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The Protestant Era 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 Protestant Era was published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois in 1948. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock<

Chapter 10: Ethics in a Changing World

"Changing world" in the title of this chapter does not mean the general change implied in everything that exists; neither does it mean the continuous change connected more fundamentally with history than with nature; but it points to the fact that we are living in a historical period, characterized by a radical and revolutionary transformation of one historical era into another one. Nobody can doubt this fact seriously, and nobody who has even a minimum of historical understanding would do so after what has occurred during recent years. We are in the midst of a world revolution affecting every section of human existence, forcing upon us a new interpretation of life and the world. What about ethics in this connection? Does it represent a realm above change? Is it suprahistorical in its foundation, its values, and its commands? Or does it follow the stream of historical becoming, and will it be transformed as rapidly as the other realms of life are transformed in our days? If the latter be the case, what authority, what power of shaping human life, is left to it? Can the unconditional claim with which every moral demand imposes itself on human conscience be maintained if the contents of the demand are different in every period of history? But if the former be the case—if ethics constitutes a realm above history, immovable and unconcerned by historical change—how can it influence man, living in history and transformed by history? Would it not remain a strange body within the context of human experience, separated from it in untouchable remoteness, perhaps worthy of awe but without actual influence on the life-process? In order to answer these questions and to refer them to our present situation, I intend to deal, first, with some solutions appearing in the history of human thought which are still of tremendous actual importance; second, I want to give my own solution; and, third, I will try to apply this solution to the present world situation by giving some practical examples.


There are three great types of life and thought representing three different solutions of the problem of ethics in historical change: first, the static supra-naturalistic solution, represented by the Roman Catholic church and expressed in the ethics of Thomas Aquinas. Second, the dynamic-naturalistic solution, represented by the National Socialist movement and expressed in the ethics of the philosophers of life. Third, the rationalistic-progressive solution, represented by Anglo-Saxon common sense and expressed in the ethics of the philosophers of reason. With tremendous psychological power the static supra-naturalistic solution maintains the eternal and immovable character of the ethical norms and commands. Philosophy and theology co-operate in this direction. The world is conceived as a system of eternal structures, preformed in the divine mind, which are substance and essence of everything and which establish the norms and laws for man’s personal and social practice. Philosophy discovers these structures and laws, revelation confirms and amends them. And revelation adds some superstructures of its own that are new and higher laws but equally eternal and immovable. Both the natural and the supra-natural structures together form a hierarchy of powers and values which control nature and are supposed to control human activities. The church, itself a hierarchical system, teaches this system, educates for it, fights for its political realization, defends it against new systems. But in doing so the church cannot disregard the actual situation and the historical changes. The church must adapt its ethical system to new problems and new demands. The Catholic church has been able to do so in an admirable way for centuries, and the living authority of the pope is still a marvelous instrument for achieving adaptations without losing its immovable basis. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the Catholic church did not fully succeed in dealing with the presuppositions and demands of the bourgeois era. Protestantism and the Enlightenment created new systems of ethics standing in opposition to the supposedly eternal system of the medieval church. And when the church tried to go with the stream of the rising bourgeoisie, as, for instance, in the moral preachings of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuitism and in the teachings of nineteenth-century modernism, either it lost its seriousness and authority, or it gave the bad impression of a fight of retreat in which every position was defended as long as possible and then surrendered. And the important utterances of the Holy See during the nineteenth century concerning social and political problems presuppose, in order to be applicable, the unbroken unity and authority of the Christian church, which no longer exist. Therefore, they did not influence at all the spirit of modern ethics and the direction of bourgeois society. The price paid by the static supra-naturalistic answer to our question has been the loss of a determining influence on the changing world of the last centuries.

The opposite solution, represented by national socialism, was prepared for in two main ways—by the Continental vitalistic philosophy and by Anglo-American positivism and pragmatism, the latter being only a different form of the vitalistic philosophy. National socialism has used and abused the philosophical motives of the Continental philosophy of life, especially of Nietzsche, Pareto, and Sorel. Philosophy must express life in its changing forms and trends. Truth, according to Nietzsche, is that lie which is useful for a particular species of beings. Values are produced and withdrawn in the dynamic process of life—biologically speaking, by the strongest kind of living beings; sociologically speaking, by the new élite; politically speaking, by the eruptive violence of a revolutionary group. Change, being the main character of life, is also the main character of ethics. There are no independent norms above, life, no criteria by which power could be judged, no standards for a good life. Good life is strong life or violent life or the life of a ruling aristocracy or the life of a conquering race. This implies that the individual, instead of being guided by the ethical norms which are manifest in his conscience, is obliged to merge his conscience into the group conscience. He must co-ordinate his standards with the group standards as represented by the leaders of the group. The dynamic-naturalistic type of answer to the question of ethics in a changing world has a primitive-tribal character. It is, historically speaking, at the same time the most recent and the most ancient of all solutions of the ethical problem.

I have mentioned Anglo-Saxon positivism and pragmatism in this connection. It is an important task of this paper to make it clear that pragmatism and vitalistic philosophy belong to the same type of ethical dynamism. When pragmatism speaks of experience, it surrenders the criteria of truth and the good no less than does vitalistic philosophy. There are for it no norms above the dynamic process of experience, namely, of experienced life. The question of what kind of life creates ethical experience and what the standards of a true ethical experience are is not answered and cannot be answered within the context of pragmatic thought. Therefore, the pragmatists and the positivists take their refuge in an ethical instinct, which is supposed to lead to an ethical common sense. This refuge is secure as long as there is a society with a strong common belief and conventional morals maintained by the leading groups of society. Such was the situation in the acme of the bourgeois development, for instance, in the Victorian era. But it no longer worked when the harmony of a satisfied society slowly disappeared and dissatisfied groups, masses, and nations asked for a new order of life. The ethical instinct of those groups was much different from the ethical instincts of the ascendant Victorian bourgeoisie, and the refuge in ethical instinct and common sense became ineffective. Pragmatism and positivism were unable to face this threat because in their basic ideas they agree with the principles of the philosophy of life. The intellectual defense of Anglo-Saxon civilization against Fascist ideologies is extremely weak. Common-sense philosophy and pragmatism are not able to provide criteria against the dynamic irrationalism of the new movements; and they are not able to awaken the moral power of resistance, which is needed for the maintenance of the humanistic values embodied in Western and Anglo-Saxon civilization. It is not positivism and pragmatism but the remnants of the rationalistic-progressive solution of the ethical problem on which the future of that civilization is based. The solution is the most natural one for an undisturbed bourgeois thought and is still deeply rooted in the subconscious of contemporary philosophers as well as of laymen. There are, according to this point of view, some eternal principles, the natural law of morals—but without the supra-natural sanction claimed for it in the Catholic system. These principles, as embodied in the Bill of Rights, are like stars which always remain far remote from every human realization but which, like stars, show the direction in which mankind must go. Once discovered, they cannot disappear again, although their theoretical and practical realization is always in a process toward a higher perfection. In this way they are adaptable to every human situation.

Is this the solution of the problem of ethics in a changing world? In some ways it is, in some ways not. It indicates the direction in which the solution must be sought. There must be something immovable in the ethical principle, the criterion and standard of all ethical change. And there must be a power of change within the ethical principle itself; and both must be united. But the rationalistic-progressive solution is far from reaching this unity. It establishes some principles, such as freedom and equality, in the name of the absolute natural law, to be found in nature and human reason at any time and in any place. Mankind is supposed to realize these principles, theoretically and practically, in a process of approximation. It is the same natural law, the same principles which always are more or less known, more or less received in reality. "More or less" points to a quantitative difference, not to a qualitative change, not to new creations in the ethical realm. Ethics in a changing world changes only quantitatively, namely, as far as progress or regression with respect to their realization is concerned. More or less freedom and more or less equality are admitted, but not a new freedom or a new equality. But the principles on which the progressive-rationalistic solution is based represent a special pattern, a special type of freedom and equality, that of the later ancient or that of the modern bourgeois period. They do not represent principles comprehensive enough to embrace all periods and creative enough to bring new embodiments of themselves. They are not eternal enough to be ultimate principles and not temporal enough to fit a changing world. Therefore, as the Catholic system was not able to adapt itself seriously to the modern period of bourgeois growth, so the bourgeois-progressive rationalism was not able to face the breakdown of the bourgeois world. Supra-natural and rational absolutism in ethics both proved to be unable to adapt themselves to a fundamental change in the historical situation.


Is there a possible solution beyond the alternative of an absolutism that breaks down in every radical change of history and a relativism that makes change itself the ultimate principle? I think there is, and I think it is implied in the basis of Christian ethics, namely, in the principle of love, in the sense of the Greek word agape. This is not said in an apologetic interest for Christianity, but it is said under the urge of the actual problem in our present world situation. Love, agape, offers a principle of ethics which maintains an eternal, unchangeable element but makes its realization dependent on continuous acts of a creative intuition. Love is above law, also above the natural law in Stoicism and the supra-natural law in Catholicism. You can express it as a law, you can say as Jesus and the apostles did: "Thou shalt love"; but in doing so you know that this is a paradoxical way of speaking, indicating that the ultimate principle of ethics, which, on the one hand, is an unconditional command, is, on the other hand, the power breaking through all commands. And just this ambiguous character of love enables it to be the solution of the question of ethics in a changing world. If you look at the principles of natural law as embodied in the Bill of Rights, you will find that, taken as the concrete embodiments of the principle of love in a special situation, they are great and true and powerful; they represent love by establishing freedom and equal rights against willfulness and suppression and against the destruction of the dignity of human beings. But, taken as eternal laws and applied legalistically to different situations, for instance, to the early Middle Ages or the decay and transformation of economic capitalism, these principles become bad ideologies used for the maintenance of decaying institutions and powers. This is the reason for the extremely profound struggle of Paul and Luther against the "Law" and for their insistence on the mortifying consequences of the law and the vivifying power of love. Love alone can transform itself according to the concrete demands of every individual and social situation without losing its eternity and dignity and unconditional validity. Love can adapt itself to every phase of a changing world.

I like to introduce at this place another Greek word, namely, kairos, "the right time." This word, used in common Greek, has received an emphatic meaning in the language of the New Testament, designating the fulfillment of time in the appearance of the Christ. It has been reinterpreted by German religious socialism in the sense of a special gift and a special task, breaking from eternity into history at a special time. "Kairos" in this sense is the historical moment in which something new, eternally important, manifests itself in temporal forms, in the potentialities and tasks of a special period. It is the power of the prophetic spirit in all periods of history to pronounce the coming of such a kairos, to discover its meaning, to express the criticism of what is given and the hope for what is to come. All great changes in history are accompanied by a strong consciousness of a kairos at hand. Therefore, ethics in a changing world must be understood as ethics of the kairos. The answer to the demand for ethics in a changing world is ethics determined by the kairos; but only love is able to appear in every kairos. Law is not able because law is the attempt to impose something which belonged to a special time on all times. An ideal which has appeared at the right time and is valid for this time is considered to be the ideal for history as a whole, as that form of life in which history shall find its end. The outcome of this attitude necessarily is disillusionment and the rise of ethical libertinism and relativism. This is the point in which the dynamic-naturalistic solution, in spite of its destructive consequences, was right and still is right against Catholic and bourgeois ethics. Or, expressed in terms of church history, this is the point in which Luther is right against Thomas and Calvin. Love, realizing itself from kairos to kairos, creates an ethics which is beyond the alternative of absolute and relative ethics.


This solution may be explained and made more concrete by some examples.

As a first example let us consider the idea of equality, one of the foundations of rationalistic-progressive ethics. In the light of the principle of love and in the perspective of the idea of kairos, the following can be said: Love implies equality in some respect. He who loves and he who is loved are equal for each other as far as they are worthy of love, the one for the other. But nothing else than just this principle of equality is implied—essentially implied—in love. Everything else is a historical embodiment of that principle in different situations, with love and the distortion of love at the same time. Looking at a Greek city-state, we discover that there is a political equality between the individuals within a special group and, to a certain extent, between all those who are free; but there is an absolute inequality between the free and the slaves. Love is not manifest as the principle; but, since it potentially is the principle, it is effective even in the religion and culture of Apollo and Dionysus. It is effective in the kind of equality that the city-state gives to those who belong to it, excluding slaves and barbarians. Love is effective even in this restricted equality, but it is a restricted, distorted love—love within the boundaries of national pride and racial discrimination. The central kairos in which love has become manifest as what it really is had not yet appeared. Nor had it appeared when Stoicism in the period of the universal Roman Empire extended equality to all human beings—men and women, children and slaves. In these ideas the principle of love breaks through the limitations of national and social arrogance, but it does so as universal, rational law and not as love. The Stoic equality is universal but cool and abstract, without the warmth and the communal element of the limited equality in the city-state. At its best it is participation in Roman citizenship and in the possibility of becoming a wise man. In the Christian event, love has become manifest in its universality but, at the same time, in its concreteness: the "neighbor" is the immediate object of love, and everybody can become "neighbor." All inequalities between men are overcome in so far as men are potential children of God. But this did not lead Christianity to the Stoic idea of equality. Not even the inequality between lord and slave was attacked, except in the realm of faith and love. Later, not the totalitarian, but the hierarchical, principle was supported by the Christian church according to the late ancient and medieval situation. The social and psychological inequalities of the feudal order did not seem to contradict the element of equality implied in the principle of love. On the contrary, the mutual interdependence of all the degrees of the hierarchy, the solidarity of all the members of a medieval city, and the patriarchalistic care of the feudal lords for their "people" were considered as the highest form of equality demanded by the principle of love. In bourgeois liberalism, equality was again interpreted in terms of the general natural law, the law of reason and humanity. Equality became equality before the law and the demand for equal economic chances. This was in accordance with the principle of love over against the tyranny and injustice into which the older system had developed. But in the measure in which the equal chance of everybody became a mere ideology to cover the exclusive chance for a few, the liberal idea of equality became a contradiction of love. A new idea of equality has risen, the meaning of which is the equal security of everyone, even if much political equality must be sacrificed. One must not condemn the collectivistic and authoritarian forms of equality only because they are the negation of its liberal and democratic forms. Love may demand a transformation in our kairos. A new creative realization of the element of equality as implied in the principle of love may be brought about in our period. It will be good, as far as it is in better accord with the demands of love in our special situation than the liberal and feudal forms were. It will be bad, as far as it is a distortion and contradiction of love; for love is eternal, although it creates something new in each kairos.

I could refer to many other ethical problems in order to show their double dependence on the principle of love, on the one hand, and on the changing kairos, on the other hand. For instance, I could point to the valuation of work and activism in the different periods of history and their relation to leisure and meditation. It is obvious that the coming collectivism will reduce the emphasis on work and activism considerably by restraining the principle of competition. As the struggle against some forms of feudal and ecclesiastical leisure and meditative life was a demand of love in the period of the decaying Middle Ages and in the moment in which mankind started its control over nature, so it is now a demand of love and of our kairos that leisure and meditation return on the basis of a new collectivistic structure of society over against a self-destructive adoration of work and activism.

Other examples are the problems of asceticism and worldliness, of self-control and self-expression, of discipline and creativity, in their relation to each other. Both sides of these contrasts follow from the principle of love. The negation of the first side would prevent the self-surrender implied in love; the negation of the second side would destroy any subject worth being loved. It depends on the kairos as to which of these sides, in which form, and in which balance with the other side, is emphasized. For our present situation neither the supra-natural ascetism of the Catholic system nor the rational self-control of bourgeois society nor the naturalistic war- and state-discipline of fascism can give the solution. And the same is true of feudal eroticism, of bourgeois aestheticism, and of Fascist adoration of vitality; another solution is demanded by love and by our kairos. Some elements of the solution are provided by psychoanalysis, although mere psychotherapeutic psychology is not able to create by itself a new system of ethics. Other elements of the solution are brought about by the rediscovery of the classical meaning of eros and by the different attempts to relate it to agape. The educational movements and the criticism of the bourgeois ideal of the family have contributed a great deal. But everything is in motion, and the criterion of the final solution is the measure in which eros, on the one hand, and self-control, on the other hand, are shaped by love.

A final question must be answered. If love is the principle of ethics and if kairos is the way of its embodiment in concrete contents, how can a permanent uncertainty, a continuous criticism which destroys the seriousness of the ethical demand, be avoided? Is not law and are not institutions necessary in order to maintain the actual ethical process? Indeed, law and institutions are demanded. They are demanded by love itself; for every individual, even the most creative, needs given structures that embody the experience and wisdom of the past, that liberate him from the necessity of innumerable decisions of his own, and that show him a meaningful way of acting in most cases. In this point Catholicism was superior in love both to Protestantism and to liberalism; and this is the reason why the younger generation in many countries eagerly demand laws and institutions able to relieve them from the unbearable burden of continuous ultimate decisions of their own. No ethics ever can become an actual power without laws and institutions. Luther, in his great emphasis on the creativity of love, forgot this need. This is one of the reasons why the moral education of the German masses is less thorough than that in the Calvinistic countries. On the other hand, there is more readiness for a kairos in Germany than there is in the highly educated and normalized Western nations. Love demands laws and institutions, but love is always able to break through them in a new kairos and to create new laws and new systems of ethics.

I have not mentioned the word "justice." It would be misleading in the present discussion because it is generally understood in the sense of the abstract natural law of Stoicism and rationalism. As such it is either empty or it is the concrete law of a special period and is thus without universal validity. If justice is taken concretely, it means the laws and institutions in which love is embodied in a special situation. The Platonic ideal of justice was the concrete harmony of the city-state; in Israel, justice was the pious obedience to the commands of God; in medieval feudalism it was the form of mutual responsibility of all degrees of the hierarchy to each other; in liberalism it was the laws abolishing formal privileges and introducing legal equality. In the more collectivistic society of the future, justice will be the system of laws and forms by which a sufficient security of the whole and of all members will be maintained and developed. From this it follows that justice is the secondary and derived principle, while love, actualized from kairos to kairos, is the creative and basic principle.

I have given no definition of love. This is impossible because there is no higher principle by which it could be defined. It is life itself in its actual unity. The forms and structures in which love embodies itself are the forms and structures in which life is possible, in which life overcomes its self-destructive forces. And this is the meaning of ethics: to express the ways in which love embodies itself and life is maintained and saved.

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