Pannenberg on Theology
 What is theology?
Wolfhart Pannenberg's three-volume Systematic Theology sets out by defining the "theme" of systematic theology.
To do so, he first defines "theology." For him, it is "knowledge of God that is made possible by God, ... by revelation" (I:2). Accordingly, he defines "theological discourse" as "discourse about God that God himself has authorized." Only this, not any God-talk based on humanity, can be true discourse about God (I:7). Pannenberg thus makes the definition of theology as it evolved in Pagan philosophy -- he mentions Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoa (I:1) -- his own.
 What is dogma?
Then he defines "dogma," again relating his definition to the one used by the various ancient schools of philosophy (I:10): "Outsiders regard Christian dogmas as the teachings of the church which are binding for the fellowship of Christians as philosophical dogmas were for members of the classical philosophical schools." The Pagan definition was adopted, as Pannenberg hastens to add, without relinquishing the claim that "these dogmas are divine truth." On what is this claim based? Not on the consensus of the church but on the dogmas' being "summaries of the central theme of scripture," namely, "the act of God in Jesus of Nazareth" to which all NT writings bear witness (I:15f.).
In this context Pannenberg makes an important hermeneutical decision, reacting to the Catholic criticism of reformation hermeneutics that the theological unity of Scripture cannot arise out of scripture itself but can be found "only in the understanding and spirit of the interpreter" (I:14). Surprisingly, he concedes this point by stating: "the unity of scripture realtive to its central content can be sought and found only by means of interpretation ... and the associated relativity of hermeneutical perspectives" (I:14f.). This he does not mean as a capitulation to sheer subjectivism -- "the content of the text which is to be expounded is a given for the expositor" and is the criterium for the interpreter's "fidelity to the text" (I:15). However, this criterium is not found in the scripture per se; it only emerges "in the process of the expository debate" (ibid.). The (unchanging) consensus of the church, it seems, has thereby been replaced by the (evolving) consensus of the exegetical community.
This is why, it seems, that Pannenberg can still claim that the church's consensus is, not the basis for the dogma's truth claim, but the result of knowing this act of God. Since, in the words of K. Barth, dogma is "eschatological" -- "[o]nly God's final revelation at the end of history will bring with it final knowledge of the content and truth of the act of God in Jesus of Nazareth. God alone has the competence to speak the final word about God's word in history" (I:16) -- it is also provisional, in need of ongoing verification. This testing based on God's revelation is percisely the task of systematic theology or dogmatics.
 The church's insufficient response to the critical challenge posed by the Enlightenment
This process of verification, according to Pannenberg, has to take seriously the Enlightenment (I:26): Its
criticism of both scripture and church doctrine has made it impossible ever since, in the presentation of Christian doctrine, freely to use them as authorities for divine revelation as medieval theology and the older Protestant theology did, and in their historical situation could rightly do.
What is one to do in light of this impossibility to carry out the dogmatic task? Schleiermacher's response, building on developments beginning as early as the late 17th century, was to ground theology in the pious consciousness of the Christian (I:41). Comments Pannenberg (I:42): "The only difference [between Schleiermacher and the older Protestantism] is that the scripture principle now yields to the subjective faith consciousness, which as such is bound to a community of faith whose individual articulation it presents."
This basic shift became paradigmatic for much of the 19th and 20th century in Protestant theology, according to Pannenberg, since it, despite the challenge posed by the Enlightenment mentioned above, "seemed to guarantee theology access to a source of certainty independent of critical questions regarding the truth of scriptural witness and the church's doctrinal tradition" (ibid.). As Pannenberg sees it, K. Barth, while correctly diagnosing Schleiermacher's subjectivism as a serious flaw, "remains imprisoned in the religious subjectivism from which [he] wished to free himself" (I:45).
Pannenberg views the "collapse of the older Protestant scripture principle as formulated in the doctrine of inspiration" as the root cause for said subjectivism: "new scientific, historical, and geographical evidence" made impossible, not the use of "scripture as the norm of [Christian theology's] content," but the use of "the idea of verbal inspiration to establish the divine truth of scripture in all its parts as a presupposition." In fact, the apologetically conceived idea of "accomodation" had weakened the scripture principle.
What was possible, despite historical criticism, was "to view scripture as a historical record of the origins of Christianity, and ... to regard it in this sense as an enduring norm of the identity of the Christian faith." The "increasingly important" "distinction between scripture and the Word of God" points to this direction. Yet what could serve as a valid criterion for this distinction? Schleiermacher, and others, championed "the subjectivistic understanding of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit or ... the experience of faith" (I:46). As seen, Pannenberg regarded this as a failure that exposed Christian theology to atheistic criticism -- "[i]ndividual experience can never mediate absolute, unconditional certainty" -- while basically agreeing with the "promotion of experience." After all, "we can validate and appropriate as true only that which our own experience confirms" (I:47).
 The truth of Christian doctrine as actual theme for systematic theology
This is why Pannenberg, far from giving up the truth claims of Christian theology, identifies the truth of Christian doctrine as the theme, not a mere presupposition, for systematic theology's inquiry (I:48).
- ↑ It appeared in German between 1988 and 1993; the English translation -- Systematic Theology, tr. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans) -- was published 1991ff. Page numbers refer to the English edition.
- ↑ On Pannenberg's hermeneutics see the thorough analysis by A. Wenz, Das Wort Gottes -- Gericht und Rettung: Untersuchungen zur Autorität der Heiligen Schrift in Bekenntis und Lehre der Kirche (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996), 188-199. He, not surprisingly, points to Pannenberg's reliance on Hegel's philosophy of history (193f.).