Tillich, Paul. History of Christian Thought.
As far as histories of Christian thought go this is actually one of the better ones. A number of issues, though, prevent it from a fully recommendation.
Absorption into “The One”
Tillilich’s most important contribution in this volume is his lucid discussion of Neo-Platonism. Going beyond traditional accounts, Tillich describes it as “the abyss of everything specific.” Neo-Platonism, as it relates to the “One,” says that the One is beyond all distinctions, beyond the difference between Subject and Object (it’s hard to define what Neo-Platonism means by “the One.” Loosely-speaking, we will call it the “God-concept” for lack of a better term). It is not purely negative but is rather positive: it incorporates everything into itself.
This might seem like an arcane discussion, but it is crucial to understanding not only the rest of Christian thought, but Tillich’s own ethics and theology. Tillich will identify God, or more importantly, our experience of God, as the “ground of being.” Salvation, thus, for Tillich, is entering into the “New Being.” Sin and evil are, obviously, nothing, no-thing, the dissolution of being. Readers will certainly recognize Augustine’s discussion of evil as a privation of Good.
Tillich gives a particularly good analysis of the recurring realist-nominalist debate. He goes beyond the mere textbook descriptions which say that realists believe that universal ideas exist, whereas nominalists do not. That’s true, but fails to capture the power of the movement. Tillich notes that for the realists, universals were dynamic powers of being arranged in a hierarchy where the one universal above mediated below, and so on. When I read this, all of a sudden Platonism made perfect sense. Interestingly, Tillich notes that when Greek paganism became Hellenized, the pagan gods were simply transposed into universal mediations. This is particularly insightful when we apply this same analysis to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox syncretism ala Mary and the saints.
High Points Through History
Not every thinker is going to be consistently good in analysing church history. Tillich’s particular strengths are Augustine, Anselm, and Luther. I do not buy into Tillich’s apologetics, but his discussion of the ontological argument was good. While risking some oversimplification, he notes a number of differences between Eastern and Western thought. Salvation for the former was absorption into the One, a vertical movement, whereas the primary reality for the latter was a horizontal movement, eschatology. This is a terrible oversimplification, but there is some truth in it as it relates to Origen’s influence on Eastern theology and Christology. Western thought, by contrast, was able to better develop a kingdom of God eschatology. Tillich, though, does not develop this point in greater detail.
The Bad Parts
Tillich, despite his protests, is a liberal. He relies on outdated scholarship which makes the silliest claims (he thinks Daniel got his material from the Persians, which is silly even on Tillich’s own analysis since the Persian religion was ontological absorption, whereas Daniel spoke of the horizontal movement of the Kingdom of God in history–Daniel 2, 7, and 9). Further, while Tillich himself gives a good criticism of Eastern ontology, it’s difficult to see how his own view isn’t similar
Depraved Sexual Ethics
Tillich makes a number of strange claims that do not make sense unless one is aware of Tillich’s own life. (Tillich, while there was no official diagnosis, likely suffered from satyriosis). He accuses Calvinist countries of having a repressed sexual ethic. This is strange since it was the Puritans and Reformers who delighted in sexual love between husband and wife. The Romanist Thomas More accused the Reformers of drinking and “lechering.” What does Tillich mean by this claim? According to his wife’s biography of him, and his son’s own memory,
And I am saying that at the beginning they agreed sexual involvement with others was permitted and that this arrangement got out of hand. He wouldn’t stop and she didn’t like it anymore, perhaps after the trauma of emigration and adjusting to a new world and a new child” (p. 14)
This quote is one of the rather tame ones and I won’t cite more for propriety reasons. It gets a lot worse, including Tillich’s frequenting of brothels. How can Tillich justify this? Simple. It goes back to his “ground-of-being” theology. Salvation is finding actuality in “the New Being.” Tillich, thus, would seek sexual experience in other women, even prostitutes, but rationalized this by saying he wasn’t seeking “actuality” in these encounters.
Unfortunately, even by Tillich’s own ethical theory, I think he fails. We must bring up the uncomfortable likelihood that he risked (if not openly caught) venereal diseases from these encounters. This would have a destructive side-effect on his existence. Would this not, accordingly, be a slide into non-being and dissolution? Indeed it would, and so by his own existential standards he is condemned.
I think this explains his anger at the Calvinist sexual ethic. The Reformers and Puritans saw joy in married sex–something Tillich rejected in his own life–and denied sexual encounters with strange women, something Tillich openly sought.
Is this book worth getting? It’s hard to say. The philosophical analyses were superb, but knowing Tillich’s own background I’m uneasy recommending it. I bought my copy at a garage sale for about ten cents (and the previous owner bought it from a public library book sale for about the same price. No profit or royalties were made by anybody). I wouldn’t spend more than that on it.