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The Collapse of the Pannenberg Project?

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

Recently I posted these remarks about the theological developments in the thought of F. LeRon Shults and Philip Clayton — two gifted theologians who were also students of Wolfhart Pannenberg:

This also seems to signal the total collapse of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s theological program. In light of the developments in the thought of his students, Philip Clayton and F. LeRon Shults, it now appears that it eventuates in either a flaccid Christian neo-liberalism (see: The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith) or outright atheism (Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture). What Pannenberg intended as a call for Christians to engage in the realms of science and learning has become either a strategic retreat or a complete reversal.

I got a little push-back on this (which I appreciate) and I thought it might be good to say a little more about what I mean by this.

Pannenberg’s theology can be seen as a reaction against the theology of Karl Barth and also the Christian existentialists. This is actually one of the things that initially drew me to his thought. Pannenberg set forth a thesis which was starkly opposed to Christian existentialism — and to the strongly Word-based theology he learned from Barth. In these theologies, theological knowledge is clearly distinguished (and protected, in a sense) from knowledge in general — particularly scientific or historical knowledge.

Theology of WPWhat he put forward was a daring proposal. Stanley J. Grenz states it this way:

In Pannenberg’s view, 20th-century existentialist theologies have tended to compartmentalize reason and faith into separate spheres, thereby shielding faith from the potentially critical findings of reason (i.e., scientific discovery). Pannenberg decries this compartmentalization as an illegitimate privatization of theology. For him faith is not a separate way of knowing truth not open to the scientific method but rather a personal commitment to the God who can be indirectly seen in history and therefore whose acts are open to scientific confirmation.

— Stanley J. Grenz, “The Appraisal of Pannenberg: A Survey of the Literature” The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (edited by Carl E. Braaten & Philip Clayton) page 21.

This is closely tied to Pannenberg’s Revelation as History proposal. He claims that there is a record of God’s salvation history, which is accessible to all interested people, and which, in itself, is the revelation of God.

I appreciate Pannenberg’s commitment to scientific method. I appreciate his desire to resist the compartmentalization of theological knowledge from knowledge in general. Yet, like a lot of people, I have always felt this went too far in some ways. The Bible makes claims about revealed words and messages — not just revelatory events.

And, I’ve always wondered if we really can get from this foundation to the massive, largely orthodox and conservative, theology expounded in detail in Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3). I appreciated Pannenberg’s Theology and the Philosophy of Science, as well. But, I seemed to sense a disconnect between this methodology and the actual explication of his theology. It always seemed to me that Pannenberg was leaning on Scripture and Christian tradition far more than his explicit theological method would seem to warrant.

I don’t mean to complain. I appreciate the man’s vast learning and what he was trying to do. But, does it work?

There is a sense in which it would be nice to think that we can arrive at Christian theology on a “just the facts” basis — but people generally come to faith in the first place through hearing the story of Jesus and its implications. I know that’s how it was for me. The liberal church did not convey the Gospel to me — it was evangelists at a holiness camp-meeting — people that spoke of Jesus as Savior — that told me the story and invited me to respond to it. So, while it would be nice (in a way) to think that theology is working from a “just the facts” basis as Pannenberg explicitly claimed, in fact Scripture, prayer, worship, tradition (an historical extension of Christian fellowship), etc. all inform and shape Christian perceptions. In practice Pannenberg clearly is drawing from these sources. He doesn’t seem to me to be clearly saying so. (Shults, on the other hand, recognizes these sources and totally rejects them!)

And, for me the (very different) theologies being expounded by Clayton and Shults are currently unacceptable. Here we seem to encounter two spiritually impoverished theologies arising from Pannenberg’s methodological cues. This is not good.

What do I mean by that?

prayer4I have my own faith-based razor for evaluating theologies: Do they support the practice of intercessory prayer?

Does this seem arbitrary? Certainly this is only one issue among many I could choose. But, my own spiritual pracice has been shaped in more ways then I can can say by the practice of intercessory prayer. So, for me at least, a theology that does not support the practice of intercession is not a theology worth having. I believe that holiness, before all else, is a life of love. Intercession is a discipline of mind that supports — and practices — a life of love. A God to whom you cannot pray on behalf or others is not a God worth having.

Theology should support spiritual practice — especially if we are speaking of the practice of love toward others. A God of love, who cares about all people, can be enlisted in the cause of love.

This is why I call Philip Clayton’s theology a “flaccid neo-liberalism.” It is not a theology worth having. A non-interventionist God is not a God to whom one can pray — except for the benefit one might derive from the practice. And, obviously, in Shults’ theology prayer is just wrong. It is a practice that re-enforces the notion of a supernatural agent, which is, in and of itself, detrimental to human solidarity and well-being, over-all.

I believe that theology should learn from science. But, I also believe we should learn from Scripture and from the tradition of teaching that came before us.

I really think Pannenberg thought that too. But, sometimes he seems to be saying something different.

Comments (3) | Trackback

3 Responses

  1. gregorystackpole July 5, 2020 / 11:55 pm

    “more ways THAN I can say by intercessory” — great article.

  2. Scott McLeod April 29, 2021 / 6:57 pm

    I just discovered your blog entries on Pannenberg which were posted 6-7 years ago. Thank you for your very fine and helpful comments on Pannenberg’s theology. Although I’ve known of Pannenberg for years, I’ve never read anything by him, until this year. Being a new Pannenberg reader, I was looking for some internet resources that could shed some light on what I was reading. In so doing, I came across your blog.

    I started my Pannenberg reading with his book “What is Man?” The level of difficulty in reading this was a bit high, but it was well worth the effort it took to get through this book. (And the book became easier to read in the last several chapters, perhaps because I was getting used to reading Pannenberg.)

    Now I’m reading Anthony C. Thiselton’s book “Understanding Pannenberg”. It has been a great overview, but it doesn’t answer all of the questions I’m encountering, and, in fact, it raises some more. This is another reason I was very glad to come across your blog entries on Pannenberg.

    I found your entry “The Collapse of the Pannenberg Project” to be especially helpful, as was “A Short Course on Panneberg”. The entry “RIP Wolfart Pannenberg, 1928-2014” with all the links to Pannenberg articles was something I appreciated very much for both the entry you wrote and the links you provided. (Hopefully, the links will still be active!)

    I have 5 other books by Pannenberg on my shelf waiting to be read. I expect I will be thinking of your blogs and continuing to appreciate them as I continue to read more of Pannenberg. Thank you!

    • Craig L. Adams April 30, 2021 / 6:50 am

      Wonderful. Thanks for the comment. The Church needs more Pannenberg readers. I know for a fact that many of the links at the “RIP Wolfhart Pannenberg” article no longer work — because (sad to say) many of these appreciative posts are no longer on the Internet.

      The post on “The Collapse of the Pannenberg Project” was one of several I wrote in response to the atheism of F. LeRon Shults. I am not sure I stand by it at this point. (I’ll have to read it over again myself.) I have found David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss very helpful in fleshing out (so to speak) my views on theism. At the time I wrote this I don’t think I had read Hart — or, at least had not read very deeply in it.

      Still, one can’t help but wonder about this theological project, when the theologian himself fails to convince even his own students.

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