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The New Being 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. The New Being was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1955. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 10: "By What Authority?"

One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, "Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority." He answered them, "I also will ask you a question; now tell me, Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?" And they discussed it with one another, saying, "If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet." So they answered that they did not know whence it was. And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."

LUKE 20:1-8.

The story we have read was very important to the early Christians who preserved it for us. If we look at it superficially, no reason seems to exist for such a high valuation: the Jewish leaders tried to trap Jesus by a shrewd question, and Jesus trapped them by an even shrewder question. It is a pleasant anecdote. But is it more than this? Indeed, it is infinitely more. It does something surprising: it answers the fundamental question of prophetic religion by not answering it. An answer to the question of authority is refused by Jesus, but the way in which He refuses the answer is the answer.

Let us imagine that He had answered the question of the religious leaders about His authority by asking them about the sources of their authority! They could have replied easily and convincingly. The chief priests could have said, "The source of our authority is our consecration according to a tradition which goes back without interruption to Moses and Aaron. The sacred tradition of which we are a link from the past to the future gives us our authority."

And the scribes could have answered, "The source of our authority is our knowledge—beyond that of anybody else—of the Scriptures. We have studied them day and night since our early childhood, as a student of the Word of God must do. Because we are experts in interpreting the Holy Scriptures, we have authority."

And the elders could have said to Jesus, "The source of our authority is our acquisition of wisdom through many years, and our experience in applying it to the questions of the day. Our wisdom and our experience give us our authority."

And they all together would have said to Jesus, "But who are you, who are not consecrated and not studied in the Scriptures, and without the wisdom of age and the experience of practice? Which is the source of your authority? You have not only taught and preached, you have also acted as a radical, without our approval. You have driven out of the temple all who sold and bought, you have overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And you know yourself that they are necessary for the preservation of the temple and its cult, and for the performance of the sacrifices! By what authority have you turned against the religion as it has been given to us by Moses and by all generations since his time?"

Thus they could have answered His question. But Jesus does not ask them this question. He asks, "Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?" And to this they could not answer. If they had said that it was from men, they would have hurt the popular feeling and perhaps even a feeling within themselves, that John was a prophet. But if they had said that he was from God, they would have established an authority beyond the threefold authority which they could claim for themselves. And this they did not want. They, who were called authorities, demanded that all authority be vested in them. Therefore, they did not accept John as a prophet, nor Jesus as the Christ. . . . Don’t minimize the seriousness of this conflict. It was not simply a conflict between good and evil, between faith and unbelief. The conflict was much more profound and much more tragic than this!

Let us imagine that we ourselves were in the place of those who asked Jesus about the source of His authority. Let us imagine ourselves as the guardians of a great religious tradition, or as the unquestionable experts in a sphere of decisive importance for human existence, or as people who have learned through along experience to deal with matters of highest value. And let us also assume that we had no function as legally established authorities, and that somebody came and spoke about the same things in quite a different language and acted in the field of our authority in quite a radical way; how would we react? And if the people who saw and heard this man said of him what they said about Jesus, that he teaches as one who has authority and not as we the established authorities, how would we react? Would we not think: He confuses the masses, he spreads dangerous doctrines, he undermines well-proved laws and institutions, he introduces strange modes of life and thought, he disrupts sacred ties, he destroys traditions from which generations of men have received discipline and strength and hope? It is our duty to resist him and if possible to remove him! For the sake of our people we must defend our consecrated and tested authority against this man who cannot show the source of the authority he claims." Could we be blamed for such a reaction? And if not, can we blame the authorities in Jerusalem for their reaction to Jesus?

We think of the Reformation. This was a moment in the history of the Church in which the question of authority was once more in the center of events. Luther, and consequently the whole Protestant world, broke away from the Roman Church and from 1500 years of Christian tradition when no agreement about the authority of the pope and the councils could be reached. Here, again, someone had arisen who spoke and acted with an authority the sources of which could not be determined by legal means. And here also we must ask, "Are the Catholic authorities who rejected him in the name of their established authority to be blamed for it?" But if we do not blame them, we can ask them, "Why do you blame the Jewish authorities who did exactly the same as you did when the people said of the Reformers that they spoke with authority and not like the priests and monks?" Is the same thing so different if it is done by the Jewish high priest and if it is done by the Roman high priest? And one may ask the present-day Protestant authorities in Europe and in this country, "Are you certain that the insistence on your authority, on your tradition, and on your experience does not suppress the kind of authority which Jesus had in mind?"

And now we ask, "What does authority mean? What does it mean for man as man? What does it mean for our period and for each of us?"

First of all, it means that we are finite and in need of what the word "authority" really says: to be started and increased. It means that we are born, that we were infants and children, that we were completely dependent on those who gave us life and home and guidance and contents for soul and mind. We were not able to decide for ourselves for many years, and that made us dependent on authority and made authority a benefit for us. We accepted this authority without resistance, even if we rebelled on special occasions. And this authority became the basis for all other authorities. It gave strength to the authority of the older brother or sister, of the more mature friend or teacher, of the official, of the ruler, of the minister. And through them we have been introduced into the institutions and traditions in society, state and Church. Authority permeates, guides, shapes our lives. The acceptance of authority is the acceptance of what is given by those who have more than we. And our subjection to them and to what they stand for enables us to live in history, as our subjection to the laws of nature enables us to live in nature. And from the authority of the law is derived the authority of those who represent and administer it and who, for this reason, are called "the authorities."

Our daily life would be impossible without traditions of behavior and customs and the authority of those who have received them and surrendered them to us. Man’s control of nature would be impossible without the tradition of knowledge and skill into which every new generation is introduced and which gives authority to those who are able to introduce us. Man’s intellectual life—the language he uses, the songs he sings, the music he plays, the houses he builds, the pictures he paints, the symbols he creates—he has received through the authority of those who have participated in it before him. Man’s religious life—the faith he holds, the cult he loves, the stories and legends he has heard, the commandments he tries to obey, the texts he knows by heart—all this is not created by him; he takes it from those who represent to him religious authority.

And if he revolts against the authorities which have shaped him, he does it with the tools he has received from them. The language of the revolutionary is formed by those against whom he revolts. The protest of the reformer uses the tradition against which he protests. Therefore, no absolute revolution is possible. If it is attempted, it fails immediately; and if a revolution succeeds, its leaders soon have to use forms and ideas created by the authorities of the past. This is true of the rebellion of the adolescent against the family authority as well as of the rebellion of new social groups against the authority of the established powers.

When we speak of human finitude, we usually think of man’s transitoriness in time, of birth and death, of the vicissitudes which threaten him in every moment. But we are not only finite in that we are temporal, we are also finite in that we are historical and that means subject to authority, even if we rebel against it. We are thrown into existence, not only bodily, but also mentally. In no respect are we by ourselves, in no moment can we be by ourselves. He who tries to be without authority tries to be like God, who alone is by Himself. And like everyone who tries to be like God, he is thrown down to self-destruction, be it a single human being, be it a nation, be it a period of history like our own.

In our story, Jesus as well as His foes acknowledge authority. They struggle about valid authority, not about authority as such. And this is what we find everywhere in the Bible and the life of the Church. Paul fights with the original disciples, including Peter, about the foundations of apostolic authority. The bishops fight with the enthusiasts about the leadership in the Church. The popes fight with the princes about the ultimate source of political authority. The reformers fight with the hierarchs about the interpretation of the Bible. The theologians fight with the scientists about the criteria of ultimate truth. None of the struggling groups denies authority, but each of them denies the authority of the other group.

But if the authority is split in itself, which authority decides? Is not split authority the end of authority? Was not the split produced by the Reformation the end of the authority of the Church? Is not the split about the interpretation of the Bible the end of the Biblical authority? Is not the split between theologians and scientists the end of intellectual authority? Is not the split between father and mother the end of parental authority? Was not the split between the gods of polytheism the end of their divine authority? Is not the split in one’s conscience the end of the authority of one’s conscience? If one has to choose between different authorities, not they but oneself is ultimate authority for oneself, and this means: there is no authority for him.

This, however, creates the dreadful alternative of our historical period. If there is no authority, we must decide ourselves, each for himself. As finite beings we must act as if we were infinite, and since this is impossible, we are driven into complete insecurity, anxiety and despair. Or, unable to stand the loneliness of deciding for ourselves, we suppress the fact that there is a split authority. We subject ourselves to a definite authority and close our eyes against all other claims. The desire of most people to do this is very well known to those in power. They use the unwillingness of human beings to decide for themselves in order to preserve their power and to increase it. This is true of religious as well as of political powers. On this ground of human weakness the systems of authority are built in past and present.

"By what authority" do you do this? Jesus is asked. And He answers not by answering but by pointing to the acting and speaking of John. Here, He tells the leaders of His nation, you see the rise of an authority without ritual or legal foundation. But you deny the possibility of it. So you deny both the Baptist and myself. You deny the possibility of an authority guaranteed by its inner power. You have forgotten that the only test of the prophets was the power of what they had to say. Listen to what the people say about us, namely, that we speak with authority and not as you, who are called the "authorities." That is what He tells them.

What would He say to us? He would not have to fight about His authority with the chief priests and the scribes and the elders of our day. In our time they all acknowledge Him. He would have to ask a quite different question of them. He would have to ask: "What is the nature of my authority for you? Is it like that of John the Baptist, or is it like that of the authorities who tried to remove me? Have you made the words of those who have witnessed to me, the Bible, the Church Fathers, the popes, the reformers, the creeds, into ultimate authorities? Have you done this in my name? And if so, do you not abuse my name? For whenever my name is remembered, my fight with those who were in authority is also remembered."

There is something in the Christian message which is opposed to established authority. There is something in the Christian experience which revolts against subjection to even the greatest and holiest experiences of the past. And this something is indicated in the question of Jesus, "Was the baptism of John from God or man?" and in His refusal to give an answer! That which makes an answer impossible is the nature of an authority which is derived from God and not man. The place where God gives authority to a man cannot be circumscribed. It cannot be legally defined. It cannot be put into the fences of doctrines and rituals. It is here, and you do not know where it comes from. You cannot derive it. You must be grasped by it. You must participate in its power. This is the reason why the question of authority never can get an ultimate answer. Certainly there are many preliminary answers. There is no day in our lives in which we do not give, silently or openly, answers to the question of authority, saying mostly "yes" and sometimes "no."

But an ultimate answer we cannot give. We only can point to a reality, as Jesus does. And this is what our religious leaders could and should do—the churches, and the ministers, and the theologians, and every Christian who acts as a priest to other Christians. They all can raise their finger as Jesus did to John, and as John did to Jesus. We all can point passionately, but not as established authorities, to the Crucified—as does the Baptist, in the tremendous picture by the old painter Matthias Grünewald. There his whole being is in the finger with which he points to the Cross. This is the greatest symbol of which I know for the true authority of the Church and the Bible. They should not point to themselves but to the reality which breaks again and again through the established forms of their authority and through the hardened forms of our personal experiences. And once more we ask: "What does it mean that the question of authority cannot get an ultimate answer?" It would sound like a blasphemy if I said, "Because God Himself cannot give an answer." It would sound not blasphemous but conventional if I said, "Because God is Spirit." Yet both sentences mean the same. God who is Spirit cannot give an ultimate answer to the question of authority. The churches, their leaders and members, often ignore the infinite significance of the words "God is Spirit." But the sharp eyes of the enemy see what these words mean. Nietzsche calls the man who first said that God is Spirit the first one of those who have killed God. His profound insight into the human soul made it certain to him that a God who is not circumscribed on a definite place, who does not answer definitively the question of authority, cannot be accepted by most human beings. If he were right, we either had to agree with him that there is no God left, or we had to return to a God who tells us a definite answer to the question of authority, and subjects us by Divine order to an established religious authority as the earthly representative of His own heavenly authority. But this God is not the God who is Spirit. Actually, such a God is the heavenly image of the earthly authorities which use Him for the consecration of their own power. This God is not the God of whom Jesus speaks in our story.

The God who cannot answer the question of ultimate authority because He is Spirit does not remove the preliminary authorities with whom we live our daily lives. He does not condemn us to the emptiness of an adolescent who feels that the world must start with himself. He does not deprive us of protection of those who have more wisdom and power than we have. He does not isolate us from the community to which we belong and which is a part of ourselves. But he denies ultimate significance to all these preliminary authorities, to all those who claim to be images of His authority and who distort God’s authority into the oppressive power of a heavenly tyrant.

The God who does not answer the question of ultimate authority transforms the preliminary authorities into media and tools of Himself—of the God who is Spirit. Parental authority on earth is not the consecrated image of a parental authority in heaven, but it is the earliest tool through which the Spiritual qualities of order and self-control and love are mediated to us. Therefore, the parents must be and remain subjects of honor, but not of unconditional authority. Even God whom we call the Father in heaven cannot answer the ultimate question of authority. How could the parents?

The authority of wisdom and knowledge on earth is not the consecrated image of the authority of heavenly omniscience, but it is the tool through which the Spiritual qualities of humility and knowledge and wisdom are mediated to us. Therefore, the wise ones should be honored but not accepted as unconditional authorities.

The authorities in community and society, in nation and state, are not consecrated images of heavenly power and justice, but they are tools through which the Spiritual qualities of mutuality, understanding, righteousness, and courage can be mediated to us. Therefore, the social authorities should be accepted as guarantees of external order but not as those which determine the meaning of our lives.

The authority of the Church is not the consecrated earthly image of the Heavenly Ruler of the Church, but it is a medium through which the Spiritual substance of our lives is preserved and protected and reborn.

Even the authority of Jesus the Christ is not the consecrated image of the man who rules as a dictator, but it is the authority of him who emptied himself of all authority; it is the authority of the man on the Cross. It is one and the same thing, if you say that God is Spirit and that He is manifest on the Cross.

And you who are fighting against authorities and you who are searching for authorities, listen to the story in which Jesus fights against them and establishes an authority which cannot be established! Here is an answer, namely, that no answer can be given except the one that, beyond all preliminary authorities, you must keep yourselves open to the power of Him who is the ground and the negation of everything which is authority on earth and in Heaven! .


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