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The Gospel According to Paul Tillich

1Introduction
2On the Human Condition
3On the Person and Work of Jesus Christ
4On Salvation
5Conclusion
Any examination of the nature of salvation begins by contemplating the nature of our problem.
Tillichs treatment of the problem is different than the ways in which the Church has in the past.
Because he comes at theology from an existential philosophical vantage point, Tillich views our
human sin problem existentially. As Killen argues, He bases his view of sin upon a consideration
of the conditions which he finds existence rather than upon the view of sin given in the Bible.1
This view of sin and the human condition is predicated upon a view of God that is as existential as
human rebellion. Because Tillich believes God is a symbol for that which is of ultimate meaning,
his view of the human condition is separation and estrangement from that meaning, which creates
the conditions of meaninglessness, anxiety, and death.
Tillichs early definition of sin in The Shaking of the Foundations provides a glimpse into
formation of his theology. Almost a decade before his Systematic Theology was to be published
Tillich wrote, Have the men of our time still a feeling of the meaning of sin? Do they, and do we,
still realize that sin does not mean an immoral act, that sin should never be used in the plural, and
that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life?2 Early on,
Tillich rejected the notion that sin is an act or a collection of acts, instead interpreting it as a
condition, a state in which man exists. As one will see, this view is not the same as the historic
Christian view of original sin. In fact, he argues there is no bondage of the will, no original,
hereditary sin.3
Tillich clarifies his position by reinterpreting sin entirely: I would like to suggest another word to
you, not as a substitute for the word sin, but as a useful clue in the interpretation of the word
sin: separationsin is separation. To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation.4)
For Tillich, this idea of separation is key to his theology of the problem with the human condition,
as man is separated from that which is of ultimate meaning and the aim of life, which creates
anxiety, meaninglessness, despair, and existential conditions of death. A decade later, Tillich would
take these early sketches of the human condition and refashion them to mean estrangement.
According to Tillich from what are we separated and estranged? Our basic human condition is a
state of estrangement of man and his world from God.5 While we will visit his from God
notion shortly, note that existential self-estrangement is the predicament of man and his world,
rather than a state of rebellion against his Creator and condition of sinful separation. As he says,
because the state of existence is the state of estrangement, estrangement points to the basic

characteristic of mans predicament.6 Though he acknowledges that estrangement is not a biblical


term he insists it is implied in several biblical symbolic descriptions of mans existential plight,
including: the expulsion from the garden; hostility between humans and nature; hostility between
brothers; confusion and estrangement among the nations post-Babel; the prophets complaints
against the kings and people over idolatry; and Pauls statements regarding mans distortion of the
image of God through idolatry and mans distorted desires.7 He insists that estrangement is what
describes mans predicament, one that is ultimately related to a threefold separation: he is
separated from others, himself, and what he calls the Ground of Being.8 In this condition and
state of sin, man has become separated from his so-called ground of being, which Tillich also
refers to by the terms Being, Being-Itself, and God.9
Ground of Being is a vague term Tillich uses to describe our sense of estrangement. In one sense,
we are estranged from the Ground of our being because we are estranged from the origin and
aim of our life.10 Elsewhere, he indicates this terms stands for God himself: The name of this
infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God
means.11 He also equates God with the ground of being and the term being-itself. Both do not
signify, in the traditional sense, the existence of an actual Being alongside others or above others:
If God is a being, he is subject to the categories of finitude12 Instead, God is understood as
being-itself or as the ground of being, which is also captured in the concept the power of being.
For Tillich, the concept of being as being, or being-itself, points to the power inherent in
everythingit is possible to say that [God] is the power of being in everything and above
everything, the infinite power of beings.13 Consistently Tillich refers to God as an idea, an
existential idea in which God is the foundation of existence and meaning; God is the word that
signifies that which is meaningful and gives existence meaning. As Tillich says, The word God
points to ultimate reality.14 It is important to note that God is merely a symbol for that which is
ultimately meaningful in existence. Tillich doesnt believe in an actual Being God. Realizing God
stands for that which is of ultimate meaning and the aim of existence is important when
considering Tillichs definition of the problem.
This discussion on the definition of God has great bearing on our discussion of mans
estrangement, because Tillich suggests our separation and estrangement is from that which is of
ultimate meaning in existence, the aim of our life. Rather than believing humanity is separated
from an ontological Being called God, the Father almighty, Maker of all things visible and
invisible (as the Nicene Creed speaks of God), humans are separated from the aim of our life and
center of all meaning. As Tillich writes: And if that word [God] has no meaning for you, translate
it, and speak of the depth of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of
what you take seriouslyFor if you know that God means depth you know much about himHe
who knows about depth knows about God. For Tillich that which gives meaning to and is of
ultimate concern in life, actually is God. Yet, we are separated and estranged from that which is
meaningful in life, that which is of ultimate existential concern, which leads to anxiety, despair,

and existential death.15 Though these will be explored further, it is important to first note that this
separation and estrangement from that which is of ultimate meaning in existence has existed from
the beginning.
Unlike traditional theology that makes claim to an original state or paradise called Eden, in which
all creation was as God intended it to be, Tillich does not believe such an original state existed.
Instead, any mention of an originality must be rooted in what he calls our state of essential
being.16 This concept of Tillichs ontological theology is reflected and interpreted in
psychological terms as a state of so-called dreaming innocence. Both the state of essential being
and dreaming innocence describe a state of existence that precedes actual existence, describing
what Tillich believes humanity ought to be, an ideal state. This state of essentiality and dreaming
innocence has not a place, has no time, and is not actual; it is ou topos (without place),
suprahistorical, and potential. It is a state of mind that signifies the way humanity ought to be and
live and act in created goodness. Tillich insists this essential naturethe way things ought to be in
human existencehas been projected through myth and dogma into a pre-historic state of
perfection, a state from which our progenitors Adam and Eve fell. This idea that pre-historic
ancestors fell from an original perfection is absurd and completely unintelligible, says
Tillich.17 Instead, the traditional notion of the Fall is a symbol for our transition from essential
to existential being.18
As a symbol, the Fall is mythic in that it is the profoundest and richest expression of mans
awareness of his existential estrangement and provides the scheme in which the transition from
essence to existence can be treated.19 Embedded in this transition is the notion of an innate
created goodness in mans essentiality, though essence is only conceived as potential, rather than
actual. This goodness is not an original goodness like Pelagius, however. Whereas Pelagius
believed man still possessed an original goodness from original creation, Tillich believes the
transition (i.e. Fall) from essentialitythe ideal of how man ought to be in his goodnessto
existential estrangementthe reality of how man is in his meaningless condition and separation
from the aim of lifeas part of human development and growth.20 In other words, while humanity
has an innate goodness, throughout humanitys evolutionary development they have always been
estranged from those ethical actions that pave the way for that which is of ultimate meaning in life.
Thus, he has always not been or acted the way he ought, because existence is defined by fear,
meaninglessness, and death; they are part of nature themselves. In so believing, Tillich argues that
theology must emphasize the positive valuation of man in his essential nature. It must join
classical humanism in protecting mans created goodness against naturalistic and existentialistic
denials of his greatness and dignity.21 At the same time Tillich also insists that theology must
altogether reinterpret the doctrine of original sin.
Tillichs reinterpretation of the doctrine of original sin views it not in hereditary terms, but
existential terms. He absolutely discounts a literal Fall as absurd; it has no foundation in
experience and revelation.22 As Tillich argues, The transition from essence to existence is not an
event in time and space but the transhistorical quality of all events in time and space.23) As Bell

has suggested, the importance of the idea of the Fall is not that it happened, but that it happens.
Adam acts as a symbol for essential manhow he ought to be, what is the idealhe symbolizes
the transition from essence to existence: Original or hereditary sin is neither original nor
hereditary; it is the universal destiny of estrangement which concerns every man.24 Thus Tillich
insists that sin is much more a universal fact and state, than an individual act, or more precisely,
sin as an individual act actualizes the universal fact of estrangement.Therefore it is impossible
to separate sin as fact from sin as act.25 Because we are separated from that which is of ultimate
meaning in existence (i.e. God), we experience a number of negative consequences that wreak
havoc on our self-existence.
In this state, what is the human condition, then? Now that weve examined the definition of the
problem, how do people experience the human problem in the state of estrangement? Rather than
experiencing the effects of estrangement from our Creator Godguilt, sinfulness, relational
estrangement, and ultimately physical and spiritual death, as the traditional Christian faith insists
we experience an anxious, meaningless, miserable, tragic life, resulting in non-being or death,
the ultimate in existential angst. In his existential condition, humanity is in a state of despair, the
pain of which stems from the conflict between what one potentially is (essence) and what one
actually is (existence).26 As Tillich argues, The pain of despair is the agony of being responsible
for the loss of meaning of ones existence and of being unable to recover it.27 The consequences
of self-estrangement humanity suffers, then, is the loss of meaning and a despairing existence,
rather than separation from their Creator.
According to Tillich, the experience of despair is reflected in the idea of the wrath of God, which
symbolizes the misery and tragedy felt in existence: we feel every day the burden of being under
a power which negates us, which disintegrates us and makes us unhappy. This is the wrath under
which we must pass all our days28 This wrath is not an actual attitude of judgment on the part
of the Creator against his rebellious creatures. Instead, it symbolizes the miserable and tragic
situation in which all humans find themselves.29
Ultimately, this situation results in death: Estranged from the ultimate power of being, man is
determined by his finitude. He is given over to his natural fate. He came from nothing, and he
returns to nothing. He is under the dominion of death and is driven by the anxiety of having to
die.30 Though sin is not the cause of death, it is its sting; self-estrangement from that which is of
ultimate meaning is the pain of death, which is much more symbolic than literal. While he believes
death is a natural part of being human, death or the threat of non-being and meaningless
existence is much more in view. As Tillich writes of death, Death has become powerfulthat is
to say that the End, the finite, and the limitations and decay of our being have become visiblethe
Dance of Death with every living being was painted and sung, so our generationthe generation
of world wars, revolution, and mass migrationrediscovered the reality of death.31
Writing as the generational representative of two world wars, The Great Depression, and other
chaotic world events, Tillich envisions the greatest consequence of our human estrangement from

our created goodness and ultimate existential aim is existential Death. This is an apt summary of
Tillichs view of the human condition: we are not separated from our Creator through collective
and personal rebellion; we are separated from that which is of ultimate meaning in life, resulting in
meaningless, fearful, tragic, miserable existence, culminating in existential death. Our solution,
therefore, must be one that conquers our self-estrangement and brings in love, which he says is
stronger than death.32 For that, we need a bearer of a solution of love and new existence that
speaks and acts in complete existential solidarity, yet triumphs over that existence. We find such a
bearer in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ.
1. Killen,R. Allan, The Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich (Kampen, J. H. Kok, 1956.), 185.

[]
2. Allan, Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich, 154. []
3. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:39-41. []
4. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:46; Shaking the Foundations, 154. (Italc. his []
5. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:27. []
6. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:39, 44, 45. []
7. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:45-46. []
8. Tillich, Shaking the Foundations, 154-155. []
9. Allan helps clarify Tillichs definition of God and its dynamics with humanity: God is
called Being, the Ground of being, the Power of being, Being-Itself. The power of being is
present in man and everything that exists. God or Being is made dynamic by an opposing
force called Non-Being. This force of Non-Being also threatens man in his existence and it
must be conquered by man just as it is conquered by Being. Being affirms itself and takes
Non-Being into itself and man in turn must assert himself in the courage to be and take NonBeing into himself. He can do this since he has the power of being himself and is, in taking
Non-Being in to himself, actually affirming the power of being which is in God. Allan,
Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich, 115. []
10.Paul Tillich, The Shaking the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1948), 155.
[]
11.Tillich, Shaking the Foundations, 57. []
12.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 1:235. []
13.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 1:236. []
14.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:94. []
15.Tillich, Shaking of the Foundations, 97. []
16.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:33. []
17.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:34. []
18.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:30. []
19.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:31. []
20.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:33. []
21.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:38. []
22.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:41. []
23.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:40. (emph. mine []

24.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:56. []


25.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:56. []
26.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:75. []
27.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:75. []
28.Tillich, Shaking of the Foundations, 72. []
29.Tillich, Shaking of the Foundations, 72. []
30.Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:66. []
31.Tillich, New Being, 170, 171. []
32.Tillich, New Being, 172. []

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