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The Theology of Missions

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, March 4, 1955. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Every activity of the church must be derived from the foundation of the Church itself. It must be an activity which follows necessarily from the very nature of the Church. Not accidental, but necessary, functions of the Church are the subject of theological consideration.

The theological problem of missions belongs to two groups of theological problems: first, to those which deal with the doctrine of the Church, and secondly, to those which deal with the Christian interpretation of history. The following discussion is not that of an expert. I am not a specialist in missions, but a systematic theologian who is trying to bring the great reality of missions into the framework of a Christian interpretation of history and a Christian doctrine of the Church.

For the Christian interpretation of history the meaning of history is the Kingdom of God.

There are three main riddles of history. History runs toward a goal which is never actualized in history. History runs in one direction, and this direction is irreversible. Historical time moves ahead toward something new, namely, toward the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is the answer to the question, "Toward what does history run?" The answer is, "Toward the realization of the Kingdom of God, through and above history."

History is disrupted into innumerable large and small, comparatively independent historical movements, in different sections of the world, in different periods of time. The question is: If we say "the history," do we not presuppose a unity of history? But this unity is never actual. There are always divergent tendencies. There is always human freedom, which has the power and the possibility of disrupting any preliminary unity of history. Nevertheless, this unity is always intended, and the Kingdom of God is a symbol for the unity of history in and above history.

In history there is always a struggle going on between the forces which try to drive toward fulfillment in the Kingdom of God and its unity and the forces which try to disrupt this unity and prevent history from moving toward the Kingdom of God; or, in a religious-mythological language, there are always conflicts going on in history between divine and demonic forces.

From this it follows that in history there is a continuous mixture of good and evil, in every group, in every agency which carries the historical process, in every period, in every historical actualization. History has a tragic ambiguity; but the Kingdom of God is the symbol for an unambiguous situation, a purification of history, something in which the demonic is conquered, the fulfillment is reached, and the ambiguous is thrown out. In this threefold sense, as fulfillment, unification, and purification of history, the Kingdom of God is the answer to the riddles of history.

Of course, the Kingdom of God seen in this light is not a stage of history. It is not a utopia which is somewhere and nowhere. There is no such stage, even in the farthest future of history, because history is always a battlefield of divine and demonic forces. However, history is running toward the Kingdom of God. Fulfillment transcends history, but it is fulfilled through history.

The second statement about the Christian interpretation of history is that the historical representative of the Kingdom of God, insofar as it fights in history, is the Christian Church. The Christian Church, the embodiment of the New Being in a community, represents the Kingdom of God in history. The Church itself is not the Kingdom of God, but it is its agent, its anticipation, its fragmentary realization. It is fighting in history; and since it represents the Kingdom of God it can be distorted, but it can never be conquered.

The third statement about the Christian interpretation of history is that the moment in which the meaning of history becomes fully manifest is to be called the center of history, and that this center is the New Being in Jesus as the Christ. In this center the contradictions of historical existence are overcome, in "beginning and power." (This is the meaning of "principle.")

The fourth statement about the Christian interpretation of history is that history is divided by the center of history into two main sections, the period before the center and the period after the center. However, this is true in a different way for different people and different nations. Many people, even today, are still living before the event of Jesus as the Christ; others, those who have accepted Jesus as the Christ, are living after the center of history. The period before the manifestation of the center of history either in history universally, or in particular individuals, nations and groups, can be called the period in which the bearer of the Kingdom of God in history is latent. It is the period of latency of the Church, the period in which the coming of the Church is prepared in all nations. This is true of paganism, of Judaism, and of humanism. In all three groups and forms of human existence, the Church is not yet manifest, but it is latently present, and it prepares for the coming of the center of history. Then, after the center of history has come and after it has been received by pagans, Jews, and humanists, there is a Christian church in its manifest state, in a state which is no longer preparation, but reception, namely reception of the New Being in Jesus as the Christ.

From this fundamental statement issues directly the meaning of missions. Missions is that activity by the Church by which it works for the transformation of its own latency into its own manifestation all over the world. This is a statement with many implications.

The first consequences are critical consequences, namely, critical against misinterpretations of the meaning of missions. One should not understand missions in a lower sense than this just mentioned. First of all, one should not misunderstand missions as an attempt to save from eternal damnation as many individuals as possible from among the nations of the world. Such an interpretation of the meaning of missions presupposes a separation of individual from individual, a separation of the individual from the social group to which he belongs, and it presupposes an idea of predestination which actually excludes most human beings from eternal salvation and gives hope for salvation only to the few—comparatively few, even if it is millions—who are actually reached by the message of Jesus as the Christ. Such an idea is unworthy of the glory and of the love of God and must be rejected in the name of the true relationship of God to his world.

An attempt to interpret the meaning of missions was made by nineteenth-century liberal theology, namely, the idea that missions is a cross-fertilization of cultures—of the Christian cultures with the Asiatic cultures, first of all. With the primitive cultures it is not so much a cross-fertilization as a transformation into higher cultures. But missions is not a cultural function; it is rather the function of the Church to spread all over the world. It is one of the functions of extension of the Church, of its growth; and it is (as growth is generally) an element of a living being without which he finally must die. This is quite different from the idea of cross-fertilization. Cross-fertilization can only claim that the limited values of one culture should be completed by the limited values of another culture. But culture is not the problem of the interpretation of history. Cultures come and go, and the question of the meaning of history transcends any culture and any cultural cross-fertilization. Therefore, since missions is supposed to contribute to the answer to the question of the meaning of history, the suggested answer "cross-fertilization" is utterly inadequate.

Moreover, missions is not an attempt to unite the different religions. If this were the function of missions, a uniting point, a uniting center, would have to exist. Then, however, this uniting center would be the center of history, and the Christ would have been "decentralized." He would no longer be the center; but the center would be that which is above him and also above Buddha, Mohammed and Confucius. The Christian Church would then be one religious group among others, but it would not be the agency of the Kingdom of God, as we have described it and as it always felt itself to be.

The Christ, according to Christian conviction, is the center of history and, therefore, the uniting point in which all religions can be united after they have been subjected to the criticism of the power of the New Being, which is in the Christ. Therefore, we must say: missions is neither the attempt to save individual souls, nor an attempt at cultural cross-fertilization, nor an attempt to unite the world religions. Missions is rather the attempt to transform the latent Church, which is present in the world religions, in paganism, Judaism and humanism, into something new, namely, the New Reality in Jesus as the Christ. Transformation is the meaning of missions. Therefore, the mission is a function which belongs to the Church itself; and it is an element, a basic element, in the life of the Church itself.

The transformation of which I spoke is the transformation from the Church in its latency, in its hiddenness, under the forms of paganism, Judaism and humanism, into its manifestation. This refers not only to the nations and groups outside of the Christian nations but also to the Christian nations themselves. There must always be missions—or attempts to transform the preparatory state into the manifest state of the Church, not only outside the Christian orbit but also within the Christian orbit. This is because there is always paganism, Judaism and humanism in the midst of the Christian nations themselves.

The transformation of the state of latency into the state of actualization is a necessary function of the Church. It is a function which is always present and which has never been missing. There were periods, of course, in which there were no official institutions for missions. However, while institutions are historically changing, functions are unchangeable, as long as there is a Church, because functions belong to the essence of the Church itself. Even in periods in which the mission toward those outside the Christian orbit was very small, it was never completely lacking, because there were always contacts between Christians and non-Christians. Where there are contacts there is witness to Christianity, and where there is witness to Christianity there is implicitly missionary activity. In this sense we can say: the process of transformation is always going on; it is going on both within and outside the Christian nations and cultures. The claim of the Church that Jesus is the bringer of the New Reality for the universe is identical with the demand made upon the Church to spread itself all over the world. And that is what missions does.

Let us now consider this transformation and its theological meaning. There was a discussion, especially in the last period of liberal theology, about the absoluteness of Christianity. Is Christianity the absolute religion? Is Christ the center of history? Is he the bringer of the New Being? Or are the other religions of equal value and does each culture have its own proper religion? Christianity, according to these ideas, belongs to the Western world, and it should not interfere with the religious developments of the Eastern world. This, of course, would deny the claim that Jesus is the Christ, the bringer of the New Being. It would make this statement obsolete, because he who brings the New Being is not a relative figure but an absolute figure of an all-embracing character. The New Being is one, as being itself is one.

This universality of the Christian message, its universal claim, includes what has been called, with a not too happy term, the "absoluteness of Christianity." Let me call it its universality. Now, how can you prove, today, as a Christian, or as a theologian, that the Christian message is universal and valid for all cultures and religions, so that Christ must become what he potentially is, the center of history for all historical developments? How can you prove this? The answer obviously is: you cannot prove it at all in terms of a theoretical analysis, for the criteria used in order to prove that Christianity is universal are themselves taken from Christianity. Therefore, they do not prove anything except for those who are in the Christian circle. This means: there is no theoretical argument which can give the proof of the universality of Christianity and the claim that Jesus is the Christ. Only missions can provide that proof. Missionary work is that work in which the potential universality of Christianity becomes evident day by day, in which the universality is actualized with every new success of the missionary endeavor. The action of missions gives the pragmatic proof of the universality of Christianity. It is a pragmatic proof. It is the proof, as the Bible calls it, of power and Spirit. It is not a theoretical proof, which you can give sitting in your chair and looking at history; but, if you are in the historical situation in which missions are, then you offer a continuous proof, a proof which is never finished. The element of faith is always present, and faith is a risk. But a risk must be justified, and that is what missions does. It shows that Jesus as the Christ and the New Being in him has the power to conquer the world. In conquering the world, missions is the continuous pragmatic test of the universality of the Christ, of the truth of the Christian assertion that Jesus is the Christ.

In the same way, missions bears witness on behalf of the Church as the agency of the conquering Kingdom of God. This also cannot be proved in abstract theoretical concepts. Only missions can prove that the Church is the agent through which the Kingdom of God continuously actualizes itself in history. Missionaries come to a country in which the Church is still in latency. In this situation the manifest Church opens up what is potentially given in the different religions and cultures outside Christianity. In some way and on some level, every human being is longing for a new reality in contrast to the distorted reality in which he is living. People are not outside of God; they are grasped by God, on the level in which they can be grasped—in their experience of the Divine, in the realm of holiness in which they are living, in which they are educated, in which they have performed acts of faith and adoration and prayer and cult, even if the symbols in which the Holy was expressed seem to us extremely primitive and idolatrous. It was distorted religion, but it was not non-religion. It was the reality of the Divine, preparing in paganism for the coming of the manifest Church, and through the manifest Church the coming of the Kingdom of God. This alone makes missions possible. One might call this preparation, which we find in all nations, the "Old Testament" for these nations. But I hesitate to do so, because the term "Old Testament" is used, ordinarily and rightly, for a very special preparation, namely for the preparation of the coming of Christ as the center of history through the elected nation.

This leads me to the second consideration: the Church is latent also in the elected nation, i.e., in Judaism. It is prepared in it, so that it can become manifest in it, but it is not yet manifest in it in the full sense of the word. It drives toward manifestation; and certainly the community of the Jewish nation and the community of the synagogue into which Jesus was born are preparatory stages for the coming of the center of history, the Church and the Kingdom of God. But they remain preparatory. They anticipate, in prophetism; and they actualize, fragmentarily and with many distortions, in legalism. However, they are not the manifest Church; they are still the latent Church. If Christianity comes to them, they might or might not accept the transformation out of latency into manifestation. We know that what in some forms of paganism is comparatively easy is in Judaism almost impossible. Paul had this experience. He writes, in Romans 9-11 (one of the great and rare pieces of an interpretation of history in the New Testament) about the question of missions toward the Jews. He believed that this mission to the Jews would not succeed until the pagans would have become members of the manifest Church. One of the great problems of missions toward the Jews today is that we often have the feeling that it is by historical providence that the Jews have an everlasting function in history. "Ever" means as long as there is still history, and, therefore, paganism. The function of Judaism would be to criticize, in the power of the prophetic spirit, those tendencies in Christianity which drive toward paganism and idolatry. Judaism always stood against them as a witness and as a critic, and perhaps it is the meaning of historical providence that this shall remain so, as long as there is history. Individual Jews always will come to Christianity; but the question whether Christianity should try to convert Judaism as a whole is at least an open question, and a question about which many Biblical theologians of today are extremely skeptical. I leave that question open. I, myself, in the light of my many contacts and friendships with Jews, am inclined to take the position that one should be open to the Jews who come to us wanting to become Christians. Yet we should not try to convert them but should subject ourselves as Christians to the criticism of their prophetic tradition.

The third group in which we have the latent Church is humanism. I think not only of Greek, Roman and Asiatic humanism but also of humanism with the Christian nations. There are many people who are critical of Church, Christianity and religion generally. Many times this criticism comes from the latent Church, is directed against the manifest Church, and is often effected through the power of principles which belong to, and should be effective in, the manifest Church itself. Nevertheless, in spite of the important function of the latent Church, it is, as the word "latent" indicates, never the last stage. That which is latent must become manifest, and there is often a hidden desire on the part of people who belong to the latent Church to become members of the manifest Church. This can happen, however, only if the manifest Church accepts the criticism which comes from the latent Church.

These foregoing remarks show that missions is by no means one-sided. There is also missions to the Christians by those non-Christians to whom Christian missions are addressed. What Christian missions have to offer is not Christianity—certainly not American, German, or British Christianity—but the message of Jesus as the Christ, of the New Being. It is the message about Jesus as the center of history which, day by day, is confirmed by missions. It is not, however, Christianity as an historical reality that is this center of history. Not cross-fertilization of American culture with Asiatic cultures is the goal of missions, but the mediation of a reality which is the criterion for all human history. It stands critically not only against paganism, Judaism, and humanism wherever it may be, but it also stands critical against Christianity, outside and inside the Christian nations. All mankind stands under the judgment of the New Being in Christ.

This leads me to the last point, namely to the praise of what missions has done in creating churches in sections of the world which are Outside the Western cultural orbit and which are able, and will be able, to undercut the unconscious arrogance of much Christian missionary work. I speak of the unconscious arrogance which assumes that Christianity, as it has developed in the Western world, is the reality of the New Being in Christ. It is only one of its expressions, a preliminary one, a transitory one, as Greek Christianity was, and Roman Christianity was, and Medieval Christianity was. It is not the end. These new Christian churches provide another and one of the greatest and most important proofs for Jesus being the center of history. They demonstrate that his message and the New Being in him were able to overcome not only the resistance of those outside Christianity but also the unconscious and almost unavoidable arrogance of those churches which carried out the missionary work. The fact that there are new churches, in another cultural orbit, developing their independence and resisting the identification of the Kingdom of God with any special form of Christianity, is perhaps the greatest triumph of the Christian missions.


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