Love & Justice (4) – Tillich’s Love, Power & Justice

by Travis Pickell

What is the relationship between love and justice? So far we have considered the perspectives of Kierkegaard, Brunner, and Rauschenbusch. For Kierkegaard, love and justice are antithetical, insofar as justice seeks one’s due and love “seeks not its own.” For Brunner, love and justice relate to completely different spheres of existence; justice applies to the sphere of the created “orders,” love serves both as the “motive” force behind Christian participation in justice, and as the rule of action within the sphere of interpersonal relations. For Rauschenbusch, love is the “only working principle” in human relations because it leads to solidarity and justice. For Rauschenbusch, then, love and justice are ultimately both ways of talking about the solidaristic Kingdom of God. With Paul Tillich we have an interpretation of love and justice that is closer to that of Rauschenbusch, insofar as both reject a stark antithesis between the two concepts, but Tillich’s analysis also differs in dramatic ways from Rauschenbusch.

Tillich’s methodology is reflected in the structure of Love, Power, and Justice. After identifying problematic “confusions” in popular understandings of each of the three concepts, Tillich’s next three chapters offer “an ontology” of love, power, and justice, respectively. The final three chapters analyze the relations between love, power, and justice in three ethical “relations”—between persons, within groups, and before God. Tillich moves from ontology to ethics. This means that he grounds his understanding of the relation between love and justice (and power) in an analysis of how each concept relates to “Being itself.” Love is basically a drive toward reunion of what has been separated from an original unity of being (25). Power is being “realizing itself with increasing intensity and extensity” (35). Justice is the “form” adequate to being in reunion, i.e. love (62). Given this method, which presupposes an original unity of everything in “Being itself,” it is not surprising that the basic relation between love and justice (and power) is a “unity.”

Perhaps the most innovative and puzzling aspect of Tillich’s book is his description of “creative justice.”[1] The classical definition of justice (“to each his due”) and the more modern conception of justice as equality, when considered from the perspective of the “form” of being in its drive toward reunion, are shown to be of only limited value. While Tillich doe not describe them as such, they are seemingly “lower” levels of justice. At the most basic level, justice is simply the recognition that is due to something that exists by virtue of the intrinsic power of being within it. At another (higher?) level, justice recognizes various deserts of the other; “attributive justice attributes to beings what they are and can claim to be. Distributive justice gives to any being the proportion of goods which is due to him; retributive justice does the same, but in negative terms” (64). The final form of justice is creative justice, which is arguably the highest, insofar is it is necessary to explain how God can act justly precisely in his mercy and forgiveness. “God is not bound to the given proportion between merit and tribute. He can creatively change the proportion” (66).

The great benefit of Tillich’s description of “creative justice” is that it allows us to more easily understand how God can be both merciful and just at the same time. In forgiving the unjust, God is not laying aside justice, he is expressing it. The problem, however, once Tillich redefines justice in this way, is that justice is not longer recognizable as justice. Remember that justice, for Tillich, is the “form adequate” to the reuniting of what is separated. Justice, then, is simply “the form in which and through which love performs its work” (71). Tillich has laid aside the tension between love and justice by defining one form of justice (creative justice) as the “ultimate meaning” of justice, and subsuming this form of justice to love.

Problematically, however, we are not free from the original tension. It seems that Tillich has actually shifted the tension between love and justice into the concept of justice itself. For what happens in forgiveness? “More exactly one should speak of the resignation of proportional justice for the sake of creative justice” (65, italics added). In essence, Tillich is saying that the ultimate meaning of justice is love, and so love triumphs over (merely proportional) justice.[2]

The other problematic aspect of Tillich’s concept of creative justice is that it makes classical atonement theories superfluous. For Tillich, creative justice has the ability creatively change the proportion between merit and tribute. But one is left with the question: exactly how does it do this? Does it not cost something  to the one who forgives? If God can simply change the proportion by divine fiat, then the substitutionary character of the atonement is no longer needed. The atonement, for Tillich, becomes a “symbol of the divine love, participating in the destruction into which it throws him who acts against love” (115). This solidaristic conception of the atonement is similar to that of Schleiermacher and Rauschenbusch. With Tillich’s atonement, this suffering-with is a wholly gracious way for God to reveal what God is doing by setting-aside proportional justice for creative justice, but is not in any constitutive of creative justice; God might just as well have creatively changed the proportions without necessarily suffering-with humanity in Christ. Ultimately, for Tillich, the incarnation and cross are incidental to God’s forgiveness.


[1] Interestingly, in terms of structure, “creative justice” seems to serve as a sort of hinge between the two main sections of Love, Power, and Justice. The first half (ontological) ends with justice, and the second half (ethical) begins with justice.

[2] Here we see the significance of Paul Ramsey’s interpretation of Tillich’s scheme. According to Ramsey, Tillich’s “creative/transforming justice” is actually love-transformed justice, or justice in the service of agape love.

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