Monday, November 12, 2007

Wolfhart Pannenberg, 'Introduction to Systematic Theology' (3)

Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991).

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

  • 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…

  • God and Math

  • …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.

  • Schleiermacher?

  • 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.

  • Spirit

  • 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.

  • God as Field of Force

  • 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” [48]), 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.

  • Religious Animal

  • 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.
Previous Installments: Chapter One, Chapter Two

7 comments:

Joshua said...

can you say more about why the last section pricks your Barthian nerve more than the earlier ones on Math, Science, the Spirit as force field?

Does it veer toward pietism to much v. science?

Jason said...

I'm curious about Pannenberg on God as 'field of force.' A book I have on my shelf (Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers by Cooper) argues that Pannenberg leans into panentheism on this point. I, for one, get weirded out when someone tries to claim that God's eternity and immensity (i.e., God's being) is constituitive of anything in the created order, much less time and space. What do you think?

WTM said...

Joshua,

I'm not sure. I think it has to do with what Pannenberg means by 'religious.' The more I think about it, the less put off by this short section I am. It does seem relatively clear that atheism is - through history - a minority position. It seems as though human nature has some impulse to think metaphysically and, indeed, even 'theologically' in some broad sense. Of course, I would want to bracket this out from having any critical relation to the material content of Christian theology.

Jason,

I have no idea here either. As I confessed in the first post in this series, I'm a Pannenberg neophyte! However, I think the 'field of force' thing is not meant to be applied directly, but only in a manner of speaking. It is a way for us to conceive of God's presence and activity given the current science.

As far as the space and time issue, it would depend on Pannenberg's notion of contingency, and about whether or not space and time are constitutive in any way of God's being.

Jason said...

Thanks for that, Travis. I'm curious about a meta-something, though. I feel like 'constitutive' when applied to being is logically reciprocal such that if A is constitutive of B's being then B must be constitutive of A's being. In either case, being is still shared, in a sense, either homoousios or homoiousios. The former is certainly a problem, and I'm not sure how the latter could conclude in anything except emanationism.

WTM said...

Jason,

I'm not sure your logic of constitutivity (?) is correct, but I'm having a hard time figuring out the correct logic (where are you, Shane?!?!?).

The problem is that there are different logics implied in the common use of 'constitute' in theological circles. Sometimes it is a causal logic - to say that A constitutes B is to say that A causes or produces B. Sometimes it is something like a logic of identity - to say that A constitutes B is to say that A = B. Sometimes it is partitive logic - to say that A constitutes B means that A is a part of B. Furthermore, the partitive logic can itself be understood either in terms of causal logic or logic of identity.

It is the way in which these things get all mixed together that is tricky. But, only in the logic of identity does your understanding hold - or so it would seem to me.

Shane said...

Here's a quick thought on 'constitution'.

We speak of a thing as a 'constituent' of some greater whole, implying that it is a part of that whole. Thus, 1, 2, 3 . . . constitute the set of the natural numbers. We speak of a person whose parts all work together well as having a good constitution.

In a similar sense we would say that the 50 individual states 'constitute' the legal entity "the United States".

I'm not sure that constitution is a reciprocal notion though. Alabama, Alaska, . . . constitute The United States of America, but The United States of America does not constitute Alabama. With this example, of course, it isn't necessary that any particular state be in the union. Alabama could secede and the United States would still exist. But maybe there are some cases where the constituents are necessary conditions of the things they constitute.

Long story short, I don't know how God could 'constitute' the world or vice versa without implying some kind of pantheism. This strikes me as an occasion where it would be really helpful to look at the original language though, because it might be that the german term has a more precise sense.

Jason said...

Long story short, I don't know how God could 'constitute' the world or vice versa without implying some kind of pantheism.

I think that's what I was getting at. Thanks, Shane, for the clarification on the senses of 'constitute.'