Wolfhart Pannenberg, 'Introduction to Systematic Theology' (3)
Learn a little something about Pannenberg.
Chapter 3: The Doctrine of Creation in an Age of Scientific Cosmology
Part of my attraction to the work of TF Torrance is his understanding of theological science and the relation of theology and science, so I very much enjoyed this chapter wherein Pannenberg engages scientific cosmology. In keeping with Pannenberg’s apologetic impulse, which we saw in the first chapter, this chapter seems to be predominantly a ground-clearing exercise, interested in suggesting ways in which Christianity can be understood in harmony with scientific cosmology. It seems to me that theology must attempt to find this harmony whenever possible, and so it was interesting to see Pannenberg engage in this task.
- Mechanical Universe
- God and Math
- God as Field of Force
- Religious Animal
Pannenberg recounts how scientific cosmology developed in the 18th and 19th centuries to view the world as a mechanical system. While God was originally posited as the basis of this system, he became an increasingly unnecessary notion especially after Darwin. According to Pannenberg, this hasn’t much changed (Torrance would likely disagree, citing profound and erudite things from post-Einstein philosophy of science) except with reference to…
…mathematics. Pannenberg notes that “modern theories of nature are mathematical” (38) and so in order to challenge the notion that the universe is not a system that excludes God, one of two things must occur: either God must be described by mathematics or mathematics must be understood as an approximation to reality as opposed to assuming that “that the very nature of things is mathematical” (ibid). The second option is what appeals to Pannenberg, rightly in my opinion, and he goes on to point out that it is the very precision of mathematics that indicates its limitations. “There is something in life which is not precise and systematically escapes that form of presentation” (ibid). TF Torrance would say something similar about language in relation to thought, and thought in relation to reality: language approximates thought, and thought approximates reality, but nailing everything down exactly is beyond human ken. TF Torrance has also made much of Gödel's incompleteness theorums as suggesting that the material world is comprised of multiple layers of intelligibility - open ever upwards toward greater complexities - and that mathematics itself is an abstract system that (according to Gödel) is always either incomplete or inconsistent. So, mathematics need not be diametrically opposed to what Pannenberg is trying to do here.
Ever since I read Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation last Spring I have had fun spotting his influence in various theologians (and I don’t think that being influenced by Schleiermacher, especially on the doctrine of creation, is necessarily a bad thing). Schleiermacher pops up between the lines when Pannenberg discusses original creation and continuing creation, specifically with reference to the question of eternity. The “conception of creation as creation out of nothing also applies to continuous creation” (40), Pannenberg informs us. He then goes on to affirm that, with reference to the continuing ex nihilo creation, “the act of creation, though it now spans the entire temporal process, has to be conceived as an act in God’s eternity, that is, as eternal in itself” (41). This is precisely the sort of claim that Schleiermacher makes, although both he and Pannenberg go on to talk about ways of safeguarding the contingency of creation thus conceived.
The third person of the Trinity does a lot of work in Pannenberg’s understanding of creation. He trances the notion back to the Stoics and Origen, concluding that “the spirit is simply the dynamic principle of life, and the soul is the creature which is alive and yet remains dependent on the spirit as the transcendent origin of its life” (43). One problem in the doctrine of creation is how to speak of the human being, and creation in general, as dependent upon God and related to God without undermining salvation as grace rooted in Jesus and not in some general grace of creation.
I haven’t decided what I think about Pannenberg on this score yet. First he wonders, moving in the wrong direction as far as I’m concerned, “Could it be that, basically, faith is the uncrippled and untainted enactment of the movement and rhythm of all life as it was intended by the creator” (45). Then he says something that sounds better: “the ecstatic self-transcendence of life is not something that is in the power of the organism itself, but arises as its response to a power that seizes it” (ibid). But, he then goes on to make this somewhat dubious distinction: “the Spirit is not given to all creatures, but operates in all of them by arousing their self-transcendent response which is the movement of life itself” (46). In any case, I’ll have to think a lot more about this.
This is where Pannenberg really interacts with scientific cosmology, discussing the history of the view of space and time (“God’s immensity and eternity can be regarded as constitutive of time and space” ), and how understanding “the presence of God’s Spirit in his creation” as “a field of creative presence” (49) might just be the way to go. This short section is very interesting, and I’m looking forward to studying it more carefully in conversation with TF Torrance, who discusses space and time at length. Of course, I have discussed elsewhere the relation of time and eternity.
This is where my Barthian dander, perturbed throughout the chapter even as I enjoyed it, really gets up. Pannenberg discusses the way in which human ability “discern between objects…as self-centered entities, not simply as correlates to our own drives; that is to say: to discern them from ourselves and ourselves from everything else” (50) separates humanity from the rest of creation. This self-discernment leads to the recognition of finitude, and thus “because the human being is the self-consciously discerning animal, it is also the religious animal” (51). Of course, Pannenberg is well within the Christian tradition, and even Protestantism, when he makes these claims. But, this is one area in which Barth radicalized even the Protestant position when he rejected natural theology of any kind. One wonders sometimes about TF Torrance in this regard as well with reference to his epistemological realism which rejects all forms of dualism.