Christian History – Meet the Moderns: Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich adopts the existentialist view and transforms it to his own whims. He opposes orthodoxy, which he accused of confusing eternal truths with a particular temporary expression (i.e., mythology). Orthodoxy takes a theology addressed to the past and addresses it to the modern situation, which no longer ts. Orthodoxy, then, tries to identify the message of the Gospel with Scripture alone, which overemphasizes eternal truth at the expense of the temporal situation. Thus, the message has to be tested in a way that avoids either extreme, what Tillich calls “apologetic theology”. Apologetic theology must

answer the question implied in the ‘situation’ in the power of the eternal message and with the means provided by the situations whose questions it answers.

In other words, method tries to relate the eternal message and the contemporary situation without letting either of them smother each other. Tillich calls this method correlation, the adaptation of the message without losing its distinct characteristics. Basically, one needs to correlate the eternal with the temporal.

Many would accept the validity of this kind of theological enterprise; the similarities with Bultmann are rather obvious. But, it would appears he is allowing the temporal to overtake the eternal, simply by means of stating that the eternal must align with the temporal – Bultmann would certainly reject this, for as he said himself:

As though God had to justify himself to man! As though every demand for justification (including the one concealed in the demand for criteria) did not have to be dropped as soon as the face of God appears!

Reading Tillich, one notes that, like Thomas Aquinas before him, his approach is profoundly philosophical, almost entirely neglecting Scripture in lieu of reason and philosophy. In that sense does Tillich represent earlier theologies in a new key, but one opposed to Scripture’s authority. God becomes “that which concerns us ultimately” or \the ground of our Being”, not A
being in Himself. If God is being-itself, it becomes as atheistic to affirm God’s existence as to deny it. God can be described as personal, but God not a person. In this sense, the authority is changed from the Bible to the contemporary situation, having to follow its whims. Declaring that God is the ground of being is a much easier task than a personal God, yet that is the one of which Scripture speaks – again, once the authority is transplanted, confusions result.

Of course, we really see the gigantic weight placed upon other sources of authority. Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and Tillich all reflected the influence of the modern mind. Specifically, they demonstrate the influx of relativity, the lack of a fixed meaning. They need to, somehow, reveal to us whether or not they succeed in upholding a notion of Christian which the world held for nearly two millenia before these thinkers. A modernized Christianity means one based in sources of authority based outside the text iself. Honestly, why they believed that Christianity needed a complete and utter reformation in the Liberal tradition makes them feel quite haughty when read in this light.

So, what’s the root cause of such a theological development? If I had to take a guess, it would derive from the fundamental idea of our culture that the furthest point in the historical line represents what is the best and most advanced time of our civilization – in a word, “progress’. Progress, as I see it, looks less like a belief and more like a religion based upon the notion of self. Furthermore, it is the decline of Christian culture, the Western world, to put a new paradigm in its place. Rather than having the necessary tools to elaborate on what, actually, constitutes “good” and “bad”, we retain no notions of value. Every idol, so to speak, breaks when smashed against the altar of progress, whether tradition, reason, experience, or any other kind of grounding or foundation. Richard Weaver wrote in his book Ideas Have Consequences:

Surely we are justified in saying of our time: If you seek the monument to our folly, look about you. In our own day we have seen cities obliterated and ancient faiths stricken. We may well ask, in the words of Matthew, whether we are not faced with ‘great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world.” We have for many years moved with a brash confidence that man had achieved a position of independence which rendered the ancient restraints needless. Now, in the first half of the twentieth century, at the height of modern progress, we behold unprecedented outbreaks of hatred and violence; we have seen whole nations desolated by war and turned into penal camps by their conquerors; we find half of mankind looking upon the other half as criminal. Everywhere occur symptoms of mass psychosis. Most portentous of all, there appear diverging bases of value, so that our single planetary globe is mocked by worlds of different understanding. These signs of disintegration arouse fear, and fear leads to desperate unilateral efforts toward survival, which only forward the process.

Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.

By removing these transcendentals, we remove faith. Once we abandon what God wishes and wants, and do what is right in our own eyes, That is an end I wish to avoid. But why, you ask, do I place such trust in Scripture? I suppose I will need to explain that next time.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.

– Romans 1

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.