Wolfhart Pannenberg, 'Introduction to Systematic Theology' (1)

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

Learn a little something about Pannenberg.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have never before read Wolfhart Pannenberg, or at least as far as I can remember. Furthermore, in the course of my MDiv studies at Princeton Theological Seminary I can remember Pannenberg being treated in any detail only once in a lecture, although his name tended to come up with some regularity in conversation and discussion. All of that is to say that what follows is my attempt to get some sort of provisional handle on Pannenberg for the first time, and that I should not be mistaken as any sort of authority on his work. Indeed, if there are any Pannenberg enthusiasts or authorities reading this, please point out things that I have gotten wrong!

In any case, I picked up this tidy little volume (69 pages of text, although they are bound with something like 34 blank pages at the end, no doubt for note-taking) for a fraction of the $70+ for which it is currently offered on Amazon, and thought that I would reflect on each chapter as I read it. What follows is the result of that undertaking.

Chapter 1: The Need for Systematic Theology
“In the history of Christianity, there was always a fundamental question to be faced and to be answered, the question of why an individual person should commit herself or himself to be a member of the Christian church” (3).
This sentence, the first sentence of the first chapter of the book, sets out what seems to be Pannenberg’s guiding question: Why be a Christian? The remainder of the chapter addresses the role of systematic theology in answering this question. On the one hand, “the story of Jesus Christ has to be history…if the Christian faith is to continue” (5). That is, Christianity is historically falsifiable – if it can be proved that Jesus Christ did not exist or was not crucified, etc, Christianity is a waste of time. Of course, it is really hard to prove a universal negative.

But, it is coherence that is “the final criterion of truth” (6). Therefore, systematic theology is the “examination and confirmation of [Christianity’s] truth claims on the level of reflection” (ibid), that is, with reference to coherence. “[T]ruth itself is systematic, because coherence belongs to the nature of truth” (8): ergo, systematic theology is interested in reflecting critically upon the biblical text and the Christian tradition, re-organizing and re-formulating these materials in such a way as to demonstrate their coherence. Why? And, What does this look like?
“The very idea of the one God implies that all finite reality depends on him. Hence, such dependence has to be made at least plausible, if someone insists on the reality of God. And it can be made plausible only by entering into the arena of competing interpretations of finite reality…The only way it can be done is to present a coherent model of the world as God’s creation. This is precisely what theology always tried to do” (10).
With this as its task, systematic theology must be “an effort in constructive thought” (18), where “an integration of secular insight into theological systematic” (18-19) takes place. This integration will involve a “critical transformation” (19) of these secular insights, but it must at the same time “remain accountable to the standards of those secular disciplines” (19). In other words, these insights must be appropriated responsibly and, in the midst of inter-disciplinary dispute, integrated into a systematically Christian framework.

A few thoughts: Does this talk about coherence sound a lot like Lindbeck to anyone else? For Lindbeck, the level at which Christianity makes truth-claims is at the level of the whole’s coherence to reality, etc. In any case, I’m not sure I like this understanding of systematic theology because it is not ‘evangelical’ enough, that is, is it not concerned with proclamation. Instead of being about telling ‘the old, old story of Jesus and his love,’ it sounds more like an argument about the Christian story being better or more coherent than other stories. I know that this latter approach is attractive right now: it seems to be what Radical Orthodoxy is about, David Bentley Hart has offered a similar sortie, etc. It just doesn’t excite me. I worry about the interdisciplinary bit as well. I’m all for spoiling the Egyptians, but how much control do we have to grant the other disciplines over material that we want to appropriate for theology? Furthermore, how much material from other disciplines need we appropriate? Are our own resources so bankrupt?


Halden said…
Good post, but umm, who's "Wolfhart Pannenbert"? ;)
Lol! Nice catch, Halden!
The only way it can be done is to present a coherent model of the world as God’s creation.

I wonder if it is precisely this desire for a coherent model of creation that I think drives Pannenberg's desire to find an appropriate natural theology.

Also, this quote is reminiscent of Hauerwas's notion that only the Church can tell the world what it truly is. However, he would be less interested in coherence and more interested in "telling the story" as you prefer.
No Pannenberg happens to be a mentor of mine since the late 1970s. I was very excited about his systematic theology coming out in the 80s believe in the 90s. I’ve probably read about everything he has written at least that has been translated in English. I think his relative political conservatism has hindered his appeal in one circle. On the other hand, his willingness to rethink Christian tradition and not to take the Bible or the Christian tradition as set in stone service speak makes him uncomfortable too many Evangelical, and orthodox writers. So he tends not to have as much of a following essay Sellman, Lake, moltmann or even Karl Barth. While his project of coherence may not appeal to you, it is very much in line with thinkers, like Clement of Alexandria and Origen and Irenaeus.

Popular Posts

So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 5

Karl Barth on Hell, the Devil, Demons, and Universalism – A Florilegium

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 1