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Evaluating The Theology Of Paul Tillich

Berkouwer and Tillich: The Relationship between Theology and Philosophy

Paul Tillich writes, ‘Philosophy and theology ask the question of being. But they ask it from different perspectives. Philosophy deals with the structure of being in itself; theology deals with the meaning of being for us’ (Systematic Theology, The University of Chicago Press, Harper and Row Publishers, New York and Evanston, 1967, (three volumes in one), Vol. I, p. 22 (emphasis mine)).

He maintains that ‘ … the philosopher tries to maintain a detached objectivity, toward being and its structures … ‘ while ‘the theologian … is involved in it (his object) … with … the love which accepts saving … personal truth. The basic attitude of the theologian is commitment to the content he expounds’ (pp. 22-23, brackets mine).

Tillich seeks to emphasize the unity of truth, emphasizing that reason and faith should not be separated from each other (Vol. I, Part I, ‘Reason and Revelation’ (pp. 71-159)). His distinction between philosophical method and theological method does, however, reflect an empiricist - romanticist dichotomy which is present in his thought (J. H. Thomas, Paul Tillich, The Carey Kingsgate Press Limited, London, 1965, pp. 45-46). Berkouwer’s approach does justice to the unity of truth. He emphasizes that the theologian is concerned not only with truth for us but also truth in itself. In his books, General Revelation and Holy Scripture, he is particularly concerned to ground truth for us in truth in itself. Berkouwer maintains that the philosopher cannot confine his attention to truth in itself without seeking truth for us. In his book, Man: The Image of God, he makes perceptive criticisms of a ‘knowledge’ which does not lead to a better understanding of ourselves (pp. 26-27). Tillich’s distinction between the philosophical method and the theological method raise the question whether he has allowed his theology to be dominated by a philosophy which is alien to Christian faith. He has acknowledged the soteriological or ‘for us’ element in Christian theology, which calls for an involved commitment to saving, personal truth. There is, however, the suggestion that Tillich’s interpretation of this soteriological element has been conditioned by a prior commitment to the philosopher’s detached objectivity. The ‘for us’ element is, for Tillich, a matter of ultimate concern. It is, however, questionable whether the Gospel’s ‘for us’ element can be taken with ultimate seriousness apart from the historical character of the Gospel events being treated, with the same ultimate seriousness, as ‘truth in itself’, i.e. truth which does not depend on our having had the ‘ecstatic experience’ of which Tillich speaks in his account of Jesus’ resurrection (Vol. II, p. 157). Tillich’s ‘answering theology’ (Vol. I, p.6) tends to produce polarization. Some are greatly enthusiastic about it (e. g. J. A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, SCM Press, 1963). Others are emphatic in their rejection of his theological position (e.g. D. H. Freeman, Tillich, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Philadelphia, 1962). Tillich’s treatment of the relation between theology and philosophy is closely related to his understanding of the subject - object relationship. While he regards this as an important issue, it is questionable whether he has given us an adequate distinction between objectivism and objectivity. Failure at this point leads to important elements of the Christian Gospel being discarded as ‘objectivism’ rather than being viewed as the objective basis for the challenge to Christian commitment.

Berkouwer presents a more adequate view of the subject - object relationship. He offers a more integrated view of theology and philosophy which promises to help us to overcome the problem of polarization. He does not do this by way of an undue appeal to philosophy. Rather, he emphasizes, throughout his writings, the unity of truth in its objective and subjective aspects.For Berkouwer, the question of truth in itself cannot be asked without also involving the questioner in the question of truth for me (Holy Scripture, pp. 9-10). Conversely, to ask the question of truth for me is to find that truth for me has its foundation in truth in itself (p. 10; cf. General Revelation, pp. 131-132).

Berkouwer, Tillich and our Understanding of God

Introduction

In this analysis of Tillich’s theology, I am not attempting to make any direct identification between the theology of Tillich and deism. My concern is more general. I am seeking to analyse a tendency in modern theology to use a concept of God which threatens to relativize the absolute significance of Christ and the Scriptures for Christian theology. I hope that the rationale behind the use of the term, ‘deism, will become clearer as the analysis progresses.Paul Tillich was a major opponent of deism. It may, however, be argued that there is a radical contrast between the intended effects of Tillich’s theology and its unintended effects.
Tillich opposes the natural theology of deism and the deistic conception of history. His own development of the idea of God as Being and his consequent a-historical interpretation of the Christian message do, however, display a demonstrable affinity to deistic thought.
If this charge is recognized as valid, Tillich’s theology may not be regarded as a tenable solution to the problem of polarization between faith and reason since it is based on a misrepresentation of divine revelation.
Tillich’s Understanding of God
The God of deism is ‘”the Intelligent Author of Nature” and “the Moral Governor of the World”‘ (A. Richardson, editor and writer of the article on ‘Deism’, A Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, London, 1969, pp. 89-90), a God who can be discovered by way of reason.
Reacting adversely to the Bible’s crudities, deism seeks ‘to relieve God of all traces of anthromorphism’ (Berkouwer, The Providence of God, p. 26) and thus present an understanding of God with superior content, clarity and style (Richardson, p.90). The deist ‘attempt to disanthropomorphize God’ produces ‘the thin God-concept of natural theology … - empty, without content, glory or comfort’ (Berkouwer, p. 26). Deism does not proclaim a God who - out of love for mankind - has revealed Himself in a salvation that enables humanity to share His divine glory. The loss of the divine glory and the divine loss constitutes a significant loss. The deist view of God comes into ‘headlong opposition to the traditional idea of God’ (Berkouwer, p. 26). It lacks the Bible’s strong historical consciousness and emphatic affirmation of historical revelation’ (Richardson, p. 90).
The deist attempt to disanthropomorphize God results in the humanizing of God, who is no longer seen as the living God whose glory is expressed in revelation and reconciliation. The God of deism is an expression of ’sterile human intellect’ and ‘barren intellectualism’ (Berkouwer, p. 26). The loss of the divine glory, expressed in revelation and reconciliation, represents a severe threat to a proper understanding of the divine love: ‘Disbelief in a God who so loves mankind that he has actually revealed himself to men must inevitably lead to the denial of the existence of a God of love’ (Richardson, p. 90). The loss of a proper perspective on the divine glory and the divine love led to the death of deism, in its original form, with many of its adherents passing over into pantheism or sheer atheism (Richardson, p. 90). The challenge of deism, however, continually confronts theology in different forms. The theology of Tillich, despite its overt opposition to deism, represents a subtle deistic influence in modern theology.Tillich emphasizes that God as ‘being itself, not a being’ is ‘the creative ground’ of being by whose ’sustaining creativity’ everything is brought into being and maintained in being (Systematic Theology, The University of Chicago Press, Harper & Row Publishers, New York and Evanston, three volumes in one, 1967, Vol. I, pp. 237, 262).Thus, Tillich opposes the remoteness of the God of deism. The precise content of God as Being and God’s sustaining creativity does, however, suggest that there remains a residue of deism in Tillich’s thought.Despite his opposition to the natural theology of deism, Tillich’s own doctrine of God displays a similar independence of incarnational and biblical revelation (A. J. McKelway, The Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich, A Review and Analysis, Lutterworth Press, London, 1964, pp. 140-141). Despite his opposition to the remoteness of the God of deism, Tillich’s own concept of sustaining creativity as ‘the continuity of the structure of reality as the basis of being and acting’ amounts to an exclusion of direct divine activity in history (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p.262). (I hope that the strength of this type of criticism will become more apparent as I explore - in subsequent posts - other aspects of Tillich’s thought: his understanding of man, the nature of reality, the nature of truth and the character of certainty).An examination of Tillich’s theological system demonstrates that his dissociation of himself from deistic rationalism is unconvincing: ‘In practice … the doctrine of God is limited to the terms of his ontology. Biblical statements … about God … must be trimmed to allow them to fit within Tillich’s world view’ (K. Hamilton, ‘Paul Tillich’ in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, edited by P. E. Hughes, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Second, revised edition, 1969, p. 469).Tillich’s theology has been rightly equated with natural theology by Berkouwer. Commenting on Gottschick’s aphorism, ‘Without Christ I would be an atheist’, he writes, ‘A Christocentric view like this has no place for the abstractions of natural theology, for a knowledge of God as “the unconditional” (Tillich) or the “first cause” or “absolute being”‘ (A Half Century of Theology, Movements and Motives, p. 165).Berkouwer rightly insists that a Christian theology must have its origin in Christ. Tillich’s theology tends to reduce Christian theology’s ultimate norm - Jesus Christ - to a secondary status since ‘ Jesus Christ and the biblical revelation have been fitted into a structure already complete without them’ (K. Hamilton, p. 473, emphasis original). The ‘God’ of Tillich’s theological system is determined by Tillich’s own ontological analysis which produces a theology concerned with timeless truth which is merely illustrated in history (K. Hamilton, p. 473). Thus, Tillich’s doctrine of God, despite its anti-deistic intention, bears a distinctly deistic character.

Our Understanding of Man: Deism, Tillich and Berkouwer

Introductory Comments
By putting the theme first and beginning with the word, ‘our’, I am indicating that my concern is less with deism, Tillich & Berkouwer and more with moving beyond the discussion of their views towards our own outlook - ‘Having considered what they had to say, this is what we think’.
I am trying to offer a helpful exposition of the Christian faith rather than simply point out (a) similarities between deism and Tillich; and (b) differences between Tillich and Berkouwer.
(a) In comparing deism and Tillich, I am not suggesting that Tillich should be described as a deist. His concern with ‘revelation’ marks him out as different from the deists. When we look at what he means by revelation, it is less clear that the difference is quite as great as it might seem. Does the Gospel speak to us only of ‘Christian symbols … symbols of faith(Systematic Theology, Vol. III, pp. 4-5, emphasis mine)? (b) In contrasting Tillich and Berkouwer, I don’t mean to overstate the contrast. Like Tillich, Berkouwer concerned himself with the relationship between faith and reason. He did not encourage us to commit intellectual suicide. He emphasized that real faith is not blind faith.Bruce Demarest sums up Berkouwer’s outlook well: ‘Berkouwer skilfully threads his way between a mindless fideism and a faithless rationalism’ (Review of A Half Century of Theology, Movements and Motives in Themelios, Vol. 4, No. 1, Sept. 1978, p.41). In my article on Berkouwer in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, (IVP, 2006), I have drawn attention to the importance Berkouwer attaches to (i) the irreducible content of the Gospel; (ii) the essential reasonableness of the Gospel; (iii) the apologetic significance of the Gospel; and (iv) the spiritual character of the Gospel.These are four important aspects of any adequate proclamation of the Gospel. When we look at Tillich’s theology in the light of these four features, the question arises whether his ‘new’ interpretation of the Christian Faith allows for an adequate emphasis on the irreducible content of the Gospel. If we are inclined to answer this question in the negative, we may see a similarity between the reduction in the content of religious faith we find in deism and the reduction in the content of Christian faith we find in Tillich. Berkouwer stressed that, rather than abandoning the pursuit of the apologetic task, we should approach it with ‘a combination of humility and courage’ (’Current Religious Thought’, Christianity Today, III, 13, (March 30, 1959), p. 39). In my book on Berkouwer (The Problem of Polarization … ), I commented on his ‘combination of humility and courage’: ‘Such a combination is necessary if contemporary Christianity is to overcome the polarization between a dogmatics that is apologetically irrelevant and an apologetics that is dogmatically reductionist’ (p. 277). When we use this ‘combination of humility and courage’ to assess Tillich’s theology, we must welcome the courage with which he seeks to communicate the Christian message to the contemporary world but we must also raise the question whether, in the worthy pursuit of the Gospel’s apologetic relevance, he has sacrificed the irreducible content of the Gospel. Our Understanding of Man (Humanity)The anthropological presupposition of deism is predominantly intellectual. The propriety of belief in the God of deism is regarded as demonstrable by means of ‘reason itself’ (Richardson, A Dictionary of Christian Theology, p. 89). This claim takes no account of the effect of man’s sin on his reason. Christian theology recognizes a revelation of God in creation without assuming that man, through reason alone, can rightly understand this revelation and thus come to faith in the God of revelation (Berkouwer, General Revelation, pp. 145-154). When the revelation of God confronts man, it finds not a positive attitude but ‘a negative one, which must be overcome’ (R. S. Anderson (editor), Theological Foundations for Ministry, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979, p. 12). The overcoming of man’s negative attitude towards God is accomplished through God’s salvation by which man comes to faith, not through his own reason but by the grace of God (Berkouwer, General Revelation, pp. 128-129). Christian theology’s response to this intellecualistic anthropology requires to be grounded in an adequate understanding of the whole man. Intellectualism may not be replaced by emotionalism since neither offers a proper perspective on the whole man. Man’s intellect may seek a dis-anthropomorphized God. Man’s emotions may yearn for a God whose nature of love embodies a sentimentalism which always expresses uncritical approval of man. Both intellectualism and emotionalism humanize God. Intellectualism creates God in the image of its own intellect. Emotionalism creates God ‘in the image of human love’ (Berkouwer, The Providence of God , p.26). The God-concepts of intellectualism and emotionalism are unable to bring meaning to the totality of life. The God of intellectualism does not encourage confidence in his love for persons. The God of emotionalism does not inspire confidence in times of crisis (p. 26, reference to World Wars). From the perspective of the whole man, there is deeper intellectual integrity in the idea of a personal God who has entered into personal relations with men than in the notion of a God who remains remote from his creatures (cf. D. G. Bloesch, The Crisis of Piety, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1968, pp. 95-124 for a useful comparative study of ‘Two Types of Spirituality’, one of which (mystical devotion) ’seeks a God beyond and outside of the personal’ while the other (biblical personalism) emphasizes that ‘God is wholly personal and not less than personal nor above the personal’ (p. 122)). A proper perspective on the whole man does not involve a retreat into emotionalism. Rather, it offers a deeper understanding of human emotion in which mature emotional development is clearly distinguished from an obsessive and rather childish yearning for approval. Mature human emotion involves love in taking its recipients seriously. Love which does not take seriously the actions of the loved one is mere sentimentalism. Love involves responsibility towards the loved one. God’s love is expressed, in part, by His taking man seriously as a moral being. Man’s reason must not be elevated, as in deism, to the extent that man effectively determines what God is like. Theology’s response to intellectualism must not be the creation of a God who merely reflects man’s preoccupation with approval. The God of grace and glory must be allowed full expression in and through man, who is loved by God and given dignity, the dignity of moral responsibility (Psalm 8:4-6; Revelation 3:19). Tillich rejects both ‘rationalistic deism’ which transforms revelation into information (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 157) and mystical theology which tends to make experience a source of revelation (Vol. I, pp. 44-45). His ontological emphasis is directed against subjectivism. His existential emphasis is directed against rationalism. His protest against both positions is, however, weakened by his refusal to make Jesus Christ absolutely central to his theological system. His doctrine of God as Being is developed independently of Jesus Christ and can be regarded as a kind of ontological ‘argument’, designed to provide ‘an ontologically guaranteed deity’ (K. Hamilton, Revolt Against Heaven: An Enquiry into Anti-Supernaturalism, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1965, p. 163). Tillich’s interpretation of biblical statements concerning Jesus Christ is determined by his insistence that ‘God is being-itself is a nonsymbolic statement … nothing else can be said about God which is not symbolic’ (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, pp. 238-239 . The significance of this point should become increasingly clear as we look at other aspects of Tillich’s theology). Tillich has attempted to avoid the trend towards intellectualism and emotionalism by opposing the idea of God as a human projection developed from unconvincing arguments for His existence and by insisting on the ontological foundation of man’s existential experience of Being. This attempt to avoid these trends must, however, be regarded as quite unsatisfactory. Tillich states that his method of interpretation ‘is derived from a prior knowledge of the system to be built by the method’ (Vol. I, p. 60). This prior knowledge of the system comes from Tillich’s ontological analysis of being which permits him to interpret the Christian message according to his own existential experience.Thus, the danger of emotionalism in Tillich’s theology arises from the predominantly intellectualistic structure of his theology. Tillich’s ontological analysis of being, which guides his interpretation of the Christian faith, provides neither a convincing reason why ‘being-itself’ should be called ‘God’ (K. Hamilton, ‘Paul Tillich’ in P. E. Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, p. 475) nor any guarantee that the saving Word of God in Christ is allowed to speak for itself ‘in all its objectivity and truth as a reality which must in no case be adjusted to our experience’ (A. J. McKelway, The Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich: A Review ans Analysis, p. 268). Christian theology must respond cautiously to the tendency towards the overestimation of man’s reason. An over-simplistic rejection is no substitute for a careful attempt at precise understanding. Rejection without understanding is sheer authoritarianism (Berkouwer, A Half Century of Theology, p. 159). This can hardly be the way forward for theology (pp. 7-9). In its assessment of deism, there must be a recognition that ‘(t)he interpretation of the classical arguments is artificial and inadequate (yet) (t)here is a sense in which … if they are used cautiously they can both express religious awareness and evoke it’ (J. H. Thomas, Paul Tillich, The Carey Kingsgate Press, London, 1965, p. 13).Such a cautious interpretation of the ‘proofs’ for God’s existence acknowledges the reality of creational revelation while remaining acutely aware of the danger of drifting back into what Berkouwer describes as ‘the old rationalism and .. the vague categories of the old natural theology’ (’Reviewing the Proofs’, Christianity Today, March 30, 1959, p. 54). The evaluation of the modern overestimation of man’s reason must be assessed not overhastily but fairly in the light of the gospel which, Berkouwer insists, is ‘not according to men (Gal. 1:11), not even religious men, and … is, after all, a scandal to natural thought' (p. 54).


Our Understanding of the Nature of Reality: Deism, Tillich and Berkouwer

The deist understanding of the nature of reality corresponds directly to its understanding of God. Its difference from the Christian understanding of reality corresponds to its different understanding of God.
L. Berkhof contrasts the deist and Christian views by means of an analogy drawn from modern technology. The deist view of the world is comparable to ‘a machine’ which requires only to be ‘put in motion’, while the Christian view sees the world as ‘a vessel which He (God) pilots from day to day’ (Systematic Theology, The Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1958, p.168, brackets mine).
A closed view of reality, in which even the Creator is restricted in His freedom to be active within His creation, is contrasted with an open view in which the Creator’s freedom is affirmed.
The essential question raised by deism may be formulated thus: Is the creation to be made the ‘lord’ of the Creator or is the Creator to be seen as the Lord over creation?
Berkouwer raises this issue sharply when he discusses ‘impossibility’: ‘the critics of miracles say that miraculous activity is impossible. Scripture says that it is impossible that death could hold our Lord (Acts
2:24
). Thus defined by redemption … “impossibility” receives a totally new meaning’ (The Providence of God, p. 211).
The definition of terms is important. If they are defined in terms of a closed view of reality, then revelation and reconciliation are excluded. What remains is not even an adequate understanding of creational revelation as the continuous revelation of the living God.
Contrasting definitions reflect contrasting world-views, as Berkouwer has observed: ‘Unbelief absolutizes the world, making it autonomous and cut off from its origin. In faith man again sees the world as in the hand of God’ (p. 211).
Tillich criticizes ‘theological biblicists’ for their casual use of ‘a term like “history” when speaking … of God as “the Lord of history”‘ (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 21). His own dismissal of interpretations which do not fit into his system is, however, rather casual.
His concept of God as Being itself is rightly used to oppose the deistic separation of the Creator from the created world. It is, however, questionable whether his interpretation of historical revelation necessarily follows from his understanding of God as the Ground of Being.
His understanding of history appears to be based on the naturalistic philosophy which underlies the deistic exclusion of God from history.
Tillich’s view of miracles (Vol. I, p.116), based on ‘the continuity of the structure of reality’ (Vol. I, p.262), involves the removal of miracles from the realm of historical reality to that of ontological - existential reality.
Tillich’s theology contains a basic conflict between ontological impossibility and historical impossibility. While he insists that ‘nothing can happen in history which would make the work of the New Being impossible’ (Vol. II, p. 162), his interpretation of ‘the resurrection of the Christ’is based on the impossibility of Jesus’ resurrection as a literal, historical fact (Vol. II, pp. 153-158).
Tillich’s theology appears to be based on a theological variation of the principle of an absolutized natural law.
Berkouwer’s concept of impossibility ‘defined by redemption’ (The Providence of God, p. 211) is grounded in a deeper harmony between ontology and history and contains a more radical critique of natural law.
Berkouwer, like Tillich, rejects ‘a dangerous concept of supernaturalism’ (p. 216) in which miracles are regarded as an occasional supernatural invasion of an absolutized natural order. Berkouwer emphasizes that this kind of supernaturalism ‘devalues the “ordinary” work of God’ (p. 215) and that its alternative is not a devaluation of the historical reality by means of an ontological - existential theory.
Berkouwer, like Tillich, does not view miracles ‘from the standpoint of the antithesis, God-natural law’ (p. 215). Berkouwer does not, however, evade any possible conflict between God and natural law by means of a concept of God’s sustaining creativity, understood in terms of the continuity of the structure of reality (For Tillich’s account of ’sustaining creativity’, see Systematic Theology, Vol.I, pp. 261-263).
Berkouwer insists that ‘the Divine act in miracles does not break any natural laws, as though they were absolute’ (The Providence of God, p. 215).
Thus, the antithesis, God - natural law, is overcome not by means of an ontological - existential theory which interprets miracles a-historically. It is overcome by way of a recognition of the sovereignty of God in His redemption, which is characterized by the unity of its ontological, historical and existential dimensions.
From this perspective, the redemptive significance of miracles (p. 212) can be understood in terms of their historical character as ‘reality and revelation’ (p. 215, emphasis original), by which ‘the sign is rooted in the reality’ (p. 214).
Christian theology, in its evaluation of modern variations of the deistic understanding of history, must carefully avoid any polarization between history and faith.
Tillich’s theology, with its concern to overcome the polarization between theology and philosophy (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, pp. 18-28), has increased the polarization between history and faith (B. J. R. Cameron, ‘The Historical Problem in Paul Tillich’s Christology’ in Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 18, No. 3, September 1965, p. 272).
His concern ‘to synthesize rational and existential thinking’ (K. Hamilton, ‘Paul Tillich’ in P. E. Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, pp. 452-453) requires to be related more closely to the biblical understanding of historical revelation.
Tillich’s notion that biblical statements should be understood as symbolic of the way in which the rational (Being-itself) pervades the existential (man’s experience) contains the implicit assumption that a literal acceptance of biblical statements concerning direct divine activity in history is a retreat into irrationalism.
The acceptance of this assumption leads to a thorough misrepresentation of divine revelation, which must be allowed to speak for itself without being required to conform to the dictates of theological rationalism concerning the nature of reality.

Our Understanding of the Nature of Truth: Deism, Tillich and Berkouwer

Introductory Comments
Before embarking on a discussion of Tillich’s theology, it may be useful to note a comment made by Berkouwer regarding Bultmann’s programme of demythologization - ‘The fact that he proceeds from a pastoral and missionary motive - namely, to preserve modern man from rejecting the New Testament because of its mythical structure - does not diminish by one iota the theological presumption of this undertaking’ (The Person of Christ, p. 41).
There are differences between Bultmann’s demythologizing approach and Tillich’s answering theology. In our analysis of both approaches, we should note that there is an important difference between understanding why a theologian has adopted a particular approach and agreeing with the approach he has taken.
In his theological work, Berkouwer does not ignore the call for a relevant proclamation of the Gospel. We see this in the titles of the opening chapters in his ‘trilogy’ of books on our journey of faith - Faith and Justification (’Relevance’); Faith and Sanctification (’Timeliness and Relevance’); Faith and Perseverance (’Timeliness and Relevance’).
He does, however, emphasize, that, in our search for relevance, we must not sacrifice the historical foundation upon which the Gospel’s present relevance is grounded.
Our Understanding of Truth
Christian truth contains two inseparable aspects - the objective and the subjective. The objective aspect refers to the truth of the Gospel, which has its origin not in man’s experience but in God’s redemption. The subjective aspect refers to man’s reception of the Gospel.
The evaluation of any theological system must pay close attention to its conception of truth and its capacity to do justice to both the objective and the subjective aspects of truth.
Deistic rationalism, with its exclusion of divine redemption and the overestimation of man’s reason, misrepresents both aspects of truth.
By means of his symbolic theology, Tillich appears to be able to overcome the reductionism and rationalism involved in deism. His symbolic theology enables him to develop a christology and a pneumatology, both of which are absent from deism. Tillich’s symbolic theology is developed by means of the method of self - transcending naturalism. This method enables Tillich to discern intuitively the Unconditional in the symbols of the conditioned without having to depart from a basically naturalistic world-view. Thus, Tillich’s theological method may be regarded as a theological variation of the naturalistic world-view.
By emphasizing that ‘revelation is “spoken” to man, not by man to himself’, Tillich insists that his method represents a rejection of the ‘naturalistic’ method (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 65).
Tillich insists that his doctrine of revelation is rooted ontologically in God and that its source is not to be traced to man’s existential experience.
The naturalistic character of Tillich’s thought is, however, observable in the way that he relates faith’s existential experience to its ontological foundation. His theology of revelation is based on a rather direct movement from ontological truth to existential truth which involves no significant departure from a naturalistic understanding of historical revelation.
Tillich’s theology requires to be analyzed with respect to its capacity to do justice to each of the ontological, historical and existential dimensions of Christian truth.
We need to look closely at his concept of historical revelation - ‘Historical revelation is not revelation in history but through history … Since man is essentially historical, every revelation occurs in history. But history itself is revelatory only if a special event or a series of events is experienced ecstatically as miracle’ (Vol. I, p. 120, emphasis original). For Tillich, the historical character of revelation is derived from the historicity of man and his believing response to history.
With this understanding of historical revelation, he seeks to understand ‘the Resurrection of the Christ as event and symbol’ (Vol. II, p. 155). Tillich’s interpretation of the revelatory event is governed by his view of symbolism - ‘Every religious symbol negates itself in its literal meaning, but it affirms itself in its self-transcending meaning’ (Vol. II, p. 9).
Thus, Jesus’ resurrection is regarded not as a literal, historical fact but as a symbol which expresses the faith that ‘God is being-itself, in the sense of the power of being or the power to conquer non-being’ (Vol. II, p. 11).
The symbol, ‘The Resurrection of the Christ’, is regarded as event since, as an expression of faith in God as the power to conquer non-being, it participates in the reality of God as being-itself.
Tillich’s understanding of this ‘event’ is acquired through his method of self-transcending naturalism which takes the form of a ‘Hegelian-style dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis’ (K. Hamilton, ‘Paul Tillich’ in P. E. Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, p. 474).
Thesis: ‘his disappearance from present experience and his consequent transition into the past except for the limits of memory’ (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 156-157, emphasis mine).
Antithesis: ‘the power of his being had impressed itself indelibly upon his disciples as the power of the New Being’ (Vol. II, p. 157).
Synthesis: ‘in this tension something unique happened. In an ecstatic experience the concrete picture of Jesus of Nazareth became indissolubly united with the reality of the New Being’ (Vol. II, p. 157, emphasis mine).
Thus, by way of intuition, Tillich affirms the ontological priority of being over non-being while fully accepting the naturalistic premise concerning the finality of death.
The words, ’something unique happened’, used in Tillich’s restitution theory, provide the interpretive context for understanding his general statement that, in the resurrection, ’something happened within existence’ (Vol. II, pp. 157, 153).
Tillich regards the resurrection as historical revelation because it happens within the experience of man, who is ‘essentially historical’ (Vol. I, p. 120). It is historical revelation because it is ‘experienced ecstatically’ by man (Vol. I, p. 120).
Existential truth is, for Tillich, directly related to ontological truth without being dependent on historical truth. Identifying the revelatory event with the disciples’ ecstatic experience, Tillich dismisses the view of the resurrection of Jesus as a once-for-all, unrepeatable event, which is distinguishable from the revelation of the Risen Jesus to the disciples.
Tillich maintains that ‘the symbol “Resurrection” which was readily available in the thought forms of that day’ is used to interpret ‘the event of experiencing ‘his living presence, here and now’ (Vol. II, p. 157).
The reality of the New Being and ‘the event’ in which man experiences the New Being is, according to Tillich, ‘not dependent on the special symbols in which it is expressed. It has the power to be free from every form in which it appears’ (Vol. II, p. 165).
While Tillich acknowledges that ‘(t)he New Testament lays significance on the objective side of the Resurrection’ (Vol. II, p. 153), it is questionable whether his conception of objectivity corresponds to that of the New Testament.
Berkouwer insists that ‘(i)t is impossible to separate the fact from the significance of the resurrection, as though the main thing were the idea rather than the historical reality of the resurrection’ (The Work of Christ, p. 181). He further contrasts the words of 2 Timothy 2:8, ‘Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead’ with ‘timeless idealism which does not need remembrance’ (p. 200, n. 21).
An adequate understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the objective foundation of Christian truth must carefully avoid any rationalistic conception which ’shifts the centre of revelation from history to a non-historical realm’ by a ‘complete separation of fact … and interpretative faith’, thus relativizing the absolute significance of Jesus Christ by reducing the fact of his resurrection to ‘an idea with transforming power’ (B. J. R. Cameron, ‘The Historical Problem in Paul Tillich’s Christology’, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 18, No. 3, September 1965, pp. 272, 264).
When the objective truth of the Gospel is misrepresented, subjective truth or man’s experience of the Gospel becomes entirely distorted.
While faith, as an act of the whole man, is more than intellectual assent to the fact of Jesus’ resurrection, it may not be understood as less than such intellectual assent.
The historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection is to be remembered in personal faith, which involves the mind in believing that He rose from the dead, the emotions in receiving the assurance brought by the truth of the resurrection and the will through which the life is brought into conformity with faith in the risen Christ.
Thus, faith may not, for the sake of intellectual acceptance in the modern world, be directed to Being-itself, in a way that distracts our attention from the risen Jesus Christ as the Object of faith.
Faith’s implications, such as a ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ or ‘commitment’ must not be made the whole content of faith.
Feeling of absolute dependence
This phrase is taken from Schleiermacher. Developing his discussion of the view expressed by Schleiermacher in his book, The Christian Faith, p. 12, C. Brown, using the word ’sense rather than ‘feeling’, draws a parallel between Schleiermacher and Tillich (Philosophy and the Christian Faith, Inter-Varsity Press, London, 1969, p.111, n.1). Comparing Schleiermacher’s idea of the ’sense of absolute dependence’ and Tillich’s idea of ‘ultimate concern’ , Brown maintains that both have attempted to ‘cut away from both biblical theology and the older natural theology in favour of an analysis of religious experience’ (p. 114, emphasis original).
Brown comments, ‘Not far beneath the skin of Tillich’s “bearer of the New Being” … is the early nineteenth-century Christ of Schleiermacher’ (p. 115).
Noting that both Schleiermacher and Tillich approach the Christian faith in the light of their own general world-view, armed with ‘certain rigid principles of interpretation’, Brown writes, ‘In evaluating their work, it is important that they should be judged not only by what they put in but also by what they leave out’ (p. 116, emphasis mine). The relevant sections in Brown’s book are pp. 108-116 (Schleiermacher) and pp. 192-200 (Tillich).
Commitment
‘Commitment’ can be dissociated from faith’s content in different ways. An obvious example is Marxist commitment. An example of ‘religious’ commitment, which is dissociated from faith’s content, is Bultmann’s demythologized version of the Gospel (note my introductory comments - Berkouwer’s remarks regarding Bultmann’s approach and their relevance to our discussion of Tillich’s theology).
Commenting on Bultmann’s theology, C. Brown notes that ‘there are times when Bultmann speaks with eloquence and insight on the choices before man and his need to commit himself. But it is never really clear to what Bultmann is inviting us to commit ourselves. So often it seems to be a blind trust in a message which Bultmann himself has been at pains to show to be untrustworthy. For Bultmann, the resurrection of Christ “is utterly inconceivable” as an historical fact … Yet … Paul wrote … “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain”. It is only by a most curious piece of double-think that Bultmann can make the preaching of the cross and resurrection of Christ the means of our self-understanding and the way to authentic existence’ (p. 190, from the section on ‘Bultmann’, pp. 185-191).
While Tillich’s approach is not precisely the same as Bultmann’s in every detail, it is clear that similar issues arise with respect to Tillich’s understanding of the Gospel.
When we speak about a ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ and ‘commitment’, we are speaking about faith’s implications. Such elements of faith must not be made the entire content of faith. They should be regarded as the subjective dimensions of faith. They should be distinguished from faith’s objective foundation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Concluding Comments
The central issue arising from Tillich’s interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection whether we can communicate the Gospel faithfully when ontological speculation and existential experience are cut off from the Gospel’s historical foundation in the resurrection of Christ.
We may express this point in terms of the title of this article - ‘truth’. In our proclamation of the Gospel, there needs to be historical truth as well as ontological truth and existential truth.
We may also express this point in terms of the central theme of my work on Berkouwer - ‘the problem of polarization’. We need, if we are to avoid polarizing tendencies within theology, to maintain a healthy balance between the ontological, historical and existential aspects of faith.
* Comment on the phrase, ‘A healthy balance between the ontological, historical and existential aspects of faith’ - What does this mean?!
The God of the Gospel is not the faraway God of deism, the God who remains remote from us. He is not the God who has created us and then retreated into perpetual silence. He has not kept His distance from us. He has come to us in love. He has come to us in Jesus Christ. He has come among us as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. He has not kept His silence. He has spoken to us His Word of love. He has spoken to us in His Son, Jesus Christ, the living Word, the Word made flesh. When we believe in the full historical reality of the divine revelation and reconciliation, we are not left to our own devices (e.g. interpreting the Gospel in terms of ‘myth’ and ’symbol’) to bridge the gap between our speculation concerning proofs for God’s existence and our sense of God’s presence in our life. Is there a link between the thoughts of our mind which suggest to us, ‘There is a God up there’ and the emotions of our heart which keep us longing for ‘a God who is with us here and now’? When we keep Christ at the centre of our faith - as something more than our ‘interpretation’ of the Christian ‘myth’ and Christian ’symbols’ - , we have ‘the Gospel of God’ (Romans 1:1), the Gospel which speaks to us of the divine initiative in creation, providence and redemption.
* Comment on the phrase, ‘the problem of polarization’
Berkouwer’s theology does not seem to be particularly suited to overcoming the polarization between the believer and the unbeliever. It appears to accentuate this polarization. This impression is, however, only apparent. Berkouwer’s theology promises to overcome polarization within the believing Church of Jesus Christ, so that she might be set free from asking the wrong questions in the wrong way, and thus be set free for the real task of proclaiming Christ to an unbelieving world. (In his book, The Ground of Certainty, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1971, D. G. Bloesch maintains that Berkouwer’s greatness as a theologian is directly related to his ability to ‘explain what the faith does not mean as well as what it means’ , p. 61). Berkouwer encourages us to to study the Scriptures more carefully. He helps us to achieve greater depth and clarity in our understanding of the Gospel. He helps us to find greater confidence in our God-given message, the confidence which affirms that the Gospel is still ‘the power of God to every one who has faith’ (Romans 1:16).
 * How does Berkouwer help us to achieve greater confidence in the Gospel and greater effectiveness in communicating its message with depth and clarity?
- He has distinguished between an authentic authority and unwarranted authoritarianism. 
- It is through the production of solid expositions of Christian doctrine rather than the proliferation of ‘devotional literature’ that Berkouwer encourages us to make progress in faith, worship, witness and service.
- Without resorting to the ‘de-eschatologizing’ of our Christian hope, Berkouwer does not encourage an ‘other-worldly’ attitude to life (see his chapter, ‘The Earthly Horizon’ in A Half Century of Theology).
- All of the above features of Berkouwer’s theology indicate that he was aware of the kind of problems faced by Tillich. His response was different from Tillich’s. He emphasized that our response to the fundamentalist movements, religious sentimentalism and the secularization of culture must always include a commitment to the irreducible content of the Gospel.
- How can the polarization between faith and unbelief be overcome? It may be helpful to note some comments made by Berkouwer in his book, A Half Century of Theology.
He contends that it is necessary for Christianity to enter into dialogue with Marxism. Such dialogue is demanded by ‘mutual care for this world’ (p. 189). He insists that such dialogue need not involve ‘a willingness to relativize the antithesis between atheism and Christianity, … capitulation of the Christian faith to Marxist theology’ (p. 187). Berkouwer maintains that such dialogue demands both a willingness to listen to the other side and a commitment to one’s own position. Concerning the importance of listening to the other side, he writes, ‘If a dialogue is meant to be more than a chance to deliver a message, or make a witness, more than a chance to speak to rather than with the partners, it can be a serious affair’ (p. 187, emphasis original). Insisting that ‘serious dialogue (is) not a dialogue of phoney tolerance’, Berkouwer cites the words of the Marxist writer, M. Machovec who said ‘that if there was to be dialogue he wanted an opponent who would really try to convert him’: ‘We do not want half-baked believers in dialogue; we want to confront real Christians’ (p. 188, emphasis and brackets mine).

 The Character of Certainty: Deism, Tillich and Berkouwer

The deistic understanding of certainty is related to the alleged demonstrability of God’s existence. Deism displays a high degree of certainty concerning both its own view of God and its rejection of the biblical doctrines of providence and redemption.
This view of certainty, characterized by anthropocentric arrogance, led to desim becoming ‘increasinly hostile to the Christian faith’ (C. Brown, ‘Reason and Unreason’ in T. Dowley (Organizing Editor), Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1977, p. 489).
The deistic notion that ‘God always behaves according to strictly human rationality’ (p. 491, in J. R. Moore’s article on ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity’) distorts both the content and character of faith. Faith’s content is restricted to the God of the proofs. Its character becomes primarily that of intellectual assent to the validity of the proofs.
A more adequate understanding of faith’s content and character is required if Christian certainty is to be properly grounded in the richness of the Christian Gospel rather than the shallowness of natural theology.
The biblical accents on both the redemptive work of God in history and the response of the whole man - mind, emotions and will - to that redemption are intergral to a Christian understanding of certainty.
Tillich opposes the deistic view of certainty, insisting that the certainty of faith cannot be based on unconvincing theological arguments. He intends to lift the doctrine of God above the uncertainty inherent in such arguments. He distinguishes his own ontological analysis from such arguments, insisting that he ‘does not mean that a doctrine of God can be derived from an ontological system’ (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 243).
He seeks to move beyond the theological abstractions of deism, emphasizing that his theology is concerned with the ‘existential knowledge of revelation’ (p. 243). He seeks to avoid the natural theology of deism, maintaining that ‘(t)he character of the divine life is made manifest in revelation’ (p. 243). His concept of God as the Ground of Being is used to oppose the anthropocentric outlook which is implicit in the ‘absent landlord view of God’ (Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 489),
Tillich’s own view of certainty does, however, retain a clear affinity to deism in certain important respects.
(i) He aims to provide a certainty which is beyond question.
When God is identified as Being-itself, the concept of Being may be accepted even when the word ‘God’ is not used. Thus, the possibility of uncertainty is virtually excluded by means of a rather tautologous concept of ontological truth (’whatever is , is true’). When man can be certain of Being without reference to either the word ‘God’ or the Christian symbols, the existential element in certainty (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 117) becomes rather tautologous since the concept of participation in Being involves the identification of the knowledge of God with having being.
(ii) His view of certainty is directly related to his view of God’s relation to creation.
Tillich views creation as a movement from essential being to existential being. Through his creation, man ‘falls into the state of existential estrangement’ in which ‘(m)an is estranged from the ground of his being’ (Vol. II, p. 44). This concept of estrangement should not be confused with sin. Tillich relates estrangement to finitude - ‘man is finite, excluded from the infinity to which he belongs’ (Vol. II, p. 31). He insists that ‘(c)reation is good in its essential character’ and that sin is not a ‘rational necessity’ (Vol. II, p. 44). Sin is not ‘a necessary consequence of man’s essential nature’ (Vol. II, p. 29). Sin is man’s rebellion against his finitude. In this rebellion, he ‘affirms the state of estrangement in acts of freedom which imply responsibility and guilt’ (Vol. II, p. 44).
Tillich’s concept of estrangement governs his understanding of the human predicament (Vol. II, p. 45). This leads him to present God as ‘the answer to the question implied in man’s finitude’ (Vol. I, p. 64).
His view of certainty is oriented towards an awareness of Being rather than an assurance of forgiveness.
In making this point, I do not mean to overlook the fact that Tillich has provided insightful expositions relating to divine forgiveness, e. g. ‘You are accepted’, The Shaking of the Foundations, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1949, pp. 155-165; ‘To whom much is forgiven … ‘, The New Being, SCM Press, London, 1956, pp. 3-14.
We can, however, raise questions regarding the adequacy of Tillich’s treatment of sin and forgiveness. This question has been raised by N. F. S. Ferre, ‘Three Critical Issues in Tillich’s Philosophical Theology’, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 10, N0. 3, September 1957: ‘We can participate in Reality, adjust ourselves to it by powers inherent in It and available to us, but God never literally acts on our behalf (e. g. forgiving our sins)’ Ferre believes that ‘Christian supernaturalism’ is ‘not only religiously but also intellectually more adequate’ than the idea that ‘an impersonal unconditional is ultimate’ (p. 233, emphasis and brackets mine)).
The form of certainty offered to the sceptic by Tillich requires to be distinguished from Christian assurance concerning the forgiveness of sins.
Sin is regarded by Tillich as an affirmation of estrangement (Vol. II, p. 44), which is, according to Tillich, a characteristic of created being (Vol. II, p. 44). This view of sin’s relation to the divine creation of man as existential being makes it difficult to understand either ‘The Biblical A Priori’ - God is not the Author of Sin (Berkouwer, Sin, Chapter 2, pp. 27-66) or the gravity of sin.
Sin, according to Tillich, is ‘an expression of man’s estrangement’ (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 47). The confession of the forgiveness of sins is, according to Tillich, ‘a religious-symbolic expression’ (Vol. III, p. 225) by which an awareness of Being is expressed by finite man - ’sin is conquered because estrangement is overcome by reunion’ (Vol. II, p. 47).
Tillich speaks of ‘the infinite goodness, which is beyond good and bad and which gives itself without conditions and ambiguiities’ and maintains that ‘(t)he courage to surrender one’s own goodness to God is the central element in the courage of faith. In it the paradox of the New Being is experienced, the ambiguity of good and evil is conquered, unambiguous life has taken hold of man through the impact of the Spiritual Presence’ (Vol. III, p. 226, emphasis mine).
Man’s most serious problem is described by Berkouwer as ‘the problem of sin’s guilt’ (Sin, p. 14, emphasis original). The primary obstacle to Christian assurance is not man’s finitude, but his sin. The way to Christian assurance is the way of confession and forgiveness of sin.
Insisting that ‘the riddle of sin is not resolved but is only known and confessed’ and that ‘(t)he mystery of our sin is the mystery of that dark evil which can only be forgiven and eternally blotted out’ (p. 146, emphasis original), Berkouwer emphasizes that sin cannot be regarded as an expression of man’s created being and that forgiveness of sin may not be identified with awareness of Being.
Thus, Berkouwer emphasizes as ‘the central message of the Gospel: the real forgiveness of our sins’ (p. 384, emphasis original), which ‘(t)he believer receives … in the way of penitent faith … which, in its very nature, can know nothing but God’s mercy’ (Faith and Justification, pp. 184-185) as the foundation of Christian assurance.
(iii) His view of certainty is directly related to his view of God’s relation to history.
Tillich’s theology is determined by his philosophical presuppositions concerning the transition from essence to existence (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 29-44, section entitled, ‘The Transition from Essence to Existence and the Symbol of “The Fall”‘). This gives his theology a distinctly a-historical character. According to Tillich, ‘The notion of a moment in time in which man and nature were changed from good to evil is absurd … ‘ (Vol. II, p. 41, ‘in’ - emphasis original, ‘absurd’ - emphasis mine). He rejects the idea that ‘the fall of man changed the structure of nature’ because it conflicts with his view of the transition from essence to existence’ (Vol. II, p. 40).
Similarly, Tillich rejects the literalistic interpretation of the interpretation of the incarnation by which, in his view, ‘a true and powerful symbol becomes an absurd story’ (Vol. II, p. 109). Tillich rejects the idea of Christ as ‘a half-god, a particular being between God and man’ (p. 109).
- His attack on an absurd story must, however, be set in the context of Christian theology which has not taught that Christ is to be regarded as a half-god, a being which is neither God nor man. See D. M. Baillie, God was in Christ: An Essay on Incarnation and Atonement, Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1956 who writes, ‘Jesus was not something between God and Man: He was God and Man’ (p. 80), insisting that ‘the Christian doctrine of Incarnation … has always found in the life of Jesus on earth God and man in simultaneous union - the Godhead “veiled in flesh” but not changed into humanity’ (pp.96-97, emphasis original, cited by Berkouwer in The Person of Christ, p. 31, n. 15). ‘Simultaneous union’ does not mean ‘half-god’!
- Tillich’s allegation of absurdity in the literalistic interpretation of the incarnation arises directly from his separation of essence from existence in a way that does not permit him to hold ‘that essence ever became existence’ (N. F. S. Ferre, ‘Three Critical Issues in Tillich’s Philosophical Theology’, p. 237, emphasis original; see also Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 94-95).
Tillich rejects the ‘physical’ theory of Jesus’ resurrection as ‘a rationalization of the event’ which raises ‘the absurd question … as to what happened to the molecules which comprise the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth’ (Vol. II, p. 158, emphasis mine).
The alleged absurdity of this question is a direct consequence of Tillich’s philosophical presuppositions which demand that Jesus is not placed beyond the split between essence and existence.
It is questionable whether Tillich’s understanding of the Christian message can be regarded as a direct result of biblical exegesis. He draws a radical contrast between ‘the historical Jesus’ and ‘the biblical picture of Christ’ (The Interpretation of History, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936, p. 34).
This kind of contrast has been challenged by Berkouwer who emphasizes that ‘the gospels … were consciously written to summon people to faith in Jesus Christ … out of the conviction that the historical Christ is the Son of God’ (The Person of Christ, pp. 34-35),
In view of the biblical emphasis on eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4; 1 John 1:1-3; 2 Peter 1:16), it would appear quite illegitimate to contrast ‘the biblical picture of Christ’ with ‘the historical Jesus’ in the way that Tillich has done.
In making this point, I do acknowledge that the Gospel writers did not use a form of historiography which follows the rules of modern historical criticism. This point is made by Berkouwer who writes, ‘In its historiography, Scripture follows “its own direction and purpose”. The sacred story is religious history which does not offer “that kind of accuracy which we often desire”‘ (Holy Scripture, pp. 243-244). This does not, however, mean that we must make a radical contrast between ‘the biblical picture of Christ’ and ‘the historical Jesus’.
Berkouwer rejects ‘an absolute contrast between kerygma and that which happened’ (p. 247, citing H. N. Ridderbos). Opposing a false objectivism, he writes, ‘If absolute precision and exactness is seen as the ideal, excluding all interpretive subjectivity, in order to render “facts” as objectively as possible, we must conclude that the Gospels do not coincide with this ideal and are therefore not reliable … Even if we are aware of the problems posed by the connection between event and interpretation, we may not withdraw into thethe postulate of an historiography that separates story from interpretation for the sake of objectivity’ (pp. 248-249).
Opposing an a-historical interpretation of the Gospels, Berkouwer maintains that the recognition of ‘a freedom in composing and expressing the mystery of Christ’ must not be set over against the observation that ‘(w)hat happened is decisive to all evangelists’ (p. 252).
Tillich’s understanding of the Christian message is grounded in his understanding of essence and existence which demands that biblical statements are interpreted symbolically rather literally. Tillich’s theology reflects his philosophical presuppositions concerning what God can do and what God cannot do. Thus, his opposition to the deistic notion of a God who remains remote from his creation is seriously relativized by his refusal to acknowledge the incarnation as ‘a divine fact with all the weight of historical reality’ (Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p. 254, citing Kittel - Friedrich (eds.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. IV, p. 786).
Tillich relates certainty to an ontology which is ultimately a-historical. He tends to make certainty concerning Being the prerequisite for interpreting Christian symbols in the light of this certainty. The New Testament emphasizes that faith in Jesus Christ is the prerequisite for the assurance of faith.
For Tillich, ‘the man Jesus (is) a transient medium for an eternal principle called the Christ which only points beyond itself to … the ground of being’ (A. J. McKelway, The Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich: A Review and Analysis, p. 100).
The New Testament proclaims that ‘This Jesus, God has raised up’ (Acts 2:32, emphasis mine; see also McKelway, p. 99), emphasizing that Christian assurance is directly related to the resurrection of Jesus as an historical event, ‘(t)he event-character’ of which ‘is unaffected by faith or unbelief’ (C. H. Pinnock, ‘On the Third Day’ in C. F. H. Henry (ed.), Jesus of Nazareth: Saviour and Lord, The Tyndale Press, London, 1966, p. 155).
Tillich’s Conception of Certainty and the Resurrection of Jesus
All our knowledge of factual reality is of a probable nature. The absolute logical certainty which pertains to tautologous statements, which say the same thing twice, is not possible with respect to historical events, which are contingent and could have been otherwise (C. H. Pinnock, ‘On the Third Day’ in C. F. H. Henry (ed.), Jesus of Nazareth: Saviour and Lord, p. 155).
It follows, therefore, that historical investigation can never lead to a necessary conclusion of faith since historical research always involves estimating a probability factor.
The distinction between certainty and probability has been correctly emphasized by Tillich who insists that ‘faith … cannot make the historically probable or improbable certain. The certitude of faith does not imply certainty about questions of historical research’ (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 108),
These observations concerning the contingency of all historical events and the limitations of historical research do not lead to the necessary conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus either did not or could not take place as an historical event which ’stands … in absolute priority to faith’ (Pinnock, ‘On the Third Day’, p. 155).
There is no logical connection between the acknowledgment that indisputable certainty concerning Jesus’ resurrection is unattainable and the statement that the resurrection of Jesus ‘is impossible to prove simply because it did not happen in history’ (p. 150, emphasis original).
The recognition of the limitations of historical research is a direct implication of the recognition that ‘No event is absolutely certifiable’ (p. 151, emphasis original).
The assertion of the impossibility of Jesus’ resurrection taking place in history involves a denial of the freedom of God to act in ways which, though beyond human comprehension, lie within the scope of His redemptive power.
The movement from a recognition of the limitation of man’s knowledge to a restriction of God’s redemptive activity is accomplished, in Tillich’s thought, by means of his notion of ‘the continuity of the structure of reality’ (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 262), which would be destroyed if miracles were ‘interpreted in terms of a supranatural interference in natural processes’ (Vol. I, p. 116).
Tillich emphasizes both man’s need for certainty and the limitations of historical research. Interpreting Jesus’ resurrection by means of the notion of the continuity of the structure of reality, he adapts the biblical witness to meet the requirements of his own idea of certainty.
A combination of the limitations of historical research and a readiness to allow the biblical witness to speak concerning the truth of the Gospel and the kind of certainty it provides, might have led Tillich to emphasize the unchangeable character of faith’s God-given foundation while acknowledging the changeabiliity of man’s experience of certainty.
When the emphasis is placed on faith’s confession of the action of God rather than faith’s confidence in historical research, it will be recognized that the most important aspect for faith is ‘not the certainty but the truth in the certainty’ (Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p. 20, emphasis original).
Tillich’s concern with the provision of a subjective certainty which may be dissociated from believing in the historically contingent event of the resurrection of Jesus should be understood in relation to his intention to provide an ‘answering theology’, addressed to questioning man.
In this respect, his theology serves a similar function to that of the deistic arguments for God’s existence which were originally used to provide subjective certainty for rationalistic man who had lost faith in the God of revelation and redemption.
The success of Tillich’s theology as an ‘answering theology’ is not, however, the sole concern by which his theology should be judged. Tillich himself stresses that his theology is ‘based on the kerygma‘ (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p.7). He seeks, in his adaptation of the Christian message to the modern mind, to retain ‘its essential and unique character’ (Vol.I, p.7). The question remains, however, whether he has not replaced the truth which God has provided with a certainty which man demands.
The New Testament does not teach us that the Gospel, like the concept of Being, is ontologically true. We learn from the New Testament that the event of Jesus’ resurrection had to happen for the Gospel to be true (cf. J. Daane, The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1973, p. 74).
The New Testament witness concerning the relation of Jesus’ resurrection to faith is that ‘(t)he resurrection … is … not an experience which creates a “happening”‘ but an event which ‘(f)aith embraces but does not create’ (Pinnock, ‘On the Third Day’, pp. 152, 150).
By his emphasis on the objectivity of Being, Tillich insists that faith does not create its object and that man’s subjective certainty is grounded in the objective reality of Being. He seeks to avoid ‘the danger of religious objectification’ by emphasizing that God ‘precedes the subject-object structure’ (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 172).
While Tillich’s attempt to avoid the kind of ‘objectivity’ which is devoid of subjectivity (Vol. I, p. 173) can be appreciated, it must be stressed that the endeavour to understand subject-object relations does not, of itself, guarantee that the Gospel is rightly understood. The question arises whether Tillich, in his concern with emphasizing the uniqueness of God, has not undermined the uniqueness of the Gospel by demanding that it conform to his particular interpretation of the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity.
In Tillich’s a-historical interpretation of the Christ-event, the truth of the Gospel is adapted to man’s need for certainty rather than need for certainty being oriented to the Gospel.
If Tillich had presented Jesus’ resurrection as the unchangeable truth which forms the foundation for man’s changeable subjective certainty, he would have avoided giving the impression that Christian faith has, in his theology, been accommodated to modern uncertainty in order to give modern man an unassailable certainty.
Tillich’s search for this kind of certainty is rooted in the fear that a faith, based on historically contingent events, might prove destructive of certainty. Having defined the character of certainty without reference to the historical character of divine redemption, Tillich proceeds to reinterpret divine redemption according to the requirements of his conception of certainty.
Tillich’s view of the certainty of faith is rightly rejected by Berkouwer, who contends that ‘Chrisians need not fear facts when they really believe on the living Creator of heaven and earth’, insisting that ‘(t)he message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can bring certainty in human hearts as a light in human darkness’ (Modern Uncertainty and Christian Faith, pp. 56, 49).
The priority of the truth of the Gospel over man’s subjective experience of certainty represents an order of priorities which may not be reversed. Tillich recognizes the priority of truth over certainty when he emphasizes that existential experience is grounded in ontological truth. His interpretation of historical truth tends, however, to place Jesus’ resurrection in the shadows of uncertainty rather than leading us out of those shadows through the proclamation of the resurrection.
Tillich’s theology appears to offer modern man religious certainty. As Christian certainty, this certainty turns out to be illusory since it is based on both a dissociation of Christian certainty from its foundation and a misunderstanding of Christian certainty, which is not an absolute certainty inferred from the concept of Being on purely logical grounds. Christian certainty is known only by faith which is centred on the fact and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. The evidence for the content of this faith is person-relative rather than compelling to all, irrespective of their presuppositions concerning history and meaning.
When this faith is received, it produces not a perfectly calm and tensionless certainty but a certainty which grows as a personal assurance of God’s love and faithfulness in Jesus Christ. This growth in personal assurance comes as the fact and meaning of God’s salvation sheds its ever-increasing light on the believer’s life.

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