Tillich – Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Part II)


This post on the first volume Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology will focus on Tillich’s understanding of the arguments for God’s existence, followed by a brief conclusion on this fits with his corollary view that God does not “exist,” as found in the second part of his Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, entitled “Being and God.”

The arguments for God’s existence sometimes employed in theology are hardly Christian in origin, and are found readily in the in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and are defended as well by Jewish (Maimonides, Spinoza) and Islamic (Avicenna) theologians. (As an aside, much of Analytic philosophy is to this day concerned greatly with the vicissitudes of natural theology and arguments for the existence of God, such as in the philosophy of Richard Swinburne.)

In what I take to be one of the stronger points in his Systematic theology, Paul Tillich offers a wholly different approach to these argument that moves beyond the bland dichotomy between either affirming these arguments or denying their validity whilst still holding to their intuitive purchase (i.e. thinking the arguments could theoretically be valid if formulated with greater specificity, or even by thinking that there are legitimate theological disproofs for the existence of God).

Paul Tillich begins his discussion with observation that philosophers and theologians have been divided roughly between these two positions, either between those who think the arguments veridical and those who do not (204). This, Tillich says, is because of a fundamental misunderstanding. Those who attacked the arguments were not denying what the proponents affirmed.  Insofar as they are taken as logically assenting propositions, the arguments for the existence of God cannot be considered, for Tillich, as valid examples of reasoning (ibid.). In this sense they fail because they cannot accomplish what they claim, viz. the arguments do not “prove” the existence of God.  But Tillich does think the arguments can be affirmed in another sense, not a demonstrative argument but as questions. For him, “the arguments for the existence of God neither are arguments nor are they proof of the existence of God. They are expressions of the question of God implied in human finitude. This question is the truth; every answer they give is untrue” (205).  For example, the ontological argument demonstrates for Tillich the fact that man has in his actual finitude has knowledge of the potential infinite from which he is estranged (206). In other words, these arguments show that the question of God is implied in the finite structure of being (210). “In performing this function they partially accept and also partially reject traditional natural theology, and they drive reason to the quest for revelation” (210).

Tillich is quite explicit in maintaining, I think rightly, that contrary to most popular religious thought and even some unclear and muddled theological thought, God is not a “being,” especially a being among other beings, or even the highest or supreme being. Philosophical Theism is in this sense un-Christian because, besides not being rooted in any Christology, theism views God as basically a reified person who stands over and above the world. Tillich explicitly states that God does not exist (205). For him, to even claim that God exists is atheistic (ibid.). This is because “God is being itself beyond essence and existence. To argue that he exists is to deny him” (205).

Is it not quite telling that the preeminent complaint among Tillich’s theolgical detractors is how one can worship this “ground of being” or have a personal relationship with something that is impersonal (see, for example Grenz and Olson’s critique of Tillich “radical immanentism”  in his textbook on 20th Century Theology, pp. 126-127). Could Hauerwas be instructive here? Is Christianity really about a “relationship” with God?


8 Responses to “Tillich – Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Part II)”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    I’m teaching out of Grenz and Olson on Tillich and process theology next week at church. I’ll have more to say on that later on that week.

    This whole critique of not being able to worship the ground of being ought to point us back to Christ. As I tried to outline in my post on Hegel, all love is transference for Freud. Perhaps the only way to love God is by loving Christ who is the man for others (Bonhoeffer). Tillich might be a resource in arguing for a non-transferential love of God that only realizes itself by neighbor-love.

  2. Tillich – Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Part II) « JRidenour « This is something that happens. Says:

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  3. Jeremy Says:

    I finished preparing for my sunday school class on Tillich/process theology.

    I’m becoming more aware just how biased the book is. I find them to be unduly charitable to Tillich and Barth on a personal level. Unlike other theologians, they critique Tillich on every page. They fail to appreciate the creativity of his systematic theology, despite its flaws. I also found their coverage of Barth to be lacking. They did not do justice to his doctrine of election or to the logic of his Dogmatics in general.

    It should come as no surprise that they believe the heart of Christianity is biblical personalism since both were moderately liberal evangelicals.

    • A.J. Smith Says:

      My least favorite part of Grenz and Olson’s book was the critique it offered of basically all theologians, and then trying to understand all 20th century theology as an immanence/transcendence debate.

      It’s really a work of theology, as opposed to being a just a history of theologians.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Except for Pannenberg, Grenz makes sure to say that Pannenberg will most likely defeat the facile critiques of his system.

  5. Ben Griffith Says:

    Can you expound on what you mean by asking if Hauerwas could be helpful?

    Btw, I’m really enjoying the reviews. They’ve been really good.

  6. A.J. Smith Says:

    Basically, Hauerwas does not think Christianity is about ‘a relationship with God,’ or at least a direct one; it should mediated by and through the church. I don’t think Grenz and Olson’s criticism of Tillich’s ontology in their textbook (that you can’t have a relationship with a ‘ground-of-being’ because it’s not personal) is very good, because Christianity is not about a ‘relationship’ with God in the first place. I thought that even if we accept their criticism (which I don’t, Tillich explicitly denies that God is impersonal in his ST) than we can still say that our relationship is with the church if we want to go down that ecclesiastical road.

  7. Jeremy Says:

    I think the primary question is the notion of a “personal” relationship with God. This type of Christian jargon encourages viewing God in a rather anthropomorphic “fatherly” way. I think one way to get out of this Freudian projection is to recognize that Christ is the mediator. If Christ is the man for others then we can only have a relationship with God by having relations with one another. Being in communal relations imitates the way Christ related to others in the world. I’m on a Bonhoeffer high right now because I’m preparing a class on Bonhoeffer this Sunday. From his perspective, the only place to “find” God is to in the weak and despised in society.

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