Truth as “Coherence” » Pannenberg on Science and Theology

Wolfhart Pannenberg, edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen. The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology (West Conshohocken: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), 242pp + xxiv, $23.96.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s enduring engagement with the natural sciences, philosophy, and history has been theologically driven by his doctrine of God. Credible talk about God, he urges, has to be related to that reality claimed to be his creation. In a recent autobiographical essay, he explains,

[T]alk about God has to deal with God the creator of the world. Otherwise it would come to nothing. To deal with the creator of the world, however, requires us to consider everything to be a creature of that God, and that requires us to clarify whether each single reality can be understood and has to be understood to be a creature of God. Thus, a doctrine of God touches upon everything else. Therefore, it is necessary to explore every field of knowledge in order to speak of God reasonably” (“An Intellectual Pilgrimage”, Dialog 45, no. 2 (Summer 2006), 190. Emphasis mine)

You can’t fail to appreciate the boldness of that claim! The result of embracing it, for Pannenberg, has been a vigorous and sustained commitment to various fields sometimes considered outside theology proper, such as anthropology, sociology, the philosophy of science, physics, and biology. Over the years, these efforts have produced monographs of interdisciplinary theology (e.g. Theology and the Philosophy of Science (T&T Clark, 1976), Anthropology in Theological Perspective (T&T Clark, 1985), Metaphysics and the Idea of God (Eerdmans, 1988)), a staggering number of articles, and two collections of essays (Toward a Theology of Nature (Westminster, 1993), Natur und Mensch – und die Zukunft der Schöpfung. Beiträge zur Systematische Theologie, Band II (Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 2000)).

The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology is a collection of sixteen essays intended to further the exposure of Pannenberg’s interdisciplinary work to English language readers. Neil Hans Gregerson’s nice introductory essay outlines the broad contours of Pannenberg’s theology and briefly chronicles his engagement with the natural sciences. For those uninitiated to this aspect of Pannenberg’s corpus, it could serve as a primer, although more thorough discussions can be found elsewhere (e.g. Philip Hefner, “The Role of Science in Pannenberg’s Theological Thinking” Zygon 24, no. 2 (June 1989), 135-151); Stewart, Jacqui A. Reconstructing Science and Theology in Postmodernity: Pannenberg, Ethics and the Human Sciences (Ashgate, 2000); Ted Peters’ introduction in Toward a Theology of Nature (Westminster: 1993))

The essays comprising the volume are divided into four parts: Methodology, Creation, and Nature’s Historicity, Religion and Anthropology, and Meaning and Metaphysics. It includes seven German essays from Beiträge zur Systematische Theologie, Bd. II translated by Linda Maloney, seven English pieces from various journals and books, and two previously unpublished works. Unfortunately, I was most interested to see the previously unpublished material but was immediately disappointed. One of these supposedly unpublished essays, “Eternity, Time, and Space” actually appeared several years ago with only a couple formatting differences (“Eternity, Time, and Space” Zygon 40, no. 1 (March 2005), 97ff). Unless the publication of this volume was delayed for a very, very long time, this is simply inexcusable.

The other unpublished essay, “Theology Examines its Status and Methodology”, proceeds along familiar paths. On the heals of a characteristic trot through the history of how Christian theology has been conceived up to to Barth, Pannenberg argues that Christian theology must pick up its task today precisely where “modernity has left it…with religion as a human phenomenon” (4). Where other approaches fail – Bultmann’s decision of faith, the church’s proclamation of the word of God in Barth, and the Biblicists commitment to scripture – Pannenberg believes that starting with religion as a universal human phenomenon grants theology a truly “theocentric position”. Christian truth-claims are then precisely where they should be – within the market place of ideas and contending against other explanations of reality based on “coherence as the criterion of truth”. To the question of how theology proves the coherence of its claims, he returns to where his engagement with the sciences began: a systematic presentation of the Christian faith in dialogue with the study of history and the human and natural sciences (p. 7). Though Pannenberg doesn’t reveal anything particularly new or groundbreaking concerning his theological methodology, this brief essay represents a concise, brief encapsulation of his procedures and assumptions.

So where does this leave Pannenberg’s relationship to the physical and natural sciences, to history and metaphysics? Pannenberg works from a coherence view of truth, and this means for him that a dogmatic restatement of the Christian faith must provide a ‘theological reinterpretation’ of the data from the natural sciences that ‘corresponds to the requirement of coherence as a criterion for truth’. Put another way, God created all reality and sustains it according to his faithfulness, so a systematic presentation of Christian doctrine must demonstrate how the data from secular sciences is filled out by the Christian account of God. Pannenberg’s explanation here bolsters the arguments of those who find Pannenberg’s theological method more nuanced than a simply ‘building’ of theological claims on the foundations of anthropological or scientific arguments (consider, Shults, The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology [Eerdmans, 2001]; Murphy, “A Lakatosian Reconstruction of Pannenberg’s Program” in Beginning with the End: God, Science and Wolfhart Pannenberg [Open Court, 1997]).

Would I recommend this book? Yes, for two reasons. For readers not particularly interested in searching the stacks of their local library for past issues of Zygon or unable to read German, this volume provides a good introduction to Pannenberg’s work in the field of science and theology (read with Toward a Theology of Nature). Second, although readers more familiar with his literature may not find the one previously unpublished essay worth the price of the book, Gregerson serves us well by bringing together several fine translations of important essays with at least one new taste of Pannenberg’s work.

Any thoughts on the gains and/or losses that attend Pannenberg’s approach, truth as “coherence”?

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4 thoughts on “Truth as “Coherence” » Pannenberg on Science and Theology

  1. thanks for the review Kent.

    I would like to know what you yourself think about Pannenberg’s criticisms of Barth on theological methodology. I have read Molnar’s response to these complaints in the SJT but was wanting to know what a Pannerberg expert thought about the matter.

    thanks!

  2. Hey Ken, nice to have you stop in. I am quite far from considering myself a “Pannenberg expert”, but thanks anyway for the shot in the arm.

    Let me think out loud about this for a minute. As I have read Molnar, Pannenberg seems to be an often-used whipping boy for him to illustrate how certain theological systems can unwittingly compromise divine freedom. His use of Pannenberg in Divine Freedom and the Imminent Trinity and the article you referred to in SJT (“Some Problems with Pannenberg’s Solution to Barth’s Faith Subjectivism” 48, no. 3 (1995)) are good examples and I suspect the same is true for how he interacts with him in Resurrection and Incarnation (on my short list).

    I have a lot of respect for Molnar, and I am sure he is on to something, but it remains an open question for me whether Pannenberg has unwittingly committed himself down the paths that worry Molnar. Pannenberg is certainly aware of the issues and thinks he has worked with them adequately.

    So, for the time being, I am trying to give Pannenberg the benefit of the doubt that his doctrine of God really is able to hold together his prized tensions (ask me again right before my viva). With Molnar, a big one for me is the manner in which he parses the relationship between the imminent and economic trinity. At one point he will say, “the imminent trinity is to be found in the Trinity of salvation history. God is the same in his eternal essence as he reveals himself to be historically” (1:331, et passim) and elsewhere “the progress of events decides concerning his deity as well as the deity of the Son (1:329). Understandably, then, Molnar worries that by identifying the imminent and economic trinity mere lip service gets paid to the imminent, and God is then seen as dependent on the course of history

    Can Christian theology adequately maintain both? Pannenberg certainly thinks so, and he also thinks one can go too far in equating the two, such as Jenson: “there is also a necessary distinction that maintains the priority of the eternal communion of the triune God over that communion’s explication in the history of salvation. Without this distinction, the reality of the one God tends to be dissolved into the process of the world” (First Things 103 (May 2000)).

    Though Pannenberg certainly has a running prioritization on the imminent trinity through his dogmatics, I’m still not convinced that such emphasis washes out his desire for historicity, or that his stress on historicity makes the prioritization of the imminent trinity incomprehensible. Thus, I’m sympathetic to Molnar’s worry here and, honestly, it’s hard not to agree with him. In the end, perhaps the issue comes down to whether or not one is completely willing to take on board Pannenberg’s presuppositions regarding time (Plotinus) and anticipation (Heidegger) and feel that these solve the relevant problems.

    Sorry for the noncommittal response. Your work on Barth would, certainly, be illuminating for me. You want to weigh in?

  3. Thanks for response Kent. I am not sure about Molnar’s criticisms of Pannenberg’s doctrine of the Trinity simply because I am not sure if he is interpreting Pannenberg correctly.

    I guess that I am more interested in WP’s argument (against Barth) as regards the theme and task of theology, which is, as I understand it, testing the truthfulness of Christian discourse itself. Hence, the truth of Christian doctrine cannot be presumed from the outset (as Barth does) without lapsing into either sujbectivism or authoritarianism (which WP claims Barth did in CD I/1). This is the argument that I am not sure about. I think Molnar went some way in showing that Barth’s theology is neither of these -isms but I think that there is still an important issue to debate here and my thoughts are not sufficiently well-formed to have an opinion on the matter just yet.

    thanks again Kent

  4. Pingback: Human Life: Creation vs Evolution? « Sola Intellectum

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