Paul Tillich’s Understanding of Theology

This is the inaugural post in a series I will publish while working through Paul Tillich’s three-volume Systematic Theology. This series will run chronologically throughout the work itself, but will cover specific themes and not every section. You may read the introduction to this blog here.

Theology is the situational outworking of divine revelation for the needs of the church. In contradistinction to pure apologetics, where truths derived from theological discourse are made palatable for the unbeliever in the hopes of “reasonable” argumentation, theology is intended to serve the historic-existential needs of the church. Theology is an act of the church, by the church, for the church.

Tillich in turn begins the introduction to his Systematic Theology by drawing the boundaries in which theology arises and flourishes. “Theology, as a function of the Christian church, must serve the needs of the church. A theological system is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation.” It is important to note the distinction made in the preceding quote. Truth—specifically, the truth of the Christian kerygma, or the revelation of Jesus as the Christ—is refracted by the historic-existential situation, which by nature denotes the possibility of change. Theology seeks to actualize this truth for each historic-existential context, therefore, the truth contained in theological discourse cannot be absolutized or universalized, but must be interpreted anew in each approaching context. Revelation, specifically that of the divine in the person of Christ, is an ongoing event, and cannot be misconstrued with a singular “happening”; the existential crisis inherent to the human existence affirms that revelation is necessarily evermore-interpreted. Moreover, the reality of contextual mutation necessitates a historic-existential relativity insofar as the truth of theological discourse is concerned. Theology exists in tension, fluctuating between “the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received.” Its grounding or life-source (truth-itself) is eternal, but its actualization is temporal, and subject to change. In short, theology speaks of something (revelation) which cannot neither be fully absolutized nor relativized, both of which are acts of limiting its transcendent and historic-existential presence.

Tillich surmises that the interest of theology is not God specifically, but the “contents of the Christian message,” insofar as these contents are able to speak to the “ultimate concern.” Our ultimate concern is not God as the metaphysical object, but how the reality that “Jesus Christ the Logos has become flesh” answers the existential question of being and non-being inherent to the human experience. Both theology and philosophy are therefore exercises in answering this ontological question, even as they approach the question of being from different places. “Philosophy deals with the structure of being in itself; theology deals with the meaning of being for us.” In Tillich’s eyes, however, theology is necessarily philosophical, and philosophy is necessarily theological, even in part. Because both are concerned with the ontological question of being, the two will overlap; theology must discern the structure of being in some form to answer the question of meaning, and philosophy must reach some conclusion after describing the structure of being through its respective categories. Consider the following section (emphasis added).

Philosophy necessarily asks the question of reality as a whole, the question of the structure of being. Theology necessarily asks the same question, for that which concerns us ultimately must belong to reality as a whole; it must belong to being. Otherwise we could not encounter it, and it could not concern us. Of course, it cannot be one being among others; then it would not concern us infinitely. It must be the ground of our being, that which determines our being or not-being, the ultimate and unconditional power of being. But the power of being, its infinite ground or “being-itself,” expresses itself in and through the structure of being. Therefore, we can encounter it, be grasped by it, know it, and act toward it. 

Thus, for Tillich, theology is primarily a methodology for answering the existential crisis inherent to the human condition. “The criterion whether or not a discipline is theological is not its assumedly supranatural origin but its significance for the interpretation of our ultimate concern” (emphasis added). Theology is not concerned with a being separate from the human experience, but one which is universally integral yet historically and existentially distinctive to reveal the answer to the crisis of being and not-being.

In the last half of the introduction to Volume One of Systematic Theology, Tillich undertakes a painstakingly detailed explanation of the structure of theology. His interest is showing how the traditional interests of theological discourse (e.g. practical theology, ethics, et. al.) are components of a unifying “circle” revolving around the “ultimate concern” of human existence in light of Christ as the “New Being.” He contends that “systematic theology” is an exercise in interpreting the contents of the Christian message in a particular historical context. As mentioned previously, the ultimate concern of theology is the ontological question, or the existential crisis inherent to the human condition, of which the Christ-event is necessarily integral.

There are two overarching themes of this latter section of the introduction which are worth detailing, the first being the sources of systematic theology. Tillich rejects the aims of “biblicist” theologians who deem the Bible the only source of revelation. In light of the aforementioned possibility for contextual mutation, Tillich notes that scripture is necessarily a product of its historical development. One cannot separate the document from its historical context, nor can its message be contained solely in the document itself—the Christ-event rejects the limitation of revelation to the Bible alone. “The Bible is both original event and original document; it witnesses to that of which it is a part.” For the interests of the theologian, the Bible is a foundational element of the methodology to answer the ontological question, but it works alongside other elements to carry divine revelation. Tradition, reason, and human experience  are all equally valid receptor-conduits for divine revelation to speak to the question inherent to human existence.

The second theme featured predominantly in the introduction is that of experience. Tillich acknowledges the importance of Schleiermacher’s “experiential method,” which described religion as the “feeling of absolute dependence.” As he rightly notes, Schleiermacher was not speaking of a “psychological feeling” but an awareness of “something unconditional in the sense of the Augustinian-Franciscan tradition.” However, Tillich also recognizes the temptation to make experience the origination of theological content. Instead, Tillich suggests that experience should be a “medium” by which we receive said content. Drawing upon the Lutheran “School of Erlangen,” Tillich writes, “The event on which Christianity is based…is not derived from experience; it is given in history. Experience is not the source from which the contents of systematic theology are taken but the medium through which they are existentially received.” Because theology is concerned with the question of being inherent to human existence, the experience of the individual cannot produce the answer, but it can (and does) ask the question itself. Nevertheless, human experience is vital to the theological method because it is an encounter with and response to reality as such—as a complement but not the sole arbiter. Because the human cannot separate from reality, their respective experience is merely a receptor to the divine revelation of the Christ-event. This in turn affirms the necessity for experiential discernment, while affirming the transcendent revelation of God over and against experience.

Thus, to summarize the introduction, Tillich establishes the boundaries in which theological discourse arises and flourishes. Its “ultimate concern” is the question of being inherent to human existence, thus it looks to the revelation of Christ as the “New Being” for its answer. Jesus as Christ is both universally integral yet existentially distinctive to the human condition in order to reveal both the structure and meaning of being, and thus creates the capacity for humanity to experience existential liberation from the crisis of being.

One thought on “Paul Tillich’s Understanding of Theology

  1. Thank you for the post. Our reading group a couple years ago read Systematic Theology. It has been a gift that keeps giving. Lately, we have read Bultmann. It strikes me that they had a similar interest in philosophy providing a structure for understanding human existence with theology providing a Christ-centered answer to the questions philosophy raises. You have reminded me of the cogent criticism of Barth and the effective use of Heidegger. I do not know how much of Bultmann you have read, but as I re-read the introduction by Tillich, it makes me wonder if the relationship of their projects is such that they are similar.


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