Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pannenberg's Challenge To Barth: Theology After Rationalism & Subjectivism

Wolfhart Pannenbeg (1928-2014)
It is well known that the late German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg was a sympathetic critic of Karl Barth. While studying with Barth at Basel, Pannenberg became increasingly dissatisfied with the former’s sweeping critique of all natural theology and thus set out in a different direction than his teacher. While Pannenberg would ultimately reject the kind of natural theology that is supposedly grounded in “pure reason,” he still believed that we require the “critical function” of philosophical theology to place “minimal conditions for talk about God that wants to be taken seriously as such” (Systematic Theology I, 107). But his various theological (and political) divergences from Barth were not well received, as Pannenberg noted: “I learned…that Barth did not like criticism from his students.” Even so, his theology remained in Barth’s debt to a great extent, particularly in his view that all knowledge of God depends upon God’s self-revelation: “God can be known only if he gives himself to be known” (STI, 189). However, despite this conviction, Pannenberg swerved from what he viewed as Barth’s “faith subjectivism,” moving instead in a seemingly more rationalist direction (STI, 48). 

For Pannenberg, the truth of Christian faith must be established in theology, rather than simply presupposed through an act of faith: “…dogmatics may not presuppose the divine truth…[but] has to present, test, and if possible confirm the claim. It must treat it, however, as an open question and not decide in advance” (STI 50). Pannenberg believed that Barth presupposed too much (despite his dialectical method), and therefore protected the truth of faith from genuine, open-ended debate. While Barth believed that the truth of Christian faith is grounded in the “self-evidence” of the Word of God, he could not avoid claiming that it also involves a human “risk of faith” to affirm the genuine reality of the Word: “In the Church Dogmatics, he said expressly that dogmatics ‘demands Christian faith’ and is itself an ‘act of faith’ (STI, 44). 

As Pannenberg explains, Barth tried to avoid basing his theology on human experience by claiming that the reality of the Word precedes human faith. He thereby saw himself as ensuring that God, rather than the human, is prioritized. But Pannenberg did not buy this move, at least as Barth had presented it. The only way that God can maintain priority over human faith, according to Barth’s own methodology, is “by way of the concept of an act of faith,” Pannenberg points out. But at this point – and despite Barth’s intentions – it is no longer clear that God is unambiguously prioritized over the human. Thus Pannenberg poses a question at the beginning of his Systematics that sends him off in his own direction: “If one wants to insist with Barth on the priority of God over the act of faith, is it not necessary, perhaps, to abandon the assumption that the reality of God is a presupposition for dogmatics from the very outset?” (STI, 45). 

Like Jürgen Moltmann, Pannenberg’s post-Barthian theological method was inspired by the biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad, who persuasively argued that the God of the Old Testament was revealed indirectly through God’s acts in history, rather than through theophanies of a more direct nature (Revelation as History, 125). Thus revelatory events are, for Pannenberg, thoroughly public and “humanly visible,” rather than private, subjective, communal or exclusive in any sense: “In the Old Testament…it is [God’s] acts in history that were the events through which Jaweh proved his deity to all peoples, not just to Israel” (RH, 135-136). As such, revelation in history “is demonstrated before all eyes for the benefit of all people” (RH, 150). Pannenberg claims that if Christianity is to avoid Gnosticism, this position is crucial. Revelation is not a “knowledge of secrets” mysteriously given by God to the few, but appears “in the language of facts” for all to see and understand (RH, 136, 137). Why all persons do not see or understand the truth of these historical events is a paradox that Pannenberg continually struggled with. 

Pannenberg’s claim that revelation appears in the medium of public facts implies that it is open to rational and historical investigations – quite unlike the positions of Barth and Bultmann. As such, understanding and believing the historical events of God’s revelation in history do not necessarily require presuppositions or leaps of faith. For example, in Jesus: God and Man, Pannenberg argued that the resurrection of Jesus is an event of public history that can be reasonably verified (although one that eschatologically points beyond itself). There is no need to add any kind of supernatural knowing beyond one’s innate rational capacities to discern such events: “The special aspect is the event itself, not the attitude with which one confronts the event. A person does not bring faith with him to the event…Rather, it is through an open appropriation of these events that true faith is sparked” (RH, 137). While Pannenberg does not believe that all Christians must engage in such debates in order to have genuine faith in Christ (this is where preaching and the life of the church are crucial), he believes that a major part of the work of church theologians is to continually show that the Christ event can be “taken to be reasonably and reliably true” (RH, 138). To make Christian truth-claims independent of public facts in history – through fideistic leaps of faith or supernaturalism – is to “cheapen” what God has done in history for all to see, Pannenberg argues (RH, 137). 

But do these convictions about the importance of historical criticism and rational argument mean that Pannenberg is ultimately a theological rationalist? Some commentators have read him this way, but this view is certainly debatable. While Pannenberg did affirm the reality and necessity of reason in theology, he also firmly denied that it provides a genuine foundation. His post-foundationalist, post-rationalist method arguably cuts both ways: between a fideistic anti-rationalism and a rationalistic foundationalism (for a defense of this reading of Pannenberg, see Shults, The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology). In order to see how this is the case, I want to note a few key principles or convictions that Pannenberg incorporated into his theology, all of which keep it open-ended and hypothetical. 

1) All theological claims are provisional until the eschaton. Although for somewhat different reasons, Pannenberg acknowledged that he is in basic agreement with Barth on this point. The provisional nature of theology follows from Pannenberg’s understanding of the biblical narrative, in which God is fully and directly revealed only at the end of history. All revelation in history is indirect; thus, all theological claims are constantly debatable (RH, 131-133). 

2) Not only are Christian truth-claims provisional until the eschaton, they are also fallible in the present. It is hard to see how Barth could claim the same, with his self-authenticating Word. However much he denied human appropriation of the mysterious Word, Barth nevertheless insulates it from genuine debate, thus making it infallible - at least until the eschaton (which will either confirm or, in the case of its non-occurrence, obviously disconfirm Christian hope). But for Pannenberg, this is a crypto-foundationalism that cheapens faith. He argued that Christianity may in fact turn out to be false at any moment – and another religion or worldview true – if it cannot continue to show that it is both reasonably plausible and capable of illuminating human experience. As Pannenberg writes, “All talk about God must validate itself by being able to make the world of experience a proof of its power” (STI, 106). We must therefore continually ask, “Does God prove in actual experience to be the power he is claimed to be?” (STI, 160). 

3) Pannenberg argued that a rational demonstration of faith (as plausible and illuminating) is never simply a “human interpretive achievement.” It is also, “if only provisionally, God’s own self-demonstration of his deity” to humanity in the medium of experience in history (STI, 170). This follows from his understanding of history as revelation.

4) Pannenberg insisted that rational and historical arguments “from below” are only methodologically prioritized. Their purpose is to provide both critical analyses and intelligible presentations of Jesus as the Son of God. However, when he made this argument late in his career (in Systematic Theology II), he conceded that faith does require a minimal presupposition in the truth of the Christ-event – that is, he affirmed the necessity of theology “from above.” Even though theology from below is necessary to provide a provisional demonstration of the truth of faith within one’s context, and also to “differentiate critically between the essential content of Christological dogma and secondary features or distortions,” theologians can only proceed in this way by first “presupposing…that this procedure leads to the conclusion” that Jesus is the Son of God. As such, rational and historical arguments “from below” and confessional presuppositions “from above” are “complementary,” Pannenberg argued (STII, 288-289). And while Pannenberg thought it extremely unlikely, the critical and corrective functions of theology from below could, in principle, undermine and eventually overturn the confessional presuppositions of theology from above. Again, if theology cannot in any way genuinely demonstrate that Christian truth-claims are powerfully illuminating of human experience and reasonably plausible, the Christian must consider the possibility that her worldview is finally flawed or even illusory. 

5) Pannenberg eventually clarified his argument from Revelation as History that human reason does not require anything beyond itself to see the truth of God's self-revelation in history. This clarification develops out of the paradox of why all humans have reason, and yet only certain persons are able to see the truth of revelation in history. Reason is not "pure," but ambiguous and fragile. Certain cultural prejudices can blind individuals from discerning the truth of faith. To address these problems, Pannenberg suggested that there might be a need for “a kind of illumination” through the Holy Spirit, which can enable one’s reason to discern the truth of a divine event in history. But the Spirit “adds nothing substantive to the content of this event,” Pannenberg argues. To a certain extent, this brings him closer to Barth, since both agreed that revelation is not easily read off of the pages of history apart from divine grace. But Pannenberg rejected Barth’s view that the Spirit must continually come from the outside to make revelatory events become true. For Pannenberg, the Spirit is already within revelatory events in history. Revelation is therefore open to the public through rational argumentation and historical analysis – not just for Christians through faith. As such, through the Spirit’s illumination, Pannenberg claimed that human reason might be enabled to function more adequately, and thereby to discern the truth of Jesus Christ in history (Basic Questions 2, 40-42; Grenz, Reason for Hope, 54-55). 

Moltmann with Pannenberg
It seems to me that Pannenberg importantly challenged Barth’s method in a way that cannot be dismissed on the grounds that it is an outdated rationalism. Like so many theologians throughout Christian history, Pannenberg brilliantly attempted to balance reason and faith by exploring a way between naïve rationalism and irresponsible fideism. It is an extremely delicate balance, to be sure, and one might legitimately ask if he was finally able to consistently maintain such a position. But in general, I find his approach to be instructive and useful for my own theological work, even if I cannot follow him in every way. I find his defence of God's omnipotence deeply unsatisfying, for example. But perhaps more problematic was his resistance to all feminist theologies, his notorious heterosexism, and his lack of serious engagement with liberation theologies. It is thus not surprising that Pannenberg became increasingly conservative in his political views (as Moltmann has recently noted with horror, his old friend Pannenberg thought that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president in US history!). 

Ultimately, I believe that if one takes Pannenberg's method with absolute seriousness, it is probably not possible to maintain his clear sense of theological orthodoxy or the absolute truth of Christian faith. In my view, philosophical and historical arguments “from below” pose much more radical challenges to Pannenberg’s complementary presuppositional theology “from above." Both John Cobb and Philip Clayton are, in their own distinct ways, Christian theologians who have been able to think both with and yet beyond Pannenberg's theological (and political) conservatism. If faith must continually demonstrate its illuminating power and plausibility, then in my opinion, deeper revisions of Christian theology are required today. The cost may indeed be too great for some to follow Pannenberg's method all the way. A return to some form of Christian subectivism or fideism - through Barthian, Radical Orthodox, and post-liberal theologies - will always be very tempting. But I think that Panennberg was right: such strategies will only cheapen faith. Greater courage and methodological rigor are required.


  1. I have been reading Pannenberg since the mid 1970s. He has been my primary theological companion ever since. I have also read Church Dogmatics and found much to appreciate. Your article quite well articulates the difference. Thank you.

  2. I appreciate so much the thought that about balancing fideism and rationalism. Too many think they can dismiss him due to rationalism. Too many also want to retreat into the confessional theology of Barth. One place of disagreement toward the end is that I think the limit that would check someone from abandoning classic Christianity with the method of Pannenberg is the resurrection of Jesus. For him, once one accepts that, it leads to reliance on many of the classic formulations of Christian teaching, even if he re-thinks them. The other is that all of us, in our intellectual pursuits, think answers lay in a certain sphere and not in another. For him, feminist and liberation theology tends to locate evil in certain groups, rather than see the evil present in the human heart. If evil is in a group, then, theoretically, one would just have to be rid of the group to be rid of evil. At some level, he did not think that path would lead to reliable answers.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, George. And I do agree that Pannenberg places a great deal of methodological emphasis on he resurrection. But the problem, as some others have pointed out, is that Pannenberg's opinion that the resurrection is a historical-objective fact, open to public verification, can be quite easily challenged. Certainly, if one is convinced of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, then yes, many traditional Christian claims seem to follow. But if one doubts that the resurrection can be verified as an objective fact of history, Pannenberg's particular case for a more traditional Christianity and a high Christology cannot be maintained. In this respect, my teacher Philip Clayton provides a way to think with and beyond Pannenberg when one doubts that the bodily resurrection can be historically verified. As for your comments about feminist/liberation theology, I cannot agree with your characterization of their approaches to sin/evil. It is much more complex than simply relocating evil from hearts to group. In fact, that false binary is what is most frequently challenged by liberation and feminist theologians. Unfortunately, Pannenberg could not see this in his then-political conservatism. Moltmann provides a necessary correction from within European post-Barthian theologies, with his much more holistic, contextual, and politically engaged methodology. And that is why, in my opinion, Moltmann will go down as the more significant theologian - in spite of Pannenberg's genius.

  3. I should explain that my comment about liberation/feminist theologians was more from Pannenberg's comments on sin in ST. My point was more that he turned away from those authors because he did not think lasting answers could be found in such an approach. I think intellectually, we make judgments about areas we think worthwhile. My philosopher professor valued Hegel, Pragmatism and some existentialism, but did not think science had an answer to the questions he faced.

    To be honest, his political conservatism is what attracted me to him, even though for much of academia I acknowledge it would be a negative. My view of the role of the federal government came largely through reading George Will, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Bill Buckley, and Milton Friedman in the mid 1970s. We are probably on different sides of the political question, but I hope that helps you to see that much of what is billed as "the Right" would not be attractive to me.

    What is interesting, though, that evangelicals disown him as well, due to his view of scripture and the virgin birth. He found ways to alienate both ends, I guess. I have been re-reading Moltmann and seeing how much their theology overlaps. For me, they are examples of the danger of intertwining theology and political agendas too tightly, as I think Moltmann does.

    As to your teacher, Philip Clayton, I have read his The Problem of God in Modern Thought. Very thoughtful and helpful work. He is an author I have been wanting to read more.

    - On a personal note, I am in a reading group that is working through Church Dogmatics (my second time, the first being with William Placher), and another group working through Pannenberg, ST. The latter is making me took again at Barth and Moltmann. I have been impressed that Moltmann seems to affirm the classic doctrines as well, along with re-thinking them along the lines of Pannenberg, regardless of what he does with his politics.

    Thank you again for your blog. It will be a joy reading some of the other articles as well. I will try not to be bothersome or argumentative. I do love to learn, and your articles stimulate my thinking.

    1. Thanks again for your thoughtful engagement, George (and sorry for the delayed response). I appreciate your clarifications. It's also true that we are indeed evaluating Pannenberg and Moltmann through different political lenses. On a related note, Moltmann amusingly wrote about how he and Pannenberg remained friends, despite sharp political disagreements: "...we have preferred to talk about problems of the immanent Trinity rather than about politics."

      If you are interested in Clayton's work, I recommend his most recent work in theology, "The Predicament of Belief." I think that book reveals his post-Pannenberg theological method quite clearly.

    2. Thank you for the guidance on Philip Clayton. I am glad the book is on kindle. I am sharing the books I have rather than adding to them!

      It seems like Pannenberg and Moltmann differ at the point you mentioned earlier. Time/Eternity seems to be a big point in their difference on the resurrection (or history/eschatology would be another way to say it). It has been an interesting journey through Crucified God and The Way of Jesus Christ to see how the two have large areas of agreement, but part company on the resurrection. Yet, that difference leads to others that are intriguing. Yet, the two worked together on re-thinking the Trinity and Christology in such important ways.

      Thank you for your response and guidance. I look forward to reading your recommended book.