Thursday, 10 July 2008

Pannenberg paper

I am working on a PhD looking a Wolfhart Pannenberg (b.1928) the German theologian. Here is the summary of my paper on Pannenberg for ANZATS (associated with SBL). It is a bit dense I know, but I am too close to it at present to give a simpler summary. My supervisor, Dr Chris Mostert, was there and was encouraging. He noted one point that he disagreed with, and I've fixed that up in the summary below. I came up with an local Auckland illustration, and I had a three dimensional diagrams! They were the highlights for the audience I suspect.

In order to understand Pannenberg we need some idea of his whole project. I outlined that in 11 points.
1) Theology is a ‘science’ (or Wissenschaft).
2) Theology must be rational.
3) God is the object of theology.
4) Philosophically God is properly conceived of as the  Christian Trinitarian thought gives the only adequate account of the true infinite.
5) The theological concept of God takes up the philosophical and expands it.
6) Theological claims are hypotheses which find confirmation in the eschaton

7) The truth of any statement stands in relation to God.
8) “Every assertion has an anticipatory structure”.
9) The demise of metaphysics makes the affirmation of the truth of God untenable and the rise of atheism inevitable.
10) Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) and Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) are the thinkers who proclaimed the demise of metaphysics.
11) A renewed metaphysical proposal must start with real life-worlds and historicity.

Pannenberg then presents a reconceptualised metaphysic. Dilthey and Heidegger argued that the temporality of understanding makes substantialist metaphysics impossible because there is no unified unchanging understanding of being. Pannenberg proposes to include this feature of change in a new ontology. Pannenberg suggests that things are what they become.

I call this proposal “temporalised essentialism”. It allows Pannenberg to incorporate the fact that truth claims and interpretations shift through time. Pannenberg’s proposal is a response to elements of postmodernity. He does not display any interest in fully developed postmodernism with its deconstruction and rejection of canonical descriptions and final vocabularies, and critique of the notion of the neutrality and sovereignty of reason. Yet in dealing Dilthey and Heidegger on questions of temporality he interacts with thinkers and themes which lie at the roots of postmodernity. This proposal makes use of explicitly theological material, drawing on Christian eschatology and resurrection hope in the light of the resurrection of Christ. Pannenberg’s metaphysical proposal stands in a reciprocal relationship with a theological proposal. “Temporalised essentialism” allows the theological to be recognised as conceivable, while it is only in the theological that the metaphysical finds its validation. Ultimately such validation is eschatological, since it is only when the Triune God is revealed as the reality which determines all reality that the truth of either claim can be established.

This metaphysics is the background for Pannenberg's reformulation of the doctrine of God. He responde to three concerns: i) the need to relate to modern relational categories rather than classical concepts; ii) the need to resolve problems in the traditional doctrine of God; and iii) the need to ground the doctrine of God in revelation. His most basic concern, on his own presentation, is the need to ground the doctrine of God in revelation, particularly the historical revelation of Jesus and the relationships discovered there.

Pannenberg expounds revelation in Christ in terms of the “mutual self-distinction” of Father, Son and Spirit. He argues that all “active relations” have a place in the “richly structured nexus of relationship” of Trinitarian life. Pannenberg treats these relations as truly mutual, so that the Father-Son relation is constitutive for the Father as well the Son. Pannenberg comes to a doctrine of the Trinity in which the deity, distinctive identity and unity of each of the persons is constituted in and through the others in the economy. Pannenberg’s position is that that God’s deity, unity and lordship can not be confessed unless they are thought of eschatologically. It is at this point that the importance of ‘anticipation’ can be seen. For it is only because things are in the present what they will be in the end that we can affirm that the one ruling Lord is already present.


Pannenberg’s exposition of the Trinity has two inseparable aspects: ‘mutual self-distinction’ (i.e. inner Trinitarian relations or what is often identified as the immanent Trinity) and ‘salvation history’ (i.e. the economic Trinity). In Pannenberg’s thought these two aspects must be maintained and related.

Pannenberg’s theological and metaphysical proposals involve a reconceptualisation of the relation of time and eternity. He argues that eternity must be understood as the simultaneity of all time, an eternity which lies in the future of temporal experience.
How can this proposal be assessed? I’d suggest these are important questions
a) Does Pannenberg’s view of anticipation concord with the New Testament presentation of the ‘now-not yet’ tension?
b) Does Pannenberg’s doctrine of God result in distancing God from history?
c) Does Pannenberg’s move to understand the relations of the Trinity as not simply relations of ‘origin’ constitute a theological advance beyond of the Nicene tradition?
d) Is it valid to assert that there is no conceptual distinction between God’s essence and persons?
e) Does Pannenberg’s claim that all history is anticipatory of redemption means that he must relativise wrath and judgement?

Whatever conclusion we come to on those questions Pannenberg’s project offers important insights for Christian talk about God in the face of the fragmentation of postmodernity. In the ongoing debate about the place of metaphysics in Christian theology Pannenberg insists that Christian talk about God can not abandon metaphysics. His approach suggests that a response to postmodernity can not simply rest on classical metaphysics. He shows us that in eschatology we find resources for rethinking our view of God and time and eternity.

2 comments:

Pete Moore said...

One of the glories of systematic theology is the attempt to communicate historic Christian faith in terms intelligible to the locals - presenting it in a way that makes sense to contemporary thinkers. It seems to me that is what Pannenberg is doing with his grand project - and what you did too John... What was your Auckland illustration anyway?

John McClean said...

The Auckland illustration was to show that the 'meaning' of the past develops in light of later events and give people some idea of Pannenberg's claim that what is now is so because of what will be. It went like this.

"Let me give a simple example in a form which Pannenberg does not offer, but which is consistent with his position. Based on that source of so much information wikipedia we that Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand was settled in the 14th century. If this statement is true, it was not obviously true in the 14th century, when those who first settled the area were not founding a city and did not call it Auckland, and were not part of a nation called New Zealand and indeed were not in the 14th century. It was only because of what is the case now that certain things are the case about what happened then. Our reaction to this may be to seek to use our language more carefully and to say that “the area which later became the largest city in a nation called New Zealand was first settled in a time which was later identified as being the 14th century”. However Pannenberg’s approach suggests that our language reflects something more than a lack of precision. I would say (though this is not quite how Pannenberg argues) that even if we more carefully frame our proposition to take note of the temporal changes, we are interested in the event in the 14th century because of later events and the meaning of an event some 700 years ago is determined by what happens after it. According to Pannenberg, because the Christian recognises that any element of reality has its meaning in relation to all reality and so to God and because God’s relation to all reality is established in the eschaton, then all things are what they are now because of what they will be in the end."