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Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Pannenberg's eschatological ontology

One of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s most fascinating and controversial ideas is his eschatological ontology. For Pannenberg, the being or essence of a thing is determined by its future. The future exercises a “retroactive” (rückwirkend) causality on the present – and so a thing can possess its essence here and now only by anticipating what it will be in the future.

This is admittedly a very complex cluster of ideas. But in his important book on Metaphysics and the Idea of God, Pannenberg explains all this with a very helpful illustration taken from his home garden (apparently he is quite an avid gardener). His illustration focuses on the pretty zinnia:

“A zinnia is already a zinnia as a cutting and remains one during the entire process of its growth up to blossoming, even though the flower bears its name on account of its blossom. If there were only a single such flower, we could not determine its nature in advance; and yet over the period of its growth it would still be what it revealed itself to be at the end. It would possess its essence through anticipation, though only at the end of the developmental process would one be able to know that this was its essence.” (p. 105)

In a similar way, Pannenberg says that all being is determined retroactively from the future of God’s eternal kingdom.


kim fabricius said...

This may sound off-topic, but am I alone in seeing here a dogmatics-to-ethics basis, by metaphor/analogy, for being pro- life? That is, compare: foetal being is determined retroactively from the future of the birthed human.

Anonymous said...

Though hesitant to comment on something so complex, I have to ask how this eschatological ontology relates to Paul's use of the eschatological indicative to reinforce the ethical imperative; that is his encouragement particularly to the Romans to "become what you already are".

I certainly have a lot of sympathy for the notion that (God's) future has at least as much determinative power over the present as the past, especially if the influence of the future is seen not merely as fait accompli, but an invitation, or even imperative!

Perhaps even more off-topic than Kim's suggestion...

Roland Mathews said...

Is it just me, or does this bear striking similarities to teh so-called four-fold cause in Aristotle's metaphysics? Just thinking outloud :)

Deep Furrows said...

I caught the aristotle also...

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Kim, some philosophers have argued that pro-lifers should stop basing their arguments on the idea that a fetus (or foetus) is a person from conception and argue instead that, from conception, the developing fetus is future oriented--a person to be. Pannenberg's eschatological ontology could certainly strengthen that argument for those who accept it (I'm not sure it works as a public policy argument).

It seems to me, however, that such a view would only work for "ordinary" cases--in all "ordinary" cases the fetus should be allowed to move toward its telos. But it doesn't answer the hard cases: threat to the life or health of the mother, catastrophic genetic maladies such as Tay Sachs or Shattered X Syndrome, anencephalic fetuses where no brain develops--just a brain stem, etc.

byron said...

In the case of the zinnia, there is not so much an eschatological ontology as an eschatological epistemology: we could not determine its nature in advance; and yet over the period of its growth it would still be what it revealed itself to be at the end. That is, it was already a zinnia from the start, we just didn't know it. Thus, the sentence I just quoted does not lead to the claim that it would possess its essence through anticipation. Indeed, in the second half of this next sentence, he reverts to epistemology. For Aristotle, while we mightn't have epistemic access to the being of a thing until it has reached its telos, its form is nonetheless already present, even if not yet fully actualised. Furthermore, Aristotle is speaking of a teleology rather than an eschatology, and it would seems that the former is a better description of the unfolding of the zinnia. Teleology unfolds due to the inner logic of a form as potentiality is actualised. This, presumably, is quite different to eschatology. I don't think that Pannenberg wants to claim that the resurrection of the dead is simply the unfolding of the inner logic of history.

I realise I'm probably pushing the image too hard, yet I still wonder whether his green thumb has led him up the garden path on this illustration.

Jake said...

I'm glad someone brought up Aristotle. For a second, I thought I was reading Etienne Gilson.

Nice stuff.

Anonymous said...

"Anticipation" is an epistemic process: one that the zinnia cannot engage in on its, since it lacks the apparatus to do so (unless we think all being has a mind). I was reminded of Bishop George Berkeley when I read this.

Ben Myers said...

The parallel with Aristotle is interesting (he engages explicitly with Aristotle in Metaphysics and the Idea of God, pp. 106-7) -- although Pannenberg's view is much more directly shaped by the ontology of Plotinus.

Byron, I think you're right to criticise the zinnia illustration: it's really an illustration of retrospective epistemology rather than retroactive ontology. Still, in the context of his argument, Pannenberg is using this to illustrate the point that a thing possesses its essence in the present by participating in what it will be in the future. And there is (I think) at least an element of this in the zinnia, since the plant is a zinnia only because of the flower that will bloom in the future.

Deep Furrows said...

I don't think that Pannenberg wants to claim that the resurrection of the dead is simply the unfolding of the inner logic of history.
I don't know about Pannenberg, but I don't have a problem with this statement - provided that we're talking about the inner logic of history in its totality, that is, history as the memory of God's loving relationship with creation and humanity.

LeRon Shults said...

Hi Ben,

As you know, I LOVE eschatological ontology!

There are of course problems with Pannenberg's version, as with Jenson's, Moltmann's, Rahner's, Ziziolas' and Jeungel's, but I think they are all onto something.

Although the idea pervades all of Pannenberg's works, the place that I have found most illuminating is his early and very short essay at the end of "The Trinity and the Kingdom of God" (1969), which is called "Appearance as the Arrival of the Future." There he explicitly critiques Aristotle's notion of final causality, as well as other philosophical proposals in antiquity and early modernity, and argues for a notion of temporality and being that arises based on the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Sounds almost Barthian, doesn't it!?


Anonymous said...


"Become what you already are" is a worthwhile exhortation, but the wording comes from Nietzsche's Gay Science.


Anonymous said...

Pannenberg's essay is in his "Theology and the Kingdom of God," not "The Trinity and..."

Anonymous said...

Pannenberg’s future-oriented ontology may seem to offer promise of a renewal of metaphysics for Christian theology. But the example of the Zinnia flower underlines the problem of what Pannenberg is suggesting. The Zinnia flower (or any flower, as Aristotle, says) will come to fruition from its seed provided the right conditions (sunlight, soil, water, etc.) are there to allow this process to take place. But according to Christian Patristic theology, human beings are created in God’s image in order freely to grow in his likeness. Human beings in other words, uniquely in creation, are called freely to embrace their essence, something which is done in concert with Christ God and by his grace. This high calling, though, has an important implication: we human beings can resist this option and seek to negate this choice by attempting to become autonomous and wilful. Such freely chosen negation obstructs the realising of our divinely-intended destiny as children of God, who otherwise grow through Christ in his likeness. (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Eph 4:13; Col 3:10) As a chosen negation, it impedes the grace-filled process of our entering into increasing degrees of union with the Holy Trinity. This theology is found from Justin, Ireneaeus, the Cappadocians, Chrysostom to John of Damascus. The difficulty with Pannenberg is the formidable influence of Hegel and German Idealism on his thought. Hegel taught that the future is the full actualisation of God in the form of the universe become self-conscious in and through human beings. This final state draws all past events towards itself, so that, as Hegel says, ‘all that is, is right’—which includes all the most terrible events of history. This is Pannenberg’s entailment too and it goes against the primary insight of Christian theology that human beings are given freedom freely to embrace their essence as creatures made in the image of God. Pannenberg is dependent on Hegel and Hegel on Augustine, whose meditation on his conversion led to the dilemma of ‘double predestination’ which remains as a problem within western theology and thought altogether—indecision about whether human beings are free or not. Marxism and liberal capitalism played out this dichotomy, and Calvinism and Arminianism are unable to persuade one another. If we need metaphysics, it must accord with Christian insights or we will only be wondering why problems are appearing again. Pannenberg has raised some good questions but his attachment to German Idealism is problematic for Christian theology. -- Roberto

Alex said...

To follow up on MWW's comment, what are we to make of beings that have no future, such as those those who will die an eternal death, cut-off from God? What is the being's value in the present, if it has any at all?

I'm curious to hear any response, if anyone is still reading this 3-year old post. My answer is that we simply cannot know its value with any degree of certainty and so must simply let the being be. God's future, must decide any present value, retroactively.

Zwingli 2.0 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zwingli 2.0 said...

Roberto, are you sure that human freedom is a "primary insight of Christian theology" at odds with the Hegelian justification of history?

Wouldn't Calvinists agree with Hegel?

Christian theology is not monolithic with respect human freedom...

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