Contemporary European views of God (2): Paul Tillich on Theological Method

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As Veli-Matti Karkkainen (hereafter VMK) has pointed out, Tillich and Karl Barth have at least one thing in common.  They were both trained in the classical, Harnackian liberal school of theology.  However, from their similar backgrounds come very different understandings of God and how to do theology.  While Barth viewed God as the “wholly other,” the God who stands in radical transcendence over and against culture, Tillich worked for “correlation, if not synthesis,” between the modern world and Christian Theology (130).

Before we begin to delve into Tillich’s Doctrine of God, it will be beneficial to look a bit at his unique methodology.  There are two main assumptions that undergird Tillich’s work:

1.  There is some common ground between the Christian message and the modern world.  To quote Tillich “Philosophy formulates the questions implied in human existence, and theology formulates the answers implied in divine self-manifestation under the guidance of the questions implied in human existence (130-131).”  VMK sums up Tillich’s view of faith and reason by stating that for Tillich “reason does not resist revelation but rather asks for it; revelation entails the reintegration of reason (131).

2.  Tillich subscribes to the view that sees ontology as the gateway to the notion of God.  Continuing the long tradition that includes Augustine, Anselm, and Descartes, Tillich sees the question of being and its counter part “non-being” as the question for the modern person (131)  Finally, it should be noted that Tillich didn’t believe such a focus would provide the final answers to the modern man’s questions.  Despite that belief, Tillich still valued ontology, and philosophy in general, because of the questions it poses for Christian theology (131). 

These two assumptions end up playing out in how Tillich forms his theology in the following ways:

1.  According to Tillich, theology should be apologetic.  Tillich isn’t referring to proofs for God existence or objective values, but rather that the Christian faith should be presented in a way that modern people can understand it and find it helpful for their needs.  This more “user-friendly’ approach would have been scandalous to someone like Karl Barth, but for Tillich this is a simply a natural outgrowth of his belief that the Gospel and modern culture aren’t mutually exclusive systems or categories.  For Tillich the gap between Christian faith and modern reason isn’t very far at all.  In fact, Tillich would argue that setting the two in opposition to each other is detrimental to the theological task.  Point #2 below describes his view of how faith and reason work together.

2.  Tillich sought to bring together (“Correlate”) theological truth with contemporary philosophical or cultural questions.*  Tillich’s conviction regarding modern culture’s compatibility with theological truth is what drove him to focus on ontology.  This was because, as stated earlier, that Tillich viewed being and the threat of non-being, and a way to overcome non-being, as the central concerns for modern man.  Modern secular men and women, according to Tillich, are constantly filled with anxiety over the prospect of non-being, and are hoping to find a way to overcome it.  To put the matter succinctly, people are afraid of dying, and answering how such fears of the reality of death can be overcome is the central question theology is to be occupied by (Wikipedia, Tillich, VMK 131).

With this foundation in place, we are ready to explore Tillich’s distinct views regarding God.    Clear as mud?

*From Pocket Dictionary of Theology

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One response to “Contemporary European views of God (2): Paul Tillich on Theological Method

  1. Pingback: Contemporary European Views of God (2): Paul Tillich-Does God Exist? « A Thinker’s Progress

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