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Martin Luther's Theological Influence on Paul Tillich (1886-1965)

Martin Luther (from here)

Article by Samuel Dubbelman

Accepting Acceptance: Paul Tillich's appropriation of the radical nature of Martin Luther's doctrine of justification by Samuel J. Dubbelman

Paul Tillich may be described as a Lutheran theologian in that he took several key ideas promulgated by Martin Luther and ran with them to what Tillich saw as their logical conclusions; on the contrary, Paul Tillich may not be described as a Lutheran theologian if what is implied by such a designation is confessional assent to The Book of Concord. In this article I shall focus on one of the most influential aspects of Tillich's appropriation of Luther's theology, namely, the centrality of a God who justifies the ungodly. Tillich sought to maintain the dialectical nature of Luther's proclamation that humans are justified “in spite of” (tretz) their sin, while at the same time attempting to thoroughly modernizing the message. First, Tillich insisted that the forensic language of “justification” needed to be changed to the psychoanalytic language of “acceptance” in order for it be heard and understood by modern ears. Second, Tillich wanted to expand Luther's radical doctrine of simul iustus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and sinner”) to include those in the position of doubt and even doubt concerning God.

Tillich maintained “justification by grace through faith” as the material norm of the Protestantism (ST 1:47-51). He asserts that article of justification is “the article by which Protestantism stands or falls” (ST 3:223). This message is the basic axiom of what Tillich called “the Protestant principle.” This principle is an insistence that “in relation to God, God alone can act and that no human claim, especially no religious claim, no intellectual or moral or devotional ‘work,’ can reunite us with him.” (ST 3:224) Tillich asserted that the aim of his systematic theology had been to maintain this principle even if it had resulted in some quite “unorthodox” formulations (ibid.).

Among such “unorthodox” formulations was Tillich's insistence that the very language of “justification” needed to change because the terminology used in the Old and New Testament (just, justice, and justification) “has lost all meaning” in the modern world (ST 3:225). Not only is the terminology lost among the populous, the traditional Pauline-Lutheran doctrine of “justification by faith” has become “incomprehensible even for students of theology” (Essential, 175). Tillich, therefore, turned to the notion of acceptance in psychotherapy to try and capture the doctrine in modern language. In Tillich's hands, Luther's paradoxical teaching of simul iustus et peccator, traditionally rendered as “he who is unjust is just”, is modernized as “he who is unacceptable is accepted” (Essential, 174).

Tillich believed that using the terminology of “acceptance” rather than “justification” also helped to highlight the subjective side of the doctrine. Tillich suggested that Philip Melanthon's articulation of “forensic” justification has the danger of leaving out the subjective side of it. Paradoxically, Tillich asserted both that “there is nothing in man which enables God to accept him” and that “man must accept this. He must accept that he is accepted; he must accept acceptance” (ST 2:179). Another way to say this is that we are accepted by grace but that this must be received through faith. Tillich lamented that the common place Protestant expression for the doctrine is “justification by faith” and not “justification by grace through faith.” The former phrase can have disastrous effects because “it gives the impression that faith is an act of man by which he merits Justification” (2:179). We are justified by grace; faith is the receptacle.

Such acceptance is a massive action of courage made in the face of guilt and the onslaught of anxiety produced by the looming threat of non-being (that is, death). For Tillich, Luther exemplifies the courage of confidence. Tillich observes that every work of Luther's is filled with courage “in spite of” (trotz) the immense anxieties of the period, which Luther described in the symbols of “death” and “the devil” (Essential, 172). Not only is Luther the personal example of confidence, his message of justification is the quintessential coinage of what Tillich has famously called the courage to be. “One could say that the courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable” (Essential, 174). The courage to be is, therefore, learning to accept the forgiveness of sins as the “fundamental experience in the encounter with God” (Essential, 175).

Not only did Tillich want to change the language of justification, he also wanted to expand the boundaries of those who are justified in order to include those in the state of unbelief. Tillich asked “How is faith through which justification comes to us related to the situation of radical doubt?” (ST 3:227). Radical doubt here “is existential doubt concerning the meaning of life itself” (ibid.). For a person in radical doubt to hear that God accepts them would be meaningless. Therefore, Tillich suggests that “Paul's question, How do I become liberated from the law? And Luther's question, How do I find a merciful God? Are replaced in our period by the question, How do I find meaning in a meaningless world?” (ibid.). It is here that Tillich wants to speak of the justification of the sinner and of the radical doubter. God is present to doubters in the midst of their existential despair even though God is not recognized. It is key to notice that Tillich is speaking of “existential doubt.” Here, for Tillich, doubt and faith are not opposites, but two sides of the same reality. That is to say, doubt is not a “negation of faith” but an element in faith itself (Essential, 25). The message of simul iustus et peccator looks like telling those in the situation of existential doubt “that they are accepted with respect to the ultimate meaning of their lives, although unacceptable in view of the doubt and meaninglessness which has taken hold of them” (ST 3:228). Therefore, “Not only he who is in sin but also he who is in doubt is justified through faith. The situation of doubt, even of doubt about God, need not separate us from God” (Essential, 71-2).

I have suggested that Tillich understood himself to be taking Luther's radical doctrine of justification to its natural conclusions. If God justifies the ungodly, then why can this inherently not include those in the situation of radical existential doubt? Because of Tillich's theological method of correlation he stressed that the language of theology needed to be adapted to address the current predicament of modern people. Accepting that you are accepted despite your unacceptableness is Tillich's way of speaking the gospel to modern people sojourning in a sea of meaninglessness. In conclusion, it may be important to notice that while Tillich appropriated the radical nature of Luther's teaching on justification, it is questionable whether Tillich's non-agential conception of God will ever fit comfortably within confessional Lutheranism. It is Lutheran courage and it is Lutheran grace, but is it the Lutheran God? I suggest that at the end of the day that Tillich's appropriation of Luther's doctrine of justification has as much separation from Luther as it has resonance. Tillich's proclamation of “acceptance” is not based on a personally “judging and forgiving God.” Rather, such courage is rooted in the “God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt” (Essential, 193). Whether this is a good move or not is up to the modern theologian who has one eye on the tradition and the other on contemporary society.


Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. 3 vols. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1951-63.

_____., ed. F. Forrester Church. The Essential Tillich. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1987.

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