Tillich’s Concept of a Holistic Faith


by John Drury


            Paul Tillich was appalled by the lack of interest of his theological contemporaries in the existential situation of the world.[i]  He believed the Christian theologian had a responsibility to understand and answer modern problems.[ii]  In order to fulfill this apologetic imperative, Tillich had to develop an understanding of faith which would be capable of interaction with modern questions.  Therefore, he sought an integrated, holistic concept of faith.

            Tillich defined faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned.”[iii]  The concern is a need that promises a certain fulfillment.  The ultimate element implies complete surrender to it.[iv]  These two elements are combined so that both the concrete issues of humanity and the universal truth of God may be held in tension within faith.[v]  Meaning and existence can therefore meet at the point of faith.  Tillich’s goal of a creative tension between theology and philosophy necessitates such a synthesis.

            Ultimate concern is therefore a formal concept of faith, not a content-based one.[vi]  Faith is not defined strictly by its content, but by the holistic state of the faithful person.[vii]  Hence it has tremendous significance for theological method.  The encounter of theology and philosophy, or “faith” and “reason,” is not simply the competition of contradictory truth-claims.  For one who is ultimately concerned, the encounter is rather a dynamic one.  Philosophy has a place in theological method as much as any other discipline, for ultimate concern demands complete dedication to integration.

            What does faith as ultimate concern imply for the interaction between faith and reason?  In order to answer this, Tillich’s concept of faith must be examined thoroughly.  Uncovering its meaning will reveal the continuity between it and Tillich’s theological method.  The discussion of both his concept of faith and this method will be followed by a critique of each.

The Meaning of Faith for Tillich


            Tillich claims that “ultimate concern is the abstract translation of the great commandment: ‘The Lord, our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’.”[viii]  However, his abstraction of the these simple words of Jesus carries with it much philosophical baggage.  Ultimate concern has a certain ontological quality.[ix]  Faith is the means by which God may unite the polarity between the object and subject, between the universal and the concrete.[x]

            This unity prohibits a strictly objective understanding of faith.  Ultimate concern, as was already stated, is not determined by any particular content.  Faith is therefore higher than a mere rational assent to doctrines.[xi]  Ultimate concern is the criterion for creedal statements, not the other way around.[xii]  To place the objective element of faith over the subjective would not solve the problem of the polarity between the two.  It would only deprive the subjective element of its significance. 

            On the other hand, ultimate concern does not imply a purely subjective understanding of faith either.  He critiques the supremacy of the subject promoted by the existentialists.  He denies being a purely existentialist theologian: “Often I have been asked if I am an existentialist theologian, and my answer is always short.  I say, ‘fifty-fifty.’  This means that for me essentialism and existentialism belong together.”[xiii] Essentials are accessible to one who is in the state of ultimate concern.  The source of this objective element of faith is religious symbols.  Religious symbols play a significant role in faith because they, unlike theological concepts, participate in the realities to which they point.[xiv]  Without symbols, faith would only be an existential leap into the dark.

            However, Tillich has been regarded as an existentialist theologian for a reason.[xv]  This is because he does accept the existentialist analysis of the human predicament.[xvi]  It is for this reason his exposition of the doctrine of sin in Systematic Theology relies strongly on existentialism.[xvii]  However, his utilization of existentialism is limited to the analysis the human problem, for “existentialism is possible only as an element in a larger whole.”[xviii]  Tillich therefore rejects the pure fideism of the existentialists.[xix]

            The union of subject and object in Tillich’s concept of faith finds a relative continuity with Schleiermacher’s idea of “feeling of absolute dependence.”  In the same way as Tillich, Schleiermacher’s goal was a synthesis of subjective experience and objective reality.[xx]  Tillich himself claims that “Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ was rather near to ... ‘ultimate concern.’”[xxi]

            However, faith is not a just a feeling for Tillich.  “The word ‘feeling’ has induced many people to believe that faith is a matter of merely subjective emotions, without a content to be known and a demand to be obeyed.”[xxii]  This distorts faith in the same way as the strictly objective distortion and the existentialist interpretation by raising one element above all others.  “Certainly faith as an act of the whole personality has strong emotional elements within it.”[xxiii]  But feeling may only play a role among other elements within a holistic understanding of faith as ultimate concern.  Experience is not the source of faith.  It is rather the medium through which the content of faith is accepted.[xxiv]

            Tillich therefore promotes a holistic concept of faith.  No element is supreme, but all are included into the synthesis.  His ontological definition of faith seeks subject-object union, intellectual and emotional integration, and a creative dialogue between theology and philosophy.  It is this last implication of faith as ultimate concern which has far-reaching significance for the method of philosophy of religion.

The Methodological Significance of Tillich’s Concept of Faith


            An integrated understanding of faith implies an integrated relation between philosophy and theology.  “These disciplines must never be separated if one is to avoid the disruption of meaning.”[xxv]  If philosophy is denied its relevance to religion, then its own meaning is dissolved.[xxvi]  But if theology allows itself to be subjected to philosophy, it is no longer true theology.[xxvii]  The ontological quality of faith as ultimate concern has epistemological significance.  The subject-object union implies philosophical-theological union.

            Faith cannot simply reject reason:

“A faith which destroys reason destroys itself and the humanity of man.  For only a being who has the structure of reason is able to be ultimately concerned, to distinguish ultimate and preliminary concerns, to understand the unconditional commands of the ethical imperative, and to be aware of the presence of the holy.”[xxviii]


Faith and reason therefore must work in a creative tension.  Philosophy works in service to theology, aiding in the systematizing process.  Theology by its very nature is the rational interpretation of the symbolic content of religion.[xxix]  Theology can also be the subject of philosophical critiques.  These critiques keep theology be aware of the present situation of the world so that it may effectively communicate its message.[xxx]

            Philosophy as the study of all existence provides theology with an understanding of the present situation, which is indispensable to the apologetic task of theology.  The primary role of philosophy for the theologian is then to assess the problems of humanity.  A purely dogmatic theology is incomplete.[xxxi]  One who is ultimately concerned cannot dismiss the questions of life.

            These implications of Tillich’s concept of faith shape his theological method.  Tillich calls his approach the “method of correlation.”  It is a question and answer format, in which philosophy supplies the question and theology provides the answer.[xxxii]  However, the two are interrelated in a dynamic tension.  Both the philosophical assessment of the existential situation and the theological interpretation of religious symbols hinge on one another.  This is in line with the very nature of the relationship between the divine and the human.[xxxiii] 

            This method stands in stark contrast to natural theology or “absolute philosophy of religion,” for such methods seek for answers within the finite realm.[xxxiv]  Philosophy of religion demands for theology to have natural verification for itself.  Theology cannot fulfill this demand, although it must attempt to prove the validity of the Christian claim as best as it can.[xxxv]  Theological answers are not independent of philosophical inquiry.[xxxvi]  But the holistic understanding of faith prohibits either theology or philosophy from taking priority.

            Therefore, philosophical methods are used to understand both the existential question and theological answer.  This is what Tillich calls the “theological circle.”  Each part of a theological system is dependent on the whole system.  The entire system is not judged, then, by any one particular truth.[xxxvii]  It is rather judged by its overall message.

            In the case of theological method, philosophy and theology work together in a dynamic tension.  However, the question of faith and reason has not been completely answered, for faith and theology are not the same.  The kind of reason used by theology is based on the “technical” reason of philosophy.[xxxviii]  Faith too makes use of reason, for there is an undeniable cognitive element in faith.[xxxix]  Yet there is an ecstatic reason not used by theology that is central to faith itself.[xl]  This is because faith actually participates in truth, while theology only explains it.[xli]

            Faith itself is holistic in a way which theology is not.  “One of the basic Christian truths to which theology must witness is that theology itself, like every human activity, is subject to the contradictions of man’s existential situation.”[xlii]  Faith, on the other hand, is in deeper communion with truth.  As a holistic act, faith has as much to with works, worship, and culture as it does philosophy and theology.  Faith is more than a mere theological-philosophical category.  The union of subject and object can only be mediated through ultimate concern.

A Critique of Tillich’s Concept of Faith


            Tillich’s concept of faith as ultimate concern is overwhelmingly idealistic.  His abstraction of holistic faith produces a philosophical idealism.  This can be seen in his dream of the unity of subject and object.  This ontological implication of faith deals logically with the polarity of subjective and objective knowledge.  On the other hand, it does not come to terms with the apparent elusive nature of any such union.  It is a lofty goal to hope for any transcendence of such a pervasive problem through the mere act of faith.


            Not only is Tillich’s concept of faith philosophically idealistic, it is also pragmatically idealistic.  He claims that a theoretical subject-object unity might actually overcome serious issues of existence.  For instance, his treatment of the practical problem of evil (“theodicy”) merely skirts the issue by a synthetic understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.[xliii]   He talks about overcoming the ambiguities of life -- as he calls them -- in all too ambiguous of ways.

            The methodological implications of Tillich’s concept of faith are also worth calling into question.  His method of correlation is admittedly circular.[xliv]  However, admitting this problem does not eradicate its serious implications.  It is unable to accomplish the objective of answering the questions of the present situation.  This is because the questioned are developed concurrently with the answers.[xlv]  How can answers be provided when the questions are not allowed to speak for themselves?

            Tillich’s method of correlation also has watering-down effect.  In the attempt to integrate philosophy and theology, both suffer a loss.  It is impossible for him to have complete philosophical integrity, because religious assumptions inevitably shape his logical precision.  At the same time, Tillich’s theological integrity is compromised, as he forced to water-down certain traditional doctrines, such as an historical resurrection of Christ, in order to rationally answer the questions of philosophy.[xlvi] 

            Tillich’s understanding of faith strips itself of its own content.  He points primarily to symbols as the substance of religion, removing the historical element from the creed.  He says the mysterious infinite realm can be understood only symbolically.[xlvii]  This is in line with his goal of making the Christian religion comprehensible to the modern person.  But in so doing faith is disallowed to come in contact with real, objective truth.

            There is room, however, for such a stripping of content as long as the whole message of his theology remained in tact.  Every philosopher and theologian has a normative principle.  This norm can be examined in order to appropriately evaluate the theology of which it is a part.  In the case of Tillich, the normative principle is the “New Being in Jesus as the Christ.”[xlviii]  Although he provides lengthy exposition on these terms throughout his Systematic Theology and other writings, they remains ambiguous.  This is intentional, for Tillich defines faith not by its content but by the state of being ultimately concerned.  Yet at some point this breaks down, for the unconditioned element which is to judge his theology is left ambiguous.[xlix]




            Tillich offers a holistic concept of faith.  It is meant to allow for the integration of the whole self.  It also implies an integration of philosophy and theology.  It has been shown that it lacks the substance required of these goals.  It also threatens the very content of religion.  Yet it still has something to offer to any philosopher of religion.

            Despite his idealism, Tillich has a powerful concern for real life issues.  His sermons illustrate this, as he takes seriously the problems in the world and is not afraid to challenge the secular thinking of his day.[l]  Despite the possible unversalism implied in his concept of faith, he wrestles with the issue of religious diversity without offering a simplistic, idealistic answer.[li]  Tillich did not merely philosophize away the Christian faith.

            What could be Tillich’s most significant contribution is the way in which faith as ultimate concern deals with the issue of doubt.  Instead of forcing a denial of the doubt experienced by so many, he calls to embrace doubt as part of faith.[lii]  The implicit risk of faith cannot be ignored, but it can be overcome.  To it can be added the element of hope.  Hope allows for a lack of perfect certainty.[liii]  The person who is ultimately concerned does not have to carry the weight of the demand for certainty.  One can be free to live the life of faith without questioning his or her salvation just because of honest questions about the content of religious truths.  So for all its weaknesses, Tillich’s concept of a holistic faith provides an enduring practical implication for all believers.


Spring 2000



[i]  Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967) I:3-4.

[ii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology III:4-5.

[iii]  Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957) 1.

[iv]  Tillich, Dynamics of Faith 1.

[v]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:16.

[vi]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:14.

[vii]  Tillich, Dynamics of Faith 4.

[viii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:11.

[ix]  For Tillich, many religious attitudes have an inherent ontological meaning.  Take for instance his ontological exposition of the idea of courage in The Courage To Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952).

[x]  Tillich, Systematic Theology 173-174.

[xi]  Tillich, Dynamics of Faith 30-35.

[xii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:11-14.

[xiii]  Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968) 541.

[xiv]  Tillich, Dynamics of Faith 42.

[xv]  Tillich has come to be known for his integration of existentialism into Christian theology.  Take for instance David Hugh Freeman, who treats him as the archetypal existentialist theologian in Recent Studies in Philosophy and Theology (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1962).

[xvi]  Tillich, A History of Christian Thought 540-541.

[xvii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology II:19-28.

[xviii]  Tillich, A History of Christian Thought 541.

[xix]  One of the greatest problems in Tillich’s theology is his utter stubbornness toward the insight of existentialists concerning religious language.  He is radically committed to a essentialist, picture-theory of language, even to the point of basing his critique of existentialism upon this assumption.  See A History of Christian Thought 541.

[xx]  Take note of Schleiemacher’s implicit goals as expressed in On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1994) 26-29.

[xxi]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:42.

[xxii]  Tillich, Dynamics of Faith 39.

[xxiii]  Tillich, Dynamics of Faith 40.

[xxiv]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:42.

[xxv]  James Luther Adams, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982) 259.

[xxvi]  Paul Tillich, What is Religion? (New York: Harper & Row, 1969) 28.

[xxvii]  Tillich, What is Religion? 28.

[xxviii]  Tillich, Dynamics of Faith 75-76.

[xxix]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:16.

[xxx]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:17.

[xxxi]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:3-4.

[xxxii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:60.

[xxxiii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:61.

[xxxiv]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:65.

[xxxv]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:15.

[xxxvi]  Tillich, Systematic Theology II:15.

[xxxvii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:10-11.

[xxxviii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:53.

[xxxix]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:53.

[xl]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:53.

[xli]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:53.

[xlii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:54.

[xliii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:270.

[xliv]  Tillich, Systematic Theology II:14.

[xlv]  D. R. Merritt, “Tillich’s Method of Correlation,” Reformed Theological Review 21 (1962) 66-68.

[xlvi]  Tillich, Systematic Theology II:114-117.

[xlvii]  Tillich, Dynamics of Faith 41.

[xlviii]  Tillich, Systematic Theology I:50

[xlix]  J. L. Adams, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion 262.

[l]  For collections of his sermons, see The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948) and The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955).

[li]  Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1963).

[lii]  Tillich, Dynamics of Faith 20.

[liii]  Louis P. Pojman, “Faith Without Belief,” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (Ed.: Louis Pojman; Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1998) 501-503.







Adams, James Luther.  Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Culture, Science, and Religion.              Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. 


Freeman, David Hugh.  Recent Studies in Philosophy and Theology.  Philadelphia:     Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1962.


Merritt, D. R. “Tillich’s Method of Correlation.”  Reformed Theological Review 21     (1962) 65-75.


Pojman, Louis P.  “Faith Without Belief.”  Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology.  Louis         Pojman, Ed.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1998.  493-505.


Schleiermacher, Friedrich.  On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.  Louisville,        KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1994.


Paul Tillich. The Shaking of the Foundations. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948. 


_________. The Courage To Be.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952.


_________. The New Being. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955.


_________.  Dyanmics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.


_________. Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions. Minneapolis: Fortress         Press, 1963.


_________.  Systematic Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.


_________.  A History of Christian Thought. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.


_________. What is Religion? New York: Harper & Row, 1969.