Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg: His Method, Part 2

Here’s the second part from the question on Pannenberg’s method from my second comprehensive exam: You can see the first part here.

As part of his interest in dialogue, and in keeping with his overall understanding of revelation, Pannenberg seeks to avoid declarations about God that derive from ‘above’, seeking instead to approach theology, and thus every topic, from the only perspective that humanity really can understand, the perspective ‘from below’, which is our perspective. This means that theology is engaged in a rational construction of beliefs based on our perceptions, perceptions wrestled with and adapted in a variety of fields, moving together to form a more complete picture of human knowledge. In this way, theology, for Pannenberg, really is a contextual enterprise, though his critics might be surprised to hear Pannenberg described as a contextual theologian, for he stands out as among the least interactive with the various other contextual theologies that came to fruition during his era. On the surface he seems to be the model of the contextless theologian, proposing a universal model to be applied everywhere. But herein lies the genius of his method that is separate from his specific proposals.

Because of his insistence on a highly particularized understanding of God’s work in history, this work insists on a multiplicity of assessments from a wide variety of perspectives. What Pannenberg is proposing in his method is that people within contexts are responsible for bringing insight about God’s revelation that can contribute to a more complete understanding. Pannenberg respects contexts so much that he does not try to speak outside of his own, knowing everything about everything, one might say, within his own field of experience, while encouraging others to apply his method to their own contexts and share their own insights. This universal understanding of truth is given interpretation through always particular expressions of God’s working in this world, and in a way that does not seek to prioritize one field upon another, building a theology upon rigid foundations, building a coherent system of beliefs that are always being tested and applied. This, then, certainly echoes the postfoundationalist priorities.

And yet, there is a distinct difference. In asserting theology as a research program, Pannenberg does not start with an open slate but insists that we have in fact learned some core facts about God’s identity that determine how theology, how Christian theology, must proceed. This means that theology, for Pannenberg is inherently trinitarian in scope and derived from the particular forms of identity about Father and Son and Spirit that have been revealed through the authoritative interpretative experiences of history, as declared in Scripture. Especially noteworthy is the resurrection of Christ, which confirms the message and work of Jesus as the most full expression of God’s revelation.

Moreover, in the work of God’s revelation we are given insight into a created reality that is not merely developing according to a random or imprecise course, undetermined or uncertain. Instead, at the core of Pannenberg’s method is his insistence on an ontological priority of the future, it is in the future that God reaches to us, an already determined future in which the fullness of God’s identity is the only dependable reality upon which we all can base our own identities. While the indirect revelation of God’s identity is unfinished in the course of our experience of history, and as such we might even be able to say that God is not yet fully revealed as God, the question of this fulfillment is not open. Rather the all determining reality determines our reality from the established fullness of God’s infinite identity, and it is this that the course of cosmic history derives meaning and sustenance.

This prioritization of God’s established future is a major sticking point for the many process theologians for whom Pannenberg is seen as an otherwise helpful guide. They embrace his suggestions that God is a participant in history, but want this to remain at that level, pushing back against Pannenberg’s insistence that while God is active he is not determined himself by history, but is the determining reality. Two final comments on Pannenberg’s method are worth noting. The first has to do with his overall theological program as developed over the decades. While many theologians should be considered in light of the various stages of their theological development, often with major changes or switches in emphasis, for Pannenberg there really is a consistency of approach, built upon a increasingly developed method that was initially proposed in the 1960s.

So much is this true that Pannenberg seems to leave out repeating himself on occasion, having developed a theme in one monograph he seems to assume knowledge of this as he develops a particular topic. Which means that to find the coherence in Pannenberg’s theology, one has to keep in mind the entirety of his corpus. This does not mean that he has not adapted or responded to critics, but much of this has been clarification rather than changes. Indeed, it might best be said that over the course of his long career we can see a ‘thickening’ of his theology rather than a
transformation.

Second, all throughout Pannenberg’s theology there is an anti-authoritarian emphasis. While his insistence on an ontological priority of the future might suggest the possibility of more rigid declaration of theology that comes from the top down, Pannenberg at every stage is resistant to human dominance of God’s revelation, shaping his theology so that human error and incomplete identity do not gain sway over God’s own declaration of self. Pannenberg’s insists that God’s revelation is God’s revelation, and that structures and proposals must maintain a humility throughout in order to make sure we do not, in seeking to discuss God, put ourselves in the role of God’s caretaker, something God is very particularly against.

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