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The God of History

by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, June 1, 1944. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Now, the Eternal cries, bring your case forward,
now, Jacob’s King cries, state your proofs.
Let us hear what happened in the past, that we may
ponder it,
Or show me what is yet to be, that we may watch it
how it turns out;
Yes, let us hear what is coming, that we may be sure
you are gods;
Do something or other that we may marvel at the
Why, you are things of naught, you can do nothing
at all!  

Here is one I have raised from the north,
I have called him by the name from the east;
He shall trample rulers down like mortar,
like a potter treading clay.
Now, we predicted this beforehand,
Who foretold it that we might hail it true?
No one predicted it, now one announced it,
Not a word ever fell from you.

As for your idols, I see no more, not a prophet in
their midst,
To answer my inquiries!
They are all an empty nothing, all they do is utterly
inane, their metal images are futile, vanity.

Isaiah 41:21-29, Moffatt Trans.


A dramatic scene is described by the words of the prophet. Jahweh who is both judge and disputant calls the gods of the nations to a heavenly disputation while the peoples of the world listen. The point at issue is: Which god has proved to be the true God? The answer is he who is the God of history! And the decision is: Jahweh has proved to be the God of history therefore the god who is really God! Jahweh is the God of history, for he, through his prophets, has shown that he understands the meaning of history, that he knows the past and the future, the beginning and the end. And in having shown this, he has shown that he makes history; that it is he who has raised up Cyrus, the destroyer of the world powers, and the liberator of the remnants of the Jewish nation. The gods of that nation cannot answer a word. They did not know it, they did not predict it; they did not perform it. And so the disputation ends with the sentence that these gods are vanity, that their works are nothing, and their images are wind and illusion. Jahweh alone is God, for he is the God of history.

Seldom in history have men been as disturbed about history as we are today. We urgently want to have at least a glimpse of the future, some wisdom, some prophecy. Not merely a few thousand Jewish exiles, as those "by the rivers of Babylon" to whom our prophet speaks, but ten millions of exiles from practically all nations are trying fervently to penetrate into the darkness of their unknown future. Furthermore the great majority of men are longing for an illuminating and profound word about the future of mankind. But those who have the power to shape the future contradict each other in practically all fundamentals. Political leaders declare solemnly that it is almost impossible to carry the burden of their office in this time. Ministers at home and in the army are able to tell their people only in negative terms for what purpose they are sacrificing and dying. Those who must speak to the enemy (as I myself have done by radio for the hundredth time this week) realize that on the political plane they cannot say one word of real promise. Only the prophets of disaster who are without hope, reveal a complete certainty. But they are not the prophets of God.

Nor can we expect that the darkness about our history will soon be dispersed, either by another international conference or by the final victory, or by clever political strategy. Our darkness, uncertainty and helplessness about the future has profounder reasons. We cannot get an answer about the future because we ask those who cannot know the future. We ask the gods who are vanity and nought, the gods of the nations who are not the God of history. Everyone asks the god of his nation and tries to get an oracle from him through the mouth of his priests, the wise and mighty of the nation. We do get such oracles. Everyone, all over the world, is surfeited with oracles from the god of his nation, and from the gods of other nations. We compare them with each other and try to combine them for the most probable answer. But this process increases the darkness. These gods all speak of the future in terms of their nations; but even the greatest nation is a "drop in the bucket" before the God of history. No nation can say "I am the meaning, the purpose of history. I am he who knows the past, who shapes the future !" And no alliance of nations can say that. Even if all national gods were gathered together, they would still be subject to the judgment of Jahweh: "You are things of nought; you can do nothing at all !" Thus it is that we get many oracles about our future, but no prophecies. We have not yet turned to the source of prophecy, the God of history.

The way in which Jahweh revealed himself to Israel as the God who is the first and the last, the beginning and the end of history, was very painful. Only the complete national breakdown made the remnants of Israel ready to receive this revelation in its universal meaning. And whenever the Jewish nation made the revelation a reason for national pride and transformed Jahweh into the god of their nation, the national breakdown followed. Jahweh as a national god is condemned by Jahweh as the God of history. This is the mystery of Judaism to this very day.

There are two great figures in the teachings of this prophet. The first is Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire, the greatest historical personage of his time, whom our prophet speaks of as the "shepherd" of God, as "the anointed" and as the man of God’s counsel; the other is the "servant of Jahweh" (whoever he may be in flesh and blood), who symbolizes the saving power of innocent suffering and death. According to the prophetic teaching the glorious founder of an empire is ultimately the servant of the servant of Jahweh. He liberates the remnant of Israel from which the suffering servant arises.

Is not this conception the solution of the question of the meaning of history today? It is the only solution which I can see. There are two forces in our shattered world today. The one is the force of those who are similar to the suffering servant of God. We do not know where they are, as we do not know who prompted the servant-vision of the prophet. But we know that they exist, invisibly in all countries. We do not know what they will make of the future. But we know that their suffering will not be in vain. They are the hidden tools of the God of history; the aged and the infants, the women and the young men, the persecuted and imprisoned, all those who are innocently sacrificed for the future, to be one small stone in the building of the divine Kingdom, of which the Perfect Servant of God is the corner stone. And there is another force in our world, the force of those who are like unto Cyrus, the rulers of empires with all the greatness and all the shame of every empire (the rulers of America, Great Britain and Russia). They are the men of God’s counsel, because they carry through his purposes in the service of the suffering servants of God. But they are as ignorant of God’s counsel as Cyrus was. They do not know the future consequences of their policies. If we look to them in our attempt to know the future we will also remain ignorant. But if we look at the true servants and the true God whom they serve, the God of history, we will know! Cyrus is in the service of the servant of Jahweh. This is the solution of the riddle of history, including the history of our epoch.

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