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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 30: Justification by Faith Alone. Sacraments. Papal Infallibility. Jansenism.


I started to show the development of the Roman church from the period of the Reformation to the present, and discussed the meaning of the term Counter-Reformation and its consequences. This was confirmed by the definite establishment of the authorities, to which I referred yesterday. Then we started discussing something of the doctrines, first, the doctrine of sin which was formulated and included another interpretation of human sin than that of the Reformers. Now I come to the central discussion between the Reformers and the Catholic church: the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone (sola fide), the formula given by the Reformers for polemic purposes, and which was the main point, of all the controversies in the Reformation period.

In the doctrine of justification, the Roman church in the Council of Trent repeats the Thomistic tradition, but with a diplomatic tendency. The Catholic church knew that this was, as the Reformers called it, the articulus stantis aut cadentis ecclesia , the article with which the church stands or falls. And since this was the main point of the Reformation opposition, it was a point where the Roman church felt it had to be as conciliatory as possible. It avoided some of the distortions of this doctrine in nominalism, and attacked by the Reformers in this form. But it remained clear and had to be, of course, from the point of view of the Roman church in the main statement, namely, that the remissio peccatorum , the forgiveness of sins, is not sola gratia, by grace alone. It adds other elements, It speaks of the preparation for the Divine act of justification whereby a gratia preveniens, a prevenient grace, is effective in man, but so that this prevenient grace can be rejected or accepted, whatever the man decides. So here is the first point, where man must cooperate with God in the prevenient grace. After justification is received by man, it is given to him in the degree of his cooperation. The more man cooperates with God in the prevenient grace, the higher is the grace of justification given to him.

Justification as a gift of God contains two things: faith on the one hand, and hope and love on the other hand. Faith alone is not sufficient. And according to the Council's decision, it is even possible that justification may be lost by a Christian through a mortal sin, but that faith remains. Now the Reformers would say: if you are in faith, you never can lose your justification. But the Roman church understood faith in its old tradition, namely. somehow an intellectual and a moral act. Of course, if faith is an intellectual act and a moral act it can be lost, and nevertheless justification can be there; but faith according to the Reformers is the act of accepting justification; and this cannot be lost if there shall be justification.

.Nothing has been more misunderstood in Protestant theology than the term sola fide by faith alone because this has been understood not only by the Romans but also by Protestants themselves as an intellectual act of man called "faith," which forces God to give His forgiveness. But sola fide means that in the moment in which our sins are forgiven, we can do nothing else than receive this forgiveness, and that is what sola fide means. Anything else would destroy the activity of God, His exclusive grace.

Now this central position of the Reformers, the doctrine of grace received only and therefore by faith alone was first misunderstood and then rejected. This means that from this moment on, the split of the Church was final. There was no reconciliation possible between these two forms of religion the one in which the act of our turning to God and receiving His grace is unambiguously a receptive act, in which God gives something to us and we don't do anything; and the Catholic doctrine that we must act and prepare for it, that we must cooperate with God, and that faith is an intellectual acknowledgment, which may or may not be there. All the anathemas given by the Council of Trent in this point are based on this misunderstanding of sola fide. The central position of the Reformers was rejected and condemned, in the Council of Trent.

The next point is the sacraments. While in the doctrine of justification, the fathers of Trent tried to have at least some approximation to the Protestant position, they didn't try that at all in the realm of the sacraments. Here caution was unnecessary because every caution would have undercut the very essence of the Roman church, namely, to be a church of the sacrament. So the Council of Trent says: "All true justice starts, and if it has started, is augmented, and if it has been lost, is restituted, by the sacraments." This is the function of the sacraments, I. e., it is the religious function altogether.

They didn't say much about the way in which the sacraments are effective; they didn't say very much about the personal side of him who receives the sacrament; but they formulated it in the following way: the sacraments are effective ex opere operato non ponentibus obigem , i. e., by their very operation for those who do not resist. -- If you do not put before the effectiveness of the sacraments in yourselves an impediment (obicem ), something which prevents them from being effective, then they are effective, however you may be subjectively, ex opere operato by their mere performance, by their very operation. Now this was another central point for the Reformers, that there cannot be a relationship to God except in the person-to~person relationship, in the actual encounter-with Him I. e. faith. And this is much more than non-resistance; it is an active turning towards God. Without this, the sacraments are not effective for Protestants. For Catholics they are.

With respect to the number of the sacraments, which was reduced by Luther and Calvin to two sacraments, all seven sacraments are instituted by Christ. And this is de fide, I. e, a matter of Catholic faith, which means no historical doubt as to whether they are really instituted by Christ or not is allowed any more If you read in a Catholic book the formulation of a dogma and then under this formulation the two words "de fide," then this means it is a matter of dogmatic statement of the Roman church which you cannot deny or doubt, except by risk of being cut off from the Roman church.

There is no salvation without sacraments. The sacraments are saving powers, and not only strengthening powers, as in Protestantism. They have a hidden force of their own and to all those who do not resist grace they give this force. Baptism, confirmation, and ordination are of indelible character this is against the Reformers, again. During your whole life you are baptised and this had great practical consequences in the Middle Ages, namely, you fall under the law against heresy. If you were not baptised, you would fall under the law which limits strange religions as that of the Jews and the Islamic people and other people, and you wouldn't be persecuted. But if you are baptised, you are a Christian and you can be persecuted by the law of heresy. Now here you see what such "indelible character" means. It is a life-and-death problem in the practice of the Roman church of that time. The same is true of the "indelible character" of ordination. It means that the excommunicated criminal priest, if he happens to marry somebody in prison which

happened often at that time then they are married: the sacramental power in him overcomes his criminal situation and even his being excommunicated as an individual. If he marries you in prison, though excommunicated he still has the indelible sacramental power, which is always there and never can be taken from him. Here again you have a strong practical consequence of this doctrine of the "indelible character."

Now this, of course, stands against the Protestant doctrine of the universal priesthood. Not every Christian has the power to preach and to administer the sacraments, but only those who are ordained, and being ordained means having received sacramental power.

This sacramental power is even embodied in the ritual form of the sacraments. If there is a given ritual formula, no priest, no bishop, can transform it, can omit something from it, can change it, without sinning. The sacramental power is communicated from its origin in the actuality of the Church to the forms which are used there is no arbitrariness possible.

Baptism is only valid in infant baptism... . . . The water of baptism washes away the contamination of original sin... But to have faith later during one's life, as Luther demanded, in the power of baptism as the Divine act which initiates all Christian being, is not sufficient for the forgiveness of sins, and this means baptism loses, religiously speaking, its actual power for the later life. It does mean anything any more except for the fact of the "character indelibilis. It is not a point to which one religiously returns"

The doctrine of transubstantiation is preserved, and where it is preserved you always find a clear test of it, namely, the demand to adore it besides its use. For Protestants, the bread is not the body of Christ, except in the act of performance. For Catholics the bread and wine are the body and the blood of Christ after they have been consecrated. So when you come into an empty Catholic church which you always do when you travel in European countries, because they are the greatest objects of interest in most of the small and big cities then you come into a sacred atmosphere, not into a house which is used on Sundays, and sometimes even on weekdays, but you come into a house in which always, for 24 hours, God Himself is present in the holiest of the holy, on the altar, in the shrine. And this transforms the whole mood which prevails in such a church. There are always lights and always people who go around; there is always God Himself in a defined, circumscript way present on the altar. I believe this is the reason why the attempt of some great Protestant churches, also in this city, to be open for prayer and meditation during the whole day, has a very limited effect, because nothing happens. But if you go into a Roman church, something has happened, the effects of which are still completely there namely, the presence of God Himself, of the body of Christ, on the altar.

On this basis, of course, the Roman church also preserved the Mass against the criticism of the Reformers, and not only the Mass for those who attend, not only the Mass for those who are living, but the Mass, I. e., the sacrifice of the body of Christ, also for those who are dead and in Purgatory. In all these respects, the Council of Trent gave practically no reform at all, nor did it give a better theological foundation. It simply consecrated and confirmed the tradition.

A little different was the attitude towards the sacrament of penance, /which another of the main attacks of Protestantism was directed. But the sacrament was, generally speaking, maintained as a sacrament, and even the weakest point of this sacrament, the doctrine of attrition or as Luther called it ironically, the repentance evoked by the gallows == even this kind of repentance by fear was accepted as a necessary preparation. Contrition, the real repentance, the real metanoia in the New Testament sense, is not sufficient. It is fulfilled only in connection with the sacrament and with the word of absolution. And this word does not just declare that God has forgiven, but it itself gives the forgiveness not that the priest gives the forgiveness, but through the priest, and only through the priest, does God give forgiveness. And Christians need not only the word of the ministers, the word of absolution, but they also need satisfactions, because the punishment is not removed with the guilt, and therefore so me punishments must be imposed on the people even after they have taken the sacrament these are the satisfactions, e.g., praying the "Our Father," a hundred times, or giving money, or making a pilgrimage, etc. And this was the point where the Reformers disagreed the most.

Marriage is maintained as a sacrament, although in contradiction to this preservation of virginity is valuated higher than marriage. And this is still the situation in the Roman church. In all this, something is fixed which before the Reformation still was in some kind of flux. Now it is fixed against the Reformation, and now the Roman church has lost its dynamic creativity; and you can feel this if you read systematic theologies in Catholic thinking, they deal with very secondary problems, because all the fundamental problems are solved.

The basic doctrine of all of them is the doctrine of ordination, because here the point is given in which all the others are united. The priest does what makes the Roman church Roman church: he exercises the sacramental power. Preaching is very secondary and often omitted. Sacrifice and priesthood are by Divine ordination sacrifice in the sense of sacrificing the body of Christ in the Mass. Both are implied in every ecclesiastical law. Both are presupposed, and this church of the sacramental sacrifice is the hierarchical church; and the hierarchical church is the church of the sacramental sacrifice. This is Rome. This is Catholicism, in the Roman sense.

Now these decisions decided about the split of Christianity/ Rome actually had accepted nothing, only external remedies against abuses. But many problems were left. The first was the problem of Pope against Councils. And it is the development between Trent and the Council of the Vatican in 1870 to which we must now go.

In Trent two opinions were fighting with each other. The first was that the Pope is the universal bishop, the Vicar of Christ universal bishop meaning that every episcopal power is derived from the power of the Pope, so that every bishop participates in the Pope and the Pope participates in him, because he is the Vicar of Christ. The other opinion was that the Pope is the first among equals, representing the unity and the order of the Church. This is the Conciliaristic point of view the Councils finally have the ultimate decision while the former is the Curialistic point of view: the Curia, the court of the Pope, is the central deciding power. This was the question. How was it decided? Not at all at Trent. It took a few more centuries. One of the presuppositions for this decision was that the historical development more and more destroyed those groups which were most dangerous for the Pope within the Roman church, namely the national churches. One of them was France, and the movement for an independent

French church called Gallicanism was a real threat to Rome. We have similar developments in Germany, in Austria, and in other places, where the national churches under the leadership of their bishops resisted many papal aspirations. The rulers had an alliance with the national bishops against the Pope. But this did not hold. It was undermined by the development itself. It could be destroyed, because the rulers, e. g., the leaders of the French revolution Napoleon, the German princes, used the Pope against their own ecclesiastical forces. Diplomacy always uses the one against the other and the other against the one. The national princes used their own bishops against the encroachments by the Pope, but they used the Pope against the power of their own bishops, if necessary.

Now the result of these oscillations was that finally the Pope prevailed by far. The result was the Vatican decision of 1870, the statement of the infallibility of the Pope.

This decision has many presuppositions. First it was necessary to give to the term "tradition" a definite sense. One now distinguished between ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition. The apostolic tradition is the old traditions which came into the Church through ways which are not given in the Bible. But the ecclesiastical tradition is the tradition about which the Pope has to decide, whenever it appears in Church history. This was the situation; the ecclesiastical tradition, which was the only living tradition, was identical with the papal decisions. This is the positive statement.

And now its negative side: The Jesuits more and more undercut all other authorities. In contrast to Thomas Aquinas they undercut conscience and made themselves the leaders of the consciences of the princes, and of the other people too, But their important role was that in this period of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, where the Jesuit order was born in Spain, most of the deciding political personalities had Jesuitic advisors around themselves who were leaders of their consciences. Now if you guide, the conscience of a prince, you can apply this guidance to all political decisions because in all of them some moral elements are included. And that is what the Jesuits did. They turned the consciences of the Catholic princes towards all the cruelties of the Counter-Reformation. So the conscience was no authority any more.

Also the authority of the bishops was undercut by the Jesuits. The episcopalian primacy in the Councils was undercut by Jesuitic interpretation. The Councils themselves and their decisions have to be confirmed by the Pope. This was the complete victory of the :Rope over the Councils. This was done in Trent. The Pope was accepted by the majority of the bishops in Trent as he who has to confirm the Council of Trent. This means that no council can have validity ever since, which is not confirmed by the Pope. Therefore the Pope is beyond criticism.

Even the Church Fathers are undercut by the Jesuits. The Jesuits were especially anti-Augustinian. There is only one Father of the Church, namely the living Pope. All earlier Church Fathers are full of heretic statements, of errors, even of falsifications. The Jesuits, as you see from this, were very modern people. They knew about the historical problems and used them in order to undermine the authority of the Church Fathers. The Protestant historiography did the same thing, in order to make possible the prophetic authority of the Reformers. So the criticism was made by both: by the Jesuits in order to give absolute power by the Pope; and by the Protestants in order to liberalize the authority of the Bible.

The constitution of 1870: "Pastor Eternus" If you read a papal bull, you will always find two or three words at the beginning which serve also as the title of the bull e. g. , "Una Sancta," etc. This means the first words of the text are put into the title. Pastor eternus has a very full sound the eternal shepherd and immediately implies the feeling for the eternal function of the earthly shepherd. First pp the Pope is declared as the universal power of jurisdiction over every power of the Church. There is no legal body which is not subjected to the Pope. Secondly he is declared universal bishop. This means, practically, that he has power over every Catholic of New York, through the bishop of New York; but if this doesn't work, he can have episcopal power directly and can revolutionize the subjects of the other bishops against their bishops, if he likes to. Thirdly, the Pope is infallible if he speaks ex cathedra. This of course is the most conspicuous decision of the Vatican Council and a decision which has even separated some of the Catholics who, as they called themselves, became "Old Catholics," but they remained a very small group in Western Germany, and never took over the Roman church. On the contrary. Your generation has experienced, in the year 1950, the first cathedra decision since 1870, and therefore a decision which is de fide, namely, a decision about the bodily ascension of the Virgin Mary. Now here you see how things go the Pope has asked most of the bishops before he made this decision. The majority was on his side; a minority was not. The Pope asked about the tradition - the tradition is more than a thousand years old; we have pictures in many periods of Church history about Mary elevated to Heaven and crowned by Christ, or received by God. But now the question was: Is this a pious opinion in the Church which is tolerated, and even further? or is it a matter de fide? As long as it is a pious opinion, every Catholic can disagree with it, without losing the salvation of his soul. In the moment in which it is declared de fide, as it was done in the year 1950 by the Pope, in this moment every Catholic is bound to accept it as truth, and nothing can relieve him from this necessity. Many Catholics were deeply shaken about this, but they subjected themselves.

So infallibility does not mean that there exists a man who in whatever he talks is infallible; since the decision 80 years ago, no pope did anything which is infallible, in the strict sense; but then he did something. And as I heard yesterday, when President Shuster of Hunter College (who is a Catholic) spoke at our faculty luncheon, he was (recently) the governor of Bavaria, the most Catholic part of Germany, and he was also in connection with Rhineland Catholicism. He said there was a very hopeful development of cooperation between Protestants and Catholics. But in the moment in which this doctrine was proclaimed, cooperation almost ceased. Now he hopes that it will return again, but this showed to the Protestant and to the secular world to all of us that these dogmas about the infallibility of the Pope are taken absolutely seriously, without restriction. We should have known this always. Now we are reminded of it again. And this means there is no approach, from a Protestant or humanist point of view, to this doctrine and its implications.

This was finally confirmed in the fourth important point: The Pope is irreformable, by any action of the church. You must compare this with the impeachment procedures ,which in America is possible against any president; they are very rare, but they have happened and can happen again. They happened, of course, against the pope in the Middle Ages, and some popes were dispossessed, removed, and others put in their place. All this came to an end in 1870, because there is no power which can remove a pope. The pope is in this sense absolute and irremovable. No impeachment is possible. In this way, implicitly every dogma formulated by the pope is valid. This means that, for instance, one doctrine which was formulated before 1870 the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary the Virgin, in the birth of Christ, which the Franciscans wanted to have all the time was now de fide, while before that the Dominicans, who were against it, still could say that it is not a valid dogma. Now it is a valid dogma because of the implication that the pope has accepted it ex cathedra.

There was a last strong movement in the Roman church back to the original Augustinianism of the church. This movement is called according to a man named Jansen, Jansenism. The Jesuit Molina wrote against the Thomistic Dominicans who teach, as you remember, the doctrine of predestination. The Jesuits were against this doctrine and they fought for human freedom. The doctrine of predestination, although it is a strong Augustinian doctrine, was revoked. But now Jansen and the Jansenists he most important of them is Pascal arose and fought against the Jesuits. But the Jesuits prevailed, The popes followed them. The Jesuit was the modern man, in the Roman church disciplined; very similar to totalitarian forms of subjection as we experience them today; completely devoted to the power of the church; and at the same time nourished with much intellectual education and modern ideas, deciding for freedom and reason.

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