Eleven years after his death in 1965, Paul Tillich continues to influence American Protestant theology. While Tillich’s theology was eclipsed in the late 1960s by the rise of the “death of God” theologies of Altizer and Hamilton, and by the rise of black theology, the theologies of revolution, and Moltmann’s theology of hope, Tillich continued to be studied in undergraduate courses on religion and in Protestant seminaries throughout America. His Systematic Theology, Dynamics of Faith, The Courage to Be, Love, Power and Justice, and other lesser-known writings continued to provide resource material for courses in theology, philosophy of religion, and Christianity and culture. The continuing interest in Tillich’s thought in American academic circles was recently underscored by the formation of the North American Paul Tillich Society, which meets in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion, a society composed of teachers of religion in colleges, universities, and seminaries.

In 1973, Rollo May’s Paulus (Harper and Row), subtitled “Reminiscences of a Friendship,” and Hannah Tillich’s autobiography From Time to Time (Stein and Day) created a stir with their revelations of Tillich’s philandering. May, a former student of Tillich’s at Union Theological Seminary, presented a rather sympathetic portrait of his former teacher. Tillich’s widow, however, reflected considerable bitterness and resentment in her book. Tillich’s theological foes were likely to see in these revelations a confirmation of their opinions about the unsoundness of his theology, while Tillich’s friends were likely to insist that these accounts—especially his widow’s—gave a distorted view of his life and work. Volume one of Wilhelm and Marion Pauck’s Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought (Harper and Row, 1976) presents a more balanced and comprehensive biography. In any case, these allegations severely blemish the reputation of the man who was the most prominent systematic theologian in America during the fifties and early sixties. My purpose in this article, however, is to focus on themes in Tillich’s work that have continuing significance for evangelical theology.

The German Years: Religious Socialism

From 1919 to 1933 Tillich was actively involved in a religious socialist movement in Germany. This period of Tillich’s career and the writings produced during it are not as well known in this country as his work of the fifties and sixties. As a member of the “Kairos Circle,” a group of German writers, intellectuals, and civil servants, Tillich was interested in building bridges between the Lutheran church, which had little contact with the working classes, and the Social Democrats, a socialist party that represented the majority of the workers. Anti-church sentiment was widespread among the workers. They perceived the Lutheran churches as unquestioned allies of the anti-labor forces in the government and the landed aristocracy.

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Tillich attempted to find common ground between Christianity and socialism in many articles and essays written during this inter-war period, but chiefly in the 1933 work Die sozialistische Entscheidung (“The Socialist Decision”), as yet untranslated. A number of his essays on religious socialism have been translated and published in the volumes The Protestant Era (1948) and Political Expectation (1971). These religious socialist writings are of considerable interest; in many ways they anticipated both the Christian-Marxist dialogue that emerged during the 1960s and the appropriation of Marxist themes by liberation theologies in the 1970s.

Tillich found in Marxist theory valuable criticisms and insights for the Lutheran churches of Weimar Germany. Marxism appeared to be a secularized version of Jewish prophetism that promised to satisfy the longings of the German working class for a more just social order. The Lutheran churches were woefully lacking in sensitivity to the dismal living conditions of the lower classes created by severe unemployment and runaway inflation, and the socialist movement was quick to move into this social and spiritual vacuum. Tillich perceived in Marxism an urgent and providential reminder to the churches to recover their commitment to social justice, a commitment deeply rooted in the teachings of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus but temporarily forgotten.

Tillich also found valuable correctives in the Marxist concept of ideology and the Marxist understanding of man. In Marxist theory, ideology is a technical term for a system of ideas that functions as an unconscious rationalization for the privileges of a particular social group. The Christian churches, Tillich argued, must continually engage in self-critical reflection in order to avoid giving unwitting support, by their teaching, to social conditions that need to be changed. Over the centuries the churches had often been guilty, said Tillich, of rationalizing the privileges of the more powerful classes, rather than functioning as the advocate of the weak and socially disadvantaged. Marxism also called attention to the material needs of man, needs that, in Tillich’s view, the Lutheran churches of Germany, with their predominantly other-worldly orientation and middle-class comforts, had tended to overlook.

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Tillich’s attempts to build bridges between the churches and the workers’ movement yielded little visible fruit, being overwhelmed by the rise of the Nazis to power during the 1930s. In 1933 Tillich was forced to leave his native land. He had testified against a gang of storm troopers that had invaded the campus of the university in Frankfurt during the winter of 1931–32, and when Hitler came to power the next year the Nazis dismissed Tillich from his teaching post at the university. Even if Hitler’s forces had not come to power in Germany, there is considerable doubt as to whether Tillich’s religious socialist program would have had much success. The valuable insights that had come from Marxism were seriously weakened by a lack of concern for individual conversion as a prerequisite for lasting social renewal, and by a lack of grass-roots support among the Lutheran churches. Tillich’s ideas were largely confined to the intellectual circles in which he moved.

American Years: Systematic Theology

When Tillich left Germany in 1933 he accepted an invitation extended through Reinhold Niebuhr to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Niebuhr, himself an active proponent of socialist ideas during the 1930s, had been attracted by the religious socialist writings of the young German professor. Tillich was to have a twenty-two-year tenure at Union, followed by seven years (1955–1962) at Harvard, and finally by three years at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He died in 1965. During his years at Union, Tillich’s magnum opus, the Systematic Theology, was gradually taking shape. The first volume of this closely written and intellectually demanding system of some nine hundred pages appeared in 1951, followed by volumes two and three in 1957 and 1963. Of the many important points to be discussed about Tillich’s Systematic Theology, I will here consider only two essential ones: theological method and Christology. At these points the contrasts between Tillich’s theological system and historic orthodox theology come into sharp focus.

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In considering Tillich’s method, I will concentrate on (1) his conception of systematic theology as “apologetic” theology, (2) his method of “correlation,” and (3) his view of Scripture as a source and norm of theology.

For Tillich, any contemporary theological system had to be an “apologetic” theology: it was obliged to give answers, from the standpoint of the Christian tradition, to the questions raised by the “modern mind.” Tillich argued that for the last two centuries the primary methodological question in Protestant theology had been whether or not the historic Christian faith could be successfully adapted to the modern mind without losing its essential substance. In the “modern mind” Tillich included the critical philosophical spirit of the Enlightenment, a scientific view of the physical universe, a comprehension of the results of the comparative study of world religions, and a view of human nature informed by modern psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

Tillich argued that a contemporary theological system had to avoid two dangers, that of merely preserving and repeating past formulations of the Christian tradition without seriously grappling with contemporary issues, and that of becoming so immersed in the contemporary context that essential Christian positions were compromised. The “kerygmatic” theology of Karl Barth, in Tillich’s estimation, was guilty of the first error, virtually throwing the Gospel at modern man like a stone, with little or no recognition of modern man’s situation or of any common ground between the Church and the world. Tillich’s “apologetic” theology, on the other hand, consciously took the risks of immersing itself in the situation of modern man and therefore virtually erased the distinctions between the Church and a modern humanistic culture.

Tillich attempted to build apologetic bridges between the Christian tradition and the modern mind with his method of “correlation.” By this method the questions posed by the modern mind were correlated with answers from the Christian tradition. The form of the questions and answers was determined by the language of modern philosophy, science, psychology, and art, while the substance of the answers was presumably drawn from the Christian tradition.

At the center of this Christian tradition was the Bible, which for Tillich was ostensibly the basic but not the sole source for systematic theology. Church history and the history of religions and culture also functioned as sources, in Tillich’s view. In practice this meant that Scripture no longer exercised the normative authority acknowledged by historic orthodoxy, but rather was adapted to the conscious and unconscious asumptions of the “modern mind.” The biblical message in Tillich’s system was filtered through the categories of the idealistic and existentialist philosophies of Schelling. Kierkegaard, and Heidegger before being addressed to the questions of the modern mind. In Tillich’s system, biblical realities such as heaven, hell, and judgment were to be understood symbolically; they pointed not to literal realities as traditionally understood but to states of man’s existential concern. As a result of Tillich’s philosophical a prioris, and of the pervasive antisupernatural bias of his thought, the Bible in Tillich’s system was hardly allowed to speak for itself; it spoke, rather, only through the categories judged to be credible to the “modern mind.”

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While the idea of a method of correlation is valuable and even necessary, as Tillich developed it modern culture rather than the Christian tradition was really the controlling factor. As a result the modern mind was addressed but not confronted by a biblical message demanding a truly radical conversion of the heart and mind to the Living God.

Tillich’s Christology was plagued by these same problems, those of prior philosophical commitments to idealistic and existentialist categories and to antisupernaturalism. In his attempt to circumvent the skeptical results of radical biblical criticism. Tillich drove a dangerous wedge between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. He went so far as to suggest that were it to be proved that Jesus of Nazareth had not existed, this would not be a fatal blow to the Christian faith.

In any case, argued Tillich, the experience of the first disciples and of believers today establishes beyond doubt the real, historical manifestation of the “New Being” that overcomes man’s estrangement. Whether or not the particular individual in whom the “New Being” was manifested was Jesus of Nazareth was, in Tillich’s view, almost immaterial. This introduced a serious error in Tillich’s view of the Incarnation: the “Christ” could be separated from the specific human figure of Jesus attested by the Gospels. The concrete, historical person. Jesus of Nazareth, is virtually replaceable in the system by a construct of idealist and existentialist philosophy, a faceless bearer of the New Being. The fundamental roots of the Christian faith in a specific, historical person and specific, historical events have been greatly weakened.

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In Tillich’s system, the Cross and Resurrection are understood as combinations of the elements of event and religious symbol. While the stories of the Cross are based on highly probable historical events, the stories of the Resurrection are the symbolic expressions of the mysterious religious experiences of the disciples. The resurrection stories symbolize the disciples’ conviction that the bearer of the New Being had not been vanquished by death. Tillich rejected a literal bodily resurrection and substituted for it the symbol of “resurrection” that the disciples, under the impact of their own experience of the New Being, applied to their recollected picture of the historical Jesus. Tillich’s doctrine of the Resurrection, which he termed the “restitution” theory, betrayed his antisupernatural bias, and could hardly be reconciled with the overwhelming historical evidence for the empty tomb.

Evangelicals can still learn from Tillich’s theological aims while repudiating many if not most of his specific results. Tillich set about to build a theological system that incorporated the best insights, as he understood them, of scientific biblical studies and of modern philosophy and psychology, all within the context of a realistic and critical awareness of the social environment that influences the Church’s thought. These aims evangelical theology can endorse, while repudiating the alien philosophical assumptions that influenced Tillich’s system and put the biblical message in an existentialist strait-jacket.

In every generation the abiding truths of the Christian faith need to be correlated with the contemporary situation, but in such a way that the Bible and not the “modern mind” supplies the controlling assumptions. A living orthodoxy has the responsibility of giving honest answers to honest questions. And yet, orthodox theology has a more crucial responsibility. It is to show modern man that his questions are ultimately not the right questions—that God’s questioning of man, and God’s command that man repent and become a disciple of Jesus Christ, are the abiding priorities on the Christian agenda.

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