Systematic Theology: Volume 2
By Wolfhart Pannenberg, Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley
Eerdmans, 449 pages, $39.99
Whenever I am asked to comment on Wolfhart Pannenberg’s work, I begin with the same admonition: If we wish to understand any part or aspect of his thinking, we must always remember his initiating concern. He has wanted to lead theology out of what he perceived as its post-World War II isolationist occupation with purely churchly questions. As an intellectual convert to the faith, it seemed obvious to him that since Christian theology claims the one God of all as its object, it is either universal knowledge or it is false. If Pannenberg’s theology has latterly become more concerned with churchly matters, it is because he has gained experience of the Church as herself a proleptically universal community.
As Pannenberg sees it, if theology knows anything, it knows the one thing that must be known for anything to be known: how reality is-or will be-a whole. All disciplines must finally make one coherent body of knowledge or lose hold of their matter; and any knowledge of this coherence is in fact knowledge of God-that is, knowledge of what theology is supposed to know. In a particular period of history, other disciplines may not permit themselves to benefit directly from the revelation in Christ, but theology denies itself if it ceases to press the offer. And in its own practice, theology must for the sake of its own authenticity seek out truth and dispute error wherever found. In recent American terms, Pannenberg is no “foundationalist,” but only because he believes revelation in Christ is the general epistemic foundation.
There follows from this concern the chief literary and scholarly characteristic of Pannenberg’s writings-what makes them sometimes so complexly rewarding, and sometimes so utterly exasperating: his unwillingness to leave anything out, to make any point without seeking every possible source of its illumination, whether by exegeting great chunks of Scripture or by tracing a question through the whole history of philosophy or by suddenly sketching the present state of cosmological physics or by. . . . It is possible to use Pannenberg’s major writings as works of general reference, and I sometimes do. Prospective purchasers and readers may be assured-or warned-that the second volume of Systematic Theology is a fine specimen of the genre.
From this concern also follows a chief material characteristic of Pannenberg’s thinking: his love of continuity and aversion to paradox and disruption. I began my study at Heidelberg just as Pannenberg was beginning his teaching. My first semester, he lectured on nineteenth century Protestant theology, which for most of the semester meant Fichte and Schelling and Schleiermacher and Hegel. It was the foundation of this American’s knowledge of such matters. More to the point, it was apparent that here was the lecturer’s intellectual and even spiritual milieu; for all his sometimes pointed critique, he was at home with and indeed loved these thinkers. When he disagreed with any of them, it was in the way that they disagreed with each other. And that, for example, both Schleiermacher and Hegel, each in his way, construed the Incarnation as comprehensible within a total history whose pattern can in principle be known was not among his problems with them.
I instance the latter point because, of course, our immediate occasion is the Systematic Theology’s volume on creation, anthropology, providence, christology, and atonement. In my judgment, in this volume it becomes fully clear that Pannenberg’s systematic theology belongs in the great line of modern historicist-idealist systems. I will instance only a selection of cases in point.According to Pannenberg, creation is a continuation of the event of divine self-alienation that is the life of the Trinity. The Incarnation is not finally conditioned by the contingency of sin, for what happens at the Incarnation is that the selfdistinction of the eternal Son from the Father, which is the ontological principle of creation and its history, itself takes “historical form” and so achieves its full extension. Indeed, the Incarnation is “the self-realization of God in the world.” faith is the ecstasy of reason that does not undo reason because humanity is that one of the creatures in whom creation’s constituting ecstasy toward God becomes rational. Or alternatively, faith is the creature’s rational self-distinction from God that does not negate the creature because the Logos’ self-distinction from God is the creature’s ontological basis.
I do not so classify Pannenberg’s thinking in order to put it down, as might perhaps be thought. On the contrary, I am myself strongly tempted in some of the same directions. I do it to help understand him. But thereby I do indeed also acknowledge the nagging question about his whole enterprise: may it not be anachronistic?
That depends, I think, on whether Schleiermacher’s and Hegel’s day is over, on whether modernity is wrapped up-on whether, as it was put in one late-night discussion of Pannenberg’s work in a gathering of friends and admirers, the Enlightenment was a blip. At the beginning, I described Pannenberg’s initiating concern. I could have said that he set out to combat what have turned out to be initial symptoms of a postmodern theological self-containment and self-satisfaction. The timeliness or untimeliness of Pannenberg’s system perhaps depends on whether this should or can be combatted.
If postmodernity is or is going to be something really and materially new, then the Systematic Theology, in its preoccupation with the great problems of modernity and its paradigmatic exemplification of one sort of modernist thinking, will probably be an historical artifact from the day of its publication. If, as I myself suspect, postmodernity is a purely negative phenomenon, so that such substance as our world may now have will continue to be that of the Enlightenment and later modernity’s effort to “overcome” the Enlightenment, it may happen that Pannenberg’s work is disregarded only long enough to be rediscovered. Pannenberg says he has no more plans for major writing and intends to cultivate roses and Chopin; perhaps he himself has the same question, and is leaving it to history.
It would not do to review a major work without scraping up some occasion of material disagreement. I again choose a matter that is general in Pannenberg’s work but becomes especially clear in the present volume.
It is well known that Pannenberg proclaimed an eschatological reorientation of theology. Thus the whole to which his thought is dedicated is a temporal whole: reality is now unified only because it will be a coherent narrative when history is brought to its conclusion in the Kingdom of God. I was enlightened by this program and by its biblical and philosophical grounding instantly upon encountering it; and my agreement with it is a chief reason of the extensive indebtedness of my thinking to Pannenberg’s.
But I have always had a problem. At the very center of Pannenberg’s thinking is the notion of prolepsis or anticipation. We can now know the whole that will be only because the conclusion of history appears within history ahead of time, in the resurrection of Christ. Given that prolepsis, we can, moreover, discern a structure of prolepsis throughout reality and our experience of it. Reading Pannenberg, I have probed for an ontological content of his notion of prolepsis; and I have always been frustrated.
Studying this volume, I discovered why. It dawned on me that I had been digging for the wrong sort of thing. I had thought that Pannenberg intended his notion of prolepsis as a piece of revisionary metaphysics, as integral to a reconstrual of time itself. In this volume it becomes clear-at least to me, perhaps everyone else has seen it all along-that he intends something much less odd.
Pannenberg’s notion of prolepsis, I now realize, is fully coherent with usual understandings of time and eternity. A prolepsis, as he uses the notion, is simply a claim staked out in history, which, when and if history is fulfilled, will be verified or falsified, and which is of such a nature that those who in the meantime have accepted it will all along have been living appropriately to the truth that will at the end be discovered.
So in the present volume Pannenberg uses the notion to deal with the gospel’s claim that the cross of Christ made atonement for the whole world, and with the contrary present state of the world, which does not look to be at one with God or itself. The atonement of the world is anticipated, Pannenberg says, in that those who accept the claim of the Cross and live for the unity that it promises are free to live at one with God and neighbor. This is very sound and Melanchtonian, but not metaphysically revolutionary. And in general, as often as Pannenberg in this volume indeed proposes some revisionary theologoumena, just as often he shows that his metaphysical convictions are well within the Western mainstream.
This is a disappointment to me. I think Christian theology ought now challenge the Western mainstream’s understandings of time and eternity. Since studying Systematic Theology: Volume 2, I can no longer claim Pannenberg’s fellowship in this craziness. But that something is a disappointment to me is not necessarily a dis-recommendation. It may well be that at this parting of our ways, Pannenberg is the one on the right track.
Robert W. Jenson is Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College.