In Chapter 1, Pannenberg wants to explore the way in which truth needs to be the theme of any exploration into Christian teaching. If one reads this chapter carefully, the result will be a thorough grasp of the approach to the theological task that Pannenberg will develop throughout the three volumes. For example, “theology” refers to the divine as the all-embracing founding principle of all being. In Plato, illumination is the result of dialectical reasoning. He will want to stress that God makes possible the knowledge of God through revelation. Truth is the theme of theology, and not just the training of the leaders of the church. Theology is not simply a “practical” or “moral” discipline. Therefore, theology has a deep ambiguity in that it may be nothing more than human talk and therefore not be theology at all. Theology, he thinks, must include the act of advocating for the truth of Christian discourse about God. As such, it must be able to formulate its teaching in assertions or statements that make sense and that one can test. This testing can occur in a cultural and political context that allows the free expression of ideas. Theology involves making “eschatological” statements of truth in that only the revelation of God at the end of history will demonstrate their truth. He accepts the debatable quality of truth as a fact of human temporality, and stresses the role of the future in the verification of the truth. Even with such freedom and pluralism, emerging consensus and/or the teaching office of the church cannot guarantee truth. In fact, the Protestant emphasis is that continual exploration into the truth of Christian teaching includes exploring again its basis in the revelation of God. However, in our time, we cannot affirm the unity, completeness, and sufficiency of Scripture in the same way that earlier generations of Christians could do. The primary “subject-matter” of scripture is the act of God in Jesus of Nazareth. We keep exploring the meaning of this act, but any statements made in the history of the church are provisional. We need to keep testing them. We test them against Scripture in such a way that the proclamation of the church can confidently express the revelation of God. The role of a systematic presentation of Christian teaching is that it presents the unity of Christian teaching, consistent with rational knowledge. The frustration that science and philosophy have with Christianity in this regard is that the biblical writings have the character of a witness or testimony to what God has done at particular moments in history, rather than a rational discovery of universal truths that one can find in science and math. For him, the explorations of Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn in the area of science are helpful reminders that even the theories of science are not as objective as some scientists like to think. For Pannenberg, any presentation of Christian teaching cannot assume its truth. Rather, the truth one sees in Christian teaching must cohere with all that is true. Such an exploration will disturb the tradition, even if one does the exploration in a positive way. To focus on the notion of testing in such matters, the criteria of the test of its truth is consensus and coherence. The formation of a judgment in this area must be open to better future insights. He acknowledges that since the Enlightenment, the Protestant notion of the inspiration and authority of the Bible is questionable. Thus, an early attempt to deal with the variety of witnesses and styles within the Bible was that of God accommodating to the particular time and place. Although this notion was useful for the new teachings of science, it also opened the door for the idea that God might communicate error at a particular moment. War in the Old Testament in contrast to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament is an example of accommodation. Further, when we have conflicting affirmations between Christianity and science or history, the question of credibility arises. For Pannenberg, theology needs to take seriously the explorations of modern thought, but theology must also challenge modern consciousness. Thus, explorations of history must move beyond an anthropocentric worldview and become open to the possibility of redemptive acts of God in history. This simply means openness to the witness of Scripture, recognizing the character of the biblical writings as witness to particular moments of history. His reference here is also to notions of hermeneutics and history that involve bringing Dilthey, Gadamer, and Hegel together. His concern is that theology, through Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and Barth, has focused on the subjective act of faith or experience. The danger here is irrational fanaticism. He thinks that in the case of Barth this was a particularly tragic embarrassment for theology. His concern, which he shares with Paul Tillich, is that a private decision or experience cannot mediate truth and certainty. Of course, experience and faith are important, but they need clarification and confirmation. Any decision of faith, any experience, participates in the finitude of all human experiences, and therefore is conditional. To reassert, no one who seeks to present Christian teaching can claim a prior guarantee of its truth in the inspiration or authority of scripture, the witness of the Spirit, the act of faith, or the experience of the believer or the theologian. He refers to W. W. Bartley, a student of Karl Popper, who combined the notion of an open society with that of critical thought. He says theology must not “retreat to commitment.” The point of presenting Christian teaching is its claim to truth, yet another place he agrees with Paul Tillich. This means that its presentation must include an apologetic element along the way. The truth of God as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, needs to cohere with the non-theological knowledge of humanity, the world, and history. The general themes of theology will arise from philosophical anthropology, from philosophy, and from science. Such a presentation of Christian teaching needs to include the recognition that the reality and revelation of God are debatable. He stresses that “my truth” ceases to be such if it does not have universal validity. To engage the theological task is a risk, for one must commit oneself to not having a foregone conclusion as to the truth of Christian teaching. One needs to let the truth of Christian teaching shine forth. This means that we acknowledge truth that already has an ontological unity and coherence prior to our epistemological judgments about it. The formation of Christian teaching in its affirmations and statements will come to fulfillment in the process of time and participate in finitude. He returns to Dilthey and Hegel to stress that truth has a history, for as long as time progresses we cannot determine the true meaning of things and events. We will need to see if Pannenberg can avoid the criticism of such views, namely, that the historicity of truth is not tenable, for the “doctrine of historicity” is not a doctrine one can formulate without denying itself. In other words, the doctrine is itself “historical” and capable of transcendence by some new “truth.” Will he be able to hold to his view of truth that will make it impossible for him to assert consistently that anything he says conforms to reality? For Pannenberg, Truth is the “whole,” as Hegel put it, but truth is not a finished product. Christian teaching regarding the end means the future is always open. The Christ event is proleptic, anticipating the “end” that God will determine. The “end” occurs in a provisional and preliminary way in Jesus. History is unfinished and therefore the deity of God is not evident to all. Paul put it in I Corinthians 13:12 that our knowledge in the course of history is partial. We conduct the theological task with humility. The verification of any theological system belongs to the nature of its assertions about God as the all-determining reality. Each statement or assertion will belong to a system of theoretical formulations. They have the form of hypothesis, as do all statements regarding meaning. In such matters, one might want to read R. Carnap, The Logical Structure of the World (1928), A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic, 1945, L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus, and C. J. Lewis, An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, 1946. Its basis is anticipation of the clarity that will come at the end. This means that present explorations of the 2000-year tradition of the church will call for re-evaluation as theology seeks successful integration with present experiences of meaning. He considers any systematic presentation of Christian teaching as a model that takes account of scripture, the tradition, and contemporary explorations into meaning. In fact, theology formulates the totality of meaning from the point of view of its unifying unity in the reality of God. A systematic presentation of Christian teaching is in search of a new model that integrates existing theories and evidence. Theology will need to explore historical events in the context of the totality of meaning implicit in the event. Theology must also deal with the philosophical question of reality in a way that meets the criteria that apply to philosophical statements. He will accept Hegel as philosophical model, largely because he presented the unity of truth in the context of its historical development in such a way that truth remains reliable. Any model presented is a provisional decision regarding the totality of reality. Testing the model in light of the Christian tradition in light of systems of meaning of present experience identifies why such decisions are never final. A theological hypothesis needs to express the implications of the biblical traditions, connect with reality as a whole, be capable of integration with the appropriate area of experience, and have explanatory force within current theological discourse. Whether the model is tenable depends on whether the world, humanity, and history are recognizable in the model. He is inviting his readers to make that judgment about the model he presents in these three volumes. Such a model can only anticipate the truth of God, for which faith is waiting. He will show himself quite willing to recommend reforms of Christian teaching. As he ends the chapter, he says he will reject the notion of a “prolegomena” to his work. Yet, he does think that before he can begin the explication of Christian teaching, he will need to explore some preliminary matters. Thus, the form of his presentation will not begin with the reality of God. Rather, he will begin with human notions, words, and concepts. God as a reality needs careful clarification. He will begin with a discussion of the concept of God, proofs of God and religion. He will explore notions of revelation. After that, he will discuss specific Christian teaching, always keeping before him the debatable notion of the reality of God.
A brief discussion of how Pannenberg differs with other theologians might be helpful at this point. Famously, Karl Barth has a two volume prolegomena in Church Dogmatics. The title lets the reader know the quite different approach. Dogmatics will focus upon the self-examination by the theologian of truth of the teaching of the church about God. While he thinks theology is a science, he wants it clear that it conducts its enquiry into truth in a different way with other pursuits, particularly contrasting his approach with Schleiermacher. The test of Christian talk is its conformity to Christ, a conformity of which we await future verification. The theologian can only listen to Jesus Christ and work in obedience to Christ. He rejects the notion of “modernist dogmatics,” of which Pannenberg would be a representative, due to the danger of abandoning the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ. For him, the theme of the prolegomena is simply and clearly sacred scripture. Under the theme of the doctrine of the Word of God, he will discuss that the word of God is the criterion of dogmatics. He famously and rightly offers his notion of the threefold form of the word of God as preached, written, and revealed in Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is successful only as it rightly discerns Scripture. He will then discuss the revelation of God as the Triune God, as the incarnation of the Word, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He then discusses Holy Scripture as a witness to revelation. He concludes his prolegomena with a discussion of the proclamation of the church as the church that hears and teaches the Word. Thomas Oden will move directly to a discussion of God, representing an approach closer to Barth. Robert W. Jenson wrote a two volume systematic theology that Pannenberg reviewed positively. His Part 1 includes a prolegomena with three chapters. He modestly proposes to lay out his view of the subject matter of systematic theology (the interpretation of the “old word” of the gospel in a “new word” in light of this culture), the norms of theological judgment (scriptural, but including its devotional and confessional expression), and the identification of God (in the biblical narrative). He refers positively to the insights of Pannenberg along the way. Paul Tillich will also reject a prolegomena. He will introduce his systematic theology. He wants to balance the common ground he senses with the modern situation with faithfulness to the kerygma. He admits that the theologian has already made a decision to work within a commitment to what determines the theologian ultimately. Theology deals with that which concerns humanity ultimately. The apologetic of the theologian is to prove the Christian claim at this point. Theology must deal with the question of reality as a whole. As to the sources of systematic theology, the Bible is the original witness, but the theologian includes interaction with tradition and the history of religion. The primary source, however, is the New Being as shown in Jesus Christ. The method of theology is that of correlation with other forms of human thinking, committing himself to thinking holistically. Gordon Kaufman and Peter Hodgson will also omit a prolegomena.