate to make something else of them. They are always carried through. This is what I mean with "realism'"and so I can say, of being always resists non-being. And for this reason I believe that we cannot be nominalists alone, although the nominalist attitude, the attitude of humility towards reality, of not desiring to deduct reality, is something which we must maintain.

The immediate importance of nominalism was that it disrupted the universals, which were not only understood in terms of abstract concepts but which were also understood in terms of embracing groups for instance, family, state, a group of friends, of craftsmen where it is always the group which precedes the individual. Now this was also the danger of medieval realism, that the individual was prevented from developing himself in his potentialities. Therefore nominalism was an important reaction, so important that I would say that without the nominalistic reaction the estimation of the personality in the modern world, (this real basis of democracy), couldn't have developed. And while I usually make scolding remarks against our being nominalists, I now praise it, saying that without the emphasis on the fully developed individual and his potentialities we would have become Asiatics, as we are now in danger of becoming. And in this danger, medieval nominalism must be understood as positively as medieval realism. Medieval realism maintains the powers of being which transcend the individual; medieval nominalism preserves, or emphasizes, the valuation of the individual. The fact that the radical realism of the early Middle Ages was rejected has saved Europe from Asiatization, namely from collectivization. The fact that at the end of the Middle Ages all universals were lost has produced the imposition of the power of the church on individuals, making God Himself into an individual who, as a tyrant, gives laws to other individuals. This was the distortion which nominalism brought with itself, while the affirmation of the personal was its creativity.

So when you hear about nominalism and realism, and read about it in textbooks of logic, don't be betrayed into the belief that this is in itself a basically logical problem. It is logical, it must be discussed in terms of the science of logic, too, but it is in terms of the attitude towards reality as a whole which expresses itself also in the logical realm.

The fifth and last of these trends, partly connected with realism in the Middle Ages, is, Pantheism tendencies toward the complete extinction of the individual. This was done in different ways in what is called Averroism (cf. Averroes, the greatest of the Arabian philosophers, who said that the universal mind which produces culture is a reality in which the individual. mind participates. But the individual mind is nothing independent. What is to be seen here is that it was just in the same line of Asiatization. And he was rejected. Another way in which pantheistic elements were brought down was, German mysticism of the type of Meister Eckhardt, which in itself could dissolve all the concreteness of medieval piety, and which has led to the philosophy of the Renaissance. But the Church rejected it, in the name of the individual authoritarian God.

Thus the trends:

Dialectics against traditionalists.

Augustinians against Aristotelians or Franciscans against Dominicans.

Thomism against Scotism -- about the will.

Nominalism against mystical realism.

Pantheism against the Church doctrine, in its concreteness.

This alone should show you that the Middle Ages are not monolithic, although they had a definite authority; that they are very rich and varied, and have many tensions and problems. We cannot sweep them with the statement that they are the "dark ages," since all their problems are present even now.

The Religious Forces

The next consideration is about the religious forces. Which are the religious forces in the Middle Ages? First the hierarchy: it is the greatest and most fundamental of the religious forces. They represent the sacramental reality on which the existence of Church, state, and culture as a whole depend. They administer the central event in which this happens, namely the Mass.

Then, the hierarchy carrying through the educational work towards the Germanic-Romanic tribes, (from which barbaric state) They, the tribes, entered the Church and ancient civilization. In doing so they tried not only to influence the individual, through the sacrament of penance which is the correlate to the sacrament of the Mass (the Mass is merely objective, penance merely subjective) but beyond this they tried to influence the social status of reality; they wanted to control the world. The civil powers arose not the "state?: this is a nonsensical term for the Middle Ages, but the different secular hierarchies, up to the emperor at the top of all of them, and this meant they had to come to a fight with the emperor, who aspired to do the same thing from the secular point of view which the Church tried to do from the religious, namely to establish one body of Christian secular life, a life which is always at the same time secular and religious, instead of establishing two realms and separating them, as we do.

This is the hierarchy, and is the first and basic and continuous religious force. But of course by these functions the hierarchy was always in danger of becoming secularized itself. So we must look at other religious forces, resisting this tendency. Here we have, first, monasticism, the second religious force. It represents the uncompromising negation of the world, but this negation was not a quietistic negation: it was a negation connected with activity towards transforming the world, in labor, in science, in all other forms of culture, e. g., esthetic culture, church-building and forming, poetry, music, etc. It was a very interesting creation and has very little to do with the deteriorized monasticism against which the Reformers and the Humanists were fighting. It was the radicalism, on the one hand, of resignation from the world, leaving the control of the world to the clergy, to the secular hierarchy, as it is sometimes called. But they themselves restricted themselves from all this, but then at the same time they didn't fall into a mystical form of asceticism alone,(or a ritual alone as the Eastern church was in danger of becoming), but they applied their status to the transformation of reality. The monks produced the great medieval esthetic culture, and even today some of the monastic orders represent the highest form of culture in the Catholic church, especially the Benedictines, who have preserved this tradition until today. Then there were the real bearers of theological science, and somehow of all science. The Franciscans and Dominicans, especially the latter, produced the greatest theologians. Then there were others who did agricultural work, work of irrigation, drying swamps, and all the things necessary in the newly conquered countries where conversions had been made, in central and northern Europe So as monastics they had the intensity of resignation and at the same time the power of controlling and transforming. They were, as we would say today, the active, ascetic vanguard of the Church. They were free to perform cultural activities and at the same time were bound to the fundamentals of the Church. Later on, similar things developed, namely attempts to bring this monastic spirit more into groups other than the monks themselves. I can mention two groups the knights and the knight orders who were fighting against the pagans and conquering eastern Germany; and if you want a sweeping historical statement, these knight orders who fought a thousand years ago for a Christianization and at the same time Germanization of the East of Europe, as far as possible, have now been conquered, in this 20th century, with the help of the Christian nations of the West, namely the Slavic groups have retaken what was taken away from them by the knight orders of the Middle Ages, and Christianity was suppressed for the sake of the Communist form of a non-Christian secularism. It was a great world-historical event (as great as the battles of the knights in the Middle Ages) when in the20th century, especially in the conference of Berlin in 1945, Eastern Europe was surrendered and the Germanic population which lived there for a thousand years was thrown out.

Now if you see the situation in this perspective, then you also see a little of the importance of these medieval orders.

Related to them are the Crusades and the spirit of the crusaders. It was also an introduction of the monastic spirit into the lower aristocracy, and the effect was that they were to conquer for a certain time at least -- Palestine and the eastern Byzantine Empire. But they also finally were repelled.

3) This is monasticism. Now I come to Sectarianism. Sectarianism should not be understood so much from the dogmatic point of view, as one usually does of course sometimes they have crazy speciality with respect to doctrine, and leave the Church for this reason; but never believe them: that is not the real reason. The reason is psychological and sociological much more than theological. Sectarianism is the criticism of the Church for the gap between its claim and its reality. And it is the desire of special groups to represent groups of consecration, of sanctification, of holiness. It is an attempt. to carry through some of the monastic radicalism - not all of it, not the ascetic elements, often radically or moderately, as the case may be, but in terms which are anti-hierarchical.

Now this leads immediately to the fourth group, the Lay Movements. In some way the sectarian movements are lay movements. But as the word secta means, they "cut" themselves off from the body of the church. There were other way to introduce monastic ideals partly into secular life, namely the so-called tertiarii , the "third orders." There was a "first order" of St. Francis (the men's order); their second order was the women's order (the nuns); and later on a third order was created (the laymen, who did not enter the cloister nor were they celibate, but they subjected themselves partly to the discipline of the monastic orders, and as such produced a kind of lay piety which towards the end of the Middle Ages became stronger and stronger and prepared the Reformation, which in some way is a lay movement.

5) The fifth movement which I must mention as a bearer of medieval piety is the

Great individuals of Church history. But they are not great individuals as the Renaissance has introduced them. They are great individuals as representatives of something objective, namely of the"holy legend."

The holy legend starts with the Bible, goes through all centuries. ,

"Legend" does not simply mean "unhistorical" it is a mixture of history and interpretation and stories connected with it, and hanging usually on great individuals who themselves never had any connection with these stories, but they are representatives: so legendary history is a history of representatives of the spirit of the Church. That's a, very important thing this meant that the Catholic Christian of the Middle Ages was aware of a continuation from the Biblical times and even the Old Testament period and even before that, going back to Adam and Noah, through all history, always represented by great individuals who are not interesting as individuals but as representatives of the tradition and the spirit in which the people lived. This seems to me more important than the superstitious use of these individuals as objects of prayer, if they had become saints. The holy legend was a reality which, like nature, was something in which one lived. It is a reality in which the living tradition expresses itself symbolically. And those of you who have some interest in religious art will see that up to Giotto, the great figures of medieval art are not so much individuals but representatives of the Divine presence in a special event or a special form and character.

3) The sixth of the religious forces: the popular and superstitious forms of daily piety.

These forms are, if we call "superstitious" everything in which a finite reality identifies itself with the Divine. And such superstitions permeate the whole Middle Ages. One of them was the relics of the saints, or from Christ's life. Another was the ever-repeated miracles. Another was the kinds of holy objects, which were not used as pointers to, but as powers of, the Divine in themselves.

But this had also the positive element that it consecrated the daily life. Now let me give you this in a picture. You come into a medieval town you have not this occasion; but if you ever have it abroad, e. g., take the most accessible town, the town of Chartres. It is not only its cathedral which is important, which you must look at to understand the Middle-Ages, but also the way in which the cathedral stands, on the hill in the middle of the small town. It is a tremendous cathedral, overreaching the whole surrounding country. If you go into it, you find symbols of the daily life in the Church the nobility, the craftsmen, the guilds, the different supporters of the Church - the whole daily life is within the walls of the cathedral, in a consecrated form. If you go into it, you have your daily represented in the sphere of the holy. If you go out of it, you take with you the consecration you have received in the cathedral, and take it with you into your daily lives. Now of course this is the positive side of it. The negative side is that this express itself, then, in the superstitious forms of poor pictures and sculptures and relics and the looking for new miracles, all forms of holy objects, etc.

7) The seventh and last: This also is of great importance: the experience of the demonic in the daily life of medieval man. This was something which with a kind of thrill one hears about in lectures on systematic theology here, from 9 to 10, or reads in some books of theologians not earlier than 1930 but it is something which was a reality of the daily life for these people. The vertical line which leads to the Divine also leads down to the demonic. And the demonic is a power which is present in the cathedral as conquered. The so-called exorcism, the driving out of the demonic, belongs to the daily practices in the cathedral. If you enter it, you spread yourself with holy water, which means that you have to purify yourself from the demonic forces which you bring with you from the daily life. Baptism is first of all exorcism of the demonic forces,,before the forgiveness of sins is possible. Demonic figures are seen supporting the weight of the churches - -which is perhaps the greatest symbol, namely, the power of the Divine which conquers the power of the demonic within the daily life. And then towards the end of the Middle Ages, when the Renaissance brought into it all the demonic symbolism and reality of the later ancient world, the demonic prevailed over against the Divine in terms of anxiety. And the Church of this period lived in a permanent anxiety about the presence of the demonic within themselves or within others. And this is the background of the witch trials and partly of the persecution of heresies. It is the basis for a demonic persecution of the demonic we cannot describe these witch trials differently. It is the feeling for an under-ground in life, which is overcome, which can break in every moment and broke out in many individuals in terms of neurotic anxiety. The churches were first able to conquer it and at the end of the Middle Ages they were not able any more, and so they started the great persecutions, which were more cruel and more bloody than the persecutions even of the heretics. But as every persecution - those of the heretics and those of the sorcerers it was the fear, the tremendous anxiety about non-being in terms of demonic symbols, which was behind this hostile attitude towards oneself and others, if one felt that there the demonic was present.

Now this is a survey of the religious forces of the Middle Ages. Of course, not everything is in it. We will return to it, partly. But if you have these seven religious forces in mind, you will know more than if you had 200 names of mediaeval theologians and saints.

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