Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought

Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus.

Last time we finished with the description of that great movement called Gnosticism and which, more exactly, should be regarded as the wave of religious syncretism running from the East to the West, existing in many groups and forms and entering also Christianity. I gave you some of their main ideas. In opposition to – and partly also in acceptance of – the Gnostic ideas, the first great Christian theologians developed their systems: Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus. The defense against attacks from outside was made in terms of the Logos doctrine. But now some of the spirit of the world which was conquered by Christianity, entered Christianity itself. The fight now had to be waged against a Christianized paganism. But such a fight is never simply a negation: it is always reception, also.

The result of this partial rejection, and partial reception, of the generally religious mood of that time is what we call “early Catholicism.” The people with whom we now have to deal are important because they represent early Catholicism, expressing these ideas which grew out of the acceptance and rejection of the pagan religious movement of that time.

In order to do so, they accepted the Logos doctrine created by the Apologists, but they now brought it constructively – and not only apologetically – into a framework of Bible and tradition. In doing so they partly deprived it of its dangerous implications, one of them of course being the possibility of relapse into polytheism – tri-theism or duo-theism. It is the greatness of these people, Irenaeus and Tertullian, that they saw these dangers, used the Logos doctrine, and developed constructively the theological ideas in relationship to the religious movements of their time.

The religiously greatest of the three men I named is Irenaeus, who more than most of the people of his time, understood the spirit of Paul. You will recall that I said that already in the Apostolic Fathers, John and Matthew and the “catholic letters” were effective, but that Paul was not very much effective for that time any more.

Now a man came – Irenaeus – who again had a feeling for what Paul’s theology meant for the Christian Church. But it was not so much the doctrine with which Paul fought against Judaism – the doctrine of justification through faith by grace – but it was more the center of Paul’s own teaching, namely, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which was important for Irenaeus.

In some ways Irenaeus was nearer to the Protestant ideas of Christianity than most of early Catholicism. Nevertheless he was the father of early Catholicism and ultimately not a Protestant, insofar as this side of Paul – which I like to call the “corrective side” of Paul, namely the doctrine of justification by faith – was not in the center even of Irenaeus.

The other man who belongs to the Anti-Gnostic Fathers is Tertullian. He is the master of Latin rhetoric. He is the creator of the Latin church terminology. He had a juristic mind, although he was not a jurist himself. His was a very aggressive temperament and a great character. He understood the primacy of faith and the paradox of Christianity, but he was not artificially primitive: he accepted at the same time the Stoic philosophy, and with it the idea that the human soul is by nature Christian – anima naturaliter christiana. And he accepted the Logos doctrine of the Apologists, because he was not only accepting the paradox of Christianity, but was at the same time a sharp rational mind and didn’t believe that Greek philosophy could surpass Christianity in rational sharpness and clarity.