Paul Tillich and the Death of God

Breaking the Confines of Heaven and Rethinking the Courage to Be
  • Daniel J. Peterson
Part of the Radical Theologies book series (RADT)


Paul Tillich once confided to Thomas J. J. Altizer, the most famous of the radical “death of God” theologians, that “the real Tillich is the radical Tillich.”1 This confession is puzzling, especially insofar as Tillich openly criticized radical theology shortly before he died.2 The comment is all the more curious given the apparently conservative nature of Tillich’s understanding of God. As Keith Ward observes, when orthodox Christians deride “views like those of the twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich for saying that God is not a person, but is ‘being-itself’, the depth and power of being”—the nature of which remains unaffected by temporal processes—“they are in fact attacking the classical Christian doctrine of God.”3 Any attempt to explore the connection between Tillich’s perspective and radical theology must accordingly circumvent some of what Tillich says explicitly about God and consider the deeper layers of his thought. It must show how Tillich unnecessarily restricts the opposition he posits in God between being and nonbeing to eternity instead of allowing the conflict to play itself out historically as it does for Altizer—the Hegel-inspired radical to whom Tillich confessed the secret ground of his own theology.


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  1. 1.
    Thomas Altizer, Living the Death of God: A Theological Memoir (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 10.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966, 1992), 247.Google Scholar
  3. For Tillich’s direct comments on the subject, see Paul Tillich, The Future of Religions, ed. Jerald Brauer (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 81–83.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed (Oxford: Oneworld, 2002), 144.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    ELCA Youth Ministry, Lutheran Study Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 1932.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    The meaning of this passage is contested. Douglas Oakman maintains, for example, that the kenosis of Christ in Philippians is in relation not to his divine nature but to Adam who tried to seize equality with God. See Douglas Oakman, “The Perennial Relevance of Saint Paul: Paul’s Understanding of Christ and a Time of Radical Pluralism,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 39.1 (2009), 120–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. For a response to Oakman’s interpretation, see Daniel J. Peterson, “The Kenosis of the Father: Affirming God’s Action at the Higher Levels of Nature,” Theology and Science 11.4 (2013), 451–454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Thomas Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 157.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Altizer, The Godhead and the Nothing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 144.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 236. This is the reason why Ward (above) considers Tillich’s a contemporary version of the “classical Christian doctrine of God.” It may, likewise, be the source of William Robert Miller’s observation that, while Tillich “professed to despise orthodoxy as ‘intellectual pharisaism,’” his “monumental Systematic Theology represents in large part a vindication of classical Christian doctrines through philosophical reinterpretation.” See William Robert Miller, The New Christianity (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1967), 231.Google Scholar
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    Cyril O’Regan, Gnostic Apocalypse: Jacob Boehme’s Haunted Narrative (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 16.Google Scholar
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    John Dourley, “Jacob Boehme and Paul Tillich on Trinity and God: Similarities and Differences,” Religious Studies 31 (1995), 432. The theme of boundaries is a classic Tillichian topos, one to which we will return at the end of the chapter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Daniel J. Peterson, “Jacob Boehme and Paul Tillich: A Reassessment of the Mystical Philosopher and Systematic Theologian,” Religious Studies 42 (2006), 225–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now, (Charles Scribner’s, 1963) 94.Google Scholar
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    Andrew O’Neill, Tillich: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T & T Clark, 2008), 52.Google Scholar
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    Paul Tillich, My Search for Absolutes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), 26.Google Scholar
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    Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 180.Google Scholar
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    In fairness to Tillich, the question here may be one of emphasis rather than strict denial. David Nikkei argues, for example, that Tillich “threw in his lot” with Schelling by maintaining that “while God as infinite ground and abyss is not limited to any particular finite forms, neither does God achieve an absolute fulfillment apart from expression in and through some finite forms” (15). That said, Nikkei admits that in Tillich this “position is never fully developed in an explicit manner.” Indeed, the accent—at least in volume one of the Systematic Theology— falls much more on the side of preserving God’s aseity. See David Nikkei, “The Mystical Formation of Paul Tillich,” The Global Spiral (2006), 1–18.Google Scholar
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    Stephen Studebaker, “God as Being and Trinity: Pentecostal-Tillichian Interrogations” (unpublished essay, 2014), 10; italics mine. See also Adrian Thatcher, The Ontology of Paul Tillich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).Google Scholar
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    Frederick J. Parrella, “Tillich and Contemporary Spirituality.” In Paul Tillich: A New Catholic Assessment, ed. Frederick J. Parrella and Raymond Bulman (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 252.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    Mark Taylor, “Introduction: The Theological Development and Contribution of Paul Tillich.” In Paul Tillich: Theologian of the Boundaries, ed. Mark Taylor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 23.Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    See Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 127–132.Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    See Andrew Hass, “Becoming.” In Resurrecting the Death of God: The Origins, Influence, and Return of Radical Theology, ed. Daniel J. Peterson and G. Michael Zbaraschuk (New York: State University of New York Press, 2014), 155–172.Google Scholar

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© Russell Re Manning 2015

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  • Daniel J. Peterson

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