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Schelling's Theological Influence on Paul Tillich (1775-1854)

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (from here)

Article by Eunchul Jung

F. W. Schelling is obviously one of the most influential thinkers in shaping Tillich's thinking. Tillich's Interest in Schelling's idea started in his early academic career and was long-lasting, and Schelling's impact permeates throughout Tillich's theology. This is the reason why some people describe Tillich as “no more than C. G. Jung grafted onto Schelling's pantheism and as an existentialist-idealist whose roots are in German romantic philosophy” [1].

Tillich's first doctoral dissertation in 1911 in Breslau was The Conception of the History of Religion in Schelling's Positive Philosophy: Its Presuppositions and Principles. In 1912, Tillich obtained the degree of Licentiat of Theology in Halle with his dissertation about the roles of mysticism and symbolism in Schelling's philosophy. These two dissertations clearly show Schelling's influence on Tillich's perspective on myth and revelation. Moreover, nearly all aspects of his theology-ontology, God, revelation, history, religion, art, and even methodology-are under the impact of Schelling. But, it would be reasonable and useful for us to discuss one thinker's metaphysics which is a backbone of his or her thought before going on to all the other parts of the thought. The understanding of Schelling's metaphysics would help to grip the overall structure of Tillich's thought. Therefore, this article will mainly discuss Schelling's metaphysics and natural philosophy and their influence on some major parts of Tillich's philosophy. While trying to understand them, one may easily find the many parallel points between the two great thinkers.

1. Shelling's metaphysics and natural philosophy

Schelling tried to synthesize the two philosophical main streams which are conflicting with one another and which are represented by Fichte and Spinoza, respectively. While Fichte was elaborating Kant's philosophy to an extreme degree, Spinoza was supporting Romanticism with his pantheism. Schelling's criticism was that “both the philosophy of Spinoza and the transcendental idealism of Fichte are one-sided exaggerations”[2], because he thought that Fichte was trying to absolutize the subject and Spinoza was absolutizing the object. In an attempt to synthesize both philosophies, Schelling's basic idea was shaped: “the Absolute must transcend the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity and be subject and object in identity” [3].

This basic idea gave rise to his unique natural philosophy which is hard to understand, but at the same time, attractive, and which exercised a powerful influence on Hegel's thought. Schelling's general picture of the Absolute can be described as “eternal essence or Idea objectifying itself in Nature, returning to itself as subjectivity in the world of representation and then knowing itself, in and through philosophical reflection, as the identity of the real and the ideal, of Nature and Spirit” [4]. For Schelling, Nature is a teleological system and the necessary self-unfolding of the eternal Idea. This process of self-unfolding cannot be completed at once but is on the way of gradual completion. And the full completion of this process refers to the full self-actualization or self-awareness of the Absolute, the eternal Idea. So, it can be said that the culmination of this process is the insight that “human knowledge of Nature is Nature's knowledge of itself. There is really no rift between the objective and the subjective. From the transcendental point of view, they are one. Slumbering Spirit becomes awakened Spirit” [5].

Within the process of self-actualization of the eternal Idea, the lower level-for example, the dimension of inorganic-exists for the higher level-for example, the dimension of organic-and is subsumed by it. In other words, although the lower level, of course, precedes the higher level in a temporal sense, the higher level precedes the lower level in a logical sense. This is the characteristic of a teleological system. But, this does not mean that the lower levels exist only as a means of fulfilling the goal, the actualization of the higher levels. The Schelling's point is that the lower level is a “necessary setting for the realization of the ends of Nature” [6]. Schelling reconciled the sphere of mechanics with the concept of finality by seeing Nature as “an organic unity” [7].

2. The Influence of Shelling's Idea on Tillich's Philosophy

First and foremost, Schelling's philosophy of identity of subject and object has a huge influence on Tillich's ontology, doctrine of God, and method of correlation. This philosophy of identity allowed Tillich to not only correlate two extreme elements in several pairs of polarity but also derive the insight that God is ground of being which subsumes and transcends both subject and object. The way of synthesis was his way to do philosophy, and he himself says that it has remained “a driving force in all my theological work and found its final form in my Systematic Theology[8].

In addition, Schelling's natural philosophy was resonant with Tillich's emotion at Nature [9], giving the conceptual frame within which he could interpret Nature, history, religion, and art to be the vivid expressions of God's creativity [10]. For the self-realization of the Absolute as the eternal Idea is gradually unfolded in Nature and history and only through “concrete action in the world”[11].

This understanding of history is applied to religion in the same way. The Absolute necessarily unfolds itself in human history. And just as human knowledge of Nature is Nature's knowledge of itself in his natural philosophy, so is human understanding of God the self-recognition of God in his philosophy of religion. The development of human understanding of God starts from the lowest level, myth, and finishes with the emergence of Christianity, the peak of historical religion, in which “the truth comes to the clear light of day” [12]. For him, myth is in its preparatory stage for the real revelation. Schelling, however, did not argue that the Absolute is completely known in Christianity. Instead, there is room for “a higher standpoint, namely that of reason understanding both mythology and revelation” [13]. So, Schelling says, “The free religion is only mediated through Christianity; it is not immediately posited by it” [14].

This perspective on religion is quite analogous to that of Tillich. Since Tillich thought that God as ground of being becomes manifest in Jesus, Tillich sees the Jesus event as the central, final revelation by which all the other revelatory events in the past and the future are judged, and by which all the preceding and subsequent events are taken as preliminary revelation. But, Tillich did not identify the Spiritual Community as a dynamic essence of the existing communities with Christianity, even though it is mediated through Christianity. It is inevitable that the genuine Spiritual Community is fragmentarily seen in all the historical religions. Thus, all churches must continually apply to themselves the Protestant principle.

The fact that Schelling distinguishes positive philosophy from negative one also influenced Tillich as well as Schleiermacher and Existentialism. In a nutshell, while negative philosophy refers to idealistic metaphysics, positive philosophy refers to existential philosophy. Because the starting point of negative philosophy is essence, it cannot proceed to facts. For everything that is derived from essence is about essence itself. In contrast, positive philosophy describes reality as such because its starting point is facts. But, it does not reach a recognition of essence. And this is why positive philosophy calls for an existing, creative, and personal god instead of an impersonal Idea or essence. So, Schelling says, “Positive philosophy is historical philosophy” [15]. For the self-realization of God will be occurred in the history of man's demand for God and of God's answer” [16]. Based upon Schelling's positive philosophy and philosophy of history and religion, Tillich elaborated his dialectical theology. Indeed, Kierkegaard's dialectical psychology and Schelling's positive philosophy as opposed to Hegel were designated by Tillich himself as two major influences on his existential theology [17]. One thing that was evident for him in comparison with his predecessors in philosophy and theology is that he and his contemporary scholars were “forced into history” [18]. With his eyes on history, Tillich asserts that without the question the answer is meaningless and irrelevant, trying to “correlate the questions implied in the situation with the answers implied in the message” [19].


Copleston, Frederick C. History of Philosophy: 18th and 19th Century German Philosophy Vol 7. Accessed October 21, 2015.

Rathbun, John W., and Fred Burwick. “Paul Tillich and the Philosophy of Schelling.” International Philosophical Quarterly 4, no. 3 (September 1964): 373-93. doi:10.5840/ipq19644312.

Tillich, Paul. My Search for Absolutes. First Paperback Edition edition. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. ---. Systematic Theology: Three Volumes in One. 1st edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.


[1] Walter Leibrecht, ed., Religion and Culture, Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich (New York, 1959), pp. 5-7. In "Existential Philosophy," Journal of the History of Ideas, 5 (1944), 44-70, quoted in John W. Rathbun, Fred Burwick, Paul Tillich and the Philosophy of Schelling, p. 373, International Philosophical Quarterly, 4, Sep 1964, pp. 373-393.

[2] Copleston, A History of Philosophy, volume 7: 18th and 19th Century German Philosophy, Bloomsbury(London), 2013, p. 103

[3] Ibid, 103

[4] Ibid, 108

[5] Ibid, 109

[6] Ibid, 110

[7] Ibid, 111

[8] Paul Tillich, My Search for Absolutes, First Paperback Edition edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984)., 35

[9] Tillich himself says that the early impressions made by the towns that he lived in his childhood “may partly account for … the romantic trend in my[his] feeling and thinking.” One side of this romanticism is his relationship to Nature. He also says that this is the reason for “the tremendous emotional impact that Schelling's philosophy of nature made upon me-although I was well aware that this philosophy was scientifically impossible.”, My Search for Absolutes, 25

[10] Tillich's description of a life process which includes the dimensions of inorganic and organic is so analogous to Schelling's natural philosophy that I do not feel the need to present it here. Look at the fourth part in the third volume of his Systematic Theology.

[11] Copleston, 117

[12] Copleston, 140

[13] Ibid, 141.

[14] Schrõter, Works, volume 5, (Munich, 1927-8), p. 437, quoted in Copleston, A History of Philosophy, volume 7: 18th and 19th Century German Philosophy, Bloomsbury(London), 2013, p. 141

[15] Schrõter, 753, quoted in Copleston, 138

[16] Copleston, 138

[17] Tillich, My Search for Absolutes., 37

[18] Ibid., 54.

[19] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology: Three Volumes in One, 1st edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967)., 8

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