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 29: Pre-Reformers, the Counter-Reformation. Council of Trent.


We discussed yesterday the movements which somehow prepare the Reformation, I gave you some ideas about the meaning of nominalism, some ideas about the meaning of German mysticism, and now I want to come to some people who often are called by the questionable term

The Pre-Reformers.

The whole period before the Reformation is quite different from the period of the high Middle Ages. It is a period in which the lay principle becomes important and in which biblicism prevails over the Church tradition, An expression - -and perhaps the most important expression of this situation is the Englishman Wyclif. It is not the Reformation that he represents, but he has a large amount of ideas which the Reformers have themselves used, and it has certainly prepared the soil for the Reformation in England. What is lacking in all the pre-Reformers is the one fundamental principle of the Reformation, the breakthrough of Luther to the experience of being accepted in spite of being unacceptable, called by him, in Pauline terms, justification through faith by grace. This principle does not appear before Luther. Almost everything else does appear in the so-called pre-Reformers. Therefore if we call them "pre-Reformers," we mean many of the critical ideas against the Roman church, almost all of them which were later used by the Reformation. If we say one shouldn't call them "pre-Reformers," then we mean the main principle of the Reformation, the new relationship to God, appeared only in the real breakthrough of the Reformation. So we must be clear, when we use such a word, as to what we mean, either the one or the other

Wyclif is dependent on Augustine and on a man in England who represents an Augustinian reaction against the Pelagian invasions which are connected with nominalism. This man was Thomas of Bradwardine an important link from Augustine to the English Reformation. The title of his book is characteristic, "De Causa Dei contra Pelagium." the cause of God against Pelagius . not Pelagius as the enemy of Augustine, but Pelagius in the nominalistic theology and in the practice of the Church. Against this he followed Augustine and Thomas Aquinas with respect to the doctrine of predestination. He says: "Everything that happens, happens by necessity. God necessitates whatever act is done, Every act or creature which is morally evil is an evil only accidentally." Now this means God is the essential cause of everything, but evil cannot be derived from Him. From this follows, also for Augustine, that the Church is the congregation of the predestined. It is not the hierarchical institution of salvation: . This true Church is in opposition to the mixed and hierarchical Church which is now living and is a distortion of the true Church, and nothing other than a distortion. The basic law of the Church is not the law of the Pope, but is the law of the Bible, and this is the law of God, or the law of Christ. All this was not meant to be anti-Catholic. Neither Bradwardine nor Wyclif thought of leaving the Roman church.

There was only one Church, and even Luther needed much time before he separated himself. This was not the idea. But there were dangers for the Roman church in the Augustinian principles. And therefore, as you remember, the semi-Pelagian and crypto-semi-Pelagian movements after Augustine, removed the dangers of Augustinianism from the Roman church. Here these dangers appear again under the name of Augustine, taken up by Thomas of Bradwardine, and by Wyclif. If predestination is applied, then that means that many people are not predestined for instance, many of the hierarchs and this gives the basis for finding symptoms in the hierarchy which show that they are not predestined. These symptoms are found by the application of the law of Christ, which is, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, or the sending of the disciples all kinds of laws and ideas which are dangerous in an organized hierarchical church. From the criticism of the hierarchy, Wyclif revises the doctrines of the Church and its relationship to the state. This also has a long tradition. In England there was, since the 12th century, a movement represented in the name of the so-called Anonymous of York, a man who wrote for the king, making the king the Christ for the British nation. There was an anti-Roman tendency towards a British territorial church, similar to the Byzantine situation, where the king and the highest bishop of the English church are not identical but are at least spiritually the same thing. The king is the Christ, he is in hymns and in pictures depicted as the Christ, namely the Christ for the nation, as Constantine in Byzantium as the Christ for the whole Eastern church. Now these analogies are preparations for the revolt of the crown of England against the Pope. This revolt did not yet happen, but it was prepared.

Wyclif posed two forms of human domination, the natural or evangelical domination, which is the law of love; and the civil domination, which is a product of sin and a means of force for the sake of the bodily and spiritual goods. So we have on the one hand the natural law, which according to classical tradition is always the law of love, and all that it includes. This is the law which should rule. And then there is unfortunately also needed the civil domination, which is necessary because of sin, which uses force and compulsion as inescapable means in order to maintain the goods of the nation, bodily and spiritually. The first law, the law of love, is sufficient for the government of the Church, since the Church is the body of the predestined; there, force is not needed. Its content is the rule which Jesus had given, namely the rule of serving, And sometimes when I hear how, in Rotary clubs and other institutions in this country, service is the ultimate principle which actually means the most ruthless business competition, but which is called "service" then I feel that even in such deviations from the law of love, a reverence is still made to the law of love in such a kind of phraseology. And we shouldn't underestimate this. It is always good if the wise bows to virtue by dissimulating that it is wise. And this is somehow present in such a terminology.

In any case, for Wyclif the law of Christ is the law of love, which expresses itself in service. From this follows, for him, that the Church must be poor; it must not be the economically and politically ruling Church, but it must be the Church which is poor, the Church as it was anticipated by the radical Franciscans and originally by Joachim di Fiore, whose effect becomes visible here again.

But now the whole of the Church is not holy. And so a mixed domination occurs and is something which is a consequence of sin. But for the actual Church, this actual element is determining. Therefore the wealth of ministers is inadequate. It is an abuse which must be removed and, if necessary, by the power of the kings. If the Church answers with excommunication, then no king should be afraid of this because it is impossible, he says, to excommunicate a man except he has firstly and basically excommunicated himself. And the self-excommunication of a Christian is his having cut the communion with Christ.

Therefore the hierarchy has lost its main power. It cannot decide any more about the salvation of the individual. And it can be criticized if it acts against the law of Christ, which is the law of poverty, the law of spiritual rule, From this follows, further, that dogmatically speaking there is no necessity to have a pope. This was also in the line of Joachim di Fiore. You remember that he speaks of the papa angelico, of the angelic pope, the pope who is really a spiritual principle. Wyclif also says we don't need a pope who dominates; if we have an angelic or spiritual principle, it is all right, but it is not necessary.

All this is in the line of the sectarian protest against the rich and powerful Church. But it remains mostly within the line of the official doctrine. It is not yet Reformation because it is still a matter of law. It is another law than the law of the Church, but it is a law which is still law and not Gospel.

But the basis of this attack was the law of Christ as given in the Bible. So he developed the authority of Scripture against that of tradition and against the symbolic interpretation of the Bible. He even comes to the point, also on Biblical grounds, that the predicatio verbi , the preaching of the word, is more important than all the ecclesiastical sacraments. Here another development was important which we find already in the Middle Ages by the transition from realism to nominalism, namely the predominance of the ear against the eye. In the early centuries of the Christian Church, in the development of religious art, in the development of the sacraments, the eye, the visual function of man, was predominant. Since the 13th century, since Duns Scotus, and then even more since Ockham, the ear, the hearing of the word, becomes important; not the seeing of the embodied reality of sacramental character, and therefore the seeing in terms of religious is the most important thing. All this is very slow and overlapping; the emphasis; there develops the emphasis on something quite different: the word. This is much older than the Reformation. It develops already in the 13th century, but comes to the foreground in nominalism. Why? Because realism ~sees the essences of things. "Idea" comes from idein seeing. Eidos, "idea," means the picture, the essence, of a thing, which we can see in every individual thing. Of course this is an intuitive spiritual seeing, but it is still seeing, and it is expressed in the great art. The great art shows the essences of things, visible to the eye. In nominalism we have individuals. How can they communicate? By words. It is the only way in which this can be done. Therefore if God has become the most individual being, as we have seen in Ockham (ens singularissimum), then we can get from Him not by a kind of intuition of His Divine essence, as expressed in all His creations, but by His word which He speaks to us. So the word becomes decisive against the visual function.

Now the importance of the word against the sacraments appears already in Wyclif. Again I must say: this is not yet Reformation, because the word is the word of the law: it is not yet the word of forgiveness. And this is always the difference between Reformation and pre-Reformation.

If there is a Pope, he must the spiritual leader of the true Church, which is the Church of the predestined; otherwise he is not really Pope, I. e., the Vicar of Christ, the Spiritual power from which all spiritual power is derived, but he is a man who falls into error. He is not able to give indulgences; only God is able to do so. Here you have the first statement against the indulgences, before Luther's 95 theses. On y God can give and can release what He has ordered. And if the Pope is not living in humility, in charity and in poverty, he is not the real Pope. Here you have again the angelic pope of the radical Franciscans and of Joachim di Fiore. When the Pope, however, receives the worldly dominion as he has done; the Constantinian gift was the great foundation of the political power of the Pope, which was a falsification historically, but which was a part of the political power of the Pope, that he was the prince of Rome at the same time in which he was the spiritual leader if the Pope accepts such a dominion, as he did, of course, then he is a permanent heretic. It is heretical for the Pope who is a Spiritual power to become a prince. And if he does this, he is the Antichrist. We know this word from the Reformation, and from the Bible. It is a term going all through Church history, used by sectarians who criticized the Church. They say: If the Pope represents Christ which is his claim but is the opposite of Christ, namely the ruler of this world, he is the Antichrist.

I spoke once with Visser 't Hooft , the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, in the period of Hitler in Holland, when it was conquered. He said: We Dutch people, and many other Christians, had the feeling Hitler might be the Antichrist because of all the anti-Divine things he did, in a really Satanic way. But then we looked and looked and finally realized: No; he is not good enough for this; the Antichrist must at least maintain something of the religious glory of the real Christ, so that it is possible to confuse them and to adore him. But he is too nothing for this. And then we knew the end of all times had not yet come, and Hitler is not the Antichrist.

Here you see it is not a dogma. Visser 't Hooft in these ideas was in the real tradition of the sectarian movements going through all Church history, when he had this feeling. This is a very interesting contribution to the understanding of the Church. If we call somebody the Antichrist today, it is usually simply understood as name-calling. You could also call him "swine," or something else nice! But that is not the case. :Swine" is not a dogmatic term. But "Antichrist" is. When Luther called the Pope "Antichrist," he did not want to attack the Pope in this way, except dogmatically; I. e., on the place where Christ is represented, everything is done which is against the Christ. And this is the whole tradition of the sectarian movements of the Church, and we have it also in Wyclif.

One of the criticisms which shows the Antichrist character of the Church is that they are big business. The banking house of the world was the Vatican, especially in the period in which Luther came, but long before also, The bishops were bankers, in a reduced way; but all this Wyclif insisted must be abolished. And even the monks, even the Franciscans in whose tradition he very much lives, have lost their ideal of poverty and have accommodated themselves to the general desire of the Church to be a rich Church.

But this criticism brought him to more radical consequences. He attacked transsubstantiation, saying that the body of Christ is, spatially speaking, in Heaven. He is actually, or virtualiter (I. e., with its power) in the bread, but not spatially. This of course is a complete contradiction to the idea of transsubstantiation. And now he realized that the Church rejected him, and since he knew that he was right, on Biblical grounds, in these criticisms, he realized that the official Church can err with respect to articles of faith. This was the great experience of Luther, that the Church rejected something which was a criticism of errors and which represented truth, From this follows that he is able to criticize any Church decision which is unbelievable, because the Bible is the real law of Christ. From there he criticized the number of the sacraments, special sacraments such

as marriage, etc; he criticized the character indelibilis , the idea in Catholicism that he who is baptized, confirmed, and ordained has a special character which he never can lose, even if he cannot exercise it. He even criticized the celibacy of the priests. He criticized the idea of the treasury of the saints, and the superstitious elements of the popular religion. The monks must be abolished because they produced separation between the one Church. And there should not be a division in the status, in principle; there should be a communis religio , a common religion, to which everybody belongs; and even what the Catholic church calls the monastic counsels is something which everybody shall fulfill for instance, the love of the enemies. In this way one can say: negatively Wyclif has almost anticipated all positions of the Reformers. He was supported by the king who was of course on his side, because the English crown was for a long time in national opposition against the influence of Rome on the affairs of the English nation, religiously and, indirectly, politically. He was attacked very much, but never hurt; he was protected. After his death his movement slowly ebbed away, but the seeds were in the soil and became fertile when the real Reformation broke through.

Now this shows you cannot reform the Roman church on the basis of sectarian criticism, even if this criticism is as radical as it was in Wyclif. You can reform only in the power of a new principle, the power of a new relationship to God. This is what the Reformers did.

Counter-Reformation; Roman Catholicism.

Now I am at the end of the pre-Reformers and should come to the Reformation. But before doing so, I will go to the Counter-Reformation development of the Roman church, from the Council of Trent up to the present day, in order to get: rid of this part which is so important for you that you must no, not :get rid," because it is one of the most important things we must learn: what is, really, the Roman Catholic church, with which we live on every place together? Do we really know what it is? You know much about the Reformation, and it is important that you learn about the history of the Church and also the history of the Roman church after the Reformation.

Through councils, there were many attempts in the Reformation period to overcome the splits. There were many councils the great one of Worms and Augsburg, in which the Reformation got its final formulation and its classical expression. But the demand for a general council never stopped and finally a council was called to the place which you call Trent Triente, in the southern slopes of the Alps, a very beautiful place. And there, for several decades, continuously interrupted, sessions took place from which the Reformers were actually excluded. So instead of becoming a universal council, it became a council of the Counter-Reformation.

Now the Counter-Reformation is reformation: it is not simply reaction. It is reformation insofar as the Roman church, after the Council of Trent, was not what it was before. It was a church determined by its self-reaffirmation against the great attack of the Reformation. And this is always something quite different. If something is attacked and reaffirms itself, it is not the same. One of the characteristics is that it has been narrowed down. Don't see the medieval Church in the light of present-day, post-Tridentine Catholicism. It is something quite different. The medieval Church was open, in every direction, and had for instance such tremendous contrasts as that of the Franciscans and Dominicans (Augustinians and Aristotelians); it had the tremendous contrasts of the realists and nominalists, of the Biblicists, and mystics, etc. All this was possible. Then in the Counter-Reformation, many possibilities which the Roman church had, were shut off completely forever. The Roman church now became the church of "counter" namely, the "counter" of reformation, as the Protestant church, the prophetic principle, became the principle of protest against Rome.

This is the unwholesome split of Christianity. The Reformation, instead of becoming the reformation of the whole Church, became the dogma of the protesting group,. the "Protestants," to which we belong. The non-protestants reformed themselves, but in terms of "counter," in terms of opposition to something, not in terms of immediate creativity. And this is also always the historical situation: if group has to resist, it narrows down. Now take simply the attack of Communism on the Western world, on this country, and the tremendous amount of narrowing down of the freedoms, for which this country stands, in the defense of these freedoms. It is exactly the same situation, and the situation which we always have in history. The Reformation itself was very wide open. Then in and against the Reformation, all kinds of attacks were made and the result was a very narrow Protestant Orthodoxy we call it here "fundamentalism" which was not the Reformation itself, but the narrowing down of the Reformation, in the resistance against external attacks. This leads me immediately to the first points of the Council of Trent. which is the basis for the development of the Roman church..

Council of Trent. The doctrine of the authorities in the Catholic Church.

1) The traditional holy Scriptures and the Apocrypha of the Old Testament are both Scriptures and of equal authority. Now Luther had removed the Apocrypha of the Old Testament from canonic validity. He would have liked to remove many more books from canonic validity, e. g., the Book of Esther, and things like that. But he was able to remove the Apocrypha the books which were not openly acknowledged, but "hidden." Why is this important? The important thing is that these Apocrypha have a very special character, the character of legalism. They are legalism in terms of proverbs, to a great extent. And this legalistic spirit entered for a long time the Roman church, and now was preserved in terms of the authority of the Apocryphal books. So we have two Bibles, the Roman and the Protestant, and they are not identical.

2) Scripture and tradition are equal in authority "with equal piety and reverence accepted," was the phrase. This was the form in which the Council of Trent negated the Scriptural principle. What the tradition is, was not defined. Actually the tradition became identical with the decisions of the Vatican from day to day. But it was not defined and the fact that it was open made it possible that the Pope used it, however he wanted to use it. Of course he could not want to use it absolutely willfully, because there was an actual tradition deposited in the Councils and former decisions, but the present decision is always decisive, and the present decision about what the tradition is, is in the hands of the Pope.

3) There is only one translation which has ultimate and unconditional authority: the Vulgate of St. Jerome. This was said against Erasmus, who had edited a text of the New Testament in terms of higher criticism. This was used by the Reformers. The Pope excluded this kind of higher criticism for dogmatic purposes by making the Vulgate the only sacred translation. This was the 3rd decision, and of equal importance.

4) This point is always decisive, when the principle of Biblicism prevails: Who interprets the Bible? Here the answer was unambiguous: The Holy Mother Church gives the interpretation of Scripture not, as in Protestantism, the theological faculties.

Now the difference is that the Pope is one, and his decision is final; the theological faculties, who were actually the leaders in the centuries of Orthodoxy, if they differed from each other, had no authority above them: there were many faculties. This of course made the. authority of the theological faculties ineffective in the long run.

Now this is the doctrine of authorities. You see, this doctrine alone is a restatement of everything against which the Reformers had fought. It makes the position of the Pope unimpeachable; he cannot be attacked or criticized, He is beyond any possibility of being undercut by a competing authority, even the Bible, because he has the sacred text, the Vulgate, and he alone has the interpretation of this sacred text, in ultimate decision.

5) This doctrine is decisive for the different interpretation of man: the doctrine of sin. Sin is a transformation of man into something worse in deterius commutatum commuted into something worse, or deteriorization. This is what the Council of Trent says against the Reformers who said that man has completely lost freedom, by his fall. His freedom and freedom does not mean psychological freedom, in any of these discussions; this, everybody accepts but the freedom to contribute to one's relationship to God: this freedom is completely lost. But for the Roman decision, it is not 1ost, it is not extinguished, but it is only weakened. The sins before baptism are forgiven in the act of baptism, but after baptism concupiscence remains. But this concupiscence shouldn't be called sin, according to the Roman church; while the Augustana (Augsberg Confession) says that sin is lack of faith, the Roman church says that although concupiscence comes from sin and inclines to sin, it is not sin itself. Now this means man is not completely corrupted, but even his natural drives are not sin. This is one important thing because that had the consequence that Catholicism perhaps except in this country, where it was from the beginning very much influenced by the general climate here in Europe, in any case, Catholicism is not puritan. Catholicism can be radically ascetic, in monastics, but it is not puritan ill the ordinary life. And when we from Protestant sections of north and eastern Germany came to Bavaria, we always had the feeling that we are now in a country which is gay, in comparison to the northern religious and moral climate, which had some similarity to American Puritanism. This is the difference in this doctrine. Concupiscence for the Reformers is sin in itself; for the Roman church it is not. Therefore it can admit many more liberties in the daily life, much more gaiety, many more expressions of the vital forces in man than Protestantism can.

On the other hand the doctrine of sin of the Reformers was based on the fact that sin is unbelief. Against this the Catholic church says: No, sin is neither unbelief not separation from God. Sin is acts against the law of God. This means the religious understanding of sin was covered, by the Council of Trent. And this of course, again, is a fundamental difference. From this point on, sin was understood in Roman churches as special sins, which can be forgiven in the act of confession and absolution, and most Catholics go and tell the priest some sins which they can remember they try hard to remember them; sometimes to forget them in any case, if they have confessed these sins, they are liberated from them, and this again contributes to the general mood, in originally Catholic countries, namely a much fuller affirmation of the vital element of life; while in Protestantism, sin is separation from God and "sins" are only secondary. Therefore something fundamental must happen. A complete conversion and transforming of being and reunion with

God is necessary. This gives a much deeper burden to every Protestant than any Catholic. But on the other hand, the Catholic of course is in principle legalistic and divides sin into "sins." And if Protestants do this, as they sometimes do, they follow the Catholic and not the Reformation line of thought.

Viewed 372005 times.