The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology

by Wolfhart Pannenberg

Templeton, 272 pages, $29.95

Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the great figures of German Protestant theology, turns eighty this year. To mark the occasion, the Templeton Foundation Press has published a selection of his essays on science and theology”a fascinating volume, worth the investment of serious consideration.

Pannenberg may be the only major systematic theologian of modern times to have studied and written extensively on the natural sciences. Why this should be so in the Age of Science is not altogether clear. After all, the greatest systematic theologian of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, studied the leading science of his day, and the Aristotelianism on which he drew was considered to be a scientific system as well as a philosophy.

A lot has happened since then, of course”the Scientific Revolution and Isaac Newton, in particular”and, in the view of Pannenberg, Christian theology has never quite recovered. Nor will it, he thinks, unless more effort is expended by theologians to come to terms with modern scientific ideas. He bluntly writes, “Since the introduction of the principle of inertia in seventeenth-century physics, the old doctrine that each creature needs a contingent action of God to preserve its existence has lost its plausibility.”

Historically, at least, Pannenberg has a point. In Newtonian physics, change and movement were explained by the inertia of bodies and the forces bodies exert on each other. And since God is not a material body, many people thought that the new science had relegated him to the sidelines. At most, he was allowed to act in the distant past, as an all-foreseeing designer, a conception of God that Pannenberg criticizes as leading, on the one hand, to deism and, on the other hand, to a clash between predestination and human freedom. Even worse, the belief that took hold after Newton”that everything could be explained naturalistically, through physical forces and mathematical laws”seemed to make the existence of God an “unnecessary hypothesis,” as Laplace put it. As theology lost its explanatory role, its assertions came to be seen as lacking empirical content and therefore as untestable.

Some theologians took refuge in fideism or a “flight to commitment,” such as Karl Barth’s “altogether unsecured obedience” to the Word of God. Others retreated to the position that theological language is “performative” rather than “informative.” Yet others reduced the gospel to social action. The result has been a situation in which theology is marginalized and seen as largely irrelevant to life and thought. Society and its institutions grew secularized, and intellectual life did as well: the study of history and science undertaken without concern for a wider context of meaning.

In response, Wolfhart Pannenberg has mounted a defense of Christian theology as relevant to all spheres of human thought and as making truth claims”indeed testable ones”about the world. This newly released collection, The Historicity of Nature , contains sixteen essays written over the course of thirty years. They treat a wide range of topics, including the methods of science and theology, the relation of God to time, the mode of divine action in the world, the nature of sin, evolution, the origin of language, and modern cosmology.

The complex set of ideas developed in the essays has an inner unity, which becomes apparent only gradually, as one begins to discern the broader outlines of Pannenberg’s thought. In a curious way, the experience of reading Pannenberg illustrates a central element in his thought”that nothing can be understood properly except in relation to the whole, and that grasping the meaning of the whole forces a “reinterpretation” of the parts. Theological ideas that seem radical or even bizarre when first encountered in these essays take on a more traditional shape and meaning as one sees how they fit together into the larger picture.

The starting point of Pannenberg’s theology is the first article of the creed, which teaches that God is the creator of all things. If God is that, Pannenberg argues, then theology is relevant to all things. Theology is not just philosophical reflection on God, but on God as creator and thus on the world as created . If the world is created, then it must be a meaningful whole, and it is this meaning that theology must elucidate. Theology therefore performs an integrative function, and different religions and theologies can be “tested” by how well they allow us to make sense of the world as a whole.

The theories of the natural sciences, such as physics, are testable in a different way, notes Pannenberg, because they are based on regularities that can be expressed as mathematical rules. These regularities make it possible to repeat experiments and make precise predictions. The world does not consist, however, of mere repetition, but of individual, contingent, unique, and unrepeatable events. These events make up history, and each particular thing or event has its identity and meaning only as part of a whole. Consequently, all branches of knowledge, including science, stand in need of theological integration and reinterpretation.

The meaning of history, since it is to be found in the whole, cannot be seen until history is complete. (It is, however, presaged in the resurrection of Christ, and thus “available””to those with faith in Christ”“proleptically.”) It follows that the present is not fully intelligible except in light of the future. That is why _Pannenberg says that God, who is the meaning of history, “comes to us out of the future” and “acts from the future.” He suggests that one virtue of this “futurist perspective,” which seeks to “reformulate the doctrine of God on the basis of eschatology,” is that it avoids the pitfalls of deism and extreme predestinarianism.

It also leads Pannenberg to reformulate the relation between time and eternity. His views on this subject are not a radical departure from the classical position of Augustine and Thomas, though they may at first appear to be so. Pannenberg embraces the fundamental Augustinian insight that God, as creator of all things, is also the creator of time. He strongly defends the transcendence of God and rightly attacks “process theology” for making God subject to time and space and to the “temporal flux.” And he affirms with Augustine that everything”whether past, present, or future to us”is “present to God’s eternity.”

Pannenberg is not, however, satisfied with where Augustine left the discussion. “Eternity is not mere timelessness in the sense that eternity and time are altogether alien to each other,” he writes. Nor are they opposites. Rather, we should understand “eternity as constituting the nature of time.” As Plotinus saw, “time is grounded in eternity because the transition from one moment of time to another can be understood only in terms of the whole of what is divided into time, a whole”that is, eternity”which is still present in the separation and sequence of moments of time.”

There is some analogy here with the fact that the separate moments of our consciousness have no reality except insofar as there is a unity of conscious experience. But God’s eternity”and not, as Kant thought, the human subject”is what gives continuity and unity to time, for God’s eternity is not the absence of time but the simultaneous presence of all times. As Boethius had it, “eternity is the simultaneous and perfect possession of life without limits.”

What we experience piecemeal, then, God possesses all at once and in its fullness. God’s eternity is the wholeness of time, while from our perspective “only the future can recover the wholeness of life [that is divided up] in the sequence of temporal moments.” Only in the future will history be perfected and become a completed whole. Thus, the future of time can be said to coincide with God’s eternity. All of this Pannenberg sums up: “God’s eternity is present in time, as origin and perfection of time and all things temporal”he is the origin in the sense of the condition for the continuity of what is divided in the sequence of time and the perfection because everything temporal asks from the future the realization of its wholeness: Through the future, eternity enters time.”

Throughout, Pannenberg maintains a concern for God’s presence and active power in space and time”rejecting the notions of a deist God, active only in the past, or a purely timeless God, extraneous to history. This leads Pannenberg to reformulate the notion of Spirit in a direction he regards as more biblical than the somewhat platonistic view that came to prevail after Origen.

In the Bible, God’s Spirit is a dynamic, active, and life-giving presence in the world, expressed by the word pneuma, or “breath.” The Stoics, too, had an idea of pneuma , in many respects similar, but they conceived of it as a fine matter permeating the world. It was this materialistic conception that Origen attacked on the grounds that it absurdly introduced spatial extension and thus divisibility into God. He therefore narrowed the idea of pneuma by identifying it with what the neoplatonists called nous , an intellectuality not dependent on matter.

For Pannenberg, however, Spirit does not pertain to the rational and intellectual alone, but to all levels of life. Every living thing can be seen as a “wholeness or form” and specifically as a “whole that integrates its own parts,” not only at one moment but across time as well, so that “in living its life, it internalizes time, incorporating its future transformations into its own life-form, although that future . . . transcends its present state.” All life takes part in the “spiritual dynamic” of “continuing and self-transcending integration.” Because “the spiritual dynamic is internalized to the highest degree in human consciousness, . . . the human being is shaped by a desire for fuller participation in the Spirit, which would satisfy his hunger for wholeness and identity and bring it peace with all creation.”

This sketch can hardly do justice to Pannenberg’s theology, but it does give some sense of the impressive sweep of his thought, and it provides a context in which to understand some of his more difficult and controversial ideas. One sees that some of the puzzling aspects of Pannenberg’s ideas are due to the paradoxical way in which they are expressed, and that they are actually far more traditional than they first appear.

Pannenberg, however, goes on to develop these ideas in terms that introduce unnecessary mystification and even incoherence into them. This is especially true of one of his signature ideas, which is that the divine Spirit is to be conceived of as a “field” in a sense derived from the field concept of modern physics. According to Niels Henrik Gregersen (Pannenberg’s former student, who compiled this collection of essays), Pannenberg regards “the concept of field as a foundational concept in physics as well as in theology.”

To judge the idea, however, one first must know what the word field means in physics. Motion and change were explained in Newtonian physics by the inertia of bodies and the forces they exert on each other. As Newton conceived it, these forces “acted at a distance.” The Moon, for example, exerts a gravitational force on the Earth directly across the vacuum of space. This was a bold suggestion, considering that in our everyday experience force arises from one thing actually in contact with another thing. The idea of action at a distance seemed spooky at the time, and Galileo had earlier upbraided Kepler for falling into gross superstition by suggesting that the moon’s influence could cause tides on the earth.

Still, Newtonian action at a distance was a crucial step forward in physics. In the early nineteenth century, however, Michael Faraday proposed that electrical and magnetic forces were communicated from one body to another by invisible fields of force which fill all of space. These fields are made up “lines of force” that stretch, for example, from the north pole of one magnet to the south pole of another, drawing them together like elastic bands. This field concept turned out to be of central importance in physics. Indeed, the basic mathematical framework of fundamental physics for the past eighty years or so has been “quantum-field theory.”

Pannenberg sees in the field concept an escape from what he regards as the materialistic implications of Newtonian physics, where it was material bodies that did all the work. To Pannenberg, Faraday’s invisible fields permeating space seem less like something material than like a pneuma. He finds some encouragement for this thought in the claim of the physicist Max Jammer that the Stoic concept of pneuma was the “direct precursor” of the concept of field in modern physics. Admittedly, the Stoics had thought of pneuma as a kind of matter, for which they were attacked by Origen, and the fields of Faraday were for a long time thought to arise from an elastic material medium called “the aether.” Einstein’s theory of relativity showed, however, that fields do not have any material medium or substrate. Pannenberg therefore sees the modern field concept as purifying the Stoic pneuma of materialism and providing an apt image of the Spirit.

Another source of inspiration for Pannenberg is Newton’s famous identification of the three-dimensional space of the universe as the Sensorium Dei ”“God’s sensory organ.” This idea, which to most people seems odd, appeals to Pannenberg as a way of understanding God’s omnipresence. Leibniz raised the obvious objection to Newton’s Sensorium Dei : To attribute spatial extension to God would be to make him divisible into parts. This is the same objection Origen raised to the Stoic pneuma , and it would seem hard to answer.

Pannenberg, however, finds merit in the reply made to Leibniz by his English contemporary Samuel Clarke: “Clarke’s rejoinder was that geometrical space that consists of parts presupposes some undivided and infinite space, because every act of composition or division already presupposes space within which the dividing or composing takes place.” Pannenberg adopts this idea of a “prior” undivided space as the “space of God’s omnipresence.” One sees immediately the connection to his conception of eternity. Just as God’s eternity is “undivided time,” so God’s omnipresence is “undivided space.” The field that is the divine Spirit is not to be identified simply with the fields of the physicist. Physical fields exist in divided, measurable, geometrical space-time, while the field of the Spirit is connected to God’s undivided space and time.

Many objections can be raised to these ideas. First, as the physicist John Polkinghorne has quite correctly noted, it is wrong to think that fields are any less material than bodies. For example, fields have energy, mass, weight, momentum, and in some cases electrical charge, just as bodies do. Indeed, in quantum-field theory, material particles are the “elementary excitations” of fields. If fields are not material, nothing is.

In response, Pannenberg observes that it is no longer quite so clear what the word material means: “The concept of matter is not”as ‘mass’ is”a strictly physical concept but a philosophical one, and there seem to be different opinions among physicists as to the impact of modern physics on the formerly ‘materialistic’ character of physics.”

That is all true. But if modern physics seems less materialistic to some people, it is not because of the field concept, but for two other reasons: the central role of the mind of the observer in some interpretations of quantum mechanics and the ever deeper mathematicization of physics, which Pope Benedict XVI has referred to as “the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature.” Both of these point toward Origen’s Spirit-as- Nous rather than Pannenberg’s Spirit-as-Field.

Pannenberg makes a second reply to Polkinghorne. Whether fields are material or not, “my own point was that fields are not bodies.” That was not his whole point, however. Part of Pannenberg’s aim was to answer the arguments of Origen and Leibniz that the Stoic pneuma and Newton’s Sensorium Dei made God divisible. A problem for Pannenberg, though, is that a field is inherently more divisible than a body. A body may even be a “point particle” and thus indivisible. By contrast, a field is by definition extended and divisible.

As Pannenberg tells it, Faraday’s invisible fields made it easier to understand divine action in the world, at least by analogy. But the story can be told the other way. In Newton’s action-at-a-distance, bodies exerted their influence instantaneously across the whole universe without any material intermediary or instrumentality. In that respect, their causality could be seen as analogous to God’s. It was the whole point of fields, however, that they provided a physical mechanism by which influence could be transmitted from one place to another. And fields are only able to perform this mediating role precisely because they are material and infinitely divisible.

It is true, as Pannenberg notes, that fields are conceived post Einstein as having no material medium or substrate. But a distinction is needed here. What happened with Einstein was that fields were no longer seen as being disturbances of something else, such as the aether. Fields were instead recognized as fundamental entities in their own right. We no longer picture a field as something that requires a medium, but that is because a field is, in itself, a medium of interaction.

Pannenberg lays heavy stress on the idea that an undivided space “is presupposed by” and therefore must exist “prior to” every differentiation of space into distinct parts. This, however, is disputable. One can say that parts presuppose a whole, but equally that a whole presupposes parts: Whole and part are correlative.

Moreover, to say something is undivided does not say it is indivisible. In fact, if the undivided space is prior to a division (whether logically or in some other way), it actually implies divisibility. The question is what the relation is between God’s “undivided space and time” and the ordinary measurable and divisible space-time of the physicist and everyday life. If it is the relation of whole to part, then God is divisible, and Origen and Leibniz have not been answered. Pannenberg thus takes pains to make clear that God’s undivided space is not a “container space.” And yet he often uses whole-part imagery, as when he says that undivided space and time are prior to “partial spaces and times,” and when he speaks of the “whole of what is divided into time . . . that is, eternity.”

In fact, indivisible space is not just a paradox or a mystery but a contradiction in terms. There may be something indivisible underlying what we see as divided, but, if so, that thing simply cannot be thought of as a “space.”

One begins to appreciate more the beauty and value of Origen’s idea. The relation of the undivided One to the Many is much easier to think of in terms of nous than in terms of space. The analogy is with the human intellect, which is able to grasp the relations of many things in a single, undivided”and indeed indivisible”insight; for if an insight is divided, it ceases to be an insight, just as a sentence fragment conveys no idea. The concept of God as Mind rather than as Field also helps in thinking about divine omnipresence and divine action. A mind can, in a certain sense, be present everywhere in space and time without being localized in space and time. Even the human intellect can extend itself throughout the whole cosmos. What is true of the divine Mind’s power of understanding could also be true of its power of willing.

Much about time is best understood using noetic concepts. Augustine himself famously wrote that “the past is present memory” and “the future is present anticipation.” One need not completely share his psychological theory of time to realize that he was onto something deep. From the standpoint of physics (whether Newtonian or Einsteinian), event A is past to event B if and only if A can physically affect B (or, equivalently, send information to B or leave a record for B). Conversely, B is future to A if and only if B can physically be affected by A (or receive information about or have a record of A). What we humans know by natural means is based on information that flows to our sensory organs through sound waves, light waves, electrical impulses, wafting odors, and so on. And what we affect, we affect by physical means as well. Thus, for human beings, the physical past is what we can in principle naturally know, and the physical future is what we can in principle naturally affect by our will.

God, of course, is not a physical being like us who receives and sends physical signals. It is thus meaningless to say that he is “physically past” or “physically future” to anything. In the sense that he knows all created things, however, he can be said to be future to all things. And in the sense that he is the cause of all created things, he can be said to be past to all things. He is Alpha and Omega.

Though there is much that is profound in Pannenberg’s reflections on time and eternity, I am not sure that, at the end of the day, he (or anyone else) has really gone much beyond the insights of Augustine in this area. Nor do I think that a conception of Spirit based on anything physical marks an advance on Origen’s noetic conception.

But if Pannenberg’s Spirit-as-Field and undivided space and time are theological dead ends, as I think they are, his fundamental project is not. Theology must indeed play an integrative role, and it is therefore vitally important that there be systematic theologians in the future who follow the example of Pannenberg and reflect deeply on the discoveries of modern science. The integration toward which Wolfhart Pannenberg has worked for so long will be achieved only by appropriating even more deeply the insights of modern science and the wisdom of Christian tradition.


Stephen M. Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware and the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith and A Student’s Guide to Natural Science.

Articles by Stephen M. Barr

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