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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 31: The Reformation: Luther and Catholicism


I started yesterday to speak about one movement which, in opposition to the Counter-Reformation Catholicism, tries to return to the genuine Augustinian tradition of the Catholic past. It is the Jansenist movement, a movement opposed and finally destroyed by the Jesuits, but in such a way that the Jesuits themselves lost a lot of standing in the public valuation, and that in the 18th century they were thrown out of many Catholic countries. There was one interesting point in the discussion, namely that if the sentences of Cornelius Jansen are condemned, then it isn't only a matter of content which is condemned but also a question de fait (a question of fact) that he has really said that Now this seems very foolish, but there was a very important point behind it, namely, that if the Pope interprets the text of somebody whom he inquires into, and perhaps rejects or condemns, then the Pope is right not only in rejecting his ideas but also in stating that these ideas are really in the text. That is, the Pope is the interpreter of every text, and philological defense is not possible if the Pope says that this is what the text means. Here you have the natural extension of the totalitarian and authoritarian principle even to historical facts. The Pope decides what is a fact, not only what is true in theological terms.

Jansenism produced other writings. There was one man, Quesnel, who tried to introduce Augustinian principles again and to defend them against the Jesuits. But again the Pope took the side of the Jesuits and Augustine was removed, to a large extent, from Counter-Reformation Catholicism. In the bull, "Unigenitus," the Pope drives out the best of the Roman tradition. He drives out Augustine's doctrine of grace, of faith, and of love. For instance, it is anathema if somebody says, with Augustine, "In vain, Lord, Thou commandest if Thou dost not give what Thou orderest." This means that the commandments of God can be fulfilled only if God gives what He commands that's Augustinianism. If somebody says this in the Roman church, after the Jansenistic struggle he is condemned and that means, implicitly, that Augustine is condemned.

If you have to deal with modern progressive Catholics there are more of them in Europe than in this country, where Catholicism is completely polytheized , and has almost lost (with a few exceptions: some of our neighbors here around) the Spiritual power then you find that these people always fall back to Augustine and always are at the edge of being thrown out, being excommunicated or forbidden or cut off or reduced in their power of self-expression. I happened to discuss problems several times with Catholic groups, in my last trips to Germany especially impressive was last summer, with the Rhineland and it's astonishing how near we were with each other! But these people all have the expression of persecuted people They feel that if they agree with me in Augustinian principles, they are in danger. And they are!. Now this is a tragedy because in the moment in which no, it is not only the discussion itself; it is also their whole activities which come out in such discussions they are in danger of being cut off. And this means that the condemnation of Augustinianism in the Jansenistic struggle is like a sword over every form of spiritualized Catholicism that is a threat against changes going on there.

Now the last problem I want to mention is Probabilism that which is probable. Probable are opinions, given by authorities in the Roman church, about ethical questions. The Jesuits said: If an opinion is probable, then one is allowed to follow it even if the opposite is more probable! Now this means that in ethical respects, you have no autonomy of course not; that's something the church would deny radically. You always have to follow the guidance of the Roman priest, of the confessor especially. But the confessor himself has many possibilities. Since he himself has not to talk to you in the power of his spirit, but has to talk to you on the basis of authorities, of the Fathers, these authorities always contradict each other, or at least are different. So he can advise you something which is probably right, in an ethical act, but it may be more probable that other things are right. But if he can find an acknowledged authority of the Church which has said something about a problem even if it is not very safe, even if other things probably seem to be better you can follow it Now the result of this doctrine was a tremendous ethical relativism and laxity, chaos, and this of course was very advantageous in the 18th century, in which the church followed the new morals of bourgeois society, which was in the development, by making the ethical demands relativistic. Of course this was so abused that finally a reaction arose in the Roman church.

Alphonse Liguori a name which you will often read reacted against it, but he himself really didn't overcome, because he also says that it is not I who can decide, but my confessor must decide. And how can the confessor decide? Finally the principle of the probable triumphs.

Another development connected with this was that now every sin becomes a venial sin. And here again Jesuitism and the bourgeoisie the greatest enemies went together in taking out the radical seriousness which the Jansenists and the early Protestants maintained.

This is the situation. Much more can be said about present-day Catholicism. I said a few things about it yesterday, about the way in which the last decisions of the Pope have continued this line. Let me refer to one decision which is not known so much as the decision about the bodily ascension of the Holy Virgin. This was a previous encyclical of the Pope in which he said things which went even beyond what was said in the Vaticanum about the infallibility of the Pope. In the Vaticanum the infallibility referred only to statements ex cathedra, I. e., if the Pope officially, as Pope, makes a statement of dogma or ethics. But in this encyclical of 1950, he made statements about philosophies, and sharply directed his statements against existentialism. In these statements he said that if after many considerations the Pope has decided that a philosophy is unsound, then no faithful Catholic can work in the line of this philosophy any more.

Now this goes far beyond everything which the Pope has said before. And then of course he puts Thomas Aquinas again into the role of the Catholic philosopher. That meant that some of the French existentialists, Lubac and others, and others had to give up their teaching positions because philosophically they were existentialists although they answered the existentialist questions in religious terms. So you see one line which goes on even against all probability.

1 remember when in March 1950, the Holy Year of the Roman church 1 asked Dr. Niebuhr, "What do you think: will the Pope make this declaration ex cathedra, about the ascension of the Holy Virgin?" Then he answered: 1 don't think so; he is too clever for that; it is a slap in the face to the whole modern world and it is only dangerous for the Roman church to do that today. And a few months later it was done! Now this means even such a keen observer as Reinhold Niebuhr couldn't imagine and I was of course convinced by him, even more than he himself probably!! I was convinced that he was right because none of us could imagine that the Pope would dare to do this today. But he did it. And what does that mean? This means two things, that an authoritarian system, in order to fix itself, has to become narrower and narrower. It has to do what the other totalitarian systems do: they exclude, step by step, one danger after the other, threatening them by the presence of other traditions. In the Middle Ages, before the Crusades, there was no other tradition than the tradition of the ancient Church, which was the great educator of the barbaric nations. This was a simple situation. The problem already became actual when since Frederick.Il, ca. .1250 the same year in which there was the 4th Lateran Council in this moment the danger started and the Church reacted with anti-heretic laws and crusades. The same thing is in the development of the Roman church and in the development of all other totalitarian systems: they must try to prevent their subjects from meeting other traditions. Of course, the Roman church did this consistently for many, many years, in terms of the Index Librorum Vetitorum, the index of forbidden books, which are forbidden not for the scholars, of course, but for the populace; the general people is not allowed to read any of the books which are on the Index, and students must have a general or special permission, for instance, to read theological books of Paul Tillich, and others which they sometimes do; and then they are very clever about them. 1 just got an article about my systematic theology from a Catholic; he gave me the manuscript, and it is an excellent analysis. They can do it very well, but they must have special permission for that. The ordinary man is not allowed to read such !"dangerous" things, which means other traditions are not allowed to hit the souls of those who shall be well preserved. Now that is one of the reasons for the so-called "iron curtain." This is why Hitler completely cut off Germany from any intellectual influence, year by year a little more. And this is an inescapable development of all authoritarian systems, and this is why this encylical in the year 1950 was so interesting, with the declaration of the dogma.

But it has another connotation: that the liberal world has become so weak that the Pope doesn't need to be afraid of it any more. This was our error Dr. Niebuhr's and myself that we thought he would respect the Protestants and the humanists - -perhaps even the Communists all over the world, and not put himself in a position that almost everybody would speak of the superstitious attitude of the Roman church, in making such a dogma. But he was not afraid and probably he was right, because the very weak Protestant resistance against this and similar things cannot hurt the Catholic church any more. And the humanist opposition is almost non-existent because humanism itself is in a process of self-disintegration. And the greatness of the existentialists is that they describe this disintegration, but they themselves are in the midst of it.

Now this is the situation, and in this situation an understanding of the Roman church is more needed by all of you, in your actual ministry, than it was in the last hundred years We are threatened by all forms of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Now 1 distinguish between totalitarianism and authoritarianism: Rome is not totalitarian only a state can be; but Rome is authoritarian, and exercises many functions which otherwise totalitarian states have exercised. So the question which the existence of Catholicism puts before us is the question whether, with the end of the liberal era, liberalism at all will come to an end. This leads me to the question, which is very near to my heart, whether with the end of the Protestant era, the Protestant principle will also come to an end. This leads us to the problem of the Reformation.

Now I will deal with this large problem in a very short survey, after having agreed with Professor Handy that in view of the fact that you come from Protestant traditions and are nourished, so to speak, with Protestant ideas, you do not need this as much as you need a knowledge of the ancient and medieval Church. I am not so sure that you don't need it and for the very reason that the kind of Protestantism which developed in this country is not very much an expression of the Reformation, but has much more to do with the so-called Evangelical Radicals, and their influence on the forms of Protestantism as they have developed in this country. On the other hand, there are the Lutheran and Calvinistic groups, and they are strong; but they have adapted themselves to an astonishing degree to the climate of American Protestantism; and this climate is not made by them but by the sectarian movements. Therefore when I came here 20 years ago, the Reformation theology was almost unknown in Union Theological Seminary, because of the different traditions and the reduction of the Protestant tradition more to the non-Reformation traditions.

So I hope that when next fall Professor Pauck comes and gives his treatment of the Reformation, in the one and one-half year course on Church history which will replace this one lecture I gave to you then you will have much more occasion and better guidance for a full study of the Reformation. In any case, today I will put the Reformation into the broad sweep of Church-historical development.

Martin Luther:

Now the turning point of the Reformation and of Church history as a whole is the experience of an Augustinian monk in his monastic cell Martin Luther. Martin Luther didn't teach other doctrines that, he also did; but this was not important, there were many others also who did; cf. Wyclif. But none of those who protested against the Roman system were able to break through it. The only man who really broke through, and whose! breakthrough has transformed the surface of the earth, was Martin Luther. That is his greatness. Don't measure his greatness by comparing him with Lutheranism; that's something quite different, and is something which has gone through the period of' Lutheran Orthodoxy and many other things political movements, Prussian conservatism, and what not. But Luther is something different. Luther is one of the few great prophets of the Christian Church, and even if his greatness was limited by some characteristics he had, and by his later development, his greatness is overwhelming. He is responsible and he

alone for the fact that a purified Christianity, a Christianity of the Reformation, was able to establish itself on equal terms with the Roman tradition. And from this point of view we must look at him. Therefore when I speak of Luther, I don 't speak of the theologian who has produced Lutheranism there are many others who have done this, and Melanchthon much more than Luther but I speak of the man in whom the breakthrough occurred, the break through the Roman system; and that is he, and nobody else.

This breakthrough was a break through three distortions of Christianity which make the Roman Catholic religion what it is. The breakthrough was the creation of another religion. What does :religion" mean here? "Religion" means nothing else than another personal relationship between man and God man to God and God to man: that is what the difference is. And this is why it was not possible, in spite of tremendous attempts during the 16th century and sometimes later on, to produce a reunion of the churches. You can compromise about different doctrines; you cannot compromise about different religions! Either you have the Protestant relation to God or you have the Catholic, but you cannot have both; you can 't make a compromise.

The Catholic system is a system of objective, quantitative and relative relations between God and man for the sake of providing eternal happiness for man. I repeat:

The Catholic religion is a system of objective, quantitative, and relative relations between God and man for the sake of providing eternal happiness for man. They are quantitative relations, which must come together here a piece and there a piece; they are relative: none is absolute, each is relative; and they are objective, in the sense of being things and not personal relationship.

Now this is the basic structure objective, not personal; quantitative, not qualitative, and conditioned, not absolute.

And this leads me to another sentence, namely, that the Roman system is a system of divine-human management, represented and actualized by ecclesiastical management.. It is a system of Divine-human management represented and mediated by ecclesiastical management.

Now first the purpose: The purpose is to give eternal blessedness to man and to save him from eternal punishment. The alternative is eternal suffering in Hell or eternal pleasure in Heaven. This is the purpose of the whole thing. Now the way to do is the way which we have described when we discussed the Catholic sacraments, in which a magic giving of grace is the one side, and moral freedom which produces merits is the other side magic grace completed by active law; active law completed by magic grace.

The quantitative character comes through also in terms of the ethical commands. There are two groups: commandments and counsels -- commandments for every Christian; counsels, the full yoke of Christ, only for the monks and partly for the priests. For instance, love toward the enemy is a counsel of perfection but not a commandment for everybody. Asceticism is a counsel of perfection but not a, commandment. for everybody.

There is a difference between two types of degrees, moral demands. There is also a quantitative character in the Divine punishments There is eternal punishments for mortal sins; there is Purgatory for light sins; there is Heaven for fully purged people in Purgatory, and sometimes, as saints, already on earth. All these are quantitative and relative elements. Under these conditions nobody ever knew whether 'he could be certain of his salvation, because you never could do enough, you never could receive enough grace of a magical character, nor could you ever do enough in terms of merits and asceticism. The result of this was a tremendous amount of anxiety at the end of the Middle Ages. In my "Courage to Be" I have

described, as one of the three great types of anxiety, the anxiety of guilt, and I have related this anxiety of guilt socially and historically to the end of the Middle Ages, It is always present, of course, but at that time it was predominant and almost like a contagious sickness. People couldn't do enough in order to get a merciful God, in order to get over their bad conscience. There was a tremendous amount of anxiety expressed in the art of that time, expressed in the demand for ever and ever more pilgrimages, in the collection and adoration of relics, in prayers of "Our Fathers," in giving of money, buying indulgences, self-torturing asceticism and doing everything possible in order to get over one's guilt Now it is interesting to look into this time. We are almost unable to understand it. Now with the same anxiety of guilt and condemnation, Luther was in the cloister. Out of it he went into it, and out of it he experienced what he experienced, namely, that no amount of asceticism is ever able to give us, in the system of relativities, quantities, and things, a real certainty of salvation. He always was in fear of the threatening God, of the punishing and destroying God. And he asked: how can I get a merciful God? Out of this question and the anxiety behind this question, the Reformation arose.

Now what does Luther say against the Roman quantitative, objective, and relative point of view?:

The relation to God is personal. It is an ego-thou relationship, not mediated by anybody or anything only by accepting the message of acceptance, which is the content of the Bible. This is not an objective status in which you are, but this is a personal relationship, which he called "faith"; but not faith in something which one can believe, but acceptance that you are accepted: this is what he meant.

It is qualitative, not quantitative. Either you are separated or you are not separated from God. There are no quantities of separation or non-separation. In a person-to-person relationship you can say: there are conflicts, there are tensions, but as long as the relationship is a relationship of confidence and love, it is a quality. And if it is separated, it is something else. But it is not a matter of quantity. And in the same way, it is unconditional and not conditioned, as it is in the Roman system. You are not a little bit nearer to God if you do a little bit more for the church, or against your body, but you are near to God completely, absolutely, if you are united with Him; and you are separated if you are not The one is unconditionally negative; the other is unconditionally positive. The Reformation restates the unconditional categories of the Bible.

From this follows that the magic element as well as the legal element in the piety disappear. The forgiveness of sins, or acceptance, is not an act of the past done in baptism, but it is continuously necessary. Repentance is an element in every relationship to God, in every moment. It never can stop. The magic as well as the legal element disappear, for grace is personal communion with the sinner. There is no possibility of any merit; there is only the necessity of accepting. And there is no hidden magic power in our souls which make us acceptable, but we are acceptable in the moment in which we accept acceptance. Therefore the sacramental activities as such are rejected. There are sacraments, but they mean something quite different. And the ascetic activities are eternally rejected because none of them can give certainty. But here again a misunderstanding often prevails. One says: Now isn't that egocentric:; l think Maritain told me that once if the Protestants think about their own individual certainty? Now it is not an abstract certainty, that Luther meant; it is reunion with God this implies certainty. But everything centers around this being accepted. And this of course is certain; if you have God, you have Him. But if you look at yourself, at your experiences, your asceticism, and your morals, then you can be certain only if you are extremely self-complacent and blind toward yourselves; otherwise you cannot. And these, are absolute categories. The Divine demand is absolute. They are not relative demands, which bring more or less blessedness, but they are the absolute demand: joyfully accept the will of God. And there is only one punishment not the different degrees between the ecclesiastical satisfactions, between the punishment in purgatory, and its many degrees, and finally Hell. There is nothing like this. There is only one punishment, namely the despair of being separated from God. And consequently there is only one grace, namely, reunion with God. That's all. And to this, Luther whom Adolf Harnack, the great historian of the dogma, has called a genius of reduction to this simplicity, Luther has reduced the Christian religion. This is another religion.

Now Luther believed that this was a restatement of the New Testament, especially of Paul. But although his message has the truth of Paul, it's by no means the full Paul; it is not everything which Paul is. The situation determined what he took from Paul, namely Paul's conception of defense against legalism the doctrine of justification by faith. But he did not take in Paul's doctrine of the Spirit. Of course he did not deny it; there is a lot of it; but that is not decisive. The decisive thing is that a doctrine of the Spirit, of being "in Christ," of the New Being, is the weak spot in Luther's doctrine of justification by faith.

In Paul the situation is different. Paul has three main centers in his thinking, which make it not a circle but a triangle. The one is his eschatological consciousness, the certainty that in Christ eschatology is fulfilled and a New Reality has started. The second is the doctrine of the Spirit, which means for him that the Kingdom of God has appeared, that it is here, and there; that the New Being, in which we are, is given to us in Christ. The third point in Paul is the critical defense against legalism: justification by faith.

Luther took all three, of course. But the eschatological point was not really understood. He, in his weariness of the theological fights you cannot become more tired of anything in the world than of theological controversies, if you always are living it; and even Melanchthon, when he came to death, one of his last words was: "God save me now from the rabies theologorum from the wrath of the theologians! This is an expression you will understand if you will read the conflicts of the centuries. I just read with great pain, day and night, the doctor's dissertation of a former pupil, Mr. Thompson, Dr. McNeill's former assistant, an excellent work in which he describes in more than 300 narrow and large pages the struggle between Melanchthonism and Lutheranism. And if you read that and then see how simple the fundamental statement of Luther was, and how the rabies theologorum produced an almost unimaginable amount of theological disputations on points of which even half-learned theologians as myself would say that they are intolerable, they don't mean anything any more then you can see the difference between the prophetic mind and the fanatical theological mind.

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