Biblical theism enhanced or transformed? An evaluation of Paul Tillich's concept of God

Zerbst, Jeffrey Neil
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BIBLICAL THEISM ENHANCED OR TRANSFORMED? AN EVALUATION OF PAUL TILLICH'S CONCEPT OF GOD. This dissertation seeks to establish whether Paul Tillich s God-concept is theistic or not. Has Tillich transformed theism into something else? To answer this question requires a detailed examination of Tillich's concept of "being-itself" as a translation of the term "God". It can be established that the concept has a place within Christian tradition, and may be seriously considered as an alternative description to the supranaturalistic idea of God. In this latter conception, which still has broad acceptance today, God is seen as a being, an object located somewhere in space. The primitive and anthropomorphic nature of such a description of God is criticised in this dissertation; such a conception must give way to a more sophisticated one. The concept of "being-itself" though, must be tested against the nominalist objection that there are only existing beings and that there is no category of "existence" or "being". This dissertation shows how an idealist model for being-itself can be defended against the objections of nominalism. However, Tillich is not an idealist (as is amply shown) and because of this the concept of being itself loses much of its forcefulness. For if, as Tillich insists, creator and creation are distinct and separate from each other, then what can the terms "being-itself" and "ground of being" mean? The term "ground" could only mean "source", not "underlying substance". It is argued, though, that Tillich wants the term (and, by extension, "being-itself") to imply both meanings at once, so as to give force to an immanentist theology without surrendering the notion of God's transcendence. In other words, Tillich's theology is accused of a certain ambiguity and imprecision. Yet even if the terra "beirtg-itself" seems unsatisfactory, Tillich s idea that God is forcefully present within the world of men is defensible without an insistence on the term. It is argued that the idea of Spirit can convey such nearness and, further, it is contended that this term is the only satisfactory one to describe God. In the dissertation it is pointed out that "Spirit can imply a "surrounding" omnipresence as easily as it can imply an inhabiting" omnipresence. If God is perceived as "Surrounding Spirit", then an immanentist theism, which has a strong emphasis on religious experience as the factor which establishes the existence of God, can be formulated. Idealism (the model in which Spirit "inhabits" matter) is then avoided; it is argued that this is necessary if God's transcendence is to be maintained. The second half of the dissertation examines the extent of Tillich's appeal outside the boundaries of traditional theism. Does Tillich's concept of God broaden, and thus enhance, the appeal of theism? The answer, in the mainj is affirmative. To be sure, Tillich's description of the awareness of the Ultimate cannot convince the atheist of the existence of God. Yet such a description certainly points the wav to an understanding of what such a conviction entails. Outside of his appeal to the atheist, it is argued that Tillich s theology has been important in establishing Christian dialogue with other faiths and in contributing to the debate on religious secularity. Even if Tillich has expressed serious reservations about the "Radical Theology" he is said to have inspired, one could also claim a success for Tillich in this field in that he has helped to spawn a religious school of thought which is at least vigorous and adventurous, Radical theologians clearly state that Tillich provided them with a mandate to explore the God-concept in an unrestricted way, and even if the arguments of this school go beyond what Tillich felt was acceptable, one must at least concede that these theologians have revitalised religious thought, This revitalisation owes much to Tillich, whose stress oil God s immanence and our experience of him in this secular realm, has done much to re-emphasise the immediacy of the divine presence in the life of man. The conclusion arrived at in this dissertation is that, despite certain terminological imprecisions, Tillich's theology enhances theism without transforming it. Paul Tillich, it is held, must be seen as a theologian of the greatest consequence,