In Chapter 4, Pannenberg discusses the revelation of God. It forms a bridge from his discussion of the preliminary matters of the nature of systematic theology in Chapter 1 and his exploration into the philosophy of religion in Chapters 2 and 3 on the one hand, to a discussion of the Christian notion of God in Chapters 5 and 6. He is finishing his preliminary studies. He has already written that theology must deal with knowledge that comes from God, and is therefore inaccessible to human beings apart from that disclosure. Here is a primary point that he learned from Barth. He has argued that talk of God, even in a secular society, is credible because humanity needs a way to talk about the totality of reality and ultimate commitments. He has already argued that in our finitude as human beings we have awareness of our dependence upon the Infinite. He has argued that the religious quest is constitutive to the human journey. He has argued that the religious experience relies upon the experience of a power that comes from beyond the individual. At this point, then, one could discuss the revelation of God as seen in Judaism, in Islam, in Hinduism, or the nature of enlightenment in Buddhism. In fact, if one were to write a theology of religions from the perspective of Pannenberg, he would want to find presentations of these faiths that take Chapters 2 & 3 seriously. The religion would need to have the capacity to include the unity of divine reality, the proof of the deity of God in the process of experience, and that the actual debatability of the deity of God is unavoidable. Of course, he is a Christian theologian, so he is going to explore the nature of the revelation of God in Christianity. He will do so in the context of competing religions. He will present the truth claims of the Christian belief in God based upon its sacred text, the Bible. He has already stressed that the systematic theologian must abandon the scripture principle. Therefore, he is not approaching the text as an authority. The text is more like the original witness to Christian faith and life. It carries with it a certain facticity if one is to be a Christian theologian. The only veracity of the text that concerns him is whether this sacred text is compatible with what he has stated about religion in Chapters 2 & 3. Karl Barth discusses the Word of God in Chapter 1 [I.1, Section 3-7] and the revelation of God in Chapter 2, Part I [I.1, Section 8-12], to which Pannenberg is responding here. Barth, however, will not discuss the various means of revelation that we find in the Bible. Paul Tillich has an interesting discussion in his Systematic Theology Volume I, Part I [p. 71-159] of reason and revelation that actually provides some good background for what Pannenberg is pursuing here. Tillich focuses upon the depths of reason, bringing us far beyond rationality as expressed in math and science. Peter Hodgson discusses faith, reason, and revelation. He will say that faith is a kind of thinking in response to revelation. Trustworthy persons, texts, testimonies, and communities mediate knowledge of God through the response of faith. Revelation is the trustworthiness of ultimate reality. He relies on Hegel to bridge the modernist gap between reason and revelation, saying that revelation reveals truth, and therefore God is subject of revelation rather than its object. Reason is always fragmentary, given its finitude, but the quest is for wholeness that is open and diverse. Rationality has the purpose of communicating, speaking truth, reaching mutual understanding, engaging in dialogue, and engaging in persuasive arguments that clarify, rather than coerce or deceive.
In Section 1, Pannenberg will explore the theological function of the concept of revelation. The basic point he will want to make is that given his definition of God as the power that encompasses and determines all things, the only way true knowledge of God by humanity can occur is through the revelation or self-disclosure from God. As he examines the Bible, he does not see that God addresses Cain or Noah in a special way, but El, a name used of other gods, did address the Patriarchs. His point is that the early experience of the divine does not include special revelation. This general notion of the divine was the basis for the intelligibility of the God of Israel. In fact, Yahweh was the national god of Israel. As he sees it, Isaiah 40-55 is the first time in the Bible that God becomes universally the God of all people. It looks forward to the future action of God that will show all people that the God of Israel is the one true God, the Creator of the world. Further, the exile seems to give revelation a new function. The law and election of God replace myth in Israel. Awareness of history by which Israel became the people of God is the mediating factor. Exile placed this revelation in question. The fact that other people did not acknowledge the truth of this revelation also makes it open to challenge. Yet, revelation itself focuses on the future self-demonstration of its truth. We cannot know God unless God makes God known, a notion that is behind all religion. Preaching rests upon this divine authorization. He agrees with Barth here.
In Section 2, he will explore the multiplicity of biblical ideas of revelation. He will stress that revelation involves a prior general awareness of the divine. Revelation could disclose worldly matters normally concealed from us. Israel forbade consulting with the dead, but found it permissible to inquire through lot, dream, prophet, and oracle, all of which bring us close to manticism. Christianity took a harder line against attempts to know the future through divination. While Jesus rejected signs and wonders, they accompanied the exodus from Egypt. He concludes that from a phenomenological perspective, manticism is the religious soil of revelation. He thinks of it as an intuitive manticism shown in the dream or prophetic vision and the signs that God gives. The Old Testament prophet might experience seizure, trance, or dream. The stress, however, is on the word of God contained in the experience. The call of the prophet brings the prophet into the counsels of Yahweh. One might think of the experience as rapture similar to the inspiration of the muse in Greek literature. Yet, such experiences rested upon the knowledge of God found in the tradition, which made possible an interpretation of the experience. He sees five forms of revelation: intuitive manticism, theophanies, revelation of the divine name, revelation of the will of God in the Law, and the prophetic word of demonstration. Even the revelation of the name is a provisional self-disclosure of God, for the name will take on its content only from the future action of God in history. The rise of apocalyptic, with its focus upon the future self-demonstration of deity, provides the context for the New Testament notion of revelation. The New Testament intertwines the eschatological and the provisional, which he finds especially in the Easter message. In this context, one lives in the light of the truth that the future will reveal. He concludes by connecting all of this with previous chapters. The question of the reality of God is in conflict with varied and opposing religious truth claims. The account of revelation as seen in the New Testament implicitly acknowledges the debatability of the reality of God by laying claim today to the eschatological truth of the deity of God. In terms of the modern discussion, this indicates its capacity for truth. Testing will occur in the reality of the world as far as we can experience it. The truth claim Jesus made brought him to the cross. The apostolic gospel of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is always the word of the cross.
In Section 3, Pannenberg will explore the function of the concept of revelation in the history of theology. The age prior to the Middle Ages did not have a specific place for revelation. It could rely upon Hellenistic awareness of the divine and the Logos to make its appeal. The Middle Ages and the Reformation made the inspiration and authority of the Bible as revelation the beginning of its theological reflections. The Enlightenment period undermined this approach to the Bible. It also distinguished between revelation by word and deed. He has particular interest in the notion of self-revelation that derives from German Idealism. It was the result of the decay of the inspiration of the Bible and the decay of natural theology. He thinks that the self-revelation of God has to be the basis for the assertion of divine reality. This self-revelation occurs in the acts of God in history as well as in the word that interprets such acts. He is recovering a truth he sees in German Idealism at this point, but modified by the notion of the proleptic appearance of the end of history in Jesus, a truth that still requires the future self-demonstration of God. One has this truth only in anticipation. Is this notion tenable? One criterion here would be whether one can successfully integrate the differing biblical views of revelation. A second criterion would be whether the presuppositions are systematically plausible. One will also need to make comparison with alternative solutions in both cases, especially with the understanding of revelation as the Word of God.
In Section 4, Pannenberg explores revelation as history and as Word of God. Reading the book Pannenberg edited, Revelation as History, would be good at this point. The book is a collection of essays by Pannenberg, Rolf Rendtorff, Trutz Rendtorf, and Ulrich Wilkens. On the cover of the book, the subtitle describes it as a proposal for a more open, less authoritarian view of an important theological concept. The book, a collection of papers presented in 1960, summarizes quite well what Pannenberg wants to say in this section. In this case, “open” refers to the belief that Pannenberg has that truth has a historical dimension, and since history continues, truth remains “open” to future verification or falsification. “Less authoritarian” is a reaction to the kerygmatic theology of the Word presented by Barth and Bultmann. In the view of Pannenberg, kerygmatic theology borders on making assertions that it does not want to submit to normal processes of verification regarding their truth. It tends toward the ancient notion of a magical approach to the word. One can understand Barth, for example, in his context, feeling a need for a new authority for the preacher and teacher of Jesus Christ, and therefore focused on the authority of the Word. However, with Pannenberg, the need he senses has shifted to the issues that modernity and secularity present to Christian teaching. He felt the need for apologetics in his setting, while simply making assertions that this is the “Word of God” were simply not going to work. These writers also saw deficiencies in the kerygmatic theology of Barth and Bultmann in terms of their views of history and Oscar Cullmann’s view of salvation history. In this Chapter, Pannenberg will interact with several scholars. One is James Barr. Barr wanted to replace the term “history” with that of “story,” to which Pannenberg objects that this word takes away from the obvious realism and facticity the Old Testament intends when it refers to the acts of God. Pannenberg will say that the use of history is essential for what Christianity has to say about the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Mentioning William J. Abraham, he rejects the notion of revelation as a telepathic experience, for it cannot be the basis for accepting its truth claims. We can decide about the truth or meaning of prophetic sayings, dreams, trances, or oracles only based on their relation to our normal experience of the world and the self. He thinks the exegetical backing for Barth in pointing to the Word of God preached, written, and revealed, is very slim. I should note that what Barth does is trust the authority of the Word in a way that seems like an arbitrary assertion. He ridicules the search for criteria, which for him is like searching for a foundation that would have to be more important than Jesus Christ was. For that reason, the only criterion for anything is Jesus Christ. In contrast, for Abraham, the immediate object of revelation is humanity and our world, but Pannenberg would add that the revelation of God and divine glory are at issue in eschatological revelation. Revelation will give clarity and precision to the notion of the Word. He also wants to modify the notion of revelation in the Word because the notion of a powerful Word of God has a mythological and magical origin. He also thinks of the appeal as argumentative and authoritarian. Further, biblical reference to the Word has various references: announcing divine action, Torah that regulates human action, a creative word, the missionary message, and the Logos. Any self-revelation will be in historical acts as well as word. This implies the indirectness of revelation from God. Revelation is part of a sequence of events, and therefore, one cannot know the revelation at the beginning, but only at the end of the process. One has anticipatory disclosures, such as the exodus or the resurrection of Jesus. Ezekiel and II Isaiah are the biblical background of this notion. He admits that he will need to show in the course of his systematic presentation of theology that the modern person can still live with the vision of the action of God at the end of human history. He also thinks that abandoning this expectation makes untenable Christology and the Trinity. The final events are proleptically present in the person and work of Jesus, as confirmed in II Corinthians 4:2. Proleptic implies the brokenness of the knowledge of revelation and the continuing debatable quality of the revelation even for the believer. He would replace the view of the Word in Barth with the Word as foretelling, forthtelling, and report. He will rely upon the work of James M. Edie, who says, in contrast to John Searle, that speech is actually a matter of speaking-together or the phenomenon of conversation. An object of shared interest creates a common ground and therefore communication. Speech might even exist within spirited conversation. Individual words have an indeterminate meaning, for the context is everything, not just the context of the sentence or paragraph, but also the spirit of the conversation. Successful conversation leads to transformation and communion. We do not remain what we were. In the process of communicating, we only have a preliminary grasp of the incomplete totality of the conversation. Here is the battle Pannenberg is fighting. The concept of revelation embraces the biblical theology of history. Without this, the Word of God remains a mythical category and an instrument of unproven claims to authority. The event of revelation is an anticipatory fulfillment of the realization of the historical plan of God and of the manifestation of the glory of God at the end of history. In that sense, revelation is the content of a comprehensive idea of the Word of God. One can call this event the Word of God in the full sense. In this way, we can speak of Jesus Christ as the Word of God as the height of the divine plan for creation and history, of its end-time but already proleptic revelation. We can thus speak of the self-revelation of God by this divine Word and its revelation. We can do so because this Word is the same as the deity of God, for which we will need to explore the notion of the Trinity. Such a claim of God as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer moves towards the still outstanding future of the consummation of history. It remains open to verification by that future. This means its truth remains in question. The ongoing answer to the question of its truth lies in in the lives of believers by the power of this revelation to shed light on their life experiences. The question of its truth can receive only provisional answer in this way. Theological testing and verification of the truth claim is in the systematic reconstruction of Christian doctrine.