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Faith, Salvation, and Adventist Identity Pt. 3

Faith, Salvation, and Adventist Identity

William C. DeMary shares the third part of his three-part series, “Faith, Salvation, and Adventist Identity.” You can access the second part here.

Tillich on God, Christ, and Salvation

Paul Tillich’s hamartiology has significant implications for his Christology and soteriology. Here, as with his understanding of the human condition, the ontological distinction between essence (potentiality) and existence (actuality) is foundational. If the Fall is defined as the transition from essence to existence, then the aim of salvation must be to overcome the gap between essence and existence so humanity’s potential for goodness can be actualized in existence. For Tillich, the Trinitarian conception of God is key to understanding the process of salvation.

Tillich defines God as “being-itself.” As such, God is above the distinction between essential and existential being. God does not correspond to essence, since “[i]f God is understood as universal essence, he is identified with the unity and totality of finite potentialities…. He has poured all his creative power into a system of forms, and he is bound to these forms.” Tillich rejects the essentialistic conception of God as pantheism. On the other hand, God should not be identified with existence since this would reduce God to “a being whose existence does not fulfil his essential potentialities.” As Tillich argues,

[T]he question of the existence of God can be neither asked nor answered. If asked, it is a question about that which by its very nature is above existence, and therefore the answer—whether negative or affirmative—implicitly denies the nature of God. It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being-itself, not a being.[1]

Tillich intends his definition of God as being-itself, beyond essence and existence, to be understood symbolically. As John Macquarrie explains, “Since God is the ground and structure of being, and finite things participate in this being, they can serve as symbols for God. Yet even the most adequate symbols fall short of the reality which they symbolize, and must both affirmed and denied at the same time, in the clear understanding of their symbolic character.” The idea of a “personal God,” for instance, must be understood symbolically rather than literally, since God is not a particular being. To raise a particular symbol to the status of a final statement about God is idolatrous because God transcends any finite symbol. This even includes Tillich’s own ontotheological statements about God as being-itself; these are intended to give a sense of who God is, but they cannot serve as a final expression for God.[2]

The distinction between the deep or ineffable dimension of God and that which can be expressed in symbols is central to Tillich’s doctrine of the Trinity. These two dimensions correspond to the persons of the Father and the Son in the Godhead, respectively. In addition to describing God as being-itself, Tillich also describes him as spirit, “the unity of power and meaning.” Power symbolizes “centered personality, self-transcending vitality, and freedom of self-determination.” Meaning symbolizes “universal participation, forms and structures of reality, and limiting and directing destiny.” Spirit, for Tillich, is the synthesis of these two elements.[3] Tillich’s Trinitarianism follows from these three definitions: “God is Spirit, and any trinitarian statement must be derived from this basic assertion.”[4]

The first trinitarian principle, corresponding to the Father, is the “abyss of the divine (the element of power).” Tillich describes this dimension of God as “the root of his majesty, the unapproachable intensity of his being, the inexhaustible ground of being in which everything has its origin.” Although people in premodern times appreciated this aspect of God, “[d]uring the past centuries theological and philosophical rationalism have deprived God of this first principle, and by doing so they have robbed God of his divinity.”[5]

The second trinitarian principle is logos, which represents “meaning or structure.” This principle corresponds to the Son, who is described in John as the Word (Greek logos) of God. The logos uses mythical symbols to give a discernible form to the abyss of God. As Tillich explains,

The logos opens the divine ground, its infinity and its darkness, and it makes its fulness distinguishable, definite, finite. The logos has been called the mirror of the divine depth, the principle of God’s self-objectification. In the logos God speaks his “word,” both in himself and beyond himself. Without the second principle the first principle would be chaos, burning fire, but it would not be the creative ground. Without the second principle God is demonic, is characterized by absolute seclusion, is the “naked absolute” (Luther).[6]

The third trinitarian principle, Spirit, synthesizes the power conveyed by the first principle with the meaning conveyed by the second. Tillich clarifies that Spirit “is in a way the whole (God is Spirit), and in a way it is a special principle (God has the Spirit as he has the logos).”[7]

These trinitarian principles, Tillich states, should not be understood as the doctrine of the Trinity itself, but as a prerequisite for understanding it. In his theology, they are applied not only to understanding the objective nature of God, but also to elucidating how that objective knowledge may be subjectively appropriated by faith. The trinitarian principles explain how God is progressively realized in both the outer processes of history and in the inner workings of the human psyche. As Frederick J. Parrella explains, for Tillich, “the Trinitarian structures present in the mind are not simply the result of subjective perception or projection but are the ‘reflections of something real in the nature of the divine.’”[8] John Dourley notes that the psychological implications of Tillich’s theology are “evident when Tillich symbolically equates meontic nothingness or infinite potentiality with the unconscious and so effectively with the dynamic element or first moment within the intra-Trinitarian dialectic.” Influenced by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who promoted similar ideas in his controversial Answer to Job, Dourley suggests that the role of Spirit is to mediate the unconscious elements of God’s psyche to his conscious in the form of logos, which is becoming progressively incarnated in history or existence.[9]

Tillich associates the first trinitarian principle with the “Catholic substance” of Christianity, and the second with the “Protestant principle.” He states that on one side, “Catholicism has always tried to include all dimensions of life in its system of life and thought, but it has sacrificed the unity, that is, the dependence of life in all dimensions, including the religious, on the divine judgment.” In other words, with its doctrine of transubstantiation, Catholicism denies to the symbols of the bread and the wine their significance by suggesting that they undergo a sacramental transformation that changes their essence into something other than how they appear phenomenologically (that is, into the literal body of Christ).[1]  On the other side, because of its rightful concern that the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist resembles thaumaturgy (magic)[2] , Protestantism has tended “to reduce the sacramental mediation of the Spirit drastically or even totally.” These differences are most visible in the contrast between the Catholic and Reformed doctrines of the Eucharist. Drawing from his Lutheran tradition, Tillich rejects “both the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation which transforms a symbol into a thing to be handled, and the reformed doctrine of the sign character of the sacramental symbol.” He argues, “A sacramental symbol is neither a thing nor a sign. It participates in the power of what it symbolizes, and therefore, it can be a medium of the Spirit.”[10] The Spirit has a significant role in Tillich’s theology. By uniting the meaning of a symbol with the power that it symbolizes, the Spirit enables us to subjectively appropriate the religious truths that the symbol expresses. Those who engage in the task of apologetic theology, which is to apply the truths of the Christian kerygma to the contemporary situation,[11] are participating in the ministry of the Spirit by conveying the meaning and power of religious symbols.

As noted above, the trinitarian principles do not constitute the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, Tillich states that “the Christian doctrine of the Trinity must begin with the christological assertion that Jesus is the Christ.”[12] Tillich makes an important distinction between Jesus, the historical figure, and the Christ, which is how the Christian community received Jesus. To emphasize this distinction, Tillich prefers the phrase “Jesus as the Christ” over the name “Jesus Christ.” The person of Jesus may be the subject of historical research, but this research cannot yield a more robust theological understanding of the Christ. Conversely, the logos may be the subject of philosophical inquiry into the trinitarian principles, but it is likewise incapable of producing the Christian doctrine of the Trinity unless it is attached to the historical figure of Jesus.

According to Tillich, any Christology must affirm two principles. First, it must affirm the centrality of faith in guaranteeing its validity. Tillich states that “faith can guarantee only its own foundation, namely, the appearance of that reality which has created the faith. This reality is the New Being, who conquers existential estrangement and thereby makes faith possible.” Second, Christology must affirm that the New Being appeared “within and under the conditions of existence”—that is, as a historical figure. We may not know anything about this historical figure apart from how he was received by his followers, but this picture of the historical figure is nonetheless foundational to Christian faith. As Tillich argues,

The power which has created and preserved the community of the New Being [i.e. the church] is not an abstract statement about its appearance; it is the picture of him in whom it has appeared. No special trait of this picture can be verified with certainty. But it can be definitely asserted that through this picture the New Being has power to transform those who are transformed by it. This implies that there is an analogia imaginis, namely, an analogy between the picture and the actual personal life from which it has arisen. It was this reality, when encountered by the disciples, which created the picture. And it was, and still is, this picture which mediates the transforming power of the New Being.[13]

The power of the New Being in Jesus as the Christ overcomes existential estrangement. Applying his ontological distinction between essence and existence, Tillich defines the New Being as “essential being under the conditions of existence, conquering the gap between essence and existence.” The New Being overcomes the rift between essence and existence that emerged because of the transcendent Fall. The New Being is new for several reasons: it is new in that it brings an end to the old being, characterized by existential estrangement; it “is new in so far as it is the conquest of the [old] situation under the law,” which “is man’s essential being standing against his existence, commanding and judging it”; eschatologically, it is the “the end of existence lived in estrangement, conflicts, and self-destruction”; and it is the end or fulfillment of history, since “[n]othing qualitatively new in the dimension of the ultimate can be produced by history which is not implicitly present in the New Being in Jesus as the Christ.”[14]

Because Christ is the end or telos of history, there is nothing left for God to achieve that was not accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, apart from the continued activity of the Spirit in bringing people to faith. The symbols of the Cross and the Resurrection signify that the gap between essence and existence has already been conquered for those who put their faith in them. Regardless of the historical details of these symbols, they represent the death of one in whom God manifested himself under the conditions of existential estrangement and the subsequent conquest of death and estrangement. As Tillich explains,

In the moment in which Jesus was called the Christ and the combination of his messianic dignity with an ignominious death was asserted—whether in expectation or in retrospection—the application of the idea of the resurrection to the Christ was almost unavoidable. The disciples’ assertion that the symbol had become an event was dependent in part upon their belief in Jesus, who, as the Christ, became the Messiah…. In the days in which the certainty of his Resurrection grasped the small, dispersed, and despairing group of his followers, the church was born, and, since the Christ is not the Christ without the church [i.e. without those who can receive him as the Christ], he has become the Christ. The certainty that he who is the bringer of the new eon made the experience of the Resurrection the decisive test of the Christ-character of Jesus of Nazareth.[15]

Christ accomplished his work by making the New Being an existential reality in the symbols of the Cross and Resurrection. Faith in these symbols constitute the Christian church. What matters now for Christians is the subjective appropriation of these symbols for the purpose of building the spiritual community, a task that falls to the work of the Spirit, who gives people faith by his grace. The picture of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary in Hebrews 8 symbolizes this spiritual work. Contrary to the Adventist sanctuary doctrine, Christ has accomplished nothing qualitatively new since his resurrection because the New Being is already revealed in history. There remains no other element of the New Being that has not yet been revealed. God already deems those who participate in the New Being to be saved. The present work of God is not one of investigation or judgment, because he has condemned the law which previously judged us; instead, his work, which is accomplished by the Spirit, is to give people faith by his grace so that they might be saved.

Tillich addresses the theological difficulties that result from discussing the mediatorial role of Christ. He explains,

It can suggest that the Mediator is a third reality on which both God and men are dependent for revelation and reconciliation. This, however, is untenable, from both the christological and soteriological point of view. A third kind of being between God and man would be a half-god. Exactly this was rejected in the Arian heresy. In Christ the eternal God-Man unity has appeared under the conditions of existence…. If the Mediator is a third reality between God and man, God is dependent upon him for his saving activity. He needs someone in order to make himself manifest, and—even more misleading—he needs someone in order to be reconciled. This leads to the type of doctrine of the atonement according to which God is the one who must be reconciled. But the message of Christianity is that God, who is eternally reconciled, wants us to be reconciled to him. God reveals himself to us and reconciles us to him through the Mediator. God is always the one who acts, and the Mediator is the one through whom he acts.[16]

Because the Last Generation Theology presents Christ as a third-party mediator between the Father and humanity, it portrays him as a half-god, separate from the Father. Moreover, it promotes a doctrine of the atonement in which God must be reconciled to us by the vindication of his law. God is not estranged from his creation. As the ground of being, he is always immanent in our lives. We are estranged from our essential being, and it is precisely this estrangement that Christ had to overcome by making it possible for us to actualize our essential being in existence. God vindicates himself as our Creator by overcoming the gap between essence and existence; this gap, rather than our inability to obey the law, is why God needs to reconcile himself to us.

Tillich’s conception of Christ as the New Being undermines the Last Generation Theology, which maintains that the main purpose of Jesus’s life was to demonstrate that one can obey the law perfectly. The Last Generation Theology’s contention that Christ had to take on a sinful human nature does not address the issue that the fault for sin lies not with the nature of destiny (such as one’s social conditions), but with the nature of freedom, in that people cannot actualize their essential being under the limitations of destiny without falling into sin. Jesus’s ability to obey the law has no bearing on the critical issue of God’s justice, because it is not our inability to obey the law that is unjust,[17] but our inability to actualize our essential being under the conditions of existence. The purpose of the law, as Paul indicates, was to make us aware of our existential situation of estrangement until the New Being could be sent (Galatians 3:22)—that is, until the time when a spiritual community would emerge that could recognize the New Being as having been sent. But disobeying the law did not cause that state of estrangement. Rather, the ontological structure of reality, in which there is a gap between essence and existence, is responsible for our estrangement.

We are not saved because Christ demonstrated our ability to keep the law, but because he conquered the gap between essence and existence through his death and resurrection. The Last Generation Theology misunderstands the nature of salvation. We are not saved for the purpose of obeying the law, or even for the purpose of vindicating God’s government, but rather for the purpose of actualizing our essential being.[18] The only way in which God can be vindicated against the charges of his accusers is if he demonstrates that people are capable of actualizing their essential being in existence. For this reason, he sent Jesus as the Christ to bridge the gap between essence and existence. Rather than relying on us to vindicate him, God has already vindicated himself by sending his Son.

Supporters of the Last Generation Theology fail to recognize that God has already vindicated himself through Christ because the Adventist misinterpretation of the sanctuary symbol prevents them from understanding the Spirit’s role since the resurrection. Adventism maintains that, in 1844, a new phase in the history of salvation commenced with Christ’s transition from the Holy Place to the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary. During this phase, Christ is engaged in an investigative judgment, in which he is determining whether to forgive the sins of each individual or to hold them accountable for their unrepentance. This means that, although the transformative power of the New Being has been available to people since the resurrection, the meaning of the New Being—its ability to remove the judgment of God’s law—did not become an existential reality until the Great Disappointment. In effect, the Adventist sanctuary doctrine denies that the Spirit was actively uniting the power and meaning of the New Being in history prior to the event that marked the birth of the Adventist church.

The Last Generation Theology is attractive to conservative Adventists because by attaching eschatological significance to the Great Disappointment, it suggests that the Adventist church will play a crucial role in vindicating God. It provides conservative Adventists a sense of collective purpose, free from the lonely implications of Kierkegaard’s conception of faith. However, it rests on a misunderstanding of the purpose of the law, by assuming that the law has coexisted with God since eternity, rather than acknowledging that it was first given to Moses. It does this to avoid the challenging theodicean questions raised by the Fall, although these are precisely the questions that we must confront if we are to have faith. The Adventist predisposition to legalism is a symptom of its systematic misunderstanding of the purpose of the law which is operative at all levels of church doctrine. In the Last Generation Theology, it affects Christology by suggesting that to demonstrate that we are capable of obeying the law, Christ had to take on a sinful human nature.

Tillich criticizes the use of the term “human nature” to describe Christ because it suggests that he existed in a state of estrangement from God, which would render him incapable of bridging the gap between essence and existence. As Tillich explains,

Any diminution of the human nature would deprive the Christ of his total participation in the conditions of existence. And any diminution of the divine nature would deprive the Christ of his total victory over existential estrangement. In both cases he could not have created the New Being. His being would have been less than the New Being…. The doctrine of the two natures of Christ raises the right question but uses the wrong conceptual tools. The basic inadequacy lies in the term “nature.” When applied to man, it is ambiguous; when applied to God, it is wrong.[19]

The term “human nature” is ambiguous because it can refer either to a person’s essential being or to their existential being. Tillich continues,

If we apply the term “human nature” to Jesus as the Christ, we must say that he has a complete human nature in the first sense of the word [i.e., the essential sense]. Through creation, he is finite freedom, like every human being. With respect to the second meaning of “human nature” [i.e., the existential sense], we must say that he has man’s existential nature as a real possibility, but in such a way that temptation, which is the possibility, is always taken into the unity with God.[20]

Tillich here concedes that for the temptations that Jesus faced to be meaningful, it must have been a real possibility for him to sin. This is a point on which he would agree, to an extent, with the Last Generation Theology. But Tillich would not agree that Christ had to lay aside his divinity to experience real temptation, as the Last Generation Theology maintains. Dennis Priebe states, for instance, that at his incarnation, “Jesus laid aside those attributes which made Him God, so that He could live as a man. God cannot be tempted with evil, according to James 1:13, and Jesus certainly was tempted by Satan with evil. Therefore, in the plan of salvation it was essential that Jesus should live as a man, with only the abilities natural to man.”[21]

Priebe’s argument implies that the Son’s will is distinct from the Father’s, which would suggest a tritheism, in which there are three gods with distinct wills, rather than a Trinity. As Tillich emphasizes, the possibility of temptation must be “always taken into the unity with God.” Temptation refers to the possibility to fall, to transition from essence to existence. As God is beyond this distinction between essence and existence, he is not threatened by the possibility of the Fall. For Christ to be the New Being, bridging the gap between essence and existence, his will must be the same as that of the Father who is beyond that gap. Because the Fall is the consequence of our finite freedom, which makes it impossible for us to actualize our essential being in existence without sinning, Christ’s will must have been the same as the Father’s to enable him to actualize his potential as God without succumbing to the triple sins of unbelief, hubris, and concupiscence. Priebe is right to state that God cannot be tempted with evil, because God is beyond essence and existence and therefore cannot transition from one to the other. However, he is wrong to suggest that the connection between the Father and the Son had to be severed so that the latter could experience temptation in a meaningful way, since the only way in which anyone, even the Son, can overcome temptation is to rely on the power of the Spirit to overcome the gap between essence and existence, enabling us to actualize our essential being without falling into sin.

If Adventism will remain faithful to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, in which the New Being achieved in Christ overcomes the situation of existential estrangement, and to a Pauline understanding of the purpose of the law, it must reject the historical eschatology that it contrived to defend its unique identity. Rather than tethering its identity to a particular historical moment, the Adventist church must choose action over behavior. The path forward that Tillich has articulated for Christian theology also applies to Adventism, especially insofar as Adventism has emphasized the spirit of prophecy. Rather than identifying the prophetic spirit as Ellen White, Adventism should conceive of it more broadly as the continued activity of the Spirit in elevating the numinous depths of God’s power into conscious awareness in culture and religion. Tillich describes the aim of the Spirit’s work as achieving theonomy, “the state of culture under the impact of the Spiritual Presence.”[22]

Theonomy, in Tillich’s view, has three important characteristics. First, “a theonomous culture … communicates the experience of holiness, of something ultimate in being and meaning, in all its creations.” The creations of such a culture are “perhaps not consecrated by a church, but they are certainly consecrated in the way they are experienced even without external consecration.” Second, a theonomous culture affirms “the autonomous forms of the creative process.” That is, it does not suppress art, justice, or self-determination for the purpose of attaining something considered more eternal, holy, or traditional. Rather, it gives people the flexibility and freedom to express themselves creatively and allows the Spirit to work in consecrating their endeavors. Third, a theonomous culture is engaged in a “permanent struggle against both an independent heteronomy and an independent autonomy.” Heteronomy means “a situation in which a law from outside, a strange law (heteros nomos) is imposed and destroys the autonomy of cultural creativity, its autos nomos, its inner law.” Because a theonomous culture is under the impact of the Spiritual Presence, it engages in the spiritual activity of reconciling the power of cultural creativity with meaning. Heteronomy, which corresponds to the first trinitarian principle, expresses the power of a culture, its ability to enforce conformity to its aesthetic and ethical norms. Autonomy corresponds to the second trinitarian principle in that it involves a search for meaning. Theonomy is achieved by the synthesis of autonomy with heteronomy and involves a struggle against both extremes.[23]

Tillich applies the idea of theonomy to morality as well as to culture.[24] He describes theonomous ethics as “ethics in which, under the impact of the Spiritual Presence, the religious substance—the experience of an ultimate concern [e.g., faith in God]—is consciously expressed through the process of free arguing and not through an attempt to determine it.” Tillich argues that it is not the responsibility of religious institutions, but of philosophy, to determine our ethical obligations. If religious institutions impose their own ethical regulations on a community, their regulations become heteronomous. He states, “Actual theonomy is autonomous ethics under the Spiritual Presence.” Regarding the role of traditional religious authorities in determining our ethical obligations, he continues,

In relation to the biblical and ecclesiastical ethical material, this means that it cannot be taken over and systematized as “theological ethics,” based on revelatory “information” about ethical problems. Revelation is not information, and it is certainly not information about ethical rules or norms. All the ethical material, for example, of the Old and New Testaments, is open to ethical criticism under the principle of agape, for the Spirit does not produce new and more refined “letters,” i.e., commandments. Rather, the Spirit judges all commandments.[25]

For Tillich, agape or love is the answer to the problem of praxis: how to achieve a relationship between the individual and the community that preserves both the humanity of the individual and the justice of the community.[26] Love, which Tillich defines broadly as the reunion of those who are existentially separated, exists in multiple forms. On the lowest level is epithymia or libido, which is the unity of the individual with that which sustains and reproduces life. Higher than epithymia is eros, which “strives for a union with that which is a bearer of values because of the values it embodies.” These values include the good, the beautiful, and the true. Philia is a third form of love in which one is related to another “as an ‘I’ to a ‘thou.’”[27] Agape is the highest form of love. It resolves the ambiguities present in the lower forms of love: the tendency of epithymia to objectify others; the “aesthetic detachment” of eros; and the partiality of philia. Agape responds to epithymia by “seek[ing] the other one in its center”; it “makes the cultural eros responsible and the mystical eros personal”; and it “loves what it has to reject in terms of philia.”[28] As Tillich explains,

Love is … the motivating power in theonomous morality. We have seen the ambiguities of the law’s demanding obedience—even if it is the law of love. Love is unambiguous, not as law, but as grace. Theologically speaking, Spirit, love, and grace are one and the same reality in different aspects. Spirit is the creative power; love is its creation; grace is the effective presence of love in man.[29]

The spiritual mission of Adventism is not to demand obedience to the law, even the law of love. As Tillich argues, “Love as commandment is impossible because man in existential estrangement is incapable of love.” Only by God’s grace can one person love another.[30] When Adventism engages in heteronomous ethics by demanding that perfect obedience to the law is necessary for the second coming—even if it tries to argue that obedience to the law is a necessary consequence of faith and love—it places itself in the position of Israel in Romans 11. As Paul argues, those who insist on obedience to the law become the opportunity by which God demonstrates the law’s inadequacy in bringing salvation. They fail to attain what they are seeking, namely a superior knowledge of God (Romans 11:7). As Tillich states,

This is the judgment brought against all non-theonomous ethics. They are unavoidably ethics of the law, and the law makes for the increase of estrangement. It cannot conquer it but instead produces hatred of itself as law. The many forms of ethics without Spiritual Presence are judged by the fact that they cannot show the power of motivation, the principle of choice in the concrete situation, the unconditional validity of the moral imperative. Love can do it, but love is not a matter of man’s will. It is a creation of the Spiritual Presence. It is grace.[31]

Tillich’s Promise for Adventist Identity

Tillich’s existentialist theology holds promise for Adventism because it proposes a missiology for how the church ought to relate to the world in anticipation of the kingdom of God. If the Spirit is responsible for the progressive revelation of God’s power in the world, then the church has a responsibility to participate in that revelation by accomplishing the task of apologetic theology. The task of apologetic theology is to apply the message of the kerygma, the Christian message, to the contemporary situation.[32] Apologetic theology infuses the meaning provided by kerygmatic theology with power or depth. In doing this, it fulfills the task of the Spirit. The vindication of God, which is nothing other than the vindication of our own existence, is achieved by fulfilling the spiritual role of apologetic theology.

However, there are obstacles to the Adventist church fulfilling this theological task. These obstacles are related to a feature of its eschatology that serves the self-gratifying purpose of defending the church’s unique position. Tillich’s discussion of the “Catholic substance” and the “Protestant principle” offers hope for a post-Protestant theology in which the power of the Catholic substance will be united with the meaning provided by the Protestant principle. Reuniting these emphases is the task of the Spirit, in which the Adventist church ought to be participating.

Conservative Adventists might be alarmed at the suggestion that a synthesis of the Catholic substance and Protestant principle is needed. They will rely on the prediction that in the end times, Catholics and Protestants will unite to oppress those who keep God’s law, to contend that this suggestion compromises Adventist identity. I am not advocating for a shallow ecumenism in which denominational differences are ignored for the sake of achieving harmony.[33] Rather, I am arguing that these differences ought to be transcended, and that it is specifically the responsibility of the Adventist church to cooperate with the Spirit in uniting the power of God’s depth, which was more appreciated in the Middle Ages than in the modern era, with the meaning conveyed by Scripture, which was more appreciated during and after the Protestant Reformation. The Adventist church’s apologetical task is to elucidate how the power of the God is expressed in Christ and the Bible without succumbing to either extreme of depriving religious symbols of their significance or of reducing Christianity to a particular authorized interpretation of these symbols, as in fundamentalism.[3]  When traditional Adventist eschatology suggests that the entire truth about God has already been revealed to the church, it effectively denies that God is not wholly revealed in finite symbols, and therefore fails to accomplish its theological responsibility of explicating how the religious symbols point beyond themselves to a greater reality. Moreover, it succumbs to the same heteronomous or authoritarian tendencies that characterize the Catholic Church without preserving anything valuable of the “Catholic substance” of Christianity, such as its emphasis on how God’s grace is experienced by the subjective appropriation of the religious symbols.[4]

I suspect that the prophecy of an impending Sunday law is a symptom of the philosophical anti-Trinitarianism that has been present in Adventism since the nineteenth century, when some church pioneers denied the Trinity doctrine and rejected the idea of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe that the polarity between the Last Generation Theology, which places Christ on a level of humanity that denies his divinity while he was a human prior to his resurrection, and Tillich’s Spirit-Christology is merely coincidental. Even while supporters of the Last Generation Theology tacitly acknowledge the idea of a Godhead consisting of three persons, they implicitly deny the Trinitarian doctrine by suggesting that the Father and the Son can exercise separate wills and by being fearful of any suggestion that the Spirit has an immanent presence in the world. Conservative Adventists are quick to identify any enthusiasm about the Spirit as panentheism, spiritualism, “Eastern mysticism,” or Pentecostalism,[34] and to label such ideas the “omega of apostasy,” when in fact it is the Spiritual Presence in one’s life that makes Christ’s sacrifice effective for our salvation.

The promise of Tillich’s theology is that it offers a path forward for Adventist theology that overcomes the prevailing obsession with defining Adventist identity according to a set of behaviors. Instead, it presents a program of action, in which it is the church’s responsibility to engage in the task of apologetic theology. In doing so, the Adventist church aids the Spirit in its theonomous manifestation in the world and in the vindication of God. But Tillich’s theology also presents a challenge to Adventism. Will the church continue to tether its identity to distortions of faith and idolatrous doctrines and beliefs, or will it rise to the occasion that God has given it to proclaim the truths of faith and salvation?

Notes and References

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 1) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 235–7.

[2] John Macquarrie, Twentieth-Century Religious Thought (new edition) (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002), 369.

[3] The philosophical connotations of the word “spirit” are lost in English; these connotations are present in the word Geist in Tillich’s native German.

[4] Tillich (1951), 249–50.

[5] Tillich (1951), 250–1.

[6] Tillich (1951), 251.

[7] Tillich (1951), 251.

[8] Frederick J. Parrella, “Tillich’s theology of the concrete spirit,” in Russell Re Manning (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 86; quoting Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 3) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), 283.

[9] John Dourley, “Tillich in dialogue with psychology,” in Re Manning (ed.), 243.

[10] Tillich (1963), 122–3.

[11] See Tillich (1951), 3.

[12] Tillich (1951), 250.

[13] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 2) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 114–5.

[14] Tillich (1957), 118–20.

[15] Tillich (1957), 154.

[16] Tillich (1957), 169–70.

[17] When Paul states in Philippians 3:6 that he was blameless under the law, he indicates that he believes it is possible for us to obey the law in our own power.

[18] It is irrational to claim that we are saved for the purpose of obeying the law, because as Paul emphasizes in Galatians 3:19, the law was added because of transgressions. The law has no purpose except to judge us for the transgressions from which we must be saved. We transgress our essential goodness because of our existential estrangement, not because of our disobedience of the Ten Commandments, which were given as regulations for the covenant community that God established at Mount Sinai.

[19] Tillich (1957), 142.

[20] Tillich (1957), 147.

[21] Dennis Priebe, Face to Face with the Real Gospel (Roseville, CA: Amazing Facts, 2008), 48.

[22] Tillich (1963), 249.

[23] Tillich (1963), 250–2.

[24] Tillich’s application of the idea of theonomy to culture and morality was inspired by Kierkegaard, who distinguished between the aesthetic, ethical, and religious spheres of life. Faith, for Kierkegaard, resides in the religious sphere. However, rather than superseding the lower spheres of the aesthetic and the ethical, faith only involves their temporary suspension to achieve a higher aim or telos. This is the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” In Tillich’s conception, culture corresponds to the aesthetic sphere, and morality to the ethical sphere. He argues that when faith is realized in the religious sphere, it will result in the spiritual transformation of the lower spheres of culture and morality.

[25] Tillich (1963), 267–8.

[26] See Tillich (1963), 204.

[27] Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 28–31. Tillich borrows the idea of the I–thou relation from the Jewish existentialist theologian Martin Buber. He also notes a correlation between the concepts of eros, philia, and agape, and Kierkegaard’s aesthetic, ethical, and religious spheres, respectively.

[28] Tillich (1954), 117–9.

[29] Tillich (1963), 274.

[30] Tillich (1963), 272.

[31] Tillich (1963), 272–3.

[32] See my article “Inspiration and Humanism,” Spectrum (May 16, 2022),

[33] In my view, ecumenism is valuable when the Spirit works through the cooperation of churches to achieve the theonomous task of apologetic theology, which does not violate individual or denominational autonomy. I do not agree with Ted Wilson’s insistence that Adventists “are never to compromise and engage in religious ecumenical activity” (Ted Wilson, tweet [October 9, 2021], However, I am wary of interdenominational cooperation when it is used for heteronomous purposes, like achieving the goals of Christian nationalism.

[34] See, for example, Ted Wilson’s tweets on October 9, 2021, in which he decries the “disastrous influences of Eastern mysticism”: “The devil is using eastern mysticism to bring in all sorts of syncretistic beliefs into the Seventh-day Adventist Church, including pantheism and other forms of aberrant theological twisting of the Word of God” ( Not only is it likely that some of the practices that Wilson associates with “Eastern mysticism,” such as spiritual formation, originated in the West, his characterization of “aberrant” ideas as originating in the East perpetuates harmful orientalist stereotypes.

William C. DeMary is a software engineer living in Texas.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on

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