Wednesday 19 September 2007

Pannenberg: the historicity of nature

One forthcoming book which I’m looking forward to reading is the new collection of essays by Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Historicity of Nature: Essays on Science and Theology, to be published by the Templeton Foundation Press in November (there are more details here).

Pannenberg’s approach to science is summed up in this remark from his earlier volume, Toward a Theology of Nature: Essays on Science and Faith (WJKP, 1993), p. 16: “If the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe, then it is not possible to understand fully or even appropriately the processes of nature without any reference to that God. If, on the contrary, nature can be appropriately understood without reference to the God of the Bible, then that God cannot be the creator of the universe, and consequently he cannot be truly God.”

Personally, I think the opposite is the case: if God is truly God, then the processes of nature must be understandable without any reference to God. (Or to put it more sharply: God is himself the possibility of atheism). But in spite of that, I think Pannenberg’s fundamental insight is correct: in the question of the truth of theology, not only theology itself but everything else is at stake. And I reckon this is an absolutely indispensable correction to the Barthian tradition, in which theology tends to be neatly demarcated from all other disciplines.


W. Travis McMaken said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Ben. I'm working on theology and science right now. I'm intrigued by your comment ("Personally, I think the opposite is the case: if God is truly God, then the processes of nature must be understandable without any reference to God. (Or to put it more sharply: God is himself the possibility of atheism)."), and would love for you to elaborate a bit.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see T.F. Torrance review it.

BOTTO said...

I feel the art word is missing from these conversations. Theologies as abstract constructs exist as art. Nature is an artwork, science exists to prove this. Art come before God.

Anonymous said...

"If the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe, then it is not possible to understand fully or even appropriately the processes of nature without any reference to that God."

Due to the theory of relativity (or rather the phenomenon of relativity) it is impossible to determine whether the sun revolves around the earth or the earth around the sun....without reference to God.

Anonymous said...

I second wtm's request for elaboration. I'd also like to know why 'in the question of the truth of theology, not only theology itself but everything else is at stake'.

Anonymous said...

Pannenberg is "guilty" of the same hubris and delusions re the nature of God that I referred to re Badiou.

Pannenberg's "god" is a projection of his own ego and and the European tribal ego that he belongs to.

Gyan said...

Is rational thought possible without God?

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these requests for clarification. My suggestion that the world is "understandable without reference to God" is based on the idea that God relates to the world as grace.

God isn't one object or agent alongside others; he's not part of the world's causal nexus, or even part of its being. And that means the relation between God and creation is never one of necessity -- the world doesn't "need" God in any causal sense, nor does science "need" God as one item of a larger explanatory scheme. Instead, God relates to the world as supplement, excess, grace. He's not necessary to the world, but he is (in Eberhard Jüngel's memorable phrase) "more than necessary".

And I think it's precisely this "more than necessary" that also has to define the sense in which everything is at stake in the question of theology's truth. All other disciplines are at stake not because they need theology (pace Milbank) as a "queen of sciences", but precisely because theology articulates the supplement, the excess which is beyond being.

joel hunter said...

Jean-Luc has a pseudonym? :-)

David W. Congdon said...

"if God is truly God, then the processes of nature must be understandable without any reference to God."

This is an excellent insight, and one that I think Jüngel understands better than any of his contemporaries. As you point out, his emphasis on God as "more than necessary" is something I find missing from Pannenberg. I think a lot of this comes down to the fact that Pannenberg's project is an attempt to update apologetics for a scientific age, whereas Jüngel is seeking to think through Luther's theologia crucis in an atheistic age.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful ideas! I can't help but think that Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity was attempting to get at the ethical and liturgical implications of the same intuition. His words belong here if anywhere:

"The God who lets us live in the world withou the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross."


Nick said...

I'm not really sure what "more than necessary" means. After reading that phrase, I'm trying to think of similar synonyms like essential, required, or fundamental. But then later you talk about "supplement" and "excess", both of which wouldn't strike me as belonging with those synonyms. Isn't something either necessary or unnecessary? How can it be beyond necessary without retaining all the elements of necessity? My confusion is probably related to your phrase "beyond being", which is also beyond my ken.

Anonymous said...

Damn you, Ben Myers, I penned a response to the request for clarifications on a napkin over a four-shot cappuccino, only to find on returning home that you had beaten me to it - and, of course, had done a better job of it than I could.

I would only add that God relates to the world as grace precisely in the way God "lets creation be" with its own kind of autonomy and integrity, in a way that is neither deistic nor interventionist, and which precludes deploying the deity in any account of scientific explanation or problem-solving (as, for example, in ID).

The point is fundamentally Thomistic. For a first-class exploration of of God-world-talk, see Kathryn Tanner's God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? (1988).

And Eric (I've just seen) is onto something with his reference to Bonhoeffer: for the paradigm of God's action in the world, Christians will look the the cross of Christ.

Halden said...

Ben, I think you're right to point out the "excess" of God's gratuitious relation to the world. However, I wonder if, in saying that we should be able to understand the processes of nature without reference to God ends up legitimating the idea of "pure nature". It seems you're seeing quite a chasm between the excessive, non-necessary reality of God's grace and the integrity of nature. At this point my 'de Lubacian' instincts about the dynamics of grace and nature are suddenly alert.

To put it concisely, if de Lubac is right and nature is always-already "graced", then can the claim that nature can be known apart from God be sustained? Perhaps de Lubac is wrong about this, but I'm wary of positing a realm of "pure nature", which is what your post would seem to entail.

Macht said...

Doesn't Christ's incarnation put God squarely in the "causal nexus" of his creation? Doesn't everything we do, say, or think find its meaning in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

W. Travis McMaken said...

"causal nexus" is, I suggest, an outdated mode of thinking about creation because it implies that creation is a closed system. Developments in the philosophy of science in the 20th century, and in mathematics in the late 20th century, have demonstrated that nature is an open system. The theological affirmation is then that this open system is open also to its Creator.

Lee said...

"for the paradigm of God's action in the world, Christians will look the the cross of Christ."

What about the Resurrection though? That seems to be a case of God acting in the world in a way that transcends what nature itself is capable of and not simply letting it be.

Maybe I misunderstand (indeed, it's likely!), but this is a worry I have about Tanner-style "non-competitive" accounts of God's relation to creation - do they allow God to act in extraordinary ways in the world?

joel hunter said...

I'm with Halden.

wtm, the "causal nexus" trope certainly has demythological echoes, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to make an open-and-shut case that "nature" is an open system, much less demonstrate it. A reasonable hypothesis? Sure. But the underdetermination problem remains.

The phenomena cannot uniquely select the property of openness over closedness. Plenty of theorists interpret the data of quantum strangeness--nonlocality, for example--without abandoning methodological naturalism (closedness).

The problem with the hypothesis that the nature described by physical theory "is open to" God's appearance or action is that it proves too much.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Proves too much?

Godel seems to suggest an ultimate irreducibility.

Anonymous said...

This conversation has been very helpful - I'm at last beginning to feel the attraction of this 'non-competitive' vision of God. It's the appeal of grace, of extravagant love.

Lee surely makes a good point though. If I may add to it, I do not see how this vision of God is compatible with the tranforming power of God's Word and Spirit. God speaks in Christ and a new body is created - the church. Life is breathed into it and it moves out into the world; history takes a new direction and the world is altered. God speaks and matter moves.

At the very least, I'd like to say that human history cannot be appropriately understood without reference to the God of the Bible.

Ben Myers said...

Halden, thanks for raising the question about de Lubac and "pure nature" -- this is precisely the important question!

I had actually tried to say something about de Lubac in my earlier comment, but I deleted it because it wasn't coherent. Basically, though, I think de Lubac is right that nature is always already "graced". For me, the crucial thing is to incorporate this insight with an emphasis on the supplemental contingency of grace (i.e. the "more than necessary").

To be honest, I'm not sure how these two insights can be brought together -- one problem is that, when it comes to theological ontology, Radical Orthodoxy is pretty much the only game in town. Which makes it difficult to imagine any alternative ontological proposal! But I'd like to be able to affirm RO's "graced nature", without falling into the idea that nature therefore needs grace, or that all discourses need theology, etc -- since any "necessity" here is simply a contradiction of the absolutely unfounded contingency of grace.

Like I said, I don't know how to do this, or how to think it through properly -- but I suppose it would have something to do with creatio ex nihilo, i.e., with the fact that being is always a surprising and unfounded arrival from nothingness.

Anonymous said...

When one reads over these comments, full as they are of deep concerns, poetic thoughts, evidence of earnest struggles and at times barely concealed anxiety, I can hardly believe it given the hiding so many gave to Spong’s efforts to deal with related questions.

It would be interesting to see some responses to the concerns raised by Lee and seconded by Jonathan Keith. To develop the argument further - how do accounts of raisings from the dead in the NT and extra-NT writings, the so-called nature miracles, the virgin birth and the resurrection fit into this account of the world (where “God is not part of the world’s causal nexus, or even part of its being”) – particularly if they are to be understood as what is commonly known as “historical events”?

Do not the more or less intractable difficulties in this area push Christians towards focusing on building an understanding of the Christian experience which is more or less consistent with the ordinary experience of life and that emphasises loving our neighbour, building ethical communities based upon compassion and justice and moving sophisticated appeals to an excessive supernaturalism as the foundation for what we do to the margins.

This is not meant as a highly critical comment but is a call for some straight-forward discussion. Spong was lampooned on this site for claiming a high place for the values of tolerance and inclusiveness. But surely it is more of a challenge and more important to live by such values than to make the decision to believe in a physical resurrection or a virgin birth, etc.

Baus said...

Dooyeweerd and reformational philosophy certainly offer another alternative to RO and Thomism for a Christian ontology.

Macht's question raises the idea, I think, that your conceptions of grace and science seem to place creation and redemption (and perhaps, revelation) in some kind of tension. The Pannenberg quotation seems to express the proper relation more adequately. Namely, creation is not autonomous, so trying to understand it as autonomous is problematic.

You seem to be saying that God only relates by/as grace, but this seems to exclude God as the Creator and Origin. Not God's Being, but God's free will brings all causality, necessity and contingency into being. God's redemptive grace also finds it's source in God's freely willing.

Grace becomes an option upon the condition of sin. But even deLubac's notion of 'nature' as always-already "graced" misconceives grace (or even the 'supernatural') as a superadditum which assumes a problematic view of creation.

derek said...


i agree with much of what you say, but i find your view that grace becomes an option upon the condition of sin to be misguided.

To think this way seems to separate the actual pre-fall act of creation and grace. This causes a tear between God's actions and his nature/character. If God is the God of grace, how can grace only be understood in relation to a post-fall world? The very act of creation is itself grace. If ben is improperly placing creation and redemption in tension, it seems you have divorced God's acts from his nature.


When you say RO is the only game in town, do you mean this in the sense that it is the only viable option (in your opinion)? It seems to me that in addition what baus wrote, Zizioulas' "social trinitarian" ontology is an option, as is Tillich's ontologically based conception of God.

I'm guessing you're no big fan of these options, but unless you're merely expressing your personal convictions, then i have to disagree.

Halden said...

Ben, I agree with you regarding the issue of necessity and forming a theological ontology distinct from RO.

I do think we can incorporate de Lubac's insight about graced nature without then saying that nature makes grace necessary. Though, on one level I don't know how we can deny that nature "needs" grace. The very idea of redemption seems to insist that that which is "natural" needs to be brought to perfection by the grace of the Triune God which is "beyond nature", though of course, never destroying, but perfecting it.

However, when it comes to all other discourses "needing" theology, I think we have a way out. Affirming that nature is always already graced does not entail that nature is grace full stop. Nor does it entail that grace is "necessary" to nature, merely that it simply is the case that nature stands in a state of grace. Thus, I would say that a de Lubacian understanding of graced nature does not yeild an understanding in which other discourses "need" theology, rather it secures the very opposite. Since nature is always already graced, other discourses have an integrity and authority proper to themselves that does not require an overt dogmatic legitimation, though this integrity of course derives from grace. This does force us to say that all discourses are in some sense theological, but we are still free to say that they can be conducted without requiring legitimation from dogmatic theology.

In other words, the fact that nature is graced does not mean that nature necessitates grace. Likewise, though all discourses are in some sense theological such discourses do not necessitate a dogmatic foundation or regulation.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for this, Halden -- that's very helpful.

Anonymous said...

A helpful analogue (not identity) to the relation between grace and nature, indeed perhaps its archetype, might be the Chalcedonian pattern concerning the divinity and humanity of Christ: "without separation and division, without confusion or change." The relationship is asymetrical - the divinity/grace has ontological and conceptual priority - what Barth calls its "indestructible order" - while humanity/creation is given its due by "indissoluble differentation". We might also speak of an "inseparable unity" as long as we see it as an expression rather than a compromise of the freedom of God. If the "indissoluble differentiation" is collapsed, you get the cosmic equivalent of monophysitism, i.e. pantheism and nature without any integrity of its own, while if the "inseparable unity" is fractured, you end up with deism and mechanistic determinism. And of course the point of the Chalcedonian paradigm is not to provide theological closure but to define the parameters that frame an endlessly explorable mystery.

It certainly needs to be stressed that grace is not a "thing", it is God-as-Trinity in loving-kindness creating a world with which God wills to be in indissoluble relationship (which is why there is no such thing as ungraced nature). Nor, I suggest, can protology and providence ultimately be understood apart from eschatology, creation apart from the new creation. Finally, with Theodotus, it would be foolish to conclude that our contemplation of the mystery of the world in any way compromises the divine imperative to change it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim
I appreciate your comments (including the mild rebuke which I willingly accept) and those contained in the second paragraph of Halden’s last comment, both of which are very thought-provoking and beautifully put, but others have posted comments with direct or implied questions in them (eg Lee and Jonathan Keith) relating to how one incorporates these thoughts with traditional understandings of God and his action in the world. Currently, there have not been any real responses to these questions and I wonder whether there will be.

Anonymous said...

Hi Theodotus,

Thanks for your comment - except for one thing: not even a mild rebuke was intended, but rather a hearty concurrence that the practical must not get lost in the speculative.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Theodotus (and Lee, Jonathan, et al.): "how does one incorporate these thoughts with traditional understandings of God and his action in the world?"

Well, perhaps we should return to Pannenberg for a moment. His whole account of God's relation to the world (and of theology's relation to science) takes the resurrection of Jesus as its starting-point. To put it a bit crudely, the logic of Pannenberg's position goes like this:

(1) God is the all-determining reality (and therefore theology is concerned not only with God, but with everything else);
(2) the all-determining reality can be known only at the end of history;
(3) the end of history has already arrived in advance in Jesus' resurrection;
(4) therefore the resurrection gives theology the criteria which enable it to speak of the all-determining reality, i.e. both of God and of everything else.

I don't think Pannenberg's account is unproblematic, but I think he models the right fundamental approach: instead of trying to "incorporate" divine action within some more general ontology, he starts with God's decisive and definitive action in the resurrection of Jesus, and he tries to work out a more general ontology from this one starting-point.

To my mind, that's exactly the right order of thinking: the first thing we know is that God has acted in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; instead of trying to make divine action fit into a more general ontology, our basic task is to understand how the rest of reality "fits" with (or, in my view: derives from) this single event.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben, I appreciate that you break down these complex ideas into bite-sized portions that an untrained person like myself can begin to understand. And good on you Theodotus for pushing the issue.

On a different matter, Halden makes the following interesting comment: 'though all discourses are in some sense theological such discourses do not necessitate a dogmatic foundation or regulation'. Well, you and Kim and others, if I understand you correctly, think ID should be excluded from Science on the basis of a non-competitive understanding of God's relationship to Nature. Doesn't that constitute a dogmatic regulation of scientific discourse? For that matter, if it is to be taken as an axiom of Science that God could not interact with the world in a way that we can detect, doesn't that make Science a branch of theology?

David W. Congdon said...


I wonder if you've considered the ontological option put forward by Bruce McCormack - viz. a "covenantal ontology." In his lecture on justification at Wheaton College, published in a collection edited by Mark Husbands, McCormack suggests that this is the ontology provided by Karl Barth and the one that holds the most promise for theology today. In his scintillating lecture on RO and Barth at this summer's Barth conference, Kevin Hector used this "covenantal ontology" to refute RO's own ontological claims. In any case, of all the options on the table - and I certainly don't think RO is the only one - a "covenantal ontology" seems the most promising.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for your question. I'll try to answer it.

To exclude the deployment of the deity from the discourse of natural science, I would argue, is to be precisely not dogmatic but scientific (in the sense that a scientific approach to a subject is one that is determined by the subject itself and not by a methodological bed of Procrustes). For while "explanation is the aim of [natural] science, and hypothesis-testing using empirical data is its central method" (Robin Dunbar, The Trouble with Science [1995], p. 18), to take God as the ultimate explanation of the world is a post-enlightenment innovation which, as Michael Buckley suggests, actually lies At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987); to take God as a hypothesis is, as Wittgensteinians correctly point out, to misunderstand the grammar of God-talk; and to take God as a discoverable fact of or inference from the world - ironically, the cardinal sin of Dawkins as well as of creationists and proponents of ID, or creationism-light - is to confound the the Creator with creation and to miss the force of Hegel's remark that "God does not offer himself for observation."

It is, as Nicholas Lash argues, the insistence on subsuming the deity into natural scientific accounts that is dogmatic. In "Where Does The God Delusion Come from?" (New Blackfriars, September 2007), Lash refers to Martin Rudwick's Tarner Lectures at the University of Cambridge in 1996, the first of which was entitled "The Anglophone Heresy of 'Science'". "Only in the English-speaking world," Lash writes, "do we speak of 'science' in the singular, a habit ... which has two unfortunate sets of consequences," one of which is that "it encourages the illusion that there is, roughly speaking, some single set of procedures which qualify as 'scientific'." And Lash concludes: "Whenever one comes across the concept of 'science', in the singular, ... then one is in the presence neither of science, nor of history, but of ideology."

Bruce Yabsley said...

Just briefly: that Lash quote is a very good one. I wouldn't take it too literally regarding usage-of-science-in-the-singular, but as regards mental habits it's spot on.

Anonymous said...

A suggestion: God acts in freedom from beyond the world's necessity. That is, God is not subject to necessity of the world, nor is he "the necessary" within the world's necessity (cf. Tillich's Ground of Being). Creation has ontological integrity. Yet, God acts in grace, from outside the necessity of the world. Both in its beginning and its end (which are outside our ken) the world's necessity is bounded by God's freedom. Indeed every particular, "counter, original, spare or strange" necessity within creation is a gift of God's freedom. And the story of the incarnation is the story of God joining the world he loves to reorient its necessity (away from consuming bondage) toward his freedom-for-others.

I dislike the spatial metaphor for a multitude of reasons, but I can't quite think it through in other terms at the moment. We might consider the "beyond" of God's freedom to be omnipresent within creation and present to creation's necessity) without being harnessed to it.

And (For Lee, Jonathan Keith, going back to God's interactions taking the shape of the cross, I would argue that there is even a paradigmatic cruciformity to the resurrection. The resurrected one is still the humble suffering servant, not the Conquerer of the Underworld come to avenge himself on the unjust. His vindication is not imposed on his enemies, nor on those who denied and abandoned him, but comes to them as good news. Jesus' resurrection is an experience of profound and unexpected forgiveness; he eats fish with the fellows who gave up on him in his moment of need. The resurrection is a miracle, to be sure, but it does not herald an age where grace manipulates nature like a marionette.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for this excellent contribution to the discussion, Eric -- very helpful. And I really appreciate what you say here about the "cruciformity" of the resurrection as well.

Anonymous said...

Eric, yes thanks for that, I also like what you have say.

Kim, there are two stances that could easily be confused here. One is to start with science (or the sciences) and attempt to arrive at belief in God, even the God of the Bible. And that's a lost cause, no question. The other is to start with belief in God, perhaps specifically the Christian God, and to incorporate such beliefs into one's reasoning about the world. Exclusion of this latter stance from scientific discourse sounds to me like dogmatic regulation.

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