Contemporary European Views of God (2): Paul Tillich-Does God Exist?


Well, after about a month hiatus, i am finally getting to restart my doctrine of God overview again.  Usually i leave projects like this behind after some time off, so i’m pretty proud of myself to get going again.  So far i have looked at Karl Barth, and have commented on Paul’s Tillich’s methodology.  Without further ado, lets jump back into the text being used for this adventure by Veli-Matti Karkkainen (hereafter abbreviated VMK).

This section of viewing Tillich will start with one of his most famous (and controversial) quotes: “God does not exist.  He is being itself beyond essence and existence.  Threfore, to argue that God exists is to deny him (132).”

Obviously, if this quote means what it looks like on the surface, then this discussion doesn’t belong in this particular post.  However, as VMK points out “To unpack this compact sentence, we need to be aware of the fact that here–as often–Tillich uses terms in a technical sense, specifically, in the technical sense he himself defined (132).  With that in mind, lets define a couple key terms for Tillich:

1)   Essence is the potential, not-actualized perfection of things

2)   Existence, however, describes something that is actual, “fallen” from essence (132).

So with this understanding of Tillich’s terminology, it becomes evident that Tillich isn’t an atheist, but rather is saying that God existence is qualitatively, wholly different from any created being.  This leads Tillich to hold such a radically transcendemt view of God that he must conclude (according to VMK) that if God were part of existence (as Tillich defines it), there would be a need for another God a “God above God,” which Tillich wants to avoid (132).

One further note on this section before analysis.  We have to remember what Tillich’s goal is in his theology, which is to be apologetic, to answer the concerns of modern man.  This concern, Tillich believed, was found in the philosophical field of ontology. 

Tillich perceived that modern man’s central concern was over the threat of non-being, non-existence.  Essentially, modern men and women feared death constantly, and wanted to find a way to overcome the threat of “non-being” for good.

However, for Tillich, and to tie back into this post, assurance that “non-being” could be ultimately and permanently overcome required that God couldn’t be finite in any way.  He must be completely beyond any form of human existence, so that he could never cease to be.  If God did cease to be, he couldn’t save us from our non-being.  Hence, the famous Tillich descriptions of God were “the ground of being,” and “being itself.”

Since this post is extremely long, let me offer just a few reflections:

1) The security Tillich found in a radically transcendent view of God is interesting to me.  Given the times that Tillich lived in, could this not also serve as protection from the idea that God wasn’t “heavily involved” in the events of Tillich’s time?

2) Along the same lines, many of Tillich’s underlying concepts and motivations find a kindred spirit (in my mind at least) in Reformed thought.  Both positions share:  A central concern for God’s transcendence, the problem of the “unknowability” of God or the “mystery” regarding knowing God, and the problem of meaningful speech about God (more on this in my next post).  What strange bedfellows these two (Calvin and Tillich) make!

3) The Platonic influence here is hard to miss if you are used to looking for it.  The existence-essence (false?) dichotomy of Tillich’s thought seems to be a direct descendent of the Platonic dualism between body and spirit.  This leads to me to my final question: is such a dichotomy inevitable when we purposely let an alien philosophical framework serve as a filter for understandg the Biblical, three-in-one God?  Tillich is very open about using ontology as the gateway to knowing what needs, but does letting man’s worries set the agenda eventually warp the Bible’s answers?  I have been ruminating on this for quite a while, and i’m starting to think so, thanks to this book.    

Any corrections, opinions, qualms, ideas on any of this?


7 responses to “Contemporary European Views of God (2): Paul Tillich-Does God Exist?

  1. Tillich’s biography is interesting, and somewhat disturbing. He served as a chaplain in WWI and, of course, migrated to the US during WWII. The trauma he suffered from his experiences on the battlefield, and then watching the destruction of his country from afar, the apparent collapse of civilization itself–all these experiences had to influence his theology: the need for security in the face of the constant threat of nonbeing.

    As for alien philosophy: If we want to communicate with our contemporaries, we can’t help using the philosophical categories and presuppositions we share with them. The danger of Tillich’s method of correlation is compromise. The danger of rejecting the method of correlation is irrelevance.

  2. By the way, Derek, please invite your professors and peers to the Second Annual Western Fellowship of Professors and Scholars at MCC Oct 19-20. The general theme is “The Church of the Future and the Future of the Church.” Maybe you can present a paper on the Doctrine of God in the 21st Century?

  3. Professor,

    Thanks for the insightful comments. Your last statement regarding compromise and irrelevance when doing theology is awesome. I really appreciate that you see the tensions that doing theology brings. I guess i was pretty tough on Tillich in this post, but in an earlier post ( i talked about how Tillich’s method wasn’t purely evil as many think. He has some good things to say. However, in the end it seems that Tillich went to far in the “compromise” direction.

    As far as the conference goes, is there any information you can send to put into my professors hands? I would love to plug the conference at Friends, mainly because i would like to see academic excellence continue to be an area of growth at MCC. Also, i would love to present a paper at the conference! I think it would be fun. I would like to get some details from you, but lets tentatively plan on it at this point.

  4. Pingback: Philosophy and Theology « A Thinker’s Progress

  5. Pingback: Contemporary European Views of God (2): Paul Tillich and the Problem of Language « A Thinker’s Progress

  6. Derek,

    You are right that Tillich’s desire was apologetic in nature. My caution (and this is coming from reading this post and many of our conversations about modernism, post (or “hyper”) modernism, etc.) is that having apologetic concerns and basis does not invalidate a position or argument. Though I do not think this is what you are doing entirely, I hear hints of it in this post. In fact, to reject a position because it was grounded in apologetics or “modernism” would be a genetic fallacy (i.e. rejection of a poisition in which the origin or the cause of a proposition is taken to have some bearing on its truth.)

    Tillich’s ontological argument here seems to me to have some validity because it helps us understand the categories that are often conflated in the “ex nihilo” discussion. When someone quips, “Well who created God then, since everything that exists must have been created?” They are making a categorical mistake. Tillich’s understanding and proposal for God, though maybe not fully endorsed by all apologists today, is helpful for understanding why the aforementioned question is irrelevant due to its categorical mistake.

    Anyway amigo, have fun packing today. Chat with you later.


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