Book | Systematic Theology by Pannenberg

Pannenberg Systematic TheologyPannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Author

Bonn, CDU-Friedenskongress, PannenbergWolfhart Pannenberg (born on October 2, 1928) is a German theologian. He has made a number of significant contributions to modern theology, perhaps most notably his concept of history as a form of revelation centered on the Resurrection of Christ, which has been widely debated in both Protestant and Catholic theology, as well as by non-Christian thinkers.[1]

My Thoughts on Pannenberg

Pannenberg 01

On Pannenberg’s Methodology

In his Introduction to Systematic Theology, Pannenberg chooses to make his starting point for theology that of a personal relationship with God through Jesus. He states

In the case of a Christian [as opposed to a Jew or Hindu] his or her personal confession to Christ is constitutive of being a Christian. It is bound up with one’s baptism. It is not the only issue in baptism, of course. In our baptism God called our life once and for all, beyond our capacity of answering his call at any particular moment. But still, our confession of faith belongs to the integrity of our baptism. It is only in the personal faith of the individual that our baptism is alive.[2]

I mention Pannenberg’s quote to highlight that there is both a personal and a social aspect to the church and to being a Christian. Some have argued that Pannenberg’s theology reduces God to history, or depersonalizes God. I find this to be untrue. We must take into account the context in which he is writing his theology and the socio-cultural issues against which he is responding. I will say more about this later.

On the Unity of God

Before I address what I think is key to Pannenberg’s idea of unity, it might be helpful to acknowledge the following quote regarding Pannenberg’s ontology.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s eschatological ontology has been criticised for undermining the goodness and reality of finite creaturely differentiation. Drawing on David Bentley Hart’s recent ontological proposal, this article explores the critique of Pannenberg’s ontology, and offers a defence of Pannenberg’s depiction of the relation between difference and totality, especially as it is presented in his 1988 work, Metaphysics and the Idea of God. In this work, Pannenberg articulates a structured relation between difference and totality in which individual finite particularities are preserved and affirmed within a coherent semantic whole. Creaturely differences are not sublated or eliminated in the eschatological totality, but are integrated into a harmonious totality of meaning. This view of the semantic function of totality can be further clarified by connecting Pannenberg’s ontological vision with Robert W. Jenson’s model of the eschatological consummation as a narrative conclusion to the drama of finite reality.[3]

It seems that Pannenberg’s idea of unity is driven more by the notion of coherence than that of rule. We must place Pannenberg in his context in order to grasp the nuance of his argumentation. He is a post-war German theologian who is fighting for the validity of the discipline of theology in the German university.[4] Post-War Germany was dominated by post-Kantian secular humanism. Faith had been relegated to the private sector and the questionable realm of noumena that is “above” the line of the human capacity to comprehend.

The divide between the noumena (that which is “above” the line) and phenomena (that which is “below” the line) has caused two dominant strains of thinking to emerge in 19th and 20th century Western theology. Pannenberg seeks to unite these two strains into a coherent whole.

The dominance of phenomenological rationality in Western thought led the theologians of the 18th and 19th centuries to attempt to prove the existence of God within Cartesian and Kantian parameters. This attempt ultimately failed to prove God through empirical means. Thus, Schleiermacher was left to demonstrate the existence of God through subjective means. He set in motion a long line of theological tradition that attempted to demonstrate the existence of God from “below” the line. This led to a basic conclusion that the essence of God is that of a transcendent other upon which humans project their own anthropomorphic attributes.

Barth attempted to shift this trend by moving “above” the line and beginning with God’s revelation and the necessity of reclaiming the Trinitarian doctrine. Karl Rahner also moved in this direction. Barth’s move to shift the game from below to above was brilliant and opened up new vistas of conversation within theological circles. However, it also conceded defeat to the secularists, according to Pannenberg.

Pannenberg is attempting to draw from the authoritative revelation of Scripture, like Barth, while not sacrificing the phenomenological reality of modern rationality. He explains this very clearly in the first pages of his Introduction to Systematic Theology. The modern theologian must seek unity and coherence in the construction of theology.

This kind of theology unites the doctrine of God in the more rigid sense of the word and the doctrines relating to the economy of God’s action in the world. The two belong together like the immanent life of the trinity and the economic trinity. Therefore, everything in theology is concerned with God, so that God is the one and only subject of theology.[5]

The reason theology continues to be split between those above the line and below the line is because they are both operating with the same assumptions regarding God’s essence and relation to time.  “Why the traditional doctrine of God’s essence and attributes leads into such dead ends…[is that] in every form is the idea of God as the first cause of the world.”[6] Pannenberg is arguing that God’s essence is in relationality and action in history. However, “Of all the qualities which we ascribe to God on the basis of a relation to something else, however, it may be said that they cannot be God’s in his essence if we think of the divine essence in its own unrelated and transcendent self-identity apart from all relation to the world.”[7] Western theology has seen God as the primal cause that existed before time began and that hurled time and creation out into existence. This God then either interfered from or withdrew into transcendence.

Pannenberg turns the tables and claims that it is in God’s futurity that the gap between below and above can be mended and constructed into a unified coherent theology. Pannenberg creates a win/win scenario for himself with this move. He is able to play on both sides of the equation. He can draw from revelation like Barth, but he does it through using the rational methodology of modern scienctific disciplines. He can do this because he bases his theology on God’s Trinitarian revelation through action in history. The reason he can draw from both Scriptural revelation and modern scientific methodology is because his methodology is contingent on the eschaton. In essence he says that we can’t really know the truth about anything until it is all said and done, so we need to draw from every source until then. He summarizes his methodology is this paragraph:

In the discussions of systematic theology, then, in the sequence of its argumentation, in its construction of coherent models of the world as determined by God’s action, the question of truth should be regarded as open. Of course, if it turns out to be true that there is a God, that Jesus is risen, and that everything is in his hand, then this has been true all along. It does not depend on the effort of the theologian. Presumably, this was the most profound reason to attribute to some authority prior to theological reasoning the power to guarantee the divine truth. But the scriptures themselves tell us that the universal recognition of God’s glory will not occur before the eschaton. Until then, the truth of his revelation will continue to be in dispute. Therefore, our knowledge is imperfect, as Paul says (1 Cor. 13:9), and this applies to theological knowledge in the first place. We are called to accept this situation and not to demand a final guarantee of truth before we even start to think. The modern criticism of authoritarian argument on the one hand, and the criticism of the retreat to subjective commitment on the other, have caused many theologians to surrender Christian apologetics and dogmatics to surrender even the Christian truth claims themselves, and to turn to what are considered “relevant issues” of the time. But there is no reason to lose heart and to sell out just because there is no a priori guarantee of truth. The effort at systematic reconstruction of Christian doctrine is even more needed than in earlier periods of the church, because now it should be clear that one has to deal with the truth claims of the tradition in this framework. The results will remain provisional, but that is in keeping not only with the spirit of modern science but also with Paul’s understanding of the provisional form of our knowledge, due to the incompleteness of salvation history itself. To engage in systematic theology in this way is quite compatible with personal confidence in the ultimate truth of the Christian doctrine, even more so than on the basis of a prior commitment to authority. A Christian should be ready to leave it to God himself to prove definitively his reality, and he or she should be content to perceive but vaguely and to adumbrate the infinite wealth of the truth of God. But certainly, we need to be reassured of that truth, and precisely there is the place for systematic theology.[8]

On Creation, God’s Omnipotence, and the Point of it All

One fundamental human question is simply this: Why? Why did God create the universe, knowing that it would fall apart and need to be rescued. What kind of omnipotent, all-knowing God would subject His creation to that sort of suffering? Pannenberg’s proposition of the futurity of God presents a possible solution to that question that emphasizes the love of God. Much of this argument has to do with how we imagine God’s relationship to time and creation. Pannenberg says, “The acting God does not look ahead from the beginning of the world to its consummation as to a distant future. The future of the world is the mode of time that stands closest to God’s eternity…The goal of the world and its history is nearer to God than its commencement. Thus the action of God in the world is properly his coming into it in the signs of his in-breaking lordship.”[9] God is creating from the eternal now, which to the creature is the unfolding of time. God’s action in the world, from three centers of action—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—unified in love, is the unfolding of God’s creative activity to be in loving unity with the creation. We can perceive this action “as an anticipation of the eschatological future of a participation of creatures in the eternity of God. When we do this we catch a glimpse of the way in which to understand more fully the creative action of the eternal God in time as the dawning of his eschatological future in the existence of creatures.”[10]

I would summarize Pannenberg’s theology in the idea that God is love. “The eternal God as the absolute future, in the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit, is the free origin of himself and his creatures.”[11] Some theologians have understood God’s creation and omnipotence in the terms of God’s rule. This connotes domination, but God “can be thought of only as the power of divine love and not as the assertion of a particular authority against all opposition.”[12] The theses of divine immutability as it has been developed throughout church history has led to the idea of dominance, but “if eternity and time coincide only in the eschatological consummation of history, then from the standpoint of the history of God that moves toward this consummation there is room for becoming in God himself, namely, in the relation of the immanent and the economic Trinity….The creative love of God finds fulfillment only with the faithfulness of God on the way of his historical action and with the revelation of his righteousness as the Creator of the world.”[13] This loving, faithful God is a God of patience, and “patience leaves to others space for their own existence and time for the unfolding of their own being.”[14] God is bringing God’s creation, through the patient action with us in history, into the fulfillment of God’s desire for unity in the relationality of the particularities in love with all things. This is the flavor and the ontology of Pannenberg that I have gleaned so far.

Key Quotes

Jesus Christ, then, is the Word of God as the quintessence of the divine plan for creation and history and of its end-time but already proleptic revelation…This implication of the self-revelation of God by his Word is explicated by the doctrine of the Trinity…

As the revelation of God in his historical action moves towards the still outstanding future of the consummation of history, its claim to reveal the one God who is the world’s Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer is open to future verification in history, which is as yet incomplete, and which is still exposed, therefore, to the question of its truth.[15]

 

If the trinitarian relations among Father, Son, and Spirit have the form of mutual self-distinction, they must be understood not merely as different modes of being of the one divine subject, but as living realizations of separate centers of action.[16]

 

The acting God does not look ahead from the beginning of the world to its consummation as to a distant future. The future of the world is the mode of time that stands closest to God’s eternity…The goal of the world and its history is nearer to God than its commencement. Thus the action of God in the world is properly his coming into it in the signs of his in-breaking lordship.[17]

 

Augustines’ discovery of duration as the time-bridging present had an influence that one may trace up to Bergson and Heidegger. We may combine it with the mediation of time and eternity by the eschatological future of the lordship of God. It is possible to see all time-bridging duration, and all experience of it in the flux of time, as an anticipation of the eschatological future of a participation of creatures in the eternity of God. When we do this we catch a glimpse of the way in which to understand more fully the creative action of the eternal God in time as the dawning of his eschatological future in the existence of creatures.[18]

 

The eternal God as the absolute future, in the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit, is the free origin of himself and his creatures.[19]

 

Only the doctrine of the Trinity could basically clarify the question of union and tension between transcendence and immanence…Thus the trinitarian life of God in his economy of salvation proves to be the true infinity of his omnipresence.[20]

 

For Jüngel possibility is the futurity of the historically existent world in the sense that out of his own future God makes the possible actual…The omnipotence of the Creator finds expression in the fact that even when the creature emancipates itself from him he can save it from the nothingness to which it has subjected itself by its conduct.[21]

 

God’s omnipotence wills the creature—and a world of creatures—precisely in the limitation and distinction which are constitutive of finitude. God eternally affirms the creature precisely in its limitation. This affirmation of the creature in its limits, precisely in face of its hardening in its finite particularity, is the meaning of the overcoming of the “world” by the Son (John 16:33). For the “world” is the epitome of that which wilfully persists in its limitations, revolting by self-affirmation against its finitude, but precisely in so doing falling victim to it. It is overcome as the finite shows itself to be eternally affirmed by God precisely in its limitation and in acceptance of it…[omnipotence] is the demonstration of divine love and not as the assertion of a particular authority against all opposition.[22]

 

In distinction from the idea of immutability, that of God’s faithfulness does not exclude historicity or the contingency of world occurrence, nor need the historicity and contingency of the divine action be in contradiction with God’s eternity. If eternity and time coincide only in the eschatological consummation of history, then from the standpoint of the history of God that moves toward this consummation there is room for becoming in God himself, namely, in the relation of the immanent and the economic Trinity, and in this frame it is possible to say of God that he himself became something that he previously was not when he became man in his Son.[23]

 

Patience leaves to others space for their own existence and time for the unfolding of their own being. If it is not the enforced patience of those who impotently watch the course of events but the patience of the powerful who can intervene in what happens but refrains from doing so, and if this patience is shown to his own creatures, then it is a form of the love that lets the creatures have their own existence. God’s patience, then is neither indifferent tolerance nor an impotent but brave endurance of circumstances that cannot be altered. It is an element of the creative love that wills the existence of creatures. It waits for the response of creatures in which they fulfil their destiny.[24]

Notes


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfhart_Pannenberg (accessed June 27, 2013)

[2] Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 4.

[3] Meyers, Benjamin. This is an abstract he posted on his blog referring to a journal article “The Difference Totality Makes: Reconsidering Pannenberg’s Eschatological Ontology” NZSTh 49:2 (2007), 141-55. http://www.faith-theology.com/2007/12/pannenbergs-eschatological-ontology.html (accessed March 22, 2012)

[4] Here I am drawing from Dr. Simpson’s lecture on March 16, 2012 regarding Pannenberg’s perspective regarding the university and the public interaction of theology.

[5] Pannenberg, 13.

[6] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), 364.

[7] Ibid.,  364-365.

[8] Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 17-18.

[9] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 390.

[10] Ibid.,  410.

[11] Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 410.

[12] Ibid.,  422.

[13] Ibid.,  438.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Pannenberg, 257.

[16] Ibid.,  319.

[17] Ibid.,  390.

[18] Ibid.,  410.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.,  415.

[21] Ibid.,  420.

[22] Ibid.,  422.

[23] Ibid.,  438.

[24] Ibid.,  438-439.

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