My second comprehensive exam was on the study of Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian who help transform theological studies in second half of the 20th century. Depending on when you ask me, I’d answer a question about my place in systematic theology by answering I’m Pannenbergian with Moltmannian tendencies, or I’m Moltmannian with Pannenbergian tendencies. If you have no idea what I just said, that’s fine, you’re much more in keeping with the rest of humanity. Still, it’s true. Those are the two who have most shaped my advanced theological studies, the two I’ve specialized in, and since my dissertation is connecting with Moltmann, it’s good that I have this as testimony to my study of Pannenberg.
So, here it is. The first part of the first question. Here’s the question:
1) Give an outline of Pannenberg’s Method in Theology and reflect on its strengths and Weaknesses.
Here’s my response:
Given the many topics and issues that Pannenberg has covered over the years, in his many monographs and especially in his monumental three volume Systematic Theology, the question of what will be his most important lasting contribution is certainly worth discussion and debate. In my estimation, however, while the whole of Pannenberg is worth considering in greater detail, it is likely his understanding of theological method that will be the most important contribution.
Indeed, this should not be surprising as it is his method which was his area of focus for many years. It is worth noting, then, what this method was and why it has such a lasting appeal. At the core of his method is his attentiveness to how he understood God’s revelation.
Early in his career, he along with a few others, proposed a radically fresh approach to this topic, a major break from the two dominating options of Barth and Bultmann. To understand the work of God we did not, nor should not, depend on a private or spiritualized direct revelation, one that was outside the work of history. Rather, Pannenberg took a leap over Lessing’s ditch and argued that it was through history that God revealed himself, and it is only through this work that we can come to terms with who God is and what he is doing.
This revelation of God is not a direct testimony in which God tells us about who he is and gives us a set of nicely arranged facts that settle what we should believe. Rather, from the beginning in the history of Israel, God’s revelation is an indirect revelation in which we learn who he is by what he does, and it is in his work that God shows that he is God and what kind of God he is. This indirect revelation means we cannot grasp God’s fullness in any sense of completeness, but rather there is a proleptic quality to this revelation, an incomplete telling that waits for the fullness of history to be entirely revealed. As such, there is in theology an epistemological humility, as this indirect revelation refuses to be contained by any settled system or mastered by any finite individual.
Yet, while there is humility in avoiding a conclusive statement about the fullness of God, this does not mean we are left in a state of ignorance or that all attempts to discuss God are equal. God’s indirect revelation is accompanied by various forms of interpretation, some authoritative like Christ, and these interpretive aspects help guide us to a fuller and more complete understanding of God, though this understanding will only be given full verification at the end of time, when God opens up the fullness of his revelation to all in the completion of the universal history.
In this present, in which we have interpretive experiences woven together within a web of beliefs, we are able to propose conceptions of the overall field of theology, though these proposals are not settled facts, but instead Pannenberg approaches theology through what could be considered a research program, suggesting theses that are tested and weighed according to the information we have now, awaiting verification as they stand up in light of the whole of theology.
This approach may be considered a form of post-foundationalism, though with some noteworthy elements. Pannenberg has definitely embraced a form of theology that does not rely on building one element upon another, each element depending on the previous in order to support an increasingly complex, logically ordered system. History is itself a series of interpreted experiences which inform our beliefs, and these beliefs then inform how we interpret our experience. Meaning the goal here is not an edifice of theology, but rather more of a web, in which various elements are all interlinked, each affecting the other. This, for Pannenberg, is the prioritization of coherence in theology, everything is interrelated and that means that one cannot separate fields of theological discussion, but instead making an adjustment or declaration in one area radically affects all the others
Because of Pannenberg’s proposal that revelation occurs in an indirect way through history, this coherence itself can not be separated from experienced reality. This means that Pannenberg’s seeming Hegelian approaches are given a radically new shape in his insistence that objective coherence of truth is discovered not through generalized laws but through the highly particularized events of an infinitely complex history. He moves away from German idealism in his insistence on the importance of every person, every field of study, all of reality for source material in coming to terms with God’s work in this work, and thus God’s revelation of his self.
This wide and specific interest means that Pannenberg heartily rejects any privatization of theology or engaging in theology within the confines of an isolated field of study. For Pannenberg, because God is the all determining reality, whose creative influence creates and sustains all there is, this means that every area of study is not only open to theological dialogue but indeed every field requires it, though not in an authoritarian manner in which theologians insist on imposing their interpretations of the world onto every other subject as was done in the past. Instead, because God is active in every arena, the theologian is called to genuine dialogue, learning from and interacting with specialists in the various fields, contributing back the insights gleaned from a wider perception of reality’s overall coherence.
This means that theology is by its nature a public theology, interested in everything, using everything in an attempt to better understand the fullness of God’s indirect revelation that extends throughout every aspect of creation.