Commentary Magazine

The Protestant Era, by Paul Tillich

Boundaries of Belief
The Protestant Era.
by Paul Tillich.
Translated with a concluding essay by James Luther Adams. University of Chicago Press. 323 pp. $4.00.


These eighteen essays by an outstanding Protestant thinker are so compact and significant that they require extended commentary and criticism. All that can be done in this brief review is to point to some of the leading themes and the way they are used. Actually there is only one theme: “The first element in Protestantism is and must always be the proclaiming of the human boundary situation.”

The concept of the “borderline” or “border situation” runs through all of Tillich’s writings in much the same way that all of Thomas Mann’s work weaves about the tension between life and the artist, with a self-conscious and creative egocentricity. In the autobiographical sketch that formed the first part of his Interpretation of History (1936), Tillich wrote: “The concept of the borderline might be a fitting symbol of the whole of my personal and intellectual development. It has been my fate, in almost every direction, to stand between alternative possibilities of existence, to be completely at home in neither, to take no definitive stand against either.” From this vantage point he has acted as a productive mediator between faith and reason, theology and philosophy, Lutheranism and socialism, religion and culture. And, again like Mann, Tillich has deftly universalized his predicament; he has elevated the “border situation”—between the infinite and the finite, the conditioned and the unconditional, faith and anxiety—into the essence of the human condition, and the locus of the religious declaration.

The religious declaration has two main clauses. The first proclaims the permanent crisis which lends its name to “crisis theology.” This refers ultimately to man’s separation from God and his perpetual judgment under God; the crisis in mankind is an eternal one that results from man’s being a spiritual animal Who exists tensely on that borderline which is the human line.

The second clause proclaims the “Protestant principle,” which in turn consists of the “religious obligation” and the “religious reservation.” The religious obligation is to work God’s will on earth, to establish justice and love in economic and social relations (Tillich is a devout socialist), and to hasten the day of messianic redemption. The religious reservation is to protest against any absolute claim to truth made in the name of a relative, historical reality—whether that reality be a totalitarian state, a religious institution, a dogmatic creed, or a social movement—and it is thus possible to be loyal to the Protestant principle without belonging to a Protestant, or any other church. There is an inevitable trend in human communities toward idolatry—the worship of certain institutions and beliefs as having absolute and unquestionable validity, as being at long last “the final word.” What the Protestant principle asserts is that the only absolute truth is this: man can never attain absolute truth—“the final word” is always with God and it comes as a judgment upon man. The Protestant era, Tillich says, is coming to an end with a thunderclap of moral and social collapse; but whatever the religious forms that the future will throw up, they too will be subordinate to the Protestant principle.



It is obvious that this approach is less a product of primitive, uncontained faith than of sophisticated disillusionment. Not disillusionment with God, to be sure, but with men and their works—even with religious men and their works. Of all theologians, Tillich is the most sensitive to history. The future, as he sees it, is already full of incessant, stubborn idolatries in which some men who claim the absolute truth will battle those who deny it. Lest such a prospect lead to nihilistic despair, Tillich has discounted it in advance, and has incorporated it into an enduring perspective on the human condition. But if all philosophy and theology can be misused by fate, what is the point of it all? The point, Tillich answers, is that there is one belief that is above history: “the certainty that fate is divine and not demonic”—the religious confidence that the world is to be redeemed.

Tillich knows that at present organized religion is, on the whole, a pretty dreary affair, and as a religious radical he is not so much concerned with crying woe as with reorganizing society, and turning up a soil into which religious institutions will be able to sink their roots. But he also believes that there is today a vast, unrecognized religious impulse—unrecognized because it operates outside the churches and because it often considers itself non-religious or even anti-religious. To meet the challenge of this, Tillich daringly extends Luther’s doctrine of “justification through faith,” and discovers the possibility of discerning God “at the very moment when all known assertions about ‘God’ have lost their power.”

Tillich’s doctrine of “justification through faith” involves a re-definition of “the religious”: it is no longer a belief in a supernatural being but rather a state of “ultimate concern,” a sense of something ultimate, unconditional, and all-determining—and this may express itself in secular as well as in religious forms. Even unbelief or disbelief can be an ultimate concern, and as such are testimony to truth: thus, “he who seriously denies God affirms him”—the important word here is seriously. Doubt, despair, disgust, denial—all of these can be religious provided that they represent an experience of the “unconditional,” and the acknowledgement of an absolute claim upon one’s person. (Tillich’s idea of the “unconditional” is too subtle and complicated to be discussed here. Briefly, it is a quality we experience with our whole being in encountering reality, an existential intuition.) A demonically inspired person, as well as a divinely inspired one, testifies to the existence of the unconditional, the infinite—as something he fears and refuses to embrace.

This process of “justifying through faith” those who most vehemently reject faith and justification has something of the air of a debater’s trick. But it is, I think, more than that; and we seem implicitly to concede its relevance when the term “religious” is applied to such “unbelieving” writers as D. H. Lawrence or James Joyce. Somehow it seems appropriate.



It is still too early to estimate the sum total of Tillich’s contribution to modern thought. His work will certainly excite criticism for many years to come, and in some respects he has left himself vulnerable. (His use of Marxist concepts tends to be stiff, and his references to scientific method are arguable.) It is possible, too, that the strident intellectualism of his religious thought is only the last gasp of religious futility; one is tempted to say with Hobbes that “It is with the mysteries of our religion, as with wholesome pills for the sick, which swallowed whole have the virtue to cure, but chewed are for the most part cast up again without effect.”



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.