Justified by Faith: Paul Tillich

Posted by Shane.Whisler on August 7, 2017

Paul Tillich

While famous for his three-volume Systematic Theology, near life’s end Paul Tillich (1886-1965) himself questioned if his system was still viable, but he never lost the conviction that we are “justified by faith,” and that faith is rightly experienced as trust, rather than belief.1

Both Tillich and fellow theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resisted and then fled Germany after the rise of the Nazi Party. They lived in exile, but Tillich remained in America until his death at age 79 while Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and died at age 39 after being caught in an assassination plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

While his father, a traditional clergy-person representing the previous century, was disappointed in the theological direction of his son, but the junior Tillich felt called to be an interpreter of the faith for the new century. He used philosophical language instead of purely theological terms to describe the Lutheran faith and beyond. He rejected the old church rigidity while still affirming its content.

As a chaplain in World War I, he was devastated by the experience. However, it seemed to increase his resolve to explore and communicate a new intellectual freedom of the church and freedom for humanity.

“Tillich’s passionate concern for freedom made him an early critic of Hitler and the Nazi movement, and in retaliation he was barred from German universities in 1933 – the first non-Jewish academician ‘to be so honoured,’ as he wryly put it.” 2

In America, Tillich initially struggled with the English language and its pragmatic Americans but became a champion to skeptics, encouraging them to embrace their doubt and seeing it as a part of faith. He did not view God as an anthropomorphic being, but nonetheless true God. However this view subjected him to criticism from traditional theologians and believers.

In this blogger’s opinion, he brought connection to God down from the throne on high in order to lift up the mind and heart of the everyday human who struggled – which is how Christ Jesus is represented as our great justifier in faith.

Tillich pursued the exploration and interpretation of his “Protestant Principle” of justification by faith through his American career from 1933-1955 at Union Theological Seminary in New York, then 1955-1962 at Harvard University, spending his final years at Chicago University, 1962-1965.

Paul Tillich

Arne Unhjem’s article published on britannica.com; Unhjem is Professor of Philosophy, Wagner College, Staten Island, New York, and author of Dynamics of Doubt: A Preface to Tillich

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As seen in the photograph above, “Tillich enjoyed dancing and socializing; hardly the stereotype of a professor locked away in his study.” (credit: Westar Institute) 



Rev. Shane Whisler serves at Parish Associate at NorthPark Presbyterian Church. He holds a journalism degree from Oklahoma University and attended Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Together with his wife, he has two thoughtful teenagers and a menagerie of animals.

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