Skip to main content

What is the Meaning of Meaning in Paul Tillich's Theology?

  • Steven Cassedy (a1)

One of the most frequently occurring terms in Paul Tillich's theology is meaning (in his English writings) or Sinn (in his German writings). But Tillich used both in multiple senses, without acknowledging or even appearing to be aware that he was doing so. He wrote only in German till he immigrated to the United States at the age of forty-seven. He used the German Sinn abundantly in his native tongue, and with a variety of meanings: a universal medium for understanding the world; “sense,” as in “making sense” or what is missing in “senseless” (sinnlos) statements; “the unconditional” (“das Unbedingte”); a “thing pointed at” (in Tillich's theory of symbols and signs); a grand metaphysical quality of some undefined sort; the object-correlate of an act of cognition; and “God.” He drew on the German Sinn when he began to write in English but, because of the grammatical status of meaning as a verbal noun, the English term allowed Tillich to ascribe agency to things that in his view bear meaning, for example the thing that grasps us when we are in the state of faith. In addition, the English word meaning for Tillich meant “comprehensibility,” “value,” “direction,” from existential philosophy (what is missing when life is meaningless); “ultimate concern” (the “meaning which gives meaning to all meanings”); in the plural, something undefined that the human person “lives in”; and “God.” The change from German to English accompanied a change in his conception of faith, raising the possibility that the new language moved Tillich's theology in a new direction.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      What is the Meaning of Meaning in Paul Tillich's Theology?
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      What is the Meaning of Meaning in Paul Tillich's Theology?
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      What is the Meaning of Meaning in Paul Tillich's Theology?
      Available formats
Hide All

1 “To Be or Not to Be,” Time (16 March 1959) 46–48, 51–52.

2 John T. Elson, “Toward a Hidden God,” Time (8 April 1966) 82–87.

3 Thompson, Ian E., Being and Meaning: Paul Tillich's Theory of Meaning, Truth and Logic (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981).

4 Beyer, Oswald, “Tillich as Systematic Theologian,” in The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich (ed. Manning, Russell Re; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 1836, esp. 29, 31.

5 Martin Leiner, “Tillich on God,” in Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich (ed. Manning), 37–55, at 40.

6 Anne Marie Reijnen, “Tillich's Christology,” in Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich (ed. Manning), 56–73, at 61.

7 Christian Danz, “Tillich's Philosophy,” in Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich (ed. Manning), 173–88, at 177–78.

8 Novalis, Schriften (ed. Richard Samuel; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1960) 2:594, quoted in Blumenberg, Hans, Die Lesbarkeit der Welt (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981) 256. All translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

9 Novalis, Schriften, 2:562. Cited in Der Sinn des Lebens (ed. Christoph Fehige et al.; Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2000) 22.

10 Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe (ed. Hans Ernst Behler et al.; Munich: Schöningh, 1962) 5:82. Cited in Fehige, Sinn des Lebens, 22.

11 Friedrich Schleiermacher, Prüfungen, in Werke (ed. Otto Braun and Johannes Bauer; 1928; repr., Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1967) 4:422.

12 Tillich, Paul, “Existential Philosophy,” JHI 5.1 (1944) 4470, at 67 [italics added].

13 Tillich, Paul, The Interpretation of History (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1936) 39.

14 See Danz, Christian, “Anxiety, Finite Freedom, and the Fall of Humanity in Schelling, Kierkegaard, and Tillich,” Bulletin of the North American Paul Tillich Society 40.1 (2014) 3133; Ergänzungs- und Nachlassbände zu den gesammelten Werken von Paul Tillich (ed. Renate Albrecht and René Tautmann; 14 vols.; Frankfurt am Main: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1971–) 9:290. Abbreviated EW. Thanks to Christian Danz for pointing me to this passage.

15 Tillich, Systematic Theology (3 vols.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951–1963) 2:34–35.

16 Kierkegaard, Søren, Der Begriff der Angst (trans. Schrempf, Christoph; Jena: Diederichs, 1912) 103. The most recent English translation gets the Danish right (and preserves its liveliness): “This seems to suggest that for some individuals the religious is the absolute, for others not, and so ‘Goodnight!’ to all meaning in life.” Kierkegaard, Søren, The Concept of Anxiety (ed. and trans. Hannay, Alistair; New York: Liveright, 2014) 128–29. The Danish is in Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter (ed. Niels Jørgen Cappelørn et al.; 27 vols.; Copenhagen: Gads Forlag, 2002) 4:407–08.

17 Kierkegaard, Søren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (trans. Swenson, David F.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941) 134, 260. Kierkegaards Skrifter (ed. Cappelørn), 7:139, 267.

18 Tillich cites Nietzsche, Werke. Taschenausgabe (11 vols.; Leipzig: Naumann, 1906) 10:114. The passage may be found in Nietzsche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari; 40 vols.; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1970) sect. 8, vol. 2, 128.

19 Tillich, “Existential Philosophy,” 57.

20 Dilthey, Wilhelm, Gesammelte Schriften (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1959) 1:9697.

21 Dilthey, Wilhelm, Selected Works (ed. Makkreek, Rudolf A. and Rodi, Frithjof; 6 vols.; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989) 1:145–46; idem, Introduction to the Human Sciences: An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History (trans. Ramon J. Betanzos; Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1988) 134 [italics in original in both cases].

22 Barth, Ulrich, “Die sinntheoretischen Grundlagen des Religionsbegriffs, Problemgeschichtliche Hintergründe zum frühen Tillich,” in Religion in der Moderne (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003) 89123.

23 Barth truncated all three statements, with slightly misleading results. Originally from EW, 6:125–27.

24 Barth, Religion, 121.

25 Tillich, Paul, Das System der Wissenschaften nach Gegenständen und Methoden, in Gesammelte Werke (14 vols.; Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1959) 1:232. Abbreviated hereafter GW.

26 GW, 1:318 [italics in original]. An English translation of this work appears in Tillich, Paul, What Is Religion? (trans. Luther, James Adams et al.; New York: Harper & Row, 1969) 27101. Adams's translation of this passage appears on p. 57.

27 Tillich, What Is Religion?, 19.

28 GW, 1:318.

29 Tillich, “Das religiöse Symbol,” in Religiöse Verwirklichung (Berlin: Furche-Verlag, 1930) 88–109, at 88.

30 Tillich, “Das religiöse Symbol,” 102.

31 The term Seinsgrund occurs immediately after Tillich's Marburg years, in the Dresden Dogmatics, in a deleted passage: “Offenbarung ist weder Eingriff in Natur und Geschichte noch Schöpfung von Natur und Geschichte, sondern Aufbrechen des Seinsgrundes in den Formen von Natur und Geshichte” (Revelation is neither intervention in nature and history nor creation from nature and history but a breaking open of the ground of being in the forms of nature and history). Paul Tillich, Dogmatik-Vorlesung (Dresden 1925–1927), in EW, 14:29 n. 1. Thanks to Russell Re Manning for pointing me to this passage.

32 Danz, “Tillich's Philosophy,” in Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich (ed. Manning) 186.

33 Tillich, Interpretation of History, 39–41.

34 Tillich, Systematic Theology, 1:11–14 [italics in original].

35 Ibid., 1:14.

36 Ibid., 1:22.

37 Ibid., 1:50.

38 Ibid., 1:14.

39 Ibid., 1:210.

40 Ibid., 1:210.

41 Ibid., 1:189.

42 Ibid., 2:75.

43 Tillich, Paul, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952) 56, 144.

44 Tillich, Courage to Be, 149; Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3:261.

45 Sartre, Jean-Paul, L’Être et le néant (Paris: Gallimard, 1943) 66.

46 Ibid., 76.

47 Ibid., 623.

48 Ibid., 624.

49 Tillich, Courage to Be, 46–50.

50 Ibid., 174.

51 Ibid., 174.

52 Ibid., 172.

53 Ibid., 172.

54 Ibid., 176–77.

55 Ibid., 186–88.

56 Ibid., 81–82.

57 Ibid., 91.

58 Ibid., 93.

59 GW, 1:331–32.

60 Ibid., 1:333.

61 Ibid., 1:327.

62 Tillich, Courage to Be, 173.

63 Tillich, Paul, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957) 16.

64 Ibid., 78.

65 Ibid., 41–43.

66 Ibid., 45.

67 Tillich, Paul, “Theology and Symbolism,” in Religious Symbolism (ed. Johnson, F. Ernest; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955) 109.

68 Ibid., 110.

69 Ibid., 110.

70 Ibid., 114.

71 Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3:111.

72 Ibid., 3:112.

73 Ibid., 3:112; Dynamics of Faith, 7.

74 Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3:115.

75 Ibid., 3:130.

76 Ibid., 3:131–32.

77 See Danz, Christian, “Textgeschichtliche Einleitung zur deutschen Übersetzung der Systematischen Theologie,” in Paul Tillich, Systematische Theologie I-II (ed. Danz, Christian; 2nd rev. ed.; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017) 146.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Harvard Theological Review
  • ISSN: 0017-8160
  • EISSN: 1475-4517
  • URL: /core/journals/harvard-theological-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed