Paul Tillich for Reformation Day

On “justification by grace through faith”:

A word must be said about the expression “Justification by grace through faith.” It is often used in the abbreviated form of “Justification by faith.” But this is extremely misleading, for it gives the impression that faith is an act of man by which he merits Justification. This is a total and disastrous distortion of the doctrine of Justification. The cause is God alone (by grace), but the faith that one is accepted is the channel through which grace is mediated to man (through faith). (Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 179)

On the “Protestant principle”:

How can a faith which has doubt as an element within itself be united with creedal statements of the community of faith? The answer can only be that creedal expressions of the ultimate concern of the community must include their own criticism. It must become obvious in all of them–be they liturgical, doctrinal or ethical expressions of the faith of the community–that they are not ultimate. Rather, their function is to point to the ultimate which is beyond all of them. This is what I call the “Protestant principle,” the critical element in the expression of the community of faith and consequently the element of doubt in the act of faith. Neither the doubt nor the critical element is always actual, but both must always be possible within the circle of faith. From the Christian point of view, one would say that the Church with all its doctrines and institutions and authorities stands under the prophetic judgment and not above it. Criticism and doubt show that the community of faith stands “under the Cross,” if the Cross is understood as the divine judgment over man’s religious life, and even over Christianity, though it has accepted the sign of the Cross. (Dynamics of Faith, p. 33)

Needless to say, contemporary Protestant churches frequently fall short both by treating faith as a “work” we perform to earn God’s favor and by absolutizing expressions of their faith–doctrinal, moral, institutional, or whatever. But the Reformation message of God’s free and unconditional grace is meant to free us from reliance on our works–including our religious works–and our tendency to turn them into idols.


14 thoughts on “Paul Tillich for Reformation Day

  1. I have the feeling we’ve gone around this before, but I still don’t understand how anyone can avoid treating faith like a de facto ‘work.’ I mean, why was Tillich writing and why are we reading him if not in the endless quest to ‘get it right’? Isn’t that acting as if our own efforts still matter? Even if God’s grace is somehow 100% responsible for people coming to faith, it’s doing so in a way that subjectively seems indistinguishable from making choices about anything else, at least according to most people whose conversion wasn’t of the ‘road to Damascus’ variety. Maybe God does work invisibly like that, but again, what difference does that really make in practice?

    1. Faith is certainly a “work” in the sense that it is something which occurs in a human being. No one that I’m aware of really denies that.

      What Tillich (and Luther and Calvin for that matter) would say is (1) faith is not the cause of our justification–i.e., our right-standing with God; it is the channel through which we receive the gift of God’s forgiveness and acceptance, but that acceptance in no way depends on our faith; (2) the faith which accepts or responds to God’s free pardon for Christ’s sake is itself a gift wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. It is created, as it were, by the impact of the gospel message on us.

      Also, just as a matter of introspection, I’m not sure faith is properly described as something resulting from our own efforts. Do I really choose whether or not to trust in the gospel promise? It doesn’t necessarily feel that way to me.

      1. So when you say that faith is created by the impact of the gospel message on us, are you saying that works by pretty much the same process as anything else has an impact on us (e.g., reading a Tillich book or listening to an Obama speech), or do you mean that there’s some supernatural intervention by the Spirit that allows people to hear it in a certain way? Because if the former, it does seem like a process of selecting people for their judgement, if not for their works exactly — i.e., because you have powers of reasoning or moral instincts or something that enables you to recognize truth when you hear it. If the latter, it brings us back to my question about how we’re supposed to treat a ‘work’ that occurs in a human being but somehow isn’t the human being’s doing, although it may feel like it is. I don’t know, I’ve certainly known people who told me they chose to have faith, and even those who don’t say that seemed to have a process more voluntary than ‘it just happened.’ You’ve written about how C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity affected your conversion, and certainly that book seemed to be premised on the idea that you can reason a person to faith, or at least reason them a lot of the way there.

  2. As a Catholic convert I’m still disturbed by the idea that people can make themselves more “holy” through acts, like praying for the pope’s intentions or taking part in sacraments.

    1. Both Protestants and Catholics would agree, I think, that people can increase in holiness, though only by cooperating with the Holy Spirit. Though Protestants generally draw a sharper distinction between this growth in holiness (“sanctification”) and our restored relationship with God (“justification”) than Catholics do. (They may also disagree about the means through which growth in holiness occurs, of course.)

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  4. Why do people need to become sanctified if their salvation is a gift not based on their accrued worthiness? I guess I don’t understand the idea of people becoming more holy – is it some interior change in a person’s moral outlook and if so wrought by what? Or is it just a result of the continual performance of ritual acts? It seems weird to me to think of some people being ‘holier’ than others – isn’t everyone’s intrinsic worth the same?

    1. I think when most Christians talk about “growing in holiness” they mean something like increasing in their ability to keep the Law as summarized by Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

      In the Christian understanding, this is what true human fulfillment ultimately consists in. Christians disagree of course about what leads to growth in holiness. But I think nearly all would agree that it is a central part of the Christian life.

      1. Oh, thanks – that makes sense. Becoming more holy is sort of like following Jesus more closely, or becoming a morally ‘better’ person. I wonder how that’s accomplished – how do people become ‘good’? I think Ignatian tradition would say that if you come to love Jesus, you are gradually transformed in the way you would be if you loved another person and wanted to be like them, share their dreams, etc.

  5. markmcculley

    Faith is a work. No, it’s not a work. The debate won’t take you very far. Even if the debate is about if faith comes from fallen man’s freewill contribution, the Calvinist accusation that says “well then it’s a work” does not do much because the Arminians will quickly explain that they never say it’s a work and that they know it’s not a work. In this concern that Brain Vickers (in his new book on justification) has about God accepting faith as the righteousness would make faith a work, he’s right to contrast faith and works, but he won’t get far as long as HE ALSO AGREES THAT GOD COUNTS SOMETHING (faith) FOR SOMETHING ELSE (righteousness). His explanation of “imputation” in chapter three has already brought in the false idea of God counting something for what it is not.

  6. @Camassia: I think for the Reformers (and most other Christians) faith goes beyond believing certain theological propositions which may be rendered more-or-less probable by apologetic arguments. Faith is something more like trust in God, or trust in God’s promises (perhaps these amount to the same thing?). For Tillich, faith is being grasped by an ultimate concern. However you cash it out, it’s something that involves the entire self, not just the intellect. But because of our sinful nature, we are incapable of trusting in God whole-heartedly. This, I think, is why theologians would say faith is a work of the Spirit–it’s about changing the fundamental orientation of the self.

    1. But it does sound like the propositions and the apologetics have a role, no? Like, if you reason your way to a place where faith makes sense, God will meet you halfway. Which still sounds awfully different from sola gratia.

      1. Do theology and apologetics have a role? Sure. But they aren’t faith and they aren’t the grounds of our salvation, per the Reformers. Moreover, if the Spirit is always at work trying to lead us into a relationship with God, then it probably doesn’t make sense to try and divvy things up into a part I do and a part God does. That way lies semi-Pelagianism. 🙂

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