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In reaction to liberal theology, Karl Barth pioneered the neo-orthodox movement with its emphasis on God’s absolute otherness from any human category or experiences. One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice. God cannot be seized and made into an object of earthly categories. Consequently, man could not possibly work his way up to a true knowledge of God through philosophical and anthropological supports. Barth saw in every form of natural theology a failure to do justice to the ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between God and man. For Barth, God is ultimately knowable only through his sovereign personal illumination to human subjects through Christ, the Word of God.
However, since the 1960’s, a different theological project that is concerned with the classical quest for ultimate truth again has emerged. The foremost among its proponents is Wolfhart Pannenberg, a former student of Barth. The German theologian sought to propose correctives to what he perceived to be increasing privatization of modern theology as a merely subjective sphere sheltered from public scientific or historical inquiry.1 The retreat of theology into a cultural ghetto owes much to a postEnlightenment mindset which views authority and claims of truth with suspicion. For Pannenberg, systematic theology ought to be a discipline in search for universal truth that illumines all human knowledge. As such, theological statements ought to be boldly open to rational inquiry of the historical basis on which they rest.
Faith is not to be seen as a pietistic but blind “decision of faith”. The Christian faith hinges on the historical event of Christ’s bodily resurrection in space-time (1 Corinth. 15:14). As an event in history, it is open to rigorous investigation according to sound principles of historiography and the final criterion of truth - coherence. Whatever is true must cohere with all other truth so that truth is one and all-embracing.2 Pannenberg is confident that systematic theology should show that the Christian faith is true for all humanity and sheds light on all human knowledge. For example, in his work Jesus: God and Man, he argued that the Easter appearances of Jesus and the empty tomb traditions which emerged independently of each other provided evidence for the resurrection as a
Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), page 16 Ibid., page 6
historical event.3 Since theology is a public discipline, the idea of God ought to shed light not only on human existence but also the world as a whole, providing unity of all reality.4
Nonetheless, his project is not merely a return to the traditional notion that truth is found in the unchanging essences behind the ebb and flow of history. Rather, truth is seen as essentially historical and ultimately eschatological. Until the eschaton, our truth claims are contestable in the actual history of rival religious claims. Therefore, our theological statements today are provisional like all other kinds of human knowledge. The future alone will vindicate the ultimate truth. In the meantime, theologies are hypotheses to be tested for coherence with other domains of knowledge. Only at the end of history would the reality of God be indisputably evident to all. He warned that the ‘excitement of systematically exploring the truth of God must not be mistaken for having that truth itself at our disposal”.5 Even so, God’s self-revelation in the historical resurrection event has a proleptic element in that it anticipates in the present the final vindication of Christ and the renewal of all creation.6 As Grenz explains, “Through his resurrection Jesus experienced in the midst of history that eschatological transformation to which humanity is destined.”7 What will be disclosed fully at the end of history has become visible and present in Jesus in the midst of history.8 For Pannenberg, knowledge of God is impossible without his revelation in history.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man, (London: SCM Press, 1968), page 96 – 105. He concluded thus, “The Easter appearances are not to be explained from the Easter faith of the disciples; rather, conversely, the Easter faith of the disciples is to be explained from the appearances.” 4 Stanley Grenz, Reason For Hope: The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), page 7 5 Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, page 19 6 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Volume II, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), page 344 -345 7 Stanley Grenz, Reason For Hope, page 8 8 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Volume III, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), page 550 – 551
For classical Protestant theology, the Bible is held as the verbally inspired revelatory word of God. It is presupposed as the authoritative starting point of any theological task. For Pannenberg, the authority of the Bible ought to be seen as “the goal rather than the presupposition of theology”.9 Furthermore, he believes that the rise of historical-critical method made unviable the doctrine of verbal inspiration. Evangelicals would probably not agree with his appraisal on this point. There should be no dichotomy between the acts of God in historical events with the verbal proclamation that explains its significance. However, there is a valid caution from Pannenberg of the danger of insulating theological reflection from new discoveries in science, history and other fields of human knowledge in the name of presuppositionalism. One may ask, “In this case, would not one’s faith be made dependent on the ongoing and shifting results of historical research?” Grenz understood the German theologian’s intention is not “a suspension of decision but a willingness to realize the historical conditionedness of faith, based on the fact that the Christian message rests on historical events”.10 If Christ is not resurrected as a space-time event, then our faith would be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:17).
In Pannenberg’s view, the revelation of God in the light of its historical effects “is open to anyone who has eyes to see” and does not need any supplementary inspired interpretation.11 But why do some believe and others do not when confronted with the same revelatory light in history? Daniel Fuller has criticized him for minimizing the role
Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), page 196 10 Stanley Grenz, Reason For Hope, page 51 11 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Volume I, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), page 249
of the Holy Spirit in the epistemological process.12 At this point, Pannenberg refused to acknowledge that some supernatural workings of the Spirit need to be supplemented to a revelatory event. It would be inappropriate, he believes, to see the Spirit as outside the content of the apostolic proclamation as though it were not Spirit-filled by virtue of its content. By doing so, he seemed to stress the activity of the Spirit within the revelatory content rather than an external interpretive principle. However, he seemed to acknowledge “a brokenness of the knowledge of revelation” in the present era where truth claims are contestable.13
Despite the reservations noted earlier, evangelicals have much to gain from Pannenberg’s alternative program in the midst of subjectivist and existentialist tendencies in modern theology. In an age of increasingly hostile and secular culture, Christians cannot afford to give up the responsibility to give a reason for our hope and demonstrate how the lordship of Christ sheds light on all areas of human knowledge (1 Peter 3:15). In many ways, the German theologian modeled how an apologetic for ultimate truth is still relevant and viable in the post-Enlightenment era.
1. 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, Stanley Grenz & Roger
Olson, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1992
Stanley Grenz, Reason For Hope, page 52 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Volume I, page 250
2. An Introduction to Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg, William B.
Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1991
3. Jesus: God and Man, Wolfhart Pannenberg, SCM Press: London, 1968 4. Reason For Hope: The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, Stanley Grenz,
William B. Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2005
5. Systematic Theology Volume I, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Translated by G. W. Bromiley,
William B. Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1991
6. Systematic Theology Volume II, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Translated by G. W. Bromiley,
William B. Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1994
7. Systematic Theology Volume III, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Translated by G. W. Bromiley,
William B. Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1998
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