Wolfhart Pannenberg, 'Introduction to Systematic Theology' (2)

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

Learn a little something about Pannenberg.

Chapter 2: Problems of a Christian Doctrine of God

I liked this chapter much more than I did the first one, so maybe my earlier distaste was simply part of my general distaste for prolegomena. In any case, I can’t deal with all the content packed into this chapter, so I’ll have to hit high points.
  • Theology, Philosophy, Metaphysics

  • Pannenberg argues that “the theologian is called to restate the doctrine of God in terms of rational argument” (23), and he makes two points related to this. First, he notes that “the concept of God which was developed by medieval and early modern theology in close contact with classical metaphysics is in need of rather radical revision” (ibid). But, he notes secondly that a significant difficulty in going about this ‘radical revision’ is “the desolate state of metaphysics in modern philosophy” (ibid). That is, the philosophers aren’t doing metaphysics, and therefore the theologians have little to work with as they go about this revision.

    Moving on, Pannenberg says a bit more about how theology and philosophy relate. “First, the theologian should not realy too heavily on a particular philosophical system, but she or he should critically participate in the dialog of contemporary philosophy…” (24). The goal of this ‘critical participation’ by the theologian is the refinement of the Christian doctrine of God and the demonstration of its “rational plausibility” (25). Indeed, Pannenberg thinks that this has always been the role of metaphysical considerations in the Christian doctrine of God, at least when properly pursued.

    Lest anyone (pay attention, ye Barthians!) should object to this work, Pannenberg takes the time to point out that this sort of work is not engaging in ‘natural theology,’ the rejection of which thinks “served as an excuse for not entering seriously at all into the dialog with philosophy” (ibid). Pannenberg is not (here at least) interested in proofs of God’s existence, but in the explication of the Christian doctrine of God in a way that makes sense. Thus, he states that
    “to engage in critical dialog with the tradition of philosophical theology is not to do what is called ‘natural theology,’ but serves the critical examination of theological language. The less attention has been paid to this requirement, the more subjective and irrational theological language has become, even if the subjectivism simply consists in taking over traditional formulas and phrases without sufficient awareness of their implications” (ibid).
    I say, “Amen,” and I’m sure that this gladdens the heart of my philosopher friend.

  • Paul Tillich vs. Thomas

  • Paul Tillich (you can access my mini series on him in the DET serials index) gets a bit of a beating in this chapter. Pannenberg notes how Tillich attempted to revise the doctrine of God. Tillich’s first problem, according to Pannenberg, is his “dislike for the idea of a purely transcendent God” (ibid). Though Tillich is not a pantheist, this dislike is what pushes him to speak of God as the ground of being. Pannenberg thinks that Tillich should have paid more attention to the doctrine of the Trinity.

    Second, Pannenberg discusses Tillich’s notion of God as ‘being’ and not ‘a being’. Thomas is the hero in this section because he was able to hold together the notions of God as the ground of all being and as a particular being, precisely what Tillich couldn’t do because he thought it impossible for a particular being to be the ground of all being. “What is different in the case of God, according to Thomas Aquinas, is not that he has no essence at all, but that his being and essence are one. Therefore Thomas Aquinas could still speak of God as the highest being” (27). In Pannenberg’s estimation, this is Thomas’ “superior sophistication” (28).

  • Process Theology / Philosophy

  • Pannenberg thinks that Whiteheadian process philosophy / theology has much to commend it to one’s attention. For starters, it does a much better job than Tillich in “describing…the cosmological function inherent in the idea of God” (29). Furthermore, it is one of few examples of a contemporary philosophy that takes God seriously. However, its problem is
    “that it does not allow for a concept of creation. The Whiteheadian God is but a partial factor in the constitution of actual existence, which is basically conceived as self-constitutive. Therefore, the God of Whitehead is not the biblical creator God. Furthermore, the Whiteheadian God is one actual entity among others, though distinguished from them by being everlasting. According to this philosophy all actual reality is finite, even God. It’s picture of the universe is that of a pluralism of finite realties.” (29-30).
  • God as “Father

  • Coming back to Tillich, Pannenberg discusses God’s fatherhood. He lands on a position that is similar to Tillich’s, but that resists the more contemporary movements to speak of God in only gender-neutral language. “‘Father’ is not an exchangeable metaphor,” Pannenberg states emphatically, “though otherwise it may be regarded as a metaphorical expression on the same footing with words like ‘mother’ or ‘friend’” (31). The reason that it is not exchangeable has to do with the fact that “the word ‘Father’ indicates that our way of talking about God and of addressing God relates to the same God whom Jesus talked about…the exchange of this name inevitably results in turning to another God” (32).

  • The Personhood of God

  • Pannenberg discusses the personhood of God and locating it within his broader discussion. He also mentions some ways in which this concept developed and, more importantly, was severely critiqued in the modern period. What happened was that God’s personhood became identified with his existence as ‘spirit’ which, in the German philosophy of the day, was equated with ‘mind’. The question then came to be how a particular mind could also be infinite, and other questions similar to those found in discussions of God as a being or as being itself. The result of this discussion is this:
    “The biblical God is personal in his elective will and action and as he is revealed as Father by his Son Jesus Christ. And because as Father he is related to his Son in all eternity, he is personal in eternity in the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit. In them, the unspeakable divine mystery is eternally concrete. Therefore, one cannot have one God as personal without the trinitarian persons” (35-6).
Previous Installments: Chapter One


Anonymous said…
I would take aim at "rational plausibility" (though I'm not a strict Barthian myself) if we are to constrict our doctrine according to our philosophical schemata. Of course, I'm sure this is not exactly what Pannenberg means, but, rather, that our presentation of Christian doctrine does not violate given criteria of non-contradiction or falsifiability or something along those lines. Hence, we have his scientific apologetic running throughout his 3 volume dogmatics -- "scientific apologetic" insofar as he is at pains to demonstrate that our doctrines do not contradict the best (as he deems it) of current science (not that such science "proves" anything of the Christian faith). Of course, to what extent does this prolegomena control his handling of doctrine? Clearly, for example, in his dealing with original sin, he makes his account cohere with evolutionary thought, so evil and death are not a result of human sin but simply something we are born into (and from which Christ frees us). Now, what does this do to our doctrine of sin, guilt, evil, Incarnation, atonement, and so forth? If we don't want to be Creationists, how can we retain a robust Pauline soteriology in the face of contemporary "facts"? Is theology to be beholden to science (or philosophy or history)? Is this not the risk of any sort of plausibility thesis?

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