Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology: “A Help In Answering Questions”?

“My purpose, and I believe it is a justified purpose, has been to present the method and the structure of a theological system written from an apologetic point of view and carried through in a continuous correlation with philosophy … A help in answering questions: this is exactly the purpose of this theological system.” (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, three volumes in one, The University of Chicago, 1967, xi-xii).

Comment – We live in a world where we will be asked questions. We must “always be ready to give a defence to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15).

“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. Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received.” (Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume One, 3).

Comment – We are called to be faithful to the Lord and fruitful for Him. We learn from His Word. We speak to His world.

“When fundamentalism is combined with an antitheological bias, as it is, for instance, in its biblicistic-evangelical form, the theological truth of yesterday is defended as an unchangeable message against the theological truth of today and tomorrow. Fundamentalism fails to make contact with the present situation, not because it speaks from beyond every situation, but it speaks from a situation of the past.” (Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume One, 3).

Comment – Here, it seems, Tillich goes on the attack, dismissing those who think differently from himself. He’s putting the reader off what he calls, “fundamentalism”. He speaks about its “antitheological bias”. What about Tillich’s own bias? Is this what we have here? We must ask how his dismissal of “fundamentalism” ties in with his own speaking about “eternal truth”. Tillich speaks critically about fundamentalism’s “biblicistic-evangelical form”. It should be pointed out that there are plenty of people who would speak very positively of the importance of being biblical and evangelical in their thinking. They may not agree with the way in which Tillich develops the idea that theology should do its work “in a continuous correlation with philosophy”, but they would not accept the idea that their own approach is “antitheological”. A good example of a theologian who uses the word, “fundamentalism”, in a positive way is James Packer. See his early book, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. He doesn’t see a conflict between speaking from “a situation of the past” and speaking “from beyond every situation”. He speaks about Jesus Christ. He speaks about the Bible. He connects the two. We believe the Bible because we follow Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). When we say that we follow Jesus, we must ask ourselves, “Do we follow Him in His view of the authority of Scripture?” How fair is Tillich when, on the first page of his “Introduction” to Volume One, he speaks scathingly of fundamentalism as “antitheological”? Before he’s even begun to tell us anything about his own theology, Tillich is warning us against fundamentalism’s “biblicistic-evangelical form”! Is this not begging the question – telling us the way we’re not to go before he’s even told us anything about the way he thinks we should go? When Tillich says that we should emphasize the importance of apologetics (“answering questions”), we must ask, “What does he mean?” Many people, who are committed to the work of apologetics, would tell us that we must build on and defend the kind of theology, which is so lightly dismissed by Tillich. They would emphasize that we must go back to “a situation of the past” (Jesus Christ and the Bible), if we are to move on from there to make affirmations about a Word that “speaks from beyond every situation”. What, then, are we to say about Tillich’s goal of producing “a theological system” which will be “a help in answering questions”? It seems that he has decided which questions he wants to answer and which questions he dismisses as the wrong questions. Tillich tells us that his theological system has two aims – (1) “the statement of the truth of the Christian message”; and (2) “the interpretation of this truth for every new generation”. In view of Tillich’s dismissal of “fundamentalism”, we must wonder what we will get from him. Will it be his own “interpretation”? In what sense, can we regard this “interpretation” as a “statement of the Christian truth”? Tillich may tell us that he is giving us “a theological system written from an apologetic point of view”, but we must ask whether he has  abandoned apologetics. He may have regarded his theology as “a help in answering questions”, but many people will feel that there are very important questions which he doesn’t even ask.

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