Paper on The Theology of Paul Tillich

by David Tillman – August 2013
Class on The Theology of Paul Tillich, United Theological Seminary, MN

     In 1951, theologian Paul Tillich wrote “Systematic Theology – Volume One,” his first of three volumes. In Volume One, Tillich introduces us to the nature, organization, method and structure of systematic theology. He develops his systematic theology starting with “Reason and the Quest for Revelation” and “Being and the Question of God.” [1] In his other two volumes, he continues his method of correlation as he adds to his systematic theology by looking at “Existence and Christ” (vol. 2), “Life and the Spirit” and “History and the Kingdom of God” (vol. 3).[2] [3] This paper will summarize Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology – Volume One. It will examine the nature and structure of his systematic theology, define his method of correlation and illustrate this method on the two questions of “Reason and Revelation” and “Being and God.”

     Tillich starts Systematic Theology – Volume One with, “Theology, as a function of the Christian Church, must serve the needs of the church. A theological system is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of the truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation.” [4] He calls the statement of truth of the Christian message the “message,” and the interpretation of this truth as the “situation.” The message is God’s “unchangeable truth” of the final revelation through Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. [5] Tillich sees that the message is included in the Bible, however the message is more than the Bible. [6]

     Tillich looks at the “situation” as referring “to the scientific and artistic, the economic, political, and ethical forms in which they express their interpretation of existence.” [7] Theology must take into account and respond to not only Christ’s message, but also include the totality of our interpretation of this message as they are expressed in the situation. [8] 

     Tillich’s systematic theology “is an attempt to use his ‘method of correlation’ as a way of uniting message and situation. It tries to correlate the questions implied in the situation with the answers implied in the message.” [9]

     He looks at the nature of theology having two formal criteria. First, that our “ultimate concern” is to follow Jesus’ first commandment: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30, NRSV). This is a central point for Tillich. All theology should be focused on our ultimate concern of loving God.

     His second criterion of theology is “our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or non-being. Only those statements are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of being or not-being for us.” [10] Our ultimate concern in theology needs to always be focused on God who has created and sustained our world that gives us life and death.

     Tillich looks at the question and answer of our being and not-being through the eyes of the philosopher and theologian. The philosopher asks the question of being and looks at the structure of being to come up with answers. The philosopher looks at reality from a detached and objective point of view. The philosopher’s sources are within the whole of reality. Their content becomes the categories and relationships between the different parts of reality. [11]

     The theologian “deals with the meaning of being for us” by looking at the question and answer of our being and not-being. [12] “The theologian…is not detached from his object but is involved in it. He looks at his object (which transcends the character of being an object) with passion, fear, and love…the attitude of the theologian is ‘existential’…the theologian in short, is determined by his faith.” [13]  The theologian’s sources are those which ultimately concern and grasp him. [14] The theologian’s content focuses on the “quest for ‘New Being.’ His assertions have a soteriological character…He speaks of the participation of nature in the ‘history of salvation,’ about the victory of being over non-being.” [15]

     The philosopher’s focuses on the concrete, objective reality of the world. The theologian looks to understand God’s creation more fully. They both share the same passion and determination. Whether the philosopher and theologian are aware of it or not, they exist “in the power of the ultimate concern.” [16]  

     We now look at the method and structure of systematic theology. We will look at the sources, medium of their reception and the norms used to determine the sources. The first source of systematic theology is the Bible. The Bible, as we know it today, is part of church history. The gospels were written twenty-five to over fifty years after Jesus’ death. They have been translated into many different languages. The Bible is one source, however, not the only source. Another source of systematic theology is church history. It is through church history we can see how matters of ultimate concern have been dealt with since the time of Christ. [17] Other sources are the theological history of religion and culture. Here, we are able to see how other religions and cultures have looked at the question of ultimate concern and how they can find their answers in the Christian message.

     Tillich sees that the medium of reception, or how through the sources of Christ’s message are communicated and filtered to a person, are a vital part of the method of systematic theology. Experiencing and participating with the sources “speak” to us. [18] Tillich states, “Experiencing as the inspiring presence of the Spirit is the ultimate source of theology.” [19] Experience that is based in human reason becomes practical and scientific in nature. For example, that of the experience of a person who reads the Bible, studies church history or participates in a church service. Another form of experience, the mystical, strives to transcend human reason to receive in one’s awareness “being itself.” [20] The mystical experience goes beyond reason and understanding, yet may produce a peace or knowingness of “being” that goes beyond words.  It either way, the experience which Tillich sees important is to existentially receive the Spirit, from God’s final revelation through Christ, to bring transformation to oneself and the world. [21]

     As we read in Genesis 1:27 (NRSV), “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” We have faith that being created in the image of God allows for God’s revealing love and presence of the Spirit to speak to us in our experiences. Through our experiences, whether grounded in human reason or mystical, our faith brings our attention back to our ultimate concern to love God.

     The norm of systematic theology is important to guide the sources and mediums of reception through experience. [22] First, the early Christian norm has Jesus Christ as the center of the church. Secondly “established a hierarchy of authorities – bishops, councils, the Pope – who were suppose to safeguard the norm against heretical distortions.” [23] Tillich states, “one can say that the material norm of systematic theology today is the New Being in Jesus as the Christ as our ultimate concern. This norm is the criterion for the use of all the sources of systematic theology.”[24]  From the time of Jesus Christ we have a norm which is the product of the encounter of the biblical message through church history. [25] We also have a norm of the history of religion and culture and how it has influenced the Christian message, religious history and culture. [26]

     Tillich tells us that systematic theology “tries to give us an interpretation of the Christian message which is relevant to the present situation.” [27] Three problems arise in systematic theology as it is not a historical discipline, but rather “it is a constructive task.” [28] First, it not a completely rational, objective process as it involves a self-surrendering element of faith which can go beyond reason. Second, it is not always logical as it looks at new ways “of the relationship of the structure of thought to the structure of being.” [29] His third problem “is the principle of methodological rationality. It implies that theology follows a method, that is, a definite way of deriving and stating its propositions.” [30] Tillich goes on to say that, “the systematic theologian should not be afraid of the system.” [31]

     Tillich’s states, “The method of correlation explains the contents of the Christian faith through existential questions and theological answers in mutual interdependence.” [32] He uses the terms “correlation” in three ways.[33] First, how we learn and use religious knowledge and symbols. Second, how we logically define the concept of God and the concept of creation (i.e. world, humans, etc.). Third, is how we define the relationship between the divine and humans. [34]

     The method of correlation in systematic theology “makes an analysis of the human situation out of which the existential questions arise, and it demonstrates that the symbols used in the Christian message are the answers to these questions.” [35] The Christian message answers our questions regarding our human existence in God’s final revelation, through Christ, which goes beyond reason and analysis. [36] Through the method of correlation, the systematic theology is developed from the sources, mediums of reception through experience and under norms which guide the process. [37]

     Tillich states, “The method of correlation replaces three inadequate methods of relating the contents of the Christian faith to man’s spiritual existence.” [38] The first method it replaces is “supernaturalistic.” This “takes the Christian message to be the sum of revealed truths which have fallen into the human situation…[and] these truths have created a new situation before they can be received.”[39] This disregards human involvement and relationship with God. The second method this replaces is the “naturalistic” or “humanistic” method which “derives the Christian message from man’s natural state.”[40]  The answer is developed using only reason and does not take into account that God is our creator and ultimate concern. The third method this replaces is called “dualistic” which “realizes that, in spite of the infinite gap between man’s spirit and God’s spirit, there must be a positive relationship between them.” [41] The focus of this method is that man, through “his own efforts of ‘natural revelation,’” can realize the truth of human existence.[42]  

     Tillich’s systematic theology has five parts. [43] The first “part of the system must give an analysis of man’s rationality, especially his cognitive rationality and the questions implied in the finitude, the self-estrangement, and the ambiguities of reason; and it must give the answer which is Revelation,” and is entitled “Reason and Revelation.” The second part gives an analysis of man’s essential nature, with the question being man’s finitude and the answer which is God, as we find in “Being and God.” The third part “must give an analysis of man’s existential self-estrangement (in unity with the self-destructive aspects of existence generally) and the question implied in the situation; and it must give the answer which is the Christ” as found in the part entitled ‘Existence and Christ.’ The forth part gives “an analysis of man as living (in unity with life generally) of the questions implied in the ambiguities of life; and it must give the answer which is the Spirit. [44] The fifth part is the “History and the Kingdom of God.” This part “must give an analysis of man’s historical existence and of the question implied in the ambiguities of history; and it must give an answer which is the Kingdom of God.” [45]  

     The first part of Tillich’s systematic theology is “Reason and Revelation.” He sees that reason and revelation is the basis of our epistemology, our knowledge of knowing and ontology, our knowledge of being. [46] First, our ability to reason allows us to ask the question of our existence and finitude. Through reason we use the sources of the Bible, church history and history of religion and culture to develop a systematic theology. We analyze, try to grasp and transform our reality as we understand it through our cognitive mind. Tillich sees that through reason alone we are not able to fully grasp the infinite as reason is finite and “estranged from its essential goodness.” [47]

     Secondly, Tillich then goes on to tell us that it is revelation, which transcends reason, which is also needed. Thirdly, that revelation is beyond reason, is active in all parts of the system and is “the ultimate source of the contents of the Christian faith.”[48] Through revelation, it is the self-manifestation of God’s divine mystery that expresses itself through Jesus Christ. God’s final revelation, through Christ, answers our natural human questions of our existence and finitude. The message of Jesus Christ goes beyond human reason and understanding. It is by our faith in Christ we gain that peace of understanding which can reduce our anxiety we have about our finitude and relationship with God.  

     The norms used to define our sources of systematic theology are first based on Jesus Christ being the center of the church and our ultimate concern. We read in the Bible and in our understanding in church history of God’s revelation through Jesus, who embodied the full presence of the Spirit. It is the medium of reception of the experience witnessed in Jesus Christ that spoke to those who knew him and still speaks to us today. Our understanding of Jesus Christ’s message gives us faith and hope that goes beyond reason. This reduces our anxiety about our questions of existence and finitude. This continually brings our attention back to loving God, our ultimate concern, and loving our neighbor.

     Tillich’s second part of his systematic theology is “God and Being.” Having first looked at how we base our criteria, assertions and verification of our existence and finitude we now look at the doctrine of God. The challenge Tillich sees is the relationship between being and non-being. Tillich sees God as part of creation, yet more than creation. This is a panentheistic view. Our human ability to reason is part of creation. If God goes beyond creation and reason is part of creation, then this implies that reason alone will not answer the question of our existence, finitude and relationship to God. In Tillich’s understanding, God goes beyond our reason.

     It is God, who is within and beyond creation, who can answer our existential questions. God is the creator who has given us life. God has revealed through Jesus Christ the final revelation that can give us the answers we seek. Our human finitude creates an anxiety and fear of what is beyond death. We look to the sources of systematic theology to reduce our anxiety and fear. The Bible story tells us of God’s relationship with man, woman and creation which endures great suffering and great joy, our human condition. Jesus Christ teaches us to first love God and second to love others as we love our selves. Through the Christian message we learn about our relationship to God, that God loves us and that we may have eternal life. In the message we understand Jesus’ unity and being steadfast with God that went beyond his physical and emotional human needs. Through all of Jesus’ sacrifices he was attuned with God’s presence and fullness. His ultimate concern was God, not his own needs. Jesus shows us a life that is full of anxiety and yet he does not show despair, but rather complete love and trust for God and others.[49] In our church history we see how the past event of God’s revelation through Jesus Christ has been interpreted and reinterpreted to bring us, through faith, peace and understanding under any given situation in history. [50]

     Tillich tells us that interpreting the “message” in any given “situation” throughout time creates a tension. It is the tension between universality and the particular. [51]The “message” in Jesus Christ points to his universal love and trust in God which expressed itself as he was in relationship to others and creation. It is the anxiety of our finitude that pulls us into the particular. As humans, and as a church, we are inclined to create particular meanings and values to reduce our anxiety. Paul Capetz says, “Since God is not finite we use symbols to explain God.”[52] We look for concrete black and white answers about our existence. These become preliminary answers which satisfy what we can objectively reason in our world and many times become our ultimate concerns. These preliminary concerns take are attention away from God as our ultimate concern. We look for answers to existence and finitude within creation, of our own reason and making. It is through a systematic theology and our Christian faith that we bring our attention back to God as being our ultimate concern.

     Paul Tillich’s systematic theology tells us that the “message” of God’s final revelation, through Jesus Christ, gives us the answers to our existential questions. It is in our “situation,” the time and place we ask our questions, which interpret the Christian message through the lens of the Bible, church history and the study of religion and culture. Since God goes beyond the finite creation, reason alone cannot answer our existential questions. Through revelation, God speaks to us, that goes beyond our reason and words, and connects us to “being itself.” It is our faith in the message of Jesus Christ that gives us answers, reduces our anxiety of our finitude (non-being). This frees and compels us to bring our attention back to God, our ultimate concern and to serve others and creation as Jesus Christ has taught us.      


[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology – Volume One (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 71, 163.
[2] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology – Volume Two (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957).
[3] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology – Volume Three (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963).
[4] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology – Volume One, 3.
[5] Ibid., 4.
[6] Ibid., 4.
[7] Ibid., 3-4.
[8] Ibid., 4.
[9] Ibid., 8.
[10] Ibid., 14.
[11] Ibid., 22-24.
[12] Ibid., 24.
[13] Ibid., 22-23.
[14] Ibid., 23.
[15] Ibid., 23-24.
[16] Ibid., 24.
[17] Ibid., 38.
[18] Ibid. 40.
[19] Ibid., 43.
[19] Ibid., 41.
[20] Ibid., 41.
[21] Ibid., 42,46.
[22] Ibid., 47.
[23] Ibid., 47.
[24] Ibid., 50.
[25] Ibid., 52.
[26] Ibid., 52.
[27] Ibid., 53.
[28] Ibid., 53.
[29] Ibid., 56.
[30] Ibid., 56-57.
[31] Ibid., 57.
[32] Ibid.,60.
[33] Ibid., 60.
[34] Ibid., 60-61
[35] Ibid., 62
[36] Ibid., 64.
[37] Ibid., 64.
[38] Ibid., 64.
[39] Ibid., 64.
[40] Ibid., 65.
[41] Ibid., 65.
[42] Ibid., 65.
[43] Ibid., 66-67.
[44] Ibid., 66.
[45] Ibid., 67.
[46] Ibid., 71.
[47] Paul Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), 64.
[48] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology – Volume One, 67.
[49] Ibid., 201.
[50] Ibid., 135.
[51] Ibid., 25, 21.
[52] Paul E. Capetz, “The Theology of Paul Tillich” (lecture, United Theological Seminary, New Brighton, MN, June 17, 2013).

© David Tillman, August 2013, rev. August 2020, all rights reserved. www.lifesjourney.us