Pannenberg – Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Part III)

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There is much to discuss in the final two chapters of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, Volume 1.  Both chapters involve Pannenberg’s account of the Trinitarian identity of the Christian God including the various attributes of God.  In view of the large amount of material needing to be discussed here, I decided to discuss one section I found most interesting; Pannenberg’s position regarding the place of the doctrine of the Trinity within the dogmatic structure.

After a nicely organized historical account of the dogmatic ordering concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, Pannenberg argues that the ordering is determined by a particular view of the unity and distinction within Godself.  As discussed earlier in the chapter, Pannenberg shows that the early Christian Church struggled to develop the unification between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without losing their distinction.  The doctrine of the Trinity became less emphasized in 17th and 18th century Protestant theology because theologians of this time period struggled to account for the coherence between the unity and differentiation of God’s being as testified in the biblical witness.  Even Protestant dogmaticians who were sympathetic with the idea of the prominent role of the Trinity still believed “that the OT justifies a prior presentation of God as the Supreme Being (Exod. 3:14) and also of his attributes” (281).  Beginning from the Hebrew Bible’s conception of this One Ultimate God encouraged theologians to view the Trinity as a later addition rather than the essential starting point for Christian dogmatics.  It becomes clear (and Pannenberg even admits this) that the construction of the doctrine of God is difficult for any dogmatician given the tension between God’s Triune identity as unified yet distinct.  The most interesting observation Pannenberg makes is when he states that the decision whether to treat the unity or distinction of God first will ultimately be determined by one’s view of metaphysical knowledge.  If the theologian believes that God’s unity can be postulated through the sheer extension of human reason, then unity is necessarily treated first and the distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit are discussed later since on this view such beliefs arise only through revelation.  Moreover, the statements concerning God’s triunity can only be seen as important if the discussion of God’s unity is not deemed as satisfactory in order to offer a full account of His identity.  Unless the concept of God’s triunity is seen as indispensable, “the Trinitarian statements must seem to be a more or less superfluous and external addition to the doctrine of the one God” (283).

Pannenberg finally divulges his own commitments when he proposes that even the statements about God’s unity are made possible only through revelation: “It is true that Christian talk of Father, Son, and Spirit, and especially Jesus’ addressing of God as Father, must always presuppose a prior understanding of God. This is not, however, the understanding of philosophical theology but that of religion and in particular it is the understanding of the God who revealed himself to Israel as the one God” (299, emphasis added).  All of this is to say that Pannenberg concludes by agreeing with Karl Barth’s ordering of dogmatics and Barth’s recovery of the essential role of the doctrine of the Trinity.  But unlike Barth, Pannenberg prefers to construct the doctrine of the Trinity not from some “formal concept of revelation as self-revelation” but rather through “historical revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit” (296).  In Barth’s Trinitarian account of revelation, there is “a subject of revelation, an object, and revelation itself, all of which are one and the same” (296, emphasis added).  Therefore, since Barth sees the subject of revelation as singular, plurality plays no role in terms of the “persons in the one God but only for different modes of being in the one divine subjectivity” (296).  In short, Pannenberg praises Barth’s understanding that God’s unity can not be discussed apart from God’s Triunity, but ultimately Barth “subordinated his doctrine of the Trinity to a pretrinitarian concept of the unity of God and his subjectivity in revelation” thus not allowing Barth to “see what is the function of the doctrine of the essence and attributes of God for the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, that it is only with the question of the essence and attributes of the Trinitarian God that the unity of this God becomes a theme, and we are thus enabled to avoid the confusions which inevitably arise when we try to derive the trinity from the person of the Father or the unity of the divine substance” (299 – phew!).  I would be very interested if anyone had any insights concerning Pannenberg’s criticisms of Barth’s Trinitarian theology along with his own preference for a “historical” account of Trinitarian theology.

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