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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 36: Calvin: Predestination, Providence, Capitalism, Church and State, Biblical Authority.


We finished Friday with, the general ideas of Calvin on providence, the tremendously powerful way in which he looks at the Divine activity in everything in every moment, and directing it. If this is the presupposition; if we almost have the feeling that Calvin approaches a kind of Divine determinism, then we must ask the question, "How is all this related to the actuality of evil?" We can distinguish different answers.

The suffering of the world is not a real problem for Calvin. Since his first principle is the honor of God, he can show that human suffering is l)a natural consequence of the distorted, sinful world; 2) a way of bringing the elect to God; 3) a way to show His holiness in the punishment of a distorted world.

Physical evil is taken partly as a natural consequence, partly as educational means, partly as punishment for sin. But this does not solve the problem of moral evil. Here Calvin must accept, and tries to show that the evil acts of Satan and of evil men are determined by God's counsel. Even Pilate and Nebuchadnezzar are servants of God. God blinds the minds and hardens the hearts of men; He puts an evil spirit into their heart. "For God, as Augustine says, fulfills His righteous will by the wicked wills of wicked men.: Augustine declares that He creates light and darkness, that He forms good and evil, and that no evil occurs which He has not performed." Such statements which seem to make God the cause of evil, are understandable only if we understand what Calvin says, that the world is "the theater of .the Divine glory." In the scene which we call "the world," God shows His glory. In order to do this, He causes evil, even moral evil. Calvin says: to think that God admits evil because of freedom, is frivolous. Because God acts in everything that goes on; the evil man follows the will of God although he does not follow His command. By following His will they defy His command, and that makes them guilty.

Now this means that Calvin's idea of providence is strictly God causes I don't say "determined," but "God-caused." And if, as he realizes, some people feel that this is not what we can say about God, and that this kind of providence is a horrible thing, then he answers, "Ignorance of providence is the greatest of miseries; the knowledge of it is attended with the highest felicity.: The belief in providence liberates us from anxiety, dread, and care. This period, at the end of the Middle Ages, was one of catastrophes and transformations, externally, and of profound anxiety internally. The doctrine of providence in Calvin is not an abstract one but is a doctrine which is supposed to heal anxiety, to be able to give courage, and for this reason he praises it.

But of course there is something more involved in this doctrine, namely his famous doctrine of predestination. Predestination is providence with respect to the ultimate aim of man. It is providence which leads man through his life to his final aim. And so predestination is nothing more than the logical implication and the final fulfillment of the doctrine of providence.

Now what does "predestination" mean? How does this problem arise? Why is it that most of the great names in religion, from Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, to Luther, are adherents of "predestination," while those who do not adhere ,always are nearer to a moral interpretation of Christianity than to a strictly religious interpretation.? This is a problem which we must ask ourselves. If we deny predestination, we deny the high line of religious personalities and their theology.

Now the question behind this doctrine is: Why does not everybody receive the same possibility to reject or to accept the truth of the Gospel? Why doesn't he get it historically? - -he never knew Jesus. Why does he never get it psychologically? his preconditions are such that he could not even understand the meaning of what is said to him. This is a question we must ask today, every day.

The answer is: By Divine providence, but, as we have heard, providence with respect to our eternal destiny is predestination. In the moment in which Christianity emphasizes the uniqueness of Christ, it must ask why most people have never heard about Him, while those who have externally heard about Him were preconditioned in a way that this hearing didn't mean anything. In other words, all these men observed something empirically, namely that there is a selective and not an equalitarian principle effective in life. Life cannot be understood in terms of an equalitarian principle; it can be understood only in terms of a selective principle.

Everybody asks these questions. Calvin says: You shouldn't suppress such questions in terms of a wrong modesty; one must ask them. "We shall never be clearly convinced. . . that our salvation flows from the fountain of God's free mercy till we are acquainted with His eternal election, which illustrates the grace of God by this comparison, that He adopts not all promiscuously to the hope of salvation but gives to some what He refuses to others."

But this is only the one side. The other is that which gives to those who ask this question a certainty of salvation because it makes salvation completely independent of the oscillations of our own being. This was the second reason for this doctrine, in Paul, Augustine, and Luther. They wanted certainty of salvation. If they looked at themselves, they couldn't find it because their faith was always weak and changing. If they looked beyond themselves, they could find it in the action of God.

The concrete character of Divine grace is visible in an election which elects me especially, by not electing others. All this leads to the concept of predestination. "We call predestination the eternal decree of God by which He has determined in Himself what He would have every individual of mankind to become, for they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some and eternal damnation for others. C" That's his definition. What is the cause for this election? Only God's will, and nothing else. "If, therefore, we can assign no reason why He grants mercy to His people but because such is His pleasure, neither shall we find any other cause but His will for the reprobation of others." I. e., the irrational will of God is the cause of predestination.

Now here we come into an absolute mystery, as he calls it. We cannot call God to any account. We must accept it and we must drop our criteria of the good and the true. If someone says that is unjust, he answers: We cannot go beyond the Divine will to a nature which determines God because God's will cannot be dependent on anything else. even in Him. Here you have the full weight of the Scotistic-Occamistic thinking: the will of God is the only cause for what God does; nothing else.

Calvin himself feels the horrible character of this doctrine. "I inquire again how it came to pass that the fall of Adam, independent of any remedy, should involve so many nations with their infant children in eternal death, but because such was the will of God it is an awful decree, I confess." Nevertheless, when he was attacked, and especially in his last years, in face of his death, then he answered in a little different way: Everything is dependent on Divine predestination. "Their perdition depends on the Divine predestination, in such a manner that the cause and matter of it are found in themselves"; the immediate cause is man's free will. i. e., Calvin thinks, as did Luther, in two levels. The Divine cause is not real cause, but decree, something which is mystery and for which the category of causality is only symbolically and not properly applied. Besides this he knew, as did every Reformer and predestinarian, that it is man's finite freedom through which God acts when He makes His decree of predestination.

If we criticize it, we should not say it is a simple contradiction between God's causality and human freedom that's too easy because the levels are different, and there is no possible contradiction on different levels. If you want a contradiction, you can have it only on the same level. If you therefore have two levels, namely the Divine action which is mysterious because it doesn't fit our categories; and the human action in which freedom and destiny are mixed then you have the real picture. Don't think of the Reformers, or of all great theologians, in a one-leveled thinking. Then you come to all these impossible statements which not only contradict each other and, with a heroic attempt of your mind to destroy itself you say that this is a contra diction which we must accept; but think in terms of two levels, whereby enough mystery is still left, but not a simple logical contradiction, which simply means you use words without meaning. And this should not be done even if you emphasize the paradox: don't make it into a speaking of words without meaning. You can think in terms of two levels; for example, you can say, "I cannot escape the category of causality when I speak of God's action, and when I do so I derive everything from God, including my eternal destiny." This sounds like a mechanical determinism. But this is not what they mean. The two levels, of which the one uses the term "causality" properly, and then posits against it finite freedom the human level; then the Divine level, where causality is used symbolically, and where everything which brings us to God is derived from God. These two statements must be made. And if you divide them up into two levels, they are not logical contradictions, i.e., meaningless sentences. But never demand of anybody to destroy his own logos, I. e., the Image of God, and to make meaningless statements. That is not the relationship between God and man.

This gives a problem, of course, for the individual Calvinist, I. e., the question: Is he elected? What gives us the assurance of election? And so the looking for the criteria, the marks, of election starts. And Calvin finds some of them: the first and decisive of course is the inner relationship of God in the act of faith. But there is also the blessing of God, the moral high standing of someone which are all symptoms. Now psychologically this brought a situation in which the individual was not able to get certainty except in producing the marks of certainty, namely a moral life and an economic blessing. And this means he tried to become a good bourgeois industrial citizen, and believed that if he were this, then had marks of his predestination. Of course, theology knew that predestination never can be caused by such actions. But if they are there, then you can have certainty. And this was the danger of this theology of the marks of predestination.

It is remarkable how little Calvin has to say about the Divine love. The Divine glory replaces the Divine love. And if he speaks of the Divine love, it is love towards those who are elected. But the universality of the Divine love is denied, and the demonic negation, the split of the world, has in Calvin a kind of eternity, through his doctrine of double predestination. Therefore this is a doctrine which contradicts the doctrine of the Divine love as sustaining everything that is, a doctrine which Dante still knew when he wrote, at the entrance of Hell, in his Divina Comedia., "I also have been created by Divine love." But if something is created by Divine love, then it is not eternal condemnation.

Now there are many discussions in Calvin about the doctrine of the Christian life. I only want to make a few statements about it. "When they explain vivification of that joy which the mind experiences after its perturbations and fears are allayed, I cannot coincide with them (I. e. , with Luther) since it should rather signify an ardent desire and endeavor to live a holy and pious life, as though it were said that a man dies to himself that he may begin to live to God." For Luther the new life is a joyful reunion with God; for Calvin it is the attempt to fulfill the law of God in terms of a Christian life. And the summary of the Christian life is self-denial and not love. It is departing from ourselves. "0h, how great a proficiency has that man made who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken the sovereignty and government of himself from his own reason, to surrender it to God." Luther's fragmentary up and down, ecstasy and despair, is not what describes the Christian life in Calvin. The Christian life is a line upwards. exercised in methodical stages. And this gives to the whole type a quite different form.

There are two other elements in it: the world is a place of exile. The body is a valueless prison of the soul. -- Here you hear words more of Plato than the Old or New Testament. But this was in him. Nevertheless he denied any hatred of life. And his asceticism was not the Roman asceticism, to deny life itself, to deny the body in special activities of an ascetic character. But it was what Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch have called inner-worldly asceticism, an asceticism which has two characteristics: cleanliness, in terms of sobriety. chastity, temperance - -subordinated to the concept "clean." -- This has tremendous consequences in the whole life of the nations which were Calvinistic: an extreme external cleanliness, an identification of the erotic element with the unclean against the principles of the Reformation, but in consequence of this Calvinistic ethics.

And the other was that our activities in this world are activities of producing tools and, through tools, profit. It was what one has called the "spirit of capitalism." Now this word has been so much misunderstood that I would like to say a few words about it. There are some primitive people who think that a tremendous scholar like Max Weber and Troeltsch have said that Calvinism has produced capitalism. And then, of course, these people are much cleverer than Max Weber probably the greatest scholar in the whole 19th century in the realm of the humanities and sociology and they tell him that there was capitalism before Calvin lived, especially in the Lombardian plane in north Italy, in the south and north German cities, in London, etc. So we have capitalism before Calvin, and Weber is wrong and I, the clever boy, am right! -- This is probably

wrong. Weber said that there is something in the spirit of Calvinistic ethics and some related sectarian ethics which is useful for serving the purposes of investment in the capitalistic economy. In pre-capitalistic economy the rich man showed his riches in glorious living: he built castles or mansions, or patrician houses - -and we still enjoy building houses today. But that is not the way in which Calvinism tried to show the people how to use their wealth. It should be partly used for endowments; as it is in this country, in which practically all culture is rooted (I. e. , through endowment) and partly for new investments. And this indeed is one of the best ways of supporting the capitalistic form of economy, namely to make the profits into investments, I. e., means for new production, etc., instead of wasting them, as the Calvinists would say, in glorious living.

Now that is what he wanted to say. If you don't believe he was right, I can tell you that in eastern Germany, before the 20th century catastrophes broke in, those cities in which the Protestants were living were the rich ones, and the ones in which the Catholics lived were the poor ones. But perhaps the poor were happier than the rich ones! you cannot say that in these terms; .but you can say that these Calvinistically influenced towns and cities produced German capitalism and not the Catholics, or Lutherans in the east, etc.

So these men were right, if you don't make a childish nonsense out of what they said and that one should not do with such a great scholar.

Calvin's doctrine of Church & State:

Calvin's doctrine of the Church is, like Luther's, the place where preaching is carried on and the sacraments correctly administered, ritually, Calvin, however, makes a much more radical distinction between the empirical Church ;and the invisible Church. While for ;Luther the invisible Church is only the Spiritual quality of the visible Church, for Calvin the invisible Church is the body of those who are predestined in all periods of history, not dependent always on the preaching of the Word. This is connected with what we have learned about Zwingli and Calvin: the doctrine of the Holy Spirit working also apart from the Christian message, and therefore universally active.

>From this point of view the visible Church is an emergency creation, an adaptation of God to human weakness. Therefore it is not a matter of believing in the Church, but believing that there is a Church. The main function of the Church is educational. The Church always has to bring people, through those means, into the invisible Church, the body of the predestined.. On the other hand, the emphasis on this educational work of the Church is much stronger than in Lutheranism. Although ultimately the Church is an emergency creation of God, actually it is the only way for most Christians to come to God at all Therefore he has developed a doctrine of the Church which is quite different from the doctrine which had been developed by Luther. Instead of two marks of the Church, namely doctrine and sacraments he has three marks: doctrine, sacraments, and discipline. And this element of discipline is very decisive. "As some have such a hatred of discipline, as to abhor the very name, they should attend to the following consideration. As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the Church, so discipline forms the ligaments which connect the members together and keep each in its proper place." The discipline starts with private admonition and this admonition was very serious, mostly; it goes through public challenge (this was ruinous, socially) and finally to excommunication. But even excommunication is not(able to remove one from the saving power of God. While in Rome someone who is excommunicated can in this state not be saved, somebody who is in Protestantism can be, or possibly has been, predestined, and if so he will be saved in spite of the excommunication, namely, then the excommunication will not be effective.

These three marks are by Divine law. But there are other things by Divine law. There are four offices: pastors, or ministers (both words are used; ), doctors or teachers, presbyters, deacons.

The most important of these four are the pastors and presbyters. These four are by Divine order, and they have to be always there. They are derived from the Bible.

The Church has in itself, in its own mixed status, a community of active sanctification. This community is created by the Church and becomes manifest in the Lord's Supper. Therefore discipline precedes the giving of the Lord's Supper. Now I don't want to go much into the doctrine of the sacraments in Calvin. The main thing is that he tries to find a mediation between Luther and Zwingli. He does not want, with Zwingli, that the Lord's Supper is only a meal of commemoration; he wants the presence of God, but not a presence which he finds superstitious and magical, as he sees it in Luther, where even those who are not belief-ful eat the body of Christ

The doctrine of the State:

Calvin was a humanist and therefore gave to the state much more functions than Luther. Luther gave it practically only one function: to repress evil and preserve society from chaos. Calvin uses also the ideas of humanism, of good government, of helping the people, and many other things of a more positive way. I can give you this very drastically: the function of a policeman in Germany is to repress; the function of a policeman in this country may also be this function, but beyond this it is the function to help. For us, when we came 20 years ago, it was really an experience when you wanted something you could go to a policeman! Nobody could do that in Germany! Now I hope this has changed, but I don't believe too much. The state represses, but it never helps.

But Calvin never went so far as to say, with the sectarian movements, that the state can be the kingdom of God itself. He calls this a Jewish folly. But what he says was, with Zwingli, that a theocracy has to be established, I. e., a government which not priestly government, but the rule of God through the application of the evangelical laws, through the political situation. And for this he indeed works hard. And he demands that the magistrates of Geneva care not only for legal problems, the problems of order in the general sense, but also for the most important content of the daily life, namely for the Church; not that they shall teach in the Church or give decisions (as to what things) shall be taught. But they must supervise the Church to punish those who are blasphemers and heretics and so he did, with the help of the magistrates of Geneva and to create in all respects a kind of community in which the law of God governs the whole life. No priests and ministers are necessarily involved in it. Theocratic rulers usually are not priests4hen the theocracy becomes hierocracy they are usually laymen, and that is usually what he wanted. The state must punish the impious, he says. They become criminals because they are against the state law, which is based on the Divine law.

Calvinism has saved Protestantism from being overwhelmed by the Counter-Reformation. And it has done so on a world-wide scale by the possibility of alliances of Protestants all over the world Cromwell especially did this the world alliances

which we still have in this country, as an idea of allying the good people against the evil people; of course the evil people are the political enemies, but this is done in the name of the good people, which is something the Lutherans would not do; when they tried it they fell down. This gave Calvinism a tremendous international power.

There is another element in Calvinism, namely the possibility of revolution. If you read Calvin you think this is even worse than Luther. He certainly said that all revolution is against. the law of God, as Luther did. Then he makes an exception which has become decisive for West European history, He said that although no individual citizen should be allowed to make a revolution, the lower magistrates should be able and willing to make a revolution if the natural law, to which every ruler is subjected, should be contradicted by this ruler. Then the lower magistrates have the duty to revolt against him

Now this of course is a possibility that in a democracy such as ours, where all of us are lower magistrates by voting, we establish the government under these

circumstances revolution is, universally permissible. And this was the situation in Western Europe, where the kings and queens were mostly on the side of Catholicism, and Protestantism could be saved only by people who were convinced that in the name of God they can fight against their kings and queens, if kings and queens suppress the true Gospel, namely the purified Gospel of the Reformation.

Let me say a few words about his doctrine of the authority of scripture.. This is a very important point insofar as it was the way in which, finally, biblicism developed in all groups of Protestant faith. The Bible for Calvin is a law of truth, and of course also a law of word. At length, that the truth might remain in the world in a continual course of instruction to all ages, he determined that the same oracles which he had deposited with the patriarchs should be committed to public records. With this design the Law was promulgated, to which the prophets were afterwards annexed as its first interpreters. The Bible, therefore, must above all be obeyed. It contains a "heavenly doctrine." This was necessary although again an adaptation because of the mutability of the human mind. This was the necessary way to preserve the doctrines of Christianity by writing them down, and making, as Calvin says, God's instructions speaks of "the peculiar school of the children of God."

Now all this can be harmless, or can be the opposite, and there is much discussion going on as to how to interpret his doctrine of the Scripture. In any case the answer is that this doctrine is absolute, but it is absolute only for those to whom the Divine Spirit gives the testimony that this book contains the absolute truth. But if this is done, then we can witness to the whole Bible as an authoritarian book of a radically authoritarian character.

The form of the Biblical authority is derived from the fact that the Bible is composed under the dictation of the Holy Spirit. This term, "dictation of the Holy Spirit," is something which produced the doctrine of verbal inspiration, in a way which surpasses anything which existed in Calvinism, and in contradicting the Protestant principle as such: t he disciples were "pens" of Christ; all elements which come from them were superseded by the Divine Spirit which testifies that in this book the oracles of God are contained. "Between the apostles and their successors, however, there is this difference that the apostles were the certain and authentic amanuenses of the Holy Spirit, and therefore their writings are to be received as the oracles of God." Out of the mouth of God" the Bible is written, I. e., the whole Bible; the distinction between the Old and New Testaments largely disappears. And you can find this still today in every Calvinistic country.

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