DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)
Presently Professor of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Protestant Theology, Munich, Pannenberg has become a widely-known theologian both in Germany and the United States.

His writings encompass a wide range of subjects and, as seems usual with German thinkers, can appear somewhat complex - often to the point of incomprehensibility. Some say that this is partly due to the difficulty of translating theological German into English. But in Pannenberg's case, the difficulties of expression may well have their origin in the nature of the central subject he attempts to address.

Pannenberg's development was strongly influenced by Karl Barth, as was the development of many of Pannenberg's contemporaries. Barth's theology sprang from a powerful and influential affirmation of revelation as the mainspring of all Christian truth. In contrast, many others (among them Bultmann and his disciples) stressed the a-historical nature of much of that foundational Christian record, the Bible. 

If these documents, especially those of the New Testament,  comprise a mixture of myth and history, they ask in what sense the Bible can reveal God. Barth's answer is that history takes us only to a certain point in discovering the truth about Jesus. The remainder consists in Christian affirmation - or faith, as Barth would put it.

There was considerable interest, therefore, when Pannenberg  published Revelation as History (1961). The title suggests that he might have an answer to the apparent contradiction between analytical history and the kerygma.

What was Pannenberg trying to achieve when he wrote, 

All theological questions and answers have meaning only within the framework of the history which God has with humanity, and through humanity with the whole creation, directed towards a future which is hidden to the world, but which has already been revealed in Jesus Christ?

It seems that his main point is that Christian theology is based on an analysis of history as events which have universal applicability and are accessible to all. So, for example, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (that is, his physical resuscitation) is an historical event, so he thought, which requires that every person come to some sort of conclusion about it.

Pannenberg's critics assert that his approach "reduces" faith to insight, denying God the Holy Spirit a role in revealing the truth. On one hand, Pannenberg seems to hold that faith is grounded upon revelation as history. The meaning of revelation therefore can't be claimed as self-evident. On the contrary, revelation (in his sense) is naturally a matter of contention.

On the other hand, he says that we must go behind the kerygma  to Jesus the historical person to find the meaning of Jesus, which is grounded on what he is in history. Even so, it seems that  Pannenberg falls back on interpretation as his keystone. Revelation  finds an almost traditional form in the "correct" interpretation that Jesus is to be identified with God. Pannenberg attempts to side-step this by a second circumlocution. Jesus is "proleptical" or  "retroactive" in that, just like history as a body of knowledge, his full meaning will only be realised at the end-point of history. Jesus is the "proleptic disclosure of the end of history".

This approach is thought of by commentators as Pannenberg's 
"eschatological" emphasis. The resurrection of Jesus makes no  sense on its own, but only within the context of an apocalyptic 
world view. It must therefore be interpreted as the anticipation 
of a general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. It is thus 
organically linked to God's self-revelation in Jesus. He writes:

Only at the end of all events can God be revealed in 
his divinity, that is, as the one who works all things, 
who has power over everything. Only because in 
Jesus' resurrection the end of all things, which for 
us has not yet happened, has already occurred can 
it be said of Jesus that the ultimate already is present 
in him �

These are, in my opinion, high-sounding words which collapse at  the question, "How do you know that?" At very best, his meaning 
survives only in the incestuous circle of those who write theological 
shorthand.

Pannenberg is no mean biblical scholar. But his conclusion that 
accounts of the resurrection in the gospels stand up as history is 
nevertheless somewhat surprising, given that only a tiny minority of historians would confirm it and almost none would regard it as a unique historical event.

A pivotal argument in this respect was advanced by Ernst Troeltsch and others. It is that history is essentially homogeneous, a system of cause and effect which is unbreakably bound together in a seamless web. Any event which is intrinsically impossible at one point in history remains that way throughout history. There is thus no room for a unique, un-reproducible event such as the resurrection of Jesus. This is known as the principle of analogy.

Pannenberg argued that this is an unjustified "constriction of 
historico-critical enquiry" which assumes that human perceptions are normative. Analogies are always analogies viewed from the  standpoint of the human observer. As a working tool it cannot be allowed to restrict the scope of historical enquiry. The resurrection of Jesus must be approached without prior dogmatic supposition.

This argument opens up once again the possibility of a unique  historical event such as the resurrection. One of Pannenberg's  theses on the doctrine of revelation is therefore that it is not completely apprehended at the beginning, but only at the end of revelatory history. As such, it is available to anyone who can perceive it.

Pannenberg's assertion remains that, however. For in the sense that he uses the word "unique", all historical events are unique - though many may be similar. All historical events are part of a seamless web of cause and effect. Why should one resurrection be unique? If the physical process which causes one resurrection is common to the entire web of history (as is rain, for example) why should it not occur again to a different person in differing circumstances?

One explanation of this resurrection is that its cause lies outside 
creation. It is a direct act of God, and in that sense Jesus is a unique person in a way in which none of us is unique. But if that is the case, then the seamless web has been fractured in at least one case, and history as an analytical discipline necessarily falls apart. 

Pannenberg's argument is weak, to say the least.

The historical argument underpins Pannenberg's work. His Christology is extensive and - in terms of traditional theology - illuminating. But it appears to be an extensive manipulation of  theological jargon because his historically-based conclusions about the person and meaning of Jesus don't make much sense in terms of contemporary historical theory.

Pannenberg attempts to bring the concept of the Absolute (God)  into harmony with the theory of science. In terms of science, he  says, "God" is an hypothesis. Theology is ultimately about that hypothesis - though we mustn't separate specific assertions about God from the totality of meaning. He calls this "fundamental"  theology as distinct from specific revelations of God. Such  hypotheses are not substantiated, he says, unless

  • They reflect the implications of biblical traditions;
  • They are adequately related to the whole of reality;
  • They can be integrated with human experience;
  • And they are "adequate" in terms of current 
    theological debate.

Looking at the overall reach of Pannenberg's thought my own 
conclusion is that his brave attempt to harmonise the radical break 
of modern thinkers who reject the past as authoritative in its own 
right, with those who claim that faith in the received tradition (kerygma) is paramount, has failed.

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