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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 32: Penance and Luther's Attacks. Erasmus. Muenzer.


Today I come to the point where Luther's breakthrough was externally occasioned. It is the sacrament of penance. You remember that I said there are two main sacraments in the Roman church, the Mass, which is a part of the Lord's Supper; and the subjective sacrament which had an immense educational function, namely the dealing with the individual in the sacrament of penance.

This sacrament can be called the sacrament of subjectivity, in contrast to the Mass which was the complete sacrament of objectivity. Between these two, the medieval situation goes on. But it was not the Mass – although it was tremendously attacked by Luther – which was the real point of criticism; but it was the subjective sacrament and the abuses connected with it. The abuses came from the fact that the sacrament of penance had different parts: contrition, confession, absolution, and satisfaction. The first and the last points were the most dangerous ones.

Contrition – the real repentance, the change of the mind – was replaced by attrition, the fear of eternal punishment, which Luther called the repentance inspired by the imminent prospect of the gallows. So it has no religious value for him. The other dangerous point was satisfaction, which did not mean that you can earn your forgiveness of sins by works of satisfaction, but that you have to do them because the sin is still in you after it is forgiven, and that the humble subjection to the satisfactions demanded by the minister is the decisive thing.

Now this means that the priest imposed on the communicandus all kinds of activities and sometimes such difficult ones that the people wanted to get rid of them. And that was accepted by the Church in terms of the indulgences, which are also sacrifices – you must sacrifice some money, in order to buy them, and then you could get rid of the satisfactions. The popular idea was that these satisfactions are effective for overcoming one's guilt consciousness. This was a point where one can say that a kind of market with eternal life was going on: you could buy the indulgences and in doing so you could get rid of the punishments, not only on earth but also in Purgatory. The abuses brought Luther to a thinking about the whole meaning of the sacrament of penance. In doing so he came to conclusions which were absolutely in opposition to the attitude of the Roman church, and not only to the abuses: the criticism went to the source of the abuses, namely the doctrine itself. And so Luther put on the door of the Wittenberg church the famous 95 Theses, the first of which is the classical formulation of everything which is Reformed Christianity: "Our Lord and teacher, Jesus Christ, saying ‘Repent ye,' , wished that the whole life of the believers be penitence." Now this means the sacramental act is only something in which a much more universal attitude comes to a sacramental form; it is not the sacramental which is important but the relationship to God. It is not a new theological doctrine but a new relationship to God which the Reformers brought about, and this comes out in this one sentence – the relationship is not an objective management between God and man, but it is a personal relationship of penitence, first of all, and then faith.

Perhaps the most striking and paradoxical expression is given by Luther in the following words: "Penitence is something between injustice and justice. Therefore, whenever we are repenting we are sinners, but nevertheless for this reason we are also righteous, and in the process of justification, partly sinners, partly righteous – that is nothing but repenting.," This means that there is always something like repentance in the relationship to God.

Luther at that time did not attack the sacrament of penance as such. He even thinks the indulgences can be tolerated. But he attacked the center, out of which all the abuses came, and this was the decisive event of the Reformation.

But after this attack had been made, the consequences were clear. The money of indulgence can only help against those works which are given by the Pope, I. e , the canonic punishments. The dead in Purgatory cannot be released by the Pope; he can only pray for them; he does not have power over the dead. The forgiveness of sins is an act of God alone, and the Pope can only declare – and "Pope" also means every priest – that God has done it already. There is no treasury of the Church out of which the indulgences can come, except the one treasury, namely the work of Christ. No saint can do superfluous works because it is our duty to do everything we can anyhow; how can something be superfluous? The power of the keys, namely of forgiving sins, is given by God to every disciple who is with Him. The works of satisfaction are only the works of love; all other works are an arbitrary invention by the Church. Arid there is no time and space for them, because in our real life we must always be aware of the works of love which are demanded from us in every moment. Confession, which is made by the priest in the sacrament of penance, is directed towards God. You don't need to go to the priest for this. In every "our Father" we confess our sins, and that is what matters and not the sacramental confession. Arid about satisfaction he said: this is a completely dangerous concept because we cannot satisfy God at all; if there is satisfaction, it is done by Christ to God, but is not done by us. So this concept has to disappear. Purgatory is a fiction and an imagination of man, with no biblical foundation. The only thing which remains is absolution. And of course Luther was psychologically educated enough to know that a solemn absolution may have psychological effects, but he denied that it is necessary. The message of the Gospel, which is the message of forgiveness, is the absolution in every moment, and you can get it as the answer of God to your prayer for forgiveness; you don't need to go to church for this.

This means the sacrament of penance is completely dissolved. :Penitence is transformed into a personal relationship to God and to the neighbor, against a system of means to obtain the release of objective punishments in Hell, Purgatory, and life, which the Roman system demanded.. In reality, all these concepts are undercut at least, if not abolished. Everything is put on the basis of a person-to-person relationship between God and man. You can have this relationship even in Hell. That means Hell is simply a place, but it is not a state. And that is abolished by the kind of Reformation idea of relationship to God.

Now of course this was a danger and a difficulty, that in this way many educational degrees have been abolished by Luther and only the absolute categories of the relationship between God and man: are left. The Pope did not accept this, of course, and so the conflict between Luther and the Church arose. Now let's make clear beforehand that this was not the beginning of the Reformation. Luther hoped to reform the Church, including the Pope and the priests. But the Pope and the priests didn't want to be reformed in any way. The last great bull defining the power of the Pope says: "Therefore we declare, pronounce and define that it is universally necessary for salvation that every human creature is subject to the Roman high priest." This is the bull which defines most sharply the unlimited and absolute power of the Pope.

Now Luther criticized the Church when the Church did not follow his criticism of the sacrament of penance. There is only one ultimate criterion for Christianity, namely the message of the Gospel. Therefore there is no infallibility of the Pope. The Pope may fall into error. -- Then his Catholic enemies showed him that it is not only the Pope but also some of the Councils which deserved to be attacked now. Then he didn't retire, but said: Then also the Councils may fall into error. -- And this was actually the break, because this meant even if you go from the curialistic

theory that the Pope in Rome alone is the monarch who decides... ; if you go then to the conciliaristic theory that the great Councils of the Church are absolutely infallible, even then Luther said: No, they are human, they may fall into error. The Pope could be tolerated, he says, if he were only by human law, by the law of expediency, as the chief administrator of the Church. But that is not what the Pope claims. He claims to be by Divine right, and that means he is an absolute figure in the Church. And here Luther said this cannot be stood, because no human being can ever be the vicar of the Divine power; the Divine right of the Pope is a demonic claim and actually the claim of the Antichrist. Of course, when he said this the break was clear. There is only one head of the Church, namely Christ, and the Pope as he is now is the creation of the Divine wrath to punish Christianity for its sins. This was meant theologically, and not as name-calling; he meant it very seriously, theologically, when he called the Pope the Antichrist. It was not directed against a special man and his shortcomings – everybody criticized the behavior of the Pope at that time – but he criticized the position of the Pope, namely that the Pope is by Divine right the representative of Christ. In this way the Pope destroys the souls, because he wants to have a power which God alone can have.

This was Luther's criticism of the Church, and this was the basis for the break with the Church. The basis for this break was not that he taught another theology, but the break was that the Pope did not admit criticism because he claimed to be cf Divine right in everything he does and thinks, officially.

One of the main things which Luther himself experienced was the importance of monasticism in the Roman church – he himself was a monk. Out of the monastic attitude of the Roman church a double morals followed, the morals of counsels, advices for higher goodness, greater nearness to God, namely the monastic attitude; and then the rules which are valid for everybody and which everybody has to fulfill. The higher counsels for the monks, such as fasting, discipline, humility, celibacy, etc., make the monks something ontologically higher than the ordinary man. He has higher substantial graces, whatever he may be personally.

Now this was demanded by the historical situation when the Church became larger and larger and the masses of the people couldn't take upon themselves, as it was said, the whole yoke of Christ; they couldn't because it was too heavy for them. So a special group did it, and this group follows the special advices for higher morality and piety. They were the religiosi, those who are religious in their whole attitude, who are not religious as everybody has to be, but who make religion, so to speak, their "vocation."

Now the double morals are the main point of Luther's attack. The Divine demand is absolute and unconditional. It refers to everybody. This absolute demand destroys the whole system of religion. There is no status of perfection, as the Catholics ascribed to the monks. Everybody has to be perfect and nobody is able to be perfect. Not man's power is able to give one the graces to do the right thing; but not a special endeavor, as the monks have it. Decisive in all cases is the intention: the good will, not the magic habit of which the Catholic Church spoke. And this intention, this good will, is right even if its content is wrong. But the valuation of a personality is dependent on the inner intention of a person towards the good. Luther took this very seriously. For him it is not enough if you will to do the good, the will of God, but you must will what God wills joyfully, with your voluntary participation. And if you fulfill the whole law but you don't do it joyfully – because you are allowed to do it, because you are a child and the image of God – then it is worth nothing. The obedience of the servant is not the fulfillment of Christian ethics. Only he who loves, and joyfully loves, God and man is able to fulfill the law. But this is what is expected from everybody.

This means Luther turns religion and ethics around. We cannot fulfill the will of God without being united with Him. And this is impossible without forgiveness of sins. Even the best people have elements of despair, and aggressiveness and indifference and self-contradiction. Only on the basis of Divine forgiveness can the full yoke of Christ be imposed on everybody. This is completely different from a moralistic interpretation of Christianity. The moral is that which follows – it might or might not follow; it should follow, essentially; sometimes it does not – but the prius of it is the participation in the Divine grace in His forgiveness and in His power of being.

This makes all the difference in the world, and it is one of the most unfortunate happenings that Protestantism always is in the temptation to turn around the thing into its opposite, namely, to make the religious dimension dependent on morality. Wherever this is done, we are outside the realm of true Protestantism. You should never forget this in your congregations and everywhere: if somebody says, "Oh, God must love me, and I love Him because I do almost everything He demands." – namely, what the suburban neighbor demands! – then the religious and ethical situation is completely turned into its opposite. But if somebody says: "I know that I don't do anything good, or so little seemingly good, so ambiguous that the only thing which is good in me is that God declares that I am good and that I am able to accept this Divine declaration, and if I accept it, then it may happen that there may be a transformed reality; but the other side is the first." And that is one of the centers of the whole Reformation. Therefore the famous phrase, "by faith alone," (sola fide.)

This phrase is the most misunderstood and distorted, phrase of the Reformation. People have taught it means that if you do the good work of believing, having faith in something – something unbelievable, especially – then you do that good work which makes you good before God. The phrase should be not "by faith alone" but "by grace alone, which is received through faith." So if you want to be correct, don't translate sola fide by the English phrase "by faith alone," but "by grace alone, through faith," whereby "faith" means nothing than the acceptance of grace. That is what Luther was concerned about, because he had experienced that if you do it the other way around, then you are always lost, and if you take it seriously you are in absolute despair, because if you know yourselves, you know that you are not good; you know it as well as Paul did; and that means that ethics are the consequence and not the cause of goodness.

Now I come to that e1ement in the Roman Catholic Church which gave it its tremendous power; the sacramental element/ The Roman church Is essentially a sacramental church. This means that God is essentially seen as present, and not as somebody who is distant and only has to demand. A sacramental world-view is a world-view in which the Divine is seen as visible and real. Therefore a church of the sacrament is a church of the present God. But on the other hand the Roman church was a church in which this sacrament was administered as a magic means by the hierarchy, and only by the hierarchy, so that everybody who does not participate in it is lost, and he who participates in it, even if he is unworthy, gets the sacrament. And as you know, there were 7 sacraments. I discussed this fully before.

What does Luther do? He said: "No sacrament is effective by itself without full participation of the personal center, I. e., without the listening to the word connected with the sacrament, and the faith which accepts it. The sacrament qua sacrament cannot help at all. The magic side of sacramental thinking is destroyed.

From this follows that transubstantiation is destroyed because this doctrine makes the bread and wine a piece of Divine reality put on the altar. But such a thing does not exist. The presence of God is not a presence in terms of objective presence, on a special place, in a special form; but it is a presence for the faithful alone. There..are two criteria for this: it is only for the faithfu1, then it is only an action: Then if you come to a church and there is no sacrament spread; you don't need to do anything about it because it is pure bread,.. It: becomes more .than this only in action, only in the moment in which it is given to those who have faith. For the Roman theory it is there all the time.. If you come into an empty Roman church, you must bow down before the shrine because there God Himself is present., even if there is nobody else present except you and this sacrament. "Present" means transformation, transubstantiation. This Luther abolished. He denounced the character indelibilis as a human fiction – the character which you get in baptism, confirmation, and in ordination, that whenever you have it you are always a Christian, and for instance, under the heresy laws and an object of persecution, which the Pagans and Jews are not; or if you are confirmed, you are always a soldier of Christ and have, so to speak, the invisible uniform of the Church. Or if you are ordained, you always have the power of the sacraments, so that even it you are thrown out of the Church, you can perform sacramentally valid marriages, and other things.

All this, Luther denied, calling it a human fiction. There is no such thing as a character which cannot be destroyed. If you are called to the ministry, you must minister exactly as everybody does who is called to some profession. If you go away rom it, if you become a businessman or professor or shoemaker, than you are this and no longer a minister at all, and you have no sacramental power at all. You can have priestly power, if you are a pius Christian towards everybody else. But this is going on all the time, and doesn't need ordination.

Now this took away the sacramental foundation of the whole hierarchical system. But most important was his attack on the Mass. The Mass is a sacrifice we bring to God, but we have nothing to bring to God, and therefore it is a blasphemy, a sacrilege. And in most Protestant countries in the period of the Reformation, the state government, prohibited – as still in many countries today there are laws against printed or spoken, blasphemy – the Mass, which was supposed to be such a blasphemy, and therefore it was persecuted and it a blasphemy because here man gives something to God, instead of expecting that God has given everything He has to give, namely Himself in Christ, and that nothing more than this was needed. This was perhaps the most profound attack on the Roman system, which is a sacramental system completely, and which was dissolved just by this criticism.

Now this is the conflict of Luther with the Roman church – some of the main points in it. I now come to the other conflicts, the conflict with the humanists and the conflict with the Evangelical Radicals.

The Conflict with the Humanists

The representative of humanism at that time was Erasmus of Rotterdam. In the beginning they had friendly feelings for each other, but then the attacks on both sides created a break between Protestantism and humanism, and this break has not been healed up to today, in spite of the fact that Zwingli tried to heal it as early as in the 20's of the 16th century. Erasmus was a humanist, but he was a Christian humanist; he was not anti-religious at all. He believed himself to be a better Christian than any Pope of his time, and he agreed in this in unity with Luther. But he was a humanist, and that means he had special characteristics distinguishing him from the prophet. You have Dr. Richardson's article on the prophet and the scholar, and the confrontation of Luther and Erasmus in these terms. What Luther couldn't stand in Erasmus, he has expressed very clearly. He couldn't stand his unexistential detachment, the detachment from the religious content without passion, as he says; the scholarly attitude towards the contents of the Christian faith. He felt that in Erasmus there is some unconcern, while the problems are matters of ultimate concern.

The second is that as every scholar has to be skeptical about the traditions and the meaning of the words and everything else which he shall interpret, Erasmus was a scholarly skeptic. Luther couldn't stand this. For him absolute statements in matters of ultimate concern are needed.

Third, Luther was a radical, in political and every other respect; but Erasmus seemed to be to him a man of adaptation to the political situation – not for his own sake but in order to have peace on earth.

Fourthly, Erasmus has a strongly educational point of view. The development of the individual in educational terms is decisive for him. And all humanism, up to today, has this educational drive and passion.

Fifth, Erasmus' criticism is rational criticism. It is lacking in revolutionary aggressiveness.

Now all this Luther sees in Erasmus. But the whole discussion finally focused around the doctrine of the freedom of the will. Erasmus was for human freedom; Luther against. But now please don't write that down without writing down everything I have to add now!: Neither Erasmus nor Luther doubted about man's psychological freedom. They didn't think man is a stone or animal. And even Karl Barth says: I know well that man is not a turtle – But he doesn't know it well! because he doesn't see that this means that man has freedom, freedom of deliberation and decision, freedom of contradicting himself, and that in this freedom which is his rational structure his image of God is implied.

Erasmus as well as Luther knew that man is essentially free, that he is man only because he is free. But now on this basis they drew opposite consequences. For Erasmus this freedom is also valid if you try to come to God. You can help God. You can cooperate with God, for your salvation. For Luther this is absolutely impossible. It takes the honor from God and from Christ and makes man into something which he is not. So he speaks of "the enslaved will.". . . but it is the free will which is enslaved. It is ridiculous to speak of a stone that it has no free will. Only he who has free will can be said to have an enslaved will, namely enslaved by the demonic forces of reality.

Luther attacks the Anselmian point of view by saying that justification by faith is the only point of certainty, and that it is not our contribution to salvation that can give us quiet consolation. He says that in Erasmus the meaning of Christ is denied and finally that the honor of God is denied.

I think that here we have a very fundamental difference between the two attitudes. The attitude of the humanist is that of detached analysis. And if it comes to synthesis, it is that of the moralist, in contrast to the prophet, who sees everything in the light of God alone

Luther's conflict with the Evangelical Radicals: This is especially important for you because the prevailing type in this country is not produced by the Reformation directly, but by the indirect effect of the Reformation through the movements of Evangelical Radicalism. What is the meaning of this concept?

First of all we must agree that they all are dependent on Luther. They have a long history in the Middle Ages, but only Luther liberated the tendencies which were alive in the Middle Ages from the suppression to which they were condemned. Luther's emphasis on almost all points was accepted by the Evangelical Radicals, but then they went beyond him. They had the feeling that he stood half-way. First of all his principle of the Bible – to which we come tomorrow – is something which they attacked. God has not spoken but once, in the past, and then has become silent; but He always speaks, He speaks in the heart or depths of every man, if this man is prepared by his own cross to hear. The Spirit is in the depths of the heart, although not by ourselves but from God. From this point of view, he says that it is always possible that the Spirit speaks through individuals.

Now I speak mostly of Thomas Muenzer, who is the most creative of the Evangelical Radicals. But in order to receive this Spirit, man must participate in the cross. Luther, he said, preaches a sweet Christ – the Christ of forgiveness. But we must, he said, also preach the bitter Christ, namely the Christ who says that we must take His cross upon ourselves. The cross is, so we can say, the extreme, the boundary situation. It is internal and external. And Muenzer, in an astonishing way, expresses that in modern existentialist categories. It is the human finiteness which, if he realizes it, produces in him a disgust about the whole world. Then he really becomes poor in spirit. Then the anxiety of creaturely existence grasps him. Then he finds that courage is possible. But then it happens that God appears to him and that he is transformed. And if this has happened to him, then he can have very special revelations. He can have individual visions, not only about theology as a whole, but also about matter of the daily life.

These groups felt on this basis that they are the real fulfillment of the Reformation, that Luther remained half-Catholic, that they are elected; while the Roman church has no certainty for any individual with respect to justification; while Luther has the certainty of justification but not of election; while Calvin had the certainty not only of justification but at least to a great extent also of being elected – Muenzer and his followers had the certainty of being elected within a group of elected, namely the sectarian group.

From this point of view of the inner Spirit, all sacraments fall down. And the immediacy of the procession of the Spirit makes even what is left of the office of the minister unnecessary in the sectarian groups. Instead of that, they have another impetus, namely the transformation of society either by suffering, if they cannot change it, and abstinence from arms and oaths and public office and all those things involving you in state existence; or if they are radical, then by political measures, by the sword overcoming the evil society in which one lives; and then one becomes a religious socialist. These two movements we have in that period, and these movements and the whole attitude have influenced this country very much.

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