1) Begin with existential questions that flow out of human experience. Some people have different names for these questions, but they are the basic questions of human existence: Who am I? What is my purpose? What happens to me after death? Tillich’s method starts with the questions of ultimate concern that reach to the heart of one’s being.
If your writing can identify first the questions that people are asking and keep your writing in line with those questions, then you will have a greater opportunity to touch the hearts and minds of individuals everywhere. Theological writing in particular has to make sense to an individual’s daily life and provide answers that are practically applicable to the life of the reader. Otherwise your writing may be insightful but not transformational.
So don’t be afraid to ask your deepest questions. Too many times Christian traditions even hinder and discourage people from asking questions, as if they are somehow signs of a weak faith. In reality, the questions always coexist with faith and make faith stronger, durable, real, and life changing.
2) Answer questions of human existence with the revelation of God. Traditionally revelation has been described in two different ways: general and special revelation. General revelation includes one’s conscience, the mark of God’s creative handiwork in the world, and the image of God that all humans carry. Special revelation includes God’s revelation through the Bible and through Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. Tillich’s method of correlation urges readers to let revelation speak to the deep questions of human experience. Revelation provides answers, comfort, healing, salvation, and encouragement.
In your theological writing, start with and integrate biblical passages throughout your work. If your writing can address questions of human existence in the same way biblical revelation does—bringing healing, releasing from bondage, empowering, encouraging, comforting, and answering—then your work will resonate with a large audience in powerful ways.
3) Human experience is the filter through which God’s truth is understood. This basic concept gives explanation to the great variety of interpretation between people of faith and allows each person to experience God’s revelation in a way that is life changing and practical for his specific life circumstances.
Some writers are so prescriptive or limiting in their writing that it automatically limits or even alienates key audience segments. Writing that is best applies in different ways to different individuals. What are some practical ways to accomplish this? Present illustrations from your experience with which others can identify. This will bring practical application to your writing as well. Also, pull out practical applications from your theoretical discussion. Takeaways like this are valuable for readers and make writing come alive.
4) The form is important in answering the questions with God’s revelation. We all know examples of people who carry biblical answers but do so with vindictiveness or other approaches that cause others distance rather than reconciliation. The form is important in answering questions of ultimate concern. To Tillich, the content of God’s revelation is given but the form changes. Many churches deal with these questions on a weekly basis: How do we continue to appeal to the younger generation? Do we adopt newer, contemporary forms of worship? Do we change traditions completely or update them? Do we modify old forms of ministry and outreach in favor of new ones?
Form is important in your writing as well. Sometimes theological truth comes in unlikely places. Think of the impact that the book The Shack had on the general American public as well as the church. There is no doubt that the author addressed theological issues throughout, but in the context of a novel that held readers’ attention. Look at the impact of popular Christian books such as Randy Alcorn’s Heaven or Dan Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven had on those longing to know what lies on the other side of death or what happened to loved ones when they die. They appealed to readers in a way that caused them to think theologically and deal with questions of ultimate concern but not in a traditional theological treatise.
The most important aspect of this teaching is that answers must address the real questions people ask. Standard, pet answers do not work nor do they satisfy the true longing for knowledge and truth that people have. Seek to deal with the real questions with real answers.
5) Revelation changes one’s state of being. In the words of Isaiah 55:11: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Likewise, Hebrews 4:12 describes God’s Word as “living and active.” God’s Word changes, shapes, molds, and brings to God the hearts and souls of people. It accomplishes God’s salvation work. Therefore, this model is not a reaction or accommodation to the fact that life changes. Revelation is an agent of change in and of itself.
Writing that changes lives, not just one’s actions, but who a person is. Now that’s valuable writing! Aim for theological writing that changes the lives of people. In our current culture, academia and the church are sometimes seen at odds, as if their conversations are not about the same topics or ideas. That should never be the case. All people think and speak theologically when addressing questions of ultimate concern. Writing at a theoretical level but does not touch church practice or daily life is missing the mark.
6) Questions change as life changes. There is a reason why some people observe that change appears to be the only constant in life. Change happens. People grow. That’s why a model of questions and answers is consistently needed. Since revelation changes people, their questions naturally change as well.
Writing that lasts is writing that changes people, causing emotional reactions, invoking life change, and challenging presuppositions. Writing that grows as people grown and change will last and continue to be applicable for years to come. Scripture has a way of speaking in different ways to different situations and people.
Want to really dive into Paul Tillich’s Method of Correlation? Pick up Systematic Theology Volume 1 for a fascinating read!