Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Theological Method

Earlier this year I spent two weeks in a Christian university Uganda, I saw these students work through some questions like: “What is theology?” “What role should the Bible play in our doctrinal formulations?” “How can the church be a faithful witness to Christ in the world?” Although Pannenberg was far from the minds of these African students, his Systematic Theology: Volume One addresses precisely these sorts of questions. Though Pannenberg does not answer these questions for those who find themselves in an African context he claims that this volume, which addresses part of the spiritual heritage of all Christians, quite simply addresses “the truth of Christian doctrine and the Christian confession.” Over the next few days I will be examining Pannenberg’s theological method – in all of its strengths and its weaknesses.

Overview of Method in Systematic Theology Volume One

Section 1 of Chapter 1 begins by considering the nature of theology. Having described various trends in usage of the word over time Pannenberg gives us a provisional definition of the term. He claims that theology is not solely or primarily a human activity, rather “it is the declaring of God that is proper to the divine logos and disclosed by him.” The basis of this theology is revelation, that is, it is knowledge of God which is made possible by God. Without acknowledging this basic condition of theology one cannot properly do theology. Pannenberg goes on to nuance this position by introducing a thesis of Reformed theologian Franz Junius which explains the human role in theology. Junius says that human theology is possible only as a copy and imitation of the divine archetypal theology. Suffice it to say that our knowledge of God is only possible through God’s revelation, though this knowledge only approximates God’s knowledge of himself.

Bonn, CDU-Friedenskongress, Pannenberg

Having stated what theology is, Pannenberg now addresses what the proper object of theology is. Following Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and countless others Pannenberg argues that God is the single, all embracing object of theology. The upshot of this proposition is that this object can only be known if it gives itself to be know. Though Christian theology addresses many things, all those things which are covered in theological discourse find their place in relation to God, i.e. God is the unifying subject of all theological topics. This particular view is contrasted with Schleiermacher’s position which considers human needs and experiences of God to be the proper objects of theology. Pannenberg rejects this notion and stresses that theology is discourse about God that God himself has authorized. It is not discourse about God grounded in human needs or interests or even ideas about the divine. In order to truly be “Christian” theology, theology must have as its theme the truth about God as he has revealed himself.

 

The centrality of truth as a part of Christian theology leads Pannenberg to consider the nature of Dogmatics. He begins with a very simple definition of Dogmatics as “the science of Dogma or of Christian doctrine.” This definition is not very helpful so Pannenberg engages in a short historical study regarding the nature of Dogmatics. Here he takes on biblical as well as early Christian materials and concludes that if the dogmas of Christians are true, they are no longer the opinion of humans, rather they are divine revelation. These dogmas are divine truth.

Pannenberg realizes that talk about dogma in our modern context is likely to bring us some harsh feelings for many would consider dogma and religious coercion to go hand in hand. Pannenberg is quite right since many would indeed say that dogmatic religious claims attempt to force consensus about these positions and thus establish these positions as the only truth. That is supposedly contrasted with a consensus, which arises out of a free agreement regarding these religious claims. Yet Pannenberg argues that neither coercion nor consensus can serve as an adequate criterion of the truth of a doctrine.[4] It is tempting to believe that consensus, even universal consensus, would establish the truth of a doctrine but this is simply not the case for some ideas and convictions might be deeply rooted in the whole species, though these convictions may turn out to be false. Though consensus does not establish the truth of a doctrine it nevertheless plays a significant role in our understanding of Christian doctrine. For instance within the Lutheran tradition, confessions aim at achieving a total church consensus regarding evangelical doctrine. Although consensus does not establish or create the truth of a doctrine it nevertheless helps the church to provide a normative function in the church’s reading of the word of God. As Scripture is read and interpreted through the lens of these confessions the result is that the Christian reader ends up confession Jesus of Nazareth and the act of God in him. This is the purpose of confessions, to help Christian readers in their reading and interpretation of Scripture.

Having considered the way that Dogmatics unfolds the content of church teaching and how dogma relates to truth Pannenberg goes on to explain the task of presenting a comprehensive and coherent presentation of this doctrinal content. This coherent and comprehensive presentation of dogma is called “systematic theology.” This term which is first found in the early 18th century deals with the matters of theology in a comprehensible manner and it explains, proves, and confirms its content in detail. One thing that systematic theology entails that the things which are regarded as true will not contradict one another, in other words there must be some sort of coherence in this system. Though coherence is not necessarily the thing which determines the truth of any one system, the fact that the doctrine corresponds to the object/reality determines the truth, it is nevertheless a crucial aspect of any proper system.

41yrbvsp98l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Having spent most of this chapter establishing some key concepts, such as the nature and object of theology, the meaning of dogma, and the criteria for a systematic theology’s truth, Pannenberg now moves on to discussion some “problems” of prolegomena to Dogmatics. He says that traditionally Protestant prolegomena would include the following five themes: “1) the concept of theology; 2) the Christian religion as the general object of theology; 3) scripture as the guiding principle of theology; 4) the articles of faith; and 5) the use of reason.” Most often the third theme commands the greatest attention in protestant prolegomena. This makes sense for its is part an parcel of reformation theology that the authority of Scripture as a norming norm for theology is based on the fact that it is God’s own words. Yet there has been a problem in regards to this third theme regarding where the authority of Scripture comes from. Does this authority come from the sole fact that it is God’s inspired word or does it involve the Christian’s personal experience of belief in God’s word? This issue was further complicated when the concept of religion took on a more fundamental role in understanding the nature of theology. This is especially poignant in the work of Schleiermacher who grounds his methodological foundation of Dogmatics in the concept of religion or piety. So the theme of scripture as the guiding principle of theology has broken out into two different camps, the one camp which situates scriptures’ authority with faith (subjective) and the other which situates its scripture’s authority in its inspiration (objective). Given the demise of a general belief in the authority of Scripture it makes sense to try to ground the authority of scripture in an appeal to faith. However the problem with this is that it does not provide an objective ground for guaranteeing its truth.

In his final section in chapter 1 Pannenberg takes issue with recent Christian Dogmatics that make the truth of Christian doctrine a presupposition rather than declaring it a theme of inquiry. In Pannenberg’s opinion the fact that the revelation of God is a part of the reality of world means that it is inherently debatable and up for testing and confirmation. He argues that since truth is not purely subjective, rather that truth is a public thing, the truth of Christian Dogmatics ought to be able to be deliberated about and debated. Christians fail to do the world a service when they engage in theology as though the truth of the matter can be assumed. Instead Christians ought to engage in theology in such a way that the unbelieving public can be faced with the truth and make a decision regarding its feasibility.

In this section Pannenberg relates theology to a scientific hypothesis which can be tested and tried. Yet to call theology a hypothesis or to say it is provisional should not alarm Christians whatsoever since the truth of Christian theology is grounded in eschatology. The Christian knows that the decision regarding the truth “rests with God himself. It will be finally made with the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God in God’s creation.”

 

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