The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

Paul Tillich was a Protestant theologian writing in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  His writing is highly abstract, so you’ll have to forgive me for using abstract language here.  He is perhaps best known for his idea that God is the ground of being; that is, God is being-itself.  For atheists, Tillich says some interesting things.  Like this: “God does not exist.  He is being-itself beyond essence and existence.  Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.” (1951: 205)  And this: “It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it.  God is being-itself, not a being.” (1951: 237)

Tillich says he’s a Christian.  But here it’s worth pointing out that Tillich’s “God” is so far from the God of the Bible (and traditional Christian theology) that it’s hard to take his claim of being Christian very seriously.  And Tillich has widely been criticized by Christians as offering a strange new theory of the divine.  Some might say that Tillich was a Christian atheist.  Anyway, here are some relevant points from Tillich:

1. God is being-itself.  Tillich wrote: “The being of God is being-itself.  The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others. . . . Whenever infinite or unconditional power  and meaning are attributed to the highest being, it has ceased to be a being and has become being-itself.” (1951: 235).  And he affirms again that “God is being itself, not a being” (1951: 237).   Since God is not a being, Tillich famously affirms that God does not exist (1951: 205, 237).

2. God is the power of being.  Tillich says “the concept of being as being, or being-itself, points to the power inherent in everything, the power of resisting nonbeing.  Therefore, instead of saying that God is first of all being-itself, it is possible to say that he is the power of being in everything and above everything, the infinite power of being” (1951: 236)

3. God is transcendent.  Tillich affirms the transcendence of God when talks about God as being above all things.  He writes that God is “the power of being in everything and above everything”(1951: 236).  And he says that “As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of beings – the world” (1951: 237).

I think Tillich’s conceptual work leads quickly to paganism.  Tillich is a theologian who constantly has to pull himself back from the brink of paganism.  And thus Tillich often seems to contradict himself.  Tillich says that God is being-as-being, or being-itself or the power of being.  Hearing those phrases, any philosopher would conclude that God is the “universal essence”.  Within traditional (scholastic) language, being-itself and universal essence are synonymous (and Tillich later says that universals are powers of being – see 1951: 254).  But identification of God with the universal essence leads immediately to pantheism (which, for Tillich, is pagan).

Tillich has to pull himself back from this pantheism, and he does it by appealing to God’s transcendence: “It is as wrong to speak of God as the universal essence as it is to speak of him as existing.  If God is understood as universal essence, as the form of all forms, he is identified with the unity and totality of finite potentialities, and therefore he has ceased to transcend them.  He has poured all his creative power into a system of forms, and he is bound to these forms.  This is what pantheism means.” (1951: 236)

For Tillich, God is both “the power of being in everything and above everything”.  I’d say that’s absurd – for Tillich, God is both immanent and transcendent.  But it’s impossible to be both immanent and transcendent.   To be sure, if Tillich wants to claim to remain within Christianity, then he’s got to affirm the transcendence of being-itself.  But it makes very little sense to do so.  Much of Tillich’s first volume of Systematic Theology looks like a pantheistic or pagan theology onto which a superficial layer of exhausted Christian ideology is painted.  That paint peels off easily.


Tillich, P. (1951) Systematic Theology.  Vol. 1.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.