Tillich, Barth, and the Relationship Between Philosophy and Theology

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Dave and I over at Dommerselv! have been having a discussion about Kierkegaard, Barth, and Tillich. The question concerning the relationship between the God of philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been on my mind for quite some time. Many Christians today argue for the rejection of Hellenic Christianity, as if Neo-Platonism is a perversion of a Jewish spirituality and theology (I think here especially of process theology). On the other side, radical orthodox theologians defend Neo-Platonic metaphysics to the death, as if this is the only ontology that could possibly support a true Christian philosophy. Here was my comment:

I think I’m sympathetic with Barth as well especially with his radical Christo-centrism. I guess I’ll be finding out soon enough (with my Church Dogmatic reading project). Whether or not one agrees with him, one has to respect the rigorous application of his methodology.

I think the distance between Tillich and Barth is best contrasted by Tillich’s belief that the God of the philosophers is the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Barth would obviously disagree. We only know God through God’s self-revelation in the Word of God (along with God’s covenant with Israel). I think it’s interesting to think about Tillich’s equation. How does the God of the Greek and Hebrew Bible differ from Greek’s metaphysical God? Is God impassible, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent? I think it’s fairly obvious that one can find stories in the Bible where God does not exhibit these characteristics. Now, given that one can always just merely write away stories (like the one where God has to go check the reports in Sodom to see how many righteous people there are, as if he doesn’t already know) as being remnants of primitive thinking, which I’m sure Tillich would be inclined to do. This is a temptation though. We tend to have this illusory view that people get smarter over time. I’m more skeptical that we 21st century thinkers are far more advanced in our understanding of God than Hebrews five centuries before Christ. In certain areas we’re obviously more advanced (science), but theology reflects on a subject matter that has a complicated relationship with time (that’s for another day). Barth’s relationship with the Bible is much more complicated than Tillich’s liberal critical-historical perspective. He doesn’t believe that the Bible is verbally inspired by God, but rather a recording of God’s self-revelation to man.

Mark C Taylor’s book After God also stresses the different extremes of thinking between Kierkegaard and Hegel. He looks at theologies such as neo-orthodoxy (transcendent, wholly Other God, Kierkegaardian) and the change to the death-of-God theology (immanent, kenotic God, Hegelian). He argues for an a/theology that is transcendent within immanence. Although, it’s clear he doesn’t believe in any sort of God (in the common sense of the term) but rather some sort of organic sense of the sacred.

I’m curious what other people think about the relationship between philosophy and theology. Do you agree with Tillich or Barth? What about the relationship between Christian theology and Muslim theology? Are these different Gods? I’m not sure where I stand on the Tillich/Barth debate. I think it’s too easy to say, Athens bad, Jerusalem good. Although, I don’t think a close Biblical reading can uphold that God is impassible, the other three I’m not so sure about. This obviously gets much more complicated when we talk about divine characteristics in Jesus. I think it’s incorrect to start with a notion of the divine and then see how this matches up with Jesus of Nazareth’s life. That’s the wrong direction. When it comes to the incarnation, I’ll let Bonhoeffer have the last word:

“If Jesus Christ is to be described as God, then we may not speak of this divine essence, of his omnipotence and his omniscience, but we must speak of this weak man among sinners, of his cradle and cross. When we consider the Godhead of Jesus, then above all we must speak of his weakness. In christology one looks at the whole historical man Jesus and says of him, ‘He is God.’ One does not look at a human nature, and then beyond it to a divine nature; one meets the one man Jesus Christ, who is fully god.” (Christ the Center, 108)

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