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 33: Reformation Sects. Luther's Teachings – Faith, Concept of God.


We spoke yesterday of the doctrine of the Evangelical Radicals, or Enthusiasts. as they are often called. I gave you some of their main doctrines. The main difference is the emphasis on the presence of the Divine Spirit not only in the Biblical writings but also in every individual in every moment. giving even counsels for daily-life activities.

Now Luther had another feeling. His feeling was basically the feeling of the wrath of God, of God who is Judge. This was his central experience. Therefore when he speaks of the presence of the Spirit, he speaks of it in terms of repentance. of personal wrestling. which makes it impossible to have the Spirit as a possession. This seems to me the difference between all perfectionist and pietistic attitudes, that in Luther and the other Reformers. the main emphasis is on the distance of God from man. Therefore the Neo-Reformation theology of today. people like Barth. emphasize again and again that God is in Heaven and you are on earth. This feeling of distance - -or as Kierkegaard has aid. repentance, is the normal relationship of man to God.

The second point in which the Reformation theology differs from the theology of the radical evangelistic movements. is the different meaning of the cross. For the Reformers, the cross is the objective event of salvation and not the personal experience of creatureliness. This is a fundamental difference. Therefore the participation in the cross either in terms of human weakness or in terms of human moral endeavor to take one's own weakness upon oneself. is not the real problem with which the Reformation deals. This is presupposed. But this is something which we often have today as a nuance, even in our place here, that some of us emphasize more – following the Reformation theology – the objectivity of salvation through the cross of Christ; and others. the taking the cross upon oneself. These two are, of course, not contradictions in any way. but in most important problems of human existence it is not a matter of exclusiveness but of emphasis. And it is clear that those of us who are influenced by the Reformation tradition emphasize more the objectivity of the cross. as the cross of Christ. as the self-sacrifice of God in man. etc.; while others who come from the evangelistic tradition – which is so strong in this country – emphasize more the taking upon oneself one's cross, namely the cross of misery, etc. The next point is that in Luther the revelation is always connected with the objectivity of the historical revelation, I. e., with Scripture, and not in the innermost center of the human soul, which as Luther felt was the pride of the sectarian movements that they believed that in the real human situation it is possible to have immediate revelation, apart from the historical revelation as embodied in the Bible.

The other is that Luther and the whole Reformation, even Zwingli, emphasized infant baptism, namely that baptism is the symbol of the prevenient grace of God and not dependent on the subjective reaction. Of course, the subjective reaction of the infants is either not possible or, as Luther and Calvin believed, a Divine miracle. But that is not decisive. The decisive thing is that God starts, and that before we answer much can happen; that the time difference between the indefinite moment of maturity and the definite moment of baptism doesn't mean anything in the sight of God. Baptism is the Divine offer of forgiveness, and to this we always can come back. But adult baptism emphasizes the objective participation, the ability of the mature man to decide.

Here you have again the difference.

Then a last point: Luther was very much worried, as were the other Reformers, by the way in which these sects isolated themselves and emphasized that they were the true Church, and that each of their members was elected. Such a possibility was completely out of the thinking of the Reformers, and I think in this they were right; psychologically it is well known that the sects of the Reformation period were very much out of love towards anybody who did not belong to the sect, and I believe that some of you probably have had similar experiences even today with sectarian or quasi -sectarian groups. What is most lacking in them is not theological insight, not even insight in their negativities, the love which is identifies the negative situation in which we are, with the negative situation of everybody – outside or inside the center.

The final point was the eschatology: the eschatological negation of the state, the revolutionary criticism which we find in the sectarian movements in the Reformation period, either more passive or more active, were negated by the Reformers by their eschatology, namely the eschatology of the coming kingdom of God, from a vertical line – nothing to do with the horizontal line, which is, so to speak, given to the devil anyhow. Luther always spoke of the beloved last day, and he was longing for it, in order to be liberated – not so much as Melanchthon, from the "wrath of the theologians," but from the power-play which was at that time not much nicer than it is today.

So it was another mood, and again this mood is so visible in the present status of things in Europe and here. Here under the strong influence of the Evangelical Radicalist movements we have the tendency to transform reality. In Europe we have, especially today after the two World Wars, the eschatological feeling, the desire for and the vision of the end in a very realistic sense, and the resignation of the Christians with respect to the power-plays. Now all such things – I must emphasize again – are exaggerations, typical structures, and no typical structure is ever empirically real; everything empirically real is an approximation to a type. But I would say, after my double experience in Europe and here, that it is very visible that European Christianity is dependent on the Reformation especially, and the American ~ more on the experiences of Evangelical Radicalism, especially in this political point of view.

Now I come from Luther's discussion with the Roman church,. . Erasmus, and Thomas Muenzer, to Luther's doctrines themselves. There I am starting with the principle of ,biblicism~ which is attributed to Luther. Whenever you see a monument representing Luther, you will always find that he is represented with the Bible in his hands. This is a little misleading, and the Catholic church is right when it says that there was biblicism in the whole Middle Ages – and I have emphasized that in this class very often; the biblicistic attitude is especially strong in the late Middle Ages immediately preceding the Reformation. And in a Catholic nominalist theologian such as Ockham, we have already a radical criticism of the Church by the Bible.

Nevertheless in Luther the biblical principle means something else. What did it mean before? In the nominalistic theology of people like Ockham, it meant the law of the Church, which may be turned against the actual Church but which remains a law. And on the other hand, we have the Renaissance relationship to the Bible, in which the Bible is the source book of the true religion, to be edited by good philologians such as Erasmus. These were the two attitudes – the legal attitude in nominalism, the doctrinal attitude in humanism. But neither of these was able to break through the fundamentals of the Catholic system, which are anyhow the system of the law. Therefore only a new principle of the understanding of the Bible was able to break through the nominalistic and humanistic doctrines.

Luther had many of these elements in himself. He valuated the philological edition of the New Testament by Erasmus; he often falls back into nominalistic attitudes of a legalistic character in connection with the doctrine of inspiration, that every word of the Bible is inspirated by the dictate of God. This happened to him again and again, and especially when he had to defend a doctrine as in the case of the Lord's Supper, where a literal interpretation of the biblical word seemed to support his point of view. But beyond this he had something which is quite different from all this, and which brings his interpretation of the Bible in unity with, his new understanding of the relationship to God. I can make this clear when I speak of the word of God.

Now you don't hear any term more often – in Lutheran traditions here and in Europe, and in Neo-Lutheran Reformation tradition, as in Barth, and others – than the term "word of God." Now if you hear this term, then you hear a term which is more misleading than you can perhaps realize. In Luther himself it has at least six different meanings. But let's go to the first one which is of importance, namely the relationship to the Bible.

Luther said – but he knew better – that the Bible is the word of God; but he often said, when he really wanted to express what he meant, that in the Bible there is the word of God, the message of the Christ, and His work of atonement, His creation of the forgiveness of sins, and salvation. He makes it very clear, when he says, it is the message of the Gospel, which is in the Bible; and therefore the Bible contains the word of God. But he also says: The message existed before the Bible, namely, in the preaching of the Apostles. And as Calvin says, later, Luther says that the writing which led to the books of the Bible was an emergency situation; it was necessary, but it was emergency. Therefore only the religious content is important; the message is an object of experience. "If I know what I believe, I know the content of the Scripture, since the Scripture does not contain anything except Christ." The criterion of Apostolic truth is the Scripture, and the standard of what is truth in the Scripture is whether they deal with Christ and His work. (ob sie Christum treiben) , I. e., whether they deal with, or concentrate on, or drive toward Christ. And only those books contain powerfully and Spiritually the word of God which deal with Christ and His work.

He distinguishes special books, from this point of view. He says: The main books in which this criterion is fulfilled are the Fourth Gospel, Paul's Epistles, and I Peter. These are the books in which Christ is dealt with centrally. From there, other books can be judged. And even beyond the Bible, Luther can say very courageous things. He says, for instance, that Judas and Pilate would be apostolic if they gave the message of Christ, and Paul and John wou1d not if they gave not the message of Christ. He even says that everybody today who. had the Spirit as powerfully as the prophets and apostles, could create new Decalogues and another Testament; only because we have not the Spirit in this fullness must we drink from their fountain.

This of course is extremely nominalistic and anti-humanistic. This is emphasizing the Spiritual character of the Bible. It is a creation of the Divine Spirit in those who have written it, but it is not a dictation!

From this he was able to give a half-religious. half-historical criticism of the biblical books. It does not mean anything whether the five books of Moses were written by Moses or not. He knew very well that the texts of the prophets were in great disorder. He also knew that the later prophets are dependent on the earlier ones. He also knew that the concrete prophecies of the prophet often proved to be errors. He says that the Book of Esther and the Revelations of John do not really belong to the Scripture; the Fourth Gospel excels the Synoptics in value and power. and James' Epistle has no evangelical character at all.

Now I would say that although Lutheran Orthodoxy was not able to preserve this great prophetic tradition of Luther ~ one thing was done by his freedom – namely it was possible for Protestantism to do something which no other religion in the whole world was able to do: it could receive the historical treatment of the biblical literature – we call it often with very misleading words "higher" or biblical criticism. It is simply the historical method applied to the holy books of a religion. Now this is something which is impossible in Catholicism – or at least in a very limited way only possible there. It is impossible in Islam – Prof. Jeffery once told the faculty that every Islamic scholar who would try to do what he did with the text of the Koran, would be in danger; research into the original text of the Koran would imply historical criticism of the present text, and this is impossible in a legalistic religion. So if we are legalists with respect to the Bible, in terms of dictation, we fall back to the stage of religion which we find in Islam, and we have felt nothing of the Protestant freedom which we find in Luther.

Now that is the main thing I wanted to say. There are many other problems. There is one with which you often probably deal when you discuss the relationship of systematic theology to the historical departments, especially to the Old and New Testament departments. There the question is: What has the biblical department to do with the systematic, and vice versa? And I don't know that this is very often in your minds. Let me say one thing about it. Luther was able to interpret the ordinary text already in his translation, and then in his preaching and writings, generally, in such a way that he did not have to take refuge in a special pneumatic, let us say, or spiritual interpretation besides the philological interpretation. The ideal of a theological seminary – against which the historical departments are sinners as much as the systematic departments, including myself – would be to give biblical interpretations in such a way that the philological exactitude, including all that we call higher criticism, is combined with an existential application of the biblical text to the questions which we have to ask, and which are supposed to be answered in systematic theology. The separation into "experts" is a very unhealthy state of things – where the New Testament man tells me "1 cannot discuss this problem with you because I am not an expert," and I say - -which is always sinful – sometimes to an Old and New Testament colleague, "1 cannot say that because I am not an expert in Old or New Testament." And insofar as we all do it, we really against the original meaning of Luther's attempt to remove the allegoric interpretation and to return to a philological interpretation which is at the same time Spiritual.

So you see these problems are very actual ones, even today, and I think here the student body can do a good deal: you can simply not accept that from us, that we are "experts" and not theologians any more – only "experts." Don't accept that. Ask the biblical man about the existential meaning of what they give you, and the systematic theologian about the biblical foundation – in the real biblical texts, as they are philologically understood.

Now I come to two doctrines of Luther in which the Reformation is so far superior to everything which is going on today in popular Christianity that I want to emphasize this very much, namely his doctrine of sin and faith. For Luther sin is unbelief. "Unbelief is the real sin.""Nothing justifies except faith, and nothing makes sinful except unbelief." "Unbelief is the sin altogether ." "The main justice is faith, and so the main evil is unbelief." Therefore the word 'sin' includes what we are living and doing besides the faith in God." Now this presupposes a concept of faith which has nothing whatsoever to do with the acceptance of doctrine so I come to this immediately. But first what does it do for the concept of sin? It means that the differences of quantity (heavy and light sins), of relativity (sins which can be forgiven, in this or that way) do not matter at all. What they mean is only sin if it is related to God. Everything which separates us from Him has equal weight; they are not more or less; they have qualitative character.

This means that for Luther, life as a whole, nature and substance, are corrupted.

And here I want to say something immediately about this term "total corruption," or depravity, which you will often hear. Please understand this in the right way. It does not mean that nothing is good in man – no Reformer or Neo-Reformation theology ever said that. But it means that there are not parts in man which are exempted from existential distortion; for instance, not his thinking, or some other part in him. And in this sense the concept of total depravity would be translated by a modern psychologist: man is distorted, or in conflict with himself, in the center of his personal life. This means that everything is included, and that is what Luther meant. And if somebody speaks of "total," then please always ask whether he means it in the absurd way – which would make it impossible to say that he is totally depraved, because a totally depraved man would not say that he is totally depraved. Even saying that we are sinful presupposes something above sin. But what he can say is that there is no section in him which is not touched by self-contradiction, or sin. This is what Luther means, and this includes the intellect and all other things. The evil are evil since they do not fulfill the one command, which is not a command, but which must be done voluntarily, namely, the love to God. So it comes now to the fundamental principle that it is the lack of love towards God which is the basis of sin. As I said before, it is the lack of faith; both things are said by Luther all the time, but faith always precedes because it is an act in which we receive God, and love is the act in which we are united with God. Everybody is in this situation, and nobody knew more about the structural power of evil in individuals and in groups than Luther. He didn't call it compulsion, as we would call it today, in terms of modern psychology; but he knew that it was just this, that there is a power – he called it the demonic power, the power of Satan – which is more than individual decisions. These structures of the demonic – of which you all have had an experience in these last hours – is a reality, and Luther knows that it is impossible to understand sin in terms of special acts of freedom.. You must understand it in terms of a structure, of a demonic structure which has compulsory power over everybody, and which can be counterbalanced only by a structure of grace. And we all are in the conflict between these two structures. Sometimes we are ridden, as Luther describes it, by the one compulsion, the Divine; and sometimes by the other. But the Divine is not possession or compulsion; it is at the same time liberating, because it liberates what we essentially are.

Luther's strong emphasis on the demonic powers comes out in his doctrine of the Devil, whom he understood as an organ of the Divine wrath, and sometimes of the wrath of God itself There are statements in Luther where one doesn't know whether he felt something as the wrath of God or as the Devil. Actually it is the same for him, when he says that as we see God so he is for us; if we see Him in the demonic mask then He is the demonic mask to us, and He destroys us. If we see Him in the infant Jesus, where in His lowliness He makes visible His love to us, then He has this love to us. So he was a depth psychologist in the profoundest way before knowing the methodological research we know. .. But he saw .these things in non-moralistic depths, which was lost not only in Calvinistic Christianity to a great extent, but also in Lutheranism itself.

This leads to a consideration of Luther's doctrine of faith. Faith is for him receiving God, when He gives Himself to us. He distinguishes it completely from historical faith (fides historica), which acknowledges historical facts. It is for him the acceptance of the gift of God, the presence of the grace of God which grasps &. Luther has again and again emphasized the receptive character of faith – nihil facere sedtantum recipere – doing nothing, only receiving. These ideas are all concentrated in the acceptance of being accepted, namely in the forgiveness of sins, which produces a quiet consciousness, and which produces a spiritual vitality towards God and man. "Faith is a living and restless thing. The right; living faith can by no means be lazy." So in other words the element of knowledge in faith is an existential element and therefore everything else follows from it. "Faith makes the person; person makes the works, not works the person." Now that is something of which I would say that it is again confirmed by everything we know today in terms of depth psychology. It is the ultimate meaning of a life which makes a person. And a split personality is not a personality which doesn't do good works. There are people who do many good works – and again I refer to the example we have in our minds and hearts (referring to the recent death of a classmate) – but where the ultimate center is lacking. And this ultimate center is what Luther calls faith: that makes a person; but faith of course not as accepting doctrines, even any Christian doctrine, but faith .as accepting the power itself out of which we come and to which we go, however the doctrines may be through which we accept it.

Now you know, in my "Courage to Be," I have called that absolute faith, a faith which can lose every concrete content but which still can exist as an absolute affirmation of life as life, of being as being. Therefore the only negative thing is what he calls disbelief, not being united with the power of being itself, with the Divine reality over against the forces of separation and compulsion.

This is in correspondence with Luther's concept of God, one of the strongest ideas of God in the whole history of human and Christian thought. It is not a God who is a being besides others, but it is a God whom we can have only through contrast. What is hidden before God is visible before the world, and what is hidden before the world is visible before God. "Which are the virtues (I. e. powers of being) of God? Infirmity, passion, cross, persecution: these are the weapons of God." "The power of man is emptied by the cross, but in the weakness of the cross the Divine power is present." And from this he says, about the state of man: "Being man means non-being, becoming, being. It means being in privation, in possibility, in action. It means always being in sin, in justification, in justice. It means always being a sinner, a penitent, a just one." Now this is paradoxical and it makes clear what Luther means with God. God can be seen only through the law of contrast.

This is confirmed by his idea of God when he goes to ontological considerations, as he does in his writings on the sacrament. He denies everything which can make God finite, or a being besides others. "Nothing is small, God is even smaller. Nothing is so large, God is even larger. He is an unspeakable being, above and outside everything we can name and think. Who knows what that is, what is called ‘God'? It is over body, over spirit, over everything we can say, hear and think." And from this he makes the great statement that God is nearer to all creatures than they are to themselves. "God has found the way that His own Divine essence can be completely in all creatures, and in everyone especially, deeper, more internally, more present, than the creature is to itself and at the same time nowhere and cannot be comprehended by anyone, so that He embraces all things and is within them. God is at the same time in every piece of sand totally, and nevertheless in all, above all, and out of all creatures." Now here you have formulas in which the old conflict between the theistic and the pantheistic tendency in the doctrine of God is solved, in formulas which show the greatness of God, the inescapabilty of His presence, and at the same time, His absolute transcendence. And I would say, very dogmatically: Every doctrine of God which leaves out one of these two elements doesn't speak really of God but of something which is less than God.

This is also expressed in his doctrine of omnipotence "I call the omnipotence of God not that power by which He does not do many things He could do, but the actual power by which He potently does everything in everything." ;I e. . He does not sit beside the world and look at it from outside but what He actually does is something quite different: He is acting in all of them, in every moment – that is what "omnipotence" means. The absurdity of a God who calculates whether He should do what He could do, is removed by the powerful idea of God as creation.

Luther then speaks of the creatures as the "masks" of God, I. e., God is hidden behind them. "All creatures are God's masks and veils in order to make them work and help Him to create many things." Therefore all natural orders and institutions are filled with Divine presence, and so is the historical process. He deals with all our problems of the interpretation of history. The great men in history, the Hannibals, the Alexanders, and Napoleons – and Hitlers he would add, or, when he speaks of the Goths, the Vandals. the Turks – or the Nazis or.Communists. he would add today – they are driven by God to attack and to destroy; and in this sense He speaks to us through them. They are God's word to us. even to the Church. Especially the heroic persons break through the ordinary rules of life. They are armed by God. God calls them and forces them, but gives them their hour, or as I would say. their kairos. Outside of this kairos they cannot do anything. Without the right hour, nobody can do anything. And in the right hour. no one can resist those who act in the right hour. But .although God acts in everything in history, history is at the same time the struggle between, God and Satan and their different realms. And the reason why Luther could makes these two statements is that God creatively works even in the demonic forces. They could not have being; if they were not dependent on Him as the Ground of Being, as the creative Power of Being in them, in every moment. He makes it possible that Satan is the seducer, and makes it possible at the same time that Satan is conquered.

This is Luther's idea of God, and however you feel about it, it is certainly a great, powerful, religious, and. not moralistic idea of God. And that is what I wanted to mediate to you today.

Viewed 374991 times.