Sunday, June 28, 2015

Introducing Pannenberg

     My introduction to German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg was a class at Asbury Seminary in 1975. His Basic Questions (1967, 1971) was a series of essays that I found challenging. I read his Jesus: God and Man (1964, 1968) as I got into being pastor of churches. He did not write his Systematic Theology 1988 and Geoffrey W. Bromiley did not complete the English translation until 1991. I was excited, devouring the book.  Although I did not have the pleasure of meeting him, he has been my teacher through the years. He wrote Theology and the Philosophy of Science in 1973 and Anthropology in a Theological Perspective in 1985. Given his approach to theology, these were two books he needed to write before he could he write his Systematic Theology.

            My journey with Pannenberg is a gift that has kept giving. One reason his writings have attracted me is his insightful reflection on Hegel. My introduction to Hegel was with a philosophy professor at Indiana Wesleyan, R. Duane Thompson. I found myself attracted to Hegel due to his interest in history. With Pannenberg, what I saw was someone who sought to connect the truth of Christianity with truth discovered in science, history, psychology, sociology, political arrangements, and philosophy. His willingness to engage such disciplines in order to communicate the Christian message in our secular age struck me as important. I had already read of Karl Barth and Martin Kahler, who wanted to preserve a special province for the truth of Christian revelation. This approach lacked credibility to me, especially with an appeal to the Word that we find in Barth. I say this as one who has drunk deeply from the well of Church Dogmatics and appreciated so much the images and insights from that study. Yet, I cannot travel with him, and I have travelled with Pannenberg. One obituary notice I read on Pannenberg said that he died with no disciples. Well, in a sense, I have been one. In another sense, I doubt he would want a disciple, for he kept bringing me back to Jesus Christ.

            I have had the privilege of developing some online friendships with people devoted to Barth and Moltmann. I have not yet found devoted followers of Pannenberg, but I hope to do so eventually. However, I have reason for his lack of disciples, although the reason saddens me. Unlike Jürgen Moltmann, he did not travel the path of “political theology,” a path that ultimately involved a critique of Western Civilization that included Marxist analysis and liberation theology.  Such analysis leads to viewing the West through the eyes colonial expansion and the presumed lack of regard for the culture and religions it encountered. For this reason, of course, Christianity, which is a deeply woven religion in the West, receives harsh critique as well. In contrast, Pannenberg maintained a profound respect for the Enlightenment philosophical tradition. This fact has led to a political label of “conservative.” His basic point will be that “modernity” is a cultural, intellectual, political, and economic system with which Christianity can engage in dialogue. Of course, Pannenberg also hurts his ability to have disciples because he is not fully within the conservative theological camp. The most notable departure is his departure from the tradition regarding the Virgin Birth, but one will find many places where he charts a unique course. Such departures mean that conservative or evangelical scholars will not carry the torch either. Granted he did not seem too concerned with being part of an identifiable group. He did not seem to have the desire of developing a new group defined by adherence to his teaching or methods. In some ways, we witness a beautiful thing when we read Pannenberg. He is not trying to please any group or develop a group. He wants to engage an honest pursuit of the truth. If others want to join him in the journey, fine, but he finds the journey a worthy investment of his life. The reason all of this saddens me is that because he did not bow to the university crowd in their politics, to the mainline Protestant leadership in their politics, or to a strict reading of the creeds, many people miss the excellent theological insight he possessed.

            Pannenberg had the intellectual ability to master several disciplines at once. In my study of scripture, for example, I look up what Pannenberg has said about the passage. I find him well versed in biblical scholarship and insight. For the Old Testament, he has a deep regard for Gerhard von Rad. He also has a profound knowledge of Christian tradition, including the patristic age and the medieval age. On any topic of Christian teaching, one can read the chapter in Pannenberg, pay close attention to the footnotes, and explore the best that Christian tradition has to offer. He sifted through the differences within the tradition in a fair manner. He affirmed tradition where he thought he could do so reasonably, but he is also willing to propose new directions. His knowledge extends into the modern era with Protestant liberal theology in Schleiermacher and Ritschl. Of course, he has a deep knowledge of those who reacted against the liberal Protestant theology of the 1800s, has deep respect for them, but mostly proposes a different direction theologically from the path they travelled. I am thinking here of the dialectical theology of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Rudolf Bultmann. In fact, Pannenberg has deep regard for what the liberal Protestant of the 1800s attempted to do. Of course, he has a broad knowledge of philosophy, especially with Descartes, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Troeltsch, and Heidegger. His knowledge of psychology, especially in Anthropology, is profound. Even if one does not agree with Pannenberg in his conclusions, the footnotes are worth the journey. They can guide the reader to the best thinking of western thought. I should stress that he allows the great thinkers to influence his presentation of the Christian message.

            Pannenberg thinks that the greatest challenge confronting the church is the secularity of the West. Living in Europe, he saw the decline of the church. He also saw that secularity was powerful in that many people live their lives quite well without God or the church. An important aspect of secularity is one that he sees through the eyes of Karl Popper and his notion of an open society. The point here is that rational discourse, freely offered, based upon our understanding of the world that we gain through science, history, psychology, sociology, economic and political arrangements, philosophy, and religion, is the best way to advance to the cause of truth. This approach assumes multiplicity and pluralism, not just with religion, but also with all of the shapes that secular life could take. For this reason, he thinks that systematic theology needs to have the character of an apologetic, presenting and defending the truth claims of Christian teaching. Of course, the preacher in the local church and individual believers rely upon the continuing validity of the truth claims of Christianity. They are also an important way to test the truth claims. After all, if people no longer believe or live in accord with its teaching, it will not be “true.”

            Pannenberg thinks that human thought regarding truth must always remain open because we are still in the process of history. In the area of popular theology, Josh McDowell wrote a book at gained some attention that he entitled Evidence That Demands a Verdict. For Pannenberg, such a case places one at the end of history instead of within the process of history. The Pannenberg apologetic keeps in mind that while one must live with the questions of theology, the history of religion, and philosophy, one can make provisional judgments regarding truth that still maintain openness to further disclosures of truth. Thus, one of the tests of the claim to truth that any religion or theological presentation proposes is that it has this openness. Josh McDowell would fail this test. I should stress that this is a philosophical point he is making. Human history has not reached the end of its process. Only the standpoint of the end could give us the conclusiveness to make things debatable today beyond debate. Although he values Hegel for the importance of history in his notion of truth, he parts with Hegel because the notion of the Absolute places Hegel at the end of that history. He does not think any human being, nor any revelation, has the right to do this. Thus, he will keep bringing us back to the fact that the existence of God in general and of the nature of this God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth always remains debatable and requires faith on the part of individuals and communities.  One could say the same for the God of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Davidic Monarchy, the Poetic and Wisdom Literature, and the Prophets. One could say the same for the mythical gods of Hinduism or the no-gods but the path of Enlightenment of Buddhism. One could say the same for Allah. Secular culture itself makes any talk of “God” sound like superstition. The multiplicity of religions and their competing truth claims makes it seem impossible to test properly which religion is true. While any truth claim by a religion assumes the ability to persuade some persons to believe and live in accord with them, their lives will always be a weak and imperfect witness. The classical proofs for the existence of God have failed, even if they had some significance historically in the sense of bringing theology and philosophy together. The anthropological argument, that the quest for the Infinite and Eternal is part of who we are as human beings, is not conclusive. The scientific approach, so highly and rightly valued in a secular society, has the presumption of atheism, meaning that its explanations will come from physics, biology, and chemistry. Of course, the reality of suffering will always make persons contemplate any notion of the divine making a world that involves so much suffering throughout nature, let alone the suffering and evil that human beings inflict upon themselves, actually makes sense. The result is that any truth claim by anyone must contain, as part of its truth claim, the ability to admit that its truth is debatable. It must remain open to the possibility that its claim is false and that the claim of another is true. Without this admission from the belief system, Pannenberg would say, the belief system is false.

            Pannenberg is going to argue that Christian teaching has the resources to meet the requirement of openness to the future through its eschatology. This will be a difficult sell for many in the world of biblical and theological studies, let alone the secularity of the culture. An entire of school of thought within biblical studies, for example, would want to demythologize apocalyptic images into what they suggest regarding the nature of humanity, for which one can read Bultmann. Another school of thought has tried to remove apocalyptic images from the historical Jesus, for which see the Jesus Seminar. Another school of thought would want to emphasize that Jesus and early Christianity were thoroughly apocalyptic in their thinking, and therefore largely irrelevant to issues of today, since their projected end did not occur. I would simply urge the reader to pay attention to what Pannenberg will say about the apocalyptic nature of the preaching of Jesus and that of Paul. He will take seriously the message of Jesus regarding the nearness of the reign of God and the message of Paul and the rest of the New Testament regarding the soon return of Jesus Christ. He will interpret this first century message of the church in the context of the prophetic expectation of a future act of God that will bring all things into a reflection of the glory of God. He will include in this context the Jewish apocalyptic of around 200 BC to 100 AD as part of this intellectual context. He will make it clear that the affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of the Father, which occurs after the resurrection of Jesus, is a proleptic occurrence of the future reign and glory of God. Thus, while adherents of Christianity have this historically contingent faith and the mission to share it in the world, the present faith awaits knowledge only the future can bring. This future orientation of Christian faith allows Christianity to remain open to newness in its institutional forms and newness in the formation of its theological affirmations. Such openness helps Christianity meet an important test of its truth claim. In fact, Pannenberg will stress that the inability to adapt to inevitable historical changes is the reason why so many religions died. I find this interesting, because for some in religion, usually of the fundamentalist variety, will stress that they do not change, and that a sign of weakness of faith is the willingness to change. Pannenberg has turned this around. The ability to adapt to the challenges of each century or, today, each generation, is an important test of the truth claim of the religion.

I find the insight of Robert Jenson helpful here. He directs us to Aristotle (Poetics 1452a, 3), who noticed that a good story is one in which events occur unexpectedly but on account of each other, so that before each decisive event we cannot predict it, but afterwards see it was just what had to happen. He refers to it as dramatic coherence, a notion he uses to make sense of the notion of divine identity in the long history of revelation in the Bible. He notes the dramatic shifts of patriarchs, tribal federation, sacral kingship, exile, and the crucifixion-resurrection, all of which is a narrative of divine disclosure. The point is that dramatic coherence requires closure to the story in order to constitute identity, for so long as the story simply continues the narrated individuality remains uncertain. The story of God remains committed to a story with the creatures God has made. This means divine identity is a matter of anticipation of the end. In fact, in the history of religion, gods whose identity relies upon the persistence of a beginning view the changes of history and the future as a threat. We do not know the narrated story until the end, but the way the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters fit together should anticipate that end.[1]  

            Pannenberg will also propose that in a secular setting, a modest, non-authoritarian approach to presenting a truth claim is imperative. Secularity relies upon rationality and experience, more so than history. He will reject any appeal to the sacred text. At this point, people often misunderstand. An important aspect of his theology is that he offers an apologetic for the Christian faith in every aspect of his presentation. He therefore rejects the confessional or dogmatic approach of Karl Barth and moves in the direction of Paul Tillich. He will engage in a serious discussion of the validity of the truth claims of Christianity, in contrast to the confessional or dogmatic approach that assumes the validity of its truth claims. He rejects the idea that any truth claim is immune from criticism, whereas a confessional or dogmatic approach will try to carve out a space in human thought where its truth claims are immune from rational criticism. His primary interest is in the truth and coherence of worldviews. Thus, his point here is that in public discourse, an appeal to the inspiration and authority of the sacred text has the character of simple assertion. The same is true of an appeal to the tradition, to councils, to popes, to a private experience, or any other purely subjective appeal. Such subjective assertions have the same character as the assertion of the fanatic. This observation is why he agrees with the Hegel notion of the coherence of truth, or that truth is the whole. The point here is that any claim to special revelation, which all religions claim, will need to undergo a test. The first test is whether it has the capacity to be open, as noted in the previous paragraphs. The second test is the willingness to submit the claim that revelation brings to the tests of history, sociology, psychology, science, and philosophy. Revelation must cohere with what we know in other spheres of knowledge. This requires an “open society” of dialogue, discourse, and persuasion.

Another dimension of this modesty and non-authoritarianism is to recognize that the truth claims of the religion must show their power in the ability of the claim to gain adherents. People will need to believe, to form a community, and abide by the norms of the community. I should stress that for Pannenberg, secularity is a powerful challenge to all religions, for it has shown its power. Living in Germany, he witnesses the shrinking of the church in his country and throughout Europe. He does not assume that history will show that Christianity is true. Obviously, given his writings, he wants that to be the case, and hopes that his work will help make it so. He believes it will be so, due to the resurrection of Jesus. One mistake people make here is that they claim he is offering an historical proof of the existence of God. As he makes clear, in the course of history, no one can know whether God raised Jesus from the dead. He does think, however, that the witness of the New Testament that God raised Jesus from the dead is the best explanation for the rise of Christian faith and community. He thinks the resistance to this historical judgment is because it is an “unbelievable” thing from a human perspective, and that if true, it would require a change in the way we live. Yet, he remains open to the possibility that secularity will find a way to defeat all religion. If it does so, however, it will need to be through the freedom of discourse and persuasion, and not by imposition from the political state. If secularity resorts to authoritarian means to accomplish its secular ends at the expense of religion, it will only show the weakness of its claim to truth.

Pannenberg will propose that the best way to understand the historical dimension of truth is with a view of universal history. This notion seems incredibly abstract, but I hope I can show that it is not. This idea is actually a way for him to deal with the contextual nature of truth. He will often use the example of language. A letter is not meaningful until it becomes part of a word, the word is meaningful as it becomes part of a sentence, the sentence has meaning as part of a paragraph, and of course, the paragraph has meaning in the context of the novel. Thus, the novel and its conclusion give the fullness of meaning to all the letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs along the way. His point is that our individual lives will not disclose their meaning until the end of our lives. In fact, the meaning of our lives continues in the lives we have touched throughout the course of our lives, and therefore not even death will disclose the meaning of an individual life. Yet, the step he wants us to take is that the beliefs and values by which we live become part of the historically conditioned testing done by humanity of what is true. Your individual life is part of something much larger, the end of which you believe is so, but cannot know. This means the end of history will disclose the truth. Our individual history is part of the history of communities and nations, but is also part of human history. He admits that secularity may well prove to be true. His Systematic Theology is the contribution of one adherent of Christianity to the belief that the end of human history will disclose the truth of Christianity.

            Pannenberg is also going to challenge secular culture at several points. He will agree that human history properly focuses upon human explanations for historical events, but he objects that an anthropocentric worldview does not allow for precisely what the religions claim, that is, acts of God. He will challenge secular culture for its focus upon finitude, as if finite things will provide the deeper satisfaction and meaning that human beings seek. He will argue that secular culture has too quickly abandoned metaphysics for that reason. He will turn the Copernican revolution on its head, returning earth and humanity to the center of the universe. He will argue that the freedom valued in secularity has had the background assumption or context of the values of the church. He ponders what happens when the norms of the church are no longer present to restrain freedom from taking people down a self-destructive path and channel freedom toward their best possible life. Even people who do not attend church, or may even ridicule the church, have benefitted from these background values and norms. Freedom, as highly valued as it is, becomes problematic without norms.

            One of the primary areas in which Pannenberg will challenge modern secularism is in his proposition that Christianity is one among many religions that contend with each other for the ultimate truth about the world, humanity, and God. His view is that such a conflict among the religions is a conflict we need to treat seriously. In contrast, modern secularity will develop a theology of religions that depicts the many religions as in principle providing complementary ways to the same God. The reality is that deepest cultural differences have religious roots. Yet, as Pannenberg sees it, modern secularity has deeply Christian roots. Further, if Christianity views its truth claim as open to future verification or falsification, he does not think that secularity is as modest. In fact, secularity has answered the truth claim of Christianity and all other religions with a resounding No.

            What he wants to do is offer a systematic presentation that shows how the event of revelation that the Christian faith claims makes it possible to develop an integrated interpretation of God, humanity, and world that we may with good reason regard as true. Such good reasons are in relation to the knowledge that comes from experience of the world and human life. Such good reasons include the knowledge of philosophical reflection. The result is that Christians can assert it to be true in relation to alternative religious and nonreligious interpretations. The difficulty here is finding credible presentations of other the beliefs of other religions that take the challenge of secularity, experience, and philosophy seriously. Such a Christian presentation must exhibit tolerance to other opinions. It must assess realistically the particular and provisional nature of Christian teaching. In fact, such tolerance is itself an important argument in favor the justice of the Christian truth claim.

            Pannenberg will offer his suggestions for changes in the traditional form of church teaching. He thinks that the modern experience of the world and humanity and the accompanying philosophical reflection needs to contribute to the reformulation of the Christian understanding of God. We have already noted that his approach to Scripture and Tradition will not be from the standpoint of authority, given his focus on apologetics. I offer a few more examples.

            One example is his departure from Nicaea of 325 and Constantinople of 381. As he examines these creeds, and the writings of Athanasius and Augustine, as well as Eastern writers, he obviously has respect for the issues they confronted and their attempted solutions. This will be true throughout his writings. In a sense, he is in the Christian house, and he has regard for those who have built the house. At the same time, as he examines these teaching regarding the Trinity, he finds them lacking. They became too metaphysical. They did stay close to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The church teaching regarding the Trinity did not arise out of metaphysical speculation. Rather, it arose out of contact with biblical testimony regarding Jesus Christ and his relationship to his Father and the way in which the Holy Spirit worked through him. Here is the true basis for the Trinity. His reformulation presses the point that the immanent Trinity (the Eternal nature of the Trinity) and the economic Trinity (the way the Trinity reveals itself in history) are the same. A divine reality is not somehow “behind” the way divine has revealed itself in history. The divine reality is the revelation of that reality. This means that Christian teaching regarding the Trinity places the deity of the Father at risk in the course of history. This already occurred in the cross, of course, but the fact that history continues places the Christian notion of deity at risk. He finds the structure of Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics as allowing for this interpretation, in the sense that he also discusses the revelation of God and the Trinity first in the Prolegomena (though Pannenberg does not like this placement), and then discusses the nature and attributes of God in Volume 2. In all of this, he finds himself close to Karl Rahner and Jurgen Moltmann (Trinity and the Kingdom 1980, 1981).

            Another example is the notion of God as first cause. The notion, derived from Aristotle and applied by Aquinas, was that we see the world “is,” and it has movement, so we can reasonably speculate a “first cause,” which we call, God. In the modern period, this argument fell apart. The scientific explanation of the principle of inertia, that once things move they tend to keep moving unless impeded by an external force has left the notion behind. The idea of a “first cause” of the universe assumes what it wants to prove. In other words, the universe could be “everlasting.” Thus, what Pannenberg wants to do is focus on the intuition of the Infinite that forms the basis for our experience of the self and all finitude. He finds help in this regard from Descartes and Schleiermacher. I should add that Gregory of Nyssa based his notion of the incomprehensibility of God on the notion of infinity, and Duns Scotus followed him in this. Thus, the modern philosophical notion in Descartes and Schleiermacher has Christian connections. His point here is that consideration of the philosophical notion of the Infinite through the lens of Hegel can help us in an apologetic way in our modern setting. He is moving against the modern subjectivity that he sees in Locke, Kant, and Heidegger, all of whom divorce their reflection on the human being from the Infinite and Eternal. His point is that our first thought of the Infinite is that it is in contrast to the finite. Through Hegel, we learn that if all we do is contrast the Infinite and the finite, we place a limit on the Infinite, which would be a contradiction. We can resolve the contradiction in a Hegelian way by understanding that the true Infinite embraces the finite. This vague, unthematic awareness of the Infinite, that is, awareness that our experience of self and other finite things occurs in the context of a much larger whole of which we are only vaguely aware, will gain in clarity upon philosophical and theological reflection. This hint of wholeness, of an end toward which humanity and all creation are heading, forms of the unity of human experience toward which we move. He will also move to the scientific notion of field theory as providing the unlimited or Infinite field out of which emerges divine activity. He recognizes, however, that he has a big task ahead of him. Locke, Kant, and Heidegger have created the modern notion of subjectivity that separates the individual from awareness of their connection to the whole.

            Another example is the traditional notion of who God is in primary or essential attributes (eternal, self-sufficient, independent, necessary, infinite, immeasurable) and who God is in relation to the world (omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent).[2] Pannenberg will argue that all of the attributes of God involve relation. This position moves against Aristotle, who viewed substances as that which remains constant. Relation is an “accident,” something not of the essence of the “thing.” What this notion did when transferred to theology was that behind the historical revelation of God as Triune was the singular divine substance. The point of Pannenberg, in other words, we cannot frame any ideas of the attributes of God apart from relation to the created world.  What this means is that Christian theology introduces relation into the concept of substance. The significance of this is that substance includes its opposite, that which changes. The notion of Being must include its opposite, that of non-Being. This will open the door to the relation within Trinity defining the classical notion of substance, referring to that which truly is. For Pannenberg, this will open the door to resolving the contrast between transcendence and immanence in the Trinity.  

            In Chapter 7, Pannenberg will explore a theology of nature. I find it fascinating to study the evolution of life on this planet. I also find it fascinating to explore “the big bang” and the expansion of the universe. I confess that such fascinations I have kept separate from my Christian faith and from the Bible. Pannenberg will want to integrate studies of the natural sciences with his Christian faith. Ian G. Barbour has stated that the relation between science and religion is often in one of four ways. One is conflict, usually arising from “literalists” of the Bible. Certain atheist scientists and fundamentalists unite in this approach of antagonism. Another is independence in the form of separate compartments. I have probably done this most of my life. Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics III.1 does this. A third is dialogue between them. The final one is that of integration, in which one seeks to bring the two into deeper relations that can inform each other. Barbour thinks the most promising option is that of integration, following the path of natural theology and process philosophy.[3] Pannenberg will want to integrate them.

            Science will want us to rely upon what we learn from the five senses rather than a biblical text. The Bible itself has such a tradition, represented in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, many of the sayings and parables of Jesus. Such wisdom portions of the Bible draws lessons from a direct engagement with the nature and world of the one who formulates the sayings. It relies upon the human experience of the world, rather than a prophetic insight or word from God. Christians can feel quite comfortable in science being the means by which human beings have to understand the world in which they live. They can also engage in the intellectual task of understanding that world as being the first loving act of the Trinitarian God outside of its loving intra-Trinitarian relations.

For Paul Tillich, a doctrine of creation is so important because it affects both our understanding of Incarnation and Eschatology.  In the Christian notion, divine life does not have the distinction between potentiality and actuality that Plato would suggest. For Plato, such ideas wanted to describe the eternally true within the flux of reality. For the Christian doctrine of creation, creaturely reality is within divine life and outside of it. The significance of this is that, in making time for others within divine life, others have their freedom. This freedom will become the basis for a discussion of evil, but at this point, all we need to point out is that freedom, whether in the spontaneous interaction of atoms and cells, or in the increasingly complex choices of individual living creatures, is a constitutive element of the world God has made. Individuals fulfill their purpose as they align with the divine life, especially as they do so in freedom. The required alignment, however, is the result of the separation that freedom entails. Again, our understanding of time is important in our whole view of creation. Time always has before, present, and after, so if we are not careful, we can wonder what God was doing “before” creation of finite things. If we understand divine life has qualitatively different in our notion of eternity, then we can accept the notion Augustine offered what came to be the traditional formulation of the creation of the world occurring with time. Tillich offers that time has the dual character of occurring within the creative processes of divine life while also referring to the point of creation of finite things.[4]

            Pannenberg will refer to some important notions in physics that present challenges to the notion of God creating the world.

The principle of inertia means that if something is moving, with nothing touching it and completely undisturbed, it will go on forever, coasting at a uniform speed in a straight line. Newton modified this idea, saying that the only way to change the motion of a body is to use force. The force needed to control the motion of a planet around the sun is not force around the sun but toward the sun. Newton proposed that everything pulls everything else. The metaphysical implication of the principle of inertia should have been great. In theory, the assumption of the existence of God as the principle of the ongoing existence of finite things became superfluous with the introduction of the principle of inertia by Descartes and its refinement by Newton. In this notion, all things have a tendency to remain as they are, whether rest or movement. In a mechanistic worldview, one no longer needs the concept of God to explain natural events. One has no need for an “unmoved mover.” Nature persists on its own, without the cooperation of a first cause. This implication is especially significant for the notion of motion. Nature, ceaselessly in motion, does not need a first mover.

Second, the theory of relativity is the basis of the unified field theory. Richard P. Feynman[5] shows that Newton's second law concerning gravity, F=d(mv)/dt, assumed that m is a constant. With relativity, the mass of a body increases with velocity. The theory of relativity changes Newton's laws by introducing a correction factor to the mass. The formula for relativistic mass says that the inertia is very great when v is nearly as great as c. The velocity of light is deeply woven into the fabric of the universe (e=mc2). The amount of energy contained in any chunk of matter is equal to its mass times the velocity of light squared.

Third, science itself remains puzzled about the role of human beings. In this sense, when science enters “boundary conditions,” “horizons,” or “limit situations” of its explorations, it can hardly avoid religious questions. One of the questions raised by authors like John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler (The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, 1986) and Reinhard Breuer (The Anthropic Principle: Man as the Focal Point of Nature, 1991) is that the universe would eventually give birth to creatures that had the capacity to observe its evolution. In philosophy, this view is quite consistent with the direction Hegel takes in his Philosophy of Nature. In theological circles, Peter Hodgson has appropriated such studies as well.[6] Science does not look upon the growing complexity of the universe in terms of an intentional goal or purpose. Yet, such complexity suggests that the capacity to reflect upon oneself and the world is as complex as an organism could become. We might call this capacity consciousness and self-consciousness. Such a view places an important scientific basis for affirming an important role for humanity in the exercise of their minds. Pannenberg places himself on the side of turning the Copernican revolution upside down, restoring humanity and the earth to a central role. It will be important for thought to have thought as its object, as Hegel would put it. Human beings will need to gain increasing knowledge of their thought processes, not just the physical nature of their brains, in order to accept and fulfill responsibly the unique role they have in nature. If I might suggest, philosophy has been right from its beginnings, that mind and thought are important to who we are and what we do in the world. In this sense, Religion has been right in saying that human beings have a connection (the image of God) to God (gods).

Pannenberg will largely agree with Paul Tillich.[7] He is willing to take an important step when he says that human beings are the goal of creation, due to their potential to act freely. For this reason, human beings are ontologically complete in a way that other creatures cannot be. Other creatures have elements of rationality and freedom, but do not possess either to the fullness found in humanity. He understands the notion of the creation of humanity in the image of God in this sense. For him, Adam before the “fall” symbolizes humanity in its innocence, before the contest and decision suggested in genuine freedom. Human participation in the “sub-human” is precisely in the notion of humanity bringing into completion what preceded it. Whether there are “super-human” beings ontologically, such as the Bible would name “angels,” is left open as a possibility.

One problem in terms of the relation between science and religion is that many scientists who describe evolution do so with a moral and metaphysical agenda. This fact makes it hard for Christians and other persons of faith to accept evolution. Yet, the fact of scientists offering such a meta-story is a reminder that the scientist, in boundary considerations, cannot avoid religious questions. Thus, Herbert Spencer applied evolution ruthlessly to social and political life. Many thinkers came to view it as a way to promote their opposition to the church or to promote atheism. Darwin himself records his spiritual journey from generally believing in God and the church to agnosticism and atheism. Many people have followed him in this journey.

The point here is that there may be non-Darwinian forms of evolution going on.[8] I am not thinking here of “skyhooks” as Daniel Dennett framed it. One might make a good argument, however, that something is going on in evolution that is not reducible to pure randomness and natural selection. The philosopher of Alfred North Whitehead is one way to go with this. The materialism of modern evolutionary theorists allows only for a rearrangement of materials of the universe. What Whitehead wants to do is argue for internal changes in organisms and the emergence of higher-level organisms. God becomes the “soul” of the universe, in a sense, acting in a persuasive way to bring the universe along to increasingly complex forms. This occurs within a naturalist framework. Whitehead assumes a physical and mental pole in all interactions within nature. In this view, he is quite consistent with Hegel in his Philosophy of Nature. Creatures who have minds like us develop a philosophy of nature, discovering that nature in its essence is also “mind.” Animals have choice, and human beings do so to an even greater degree. Desire and purpose, in some cases, induce inheritable changes. He will say that the trend of evolution is toward an organism to live, to live well, and to live better. This suggests increasing degrees of satisfaction. To put it bluntly, if the only thing that mattered were survival, the single cell organism will survive long past the time when conditions on this planet will become impossible for multi-cell life. It would appear, then, that something other than purely Darwinian evolution is at work in the process of evolution. As Whitehead puts it, of course organisms want to survive, but survival is no explanation for the “art of life.” There are “attractors” in life that exert influence upon each organism, bringing it to the highest degree of the art of life that the organism can produce. In this form of evolution, the attractors allow novelty to arise that is “higher” than previous forms of life. The process of evolution cannot rely totally upon what the past has produced. It must also rely upon what organisms are attracted to become in the future. For Hegel, of course, all of this stands to reason, in that humanity is the “end” of an evolutionary process that has produced noble creatures who are free. To fail recognize this would be for Hegel the height of not having a broad enough notion of human experience. In fact, humanity may be the supreme example of the point Whitehead is making. If humanity is not simply about survival, but about achieving its best or optimal conditions for the art of life, one could assume that throughout the evolutionary process such striving by organisms is an important part of their evolution as well.

            The point is that some scientists start with atheistic assumptions and view both the Big Bang and evolution as proof of this. Some writers refer to such big ideas as big history sets what has occurred on earth in the context of what science understands as the growth of the universe since the big bang and the evolution of life on this planet. Big history is a meta-story, a paradigm, a model, with which science views the world. The point Pannenberg will want to make is that the “big history” does not necessitate an atheistic one. The apologetic case he wants to make is that one can accept both the Big Bang and evolutionary theory and reasonably believe that God is the one who creates, who sustains, and who brings to redemptive conclusion.

Schleiermacher provides an interesting example. Schleiermacher argues that within a system of nature every finite thing is conditioned by its interdependence. He notes that some think of this notion as lessening our sense of dependence upon God. Further, to the extent that people recognize their absolute dependence upon God, they will also lessen their sense of interdependence within nature. Although he thinks interdependence within nature points the way to absolute dependence upon God, one can see the problem. Does the interdependence of nature, as reflected in laws of nature, replace any notion of reliance upon God? For Schleiermacher, science properly understood will lead to increased consciousness of God. False religion opposes research into nature. False science would push religion aside. For him, although everything appears to be isolated and scattered, we need to unite them in thought, through the notion of the interdependence of finite things on the one hand and the religious notion of absolute dependence on the other. Everything has a ground in the universality of the system of nature on the one hand and the inner certainty of the absolute dependence of all finite being on God on the other. He wants to argue for a pious self-consciousness and a world-consciousness that will work together. He confronts another obstacle by saying that the interdependence of nature will lead to the notion that everything occurs as if part of a machine, a notion he thinks of as destructive of piety and morality. He also recognizes that his notion of the interdependence of nature leads to some issues with the presence of evil.[9]   

Ernst Troeltsch thought that the concept “world” is not a scientific theory, but a religious idea. He thought science utilizes the concept of a unified world only as a presupposition of knowledge. He thought it nonsense to hold a concept of the world and unified world-order apart from the correlated concept of a unified divine will. It is a religious sense of the world.[10] In a similar way, Friedrich Schleiermacher suggests that the notion of creation and sustaining the world arises from a religious self-consciousness of the relation of God to the world. For him, the totality of finite being exists only in dependence upon the Infinite. We have continuous existence. When we reflect upon this reality, we recognize ourselves as involved in continuity, and should extend the same thought to the whole of finite being.[11]

            Pannenberg will want to re-formulate the notion of creation by saying that the God whom the Bible describes could have created the universe as science describes it in the Big Bang and in evolution. Of course, he has long since set aside the idea that he can prove such a notion. However, he believes the Bible is open to the notion of the creative activity of God beyond the beginning, and thus, allows for the emergence new things in nature as well as in history (II Isaiah). The on-going creativity of God that combines with the order of the world corresponds to the traditional notions of Logos and Spirit. The Logos (rationality) expresses the notion of natural law while the life-giving Spirit (energy) correspond the field of force or energy out of which matter arises. Thus, while the principle of entropy suggests degeneration, the evolutionary theory and the expanding universe suggest the emergence of new life. This means the Incarnation is itself a matter of the Logos coming to friendly turf in Jesus of Nazareth. The Logos, far from being an alien presence in Jesus, is the fullest expression of divine love. I would mention that one of the obstacles for many young people today is that the church seems to fight a battle against science. Many youth accept as a given the big bang and evolution. They assume Adam and Eve are mythic figures. Pannenberg provides a path for the church to embrace such notions while affirming that God created the world that science describes. For many persons, reading a theologian who can converse respectfully with science, and especially with the dominant theories of evolution and the big bang, to some degree agreeing they are true explanations of the way the world works, should be refreshing.

            The book to read by Pannenberg is his Systematic Theology. However, he makes regular and meaningful references to his other books. He will usually summarize what he says elsewhere, but I have also found it helpful to read his references to himself. These references are important because they provide further detail on how he hopes to show the way in which Christian teaching coheres with science, psychology, philosophy, and sociology.

[1] (Jenson 1997), 64-7.
[2] (Oden 1987), 39-54.
[3] (Barbour 2002), 1-2.
[4] (Systematic Theology, 1951, p. 253-261)
[5][5] (Feynman 1995).
[6] (Hodgson 1994), 180-2.
[7] (Systematic Theology, 1951, p. 258-261)
[8] (Griffin 2000), 244-65.
[9] (The Christian Faith, 1830, par. 46).
[10] (The Christian Faith, 1912-13, p. 195.
[11] (The Christian Faith, 1830, par. 36).


  1. Friend on Facebook - One may not agree with everything Pannenberg says; however, one should not presume to step into the pulpit without having studied his writings extensively.

  2. Thanks for travelling with Pannenberg all these years! I may just follow him as well;)

    1. Juan, what I have liked, as much as his conclusions, is that he shares with us the journey. Reading him is a window to great thinkers of history that we must not forget. One thing I have found is that two books of his are well worth reading before entering his Systematic Theology. One is his major contribution to Christology, Jesus -- God and Man. The other is his Anthropology from a Theological Perspective. This latter work, not as known, forms the background for much of his argument that we need to look to human experience as providing traces of what he call in his Systematic Theology the misery and dignity of humanity. Of course, that journey involved him in evolution, biology, psychology, sociology, language, and even some political theory. However, the references in Systematic Theology are in almost every chapter. I hope you enjoy the journey. I hope my blog assists in the journey.