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The Protestant Era 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. The Protestant Era was published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois in 1948. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock<


Chapter 6: Philosophy and Theology


(Address delivered on assuming the chair of Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary)

Philosophical theology is the unusual name of the chair I represent. It is a name that suits me better than any other, since the boundary line between philosophy and theology is the center of my thought and work. But has the term "philosophical theology" more than a personal meaning? Has it an objective meaning? Is it a justified combination of words?

Some will give a decidedly negative answer to this question. Theological supra-naturalism of Continental, as well as of American, types will denounce philosophical theology as a contradiction in terms or, even more, as high treason against theology. On the other hand, philosophers and theological humanists may denounce philosophical theology—although perhaps with less fanaticism than the opposite group—as an impure mixture of two incompatible methods of thought. They may admit the right of dealing philosophically with religion as with any other subject. But philosophy of religion is not philosophical theology. Can our name be defended against this double attack?

The answer is implied in the answer to the old question of the relation between philosophy and theology. After at least two thousand years of thought dedicated to the solution of this problem, it is not easy to offer a new solution. Nevertheless, it must be attempted in every generation as long as theology exists, for the question of the relation of philosophy and theology is the question of the nature of theology itself.

The term "philosophical theology" points to a theology that has a philosophical character. What does this mean? First of all, it implies that there is a theology that has not a philosophical but some other character. This, indeed, is the case. As long as theological thought has existed, there have been two types of theology, a philosophical one and—let me call it—a "kerygmatic" one. Kerygmatic is derived from the New Testament word kerygma, "message." It is a theology that tries to reproduce the content of the Christian message in an ordered and systematic way, without referring to philosophy. In contrast to it, philosophical theology, although based on the same kerygma, tries to explain the contents of the kerygma in close interrelation with philosophy. The tension and mutual fertilization between these two types is a main event and a fortunate one in all history of Christian thought. The fight of the traditionalists of the early church against the rising logos-Christology, the struggle between the mystics and dialecticians in the early Middle Ages, between Biblicism and scholasticism in the later Middle Ages, between the Reformers and the Aristotelian scholastics, the attack of the Ritschlians on speculative theology, and of the Barthians on a philosophy of religion—all this and much more was the consequence of the existence of a philosophical and a kerygmatic theology. The duality is natural. It is implied in the very word "theology," the syllable "theo" pointing to the kerygma, in which God is revealed, and the syllable "logy" pointing to the endeavor of human reason to receive the message. This implies further that kerygmatic and philosophical theology demand each other and are wrong in the moment in which they become exclusive. No kerygmatic theology ever existed which did not use philosophical terms and methods. And no philosophical theology ever existed—deserving the name "theology"—which did not try to explain the content of the message. Therefore, the theological ideal is the complete unity of both types, an ideal which is reached only by the greatest theologians and even by them only approximately. The fact that every human creativity has its typological limitations makes it desirable that theological faculties should include a representative of kerygmatic and one of philosophical theology, whether the latter is called apologetics, speculative theology, Christian philosophy of religion, or philosophical theology. The church cannot do without this type, just as, of course, it cannot dispense with the kerygmatic type.

It is not my task to enlarge on the nature of kerygmatic theology. The most radical attempt to create a merely kerygmatic theology in our period has been made by Karl Barth. But he, in contrast to some of his fanatical pupils, is honest enough to acknowledge that he cannot avoid philosophical language and methods completely, since even our daily-life language is shaped by philosophical terminology and philosophical ways of thought. Neither is it my task to deal with the difficult question as to whether there is a third type, namely, mystical theology, as has often been suggested; or whether mysticism, as I should prefer to assert, is an element of any religious message and therefore a substantial element in both types of theology.

Now, what is the relation of philosophy and theology and, consequently, the exact meaning of "philosophical theology"? In order to answer this question, as far as it can be answered at all, we must try to traverse some difficult ways of abstract thought for which I must beg your patience.

Philosophy asks the ultimate question that can be asked, namely, the question as to what being, simply being, means. Whatever the object of thought may be, it is always something that is and not not is. But what does this word is mean? What is the meaning of being? Santayana, in a very fine analysis of experience, derives all experience from shocks which we receive and which disturb the smooth flux of our intuition. I think he is right. And his insight should be used not only for the sake of stopping the vague and detrimental use of the word "experience" which we find in popular philosophy and theology but also for a more profound, more Aristotelian description of the experience out of which philosophy is born. It is the philosophical shock, the tremendous impetus of the questions: What is the meaning of being? Why is there being and not not-being? What is the structure in which every being participates? Questions like these may be late in their explicit and rational form, although they underlie the most mythological creations. In any case they are essentially human, for man, as the German philosopher Heidegger says, is that being which asks what being is. This question and the shock with which it takes hold of us is especially human. It is the foundation of humanism and the root of philosophy. For philosophy asks the question concerning being itself. This implies that philosophy primarily does not ask about the special character of the beings, the things and events, the ideas and values, the souls and bodies which share being. Philosophy asks what about this being itself. Therefore, all philosophers have developed a "first philosophy," as Aristotle calls it, namely, an interpretation of being. And from this they go on to the description of the different classes of beings and to the system of their interdependence, the world. It is easy to make a simple division between philosophy and theology, if philosophy deals only with the second realm, with sciences, and attempts to unite their last results in a picture of the world. But philosophy, before attempting a description of the world in unity with all kinds of scientific and nonscientific experience, tries to understand being itself and the categories and structures which are common to all kinds of beings. This makes the division between philosophy and theology impossible, for, whatever the relation of God, world, and man may be, it lies in the frame of being; and any interpretation of the meaning and structure of being as being, unavoidably has consequences for the interpretation of God, man, and the world in their interrelations.

This concept of philosophy may be challenged from different angles. The establishment of a first philosophy may be attacked with the popular argument that it entails a return to old-fashioned metaphysics. The presupposition of this argument is the magic of the syllable "meta" in metaphysics, which, in spite of the testimony of all textbooks and lectures on philosophy that it means the book after the physics in the collection of Aristotelian writings, has received the meaning of something beyond human experience, open to arbitrary imagination. But the question of being, the question of a first or fundamental philosophy, is the question of what is nearer to us than anything else; it is we ourselves as far as we are and at the same time as human beings are able to ask what it means that we are. It is time to dismiss this abused and distorted word "metaphysics," the negation of which has become an excuse for a terrific shallowness of thought, in comparison with which primitive mythology was extremely profound.

Another criticism may come from the claim of epistemology to be the true first philosophy. I would admit that this claim is justified to a great extent. Parmenides, the first and greatest of the ontologists, knew that being and the logos of being, that is, the rational word which grasps being, belong together, or, as we should say, that being is always subjective and objective at the same time. Epistemology is wrong only if it pretends to exist without an ontological basis. It cannot do so. And this insight has caused the breakdown of the epistemological period of philosophy in the last decades. You cannot have appearance without a being that appears, or knowledge without a being that is known, or experience without a being that is experienced. Otherwise, appearance or experience become only other words for being, and the problem of being is only stated in different terms.

There is a third criticism which we have to face. It may be said that there is no approach for man to the structure and meaning of being, that what being is, is revealed to us in the manifoldness of beings and in the world in which they all are united and interrelated to one another. It could be said: Look at minerals and flowers, look at animals and men, look at history and the arts, and you will learn what being is, but do not ask for being itself above all of them. To this we must answer: You cannot prohibit man from asking the most human question; no dictator can do so, even if he appears in the gown of humble positivism or modest empiricism. Man is more than an apparatus for registering so-called "facts" and their interdependence. He wants to know, to know about himself as thrown into being, to know about the powers and structures controlling this being in himself and in his world. He wants to know the meaning of being because he is man and not only an epistemological subject. Therefore he transcends and always must transcend the "No trespassing" signs cautiously built by skepticism and dogmatically guarded by pragmatism. The meaning of being is his basic concern, it is the really human and philosophical question.

But this statement brings us to the turning-point—to the point, namely, in which philosophy shows a kerygmatic and therefore a theological character, for this is the task of theology: to ask for being as far as it gives us ultimate concern. Theology deals with what concerns us inescapably, ultimately, unconditionally. It deals with it not as far as it is but as far as it is for us. In no theological statement can the relation to us be omitted. Without the element of ultimate concern, no assertion is a theological one. As a theologian you can speak and you must speak about everything between heaven and earth—and beyond heaven and earth. But you speak of it theologically only if you show how it belongs to our final concern, to that which decides about our being or not being in the sense of our eternal, ultimate meaning and destiny. This is the truth in the much misunderstood assertion that theology is a practical discipline. If "practical" is understood in contrast to theoretical, that statement is entirely wrong, since truth is an essential element in what concerns us ultimately. If "practical" means that theology must deal with its subject always as far as it concerns us in the very depth of our being, theology is practical. But since by popular distortion the word "practical" has received an antitheoretical flavor and since the Ritschlian school created that definition of theology in order to cut off theology from philosophy, sacrificing truth to morals, it is more adequate to use another term, for instance, to use with Sören Kierkegaard the word "existential." Existential is what characterizes our real existence in all its concreteness, in all its accidental elements, in its freedom and responsibility, in its failure, and in its separation from its true and essential being. Theology thinks on the basis of this existential situation and in continuous relation to it. Asking for the meaning of being, theology asks for the ultimate ground and power and norm and aim of being, as far as it is my being and carries me as the abyss and ground of my existence, it asks for the threatening and promising power over my existence, for the demanding and judging norm of my existence, for the fulfilling and rejecting aim of my existence. In other words: In asking for the meaning of being, theology asks for God. In asking for the powers and structures constituting the being of self and the world, their interrelation and their manifoldness, theology asks for the appearance of the ground, power, norm, and aim of being in these realms of being. It asks for the way in which man receives or resists the appearance of his ultimate concern. It asks for the way in which nature reveals or hides what concerns us ultimately. It asks for the relation of what concerns us historically to what concerns us ultimately. In other words, it asks for the divine and demonic powers in ourselves, in our world, in nature, as well as in history. This is existential thinking; this is theology. But now we have again reached a turning-point, this time the point in which theology shows its philosophical character. Dealing with the meaning of being as far as it concerns us ultimately, dealing with man and the world, with nature and history, as far as our ultimate concern appears in them, we must know the meaning of being, we must know the structures and powers controlling the different realms of existence.

We have searched for the object or question of philosophy, and we have discovered that a theological element, an ultimate concern, gives the impulse to philosophy. We have searched for the object or question of theology, and we have discovered that a philosophical element is implied in theology—the question of the meaning and structure of being and its manifestation in the different realms of being. Philosophy and theology are divergent as well as convergent. They are convergent as far as both are existential and theoretical at the same time. They are divergent as far as philosophy is basically theoretical and theology is basically existential. This is the reason that philosophy is able to neglect its existential basis and to deal with being and beings as if they did not concern us at all. And this is the reason that theology is able to neglect its theoretical form and to become mere kerygma. But as theology always has created a philosophical theology, so philosophers always have tried to reach existential significance, to give a prophetic message, to found a sect, to start a religious-political movement, or to become mystics. But in doing so they were philosophical theologians and were considered as such by followers and foes. Most creative philosophers have been theological in this sense. Only noncreative philosophy cuts itself off entirely from its existential basis. It has in its hands the shell, not the substance, of philosophy. It is school and not life and therefore not philosophy, but the trading of old philosophical merchandise.

Both philosophy and theology become poor and distorted when they are separated from each other. Philosophy becomes logical positivism prohibiting philosophy from dealing with any problem which concerns us seriously—political, anthropological, religious—a very comfortable flight of philosophical thought from the tremendous realities of our period. Or it becomes mere epistemology, always sharpening the knife of thought but never cutting, because cutting toward a truth that concerns us demands venturing courage and passion. Or it becomes history of philosophy, enumerating one philosophical opinion of the past after the other, keeping itself at a noble distance, faithlessly and cynically— a philosophy without existential basis, without theological ground and power. In the same way theology, denying entirely its philosophical concern, becomes as poor and distorted as philosophy without a theological impulse. Such a theology speaks of God as of a being beside others, subject to the structure of being as all beings are, stars and men and animals, the highest being but not being itself, not the meaning of being and therefore a merciful tyrant limited in power, who may concern us very much, but not ultimately, not unconditionally; whose existence, doubtful as it is, must be argued for as for the existence of a new chemical element or a disputable event in past history. Or such a theology separates man from nature and nature from man, the self from its world and the world from the self to which it belongs. It must do so because it does not know of the powers and structures of being which control man and nature, the world and the self, subjecting both to tragedy and working in both for fulfillment. The unity of being between man and nature is more basic than their difference in consciousness and freedom. A theology that is unable to understand this necessarily oscillates between moralism and naturalism. But being is more than nature and more than morals.

All this is not supposed to be a challenge to a genuine and consistent kerygmatic theology. It is said only against a theology that is not kerygmatic enough to restrict itself from the use of a shallow popular philosophy or that is not philosophical enough to accept the fundamental concepts of a serious first philosophy.

We have found a convergence and a divergence between theology and philosophy with respect to the question asked by both of them. There is another convergence and divergence with respect to the way the question is answered by both of them. The meaning of being manifests itself in the logos of being, that is, in the rational word that grasps and embraces being and in which being overcomes its hiddenness, its darkness, and becomes truth and light. Truth in Greek is aletheia, "what is not hidden." In the word—the logos—being ceases to be hidden; in the rational form being becomes meaningful and understandable. Being and the word in which it is conceived cannot be separated. Therefore, wherever beings are, there is logos of being, a form and structure in which its meaning is manifest. But, although logos is in every being, it is outspoken only in that being which has the word, the rational word, the worth of truth and light—that is, in man. In man the meaning of being can become manifest because man has the word revealing the hiddenness of being. But, although every man has the word of truth potentially, not every man has it actually and no man has it perfectly. Therefore, philosophy asks for the way in which man can find the revealing word, the logos of being. Only in a vision can a few elect find it, Parmenides answers. Only noble aristocratic souls are able to look into the infinite depth of the soul, Heraclitus indicates. Only he who is guided by a blessed demon can make the right decisions, Socrates confesses. Only for the initiated does the idea appear and the darkness of the cave in which human reason is enclosed disappear, Plato prophesies through the mouth of Diotima. Only those who are free citizens can reach the happiness of pure intuition, Aristotle asserts. Only a few wise men reach the state of reason in which the logos of being can reveal itself, the Stoics pronounce. Only in one man—the Christian philosophers continue—has the logos appeared completely, full of grace and truth. This is the point in which the convergence of philosophy and theology is most powerful. It was a theological impulse that drove all these philosophers to a statement about the concrete situation in which the logos of being can appear. An existential concern is involved in all those limiting assertions. And, on the other hand, it is a philosophical concept in which the theology of logos expresses its unconditional concern about the message of Christ. Therefore, philosophical theology is and must be logos-theology, while an exclusively kerygmatic theology, like that of Barth, denies the logos-doctrine.

I stopped naming philosophers who have asked the question as to the place where the logos of being is manifest. One could continue up to the present. For the medieval philosophers, the Christian church is the only place where the logos appears at its very center. For the mystics from Plotinus to Spinoza and for all mystics in India, it is the mystical and ascetic elevation over all beings in which the logos of being itself appears. For the philosophers of the modern Enlightenment in all European countries, it is the third and final period of history only, in which the educated and well-balanced man has grown mature for reason. For Fichte, only the blessed life and, for Hegel, only the fulfillment of history guarantee truth. For Marx, it is the participation in the proletarian struggle and the victory in this struggle in which mere ideology is overcome by truth. In all these men, especially in Marx, the question of the place in which the logos of being appears is taken seriously. In all of them theological passion, existential asking, is obvious. In face of this cloud of philosophical witnesses, those school—and textbook—philosophers who pretend that philosophy is merely a matter of learning and intelligence vanish into complete insignificance, even if they constitute a larger number than those mentioned. There is no philosophy deserving the name without transformation of the human existence of the philosopher, without his ultimate concern and without his faith in his election for truth in the place to which he belongs.

But here also the divergence must be stated. Philosophy, although knowing the existential presuppositions of truth, does not abide with them. It turns immediately to the content and tries to grasp it directly. In its system it abstracts from the existential situation out of which they are born. It does not acknowledge any bondage to special traditions or authorities. It transcends them in asking for being itself beyond all singular beings, even the highest, even the asker himself. Philosophy asks on the existential basis of the Greek city-state and the religion of Apollo and Dionysus; but it asks for truth itself and may be persecuted by them. Philosophy asks on the existential and concrete basis of the medieval church and civilization. But it asks for the truth itself and may become martyred. Philosophy asks on the existential and concrete basis of bourgeois or proletarian society and culture. But it asks for truth itself and may be expelled. Philosophy, in spite of its existential and concrete basis, turns directly to the meaning of being. This is its freedom, and this brings it about that a thinker who intentionally subjects himself to ecclesiastical or national or class bondage ceases to be a philosopher.

Quite differently, the theologian is bound to the concrete and existential situation in which he finds himself and which is not only the basis but also the subject of his work. As a theologian he is bound to the appearance of the logos after he has acknowledged its appearance at a special space in a special time. As a theologian he deals with the transformation of existence in man’s individual and social existence, he deals with what concerns us ultimately. As a theologian he cannot transcend his existential situation either in a personal or in a social respect. His faith and the faith of his church belong intentionally to his thought. This is true of the philosophical, as well as of the kerygmatic, theologian. But the philosophical theologian, as a Christian, tries to show in his work that the existential situation of the Christian church is, at the same time, the place where the meaning of being has appeared as our ultimate concern. In other words, he tries to show that Jesus as the Christ is the logos.

The methodological way in which this must be done cannot be explained here. It cannot be shown how conflicts between special forms of philosophy and the Christian message might be overcome if they are not rooted in ultimate existential decisions. This is a matter for concrete elaboration. Neither can it be shown why, in a philosophical theology, philosophy must provide the concepts and categories and the problems implied in them, to which theology gives the answers drawn from the substance of the Christian message. I only want to give the following indications: Philosophical theology deals with the concept of reason and the categories belonging to it and leads to the existential problem implied in reason, to which the answer is: revelation. Philosophical theology deals with the concept of being and the categories belonging to it, and it leads to the existential problem implied in being, to which the answer is: God. Philosophical theology deals with the concept of existence and the categories belonging to it and leads to the existential problem implied in existence, to which the answer is: the Christ. Philosophical theology deals with the concept of life and the categories belonging to it and leads to the existential problem implied in life, to which the answer is: the Spirit. Philosophical theology deals with the concept of history and the categories belonging to it and leads to the existential problem implied in history, to which the answer is: the Kingdom of God. This is the task and the way of philosophical theology following from the basic definitions given above. It is a permanent work, going from century to century as philosophy goes on and the life of the church goes on. The end of this kind of philosophical theology would be the end of the universal claim of the Christian church, the end of the message that Jesus is the Christ. What has appeared as our ultimate existential concern has appeared at the same time as the logos of being. This is the fundamental Christian claim and the infinite subject of philosophical theology.

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