Bonus: Celsus and Justin Martyr

The History of Christian Thought

Paul Tillich, Professor of Philosophical Theology, Union Theological Seminary, New York City

(ENTIRE LECTURE SERIES) From “In the Spring of 1953, Professor Tillich offered a course at Union Theological Seminary, entitled ‘The History of Christian Thought: Lectures in Church History (108).’ This was the last time Dr. Tillich offered the course. [Tillich moved on to become University Professor at Harvard.] Students took stenographic notes and distributed copies to the class. What follows are the verbatim notes from that class. There were thirty-eight sessions, but Lecture 11 is missing.”

From Wikipedia concerning Paul Tillich:

“Paul Johannes Tillich (August 20, 1886 – October 22, 1965) was a GermanAmerican theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher. Tillich was – along with his contemporaries Rudolf Bultmann (Germany), Karl Barth (Switzerland), and Reinhold Niebuhr (United States) – one of the four most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th century.Among the general populace, he is best known for his works The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), which introduced issues of theology and modern culture to a general readership. Theologically, he is best known for his major three-volume work Systematic Theology (1951–63), in which he developed his “method of correlation”: an approach of exploring the symbols of Christian revelation as answers to the problems of human existence raised by contemporary existential philosophical analysis.

This document below is in the public domain.

Lecture 5: The Apologetic Movement. Celsus, Justin Martyr.

Today I want to start with something which can rightly be called the birthplace of a developed Christian theology, namely the apologetic movement. Christianity needed apologetics for different reasons. Apologeisthai means replying, answering, to the judge in the court, if somebody accuses you. You remember Socrates’ apologia, his answer to those who accused him. In the same sense, Christianity expressed itself in terms of answers, of apologia. The people who did this systematically are called the apoligists.

The necessity to answer was brought about because of a double accusation against Christianity : 1) that Christianity is a danger to the Roman Empire. This was the political accusation, that it undermines the structure of this empire.

2) that, philosophically speaking, Christianity is nonsense, a superstition mixed with philosophical fragments.

These two attacks supported each other. The philosophical attack was taken over by the authorities and used in their accusations. In this way these philosophical attacks became dangerous even in terms of political consequences. And so Christianity had to defend itself against both. The most important representative of these attacks was the physician and philosopher CELSUS. It is very important to listen to him in order to see how Christianity looked at that time to an educated Greek philosopher and scientist. For Celsus, Christianity is a mixture of fanatic superstition and philosophical piecemeal. The historical reports, according to him, are contradictory and are uncertain in their evidence. Here we have, for the first time, something which has repeated itself again and again: historical criticism of the Old and New Testament – but we have it here with hate, by an enemy. Later we have, in the 18th century, the beginning of historical criticism with love, namely with a love towards the Reality which lies behind these reports. Even today many people confuse the original way in which historical criticism was done – with hate – and react with hate against. it, while Christian theologians for more than two centuries now, have worked – -mostly with the same arguments as the enemies – but with love, in order to understand what really is in the Old and New Testaments. So we should not confuse this. But it is interesting that the first criticism came from outside, from enemies, in terms of hate and not love.

Now a few of Celsus’ arguments: One of the main points which is always discussed between critical historians and traditional theologians is the resurrection of ‘Jesus. Celsus says that this event which is so important was observed only by adherents, and originally even only by a few ecstatic women. His deification is nothing else than processes of deification which occurred in many other cases which we know from history. Good old Euhemeros, the philosopher of religion, has given sufficient examples of the way in which a human being, a king or a hero, was deified. Then he says that the Christians do something which is especially disgusting, ,namely, when the stories become extremely incredible – as many of them in the Old Testament – then they are explained away,. allegorically. (All these things were actually done.) ln this criticism, especially of the Old Testament miracle stories, a slight element ‘of anti-Judaism is visible, and this is understandable because some of Celsus’ criticism hit, the Jews as much as the Christians. … He says that the descent of God contradicts the unchangeable character of God which is also emphasized so strongly by the Christian writers. But if the Divine Being has descended to earth, why did this happen in a despised corner of the world, and why did it happen only once? Especially disgusting – and here again we have anti-Judaistic feeling – is the fight between the Jews and Christians as to whether the Messiah has or has not appeared. This is particularly disgusting to the educated pagan.

Very stupid, also, was the much used argument of that time from prophecy to fulfillment. He is historically educated enough to see that the prophet did not mean the fulfillment in the terms in which the fulfillment happened. And I would say this is an especially sore spot in all Church history, something where the idea of universal preparatory revelation – which is a sound idea – has been distorted in the mechanism of “foreseeing” events, and then they “happened”. He sees this weakness with great clarity.

But the deepest point in his criticism of Christianity is not the scientific with respect to history, or the philosophy with respect to the idea of incarnation, but it is something else: it is a really religious feeling, namely when he says that the demonic powers which as Paul says have been conquered by Christ, actually rule the world..–..the argument which you can hear everywhere in our time, and the world has not changed, since the beginning of Christianity. But Celsus adds: There is no sense even to try to overcome these powers; they are the real rulers of the world. Therefore, one should be obedient to the Roman rulers on earth because they have at least reduced the power of the demons to some extent – which is also a Pauline idea. They have established a certain order in which the demonic forces are limited. Therefore the Roman emperors, however questionable they may be personally, must be obeyed and must receive veneration, for through the obedience to the orders of this world, to the necessities of law and nature, Rome has become great. What the Christians do is to undermine the greatness and the glory which is Rome, and in doing so they undercut the only power which is able to prevent the world from falling into chaos and a complete victory of the demons.

This was not an easy attack, but a very serious one, and one which has been heard again and again in all Church history. And you can understand that Christians arose who had the same philosophical education as Celsus had, and who tried to answer these attacks. This is the meaning of the apologetic movement, out of which theology has arisen.

Now these people didn’t refute historical criticism very much, because in the moment in which you go into this, then whether you defend one position or not, you cannot defend all positions. When you accept the method, then all the difficulties arise which we have experienced in the history of Protestantism during the last 200 years, and which are alive today as they ever were. Think of the famous discussion about the demythologization of the New Testament, where we have exactly the same problem.

So these Apologists didn’t go into this, but they tried to answer the philosophical criticism, and did it in a way which tried to show three things. This is the way every apologetic has to work. First of all, if you want to speak with somebody meaningfully, there must be a common basis, some mutually accepted ideas. This truth common to Christians and pagans must first be elaborated. If there is nothing in common between them, no conversation is possible and no meaningful addressing oneself to the pagans is possible. It always must be supposed – and this is a rule for all Christian missionary work – that the other one understands what you say, but understanding is partly participating. If he speaks an absolutely different language, then no understanding is possible. So the Apologists showed that there is something in common.

Secondly, they must show that in the actual ideas of paganism, there are defects. There are things which contradict the ideas even of the pagans themselves. There are things which have been criticized for centuries, even by the pagan philosophers. One shows the negativity in the other one, as the second step of apologetics.

Thirdly, one shows that one’s own position is not to be accepted as something from outside, which is thrown at one’s head – this is not good apologetics, throwing stones – but that Christianity is the fulfillment of what is, as longing and desire, in paganism. (This is) the way in which I work that out in all my systematic theology which I call, consciously, an apologetic form of theology: the relationship or the correlation between question and answer. Only if Christianity answers the existential question in the pagan mind can Christianity be accepted and understood.

Now these three steps – first a common ground without which no conversation is possible at all; second, the defects of the object of the apologetic; third, the belief that one’s own position is the fulfillment of what, as longing and desire, is in the other one: this is good apologetics and this you must do whenever you work apologetically, and I cannot imagine any conversation or any sermon which you will ever give in which the apologetic element is not present, in which you do not answer questions, answer to accusations, to criticism, implicitly or explicitly.

Now there is one danger in apologetics: that the common ground is overemphasized over against the differences. And if this is done, then you certainly do not throw stones at the heads of the others; but you don’t give him anything either: you accept him as he is. This is not the purpose either. So you must find a way between these two forms: the one, the wrong way of preaching and teaching Christianity, is: throwing undigestible objects at the other one, which he cannot receive, as the human being cannot receive stones or bullets; the other, that you don’t tell him anything he didn’t know already. And that is often the way in which liberal theology acted, while the other is the way fundamentalism and orthodoxy acted. Christian theology tried to find a way between these two wrong behaviors, and in doing so they became the founders of a definitively

Christian Theology.

Justin Martyr, perhaps the most important of the Apologists: “This is the only philosophy which I have found certain and adequate.” This sentence needs a comment. Some anti-apologetic theologians – they are not only in continental Europe – would say: Now there you see: Christianity is dissolved into a philosophy; that is what the Apologists did and that is what every apologetic theology does — even my own. I have heard this several, or even innumerable, times. The situation must be understood: what does this sentence mean, actually? Certainly it says Christianity is a philosophy. But if someone makes such a statement, one must know what philosophy means, in the mouth of this man, who was not a professor of philosophy, in America in the year 1953, in one of the colleges or universities. A Greek philosopher was something quite different. Philosophy at that time was the name for the spiritual, non-magical and non-superstitious character of a movement. Therefore! Justin says that Christianity is the only certain and adequate philosophy, he first of all says it is not magical, it is not superstitious; it is meaningful, adequate, to the logos, to the word, to reason; and this was the first thing he had to say against people like Celsus.

Secondly, for the later Greeks, philosophy was not only a theoretical but even more practical matter. It was a matter of existential interpretation of life, of an interpretation of life which was a matter of life and death for the existence of the people at that time.

Thirdly, to be a philosopher meant, ordinarily, to belong to a philosophical school. And philosophical schools at that time were not the same as what we mean by them, e. g., that there are pupils of Dewey and Whitehead in different colleges in this country; rather, “school” meant, then, a ritual community in which the founder of the school was supposed to have had a revelatory insight into the truth. Acceptance in such a school was not a matter of a doctor’s degree, but of a whole personal initiation into the atmosphere of this school. So the word “philosophy” had a much larger sense than professors of “philosophy”, or textbooks on “philosophy”.

By the way, in English the word philosophy has still preserved some of this larger meaning. One speaks even of a philosophy of business management, and a philosophy of home cooking, etc. – very important things – and if the word philosophy is connected with them, then philosophy means a systematic understanding of a realm of reality which has something to do with real existence, and it is not only a matter of philosophical analysis in terms of logic, epistemology and metaphysics.

Now if, therefore, Justin called Christianity a philosophy, then he makes it a human existential enterprise which is neither superstitious nor magical, but follows the principles of sound reason.

Now with respect to this Christian philosophy, he says that it is universal – and this is very important – that it is not a corner truth of a sectarian character, but that it is all-embracing truth about the meaning of existence. And from this follows that wherever truth appears, it belongs to us, the Christians. Existential truth..–..truth not in the scientific sense, but in the sense of truth concerning existence, truth about life and death, truth about to-be-and-not-to-be–is, wherever it appears, Christian truth. “What anybody has said about truth belongs to us, the Christians.” This is not arrogance. He doesn’t mean that the Christians now have all truth, which they invented, etc. , but they said exactly what they said later in terms of the logos doctrine, namely that there cannot be any truth anywhere which is not included in principle in Christian truth. This is what already the Fourth Gospel says, namely that the logos appeared, full of truth and grace.

And vice versa, he says: “Those who live according to the logos are Christians.” Now what happens here is very important. He includes, for instance, Socrates, Heraclitus, Elijah, and others. But there is a difference; he added, “the total logos,” which appeared in Christ and has become “body, mind and soul.” Therefore the philosophers, apart from Christianity, are partly in error and even partly subjected to demonic inspirations which come from the pagan gods. The gods of the heathens are not non-entities, but they are demonic forces, they are realities. But since they are on a limited basis (since) they are idols, they therefore have destructive power.

What does all this mean? It takes away the wrong impression..– though these Christians felt themselves as another religion. There is here actually the negation of the concept of religion, for Christianity: one religion beside others. All the others are wrong; ours is right: against this the Apologists would say: not.our religion is right, but the logos has appeared on which our religion is based, and is the full logos of God himself, appearing in the center of His being, appearing in His totality. This is more than religion. This is truth appearing in time and space. So here the word “Christianity” is still understood not as a religion but as the negation of religions, and for this reason as being able to embrace them all, in terms of universality. Justin has said what I think it is absolutely necessary to say: If there were anywhere in the world an existential truth which could not be received by Christianity as an element in its own thinking, then Jesus would not be the Christ. And this is exactly what he says, and what the whole logos doctrine says, because then He would be one teacher alongside other teachers, of which there are many and each is limited and in error. But that is not what the early Christians said. The early Christians said – and we say and should say – that if we call Jesus the Christ, or the Logos (as the Apologists called Him), this means there cannot be, by definition, so to speak, any truth – Let us say, China, India, Islam, Judaism, mysticism, whatever you want to know, and certainly all philosophy – which cannot be taken in principle into Christianity and is nevertheless truth. If this were possible, then the application of the term logos, as the Fourth Gospel applies it, to Jesus as the Christ would not be possible.. This does not mean that this Logos knew all truth; that is of course nonsense and would destroy His humanity, His human reality. But it does mean that the fundamental truth which has appeared in Him is essentially universal, and therefore can take in every other truth. For this reason the early theologians didn’t hesitate to take in as much Greek philosophical truth as they could, and as much oriental mysticism as they could. They were not afraid of it, as some theologians today are.

There is, however, one difference in the appearance of the logos in Christ, namely that this appearance makes it possible that even the most uneducated human being can receive the full existential truth, while the philosophers may lose it in discussing it. Or in other terms: One of the main ideas of the Apologists is that Christianity is far superior to all philosophy – although there are Christians among the early philosophers – and it is superior because philosopher presupposes education. Only a: few human beings are educated; are the others excluded from truth? And the answer is: On the basis of a merely philosophical form of truth, they are excluded; on the basis of a manifestation of the Logos as a living person, they are not excluded, they can have it as fully as any philosopher. Now this remains a problem for all the following discussions , but it is something which is even today decisive, that we can believe that: the message of Jesus as the Christ is universal not only in embracing all mankind, but universal also in embracing all classes, groups, and social stratifications of mankind.

Beyond this an argument is brought up, which is practical: the reality of the Church. In this group of human beings, small as it was at that time, one finds a degree of moral power and acting which is found in no other group. Therefore the congregations of Christians are not dangerous to the world power. They do exactly what the Roman Empire tries to do, namely, to prevent the world from falling into chaos. They are, even more than the Roman Empire, the supporters of world order. So Justin could say: “The world lives from the prayers of the Christians and from the obedience of the Christians to the law of the state. The Christians preserve the world, and on the other hand, for their sake God preserves the world.” Now this is the main argument against the Roman Empire, which of course could be supported by innumerable practical evidences which show that far from destroying the orders on which reality is built, the Christians support it.”

The philosophical idea of God is inborn in every human being. 1t is the idea of Being eternally, without beginning, needing nothing beyond passions, indestructible, unchangeable, invisible – all these characteristics which Parmenides attributed to Being are here attributed to God. But there is a point of difference between classical Greek philosophy and Justin’s doctrine of God. This difference comes in through the Old Testament and changes everything. It is the statement that God is the almighty creator.: The moment this statement is made, the personal element enters the abstract and mystical description of God’s identity. God as creator is acting, and almightiness means that He is the acting power behind everything which moves.

It is interesting to observe that in these early statements about God, Christian monotheism oscillates between the trans-personal element of Being and the personal element of God as creator, and of course saviour, etc. This oscillation is necessary in the moment in which the idea of God is made the object of thought. You cannot escape some elements of the eternal, of the unconditional, the unchangeable, etc. On the other hand, the practical piety and the experience of creatureliness in which we find ourselves, presupposes a person-to-person relationship, and between these two elements Christianity always oscillates and must oscillate, because these are two elements in God himself.

Between God and man, there are angels and powers, some of them good and some evil. But their mediating power is insufficient. The real mediator is the Logos. Now what is this Logos? I remember that in former classes the question was always asked: Now after all this speaking about “Logos”, I would like to know what the word really means! And I hope that after the next four weeks, when you hear much more about the Logos, you can ask this question. But I will try my best, although the best is very poor in comparison with the difficulty of the problems, especially for the difficulty in the minds of people of whom I say they all are nominalists by birth! This makes it so difficult because, of course, a concept such as “Logos” is not the description of an individual being, but the description of a universal principle. And if one is not used to thinking in terms of universals as powers of being, then such a concept ” as Logos remains impossible to understand. So I should do the following: to convert you, at least hypothetically, to medieval realism – to Platonism, if you want to call it thus – and then to speak about the Logos. But since time is limited, I will do this implicitly if possible, and cannot do it explicitly.

Logos, the principle of the self-manifestation of God. God manifest to himself, in himself: that is His Logos. Therefore whenever God appears, to himself and to others outside of himself, it is the Logos, the self-manifestation of God, which appears. This Logos is also, and in a unique way, in Jesus as the Christ. And this, according to the Apologists, is the greatness of Christianity. This is the basis for its claim for salvation, because if the Divine Logos in its fulness had not appeared in Jesus as the Christ, then no full salvation would be possible. This is the argument ex existentia, from existence, and not from speculation. Please remember what I said before, that all these seemingly speculative ideas into which we must now dive, are only seemingly speculative. Of course, speculative means “looking at” problems, and in this sense they are speculative. But they are not produced for the sake of speculation, but for the sake of making Christian salvation understandable. And in all decisive moments of the struggle between the different movements, we find that the classical theologians, who finally win the victory, refer to salvation and then say: If there shall be salvation: there must be this concept of the Logos. That is always their arguing. There is salvation; we have experienced it – so we must speak in this and that way about the Logos.


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