Paul Tillich: Systematic Theology

The mini-series continues...

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Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, 106-137

In his discussion of the nature and means of revelation, Tillich focuses on the interrelated ideas of mystery, ecstasy, and sign-event. For Tillich, revelation is “the manifestation of something hidden which cannot be approached through ordinary ways of gaining knowledge” (108). Revelation makes the mystery knowable, though it does explain the mystery. The mystery remains mysterious, as it were. Ecstasy, then, “points to a state of mind which is extraordinary in the sense that the mind transcends its ordinary situation” (111-2). Thus, ecstasy is a supra-natural awareness of the mind enabled by the presence of the mystery. The sign-event is then the means of revelation, thought these are many and varied. It is the correlation of all the necessary components for revelation enabling the mystery to grasp the human awareness (cf. 117).

With the nature and means of revelation set forth, Tillich moves on to the content of revelation. Speaking about this content in a general sense, he calls revelation “the manifestation of the depth of reason and the ground of being. It points to the mystery of existence and to our ultimate concern” (ibid). Moving on to a Christian account of revelation, Tillich discusses Jesus as the “final” and thus “decisive” revelation (133). How are we to know this? “A revelation is final if it has the power of negating itself without losing itself” (ibid). Since all revelation is conditioned, it is necessary for the conditioned element to be negated and the elements of revelation to remain. Tillich understands this to have occurred in Jesus of Nazareth’s death on the cross, where the finite Jesus was negated without removing the infinite Christ (cf. 133-7).

There are multiple problems with this understanding of revelation. First, Tillich grounds revelation in the existential dilemma of finitude and death, namely, the human person’s ultimate concern. It is only within this category that he discusses revelation as something particular occurring by the power of the Christian God and located at the person of Jesus. During his general discussion of revelation, it is difficult to discern whether Tillich understands revelation to be intrinsically connected to the particulars of the Gospel, especially since he places pagan illustrations of revelation alongside of Christian and Jewish examples (cf. 124-5).

Second, and following from the first point, Tillich does very little to temper this universal ambiguity of revelation in his Christological discussion. In his discussion of the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death, namely, that the finite is removed so that the infinite revelation might remain, Tillich states “this means that in following him we are liberated from the authority of everything finite in him, from his special traditions, from his individual piety, from his rather conditioned world-view, from any legalistic understanding of his ethics” (134). The effect of this statement is two-fold. First, it undermines the Christian faith by leaving it no more claim to truth than might be argued from the experience of ecstasy, in other words, we are only able to say that Christianity is true because it produces a greater number of opportunities for transcendental experiences. Second, it undermines the biblical text and any of Jesus’ teachings in the same manner. Thus, Christianity descends into existence as simply one more path leading to existential encounter with the ground of being (cf. 112).

Third, Tillich abandons the notion that the human person of Jesus is God. True, there is a “presence of God in him which makes him the Christ,” (135) but this presence is bestowed not intrinsic. Tillich goes so far as to state outright that, “Jesus became the Christ” (133, emphasis ours). This modification in the tradition understanding of Jesus’ relationship to God, namely that he is the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, leads to important correlations in Tillich’s concept of salvation. Since Jesus becomes Christ (Messiah / Savior / final revelation) by virtue of his uninterrupted unity with the ground of his being (cf. 137), he becomes a “New Being” (cf. 136), which is the hope for humanity.

Fourth, while it is not explicit in this section, the only logical relationship between Tillich’s idea of the person of Jesus and this notion of his existence as “New Being” would push him to say that it is into this New Being, which by virtue of its unity with the ground of being transcends human finitude, is the existence into which the Christian faith saves us by the revelation of Jesus. Thus, for Tillich, the primary plight of humanity can be nothing other than the existential question of finitude and death, and the way that this is solved is not by God in Gods-self entering into the world, but for the human Jesus to exist in perfect union with the ground of being, in order that humanity might enter into that same union.

This is deficient.

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