Paul Tillich: Systematic Theology

This is the final installment of my Paul Tillich mini-series. I have another series just about ready to go, so stay tuned!

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Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, Pages 97-150.

Following a treatment of “Existence” wherein he elucidated the context into which salvation must come, Tillich turns to Christology proper in his section entitled, “The Reality of the Christ.”

The first of three sub-divisions in this section deals with “Jesus as The Christ.” Tillich seems to be concerned with understanding the interplay between faith and history. He seems to argue both that denial of Jesus historical existence is denial of Christianity, (cf. 107) and that the simple fact of Jesus’ historical existence does not make him the Christ. Only the reception of him as such makes him the Christ. Without this reception, “[h]e could then have been a prophetic anticipation of the New Being, but not the final manifestation of the New Being itself” (99). Tillich further cautions us about the dangers of interpreting literally the biblical symbols used to communicate the significance of Jesus as the Christ (cf. 107-113).

“The New Being in Jesus as The Christ” is the second sub-division. Tillich’s concern is to describe the New Being in Jesus the Christ, which he defines as, “the undistorted manifestation of essential being within and under the conditions of existence,” (119) and what has been overcome in Jesus’ inauguration of the New Being as the Christ. This inauguration was accomplished by Jesus’ participation in all the aspects of finite humanity just as any other human being, but in his life alone were the tensions between the existential polarities of human existence held in balanced tension (cf. 127). The significance of the establishment of the New Being in Christ is that we are may participate in the New Being, though only “fragmentarily and by anticipation” (118).

Finally, the third subsection is entitled, “The Valuation of the Christological Dogma.” Here Tillich undertakes an engagement with the Christological doctrine of the early church. His modus operandi is to first affirm that these councils preserved Christology, and to then criticize the councils for what he sees them giving away to the Hellenistic context (cf. 145). Tillich seeks to free Christology from “a confusion of its conceptual form with its substance” (142), and intimates that “theology must try to find new forms in which the Christological substance of the past can be expressed” (145). It is as though Tillich were saying that the early church experienced Jesus as the Christ and interpreted this in the language and symbols available. Further, we must now move beyond this contextual language and superstitious symbols to understand what is the true substance of this event.

Tillich’s understanding of Christology is an appealing one. It offers a systematic interpretation of who Jesus was, what he accomplished and why it is important. This interpretation does not draw on what many see as the “overused” language of Christianity’s theological tradition. Instead, it uses terms that make more contemporary sense. Working from a more traditionally “orthodox” understanding, it might be tempting to press Tillich at his most obviously weak point, namely, his assertion that “the Christ” could have had a name other than “Jesus of Nazareth” (114). But this would be to play into Tillich’s hands. He would quickly point with great erudition to the superiority of the historical-critical approach to the biblical text and, finding himself resisted staunchly here, he might retort that the Old Testament provides no reason to expect the name “Jesus.” No, the battle is with his use of language.

Tillich reacts against what he understands as superstition, literalism and supernaturalism – things that the historical-critical methods have banished (cf. 108-10). He approaches the language of the biblical text as “symbols,” which he understands as “expresses of…self-interpretation” (109). However, this is a false dichotomy.* By understanding the biblical language as symbols used to communicate experiential understanding, Tillich has separated this language from what a “common-sense” approach might call concrete reality. Yet, understanding the language as simply literal is problematic as well. By working in a strictly literal manner, we bind our understanding of the transcendent hopelessly to the material, created order – an order which God created and thus infinitely exceeds. A middle way is offered to us by the concept of analogy. For instance, we may speak of God as “Father.” But, if we limit our understanding of God as Father to our experience with human fathers, we have a distorted understanding of God. In truth, God is like human fathers, but God is also far beyond human fathers in that our understanding of a human father should be judged by the revelation of God as Father.**

*[In what follows I am very dependent upon George Hunsinger’s work entitled, “Beyond Literalism and Expressivism: Karl Barth’s Hermeneutical Realism” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)]

** [Tillich’s view of language is inescapably tied up with his understanding of the biblical text. The biblical texts are to him merely human expressions of the significance of the even of Jesus and his work as the Christ to usher in the New Being. However, the Church has long affirmed that the Scriptures are something more, something revelatory and in some sense given by God. Simply accepting the God-given nature of revelation does not guarantee that one will reject Tillich’s symbolic expressivism, but it is a prerequisite for understanding the biblical text in literalist or analogical terms.]

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