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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 11: Three Critical Issues in Tillich’s Philosophical Theology

Paul Tillich’s approach to theology is inclusive and open. Nothing seems alien to his spirit, but everything must be accounted for in its being, meaning, and context. Tillich is a scientist in his respect for fact, a philosopher in his demand for explanation, and a theologian in his insistence on relevance for life. Art and politics, depth psychology and cultural analysis, for instance, are amply and vividly at home in his thought. Such a comprehensive grasp, however, never impedes but actually abets detailed analysis. Seeing things steadily and whole does not prevent concern either for rich complexity of composition or for active decision, whether personal or social. With Tillich there is pressing need to synthesize rational and existential thinking, for his approach combines organismic wholeness with a clear recognition of the discontinuities of existence. Above all, however, Tillich is the profound wrestler with reality who refuses intellectual short cuts and spiritual sedatives. Even though he is easily at home both in the history of thought and in major contemporary problems, he is a scholar who, to borrow a phrase from Whitehead, is not fettered by "the’l’arned’ tradition," but is a seer of first magnitude.

In this chapter I want simply to raise three critical issues in Tillich’s thought: (1) a personal God, (2) supernaturalism, (3) theological method. The order in which I present these issues has been chosen deliberately for the reason that I believe Tillich’s theological method rests upon prior determining assumptions.


The issue of a personal God is not easy, especially for the philosophical theologian. It presents strong pros and cons. In the light of these, Tillich’s contribution may become a bit clearer.

On behalf of those who hold the belief in a personal God it can be pointed out, historically, that all three great living religions of the West -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- are built around belief in such a God. Greek and Nordic religions, too, although not monotheistic, put ultimate emphasis on the personal; and even primitive religions, it is held from a good deal of evidence, often assumed as ultimate a personal God. Metaphysically, furthermore, belief in a personal God is not marred by reductionism, i.e., by ignoring the persisting problems of consciousness and of personal being; nor does it fail to interpret reality in terms of and within the context of the highest category of being we know. In the history of evolution each category of being becomes more meaningful and may be thought of as fulfilled in terms of the next. At least there is continuity of relation downward from the highest to the lowest level, but there is no necessary and predictable continuity in the reverse direction. Of this order, personal being is the climax that cannot be explained by, but may help to explain, the other levels. Religiously, moreover, faith in a personal God leaves the worshiper in no alien and hostile world. Rather, the ultimate has capacity for being known, is available to trust, and provides the ground for the persistence of finite personalities for fulfillment beyond death. Without any attempt at a comprehensive summary of reasons for belief in a personal God, we can nevertheless suggest that there is historic, metaphysical, and religious strength in such a position.

On the other side of the ledger, however, there is also strength. Historically, we are aware of the prior appearance of the impersonal. History may thus suggest that the personal came from, or is the product of, the impersonal. Moreover, some great universal religions, like Buddhism, identify the personal with separation and estrangement from reality. Such religions have an enviable record both for satisfying their devotees and for providing conditions for peaceful civilization. Many of the leading thinkers of the West, too -- for instance, philosophers like Spinoza and Hegel -- have accepted the impersonal as ultimate. Metaphysically, furthermore, the nonpersonal realms in their vastness make the personal seem most tiny; and, except for minor parts, they seem to have no direct relation to the distinctively personal. There is also a demonstrable dependence of the personal on the impersonal. How precarious and fugitive is personal life within the ongoing forces of impersonal existence. As a matter of fact, we can observe an impersonal realm existing apart from the personal, but not vice versa. The personal, again, seems always to be localized, i.e., to be connected with some specific body and with some selective span of attention, whereas localization is limitation. The infinite ground of being, it is suggested, cannot be localized, whereas we know no personal being that is not localized. Even though by consciousness and thought the personal can transcend precisely such bodily limitations, a person seems always to be connected with some definite place. Religiously, to continue, the problem of evil prevents any easy acceptance of a personal God. If a well-intentioned, competent, personal God is in charge of our universe, why, it may be asked, is there a world like this? Many people also report that they have genuinely tried to make contact with a personal God by prayer, thought and faith, but in spite of long persistence have had to give up the attempt as hopeless. If there is a personal God who is religiously available, why should he be so hard to reach? There are also subpersonal and indeed antipersonal forces at work, even within persons, for instance the death wish. Death of persons, in any case, is a constantly observable fact; fulfillment after death seems at best the inference of divided reason or the report of faith.

Obviously, I have no more than suggested some strengths and weaknesses connected with the intellectual acceptance of a personal God. For philosophical theology, in any case, it is a major problem. As an answer to this question, Tillich has suggested the category of the ‘’transpersonal.’’(See the vigorous treatment of this issue in Biblical Religion and the

Search for Ultimate Reality [The University of Chicago Press, 1955]) What is the value of this proposal with regard to the philosophical strengths and weaknesses adhering to faith in a personal God?

The transpersonal position affirms that although ultimate reality is not personal as such, i.e., although there is no personal God as a being who is the ground of all reality, nevertheless the personal is a veritable and significant ingredient in the ground of being. Only Being itself, beyond all finite qualifications and irreducible to terms other than itself, is literally to be ascribed final reality. God as ultimate, eminent being is thus not the personal ground of all else; but neither is he impersonal in Tillich’s thought, for even as Being itself resists nonbeing and works everywhere for unity and harmony, just so that which makes for personal being and harmony is part and parcel of ultimate reality, receiving its power, indeed, through being part of, and participating in, ultimate reality. In a true though symbolic sense, it can therefore be said that God is living, personal, and loving. Even beyond justice and power God is symbolically and effectively love, fulfilling both.(See Tillich, Love, Power and Justice (Oxford University Press, 1954).

But ontologically, Being itself is the ground of everything, not only of the personal; and therefore God is transpersonal in some such sense as red is truly in the neutral white where all the colors are. Red is, and is available for redness, in the spectrum for analysis, and, as a separate color, for beauty and function. Nevertheless, the white that includes the red is white as such without separate redness. Even so, God as personal does not lack status in ultimate reality, but the personal is never present as such in Being itself, even though it is religiously available as reality and as power for persons and for society in need of help and companionship.(Cf. the God above all gods in Tillich, The Courage to Be [Yale University Press])

Three positive points at least can be made for Tillich’s transpersonal position. First, it provides ultimate unity of being. At the heart of reality is oneness, harmony of being. Second, his position also allows for diversity of being and adequacy of description. He has not reduced history to maya, thought to nescience, or all reality to history. He never denies or belittles either the personal or the impersonal realms. He even allows for the full actuality of the demonic as an aspect of existence. Third, besides unity and adequacy, the transpersonal position of Tillich provides a religiously available God, for he is to be approached in biblical terms as living, personal, and loving. Tillich has presented us, consequently, with a view beyond most simply personal or simply impersonal positions. Because of his strong stress on history, his analysis cannot be, as it sometimes is, dismissed merely as neoplatonic or Hindu. The biblical insights in Tillich’s thought are also too strong for such equation.

In spite of the strength of Tillich’s transpersonal position, however, and without denying the need for taking into account both the personal and the impersonal aspects of our data, can it not be that the personal as such does not disappear ultimately by merger, but is in charge of the impersonal? Even hierarchically such a relationship would bind ultimate reality and our world of experience together more organically than does Tillich’s position, and would strengthen our trust in the personal ultimate. Such a view, however, could hardly be sustained unless the control were to eventuate in some solution of our problems as persons. And such a solution, to be organic and consistent with our experience of freedom, requires time. If God as personal, then, is most real, cannot our world of experience be a pedagogical process that provides time, a process made possible, indeed, by the very existence of the impersonal as that passivity of God which makes our freedom real? Perhaps the fullest explanation of our existence as a whole does not demand some ultimately undifferentiated unity, but rather is obtained in the light and power of the selective, revelatory personal Event of the Christian faith. If so, the Cross can give us the clue to both the meaning and the conquest of evil (the fact of which often becomes the reason for not believing in a personal God). Then also, beyond our knowing and imagining, the scene for the solution must extend beyond our earthly life, making death not man’s final frustration but a condition for his final fulfillment.

It may also be that personal existence does not involve the limitation connected with localization. If God is not a spiritual personality, but a personal Spirit, the ground of being can be living love, both having ultimate self-being and capable of selfmanifestation in different forms for different purposes, although always present everywhere in some sense. Tillich presupposes limitation in metaphysical terms as the presence of relations. He takes it for granted that the absolute is never relative; the ultimate unity is also, mathematically speaking, never differentiated into the many. Could we not, however, start with distinctively Christian presuppositions, in which case God is not limited within or without unless he is limited in love or in the ultimate control of love? In such case, the absolute (agape) is not limited, but expressed by relations. As a matter of fact, perhaps the basic question, even on this issue of the transpersonal, is whether we should start with being and define God in its terms, or whether we should start with God as agape and define being, becoming, and even nonbeing in terms of God. Obviously an essay as short as this cannot more than suggest issues. Tillich has given us a strong position. There is also, I believe, a distinctively Christian position that, without denying the impersonal or without avoiding the discussion of God’s relation to this realm, yet finds the living, personal God of love to be rock-bottom reality -- a position that I, at least, have found to be open to increased intellectual confirmation and dynamic self-verification.


The issue of supernaturalism is, for modern man, both intellectually and emotionally confused. Intellectually, he often thinks of the supernatural as the preter- or anti-natural, and emotionally, as the occult. Writers like Karl Heim have therefore used the word "supra-polar," Reinhold Niebuhr, the "superhistorical," and Lionel Thornton, the "superorganic." The issue, however, remains the same: namely, does reality center in our world or in a reality more than, other than, and beyond it, upon which or whom, the world in fact depends? Is God other than, more than, and in some real and significant sense prior to the world rather than merely a part of it or even the whole of it?

The weaknesses of supernaturalism are basically that it seems to be a needless or arbitrary category and that it can occasion, or even be the result of, the desire to escape from the problems and responsibilities of this world. Aristotle and Occam have weightily reminded us that no referring away of our problems beyond the known world either explains them or solves them. Emotionally, besides, such otherworldly reference may even help us to avoid our real problems of personal and social demands. Tillich has pointed out, for instance, that those who refuse to believe that death is real and final for human beings do not take life seriously either(In a sermon given in White temple, Miami, Florida, January, 1956) They never face their real problems in this life because they have postponed their solution to some fancied life after it.

The strength of supernaturalism centers in the fact that it avoids naturalistic reductionism to sensation in epistemology and to the physical in ontology. For this reason it can help explain becoming. If the world remained steadily a mixture of good and bad without basic change, supernaturalism would be a redundant category. The evidence we have, on the contrary, is that there have emerged level upon level of new actualities, while these, in turn, as they ingress or appear in the cosmic process, are both organically and accumulatively related to it. Such an organic and accumulative series of becoming bespeaks prior creative ground.(For a detailed analysis see Ferré, Faith and Reason, chap.iv.) In the light of the total history of nature and man, supernaturalism is, consequently, a strong candidate for the highest possible bestower of intellectual adequacy. Emotionally, too, it has been seen that the great reformers of men’s moral and spiritual life have often been believers in a reality beyond this world. Socrates (in spite of current attempts to reduce him to an existentialist), Jesus, St. Francis, Schweitzer, and Gandhi, for example, cannot be read out of court easily. The experience of total religious dependence, history shows us, is capable of generating creative and responsible thought and action.

Tillich’s usual position on this critical issue of supernaturalism versus naturalism has been a refusal to be bound by either position. In his earliest writings -- of the first two decades of this century -- he spurned supernaturalism with vigor on the ground that it was in fact determined by its reference to naturalism. Ultimate reality, for him, could not be thus confined. At the same time, he has scrupulously avoided the scientific kind of naturalism with its usual methodological monism. In response to my direct question on the issues of supernaturalism in a previous book(The Theology of Paul Tillich (The Macmillan Company, 1952), p. 341.) -- he replied, however, that if choice had to be made he would be an "ecstatic naturalist," one who by the ecstatic reason goes beyond our limited methods and experiences but who will never allow the positing of a world beyond this world.

His own position can perhaps best be explained as akin to Kantian transcendentalism. He accepts the fact that reason never deals with the ultimate reality of some transcendent realm beyond our actual world, but rather that it works critically with the analysis of the world we know, finding, if we may use Kantian terminology, principles of validity. In his own, as well as Kant’s language, "transcendental" necessity becomes das Unbedingte, the unconditioned (later "unconditional’) beyond, before, and underneath experience, not as some transcendent realm, but as an analytical, universal necessity for experience and history. Mixed with elements from Boehme and Schelling, his ultimate category becomes some mystical Being itself, the unconditional that resists nonbeing and makes for harmony of being. Not a transcendent or otherworldly realm of reality, then, but a transcendental or unconditional necessity for experience and history -- this is a clue to Tillich’s thinking.

Transcendentalism -- the unconditional for but not as such in experience -- avoids several pitfalls and emotional drawbacks of both supernaturalism and naturalism and speaks, in addition, especially in Tillich’s distinctive form of it, a vigorous, creative word. His use of symbols, within this method, as pointing to truth beyond literal language, while also participating in reality beyond direct expression, stays clear both of an objectivist position that equates knowledge with reality and also of a subjectivist position in which there is no objective counterpart in reality to the symbols employed.(To what extent das Unbedingte is a limiting concept, or das Ding an sich is a nice point. There seems to be some sort of dualism in Tillich’s thought whereby any transcendent realm is precluded by the fact that the unconditional cannot be related, while at the same time his system seems to indicate some transcendent power for existence and harmony of being.) His symbols both relate to reality and fail literally to indicate it. They have, nonetheless, a rare evocative power. They elicit lively subjective response to reality and appeal powerfully to religious apperception. Symbolically, Tillich’s theological analysis is centrally Christian and potently needed. The real crux of the adequacy of his position, however, concerns the nature of the objective counterpart, ultimately, of his symbolic analysis of the Christian faith. Especially is this question of adequacy a matter of the significance and the permanence of the personal, to which we now turn.

The issue of supernaturalism versus Tillich’s kind of transcendentalism is not so much whether this world or a world of prior reality is central for faith and thought, since Tillich’s thought, in its actual drive, never becomes a limiting naturalism; but the issue is rather that of the significance and the permanence of the personal. With relation to God there is no problem as such in Tillich’s thought. Whatever is ultimately personal by its participating in Being itself is, according to Tillich, everlasting and ever potent. Nothing of personal significance, he holds, can therefore ever be lost; it is permanent. One is strongly reminded at this point of Whitehead’s position.

The real issue is, to repeat, with regard to God’s relation to man; and with regard to the significance and permanence of the personal in man. If God is not personal in the sense of conscious knowledge and will, there can be no personal communion between God and man. The subject-object relation is said to be transcended in reality, but so is, in fact, the Subject-subject relation. Whitehead’s stand has at least the Fellow Sufferer and the Companion who understands. Nothing of this as objective, ultimate reality is to be found in Tillich. However, I believe that the deepest significance of finite spirit is its capacity to have intercourse with the infinite Spirit. Being itself unfortunately affords no such significance, really, and offers no hope or help for prayer as an I-Thou relation.

Neither can man count on the personal purpose of God in providence. What happens to him is not, at the deepest, ordained by a loving will who creates and controls, directly and indirectly, human lives and the order of nature. We can participate in reality, adjust ourselves to it by powers inherent in it and available to us, but God never literally acts in our behalf, answers prayers, or shares his purpose in special providence. The security, the intimacy and the fullest creative conditions for personal growth within the eternal purpose are therefore gone. If such an impersonal unconditional is ultimate, we must, of course, face the fact. I believe, however, that Christian supernaturalism is not only religiously but also intellectually more adequate. In the next section this point will be developed.

Even more important precisely for the nature and character of ultimate reality is the question concerning the permanence of the personal in man. Tillich is insistent that we must face the fact that death is real and final. He even believes that modern man is particularly hurt by his refusal to take death with full seriousness. But whether specially, as in the resurrection of Christ, or generally, as in the everlastingness of personal life, the issue of supernaturalism will not die. The Christian faith holds that man is created by God for God and for fullness of life in fellowship. It holds that death is not frustration but fulfillment. It holds that everlasting life is both a new kind of life in Christ, in agape, and a life that lasts. Such faith is not easy emotionally; intellectually it staggers the critical reason. Nevertheless, it is a firm implication, in some way, of the character of God as agape. Life everlasting, I believe, is a necessary condition for an adequate view of that ultimate which can account most suggestively for both origins and ends and offer, besides, a blueprint and power for the solution of our personal and social problems.

In Tillich’s view, whatever is ultimately personal in man lasts because it belongs to Being itself. The personal, however, is effectively buried in the grave of the undifferentiated itself. The personal never remains beyond death as persistence of persons. The impersonal has therefore won. If Tillich were not explicit on the nature of his transpersonal ultimate, we could interpret his position to be that the persistence of the personal, though not persisting as individuality, is mostly an affirmation that our kind of personal existence, now, in this life, will be fulfilled in some new kind of being where the separations and estrangements of our finite existence are transcended, even while the kernel of self-being exists in such fulfillment. Or we could understand him to mean that we must leave this issue with faith in higher hands. As the case stands, however, there is a basic contention between Tillich’s "transcendentalism" and Christian supernaturalism that will not down. All the same, Tillich’s view will offer itself as a strong position for those who believe Christian supernaturalism to be primitive mythology and yet cannot acquiesce in the intellectual reductionism and emotional thinness of scientific naturalism.


It may seem a strange procedure to take up last the question of theological method. I do so because I believe that in Tillich’s case method is the result of system. It is obvious that in theology, as Tillich himself says, "method and system determine each other." (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 60.) For Tillich, however, the presuppositions of his thinking are the occasion for his method. "For systematic theology this means that its method is derived from a prior knowledge of the system which is to be built by the method."(Ibid.) Such is his avowal for the method of systematic theology in general inasmuch as it must necessarily center in its object of ultimate concern and revelation, concretely, explicitly, and totally. Yet beyond this specific consideration, theological method in general is determined, in Tillich’s case, by his assumption that "our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being,’’(Ibid., p.14,italics mine) for this assumption gives actual content to the revelatory event or center itself. His systematic theology thus becomes filled ultimately by his philosophical presuppositions.

Let us once more look first through Tillich’s eyes at other main choices for method. "Supranaturalism," as he calls supernaturalism (-- introducing thereby an unnecessary dichotomy by the very use of terms(-- gives us a "sum of revealed truths which have fallen into the human situation like strange bodies from a strange world.’’(Ibid.,p. 64.) If supernaturalism is accepted as meaning an arbitrary and unrelated body of knowledge to be taken on external authority, it should, of course, be rejected outright.

The second choice for method is naturalistic. This, Tillich teaches, makes the mistake of taking the answers from human existence whereas human existence itself is what needs both to be explained and to be delivered from its estrangement. Theology speaks to man, not from man. In this assertion, too, Tillich speaks acceptable truth.

The third method he surveys is dualistic, building a supranatural structure on a naturalistic basis. It involves natural theology, using such devices as proofs for the existence of God, derived from the data of man’s situation. Tillich holds this method to be false, since man’s situation states problems but never affords theological answers.

Instead, Tillich substitutes the method of correlation, wherein the intent of "natural theology" is accepted in the realm of the analysis of existence, and the intent of "supranatural theology," in the realm of theological answers. Existential questions receive theological answers in mutual interdependence. As a matter of fact he goes on, there is neither a basis of comparison between philosophy and theology nor a true possibility of conflict, since they deal with different spheres or operate on qualitatively different planes. No more than with Kierkegaard is there any direct passing by discursive or synthetic reason from existence to essence. Philosophy deals with the structure of being by the analysis of existence; theology, with meaning(-- ultimately, unconditionally, totally and infinitely. Man’s existence can be grasped in existential questions and analyzed by philosophy in terms of pure reason; then theology, from its full focus of the revelatory event, answers mans existential problems and offers solutions to his intellectual needs. Since the logos is on both the side of existence and the side of essence, and since essence and existence come together in the revelatory event, the method of correlation is not arbitrary but a partially confirmatory affair. This is so since no other answers can so well meet man’s real needs of life and knowledge as the revelation of the concrete truth of Jesus as the Christ. Furthermore, there can be interaction between the two realms inasmuch as not even a theologian lives always within the theological circle, but must relate himself and his thought more or less to "the situation" of concrete experience.

At this point what, to me, is Tillich’s chief difficulty becomes most clearly apparent. He presupposes that the problem of being versus not being is ultimate, that Being itself, as infinite, cannot ever be defined or contained within history and experience, and that, therefore, the most that can be said of revelation literally or directly is that it constitutes an unconditional demand for being and harmony of being. This basic assumption controls the content of the revelatory event. The interpretation of Christ, without historic justification, becomes controlled by the relation of essence to existence. This historical Jesus, consequently, in Tillich’s thought, merely became transparent to the Christ by refusing to make infinite anything finite, and thus transmitted to us through a concrete life the synthesis of essence and existence, not in such a way that essence ever became existence or the infinite became finite, but in such a way that existence became perfectly transparent for essence, revealing for us the unique nonrecurring kairos.

When Tillich is thus understood, we can see why he can, at the same time, be rather cavalier about the historic Jesus and yet also be completely insistent that in him the Christ has come. With Tillich, Christ meets the demand for constructing a bridge between essence and existence as well as the requirement for a center of the theological circle that is both perfectly universal and completely concrete. Tillich’s two definitions of the power of Being itself, namely, to resist nonbeing and to make for harmony of being, correspond respectively, I believe, to God’s power of creation and his power of redemption. The power for such universal creativity and for unification and purification of meaning is precisely Christ as the agape of God.

If, therefore, Tillich had started with Christ as the agape of God instead of with a mathematical-metaphysical idea of Being itself, he would have started with a concrete Incarnation that affords the highest explanatory as well as saving power. The difficulty with his position, as I see it, is that he presupposes an undefinable, undifferentiated Being itself that cannot be incarnated as such in history. He inherits the problems of Aristotle’s actus’ purus. Accepting as fact the claim not only that the transcendent cannot be known but also that there is no transcendent realm as such beyond, or other than, the world we know, Tillich operates, as we have seen, with a method akin to Kant’s transcendental analysis whereby there are universal forms for experience that never exist independent of experience, but are nevertheless unconditionally presupposed by, and requirements of, experience. Actually this unconditional demand for being and for unity of being for Tillich has been revealed through the Christ, but Christ has not revealed a personal God or a supernatural realm beyond experience and this world.

This presupposition of Being itself as a transcendental power -- God as the ground of being that does not exist as an eminent, transcendent person or realm -- lies at the heart of Tillich’s system and determines his method. I believe, however, that if he would begin with the concrete Christ as agape, he could through him find as ultimate the God who is personal Spirit, an uncreated reality, supernatural but not supranatural. He could also devise a theological method which, while keeping all of his positive insights, would at the same time allow for a more positive though dialectical relation to philosophy.(My reasons for so believing are developed in Faith and Reason, chap. iii and in Christian Faith and Higher Education, chap. vii.) He could keep the ultimacy and distinctiveness of both his theological center and his circle, with their subjective demands for faith and commitment, even while having in Christ as agape a meaning that relates concretely and realistically to all of life and thought.

He could then keep Incarnation of being as well as of meaning, in the full, literal sense, and, with Calvin and Luther as well as with the Early Church Fathers, find a doctrine of the Church which in some real sense incarnates as well as represents the Kingdom. He could further arrive at a living faith in everlasting life not only as that unification and purification of meaning in which "the personal" participates in and beyond personal existence, but also as the eventual and everlasting fulfillment of both the purpose of God and the life of man.

In his description of the Christian faith phenomenologically, however, and in his actual analysis of life and social conditions, Tillich has been profoundly motivated by the central Christian fact and meaning. For the most part, he need only accept as true what he describes as Christian. He has given us forefront depth and creativity of philosophical and theological analysis. He has also been unafraid and yet forbearing in his dealing with movements and issues unsympathetic to his thought, evincing that great and generous spirit that marks him as something of a saint as well as a prince of scholars. To acknowledge with gratitude both extreme and extensive indebtedness to him is only to declare oneself an active part of the contemporary world of theological formulation.


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