Anthropology in Theological Perspective

Had a bit of a presentation yesterday for my class on Pannenberg. The conversation afterward was, as it often is, more interesting than the presentation itself, with a hearty discussion on what exactly ‘sin’ is. The presentation is more of a conversation starter. This study will likely go well beyond this one class, as I’m taking a leap from this stuff as I explore the topic of holiness in my final paper. Holiness, that chapter 4 of It’s a Dance, that isn’t entirely a key focus in missional or emerging circles. But it should be, just not the kind and meaning of holiness that is usually understand when that word is thrown about.

Wholeness holiness. Wholiness. I think it’s an aspect of how Pannenberg really is going to contribute to theological conversation for quite a long while, and is particularly relevant for missional and emerging theologies.

Because I know you’re interested, I’m going to go ahead and post the text of the presentation here. Enjoy! 🙂

Anthropology in Theological Perspective was originally published in German in 1983, translated into English in 1985. As such it precedes, but not by much, his Systematic Theology. Meaning this present monograph is essentially contemporary with the writing of his systematic theology. The slightly earlier publication date allowed Pannenberg to introduce and provide fuller discussion of certain issues, as well as consider criticism which he would later respond to in his chapter 8 of his systematic theology. As he notes in his systematic theology, “In what follows more clearly the reasons for my interpretation and its particular character” (ST II, 242 n. 224). Although, he is specifically talking here about a particular point dealing with Augustine and sin, this is basically true about his whole chapter 8.

Anthropology in Theological Perspective is not merely an introduction to concepts later focused upon the Systematic Theology. It is much more ambitious than that. “The aim,” Pannenberg writes, “is to lay theological claim to the human phenomena described in the anthropological disciplines” (ATP, 19). This is not a “theological search for a ‘point of contact’ but rather a conversation, understanding that theology can indeed benefit from fruitful dialogue with other fields. Neither theology nor other fields of human knowledge are in themselves complete, rather as we develop in our understanding of self and this world we discover insight in integrative pursuit of holistic reality.

Pannenberg is not writing a dogmatic anthropology that presupposes the existence of God and moves from there based directly on revelation. As with his other endeavors, Pannenberg pursues his anthropology “from below.” He “does not argue from dogmatic data and presuppositions” but instead examines the findings of the various anthropological disciplines “with an eye to implications that may be relevant to religion and theology.” He describes this approach as a “fundamental-theological anthropology” (ATP, 21).
He sees, not surprisingly, history as being the key discipline for an overall anthropology and determines his method from his understanding of historical studies. This does not mean, however, a study of historical events, but rather looking to the disciplines that themselves feed into historical understanding, beginning as he notes, with the most basic.
He offers his general outline on page 22ff.

Summary of the Text
Anthropology in Theological Perspective is a bit over 530 pages, and in typical Pannenberg fashion, very dense writing and wide ranging exploration, making any substantive short summary rather difficult. Yet, the general style is, as I’ve noticed with other Pannenberg’s monographs, more accessible than his Systematic Theology. The systematic theology is, in essence, Pannenberg concentrate, offering sharp summaries of his broadly developed positions and including, often undeclared, clarifications to outside criticisms. Anthropology in Theological Perspective, on the other hand, allows Pannenberg the ability to wander as he will, developing the themes, approaches, topics and responses that reflect his immensely broad knowledge. Yet, as broad as this knowledge is, it is clear that Pannenberg does shape his discussion based on the texts and contexts he is most familiar with, thus not offering the kind of comprehensive anthropology that might be developed by a collaborative effort. More on that later.

The first section “The Person in Nature” can be considered, roughly, as pursuing the same goals as chapter 8 in the Systematic Theology. As such, it can be generally viewed as approaching anthropology from the perspective of philosophy and theology, dealing with more theological concerns such as the place of the human in the world, humanity as made in the image of God, and the topic of sin. The first part deals with the “Uniqueness of Humanity,” introducing behaviorism as a model of study. This part also illustrates Pannenberg’s approach throughout the rest of the book. He offers a general survey of relevant studies, in doing this brings up key terms and topics and figures, showing his grasp of the pertinent literature and conversation. From this survey he then narrows his focus to his particular concerns and brings into the conversation his theological observations and interactions, In doing this he is not offering a comprehensive study of any given topic, but rather is making note of the theological implications and thus theological contributions to specific topics within each field, letting the various figures contribute to his terminology and explanation, while continually engaged in critical conversation that pushes back and brings out the primary emphasis on human identity and human relationship with God.

Key to this section is Pannenberg’s introduction of the concept of ‘exocentricity’ and humanity’s ‘openness to the world’. These concepts are at the heart of Pannenberg’s later understanding of sin and restored identity.
He then develops these concepts more in the second part “Openness to the World and Image of God”, defining what human wholeness means. At the point he then develops his understanding of sin as self-focus and the nature of sin in deepening human non-identity. As noted, these initial chapters roughly cover the same issues as the chapter in the Systematic Theology.
It is in the second and third section that Anthropology in Theological Perspective goes well beyond the discussion in the Systematic Theology.

The second section is a developed interaction with the field of psychology. Like the first section Pannenberg develops his discussion in three parts beginning with “subjectivity and society”, which leads into ‘the problem of identity’, and concludes with “Identity and Nonidentity as a theme of the affective life.” Here he develops even more thoroughly the key issue in the topic of sin and human participation with God is one of ego-development and identity formation. He interacts with Freud, of course, but also more substantively with George Herbert Mead’s social psychology, and Jean Piaget’s and Erik Erikson’s insights into developmental psychology.

The first section of Anthropology in Theological Perspective emphasizes theology and our interaction with God. The second section emphasizes psychology and our interaction with ourselves. The third and final section, it can be said, is a study of society, emphasizing human interaction with other humans. He begins with a study on culture in general, looking at how to understand its roots, foundations and developments. He makes particular emphasis on the topics of human play and language. He then moves on, in the second part, to discussion of more general topics of social relations. Working from all the theological and psychological foundations he has previously developed, he studies the topics of family, economy, politics, and religion as a public institution. In the very last part, of the section and the book, Pannenberg once again comes back to his favored topic of history, offering a more accessible and indeed developed discussion of the topic of history than we see either in his Revelation as History or in his fourth chapter of his Systematic Theology.

Key Themes
The main concepts and themes are roughly the same as in the Systematic Theology, however, here they are more substantively defined and developed.

Two main ideas should be especially noted.

While the topic of sin is considered in depth in the Systematic Theology there is, it seems, an assumption rather than development of Pannenberg’s particular emphasis of sin as being misplaced ego and false identity development. In the Systematic Theology discussion it would not be difficult to assume any traditional assumption as being relevant to Pannenberg’s use of the term.
He warns against improper use of the topic of sin at the end of his first section of ATP, on page 153: “It is important for us to become more clearly aware of the ambivalence in the consciousness of sin and in the doctrine of sin even in the history of Christianity; it is important especially for the preacher and the pastor. Even the consciousness that human beings have of their own nonidentity can become an expression and instrument of distortion and self-failure, and Christian preaching on sin as well as the Christian doctrine of sin, can unwittingly help in this process or even become an exercise ground for aggressive feelings. Preaching and teaching on sin are protected against that kind of perversion only if they limit themselves strictly to fulfilling their function in the formation of human identity, where they serve as factors in the process of human liberation.”

This warning is a reminder that among Pannenberg’s quieter concerns is a fight against forms of theology that lead to authoritarianism.

What is involved in the formation of human identity? Our identity is not self-formed, but rather it is dependent upon the Spirit as the Spirit of Life, and thus empowered to be truly ourselves only when in tune with God who is the only true self as self. Yet, he invites us to join him not as drones, but as participants in his own exocentric wholeness. God is open to the world, and as we become free in his history and his work our ego that closes us off to the world in defense of a distorted identity becomes open to our true being and to others, God and the world. The defensive frenzy is stilled and we find an inner stillness in this open movement.

Issues and Context

Pannenberg made his case early in his theological career that he wished to pursue a public theology. And he has. Not in terms of being popular or communicating to the masses. Public as in intentionally moving outside the bounds of narrow theological conversation and insisting on bringing theology to bear on a wide range of relevant disciplines. Anthropology in Theological Perspective is a masterful example of this. However, the very goal of comprehensive discussion does have its weaknesses, and these weaknesses are apparent in this text.

There is a strong sense that the whole issue is framed in what Pannenberg happens to have studied extensively, rather than being a more open, broad-ranged conversation with those who would be quite helpful in the relevant interaction.

His range of conversation partners seems to be quite illustrative of his context as a Protestant Theologian from post-WWII Germany. This is certainly a worthwhile task, as his dialogue partners are indeed major contributors of knowledge from the early centuries to fairly recently. However, one wonders if a continued use of Pannenberg insists not only on engaging his own thoughts, but also developing them further in light of more contemporary and contextual efforts. In other words, a study of Pannenberg might not only insist upon knowing more fully those he chooses to interact with, it also might demand a need to press on with his method and apply it continuously to avoid falling into a dogmatic trap. A weighty task indeed.

Connected to this is Pannenberg’s decided emphasis on Western theological traditions. Although, he certainly has a strong grasp on Patristics, he does have a certain focus on those outside the earliest eras. This is particularly evident in the way he develops his understanding of sin, identity, and wholeness, relying on Augustine and then more recent developmental psychological theorists.

Meanwhile, there is a significant similarity between his emphasis on identity, non-identity, and sin as deformation and the wider Orthodox writings, from the earliest eras onwards. He seems to be very much in line with some of the great Orthodox writers from the 1st millennium.

It is also interesting to consider Pannenberg with Moltmann. While Moltmann certainly engages more often and more directly with topics of anthropological concern, he does not have a particularly well developed theological understanding of the individual, nor of individual sin. His emphasis is more on systematic sin, on systems, on, as Walter Wink might put it, “principalities and powers”. Moltmann has a more general perspective on sin, but writes extensively on particular issues of human suffering, politics, and economics. His psychological influences seem primarily limited to Freud, suggesting little interest in the specifics of human development. While he has written extensively on church, writing very forward looking texts on the future of the church, he has not focused any major work on anthropology, except maybe his own autobiography A Broad Place.

Pannenberg, on the other hand, is very detailed in his discussion on the various anthropological disciplines, and anthropology has been a major concern for him since his earliest writings. However, he very rarely (if ever) applies these to specific concerns or events. Yet, Anthropology in Theological Perspective points the way to very fruitful application in a variety of subjects. Pannenberg and Moltmann both were known as being “theologians of hope” who emphasized a strong eschatology. However, in the decades of their theological development they took these beginnings on two decidedly different trajectories, maybe no more clearly seen than in their discussion on the human condition.

Evangelical Interaction

In the specifically Evangelical conversation two names, other than Grenz, are worthwhile to note as illustrations of clear Pannenberg influence and continued developers of his thought. The first is James Loder, a Princeton professor and occasional visiting professor at Fuller Seminary until his death in late 2001. That summer, I had him here, in a class that depended on his book Logic of the Spirit. In this book, he takes guidance from Pannenberg’s second section and develops more thoroughly a conversation with developmental psychology, using what he calls a combined “approach from below” and “approach from above”, more fully integrating an understanding of God’s participation with us into the developmental theories of Erik Erikson and the faith stage theories of James Fowler, walking through the various stages of identity development, and assessing each according to psychological and theological perspectives. In doing this he also relies a great deal on the contributions of Kierkegaard, who Pannenberg also notes quite a bit, though generally with some decided criticism.

In addition, we should make note of LeRon Shults who likewise takes up Pannenberg’s approach and develops it further, utilizing also the contributions of Loder. His Reforming Theological Anthropology and Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology (co-written with Steven Sandage) is worth noting.

Pannenberg’s comprehensive understanding of the human condition, first as individuals and then as social beings, is an immense contribution to not only theology but for just about every field related to human interaction, not least the church. By changing the discussion of sin away from guilt, moralism, legalism Pannenberg enables a holistic understanding of community with God and with others. Sin as guilt-oriented often leads to church structures that have the goal of pacification of its members, rather than formation.

Emphasis on identity formation has the potential to radically affect church life, with the goal being wholeness, which involves a deeper emphasis on participation, recognition, and interaction. If we ask people to give up their identity within a church community, or to impose our identity, we are indulging sin not combating it. Rather than holiness closing us off to the world, a holistic understanding of human ego and identity means a reformation of our exocentric nature, and as such, an openness to the world, loving the world as God does.

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