Theses on Paul Tillich's "Systematic Theology" - Intro and Thesis 1

Some of us here at PTS have been reading through Tillich's Systematic Theology this semester with Bruce McCormack. As part of the seminar, we each had to write a set of 'theses' explaining and interacting with a portion of Tillich's text. Mine was ST volume 3, pages 1-161. Given that I have posted on Tillich before, I thought that I would post my theses. I'll do one thesis at a time over a series of posts. Footnotes have been moved into brackets like these - {}. Enjoy!

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Thesis 1: The ‘Introduction’ to volume three of Tillich’s Systematic Theology {Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951-63).} constitutes [A] a brief apology for the work that emphasizes the strengths of a systematic theological approach while also [B] describing the theology contained therein as the contextually or culturally attentive interpretation of the meaning embedded in Christian symbols.

Explanation: [A] As one engaged in the study of systematic theology here at Princeton Theological Seminary, I generally consider the high systematic quality of Tillich’s three volumes to be one of their strongest selling-points. Apparently, there are (and were) some who disagree. Tillich addresses one such critic in the opening paragraphs of the ‘Introduction’. A theological system, pursued properly, will not seek to rationalize revelation but is simply an attempt to conform to “the justifiable demand to be consistent in one’s statements” (3). Indeed, Tillich lists the drive toward consistency as chief among the three benefits that he has found in the systematic approach, followed by its conduciveness to identifying hitherto unrecognized relations between various theological aspects and to perceiving the ultimate wholeness of theology’s object beyond its many discreet aspects, principles, and their relations.

[B] Tillich is quick to note, however, that choosing to work in a systematic mode does not necessarily imply failure to recognize the provisional character of one’s theology or that one undertakes such work in isolation from contemporary cultural context. Although Tillich confesses that Christianity’s birth-event (Jesus as the Christ) is universally important, he also affirms that “the way in which this event can be understood and received changes with changing conditions in all periods of history” (4). This means that the language of Scripture, or the fruits of historical-critical analysis of Scripture, cannot simply be adopted wholesale – although Tillich seems to want to claim such as a starting point for this thought. Rather, new ways of speaking must be found if one is to succeed in communicating with “the large group of educated people, including open-minded students of theology, for whom traditional language has become irrelevant” (ibid), which puts one in mind of Schleiermacher and his ‘cultured despisers’ of religion. Abhorrent for Tillich is the notion that faith be estranged from culture, and vice versa. So, having “penetrate[d] the meaning of the Christian symbols,” Tillich endeavors to “interpret the symbols of faith through expressions of our own culture” (4, 5).

Also included in Tillich’s conception of the contextual nature of any systematic theology is its seemingly inherent lack of comprehension. This incompleteness arises from attention to context, which dictates that some topics be treated at greater length than others. Furthermore, Tillich recognizes three important historical developments in his own period with which he hopes theologians will further engage: first, secular criticism of religion; second, other religions; third, Protestant-Catholic ecumenical dialog. The last point is, as Tillich indicates, important for his ecclesiology {Johnson sees in Tillich’s sacramentology, for instance, the opportunity for rapprochement between post-Vatican 2 Catholicism and Protestantism. Maxwell E. Johnson, "The Place of Sacraments in the Theology of Paul Tillich," Worship 63, no. 1 (1989): 17.}.

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